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    “My grandfather had a country store — it was like Carriss's,” Paw-Paw said. “It was during the Depression. Everybody was coming in all day to get something.”
    “I didn’t know that,” I said. “Where was it?”
    “Greenwood, Kentucky — you’re almost to the Tennessee line,” she said. “My grandfather had a telephone in the store, and people would come in there if there was an emergency or if someone would die. And if they didn’t have the money, they didn’t have to pay. Because, see, times were hard then. I remember people as hungry as The Grapes of Wrath.”
    I was in Paw-Paw’s living room waiting for my uncle Matt to pick me up to have lunch at Carriss's in Southville, a hamlet eight miles south of Shelbyville. 
    My grandma’s name is Pauline Walters, but we call her “Paw-Paw.” She was sitting in a scallop-back chair with a blanket piled atop her, holding a cup of coffee on her knee. Behind her, fog breathed on the windows, speckled with rain.
    “You know, now everyone wants to eat organic,” Paw-Paw said. “But in the country you ate out of your garden, or what animals you killed, and you canned meat and put it in the cellar, and you dried everything. You dried green beans, and they were called ‘shuck beans’ around this part. I remember Grandma had raspberries, and we’d walk back to the pond and there’d be persimmons ready to eat when they fall down to the ground, and they’re so good when they’re ripe—”
    The door behind me crashed open and cold air swept down my back. Matt said: “C’mon, Carlos!” He’s called me “Carlos” ever since I worked for a landscaping business in Middletown 10 years ago, the only gringo in a crew that was otherwise all Guatemalan men. “Pauline, you want to go?”
    Paw-Paw cradled the cup below her nose. “I would go, but when you get to be my age, and you wake up of a morning, and it’s cold as can be, and gloomy as can be, and your old bones are telling you, buddy, you better not go outside—”
    “All right, Mustang Sally! I’m gonna cut your water off right there!” Matt said, turning outside, the screen door banging behind him. “Let’s go, Carlos!”
    “Well, my Lord,” Paw-Paw said. “He’s four or five fellas, rolled into one.”
    “Other day, I called Pauline, man. I said” — Matt raised his voice — “‘I’m just seeing if you’re alive!’ Then I hung up.”
    Matt’s wife Sharon, who was driving, said, “Matthew, don’t be like that.” Their 18-year-old daughter, Madison, and I were in the backseat. “You be good to her. Lord, she’s your mother.”
    “Good?” Matt said. “Hell, I’m the best thing ever happened to her. Fixing me lunch is the high point of her day!”
    “Then how come she broke your plate?” Madison said, looking at her phone.
    I leaned forward. “What does that mean?”
    “You know he used to go over to Paw-Paw’s every day on his lunch break and she’d fix him a meal? Well, it got to be too much for her, and that’s what she calls it — breaking his plate,” Sharon said. “And I think that’s fine. Lord, she’s 88 years old, Matthew.”
    “Man….” Matt’s voice was solemn. “Man, that broke my damn heart.”
    We left Shelbyville, heading south on Interstate 55, passing a Shuck Fence, a Waffle House and the Ken-Tex BBQ. I read the sign of the Wesleyan Baptist Church: “God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists.” Then the country broadened out, and we rode by the jigsaw of stone fencing in houses perched atop hills that rose and dipped and rose again.
    I said, “I was hanging out with a friend last night who’d heard of Carriss's.”
    “Really? In Louisville?” Matt said. “What’s his name?”
    “Hunter Greene. He went to Shelby High. Said he used to go deer hunting near Carriss's every day after school.”
    “Hunter Greene! That must be Old Man Greene’s boy.”
    “Who’s Old Man Greene?” I said.
    Everybody else in the car laughed.
    Sharon slowed at a junction and parked on a gravel shoulder across from the store — a white clapboard building on a stone embankment over the crossroads. Above the doors was a sign: Carriss's Grocery and Snack Bar.    
    On the porch, a Coca-Cola vending machine stood next to a Pepsi machine. In the corner: a working, old-timey gas pump.
    We mounted the porch steps, and Matt swung open the screen door. I followed him into an open space of wooden floorboards that looked smooth as polished silver. Toward the front, shelves displayed Crisco,                 Ronco lasagna, Matador beef jerky, Monster energy drinks, framed pictures of Tubby Smith and Rick Pitino (in their UK days). Near the ceiling and recessed along the back walls were lard presses, grits-grinders, railroad lanterns, a Rocket gumball machine, three- and five-gallon whiskey jugs made of white limestone and banded with blue stripes marked “Mountain XXX Dew.”
    Ahead of me, Matt was calling to somebody. I followed without hearing, looking at the cigar cutters, pouches of loose tobacco labeled “Bull Durham,” a metal device engraved with “Chew Buzz Saw Tobacco” and a red tin     with a picture of Prince Albert (“Crimp Cut Long Burning Pipe and Cigarette Tobacco”). I marveled at how many of these relics had to do with tobacco.
    “Hey, June, this is the guy I was telling you about,” Matthew was saying to a man behind a counter. “He’s writing an article about you.”
    I held out my hand. “Hi, I’m Charles. I’m Matt’s nephew.”
    June was middle-aged, but his hair was still boyishly thick. When he took my hand, his grip was sinewy with muscle. “And you’d admit that in public?” he said.
    I laughed. “I’m interested in writing an article about Carriss's — if you don’t mind.”
    “I don’t know anything about that,” June told me. “My wife handles all that.”
    “She’s back here, man,” Matt said, leading past a potbelly stove with a tube like an elephant trunk connected to the wall. As we moved into the open kitchen, I counted six tables and 25 chairs. We had missed the lunch rush, but a few men were still sipping coffee. Vivian, June’s wife, was wiping her hand on a towel and smiling with such vibrancy that her cheeks reminded me of a silk shade placed around a lit candle.
    I ordered the same as Matt — a pork tenderloin sandwich, and a hamburger, and a salad — and picked out a bottled Coke from a fridge. In 15 minutes, we were eating. Vivian and June joined us at the table, bringing a volume on Shelby County for me to page through. They had bookmarked sections about country stores with sugar packets. I flipped to an article on Carriss's: “A crossroads general store has served the community since 1882,” it read. “The store has been run by the Heiden, Ratcliff, Skelton, and Carriss families.” The Carriss family took over in 1978 and have run it ever since.
    Originally, “the Carriss family” meant Jay and Bessie Carriss, Vivian’s parents. In 2003, Jay suffered a fatal heart attack one night defending Carriss's from burglars, but Bessie still lives across the road and still works in the store. Vivian and June married in 1982, when they started helping Vivian’s parents — up before 6 a.m. and working at least 12 hours a day, for 40 years.
    “It’s a real good place for people to come in, get to know their neighbors,” June said. He told me that the store hadn’t changed much since 1978. They still serve breakfast, and a plate lunch. The opening of deer season in November is the busiest time of the year, when Vivian sometimes cooks more than 100 hamburgers a day.
    Some things have changed, though: More people used to buy farm-related items. “Tobacco, fencing supplies, hundred-pound sacks of dairy feed,” June said. “Used to be a blacksmith, a livery stable and a holding pen next to the store. That was back when there was old dirt roads.”
    I asked if they ever considered selling it.
    “Not unless we win the lottery,” June said.
    “No, we don’t want to sell,” Vivian said. “I’m my own boss.”
    “Amen to that.”
    Vivian said, “I tell him, ‘I’m the CEO, June.’”
    June looked at me. “And I’m the common laborer.”
    “We set up cradles, bassinets, beds in here, and our kids were raised here,” Vivian said. “And they all had the black-foot syndrome.” I blinked. “You know — when you run around barefoot so much your feet turn black.”
    “Time flies,” June said. “This has been a store, I believe, since before 1900.”
    Still looking at her phone, Madison said, “You been working here that long, June?” Everyone laughed.
    When I asked Vivian how much a meal cost, she said, “$6.99 for a plate lunch — you get meat and two veggies. Cheeseburger’s $2.99, and it comes with pickles, onions, anything you want on it.”
    “And the hospitality’s free,” June said, walking by, carrying a sack of feed.
    “Carlos, man,” Matt said, “there ain’t no telling how many cattle deals and tobacco deals was done between these tables. You know that?”
    Vivian said, “Nobody has tobacco now. Used to be a lot more small farms.”
    “Lot more dairies around, too,” June said from another part of the store.
    Matt said, “I bet there aren’t 20 dairies in Shelby County no more.”
    “I think Alan told me there ain’t but 13 left,” June shouted.
    “Feed’s a lot higher. Fuel’s a lot higher,” Matt said. “Used to be, you could pay off a year’s farm payment just on your tobacco crop. Only thing that made more money than a crop of tobacco was a crop of marijuana. And      Mom, she was talking about somebody the other day, she said, ‘He ought to be in jail! He never worked; he just raised an acre of marijuana!’ I said, ‘You’ve obviously never raised any marijuana in your life — that’s tough    work!’ You know that?”
     June sat at the table again and slid over a big paperback book, brown as a crinkled tobacco leaf, titled Shelby County Tobacco Farmers: A Pictorial History. One of the front pages was a map of “Shelby County and Vicinity”    that showed a star labeled “Shelbyville” in the center, amid a constellation of outlying towns — Bagdad, Mount Eden, Eminence, Bethlehem.
     Most of the pictures chronicled the cycle of a tobacco season: greenhouses filled with rows of trays, the outside tarpaulin covered in snow like an Arctic bunker; men standing amid tobacco plants grown to full height,          squinting at the camera as if from within jungle undergrowth; a father and a son, each holding one end of a tobacco stick, the bundle of veined leafs hanging down like Florida marlin; and the harvest of newly cut sticks        staked in the fields like a forest of tidy wigwams.
    I said, “I guess tobacco was a big thing around here?”
    For a moment, nobody said anything. Then they laughed.
    “Time flies,” June said again. “As a guy said the other day, ‘Used to be, the old men would sit outside. Now we’re the old men.’”
    I went out to meet those men on the front porch. Their names were Duvall Burke and Ralph Pulliam. I asked them how Shelby County had changed in their lifetimes.
    “Well, back then, we all ate out of a garden,” Duvall said. “We killed four, five hogs a year. My mother used to can sausage. No one has the wanna to learn how to do that now. You run to town and buy everything. We didn’t go to town but once every two weeks. We would catch a Greyhound bus to Louisville.”
    “It’s a different world now,” Ralph said.
    “Now, thinking about it, I realize our tobacco brought a lot more money than today,” Duvall said. “Most of ’em have quitted. Everybody used to grow a little patch of tobacco. But the old farmer died off, and the newer generation couldn’t make it.”
    “Ain’t none of them here now,” Ralph said.
    “Walmart and the Tractor Supply’s taken over. But that’s progress, I reckon,” Duvall said. He looked out at the crossroads. “Or is it? I don’t know.”
    After a pause, he said, “Well, Ralph can tell you all about that — he’s been around even longer than I have!”
    He said so long, and Ralph tucked his hands deeper into the front of his coat. “It’s both good and bad,” he said. “People talk about the good old days, but one thing about that was, you were young in the good old days.     You didn’t know no different.
    “It’s hard to compare the times when I grew up. Nobody had much money. Now people have more money than they know what to do with. People were more neighborly then. Before TV, people would visit more in the late afternoon, I can remember. Everybody’s got too much to do now.”
    A truck pulled onto the gravel shoulder, and a man got out and climbed the steps to the porch. “What’re you going to do today, Ralph?” he said.
    “Probably what I did yesterday,” Ralph said. “Not much.”
    On the way back to Shelbyville, Matt peered into the trees flashing in his window like black spears. Then he said:
    “One night, I was deer hunting by the woods over there, and it was getting dark, and I shot a doe. So I went down there and checked on it, and about 20 paces away was another doe, lying dead. I thought, Dead Eye Dick,      boy! I’m gonna be the talk of the damn town, ’cause I killed two deer with one shot! Used to be, you had to go check your deer in at a check station, and Carriss's was a check station. So the next morning, I come in there.    I saw Mrs. Bessie. I said, ‘Mrs. Bessie, I was hunting last night. I killed two deer with one shot!’ I thought she’d jump right up there with shock. She didn’t even look up. She just said, ‘Well, that’ll happen from time to            time.’ They’ve seen so much hunting up there, I mean, you gotta haul in a damn rhino to get them impressed.” He looked at Sharon. “You know that?”
     A few days later, in a new coffee shop back on Main Street, I was talking to Morris Searcy, a family friend in his 60s and a longtime Shelbyville resident. “I can remember as a child something that we had here in Shelby         County called the Tobacco Festival,” he said. “At that time, this was a farm community, so the Tobacco Festival was the kickoff of the whole season. It was Shelbyville’s celebration.”
    Twenty years ago, a Walmart Supercenter opened on the outskirts of Shelbyville. Matt used to tell me, “Walmart killed Mom and Pop.” But I saw plenty of activity in town — the Victory Baptist Church, a florist shop called Flowers by Sharon, McKinley’s restaurant (“Eating Establishment”), and the jail by the courthouse that looks like a vine-choked medieval tower. (Whenever we drive by, Matt will gesture and say, “I was thinking about running for town jailer. You know what my slogan’s gonna be? ‘Vote for Matthew Walters! He knows the jail inside and out!’”)
    Young people are moving into renovated apartments downtown, Paw-Paw has told me, and now Main Street even has a few chic cafes, like the one where I met Morry. When I entered, I held the door open for an elderly man who was coming outside, while a second elderly man was walking down the sidewalk. They recognized each other, and the second man said to the first, “Hey, there, young fellow, how you doing?”
    “It takes an act of Congress to get me on my feet anymore,” the first man said.
    The second man pointed to one of the tables set up outside. “Then sit down. Let’s visit awhile.”
    The coffee shop was tucked into the front of the store’s huge interior. The rest of it was an antique gallery, and the soaring ceilings and endless aisles recalled the pictures I’d seen at Carriss's of tobacco warehouses.
    When I mentioned that to Morry, his likable gesturing became more voluble. “I can remember Shelby County being called the largest burley-producing county in the world,” he said. “Burley is the primo stuff that’s used in cigarettes, and it was a highly desirable product.”
    Over the years, Morry told me, “Agro-business got into it and drove the price down to the point where the farmer couldn’t make any money.”
    The folks I talked to at Carriss's who had once raised tobacco all told parts of the same story: “Every farm through here had a base — an allotment of how much you could raise. In 2001, they did away with the tobacco base. More and more people took this buy-out. The government more or less bought them out.” “I’ve got great neighbors now, but it’s not like you’re raising crops together. During the harvest, you worked from dawn till midnight.” “A stick of green tobacco weighs 75, 80 pounds. And it’s 95 degrees out — it’s all demanding work. A lot of people quit and got factory jobs.”
    “As a teenager, you always knew you’d have somewhere to go work,” Matt told me recently. “I can remember working in the summer when I was in college and thinking, Man, when the first of August comes, I’m outta here — see y’all later! I’m going to cut tobacco! It was just a job you always knew you had.” In the last few decades, a different set of jobs has moved into Shelby County. Morry told me that the strongest industry in Shelby County now is automotive-based — Johnson Controls manufactures car seats, Martinrea supplies trunks and hoods for General Motors. Roll Forming specializes in products for NASA and Boeing.
    Years ago, stores like Carriss's dotted Shelby County — Smith and Jackson General Merchandise, Mount Eden General Store, Buckman’s Store, Ellis’ Grocery, McDowell’s, Riester’s, Sewell’s. Most are gone now, but June and Vivian still find farmers waiting for breakfast on Carriss's porch at 6 a.m. I asked Simpsonville farmer Robert Mackey what he likes about the place. “How much history is in them floors — know what I’m saying? When all this old stuff is gone, it’s never coming back,” he said.
    “Shelbyville’s changed. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad,” Morry said. “We know tobacco’s harmful for you, but so is drinking alcohol and so is eating too many Big Macs. But it’s part of our culture out here. And it sure did pay for a whole lot of farmland and a whole lot of buildings in this community, and it made it a whole lot easier for people.”
    Later that day, I was sitting in Matt’s truck, outside the produce store where he worked. We were parked with a hilltop view of the town below us. “You know, when they bloom, the tobacco flower’s shaped like a horn, and the base of the horn is white and the tip is pink, and hummingbirds love them. I’ll tell you something else is pretty — the damn tobacco worms. They’re lime-green, and they got a stripe down them. As far as worms go, they’re absolutely beautiful.”
    His voice trailed off. He looked out towards the town. “Boy, I’ll tell you what, though — they’ll eat the shit outta that tobacco, them bastards.”
    A few weeks after I talked with Morry, I woke at 5 a.m. and drove out to Southville. (The Wesleyan Baptist Church sign had changed: “The Bread Of Life Never Gets Stale.”) I was meeting with Ralph Tindle, who raised tobacco for decades until he quit in 2007. He’d offered to show me around his farm — after we had breakfast at Carriss's.
    When I opened the door, June’s head bobbed above the aisles from back in the kitchen, and I remembered something that Morry had told me: “The first time you meet country people, they’re friendly. Second time, they’re interested. Third time, you’re their friend.”
    This was the third time that I’d been to Carriss's, and June called, “Hey, there, boy! What you want to chew on this morning?”
    The potbelly stove pulsed with heat, and around the tables sat Ralph and a few other men I recognized. I ordered what they were having — biscuits and gravy, three strips of bacon, and coffee — and sat next to Ralph.
    One of the men was walking around with the coffee pot, and when he filled my cup, he said, “There you go, new guy.”
    A man at the next table said, “That coffee’ll get up and walk away from you, it’s so damn strong.”
    Ralph introduced me to everyone at our table. Across from me sat a farmer named Charlie Gaines. He had finished his breakfast and was smoking a cigarette. Then Ralph found Vivian’s Pictorial History book. “Everyone around here’s got a picture in here,” he said, flipping through it, pointing out June and Vivian not long after they were married; Ralph Pulliam in 1967, his face tanned and smooth under his hat; Bessie holding a tobacco-leaf quilt. Another picture showed Charlie Gaines at the Grower’s Warehouse in 1994. He was smoking a cigarette.
    After everyone had eaten, Vivian asked, “Anybody need anything?”
    “I do,” Charlie said. “A new body.”
    Vivian laughed. “Me, too. Mine’s wore out.”
    “Well, c’mon,” Ralph said to me, motioning to the windows. “It’s daylight.”
     I followed Ralph’s truck up the road, pulling onto his farm and rumbling over to the barn. Rain smacked my windshield. Metal rods propped the barn doors shut, and we kicked them loose and went in and closed the            doors behind us. Beyond the halo of the light that Ralph switched on, machinery hulked in the dusty dimness like dark statuary. Ralph showed me a plank table on which he had arranged a line of tree roots that looked        whittled into stakes and a white plastic “cell tray” divided into a grid of squares. Each tray usually contained 253 square cells, and in each cell a farmer would press in a dollop of dirt and a tobacco seed, which Ralph            pinched between his fingers and lifted for me to see. I squinted — it was neon-green and about the size of a sesame seed.
    “The tobacco seed may be the smallest seed known,” Ralph said. “It’s a 13-month crop. You never finish — start another crop before you finish the first one.”
    We opened the barn doors and propped the metal bars against them again and got in Ralph’s truck. He wanted to show me Charlie’s land, which was still an operational tobacco farm. He looked through his windshield at the Kentucky land that, when overcast, always reminded me of an El Greco painting — a palette of dark trees and amber fields swirling under a cirrocumulus sky. Ralph pointed to a house. “That’s my property we were on, but this is where I live. I live among the deer and the turkeys and the c’yotes,” he said. He eased to a stop, watching the wet fields with his keen, gentle eyes. “It’s good hay ground,” he said. “My cattle numbers are down. I may get out of it completely.”
    When we pulled up one of the gravel drives that led into Charlie’s farm, I saw a truck with a bumper sticker that read: “I Farm — You Eat.” We parked and went in a barn, much larger than the one on Ralph’s land, with a tobacco stripping bench that looked as long as two or three bleachers in a high school gym. Tractors and hayforks and 700-pound balers loomed around us like drowsing mastodons.
    Ralph chuckled. “Charlie don’t want for equipment.”
    Outside, he showed me a tobacco setter — the implement the tractor pulls to dig out holes for the plants — now hunched in the gray patter of the rain. Shivering, we looked at each other. “It’s flat cold,” Ralph said.
    We got back in the truck and left Charlie’s farm. Around us, the land shone with a steel luster. Suddenly, Ralph said, “Let’s go in here.” We were approaching the end of a road that merged with another road running perpendicular, but we didn’t turn. We kept going straight, right up an embankment, rollicking across the earth, and around the biggest barn I’d seen yet.
    Ralph was telling me the barn belonged to him, but he rented it to Charlie. Then we went in, and Ralph was quiet. We both were. Hushed, we drifted forward, as if coming upon a candlelit vigil.
    Bundles of tobacco sticks bound with twine lay scattered across the dirt floor. Rain murmured through the soaring interior, and the wind that blustered in between the planked walls blew up the carpet of rotted tobacco shreds, twirling around our feet. I looked up. A pool of pale light hovered in the air like the glow of a lantern hanging in an old church.
    I suddenly remembered an evening 15 years ago, when I was working at that landscaping crew in Middletown and Matt picked me up, and he and his son and I went arrowhead hunting in a tobacco field. Barefoot, we each stood with a row separating us, and Matt called, “All right, now! Don’t y’all run ahead!” Then we started, treading side-by-side through the rustling leaves, scanning the ground for pointed flecks, while overhead the clouds of dusk faded into the darkening trees.
    Staring up through the darkness, I seemed to see him now from years before — imagining the doors flung open and the gold pulse of August pouring into the barn, and the voices of the people calling to each other in those photos in the book that June and Vivian had shown me, and Matthew with his mane of hair and his shirt off, balanced on the matrix of rails near the roof, yelling and joking and reaching down to take the tobacco sticks from the boys on the stilts below him…
    Then a bird flapped in the rafters, and the vision faded, and I listened as it sent a cry through a dimness scented with wet wood and motes of tobacco.
    Written by Charles Wolford. Photos by Mickie Winters. This article is courtesy of the May 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find you very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here.

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