Words I have heard, and facts I have discovered are the basis for this story, but the words I offer are fiction, but fiction with the goal of finding truth.
All I knew at first was that Austin deserted his son, after Rene began to court him over the phone at his work.
When they finally met in person, his eyes caught her attention. They were large and brown, and glinted when he smiled.
“That woman you’re married to has not been true to you,” Rene told him.
“No,” Austin replied. “She loves me. She has always loved me, and she gave me my son.”
“Well what’s wrong with us being together?” she asked. “ All’s fair in love and war.”
“Maybe so,” he replied. “I don’t know. I can’t see you again.”
On Monday morning, Austin joined the Army, and after basic training, shipped out to England, believing he was doing right in trying to get away from Rene, even though it meant leaving his wife and young son. He did not accept Rene’s transatlantic telephone calls, until she told him she was not in the States any longer, but in an apartment just outside his Army base, and invited him to come see her.
“That boy is not yours, Austin,” she said, looking at the photograph he had in his billfold.
“How can you say that?” he asked. “He looks just like me.”
“No,” she replied. “He stands straight like you, has dark hair like you, and a square chin like yours.”
She pointed to the photograph. “Do you see this cowlick?” she asked. “You don’t have one. That’s how I know he can’t be your son.”
“Where’d you hear that?” he chuckled.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied. “That cowlick proves Austin Junior is not your son.”
After they were married, Austin told Rene about his youth.
“When I got interested in girls, I’d slip out my bedroom window after my folks went to sleep. But Ma’d be waiting by my bedroom window when I tried to slip back in. I’d say ‘Hey mama,’ you know, real loud. She’d say ‘You better quieten down, Austin Goodman Stone Wadkins. If your Daddy hears you he’ll wear you out with the plow line.’”
“Naw, Mama,” I told her. “You’ll protect me.”
“One night I slipped out, stole her car, then squashed the front fender flat coming home. When I got in, I parked on the other side of a big fir, so Pa wouldn’t see the evidence. After he went to work, Ma drove me to catch the school bus. Then she went to town to see a body man.“
“’I don’t feel too good about tricking your husband,” the body man told her.
“I know. But if he sees this fender, he’ll half-kill poor Austin. I need you to fix it today.”
“The body man told her it would cost extra, but she said she would pay it, and she would wait ’til he got the work done. He put a new fender on that thing, painted it, and compounded it out so good, I couldn’t tell it had ever been wrecked,” he glinted. “Pa never found out.”
“But when he finally caught me coming in one morning,” Austin continued, “he beat the tar out of me. That same day Ma bought me a bus ticket and sent me off. That’s when I met you.”
When Austin and Rene got back from military service, his first wife had taken his son and moved to West Virginia. Austin put his new wife’s money to work building houses. He told me he finished a house every week. I found that hard to believe.
Ten or 15 years later, Austin Junior called his dad from West Virginia.
“My wife has kicked me out,” Junior said. “I’ve lost my job, and I don’t have anywhere to go. Can I come live with you ’til I get back on my feet?”
The sell to Rene was a tough one but the eyes had it.
“All right,” she said finally. “But I don’t like this,” she continued. He’s not your son, and he can’t stay here forever.”
So Austin Jr. came to live with his dad. He was not skilled as a builder, but he tried hard, until after several accidents, and multiple hospital bills, Rene convinced her husband that the young man was costing them too much, and he had to go.
So Austin gave his son $200 and a bus ticket back to West Virginia. As the bus smoked out of sight Austin knew he was doing right, because he had no obligation to this boy with a cowlick .
After building and selling several hundred houses for others, Austin began building stores for himself, soon planting “Big A’s Gas and Groceries” all over the state. As the years passed, Austin began traveling from store to store, to train his managers personally.
“Why does it take a whole week to train a manager?” Rene asked him one day. “Are they women?”
Austin ignored the question. “I train my managers to keep the books right, and to keep their employees in line,” he said. Then with the glint in his eye, he added, “I also teach them how to win friends and influence people.”
Having worn herself out making excuses for her husband’s absences, and pining for a lost relationship, Rene finally died. Austin continued training pretty women to make friends and influence people until he suffered a major stroke, and had to retire. Then he took great pleasure driving his pickup around his 50-acre pasture to watch his herd of champion Angus cattle.
Sometime after this, his daughter, Stone, heard that her father had another family, and that the boy who had lived with them for a while was really her half-brother. When she found his address in some old unanswered letters, she tried to get in touch with Junior, but having no success, she contacted an investigator.
“This computer program can find any taxpayer in the nation,” he told her. “If he’s in West Virginia I will find him.”
But he found only one Austin Wadkins, whose telephone number he gave to Stone, who dialed it that same night. The phone rang and rang, then just before Stone gave up, a voice answered.
“I am trying to locate an Austin Wadkins,” Stone said. “I want to put him back in touch with his father.”
“Well I ain’t him,” the woman answered in a husky voice.
“Do you know anyone by that name?”
“Naught,”she said. “The only Austin Wadkins I know is me.”
Stone called the investigator with the news.
“I’m sorry,” he replied. “There is nothing else I can do. Austin Wadkins Jr. is either gone underground, is homeless … or dead.”
After she hung up the phone, Stone cried, and did so again a few weeks later when she lost her father.
I came to the funeral, hoping to hear that the man in the casket had made things right with the Lord. Austin’s business partner told me they indeed built 50 houses in one year, and many after that; someone else said Austin made a fortune in “gas and groceries.” No one said anything about Austin Wadkins Jr.
In the service the minister told us he met Austin Wadkins Sr. at the pasture fence, which stood directly in front of his church. He said that he and the deceased talked often because Austin waited for him there.
“Austin Wadkins confessed his sins to me across his pasture fence,” the preacher continued. “And I am convinced that he, though absent from the body, is now present with the Lord.”
The preacher paused for a moment, smiled to himself, then added, “He was so happy to be saved, I thought I saw a glint in his eye.”
What happened to Austin Wadkins? All I know is just fiction.