He befriended my family decades ago. He knew most of us. He wasn’t especially showy and didn’t make many demands; he just always seemed to be around. He was kind of a quiet fellow. I always took it for granted he was family–but no, he just acted like it. Funny, how he wormed his way into our lives.
He liked some of us more than others. We grumbled sometimes but gave him a place at the table. He liked my grandma and she liked him. Some would say he liked her too much, but I pretended not to understand. He even helped grandpa when he was short of money, which was most years. The farm had never paid well, so grandpa let him hang around year in and year out for the few bucks he got off of him. The money certainly wasn’t enough to justify all the heartache to come.
He and my dad got along famously. Dad liked to be around him when he was drunk. When dad came home staggering and reeking of whiskey, I knew they had been hanging out together. Mom despised him from the get-go, just wouldn’t have anything to do with him. She claimed to have heard something bad about him years before, but wouldn’t say what it was.
Along about 1974 he disappeared from my life for a while. I didn’t see him for probably a year, and I can’t say as I missed him. I knew he was keeping tabs with my family, but I had moved away to college and left the little town of Kuttawa behind.
You have to believe me when I say we still didn’t know what he was up to back then, though there were some who suspected. He was a sly one. Looking back now it’s all so clear. Why didn’t we see it then? He was just too tidy, too neat. Everything always in place, his two favorite pieces of clothing—white shirt and brown slacks—immaculate, spotless. He was always ready to party, too. All anyone had to do was swing by and pick him up.
He made a surprise appearance at my 21st birthday party. I didn’t even know he knew it was my birthday. Heck, I didn’t know he knew my girlfriend. But there she was, proudly introducing him to me as though I’d never heard of him before. Funny how small Kentucky can be sometimes, and that guy sure could get around. I pretended to like him for my girlfriend’s sake, but the truth is I secretly hated him. There was something about him; I just couldn’t put my finger on it. And I wasn’t the only one with suspicions. I never told my girl how popular the guy was in Lyon County. I didn’t want to make him look any more glamorous to her than he already did.
It wasn’t until many years later that we discovered he was a killer. All those years we thought he was so sweet—so harmless. Boy, were we fooled. Oh, there had always been rumors, of course. But we were trusting folk. Kentucky people will give anyone a chance, as long as they’re nice and behave themselves, follow along to church on Sunday, and don’t make a spectacle of themselves. I have to admit he knew his place and for the most part he stayed in it.
It was in the 1990’s when the ugly truth hit the fan. My uncle in St. Louis was dying. I drove the family up to see him in the hospital. We visited with someone they said was my uncle, but it sure didn’t look like him. His belly was swollen like it was pregnant. His face was puffed out and emaciated at the same time. His eyes burned in his skull, like fires were raging behind them. He didn’t speak; just lay moaning. Infection was raging throughout his body and there was nothing anyone could do. He didn’t have long to live.
I was alone with my uncle right before he died, and I realized who was responsible. I couldn’t prove it, of course, but I knew the signs. I had seen this before, and in a flash it all fit together. I vowed right then to have my revenge.
My uncle died that night, gasping for air and pleading with his eyes as his lungs filled with fluid. It was a horrible sight and I don’t care to experience it again. But it steeled my resolve.
I came back to Kentucky after the funeral in St. Louis and found him. I told him I knew what he did and I would find a way someday to expose him for what he was. I cursed him. I hated him. I told him right there and then I was through with him. I never wanted to see or hear of him again. I accused him of mysterious deaths going back decades in my family. He couldn’t deny it, and of course he said nothing.
In my grief and despair I accused him of following me to Virginia when I moved there, and then years later to Georgia. I charged him with doing despicable things with those I loved. Didn’t I lose two more uncles to him? I know I did, even though the cause of their deaths was spoken of in hushed whispers.
“You are foul. You are damned,” I told him. “I know you seduced my sister, and that you pulled the wool over both my brothers’ eyes. I hope that you are found out and consigned to Hell.”
At least, that’s what I wanted to say to him. And I would have, too, had he been human.
But he wasn’t human. He was just an evil–a folly. Something man dug up out of the filth of longing and desire. An innocent vice grown to monstrous proportions, spreading his evil lies far and wide. He was eventually denounced by many, but defended by almost as many more. He’s one who has been called by all manner of sweet-sounding names through the years, but is best known simply as “tobacco.”
© Wade Kingston