Ellis was dreaming; he was back in his little ramshackle house on the side of the hill that overlooked the ford. The ford was where the creek widened out a bit and one could drive a car over the smooth rocks. He was sitting on a chair in the little kitchen; he got up and opened four cans of cat food and plopped back down in the dilapidated chair; in a moment four cats leaped through the empty window panes. Ellis had pondered about fixing the window but after considerable consideration decided that it was so convenient he would just leave it alone. He smiled as he watched the cats eat; Ellis had straightened up the table the night before, gathering the many empty cat food cans and putting them on one half of the table to free up the rest of the area for his buddies to eat. The cats would eat for a while and then look at Ellis and meow and go back to their respective cans. He reached over and secured his walking stick and slowly made his way into the living room and dropped into the old threadbare wing back chair that his neighbor Russ had given him; Russ had been fixin’ to haul it to the gully, a ravine on Ellis’ land that he and Russ threw their trash in. “Sorta like our own private landfill,” he thought to himself and smiled. There was a little bit of fire remaining in the potbellied stove on this early spring morning and Ellis brought it to life by tossing in a couple of sticks of red oak. As he closed the door of the stove he thought back to the biggest and most memorable oyster roast of all time; it had happened a few years earlier and all the neighborhood men agreed that it was the best ever. The neighborhood men had all pitched in and supplied the oysters and Ellis had provided potatoes, carrots, and onions from his root cellar; additionally he had made sure that there was plenty of the horseradish that he grew every year, ‘cause his neighbor and friend Russ loved it so much. The oyster roasts had become a tradition in the little farming community and were very well attended by all the surrounding men. That particular time there had even been an appearance by one of the local women, and it occurred in a kind of a funny way. Russ and Preacher Clonger and Bogus had gotten wind that the county Horsemen’s Association was sponsoring a gathering that Saturday afternoon of the roast and that three of their stellar members were going on a ride after the festivities ended. The riders were legendary; the group included Blair House, local undertaker and president of the organization; Sloan Clonger, a hard working carpenter, and May Henshaw, a Rubenesque woman with red hair and a corresponding face. Seems everybody knew about their antics except May’s husband, a city of Gastonia bus driver who either didn’t care or chose to ignore the situation to stay on the good side of his domineering wife.
All of the little boys in the neighborhood were “on call” when the three horsemen were spotted out on the country roads. The boys would follow them at a distance and then sit quietly in the woods when they would dismount and tie their horses up to trees. The horsemen had a favorite spot for their activity; it was in a little clear space in the woods down near the ford below Ellis’ house. The little boys did not know anything about the activity until Ellis had told them; he was a sort of hero to all of them, letting them hang around and not telling on them when they smoked cigarettes and cussed. So the kids would spy on them and eventually report back to Ellis, who would share the stories with all of his friends. The best and most widespread and appreciated story was when the boys had been watching and Blair House had produced a blindfold and put it over May’s eyes. It must not have been the first time, ‘cause the kids reported that she did not act surprised, only grinned and shed her clothes and got down on her knees on the soft moss in the clearing. The guys had a lot of trouble containing themselves that day, what with Blair and Sloan stripping down, taking everything off except their ornate cowboy boots. Then the fun began; without a word spoken one of the men would mount the compliant May and she would guess who it was; “oh that must be my big strong carpenter,” she might shout out, or “I think that must be my favorite undertaker, the last person to let me down,” she would call out laughing. Ellis had thought that this was about the funniest thing he had ever heard and his opinion was bolstered by the reaction he got when he shared the story with all the men. So when they all heard that the horsemen were going to gather on the afternoon before the night of the biggest oyster roast ever the guys thought that the opportunity was just too wonderful to resist. Ellis concocted the idea and told Russ to get on it; that was what Ellis loved to do, plant a seed and see how it would grow. On this occasion he was not disappointed.
It had so happened that the County Horsemen’s gathering was widely publicized so Ellis’ sneaky henchmen had plenty of time to plan. Among his many talents Bogus Clonger had a knowledge of electricity and possessed a spotlight so the guys thought it would be a great idea to rig up the light on the hill overlooking the mossy clearing favored by the trio. Bogus had done a very good job with the light; of course the guys oversaw Bogus’ activity—you don’t have a nickname like “Bogus” because everything turns out okay all the time. Bogus had other areas where he had “some” degree of proficiency, one of which was carpentry. He and his boys had even framed Russ’ house; the downside being that Bogus lost two fingers during the job, their having fallen prey to a circular saw. But the electrifying went fine and was all set to go the evening of the oyster roast.
Ellis awakened with a start and realized he was not in his little home but lying on a cot in what they called the County Home. The County home was an old ante bellum structure just off the Cherryville Highway. It had two stories, doric columns, and a slate roof. In the days of the depression the county fathers had been able to purchase this old house and set it up as a home for indigent citizens. It was quite rudimentary; the pittance of taxes having been allocated for this venture did little more than provide food and shelter. As Ellis realized where he was he looked around his little area. The powers that be had supplemented the existing framing where they needed to and had wound up with approximately twelve by twelve foot rooms that housed four people. There was a closet rod suspended in the diagonal of each corner and a simple cot for each person. Ellis looked around at what had become his “home” and longed to be alone in his little shanty with his four cats, but he knew those days were gone. They had departed on the day he had suffered a stroke; he had fallen when stricken and all he could do was call out for help. Russ’ boy Richie had been playing out in the woods and when he heard him had gone into the field where his daddy was hauling hay and told him about it. When Russ had arrived he knew immediately that Ellis was in trouble and sent Richie to the house to tell his momma to call the ambulance; the ambulance service was operated by undertaker Blair House and before long the approaching siren could be heard. The old rutted road to Ellis’ place was in terrible shape and Blair got stuck several times before he made his way to the little house; in fact, Bogus Clonger was plowing nearby and was able to break off from his work and come pull the ambulance down to the little house. They loaded Ellis up and headed out, Bogus and his tractor being needed again to help Blair get back to the main road.
Ellis moved around on his old cot a little; any motion was labored at best, his left arm and leg being partially paralyzed from the stroke. Ellis noticed that he seemed to sleep a lot more than he used to; he wasn’t sure if that was due to his medical condition or just because he was so bored. He did notice that if he was still for very long he would usually drift off, and in a few moments he did just that and was back at his little house on the day of the oyster roast.
Ellis was back tending to the big cast iron washpot that they did the stew in, stirring all the vegetables around; the oysters would not be added til much later. It was about to get dark and most of the neighbors had arrived. Joe Costner had brought two gallons of his finest Oodly Creek shine; he liked Ellis a lot and that was always his contribution to the gathering, and nothing was appreciated more. Preacher Clonger had been posted as a sentry down the hill toward the creek to alert everyone when the horsemen approached. The “Preacher” moniker was indeed facetious; it was rumored that he could not string two sentences together without a blue streak somehow entwined, so when preacher came up the hill and said “that horny God damn trio has arrived and May is already strutting around showing her titties,” everybody knew that the moment had arrived. It was just dusk when the men crept quietly down the hill and positioned themselves where there was a small opening in the underbrush. This strategy had been developed that afternoon; the opening would allow the audience to peer in from either side of the opening and would not hinder Bogus from his shining of the spotlight when the signal was given. The loosely formed committee overseeing this voyeuristic endeavor had agreed that they would not call out to “spotlight Bogus” until the objects of their attention were “goin at it” pretty good. As the men watched Blair and Sloan took off all their clothes except their cowboy boots and May got totally undressed. Then a grinning Blair House produced a blindfold and approached a smiling May and said “reckon you know what time it is,” and with that he attached the blindfold and the party was on. The actors proceeded to perform the same way that the young boys had described to Ellis, May getting on her knees and the guys taking turns mounting her while she caroled out “is that my big nail drivin’ man” or “could it be my friendly undertaker, the last one who will let me down.” After this went on for a while Preacher went back to where Bogus was with the light and announced “they goin’ at it purty good—might as well throw the light on them fuckers.” When the spotlight illuminated the merrymakers all the men started whooping and hollering; the three people of interest were shocked at first but when they realized what was going on they just started grinning and even bowed toward the gathering, May even adding a backward bow. Then Bogus hollered out “ y’all come on up here and eat and drink with us” and with that cut off the spotlight, allowing the stars their privacy.
Ellis jolted awake when Vergie, the R. N. who was in charge of the County Home, walked in to give Ellis his medicine. “What’s them pills fer anyway,” Ellis hollered at her. He would get kind of cranky whenever the old nurse would just burst in unannounced but Vergie had been around a long time and had a mighty tough hide.
“You just better be quiet and swaller these fluid pills or your ankles will be as big around as my chubby lil leg,” she told him, grinning and handing him a glass of water to wash them down with. Ellis smiled back at her and apologized to her for being so cross.
“I’m mighty sorry Vergie; I was asleep and you woke me up. You know how I am when that happens,” he said and she just looked at him and went out the door. Ellis made a very concerted effort to stay awake ‘cause his old friend and neighbor Russ was coming by ‘bout eight o’clock to cut his hair. Ellis winced when he thought about how the old hand clippers pulled some of his hair out by the root.
“Well the price is right,” he said out loud and drifted back off.
Russ Hoffman put the hand clippers, a comb, and a pair of scissors in a bag along with a half bed sheet to drape around Ellis while he was cutting his hair. His wife Sarah was cleaning up the dishes after the evening meal.
“You be durn sure you don’t let them clippers touch them sores on his face; if you do and I hear tell of it I won’t ever let you trim my neck hairs again—ever,” she declared and looked hard at her husband. Sarah was a red head and could get kind of fired up now and then but Russ knew how to handle her. He just started hopping and dancing around in the kitchen floor and grinning at his wife and in a minute she was laughing and was in the middle of a big hug from her husband. Russ was pretty much always in a good mood, but this evening his humor was augmented by a glass of muscadine wine he had poured himself from a glass gallon jug when he had been down in the basement. After he had downed that he had waited until Sarah had gone into the other part of the house and had carried the jug up the stairs into the kitchen and out the back door and had placed it in the back floorboard of the car. Then he had started assembling his hair cutting equipment.
“I’ll be sure and boil those clippers in vinegar when I get back if that will make you feel better,” Russ said, but Sarah was still stewing about Ellis’ sores.
“I know what to do,” she thought to herself, and went into the living room where little Richie was busy eating a piece of chocolate and watching The Lone Ranger on the television.
“Come in here right now,” she commanded and the little boy gobbled up the last of the pie and ran into the kitchen, his face smeared with the meringue and chocolate.
“Now Richie, I want you to go along with your daddy to see Mr. Clonger over at the County Home; he is going to cut Ellis’ hair and I want you to keep a sharp eye out to be sure that those clippers don’t touch those nasty sores on his face,” she said. “You do what I said and there’ll be another piece of chocolate pie in it for you when you get home.” When she turned back around to look at Russ he was rolling his eyes but he knew he was beaten.
“Okay, Sarah, that is what we will do,” he said and saw her face light up. “And Richie, if you are a good boy we will stop at Columbus Smith’s service station on the way back and I’ll get you some of that candy corn that you like so much.” Richie’s wide grin was interrupted by a wet wash cloth on his face; “there now, you look a little better with that pie off your face,” she said. While Sarah was cleaning up Richie Russ had fished a large paper bag out of one of the kitchen drawers and folded it up and put it in his back pocket.
“Well I reckon we had better get goin’,” Russ said, and he and Richie went outside and climbed in the ’53 plymouth and headed to the County home.
When they arrived Richie sat looking at the structure while his daddy got his hair cutting accoutrements together, putting all the items including the gallon jug of muscadine wine in the big paper bag he had brought from the kitchen. As they started walking toward the entry way Richie asked, “Daddy, this place looks like a house I saw in the movies one time, that movie something ‘bout gone in the breaking wind or something like that.”
Russ laughed out loud; “I think you might mean ‘Gone With The Wind’, he told the little boy. “ But I see what you mean; this place does favor the big house in the movie, what with it being two story and having them tall columns. That movie was set in the Civil War when there was all that fighting and some places had slaves to work in the sugar cane and cotton fields. Ya know, this here very place could have been a plantation a long time ago,” Russ allowed, and made a mental note to check on the history of the old bulding. They walked up to the old structure; it was not yet dark and there were several old people sitting on rockers on the porch. They watched with rheumy eyes and Russ and Richie went in the door and stopped at the front desk; there a short stout woman with dyed orange hair wearing a nurse’s white starched uniform sat behind a desk. Richie read the name on the placard on front of the desk; it said “Vergie Propst, R, N.”
“Well hello fellows,” she said, giving them the once over and letting her eyes linger on the bag Russ was carrying. “I reckon you are here to give Ellis his haircut.”
“Yep it is that time again,” Russ said. The nurse said “well that’s just fine, but I will need to look inside that bag if you don’t mind; ya know we got a county policy against any contraband.” There was a hint of a smile on Russ’ face as he placed the paper bag on her desk and opened it. Vergie had done the same thing every time Russ came to cut Ellis’ hair so he was expecting it.
“Well what have we here ? “ Vergie said, grinning as she pulled the gallon jug out of the bag. Russ just looked at her as she unscrewed the lid on the wine and poured her tall coffee cup full and took a sip.
“Muscadine?” she asked, smiling at Russ. Russ returned the smile and said “that’s right, just three months old.” Vergie replaced the cap on the gallon jug, placed the bottle back in the bag and said “come with me.” The nurse opened the door and Russ and Richie followed her into the hall. Richie’s eyes got real big as they walked down the hall; about every ten feet there was a door. Some of them were open and some were closed. Richie noticed that some of the open ones had unpleasant smells coming from them and some muffled moans. He had a bit of a sinking feeling in his stomach and thought it might be really good if his momma were there but he kept on walking with his dad and nurse Vergie. About thirty feet down the hall they stopped at a door on the left side and the nurse tapped lightly.
“Mr. Clonger, you got some company,” she called out and went ahead and opened the door before there was a response. Russ and Richie followed Vergie into the room; it was pretty dim, being illuminated only by a 100 watt bulb in the center of the ceiling. As Richie’s eyes adjusted he noticed that there was a small lamp on the side table of the four cots that were in the room. The room was about twice the size of his momma and daddy’s bedroom, a cot being placed in each corner. Richie looked at the crude closet and saw that there was a small shelf above the clothes rod, and he noticed that Ellis’ old flat cabbie hat was sitting on it along with a large water glass holding a pair of false teeth. Richie figgered that they belonged to Ellis, but he also figgered that it would not be very polite to ask to be sure.
Vergie looked at Russ and said “stay as long as you like” and left. Apparently Ellis had been asleep; he rolled over on his cot and sat up, looking at his visitors.
“Well I be, if it ain’t Russ; and you got your little boy with you. How in the world you doin’?” he said.
“Just fine, just fine, and how ‘bout you Ellis?” Russ responded.
“Alright for an old man I reckon,” Ellis said. “Pull up that chair and sit down Russ,” and Russ sat down on the chair and motioned for Richie to sit on his knee. Russ reached down into the paper bag he had set down on the floor and pulled out the jug of wine. “Thought we might have a lil drink, Ellis; this is some good muscadine wine I made recently. I picked them from that big vine over there beside the gully, our private landfill,” Russ said, grinning at his friend. Ellis’ old eyes lit up when Russ said this and his wide grin revealed why the glass on the shelf was full.
“Well, I swannee, Russ, if that ain’t a mighty neighborly thing for you to do. Ain’t a whole lot of neighborliness abounding around here, as you can imagine,” Ellis said. “Russ, retch up there on that shelf and get that glass with my teeth in it and hand it to me,” he said, and Richie’s stomach felt a little queasy as he watched his daddy retrieve the denture laden glass and hand it to Ellis. The old man took the glass and pulled out the false teeth and popped them in his mouth, pouring the remaining water in a small trash can beside his bed.
“Ain’t had them in in a while, but it is gettin’ on toward when they serve supper and with the tough food they rake out over here you need all the help you can get on the chewing end,” he said. He held out the glass and Russ filled it half full and Ellis downed it in two swallows.
“Go ahead and pour yourself some in there Russ,” Ellis said. Russ hesitated just a second and said “I’ll just drink out of the jug,” and bubbled the gallon container. Richie had gotten up off his daddy’s knee and was standing there looking at Ellis. He looked about the same he had the last time he had seen him, except maybe a little cleaner. He noticed that the several skin cancer sores on his face had some sort of salve on them; Richie guessed that nurse Vergie had taken care of that. He looked around the room while the two men talked; there was only one other cot occupied in the room. There was a man lying in that cot snoring loudly; he would snore a while and then make no sound for it seemed like a long time. Richie was familiar with this behavior; sometimes when the men in the community had the oyster roast down at Ellis’ his daddy would drink a lot of moonshine and then would snore like that. Sometimes when Richie would wake up at night and be scared he would get up and go stand outside his parents’ room; one of those nights was after a moonshine laden oyster roast and when Russ would stop snoring Richie would get scared and think that his daddy had died and think about going in there and shaking him, but Russ would eventually start sawing logs again and Richie would breathe a sigh of relief. When he looked back to where his daddy and Ellis were he noticed that Russ had positioned Ellis in the chair and he was standing up and working the clippers. Richie noticed that Ellis did not complain about the clippers pulling his hair; he guessed that his momma had a lot more sensitive nerves in her head. He remembered that on occasion she would complain about her “nerves” so that must be what she was talkin’ about. He watched as his daddy worked the clippers and listened to the men talk; Richie loved hearing what men had to say, and it was even more fun when they didn’t know a kid was around. Like the time had been in the woods and had walked up near where Russ and a neighbor, Gregg Stanley, were shooting the breeze. Richie had just stood there quietly and listened while the two men talked about these three people that rode horses. Then they said something about them taking their clothes off and at that point Richie kind of lost his understanding of the story; “guess maybe it was muddy and the horses’ hooves threw mud up on them and they had to rinse them out in the creek,” he surmised and felt kind of proud for figuring out the story.
“Ya know, I was dreamin’ ‘bout that oyster roast we had that time, the very best one, when the horsemen got spotlighted,” Ellis was saying. Richie noticed that his daddy cut his eyes at Ellis and nodded in Richie’s direction. “I see,” said Ellis, and it was time to fill up Ellis’ glass and for Russ to take a couple of hauls on the jug. Richie wondered briefly if the horsemen could have been the same ones that he had heard his daddy and Gregg Stanley talking about that day, but dismissed that idea when he realized that there were lots of people who rode horses and the chance that it could be the same people would be remote. Richie felt pretty good about thinking the word “remote”; he had heard it recently on an episode of Andy Griffith and had been waiting on an opportune moment to use it.
Russ finished the haircut by trimming the hairs on the back of Ellis’ neck; when Russ did this to Richie’s mamma she would take on and holler ‘bout how “them clippers are pulling my hair out by the root,” but Ellis just sat in the chair stoically. Richie figgered that maybe ‘cause Ellis was so old he did not have any feeling in his neck, like how his foot got when it stayed in one position for too long.
“Thank you, Russ,” Ellis said, as Russ helped him out of the chair and into his cot. Ellis started scratching around in the drawer of the bedside table and handed Russ a dollar.
“Now, don’t be silly; you ain’t gonna pay me for that. Good Lord, reckon now I am gonna have to pay you for all that horseradish you gave me for the last thirty years,” Russ said, grinning at his old friend, and watched Ellis put the dollar back in the drawer.
“I reckon we better be gettinn’ on home; the madam will be wondering where we are,” Russ said.
“Well, I sure thank you for the haircut; come and see me again real soon, ya hear?” Ellis said.
“I will,” Russ replied, and picked up the bag and started out the door, Richie following along behind.
“Daddy, how come it smells so bad in here?” Richie asked as they walked down the dingey hall.
“Well, son, I reckon they are doing the very best that they can do,” Russ replied and rubbed his son’s g.i. haircut as they passed by Nurse Vergie’s desk. She was sitting in her chair with her legs up on her desk; they were spread wide apart displaying her white nurse’s stockings and everything else.
“Have a nice visit?” she caroled as she held up her large glass. Russ set the bag down, pulled the jug out, and filled up her glass, bubbling the jug before he put it away.
“Thank you kind sir,” Nurse Vergie said, and waved goodbye as Russ and Richie went out the front door.