Driving through South Hill by peter Nolan Smith

Two years ago Paige and Ten Rings Steve announced that they were getting married in Richmond. I loved the young couple, but was surprised by their request that I perform the wedding ceremony.

“I don’t believe in God.”

“We know, but you do believe in love,” said Paige. “I won’t take no for an answer.


Steve shrugged in surrender. He was a man. I was a man. We knew our role in the world of women.

Especially for Paige, a woman of the South.

As winter raged across New York we met several times to write up the ceremony.

Steve was very serious about the rites.

I was serious about my role in the wedding as Priest of the Many Lights.

The text extolled everlasting love.

The wedding date was fast approaching and I called Albert Deeds down in Petersburg.

He had been living alone since the death of his loving wife Barbara.

I asked if he wanted to be my date for the wedding.

“No, I like the quiet life now. Don’t have much use for new people. Just fine knowing who I know, but I’ll be happy to see you.” The retired doctor extended an invitation to stay at his house.

“Yankee boy can swim in the river if yo’all like.”

“Naw, once was enough.”

Back in March 2011 I had leapt into the Potomac. The water temperature was hovering in the low 50s. I scrambled from the river like a Titanic survivor from the Barbara laughed hard and Albert shouted, “Woo-ee, never see anyone move that fast.”

Sadly Barbara passed later that year and I said over the phone to Albert, “Nobody made soft-shelled crabs like her.”

“She was a good cook.”

“And a good shot.”

I was digging up too many memories and Albert said, “Then I’ll see y’all next week.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it.”

Paige had a fun bridal shower.

Steve was casually dressed.

“But I have a good suit for the wedding.”

They were very much in love and I saw that in our last rehearsal of the wedding ceremony.

The Thursday before the wedding I rode Go Bus from Chinatown to Colonial Heights VA.

Through New Jersey.

Over the Delaware River.

Into the night and the South.

The bus dropped me in Colonial Heights.

Petersburg was across the river.

Albert picked me up and drove me to his house.

We had a whiskey and he told me about his years at a Navy doctor in Key West.

“It was a special place back then. The end of the world.”

“Same as Fort Kent?”

“Y’all mean the north end of Route 1?”

“Yes indeed.”

“What’s that like?”

The end of the world. Only colder.”

“How cold?”

“So cold you have to put anti-freeze in the oatmeal.”

Albert chuckled and asked, “How are your kids?”

“Good.” I had a big horde in Thailand and that wasn’t counting the dogs, cats, and in-laws. His wife had visited twice. “Barbara enjoyed seeing them.”

“House is empty without her.”

“I know the feeling.” I hadn’t seen my family in over a year. “She loved you a lot.”

“Thanks. If you don’t mind, I’m callin’ it a night. The days of my layin’ out ended a few decades ago. Y’all can sleep in her room.”

I feel the same way.” It had been a long day and we went to our bedrooms.

He hadn’t touched a thing and I lay on the bed, praying she was at peace.

She loved to travel.

So did Albert.

All three of us did.

The next morning Albert was rummaging around the kitchen. It was about three minutes past sunrise. I came down dressed and asked, “Is the Dixie Diner open at this hour?”

“Damn right it is.”

“Then I have a hankering for some bacon, eggs and grits.”

“And y’all come to the right place?”

“Thank the stars for that.”

“And the Lord as well.”

Like I said Albert was a proper church person. His beliefs were to be respected
and even old atheists know how to mind their manners.

“I had once been a Catholic school boy.

The bacon, eggs, grits, toast breakfast was almost enough to re-instill my faith in God. Albert apologized, “I can’t deal with that much food in the morning, but maybe on this occasion.”

He was in his 80s. I was the wrong side of 60.

“I know how you feel. When I was 18, I couldn’t have tucked into two plates of this, but we can get this in Yankee land.”

I left nothing on my plate, as people greeted the retired doctor, as if he had brought them all into life.

The truth was he had aided thousands into this life.

He introduced me as his Yankee friend.

I couldn’t have felt prouder, but said nothing.

The Petersburg Crater was only down the road. The earth might have swallowed the carnage, but the South takes its time forgetting the past. Albert paid for breakfast. He refused my money.

“You’re my guest. Feel like a trip over yonder?”

“I don’t have to be in Richmond until 5. What you have in mind?”

“A drive down to South Hill. That’s really my home.”

“As long as you’re driving. I’m sitting.”

We drove out of Petersburg. The tobacco companies were gone.

The streets were empty. The highways were even less congested. Albert drove at 80. Barbara drove fast too. I was a girl scout in comparison.

We headed west to his property.

“This land has been in my family for a long time.”

His father had been a Chevrolet car dealer.

“Daddy took care of everyone. White and black. He had no time for the KKK, but he didn’t take gruff from no one. Reach under your seat.”

I found a .38.

I was no stranger to guns and said to Albert, “Better I don’t hold a gun.”

“Wise decision. I see house over there?”

It had been abandoned for years.


“Old Leroy lived there. One day by Daddy drives by and asked me, “You see Leroy?” I tell him no. I must have been 8. Daddy gets out of the car and walks out back. I follow him and we find Leroy sleeping on the porch. Daddy wakes the old black man and says, “Why you ain’t out fixin’ the fence?”

“Sorry, sir, but I was darned tuckered out and thought I get some sleep.”

“Sorry. Ain’t no sorry in my dictionary.”

Leroy shook his head and said, “You can’t speak to me like that.”

My daddy took out that 38 and pointed at Leroy’s head. “You don’t ever speak to me like that. You understand, boy?” Daddy coulda shot him dead and explained, “I love Leroy, but if someone ever heard he spoke like that to me, then he would be a dead man by midnight, if I hadn’t done that.”

“Daddy took care of that family and everyone else. Poor cracker white. No account black. He sent Leroy’s kids to college, but that story almost as old as the crater.

We visited his daughter in South Hill.

Her boyfriend, Tim hammered out metal cars.

Mustangs, Model Ts et al.

A fucking genius.

We drove down the main street.

“Quiet.” Off the Interstates most of America was on the nod.

“Wasn’t always that way. Town had a big tobacco market. Trains stopped here and even John Dillinger ate at the Horseshoe Diner.”

“While the bank robber was on the run.” Albert checked his watch. “One more stop, then y’all have to get goin’ to that wedding rehearsal and y’all don’t want to be late for that.”

And neither did Steve or Paige.

We drove out of town moonshine fast.

I liked the South.

I loved Albert.

He brought me to a small falls in the middle of the woods.

“That’s called Angie Falls,” he said, as I wandered close to the water.

“The name of my daughter. She was good with kids.”


When men our age get old, we don’t have to say much to understand the truth. Our silence said everything. We didn’t have to explain anything to the young. We saw what we saw. Even if it was nothing.

In the middle of nowhere Albert parked at a gas station.

“You can stay in the car.” He reached for the 38. “These boys have been driving on my land. I just want to tell them to stop.”

“Count me in.”

We walked into the store. Albert said what he had to say. We came out and he looked at his watch.

“Time for you get up north to Richmond, Preacher Boy.”

“That it is.”

“One last stop.”

We stop at a fence. Albert pulled out some sugar. A horse came to him.

“I knew your Daddy an I knew your Granddaddy.”

The horse nodded its sturdy head and licked the sugar in Charles’ hand.

He had a good way with everyone and everything.

“Back in Petersburg he handed me car keys to a Tundra. I had to attend the run-through wedding in Richmond.

“Don’t crash it, Yankee Boy.”

“I’ll try my best. I haven’t had an accident in thirty years.”

“Only in a car.”
“Me too. See you in the morning. Dixie?”

“Hell, yes.”

And like that I drove north.

Very slow.

Like a hippie in 1968.

Not that a white boy will ever know the south.

Unless you are from Boston.

Like my son Fenway we believed in peace.

It was the easy path.

And Albert Deeds knew that better than most.

Few people were more a Son of the South.

Travel well Comrade.

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