Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny


Document reveals the influence of canine special interest

By Maria Johnson


Recently, I found a sensitive memo mixed in with some other papers on my desk.

I swear I don’t know how it got there.

The document — written for our dog sitters — contains some incriminating information. It outlines just how looney my husband and I have become in accommodating our little hound, Millie.

They say the hardest thing is to see yourself as others see you.

Well, after rereading this report, that’s no longer true.

I hope history will not judge us harshly. I doubt dog owners will. Cat owners probably will blink their eyes slowly. And we all know what that means.

In the interest of transparency, we’re disclosing the content. Sensitive parts (i.e., the names of anyone crazy enough to go along with this) have been redacted.

Dear ————-, ————- and ————-:

First, thank you for tending our sweet Mills while we are gone.

She’s a wiggly, kissy, zippy, barky, cuddly girl, and we hope you will love her as much as we do. Here are the basics:



Mills eats twice a day, one cup of food in the morning and one cup at night.

Rather than leave her food prepackaged in a zillion Tupperware containers in the fridge, we’re leaving a silver food dish on the kitchen island.

Each time you feed her, please put half a cup of dry food (in plastic bin under the laundry sink) plus half a cup ground turkey and brown rice from the green box in the fridge. Mix well.

You can splash that with a little bone broth (top shelf, fridge). Please microwave the broth for 25 seconds in the little dish beside the broth.

She’ll inhale the chow and act like, “Food? What food? You haven’t fed me. You must be thinking about the last time.” Do not be alarmed. (Hereafter abbreviated as DNBA). You DID just feed her.

I think.



She luvvvs to go for walks in the neighborhood. You can suit her up with the harness and leash on top of the dryer. If you have probs understanding the cinch-style harness, look up the YouTube video titled “Sporn Stop Pulling Mesh Harness,” which is worth watching just to hear the narrator describe the armpit pads as “Sherpa sleeves.”

If you want to drive Mills to a park, feel free. She’s a good car rider. Sometimes she will try to jump into the driver’s seat with you, which I discourage because she does not have her license yet.

Once at the park, feel free to wear my stylish fanny pack, which contains a tiny spray bottle of water. If Mills barks incessantly at other dogs, spritz her in the face and say, “Shh!” Sometimes, a “shhh!” alone will work. Pavlov was right. When she does well, say “Good girl.” Four times. In baby talk.

Mills also enjoys exercising at home. As you might know, she takes after her mother in exhibiting strong OCD tendencies toward tennis balls. If you have time, please take a ball from the ball hopper in the laundry room, grab the tennis racket next to it and hit the ball across the backyard for her to chase and retrieve a few hundred times. Joke. A few dozen times will suffice. She will promptly return the ball to you and BARKBARKBARK for you to do it again.

Once she drops the ball, tell her to “lie down.” Sometimes she will. Sometimes she looks at you like, “Let’s just say I did.” In either case, she will back off long enough for you to pick up the ball. Probably.

Her retrieval process is not exactly . . . linear. Once she finds the ball, she often meanders. She backtracks. Sometimes, she detours to a shady spot, collapses and pants excessively, giving every indication that her heart is about to explode. DNBA. That’s her way of saying, “Gimme . . . a . . . minute.”

If she appears to have trouble finding the ball, don’t worry. She ALWAYS finds the ball, even if it’s on the other side of the yard. Sit down and enjoy the break.

The hardest part of this activity is stopping it. To break the spell, pick up the slobbery ball, carry it inside and put it in the cabinet above the dryer. See space marked “tennis ball.” Then close the cabinet. Yes, this is gross, but she will accept this as “game over.” Oh, and don’t say the word, “ball,” unless you’re ready to start this game again.



Mills is a great loafing companion. She likes to curl up next to you, always touching you. She’s especially fond of lounging on the couch, on a crocheted afghan made of granny squares. Everyone knows this is her afghan, but Mills is very generous. She doesn’t mind if you use a couple of granny squares to cover yourself.

Be advised: If you’re lying on your back, there’s a good chance she’ll walk up the length of your body, as if you’re made of cobblestones, stand on your chest and stick her nose in your face like, “Hey, whatcha doin’?” She weighs 32 pounds, so it’s not too bad. You can use this time to check her for ticks. As far as viewing goes, Millie likes to watch Harry & Meghan, especially the beagle parts.



Don’t be surprised if she springs up, barking insanely around 5 a.m. She’s reacting to the newspaper hitting the driveway. Really.

She will beg for your food. Don’t give it to her. Even when she rests her snout on your thigh and looks up at you like Olive(r) Twist, “More porridge, please, mum?”

Periodically, she rests her head on coffee tables and chair seats while standing. Big brain, I guess.

Sometimes, when she lies down on the hardwoods, it sounds like a bag of bolts hitting the floor. DNBA.

Sometimes, when she’s relaxed, she honks like a goose. DNBA.

In short, she’s a gem. And so are you, especially if you’ve read this far.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(February 19 – March 20)

Einstein was a Pisces. While it’s true the German physicist struggled to remember his own birthday — “It is a known fact that I was born, and that is all that is necessary,” he would say — he had that Piscean knack for thinking outside the box. Imagination is your superpower. Keep that in mind this month when Mars dips into your fourth house of home and family, and tries yanking up the rug. Tension, like time, is relative.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Aries (March 21 – April 19)    

The fast lane is overrated. 

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

You can’t pull a rabbit from an empty hat.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Best to leave yesterday behind you.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Follow the breadcrumbs.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Try screaming into a pillow.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22) 

As you were. Or consider flying a kite.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

It’s time to speak your piece.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Be sure to read the fine print.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

You’re smothering it again.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Wear your power color.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

There’s a fine line between boundaries and dissociation.   OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla. 

Daddy Knows Best

Daddy Knows Best

Catherine Harrill finds her forever home in Fountain Manor

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Bert VanderVeen


Beneath Catherine Harrill’s resolve to renovate two properties in the same development back-to-back lies a tale precipitated by a loving father’s last request.

He asked his daughter to move from her freshly renovated Fountain Manor home.

But all of that in good time.

Only four years ago, recently retired Harrill, a health professional, had just finished gussying up a condo in Fountain Manor (see O. Henry May 2019). The design, colorful and chicly bohemian, an ideal showcase for her expanding art collection. She rediscovered how much she enjoyed the creative process, having once worked as a home stager.

The end result was completely original. “It was a great transitional home,” she says, for before she renovated, she had downsized from a 4,200-square-foot home to an apartment.   

Harrill had long favored Fountain Manor, a perennially popular development created in 1973.

Browsing an estate sale at a Fountain Manor unit in 2017, she discovered the unit itself was for sale and immediately snapped it up, making it a jewel of a property.

Yet it still wasn’t her first choice. Harrill had previously pursued a condo she could practically see from her front door, which had languished in bankruptcy for years. It possessed the holy grail of plans: an end unit with a first-floor main bedroom and bath. “Yet it was owned by a bank that was not interested in selling until January of 2020,” she says.

Soon after O. Henry depicted Harrill’s renovation triumph, events prompted doing it all again.

Approaching the end of his life, Glen “Buck” Campbell informed his daughter he wanted her to move.

Her father’s hospitalization in September 2019 prompted Harrill to keep vigil for three days and nights.

As Campbell was being transferred to hospice, Harrill decided to dash home for a change of clothes. Before she left, her father said, “Well, I want you to do something for me on your way.”

He was emphatic. “Go by Fountain Manor and buy that unit with the downstairs master.” As a protective father, Campbell knew it was the property she had first wanted. But also, a more practical choice for a permanent home.

“He died later that day,” she adds: September 17, 2019. As an only child, Harrill had an enviably close relationship with her father. They even fished together.

“I had tried to purchase the unit before,” Harrill explains.

Nonetheless, the bank-owned condo had been deteriorating. The renters moved out without cutting off water. Inevitably, pipes froze and burst.

Now there was water damage — and mold.

At her father’s insistence, Harrill tried again. The bank finally budged.

“I made a bid then and closed in a few weeks [in January of 2020].” But buying the place proved to be the easy part. Although much of the damaged sheetrock had been removed, “everything leaked, and that’s where all the mold came from,” says Harrill. “We took a lot [more] sheetrock out that we discovered had been damaged.”

Remediating mold and rot would require taking much of the condo down to the studs — “a gut job,” she says.

This news didn’t discourage Harrill. Instead, it was liberating. She could create a better layout.

Once again, Harrill enlisted Jim Weisner to draw the plans for the latest renovation, and hired Classic Construction on the recommendation of her friend Becky Causey. Demolition began in March.

And soon, too, fate proved Campbell’s fatherly instincts correct.

Harrill had acquired a Labradoodle puppy named Ida Mae, after losing her father. “She was born on my dad’s birthday. Isn’t that weird?”

The new puppy needed lots of walks and attention.

Then, Harrill tripped on the stairs and took a tumble, “shattering my ankle.”

It was sobering; she needed a more accessible floor plan. While her showcase home of bold color and artistic expression (with the paint barely dry) was beautiful, it was now inaccessible. All the bedrooms and full baths in her original unit were on the second floor. Even simple potty breaks for the puppy posed a real challenge — there was no way she could climb stairs until the fracture healed.

Stuck downstairs on crutches, a single flight of stairs might as well have been Mt. Everest.

She used her experience to inform changes in the new condo, deciding to move the stairs, even changing the elevation and pitch. “It wasn’t a big deal to move the stairs,” she explains, grimacing, “because they were already rotten.”

Timing-wise, the renovation was in process before the pandemic developed. But as time went on, supply-chain delays proved nightmarish. “Fortunately, even though we needed windows, materials, I got in under the wire.”


Harrill’s father’s sense of urgency again proved prescient.

There were hiccups, nonetheless, and building supplies grew more difficult to obtain. Insulation alone “took a couple months to arrive.”

Luckily, she had already chosen and ordered plumbing fixtures and appliances, and made forays to suppliers around the Triad, including Burlington.

As the interiors were being designed, Harrill surveyed artifacts from her parents’ farm. “I have beams from dad’s barn in the sunroom,” she points out. Another tip of the hat to her father and a rural childhood: A large turtle shell Campbell preserved became a natural art treasure.

As the project proceeded, the new layout gave the impression of more spaciousness. “It has larger rooms. A differentiation of space,” she says.

The first space to be designed was the dining room. She again worked with Laura Mensch and Gina Hick’s Vivid Interiors, who had specified a custom banquette for the color-saturated blue dining room in the former condo. “A rhapsody in blue,” was the description.

This time, the Vivid duo designed a rhapsodic dining room that is a study in pink, with Phillip Jeffries wallpaper, calling to mind the popular “Barbiecore” trend. Its most stunning feature is a lacquered ceiling — a process that would require multiple applications between sandings to complete — in seashell-coral pink. They encouraged Harrill to carry pink into the kitchen, but she had something different in mind. 


More neutrality.

“My sister-in-law’s firm, Kelly Koury Harrill Designs, helped with the entire place — all the rest.” Nonetheless, it was summer of 2021 before the interiors were completed, and later still before a custom rug arrived.

Although she had made edits since moving to an apartment several years earlier, Harrill began to cull through furnishings, trying out old pieces in the new rooms. “Things I was attached to stayed. I only kept what I really love,” she says, adding that she purchased some new furniture.

But art was important to her decision making. Several former pieces made the cut. She acquired works by artists she had either discovered recently or years ago when working for Ann Compton at Compton Art Gallery, “when my children were babies.”

Compton’s gallery represented Greensboro artist Agnes Preston-Brame. Harrill was enamored by her work. “I told Ann I was only going to sell Agnes Preston-Brame pieces for a month.”

Preston-Brame made the art edit for the condo home straightaway.

Kevin Rutan, whose work figured prominently in the Sunset Hills reno featured on the cover of the January 2021 O. Henry, is among artists whom she knows and collects. “That’s my best friend’s home,” she texts about the feature. “Kevin’s company did a faux finish in my dining room back in the 1990s in Fisher Park.”

A Billy Cone piece, formerly hanging in her bedroom, now hangs in the living room. Others were found on her travels. “I decided I wanted Greensboro and North Carolina artists.”

“I bought the one over the sofa in the mountains,” Harrill says. “William Dennis is a professor of art. The lady who owns the gallery in Banner Elk studied under him.” She also mentions Amy Heywood, another artist she has collected.

Ever a nature lover, she displays a trophy fish she caught and another her son, Harrison, caught. She hung her son’s draped with his Boy Scout’s sash. Laughing, she admits having insisted he become an Eagle Scout.

Kitchens are something Harrill spends considerable effort on, especially conscious of surfaces and fittings. Tellingly, a professional chef bought her former condo. In 2019, I described that kitchen: “With white marble tile and white quartz, it is an understated study in how to create a white kitchen that isn’t sterile — and worthy of being right up front and on view.”


The newest kitchen, open and sleek, is very different, but again a study in sophisticated finishes. This time, she craved something streamlined.

“I wanted it to be completely different,” she adds. And either smooth or tactile.

The hood is stucco and textural. The geometric wall tiles by Studio Tile have a relief design and extend to the ceiling. Thanks to COVID-related delays, “I picked out three different kitchen sinks.”

Most impressively, a wall of electronically controlled kitchen cabinets was chosen because Harrill didn’t want visible hardware. “But if the power goes out, I can’t get my groceries out [of the cupboard],” she says, and laughs, demonstrating how the electronics function.

“But it sure looks good!”

Her main bedroom is calm and absent some of the Brutalist touches (such as the grasscloth) used in her former bedroom. The ceiling also has cove molding. “These closets are huge!” she exclaims, opening a door.

Harrill leads into the main bath, which features artistic, graphic tile patterns, saying, “This is the biggest bathroom I’ve ever had!”

“He’s so good at finishings,” she says, praising Pat Parr, the contractor.

For fun, Harrill created a tiny nursery for her newest granddaughter, Millicent Campbell Morecraft (born January 13), out of a former closet. It features gray and white puffy clouds as a soothing backdrop. “It’s a sweet little room,” she says happily. “My aunt Millicent had a home I loved.”

She is still finessing things — it wasn’t a case of “boom, it’s done.” The prior condo “was a transition place,” she now recognizes.

Of course, despite all, there were problems. Harrill awaited a striking special-order rug for months — disruptions from the pandemic seeped into the project’s completion in the last year as the interiors took shape. Thanks to the pandemic, too, the outdoor living areas grew more significant than ever. After finding patio chairs at Carriage House, Harrill ordered a concrete table through the designer so she could eat and entertain outdoors.

What works best in Harrill’s newest Fountain Manor home?

“It’s quiet,” she finally says, referring to the design itself. Ida Mae pads by, an unusually mellow pup. The quiet must agree with her, too.

Given so much of her life was under revision, Harrill bought new wheels, too: a restored 1972 Chevy pickup, “with stick shift on the wheel.”

When her father bequeathed acreage to her and her children, she told her contractor, Pat Parr, she might get some cows. “Why?” he asked. 

“So, I can get a truck,” Harrill replied.

Parr retorted, “Just get a truck. Cows are a lot of work.”

She offers a ride back to my office, adroitly shifting, her ankle injury seemingly not affecting her using a clutch.

Gleefully, Harrill throws the Chevy into reverse.

“Most days I don’t notice it,” she says with a convincing grin, before asking, “Don’t you just love my truck?”  OH

Sazerac March 2023

Sazerac March 2023

Sage Gardener

Lettuce pray — and praise — my favorite garden vegetable, Lactuca sativa (which Wiki says is a member of the aster family? Whatever). The “Latuca” part comes from “lactis,” the Latin word for milk, so-named because of the milky juice that gets all over you when you cut it. (“Sativa” means cultivated.) Lettuce juice, by the way, contains a trace amount of an alkaloid similar to that found in the opium poppy! Just imagine, Dorothy and her squad could have fallen asleep in a lettuce field. First cultivated for its medicinal properties, lettuce is depicted on Egyptian tombs; was propagated by the Greeks; and popularized in Rome by the Emperor Augustus’ physician. New Delhi TV’s news site insists that lettuce (along with other leafy greens) has belly-fat burning capabilities. What’s not to like about a vegetable anyone can grow, even on your patio? N.C. State says seeds can be planted from February through April, and that lettuce thrives at temps between 60 and 65 degrees. (It can germinate at 35.) The average high in Greensboro in March is 61, 70 in April. So what are you waiting for, especially with seedlings crowding every home-improvement store? Being Scots-Irish, I try to grow what’s expensive in the grocery stores. Checked the price of lettuce lately? Tired of salads? Check out Larousse Gastronomique, where you’ll find braised lettuce, chiffonade of lettuce, marinated, deep-fried lettuce and — wait for it — candied lettuce. And now, lettuce eat!        David Claude Bailey

Unsolicited Advice

March is the Goldilocks of months, not too hot and not too cold. We’ve put together a little easy-peasy to-do list for you so you can soak in the glorious weather without getting soaked in perspiration.

 Plan an outdoor project. Now’s a great time to build that chicken coop you’ve been  dreaming up. With the current price of eggs, that hen house will pay for itself in about three weeks.

⃣  Order mulch. Spend a morning shoveling, hauling and spreading only to see that the pile doesn’t seem to be shrinking — at all. Call the neighbor’s teenager to finish the job while you sip an afternoon cocktail.

 Schedule a pedicure. We know what our feet look like after a long winter and it’s not pretty. While you’re at it, shave that big toe. C’mon, you know you do it.

 Spring clean. Wipe down your baseboards,upper cabinets and ceiling fans. Move furniture and discover dust bunnies big enough to keep as pets. Heck, they don’t need to be fed or walked. Better than a Furby, if you ask us.

 ⃣ Take your workout outside. When was the last time you Prancercised?

 March to your own beat. Do whatever it is that makes you bloom this month.

Star Gazing

Long before Hulu’s witty Only Murders in the Building comedic series starring Steve Martin hooked me, I had already scoped out his house in Beverly Hills. (For the record, it’s on Calle Juela Drive.)

Dammit. I cannot be his neighbor because he sold the house next door, one he also owned, in 2019.

Allow me a lottery fantasy: If I won, I might try to tempt the new owner to move and sell me a little chunk of 90210.

Or maybe not. 

Because Mr. Martin already knows I’m starstruck.

Some years ago, I was in Manhattan meeting an architect friend, Katie, for a bite at a local deli.

After lunch, we stood outside remarking to one another about the astonishing, clear light. Bending over, I pointed out the sharp shadows on the sidewalk to Katie.

“Have you ever seen such?” I asked Katie, sensing something unusual.

Katie, too, was open-mouthed.

Suddenly, I was aware of a casually dressed man in a baseball cap who stopped to look at the sidewalk, joining our little huddle. 

“You know there’s an eclipse today, right?” the stranger said in the unmistakable voice of one famously wild and crazy guy. My head snapped up. STEVE MARTIN!

We all fell silent.

My heart thrummed. He hurried away. I looked at Katie, and inexplicably said of the funny man in swift retreat, “Let’s follow him!”

We gave chase, like celebrity-crazed fools. When Martin picked up his pace, we did too. In fact, we were all soon practically running, weaving through throngs of people at lunch hour.

He escaped, walking up a few steps at a building, where he was rung inside.

It was an art gallery. 

I was out of breath, telling Katie between gasps about his California home with few windows and strategically placed skylights, ensuring his art collection was protected. His collection includes Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein, Edward Hopper and Willem de Kooning. Add to that list Lucian Freud, Picasso — well, you get the idea. 

Martin has been performing in the Triad since 1975, and tells a story about running into Kreskin, a famous mentalist, in the lobby of a Winston-Salem hotel. “Steve! What are you doing here?” Kreskin asked. “How are you doing? Are you performing?”

Martin remained silent, just like he had with me and Katie.

All he could think, Martin says, was, shouldn’t a mind reader already know?   

  — Cynthia Adams

Just One Thing

“A horse is a horse, of course, unless . . .” it is muscled with machinery parts, wrenches, shovels, light fixtures and golf clubs. Harnessed seven years ago by Jose Rafael Rodriguez, this iron horse is stabled at Artmongerz Gallery, perhaps Greensboro’s most eclectic art venue. A co-op style gallery, Artmongerz has been a fixture on South Elm for two decades. Rodriguez says he took up welding at an industrial overhead garage company 42 years ago after he left his native Venezuela. Also a prodigious abstract painter who does kinetic yard sculptures, Rodriguez always meant to go to art school but never quite made it. The cat he coupled together from silverware couldn’t care less. And the horse doesn’t seem to be saddled with it either. Let’s just say the neighs have it. Info:

Scene & Heard

We all know it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but who doesn’t love a pretty face? For 96 years, the Carolina Theatre’s classic Greek Revival facade has welcomed patrons, who enjoyed live music, classic movies, stand-up comedians and all sorts of live entertainment in an over-the-top interior bursting with Italian-Renaissance flourishes. Good looks must matter: She’s survived downtown decline in the ’60s, was saved from demolition in the ’70s and barely made it out alive from a fire in the ’80s. She’s one tough customer, but still standing with open arms to invite all who support the arts inside.

In 2018, the theatre’s Setting the Stage campaign was launched, focusing on improving both artists’ and audiences’ experience inside the building. The improvements were so fabulous that now her facade needs to match her resplendent interior. In the words of Cher Horowitz, “Let’s do a makeover.” Of course, we’re not Clueless and this kind of undertaking is not possible without community support. The Carolina Theatre’s cosmetic surgery is going to cost her lovers $600,000.

She may not be young anymore, but she’s “hip, so beautiful and she’s gonna be a supermodel” once again as she approaches her centenary. For more information on how you can help Set the Stage, see

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

The Right Tracker

On the trail with Charles Frazier

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

The first time I met Charles Frazier was in Asheville back in the spring of 2016. Along with several other authors, we had been invited to participate in a fundraiser at the Asheville Community Theater. I knew most of the authors there that evening, but I didn’t know Charles, and I was nervous about meeting him. Like most people in the world, I had read Cold Mountain after it won the National Book Award in 1997, and then I saw the Oscar-winning film, which starred Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger, when it was released in 2003. I’d read the two novels he’d published in the intervening years. My love for them only contributed to my nervousness at the idea of meeting their author.

But apparently Charles Frazier wasn’t one bit nervous about meeting me. He walked right up to me backstage and said, “I was up in Hot Springs a few months ago, and I saw that you were scheduled to do an event in town. I left a note for you at the public library. Did you get it?”

Reader, I was too shocked that Charles Frazier even knew who I was to be shocked by his reliance on paper technology. Needless to say, we’ve been friends ever since. He joined me onstage a year later for an in-conversation event for the launch of my novel, The Last Ballad, and I did the same for him when his novel, Varina, was released in 2018. We’ll be back onstage together on April 10 on the campus of UNC Asheville for the launch of his latest novel, The Trackers, a book that will both please and surprise fans of Charles Frazier.

There’s an old saying that serious writers never write the same book twice, and Charles never has, but he has almost always written about the same places, which is to say Appalachia and the Southern United States. The surprise that’s in store for readers is that The Trackers, which is set in Depression-era America, ranges far afield from the swamps of Florida to the big skies of Wyoming to the sooty factory towns and transient camps of the Great Northwest. But readers who loved Charles’ previous novels will find echoes of those works in his new one. Like Cold Mountain, The Trackers is the story of a man on a quest. WPA mural painter Val Welch is in pursuit of Eve Long, the wife of a wealthy rancher who has absconded with a priceless piece of artwork, and like Thirteen Moons (2006), the new novel is awash in era-appropriate research, from automobiles to art and architecture to the politics of the New Deal. Like Nightwoods (2011), The Trackers expertly employs noir tropes like tight, scene-driven dialogue and dark, ominous settings, and like the titular character in Varina (2018), Eve Long is a dashing, magnetic heroine: a former runaway turned traveling honky-tonk singer who finds herself married to a wealthy political hopeful before pulling the plug on it all and disappearing without a trace. Her husband, who is sponsoring Val’s mural project in a local post office, makes Val a financial offer he can’t refuse: track Eve and find out where she is, why she left, and, most importantly, who she really is.

According to Charles, it was nearly 10 years ago when the idea for the novel that became The Trackers first came to mind.

“We were up in Boone, and I was just killing time,” he says. “I visited the post office, which has one of those Depression-era WPA murals. After that I had more time to kill, so I went to the library at Appalachian and looked up information about WPA projects, specifically the Treasury Department art projects. One of the first images I saw was a photograph taken inside one of those small post offices, and there was a mural in progress on the wall with two young guys working on it. Standing on the floor looking up at them was an older guy and a woman. They were both well-dressed, and I thought, OK, there’s a story here.”

As the story rattled around in his mind over the following months and years, Charles dispatched with one of the two mural artists and focused on a single artist and how he might interact with the well-heeled couple who were watching him work. Artist Val Welch and rancher Jake Long and his mysterious wife Eve were born.

Charles and I are standing in the midcentury modern house he and his wife, Katherine, own in Asheville, a home that’s not quite ready for them to inhabit. Like many people in post-pandemic America, they’re waiting on the right contractor to come along to update the house and make it fully habitable. For now, Charles has set up a writing desk in the light-filled living room, a stone fireplace against one wall and tall windows opening to the yard, where, despite it being mid-January, the view is alive with greenery.

I think about Inman, Ada and Ruby, the three characters who drove the narrative in Cold Mountain, and ask Charles if there’s something that spoke to him about using a similar triangulation of characters in The Trackers.


“Well, that’s one of the things that appealed to me while writing this book. I could keep a handle on the relatively limited number of characters because I have a problem sometimes with expansion,” he says. “Having that very clear arrangement of characters helped me keep it under control and forced me to focus on trying to keep the book short. But, in The Trackers, Eve is the reason the triangle exists. I never lost sight of her as the main character.”

Eve is no doubt the main character. Even when she’s not on the page, her presence drives the action and tension. And even though this book is relatively short in comparison to some of his longer novels, many of the scenes feel expansive because Charles allows them to breathe and exist as the reader witnesses them in what feels like real time. One scene that comes to mind unfolds over a long night in the swamps of Florida when Val encounters Eve’s former in-laws, a dangerous band of lawless folks who are as suspicious of Val’s outsider status as they are of his questions about their former daughter-in-law’s whereabouts.

“That was a really fun scene to write,” Charles says. “It was fun to get that rhythm, that really slow, heavy rhythm to the dialogue and pacing. This is the point in the novel when Val is beginning to learn that he is truly in over his head.”

There were points in writing The Trackers when Charles began to fear that he was in over his head too, especially when the pandemic struck and he could not make use of the location scouting that had benefited all of his previous novels and brought the realities of place and landscape to the page. But he had an ace or two up his sleeve when writing about the West and about Florida: He and Katherine spent the bulk of the 1980s living in Colorado with their young daughter, and after Cold Mountain was released, they resided full time on a horse farm in central Florida. Of course the process of writing The Trackers was full of research, but when you read the novel and encounter far-flung Western states, the boggy swamps of Florida and people who understand horses intimately, you are encountering worlds that Charles Frazier knows well.

If you read the novel, you might also be reminded of a literary genre Charles also knows well: the travel narrative, which his novels certainly borrow from, especially Cold Mountain and Varina. But it is his lesser known first book, Adventuring in the Andes, a travel guide published by the Sierra Club, that most reflects his love for the genre.

During the long years of writing The Trackers, especially during the COVID lockdown, travel was on Charles’ mind, and he was itching to get out West and look around, but he found himself settling for photographs, music and art that was resonant of the West in the 1930s, especially Woody Guthrie and Diego Rivera. But writing a novel as complex and rich as The Trackers is hard, and it takes a long time, despite how many books you’ve published before or how many millions of copies they’ve sold.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Charles says. “At least it hasn’t gotten any easier for me. And I’m just an enormously disorganized writer. Every time I finish a novel I’m a little bit surprised.”

As if to give insight to the expanse of hours spent at his desk, he shows me the tiny slips of paper he uses to record his word counts along with the dates of his daily writing sessions. When I look at his handwriting I can’t help but be reminded of the note he left for me in Hot Springs years earlier, and I wonder how Val Welch would go about tracking it down.

Well, I’m no tracker. So, to the people of Hot Springs, North Carolina, if you find a little slip of paper that contains a message that Charles Frazier wrote to Wiley Cash years and years ago, do me a favor, hang onto it until I’m back in town.  OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

Simple Life

Simple Life

A Little Stuffed Potato Wisdom

Lessons from full-grown tater tots

By Jim Dodson

Someone once said to me that it’s not happiness that makes one grateful, but gratitude that makes one happy.

Looking back, I may have seen this poetic syllogism scrawled on an ancient stone wall several years ago while hiking with my wife in Tuscany (where every graffiti artist is a philosopher-in-training). Or maybe I heard Oprah Winfrey say it in one of her SuperSoul Conversations that the aforementioned wife suggested that I listen to on long drives.

Whoever said it, I’m grateful for its pithy wisdom because I’ve suddenly reached an age where I know it to be true.

Back in February, I turned 70, a milestone that took me by surprise.

It’s not that I was unprepared. In truth, I’ve enjoyed getting older and slowing down a bit, giving me the chance to notice the evening sky.

Also, I am not alone in this epic journey into the great gray age and the unknown, as my late father — who lived a full and active life right up to a week before he died at 80 — used to joke. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 69.2 million baby boomers alive and kicking today in America, the second-largest population group next to our children, the millennials (73.9 million born between 1981 and 1996 ). My particular group was born in 1953 ands falls somewhere in the lower middle of the boomer years between 1946 and 1964.

According to the latest actuarial projections used by our friends at the Social Security Administration to calculate how much longer the agency will have to give us back all the money we spent decades putting into the system, my age and gender group — males aged 70 — can expect to live another 14.5 years, while our female counterparts come in at a 16.75. Good for them, I say! Sell the house, dump the stocks, give away the dog and go sit on a beautiful beach in Tahiti for the rest of your days!

By the way, that’s exactly what my wise but cheeky and younger wife Wendy says she plans to do with her giddy 10 extra years after I check out of the Hotel California.

Meanwhile, according to the CDC’s Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), life expectancy at birth in the United States declined nearly a full year from 2020 to 2021, a worrying dip from 77.0 to 76.1 years that is the lowest level since 1996, probably due in part to a thing called COVID. The 0.9 year drop in life expectancy in 2021, along with a 1.8 year drop in 2020, was the biggest two-year decline since 1921–1923, years in which the Spanish flu wiped out millions worldwide, including my own maternal grandmother.

Actuarially speaking, it could be worse, of course. Afghanistan’s current life expectancy is just a hair over 56 years, considerably shorter if the Taliban’s Morality Police catch you whispering about the need to educate girls and women.

Singapore’s life expectancy, on the other hand, is a bonny 86.5 years. Perhaps this means that Dame Wendy — the future merry widow — should consider moving there instead of Tahiti (which has a mere life expectancy of 78.82 years) where she’s likely to make lots of older gal pals living the good life off the insurance money on a lovely Asian beach. As any veteran foreign traveler knows, however, Singaporeans are obsessed with public cleanliness and strict social order. Littering, chewing gum in public or failing to flush a public toilet can land you a whopping $1,000 fine, while showing your bare feet or skin of any sort can earn you three months in jail. That sensational black one-piece my 61-year-old lover debuted at the pool last summer probably won’t fly with Singapore’s own Morality Police. So on second thought, perhaps I won’t suggest Singapore and just leave well enough alone. That’s probably the wisest thing I’ve learned from being happily married for 20-plus years.

The point of all these dizzying numbers, as Oprah or any Tuscan street poet with spray paint can tell you, is to live the best life you can and be damned grateful for whatever time you have left.

That’s exactly what my fellow members of the Stuffed Potatoes Lunch & Philosophy Club try to do on a daily basis. 

For the moment, there’s just three of us in the club. We meet every other week or so in the shadowy booth of a popular restaurant to discuss the current state of the world, the wonders of our grown children and the enduring mystery of our wives.

Remarkably, as this March dawns, all three of us will have turned 70 by the end of the month. Joe hit the mark in late January, I did so in early February, and Patrick achieves the milestone later this month.

I’m told none of us actually looks 70 years old, though wives, golf pals and fellow Stuffed Potatoes can scarcely be considered objective sources.

For that matter, we probably don’t even act like old men, save for when we complain about dodgy knees and idiots who run red lights. As a kid, I once asked my lively grandmother on her 84th birthday if she was afraid of dying. She grinned and patted my rosy little cheek. “Not a bit, sugar pie,” she said. “Just afraid of falling.” 

None of the Stuffed Potatoes, I can reliably report, are afraid of dying. We’re too busy for that.

January Joe is a professional forester helping set aside beautiful lands for future generations. Patrick, the marketing whiz — I fondly call him the “Irish Antichrist” — is keeping the national economy afloat. And I’m just a humble scribbler trying to finish three books this year alone.

Given that we collectively amount to 210 years of accumulated life experience, I put to my fellow Stuffed Potatoes a timely question the other day: What is the one thing you’ve learned in 70 years?

January Joe, our resident sage, didn’t hesitate. “There are wonders ahead. Don’t fight them — just surrender!” This from a lovely fellow who gets to walk in the woods for a living and surrenders most weekends to the joy of several beautiful grandbabies.

My old friend, Patrick, offered with a hearty laugh, “There’s no good news or bad news. It’s all information. Just keep doing what you do and don’t look back.” The Irish Antichrist means business.

As for me, I hope to finish half a dozen more books over the 15.5 years I may or may not have left. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we have a joyous new puppy named Winnie and a garden that is springing gloriously back to life by the minute.

I’m deeply grateful for both, not to mention a fabulous wife who says she really has no interest in going to Singapore or Tahiti. And was probably only joking. 

That makes me a really happy guy.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Home Grown

Home Grown

Ready to Pounce

A game of cat and alpha

By Cynthia Adams

I was so eager to break the glass ceiling that I began eyeing the work exits if the ceiling showed no signs of cracking. Some bosses made exits easier than others.

My first real job paid peanuts, but the boss was a rock star in the civil rights movement. I was idealistic enough to love the grant-funded dead-end work. When the grant expired, I accepted a permanent job with a lackluster boss, only to discover a telling omen.

My desk overlooked a cemetery.

Between the new boss’s whispery voice and the graveyard view, I flapped my wings daily just to get my blood flowing, achieving minimal career velocity.

I moved on to an international corporation with real pay and prospects, and two bosses. All they shared in common were New York backgrounds and human bodies.

One, a pipe-sucking, tweed-wearing adman with a lofty vision of himself, drove a Volkswagen Thing. Despite his eclectic exterior, he was a dullard counting the days to retirement. The other, a Dapper Dan right out of Mad Men, was fresh out of rehab — imposed after he infamously peed off the boss’s deck at a Christmas party.

Dapper Dan was utterly brilliant, but bitter about his ex-wife, who had recently left him.

Unfortunately, I reminded him of her. He immediately nicknamed me (ugh) Cat Turd.

No longer bored, I pointedly ignored the insult.

Slowly, the embittered one found grace, thanks to a relentless pursuit of recovery (although my feline excrement moniker stuck). He invited me to hear him speak at AA meetings — for once, he knew what he was talking about — sharing the program and his spiritual practice. Soon, I recognized toxic relationships of my own. Dapper Dan’s recovery helped me leave a painful marriage and recover myself, too.

Next, I found yet another colorful boss (imagine Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H). He was no alcoholic, but rewarded late workers with a splash of Dewar’s in our coffee mugs. I didn’t like Scotch, but adored the irreverent man.

I was recruited away from that job, but soon remorseful, as the new boss, a shameless sycophant, was Colonel Potter’s opposite.

Soon, I hastened to my final corporate gig — working alongside a vainly handsome, abusive alcoholic: “Mr. Alpha.” 

What are the odds? Seemed I also reminded Alpha of his ex-wife.   

I am ashamed to admit how thrilled I was when Alpha revealed himself by lewdly insulting an off-duty police officer at a work event. Arrested on suspicion of DUI, he dispatched me to find cash for his bail. Before I did, I whispered to the arresting cop, “Take his belt. He’s probably a suicide risk.” 

Of course, Alpha was far too in love with himself for self-harm.

Alpha began making moves upon our shared assistant, who tearfully reported it to me. Human resources was overseen by Alpha’s pal and she refused to go there.

How to stop Alpha?

The answer surfaced while I was scanning articles for a work project.

I enlisted friends far and wide to mail articles on workplace harassment to Alpha — printing or typing his address.

I played a long game, and nervously waited.

Eventually, Alpha summoned me to his corner office. 

“Shut the door,” he growled.

“Stop it. Right now,” Alpha demanded, face reddened. 

“Stop what?” I asked, temples pounding.

“You know what,” he said. “I’m warning you.” 

“If you tell me exactly what it is you want me to stop, I’ll certainly try,” I bluffed quietly.

Alpha glowered. His mouth opened. Then closed.

“Get out,” he snarled. 

I padded away. 

From that day forward, Alpha stopped pawing our assistant. Even so, I knew that even a Cat Turd had only nine lives and pondered my exit, praying I would land on my little cat feet.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.