“Hey, Dad, how are you today?” I asked.
“I’m alright I guess. I’m not feeling too well is all.”
That came as no surprise. My father’s health had been failing for many years. That was a major reason I decided to move out here after Beth’s accident. Her job had kept us in Dallas prior to that, so once that particular fetter was removed, albeit brutally, I saw no reason I couldn’t relocate nearer my parents.
He continued, “But I’m still kickin’ and can’t complain about it. What’re you up to today?”
“I’m at Joe’s and thought I’d call to see if you needed anything. If so, I can run by your place on my way home.”
“You’re already in your car, aren’t you?” he asked. How I hated that he knew me so well.
“Um, no. Well, yes I am,” I stuttered. “I’m about to leave though.”
“I thought so.” The faintest hint of a chuckle followed that sentence. I’d been caught being forgetful once again and we both knew it. That made me laugh out loud as he shouted over his shoulder to Mom, “Honey, Dave’s up to Kingswell’s and wants to know if we need anything before he leaves.” I listened to the phone’s silence which contained her response from somewhere else in the house. His attention then turned back to me. “Nope, we don’t need anything. She said she’s goin’ to Marshall in the mornin’ for groceries.”
I was relieved I wouldn’t be forced to go back into the store. I could see both George and Joe standing at the counter chatting as they watched me through the overly placarded windows, and while I liked both of them, I had run out of patience for George’s sometimes-incessant rambling.
“I just thought I’d check before I head home,” I said.
“Your mom wants to know if you’d like to come over for dinner. I think she said she’s making Mexican food. Or maybe she said she would if you were coming.”
He knew I loved Mom’s cooking and thoroughly enjoyed her twist on Mexican food. Often it was a menagerie of spicy dishes from chicken enchiladas to build-your-own tacos and burritos with all the fixings. I regretted that I would miss it if in fact she went that route.
“No, I can’t make it this evening, Dad. I’m finishing a book so I can send it to the publisher in the morning. I’m certain it’ll take me most of the evening. I appreciate the offer though, and I know you’ll save some for me, right?” He could hear the ribbing in that last part given how much he also enjoyed this particular family feast.
“No promises, son,” he responded with a laugh. “No promises at all.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
He chuckled again before asking, “You’ll be by tomorrow then?”
There was a certain yearning in that question. Was it loneliness? I suspected as much. Although my parents were quite independent and had survived out here on their own for many years, age and declining health have a way of bringing out our desires for companionship. This is never more evident than when it concerns loved ones we may have otherwise taken for granted. I’d noticed in both of them an increased desire to visit with me as often as possible since I moved to Kingswell. My new proximity to them helped me visit regularly without the three-hour drive from and back to Dallas.
“I certainly will. I’ll call you before I head over since I don’t know how late I’ll be this evening and therefore don’t know how late I’ll get up in the morning. I’ll touch base when I’m functional.”
His smile came through the phone clearly. “Then it’s a plan. I’ll let your mother know to expect you tomorrow, and we’ll both want to hear about the latest book.”
“It’s a deal,” I said, and then, “I’ll let you go. Enjoy your evening and don’t eat too much Mexican food—or at least not all of it!”
He laughed for a moment before saying, “Alright, son, you take care of yourself and get that book done. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, Dad. Bye.”
I flipped the phone shut and slipped it into my pocket. One last glance at Kingswell’s General Store showed George and Joe still standing at the counter chewing each other’s ears off. I was happy to see they’d stopped watching me.
I put the car in drive and pulled out onto Allen Camp Road for the short distance to FM 727 where I turned north and headed back to Kingswell Lake where I lived.
When I turned the radio on to fill the short distance back to State Highway 49 and the even shorter distance from there to my private drive, Marshall’s own KBWC was playing Sonny Fortune’s “Five Four Trane.” The jazz created from his incomparable saxophone playing offered the perfect way to get me in the mood to finish Compassion in a Sweet Caress. My fingers played the rhythm on the steering wheel as my head bopped from side to side. I’m quite certain I appeared out of touch with the world to anyone who might have seen me as I drove past. I didn’t care.
As soon as I reached the intersection of SH 49 and FM 727, Sonny Fortune continuing to blare in the background, I turned west and covered the fifty or so yards that separated me from the entrance to Carr Beholden. The small private drive ran from the highway to the lakeside hotel-turned-residence where I lived.
Like Carr Beholden itself, the tiny road was surrounded by trees and undergrowth that transported me to a different world. Driving the 150 yards from SH 49 to the house was a joy not suited for the claustrophobic. The road was barely wide enough to accommodate two vehicles if both were mostly in the ditch. Thick foliage and branches reached out as though the forest itself wished to capture any invaders making this journey to isolation. It was a magical path that wound over hills and through East Texas woodlands until abruptly opening to a majestic view of Kingswell Lake tucked behind the timber building I called home.
Carr Beholden was built in 1832, more than a decade before Texas became a state, and it served as respite for the lumbermen, riverboat crews, and dockhands that swarmed into this area during the rapid expansion of shipping enabled by the waterways that traveled all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Big Cypress Bayou provided a channel between Kingswell Lake and Caddo Lake, and Caddo connected to the Red River. From there it was easy sailing to major ports throughout the Mississippi River Valley and ultimately to the Gulf.
The town of Kingswell was a splinter from Jefferson, the “Riverport to the Southwest” during the 1800s, and Kingswell Lake provided the last major reservoir between Caddo Lake and the bayou itself. The hotel was established to accommodate the large influx of people who came in search of work. It often served as permanent housing for many since they could live on the lake where all the traffic must pass regardless of which direction it moved. Multiple boats could moor at the hotel while remaining just a few minutes away from Jefferson.
The whole area was a shining success story more than a century ago when it was awash in money. It remained that way for at least 75 years. Then in 1873, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed the Great Raft from the Red River above Shreveport. With the coming of railroads, the government believed dropping the water level in Big Cypress Bayou would not cause a significant impact since the waterways were no longer needed. In much the same way as the bayou itself, Jefferson and Kingswell dried up in what later became known as the “great decline.” I always believed that referred to the bayou’s water level as much as the local economies.
Prior to and following the disabling of the waterways, Kingswell had very little to offer compared to Jefferson since the hotel was the biggest building and most successful business. The two towns actually housed significant numbers of people who worked the docks and ships or who were involved in moving supplies from the water to ground-based transportation. Jefferson was where the real action was while Kingswell was just a rest stop along the way.
When I decided to move here, the availability of housing was, at best, nonexistent. There were farms tucked away in the hill country. There were a few abandoned business buildings scattered throughout the area. There was plenty of open land that could be used for building something from scratch. But when it came to buying a home, this was not the place to look. And then I found Carr Beholden.
The Carr family still owned it in the early 1900s when they converted it to a private residence. That conversion involved nothing more dramatic than removing the hotel references on the signs and adding a handful of indoor bathrooms. Walter Carr, the sole remaining member of the family, died in 1976, leaving the place deserted. It seemed no one had interest in something that large and so out of the way. Besides, East Texas is certainly not known as a vacation paradise or even a major tourism destination. So the building and land both languished on Kingswell Lake. The private pier, what amounted to a private lake since the nearest residents were in Jefferson to the west, and just over a thousand acres of East Texas forest and hills stood unused for three decades.
I realized the moment I saw it that it offered enough room to accommodate whatever I might want to do with the place—including moving my parents in as they got older and could no longer live on their own. They hated that idea but understood my reasoning. I suppose they thought they’d live forever and would never need any kind of charity. Don’t we all wish the same?
After seeing it only once, I purchased the old hotel in 2005 and immediately wondered how insane I’d become since Beth died. Sitting empty and without upkeep for thirty years meant the place was in shambles. The forest had overgrown all but the building itself, the wooden lodge seemed on the verge of collapse, half the pier had already fallen into the water, and it lacked most modern conveniences. Thankfully the building proved they constructed some things to last back then as its appearances betrayed a sturdy structure that undoubtedly would stand for another century if someone would show it a bit of care and maintenance.
I engaged some locals in need of work to help clean it up and brought in contractors to do the major work. It took three months to complete the repairs and bring the area back to some level of livability. I realized it was worth the effort only after I moved in.
I was in no hurry to complete all the repairs since I only needed it to be safe and to have a small portion of it in which to live. Once I moved in, I could continue the work on the rest of the rooms until the entire hotel became inhabitable… and presentable.
After repairing the structural concerns such as putting in a new staircase, I had two rooms converted into a master suite, another room into an office, and several other rooms into various requirements for civility: a game room with pool table and other diversions, a media room, a library, and several guest quarters. I also had the entire building wired for electricity, added new plumbing and more bathrooms, and fixed the worrisome septic system. The massive bar was converted to a combination bar and dining room while the old dining room was turned into a large living area. I also added satellite television service and a T1 for internet access (the lack of any high-speed online facilities this far out in the country meant a dedicated circuit was my only option). I screened in part of the wraparound porch that encircled three sides of the building and glassed in another section of it to create a sunroom. I’d already decided to leave the upstairs balconies open. I’d also replaced the crippled pier with a new one.
The more I made it my own, the more I realized I was running out of ideas for the space available from a twenty-bedroom hotel with almost 10,000 square feet of usable room. None of that mattered since I’d rather have extra space than not enough.
As I pulled up to Carr Beholden, the noon sun high overhead baked the world in summer heat. I parked beneath a large oak tree so the car would be shaded for the rest of the day (I’d not had a garage or carport built yet). I took a deep breath as though leaving the vehicle meant stepping into some toxic environment where one could only survive with the air already in the lungs. I turned the car off, grabbed the three bags from the back seat, and climbed out of the rapidly warming interior and made my way to the screened-in porch.
I stood just outside the door even as beads of sweat began taking shape on my forehead, and I looked out across the 1,100-acre lake. This place had grown on me. This was home. Perhaps it was finally time to sell the old house in Dallas.