"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

TRULY EXCELLENT WRITING: The Ghosts of Ponce De Leon Park by Fred Willard

Part Four

Del woke up, or he thought he woke up. It seemed like he was back in the kudzu field and there were men standing around him, but something reminded him of the mission back at Nashville.
It was the picture the reverend had taken him aside to see. Some old drunk had painted it from the Book of Revelation showing skeletons on winged horses, the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding above the battle field at Armageddon. He hadn't understood then what the preacher had meant, showing it to him like that, but now he knew that he had been shown his death.

He might as well have put his hands on Del's head in benediction and said, "Go forth my son, and die by skinhead," because Del knew the four men looking down at him were going to kill him. They didn't have any hair and their skin was stretched tight and showed their skulls. The moonlight made it seem they had bleached bone instead of flesh and their eyes had retreated in their sockets. They leaned over Del lying in his bedroll and his own piss.

"He smells rank," one of the men said.

"Let's put him out of his misery."

"It's my legs," Del said. "They ain't no good."

"Don't worry old man. God's going to give you a new body."

Del saw the heel of the boot coming down on his face, felt bone crunching, and heard a sound like loud ringing in his ears. He let go of everything and didn't know nothing they did after that.

Del was unconscious and then he saw the kudzu in front of his face again. There was a man standing next to him. The man knelt down and put his hand on Del's shoulder.

"Hello, son. I've been wanting to talk to you for a long time."

Del knew he was dead because it was his father's voice. He stood up quickly, held his arm in front of him and marveled at it.  It was milky white under the full moon and had perfect skin like a baby's, like he had never worked in the sun or fallen down.

The dark green kudzu was silver where it was kissed by the light and his father's face was beautiful like a blessing Del had never seen in this world.

"I've been wanting to tell you that I always loved you. I didn't leave you that night, and that's the truth. Some bad men took me away from the ball park in their automobile. They took me out of town and killed me. They cut my gut open so my body wouldn't float, and they wrapped me in burlap, and tied cement blocks to me, and they threw me in the Chattahoochee River. I swear, son, that I never meant to leave you that night. I always loved you. And now I've been sent down here to take you up to heaven," he said.

Del picked up the bottle, took a little sip and saw the hunger on his father's face as he looked at the sherry. He wouldn't offer him any.  He'd wait for him to ask ... or maybe even beg.

"If you just come from heaven, how come you want a drink so bad?" Del asked.

"They sent me down to get you, son. You don't go with me, you got to stay by yourself."

"You always were a liar. How do I know it’s heaven you’re taking me to?"

"Could you give me a taste of that wine? Then we could go up there. Don't you want to be with the other people? Your mother's up there."

Del turned around, kicked his dirty bed roll and started walking fast to the railroad, then running down the tracks leaving his father far behind. Now that God have given him his new body, he didn't need nobody or their stinking lies. From now on he would travel alone.

A Note From the Editor
There is, in every city of some size, "a street of appetites" — a place where people with hungers congregate, a street where things happen in dark places. In Atlanta, The Bitter Southerner’s hometown, that street has always been Ponce de Leon Avenue. Ponce, as we call it, is home to the legendary Clermont Lounge, where strippers whose average age is 46.5 shake their moneymakers, and the Majestic Diner, which has been serving hangover prevention and cures 24/7 since 1929. Ponce always begs to be the setting of a novel. Back in 1997, an Atlanta writer named Fred Willard delivered a great one. “Down on Ponce” was hard-boiled crime fiction, solidly in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. “Down on Ponce” permanently planted itself in my brain. I was 36 years old when it came out, and I’ve gone back to reread it several times. For a guy like me, who loves crime fiction written with verve and feistiness, “Down on Ponce” was just the ticket, particularly because I knew its setting like the back of my hand. But in the last decade or so, the literary world hasn't seen much of Fred Willard's work. Then a few weeks ago, out of the blue, Willard sent The Bitter Southerner a short story. This made me a happy guy — happier still because his story is set once again on Ponce, Atlanta's “street of appetites,” as Willard so aptly describes it here. You'll experience two Ponces in this story. One is the Ponce of the 1990s, when the kudzu-shrouded, long-unused railroad tracks that bisect the street were still the home of much nefarious activity. Today, those tracks are a pedestrian trail called the BeltLine. The other is the Ponce of the mid-20th century, when the Negro League Atlanta Black Crackers and the minor-league Atlanta Crackers shared Ponce de Leon Park, an old baseball field now long gone. Today, a Whole Foods sits about where center field was. A crime does occur in this story, and the writing is as blunt as the best crime fiction, but in “The Ghosts of Ponce de Leon Park,” Willard is now exploring different characters with different hungers — the homeless. We meet Bob and Del soon after they arrive in Atlanta, having come to the city after Del “just wore out my welcome too many places” in Nashville. Speaking of welcomes, we’re happy to welcome one of our favorites, Fred Willard, to the pages of The Bitter Southerner. — Chuck Reece
Repost from the Bitter Southerner

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