Country Butter

The day Travis Gillispie died, Zion Kinion sold his most expensive listing ever. The two friends had been mostly out of touch. For years, really. It was Travis’ little brother Bart called Zion to pass on the news. Zion took the call in the kitchen, where he was checking the stove. Janet and the kids were waiting on him in the car. Selling a hundred-acre gentleman farm was worth celebrating, and they were headed out to dinner in Briery.

“I got some bad news,” Bart said.

There was a catch in his voice, an inward listening. He was about to say words he did not believe, and Zion knew it was Travis.

Zion was habituated to bad news. It was what he expected. According to Janet, he expected it even when there was none to be had. Why she gave him a hard time for checking the stove. Fire and explosions. Tornadoes and cancer. Murder. The devastation of all the earth. It’s not just what you expect, she told him once; sometimes I think it’s what you want.

She was wrong, at least about that. He did not hanker after misfortune, either on his own account or anybody else’s. You could not change the way your mind worked, the heart’s message it heard in the blood.

“Travis is gone,” said Bart.


Zion assumed it was a drug overdose, but his friend’s death had come at the hands of the Virginia state police.

“Yet again,” Bart told him, “my brother went and done something stupid.”

If anybody courted disaster, it was Travis. Commonly it had taken the form of drugs. This time he had been trying to make some money cooking meth in a house out in the country he inherited from his grandfather’s sister, who had been fond of him. Police got wind of the operation after a neighbor noticed a nasty smell in the air. Given Travis’ history, the authorities’ suspicion was deemed a reasonable cause.

When a swat team showed up in his front yard, Travis stepped out onto the porch with a rifle. Likely he was high, which compounded his stupidity. His back went up. So did the rifle. And Travis went down. How the police worked, because they were police. They might have given the man a chance to come to his senses.

Bart invited Zion to the viewing at Goodfellow Funeral Home in Briery. Tomorrow night. Zion said he would be there.

He walked slowly to the car. It was June, and the heat of late afternoon jumped up in his face. The summer birds in the trees were hushed as though they also knew about the going away of their own kind. Hard to disappoint the kids, and his wife, but with Bart’s news he had no taste for a celebration supper. Janet, understanding his reaction although she had had small tolerance for Travis, made macaroni and cheese. The girls were respectful of death and quiet in the house. Zion ate by himself in front of the television. They knew about leaving him alone.

The year the basketball team went to the state finals, Zion, six four, had been center and Travis, five seven, point guard. It was their senior year, and they came close to triumph. By then, the communication between the two of them approached the supernatural. They always knew where the other one was on the court and what he intended to do. An invisible cord ran between them. Each felt the slightest tug and responded accordingly. What Zion and Travis had was not shared by anybody else on the team. They were a duo, one of a kind, and everybody knew it.

In their final game, driving hard toward the basket, Travis made a blind pass to Zion, who skyhooked the ball in. Smooth as country butter, hollered the announcer. The crowd picked it up. The game being broadcast on WBRY, it became a Broadhope County commonplace. The country butter play. They lost the game but gained local-legend status.

In the parking lot, after they had showered and dressed, Travis lit a joint and passed it to Zion, who took a toke out of politeness.

“C’mon, brother, let’s go som’eres and get ourselves seriously fucked up.”

Zion, however, had no interest in getting fucked up. Saying no the clipped way he did, it had to have hurt his friend’s feelings. Anyway the forces that would drive them apart were already bearing down. At the top of the list was color. The Gillispies were white, the Kinions black. Travis was a joker, a slacker, what Zion’s parents would call shiftless. Zion was the opposite of all those things. While Travis worked construction on and off, Zion put in a couple of years at community college studying accounting. A business degree was the idea. But he began to feel an overmastering urge to make some money. He quit school and got his real estate license. Went to work for a white realtor who figured he’d do well with black clients.

Turned out he had the skills to excel in the work. A good eye for property, for value, and for people. First week on the job, he listed a house in town. Second week, he sold a property out in the country. Beginner’s luck, said his boss, but it wasn’t. Zion was handsome in a traditional way—a face of striking candid features, broad shoulders, narrow hips—that encouraged the confidence of black and white alike. He stayed lean and dressed well, cultivating the quiet air that came naturally to him. Here was a realtor you could trust, steady and knowledgeable.

About the time Travis and his high school girlfriend had a major blowup and split up, Zion married Janet, who had been homecoming queen her senior year. An unwritten rule governed the selection at Broadhope County High School. One year a white girl was crowned, the next year a black girl. The system worked, after a fashion, but it was a question of luck. If you were good-looking and personable, a likely candidate for queen in the wrong year, you were out of luck.

Over time, Zion moved steadily forward. He started his own realty firm. Two daughters, Keisha and Alexa, were born. Janet got a job at the county courthouse. They bought a showplace house in the country and improved it regularly. Zion did all the work around the property himself, on top of listing and selling houses across the county. The hours of his life were eaten up. It was not so much that he was driven as that he saw possibilities and methodically stalked them.

Meantime, Travis wound up doing two years at Harrowfield after a sheriff’s deputy stopped him for driving extremely drunk and found a hash pipe on the passenger seat, along with something to put in it and smoke. A shame to his family and a menace to society, the judge who sentenced him called Travis Gillispie. Zion visited him every few months while he served his time. It was like visiting a stranger but worse, the connection between the two men like a sore that wouldn’t heal. I fucked up, brother, he told Zion every time. I definitely got to get my act together. Every time, he sounded like he meant it. Every time, Zion half believed him.

The week he got out of prison, Travis stopped by Zion and Janet’s place. What was fine was the pleasure he took in his friend’s handsome country home, his functional family, the new F-150 in the driveway. There was no envy, nothing sour or small in his reaction. Zion understood him well enough to see that the loan he urgently needed was a separate matter entirely, unconnected to his enthusiasm for Zion’s success. He gave Travis a thousand dollars and hoped he would spend it smart.

Didn’t happen, judging by the downward spiral that followed. What Zion remembered, sitting with his bowl of macaroni and cheese in front of the television, were the fragments he had picked up in recent years. Another woman, another tempestuous relationship. Missed child support payments, and lawyers involved. Talk of the theft of equipment from a construction site but no proof. Smokin’ and jokin’.

Next evening Janet offered to go with him to the viewing, but Zion preferred to take it on alone. The bad feeling he had, turning into the Goodfellow lot, did not have to do with Travis or his death. It was Travis’ world that gave him pause.

Bart met him at the door to the room in which the body of his one-time friend lay in a coffin flanked by the flowers of death. Fifty people milled there, taking turns filing past the coffin. Most of them spent a moment at the little shrine of items that had belonged to the deceased man, a basketball among them. Zion’s signature was on that ball, although he could not recall the victory to which it belonged.

Bart was steadier than his brother. He worked at Heart of Virginia, where they made prefab homes. He had a stable family, a perky wife; they went to church. He had the same slaty blue eyes as Travis, the wispy reddish beard, the voice that sounded hoarse but was just his own low register. He took both of Zion’s hands in his and said, “Thank you, man. He wanted you here, that’s for sure.”

Zion was the only African American mourner present; what he expected. He went through the reception line of family, including Travis’ mother. Grief had swollen her tough old birdy face out of shape, and her dark eyes did not remember him. He greeted a few people he knew, listened to everybody complain about the state police, who must have wanted Travis dead. When the prayers began, he took a seat in the back row by himself. He was not a religious man but knew the words and repeated them with everybody else.

After the service he was making his way to the lot when Bart appeared out of the darkness and took him by the arm. He handed him an envelope.

“Didn’t want you to get away without one of these,” he said. “For your truck.”

Zion removed a window decal from its waxed paper envelope. It was a remembrance of the dead man with his name and dates and Forever In Our Hearts in white letters. Below the words, a fishing pole was crossed with a shotgun. Like two swords; Travis’ coat of arms. Zion was relieved not to see a Confederate flag. Well, Bart wouldn’t be that dumb.

“Thanks,” he told Bart.

“Hey, it’s a bunch of us going out to the river. His friends, and a couple of our cousins. Gonna celebrate my brother the way he’d do it his own self if he could. Come with us.”

What Zion should have said was, Sorry, Bart, I can’t make it. That would have been the end of it. What he did say was okay, though he did not know why. In the truck, he shoved the decal under the seat, where it would stay, and texted Janet; he’d be a while. Then he followed a line of vehicles, mostly pickups, from Goodfellow’s through town and out the Darlington Bottom Road to the Powhatamie River.

Outside the city there was an embankment that sloped down to a treeless bluff by the river, which flowed loudly over rocks at that point in its journey to join the mighty James. The flat ground at the bluff was a natural party spot, and fifteen minutes after they arrived, a bonfire was roaring, music was blasting from monster speakers, men were drinking Coors Light and whooping up a storm convinced this was what Travis Gillispie would have wanted them to be doing to celebrate him.

“Sweet Home Alabama.”

Somebody liked the old Lynyrd Skynyrd tune enough to play it three times in a row. Zion heard the old assertion of an identity intended to keep him in his place. Sweet home Alabama, Oh sweet home baby, Where the skies are so blue, And the guv’nor’s true, Sweet Home Alabama, Lordy, Lord I’m coming home to you, Yeah, yeah Montgomery’s got the answer. He did not belong here.

Bart was no fool. He had an imagination and could picture how the party might look to a black man, how it would make him feel. He came over to where Zion was leaning against the side of his truck. Put a can of Coor’s Light in his hand, said, “My brother was a lot of things, Zion. Put foolish at the top of the list, with bullheaded right below. But one thing he never was, he was never no friggin’ Confederate.”

Zion nodded. “I’m thinking I’ll head home.”

“Don’t go, not yet. You know the big difference between you and everybody else here?”

“The color of my skin.”

“No, man. You’re a winner. These boys, look at their damn trucks. It ain’t one can hold a candle to yours. You’re living the American dream, Zion. Work hard, play fair, come out on top. Ain’t a man here in your category.”

Zion heard what Bart told him as a plea to stick around. Why he wanted him to, Zion had no idea. You’re making a mistake, Janet would tell him if went near his phone. He decided he could handle another half hour.

The party happened fast, spinning up in a beer-fueled frenzy. Inside the thirty more minutes Zion gave himself, just about every last friend and cousin of Travis Gillispie was drunk and getting drunker. Sitting before the bonfire, they were passing joints around like demented Boy Scouts. All the music was Southern rock, with an attitude in the lyrics. The attitude had something to do with belligerence. Well I hope Neil Young will remember, A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.

A short man in a T-shirt with the picture of a big-wheeled ATV came up to Zion, offered him a toke on the blunt he held cupped in his hand. He had a vegetable face, a sweet potato body tapering to a point at the butt. In the firelight his eyes were shifting slits.

“No thanks.”

“You was Travis’ black friend,” the man said, stating what he considered a fact of considerable interest.

Zion said nothing, and across a dim distance the man struggled to make sense of his silence.

“Suit yourself,” he finally said and walked away.

Now. Now was the time to go.

He stayed. When Janet asked him why, which she surely would, he would have no accurate answer. It had something to do with his expectation of bad news, his sense of how things were and worked, but he could not be more precise than that.

He felt no contempt for Travis’ party-dude pals, his raucous cousins. Precious little sympathy, but no contempt.

How things were, how they worked, included Zion Kinion in the configuration. A place of his own, a stance in that place.

He worked his way into a long, repetitive conversation about the state police.

Mofos went in wanting to waste him. They never give Travis a chance. They wanted him dead, and by God that’s what they got.

Not long past the point at which Zion ought definitely to have left, a couple of bottles of white whiskey came out. Once or twice he caught men looking at him. Curiosity, that was what he saw in their eyes, as if an explanation for his presence were called for. He had no reason to be afraid. Angry, sure, but not afraid.

With the whiskey, the hard edges of their words were filed to a point.

Watermelon patch, he thought he heard from somewhere behind the circle of men at the fire. Somebody laughed. It was a snort.

A cousin in unlaced work boots and cut-off jeans dashed across the space lit by the bonfire hollering something about the War of Northern Aggression. The applause came with a chorus of Rebel yells.


When Zion stood up, four men around him jumped up, too. Were they expecting him to pull a knife, start a fight, take them on in their blind ancient prejudice? Ridiculous. He stood there a moment, until they sat down. Half embarrassed, they pretended to be engrossed in a conversation about baseball that had been going on, and Zion walked slowly to his truck.

When Bart noticed he was leaving, he came running after him, caught him at the door of the Ford.

“You sure you gotta go?”

“I’m sure.”

What Zion did not expect was for Bart to throw himself on him and start crying.

“They killed my brother, Zion. The sons a bitches done killed my big brother. What am I supposed to do now?”

They were far enough away from the fire and the baseball talk and Whiskey Myers on the speakers that nobody noticed them. Zion embraced the bereaved man, held him to his chest and let him sob a minute. Under the circumstances it would be natural to fall back on the consolations of religion, the Bible lines you came up with when a loved one died. None of that was in Zion.

“Let me know when and where the funeral is,” he said, “and I’ll be there.”

Bart rubbed his face with the back of a hand. He felt no shame for his outburst, and not for the first time Zion wondered how he could be so different from his police-killed brother.
Pushing midnight when Zion turned into his own driveway with a sense of relief. He hoped Janet would be in bed; she had to work in the morning. But a light was on in the kitchen where she sat waiting for him at the table in a pale blue nightgown he was fond of. She worked hard to stay in shape, hold on not so much to her youth as to the animating spirit of the time they had been young together. Her hair was tight to her head in a bun held in place by a silver clip, a look she had lately favored. In certain circumstances it was a sexy look.

“You oughtn’t have waited up.”

“How was it?”

He shrugged.

She shook her head. “No way.”


“You ain’t getting away with that. That’s like some politician saying no comment when they ask him a question he don’t want to answer.”

So he told her and watched her body stiffen with the details of the party on the bluff above the Powhatamie.

“I won’t say you should have stayed away. I will say, you knew exactly how it was going to be, so how come you went anyway? And don’t tell me it was because Travis was your friend.”

“He was.”

Janet shook her head again.

“I wanted to see,” he told her.

Maybe it was that simple. If it wasn’t, the hour was late, and they both pretended it was.

In the morning, on the way to showing a house in the Whispering Pines neighborhood of Briery, Zion stopped by Heart of Virginia and looked up Bart.

“Where you burying your brother?” he asked him.

Bart took off his work gloves, slapped them on the leg of his pants, raising a small cloud of sawdust. “It’s this old family burying ground out on the property where Travis got killed. Gillispies and only Gillispies been buried there since, hell, since I don’t know how far back they go.”

“What about a stone?”

“Headstone, you mean?”

Zion nodded.

“Ain’t nobody in a position to do that, just now. But I’ll take it on, I swear I will. My brother will get the memory he deserves.”

Zion got directions from Bart to the Gillispie burying ground. Turned out he knew the property, had sold a small farm half a mile down the Parnell Cross Road a couple of years back. He went up the gravel drive toward the house, which was still fenced off by crime scene tape. What was left to investigate? Death was accomplished, death was known. Death was a certainty. He got out of the truck, lifted the tape, walked up to the porch, saw three bullet holes in the front door and a dark patch on the floor boards where Travis had bled out. One lone fly had lighted on the blood in case there was something left to suck. High or not, what had possessed the man to come out onto the porch with a rifle knowing the yard was full of police?

The family plot was out behind the house. In the late morning sun Zion walked through June-high grass where grasshoppers fidgeted, down a ravine, across a piddling creek with a rocky bottom, then up a gradual rise until he came to a low iron fence, some of the sections missing or bent out of shape, marking off the Gillispie dead in measured rows. Weeds had grown up everywhere. Some of the weeds had prickers that stuck to his pant legs, his socks.

He studied the graves for a few minutes. He read the inscriptions on all of them, the oldest of which went back to the 1830s. The sense of urgent hurry that had been driving him since he got out of bed that morning drained away. In its place was not peace, and it wasn’t lassitude. It was a kind of reckoning. How things worked. Here was proof.

Bart consulted his mother for an appropriate verse to chisel onto the headstone that Zion ordered. The request flummoxed her, for a reason Zion would never know. It was Bart’s wife Alice came up with the words from Genesis. And he saw that rest was good, And the land that it was pleasant, And bowed his shoulder to bear, And became a servant unto tribute. It was no easy thing, getting the stone ready and then delivered before the burial. Ordinarily Zion would have accepted the excuses the stonemason put forward for needing more time. Now, however, he was unable to be reasonable. His persistence put the mason’s nose out of joint, but ultimately he was happy to make the sale for cash, and Zion and Bart met the delivery truck out at the Gillispie ground the next day. They watched two workmen expertly plant the headstone in the spot Bart indicated. Zion tipped them a twenty each before they left.

“What do I say?” Bart said.

“Don’t say nothin’.”

“Us Gillispies, we’re in your debt, Zion.”

“You’re not.”

Bart nodded, accepting but maybe not understanding. His eyes swept the rows of his people’s graves with a worried look, as though he had let them down.

“It’s one thing I been meaning to ask you,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“Country butter.”

“What about it?”

“It ain’t no such thing. Never was, right? It was just some piece of nonsense the old guy calling the game that night come up with.”

“Don’t know,” Zion said. “Might could be a thing.”

“You’ll be here tomorrow for the service?”

“Provided you don’t say anything about the stone.”

“That what you want, it’s what you got.”

They shook hands, and Bart went back to work.

Zion hung around for a few minutes, not sure why. He had chosen a handsome piece of granite for Travis’ monument. The stone had a reddish cast to it that made him think, for no reason whatsoever, of New England apples. The bib of newly upturned earth around it gave the stone a raw look. Time, and time’s erasures, would give it a settled look soon enough, would oblige it to belong. As he watched, a walking stick landed on the headstone. It twitched its rangy legs and stayed put, making itself comfortable. A seal of approval, unsolicited. For a moment, Zion’s ear picked up the sound of water running in the creek. He removed the prickers from his pant legs and left.

When he stopped at his office in Briery, he found a couple from Northern Virginia waiting for him. They were surprised to find an African American realtor, this far south, below the James River where Dixie began; his website did not feature his picture. They didn’t say so, but he could tell. You could always tell. They were not hostile, or skeptical, just surprised. They expressed interest in a place he had recently listed on the Briery-Pamplin Road.

“We’re so excited,” the woman told him. “The congestion in Fairfax County just won’t quit, and we’re anxious to get away from it all. At least on weekends.”

Her grin was what Janet would call fetching. They were prosperous suburban people in their late fifties, dressed with an eye to what the other would wear. Khakis and a polo shirt with an animal on the pocket. Khakis and a pink blouse with a button-down collar. Shoes to trek through muddy fields in, if that were called for.

Zion told them the place was unoccupied, they could go have a look now.

“We can take my truck,” he said. “Plenty of room for three.”

A lag. Like the incalculable instant between first and second gear as you upshifted. Then the woman said, “How about we tag along behind you in our car?”

How things were, how they worked.

Zion nodded. “Sure thing.”

He had it down. Years of practice. He had it down as smooth as country butter.