Fresh Air, Mixed Marriages, Fire Hazards,
Starlings, Payoffs and Squirrels
by David Dyer
It was bitter cold and had been for several days. Seated by my fireplace, I stared at the smoldering persimmon log, mesmerized by an occasional upwards lapping bluish-green tongue of fire interwoven among the orange-red flames.
The sounding of the phone startled me.
“Could you get that David,” asked my wife. I knew it was more an instruction than a question.
I arose from the swivel recliner and stepped to the antique phone table that had belonged to my Grandma.
“Possum?” the voice on the other end inquired.
“Yeah Doc, what’s up?”
“What’er ya doin’ tomorrow?”
“Well, it bein’ New Years, likely we’ll go up mama and daddy’s.”
“Well, I’ma needin’ ya ta work.”
“A remodel job in South Knoxville. An addition. ‘Hits already framed and under roof. Me an’ Gerald an’ ole Hud Trentham done that back afore Christmas.”
Now I’m not a particularly lazy man but I really didn’t want to face the freezing cold tomorrow. Besides, who wants to work on New Years Day? I had plans of going to my parent’s, eating scrumptiously and watching football bowl games all day long.
“I don’t know Doc…”
“Whatcha mean ya don’t know boy. I’ll pick ya up at seven sharp. Be lookin’ for me.”
“Alright Doc,” I sighed, “See ya then.”
Dropping the receiver onto its cradle, I walked to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and surveyed its contents. Settling on grape juice, I took a few quaffs straight from the glass jug.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” scolded my wife as she walked in.
“Doc wants me ta work tomorrow.”
“On New Years?”
“Are you going to?”
She rolled her eyes and left the room. Screwing the lid onto the bottle, I placed it back into the refrigerator and headed to bed.
Waking a full ten minutes before the alarm was set to sound; I kissed my still sleeping baby boy on the forehead (he was a year a half now) and walked nakedly to the shower.
Ole Doc Hamilton was both a friend and occasional employer. I’d known him since I was in my early teens. He was a diminutive man, standing five foot three or less and likely weighed no more than a hundred-twenty pounds soaking wet. His slight built belied his stalwart strength. Necessity and a rural upbringing inured him to physical labor and he could put in a day’s work with the best of men.
At seven o’clock on the dot, the olive drab, 1950 Ford panel truck (originally made especially for the Bell Telephone Company) roared up the quarter-mile circle driveway to my back door. A whipping wind made the sub-freezing temperatures seem even colder. I shivered as I made my way to the passenger side and climbed aboard with two insulated coffee mugs in hand.
Mornin’,” Doc said, taking one of the steaming mugs.
“Mornin’. It sure is powerful cold.”
Doc laughed. “You call this cold boy? Why this hain’t nothin’ like back when I growed up.
In the nearly twenty-five minute drive to the jobsite, the aged truck’s heater scarcely warmed the truck’s interior while the defroster struggled to rid the windshield of gathering haze. I kept thinking, ‘Why’d I always have ta knuckle under ta ole Doc? I could be sittin’ by the fire in a toasty warm house instead of bein’ here nigh freezing to death.’
Climbing out of the truck, inhalations of frigid air burned my nostrils as moisture-laden clouds of fog followed each exhalation.
“Let’s get ta movin’ boy,” Doc chided.
“We’ll have ta move, else we’ll freeze to death,” I complained.
Doc laughed. “Boy, this hain’t cold. C’mon, let’s get this plywood nailt on.”
I never could get accustomed to wearing gloves, but I had a pair on that morning. We worked maybe an hour or so before the back door of the modest, post World War II home swung open.
Even in the biting cold, my first look at Bill Cody sent a smile scampering across my face. A body’d have to stretch the truth to say he stood over five-feet tall. Clean-shaven, he looked to be in his middle forties and sported a mousy-brown crew cut. Wearing a knee-length, belted terrycloth bathrobe with his striped pajama-clad legs terminating into a pair of fluffy navy blue slippers, he looked every bit a circus clown.
“Mornin’ Doc,” he muttered, “Cold enough for you?” His thumb spun the flint wheel of his freshly refilled Zippo while yellowed tobacco-stained fingers guided an unfiltered Chesterfield between his slightly pursed lips. A wide flame leapt a good six inches upwards. Maneuvering his head sideways, he leaned into the blaze and lit his cigarette.
“Mornin’ Bill,” Doc replied.
Doc didn’t bother to introduce me (he never was one to exhibit good manners). He and Bill talked a spell while I busied myself nailing up plywood. (We’d ‘tacked’ several pieces up as was our habit and I was going back through adding needed nails.)
Bill Cody was a bus driver: not one of those Greyhound or Trailways nationwide bus drivers, but of the local transit-line variety. He worked the evening shift – three till eleven. He had never married and lived with his elderly mother. He was a chain smoker and a ‘joke-telling’ addict. I reckon he knew more jokes than anybody I ever met. Sadly, many of his jokes were of the ethnic variety and one might suspect he was a bit on the bigoted side.
After smoking a couple cigarettes, one right after the other, all the while observing every move Doc and I made, he bid us a “Ya’ll have a good day” and went back indoors.
Around ten or so, Doc and I drove to a nearby eatery for more coffee. Afterwards, while driving back to Mister Cody’s, Doc allowed, “Ole Bill headed back to bed didn’t he?”
“I reckon so,” I answered, although having no notion what he’d done when he went back into the house.
“Well, we’ll soon remedy that.” Doc laughed.
“We’re likely ta be here workin’ for the next two ta three weeks, maybe a month, ‘pendin’ on the weather. Don’t seem right lettin’ him sleep-in whiles we’re out in the cold workin’.”
I knew better than to ask Doc what he had in mind. When he was formulating a scheme, one of his patented ruses, he’d become as tight-lipped as a child being coaxed to swallow a dose of Black Draught or castor oil.
Back on the job, Doc barked. “Hey boy, fetch that ten-pound sledge and the Skill saw.”
Opening one of the back doors of the panel truck, I pulled out the saw and sledgehammer.
“Best to bring that cat-paw too.”
“The what?” I questioned.
“The cat-paw,” he repeated.
I dreaded the notion of asking what a cat-paw was, thinking of the times he had tricked me; like sending me after a ‘plywood stretcher’. I had dug through tools for ten minutes before finally admitting I had no idea what a plywood stretcher was. I remember all the laughter (there were folk from other trades on the job that day) when I queried, ‘What’s a plywood stretcher look like?’ Of course, a fool ought to have known you can’t stretch a sheet of plywood. Then there was that ‘duck-worth’ prank. Sheesh! ‘What’s a duck-worth?’ I had foolishly quizzed. ‘Oh, ‘bout two dollars or so,’ he’d answered amid the roaring laughter.
“You comin’ boy,” he yelled.
“Yeah,” I answered, “I can’t seem to find that cat-paw.” I held my breath in anticipation of the coming chide.
“Hits that double-ended pry bar for pullin’ nails.”
Wondering why he hadn’t just said ‘nail-puller’, I grabbed the cat-paw, sledgehammer and saw then headed back to the three-room addition.
He’d taken a level along each side of the window to Mister Cody’s bedroom. Using a broad-leaded carpenter’s pencil, he’d drawn plumbed lines on the asbestos shingles from the window’s bottom to the new addition’s sub-floor. Setting the circular saw’s depth gauge to about an inch and a half, he handed it to me.
“Here boy, cut along them lines on both sides.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, thinking it wasn’t near time to cut out a door opening to the main house. A body’d never do that until the addition’s exterior walls were completed. It’d be one of the last things to be done.
“Just cut it boy,” he instructed. I knew not to question him further. I’d witnessed his temper explode a few times and wanted no part of that.
After a bit of sawing, nail pulling and sledgehammering we removed the bedroom window, leaving an eighty-two and three quarter inch high by thirty-eight inch wide ‘rough-in’ door opening.
Having slept through both the shrill whirl of the saw and the pounding of the sledgehammer, the sub-freezing air rushing into the bedroom roused Mister Cody from his slumber. There he was, dressed in those red, blue and green striped pajamas, sitting barefoot on bed’s edge, his fisted hands rubbing against sluggish eyes.
After a few seconds, he looked up into Doc’s smiling face and questioned, “What?”
Doc laughed. “Sorry, we had ta cut out for the door.”
“Oh,” he replied. Then after pausing for near half a minute, seemingly deep in thought, he continued, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, I see.”
Well, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to observe by the expression on Mister Cody’s face that he really didn’t see at all. Even a simple Knoxville Transit Lines bus driver wasn’t foolish enough to buy into the notion that a door opening from the existing house into the new addition needed cutting out that soon.
While I have no idea where Mister Cody slept after that morning, I do know that although working evenings, he adjusted his bedtime hours from sleeping till noon to arising early in the morning. From that day forward, when we arrived at the jobsite (promptly at 7:25 every morning), within five minutes, a fully dressed Bill Cody would step through that bedroom door opening, coffee cup in hand. Invariably he’d set that cup down on the two by four sill of an exterior window opening and pull out his Zippo to light a cigarette. (It was obvious that either he didn’t desire, or his mother didn’t allow him to smoke indoors.) Thus, it was that every morning with that freshly refilled Zippo shooting its broad flame skyward (a flame rivaling that of a plumber’s blowtorch) Mister Cody would enjoy his inaugural smoke.
Amid sips of coffee and puffs off his Chesterfield, he’d tell jokes. Most every joke he told had something derogatory about Afro-Americans. He regularly used the ‘N’ word without hesitation. Now I’m not saying Mister Cody was a bigot. In truth, I don’t think he was. However, like so many folk, he just didn’t stop to think. I realize in this day of ‘political correctness’ he would be deemed a bigot without discussion. Still yet, I think he was more a product of his upbringing and surroundings. Bill Cody loved a joke. I suspect his love for jokes caused him to close his mind to the right and wrong of a matter. Nothing he ever said or did indicated he had hatred and intolerance towards anyone. He was just incredulously insensitive and loved to tell jokes.
Every morning, he’d stay there with Doc and me, leaving only now and then to refill his coffee cup. Occasionally, he’d question something we were doing; asking why we did a particular thing a certain way or maybe why something was necessary. All the while, he would be puffing, sipping and spieling jokes. The fact that Doc and I seldom laughed at his buffoonery seemed to mean nothing to him.
On the way to work one morning, around two weeks into the project, the weather having eased considerably, I suggested to Doc we play a trick on Mister Cody.
“What’d ya have in mind boy?” he asked.
“Well, you know how he’s always telling them black jokes.”
Well, I was thinkin’ after he tells a few of ‘em this mornin’, I’ll act real upset and tell him I’m tired of all them jokes ‘cause my wife’s black.”
Doc laughed. Afterward, he grew quiet for half a minute or so, no doubt carefully considering the possibilities; pondering what negative effect it might have in the contractor-client relationship. Then he laughed again.
“Yeah,” he half whispered, as if speaking to himself. Then speaking assuredly, he said,
“Yeah, that’d work fine – mighty fine.”
I was standing on a six-foot stepladder attaching ‘drywall nailing blocks’ on the top plates that ran crossways to the ceiling joists. Mister Cody was standing across the unfinished room telling jokes with one hand wrapped around a coffee cup the other hosting a half-inch long smoldering cigarette pinched betwixt forefinger and thumb. (He’d smoke cigarettes till they were so short I would marvel that he didn’t burn his lips or fingers. I allowed that nicotine build-up was all that prevented it.) Telling a particularly offensive black joke, he laughed heartily.
Descending from the ladder, claw hammer clutched in my right hand, I walked directly up to Mister Cody stopping perhaps a foot away. Standing resolutely, my sternly set eyes stared threateningly into his face. Sensing something was amiss; his own gray-green orbs glanced quickly left then right, darting back and forth, no doubt searching for Doc, fearing the immediacy of impending danger.
“Mister Cody,” I said, deliberately guising my voice in feigned anger.
His face tensed, his wildly dancing eyes dropped slightly as if avoiding direct contact with mine. His elfin hand quivered slightly as he brought the inch-long Chesterfield to his thin, tightly drawn lips.
Affecting indignation, I continued. “I’ve taken about all I can take. For two solid weeks I’ve listened to you make fun of…”
I allowed my voice to trail off as if searching for the correct words needed to express the urgency of the matter at hand. He stood deathly still, his face turned downward in a posture a scolded child might assume.
“I’ve listened to you puttin’ black folks down.”
Raising the timbre of my voice, simulating anger I continued my rehearsed speech.
“I’m tellin’ you Mister Cody, I don’t like it at all. My wife is black and she’s one of the finest people I’ve ever known. I don’’t appreciate these things you been sayin’ – I don’t appreciate it at all. No sir, I don’t appreciate it – not one bit. You’ve talked about her and her people worsen than I’d talk about a dog. Her mother, my mother-in-law, lives with us and she’s a mighty fine woman. You’ve talked awful about her, my wife and all black folks everywhere. Now I’m askin’ you Mister Cody, what right have you to do that? And I’m tellin’ you now; I’ll be appreciatin’ it kindly if you’ll just not do it no more.”
I paused just long enough to determine if my words had taken the proper effect. The look of shock and bewilderment on Mister Cody’s face insured that they had. His eyes had grown wide, likely from the shock of it all. He looked down at the claw hammer still clutched in my right hand then glanced nervously upwards, past my face.
The deathly silence that had settled over the scene finally was broken as I turned and moved the stepladder a few feet to the right and ascended its narrow steps. Mister Cody scrambled out the door opening into the yard, no doubt in search of Doc.
On the trip home, Doc and I shared quite a laugh over the prank I’d pulled. However, my simulated tirade did not deter Mister Cody from stepping through that rough-in door opening at promptly 7:30 every morning thereafter. While the first day following he told nary a joke, by mid-morning of the second day he was rolling ‘em out with regularity. One thing was distinctly different now; there were no longer any Afro-American jokes among his seemingly limitless repertoire.
After a few days, I explained to Mister Cody that I had only been kidding him about my wife and he laughed as jovially as if he’d been the one pulling the ruse. It’s true that he told hundreds, perhaps a thousand more jokes while we were on that job and none of them referred to blacks. Now there were plenty of Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Amish and other nationalities and ethnicity jokes, but nary another one about Afro-Americans. I found that remarkable.
A few mornings later, I was stapling up fiberglass insulation in the exterior walls as Mister Cody, coffee cup in hand, stepped into the addition. He eyed me for a minute, took a couple sips of his steaming coffee then set it upon the yet unfinished wooden rough-in sill (we had hanged the windows but the marble sills had not yet been set.) Standing next to the wall with the foil wrapped insulation gleaming in the morning sunlight, an unlit Chesterfield suspended from his mouth, he struck the flint-wheel igniting that newly fueled, ‘blowtorch’ lighter.
As the orangish flame soared skyward, I shouted, “Oh my! Put that out!”
Jumping to one side, he quickly flipped the Zippo’s lid shut. “What’s the matter?” he practically screamed.
“This stuff (I motioned towards the insulation with my thumb) is highly flammable,” I offered, drawing my face into as grave an expression as possible. “One flick of that flame and it’ll go up like a tinderbox.”
“Oh,” he replied, stepping to the center of the room.
He looked around a bit, and then bowed his head and lighted the still dangling cigarette, his palm carefully cupped about the lighter’s flame. As he puffed at his fag, exhaling thick clouds of swirling smoke, one could readily see he was lost in contemplation. I suppose nearly five minutes elapsed before he finally spoke.
“If that stuff's so flammable, why in hell are you putting it in my house?”
I could not curb my laughter. Mister Cody realizing that I had, to use present day terminology, ‘punked’ him, sulked half the morning. However, by ten thirty or so he was back to his normal self, soliloquizing jokes in rapid-fire succession, providing his own unbridled laughter to assure their effectiveness.
It was yet a quarter of seven when I ventured into my backyard to await Doc’s arrival. The severe weather had abated and the morning sun warmed my face. My house sat upon a seven-acre tract a good quarter-mile or more from the road front. The cleared portion behind my house I deemed as ‘yard’ (in spring and summer I moved it) inclined upwards perhaps two-hundred feet before terminating at four acres of unspoiled woods. A covey of quail wintering in the narrow hollow lying to my left scratched and pecked about; I counted thirteen. Scads of squirrels scurried and scampered on the slope near the treeline likely feeding on hickory nuts they’d failed to gather for winter’s store.
Retrieving our coffees from off the well-house top, (it was seven o’clock on the dot) I waited for the panel truck to come to a stop. Climbing aboard, I handed Doc his coffee.
“Mornin’,” he replied.
“Look yonder at them quail.”
Doc leaned across the steering wheel craning his neck to see.
“Wonder what they’re doin’ h’yere this time of year?” he asked, probably speaking more to himself than to me, as he knew more about wildlife and nature than I was likely to ever learn.
“They’re wintering in that holler, over behind the barn.” I pointed towards the small, crudely constructed shed my granddaddy had erected for a garage. I had converted it to a ‘barn’ (more a single stall) for boarding a calf to fatten it for fall slaughter. With walls of inch thick, rough-sawn oak boards, weathered silvery-grey through time’s depredation standing unsteadily beneath a rusted tin roof, it was a real eyesore.
I counted thirteen of ‘em ‘while ago,” I proudly announced. “I didn’t bother tryin’ to count all them squirrels.” With a sweep of my arm, I motioned towards the woods.
Doc looked past me in that direction. Opening his door, he stepped out, his keen eyes surveying the treeline. (He had unusual acuity in both hearing and eyesight. He’d hear and notice things to which I was oblivious. I recall lengthy trips we made when afterwards he’d speak lucidly of things seen along the way – things I never noticed at all. Sometimes I’d inwardly muse, ‘Where in the world was I when all those things were taking place?’)
“Twenty-seven,” he announced while reentering the truck. “Twenty-sevens all I could see on tha ground. Hain’t no tellin’ how many was yet treed.”
I was surprised, near shocked, that he was impressed. It generally took something truly remarkable to impress ole Doc.
“Well, that’s a powerful lot of squirrels and that quail tally ain’t too shabby neither,” I said, fishing for more of his admiration.
He didn’t answer, but rather dropped the old truck into gear and headed towards the job.
Using the ‘hand-powered’ miter box, I was cutting and nailing up crown molding. Doc always left that task to me, as I knew how to place the molding into the box to get the proper cut. A lot of folks, including Doc, would get that confused, oftentimes reducing some expensive trim to a pile of kindling. Now don’t suppose for a minute he didn’t know his business. When it came to mitering two corner pieces, I’d always summon him to use the coping saw. He’d make that difficult slanted-curved cut on the last piece and get a perfect-fitted joint every time. I reckon it’s like ole Doc always allowed, “Different folks for different strokes.”
Working near an opened window, I could scarcely help overhearing Mister Cody and Doc’s conversation. Doc was telling him about all those squirrels he’d counted in my backyard. Well, Mister Cody wasn’t buying it for a minute. Far too many times in the past weeks Doc had fooled him and he was determined not to fall into what he envisioned as another cunningly laid trap.
“Twenty-seven? You ‘spect me to believe that?” he skeptically questioned.
Doc assured him it was a true accounting.
Ole Bill remained unconvinced. “Doc, I ain’t got any notion what it is you’re tryin’ ta pull, but I ain’t fallin’ for it!
“Possum!” he yelled. “Tell Bill ‘bout them squirrels we seen this mornin’ in your backyard.”
“There was a bunch of ‘em, that’s for sure,” I attested.
Ole Bill just laughed.
I worked on that job but a couple more days. To my regret, I never expected to see Mister Bill Cody again.
It was mid-March, and everywhere, signs of spring were flourishing. The Ogre of Winter had loosened its icy-fingered grip and the once browned grasses had greened with the beckon of the sun’s warming rays. Witch-hazel flaunted wispy, ribbony twists or red, orange and yellow while slender maple tree twigs leaked reddish-purple buds and twisting redbuds swaying in blustery breezes poised to burst forth its purplish-pink blossoms. Green crocus shoots had already burst through the loose, thawed ground; a medley of shoots crowned with yellow, lavender, purple and white cup-shaped blooms. Indeed the smell of resurrected life permeated the cool, fresh nigh springtime air.
I was standing in the backyard gazing across the narrow glen to my hillside garden plot when my wife stepped to the screened back porch door.
“Doc’s on the phone.”
“Tell him I’ll call ‘im back.”
“You tell him.”
I sighed, walking towards the front porch and living room where the phone stand was.
“Yeah, whatcha need?”
“I’ma needin’ you ta work tomorrow.”
“Nailing on roof shingles over at Bill Cody’s.”
“You ain’t done that yet?”
I hated roofing but the notion of seeing Mister Cody again raised a bit of excitement in me.
“No, we been busy.”
“I’ll pick ya up at seven sharp. Be lookin’ for me.”
“Alright Doc, see ya then.”
Hanging up the phone, I tried to recall if I’d ever turned Doc down for anything. I couldn’t remember it if I had.
I poured freshly perked coffee (perked on the stove-eye) into the two insulated cups. Well, technically they were insulated glasses. My mama managed a tobacco shop in the Sears and Roebuck Store on Central Street. The Lorillard Tobacco Company, manufacturer of Kent cigarettes, had a promotion where folks would get a free insulated glass with a carton purchase. She had lots of those glasses left over (Kent was not a top seller) and I had become beneficiary of several.
As the familiar putrid green truck pulled to a stop, I opened the passenger door. Motel slid over to make room for me. Climbing in, I passed one of the coffees to Doc, offering the other to Motel.
“No-sur Mister David, I done had my mawnin’ coffee.”
“How ya been Motel?”
“I’s doin’ mighty fine Mister David, thankya kindly. And how’s you been?””
Grasping his large outstretched palm, I shook it firmly, then remarked, “It’s a beautiful mornin’, ain’t it?”
“It sho nuff is.”
Motel was a big, thickset man. His velvety smooth skin was ebony with an almost purple patina and he smelled of Aqua Velva. I’d worked with him on several occasions and held him in highest esteem. He was in his early to middle sixties but looked much younger and I reckon I never met the man that could match him in strength. Dressed in kakhi work shirt and pants with a cap only a couple shades darker, his sepia-hued leather work boots vouched of a recent shining. I marveled that a man performing manual labor would pay such attention to his dress.
I reckoned Emily Post should have been acquainted with Motel as he epitomized the well-mannered man. Soft-spoken and kind, he was gentlemanly in all his ways, exemplifying his adherence and love for the ‘old black-back Book’. He was fond of citing its verses when opportunity presented. When caught in a situation where a lesser man might lose his temper, he’d simply smile and say something like, “Blest’s them what’s meek ‘cause they’s gwine to inherits da earth.” Indeed, ole Motel represented everything that’s good about our great nation.
As we arrived at Bill Cody’s residence, I noted that the remodel had turned out well. The light ashy-gray paint on the new hardboard sheathing perfectly matched the tint of the main house’s asbestos shingle siding. The charcoal-colored window and door trim tended to catch the viewer’s eye making the newness of the addition less obvious. Several squares of asphalt roofing shingles lay neatly stacked alongside the graveled driveway.
After alighting from the truck, I pulled open one of the rear doors, digging through the unorganized contents until locating a box of galvanized roofing nails. Placing two cloth nail pouches into the roofing nail box, and hoisting it to my shoulder, I climbed the sixteen-foot extension ladder Motel had placed against the side slope of the gabled roof. While I walked the roof examining the felt paper to determine its condition, Motel climbed the ladder balancing a bundle of roofing shingles upon each shoulder.
“Marnin’ Possum,” greeted Mister Cody from the ground below. He’d cupped one hand above his crescent-shaped eyes to fend off the brilliant morning sun as he gazed upwards.
“Good mornin’ Mister Cody. It’s mighty good seein’ you again.”
“Same here,” he replied.
Ascending the ladder, Doc charged, “Best to get shakin', we ain’t got all day.
“Yessur Mister Doc,” Motel assented.
I laughed, thinking ‘What else did we have to do? Nothin’ I’d wager.’
After popping red-powdered chalk lines all along each roof slope for lining up the shingles, we set in ‘roofing’.
I hated roofing above all construction tasks. It was backbreaking work for anyone except skinny folk like Doc. Motel having carried the remaining shingles to the roof, stacking them neatly on each gabled side, was now unloading and straightening the truck contents per Doc’s instructions.
We’d worked about two hours when a flock of northern-bound starlings descended. Hundreds of bluish-black, iridescent feathered birds opted to drop in on this particular section of South Knoxville, no doubt for a tasty brunch. Virtually covering Mister Cody’s entire yard, these hungry fowls prowled every inch of the newly greened bluegrass, driving their orangish bills deep into the freeze-loosened soil probing for burrowing insects.
Motel already had the contents of Doc’s truck scattered about the driveway and yard’s edge and was beginning to sort through it before an orderly reloading. Among the tools and varied supplies were two opened boxes of 16d (sixteen penny) nails. Amid the high-pitched calls of the ravenous starlings, and the steady ‘whap, whap, whap’ pounding of the roofing hammers, Doc, working on the opposite gable side from me, loudly shouted.
“Possum, you’d best be doin’ somethin’ with them opened nail boxes else them starlings’ll have every one of ‘em carried off!”
Chuckling to myself, I continued nailing up shingles. I knew ole Doc was up to something and figured it best to ignore him.
A few minutes later, he hollered again, this time even louder.
“Hey Possum, iffin you don’t do somethin’ with them nail boxes, them starlings is gonna have ev'ry last nail carried away!”
Again, I remained silent, determining not to fall into one of his craftily laid snares. In a couple minutes more, I heard ole Motel as he yelled, “Mister Doc, Mister David! Mister Doc – Mister David!”
Laying my roofing hammer down, I stood and peered over the crest of the roof towards the ground. There stood Motel, his swarthy face lifted so as to espy Doc and me. Glancing to his left, I noticed he had carefully laid a half piece of half-inch plywood over the two opened nail boxes.
“Dat ort-ta stop dem dad-blamed skudders ,” he shouted.
Well, I reckon I couldn’t help but chuckle a dab, although doing so made my insides feel a bit poorly. I reminded myself that the only reason Motel fell victim to Doc’s chicanery was because he had confidence in him, trusted him – trusted him unequivocally. I allowed a body wasn’t likely to find a better friend than Motel.
Although it had been over two and a half years since that last spring day at Bill Cody’s house, strong memories of it still permeated my mind.
I recollect that while I scrapped the job (combing the ground for stray pieces of roofing shingles and dropped roofing nails) Doc rode with Mister Cody in his faded blue Volkswagen Beetle to take Motel home and then drop by the bank to pick up the remodel ‘payoff’ money. After deducting for previous draws, the final balance due was thirteen-thousand dollars and I wondered how Doc could wait so long for his money, having completed the major portion of the work two and a half months earlier. I reckoned he just didn’t need the money. I was wishing I had that kind of financial standing; rearing a child was costly.
I had everything cleaned up and was killing time. The flock of starlings had flown off as suddenly as they’d arrived. I was still feeling bad about Doc having set Motel up the way he had. I allowed Motel’s only problem was he had confidence in his fellowman and just trusted folk too easily. However, I didn’t see that as a weakness, not really. I admired ole Motel for his goodness and wished I could meet the measure of his rectitude.
It was still early afternoon when Mister Cody pulled into the driveway. He steered the snub-nosed beetle around Doc’s truck, parking it in the grass. I walked over to the car and Doc motioned me away. Not knowing what to do, I sat in Doc’s truck and waited. It was near fifteen minutes before the two of men exited the car. Doc walked to the truck’s driver side and got in. As we backed out of the driveway, Mister Cody waved. I waved back.
During the drive home, Doc related the events transpiring at the bank and riding back in Mister Cody’s Volkswagen. It seems Mister Cody, when withdrawing the money for Doc’s final payment, declined a check, requesting cash. The bank officer (a “tall ’stinguished lookin’ lady” Doc emphasized) took the necessary paperwork to a teller then retuned with a handful of bills. When she placed them on her desktop, there were thirteen packs of ten, crisply new, seemingly uncirculated, one-hundred dollar bills. She opened each packet and carefully counted the bills in the presence of both Mister Cody and Doc. After each counting, she would replace the narrow, self-adhesive paper-band marked one thousand dollars, around the ten bills. Mister Cody, satisfied with the officer’s count, pocketed the cash and he and Doc left the bank and headed to the jobsite.
As they rode along Doc suggested, “That’s pow’rful lotta money.”
“Yeah,” replied Mister Cody, “It sure is.”
I was wonderin’, mused Doc, Reckon it’ll be safe rindin’ home with ole Possum? Reckon he might try an’ rob me?
Mister Cody laughed.
“What’re you tryin’ to pull now?”
“Well, a body never knows what a feller might do. Maybe you ort ta foller me home. Sure, I’ve knowed him… “
Mister Cody cut Doc off in mid-sentence.
“You ain’t gonna suck me in this time Doc. I didn’t fall off no turnip truck this mornin’.”
Doc laughed and Mister Cody joined him.
After arriving back to the jobsite, still seated in the Volkswagen, Mister Cody would pull a pack of those bills out of his pocket one-at-a-time. Without removing the band, he’d carefully count out the ten bills. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” Then he’d hand the packet to Doc. Doc would then count the bills in the same manner as Mister Cody, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”
All the while Doc was chucking within himself at Mister Cody’s business-like comportment. After Mister Cody had counted out the thirteenth pack, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he handed it to Doc. Carefully folding the packet in half so that both bill ends would be together, Doc begin his count.
“One, two, three, four, five, six,” Doc paused for effect. Casting his keen eyes askance, making sure Mister Cody was paying attention. Indeed ole Bill had his eyes attentively fixed upon the banded greenbacks in Doc’s hands. Slowly Doc resumed his count, “Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen…”
Mister Cody jerked the packet of bills from Doc’s hand. “Let me see that that!” he yelled.
Doc burst out laughing as Mister Cody carefully recounted the bills.
Old Man Winter had insolently encroached upon autumn’s final weeks as plummeting thermometers attested to freezing temperatures much sooner than any could have anticipated. Weather forecasters were advising folks to prepare for one of the coldest winters on record. Indeed, November’s debut brought snowfall, although little more than half an inch accumulated. To add to folk’s calamity, the price of beef had soared to unbelievable heights. Ordinary folk were hard-pressed to afford even hamburger much less the finer cuts of meat, Ribeye, T-Bone, New York Strip and the like. Nor did the future show any promise with economist’s predictions offering no relief in sight.
On November 15, snow flurries were the order of the day and temperatures barely crept into the low thirties. I was plenty cold, one of those chilled to the bone kind of cold, having spent the day with my daddy on his Grainger County farm cutting firewood. As I sat by the smoldering fire, my four-year-old son seated upon my lap reciting Clement Clarke Moore’s memorable poem Twas the Night Before Christmas, the telephone rang.
“It’s for you,” my wife said, “It’s Doc.”
“Yeah Doc, what’s up?”
“You’ll never guess who just called me.”
“I’ll betcha the y’ears right offa my head it’s tha last person you’d ever think.”
“Really, who was it?”
“You mean ole Bill on the hill?” (Bill on the hill was an old Citizen’s Band Radio buddy of Doc’s. He was one of those high-tech sorts that relished in talking technical radio gibberish. I detested such talk and ole Bill never cared much for me. I was wondering why on earth Doc was telling me he'd called.
“No, the South Knoxville Bill. You know, Bill, the KTL bus driver.”
“Nope, he called.”
“Wow! What’d he want? He got some more work for ya?” I suspected that was it and now Doc would want me to get out in this abominable weather. I sighed heavily waiting for the hammer to drop.
“Nope, he said he wasa thinkin’ ‘bout me and you an’ give me a call.”
“Wow! What’s it been, three years since we did that remodel? Who’d’ve thought of him callin’ up just to chit-chat.”
“Yeah, I was mighty surprised myself,” Doc affirmed.
“So what’d ya’ll talk about?”
“Well, he seemed concerned ‘bout this cold weather.”
“I reckon everybody is. Daddy an’ me was up in Grainger County cuttin’ firewood all day. While I was up there shakin’ and shiverin’, I was purdy concerned with the cold myself.”
“Well boy, ole Bill was talkin’ ‘bout all the fun we had when we was over there.”
“Well, we did have a purdy good time.”
“Yeah. He even ask’t how your wife was.”
“I tole him she’s doin' good, Doc said laughing. “He said that was ‘bout as gooda trick played on him as ever was.”
“Did he mention tha fire hazard?” I asked while laughing.
“Nah, I'm thinkin' he was a dab embarrassed ‘bout that ‘un.”
We both laughed.
Doc continued, “He ask’t me ifin I still seen or talked ta ole Possum any. I tole him yeah, purt-near all tha time. So, he said ‘Next time ya talk to ‘im, tell 'im I said I ain’t atall worried ‘bout these rising beef prices,’”
“Yeah? Why’s that?” I asked.
“Well,” ole Doc paused, as was his manner before delivering a punch line. I braced myself for the coup de grâce.
“Ole Bill said, I figure iffin worse come to worse, that is iffin push comes to shove and they ain’t no meat on the supermarket shelves, a body can always go up to ole Possum’s and shoot some of them squirrels.”
Doc and I both laughed for a purdy long while.
I pulled my coat on and fetched the car keys from off the dresser. I had already put a warm coat on my son David.
“Where’re you going?’ asked my wife.
My wife hailed from South Knoxville, and she wondered what could possibly be over there that would drag me out on such an inclement Saturday morning.
“I’m gonna run somethin’ by Mister Cody’s.”
“Who’s Mister Cody?”
“A feller me and Doc did a remodel job for a couple or three years back.”
“What is it you’re taking by there? A bid? Why can’t Doc take it?”
I did most of Doc’s bidding as well as preparing his contracts. On occasion, I’d make architectural drawings if needed. I had taken mechanical drawing back in high school and had a flair for that kind of thing.
“It ain’t a bid,” I answered.
“You takin' David with you?’
“Yeah. I figured we’d stop by Sears.” I though of the exhilaration I had experienced as a child in Sears Toy Department during Christmas season.
She walked into the living room and I took hold of David’s hand and headed toward the back porch. Lifting the large chest-type freezer’s door, I retrieved several butcher-paper wrapped packages of beef liver (something we never ate). With a black magic marker, I wrote on each package 'Squirrel'. Placing them in a paper grocer’s sack, we braved the wintry mix of rain and sleet and made our way to my car.
Pulling over in front of the Cody residence, anticipating the expression of surprise on Mister Cody’s face when I handed him the ‘squirrel’ meat, I softly chucked.
“What’s funny Dad,” David asked.
“Ah, nothin’ son, I was just thinkin’.”
“Oh,” he replied.
“Wait here son; I’ll be back in just a minute.”
“Okay Dad.” God had blessed me with a wonderful son; he always showed me great respect. Ambling along Mister Cody’s front walkway, I wondered why I was so fortunate.
I knocked on the door. I waited a bit, then, knocked again. In perhaps a half-minute, the door slowly opened. Wafts of kitchen aromas rushed from the warm house into the chilled, early December air. Mister Cody’s mother, wearing a frilly, lace-edged apron decorated in a colorful floral design, stood in the opened doorway. Clutching a potholder in her hand, she asked, “Yes, can I help you?”
“Yes ma’am,” I answered. “Is Mister Cody, home?”
“No, he’s at work,” she replied.
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry I missed him. Indeed, I was sorry for I had replayed his reaction to my ruse at least a dozen times in my mind.
Masking my disappointment, I asked. “Could you give him this?” I handed her the paper sack. “You’ll need to keep it in the freezer.”
“Alright.” she responded. “I’ll tell ‘im you brought this by when he gets home tonight. Who shall I tell him it is from?”
“Just say, Possum dropped it off.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“Thanks. And, have a good day ma’am.”
Returning to the car, my feet shuffling along the paving stone front walkway, I lamented over my bad timing. However, that angst lasted but a few seconds ere giving way to contemplations of the wonderment that would soon fill my son amid the Christmas toy display in Sears Department Store.
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.