Chapter 6

 

When Sibyl told me that I could walk to her apartment from Manhattan, that it was just on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, I failed to understand I should start from a point reasonably close to the bridge. Getting to 8th Street between Bedford and Berry in Brooklyn took almost two hours from my room at the YMCA on 28th Street. I had not yet studied a subway map or bus routes and was unclear about where the boroughs sat in relation to one another. Instead, I had become familiar with the West Village, which was walkable from where I was staying and home to the places I’d started visiting regularly, including New York School of Sound, Washington Square Park, and the live music clubs along Bleeker Street. Sticking to my beaten path in that first week, I earned a familiar nod hello from the person behind the deli counter and discovered the quietest times to visit the park for when I wanted to write away from my room. But the rest of the city beckoned, and when the day came to meet Sibyl, I was eager for a journey into Brooklyn.

The muggy mid-day hike to the bridge took me across 14th Street to Gramercy and then down through the Bowery. Along the way, Saturday afternoon shoppers pushed their way into retail shops and flocked to street vendor displays that lined the curbside. On 14th Street, store clerks sat atop stepladders in the middle of the crowded sidewalk looking back into their open storefronts to scan for shoplifters.

Two months had passed since the storm-drenched afternoon of Dad’s funeral, and the initial pain from such a confusing loss was beginning to give way to a lasting, deeper torment. I didn’t understand why Dad hadn’t successfully worked through whatever was troubling him, particularly given all his love for us and how much he would have wanted to protect us from this sorrow. I was also coming to terms with never having looked past the father to the whole man, having only ever seen his performance in the role of my father, a role he played with care, love, and authority. I never saw his performances in any of the other roles he took on, but I would learn in the years following how well he had played them and how, offstage, he had workshopped aspects of his character that challenged him in each. The responsibility he took in doing so made him the great man many in Stony Gap thought him to be.

He was born in 1932 in the house he grew up in. Pop had completed the house — the largest in Stony Gap ­— only weeks before Dad arrived, and the new home, a two-story Victorian with a three-sided wraparound porch, built one block from the center of town, sent a message to the entire community that Pop’s boy would not experience the hardships Pop had experienced growing up. Dad was reared by a rugged, unmannered man, which is why I’ve always thought of that house as a flash of Pop’s middle finger to a community that had long shunned him and the Keeping family.

The Keepings were dirt poor when Pop was born, but with what Dad called piss-and-vinegar confidence and irrational problem-solving, the family persisted through hard economic times and achieved an astonishing reversal of fortune. Pop was fourteen years old when his father — my great-grandfather — yanked him out of school and put him to work wringing prosperity from God’s green earth. Together, they cleared and graded land, drilled wells, cut timber, and operated a small sawmill, becoming notorious, in the process, for imposing heavy machinery upon nature. But their early wealth and any agreeableness Pop may have had were short-lived. They lost everything during the Great Depression. Pop was an ambitious young man when he watched their hard-earned riches slip like fine quartz silt back through his fingers, and he was an angry man as he built everything back up again. By the time I started at the bank, the family business, owing to Pop’s persistence — and in spite of his disdain for details — had become banking and real estate development. In addition to financing much of Stony Gap’s agricultural and commercial growth, we held deeds of trust for many families and small businesses in Stony Gap, collected rent on scores of homes, and had a hand in a majority of the residential development that occurred in Uwharrie County. While no longer imposing heavy machinery upon nature, it was often said, thanks to Pop, that the Keepings now imposed themselves on others.

Dad constantly lived in Pop’s shadow. He was a member of the silent generation, a loyal second-in-command, perfect at carrying out instructions and refining methods, and he did so from the time he was a boy cleaning up Pop’s residential construction sites to the years he spent as an adult repairing the damage Pop’s treacherous business practices would cause. As Pop’s reckless business deals swept through like tornados, leaving destruction in their wake, Dad became deft at taming them, turning Pop’s ideas into viable money-makers by supplying most of the sweat equity and filling in the much-needed details. Once the storms had passed, Dad would go back and clean up whatever damage Pop’s lack of consideration had caused.

He understood Pop was reviled throughout Uwharrie County, particularly by the black community, that he was spiteful, venomous, devoid of compassion, and wholly spiritless — a man who built his success on the backs of others without ever showing any gratitude. And because Pop’s reputation was our family’s reputation, Dad smoldered with frustration at the delight Pop took in maintaining a bad one. He often confronted Pop about it, but Pop, as weathered as an old saddle, took Dad’s admonishments with a degree of pride.

Pop eschewed business ethics altogether as a practical and competitive strategy. He reminded my dad that there had been no trace of ethics when the banks, during the Great Depression, had come to seize the family’s heavy equipment, taking from them their only means of making a living. If the banks weren’t governed by ethics, why should he be? If they can get away with it, so would he.

“And if I can get away with it,” Pop reasoned, “so can the next guy. And as the Good Book warns us, always look out for the next guy!”

It was easy for Dad to see early on what his role would be in the family business. When Pop took control of Consolidated Bank & Trust, wresting it away from its founders and installing Dad as its president, Dad became the one who kept watch over the next guy, protecting him from Pop and assuring him constantly of the equitability of the Keepings, our bank, and its holdings.

My father’s belief in the general good of all things propelled him inexorably through life. In spite of Pop — Mom says because of him — and because of Dad’s integrity and fortitude, his actions were never dampened by the possibility of a negative outcome. His enthusiasm burned constantly, fueled by his use of drama. By precipitating anything he did with a well-staged preview, Dad was able to clean up after Pop and turn mess into order. Town council and county commissioner meetings provided the best venues for his theatrics, making it easy for others to understand what he was going to do next, and as a result, his motives were always clearly on display. With Ray Keeping, no one could say they didn’t see it coming, and for this, he was respected and trusted by many.

With as much drama, he killed himself. But this time, no one saw it coming. For weeks, Dad had performed a well-staged finale to an unsuspecting audience. Mom told Nehemiah and me after the funeral that at home in the evenings, Dad had taken to calling old friends with whom he rarely spoke, just to say hello and to learn what he had missed in their lives. Even the friends he saw frequently about town commented curiously to me about how tranquil he had appeared the last times they’d seen him, accomplished in his command over his affairs, unusual for a man who had spent his life, including the years since Pop had died, hustling about to fix things and telling everyone he was doing so. Some thought he was simply mellowing with age.

Mom discovered Dad’s body on Saturday afternoon. When she returned home from a quick trip to town, just before lunch, she noticed he’d left the back door ajar and suspected he had gone up to the very back pasture for a hike in the woods beneath Morrow Mountain. In the middle of the afternoon, with still no sign of him, she prepared a small picnic basket with the usual wine and beer, cheese and grapes, and set out to join him.

Sheriff Paul Lowder, a long-time friend of my father’s, was the first to respond. He paced the perimeter of the scene, barely able to look at my father’s body folded over on itself. Dad had taken his life underneath the climbing tree, the hulking white oak that stood alone high on the sloped pasture at the back of our property. Paul wiped his hand over his face several times to stabilize his emotions, and finally removed his hat, crouched down, and hung his head with his hand cupped over his brow. It was particularly hard on Paul because of how well he knew Nehemiah and me. Through boy scouts and at the shooting range during summer programs at the city park, he had taught us to shoot guns and about gun safety. An insatiable collector of guns, he later commented to me privately about the small .22 caliber handgun Dad had used to conduct his own murder. The caliber demonstrated its adequacy, but Paul would have preferred a less risky 9mm, or even a shotgun. But it was the small caliber bullet that preserved the drama. The bullet carried with it into the tree the last word of Dad’s note to us, which he had placed in a manila envelope and nailed to the tree beside him. We’ve never been able to guess what that last word was.

The note created more questions than it answered, and in the days that followed, Nehemiah and I talked about what Dad might have meant by some of what he had written. Grief paralyzed Mom, so she said very little, but we all agreed the last word had to have been a preposition. To this day, the question of which preposition perplexes me.

 

My love for you makes this moment difficult. God is with me as I write this. He is with me as you read it. A life of distractions has placed true joy out of reach. I gave my best, I did all I could, I did what was right. But I’m in a prison. I’m locked in a place that allows me no means for seeking relief, no matter how hard I rattle the bars. I care about the people in my life and in my community, and I should feel free. We should all be free. Have mercy on us, oh Lord, and give us peace, and grant us dominion over the things we are running _________.

 

To or from? He had pulled off feat after feat in business, in spite of Pop. He had driven community efforts to advance the lot of all its members, in spite of resistance from those leery of his last name. How could a life that had been so meaningful, that had made such a powerful difference to so many people, end with a missing preposition? Why couldn’t the bullet have hit one of the nouns, like “distractions” or “prison”? Or “Lord”?

“Grant us dominion.” Us. Don’t we usually move together in a group toward something, especially when invoking the Lord’s help? But “running” would suggest the opposite direction — running from something. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; perhaps Dad simply felt we each had our own worse place to leave and better place to go.

Mom broke her silence briefly, and with fondness, when she reminded us that during the fourteenth year of their perfectly healthy marriage, Dad tried to end it with a preposition. He walked into in the chicken coup — Mom had converted it into a greenhouse — and told her the marriage was something “I’m not sure I want to go on with.” She knew he was being ridiculous and found herself more annoyed by his diction than what he was trying to say. “He just wanted an accomplice,” Mom said to us. “He was having a midlife crisis — he couldn’t get over that he’d been too old for the sexual revolution.” She had just wrestled a dead geranium out of a crumbling pot, and, looking up, saw that blood had rushed to Dad’s face. “Your poor father,” she said. “I didn’t say a thing. He just turned his head and looked out to the pond, and just stood there, all embarrassed.” I imagine this was a scene Dad wished he had discarded in rehearsal. After a brief silence, he told Mom he was going for a ride, which meant a drive out in the country to calm down before coming home for dinner.

Such was the cadence of his life, the poetry by which his emotions would rise to the limits of his capabilities and then cascade back down to a place where he could more easily maintain control. Time and again Dad had pulled character out of the wreckage, freeing himself in the process from the restraints life had placed on him.

Before Nehemiah returned to Fort Benning, we hiked up to the climbing tree. The nail Dad had used to post his note was still stuck there.

“A lot of things are going to come out about Dad,” said Nehemiah. “There are a lot of people who think Dad had a lot to hide.”

“Do you think he had a lot to hide?”

“He had something to hide,” he said. “And you see how worried Mom is.”

 

In the Bowery, I came upon a vandalized storefront coated from door to window guards in graffiti. Cigarette butts filled the seams in the concrete sidewalk out front. As I passed by, I slowed to run my hand over the strokes of spray paint, trying to imagine who had created them. The graffiti did not appear vandalistic, rather, masterful, executed with a mixture of method, furtiveness, and speed. I backed up to the street to see this narrow storefront head-on, and my heart jumped when I saw, emblazoned on the front of the filthy white awning, the red initials “CBGB.” This landmark where so much history was made looked tiny from the street. Punk and new wave had blasted from here out across America beginning in the mid-1970s, creating the same kind of a stir rock and roll had decades earlier. Acts like Patti Smyth, Blondie, and the Ramones preserved rock’s scratchier principles and influenced a new generation of musicians and songwriters. I walked away with a new confidence about small beginnings. Things like bulletin boards and fathers don’t have to be grand to be remarkable.

 

Both Mom and Creech had recognized my father acting strangely in the weeks before he died. Creech’s suspicions sent him scurrying throughout the bank looking for clues. Something was wrong, and Creech felt the bank might be in some sort of trouble.

One afternoon at work, as I sat with him in his office, he seemed distracted.

“How’s your old man?” He rarely asked after my father because he was the person who always knew the answer. Creech was an old-school, top-down executive with keen instincts and an astute awareness of everything in play around him. He gathered information and reported it as needed up and down the chain of command; it was his business to know how Dad was.

“Why do you ask?” I said.

“He’s not checking in with me, and that’s not good. He’s keeping his door closed a lot, and he’s getting to work before I do. He’s got something serious on his mind. Has your Mom said anything?”

“Not to me. Have you called her?”

“Of course, I called her,” he said. “She’s not saying anything.” Creech stared at me. “She says things are fine.”

Creech and Mom had an understanding when it came to matters concerning Dad. He could call her for quick, friendly advice whenever a shift in Dad’s mood kept Creech from properly performing his duties. Mom didn’t mind and was always forthright with Creech, letting him know, with only a few words between them, if he needed to be concerned about anything. This time, Creech could feel something different.

As it turned out, Mom had known what was troubling Dad. She didn’t have all the details, but she knew the severity of the matter and that it involved both family businesses, Consolidated Bank & Trust and Transitional Realty & Construction. After the funeral, she immediately — and privately — took the matter to Creech.

As for why Dad took his own life, Mom couldn’t say.

“I suppose it got to a point where Pop’s carelessness finally eclipsed your father’s hopes,” she said to me just before I left for New York. It was all she would tell me.

Pop had been dead for years. I couldn’t imagine what he had done this time.

 

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