“Watch out! Move it!” I yelled as I plunged my foot, again and again, to the floor of the Land Rover. but the brakes hadn’t worked in years. Add to this, the confusion of driving backwards, which hadn’t seemed so odd when reverse was the only functioning gear I could find earlier in the morning. Sure, Sam had told me about the brakes, saying that the old wreck never went fast enough to need them. But Sam hadn’t mentioned the small hill that led down to Sophie’s fruit and vegetable stand, the same hill I was now careening down, backwards. Nor had Sam shared that the steering box was stripped which made my frantic spinning of the steering wheel pointless.
“Get out of the way!” I screamed.
I saw the post just before the Rover destroyed it.
The post was annihilated. Maddy, Sam’s affectionate term for this uncontrollable machine, continued on as calamity exploded behind , or should I say ‘in front of” it. 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 non-functional steering wheel. The engine coughed twice and died. A cloud of steam rose up from under the dented hood.
Dazed, I struggled to regain consciousness. One eye opened to see a blurred head of frizzy white hair and beard in dazzling 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 hands 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 into 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, “so sorry.”
“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 sobbed.
“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 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 hours to by her magic brew, said to cure everything from infertility to constipation.
I grabbed the bottle and took a deep gulp. What the hell, I needed to drown my sins. I hadn’t visited my aunt in over ten years, I’d missed her funeral, and now I’d destroyed the pride of her life, the famous “Sophie’s Stand.”
I took another drink as my insides warmed, 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 the shade of a palm tree and plopped into a plastic chair.
Self pity 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 sank heavily onto the seat. He raised another bottle of “Sophie’s Best, said,“to Sophie,” then proceeded to drain nearly half the contents, before passing the bottle back.
Like zombies from the afterlife, a crowd of people had silently emerged from the jungle to paw through the wreckage, searching for anything salvageable.
“Perhaps this is for the best,” Sam said, “my Sophie always wanted to give everything away.”
“Maybe so,” I added, quickly pouring more of Sophie’s elixir to drown my guilt.
“Sophie liked you,” he said 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 merited absolution.
“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 the angry woman had hurled my stuffed walrus down on me. Perhaps, I’d thought, the relationship has lost its sparkle and it’s time 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. 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 sitting under the deep, shaded, cottage porch.
I heard singing. There she was, tending garden, her mop of hair tied up in a bandana, 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.
I’d never felt so loved.
She’d introduced me to her man, Sam. 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 they were partners, friends, and playmates. You got buzzed just being around them and their zeal for life.
Yes, I thought, taking another belt of Sophie’s Best, that was a great time, then passed the bottle to the old man sitting silent beside me.
“Well Sam what you going to do?”
I turned to see a cluster of men behind us. They seemed to be waiting in expectation. 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. I was really enjoying Sophie’s Best and wasn’t in the mood to share. However, being the cause of the mess in front of us, I said nothing.
“Well,” sighed Sam, “this was Sophie’s place, her way to serve the world. 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.
He laughed, “youall afraid I’m gonna stop making “Sophie’s Best. 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!”
Eager 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 the mob of pilferers became a focused army of workers. They sorted re-useable materials from the fallen hut. Squashed produce was tossed back in the bushes to rot into organic oneness. before noon, what had been Sophie’s Stand was loaded onto a flatbed truck and , gears grinding, The load lurched away.
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,” he said. Then he crossed himself, emptied a bottle of “Sophie’s Best” on the ground, holy water anointing the sacred place, and proclaimed, “it’ll do.”
The crowd cheered. The work began.
Reclaiming our seats under the shade of a towering coolabah tree, Sam and I resumed drinking. The stage in front of us was a beehive of activity
While it can be justly said that most of the world’s problems have been caused by misguided males, I must 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. It was community like I’d never felt in the city and I was touched by how all cared for the old man beside me, bringing him food and constantly checking on him.
By late afternoon, what had been piles of reclaimed materials had become the newly arisen Sophie’s Stand. Fresh produce was being put on shelves and two men on ladders rehung the sign under 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, a small boy came up the road, dragging something behind him. He approached and laid a wooden signpost at Sam’s feet. The board atop the post read, “Almost Heaven, population 2.”
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.
She’d said, “Honey, this is about as close to Heaven as I’m gonna get. I’m almost there.”
“Amen, momma,” replied Sam.
The next day, Sam had planted a new sign beside Sophie’s Stand. It read, “Almost Heaven, population 2.”
As all watched, Sam stooped and touched the sign reverently. Then he and the boy dragged it to the side of the new stand and raised it up. Two men quickly dug a hole and soon “Almost Heaven” was resurrected. Sam called to the young artist and whispered in his ear. the boy approached the sign and was about to change the “2,” when I heard my own voice cry out,
It was time for me to make a stand of my own. I took Sam’s hand and raised his arm with mine, saying triumphantly, “Almost Heaven, population 2!”
Almost Heaven 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.
You might also enjoy: A Mirrored Smile, The Road Not Taken