Marksberry Road

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Carolyn Page

When we lived on Marksberry Road, it didn't have a name. I don't mean it wasn't named some­thing. What I'm say­ing is, no­body ever called it any­thing. It was al­ways just the road that you turned off the main road onto when you got to the pic­nic woods.

And then, some­time af­ter Daddy died, af­ter los­ing con­trol of his car and run­ning into one of the big ditches along Marksberry Road, they put up a sign and then the road had a name. Daddy's dy­ing on the road had noth­ing to do with them putting the sign up.

The sign say­ing Marksberry Road was light blue, of all colors, and looked like the signs you see on street cor­ners in cities. It was tin, ob­long and nar­row, and it sat atop a sil­ver-col­ored metal pole above ev­ery­one's heads, point­ing the way, in white let­ter­ing, down Marksberry Road. It looked out of place on a coun­try road. I re­mem­ber the first time I saw it. It gave me a shock. I looked from the sign to the road and back, think­ing, This road has a name?

They also black­topped the road around the same time they put the sign up. When we lived on the road, in the lit­tle gray cin­der block share­crop­per shack, it was gravel and deep dust that cars and other ve­hi­cles threw up into long, rolling clouds be­hind them as they went and that, af­ter they were gone, set­tled on ev­ery­thing, time and time again, lay­er­ing it thick. The dust would lit­er­ally get an­kle deep in some low places by Au­gust. Al­ways bare­foot in sum­mer, I re­mem­ber wad­ing in it like wa­ter.

Af­ter they black­topped Marksberry Road, it was even more strange. Gone overnight were the clouds of dust, which also meant that the dust was gone from the ditches, as well. I was used to the weeds in the ditches be­ing cov­ered gray with it. Even the grasshop­pers in the weeds were gray with the dust. Af­ter they paved the road, and af­ter the first hard rain, the dust was washed off the weeds— and the grasshop­pers—and both were made bright green again. Stones were no longer thrown up onto the road­sides and into the ditches by pass­ing ve­hi­cles, ei­ther, be­cause there was no more gravel. Long af­ter the road was paved, a few of the old stones still lay along the road­side, though, and were a re­minder of what the road had once been. The black­top didn't keep the wa­tery shim­mer of heat waves from rip­pling up from its sur­face, ei­ther. That still hap­pened, just like when the road was bright white with gravel. What was dif­fer­ent was that, while the sun and heat had only made the gravel and dust hot, they just about melted the black­top, be­cause the road would get down­right soft and spongy by hot July, af­ter a few weeks of sun beat­ing down on it so re­lent­lessly. And the sounds

on the road, the soft crunch of tires on gravel and the oc­ca­sional hard ping of the stones hit­ting the metal un­der­neaths of cars, were re­placed by a gen­tle swish swish as ve­hi­cles now rolled ef­fort­lessly by on the new, smooth sur­face. It be­came very quiet on Marksberry Road.

Marksberry Road was not an im­por­tant road. What I mean is, it wasn't a main road. Any road that gets you from here to there is im­por­tant, even a nar­row, dirt and gravel, wind­ing road with big ditches on both sides.

The main road was called Route 431, or Liver­more Road. It was big enough and im­por­tant enough to have two names. Tech­ni­cally, it was not re­ally a road but a high­way, and a US fed­eral high­way at that. It never got a sign like Marksberry Road call­ing it Liver­more Road, but it did have high­way mark­ers all along it with the num­ber 431 on them.

Sur­pris­ingly, when you thought about it, Route 431 wasn't a whole lot dif­fer­ent from Marksberry Road, once you got past the prej­u­dices sur­round­ing the two, and af­ter Marksberry Road got paved. The main dif­fer­ences were that Route 431 was wider (al­though still nar­row for a US fed­eral high­way, don't kid your­self), had white lines painted down the mid­dle of it, and shoul­ders. It had ditches run­ning along both sides, but they weren't nearly as big as the ones along Marksberry Road. Route 431 looked pretty much the same oth­er­wise; it was made of the same black­top that got soft and spongy in the hot sum­mer, the same ma­te­rial and color, only the shade was lighter be­tween be­ing older and hav­ing more traf­fic, it be­ing the main road. The same thing hap­pened to Marksberry Road later on af­ter some time and traf­fic even without it be­ing a main road. Route 431 didn't have lights along it, ei­ther, any more than Marksberry Road did, and in the black night when there wasn't a moon it was just as dark and dan­ger­ous as Marksberry Road. The two had one more thing in com­mon: no speed limit. You could go as fast as you wanted on both roads.

Route 431 was called Liver­more Road be­cause it even­tu­ally took you to a ham­let of be­tween one and two thou­sand peo­ple called Liver­more. I never un­der­stood why Liver­more. The road didn't end at Liver­more; it didn't even end in Ken­tucky, for that mat­ter, but took you all the way into Ten­nessee, and no telling how far be­yond that. Also, Liver­more wasn't the only ham­let or town along the way, or even the big­gest. Maybe it was the big­gest at one time. It must have been the most im­por­tant, any­way, to have been picked as an iden­ti­fy­ing spot along the way.

To make it even more con­fus­ing, the road was still called Liver­more Road even when it went the other way, north, away from Liver­more, and to­ward the third largest city in Ken­tucky—owens­boro. I never heard it called the Owens­boro Road, or the Ohio River Road, since Owens­boro is on the Ohio River. You would think a river was more im­por­tant than a town or ham­let, es­pe­cially back then when they named the road, be­cause a river was used for things we now use high­ways for, like trans­port­ing goods and even peo­ple. But like I said, no telling what sig­nif­i­cance Liver­more had back then, even over a river. It could have been named af­ter a rich or im­por­tant per­son, I guess, but I

never heard that name for a per­son men­tioned.

But that's how peo­ple were down there. There was a bro­ken-down old shack that was known as the ol' Fulk­er­son place. All the years I was grow­ing up and lived down there, that's what it was called—the ol' Fulk­er­son place. Why, I don't know. No one lived in the house or had lived in it for years, maybe decades, Fulk­er­son or oth­er­wise. I don't know if Fulk­er­sons owned it, or the land it was on, then or ever. No one seemed to own it. It was lit­er­ally fall­ing down with weeds prac­ti­cally tak­ing over. My only guess is that the last peo­ple to live in the house—or own it—were called Fulk­er­son, and the name stuck. I of­ten got the feel­ing that any num­ber of peo­ple could have lived in the house af­ter the Fulk­er­sons, and prob­a­bly did, and it would still have been called the ol' Fulk­er­son place.

For that mat­ter, I don't know why Marksberry Road was named that. That was an­other thing the two roads had in com­mon. My guess is that some­body lived on the road, past or present, named Marksberry who had enough im­por­tance or sig­nif­i­cance, like Liver­more, to have the road named af­ter him—or her, al­though re­al­is­ti­cally I would have to say it was prob­a­bly a he. Maybe it was the per­son who first carved the road through, cleared the trees and un­der­brush, the wilder­ness. Ev­ery­thing was a wilder­ness at one time. Then it would have only been a path, or horse and buggy road with ruts, and not re­ally a road, even a dirt and gravel one. Mud when it rained. Or maybe Marksberry was some­one who owned the big­gest house on the road, or the most land. I don't know be­cause I didn't know any­one named Marksberry when I lived there, or ever even heard the name. But then, I didn't know much any­way, be­ing a kid. I didn't know many peo­ple and never went far. Any­way, I only knew where Marksberry Road be­gan; I didn't know where it ended. It ends some­where, though; it has to.

I do know why the pic­nic woods, where you turned off the main road to get onto Marksberry Road, were called that—and still are, by the way. It was be­cause of the an­nual church pic­nic that used to be held in a clear­ing in the woods.

It was a small woods, just a lit­tle square patch of spindly trees with the road run­ning along one side, a rail­road track along an­other, and fields and a meadow open­ing up and spread­ing out on the other two. But it was big enough for the pic­nic, which was held ev­ery year by the Catholic par­ish in Au­gust af­ter the har­vest be­fore La­bor Day and school started. The pic­nic was held to raise money for char­ity and it was a lot of fun. Other churches and parishes did it, too. But the only other church pic­nic I ever went to was the Stan­ley pic­nic, on an­other road far across the way at op­po­site cor­ners af­ter I grew up and got mar­ried to some­one who lived there. But wher­ever they were held, and what­ever par­ish or church gave them, the pic­nics were all the same.

The night be­fore the pic­nic, the men of the par­ish would clear out any junk and de­bris that had col­lected in the woods dur­ing the year. They would also clear out some of the thickly tan­gled weeds be­tween the trees so a per­son could walk through eas­ier. They would then clean out and re-dig the long, shal­low bar­be­cu­ing trench at one edge of the woods that ran al­most the length of one

side of the woods, throw­ing out the old coals from the year be­fore and re­fill­ing it with fresh coals. They would then lay the newly scraped and cleaned small iron grills across the trench, for the length of it, for bar­be­cu­ing the chicken and pork and mut­ton. In case you don't know, mut­ton is ma­ture sheep.

The smoke from the bar­be­cu­ing made the best smell the next day. All day as the pic­nic went on, the smoke hov­ered just above ev­ery­one's heads, and that smell lin­gered and got into ev­ery­thing—clothes, hair, nos­trils. We took it home with us, late, af­ter the pic­nic, and went to sleep with it. It was on our pil­lows and in our dreams.

But even be­fore the night be­fore, when the men re-dug the trenches and cleared the woods, as early as a week be­fore, the women of the par­ish peeled veg­eta­bles. They would sit around large ta­bles in the base­ment of the church and fill small tubs with peeled sliced and diced pota­toes, sliced and diced car­rots and green and red and yel­low pep­pers, and chopped broc­coli, okra, and cel­ery. They'd cut corn off the cob, shell peas, and snap beans. When they were fin­ished, there was an ar­ray of veg­eta­bles and colors that was noth­ing short of as­tound­ing.

The veg­eta­bles and colors went into a dish known as burgoo, a type of thick soup. It could be made with chicken or pork or beef, or prob­a­bly any meat (prob­a­bly veni­son, or even bear meat, were used in fron­tier days, or fish for that mat­ter). Other meat does ap­pear in recipes else­where, in cook­books in cities and so on, but down there only mut­ton was used as the meat. Mut­ton not only gave the burgoo its proper taste—a mel­low, bit­ter sweet­ness—but its proper con­sis­tency, as well—a smooth blend of all the ingredients, so that no one sin­gle in­gre­di­ent stood out, with the ex­cep­tion of the corn cut off the cob, which never soft­ened enough to blend smoothly and whose ker­nels re­mained sep­a­rate and float­ing, like tiny yel­low boats, in the soup. The burgoo would cook and stew and sim­mer the live­long day in a huge, black iron pot like the kind you see in pic­tures of witches, over a fire built un­der it with sticks, off to the side of the bar­be­cue pit. Through­out the day, as it gur­gled and bub­bled, women would come and dip huge la­dles of it from the black pot to fill even huger pitch­ers with it to take to the din­ing ta­bles for serv­ing. But the burgoo never stopped cook­ing all day long, not un­til the last of it had been la­dled out. By then, and only then, had the proper con­sis­tency been reached. Strange, isn't it, and maybe a shame, too, that not un­til the burgoo was just about gone did it be­come its best.

A plat­form was set up in the cen­ter of the clear­ing for a coun­try mu­sic band to play all day and into the night. In front of the plat­form, on the ground, were laid wooden planks, side by side, to form a dance floor. Along an­other edge of the woods, lead­ing away from the bar­be­cue trench, were small booths with var­i­ous en­ter­tain­ments. There was the “Fish Pond,” my fa­vorite, where you put a dime or a quar­ter into a bas­ket at­tached to a pole and string that you then held over a par­ti­tion and “fished” with. Some­one on the other side of the par­ti­tion would take the money, then put some­thing in the bas­ket in its place, its worth depend­ing on the amount of money paid—a trick finger pull, a piece of candy, a mag­net, a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, a whis­tle in the shape of a bird that you put wa­ter in

and when you blew it the bird “war­bled.” When the “fisher” boy or girl pulled the bas­ket back over the par­ti­tion, they would claim their “catch.” Of­ten, you couldn't tell a nickel's worth of dif­fer­ence be­tween what was put in the bas­ket for a dime and what was put in for a quar­ter, even though any­one putting in a quar­ter should have got­ten not one but three nick­els' worth of dif­fer­ence, if my arith­metic is cor­rect. There was a skills booth to test the abil­ity of any­one want­ing to knock over bowl­ing pins with balls. The prize—a tiny stuffed an­i­mal. There was a for­tune teller, of course, a test-your-strength ma­chine, and pie and jelly and jam con­tests.

The din­ing area was the last in the cir­cle lin­ing the woods. It was the largest sin­gle area, where vol­un­teers set up more wooden planks, this time on sawhorses, to serve as stand-up eat­ing ta­bles. There were rows of them, form­ing a maze. All day long, peo­ple stood and ate, af­ter pay­ing two dol­lars to the woman who sat at the card ta­ble at the en­trance, a ci­gar box full of money at her el­bow for mak­ing change, and get­ting a pa­per “boat” to put their food in. Then women would bring the bar­be­cued mut­ton and other meats to the din­ers in small tubs that the men had filled with the meat they had bar­be­cued in large slabs and then sliced or chopped on ta­bles set up along the bar­be­cue pit. Served with the meat were thickly sliced beef­steak toma­toes and sweet white onions, both grown and do­nated by some of the very peo­ple who came to eat it. These sat heaped in more pa­per boats all along the plank ta­bles, from which the din­ers helped them­selves. There was home­made and store-bought bread, both. A ta­ble off to the side held two huge urns of strong black cof­fee and sweat­ing pitch­ers of iced tea and lemon­ade. An­other ta­ble held the desserts. It dis­played a large va­ri­ety of baked goods, stove­top peach cob­bler, and two lo­cal fa­vorites, ba­nana fin­gers (peanut but­ter and peanuts on long-sliced ba­nanas) and ba­nana pud­ding.

Be­hind the burgoo pot was an area for park­ing and ac­cess. Un­der­brush was cleared just enough for cars and trucks to get in there with food and equip­ment. A makeshift, low, wire fence was put up to sep­a­rate it from the rest of the pic­nic. It was at that fence that I last saw my fa­ther alive. He left off chop­ping mut­ton to run an er­rand, climbed over the low wire by the burgoo pot, and never came back.

Af­ter Daddy died, we moved off Marksberry Road, but not far away. We moved into the church­house on Route 431. Mom started keep­ing house for the min­is­ter and we got to live in the church­house for free—it went with the job. The church­house wasn't the main house of the church where the min­is­ter lived, which was a big white house on a hill near the church and far from the road, but a smaller, darker house be­low the hill, right on the high­way that the church owned.

You could see the pic­nic woods from the church­house, and, even though you couldn't see Marksberry Road it­self, you could see cars and other ve­hi­cles go down it, curl­ing up dust in ghostly shim­mers of heat waves be­fore it got paved, and then af­ter­ward, with the dust gone, their shiny tops flash­ing in the sun.

As kids, my sis­ter and broth­ers and I played in the pic­nic woods on hot

sum­mer days. But we never went far into the woods where I last saw Daddy climb over the fence, but stayed on the near­est side, by the meadow, where the blue­grass grew.

Be­sides, there were plenty of ad­ven­tures at the new place to keep us busy. The min­is­ter Mom kept house for had a brother who was a candy maker. He used to send the min­is­ter free candy, and he'd give it to Mom to give to us kids. I liked the cho­co­late and pecan tur­tles the best. There was also a grotto, dug into the hill­side be­neath the church, which we got to play in, a rail­road track we put pen­nies on for the train to flat­ten, black­ber­ries to pick and sell by the buck­et­ful, and more ponds and lakes to fish and swim in than we could get to. I also got a dog, Rocky, whom I taught to play short­stop at our softball games and also to run bases for me.

And the softball games! We played ev­ery day in good weather, me and my broth­ers and sis­ter and kids we knew. The only bad mem­ory I have is of frail, pale lit­tle Willy Mitchell get­ting hit in the head with the bat one day and killed on the spot. I'll never for­get it, how we all stopped play­ing and stared for a minute and then ran to him and stared again at him ly­ing there in the weeds, crum­pled, small, more pale than he ever was, and ever so still.

Rocky's mother, Blacky, was a stray that wan­dered into our yard one day. Mom made us be care­ful un­til we could see if she was mad or not. There were lots of strays back then, and lots of mad dogs. Mad dogs were as com­mon down there as heat and dust, es­pe­cially by sum­mer's end, in Au­gust. I used to tag along af­ter my big brother when he went hunt­ing for mad dogs with the 12-gauge shot­gun Mom got him for his birth­day af­ter Daddy died. We could see right off that Blacky wasn't mad but big with a lit­ter, so we took her in. She had the pups soon af­ter. We kept Rocky and gave the other five away. Not too long af­ter that, Blacky was killed chas­ing a bird across Route 431. And then just when he was get­ting big, Rocky got killed, too, in the same way, on the same road. Mom said they both must have had some bird dog in them.

It was around that time that they put the sign up on Marksberry Road. My sis­ter and I were on our way to the ol' Fulk­er­son place, where we would go and play “haunted house.” We were go­ing down Route 431 and were pass­ing Marksberry Road when we saw the sign. Like I said, it was a shock.

It didn't take long for the shiny new sign to get weath­ered. And, for some strange rea­son, for it to get beat up, as well. It was in such an iso­lated spot, stand­ing in the mid­dle of nowhere, re­ally, where Marksberry Road shot off of Route 431, not cross­ing the high­way but go­ing east only from it, with weed­filled fields all around ex­cept for the pic­nic woods a lit­tle ways off there in the “cor­ner.” Un­less you were look­ing for Marksberry Road, you'd have to go out of your way to give the sign any at­ten­tion, es­pe­cially if you lived around there. None­the­less, it seemed to be a tar­get for rough boys with guns. At first, the sign just got dirty with the wind and the dust. Yes, there was still dust, even with the paved road, though not so much of it. You're never go­ing to get rid of dust en­tirely where there's plow­ing. And, of course, the re­lent­less hot, white sun beat

down on the poor un­shaded and ex­posed thing day in and day out, fad­ing its strange blue color to an even stranger pale and sickly blue. Then, some­how, the sign got bent (maybe the rough boys did that, too) and it be­gan to rust at the bent place. Then, af­ter the boys shot the sign and pock­marked it with BBS and buck­shot, the dents and holes be­gan to rust, as well.

It took a while, but not too long, for the sign to be­come more or less use­less, be­cause you couldn't read it any­more. Peo­ple who lived there knew what it said, of course, but any­one look­ing for the road, like in the old days be­fore the sign was put up, were no bet­ter off. I imagine any­one di­rect­ing any­one to Marksberry Road would have had to re­vert to the old di­rec­tions: Go down Route 431—or Liver­more Road—un­til you get to Brown's Val­ley, then turn off at the pic­nic woods. There's a sign, they might add, but you can't read it.

The road, too, got kind of weath­ered and beat up as time went by. The same wind and dust and sun that got to the sign got to the road, as well, and dimmed the black­top to gray. And the black­top be­gan crum­bling at the edges, too, turn­ing into what looked a lot like black gravel. I also no­ticed a pot­hole or two in the short stretch I could see from 431.

In later years, af­ter I grew up and moved away and got di­vorced and had the usual things hap­pen to me that hap­pen to ev­ery­body and would come back for a visit, I would go out 431 un­til I got to the road, then turn down it. Of course, I didn't need a sign or di­rec­tions to take me back. I would mar­vel at how I my­self now knew what it felt like to drive down the road af­ter watch­ing peo­ple all my grow­ing up years drive down it and won­der­ing. Past the pic­nic woods I would go and wind around and past the spot where Daddy's car went into the ditch and on to the lit­tle gray cin­der block house we lived in then. Yes, it's still there, amaz­ingly. I show it to my own chil­dren, grown too now, and they mar­vel that their mother once lived there.

When we lived there, the lit­tle gray house and the land it's on were owned by a man named Miller, whom I never met. He was my fa­ther's boss. The whole place—lit­tle share­crop­per shack, land, and big white house on the hill where the Millers lived—was known as Miller's place. When I visit, I won­der who owns the place now. Things have a way of chang­ing. I don't take it for granted that Millers still own it, even though they could. I haven't asked any­one lately, but I would be will­ing to bet that, no mat­ter who owns it now, even if it's changed hands sev­eral times, since long ago when we lived there, it's still known as Miller's place. I imagine it al­ways will be.

The last time I vis­ited, the sign was gone from Marksberry Road. It had fallen off and lay on the ground at the foot of the pole that once held it, the busy weeds al­ready claim­ing it. The pole it­self, long rusted, stands bent and lean­ing in the wind and dust. I guess one day I'll go there and it will have fallen over. And one day, some­time af­ter that, it and the sign both will have rusted into the ground and dis­ap­peared al­to­gether. I won­der if any­one will put an­other sign up then, or just let it go?

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