In my little neck of the woods growing up, a lot of the houses looked like this:

That's a brick ranch.

Or this:

That's a single-wide.

At best this:

Before you get excited, I did not draw this.

That is, they were made of brick, wood, or aluminum, and squatted, the opposite of ostentation, in the crevices, set back from the roads.

But there was one that looked like this:

Except there was blood oozing out from under the gate.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. It was definitely big, definitely made of stone, definitely had a pointy roof line, and definitely sat close to the road.

It belonged to Mr. Nelson. Mr. Nelson was a mean man, a bad man. He would come out and yell at us if we made too much noise.

My siblings and I were so scared of Mr. Nelson that, when we wanted to cross the bridge and ride our Big Wheels on the road in front of his house (the road in front of ours had a blind curve, and people drove really fast), we had a method. We would skid to a halt at the edge of his property, pick up the trikes between our legs, and tiptoe the forty yards past his house before setting them back down and tearing off again.

Mr. Nelson had a gun. And he drank a lot. At some point, his wife divorced him and moved away.

Mr. Nelson didn’t like people on his property, especially fisherman despite the fact that he had a perfect little peninsula that jutted out into the deep part of the creek. He posted No Trespassing signs and came out hollering at people who disobeyed. He even tacked up a sign on our side of the creek on a tree right above a rock so perfect for fishing we called it the fishing rock. Risking execution, we took it down.

One morning we arose to find a perfectly-arranged pile of dog shit outside our front door. Turns out, the day before, our dog had crapped next to the road across from his house. He had shoveled it up and deposited it on our deck.

(Note: I have a moral code about dog poop now. I’m all Atticus Finch about it. It can be dark, and raining, with no witnesses around, and I’ll still pick up my dogs’ doo-doos. But this was in the days before people carried bags, and we lived way out in the country anyway. This was where folks’ pets could live their whole lives and never see a vet, much less have their poop scooped.)

Safe to say Mr. Nelson was an angry curmudgeon. I don’t know if I ever verbalized it, or if the thought just banged around in my little brain for decades, but I always wondered how somebody got that surly.

When I was up for Christmas a week ago, I saw Nelson come out to walk his Yorkshire terrier—one of the rare times he comes out of his stone manse now. (I don’t know if he picks up its tiny poops or not.) I said to my dad, “There’s old Nelson.”

Dad looked up and said, “You know he’s got a boyfriend who comes in from Mountain City a couple times a week to spend the night. Parks his truck in the back where people can’t see it.”

(record needle screeching across vinyl)

All of a sudden, I had such a different—compassionate, even—view of the old sorcerer. He was gay in rural Western North Carolina in the 1980s.

Man, there must be nail and teeth marks on the inside of his closet. No wonder he was such an asshole.