Audra was reading down the list of people to call. It was Wednesday afternoon and she had to put all of the news together and have it turned in by Friday morning so it could be run in the Gastonia Gazette the following Wednesday. Audra pretty much had the women of the community trained to have their news ready: news of who had come to visit, who was sick, how the sermon was in whichever Protestant church they belonged to, how much canning they had done, in season, and if they had butchered a hog, in season, or killed a veal calf. Almost all of the women in the little farming community of Costner were stay at home wives with the exception of a few who worked second shift in one of the cotton mills, but she knew who they were and she always called them in the morning.
Audra Cannon was fifty-five years old, heavy set, and had fading red hair. Like a good portion of the people around she was of Scotch Irish descent and proud of it. Her husband had been dead for five years now, a victim of a lung disease he contracted from working thirty years in the lithium mine a few miles up the road. “I sure do miss ol’ Buck,” she said to herself looking at the picture of him that graced the mantel to the right of the desk where her phone was. She sat down heavily in her swivel chair and moved aside some spelling test papers that she had brought home to grade. She substitute taught at Costner Elementary School once in a while even though she had only gone through the sixth grade. Ironically the papers were from the sixth grade class she had taught that very day, and she winced a little as she remembered an embarrassing moment that occurred that morning while she was calling out spelling words. Audra was well aware of her limitations and knew that some of the little country kids were a lot smarter than she was, so she tried to be extremely careful about such things as her diction and pronunciation but she had made a little slip up that day. She was pronouncing the words very slowly and very carefully: “an-te-lope” she had said, waiting until all of the kids had written down their response before she moved on: “car-bur-e-tor” she continued, feeling a bit more confident: “au-to-mo-bile” she called out, starting to notice a sort of mechanical theme in the lesson plan. Then she came to the word that got her; it was speedometer: “Speed-o-meter” she said, and as she was about to go on to electricity all of the children began a chorus of “huh, huh, huh,” looking around at each other and making quizzical faces. “Speed-o-meter” she repeated and again got the chorus of questioning “huhs.” Following the third attempt Gail Hoffman raised her hand and said very politely, “Mrs. Cannon I don’t think we know that word. Can I look at it?” Audra was getting more than a little discombobulated so she let the little girl look in her lesson plan book. Gail looked at the word and motioned for Audra to bend down. When she did Gail whispered in her ear “speedometer, like the thing in a car that tells you how fast you are going.” “Thank you Gail, now you may take your seat. The word is speed-ometer, like the thing in a car that tells you how fast you are going.” As Audra said this there were a few titters around the room but they quickly diminished and she finished the spelling test.
“Well I know one thing, if I know anything at all, that durned long division is gonna have to wait til Mrs. Shellman gets back next week.” Mrs. Shelley had been out for a week after having her tubes tied. Mrs. Shelley was an attractive woman of thirty-five, nicely built, who, much to the delight of all the little sixth grade boys tended toward pleated skirts. What was even more delightful was that every morning she would go to the pencil sharpener mounted above the radiator and sharpen about ten pencils. The boys would watch intently as the sharpening activity set in motion quite a jiggling inside the pleated domain.
Audra’s passing thought of her late husband reminded her of what a good time they used to have over at the VFW in Charlotte. Both of them liked a drink now and then and Costner was a very tight knit community, the kind where there were few secrets, so when her and Buck would want to go out and kick up their heels and have a snort or two they would venture across the Catawba River into South Charlotte to the West Mecklenburg VFW. It was a run down little hole in the wall, but the beer and liquor was cheap and they would have some kind of a band every Saturday night, but the most appealing aspect was the anonymity – not a soul knew them and they shied away from conversation, or if really pressed would tell the inquirers that they were from Mounty Holly where they had a small farm. After a while the other patrons stopped trying to be so friendly and accepted them as “that quiet farm couple from across the river.” Audra and Buck usually did not get too awful loaded, but there was one night when they got a little looped and found themselves in the ditch over near Stanley, miles from home. She smiled as she remembered the happy ending. Officer Charley Coggins of the Gaston Rural Police espied their trouble and not only helped them get back on the road but followed them home where he was rewarded with two long bubbling drinks from Buck’s fifth of Bourbon De Luxe that he always kept under the front seat. The memories sort of made her nostalgic, and she thought that she might have a couple of drinks after she made her news calls.
Audra looked at the first name on the list, Leona Conklin, who lived over near the saw mill up around the mountain. She dialed the four digits, 3653, and heard the phone ring three times. It was a party line, so each party had a specific number of rings. Leona’s was three, the Hoffman’s was two, and the Lineberger sisters was one. Leona picked up after the second round of rings. “Hello,” she said. Leona hailed from Bryson City, way up in the mountains, and her accent reflected every bit of it. “Leoney, this is Audrey, how are you doing?” Just as everybody pronounced Audra as “Audrey,” the same was true of Leona’s name. Audra remembered a conversation that the two of them had had some years back about how they had tried to correct people for a while before finally giving up.
“Well hey Audrey, how in the world are you doing,” said Leona. “Just fine Leoney, just callin’ to see if you got any news for the paper.” “ Just hold on a minute while I get my sheet,” said Leona. She returned in a half minute and started in on her news. Audra could always count on Leona having a fair amount of things to report; she was very detail oriented as was evidenced by her fourteen pillows on her and her husband’s bed, each one perfectly situated in the spot she always placed it. Leona’s husband was a big burly man with a deep voice named T. G., but everybody called him “Preacher,” an ironic name which he had gained due to his habit of cursing at least every other word.
“Babe and Dine came over for Sunday lunch; I had killed two chickens and roasted them, and had mashed taters, gravy and green beans which I canned last summer. You know I put up forty half gallons. I always plant them low half runners – always have the best luck with them. Opened up a quart of pickles too. I canned fifty quarts of them. Everybody loves my pickles. And of course made biscuits and a coconut cake. I swear Babe and Dine ate til they could hardly move; both of ‘em has got ‘bout big as a house.”
Babe and Dine were Preacher’s brothers; they all three worked the saw mill together along with their cousin Ralph, better known as Bogus. As Audra listened to Leona she reminded herself to not forget to call Bogus’ wife, Hazel.
After Leona droned on for a little longer, Audra said, “Leonie, I got something on the stove so I better go. Read all about it on Monday in the Gazette.” Leonie sounded a little bit disappointed at the end of conversation, but said her goodbye. Audra had learned over the years that she had to control the conversations; during this time she had accumulated a number of excuses to break away, including the stove thing she had just used, having to go to pee (you know I got that thimble size bladder), the Rawleigh liniment man is at the door, time to do the milking, etc…Leona was a good woman but like many of the ladies Audra called had to be reined in occasionally or she would wind up spending the whole afternoon with one or two people.
Audra tidied up her notes on Leona and then looked down at her list to the next name, Sarah Hoffman, and dialed the number. Like Audra Sarah had a party line, and it rang her two long rings two times before Sarah picked up. Following the pleasantries Audra of course asked about what had been happening at the Hoffman house. Sarah thought a few seconds and started out with the new minister story.
“Well, Audra, you know they had the Methodist Conference up at Lake Junaluska back a while and they have sent us a new preacher. He is a little short man with thin red hair and a limp, but I tell you he is a fiery rascal. He has kinda got people thinking about things, and I swear we all like him. His name is Reverend Thomas Krummitt, and he’s got a nice wife and two young boys. Some of the older men think he preaches more like a Baptist than a Methodist, but everybody seems to like it. Maybe it is the change from Preacher Broome who was 85 and so arthritic he could hardly get up and down the aisle. And I’ll swanney if he didn’t have the biggest feet,” said Sarah, stopping to get her breath.
Audra came close to saying, “Well, you know what they say about big feet,” but held her tongue. Audra was not sure how Sarah would take that kind of “VFW” humor so she let it go. “Well, it sounds like he might be a real good fit,” Audra said. “Did you have any company over the weekend? I know Granny’s young’uns come in once in a while.” Granny was Sarah Hoffman’s mother in law, an elderly woman who lived with them. Sarah’s husband, Russ, was the baby of the family and he had agreed to take care of his widowed mother ad infinitum if his siblings signed a quit claim deed on the property at the home place. It all had worked out quite well and “Granny” was one of their family in every way, and was well respected in the community, being most commonly known as “Miss Rose.”
“Well, as a matter of fact Ila and Clarence Frid did come over Sunday and we had a good time with them ‘cause their daughter Ann and our little Lois like to play together. They stayed til ‘bout four o’clock and I gave them a piece of apple pie, one of two that I baked yesterday. Granny loves the way I bake apple pies, you know keeping them from getting too well done and having a hard crust, ‘cause you know Granny ain’t got no teeth. But I declare if she can’t gum the dickens out of some country ham,” Sarah said chuckling.
Audra was writing down “Ila and Clarence Frid visited on Sunday,” deciding that her audience did not need to know about what they ate. “I always have been good at editing as I went along,” Audra thought to herself as she was about to ask Sarah if any other news was out there, but Sarah started back up.
“Ya know, Audrey, people always have made fun of Ila and Clarence, not in a mean way, but in a kind of cute way, ya know what I mean?” Sarah exclaimed. Audra assured Sarah that she indeed did know what she meant and asked her to continue.
“Well,” Sarah said. “Ila was sittin’ there talkin’ to her momma and Granny reached down to the floor and picked up her tin of Sweet Peach snuff, wet her tooth brush in her toothless mouth, popped the top, and loaded up the red oak twig with the powder. Ila looked over at Clarence and said, ‘Clarence, go out in the car and get my pocket book; I want to take me a dip of snuff.’ And of course Clarence jumped up right quick like and got her that snuff. It was just funny how fast he jumped to it, and you know he’s got them big old googly eyes behind those coke bottle glasses of his. But you know he is good as gold, just good as gold.”
Audra agreed wholeheartedly with Sarah’s assessment of Clarence’s character and figgered it was about time for her to have to use the bathroom, so after mentioning the size of her bladder Sarah let her go and they hung up.
Audra looked down her list and remembered her mental note to herself to call Hazel Conklin. Hazel’s party line ring was two short rings followed by a long. Hazel answered right away, and immediately Audra knew that something was “turble” wrong the way Hazel was so out of breath. Hazel Conklin was a short and stout woman who always wore a full length apron; of course she took it off when she went to church and other places, but Audra had never seen her “out of uniform” around her house.
“Hazel, what in the world is wrong?” Audra asked worriedly. “Oh my goodness I ain’t never seen nothing in the world like it, and I hope I don’t ever again. It was just awful, and the smell, it was the worse in the world,” Hazel gasped.
“Well Hazel, I am a sittin’ here tryin’ to figger what in the world is going on but you ain’t tellin’ me a whole lot. Just sit down, slow down, and try to calm down; remember, your heart ain’t the greatest.” This little pep talk from Audra seemed to help and in a few seconds Hazel launched into the story that had gotten her so upset.
“Well, we had been noticing that the toilet was mighty slow to go down and then Ralph saw that the drain field for the septic tank was damp and smelled bad, so him and the boys dug out the septic tank this morning so as to clean it out,” explained Hazel. At this point Audra had to ask how one accomplished such a cleaning job, and Hazel quickly explained.
“You get a bunch of five gallon buckets like tar or sheet rock mud comes in, and once you open the lid to the septic tank and set it aside you tie a good rope around the handle of the bucket and start dipping the tank out. As soon as one got full Ralph would pull up the rope and hand the full one to one of the boys and while Ralph dipped another one they would go spread it on the pasture. We always have a mighty pretty pasture the year after a septic tank cleaning; you know they use that stuff for fertilizer on their gardens over in China. I remember when I read that book by Pearl S. Buck, ‘The Good Earth,’ and how they described doing that and how the vegetables were so big and healthy. ‘Course I don’t think I would be wantin’ to do that here in a civilized country, but apparently it ain’t killed off a bunch of them Chinamen – seem to be more of them all the time, especially out there in San Francisco,” Hazel went on. Audra still did not know what happened, so she felt compelled to interrupt. She was well aware of Hazel’s long winded tendency, having called her every week for over ten years.
“Hazel, you still ain’t tole me what happened,” Audra said.
“Well, that septic tank was purty deep, ‘bout three feet in the ground, and after about thirty minutes or so of dippin’ I reckon Bogus might have gotten a little tired and let his guard down, ‘cause the next thing you know he slipped off his feet and fell right into the septic tank. Ya’ know, I reckon the sides of the thing were a little slick, ‘cause we did have a little shower last night. But anyway I was in the kitchen when such a bunch of hollerin’ and cussing and laughing as I never heard broke loose out there at the septic tank. What had happened was that when Ralph fell into the tank he pitched forward and went in face first. I was watching as the boys reached down and pulled him out, him covered from head to foot with the best waste that the Conklin clan had to offer. When I got out there I discovered that the most of the hollerin’ was from Ralph and then most of the cussin’ was from the boys, ‘cause they had to get that mess all over themselves to get him out of the tank. Then when they got him out was when the laughing started; it was quite a sight – Ralph and his boys covered in shit and just heehawing at each other, hosing each other off. Ain’t seen nothin’ like it in my entire life,” Hazel said, starting to laugh herself. Audra joined in the laughter, deciding not to report the “accident” in the Costner News, and after Hazel telling her of how they had all gone to the Fish Camp at Long Creek the night before Audra was able to escape the call by sayin, “Oh, Hazel, I see the Rawleigh Liniment man pulling in the driveway. I’ll talk to you next week.”
Time was getting away from her and Audra was shocked when she looked at the clock in the kitchen and found that she had been on the phone for over two hours. Two hours was Audra’s self imposed limit to “call making” for the Costner News article; whatever she had gathered after two hours was what she would write. The women of the community were used to her routine, and if they did not get a call one week they would know that they would probably be first in line the next week. Audra looked back over her notes and made a few changes and got ready to type her news, but remembered that the ribbon in her old Remington typewriter needed to be changed. After she was done with that she started thinking again about those old days with Buck at the West Charlotte VFW and the good times they had; she recalled as how she had thought about having a drink when she was through with her calling. Audra went in the kitchen and opened one of the doors under the porcelained cast iron sink and pulled out a quart bottle two-thirds full of a clear liquid. “Some of the best shine in the county,” she said out loud as she set the jug up on the sink and went to the cupboard and returned with a little glass with pictures of the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry on it, the kind that jelly came in.
As Audra poured the little glass nearly full she realized that it had been a while since she had imbibed. Buck kept a quart of Oodley Creek moonshine all the time, but the jug he had when he died had been long gone. Fortunately, Audra and Joe Costner, purveyor and manufacturer of the illicit brew, had gone to school together at Kettle Shoals Grammar School over near the Hardin Crossroads, and when Audra had seen Joe at the feed store in Dallas a few years ago and the subject had been broached he had been very accommodating. “Come on out to the trunk of my car,” Joe had said. Audra had dutifully followed Joe Costner to the parking lot where he unlocked the trunk of a shiny black ’57 Ford Fairlane and reached in returning with a quart bottle in a paper sack. Audra offered Joe the usual fee of five dollars, but he handed her two ones back saying “old schoolmate discount” and refused to take any more. Since then she would give him a call about every six months and meet at the Rhyne Feed Store by the railroad tracks in Dallas and get replenished.
Audra took her glass into the living room and sat down in her favorite chair, an ancient but very comfortable overstuffed leather chair with a wing back; it had been Buck’s chair, and as she sat and sipped she stroked the arms, remembering how his strong forearms would rest there after a hard day at the lithium plant. The liquid in the Tom and Jerry glass dissipated quickly and before she knew it she found herself back in the kitchen pouring another one. When she got back to the chair she started thinking about how the stuff she wrote for the Costner News was interesting on a kind of benign level but not exactly the most exciting news in the world. “That story ‘bout Bogus falling face first in that shitty septic tank would be a lot more fun to write about,” she said out loud, and started thinking about other “more interesting” local occurrences she could regale her loyal readers with. “How about Lem Proctor dying on top of his oldest daughter,” she said, laughing about one of the local scandals that had happened last year. Lem Proctor was a widower, and according to local legend consorted with both of his daughters, the girls being in their early twenties and never having moved out of the house. Amanda and Wanda were both slightly retarded and unemployable, which apparently did not bother the old man, leaving him more time to fool with them. Lem “got a check” from the VA, being a 100% disabled veteran, at least according to the federal government. Guess they never seen him in action with the girls,” Audra cackled, draining the second glass of Oodley Creek.
Audra continued to think about the seamier side of life in the community and wound up pondering about the new lady evangelist that had kinda taken the area by storm; she went by the name of Sister Alma and was holding meetings every Wednesday and Friday nights in a tent in downtown Dallas just off the Courthouse square. “Boy, that would be a juicy one,” Audra thought to herself as she trudged back to the kitchen to fill up Tom and Jerry. Being a newspaperwoman, Audra prided herself on her investigative prowess and had compiled a mental list of all the licentious behavior the lady evangelist was rumored to be involved in. “Bet I would have a hell of a readership if I published ‘bout how Sister Alma is consorting with Mayor Polie Maxwell,” Audra said out loud, remembering how one of her local contacts, Roger Haas, a very under employed young man, had described what he had seen one night in the parking lot after a Wednesday night healing service. Roger Haas had come to get his five dollars for getting “cured” of a spastic limp which he could employ at will, and very effectively. The crowd had dispersed and nobody was left except Sister Alma and the Mayor. “They were standing there in front of Mayor Polie Maxell’s big ‘ol Buick Roadmaster when she handed me a fin and thanked me. I just wandered off and I reckon they figgered that I was gone,” Roger had said. “But I only went about twenty feet and the Mayor reached inside that big shiny car and pulled out a quart of shine and him and Sister Alma commenced to pulling on it right fast. Then they got into some purty heavy making out and before you knew it the honorable Polie Maxwell had pulled up that evening gown Sister Alma was wearin’ – the one with the sequins on it and bent her over the front of that big Buick and was performing a Roadmaster rear entry. I stayed and watched a while but got bored and went on home. Now Audrey, I don’t care what you do with this information, but I do want you to promise me that if you do write anything about what I divulge to you it won’t ever include that situation I had with that watermelon behind the drugstore that hot summer day last year.” Audra had known exactly what Roger Haas was talking about and promised that she would take that particular juicy little tidbit “to her grave.”
Audra lurched into the kitchen for another drink of Joe’s elixir, spilling half of it on her way back to her desk. She fell into her chair and passed out; she began to dream. It was one of those crazy dreams that made no sense at all. It started out with Bogus Conklin running around naked in his yard, covered in shit. As he ran around Mayor Polie Maxwell drove up in his big Buick Roadmaster; he got out of the car, went around and opened the passenger side door and escorted Sister Alma to the front of the vehicle. The honorable Mayor was naked except for a green fedora tilted jauntily on his head and Sister Alma was adorned only in a red sequined G string. As Polie bent Sister Alma over the hood and went about his business he turned to look behind him where Roger Haas was grinning maniacally as he cut a round hole about an inch and a quarter diameter in a big green watermelon. Then the Mayor just went back to his work like he hadn’t seen anything one bit unusual. Apparently Bogus had grown weary of running around and had plopped on the grass and commenced to hollering for a “hose pipe to get some of this shit off me.” Obediently a naked Lem Proctorentered from stage right followed by his two half wit daughters and hosed Bogus down, then took both of his girls over to the Mayor’s car and started taking care of them at the rear of the Roadmaster. The big car was rocking back and forward, what with Lem carrying on at the rear and Polie and Sister Alma raising hell on the front. As Audra watched all this all the characters stopped what they were doing and pointed at her, then went back to what they were doing.
Audra Cannon jolted awake. She looked at the old clock over the fireplace and realized that she had been asleep for three hours. She did not feel too awful bad except for a mild headache. It took her a minute or two to remember what had been going on, but when she saw the Tom and Jerry jelly glass everything came back to her including what she had been thinking about and what she had dreamed. “Gooooood God,” she said out loud. “I can’t believe I ever thought of writing any of that stuff for the Costner News. Why, that would violate every journalistic premise known.” Audra continued to chastise herself for a few minutes and then put a clean sheet of paper in her old Remington. “Some things are just better not broadcast to the general population; they prob’ly wouldn’t believe it anyway,” she thought as she started typing. “Ila and Clarence Frid spent Sunday afternoon visiting Ila’s mother, Miss Rose Hoffman, at the home of Russ and Sarah Hoffman,” she typed, shaking her head and smiling. Then she looked at the half full jelly glass and got up and walked into the kitchen, pouring it back in the jar, and went back to the Costner News.