Edgar Marley picked up his worn old suitcase and set it on the single bed he had been sleeping in for the last three months. He opened it and went over to the dresser beside the little bed and opened the top drawer and pulled out two pairs of Red Camel overalls, one somewhat worn like the one he was wearing, and one pretty new. The newer pair was his Sunday overalls, and the other pair was for everyday, like the one he was wearing. Then he went over to the shallow closet and pulled out two long sleeved thick cotton gray shirts; one was fairly new and the other one was a bit faded, also like the one he was wearing. The newer one was his Sunday shirt; the Red Camel overalls and gray cotton shirt was essentially his uniform; it had been his attire for many decades, along with white cotton socks and high top brogans. Edgar finished packing and then picked up his straw hat with the green visor on the front and walked out into the living room where his oldest son, Ray, and his family were waiting to tell him goodbye.
“Pop, you sure you won’t let me drive you over to Sarah and Russ’ house; you know it is a two mile walk from where the Lincolnton Bus Line lets you off?” Edgar Marley stood there with his bedraggled old suitcase in one hand and straw hat in the other. He looked at his son and grinned widely, exposing his little discolored baby corn teeth.
“Naw son, you know I like to walk; plus I wanta stop and see my old friend Bert Conklin; you heard about that sow attacking him. Seems that she had little pigs and one of them got squeezed in the gate and hollered and I guess she thought Bert was hurtin’ it. Scraped him up purty good; they say the only way he got her off him was by sticking his hand down her throat and chokin’ her,” Edgar said. “Ray, will you go in that closet over there and hand me my shotgun; I cinched it up in its sleeve last night.” Ray retrieved the old four ten shotgun and handed it to his daddy. Edgar grasped the gun with the same hand he was holding his hat with, said thank you to the family and walked outside, waiting until he was on the porch to place the straw hat with the green visor on his head. His hair was thin and gray but he had enough left to comb. He walked the hundred yards to the stoplight and crossed highway 321 and stood there, gazing to the south toward Gastonia where the bus from the Lincolnton Bus Line came from every hour. He had timed it pretty good and it was only a few minutes before the green and white bus showed up. Edgar got on the bus and handed the driver a quarter.
“How are you doin’ Mr. Marley?” the bus driver said, smiling at the old man.
“Fine, Leonard, and how is Maye and little Kathy?” he asked, smiling and showing the little teeth.
“They are good; Kathy goin’ into second grade this fall,” Leonard said, and Edgar Marley went back about midway in the mostly empty bus and sat down, laying his suitcase and shotgun on an empty seat.
“I reckon you are goin’ to Sarah and Russ’ place,” Leonard said.
“Yep, gonna stop by and see Bert for a bit,” Edgar said. “Guess you heard about him and that old sow.”
“Sure nuff,” Leonard said. “Bleeve that would be bacon as soon as hog killin’ time comes around.”
Edgar laughed out loud. “I spect you are right on that account Leonard,” the old man said. Leonard and his family lived across the road from Sarah and Russ in the “old house”. That was where Edgar’s daughter and her family had lived until they had built their new house across the road up in the broomstraw field. Leonard paid Russ forty dollars a month to live in the old house. Russ and Sarah had saved their money and had sold butter and eggs over on the mill hill for several years, doing as much as their savings would allow over a two year period before they were finished with the construction. Preacher and Bogus Conklin had set up a sawmill over across the creek where the big stand of mature pines was and had cut down the trees and sawed them up into the proper dimensions for the framing lumber. The Conklins had also sawed up a bunch of one inch by eight inch planks which would be German siding. Of course all the wood had to be stacked and air dried before it was used. The couple’s frugality and hard work did indeed pay dividends, allowing them to complete the process without a mortgage.
Russ and Sarah had moved into their new house with their three children and Russ’ mother; she was known as Granny and was a part of the family. Russ’ siblings had signed a quitclaim deed with the understanding that Granny would be taken care of for the rest of her life. Edgar was thinking about all this as the bus went up 321 north the three miles until it stopped in front of Bert Conklin’s dairy. Edgar told Leonard goodbye and got off, clutching his suitcase and four ten shotgun. He strode across the highway toward the three big silos and the cavernous barn. Bert Conklin and his two sons milked forty head of Holstein cows and had done well over the years, well enough for Bert to build a very nice two story house across from the dairy. The house was a combination of ornate wood and handsome stone; Bert and his boys had pretty much built it themselves with some help from Preacher and Bogus Conklin. Conklin was a pretty common name, and almost all of them were related somehow or another. The road adjacent to the dairy farm was named Conklin Dairy Road; that was the road that Edgar would walk the two miles to Sarah and Russ’ house after he visited with Bert.
Edgar found Bert inside the barn pouring the cream off the top of a big stainless steel container. When Bert saw Edgar he set the big can down and strode toward his friend, grinning like a possum.
“How in the world are you doin’”, Bert Conklin said, shaking the proffered hand. It had been quite a while since Edgar had done any real hard work but his hand was still rough and calloused like Bert Conklin’s.
“Hear ya had a lil’ trouble with a sow”, Edgar said, and watched as Bert rolled up the sleeves of his long sleeved thick gray cotton shirt, just like the one Edgar was wearing, and showed the bruises and the scabbed over cuts that the big pig had inflicted.
“I swear, Edgar, if I hadn’t got my hand down that bitch’s throat I would not be here talking to you today”, the old dairy farmer said.
“Well I be”, Edgar said, and the two friends went over and sat down on a bale of hay and talked for a while.
“Bert, you ‘member that first little house I started out in, right down the road here just beyond Manuel Pasour’s place?” Edgar asked.
“Oh yes, Edgar, I surely do. What I remember most was that on some Saturday nights you all would be playing music and dancing ‘bout til morning”, Bert said. “You played the banjer, right?” Bert asked, and Edgar smiled and with a far away look in his eye said “yes, and my sister Sally was a pretty good fiddle player. I was thinking ‘bout her when I was coming down the road on the bus, her being gone all these years.”
“I know it was awful, her being big pregnant and that son of a bitch she married hitting her and knocking her down the steps. I ‘magine she just grieved herself to death after losing that baby,” Bert said.
“Well I know one God damn thing,” Edgar said, his blue eyes turning hard and mean looking. “I am glad that I had the wonderful opportunity to damn near kill that son of a bitch. And him being a third cousin too. I swear them Clemmers are a rough bunch, and that damn fool was ‘bout the sorriest one I ever seen.”
Bert Conklin knew that Edgar was getting real worked up so he changed the subject to something else.
“So you going to stay with Russ and Sarah for a few months. Ya know that daughter of yours is a fine girl and Russ Hoffman is a mighty smart one, him only going to the fourth grade and able to do figgers in his head. Heard that was how he got that salesman job up there at Seth Lumber Company in Lincolnton,” Bert said, watching as the hard look in Edgar’s eyes faded and a smile came across his lips.
“You are most assuredly right about that. He does a good job there and still runs his farm. Ya know they got three young’uns now; wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have more. Them is the kind of people that need to be having kids, not these deadbeat slackers that come through for a year or two, piddle around, lay drunk and make babies. But I do remember my daddy saying ‘the poor will always be with us’. From the Bible ya know. Shoulda added ‘and the sorry assholes too,’” Edgar Marley pronounced, and picked up his ragged suitcase and his sleeved shotgun.
“Reckon I’ll be headin’ down the road Bert. Sure was nice visiting with you,” Edgar said, and walked down the side of highway 321 and turned left onto Conklin Dairy Road to finish the last two miles of his trip.
Edgar Marley had walked these two miles many times; his moving rotation with his kids stayed the same over the years, and he always went to stay with Sarah and Russ after his time with his baby boy Ray. As he went down the dusty washboard dirt road on that late July day his thoughts went back to the little house that he and his friend Bert had spoken of. He looked up to the right just before he got to the bridge across Oodley Creek; there, up on the hill was the home of Manuel Pasour, and just past it on the left was a house trailer under two big oak trees. That was where the Marley home place had been; that was where Bert had heard all the Marleys singing and dancing and playing instruments. The trailer belonged to Manuel’s son Junior, a hog farmer. Manuel was about the same age as Edgar, but Edgar had heard that he had terrible arthritis and was all bent over.
“Would stop off and see him but he probly would like to be left alone,” he thought to himself. The road curved to the right and inclined for a while; when Edgar got to the top of the hill he got off the road and went down through a broomstraw field and through a stand of young pines and emerged into a bottom. He had made his little detour because he wanted to see the shoals that he had remembered from long ago. The creek was about eight feet wide at that spot and there were rock outcroppings on both sides; the water rushing down the rock bottom made a pretty good noise, and as he watched it he recalled how every year when the suckers would run that gang from Cherryville would come down. They would roll up their pants legs and wade out into the chilly March water holding their hands just under the water, then when they would see one of the big fish they would flip them up onto the rock bank. One time he and his daddy had watched them take twenty of the big fish; he remembered that his daddy had said that suckers were “not fit to eat” and that was why only the colored boys from Cherryville were the only ones that would “fool with them.” Edgar remembered that he had been a little perplexed at what his daddy had said; he was aware that the colored would eat some odd stuff that white people wouldn’t touch, but he also knew that his whole family would fight over “chitlins”, and that was boiled and fried hog intestines. In fact the young Edgar had a vivid memory of his momma biting into one and spitting it out when she found two kernels of corn in her mouth. The episode gave young Edgar a new reverence and understanding of the term “hand slung.”
Edgar walked back up to the road and continued; he had about a mile and a half left and was getting kind of thirsty. “Guess I could have drunk out of the creek while I was down there,” he thought to himself as he came up to John Rhodes house. He walked up to the house and went around the side to where there was a spigot and turned it on and cupped his hand and drank his fill. Edgar didn’t see anybody around so he didn’t bother knocking on the door or anything and kept walking down the road. He started thinking about the stories that circulated about John Rhodes; John Rhodes was a man who had come to the area about twenty years ago and had always been considered “quare”. He had moved into the community from Bristol Tennessee; he was not rude to anyone but had a reputation of being extremely negative, sort of the ultimate “glass half empty guy.” John Rhodes had purchased the little block house and twenty acres of land with cash; it was said it was an inheritance. He had lived his solitary life for some five years when all of a sudden he began being seen in the company of Helene Lineberger, a spinster elementary school teacher who taught at the local school a few miles away. The rumor was that John Rhodes had asked Helene to marry him and she had said she would “just as soon as you build me a nice house in front of that block shack you live in.” Within six months a gleaming fifteen hundred foot home with german siding appeared and the middle aged couple were nuptialized at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Hardin, a small community on the South Fork River. Like most places in Gaston County the textile mills were the center of commerce and Hardin was no different, the Hardin Manufacturing Company being there right on the river. The only other structure of any size other than St. Paul’s was Hardin Elementary School, the WPA era red brick school where Helene taught. There were a couple of odd things about John Rhodes; subsequent to the marriage he continued to live in the little block house, while Helene resided in the new house, which was connected to the little block house but did not have a connecting door. The other oddity about John was his reticence to sign the road paving petition. About every two years Bogus Conklin would get up a petition to get Conklin Road paved; it was a pretty simple procedure and basically would be approved by the county if all of the land owners that fronted the road would sign off on it. But every time it came around the lone dissenter was John Rhodes, proclaiming that “ain’t no use in going to all that trouble when we got a perfectly fine road just the way it is.” This stubbornness on the part of John was quite the thorn in the side of Sarah, Edgar’s daughter he was going to see, because her front porch, which she liked to keep very clean, was invariably coated with a film of red dirt from cars going down the road. Sarah figured if she could get the road paved she would be able to keep a clean porch, and had even resorted to taking a prune cake or a blackberry cobbler by and giving it to John Rhodes, but every time she mentioned the road petition he had just shaken his head. One time he had even offered her cake back, but she had said “just keep it” and had sadly gone home to hose off her front porch. Edgar remembered that Sarah’s biggest nemesis concerning the red dirt on the front porch was Russ’ nephew Frank. Frank was twenty two years old and divorced and lived with his momma and daddy; he always had a hot car and rode motorcycles and was presently managing a finance company. He always carried a small pistol with him. Frank went at everything with a lot of zeal, most particularly his driving. His motto as far as how fast he would drive was “everything it will do”, and he exhibited this behavior daily when he drove past Russ and Sarah’s house, the red dust boiling up in his wake and Sarah standing on the front porch shaking her broom at him.
Edgar was about a mile from Russ and Sarah’s house when he noticed three horses standing on the side of the dirt road next to the corn field there in Worth Thornburg’s bottom. As he got next to the horses something caught his ear so he stopped and listened real hard.
“Sloan, ‘bout time for you to get off,” Edgar Marley heard a woman’s voice say. This was followed by the sound of a slap, a giggle, and the woman’s voice saying “okay Blair, have at it”. Edgar stood there a good five minutes listening to the grunting, smiling as he figgered out what was going on. He was still standing there beside the horses when the trio emerged from the corn field. Sloan Conklin was first out; he had a big grin on his face, followed by Blair House, who was wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and tie. Blair was the local undertaker, and Edgar presumed that he probably had a funeral later in the day. Bringing up the rear was a heavy set red haired woman with a florid face. She was breathing heavily and her hair was disheveled; the knees of her riding pants were very dusty. It was Mae, Leonard the bus driver’s wife. She was carrying a double armful of corn.
“Why hello there Mr. Marley,” Blair said in his loud raspy voice, smiling broadly and showing off his new teeth. Blair tipped his little black hat with the red feather in it as he spoke. A lifetime of funeral directing had nurtured a very calm demeanor in Blair House; he was not one to be rattled easily. His friend Sloan Conklin was not nearly as composed, looking down at the ground and mumbling “hello Mr. Marley.” Mae just grinned at the old man and said “just stopped for a minute; thought we would get a few roasneers and drop them off at Russ and Sarah’s. How are you doing Mr. Marley?”
“I suppose you are heading to Russ and Sarah’s yourself,” Blair said in that loud voice. Blair House’s voice carried so long and loud that every year when the high school had their homecoming parade he was in charge of getting all the vehicles lined up properly, barking out orders without the aid of a bullhorn.
“Indeed I am,” Edgar Marley said. “Reckon you fell down in the field while you wuz picking that corn,” the old man said, the hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Sure nuff did just that,” Mae said, and busied herself with stowing the ears in a gunny sack and slinging it over the back of her horse.
“Don’t reckon you want to jump up here behind me; I can carry you the last of the way to Russ and Sarah’s,” Blair offered.
“No thanks, ya know how I love to walk,” Edgar said, and the riders headed up the road. Edgar chuckled as he watched them go. They were members of the Gaston County Horsemen’s Association, Blair being president, Mae vice president, and Sloan sergeant at arms. Sarah was very wary of her across the road neighbor, keeping a sharp eye on Russ when he went over there to trim the bushes. The family joke was that he did it so often that the shrubs were only about six inches high; of course that was an exaggeration, but he did stay after it pretty good. Sarah had heard more than one story about the three riders and every time anyone said anything about them her green eyes would flash and she would say “a means to an end, a means to an end.” When she would say this Russ would throw fuel on the fire; “thinkin’ I might get me a horse,” he would put forth, and hear his wife tell him “I know that’s a joke.” Russ enjoyed teasing his wife but he did know when to stop.
It was going on four o’clock when Edgar Marley reached the top of the last hill on his trek; once there it flattened out and stayed that way until Sarah and Russ’ house. He heard a lot of whooping and hollering as he approached Bogus Conklin’s house. As he got closer he saw Bogus and several of his sons standing in the back yard; Bogus was standing off a good ways from his boys while his oldest boy Buck squirted him with a hose pipe. All the racket was Bogus cussing up a streak while his sons were dying laughing. He walked up to where they were and laid his old suitcase and shotgun down on the grass and calmly said “hello Bogus.”
Bogus Conklin stopped cussing long enough to say “hello Mr. Marley, how are you doing.”
Buck had the hose on his daddy full blast, and Edgar could see that Bogus was covered with some kind of brown smelly stuff.
“What in the world is goin’ on Bogus?” he asked, and that was when Buck pointed to the hole in the
back yard. It was about four feet by six feet and there were five concrete slabs laying nearby. Edgar recognized the hole as a septic tank and the slabs were what covered the tank up.
“We wuz cleaning out the tank with five gallon buckets when Pop slipped and fell in; it took us five minutes to get him out, what with all the thrashing and cussing he was doin’. We had just got him out and started on cleanin’ him when you walked up Mr. Marley,” Buck explained, still laughing as he hosed off his daddy. “At least he didn’t go in over his head like Pasour Rhyne did that time’” Buck added, referring to the dullard who lived out from Costner School and helped Mervin Ford, a legitimate septic tank cleaner who had a pump truck. Mervin told the story that on Pasour’s first day he had fallen in and indeed had gone in head first.
“Ya know that man ain’t quite right,” Buck added, Edgar nodding in agreement. He knew Pasour well; he also knew that he was a fourth cousin but that was a well kept family secret. Buck had done about all he could with the hose so Bogus excused himself to go in the house and take a tub bath. The boys collected their five gallon buckets and resumed dipping out the tank, spreading the effluent on the adjacent pasture. Edgar said goodbye and picked up his suitcase and shotgun and walked down the road to Russ and Sarah’s; the house was in sight and he knew that he was expected and that his daughter would have a big meal ready ‘bout six o’clock. He chuckled to himself as he thought of what he had just witnessed; he figgered it would make a purty good story to tell.
“Reckon I’ll wait til after supper to tell that one,” Edgar said out loud and walked the last few steps to the house.
As Edgar Marley walked into the last curve before Russ and Sarah’s house he heard somebody holler.
“Halllooo Mr. Marley” the voice said. It was coming from the right, from the field that was so thick with johnson grass. Edgar looked in that direction and saw a man lying under a magnolia tree. The tree was about twenty yards from the road and Edgar’s seventy eight year old eyes were not what they used to be so he made the trek. As he got close he could see that it was Hoover Carter, or as Russ and his buddies called him “hooteye”. Although no one knew the origin of that unusual moniker it kind of worked for Hoover. Edgar walked over to where Hoover was lying and sat down on the grass. Hoover had a half gallon of clear liquid between his legs and immediately offered it to Edgar. Edgar gratefully received the jug and immediately wiped off the mouth of the jar with his shirt sleeve. “Hooteye” was not known for his good hygiene, plus Edgar had espied some snuff spittle on the jar.
“How in the world are you Mr. Marley?” Hoover asked, grinning and exposing four discolored teeth, two north and two south. Edgar Marley took another good pull from the jug before he handed it back over.
“Just fine hooteye, just heading to Russ and Sarah’s for a while,” Edgar said.
“Reckon you just come from Ray’s,” Hoover stated, and
Edgar nodded. Edgar took a good look at Hoover Carter, at the three day growth of beard, the dirty overalls and the sweat stained ball cap that proudly proclaimed FCX. Hoover had always been a free spirit, preferring to do odd jobs for other people and tend the eighteen acres he had married into. The product of one of his odd jobs was in the half gallon jug; from time to time he helped tend Joe Costner’s still, mainly when Joe’s main man, Baxter, was on one of his legendary drunks. Edgar remembered Russ telling him stories about Baxter; one was how when Baxter used to live in the old house before Leonard and Mae took it over and Baxter worked for the upholstery place in Dallas. The owner, Mr. Huggins, would knock off at noon on Saturdays and take his boys to get their checks cashed and then haul them across the state line to Clover so they could load up with the liquor of their choice at the red dot store, the distinguishing characteristic of liquor stores in South Carolina—-a white block building with a large red dot on the side. As Russ told the story, by the time Mr. Huggins dropped Baxter off at the old house he was already so drunk that he would literally roll out of the car, stumble a few feet, then roll down the hill toward the gravel driveway. When he would stop rolling he would commence to hollering: “Vi, Vi,” he would call out until his wife Viola would emerge from the house and come up and help him in. Russ had laughed when he had told Edgar about how one time he had walked across the road when Baxter was in the throes and witnessed Viola fanning the drunken Baxter as he lay passed out in the weeds.
“Guess Baxter is pulllin’ one,” Edgar said, and Hooteye nodded.
“Yep, been on it for a week. Joe said he was drinking a half gallon every day, which is what Joe pays the help for a day’s work,” Hoover said, nodding at the jug between his legs.
“Well I swanney,” Edgar Marley said as he stood up and collected his suitcase and shotgun. “I reckon I better be getting’ on, be suppertime in a little bit.”
Hooteye held up the jug toward Edgar. “Take another pull for good luck,” he said, showing off his dentition, or lack thereof. Edgar grinned back at Hooteye and grabbed the half gallon, wiped off the mouth with his shirt again, and took two big gulps before handing it back over.
Edgar re collected his suitcase and sleeved shotgun, told Hooteye goodbye and resumed his journey. As he got close he could see that Russ was home from work and that the whole family was sitting on the front porch waiting for him, even Russ’ toothless mother, Granny. Edgar figgered he would entertain the family with a few stories about his trip down Conklin Dairy Road, excluding the cornfield encounter. The effects of the Oodley Creek moonshine and the sight of Sarah’s family welcoming him gave him a very good feeling. He always got to feeling restless after about three months had passed, and he knew it would be the same here, but for the present he was satisfied that “settling up” had been the right thing to do.