“A girl has to be careful who she’s seen with. People talk.”
by Rob Hunter
“Eat mo’ possum, Harley.”
Thelma Wagstaff blew herself away as she sat on her high red upholstered stool supervising the cash box at the White Street Billiards and Snooker. A symphony of flaccid flesh, Thelma hit the floor like she had fallen out of an airplane, no parachute, and her pistol went bouncing toward Ed Seitz and me. The gun’s muffled report reverberated, echoes crossing echoes like a dispatcher’s call in a marble train station. Ed and I were absorbed in the cushion shot he was negotiating. We did not look up; there was a fiver riding on Ed’s shot.
So you can tell us apart, I am Harley Pigeon—long and tall and stringy with a disorderly brush of sandy brown hair and a migrating cowlick, sort of Gary Cooper as an Eagle Scout, but no merit badges, no good looks and thinner. Ed is built like an apple on a stick except Ed’s apple was slipped to half-mast around the equator. When Ed leans in to study a billiards shot, you get to wondering who will back off first, Ed or the 900-pound slate table.
Before her suicide, Thelma’s nickel-plated .38 resided harmlessly in an open cigar box on top of her till where it kept the 10-dollar bills from blowing away. Parrish Wagstaff—Ol’ Parrish, to his few friends—had kept the gun loaded with dumdums and Thelma continued the practice out of habit. She died by her own hand and her own pistol, not by throwing herself under a train as was the practice for the small town debutante, pregnant, wronged or just plain bored. Did I tell you Parrish Wagstaff used to own the hardware store? Ol’ Parrish, according to the store’s hangers-on, had been made cold by Thelma’s increasing poundage. Ol’ Parrish had run off with Norma Cawthorne, a varsity basketball cheerleader in 1928, twenty years before, and not been seen since. Thelma was a comparatively chunky thing even back then. Twenty years of chocolate-dipped donuts had not improved matters. Including the weight of the bullet, Thelma tipped the coroner’s scales at 420 pounds.
Anyway, Ed blew his shot as Thelma’s vast body slid away in a long, slow faint. We watched her going down sideways. Her folds of fat absorbed the impact of the tiled cement floor as it rushed upwards to accept the offering of her life. Not much of a life, lately, I heard. Thelma’s death and Ed’s missed cushion shot were a delayed last act in a blighted marriage.
About here you’re probably asking yourself where we came from and what were we doing here, witnessing a wronged woman’s tragic end. Good question. The truth was we didn’t have much to leave behind in Milwaukee except a cubbyhole office on the second floor of Zabloski Bros Tannery. The floor was unvarnished oiled hardwood with red crumbs of sweeping compound ground into the cracks. Frosted glass sagged in the partitions, walnut paneling was warped and had heaved around the steam pipes from generations of radiator leaks. The Zabloski Bros were rapacious landlords.
For a salesman knowing things is an important part of the job. I could get you tickets for the White Sox, Cardinals, Cubs and Bears. I knew sports, Broadway show tunes, heavyweight title fights and the up-and-coming welterweights. I did my research with the racing form, Variety and Sporting News. Ask me a question, go ahead. Ed Seitz is my partner in Factory Findings. Not Inc—when we had to choose between rent and Inc., rent won. We were making a living, barely. Ed once shared his vision of the New South with me: “Air conditioning, Harley. That’s what will relocate Northern manufacturers to Dixie.” Well now, that’s the story, isn’t it?
It was good to be on the road, open vistas, fresh air, blah, blah. See America First. We were selling anything we could find a buyer for. My specialty was brass grommets; Ed knew the industrial string and twine business inside out. The leaf springs of Ed’s Buick sedan sagged with sample cases and catalogs. He was a salesman to be respected.
Our next and only stop was Piedmont, South Carolina, where Dixie Duck and Process had landed a tarpaulin contract for mothballing every deck gun in the entire US fleet. Dixie Duck turned canvas into tarpaulins. To accomplish this, they needed thread and tons of grommets. Ed and I hatched out our Southern Strategy over beer and billiards at the Antlers Hotel, near the depot in Milwaukee: We can solve your problem, Mister Manufacturer. So you see, this is not so much about Thelma, not about Ed or me. It’s about grommets and a patch of tomatoes.
We became Thelma’s regulars and hung out at the White Street Billiards and Snooker. It beat staying in our sweltering rooms at the General Longstreet where Charley Hoskins was the landlord. Charley will tell you about the tomatoes:
“Huh! Mister Lansford’s tomato patch. Lansford got killed at Chickamauga. Flop Eye, the tomato patch, that’s what they called it ‘count of Mister Lansford’s ocular misalignment. And over here,” his finger traced a crooked boundary line to the banks of the Catawaba River, “Hog Wallow. Generated the county’s plague of pigs. Got washed out and went wild in the spring floods. ‘Course that was a hundred years back. Nowadays we got a possum plague.
“With proper attention, the Purples are clairvoyant; this is not public knowledge. See, people will have their little dramas that seem pretty important at the time. But Cherokee Purples, while not indifferent to human suffering, have their own plans. Who’s to know what’s important to a tomato? The Purples look after their own business. Tomatoes want you to ask. They never volunteer.”
Charley’ll be back. He comes in later on.
Norma the cheerleader must have indeed been a legendary cupcake for the surviving hardware store layabouts to treasure her memory for over twenty years. All of her charms—well, almost all—had been revealed by one chance visit. There was water damage at her grandmother’s and Pa Cawthorne figured Norma’s eye was keener than his for decorating. The good ol’ boys at the hardware store led Norma upstairs to peruse the collection of embossed tin ceilings. Norma had a short skirt, upthrust bosom and a peach-colored team sweater with a velour V stitched to the front.
I heard this while buying three pounds of 8-pitch lag bolts for a retrofit at Dixie Duck. Sharp observers, the guys at the hardware store. And long memories—they mustn’t have had many nubile young ladies checking out the tin ceilings in upstairs storage. A quick glance back down the stairs into an ascending cleavage. Hmmm. They cherished Norma’s visit for decades.
“This way, Miss. We don’t get much call for tin ceilings, but you never know.” Ol’ Parrish kept the 8 by 16 foot rolls upstairs 25 years past their best-used-by date in hope of a buyer. Ol’ Parrish just couldn’t throw anything away. And the rolls of stamped tin ceilings had clogged his attic since his father—Ol’ Ol’ Parrish, I supposed—had bought a carload lot right after the Spanish-American War. He was a late convert to advertising, but young Ol’ Parrish put in the tin ceiling at the White Street Billiards and Snooker hoping for an upwelling of the communal esthetic. The denizens of the White Street Billiards and Snooker looked up infrequently and did not read House and Garden. They cooked with wood, the chimney clogging pitchpine of the Catawaba River bottom land. Thelma made sure they got home to the missus in time to chop and split. And the good wives of Piedmont’s doctors and dentists who did read House and Garden were planting magnolias and adding colonnaded porches by 1948. Tin ceilings were off their style radar.
“You just follow Sam now, Miz Cawthorne. He knows all the rolls.” I’d just bet. Norma Cawthorne was hot stuff for 1928, or for any year for that matter. Ol’ Parrish brought up the rear and drank up the view. He cherchezed la femme—cheerleader’s thighs, tightened by the steep incline. Yum, yum. Parrish Wagstaff was a lost man; a sad case, opined Piedmont, and all over a high school girl. Norma Cawthorne and Ol’ Parrish were gone that night. Norma’s Pa never did come to pick up the tin ceilings.
North of town, the Catawaba River bottomland flooded regularly. Giant carp, escaped pet aquarium goldfish most likely, were left behind in ruined cornfields when the waters receded. But only the occasional human remains. And never the remains of Ol’ Parrish. And no Norma. Time passes; it is now 1948 and the good life is defined by do-it-yourself gypsum board and linoleum on the floor. Times are better, but not all that much better. Those rolls of tin ceilings languished still, upstairs at Wagstaff & Son Hardware.
Wherever Parrish Wagstaff and Norma the varsity cheerleader got themselves to, they hadn’t sent any postcards back home; they were never heard from again.
As you got closer to the corpse, Thelma’s scent was not the smell of death—nitrate and gunshot residue. This was Aqua Velva with overtones of Lilac Vegetal—a bargain men’s cologne re-bottled under Parrish’s own label. Parrish must have gotten a deal and Thelma honored his memory even in death. Cologne aside, Ol’ Parrish knew his hardware—after twenty years his bullets were still good. Ask Thelma. Like I said, Ed Seitz blew his cushion shot and I won five dollars.
A hanky embroidered with plum colored thread was clenched in Thelma’s free hand. This reeked of patchouli. Whatever lonely secrets she whispered in her bedtime prayers, Thelma’s dialog with the Almighty was to be continued in a heavily scented afterlife.
The White Street Billiards and Snooker had a public payphone on which Thelma conducted all her business. The number was written on many a kitchen wall throughout the county—a useful resource when wandering husbands might be required at home for some heavy lifting. Outgoing calls were mainly for the taxi to pick up some Bourbon Deluxe at the bootlegger’s with a stop for crushed ice at the drug store soda fountain. Thelma monitored all outgoing conversations. Ed tried to step around Thelma’s body to where the phone hung on the wall behind her counter. He shivered and stood stock-still, eyes bulging; he was breaking a sweat that threatened to melt his scissorbill collar. “I can’t do it, Harley. You call.”
I rummaged in the cash drawer and tossed him a key. Frisky Giblets, a chicken and ribs joint, was the standby sanitary facility when Thelma had a heavy beer night with customers lined up for the urinal. And the nearest phone Ed wouldn’t have to hurdle over Thelma’s body to use. He went across the alley, dialed 0 and told the operator to send the police. I pocketed Thelma’s other spare. You never knew when nature would call.
Colonel Wildrose Mahaffey himself—pale, with lidless eyes and a thin-lipped mouth that showed the gold of many metal teeth, the commandant of Piedmont’s 12-man force—appeared in response to Ed’s call. Felonious assault, death resulting, was not a foremost police priority. Col. Wildrose Mahaffey’s first concern was the county’s possum plague. Victory over Japan had generated an unheard-of fecundity amongst the lowly possum, death by collision resulting for both the rodents and the drivers. “Eat Mo’ Possum,” a favorite football chant, fired Mahaffey’s imagination. He got a brainstorm for turning the highway pest into what us sales types call a “self-liquidating premium.”
Eat mo’ possum road signs and bumper stickers proliferated. The public outcry over the rash of highway deaths regularly got the colonel’s picture on the front page of the Chronicle, cradling his shotgun and hoisting a brace of slaughtered possum. Col. Mahaffey ran for sheriff. Public opinion counted him a sound man and he held the two positions—commandant of police and county sheriff—simultaneously.
Wildrose Mahaffey wore a Sam Brown belt and a campaign hat with a chin strap that made it easy to confuse him with a scoutmaster or one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The knife-edge crease of his twill uniform trousers announced that even when he sat in the back of his chauffeured prowl car, he never bent.
The Colonel considered an invisible piece of lint besmirching his uniform as his chauffeur, a sergeant, checked the premises for any perpetrator-in-hiding. He lingered in the toilet to pee, flushed and emerged.
“Okay, Colonel,” said the sergeant.
“And who are you two?” said the Colonel, fixing a withering stare on Ed and me. The sergeant stood back five paces, hand on his pistol butt. It looked like we were the prime suspects. I did my level best not to smile or laugh all the while maintaining eye contact. The Colonel’s spiritually vacant blue pools offered no haven, no recognition of a fellow creature.
Ever notice that when you are trying to ignore a blatant disfigurement—a harelip, cotton eye or birthmark, in the Colonel’s case his emotionless water-blue eyes—on an otherwise altogether perfectly pleasant person, you go all stiff and a demonic possession forces you to stare at the blemish? On Mahaffey’s lapel was a campaign button just like Truman and Dewey, except yellow and shiny right over his heart: Eat mo’ possum. I gave it up as a bad job and, under the Colonel’s icy gaze, broke down laughing.
“Colonel, sir, I eats possum every day.”
The Colonel seemed pleased. There was a discernable twitch at the corners of his lipless mouth.
“You boys’re not from around here.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Oh, yes, we are.” Ed Seitz piped up. “We’re working with Dixie Duck and Process out on South 100.”
The Colonel’s eyes got a dreamy, far away look. “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” He tapped his Eat mo’ possum button. “After the Yankees won the war, we ate the wild pigs. Now we eat possum.”
A woman, fortyish, stylish and from away, poked her head in the pool hall door. “Oh, hello, Wildrose.”
“Hello, there, Norma. Haven’t seen you since 1928.”
“That championship team.”
“That championship year. It was never the same with you away, honey. Glad you come back home.” The Colonel nodded at the body in its pool of coagulating blood. “Thelma couldn’t wait. She’d have been glad to see you.”
The five of us—six, counting Thelma—were silent. The Colonel, apparently an avid reader of Nick Carter and Ellery Queen, was having a dramatic moment. He was waiting for one of us to break down and confess everything. Confess to what? Thelma had shot herself with her own pistol. Ed and I were witnesses; we had called the police. Case closed. We had seen this in a thousand movies—about here your average hard-boiled private eye would make some snappy crack and exchange meaningful glances with the femme fatal. We fidgeted; no one wanted to be the first to clear his throat. Any eye-rolling or throat-clearing would be a dead giveaway. We were a gift from above for a small town cop to keep on ice for awhile in case he needed someone to blame for anything. Wildrose’s sergeant stood legs apart, blocking the door to the alley, Frisky Giblets, and freedom. His knuckles were white on the grip of his weapon as if he expected us to make a break for it.
“Billy Wayne. Easy,” said Wildrose Mahaffey. The sergeant relaxed and grinned. “Suicide or death by misadventure. Folks in South Carolina don’t kill themselves. Against God’s word. Thelma must have been cleaning it when it went off, right? You. Right?”
“Me?” Ed Seitz.
“You. You keep shufflin’ your feet like that and you’ll wear out the linoleum for sure.”
“It’s not linoleum, Boss,” said Billy Wayne the sergeant. “It’s terrazzo.” Meaning the poured, polished rock aggregate stone floors favored by elementary schools.
“Billy Wayne. Shut up. You people watch too many movies.” Billy Wayne smiled. He was the distraction to put everybody at ease. This was a dog and pony show the two men had done many times.
“‘Course, if somebody,” here Wildrose looked toward Norma, “felt they had been wronged by Ol’ Parrish they might have done him in. Hypothetically. Parrish is an open file. The Catawaba River mud tends to hold its secrets. I don’t figure the county budget would allow for years of excavation looking for something the wild hogs ate up anyway, twenty years back.”
“Pigs,” Ed looked upset. “You mean pigs eat people?” This was a reversal of the natural order. For Ed Seitz, pigs were a commodity, a menu item, not fanged aggressors.
Wildrose knelt by the body. I noticed he removed the patchouli-scented hanky and put it in his pocket. A clue. I read Nick Carter and Ellery Queen, too.
With Thelma’s death Ed and I had been initiated into the life of Piedmont as deep as you can get with an up-North accent and a snap-brim fedora. In normal circumstances Ed’s hula girl neckties were the icebreaker; they got people talking. After a few of our monthly stopovers in Piedmont, South Carolina we knew all about Norma, the ruined cheerleader and Ol’ Parrish, the devil seducer. Or conversely, Norma was the seducer who led a weak man astray. Pick one, please. Twenty years on and it was still the big story in town. The basic story, however, remained unchanged in its salient details—older man with hots for teen beauty cleans out his bank account and disappears with said babe. Except that here was the babe, tailored and with big city smarts, at the scene of the wronged woman’s suicide.
Norma’s eyes grew shrewd, but not cold. Surprisingly warm, in fact. A secret knowledge passed between the policeman and the cheerleader, a shared glance was all, and that got me thinking. He smiled at her; she gave him a wink. These two had a history.
“Norma.” Wildrose Mahaffey.
“That was you followed us that night.”
“That was so long ago and I was infatuated with Parrish.”
“Not that much older as it seems now.”
“Twenty years. Like the twenty years you’ve been gone in Chicago.”
“You knew where I was. Oh, that figures—you being a policeman and all. That championship team. I figured you for another musclehead football player with no future after high school. You knew it all along—all about Parrish dying where we stopped on our way out of town.”
“And I was in love with you.”
I got the feeling Ed and I had become part of the wallpaper and, like the famous flies thereupon, were witnesses to a passing moment that meant very much to Wildrose and Norma. I had a bad itch in my probables that Ed Seitz and Harley Pigeon could be in big trouble because of who we were and where we were—the wrong place at the wrong time. And we were being ignored. This made me more than a little bit edgy. I thought of the flypaper at the General Longstreet. Unlike the Cherokee Purples flypaper foretells the end of time for flies and stops there. No deeper meanings. Flypaper has not been reported to talk with human beings and warn them off some potentially disastrous course. It’s sticky and that’s about all.
Postwar USA and, after years of gas rationing, America was finding its wheels. And so were Harley Pigeon and Ed Seitz, and we headed south. I had my first set of new tires in four years—no bald, tweedy recaps with a telltale pink bubble of ancient inner tube poking out through the weave. Real tires, real rubber, no rayon, not the Akron camelbacks that peeled off in a couple of months.
Staying in the office Ed and I lost money. On the road we made money. Milwaukee, Chicago, Vincennes, Evansville, through the Chattahoochee National Forest, Macon, Georgia to Florida. At Valdosta the sheriff’s brother-in-law operated an axle-popping mudhole at the county line and he had the only tow truck in the county. The state police looked the other way. Our alternate route was to scuttle over to pick up US #1 at Waycross to miss the Valdosta mudhole and the chance of a sleepover in the lockup.
The Route #1 swing took us into Gainesville and Ocala—the beef and citrus belt of central Florida—where we had one account, an alligator tannery.
Factory Findings met our suppliers’ bottom lines and the rest was gravy. We charged what the traffic would bear. Our maguffin was that we guaranteed delivery or we paid. While the trains could take weeks, we knew the roads, the mud holes and speed traps of the South. We rented a truck, and hauled our own freight. We ran at a loss for the first year. Then came Dixie Duck and their contract for mothballing the U.S. Navy.
We liked Piedmont, South Carolina. Ed Seitz and I parked the Buick along with our own weary flesh at the General Longstreet tourist cabins. The price was right—cheap—and, with the White Street Billiards and Snooker, we made it our base of operations. With no tourists to speak of, down-at-the-heels business travelers like us generally, times were slim for deep South tourist courts in the days before air conditioning. Charley Hoskins was a high hoper, though. In Charley’s view General Longstreet was a hero of the Confederacy, never mind the Widows of the Confederate War Veterans blamed him personally for Marse Robert’s defeat at Gettysburg. Rob’t. E. Lee insisted meeting the Yankees head-on was the gentlemanly way to carry on a war. Longstreet wanted to sneak up behind the Unions and split their forces. Gen. Lee overruled Longstreet and killed enough men to populate a sizeable shire. Clearly, Lee was a boob. But Longstreet had posited a sneaky thing, ungentlemanly conduct for a true son of the South. The name Longstreet became anathema—after four generations even high school juniors deigned to whisk their prom dates to Charley’s motor court cabins.
“Careful with the light. Use the light switch, not the pull chain.” Charley handed us our keys; he was being helpful.
From a habit of fleabag hotels, I shouldered the door open and reached for the chain anyway. I could see it hanging from the bare bulb ceiling fixture in the flashing light from the Flying Red Horse out front.
“Oh, shit!” But it was too late. I had grabbed an extended roll of flypaper. Some late arrivals were still buzzing.
One of the great inventions of the Twentieth Century, flypaper comes ten tubes for a dollar, fifteen cents for one. Makes sense to buy ’em by the box. You ever see the flypaper in the hardware store or down by the Ben Franklin? It comes with one open end from which protrudes a loop of string with a thumbtack. I flapped and flopped and danced around trying to shake loose from the adhesive while filling the basin left-handed from a blue enamelware pitcher.
The glue wouldn’t wash off. I grumped out to the pumps and cranked some gas over my hands. There was a chamber pot in the commode. When I went to dump it out in the privy the next morning, I checked for flypaper before I went in. Charley bought flypaper by the carton, a smart shopper.
“You.” Wildrose Mahaffey was talking to the sergeant.
“Yes?” Ed Seitz answered, too eager to please. My partner hadn’t quite picked up on the fact that he and I were potential fugitives from an as yet to be named skullduggery, present at the scene of a violent death, and all. I figured if there was anything Rosie Mahaffey could do to help cover up for Norma, his high school love, Ed Seitz and I were going in a jar for long time preservation.
“You, shut up. You,” here he pointed at Billy Wayne the sergeant who was trying to look inconspicuous as he studied a girlie calendar on the wall near the payphone, “go to the car. Polish the headlights or something.”
And they were alone together, two now with Ed Seitz and me transparent and Thelma dead. For, as far as Norma and the Colonel were concerned, they were the only people in the room. Or in the world, at that moment.
“You shouldn’t have been so eager, Norma.”
“Rosie, I was eighteen and wildly in love. Parish and I stopped to cut us some trim by the spillway at the old locks. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.”
“You could spare me the details.”
“You have replayed the scene over and over in your mind for twenty years, haven’t you?”
“Ol’ Parrish had a heart attack, didn’t he?”
“Rosie, you are a love, but jealousy is unbecoming. We are all grown up, now aren’t we? Parrish promised me the world, the big, exciting world outside of South Carolina with the good ol’ boys, the Ku Klux Klan, and all the goddamned football-crazy rednecks.”
“Like you. But I always had a soft spot for you, Wildrose Mahaffey.”
“And I loved you so much I could have bust, Norma. I was hurting.”
“You followed us. Parrish and me.”
“People talk. Word got out that Ol’ Parrish closed his account at the Farmer’s and Mercantile. Got cash. A lot of cash. You didn’t show up for football practice.”
“And you snuck in the bushes like a common rapscallion. You watched us making love. I must have been too much for him.”
“The wild hogs ate Ol’ Parrish.” Wildrose Mahaffey’s final offering. The woman shuddered, more in the way of a conversational gesture rather than a deeply felt emotion. There was a roach in her salad rather than a newly-dead corpse between her thighs. The romantic interlude was at an end. It had been a long time, after all.
“How can you be sure?”
“I made sure. Baited him with chocolate-dipped donuts, the kind Thelma loved. The hogs found him. Eventually.”
“Wildrose Mahaffey, how could you have?”
“Did you go for help?” The woman was silent. “I knew you couldn’t come back, ever. You took Ol’ Parrish’s poke and Ol’ Parrish’s car and just left him there. I had to clean things up.” Mahaffey did read a lot of detective stories. “They say newsy women scatter a story about, but the good ol’ boys at the hardware store already hung you out to dry, Norma.”
Norma looked up at the tin ceiling. Three sets of eyes followed her gaze.
“Ol’ Parrish’s treasure is gone,” said Mahaffey.
“Treasure?” Ed Seitz. I shot him an angry look. Oh, for Chrissakes, Ed, shut up.
“Treasure.” Colonel Wildrose Mahaffey. Improving our vocabularies with a word a day, just like in the newspapers.
“Oh, you mean all those fifty-dollar Confederate bearer bonds that Thelma had him nail up inside the ceiling?” said Norma, so sweet butter wouldn’t melt, etc. “Poor Thelma, she really believed the South would rise again. Yep, they’re probably still up there. The Stars ‘n’ Bars—long may they wave. No, Rosie, Parrish’s treasure is the rolls of mint condition tin ceilings in the attic at the store. That’s what brought me back home.”
You could have heard a pin drop.
“In Chicago,” Norma added, “I’m a decorator.” There was a beepbeep from the street and a large, moist man in a rumpled suit appeared with a Speed Graphic camera like reporters used in the movies, and popped a pocketful of flashbulbs taking pictures of Thelma’s corpse. In Piedmont, the undertaker doubled as coroner and police photographer.
Thelma was duly removed. Mahaffey’s sergeant took down our local address and telephone, “Just in case we need to ask you boys some questions...” Billy Wayne showed distain at the mention of the General Longstreet. “Red Rose Rialto’s right in town, save you all the driving. Air-cooled bar and reasonable. Six dollars a night.”
About the same as we were paying for two rooms and by the week. “Thanks, sergeant, but I figure not to have to shell out more to sleep than I make when I’m awake.” And Ed and I were free to go.
“The Rialto?” Mahaffey. He offered Norma an arm.
“The Rialto.” Norma Cawthorne accepted the elbow of the thin-lipped policeman with the metal teeth whose heart she had stomped on in high school. She was escorted to the Rialto by Col. Mahaffey. Norma would soon opt for less trendy transportation than the back seat of Wildrose Mahaffey’s prowl car.
Thelma expressed no opinion as the sergeant hopped in back of the long, black hearse and accompanied her to the embalmer’s table.
“Lots of history hereabouts if a feller knows where to look.” Charley Hoskins had right off spotted Ed and me as hailing from distant parts.
“The Wisconsin plates, right?” I offered.
“I never said I had no supernatural powers. Not like them Cherokee Purples.” Charley smiled broadly and cleared away the Dr. Pepper empties from the glass-topped highway map on his desk. Charley never charged into a subject head-on; he liked to run alongside and nip at the tires. He had a story for every intersection of the Catawaba River basin country and filled us in on the habits of plagues of pigs and possum, prophetic tomatoes and the like. “I know what you’re thinking," said Charley. “I’m nuts.” He lowered his head and looked conspiratorially to the left, then to the right. This was secret stuff—Kids Only, like we were six years old and signing our names in blood in a tree house hideout.
“But suppose I was to tell you certain tomatoes have a secret vegetable language? The Cherokee Purples, that is. That to those who can understand them they will foretell future events? Well, they don’t; they foretell the past. What they will tell is what really happened. See, no one can recall what took place even a couple of hours ago; that is a scientific fact. History is opinion.”
Ed was astounded; he was a horse player and immediately realized the opportunities presented by foreknowledge. The fact that Charley had just said this was precisely what the Purples didn’t do hadn’t registered. “Harley, couldn’t we just get a hamper of tomatoes at the supermarket. You know, sort of ask them...”
“Ed,” said Charley Hoskins with a wrinkle of his nose, “them store tomatoes don’t know shit.” Crazy or not, Charley was right up on his tomato lore. The Cherokee Purples of the Catawaba River bottom country seemed to pack an historical punch at least equal to that of General James Longstreet of the Army of Northern Virginia.
I pleaded fatigue and we staggered off to slumber land. The bare board 6x8 foot insides of the General Longstreet’s cabins allowed for a bed, a commode with towel, pitcher and basin and little else. To get the door open you had to stand behind it and pull in as you backed up. If you fell asleep drunk enough, tired enough or had lured in some female companionship, the flashing light from the Flying Red Horse sign out front of the General Longstreet wouldn’t bother you. I was not in the way of seeking out unknown females at this time of my life. So suffice it to say that I was alone and awake.
Ed and I took separate cabins instead of bunking up together; it was Ed’s snoring. The furious bobbling of a terrified uvula down Ed’s windpipe threatened to stop his heart if it didn’t strangle him first. It hadn’t yet. Ed g’zorked away as peacefully as a baby driving a Harley-Davidson in the next cabin. I was not named for the motorcycle, by the way. I think we’re second cousins or something. The heat had me pinned to the mattress, sweating and naked. There was no relief to be had. The flypaper’s latest captive buzzed mournfully in the light of the Flying Red Horse, sort of a lullaby. I must have fallen asleep.
In my dream, a giant tomato gestured vigilance. Or else. I figured this as a sending. But from whom? The Cherokee Purple looked all-knowing. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But this was a real dream, the genuine article. I had not been drinking, and I, Harley Pigeon, was the Chosen One, tomato-wise. The Cherokee Purples had tagged me; I was it. You can ask Ed about the Cherokee Purples; he’ll swear to ’em on a stack of catalogs. Ed smokes White Owl cigars down to the last inch and is as honest as the day is long. People trust him.
Just how a tomato looks wise beyond its vegetable status is hard to describe; you’re going to have to trust me on this. It was a tomato; go figure. It was bringing me a warning. This was a visitation, back country magic, if you will. It was important.
The Cherokee Purple did not speak, but its attitude said I had better watch out. For what? I checked for falling pianos or rampaging buffalo herds. If you read pulp fiction from the wire racks at the bus depot as avidly as I do—full color covers, tumbled towers, heroes like Doc Smith and Conan the Barbarian—you would realize clairvoyance, if not the bona fide article as defined by Modern Science, had better be taken into consideration. As things will do in a dream, a shovel appeared in my hand. I started digging a foxhole.
I was called from my tomato séance by a tractor in top gear with its engine revving to make highway speed. Five, maybe ten miles an hour.
Charley Hoskins had constructed a little line of one room cabins behind his gas station and garage. At the General Longstreet Factory Findings got a rate—three dollars per cabin per week. Six bucks altogether for the General Longstreet’s equivalent of the Presidential suite, including a weekly change of sheets and fresh towels occasionally. The flypaper was for free.
The tractor came to a stop outside my cabin. The ratcheting of a hand brake, followed by a tearing of cloth, a muffled female curse and steps on gravel. A knock.
“Hi there, it’s me.” It was Norma. The tractor’s engine was still running. I pulled on my boxer shorts and stood behind the door. I pulled it open as I backed up reaching for my pants.
“I got caught on something mechanical.” She fussed with torn lace on one ravaged sleeve, gave it up as a bad job and ripped it off. “There.”
She sashayed in the door, smelling of lavender dusting powder. She looked bandbox fresh in a dotted Swiss organdy frock with a deep V-neck and puffed sleeves pushed way off-the-shoulder.
“Aren’t I quite the belle?” She toyed with a long ribbon that depended from a broad brimmed straw hat. She did a little spin, hanging at the threshold for effect.
She wanted an invitation. Ladies got an invitation.
“Ladies get an invitation,” I said, “You are quite the belle. Come in all the way and let’s talk. Watch out for the flypaper.” I was glad I had emptied the chamber pot.
She checked out the cabin. “Very rive gauche. Sauvage, bohemian.”
Well, I guessed so. “They say the General Longstreet brings out the French in a girl.”
Extending a dainty middle finger, Norma flicked at the end of the flypaper. This precipitated a pendulum effect. “Très chic. Too, too, classy.” She was translating as she spoke. It was like meeting Ernest Hemingway—avec flypaper, minus the bulls and the booze. Plus the see-through organdy. With a mournful buzzing, the twisting roll of paper cast weird shadows as it swung under the single bulb.
As renters on the second floor of the Zabloski Bros empire, Ed Seitz and I were honorary members of the big Zabloski family. We got invited to the company picnic. Ed loves free beer. And those raw pork patties set out on oilcloth-covered picnic tables in the shade of old elms on the Wisconsin state fairgrounds. Raw pork—schlach—is an old Milwaukee delicacy. Or was until after the All-Star Game when half the parishioners of St. Stanislaus got wiped out by toxoplasmosis from contaminated pork. That was July 8th of last year, 1947, a Tuesday to allow travel time and an extended 4th of July weekend. Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees was in the outfield along with Ted Williams from the Boston Red Sox. One hell of a game—Ed and I listened to it on the radio at the Antlers bar—the American League took it 2-1. The St. Stanislaus church picnics were always held during the All-Star break. It took the Health Dept. a couple of months to dope out what actually had happened but the dead weren’t picky about what killed them. Six hundred died, but Joe DiMaggio escaped the stain of blame and the buffet took the rap.
At that same Zabloski Bros wingding a kid peed down the front of my best starched summer shirt. And tie. And pants. A woman with a couple of inches of brown at the roots passed me her kid to hold while she threw baseballs at a triangular stack of cement milk bottles. She was after a big plush panda named Andy.
“Lady, your kid is peeing on me.”
“You should feel special, ’cause he don’t do that to just nobody.”
She took the kid back and, great big panda in one arm, kid under the other, sauntered off without even a “Thank you.” The next year the Zabloski picnics were scaled back to grilled bratwurst due to the St. Stanislaus die-offs. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was not about to be handed another peeing baby. Norma was here and I did not trust Norma; Norma was the warning of the Cherokee Purples. She wanted a favor and I would most likely be stuck wrapping up the loose ends of her latest scheme as Wildrose Mahaffey had done two decades earlier.
So Norma had driven out here on a tractor. Said vehicle was parked in front of my cabin, still running, lights on. I slid into a dreamy reverie of Norma in her lingerie on the ride over to the General Longstreet. A little blowsy and on the fair side of forty, she still cut a fine figure. I snapped to and cleared my throat. “Ahh... Do you have a driver waiting? Should I tip him?” I closed my eyes again and, where I had left Norma holding a pinup pose, an irregularly-shaped giant tomato filled my fantasy.
“Silly. I found it parked behind the Red Rose. I couldn’t call a cab. It’s still running because I don’t know how to turn it off. There was a Start button. No Off button.”
I went out to the tractor. I found the toggle switch and shut off the engine.
“How’d you do that?” Norma was impressed that a city slicker should know something about farm machinery. I could have strung her along.
“Tractors have two sets of switches. ‘Start’ kicks over the engine. ‘On’ and ‘Off’ enable the electrical system. The tractor is Off.” I had read about this in Boys’ Life. “You couldn’t or you wouldn’t call the cab company for a ride out here?”
“A girl has to be careful who she’s seen with. People talk.”
I decided it was time for a leap of faith.
“So Wildrose snuck up and caught you and Parrish screwing in the tall grass?”
Norma froze, then coyly demurred with a chokedamp piety that insisted there had been no attraction there for her. “I was only teasing him. We went out to the old locks earthworks together. The runnin’ off was Ol’ Parrish’s idea. We just shucked down for a swim. With him being married and all and me just standin’ there and waiting. Anything I said would be an invitation.”
“Well, silly, of course. We were goin’ in swimming. Next thing he was all over me like a health inspector on a platter of bad shashlik.” The Southern Belle metaphors were slipping, along with her accent. Norma had lived too long in the North, a tarnished magnolia.
I told Norma about the Zabloski picnic and the peeing kid. “And now you want a favor.”
“A girl don’t ask a favor of just nobody.”
Almost the same words as the bottle blond at the poison picnic. I hadn’t told her what the baby-tossing woman had said to me.
“And what do you have to offer me in trade for said favor? Shit.” I hadn’t meant for it to come out that way, but shrugging into my shirt I had gotten tangled up in the flypaper again. Norma’s demeanor promised much but as I peeled off Charley Hoskins’ flypaper she was beginning to look like she’d rather be back on her tractor.
With a dreamy, calculating look, her eyes cleared and focused on a spot in the middle of my forehead. “Rosie Mahaffey is a very old, very, ah... dear friend of mine, Harley. He is as well a skilled bureaucrat adept at shuffling papers to the bottom of a pile. He is allowed to hold you for 30 days without charge as a material witness. After that... papers have been known to get lost, and prisoners have languished for years in the county lockup. I do hope you enjoy jail food.”
“Huh?” I said, not unreasonably.
“I want you to find me Parrish Wagstaff’s earthly remains,” said Norma. I felt my jaw hang loosely. “I have to know if it was I killed Parrish. That I could inspire a grown man with lust fierce enough to kill him.”
“Why not?” I got the distinct impression that she had lots more weaponry left in the armamentarium of coercion every pretty girl carries. This woman had achieved a flawless peeing baby handoff.
“I mean,” Norma said, “It got out of hand with Parrish. He was a wild man. I always thought it was his trying to impress me that killed him. Parrish, I mean? A heart attack? And I never dreamed Wildrose would be so jealous.”
“You’ve been dining out on Norma the Lethal Passion Flower for twenty years now. Why not let it rest? Ol’ Parrish the only taker?”
“Oh, Harley, that’s rude.” This with the honey-drippin’ lilt in her voice. “There was a time a decent girl wouldn’t be caught dead in the vicinity of the General Longstreet.” And here she was. With me. She adjusted her picture hat and chased some vagrant strands of hair come uncoiffed on her tractor ride.
“Miz Cawthorne?” The Miz established social distance—a defendable perimeter should things become sweaty. Norma snapped right to it like a chalk line. Breeding will tell.
“My name is Norma.”
“Norma. Now that didn’t hurt just one bit, did it, Harley? All I need is one itty-bitty favor.” She stopped to flounce the ruffles that framed her cleavage, a gesture so ingrained she did it from habit. I didn’t get my hopes up.
I tried to picture the girl Wildrose Mahaffey had fallen for when they were kids together. Her long fine hair streaming, the young blond girl skips into a marble game, scattering aggies. The fifth grade boys are too awed to be angry. The goddess has blessed them. They pick up their marbles and lump around, waiting for recess to end. Norma is a butterfly, simply playing potsy or mumblety-peg will not get her back. Heartbroken fifth grade boys shuffle back to class. She has accepted the offering of their frustration, and found it good. Norma Cawthorne, aged ten, is headed for the sandbox to do cartwheels through their castles.
She still believed herself irresistible when she turned on the charm. She was merely a drop dead gorgeous middle-aged woman.
“And the strictly secret routine? The whole world saw you come out here on that tractor. That antique would wake the dead. And, speaking of the dead—what about Thelma? No tears for the abandoned wife? You just came home to buff your self-image as the teenage temptress. Thelma was only collateral damage.”
She sat on the edge of the bed, first daintily brushing off a landing spot with a handkerchief.
“Harley, how you do talk.” Norma Cawthorne’s hanky exuded the rich patchouli scent of the hanky clutched in Thelma’s dead hand.
“You stopped by the White Street Billiards to rub some salt in an old wound?”
“And forgot my hanky.” Super coy—she didn’t bat an eye, just adjusted her cleavage again. “Wildrose gave it back to me. How was I to know that old Thelma would kill herself?”
“Listen, Wildrose will keep his speculations close to his vest as long as it suits him. Small town cops have long memories. You took credit for the deed; you fucked Parrish Wagstaff to death. Mahaffey admitted in front of strangers that he was an accessory.”
Norma did not flinch at the F-word.
So, what exactly had happened to Ol’ Parrish? The police weren’t interested. Thelma was beyond caring. Thelma shut herself away in the White Street Billiards and Snooker with the green baize tables and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches after Ol’ Parrish ran off. It was a lonely end.
I figured I owed Thelma something. She had consoled herself with the comfort of strangers.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
I tossed a prayer of aversion to the Cherokee Purples. “And don’t forget something nice for yourselves,” I added.
The old locks were a half dozen miles out of town. Massive stonework stood, an abandoned jungle temple, from where canal speculators had gone bust with the arrival of the railroad, more than a hundred years before. Hollyhocks and bindweed enveloped a rotting garage, the width of a Model T, with splayed whitewash letters in a child’s hand, Kids Only, painted on its side.
A giant stone archway made of carefully set and mitered blocks rose a few hundred yards from the river’s bank. “Tarzan and the Lost World,” I said to the thrum of katydids in the wild wisteria.
There was a comforting gurgle of flowing water. Time or the county engineers had cut a side channel around the original spillway. A corduroyed culvert pipe made of bolted together sections bypassed the flume. The new work said WPA all over it. They had planned a park here. One picnic table and a rope swing. Not bad. A project forgotten with the start of the war but well-intentioned. The picnic table was stained with pollen and pitch residue and stood lopsidedly under a Scotch pine. A converted 55-gallon drum looked like an oversized tomato juice can; flue holes had been punched in its base with a cold chisel. The burn barrel had scorched the lower limbs of a sprawling live oak with a rope swing. This was a Lord-of-the-Jungle style hemp liana made from wrist-thick three strand twisted rope. Kids showed off their diving skills and derring-do here in the summer. A miscalculation of moment and arc meant splattered brains on century and a half old freestone masonry.
I studied the arches. Underneath, two spillways and a channel lay buried under a floating mass of green. Watercresses moved ever so slightly from the passage of the stream. There were what I figured to be keystones missing—wasn’t there only one keystone in an arch?—I’d better ask Ed. The pile of a granite chimney rose sixty feet into the air, a footing for block and tackle, a rope hoist crane from bygone days. The locks had worked better in the 1830s. For now and into the foreseeable future, the locks were locked. The watercress jungle below the spillway served as a foothold for the Virginia creeper that crushed the sluice gates shut.
Bindweed, doing its binding.
The locks were a huge endeavor before steam power. The new American nation shared a vision of barge traffic, towed by horsepower, linking the country from New York to the Mississippi River. An inland navigation scheme put out of business when the railroads came. The dams, locks and waterways became archaeological junk, weed-clogged ditches. History in the un-making.
There was the glint of foil at my feet, a discarded gum wrapper. "A geezer, geezing," I said and poked the gum wrapper into the abyss with my toe. Down it went, fluttering back and forth on chance currents of air like a feather dropped from a passing bird. I leaned over to watch it fall.
And I slipped. I went down, down, ass over teakettle, straight to the bottom. There wasn’t even time to let out a yell. I skittered down the slope, sliding on my trousers seat down to a slippery landing on a mattress of decomposing watercresses. I expected death, immediate and unforgiving. All I got was some bruises and a splash.
At the base of the chimney, my shoes filled with clear, cold—very cold—water, I twisted my neck back and up. Wow, those old timers really knew how to build stuff: all muscle, not even steam. Pick and shovel work. And no one but the kids who swung on the rope would ever know about this place. The swinging kids and, every so often, a grieving parent whose offspring misjudged the windage.
I slipped again, lost my footing on a slimy rock and went face down into the watercresses. My hands shot out to grasp at anything. And there was Ol’ Parrish. Or what was left of him. The wild hogs had got him, but not before Ol’ Parrish bashed his own brains out. If the stove-in skull and gnawed leg bones scattered under the watercresses were indeed Ol’ Parrish, the only embarrassment for Norma was that he died showing off on the rope swing, not in a transport of rapture on top of his cheerleader sweetheart. History is wonderful and fragile—ignore it and it goes away: the giant stone earthworks, Thelma’s tin ceilings’ secrets. Parrish Wagstaff’s body. I figured if these bones weren’t Parrish Wagstaff’s last testament, they should be.
I recall shinnying back up the sides of the earthworks on a creeper vine as thick as my wrist. Must be as old as Methuselah to get this big. Rappelling up, the sklitch sklitch in my oxblood wingtips sent rivulets of water wrung out of my socks trickling backwards up my pantlegs. Whomp! I slammed a shoe against the vertical stonework. Whomp! The next shoe. The vine would give out, pull away. I looked down at the watercress pool, now 30 feet down. Small solace for a happy landing. Ol’ Parrish had already made his landing; I hoped his death would suffice for the two of us. I didn’t have a cheerleader waiting.
I felt the vine pull away from the rock face and threw one arm desperately upwards. Growing from a chink in the rocks was a straggly vine with a familiar lumpy purple tomato hanging on it, a Cherokee Purple. I grabbed at it. And it came loose in my hand. If you have been expecting a supernatural intervention here, think again. Tomatoes don’t volunteer.
But about now as you may recall, I was hanging in the middle of the air with a tomato in my hand praying for any pulp fiction hero to come flitting by and pluck me from the jaws of death. I could have imagined it there, but that tomato got me back to safety. My 7th grade algebra teacher liked to say “The event will define its own parameters,” a mite uptown for backwoods mystical mumbo-jumbo, but I figure that lone Cherokee Purple saved my life. And Norma’s reputation. Its message? If you want anything done right, you’re going to have to do it yourself. That Cherokee Purple cleared my head better than any spiritual encounter at a tent revival. Born again, born again, praise the Lord, I’m born again! Arms flailing, I cut up the side of that rock wall like a piece of runaway farm equipment. I swore as I tore a knuckle. Safe up top, I collapsed, let all my muscles go limp, and enjoyed the luxury of just lying still and listening to the pounding of my heart. I fell asleep in a muddle of exhaustion and dappled sunlight. And came to with approaching voices.
They sounded like Wildrose Mahaffey and Norma Cawthorne.
I had caught the peeing baby again. The Graybar Hotel was calling me. I wondered if the jailers played checkers.
I stood up and banged my head against the mossy underside of the picnic table. I had been set up—pin the tail on the Harley; Mahaffey was a small town cop with something to hide. A man’s first call is to his vanity; wake one up from a sound sleep sometime; he’ll reach for his pants, his false teeth and a comb, in that order. All I wanted was to look good for the newspaper photographers: Perpetrator returns to scene of crime after twenty years. No matter I had been eight years old when Norma and Ol’ Parrish split the district. The last one in is guilty.
Norma and Wildrose were laughing, too. Together, not at me, as they meandered through Spanish moss that cascaded from low hanging live oak trees, the classic antebellum courting couple. And not too much the worse for wear if you squinted when you looked at them.
“Howdy, Mr. Pigeon.”
“Seems like you found Ol’ Parrish.”
“As you said, the wild hogs got him.”
Mahaffey had an arm about Norma Cawthorne’s waist. He offered me his hand.
“Eat mo’ possum, Harley.”
“Amen to that Colonel Mahaffey.” If they were happy, I was happy.
In South Carolina local distances are told off with the high school football field in mind. A motivated linebacker could get you from the pool hall to the graveyard in five minutes. It was a short funeral with few mourners—Wildrose, Norma, Ed and me. Thelma and Ol’ Parrish were laid to rest side by side in the family plot.
Like I might have told you, I got my education hanging around the poolrooms and running errands for guys in bars. It was a good education and I got to read a lot. Ah, for those halcyon days of yore when a writer didn’t have to figure out how a thing worked, just had to come up with a name. The Cherokee Purples, like Tarzan and John Carter of Mars—call them a dream. You can’t outdo a dream armed only with 20th Century technology.
And what wisdom from the Cherokee Purples was revealed to me as I dangled on a precipice?
We have seen the future and it’s not yet. Pithy, huh?
Like I may have said, tomatoes can give us insights on the past. For the future we have got to wait.
Empty and alone with the cold canned beer and the thin, mealy white bread sandwiches wrapped in plastic, Thelma died as she had lived—at the White Street Billiards and Snooker. The buzz of Piedmont had it that the new electric pinball games with cash payoffs were cutting into Thelma’s clientele. Hot Rods and Frisky killed her with bells and lights that flashed. That or despair. Suicide was not out of character for Thelma and folks figured she finally gave up on things.
I never found out really why Thelma killed herself, perhaps just for something to do that day. Seeking meaning in otherwise unrelated events is a presumption that we are the focus of God’s energies on any given day.
Ask the Cherokee Purples.
copyright 2009, 2015 Rob Hunter
Cherokee Purple was first published in Bewildering Stories November 2009, Bill Bowler, coordinating editor.