Black Cherry Rebel

•March 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Bingo night comes twice a month. If you don’t attend or to have it missin’ on your list of ‘to-do’s’ it’s a Shuck County sin. Don’t know what it is about bingo that makes it part of the Bible if it’s played in a church opposed to anywhere else in town. The game tends to gain a reputation once those cards are in front of you and the feel of those smooth round chips slide across your palms. My grandad, rest his soul, said it was a game best left to the Christians with a strong will who could play on Saturday night then cleanse their souls come Sunday morning. The boundaries of self-control with every commandment there is are pushed hard on bingo nights. Maybe that’s why they play in a church, as well. Keeps the devil from coming in too far and the offering high the next day just in case he does. I like my soul the way it is so I seem full of surprise if anyone in town mentions anything about the game.
bingo
“I cannot believe our caller for bingo came down with measles,” said a voice behind me at Shy’s General Store. “You know anyone who might want to be the caller?”

I like to time my visits to Shy’s so I’m the only patron present. Which was why I was confused at first who the voice was talkin’ to. “Me?” I said as I turned around before I wished that word had fishin’ line attached to reel it back in. It was the Widow Witthall and her sister although I can never recall her name. Everyone just calls her, her sister or Sissy for short, even Widow Witthall.

“So kind of you, Cali,” Sissy clapped her hands and jumped up and down in her prosthetic shoes. “I didn’t know you liked—“

My passive smile quickly intervened. “Sissy, I’m sorry, I didn’t know y’all weren’t talking to me. I’m lookin’ for oatmeal, is that not on this aisle?”

“Oh, Cali, be a lamb before you get too far. Help me with these apples,” Widow Whitthall expressed as I almost escaped right into the safety of the next aisle whether it had oatmeal or not. “Why, looks like I’m ‘bout to drop every single one of ‘em.” She must have had two dozen stuffed into burlap sacks, their restitched seams hollerin’ at the breaking point, illustrating a haunting story that this wasn’t their first apple encounter. I caught two green ones as they tried to escape. “Much obliged, Sugar, oh, goodness, me,” she chuckled with nary a coffee tainted breath between syllables as we finally corralled them all and stuffed them back in. “I spent too much time finding Shy’s blemish-free pickings he always has for pie baking only to bruise them from a fall I couldn’t save them from.”

It was hard to keep that passive smile pasted on my face to help the widow and not get sucked into the vortex of a metaphor. She has a will about her that reminds me of a six foot tall Dirt Devil vacuum. You respect the vacuum because it gives you a clean floor fit for eatin’ off of whether the wayward crumbs in its path want to be sucked up or not. But it’s called a Dirt Devil because it don’t distinguish a moldy Cheerio from a precious ring and it’ll suck the holes off a sponge. I knew I should have stayed at home. But this was what I get for falling prey to a weakness I wish I could rid myself of. Yessiree, pictures of it had flashed in my mind as I tried to catch those apples in the folds of her flabby arms. It’s true what she said about Shy’s blemish-free pickings. But he also keeps other odds and ends in supply so that folk don’t have to drive twelve miles to the nearest Piggly Wiggly for milk and such. I do frequent Shy’s for those very things but it’s what’s on a certain aisle that brought me there most often. It comes in a crinkly waxed paper bag with a simple twist tie at the top and inside that paper bag are twenty-seven colorful pieces of Shy’s blue ribbon salt-water taffy. It’s truly a reprehensible weakness that I fight and I don’t like people knowing. So I had sneaked the packages of sinful confection back on the shelf while I helped Widow Whitthall. Thought it would only take a minute.

“The Reverend might just shun me if I didn’t bake proper pies for bingo,” she continued. “Everyone knows he likes a healthy number of his flock and visitors to attend, after all, and if pie’s what gets them there—“ she paused long enough to eye me over the rim of her tortoise shell readin’ glasses and nudge me with an elbow laden so heavily with bags that several apples called upon my lightning reflexes again as they were loosed. Or did I have wayward crumbs on my floor that she felt needed cleanin’? The widow grinned. “Sissy, did you see Cali’s name on the roster for tonight? Maybe I overlooked it. Wouldn’t feel right to leave you unrewarded for rescuing me. How about I bake an extra pie just for you and have it waitin’ there when you come?”

That was it. The metaphor’s door was ajar and the light was on. Close it quick! I opened my mouth to fight off the Dirt Devil and tell her a hearty no thank you I have better things to do with my time and more important people to do them with. But, let’s be honest. The picture in my head was of Cleetus and my feast of tooth-rotting sugar perched in front of junk t.v. Not exactly the Saturday Evening Post picture I’m sure was in her head of God-fearin’ church goers shining their halos with grease from homemade fried chicken, their hopes pinned to a voice calling out numbers on a Saturday night and all for only half the jackpot. The other half goes to charity. One word would have freed me. Three words had my grandad been present before my grandma pulled him away.

“Uh, well, I, uh—“

“It starts promptly at six, but if you can– get there before Shy.” She winked and jerked her head at the shaggy-haired rotund figure, scratching his faded overalled behind, at the only register. I glanced over just in time to watch him pick his teeth with the sharpened end of a pencil he keeps behind his ear. His other hand rested on the bib of overalls bolstered with pieces of rope acting as straps to give his girth more room to breathe or eat, whichever came first.

“Uh, thank you but—“

“Needn’t worry ‘bout a thing, Dear. No soul in that church would mind a guest bingo caller taking home a pie.”

“Oh, yes, the caller. You saved bingo night, Cali,” Sissy squealed and jumped up and down like a teenager, giving my arm a squeeze through a grin that’s had too much iced tea and bible studies and scared away the one syllable that would have freed me from the vacuum. Before I realized, they was both paying for their bags of apples and left me in the aisle, my mouth gaping open like a panicked buffalo fish in shallow water. And there it was. Me. The bona fide bingo caller at Shuck County’s finest Baptist Church. The very one that Bobby Jake attends with his granny and that I ain’t been to since he held my—well, it’s been a long while. It still has an outhouse in the garden on the outskirts of the property and, as Bobby Jake would say, in fine working condition. My imagination ran as wild as the horses in my field when Cleetus comes out to visit them, images stamped on my mind of what this outhouse looked like. Or smelled like. I vowed right then not to drink anything the rest of the day and the next moment I heard Shy’s croaky voice talkin’ to someone on the phone.

“A knife? Might have a spare knife…shore, best we lock up the store tonight with the new padlock…don’t y’all fret about it. I’ll be fine…yeah, I’ll be outta here early…no, ain’t seen no strange ones around and only heard ‘bout the one incident last night…okay, okay no one’s gonna hurt no one now…I gotta git…customers in the store ya know, bye.”

The tinkling bell on the door when Widow Whitthall left brought me back to the present. I wondered what that was all about and decided salt-water taffy didn’t sound quite as good then as it did when I first got there and was almost to the door empty handed when I heard Shy.

“Cali, brought a batch from a brand new recipe in case you came callin’ today.”

dominosugar1

Callin’?! Well, that was a definite poor choice of verb. “Now, Shy, I came shoppin’, not callin’ and I’d appreciate it if—“ He reached beneath the counter and pulled up a blue Domino’s tin. As soon as he lifted the lid, a pleasant aroma hugged my nose and chased the dread of verbs, bingo, and Dirt Devils clean away from my mind. Inside the tin lay his taffy wrapped tenderly in individual pieces of waxed paper like they were his babies and he had them nestled snuggly into bed on Christmas Eve. Couldn’t help but inhale the air around that tin and notice how quiet it got in his store. Even the purr of Johnny Parker’s mower across the street and the whistle of the freight train approaching were dimmed by the sound of Shy’s bratwurst fingers freeing the taffy pieces from the crinkly plastic pillows between each one. He offered up a dark pink piece with curious brown specks. “Try it. Reckon I’ll call it black cherry rebel, what do y’all think?”

Anything else on my mind floated away on gentle ripples of water. How could I refuse such thoughtfulness when it’s branded Black Cherry Rebel? Even made the hair on my arm perk up when I accepted that piece from his hand and  my brain thought it was already in my mouth as I unwrapped it. I was just hoping the moisture pooled under my tongue wouldn’t drip down my chin none. Deriving this much pleasure from something not even breathing has got to be a sin. Pleasingly sticky to my touch, when I brought it close to my nose and smelled the black cherries locked within, I swear I rose above the ground. If my tongue had a voice it would have been chock full of bribes to get my fingers closer and, at last, allow it full satisfaction. My lips welcomed it in and closed together, my eyes rolled back in my head, and I caught a glimpse of a field of cherry trees, their blossoms smelling so sweet and dropping their white petals as the fruit grew before my very eyes. There I was twirling around in the rain shower of petals, arms outstretched trying to catch as many as I could. Tiny tart pieces of real cherries burst on my tongue followed by something chewier and so sweet my taste buds finally begged for mercy. Both corners of my mouth touched my earlobes and I fought the urge to cry.

“Musta gotten to the butter cream and real honey,” Shy said quietly. “Were them finely chopped walnuts too much?”

I opened my watery eyes just as the last of it bid my tongue a reluctant Romeo and Juliet good-bye. “Sweet daisies, Shy,” I said, my hand over my heart and eyes pouring over the other pieces in that tin. “What a right perfect name for that recipe.”

“So, you gonna actually do it?”

For a second, I thought perhaps he was referring to the Evil on my shoulder, foaming at the mouth and shouting at me to rip the tin from his hands and devour the rest of those rebels. “Do what?” I asked.

“Couldn’t help over hearin’ y’all got hamstrung to be the caller tonight. That widow has a way of getting people to bingo like it’s the only way to heaven,” he chuckled and put the lid back on the tin, suddenly taming my wild desire.

I collapsed against the counter and whined. “Shy, I can’t go to bingo. I don’t know the first thing about callin’.”

He found a toothpick to torment his teeth further and looped his thumbs in the button holes on his overall straps. “Ain’t nothin’ to know. Balls are in a hopper. Turn the crank on the side, draw out the suspense some, open the door,” he shrugged. “Reach your hand in to grab a ball. Then call out the number. You actually be doin’ me a favor if you went.”

“Why? You don’t want to be the caller either?”

Shy peeked around the store then turned around to open the safe on the wall. He spun the tumbler several times before he actually did the combination, talkin’ to me over his shoulder. “Told Bobby Jake I’d finally get out to help him with his truck,” he said as he pulled up on the handle and the door came ajar. He lowered his voice. “Made an extra batch of them rebels for bingo but wasn’t sure how to get ‘em there. You can take them for me if’n you go.” He took out a box from the safe and set it on the counter in front of me. It made a weighted sound like guilt’s first blush on an innocent conscience and I swallowed hard.

“Uh, me?” My heart quickened. “Y’all want me to take the box of –of—of, taffy? This taffy, your taffy?”

He regarded me with beguiling eyes and gave the box a gentle shove toward me. “Don’t mind, do ya? Need to make a stop at the cemetery. Fixin’ to put fresh flowers on Mama’s grave before Bobby Jake’s. Ya do it for me?”

“Well, uh, I’m-,” I started. Lord! Where’s a verb when I need one? Milkin’? Plantin’? Muckin’? Cleanin’ Cleetus’ poop. Pick one and call it out! I wanted to bang my head against the counter. Who was I kiddin’? I knew who I was dealin’ with and I knew what he had. Superman had a weakness: kryptonite. Mine was taffy and clever words and Shy dun bought the farm on both in nothin’ flat. I heard how drug dealers catch you in their snares by leading you into having just one pill to take the edge off and one to take home with you so you could yearn in the back of your mind all night long how much better your life would be– with even more.

Not that Shy’s a drug dealer but for all intents and purposes he was pushin’ something and certainly wasn’t shy about doin’ it. As I found myself outside tying that box of Rebels to my bike I happened to think how much this reminded me of his mama. I didn’t know her, only heard stories but she had cunnin’, wiles, and sheer determination about her. If someone asked her to get the spots off a cow, she’d find a way to do it or make you think she had.

That determination was tested the autumn night he was born. His daddy was workin’ two counties over so she had to drive herself to the hospital. That fall sky was fixin’ to unzip its darkest cloud and empty out the heavens but with the pain she was in, she plum forgot her umbrella and also forgot to glance at the gas gage.  Ran out one mile shy of the hospital on a country road shy of any nearby farms to use a phone and because she was shy of anything to shelter her from the rain, she had no choice but to give birth to him right there in her Dodge Royal one minute shy of midnight. He was lucky he wasn’t named for the corn shucks she gathered in the fields to line the floor of the car so he’d have something soft to lay on while she cut his umbilical. Legend at the barber shop is, after his hair’s been cut if you look at the clippings on the floor you’ll still see a corn silk or two, even now.

When someone finally drove by at sunrise and got them to the hospital, his mama was so weak she thought she was pennin’ ‘Sky Autumn Faldeck’ but her ‘k’ looked more like an ‘h’ and in those days people didn’t want to pry and so went with what they saw. He was saddled with Shy A. Faldeck. Kids at school called him ‘shy a full deck’ which he was anything but, and he exacted his revenge when teachers graded on a curve. In the Spellin’ Bee world, Shy might as well have been a Greek god. That boy had root word and etymology sense that don’t come from no book learnin’. But it was in recipe buildin’ where he focused them good smarts, making candy and lollipops and oh how Shy lived for Bingo nights. He had a system, or so he claimed. He’s so cunning, wouldn’t surprise me if he made his own card and swapped it once he got inside the church hall. Also why it made me right suspicious that he wasn’t goin’ to bingo and of all reasons, to help Bobby Jake with that truck of his. Don’t he know Bobby Jake takes parts out at night when no one’s lookin’ just so he looks busy the next day?

I was the one shy a full deck pedaling my red bicycle down the road with two heavy loads. One in my mind of being the bingo caller in a church basement filled with bible totin’ souls of those who’d been cleansed by the Dirt Devil determined to get my soul just as clean. And the other right behind me, taunting my very weakest link with its tart rebel spirits still wedged in my teeth. Then that Evil popped back on my shoulder, whispering things to ponder in my ear while I had nothing better to do than count mailboxes and telephone poles. Like maybe the box wasn’t taped shut. Did I see any tape? And if it was taped, maybe it was only down the middle and the flaps would open just enough to reach my hand in and feel the waxed paper babies inside—NO! I pedaled faster down that road and shook my head. No! As much as my tongue wanted to waggle its taste buds over every sticky bit of honey and butter cream this was not the time to get soft. I had a job to do for Shy and just enough good will still stored in my heart to carry it out.

Corn-Field

Coming back from town usually fills me with dread as I head east on Turner’s and come up on Bobby Jake’s property. At first a person would merely see his corn fields and raggedy fence posts that wouldn’t keep a turtle from comin’ or goin’, let alone an intruder. Can’t for the life of me figure out why his gran don’t urge him to make it more sturdy. Then again, only a handful of other neighbors are on this road and one of them’s me. Ain’t a whole lot of threats to deter. Didn’t change the fact that I still had to pedal past his farmhouse and his sixth sense for knowing I was present. How does he always know I’m there, I thought as I neared the mailbox at the end of the long grass driveway, daring my peripherals to catch a glimpse of that rooster tail hair and those spindly legs.

I passed the crab apple tree where he tricked me into eating too many when we were young. His parents were still around at that time and his mama tasked us with picking crab apples for making applesauce. She was really keeping us out of trouble. Little did she know how much more trouble it caused. I was sick for days. Gave me a momentary grin at the memory. Nope, no sign of him yet. Not even the faint squeak of his granny’s screen door to let me know he’s a comin’. A little further and I’d have been able to peek at the side of the brick garage where he was probably busy rinsing out oily pans from workin’ on that truck. Still no boy lurking about, but the hood of the truck was open, and I could see through squinted eyes the tools were out. Maybe he was occupied in the garage scavenging more parts from his grandpa’s broken down Ford. Shy was coming over to help him to do something after all, maybe he was preparing for that. I decided to pay it no nevermind and keep on going to feed Comit and the other horses and change my clothes for bingo in a few hours. I’d probably hear his voice echo all them curse words as I was out mucking the stalls. At least it’d be certain where he’d be and who he wouldn’t be botherin’.

The bullfrogs and crickets were starting to play their songs when I had finished and I knew by the time I got back from bingo it was going to be deafening. Folk who visit people in these parts are appalled at the noise. I can’t imagine life without it and wouldn’t have evenings any other way. Makes me sleep deeper and dream longer especially while freein’ my soul on the porch swing.

After makin’ certain the box of rebels was snugly fastened on the back of my bike, I stood there prouder than a peacock for keeping busy and hushing down that Evil on my shoulder. Every one of them rebels was accounted for. I knew it would take me ‘bout a half hour to pedal the distance to the Baptist church. Wouldn’t be long now and I’d be rid of the black cherry weight, yessiree, no lie. I stretched my back that ached from sloppin’ pigs and muckin’ horse stalls with horses that wanted to play more than let me work. Hmmm, must have been scoldin’ them louder than I thought. Hadn’t heard them curse words from Bobby Jake echoin’ over the tallest corn stalk where his fence meets mine. And come to think even more, he hadn’t come meanderin’ over like he usually does to ask me a stupid question he might have answered on his own if he dun given it some thought. I stood on my tip toes and squinted my eyes down the slopin’ road. Don’t know what I expected to see nor why I felt so compelled to care. Curse my grandad’s chats on keeping the well being of others in the back of my mind where Bobby Jake did not belong. I exhaled before leaving the cool shade of my porch and pushing off into the late afternoon sun toward his house and out to the main road.

As my wheels neared the hollow place in his yard where he worked on his truck, I slowed my bike. Sweet daisies, don’t know how that boy could tell what parts go in his truck and what parts stay on the ground with the tractor wheels and other pieces of machinery takin’ naps and pushin’ up daisies around. I’m not lying, his granny even resorted to plantin’ flowers in some wheels. They actually looked right pleasin’ but at the same time a tiny bit like tombstones marking the places where each piece of machinery sputtered its last breath. I expected any moment to hear the clanking and racheting sounds of tools against metal and Shy and Bobby Jake flappin’ their gums but it was like a genuine ghost town.

A breeze waved through the willow tree hovering over me, I heard a sound comin’ from the house about fifty yards away. Couldn’t be sure but it sounded like sobbin’ and I could just make out his granny perched in front of the kitchen window probably cleaning dishes or peeling carrots. Then something else caught my eye. On the grassy gravely driveway I noticed a trail of dark drops that appeared to lead to the truck. A glance at my watch told me there was still time to spare so I walked my bike slowly and followed the trail. The drops multiplied as I neared the truck and suddenly my footsteps on the gravel-chipped parts of the grassy driveway sounded much louder than they should. I halted when them drops puddled right at the jacked-up driver’s side of the truck and my heart gave a faster beat when I saw how much crimson was on the fender as well as the covering that lays on it so Bobby Jake can lean over and not—oh, Lord o mercy.

I thought back to the general store when I heard Shy on the phone. Something about him not seeing any strange ones around and only heard about the one incident last night. Then he said no one’s gonna hurt anyone. No doubt about it, somethin’ horrifying went on here. Sweat started formin’ on my forehead and the more I thought about it, the awfuler the possibilities became. Then that faint sobbin’ from earlier tickled my eardrums again. Do I dare see what that’s about? What a time not to have Cleetus with me.

I glanced around one more time before amblin’ closer to the house. When his granny moved in the window I froze in my tracks. All she did was wipe her nose with a hand that was holding something long and gaze out the window. She probably didn’t see me, her eyesight’s real bad, but given the events of the hour I wasn’t sure what to do. When his granny moved away from the window I sifted through the grass and crept up to the house, leaned my bike quietly against a tree and stayed put for a spell. Mostly to catch my breath and to think good thoughts but all the thinkin’ that came was the words Shy said into the phone, over and over and over and pictures of all that—couldn’t even bring myself to think the word—crimson sprinkled on the ground and splashed on the truck.

Just then the screen door creaked open and slammed shut and I glued myself lengthwise to the tree not even caring how many ants might have been crawlin’ into my socks.

“Better not be you, Bobby Jake! You’d better be gone, now!” cried out his granny through lips with one tooth. “Gonna finish this job and you’d better be gone!”

My heart was thumpin’ so hard and the bullfrogs was croakin’ so loud, you couldn’t tell which was which. What on earth job was she talkin’ about? Had to tell myself to stop being so foolish and peek around to at least tell her it was merely me. I stepped out from behind the willow tree just in time to come nose to nose wart with his granny. Her house coat and face stained all over in red and in her hand was a knife drippin’ with the crimson I saw on the ground. Startled me enough to send me careening backward right into my bike knocking it to the ground and I tried not to scream although I think I did.

“Cali, that you? Where that Bobby Jake at?” she said in a tone befittin’ any villain from the horror novels I read at night and it gave me the spirit I needed to scramble upright, pick up my bike, and skedaddle on home scoldin’ myself the entire way for not choosing happy ending stories at night and burnin’ the others. I knew bingo was waitin’ but there were too many helpings of seriousness and dread in my stomach to be in a dressed up church hall. Just wasn’t in the proper mood to put on that face.

Nearin’ the porch, the questions grew plentiful in my mind and all I wanted was to warn Bobby Jake that his granny dun flown the coop and killed all the chickens on the way out. But I didn’t know where he was. Leapin’ off my bike and racin’ in the house, I grabbed Cleetus and we hid where no one would find us. Seemed forever had gone by and with the combination of my sweat and Cleetus’s breath I was fixin’ to faint. Then I heard far away voices and footsteps on the porch. Cleetus whined and his tail thumped hard on the floor. For being a huntin’ dog he sure ain’t privy to the art of the sport.

“Shhh!” I whispered. “We’re not playing hide-and-seek, boy. The Shining’s playin’ for keeps out there.”

Someone knocked at the door, twisted the knob, and my eyes widened when I heard several shoes creakin’ across the floor. I was so still I didn’t even blink but my throat was too dry and developed a tickle. The sound gave us away and all I remember after that was a distant voice tellin’ me over and over that it was ok.

It was dark when I came to and I had to think hard about where I was and what day it might be. The cool air around me was alive with bullfrogs and crickets. But why did it feel like I was swingin’? My eyes opened to see my own porch light and blinked a couple of times as the bug zapper lit up a mosquito.

“Well, looky who finally decided to join us.”

It was Shy’s voice and I heard Bobby Jake chuckle. “Told ya she’d find an excuse to get outta bingo tonight.”

Shy handed me some iced tea. “Leave her be.”

iced tea

The wet cloth on my head slumped into my lap when I sat up to take the glass. I gulped it down like I hadn’t had water in days and for the next few minutes they filled in the blanks. Seems those boys had actually gotten that truck to start up when something awful happened. A possum fell from the tree branch right above them. Must have startled when it heard the engine turn over. Wouldn’t have been anything at all if the fan belt wasn’t doing its job but that possum got tangled up in all the inner workin’s and, as Bobby Jake put it so delicately, ‘chucked its guts everywhere’ sendin’ a ghastly sound into the air. That sent his granny into a fit, bursting out the screen door and yelling curse words he claims he’s never heard her say. Since she was already upset, she thought to remind him of everything he hadn’t done around that property. That included promisin’ but not buyin’ her more jars so she could finish cannin’ the bushel of onions and beets she’d peeled and worked on all day before they set to rot. Onions and beets!

As for the phone conversation back at the store, it all had to do with Shy’s taffy ingredients and the critters he was trying to keep away so he’d have some batches to take to the County Fair in a couple days.

I didn’t have to say a single word, the three of them felt so bad for scarin’ me into faintin’. Guess the box of rebels escaped my bike when I fell on it and they brought it along with a jar of peach marmalade to help me recover.

“I-I don’t know what to say. That was right nice of y’all to take care of me like that,” I spoke to Shy, not to Bobby Jake and tried not to grin when he took offense.

“Well, I know you won’t say the words. You never say the words, so I’ll just tell you you’re welcome and be on my way,” said Bobby Jake. “I made you a whole pitcher of tea,” he stood to leave and looked down at me. Raised his hat and winked. “When ya go in the house and get a gander at your hair, it’ll be in the fridge waitin’. G’nite. Ma’am.”

Normally, I’d retaliate but this time I didn’t feel I needed to gain yardage in the game. Cleetus and I sat there, my hair standing in all directions, enjoyin’ the squeakin’ rhythm of the porch swing and he drooled while I unwrapped one of them Black Cherry Rebels. I tore it in half and gave it to him while I ate the other piece. Back into the field of cherry trees my unvacuumed soul drifted as I bit into the tart pieces of fruit and let the butter cream and honey have their way with my tongue. When I knew the boys were way down the road I leaned my head on the back of the swing and nodded.

“Thank you, Bobby Jake.”

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Humble Pie

•March 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Bobby Jake owned a slew of hound dogs and always had pups for sale in front of his house. One day I was moseying past on my bicycle, minding my own business, when he called from his porch. That boy don’t usually get the pleasure of my voice, or eyes for that matter, but I was always taught to be polite.

“Hey,” he said.

red-bicycle

“Hey.” I slowed my bicycle, mindful to keep my eyes on the pup pen, not him.

His spindly legs suddenly leaped the five porch steps and before I could blink, Bobby Jake was jogging out to the pen. “Ya wanna buy a pup ma’am? These here’s gen-u-wine huntin’ dawgs!”

Ma’am! Sweet daisies. He’s known me since the beginning of time and was just vying for my attention. During his second year of Kindergarten he used to dip my braids in the finger paint to do that very thing and he ain’t stopped since.  Everything inside me said to keep right on going but there was a force drawing me to that pup pen. My innards shuddered at the thought of having to stop in front of that boy’s abode but not just because of him. Bobby Jake’s bothering ability’s matched only by his granny. I reckon it could have been the marble sized wart on the tip of her nose that seemed to grow more hair than her eyebrows, or the chewing tobacco she dun always shoved in her cheek. And dead center of her smile sat only one tooth, bless her heart. The brave folk in Shuck County, who met her eye to eye as she spoke, always got entertained one way or another.

I ain’t got a mom of my own, rest her soul, and some days missing her really gets me down. So a couple months back I tried my hand at making homemade preserves and thought I’d be nice and bring some to his granny. I was only on her porch long enough to see the bug zapper light up a couple of horse flies when she opened her screen door and scared me near to death. We hadn’t even exchanged pleasantries when out of nowhere I felt a thud on my good brown boots that I just spent an hour polishing. Sweet daisies, I’d known her long enough to know exactly what it was, but natural curiosity drew my head down. And there on my toe, oozing off the side, set a grainy chunk of brown chew. My stomach tried to throw up everything I’d eaten for the past month, but I fought it and won.

She must have heard me gasp. Her eyesight’s not up to par. “Cali Kidde, that you?” she asked. After I told her it was, she felt terrible and offered up the back of her everyday dress to wipe it off. “Here, this’ll shine up them boots in no time.”

And I’m sure it would have. Anybody knows an everyday dress is a dress that dun sits everywhere seven days a week. Who knows what everyday things I’d get on the boots my granpappy left for me just before he passed. That time my stomach wanted to go for round two and I almost lost. I had to get out of there and still be polite. So, I lied. “Thank you ma’am, that’s okay. Ain’t nothing special about these boots. Uh, I’ll be seeing you!” I left so fast my shadow’s still there and I plum forgot to leave the preserves. Ain’t been back to officially visit since.

Don’t know what made me extra curious that day. I’d seen pups for sale at his house more often than how many times that boy got paddled in school. Just never found it easy to venture over. I might have kept on going if not for the sweet honeysuckle that rode the same rolling breeze them cute puppy yips and yaps was on. I grinned watching their grey floppy ears flopping as they ran up and back in that pen, tripping and falling over each other like the ground’s made of bacon grease or something. A dandy display, no lie. One pup in particular, biggest of the litter, kept me grinning. He was just sitting there wagging his tail, his head cocked to one side, panting and yawning, one ear close to rubbing the ground. He wasn’t all full of spry like the others and I reached my hand over to pet him. He’s so soft and I reckon he liked it because he closed his eyes but he never stood to come over. After a spell, he yawned and plopped himself, belly first, on the cool green grass.

“Bobby Jake,” I said. “If these are huntin’ dogs why’s this one so lazy-like?”

honeysuckle fields

Bobby Jake thought for a minute. He leaned up against a tree, hands in his Levi’s pockets, a hay seed traveled one side of his mouth to the other. He even wore a clean shirt and had his rooster-tail hair slicked back like he’s a going to church. “Oh, he get his huntin’ skills later on,” he said with a wink. “Comes natural in a few weeks. I’ll give you a good price seein’s you’re my neighbor and all, ma’am.”

Good lord, folk already got the notion that he’s sweet on me, he don’t need no more urging. I swung a leg over my bike seat. “Well, thank you. That’s right kind of y’all but, no. I’m going to town. Good luck with your pup sale.” And before he had a chance to say anything else or Granny Chew decided to come outside, I rode off whistling a tune.

Now, the only way back to my house is on the gravel road right past Bobby Jake’s. It dead ends ‘bout a quarter mile east of my mailbox and there ain’t a whole lot of houses in between. My granpappy used to say it’s so quiet around them parts that folk could hear each other penning the crossword every Saturday morning. So I knew it wouldn’t matter if I walk or rode past, that boy’s going to hear me anyhow. I just set my mind to keep my wheels turning if he spoke to me or not. May not have been polite but I knew Bobby Jake better than the dressed-up pup salesman he’s trying to be and it’s just best to leave it at that.

Coming up on the raggedy, paint-peeling wood fence on the outskirts of his corn field, I inched my bike along the side of the road and squinted my eyes for any sign of him. I didn’t see anyone but that didn’t mean he wasn’t lurking about. As I neared the front of his house I eyed the pup pen and darn it all, that cute grey pup was still out and all alone besides. It was mighty hot that day and the big Willow shade tree hovering over the pen lured me to stop. ‘Course I gave in.

“Musta been a swell huntin’ dog buying day”, I said to the pup as I sidled my bike up to the pen and fanned myself with my hat. “You sure are a dandy fellah, yessirree, no lie!” I stroked his head and floppy ears. “Sure’d be nice to have a pup around my place. I get lonely and you’d have fun with Comit, yes you would.”

The pup yawned and licked my sweaty palm like he’s agreeing with me and we shared a moment under that shade tree. The breeze combed the corn stalks and the Bob-whites crooned their names between the Cicada’s songs. I peered deep into his eyes. He crawled deep into my soul and at that very moment I knew I was getting soft. Shucks, I could picture him sleeping at the foot of my bed and was already planning on what color his food bowl would be. But my bliss was short lived when Bobby Jake’s screen door squeaked opened, slammed shut, and there he was approaching like the noon freight train.

“Hey there Cali, ma’am.” He leaned against the tree by the pen again, his tenor voice sweeter than sugar beets, itching to sell that gen-u-wine huntin’ dawg. “Y’all come back to see the pup one last time, did you?”

“I reckon,” I replied with a slight harrumph. “Must have been a lot of town folk shopping for dogs. You sold them right quick.”

He stood quietly, digging his hands in his pockets like he’s trying to get an answer from his socks. Might have been endearing to anyone else. “Yes ma’am. Right in time for huntin’ season I ‘spect.”

“I see. You gonna keep this one for yourself are you?” I didn’t want to come right out and say I was interested in the pup for me. He might have thought calling me ma’am was what did it and I wasn’t about to spark that fire in Shuck County.

willow tree

“He’s a cute one, ain’t he.” Bobby Jake spit the hayseed out his mouth and mashed it into the ground with his foot. “Nope, he ain’t for me. Got a buyer decidin’ on him right now.”

My heart thumped like a smooth skipping stone across a mill pond. I knew I gave a hurt look, try as I did not to. “Oh. A buyer decidin’ huh?” I stood to leave and stretched like the news didn’t bother me none. “Yeah, he’s a cute pup all right. Sure hope he finds a good home, then.”

The pup stood on his hind legs and laid his adorable head on top of the pen. His left paw dangled out the bars and caught my pant leg. Dun tore my heart in half. So I turned around before the tear in my eye escaped and Bobby Jake seen it. Couldn’t even bring myself to say bye to the pup. I mounted my bike and broke my own speed record that half mile to my house with Bobby Jake hollering my name the whole way.

“What on sweet earth was you thinking, Cali?” I scolded myself as I neared my house. “When are you gonna learn getting soft is trouble.” I ran up the porch steps, the tears stinging my eyes it so dang hot that day, and sat hard on my porch swing to get that pup free of my soul. Porch swings are good for soul-freein’, long as they got a good squeaking rhythm to them and mine sure does, no lie. Been freein’ souls in the Kidde family for decades.

porch swing

I was only there a while when in the distance I noticed Bobby Jake meandering up the gravel road. His rooster tail hair apparently escaped all that hair grease from earlier and there it was flapping in the breeze. Don’t boys ever comb their hair? So, quick as a jackrabbit I made like I was doing something important with the flowers next to my front door, humming with my back to him as he arrived.

“Hey,” he said.

I wiped the tears on my sleeve but didn’t look at him. “Oh, hey,” I said like I never heard him coming.

He cleared his throat and stopped at the bottom step to my porch. “Uh, I dun brung you somethin’.”

Sweet daisies! At that moment, I didn’t know what was worse: him being alive or his use of brung. I sniffed. “Oh, you did, huh?” Might have been his granny’s award winning peach marmalade and I had to wrestle a grin at the thought. Not that I wanted anything from him but I did like her marmalade. “All right, thank you,” I sniffed again. “You can leave it there on the stoop and be on your way.”

I heard his boots clomping past the stoop and up the five porch steps making my heart jigger and smile fade at the thought of him getting any closer and seeing my blubbering face. “Bobby Jake, now I’m not in a proper mood to be seeing anyone. Just leave it there!”

Seemed a coon’s age before that boy finally answered. Good thing, too, or I was fixin’ to forget my churchin’ upbringing if he didn’t say something or get on home. “Well, uh, alright then, ma’am. I’ll just leave it on the stoop like you said and be on my way.”

Good lord, someone tell that boy to quit calling me ma’am. We ain’t kids anymore and it’s only marmalade. My mouth was already watering and I waited ‘till I didn’t hear his boots before I turned around to get it. But what met my eyes was not peach marmalade. Jumpin’ crawfish! Bobby Jake dun brought that pup to me and there he sat panting, larger than life. His tail thumped the porch when he saw me and his head cocked to one side, that one ear close to rubbing the ground. I walked over to him and sat on the step not waiting another second to scoop him in my arms.

“What about that buyer he had deciding on you, huh?” I looked at his face. “Was Bobby Jake fibbing?” The pup whined as he yawned and leaned his head against me. “Yeah, I reckon that don’t matter to you as much as it matters to me. Frankly, I ain’t got the stomach for what I’m about to do but might make it right easier if you went with me.” His tail thumped the porch. “Yeah? You want go watch me eat humble pie, do ya?” Then I figured if I was going anyway, might as well fetch the preserves that I didn’t leave with his granny before.

Bobby Jake was in his normal clothes again when we arrived, working on the same truck that’s ain’t started for near on two years. I watched him work for a couple of minutes and listened to them curse words shoot out his mouth like grass from a John Deere mower. I knew I wouldn’t hear any ma’ams from him then.

“Hey,” I said.

He smacked his head on the open hood and I knew he wanted to curse again but didn’t. I felt smug and satisfied. A smirk even tugged at the corner on my mouth. Thought sure I was going to hell.

“Oh, hey.” He rubbed his head and seemed puzzled to see us. “So, y’all found your proper mood and seen what I brung you finally?” He chuckled. “Cali, you’s a stubborn girl.”

And that was the real Bobby Jake. The smirk on my lips quickly turned to a frown and normally I’d remind him why he shouldn’t speak to a girl in that manner. But I just wanted the pie eating over with. “Yep, reckon that’s me all right,” I said. “Stubborn Cali. Anyway, Bobby Jake I wanted to say thank you, but I don’t understand. Why?”             Now, I believe he takes pleasure in testing proper moods. He did that to a girl in grammar school. Years later, when he finally got to high school, she was his teacher for two years in tenth grade.

He held a wrench in one hand and wiped his hands and face on his shirt with the other, raising it enough to see his tattooed bare stomach. “Why? What d’ya mean why?” Then he slicked his rooster-tail hair back beneath a greasy cap and turned to spit. Such a boy. “And what the heck kinda thank you’s that? Didn’t even say it, just said you wanted to. I knew you’s too willfull to say it. You never say it.”

I took a deep breath. “What I meant was what about that other buyer. Why didn’t you wait for them to decide on the pup?”

He cocked an eyebrow then turned back to the engine. “I did wait, you stubborn girl, you’re the buyer. I seen the longful look in your eyes when you pet him and seen the same look in his, standin’ on his hind legs like he did when you left. Shoulda heard him whine when you got outa sight. I knew who that pup’s goin’ home with. Just couldn’t figure out why you’s too headstrong to say it.”

The pup licked my face, filling my nose with his sweet breath like he’s urging me to be cordial. “Don’t know what to say, Bobby Jake. That’s down right nice.”

“Thank you’s enough for me.” He peeked his head up from the engine and winked making my eyebrows twitch and my stomach feel like it had too much prickly pear nectar. “You still ain’t said it but never mind. What’d you name him?”

Glancing down at him in my arms I felt bad I hadn’t thought of a name so I spat out the first thing that came to mind. “Cleetus. I think I like Cleetus.”

“Well, all right then, he looks like a Cleetus.” He grabbed a different wrench, ducked his head back in the truck again, stood on the bumper, and grunted as he tightened a part deep inside. “You need somethin’ else?”

“Oh, I plum forgot. I know your granny likes preserves so I brought her some.”

Bobby Jake raised his head out the truck, drips of sweat drawing lines in the grime on his face. “She’ll be right happy to get that. Might even trade you for her peach marmalade. She knows you like it.” One corner of his mouth smiled and he winked again. Then his wrench dun took a tumble inside the engine and all I seen was more of Bobby Jake than I ever wanted to when he scrambled to fetch it. “Did you want to take it to her?” he called from deep inside.

Sweet daisies, no! I turned my face away, my eyes wide and jaw hanging. Then I set the jar on the ground and zipped away. I reckon my shadow’s still there.