Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Thirteenth Month

The Thirteenth Month

by David Dyer

It was hot, powerful hot.  Somebody had hanged a Merita Bread thermometer touting the Lone Ranger astride his fiery horse Silver beside the doorless garage.  With the red-tinted mercury threatening to burst through the top of its glass-tubed prison, we heard the shout to break for lunch.
“Ya’ll just as well eat your dinners now,” Doc lamented.  “You fellers been movin’ ‘bout as slow as black-strop[1] molasses poured on an icy winter morn.”
“I ‘spect dis blisterin’ heat’d slow mos’ anybody down Mister Doc,” Motel slowly drawled while removing his sweat-drenched hat and squatting on his haunches much like those Vietnamese folk do, his rear end poised but a few inches off the ground.
Motel was a big man, perhaps in his middle fifties, strong as a pair of oxen pulling two abreast, with taut, smooth swarthy skin so black it had a purple sheen.  He was especially well mannered, soft-spoken and stood solid on his ‘old black-backed Book’, oftentimes alluding to scripture.  Many a time, I’d heard him cite what must have been his favorite Bible verse, “Iffin a body’s gwine to has friends he’s gotta show hisself friendly.”  Some folk allowed he was a preacher, or had been one, but as far as I could tell, he was just a mighty fine man.  The sort of man our country could use a lot more of, especially nowadays.
“I’ve never let a little hot weather slow me down,” mocked Doc, having spent the better part of the morning in the air conditioned upstairs in conversation with Mr. Hankins, who’d driven away less than an half-hour earlier.
I was seventeen, and ole Doc Hamilton had hired me as a laborer, an unskilled helper of sorts, in his remodel of Toad Hankins country cabin.  While it wasn’t really a cabin at all, that was what Toad, and subsequently Doc, called it.  It was a nice, moderate-sized house located on a goodly piece of acreage in a rural area of east Knox County.  Having weather-whitened, vertically planked wooden walls, it sat atop a full-size, unfinished basement.  By unfinished, I mean it lacked even a concrete floor.
One of our tasks was to remove excess dirt from this basement, leveling the area to allow for at least six inches of fill gravel for drainage and four inches of finished concrete.  Having completed the excavation using a pickaxe, spade and square-point shovel, we were employing rubber-wheeled wheelbarrows to tote crusher-run rock from a pile dumped along the roadway.  Toad, Mr. Hankins, had the rock delivered in early spring.  The fifteen-ton tandem dump truck, unable to negotiate the sodden landscape, dumped the rock some two-hundred-fifty yards or so from the basement.  This required traversing some rough, fairly steep terrain and with the unusually blistery August heat, we were perspiring profusely.
Turning over an empty wheelbarrow for a makeshift seat, I watched as the large black man thumbed the twin clasps of his metal lunchbox upwards.  His short-cropped, inky-hued hair was wiry and streaked silvery-gray.  His whiskerless, squared-jawed face seemed always to break into broad, friendly smiles.
“Hey Motel, whatcha got in that lunchbox today?” I queried.
“Two onion sammitches[2] and a bowla pintos,” he replied, afterwards taking a healthy-sized bite of one of his light bread sandwiches.
“Onion sandwiches,” I loudly repeated, surprised that anybody would eat such a thing.
“Yessur Mister David, the missus made ‘em fresh dis mawnin’ and they’s mighty tasty.”
Motel always called everybody Mister and when addressing a lady, he’d remove his hat and say Miss or Missus.  He was fond of using sir and ma’am too.  I always reckoned his upbringing was similar to my own, his parents allowing that saying sir and ma’am was the proper thing to do.  I’m thinking most folk born in the south back in those days just naturally used terms of respect when addressing others.
Pondering those onion sandwiches, I grimaced, shrugged my shoulders and pulled open my own brown paper lunch-sack.  Peering inside, I considered the still mostly green Early Harvest apple and two cellophane packages of Lance sandwich crackers (the round, buttery ones spread with a thin layer of peanut butter).  Thinking my fare was not much better than Motel’s; I broke open a pack of crackers, polished the apple against my sweat-soaked shirt and began eating.
As was his custom, Doc hadn’t joined us yet, but two fellers Toad had hired to ‘rough-in’ the plumbing for a new downstairs bathroom, had knocked off for lunch as well.  They’d been there all morning piddling about and I didn’t see any evidence they’d got much work done.  Their lack of progress would be holding us up if they didn’t hurry up and get their drainage pipes set.  Doc said they were aiming to use that plastic stuff, PVC they called it.  I doubted it would work as good as the old reliable cast iron but ole Doc allowed it was much better.  Anyway, I figured Toad, who seemed to have plenty of money to toss around, was paying these two by the hour and they couldn’t care less how quickly they worked.
“Ya’ll care if we join you?’ the taller and older of the two asked.
He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, his mostly gray hair thinning and sharply receded at the temples.  Lankily built, he had prodigiously big hands, hands that seemed way over-sized for his body.  He was shirtless beneath a pair of charcoal-gray striped overalls.  With the side flaps left unbuttoned, displaying a goodly portion of his gaunt, alabaster thighs, he flirted dangerously close to nakedness.  Like the rest of us, he was drenched with sweat.
“Find yourselves a seat,” I answered.
“Yessurs, youin's sho ‘nough welcome to jine us.  Mister David an’ me’d be mighty pleased havin’ ya’ll’s company,” chimed Motel, his castaneous[3] eyes closely studying the two plumbers’ faces.  Turning towards me he continued, “Like the Good Book say, “Always be mindful to entertain strangers ‘cause some’s has entertained angels un-bewares.”
The plumber’s helper, much shorter than his cohort, in his early twenties I supposed, spoke nary a word.  Bare-chested and sweaty, dressed in blue jeans faded nigh colorless with both of his pasty-white, knobby knees poking through threadbare legs, he bended sharply and dragged the four-foot long plumber’s toolbox over to where Motel and I sat.  Then he and the lead plumber sat down and opened their dome-topped, lunch pails.
“Damn, it’s a hot one,” the elder of the two bemoaned while unscrewing the lid off his thermos.  “Hell, I thought yesterday was bad, but today is a real scorcher.”
Glancing at Motel, I noticed a faint frown crawl across his face.  He was not a man given to swearing or using cuss words of any sort.  The closest I had ever heard him come to cussing was an occasional “Shucks” or now and again a “Dad-blame-it.”  Come to think of it, I don’t recall him ever getting angry or even speaking poorly about anyone.  I reckon ole Motel just might have been the kindest, most even-tempered feller I’ve ever known.
“It’s all them damned nuke-kleer tests what’s causing it,” the younger fellow opined.
“Hell, them sons of a bitches in Washington D C’s gonna blow ever-body offin the damn map if ‘ey keep it up,” quipped the older plumber.
“Well, my preacher said the Bible says this kinda shit would happen in the last days.”
I chuckled inwardly at the young plumber’s remark.  His use of such crude language while alluding to the Bible reminded me of the time Doc and Big Don (a mutual friend of Doc and me) were looking into the Scriptures.
Doc was reading over in the Book of Genesis about Abraham, who fearing King Abimelech might kill him in order to take away his beautiful wife Sarah, tried passing her off as his sister.
When Doc read that portion of scripture, Big Don yelled, “What?”
Doc carefully explained what Abraham had done, and Don angrily shouted, “Why that son of a bitch!”
Ole Doc and I shared many a laugh throughout the ensuing years about that one.
Doc, in his middle to late thirties, ran a small construction business out of his home.  Thinly built and diminutive in stature, standing around five foot two or three, I reckon he never weighed as much as a hundred-twenty pounds a day of his life.  He was what I’d refer to as ‘wiry’ and when sufficiently riled, had an explosive temper.  He was a self-assured man, perhaps bordering on ‘cocky’, never encountering a task that he considered beyond his ability.  I numbered him among those few men that I greatly admired.
The ninth of eleven children born to humble parents just outside the unincorporated community of Washburn in rural, northern Grainger County, he typified a southerner – or more so, a genuine East Tennessee hillbilly.  (Now Washburn is the main town in this rural area and lays surrounded by smaller communities such as Powder Springs, Thorn Hill, Tater Valley and Liberty Hill, all little more than wide places in the road.  Actually, in those days, Washburn with its US Post Office, Bank, School and Grocery Store, was not much to brag about either.  I’ve heard that this town was formed sometime during the 1890’s decade with the building of the Knoxville-Cumberland Gap Railway.  In needs of a rail yard and depot along its line, they chose that area, calling it ‘Washburn’ after the man who helped to make the railroad possible in that he had successfully secured the necessary legislation authorizing it.)
With only a third-grade education Doc was a prime example of the unlimited opportunity folk enjoy in this great nation of ours.  Now don’t think he was illiterate by any means.  While he might not be able to read as well as most folks, and his mathematical skills were woefully lacking, he could, like so many of the rural undereducated, ‘figure’ things out.  I have heard this sort of hillbilly thinking called ‘stump logic’ by some of the more enlightened folk, those sophisticated people holding degrees from institutions of higher learning.  Well whether Doc had ‘stump logic’, just plain common sense or pure old dogged determination, one will likely never know.  Albeit, he in his simple manner, achieved more success than a lot of those college educated folk peering down their noses at the ‘ignorant, lesser endowed’ will ever realize.
            “Ain’t yo eatin’ Mister Doc?” Motel inquired, perhaps asking mostly in hopes of ending the coarse conversation in which the two plumbers seemed so enthusiastically engaged.
            He turned his gaze towards me while answering, “Nah, I ain’t hungry but I’ll take me a cup of coffee if somebody’s got any,”
Doc never ate ‘brought from home’ food.  If we were working on a job anywhere near a restaurant, one of those inexpensive sorts that serve home-cooked meals, we’d drive there and eat.  On occasion, Doc’s wife Dora (he called her Doe) rode in with us so she could use the truck.  In those instances, she’d bring us plates of food she’d fixed at home.  Otherwise, Doc would just abstain from eating lunch (or dinner as we southerners call it – in the South, dinner is the midday meal and supper is the evening meal.)
            “Mister Doc, ain’t it a might too hot fo coffee drankin’?” Motel asked.
            Laughing, I stood and headed towards Doc’s truck, an old 1950 Ford Panel Truck[4] made especially for the Bell Telephone Company.  It still had factory paint; the ugliest, drabbest olive green I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen plenty olive drab on US Military vehicles).  I fetched the quart thermos I had brought from home that morning, which I knew was still yet half-full.
When home, Doc drank instant coffee and was it ever strong!  He’d add so many heaping spoonfuls of coffee powder to his cup of scalding hot water that it was nigh syrupy.  Despite that, he liked my much weaker coffee mighty well.
I fixed it on the stovetop in a real, honest to God percolator.  I reckon nothing sounds, smells or tastes better than coffee brewed in an old-timey percolator.  First, a body slips the ‘pump’ (the part with the hollow stem for the boiling water to travel up) into the pot; then after placing the basket on (the part that holds the ground coffee); the pot is filled with cold-water – not lukewarm water, but cold water – really cold water.  After adding two or three heaping tablespoons of coffee, JFG is best, and a dash of salt to knock off the bitterness, the ‘spreader’ (a flat piece filled with holes that allows the upwards pumped water to fall evenly over the grounds) is placed on the basket ere affixing the lid with its hollow glass bulb on top.
I always turned the stove-eye control to high as I’d seen my mama do.  In no time at all a body would hear that first bluluuup, followed by another bluluuup, then bluluuup, bluluuup.  With rhythm of delightful perking sounds dancing upon one’s hearing and nostrils filling with wafts of wonderful coffee aroma, those bluluuups would soon run closer and closer together; bluluuup, bluluuup, bluluuup, bluluuup.  When the sounds grew nigh continuous, leaving the pot on the burner, I’d switch the control knob to off.  As the stove-eye cools, the bluluups gradually decrease, finally ending, signaling the coffee is ready.
            Returning with the thermos, I saw that Doc had fetched a wooden chair, one of those low-seated Adirondacks, from off Toad’s deck and was interacting with the midday diners.  Nearing the foursome, I could hear Motel speaking.
            “Yessur Mister Doc, sho nuff, in all my sixty-seven years I ain’t never seen it no hotter than today.”
            I was astonished that this man could be that old.  He certainly didn’t look it.  Why, ole Doc looked every bit as old, if not older than Motel.  And aside from that, Motel was strong – powerful strong.  Why, I reckoned he could easily do the work of two men, maybe more.  I poured the still hot coffee into the pull-off insulated thermos cover and handed it to Doc.
            “My grandma said she’d never seen it this hot neither.  And I reckon she’s eighty-something or more.  She says all this fouled-up weather’s justa ‘nother sign of the times.  Ya’ll know, like what the Bible says,” the younger plumber interjected.
            Doc laughed, then, sipped at his coffee before speaking.
“This heat hain’t nothin’ son.  I recollect back when I was a young'un, it’d get so powerful hot in August that folk’s corn’d get so overheated it’d go to poppin’ right out there in the fields.  Them kernels would pop and pop ‘till they’d finally burst right through the husks.  Back in them days, many a bowl of popcorn got picked up from off the ground.  Heck, some folks’d carry a Sally Miles saltshaker with ‘em and eat popcorn out in the field.  Yeah, it got plenty hot back then.”
A hush fell over the gathering as Doc was telling his tale, and I’d swear that young plumber’s eyes grew nigh big as saucers.
“Wow!’ he exclaimed, “Reckon it’ll get ‘at hot this month?”
Finally, the older plumber and I couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst out laughing.  After a bit of hesitation, the younger plumber, still not convinced the story was untrue, joined us in a kind of nervous chuckling.
Motel remained silent through this yarn, his somber face showing nary the suggestion of a smile.
“If it was that hot back then, I reckon ya’ll had stewed ‘maters on the vine too, huh Doc?” I chaffed.
“Well, not as I recall,” countered Doc, “But I did hear tell that some folks on them lake-bottom farms sometimes had their ‘arsh taters to bake ere they could get ‘em out of the ground.”
He smiled, proud that he had topped my notion.  Indeed, he was a masterful tale-spinner with an imagination unlike anyone I’ve ever met.  Yes, he and ole Jess Haire[5] were the best storytellers ever to cross my path.
“‘At same summer, I can’t recall what year, womenfolks’d gather hen-aigs afore daylight else they’d hard boil right in the nest,” he continued.  “An’ worser still, cow an’ goat milk clabbered in the sack.
The young plumber’s helper said doubtingly, “I ain’t never heared such as ‘at.  I’ll ask my grandma.  Where’d you say you was from?”
The gray-haired plumber and I laughed so as to cause the young questioner’s face to blush.
Again, both Motel and Doc sat stolidly, showing no emotion at all.
When the laughter died, Doc asked, “Well boys, did any of you'ns see on last night's news ‘bout the latest legislation President Johnson’s proposing?”
With this query, his countenance grew stern, his dark eyes drawing into narrow slits, obvious concern radiating from every aspect of his person.  Even his slender shoulders slumped as his arms dropped and his palms fell opened in apparent disappointment.
I sat transfixed, knowing that Doc was formulating another of his patented ‘leg-pulling’ narratives.  I reckon he liked nothing better than to spin some yarn and fool folks into believing something outlandish.
It was true that since the assassination of President John Kennedy in November of ‘63, it seemed (at least to some folk) that every piece of legislation the late president had favored sailed through Congress virtually uncontested.  One seldom picked up a the local newspaper or tuned into either Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite’s television broadcast without finding that another bill had passed or was being introduced in Congress.  It was obvious that Doc was parlaying this into the foundation for his latest tale.
“Ain’t nothin’ ‘at damned Johnson’d do what’d surprise me,” the older plumber responded.
“I don’t pay politics much mind,” Motel divulged, his demeanor and tone suggesting neither apathy nor unconcern but rather a sincere desire to remain above the fray so often associated with partisan politics.
As if anxious, the young plumber piped, “My grandma says all these new laws are just another sign of the times.  She allows we’re in them ‘last days’.  Says that damn antichrist’ll take over soon.”
“I heared plenty folks sayin’ Kennedy’s the antichrist,” the older plumber inserted.
“But he’s dead!” his workmate practically shouted.  “Hell, damn near everybody in the whole world seen that!”
“Uh-huh, so they say,” the elder retorted.  “I’m tellin’ you, it wouldn’t be the first time our guv-er-mint’s lied to us.  Ya’ll ‘member ‘at U-2 spy plane what them Russians shot down?  They sure lied ‘bout all that.  Hell, they’ll lie ‘bout most anything!  When I was over in Korea, them damned officers’d lie to us ‘bout ever day.”  His face reddened in obvious anger as he practically spat out his words.
Again I marveled at folk’s ignorance, thinking, Don’t any of these people ever actually read the BibleMust they believe every ridiculous rumor and conspiracy theory that comes along?  I sighed heavily and bit into my apple.
“My daddy said he were’nt a-tall upset when Kennedy got hisself shot,” the young plumber proudly announced.
“Can’t say ‘at I was neither,” his older companion flatly stated.
A momentary hush fell over the assemblage with those brash announcements.  I glanced over at Doc and then at Motel.  Neither of them cracked a smile and one could easily see they did not share in such a perverse notion.
Still chewing on a bite of apple, I interjected, “One good thing a body can say for President Kennedy, he sure did back ole Khrushchev and his missiles outta Cuba.”
“Hell, boy, you ain’t even old enough ta vote.  What in hell do you know ‘bout anything?” the older plumber practically shouted.  A body could easily see he was approaching rage level.
            Chuckling Doc said, “Well, this new bill President Johnson’s proposing’s the craziest one yet.”
            “What’s it say?” asked the young plumber, his grayish-green eyes, half hidden beneath straying strands of mouse-brown hair, beginning to once again widen.
            Doc, seeing the ‘game was afoot’ moved to slow the pace.  A practical joke is a lot more effective when ‘dragged out’ as long as possible.  Doc was a master at stretching a yarn to the limit.
            “Now, I’ll betcha the y’ears right offa my head it’ll pass Congress same as all them others,” he baited.  “All he has to do is tell them representatives and senators ‘at it was President Kennedy’s notion and they’ll shoot it through quicker than a body can say lickety-split.”
With everyone’s attention resting squarely on ole Doc, slowly munching the last of my Early Harvest, I carefully studied each face.
The older plumber’s mind-set seemed easily discernable, with his dark piercing eyes and downwardly curled lips reflecting anger and distrust.  One might conclude he was a concerned citizen with an increasing anger towards the current state of politics.  I doubted there was a politician alive that this man trusted.
His helper’s suntanned face glowed in the bright sunlight and one could sense his eagerness and childlike anticipation as to what ole Doc would next disclose.  He was unthinking and as gullible as ole Jack of ‘beanstalk’ fame.  The wonderment in his glistening eyes virtually shouted, ‘Fool me!  Fool me!
Motel, still squatted, remained stoic, his thick, tightly drawn lips neither smiling nor frowning.  Nothing in his visage showed he had the faintest hint of interest in Doc’s narrative.  However, searching his face further, probing those magnificent eyes – eyes darkly shimmering as the indigo-black waters of a fathomless lagoon, one could sense, perhaps discern, a scant genesis of curiosity.
“What’s it say?” repeated the young plumber the resonance of his voice raised an octave.
Ole Doc smiled his dancing eyes passing from face-to-face.  He was in his element now, and he aimed to play this audience for all it was worth.
“Yeah, what’s this new legislation all about?” asked the older plumber.
“C’mon, tell us Doc,” I urged, thinking I’d help move this ruse along.
“Well,” Doc began, his demeanor matching the gravity of his purposely-somber voice, “It seems Johnson’s aimin’ to change the calendar.”
“Change the calendar?  Whatcha mean, change the calendar?” queried the tall plumber.
“Yeah, whacha mean?” his young helper echoed.
I smiled as the maestro conducted his unsuspecting sinfonietta.[6]
            “I mean Johnson’s wantin’ Congress to pass a new bill changin’ the calendar,” he repeated, conducting his beguiled audience masterfully.
            Glancing towards Motel, noticing his attentiveness and the intensity of his gaze towards ole Doc, I realized the seeds of interest had germinated and were now taking root.  Indeed, an inquisitive expression despoiled that normally benevolent face.
            “Yeah, but how’s he aimin’ to change it?” questioned the young plumber, the inflection of his voice displaying his impatience.
The younger plumber parroted the elder with “Yeah, how?”
            Ole Doc cleared his throat, and took a long sip of his coffee.  He eyed each face carefully, reading each countenance, perhaps to determine the tempo of his timing.  “Well, it seems he’s wantin’ to add another month to the year.  'Stead of twelve months like we got now, there’d be thirteen.
            “Damn!  What’ll they think of next!” exclaimed the elder plumber as he snapped his lunchbox shut and stood up.  “C’mon Clarence, we have work to do.”
The young plumber arose from off the toolbox as well, turning towards Doc to half yell, “Hell, ‘at’s crazy!  Damned politicians!”
But neither plumber made a move towards leaving.  They both just stood there, no doubt awaiting a final word from Doc.
            I watched as Motel sat pondering, his dark eyes lifted upwards as if studying the heavens.  Raising a heavily callused hand, he scratched a few seconds at the edge of his hair.  I reckon he held that posture for what seemed like a full minute.  A body could almost hear the wheels turning in his head.  Finally, he lowered his gaze and peered directly into ole Doc’s nigh squinted eyes.
            Everyone had turned his attention to Motel.
            Inside I was screaming, Don’t do it Motel!  Don’t do itDon’t say a word!  Hoping against hope that he would not fall victim to ole Doc’s carefully laid snare, I sat holding my breath.
            Alas, the silence was at last broken as the venerable old saint began to speak.  Apprehensively, I watched as those dark, fleshy, lips moved.
            “Yes-sir Mister Doc, that’s just like ‘em.  And knowin’ how thems politicians is, they’ll likely put it right in between July and August – dey’s already the two hottest months we’s got.”
            Everyone laughed, and I suspect I laughed as well, but deep down inside, in the depths of my heart there was neither laughter nor glee – only sadness and sorrow.  Two men I held in highest regard had by chance entered the arena of ‘combat’ that sultry August day.  While the sympathy engendered within my being for Motel did nothing to diminish the respect I had for him, a dab of tarnish settled upon the high esteem in which I held ole Doc.

[1] Blackstrap.
[2] Two slices of light bread, mayonnaise and a thick slice of onion.
[3] Chestnut colored.
[5] Another storyteller introduced in ‘Scales of Justice’.
[6] A symphony that is shorter than usual or that calls for fewer than the usual number of instruments.

David Dyer is retired and resides in Knoxville, Tennessee and where he has been, for the most part, a lifelong resident.  Having dabbled in writing poetry for several years without seeking publication, he has only recently ventured into writing short stories.