I saw the post just before the ancient Land Rover plowed through it. I’d been distracted, yelling at people to get out of the way, while jamming my foot on the brakes that were not there. I suppose that the fact the Rover was going backwards added to the confusion. Unable to find another usable gear that morning, I’d decided to drive the old wreck down to Sophie’s Stand in reverse. Yes, Sam had mentioned there were no brakes because the Rover never went fast enough to need them. If you wanted to stop, just take your foot off the gas and let the beast roll to a halt. However, this logic did not include the small downhill dip I encountered approaching the stand. In addition, Sam neglected to say that the steering gearbox was stripped, resulting in multiple spins of the wheel before the Rover began the slightest turn. Between driving backwards, stomping on non-existent brakes, madly turning a wheel that wasn’t connected to anything, and screaming my head off, I hadn’t noticed the onrushing post.
Maddy, Sam’s affectionate name for the Rover, origin unknown, annihilated the helpless post and proceeded unabashed as calamity erupted behind me, or, perhaps more correctly said, in front of me, as I’d been traveling backwards. Vehicle and driver, admittedly a gracious label for my role in this disaster, stopped abruptly when confronted by a wall of unyielding cacti, slamming me against the steering wheel. A burst of steam blew out from under the hood and Maddy’s motor coughed twice and died.
Dazed, I felt my body gently shake. One eye opened and looked left to see a head of frizzy white hair and beard glowing in bright light.
“You alive boy?” said the talking head.
“of course not, you old fart,” I heard my mind say, quickly losing respect for Saint Peter. Then I heard another thought, “shut up fool, it could be that other guy welcoming you.”
“Boy?” said the old, browned face as kind arms shook me.
Damn, I thought, recognizing Sam, now aware that I had a lot of explaining to do.
My head jerked round to source the noise. Behind me, a cloud of dust rose sleepily up to the blue sky. The scene below, however, was anything but peaceful. It appeared a tornado had torn through the hut. Mangled fruit and vegetables and broken souvenirs were strewn amidst a pile of flattened building materials. What had once been Sophie’s Stand was now a roadside garbage dump.
In the midst of this chaos, only one thing still stood vertically. The sign, “Sophie’s Stand,” was newly planted in the pile of debris. Looking at me sideways, Sophie’s painted face smiled between the two words. Then, with a death shudder, the sign surrendered to gravity and slowly fell atop what had once been a thriving business. A wisp of dust spiraled heavenward.
“Jeez!” I whimpered, wondering how I could have done all that by merely knocking down one post.
“So sorry,” I heard myself mutter.
“It’s nothing, boy,” said Sam.
Nothing! I thought. Nothing! I’d just destroyed what had been Aunt Sophie’s life for over forty years. I pushed my face back into the steering wheel and cried.
“No problem son,” said Sam, his arm comforting my shoulders, “here, try this.”
I turned my head to see Sophie’s big, brown eyes looking at me. Her bright smile and curly black hair lit up the label of the bottle Sam held. “Sophie’s Best,” it proclaimed, and from all I’d heard, it was the best home made hooch in these parts. Folks were known to drive for hours to by her magic brew for it was rumored to cure everything from infertility to constipation.
I grabbed the bottle and took a deep gulp. What the hell, I thought, it was the least I could do for an Aunt whom I hadn’t managed to visit for nearly ten years and then missed her funeral. Now, to top off my sins, I’d destroyed Sophie’s stand.
I took another drink, my insides warming, my head beginning to disconnect from the disturbing reality surrounding me. Not bad, I thought, taking another swig of “Sophie’s Best,” as I was led to a plastic chair in the shade of a large palm tree.
Self pity soon dissolved into a drunken stupor and I found myself staring at an empty bottle. Raising it skyward I saluted. “Damn fine hooch Auntie!” I exclaimed.
Sam pulled a bent plastic chair beside me and plopped heavily onto the seat. He raised another bottle of “Sophie’s Best,” saying, “to Sophie,” then proceeded to drain nearly half the contents, before passing the bottle back.
A crowd of people had magically appeared and were combing the wreckage for anything salvageable. I started to say something about looting, but Sam spoke first.
“perhaps this is for the best,” he said, “Sophie always wanted to give everything away.”
“Maybe so,” I quickly added, pouring down more of Sophie’s elixir to drown my guilt.
“Sophie liked you,” said Sam, as I returned the bottle. “You’re the only city folk ever came to visit her.”
“That’s nice,” I answered, trying to convince myself that seeing her once in ten years was a good thing.
“We had a good life, me and Sophie,” reflected Sam, as we watched hands picking through the carnage.
I remembered the visit, years ago, when I’d first met Sam and Sophie, drawn by some unknown urge to know family, not to mention the need to escape town and an irate girl friend who’d just thrown me out of her apartment.
I took another drink and recalled looking up as she’d hurled my stuffed walrus down on me, prompting the thought that our relationship had lost its sparkle and I needed to move on.
Several buses and many miles later, I was dropped on an empty road in front of Sophie’s stand. A young girl arranging fruit looked up at me.
“Sophie?” I’d asked.
She pointed up the hill and I started walking, suddenly aware of fresh air, filling my lungs. I marveled at the flights and sounds of bright colored birds. Turning down a dirt path, I entered a green tunnel of branches and leaves. In the distance was a small cottage.
as I turned down a well trod dirt path covered high overhead by a canopy of vibrant green
A cloud of butterflies descended on me, floating, fluttering, circling, then drifting away as I entered a clearing. Nearby, a dozen trees hung heavy with ripe fruit. Beyond, a garden stretched in neat rows, filled with plants of all sizes. Watching over all this were two empty rocking chairs under the deep, shaded, cottage porch.
I heard singing and looked into the garden. There she was, bandana tied around her mop of black hair, bent over her plants, filling her apron with the joys of harvest.
“Aunt Sophie!” I cried out hopefully.
The singing stopped and the stout woman in the calico dress stood up and turned around. A smile exploded across her face.
“Lordy?” she blurted, dumping her bounty into a basket and rushing to embrace me.
Sophie had introduced me to Sam, her man. I never knew if they were married in the eyes of anyone but themselves and it didn’t seem to matter. What I did know was that they were partners, friends, and playmates. I could still feel the buzz I got just being around them and their zeal for life.
I took another belt of “Sophie’s Best” and smiled, yes, I thought, that was a great time. I passed the bottle to the old man sitting silent beside me.
“What do you think Sam?”
I turned to see a cluster of men behind us. Sam handed the closest man the bottle and looked them over as the hooch was passed from mouth to mouth. I found myself slightly miffed as I was really beginning to enjoy “Sophie’s Best” and didn’t feel like sharing, but decided that being the cause of the mess in front of us, I’d best be quiet.
“Well,” sighed Sam, “this was Sophie’s place to serve the world and now she’s gone. Seems it’s the stand’s time to go too.”
There were anxious looks between the men, throats cleared and feet shuffled in the dust.
After a long, awkward silence Sam realized the real issue at hand. He looked up and smiled at the men.
“Youall afraid I’m gonna stop making “Sophie’s Best,” he laughed. “Well, I reckon I’ll keep that going until I join Sophie at the pearly gates.”
Then he spoke sharply, “but no way I’m gonna rebuild that damn stand by myself!”
Hands shot up and voices called out.
“No way Sambo!”
“We’ve got it brother!
“No worry man!”
I watched in amazement as a transformation occurred. The sad faced group of apologetic men and mob of pilferers became a focused army of workers sorting re-useable materials from the fallen hut. Squashed produce was tossed back in the bushes to rot into organic oneness. A flatbed truck arrived and before noon what had been Sophie’s Stand was loaded up. Gears grinding, the truck lurched forward.
Finishing our third bottle of Sophie’s Best, Sam and I Threw our chairs on the truck, and followed the community parade.
In an earlier moment, Sam had decided to relocate the new stand atop a nearby hill. Here the caravan stopped and waited as Sam surveyed the setting. He slowly turned around and smiled.
“Nice view,” said Sam, “It’ll do!.” Then he crossed himself and emptied his bottle of “Sophie’s Best” on the ground, holy water anointing the sacred place.
The crowd cheered. The work began.
Sam and I reclaimed our chairs and placed them in the shade of a towering coolibah tree. Sam produced another bottle of Sophie’s Best which we drank watching the flurry of activity on the stage in front of us.
While it can be justly said that most of the world’s problems have been caused by misguided men, I had to admit that when guys get their act together, they can do a helluva lot of work in short order.
Every one seemed to know what they had to do, and while the men put things back together, women showed up with baskets of food and even the children helped where they could. There was laughter and singing, and people seemed genuinely happy. By late afternoon, what had been piles of reclaimed materials had become the newly arisen Sophie’s Stand. Women and girls were soon stocking fresh produce.
Ladders were leaned against the front of the hut and men replaced the sign under the edge of the tin roof. Sam spoke to a young man who climbed a ladder with a brush and can of paint. Carefully, the artist added a word to the sign above Sophie’s smiling face.
“Sophie’s Last Stand” the sign announced. Sam grinned and the people clapped in approval.
At that moment, I saw a lone figure coming up the road. Getting closer, the form became a young boy dragging something. Shortly, he appeared in front of Sam and set his load on Sam’s knee.
It was a signpost. Atop the pole was a board with one word painted on it.
Next to the lone word was a number.
I remembered the story. Sophie had told it to me as we sat on those rocking chairs the day we’d met. Seems she and Sam had been enjoying the wonder of life one evening rocking on their porch and she’d said,
“Honey, this is about as close to Heaven as I’m gonna get.”
“Amen, momma,” replied Sam.
“”I’m almost there, baby,” Sophie concluded.
The next day Sam had shown up at the stand with a new sign and planted it facing the road.
Now, Sam put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and smiled. Then he and the boy dragged the sign next to the new stand and two men began digging. Soon, the sign was proudly resurrected.
Sam spoke to the artist who started to paint over the number “2.”
Wait!” I heard myself yell.
It was time for me to make a stand of my own.
Beside Sam and the sign, I raised his arm with mine in triumph.
“Almost” had a new resident.
There was applause and cheers and a few hats flew into the air, then people went back to their daily lives. Cars began pulling up. People entered Sophie’s Last Stand seeking fresh fruit and vegetables, some local hooch, and a friendly smile.
If you ever feel like you’re in Heaven, look around. Perhaps you’re almost there.
tio stib, 2015