Land of a Hundred Wonders
From the national bestselling author of Whistling in the Dark comes another funny, poignant, unforgettable story.
The summer Gibby McGraw catches her big break, the cicadas are humming, and it’s so warm even the frogs are sweating. Brain damaged after a tragic car accident that took both her parents, Gibby is now NQR (Not Quite Right), a real challenge for a fledgling newspaper reporter. Especially when she stumbles upon the dead body of the next governor of Kentucky, Buster Malloy.
Armed with her trusty blue spiral note-book, Gibby figures that solving the murder might be her best chance to prove to everyone that she can become Quite Right again. But she gets more than she bargained for when she uncovers a world of corruption, racism, and family secrets in small town Cray Ridge. Lucky for her, she’s also about to discover that some things are far more important than all the brains in the world, and that miracles occur in the most unexpected moments.
Ya ever notice how some folks get well known for how they dress or hunt or even what kind of truck they drive? Along with my outstanding Scrabble playing, I’m well known for my newspaper.
Who: MeI put my favorite No. 2 back to work.
You can set your watch by Miss Cheryl and Miss DeeDee showing up for biscuits and gravy every Sunday morning at the diner. Miss Cheryl tells me she’s a secretary. Her friend, Miss DeeDee, has been experiencing some trouble with her vi sion, so they’ve been driving all the way from Paducah to visit regular with Miss Lydia.
As you probably already know, an investigative reporter needs folks to write about. Late- breaking stories about trees, for instance, are few and far between. So when I’m not busy bussing tables, I’m allowed to interview subjects from all walks of life who later on become the who what where when and why of my stories. That’s one of the things that’s so rewarding about working here with Grampa at Top O’ the Mornin’.
We’re the last stop for refreshments before you hit Highway 75. You’ll know the diner when you see it. Shaped like a shoe box, it’s got tires washed white and lip- pink roses lining the en- trance. Candy- cane awnings billow like crazy when the west wind kicks up. There’s a counter inside with slick yellow stools, booths that sit four, and up at the cash register there’s toothpicks— Take Two . . . They’re Free! And since everybody knows what a tre- mendous part the good or the bad version of luck can play in your life, a rusty horseshoe all the way from Texas hangs lopsided above the screen door that creaks when you open it, but not when you close it. Just another one of life’s little mysteries. (In case you haven’t noticed . . . life is chock- full of ’em.)
This morning, like every morning, my grampa, who owns the place, is where he is most of the time when he isn’t out on the lake. In the kitchen. Decked out in his white apron and cowboy fishing hat. He’s wrassling up the breakfasts he learned to cook in that army mess, and damn, if there’s anything that smells better on Earth than sizzling pork sausage, I wish somebody’d let me know. Oh, wait, I just remembered lily- of- the- valley smell . . . it’s simply outta this world.
“Hey, Lois Lane, there’s tables need your attention,” Grampa yells, sticking his head through the kitchen peek window.
“Gimme a minute, Charlie,” I call back. “Gotta get down a few more words ’fore this story flies outta my head.”
Lois Lane is not my real name. Grampa’s just making a joke due to his keen sense of humor. My real name is Gibson Mc Graw, but most everybody calls me Gibby. I’m twenty, or maybe thirty- three years old. (I’ll check with Grampa and get back to you on this.) I’ve been living with him permanent in Cray Ridge since the night three years ago, the kind of night anybody in their right mind stays home and is grateful to do so, me and mine were heading down here so I could start my usual summer stay. The rain was gushing down so bad it erased the highway line and our Buick sprouted wings more than a few times. And the sky wasn’t the only one spittin’ mad that night. The very last thing I can re member my mama saying in her crossest of voices is, “We’re not gonna outrun this storm . . . get off at the next exit and find us a motel . . . ya got talent at findin’ motels, don’tcha, Joe? ’Specially the real cheap kind.” Then my daddy bellowed back, “I’m warn ing you, Addy . . . for the last time. . . .”
Little did he know how right he was. A wiper stroke later, we rounded a bend in the road and bounced off a stalled Champion bus, also from Chicago.
Thank the Lord for passing Dixie Oil trucker Mr. Hank Sim mons, who found me wadded up on the edge of a creek and called for help on his 10-4 radio. I got three broken ribs, a gashed- up ankle, a cracked collarbone, and the worst of all— the left side of my head got dented. Correction: The worst of all was that I be came an orphan that night. My mama and daddy made it out of that wagon, but not for long. (See earlier statement about luck. This would be a perfect example of the bad version.)
So that’s it in a nutshell. All that I can remember, anyways, about the night I became what Grampa calls NQR, which is his pet name for Not Quite Right, which means— brain- wise— I’m not doing so hot.
The Louisville Hospital sent him this letter dated July 10, 1970. I found it balled up in the glove department of his truck.
Dear Mr. Murphy, As a result of the brain injury she incurred in the auto accident, early indications are that your granddaughter is experiencing difficulties with word usage, reasoning skill, attention span and disinhibition. Currently, we’re not certain if her memories are repressed as a result of the trauma or physiologically based. Only time will tell how much of the damage may be perma- nent or how much is
The rest is ripped off in a jaggedy line. But what I think those hospital folks were trying to get at is:
Words and their meanings can elude me. Elude: To avoid. (I remembered that one last week when a catfish spent most of his morning eluding me, the little bugger.)
I’d never use the words “lightnin’ speed” to describe my thinking.
Reverend Jack says my mind gets to wandering more than the Israelites.
I have an awfully hard time putting the brakes on my motor ing mouth.
And my memory, well, it’s sorta hit- and- run.
“The brain is mysterious,” the hospital doctors told Grampa when he came to pick me up. “Current research indicates that keeping her mind stimulated may help regenerate the neurons and . . .”
“That right,” Grampa said, blowing Lucky Strike smoke in their faces. (He also suggested the doctors do something I don’t believe is humanly possible with their mysterious heads and their mysterious asses as he wheeled me out of that hospital so fast I swear, the wheelchair laid rubber.)
Now before you go off feeling sorry for me like most every body else does, I want you to know that all is not lost. Though I’ll confess to wavering at times, I haven’t thrown in the trowel. Of course, I’ve been trying to better myself on a daily basis, but reaching this lofty goal wasn’t of a vital nature ’til just recently. After Miss Lydia, my spiritual advisor, a woman of such astound ing powers that she may chat whenever she wishes with those who have passed over to THE GREAT UNKNOWN, informed me of a horrible, heart- gutting situation. “Your mama’s not resting in peace, your mama’s soul is restless,” she wailed over and over, her chest heaving.
Just in case you’re not familiar with the goings- on of the dearly departed, what Mama’s supposed to be doing is gazing down at her baby girl from on high, fluttering her wings in pride, her halo shooting off sparks of joy. She’s not supposed to be pacing the stars, wringing her small but strong hands. Even though Miss Lydia tried to comfort me by telling me that it’s not my fault, I don’t believe her. That’s exactly what she would say, her being the heart of Land of a Hundred Wonders. No, I’m positive Mama’s restlessness is on account of me. Because I’m NQR.
So that’s why #1 on my VERY IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO list is to prove that I can get Quite Right again. I figure I’m gonna have to set my hook into a heck of a plan in order to convince Mama. Ya know, something splashy. Like winning one of those public Scrabble tournaments they hold over in Appleville the first Sunday of every month. Or maybe reporting an awfully good story. It can’t be something normal- like. It’s gotta be some- thing near miraculous in nature. Like me surviving the crash. Miss Lydia tells me all the time I’m a living, breathing miracle.
At the current time, I’m leaning toward that reporting of an awfully good story plan ’cause you’re never gonna guess what I found on Browntown Beach this morning on my way to Land of a Hundred Wonders. Not the usual trout with what- the- hell- happened eyes. Not a soggy boot with gnaw marks neither. Or even a crushed- up can of Falls Beer. No. Could be I stumbled upon the kind of story that’ll get lips flapping far and wide. I can perceive it all now. “I swear, the McGraw gal’s better at reportin’ these days than a twelve gauge,” folks’ll say, trumpeting my Ga zette headline loud enough to be heard all the way up to the Pearly Gates. “Can you believe how much righter she’s gotten?”
Lord. I believe I’ll move that public Scrabble tournament
plan to my back burner for the time being. Now that I’ve had a
chance to think this through, this awfully good story plan appears
to be the answer to my prayers! Yes, indeedy. Start scouting for a
nicely cushioned cloud to set your restless self, Mama. ’Cause that dead
body? It’s gonna be our ticket to Quite Right heaven.
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