The Sweet Gum Tree
Author:Katherine Allred

The Sweet Gum Tree by Katherine Allred




Part One


4




The Sweet Gum Tree





Chapter One


Growing up in the Crowley Ridge area of Arkansas, I paid little attention to the sweet gum trees except to admire their brilliant colors during the fall. And maybe to laugh when the Judge cursed each time he ran the lawn mower over the hard burs they produce, the tiny missiles banging against the house or car with a loud thunk and denting the mower blades he kept so carefully honed.

It wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I realized the true nature of the tree. A sweet gum is the chameleon of wood, its corky exterior hiding its inner ability to imitate anything from cherry to mahogany. But its real value, one unrealized by most people, is its deep red heart, steady and strong. They see only the pale fibrous wood, easily warped, that surrounds the core.

Like the town of Morganville saw Nick Anderson.

As with most small town southerners, respectability was as much a part of my DNA as was my hair and eye color. It was the goal everyone strived for, the standard by which every citizen of Morganville was judged. And while my family, the Frenchs, weren’t the richest?that honor going to Ian and Helena Morgan?we were one of the most respected. Thanks mostly to the Judge, my grandfather.

His name was Carl, but no one, including his daughters, had ever called him anything but Judge. He retired from the bench when I was five, and since my own father pulled a vanishing act shortly before my birth, the Judge stepped forward to fill that role for me. I thought the man walked on water and took every word from his lips as gospel.

“Alix,” he told me. “Stay away from the railroad tracks. A wowzer cat lives under the trestle, and you don’t want to get tangled up with one of those.”

“What’s a wowzer cat?” I asked, enthralled.

“It’s a fifty pound cat with eight legs and nine bung holes, and it’s meaner than a gar.”

The Judge had an odd sense of humor.

The summer I was eight I’d spent most of my free time stretched out in the high grass near the trestle, trying my best to catch a glimpse of this elusive animal. I felt sorry for it and thought if anyone could tame it, I was that person. After all, hadn’t I tamed the half-wild kittens in the barn?

I remained a believer until my first close encounter with Nick Anderson that fall.

Everyone knew who the Andersons were. Frank, Nick’s father, owned the salvage yard on the outskirts of town. It was five square acres filled with the rusting, twisted corpses of dead vehicles, most of them shrouded in weeds or covered by wild morning 5



Katherine Allred

glory vines. In between the rows lay pools of stagnant water, their surfaces multicolored with the iridescent hues from leaked oil. At the very back of the lot sat a tiny trailer, in little better shape than the vehicles surrounding it, where the Andersons, father and son, lived.

Frank Anderson was the only person in town who cared nothing about respectability. He was a large man, well over six feet, and his weight showed his propensity to strong drink. I never saw him dressed in anything but khaki pants, soiled with stains of unknown origin, his huge stomach, covered in a badly stretched T-shirt, sagging over his belt.

It wasn’t uncommon to find him sitting on the bench in front of the general store or staggering down Main Street, a bottle gripped in his right hand, mumbling about the sons of bitches who all thought they were better than he was, and how he’d show them someday. Every kid in Morganville knew to give him a wide berth when he was in that condition. Frank Anderson wasn’t exactly what you’d call friendly even when he was sober. Drunk, he was downright dangerous.

Apparently, the only one who could stand him was Liz Swanner. Jenna Howard, my best friend since kindergarten, told me Mr. Anderson paid Liz to let him “do it” to her. I don’t think either of us was exactly sure what that meant, but I thought Liz could probably use whatever money he gave her. After all, she had six kids to feed and no job to support them. The whole family was on welfare, although they barely got enough to survive.

The Swanner house was the last one between the salvage yard and town. It sat alone, an outcast from its neighbors, a single-story shotgun house with flakes of paint clinging here and there to its weathered boards. Several mangy dogs graced the bare dirt in front like living lawn ornaments, the southern equivalent of pink flamingos.