Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Southern Hospitality

"Miss Sissy" Bingham swept her front walk with short, vigorous strokes on a Tuesday morning in the early spring. She had finished pulling the weeds from her front flowerbeds, and she was clearing the last of the debris from the walkway.

She paused and tucked a wisp of gray hair into the bun on the back of her head. One hand went to the small of her back, and she stretched up to her full four-foot-ten- inch height. She pulled off her round, silver framed glasses and squinted at them before digging out a handkerchief and rubbing the lenses clean. With her glasses back on, she gazed at the home she and her husband had built before he died.

The one story house was red brick, and it had a long front porch with four wooden rocking chairs patiently waiting for someone to sit down and keep them company. Black and white awnings over the front windows blocked the sun’s heat in the afternoon. All of the windows and doors were open to catch the occasional breeze.

The grass was a thick, green carpet edged perfectly around the flowerbeds and along the front sidewalk. A magnolia tree stood in full bloom on one side of the yard, and eight dogwoods were scattered about the property.

It was the azalea bushes, though, that were the property’s crowning glory. Beds of vibrant red flowers lined each side of the yard from the back fence to the front sidewalk. The house was surrounded by bushes with white blossoms. All were evenly trimmed and stood in beds thick with pine straw.

Miss Sissy's reverie was broken when her screen door slapped shut and Dr. Willie Simpson came down the front steps of her house. Dr. Simpson had rented a room after serving as a surgeon in the Europe theater under General Eisenhower, and he was struggling to establish his practice as the town's newest doctor.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," Miss Sissy greeted him. "You were certainly out late last night."

"Good morning, Miss Sissy.” He yawned. "I was up with Mrs. Annie Blanche McLaughlin. Her fever finally broke about two o'clock.”

"Well, I'm sure you did a wonderful job. You're making quite a name for yourself, you know."

"Yes, ma'am, if you say so. I just wish some of these people would start paying me. I don't mind the work, and I love helping people, but I'll be glad when I can pay my bills on time."

"Now, son, I told you not to worry about all of that. You're a good boy, and I know….."
"I know, Miss Sissy, I know," Dr. Willie said miserably. "But I hate living here and not paying you what we agreed on. I can't even pay the phone company this month. I just hope I can pay them before they come take my phone."

"Don't you worry about it. I'll take care of the phone company if it comes to that. Now you run off to work. I bet you'll have patients waiting for you today."

"Yeah," Dr. Willie laughed. "Maybe a couple of them will be the paying kind."

"Well, you can’t see them if you’re standing here talking to me." Miss Sissy pushed him out of the yard and onto the sidewalk. “You just go make people well, son, and everything will fall into place."

"Thanks, Miss Sissy." He headed down the sidewalk with his hands stuffed in his pockets and his shoulders slumped.

Miss Sissy picked up her broom and went inside. A few minutes later she came out with a cup of coffee and a well-worn copy of Gone With the Wind. She settled into the rocking chair nearest the porch steps and opened the book. Before she had read a dozen pages the phone rang. She sighed and went inside.

The telephone sat on a table in the big front hallway. She picked it up and said, "Hello. No, Doctor Simpson is not in. He's seeing patients. I will be happy to give you his office number, though.

"Oh? Yes, this is Mrs. Bingham.

"Yes, I own the home, and I will be here all day.

"I'm not having any problems with the phones, thank you. There's no reason to send anyone out.

"Now just you wait a minute! That boy works hard. You can't disconnect his telephone. He'll pay you just as soon as he can.

"Yes, I know that you've been patient, but so have I, and if I can carry him for a little while then surely you people can as well. I have to count my pennies, you know; I’m a widow.

"No ma'am, I will not. If I pay it for him, then you won't have the chance to help him. Besides, the poor boy would be humiliated. No, I think you should help him out for a little while longer.

"Well, I certainly won't let him in.

"Goodbye." Miss Sissy slammed down the receiver and shook her head. "People are so uncaring nowadays," she muttered.

She went into the kitchen and filled a pitcher with iced tea and put it on a tray with two tall glasses and a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Then she took the tray out to the porch and put it on the table next to her rocker. She dumped her coffee into the flower bed and took the cup inside.

When the telephone company's truck pulled up in front of her house a few minutes later, Miss Sissy was reading in her porch rocker. The man bustled up the walkway with a clipboard in his hand. "Are you Mrs. Bingham?"

"I am. Won't you sit down and have a glass of tea?" Miss Sissy waved toward one of the rocking chairs. "I don't believe I know you, but most people in town call me Miss Sissy. Please have a seat."

"No, Mrs. Bingham, we haven't met," the man answered brusquely. "I'm here to disconnect a phone line. The service is billed to William Simpson. Does he live at this address?"

"Yes, Doctor Simpson does, but he isn't here right now; he's with his patients. He's making quite a name for himself, you know."

"I'm sure he is, ma'am, but I've got to disconnect his telephone. Would you show me where it is, please?"

"As I told you, sir, Doctor Simpson is not here. Perhaps you could come back later and discuss the matter with him." Miss Sissy’s voice had lost its sweetness, but she was still icily polite.

"No, ma'am, I need to complete this disconnect now. Would you please show me where the phone is?"

"You're in such a hurry, son. Enjoy some tea with me. I'm sure we can work this out." She filled the two glasses as she spoke. “Please, sit down."

"Mrs. Bingham, I'm here to disconnect a telephone. I'm sure you're a real nice lady, and there's no doubt that Mr. Simpson…"

"Doctor Simpson."

"Fine, Mrs. Bingham, Doctor Simpson is probably a fine man making a wonderful name for himself. But my job is to disconnect Mr. -- Doctor Simpson's telephone service and collect his telephone. Now I don't know…"

Miss Sissy stood and said, "I am so sorry that you couldn't stay longer, sir, and I'm sure your supervisor will understand. In fact, I know he will. You undoubtedly work for Mr. Tilley Coleman, and I will be discussing your behavior with him this afternoon. Now please leave immediately." Miss Sissy pointed to the man's truck. "I mean this instant," she snapped when he didn’t move.

"Mrs. Bingham, I wish you would…"

"Don't you 'Mrs. Bingham' me, young man! Leave, or I’ll call Tilley right now!"

"Call him if you need to, Mrs. Bingham, but I'm just temporary help in from the capital. If you don't let me in, I'll come back with the police chief, and he’ll let me in!" The telephone man's voice had become loud and strident.

"You may use my phone to call Chief JW McGee right now, sir." Miss Sissy extended her arm towards the door. "JW was one of my best students when he was in high school. I'm sure he will explain things to you very plainly." She crossed her arms and smiled.
The man shook his head. "Mrs. Bingham, it doesn't matter what kind of student your police chief was in high school. The law's the law, and the law says I can disconnect that telephone."

"Well, you may wait in you truck, sir, while I make a call." She stepped into the house and let the screen door slap shut behind her. "You may wait in your truck, sir,” she said again from inside, “but you may not wait on my property. Please leave immediately."

“I really don’t need this,” the telephone man growled as he crossed the porch and knocked on the door frame. "Mrs. Bingham, I'm coming in now. Let's just get this over with, and we can both still have a good day."

He stepped into the front hallway and froze. Miss Sissy was pointing a .38 Police Special at his chest.

"Take one more step and I'll drill you, mister. You'd better just back on out the door.”
The man raised his hands above his head and backed onto the porch. Miss Sissy held the screen door open with her foot, still pointing the pistol at the man’s chest.

"Now, Mrs. Bingham, you know you're going to be in a lot of trouble if you shoot me. You wouldn't pull that trigger, anyway, would you?"

"You're going to be in a lot of trouble if you don't get off of my property," Miss Sissy answered. "I'm a damn good shot, and you're making me angry. Now move!"

"Take it easy, Mrs. Bingham," the man said in a soothing tone. "You know you could really hurt yourself with that gun. It's got some kick to it."

"It’s going to kick you if you don't get back in that truck of yours and leave!"

"Come on, Mrs. Bingham, give me the gun.” He held out his hand.

"I'm warning you one more time, sir. Leave now or I will shoot you."

The telephone man shook his head. "No ma'am, I don't think you will." He took a step forward. "In fact, if you'll…"

The pistol bucked in Miss Sissy's hands and an explosion ripped through the neighborhood. The man grabbed his thigh and cried out as he fell down the steps.

"I asked you to leave." Miss Sissy stood calmly on the edge of the porch.

"You shot me, you crazy old woman!" the man yelled. Blood leaked from between his fingers.

"I just grazed you, sir. I could have made it much worse. If you're not out of my yard when I finish counting to ten, I'll shoot the other leg. One."

"You're crazy!" The man couldn't take his eyes from the pistol.

"Two. Stay here and see just how crazy I am.”

"God almighty, woman, you shot me!"

"Three. And I promise I will shoot you again if you don't get moving! You're staining my sidewalk. Now get! Four."

The man struggled to his feet and leaned heavily on his good leg, glaring up at Miss Sissy.

"My God, lady!" the man cried. "You shot me! Call Mr. Coleman now. Call a doctor! Call your Doctor Simpson!"

"Six. First of all, young man, you came to take Doctor Simpson's telephone out. It's appropriate, then, that yours should be the first call he misses. Don't you agree? Seven.”
"And furthermore, sir, I have only winged you. You have what they call in the western serials a flesh wound. You are not so injured that you cannot walk out of my yard, so you had better get moving. Eight."

"Mrs. Bingham, please." The man held out a bloody hand. "Just let me get to my truck, and I'll call the doctor!"

"Nine. I have given you every chance to do just that. Now you’d better get to it, son."
"I'm going! I'm moving! For God's sake, lady, don't shoot again! Please!" He limped crazily down Miss Sissy’s front walk. When he was only halfway to his truck he looked over his shoulder and yelled, "I'll be calling the police, too! You'll pay for this, you crazy old bat!"

"Ten!” Another explosion ripped through the neighborhood, and again the man screamed and fell to the ground writhing, but this time he clutched both legs.

"Somebody help me!" he called to the neighbors who had appeared on their porches. "Somebody get a doctor! Get the police before this old woman kills me!”

No one moved to help him.

He looked back at Miss Sissy when she said, "Now crawl get off my property. I'm going in to call JW and Doctor Simpson. Be sure you're in that truck when I come back."

A small crowd stood in front of Miss Sissy’s house when Doctor Simpson arrived. The injured telephone man sat on the ground beside his truck. Miss Sissy stood off to the side with the police chief.

"I didn't kill the boy, JW,” she said. “I just winged him. All I did was save you the trouble of dealing with him."

Doctor Simpson opened his black bag and cut away the telephone man's pants legs before examining the wounds. Behind him, Miss Sissy and the chief continued to argue.
"I won't give up my gun. I need it for protection. Look what just happened!”

"Miss Sissy,” the police chief said, “the phone company might not prosecute if I can show that I've dealt with the problem. Please give me that pistol."

Doctor Simpson turned around. "These wounds are just superficial, Chief. I'll bandage them and give him some sulfa to fight off the infection. He should be dancing in a week."
"I told you I was a good shot.” Miss Sissy raised her chin. "See, JW, I didn't want to hurt the man. I just wanted to get his attention."

"Miss Sissy, you got the whole neighborhood's attention. And if you don't give me that pistol, you're going to get a lot more attention still."

"Well, I won't." Miss Sissy crossed her arms and stuck out her lower lip.

"Chief, what happens if this gentleman doesn't press charges?” asked the doctor.

"He shouldn't press any charges," Miss Sissy huffed. "I told him I would shoot if he didn't leave my property."

Doctor Simpson glanced at his patient and said, “Hush, Miss Sissy.”

"Don't you tell me...”

"Chief, what if he doesn't press charges?" Doctor Simpson asked again.

The chief rubbed his chin and looked at the telephone man. "I guess we wouldn't have much of a case."

"Don't you people think I won't press charges," the wounded man said. "Officer, I want this woman dealt with! She's a menace!"

"It's your call, son, but she did ask you to leave, and she did only graze you."

"She shot me! Twice! I want justice!"

"How about if I don't charge you for any of the treatment, and Miss Sissy here buys you a new pair of britches? Will you forget about the whole thing then?" Doctor Simpson asked.
"I'll get at least that in court.”

"Not in this town, you won't," the doctor replied.

"She's a crazy old woman, and I want her dealt with!”

Miss Sissy turned and started up the front walk. “I’m going to get my gun.”

"Dang it, Miss Sissy!" The chief bounded after her. Doctor Simpson jumped up and ran after the chief.

"Oh no," the telephone man cried out. "No charges! No charges!" He struggled to his feet and grabbed the door of his truck. "Just let me leave. I appreciate your help, Doc, so you just keep the phone!"

Chief McGee caught Miss Sissy and held her tightly by the shoulders.

"JW let go! He's getting away," she yelled. "Let me get my gun!"

"Be still, old woman," the chief growled. "You just might get out of this thing if you'll keep quiet."

"Oh hell, JW, let me go." She shook herself free as the truck roared off. "Look at him run!"

The chief chuckled. "Yeah, the doc must have fixed him up real good.”

"Of course he did,” Miss Sissy said. “Don't you know this young man has been making quite a name for himself?"

Author Roy Jeffords has a novel published twelve years ago, and  currently has a short story, "Ozymandias", nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories.  That story, also about the South, was published in Our Stories literary journal last year.

"Southern Hospitality" came from a real incident involving my great, great aunt, but he has used much artistic license to make it a tell-able story.