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Smiley in the Bullrushes photo

If we accept the conventional ATF line, bootleggers are scoundrels of the worst sort, caring only for the almighty dollar, men who will poison you with hootch run through junk radiators and contaminated with everything from antifreeze to dead rats. But Smiley Lowe, who made whisky on the Catawba backwaters for forty-two years before they finally brought in a paid informer to put him away, Smiley never let a customer drink alone, and the whole time he plied his trade he always took the first gallon of every batch for his own. "Poison anybody," he said, "I'll poison myself," saving it in a Mason jar at one end of the mantle, a dime-store Jesus on the other. And every Saturday night when business was done, he would stumble down to the pier where he kept his canvas boat with the big Martin outboard on back, and crank it up and roar off down toward the Buster Boyd Bridge, wife and children fast asleep in the log cabin where he lived. And way into the night, people all along the river would hear the Martin screaming, till finally just before dawn the motor would sputter and die, and Smiley himself, asleep by now, would drift to shore and coast slowly in the red mud current, the boat light as a swan, pirouetting and gliding with Smiley hunkered over his dreams, till at last, verily, like the wonder of sleep itself, the former things would pass away, the canvas bow pushing through the bullrush canes till they held it fast, bending over to embrace the old bootlegger like it must have been when Moses came to a stop at the pharaoh’s palace, servants running this way and that with the news, as the pharaoh’s daughter waded out among the reeds and took the child in her arms, cooing, “There baby, there my baby, don’t you worry, won’t nobody harm you ever no more.” And Smiley Lowe would dream that dream in person, staring up from his swaddles at the daughter's Moon Pie face, her servants running ahead cheering and waving, and way up above, at the big cabin on the hill, he could see Jesus, Jesus his brother, Jesus in his dime-store robes, waiting to welcome him home, a Mason jar of shine in one hand, a dead rat in the other.

image: Joshua Hebburn