What happens when America’s most fabulous advice columnist fires up her polka-dot car and hits the road to ask total strangers about love and cleaving in a bunch of tiny towns called Eden? Let’s just put it this way: Paradise is Regained, and John Milton himself would have said, “Oh. My. God.”
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” —Genesis 2:24
“Have you been cleaving?”
“You and Betty Jane have been cleaving right here in Eden?” I ask.
“Ya,” says John.
The luscious Betty Jane starts chuckling.
“You’ve been cleaving right here in Eden Township, Pennsylvania, just as the Lord commands in the Bible?”
Clip clop clip clop clip clop. A buggy goes by.
“Ya,” says John.
I glance inside the buggy. The carved-wood interior is so fabulous it looks like a duke’s library. And the horse? It could be entered in the Miss Universe pageant.
“So you and Betty Jane have cleaved outside—repeat, outside—in the garden, right?”
Betty Jane’s fantastic bosom has been shaking with silent laughter for the last minute or so, and now she lets go with a merry screech.
“Ya!” she says.
In America, you can stroll up and ask a stranger just about any question if you frame it with the Bible. I know this because I’ve been booming down the East Coast of the USA, visiting every town called Eden that comes my way—and by God, nearly every state has a little town called Eden—to speak with folks about Adam, Eve, ribs, apples, snakes, temptations, and so forth. My mission: to right past wrongs committed by Outside magazine.
I’ve been reading Outside for 40 years. Hell, I started writing for it in 1980, and I’m aware that everybody has one question when they finish an Outside story: How did those climbers defy death on that mountain?
But I always have a second question: Did those climbers have sex on that mountain? That’s what I want to know. Did those hikers, climbers, skiers, kayakers, divers, snowshoers, those ladies and gentlemen with their $2,000 titanium bikes, those adventurers with all their glamour, joy, stamina, calf muscles, and grit—did those people I’m reading about in Outside shag on the spongy bank of that raging river?
Outside rarely tells me. Bah!
Therefore, I’m on a summer road trip. I’ve packed three apple pies, three ShopRite birthday cakes, two bags of miniature Snickers, three bags of Unique pretzels, a carton of extra-thick French onion dip, and a block of Colby cheese—I’m eating only forbidden fruits on this journey—climbed into my Prius, and sallied forth with my giant poodle, Lewis Carroll, to ask Edenites all over the eastern and southern U.S. this question: “Have you ever made love outside—in Eden?”
If they say yes, then, in the great award-winning Outside tradition, I plan to take a spectacular photo of the persons standing in the very spot where they cleaved. And thus we will all have a record of heaven on earth.
Not to leave the luscious Betty Jane and her husband hanging, but a word about the word cleave. You may quarrel with it. You may say that it’s imprecise, that it’s too divine, but I can’t go running around Eden, Pennsylvania, or Eden, Maryland, or Eden, North Carolina, or Eden, Georgia, or Eden, Alabama, or Eden, Mississippi, asking people if they’ve boffed, can I? Banged? Come on. They’d laugh me out of paradise. Therefore, cleave will be the verb of choice. John and Betty Jane know their Bible and grok this word like a plate of ribs.
John, however, doesn’t seem as sure as Betty Jane about the cleaving outside part. “It was so long ago, I can’t remember,” he says. John is about 30, tall and lean, with a face as long as a loaf pan, sharp gray eyes, a big, beautiful black hat, and the beginnings of a pointy, buckwheat-colored beard.
“Phoo! Phoo!” I say. “How can you forget? Look at her!”
I nod at Betty Jane, a woman so good-humored, so creamy, so pink, so white, with such a little turned-up, sunburned nose, and wearing such a pretty apron and cap, that there’s no way John can have “forgotten” possessing her in the garden.
“I expect we have,” says Betty Jane, chuckling and looking at John through her dark lashes.
“Ya,” says John.
He was born across the road on this very hilltop, and the tender, homely beauty of this Eden, with its lovely green hills and blue dales and lilac-gray clouds, is so delicate that I want to throw myself on the ground and roll down the hill and just keep rolling. The massive barn is built of pale, rose-colored stone. A litter of German shepherd puppies is tumbling about in front of the wagon shed; beyond, great glistening silos rise like rocket ships to Mars.
“Oh. You remember now, eh?” I say to John.
“You’ve cleaved outside!” I say, laughing. “You’ve cleaved in the garden of Eden—in the barn, in the buggy, in the yard, right?”
They both burst into happy laughter.
Lewis Carroll, with his head out the car window, starts barking ecstatically. At such a moment, not even John Steinbeck’s Charley could have maintained strict canine silence.
“Now, I’d like to take your photo in the garden,” I say, reaching for my iPhone.
The laughter dies. John looks at me in dismay.
John and Betty Jane are Amish. Eden Township is in the heart of the heart of Lancaster County. To many Amish, appearing in a photo would be “calling attention to oneself.” Creating vanity.
“I don’t mind,” says Betty Jane. Gloria Steinem at the barricades. She glances at her husband. “But it’s up to John.”
“Why do you want our picture?” John says gravely. His first language is Pennsylvania Dutch, and he speaks, by some strange miracle, with a melodious Scots accent. He’s a cradle maker, a witty, serious chap with the air of a young Silicon Valley engineer who has given up the company Ping-Pong table for a month. I can already see the decision in his face.
“Meeting you is an important moment in my life, John,” I say. “And Outside may run the photo.”
“I was taught not to be photographed,” he says.
And that’s that. I can take a picture of Betty Jane’s pink hydrangeas, the blond mules, the black-and-white cows, the red rooster, and the gray hens, but not of Betty Jane and John. And I would have squandered all my iPhone storage on them, I loved them so.
About 900 yards outside Eden Township I run into Zach, a cage fighter coming out of the Body Extreme Fitness Center in a town called Quarryville. He’s wearing black MMA shorts, and Kayla, his girlfriend, a college student, a gentle, modest, sweet young woman who works at the gym, is with him, and they both become so worried about a dithering old lady with a broken arm who’s struggling with her bag and her notebook and her pen and her Unique pretzel bag and her water bottle and her giant poodle that Kayla takes the leash so that she and Zach can walk Lewis Carroll down to a little park. Before they even know what happened, we’re deep into the interesting subject of cleaving.
(Beware of old journalists: we have old tricks. I do have broken bones, though. Before hitting the road, I fell off a bridge while hiking on the Appalachian Trail near my home in New York State, breaking my arm in four places.)
We begin by giving Zach and Kayla a little Bible quiz.
“What is the fruit Eve ate?”
Zach and Kayla’s score: 0.
“To whom did Eve give the fruit?”
“Why did the Lord toss Adam and Eve out of Eden?”
Maybe they should read Zach’s shorts, which have “I Can Do All Through Christ Who Strengthens Me” written on them in white letters. The little Quarryville park we’re in is so green, it’s chartreuse.
“Have you multiplied yet?” I ask, trying a new approach.
“No,” says Kayla, laughing.
“Have you cleaved?” I say.
Like all muscle guys, Zach tenderly slides his hands over his biceps to feel their power.
“I believe so,” says Zach.
“So you guys have cleaved?”
Zach grins, locking his knees in and out.
“Have you ever cleaved in Eden?”
They look at each other.
“No,” says Zach.
“Please,” I shout. “Tell me you’ve cleaved in Eden!”
They stare at me nervously.
“You must have cleaved in Eden!” I say. After all, Eden is less than a thousand yards from where we’re standing. “Can you take me to the spot?”
Kayla blinks her enormous blue eyes and looks at Zach with her mouth open.
Zach shrugs, runs his hands up and down his biceps, looks at me, and says in a low voice: “I have no idea.”
“Well, have you cleaved outside?”
“No,” says Zach.
He weaves back and forth. His fight name should be Stall-Weaver.
“Wait,” I say. “You haven’t cleaved outside?”
“What’s the matter with you two?”
Kayla can stand it no longer. She points at Zach. “It’s him!”
Zach looks at me and confesses that they’ve only cleaved indoors—among other places, in both their parents’ bedrooms. He blushes.
“Wait. You’re actually trying to tell me that you don’t cleave outside and yet you do cage matches?”
Zach hangs his head and laughs. “I feel I have to be more gentleman-like than doin’ it just anywhere,” he says, weaving and fondling his biceps.
“What? No! No! Cleaving outside is what gentlemen do!”
Kayla’s face turns pink, and she takes a breath in an ecstatic little gasp.
The Garden of Eden was a utopia. People are happy in utopias. The kayakers I meet coming off the brown Conestoga River in Eden, Pennsylvania, are in ecstasy, for instance. But I am sad. How can I not be sad when I can’t get a single photo of an outdoor cleaving spot and correct the injustices committed by Outside magazine?
Such are my ruminations as I finish off the last of the birthday cake, say farewell to Pennsylvania, invade Maryland, and biff down the Delmarva Peninsula. I can’t say much for the scenery. Everyone knows more about the beauty of Maryland than I do, certainly, and if you don’t know about the beauty of Maryland, you better Google it, because this stretch of highway—called the Ocean Gateway, though it’s about 50 miles from any ocean—looks like one long, flat, sandy clump of hopeless, tick-ridden grass dotted with absolute crap. One doesn’t expect Yosemite at every turn, of course, and I drive nice and slow, and Lewis hangs his head out the window, and as we pass the bars, the car dealerships, and the crab shacks, I sing my favorite road song, “Me and Bobby McGee.” You remember the words:
La da da
La da da da
La da da da da da da da
La da da da da da da da
Bobby McGee, yeah
La da da da da da da da
La da da da da da da da
La da da da da da da da
Bobby McGee, yeah
The next morning, after nine hours of sleep and using all the towels, shampoo, cream rinse, body lotion, and laundry bags, the ice bucket for Lewis’s water bowl, the shoe-shine cloth to clean Lewis’s ears, etc., I line up to get Lewis his morning egg at the “free hot breakfast” provided by the Salisbury, Maryland, Quality Inn. In front of me is a huge young man with the round, happy face of a toddler. We reach the buffet.
“Whoa!” I cry. I stagger backward in stunned admiration.
The huge young man has carefully stacked 15 or 16 slices of white bread into two towers on his corrugated paper plate, erected a sausage sculpture on top of them, and is now drowning the entire edifice with imitation maple syrup. What a man! I want to ask if he is also on the Forbidden Fruits diet, but as he appears to be the coach of several young athletes who are sitting at tables all around us, eating sausage on top of donuts for their breakfasts, I think better of it.
Lewis gets his egg, and his walk, and we hit the road again. The car dealerships disappear and dense woods take over. An hour later, we enter the blue groves of Eden, Maryland, and come upon a woman named Crissy in her garden.
She is not happy.
“What do you mean you’re not happy,” I say. “This is Eden! Heaven on earth!”
Crissy is a cute blonde holding a fat fawn dog.
“Well,” she says, shifting the dog to her hip. “This is no heaven.”
“But, but, this is Eden!” I say, with a sweep of my good arm. “Woods in your backyard, meadows up to your windowsill, wild fruits, singing birds, crystalline creeks—”
“It’s boring,” says Crissy.
“But it’s Eden!”
“Not to me. People here don’t even work!”
She nods down the road at the trailer houses.
“Exactly,” I say. “It’s Eden.”
Her dog has the face of Steve Bannon. I catch him sneering at Lewis Carroll, who is at his post in the back seat of the Prius with his head out the half-open window.
“Anyway, my boyfriend lives in Ocean City. I’m moving there.”
“What?! You’re leaving Eden?”
Lewis’s side of the car looks like it’s been hit with a bucket of water, so furiously is he drooling to get at the little asshole in Crissy’s arms.
“There’s nothing to do here!” says Crissy.
“But Kevin Allen Smith, who farms just across the road over there”—I point to the field I just came from—“says it’s bliss.”
“Kevin Allen Smith is cultivating his garden like it says in the Bible,” I say. “And I see you are cultivating your garden.” (I indicate her lilies and zinnias.) “Have you multiplied yet?”
“Not yet,” says Crissy.
“Have you cleaved?”
“I don’t want to say. We’re not married.”
“Bah! Adam and Eve weren’t married. There was no wedding ceremony. The Lord just told ’em to cleave.”
“You have a very different way of looking at things”
“I’m from New York.”
Speaking of which, Lewis, a “New York huntin’ dog” as I tell the old boys who ask about him in Pennsylvania, has an electric blue flattop and wears a 17th-century-style ruff of ribbons, and at this moment he is attempting to pull the car window out with his teeth and give Steve Bannon a trip to the veterinarian.
“So have you cleaved here in Eden?”
“Yes,” says Crissy.
“Have you cleaved here in the garden?”
She smiles, looks at the stalks of expired irises, and says, “I’m not sayin’.”
“Ha!” I shout. You have cleaved in this garden!”
“I’m not sayin’!” says Crissy, chortling.
“Hold it right there, girl,” I cry. “I’m taking your picture!”
In regard to my Kevin Allen Smith reference:
According to my bible, the Great Creator, Jack Kerouac, ate apple pie à la mode “all the way across the country” in On the Road, because “it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course.”
Hence, I’ve been enjoying the Snickers, birthday cakes, pretzels, French onion dip, etc., on my Forbidden Fruits diet, and I’ve also been eating apple pie and ice cream every night for dinner.
Consequently, I’m so ravenous for something green that when I spy Kevin Allen Smith whamming back and forth in his Eden kale field, at the wheel of a big Massey-Ferguson tractor, I drive straight through his five “Stay Out” signs and, pausing just long enough for a brief chat with the man, fling myself upon his kale.
I can say, without exaggeration, that this fucking kale saves my life.
Plus, Kevin Allen Smith, a prosperous bachelor farmer who comes in the large economy size with the oblong face of a newborn, and whose lilting speech is so musical that it sounds like I’m speaking with Pavarotti, and who tells me that he believes the fruit that Eve employed to tempt Adam was a tomato, shyly admits to cleaving in this very kale field, and I take 105 pictures of him—105!
“Well,” I say, as I’m leaving. “It’s been heaven, Kevin!”
“Text me sometime,” he says.
“Oh, I will!”
“Anybody ever grab ya?” he says.
“Naw, I’m too big and too old.”
“I like older women.”
“Who doesn’t?” I say. Then, checking the rearview mirror, with Lewis at his post in the back seat, I tromp the accelerator, back away from the “Keep Out” signs at 25 miles per hour, turn, and squeal out of Eden, my heart full of joy and the front seat crammed with kale.
This part I’ve saved until we got to know each other better.
I listen to Agatha Christie detective fiction when I’m driving. Dame Agatha’s At Bertram’s Hotel is my choice for the glamorous nine-hour journey from Eden, Maryland, to Eden, North Carolina.
As Miss Marple checks into the hotel and begins to have her suspicions, Lewis and I shoot down the long toe of southern Maryland, rip across Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge, zoom over the mighty Chesapeake Bay Bridge, roar through the tunnel, and wail on to Norfolk, Virginia.
Now, it so happens that, just across the Elizabeth River at Portsmouth, there’s some fast heel-and-toe work required to stay on Interstate 264 and not go bowling off onto Interstate 464. At this exciting juncture, Miss Marple, wearing her fluffy shawl and working her knitting, is seated in the hotel lobby at a tea table, warning Chief Inspector Davy that she feels “very uneasy” when... Blam! Blam! OMG! Shots ring out, and I jerk into the shoulder, right when Michael “Micky” Gorman steps in front of the heiress, the Honourable Elvira Blake, and takes a bullet, and—and, well, this is when a cop pulls me over.
While the cop adjusts his large drill-sergeant hat and takes the slow walk to the Prius, I should probably take this opportunity to tell you that I’ve hand-painted large blue polka dots on my car. I roll down the window and sing out, “Hello, officer!”
It is 97 degrees.
The officer bends, looks inside the car, and says, startled, “Ma’am! Are you OK?”
“Are you wounded?”
This is where I should not neglect to point out that I’m wearing a Quality Inn white-and-orange plastic laundry bag around my head.
“I’m fine, sir!”
“Your head, ma’am—have you been hit?”
“Oh!” I say, laughing, raising both hands to my skull. “This? Hahaha! I had to use it to tie my hair out of my eyes—see?” I remove it, hair falls all over my face, and the cop gives me a ticket for “failure to obey highway sign.”
The drive-in movie, the roller dome, the old-timey baseball fields, canoes on the rivers, the drive-in hamburger joint called Dick’s (where Lewis Carroll and I are served the best homemade apple pie and ice cream of our lives by the country’s fizziest carhops)—Eden, North Carolina, produces such a combination of charms that one doesn’t mind the relatively mild temperatures. Of course, it will get hotter as we head into Georgia and Alabama: It’s only a touch over 98 in Eden
I’m inside the Red River Grill, plying a young man I met with a basket of French fries, preparatory to getting into the cleaving questions, when a burly cop rushes in.
“A dog!” cries the cop, addressing the entire, and almost entirely empty, restaurant. “A dog is locked in a polka-dot car out there with the windows up!”
I put down my ice tea and stand. “It’s electric, officer!”
He hastens over. “But the windows are up, ma’am!”
“Yes, officer! I have the windows up. The car is running with the air-conditioning on.”
“That car’s runnin’?” he says. “Are you sure?”
His alarmed expression, so rare on a cop’s face, jars me. The car is so quiet that I’ve absently turned the engine off without realizing it at least 20 times. I’ve turned it off while waiting at a stop light. I’ve turned it off at drive-through banks. Once, I came out of the house and was amazed to find the car still on from the night before.
“Well, officer,” I start to reply, but the vision of Lewis baking to death ignites me, and I run out the door and up a little incline to the hot parking lot, with the cop—belts, straps, clasps, badges, radios, stick, cuffs, gun all jiggling—right behind me.
In the boiling sun sits the Prius, silent as a sphinx. I beep the locks, seize the handle. and open the back door.
“Goldarn,” whispers the cop.
On his back, stretched out on the seat, legs spread, toes up, there is Lewis, the car so cold that he smiles in his sleep like Roald Amundsen at the South Pole.
And that lad I was plying with French fries at the Red River Grill when the cop rushed in? His name is Tony. He is 19 and was voted employee of the month at the big shipping company where he works, and for $350 down he is now buying his own house. But alas! He and his girlfriend recently broke up.
He is a sweet, tenderhearted youth, with hair that hangs down in ringlets and big, black, sad eyes, and I hesitate to start in with the cleaving business. But Tony likes discussing heartache. He is such a philosopher, in fact, that we soon set out for the Eden boat drop on the famous Dan River, where he cleaved amidst the swinging vines, poison ivy, and mud with his girlfriend. “All the time,” he says. The rogue!
I take 289 photos, and when we walk back up to the Leakesville Landing above the river, we interrupt a marriage proposal.
The Best Road Books of All Time That Feature a Marriage Proposal.
5. The Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway
4. Norwood, by Charles Portis
3. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
2. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
1. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
Dean Moriarty in On the Road proposes marriage to various young tomatoes almost continuously. And not only can I make an argument that a proposal is the most serious form of cleaving, but also that Elizabeth Bennet’s road trip through Derbyshire with the Gardiners—which brings her to Pemberley for the first time—should perhaps earn Jane Austen the top spot, and that the dildo which figures so prominently in the early Hemingway road trip is a proposal all by itself. But either way, the betrothing we run into in Eden, North Carolina, looks like a capital affair.
Mr. Jarris Perkins, ex-Marine and rapper, wearing Duke of Buckingham breeches, a fishing vest, and a yellow polka-dot tie, is down on one knee before Miss Madeline Rondon, a lifestyle innovator and women’s advocate, who is attired in an Ali Baba skirt, a pink midriff bra, sparkly rainbows drawn above her breasts, bead earrings, bracelets, rings, spangles, tattoos, and a turban topped with a golden Cinderella crown. Jarris is promising something about loving Madeline “with every breath that he’ll take for the next thousand centuries,” so it certainly looks and sounds like a marriage proposal to me. But you be the judge, Reader, and please take a look at this photo:
If that’s not a marriage proposal, I’ll eat my size 11 shoe. Later, when Madeline and Jarris serve me a fine dinner of biscuits and gravy, tilapia, peas, corn, and stuffing at their home in Eden, accompanied by their pit bull, Princess Beulah Mae, along with a passel of the best-behaved children I’ve seen in years (some of whom are the progeny of women Madeline advocates for), I ask about the proposal, and Jarris says, “I’m the ultimate player!”
This is a bit jarring. I glance at Madeline.
“He runs away,” she says matter-of-factly. “He’s Peter Pan.”
“Ah!” I say. A romantic, I frown at my plate.
“This is our story,” says Madeline, laying her hand on my arm. “I was a madam. And he was a pimp.”
My stupefied delight as I receive this news—and begin to comprehend the enormous struggle and resulting triumph of two people making a new life together and settling down in Eden—puts me in an exquisitely happy mood that lasts for the rest of the trip.
Later, when I’m far away from North Carolina, I realize I need to fact-check the name of the promontory where I witnessed the proposal, so I text Madeline.
She texts back in all-caps that Jarris has “LEFT AGAIN AND I WON’T ALLOW HIM TO CONTINUE DOING THIS.”
Then she adds: “YOU HAD TO GO THERE DIDN’T YOU LOL.”
If two ardent former professionals possessing all that is amiable, all that is attaching, and living in Eden, can’t solve the ancient mystery (How to Make Love Stay), I begin to wonder: Who can?
Let other journalists dwell on the fickleness of men. I drop such fellows as quick as I can.
With Miss Marple investigating The Murder in the Vicarage, and Lewis at his post in the back seat, we drop down the coast of North Carolina, ditto South Carolina, and lurching from historical marker to historical marker, we totter into Georgia. I am sorry I can’t give you a description of the famous Civil War battles. This would have been an excellent occasion to consult the fabled E. Jean Carroll Civil War Library. But as the collection consists entirely of Gone with the Wind, and as I didn’t bring a copy with me, I have difficulty remembering which bloodbaths took place where around here. Though, oddly, I remember what Scarlett O’Hara is wearing in nearly every spot in the movie.
I can tell you that the Georgia countryside—and I have looked at so much of this world in my last 75 years, a road trip frees me to be myself and not look at countryside—smells like Pine-Sol and gin, some of the back roads are so red they’re pink, and the hills look tired out. like people have been having too much fun on them.
Northern Georgia, where the Appalachian Trail starts, is a real stunner, I’ve heard from hiking friends: Peaks! Chasms! Waterfalls! Eden, Georgia, which is in the south, near Savannah, is flat as a tabletop. But Lewis and I like flat hamlets, and we bustle in on Sunday morning, just in time for me to slip into the peaceful little Powers Baptist Church (est. 1792), take a pew in the back, jump to my feet, and shout “I do! I do!” when Pastor Travis Cowart, looking genially around the large congregation, innocently asks if anyone “has any special words for us today.” My sermon—to receive a copy, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org—receives a sitting ovation.
Afterward, a great, loud, handsome, jolly, tall, 78-year-old boat racer with sparkling dark eyes, wearing an aqua-striped shirt, and holding a big leather-bound Bible with his name engraved in gold introduces himself as “the original redneck” and then adds, with the sound of a flock of geese flying overhead: “Call me Leslie HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW.” He commands me to “git in your car and follow my truck!” I do. We whiz along red dirt through pine trees and skim past the edges of a pond, roll around a lake, and then another lake, or maybe it is the same lake—“We own four of the lakes around here,” Leslie later tells me—and arrive at his estate for lunch. I meet his wife, Beauford, a young Georgia peach of 76.
“You ever made love outside?” I say after lunch. (Squash casserole, zipper peas, sliced tomatoes, and meatloaf arrayed on a tablescape with a cheery motif, all prepared by a woman who did not know a guest was coming.)
“You mean outside of marriage?” says Beauford.
“Outside!’” I nod out toward the lake.
“Oh, yes!” says Beauford. “In the yard! Garden! Oh! All kind of places!”
“HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW,” laughs Leslie. His admiration for his wife causes him to turn red as a geranium.
“Don’t tell her about the patio!” says Beauford.
We are in the kitchen. We all pause and look out at the alabaster patio, and at the cool, lavender-green lake and the dark purple forest beyond the patio, and at the kayaks, canoes, campers, Ski-Doos, ski boat, paddleboat, flatboat, and pontoons ornamenting Leslie and Beauford’s yard.
“It was a full moon that night,” Leslie says softly. (Clarification: Leslie’s soft voice is about the same you would use to shout over the noise of a vacuum cleaner.)
“Full moon,” says Beauford, evidently changing her mind about not talking about the patio.
“And he’s enticing me out on the patio, saying, Come on out here. Come on! And I’m in my gown. And he’s got nothin’ on, cuz he never wears nothin’ when he’s goin’ to bed.”
“HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW,” laughs Leslie, who I didn’t think could get any redder or happier, but he does.
“So I’m out there,” says Beauford. “I walk out there and he says, ‘Take your gown off!’”
“Oooooo!” I say.
Leslie starts pounding the kitchen island, in raptures.
“So I flip the gown over to the table out there, and all of a sudden he says: ‘Hush, hush!’ And I’m standing real still.”
“She’s standing on the step right there,” says Leslie, pointing out the window to the very spot.
I picture Beauford in breathtaking semi-nudity, then in total nudity.
“And there it is,” she says. “The rattlesnake.”
“Yeah,” says Beauford, who’s a retired nurse with a specialty in hemophilia, thank gawd, and was an all-state guard in basketball. “And I’m right there.”
“A timber rattler about that big around,” says Leslie. “And about that long.”
Very big around. Very long. “No!” I cry.
“By the time I got the shovel, his head was up on the second step,” says Leslie.
“Where I was standing,” says Beauford.
“So,” says Leslie, “I chopped his head off.”
How different things would be in the world if Eve or Adam had had that shovel, eh? So vivid in his memory are his wife’s charms, Leslie can quote himself from that night: “I know we ain’t gonna do it on the patio now,” he recalls. “So I said, ‘Let’s go in the bedroom.’”
“But he done lost the ability at that point,” Beauford notes.
“HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW,” Leslie laughs. Beauford joins him with a huge “HAR HAR HAR HAR HAR HAR” of her own.
When it comes to car brakes, there are good brakes, there are bad brakes, there are very bad brakes, there are really very bad brakes, and there are brakes after you wave goodbye to Leslie and Beauford and you bounce over a log in their backyard. A warning light immediately starts flashing. By the time I drive past all the ponds and lakes again and reach the Powers Baptist Church Cemetery, there are so many warning lights flashing on my dashboard, indicating that I should “stop immediately,” that I pull over to the side of the road and say to Lewis Carroll: “Some people die and go to Eden, and some people go to Eden to die.”
My spirits lift somewhat when every—mind you, every—old boy in Georgia who stops to inquire if I “need any help” tells me to “ignore” the warning lights. One even says he’s driven his “camper like that for years.”
I drive the bugger all the way back to Savannah at 25 miles per hour and head to a Toyota place. “You got here just in time!” says a technician. “The — is missing. Gone. What happened? Were you in a wreck?”
I have no idea what the tech said was missing, but the Prius spends only two days on a pedestal, and it costs only $900 to get the thing fixed.
Making up for the two days, I put in some fast foot and ankle work across Georgia and come upon, amid piles of bricks, siding, sawdust, and planks, the three handsomest carpenters (Hi, David! Hi, Logan! Hi, Jared!) I ever saw in my life. They are restoring a bungalow (three fireplaces, four rooms, unequalled snugness) in Eden, Alabama. I snap David’s picture at the drive-in movie where he lately cleaved with his wife, and with a brief halt at the George Wallace Rest Stop, where the bathroom attendants are attired like a cross between Hotel du Cap bellboys and Yellowstone Park forest rangers, and where one can eat off the ladies’ room floor, I arrive in Eden, Mississippi.
Though I’m not quite certain it is Eden, Mississippi. It’s near the famous Mississippi Blues Trail, yes. And it is old and very, very blue, no question; but it looks like the Miss Havisham of the Edens. It’s a little withered, sunken, faded, and jilted by the world. And like Miss Havisham, it seems to need a little diversion.
Across the highway is the sweet and scrabbly field where the aging but still fabulous Eden Star quarter horse (“World Champ. Producer”) takes his evening gallop. I flag down a UPS guy.
“Sir! Sir! Can you tell me where Eden is?”
“Right here,” he says.
“Not here here?”
“Yes. Right here.”
“This is Eden?” I look up the brown road, which gives off the pleasant smell of dirt, though it’s a paved highway. “No way.”
“Yes. It’s Eden.”
“Well then, what’s it like delivering packages in heaven?”
It will hit 99 degrees in the next hour and then start climbing.
“Hot and dusty!” he answers and ascends into his truck.
That night it requires four pints of Halo Top ice cream (made by Eden Creamery) and a canned margarita to cool me off. The next day I return to Eden with a plan.
Since it’s so close to the Mississippi Blues Trail, and since James “Son” Thomas—the blues singer and sculptor whose countenance is as woeful as Don Quixote—was born in Eden, my plan is to knock on the door of each of the 50 or so houses, requisition the local intellects, find someone who plays the blues, and ask them to sing a song about cleaving.
Val, a majestically shirtless landowner in a black cowboy hat, swears there are “no blues musicians in Eden, Mississippi.”
That’s right. That’s what he said. No blues players. Am I crushed? Do I care that there are no blues musicians in Eden? That my “plan” turns out to be a disaster? Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! I have lost the capacity for personal suffering on this trip. I am immortal! I haven’t paid a bill in four weeks. I have fucked-off returning e-mail. I shower only when I want to. Forget making calls. I make friends with strangers. I throw fresh towels on the floor. I let the dog on the bed. I eat cake morning, noon, and night and I am losing weight. I don’t see the news. I see the people who are overlooked. Nobody X-rays my bags. Nobody orders me to remove my shoes. Nobody pats me down, and yet I have taken flight. I am driving the car that kids wave at. I am on the road.
And anyway, I’m too hot and too enchanted with Val and his plump and distractingly pretty wife, Angela. They fell in love in high school and have been together 14 years. Val owns seven acres that he bought from his parents.
“There’s this apple tree,” says Val when I ask him to tell me the Eden story. “And God says, ‘Don’t eat that fruit.’ But Eve eats it and says to Adam, ‘Here, honey, try this,’ and since Adam does everything Eve tells him to do, Adam says, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and God tosses both of them out of Eden.”
That’s pretty much it.
“And have you gone forth and multiplied?” I say.
“We’ve done that,” says Val.
Their little daughter, Madilyn, a sprite of six or seven, is dancing around on the porch. Madison, their firstborn, is at cheerleading camp.
“So you’ve cleaved,” I say.
Val looks at Angela, puzzled. “Do you know what she’s talkin’ about?”
Angela signals me with her left eyelash—women are always, always more interested in sex than men—and then smiles at her husband. A doting wife, she does not want any egos deflated, but she doesn’t mind any minds being opened, either.
“Yes,” says Angela, “I think I know what she’s talking about.”
“The Lord said cleave unto her,” I say.
Little Madilyn stops twirling, walks over, plants both feet in front of me, and stares up. Her visiting cousins Jason and Dalton, large young saplings, also stare, and all three children start giggling.
“Become one flesh,” I say to Val.
Val scratches his armpit and looks at Angela.
“Is she sayin’...?”
“Become one flesh!” I shout exuberantly.
Their own personal porch thermometer reads 100. Perhaps it is too hot for Val to think, because he’s still stumped. I don’t quite know how to phrase it in front of the children.
“Be like married people,” I say.
Little Madilyn, tittering, looks up at me and stuffs both hands into her mouth to stop from whooping.
“You know,” says Angela elegantly.
She is a 911 emergency dispatcher. Val works for a big pipeline company.
“Cleaving! Cleaving!” I say, and no longer able to stand it, I run out on their absinthe-green lawn and shout: “Cleaving!”
“Oh!” says Val. “Yes! We cleave!”
The kids, my God! They love it! Madilyn bends at the waist, throws open her arms, and takes a bow.
“And have you cleaved outside?”
“Miss Angela,” I say, “Come on.”
“No,” says Angela.
“Egads! You’ve been together 14 years! You must be bored to death! You need to spice things up and do a little cleaving outside here.”
Val seems quite struck.
“That’s a good idea!” He says, and the tattoo of the comedy- drama masks on his upper left breast jumps up and down with delight.
“Wait,” I say. “You’ve never thought of this?”
They both shake their heads no.
“But I like the idea,” says Val, looking back at Angela to double-check her reaction—a trait I much admire in a husband.
“You should try it tonight!” I say.
Angela smiles at him, raising one eyebrow.
“We should!” says Val.
My work here is finished.
“Well, all I can say is thank God,” I say. “I staggered by here and saved your marriage.”
And, indeed, really now, how can I possibly point the Prius back to my cabin in New York? Aren’t there flocks of innocent people constantly and perpetually cleaving indoors who need to be roused and terrorized and flogged by old E. Jean into stepping outside? Aren’t there throngs of helpless creatures badly in need of my assistance? So watch out, people of Eden, West Virginia, Eden, Illinois, Eden, Texas, Eden, Wisconsin, and Eden, Idaho! I’m loading up the apple pie! I’m turning on Agatha! I’m tromping the accelerator! Lewis Carroll is barking excitedly! We’re on our way, and wherever there’s a couple cleaving in the bedroom, the kitchen, the library, we’ll be there. Wherever there are lovers cleaving in the basement, the attic, the laundry room, the den, we’ll be there to hustle them out to the garden!
And P.S.: Madeline and Jarris eventually got married! Old E. Jean knows a proposal when she sees one.