A Scrape of Fingernails
An excerpt from “The Caretaker,” the latest—and possibly final—novel from a titan of Appalachian literature, North Carolina’s Ron Rash
EDITOR’S NOTE: One day after The Caretaker hit bookstores last week, its author, Ron Rash, turned seventy.
For twenty-nine of those years—since the publication of his first collection of short stories, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth: And Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina—Rash has been the defining figure of Appalachian literature. For more than two decades, he has taught generations of Southern writers as the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, where he runs the creative writing program in fiction and poetry. And now, after a career that spans seven collections of short fiction, five volumes of poetry, and seven other novels, Rash is hinting that his eighth, The Caretaker, might be his last.
“People tell me, ‘Your books are dark and tragic,’” Rash told the western North Carolina independent newspaper Mountain Xpress last week. After revealing he is unsure about taking on another novel, he added that with The Caretaker, he “wanted to give [readers] a little bit of hope—a book that makes them feel, for the most part, good about humanity.”
Set in the early 1950s in Blowing Rock, The Caretaker follows Blackburn Gant, who after suffering polio in his childhood has settled into a solitary job as cemetery caretaker, and his best friend Jacob Hampton. Hampton has defied his affluent family to marry a sixteen-year-old outcast, Naomi Clarke. And when he is drafted to fight in the Korean War, he leaves Gant to care for his wife.
Salvation South is proud and grateful to Ron for allowing to us to publish this excerpt from The Caretaker. It begins, as does the book, with Jacob Hampton standing guard duty on a frigid night in North Korea.
Jacob was on guard duty, posted beside a river that separated the two armies. The night was colder than any he’d experienced back in Watauga County. This cold did more than seep into his skin. It encased fingers and feet in iron, made teeth rattle like glass about to break. No layering of wool and cotton beneath the pile-lined parka allayed it. For weeks Jacob had kept waiting for the cold to lift. Now it was March, but this place observed no calendar. The river was still frozen. Jacob envisioned ice all the way to the bottom—no current, fish stalled as if mounted. The river had a name but Jacob didn’t allow it to lodge in his memory. Since stepping onto the pier in Pusan, his goal had been to forget, not remember.
At Fort Polk he’d heard all manner of stories about what awaited him in Korea. Much of it was horsecrap: the NK ate rats and snakes raw, could see in the dark like cats. But some stories were true, including how they would crawl into an outpost, slit a soldier’s throat, then recede into the night. Even if you were on the opposite side of a river, they’d come across and kill only one man when they might have killed three or four. They were leaving a message: We’re saving you for next time.
Though the river was frozen, Jacob knew that didn’t matter. Two nights earlier, a North Korean had decapitated another unit’s sentry. Crawled over the ice to do it. Jacob scanned the flat, soundless snowscape before him. At least the moon was full tonight. A hunter’s moon, they called it back home. It silvered the crystals atop the river. If not wary of an enemy’s knife, Jacob would have taken time to marvel at such shimmering beauty. But even this small moment must be blocked. Jacob wanted Korea to be a house entered and then left, the door locked forever. He just had to survive. Twelve days ago, for the first time, his unit had been in a fight. Aubert, a Cajun from Louisiana, had been shot in the leg. The bullet shattered his kneecap, and the medic said he’d need a cane the rest of his life. That was fine, Aubert answered. He’d get home alive to his wife and children, and finally be warm.
“She’d worn no earrings or bobby socks, no bright bows or bracelets like the other girls he knew. But such adornment would only distract from her face, the smooth skin and high cheekbones, striking blue eyes and long black hair. Love at first sight.”
Getting home was what mattered. According to Naomi’s last letter, Dr. Egan said the baby would come in May. That thought was the talisman Jacob carried with him. He could not die. God or fate, something, destined him and Naomi to have a life together. How else to explain that evening twenty months ago in Blowing Rock. At the exact moment he passed the Yonahlossee Theater, Naomi, a complete stranger, had been standing beside the ticket booth, coin in hand. If he’d looked up at the marquee, or if a friend had called from farther up the sidewalk, Jacob would never have noticed her.
She’d worn no earrings or bobby socks, no bright bows or bracelets like the other girls he knew. But such adornment would only distract from her face, the smooth skin and high cheekbones, striking blue eyes and long black hair. Love at first sight. But her prettiness was only part of what had held him there. As others went inside, Naomi rubbed a dime between her index finger and thumb, looking at the poster and then at the dime as people walked past her without a worry about the price.
So much in that instant was set into motion, including a shared life that ensured Jacob’s safe return. Even Naomi being in Blowing Rock that July evening was little short of miraculous, Naomi’s brother-in-law just happening to buy a copy of The Nashville Tennessean and noticing the ad: Seasonal Hotel Maids Needed. The Green Park Inn. Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Hadn’t that been fate too? Many soldiers brought something from home to help protect themselves, a rabbit’s foot, a lucky coin, a playing card, so why not a belief? Yet last week Doughtery, despite two crucifixes and a matchbox filled with four-leaf clovers, had stepped on a mine and been killed. So Jacob’s eyes did not leave the frozen river, his ears listening for the rub of cloth on ice, a scrape of fingernails.
Excerpted from The Caretaker by Ron Rash, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Ron Rash.
Ron Rash is the author of the PEN/Faulkner finalist and New York Times bestselling novel Serena, in addition to the critically acclaimed novels The Risen, Above the Waterfall, The Cove, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; five collections of poems; and seven collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, Nothing Gold Can Stay, a New York Times bestseller, Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award, and In the Valley. Three times the recipient of the O. Henry Prize, his books have been translated into seventeen languages. He teaches at Western Carolina University.