Rose hoisted herself up out of her old rocking chair and staggered toward the middle bedroom where she slept. She was aided by her walking stick, the everyday one; on Sundays she used a nice shellacked one with a curved handle and a rubber tip on it. She closed the bedroom door behind her and pulled the chamber pot out from under the bed and removed the lid, then pulled her dress up and untied the undergarment she wore. It was about two feet long and six inches wide with strings at each corner; it was something she had made in lieu of panties, just to have a little buffer between her bottom and her dress. She finished her business and capped the slop jar and slid it back under the bed. The rest of the family used the two-seater outhouse down near the old cast iron washpot but at 92 that was quite a sojourn for her. She was a little out of breath from her effort so she sat down on the edge of her ancient metal bed to rest for a spell. She looked up at the bare bulb in the ceiling and the grimy string that came from the chain on the fixture to the headboard of her bed. Rose thought back some twenty-five years when her son Russ was building the house and how he decided to go the string route instead of switches to save money.
“He was a saving man,” she thought out loud, thinking of how he had saved the boards from the poured concrete foundation and used them as roof sheathing; if you went up into the attic you could see the cement residue on the rough cut 1x6s. Steadying herself with her walking stick she pulled herself up by grasping the headboard of the bed next to where the string was, then she opened the two-panel door and lurched back into the living room. She had a bad hip on her left side but was able to get around by moving her right leg forward and then pulling her left leg along, giving her a staggering look. Rose maneuvered to her chair and fell into it with a thud; then she reached down beside the chair and brought up a tin of Railroad Mills snuff and pulled a fresh toothbrush out of her dress pocket. Little Richie had brought her six new toothbrushes just the day before. They came from the red oak tree behind the woodshed; she had him collect red oak twigs about a quarter inch in diameter and six inches long. Then he would take a hammer and pulverize one end, laying the twig on the concrete floor of the back porch. Calling the twigs a tooth brush was an ironic term, considering Rose had not had a tooth in her head for thirty years; even with that dental situation she could still eat about anything, even gumming country ham and fatback, rind and all. She put the smashed end of the twig in her mouth to moisten it and then swished it around in the snuff can; the snuff adhered to the toothbrush in clumps, then she popped the snuff laden twig in her mouth. With her Luzianne coffee can filled with toilet paper beside her chair she settled down for a dip.
Rose had a lot to think about and she always felt that a dip of snuff helped her along when she had something to ponder, and she had quite a few things to think about. She looked down at the little fat boy lying in the floor; little Richie had on cut off jeans and no shirt, and as she looked at him she couldn’t help but think that he looked like a white hog. She almost said it but caught herself; the little guy had had a tough summer. On August 21 his daddy, Rose’s baby boy, had died at the age of fifty from pancreatic cancer. He had gotten to where he could not keep anything on his stomach back in early spring and the local doctor had sent him up to Chapel Hill for an exploratory operation; that was when they had cut him open and then sewed him back up, taking time to do some procedure that would keep him from “turning yellow.” Rose remembered that Sarah had told her what Dr. Will had said when he told them to go to Chapel Hill for the operation. After Russ had left the examination room the doctor had leaned over to Sarah and said in a low voice “you know none of us are spared.” It was not until after the exploratory that Sarah realized that Dr. Will was trying to prepare her for what was to come. Russ’ death had been two months in the past; now it was Walt’s time.
Went from the youngest to the oldest, she thought; Walt’s funeral was being preached over at Puett’s Chapel that very moment. Just like with Russ’ funeral it was thought it would be better if their mother did not attend. Rose had agreed to it and one of the neighbors had stayed with her while the rest of the family had gone up to Lander’s Chapel for Russ’ service; Rose remembered how when they had returned that Sarah had gone on and on about the flowers.
“Well I’ll swanney, I ain’t never seen so many beautiful flowers, and the church was packed,” Sarah had said between sobs. Sarah had taken it awful hard; her just starting the change of life in the middle of all this, Rose recalled as she shook her head sadly. Rose remembered what Sarah had said when she got back from Chapel Hill after the exploratory.
“They was two of them surgeons that come in the room when Russ got awake; they just told us straight out that they wa’n’t ary bit of hope. Russ cried a little bit and said ‘I was afraid it was something like this.’” Rose took her toothbrush out and put it back in the tin to get some more snuff, spit into the Luzianne coffee can and put the replenished twig back in her toothless mouth. She sat there and looked down at the sad little fat boy and thought about how he had looked so lost when they all had gone over to Carothers Funeral Home in Gastonia to view Russ’ body the night before the funeral. Rose had gone along since she was not going to the funeral. They had all stood around the casket and looked down at Russ; he had a full head of black hair with very little grey. It had been cut in his characteristic flat top, and Sarah was talking about how good he looked; he did look good. Of course he weighed less than a hundred pounds after being well over 250 when he got sick. Plus you could see that there was a lot of makeup on his face, kind of like the pancake type makeup that women wear. Rose had watched as Sarah had said “give your daddy a kiss Richie,” and the little boy had gone up to the casket and kissed his dead daddy on the cheek and then had made a face. Rose figgered that the makeup had an acrid taste. She had thought about how it was a little bit curious that Richie had kissed his daddy; she had never seen him do that when his daddy was alive, and Richie was almost twelve. Russ had been a good man but he had not been one of those who wore their emotions on their sleeve and were always telling everybody how much he loved him. In fact Rose could not remember Russ ever saying those words to anyone where she could hear him.
“Course actions speak louder than words,” Rose said, still looking at the little chubber. She noticed that the little boy had fallen asleep.
She thought back to when Sarah and the family had returned from the funeral that hot August day, and how little Richie had been crying. Sarah asked him what he was crying about, thinking it was about his poor dead daddy and the little boy had told her in between sniffles. “When we were leaving the church the door on my side didn’t shut all the way and one of those Carothers men said as he re shut the door, “Don’t want to lose another one.” Sarah had not said anything but had thought that “he sure does pick the weirdest things to get all upset about.”
Rose spit in her coffee can and looked at the clock on the mantel; it was the old clock that she had for decades, having brought it from the old house when Russ had built the new one. There were two prized possessions she had brought when they had moved, that clock and the cream colored rose bush that had been in the front yard of the old house up next to the porch. Russ had planted it in the corner just outside the door where the side porch was. It was warm and the door was open so she hoisted herself and hobbled over to the door and looked through the screen and saw that there were two large blossoms on the bush; she sighed and went back and fell into her chair.
Rose looked up at the old clock and thought about how Russ was the only one who wound the clock; the key sat right beside the old timepiece and none of the kids were allowed to touch it. Sarah wound it now, once a week just like Russ had, but it made Rose sad when she heard it being wound and reminded her of her baby boy.
“Four o’clock,” she said out loud. “Well the funeral started at two, so I got to believe Walt is in the ground now.” Rose reflected on how Walt had gone down hill the last several years. He had gotten to where he would get short of breath without doing hardly anything. He had always been a hard worker, what with farming and all, and then back about fifteen years in the past he had gotten the idea of damming up the creek that flowed through his property to create a swimming hole. “Shady Rest” he had named it, after the little store up the road at the Harden crossroads. Rose thought about big fat “Bessie” who ran the little store; Rose had heard that loose women would come up there sometimes and dance with the men hanging around. Bessie had a juke box from Robinson Music Company up the road toward Lincolnton. A smile crossed her face when she thought about how one time somebody let it out that Russ had danced with one of those women and Sarah had found out and had given him the devil.
“Shady Rest” swimming hole had caught on pretty good and Walt had good crowds on a regular basis. He built a little shack beside the water and sold candy, cokes, and cigarettes. She smiled again when she remembered how Walt would always wear a white shirt, tie, and hat when he was down there. Some of the locals claimed that the only reason he opened Shady Rest was so he could see the women in their swim suits. One of the interesting things that had happened there was when one Sunday afternoon a whole bunch of cars pulled up and one of the people went over and talked a bit with Walt. Rose had been there, sitting on Walt’s front porch talking with Walt’s wife Pearl, so she had a bird’s eye view of what happened. After the man had talked to Walt and had gone back out to where the other cars were Walt had hollered “let me have your attention everybody; we have got a church group here that wants to have a baptizing, so everybody come out of the water and let them go about their business.” Rose recalled how Russ and Sarah’s youngest three, Richie, Gail, and little Rose had been in the water and had come up on the porch and stayed with her. After Walt’s announcement and the swimmers’ exit the occupants of the cars came trooping out and went down to the pond. The man who had talked to Walt was in the lead; he had donned a burgundy robe; there were eight or ten young men and women following him. They also had burgundy robes on, the kind that a choir would wear; after them came the rest of the visitors who were dressed in regular Sunday attire. These people were Primitive Baptists from over near Stanley; Rose had heard of them and had also heard the rumors about snake handling but had dismissed those right away, knowing that it was mostly Pentecostals who fooled with that stuff. The man in front, who turned out to be the preacher had walked out into the water and looked back at the robed ones, then he had raised his hand and motioned for the first one to come into the water. Then he had said some prayer that they could not hear and had placed his hand over the first one’s mouth and nose and had dunked them. He did the same thing to all of them, and Rose remembered how both the preacher and all the dunkees had such beautiful smiles on their faces.
“Beatific,” Rose said out loud, remembering a word one of the preachers in Gastonia had said on the radio. Anyway, it had been a lot of added excitement for a sleepy Sunday afternoon.
But it was not too long after that when Walt’s shortness of breath spells increased in frequency; it must have scared him pretty good cause he quit smoking those filterless Lucky Strikes that he had smoked for fifty years, Rose thought, and the cigarettes reminded her of how Walt used to come up to Russ and Sarah’s on a lot of Sunday mornings to visit with them and his momma. Those Sunday morning visits had become a part of the local family folklore. Church started at 9:45 at Lander’s Chapel Methodist Church; Lander’ Chapel shared a pastor with a little church in Laboratory, a few miles down the road. The place had that curious name because there had been a Confederate Laboratory there during the Civil War; it was rumored that it was a site where gunpowder had been manufactured, but no one knew for sure. Since the two churches shared one pastor one week Lander’s would have Sunday school first, and then preaching at eleven. The same went for Laboratory, the two churches alternating; whichever service was first would end by ten thirty, giving the pastor enough time to visit with the congregation and then travel the few miles to the other church.
In order to make sure that all the kids were dressed and ready to go Sarah needed to get things going early on Sunday mornings and had a strict rule that they had to leave by no later than nine twenty to get to church on time. On Sunday mornings, when Walt would arrive, unannounced, he would typically drive up in his little blue pickup truck about 8:15 and he would pull up one of the straight backed chairs in the living room and fire up a L:ucky Strike. After the usual pleasantries with everybody he would start in on talking, and Walt was a talker. And Walt was a prolific smoker; Sarah always had two ashtrays handy and she would hand one each to Gail and Rose, because Walt would sit there and smoke and let the ash go on for two inches. Once one of the girls saw it getting like that they would politely go over to him and hold the ashtray out. Walt’s habit was to flick off the ash, stub out the Lucky and immediately light another one. Rose frowned a little when she remembered how Walt had liked to talk against regular religion like up at Lander’s Chapel and out at Antioch Lutheran where Sarah had been raised.
“I think them Black Stockings have got the right idea; I go up there right often,” he would say and look at Russ and grin, all the time knowing that he was in danger of making the family late for church. The Black Stockings were a group of women who congregated over at High Shoals in a building that the cotton mill owner let them use; nobody knew much about them, and it was rumored they were some bunch that came out of Pennsylvania where the mill owner was from. Most of the people in the community had accepted the fact that Walt’s admiration for the group had to do with their sex and their stockings. When it got to be a little before nine Russ would stand up and announce that “we are all gonna have to get ready if we are gonna make it to church on time,” and Walt would say goodbye to his momma and head down the dirt road in his blue truck, puffing away on a Lucky. Rose felt in her dress pocket and pulled out the laminated card Carother’s Funeral Home had given all the family members when Russ had died. As she heard Sarah’s car pull into the driveway she looked at the little card and realized that she would have another one in a few moments, one for her oldest.