The best story I know

My great-grandfather was a drummer boy in the Civil War, and he was shot in the head. The field doctor put a silver dollar over the wound to keep his brains from spilling out. That silver dollar stayed in there for the rest of his life. When it got cold, the metal would press against his brain and make him mean.

My grandfather was the 11th of 12 children, and by the time he was born, the old man was sick of naming them. He just gave the younger children initials, and when they got old enough, they could flesh out names for themselves.

One January day, my grandfather, C.J., was out running with the bulls, which he’d been threatened about. The old man cussed in the cold, his breath billowing in the barn. He grabbed a shotgun and blasted in the direction of that wild boy. C.J.’s head was grazed by some shot.

With blood dripping down his forehead, he scowled over his shoulder and walked off the farm forever. Down the Tennessee dirt road his boyish fate marched with a pocketknife in his overalls. He was 11 years old.

He supported himself by wrestling and selling Bibles (still two good livelihoods in the South). He would take all comers for a few falls, then grapple with their souls over the price of a genuine leatherette cover and real India paper.

Somehow he made it to Vanderbilt University, where he met my grandmother, a belle of the Old South. She was so beautiful that when it snowed there would be a path to her door where suitors brought her fruit and books. But she chose him, a blocky, headstrong country boy, and he wasn’t entirely sure she was right about that.

They were married in Percy Warner State Park on a hot day in June. On her side of the aisle were all kinds of Southern aristocrats. On his were two of his brothers, who weren’t behaving.

“Do you…” the minister said to him.

“C.J.,” my grandfather replied.

“Son,” the minister counseled reproachfully, “I need your full name.”

And then it hit him, how wrong he was to trudge a trail of country dust to the door of a blue-blooded beauty. How everyone out there in the bright sun knew it. A judgmental trickle of sweat slipped down his neck and inside his collar.

From beneath her veil my grandmother decreed:

“Charles Jerome.”

The young couple got a car from The Works Progress Administration started by FDR, and a small grant to travel the state and write about the rivers and forests and sawmills. They stayed in farmhouses at night: Charles Jerome stretched out on a featherbed mattress scheming about their life together; Dorothea writing longhand on a rolltop desk about what they’d seen.

It was the bareness of the Great Depression, and Charles Jerome had to take a job as a mailman, which seemed beneath his college education and his bride’s elegant station. He still liked selling books, so he decided to start a bookstore. He told everyone on his route he’d buy any hardback book for a nickel. He started every day with a bag of mail, and ended every day with a bag of books. He stacked up 20,000 books under tarps in the car port.

One spring night he awoke and walked to midnight’s window. Cool, quiet air breezed along beneath an indigo sky. Past a honeysuckle bush perfumed via tiny yellow trumpets darted a sparrow. He watched it flit by with — what? A flaming twig in its beak.

He sat on the bed and thought about what he’d seen.

By the time he got outside, all the books were in flames. He could barely back the car out before the car port crashed down, furnacing his dreams.

Sweat dripping down his forehead, he scowled over his shoulder as he stepped away from the heat in his bare feet and pajamas.

Next time when he got 20,000 books, he leased an old grocery store, and lined the books up three rows deep on the big shelves. You just didn’t know what was behind the first row. You had to lean on your tip toes and reach back behind …

Charles Jerome had to keep his mail route to make ends meet, so he propped his youngest child up behind the counter, and let him run things. He was a small boy, but his father C.J. made quite sure he had a big name: John Hall Randolph Christopher Elder.

My uncle is still there behind the counter of our bookstore.

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