Thursday, April 24, 2014


vintage photo etsy

Amongst our great collection of eccentrics and zanies and downright crazies the South seems to be assumed to have, our neighbor Mrs. P. was a mild, genteel version of a Character---a kinda beige presence in all that palette of Southern oddnesses---the bright reds and shrieky yellows, the frivolous, frantic chartreuses and hot pinks, the weepy silver-green-golds, and the moody, muddy browns.

She was a kind, generous-with-what-she-had woman, with a house made of two-boxcars side-by-side and covered with that fake sandy-brick siding.  

  She was never mean in her little stories of the doings about town, never spiteful in the repeating of local gossip, nor did she ever raise her voice that I remember, except when Mr. Shug got on Her Last Nerve by getting out of the Jeep too full of “alky” to get himself into the house. 

His progress across the yard was wavery in the best of times, for he had a little “inj’ry” somewhere down there, one that was not obvious save for his gait, but when he’d been off fishin’ with Hosie ‘n’em, well, the company he kept and the old Coleman cooler full of fish and Falstaff done him in.   He needed hep up the steps, as he’d shout toward Mrs. P., or her elderly Daddy-who-lived-with-them, or my Daddy, or even ME, were I the only one available. 

They were the parents of my dear much-older friend Hazel, who let me come in and watch her primp for a date, sitting on her bed in my dusty-butt shorts and bare feet, as she combed her shining perm and dotted a drop of Evening in Paris on my grubby wrist.

Her Daddy was just a little man, probably six inches shorter than his wife, and I was a sturdy little thing, round and strong-for-a-girl, fostered by my solitary-female status amongst about six blocks of elbows-and-shouts boys, whose lives were lived barefooted and up trees, in sword-fighting and galloping around on imaginary horses, being a cross amongst Robin Hood, Knights, and Gene Autry all at once. 

 And I did all that stuff, too, with my own bow-and-arrows and a thowin’-knife swiped from our kitchen along with a roll of black electrical wrappin’ tape from my Daddy’s workshop.   I wrapped that handle til it was balanced exactly right for the tip-held, flip-in-the-air true flight right into whatever I aimed at.   No tree, post, or clothesline pole escaped---every bit of wood in the neighbourhood looked as if it had been had at by a flock of woodpeckers.

And so, when I was the only prop available, I’d go support Mr. Shug up the back steps.   I’d try to hold my breath against the beery/fishy/sweaty smell of him as I held him upright sort of against my side, and my face turned WAY the other way, while one of us wrestled the screen-door past us. We’d do those little hobble-steps kinda like you’d do in a three-legged race, where the tied-together middle two of the legs were being dragged along by one person, and another leg by nobody at all.   I’d turn him loose at the kitchen sink and he’d hang onto the counter and make his way on in while I fled back out into the yard, gasping for fresh air.

But if Mrs. P. were the designated one, she’d grab him by the back of the belt with one sinewy arm, muscled as a farm-boy’s from all that yard work and wood-chopping and endless clothes-jooging and wringing in that big black pot. She’d hoist him like a puppet, as he sorta dandled his legs toward the steps, sagging and dragging.  Once, just once, I saw her really lose her temper, and I still remember the time-click of that moment, when she’d Just Had Enough.

One Saturday afternoon---I know it was Saturday, because she was sitting way back in the shade of her porch, and I on our back doorsteps, each with a fresh, just-delivered GRIT in our hands. I can still smell that fresh-print, faraway-vinegar tang of the newsprint, warm from the grimy bag shouldered by the GRIT Boy every Saturday, and delivered in exchange for the waiting dimes of the neighborhood.   Mr. Shug drove up and kind of swayed himself out the non-existent door of the Jeep onto the ground.   He hung on to things in the yard and made it over to the porch-post, then yelled out his usual hep-me-Ethel up-the-step.

I think I felt, more than heard or saw, the big sigh as she got up from the chair and came down to the ground to get him. 

Perhaps it WAS the smell of him or the repetition of the thing, like water wearing away a rock, or the heat and the day and her lot in life, all those young dreams vanished into THIS---I don’t know quite what---but she rolled up that GRIT longways and commenced to beating him about the head, while he began to dance drunkenly around the yard, fending off the swats.    I got so tickled by such a show from two adults I had to hide behind the dry flutter of my own GRIT---why, despite his boozy state, he was doing a pretty good Fred Astaire out there, and Ginger was getting in some really good smacks, herself. 

“You get yourself in that house RIGHT NOW,” she hissed, “’fore anybody SEEES You!!”    And she dragged him up and in, and out of sight of prying eyes. 

I suppose I didn’t count as anybody, having often been the dragger to his dragee, as it were, and part of the spectacle, myself, on occasion---a grubby little kid, sunburnt and barefooted in that tromped-down yard, trying to maneuver a drunk into the house for propriety’s sake. 

She was a good, plain cook, and I know that his fishing contributed a lot to their livelihood, for the few little crappie or perch that he brought in were their supper several days a week.   But he cleaned those fish out between our houses on a big old battered picnic table, and I know for sure that that malodorous old table, with the innards scraped off in a bucket and the scales skittered off into the grass with OUR hose, along with general scent of him as I held him up---I cannot abide any kind of fish or beer to this day.

Ah, the people, and the MOMENTS, that we remember.   And I never, EVER told my sweet, beautiful Hazel about any of it.

Vintage photo---ewillys


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Rachel:

Really, what can we say but to reiterate how enchanted we are with these Southern characters who people your posts and who are so vividly drawn?

Your description is so full of life and contains the most wonderful imagery that we can, and do, imagine immediately each scene that you paint for us in words. Who could not be captivated by this and all your similar pieces?

Here are two mismatched individuals who so obviously need each other and who have, for the most part, worked out a modus vivendi. As for the fish, necessary for their survival, in all senses, we see and smell it from here as we do the tainted breath!!

Patsy said...

I enjoyed the story.

Dorothy said...

Sounds like a Southern story from the 1940's! Have you published books? Maybe you should!

donna baker said...

Rachel, wonder what drove him to the bottle? Childhood trauma, I presume.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

By way of a P.S.

We have made reply to your recent comment on our present post. Unfortunately it did not appear, as it should have done, immediately below what you so generously wrote. Please look for it towards the bottom of the page.

Kathy said...

I love these little stories you post. You really should publish them.

Kim S. said...

I hooted out loud at this, Rachel. Every little town has this man! Harmless, really, but irritating as hell. You wonder how they didn't walk around with a butcher knife between their shoulder blades all the time.