Thursday, February 6, 2014

Hard Candy and Puppies

"Hard Candy?" came the high pitched offer from Curtis Mullins Sr. who poked me with his elbow and held open his hand with 3 pieces of butterscotch placed carefully in his open palm.  I looked at the portly Southern gentleman in his boxy black suit with bewilderment.  "Hard candy?"  He insisted his already comically high voice climbing a few octave higher, as he thrust the cellophane wrapped treats into my fist.  A funeral seemed like a strange place to get offers of candy from strangers, but after this emotional, long, and difficult week, Curtis, and the small, peculiar and isolated Virginia town of Grundy seemed in a way, like home.
The Mullins, Junior back left

Ethan Stacy
More than three years ago, in the soggy foothills of the South, 4 year old Ethan Stacy was buried.  Just this week, his stepfather, Nathan Sloop was sentenced to 25 to life in prison for the brutal death of his step-son.  I'll spare you the details.

Ethan's dad, Joe, is from a town near Grundy, and wanted to bring his boy home to this battered, nearly abandoned enclave.  Grundy, is a grubby coal town that has endured bad luck.  Since 1929, the burg has been afflicted with 9 major floods, that have all but killed the once proud city, turning it into a zombie town, that wanders, unaware that it is mostly dead.

In 2001, the state undertook a major relocation project, carving out a new existence on higher ground. The "new" Grundy.  Like an empty-nester who downsizes from a large 3000 square foot home into a small 2 room apartment, but refuses to get rid of any of the furniture, is crammed into 13 long acres scratched into the rocky mountains across from the unpredictable Levisa Fork River along State Route 83.
Grundy, flooded 9 times since 1929

Every morning Curtis Mullins Sr. and his extended family, who all live in a house connected to the Grundy Funeral Home, which they run, wake up, and peer across the Levisa into the hollow husk of their old life, a once bustling coal town, that is now filled with abandoned shops, homes and farms.

Curtis had a stroke a few years back, and that has made his voice a high, raspy shrill.  At first his tenor makes you chuckle a bit until you learn the circumstances.  Despite his new voice, Curtis retains his old, authentic Southern hospitality, as he invites me into his home, so his son, Curtis Mullins Jr, "who knows the computer," can burn me copies of pictures of Ethan.  "Do ya wan't some biscuits?" says Junior, a heavier, younger, carbon copy of his father, as his pleasant wife thrusts a pan  into the oven, next to a refrigerator, covered from top to bottom with pictures of grand kids, announcements from the baptist church, and fliers about dances at the high school.

"We'll we hope ya'll have a good visit here," says Junior, as he hands us a CD filled with Jpeg images, and stuffs a biscuit in my hand, "now take this," he insists, "it's chilly out there."

On the day of Ethan's funeral, the already impossible parking situation in Grundy is even more difficult as hundreds of mostly strangers and journalists make their way to the funeral home.  Old men with creased faces and hands blacked by the coal, "visit" and laugh, and tell jokes almost as weathered as their paws, "I'm so broke I can't even pay attention." quips an old vet sporting a 25 year old seersucker suit, and a baseball cap emblazoned with an insignia from the USS Saratoga.
Funeral for Ethan Stacy

I wasn't the only person to whom Senior had offered that "hard candy,"  I smiled gently listening to the eulogy for Ethan, as Mullins bounce from reporter to photographer, in town to cover the funeral, nudging each, and offering them a butterscotch.  The photojournalist from Rueters News Service, a notoriously prickly character, was noticeably annoyed by Senior as the gentle man tapped the journalist on the shoulder, "hard candy,"  Nick, frowned violently and shook his head vigorously.  Senior jabbed him again, "hard candy!" he said his tenor climbing higher, "No!" Nick seethed under his breath to the old man.  Senior jabbed the butterscotch into the photographers breast pocket with a smile, "hard candy," he mouthed triumphantly, and happily moved onto the next guest.  Nick shot an angry glance at his pocket, and a guffaw, then returned to snapping pictures.  After the funeral I noticed Nick editing his photos in his rented SUV.  He pulled a pen out of his breast pocket and with it, that little "hard candy," without noticing the irony, he popped the butterscotch into his mouth, and for a brief second, I saw the jaded journalist grin, before his perpetual scowl returned.

At the cemetery where Ethan was laid to rest, I sucked on a butterscotch as I sat in our large satellite truck waiting for the burial to begin.  With a start, a small dog, some kind of a terrier, chihuahua mix, bolted into our truck, and greeted me with tail wagging.  The pooch took a quick look around or truck then jumped out to greet others who were trudging somberly towards the burial plot.

"Who owns that dog?" I asked a Buchanan County Deputy perched near us, "I dunno," he said, petting the puppy's ears vigorously, "he's always here for some reason."

Joe Stacy at son's funeral, with the puppy in tow
I watched as Ethan's father Joe, made the long walk from his car to the final resting place of his son, that little dog sauntered up to his side, tail wagging and smiling as the broken father dragged himself. Joe glanced down for a moment at the happy doggy, and grinned, letting a  subtle laugh escape his mouth for a moment, a temporary reprieve from his darkness, before being enveloped again by the unimaginable fog of sorrow.

The next morning as I purchased a cup of coffee at a convenience story, I pulled out another butterscotch from my suit pocket, and noticed the front page of the local paper, on it a picture of Joe, surrounded by family, and to his side, that ridiculous, amazing puppy trailing along.

It has been several years, and hundreds of stories ago, since I was in Grundy, but I think about it often, and how the town was able to conjure bits of happiness out of tragedy. Happiness, like you might find in a piece of hard candy at a flood, or a puppy at a funeral.

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