Heroes are Hard to Come By
“Your Aunt Margaret is a whore, son,” Oven Crosswhite, known to me as Pawpaw, expressed his honest opinion no matter the situation. Even if it happened to be Uncle Troy’s funeral. Looking back on a life, that’s the kind of stuff you remember. Being eight years old, I had picked many a black walnut in stray yards all over Colbert County. Pawpaw apparently liked to play house just as much as Aunt Margaret with none of the consequences diminishing his reputation besides the occasional brazen Belle calling to request that Oven come help a cow try to live through a breeched birth. I always looked forward to seeing the calf, and always ended up in the front yard of a woman who owned nothing more than a fancy push-up bra, menthol cigarettes, and some form of tiny dog that tipped over if he jutted his head forward too fast.
Pawpaw lived late nights and early mornings. To catch a ride with him for the day, I walked down the rural country side roads hoping I hadn’t missed my chance. Waiting under the cover of the darkened Alabama sky on the corner of the only stop sign in town, I listened for the rumble of his truck, tucking the collar of my work shirt under my ears to guard the cut-knife wind that smelled of dry dirt mixed with a hint of cotton pesticides from the crop fields across the streets.
Two headlights topped the hill with the familiar sound of Pawpaw’s ’70 Chevy. He stuck his head out of the window of the truck. The feather sticking out of his grey, felt fedora was pinned under the suede midnight blue band. He slung the door open with the heel of his boot and scooted to the other side managing to burn a fresh hole in the bench seat with his Kool Super Long 100.
“Here’s ya RC, now get up’n drive us, boy,” he handed me the soda while I jumped up on the seat dropped the truck in gear and did my best to reach the peddles.
“Pawpaw, how come your RC don’t have the same can? And how come we have to get your RC from that man who smells like shit?”
I know now that Oven sure wasn’t sipping soda, and that, by the age of eight I’d bought Schlitz from every bootlegger in three counties.
“When you get grown, son, you’ll drink this kind of RC. Now get us to the damn hayfield without bustin’ out a damn headlight,” Pawpaw leaned against the window with his hat twisted around and cocked high on his head. If letting a kid drive a full sized pickup was the safest option, he’d been drinking ‘RC’ all night, and had started all over again when he woke. Drunk as hell, that’s what Pawpaw was, come to think of it, he never sobered up for any given occasion of my childhood.
Every grown man in Leighton needed the opportunity to work. There was no shortage of Liberty overalls in the hundred acre field. A tractor squared the bales while I steered the Chevy along with the trailer. Men walked behind stacking the bales and did there best not to light the dry grass on fire with the cherries of their cigarettes. My only job was to not wreck the damn truck, son.
I’m not sure how it happened: I wrecked the damn truck. At the lower corner of the field a lone oak jumped right in my way. I smashed the grill and busted a headlight. Pawpaw called me every name, even invented some new cuss words.
Lunch consisted of a couple of bologna sandwiches and a Moon Pie for my hard work. Every person who came into the diner talked behind our backs. The women swooned at his jet black hair, red tan, and chiseled Cherokee nose. Even in his fifties, the ladies came knockin’. The worst part was Oven knew it, too. We were a pair and troubled followed on our heels like a mangy gas station dog.
“We gotta get’cha a damn hat, you little cocksucker. Lookin’ like a case of the herpes done broke out on your damn forehead,” he chuckled with the wheezing cough of a long time smoker before tossing me into the truck.
The skin over my brow itched and burned with the Delta’s rays beating against the sunburned skin. Peeling would start soon enough and I was not looking forward to the final stage of the burnt process. Pawpaw reached over shaking my hair with a smile filled to the brim with teeth. The truck peeled rubber swaying from side to side before we hit old Ms. Bellmont’s mailbox successfully shattering the other headlight. Pawpaw slapped the steering wheel before tossing his empty can of Schlitz into the bed of the truck. I kept my mouth shut acting like the whole thing hadn’t happened even if my shoulders bobbed with silent fits of snickers.
Westers sold every type of thing a man could ever need. Boots, hats, jeans, fishing rods, tools, and the occasional tractor. A real grown up store where the farmers smoked in the back and told stories about Vietnam while drinking RC’s like Pawpaw’s.
“Now, what I want’ya to do, is go in. Tell ‘em you want a fuckin’ hat and you don’t want it to mutha fuckn’ big,” he rolled his window down with the crank handle and tossed another Schlitz can in the back.
“You ain’t comin’ in with me, Pawpaw?” I asked opening the door.
“A man picks out his own hat. Now here’s your paycheck,” his fingers dug for his wallet before pulling out real money. Paper money, none of the coins he usually gave me.
“Okay, Pawpaw, I’ll be right back.”
I stuck the money in my own wallet. The leather corners hung out of my jeans making it obvious the pockets weren’t big enough. But, if Pawpaw carried a wallet, I did the same. I drop kicked the swinging door open shuffled in and took my money out first thing. A kid isn’t taken serious when they shop, but this time, I had a twenty dollar bill.
“I want a fuckin’ hat, and I don’t want it to mutha fuckin’ big!” I moved to the side of the store looking at the hats on showcase above the stack of wingtip shoes.
Mrs. Westers came over with crossed arms. The corners of her lips turned up trying to hide a growing smirk.
“Well, I bet I know who you been hangin’ around with, Tim,” she moved to the children’s section pointing out the three choices available to me.
I tried on the buckskin Little Buckaroos ten-gallon first. The thing felt cheap and flimsy. Perhaps I didn’t choose that hat because I didn’t want anything called a ‘Little Buckaroo.’ The next selection was some sort of Panama with a wide black band made of something called Comfort Flex material. That sounded to sissy at the time. Thirty years later I know that was more than likely the best choice; But, back then a black Stetson caught my eye. Mrs. Westers placed it atop my head before I could see the tag. I acted like I was checking the price when I needed to make sure it wasn’t called a Cowgirl or something worse. I lifted to look inside the brim. Rodeo Junior made of a wool, felt combination with a red nylon band, and the thing fit perfectly.
Pawpaw had propped himself against the side of the truck to undoubtably smoke another cigarette. I’ll never forget the look on his face. There was no questioning my decision, the hat was perfect.
Next on our day was filling up the cow troughs on the farm. Each year Oven gave me my own calf. He even let me pick my favorite. For as far back as I could remember, which was roughly three years, and mind you, I thought three years had to be forever, maybe even the beginning of time: my calf had died in some terrible accident.
The first one had fought a pack of wild coyotes to the death. The second one was a Black Angus that had been shot by stray Army fire during target practice. Last year, my calf was struck by lighting. I was scared to even pick one this year. At the rate I was going, I had to be the worst cattle farmer that ever lived. Pawpaw had been taking my calves to the sale barn every year. The sad thing was, I didn’t figure it out until I was eleven, and my newest calf, Missy had drowned in our creek. The creek couldn’t have been over two inches deep. Pawpaw would rather make up a tragic death than tell me that the family needed the money for the herds. Just a simple reason why he is and will always be my hero.
We soaked our faces in the water. Hell, I wished I could jump in the tub, that’s how hot it was outside. The heat was better than going home to Mama who was Pawpaw’s only daughter. Now is usually the time we parted ways. Not today. Instead, he threw some more Schlitz’s cans into the back of the truck, and tossed me in the driver’s seat to try again.
“Lets head down to the red house. See if any of those damn hippies are still hangin’ ‘round. They might need scarin’ off. Might just let’cha shoot your BB gun at ‘em,” the sound of a fresh can opening, and the flick of a cigarette lighter let me know Pawpaw may have had to much ‘RC’ to go home right now. I also knew there were absolutely no hippies at the red house.
Kansas City came on the radio, both of us tipped our hats, meanwhile, the truck wound up in the ditch on the opposite side of the road. Pawpaw didn’t care, he was singing his all time favorite song. I floored the accelerator spinning grass and chunks of mud onto the windshield, but the Chevy roared coming out of the ditch with so much force... well, lets just say we ended up in the ditch on the other side with a bumper half on and half hanging. By the time Pawpaw got this drunk, he thought the destruction of his truck was funny. That was a damn good thing too.
The little red house was down Rural Route Six and the name was just what it happened to be. A rectangle shape made from tin with a flat roof placed over the top. Parked outside were black Lincolns, two black Caddys, and a black stretch limousine. Before I could get stopped two men met us at the truck with guns clamped to each hip and a cigar stuck between their teeth. That sight would have scared most kids, but I knew these guys, they were Pawpaw’s friends, Red Worthing, and Jackson King.
Ginger as God ever made one, now that was Red. His freckles looked like dark splotches on his skin, and his strawberry flattop gleamed with beads of sweat as the sun reflected off his pale skin. Jackson, who was Red’s best friend, had been slit with a switchblade across the throat for not letting Red drive his new Lincoln. I guess when Red went down to the hospital, they made up or Jackson could’ve had one of those near death experiences and decided not to ever be on Red’s bad side again. Both of them wore black suits even in the heat.
“C’mon in Oven, and I see you’ve got little Dillinger taggin’ along. You ready for us to take all that money, son?” Red said leading the two of us through the door, closing it behind them from the opposite side. Believe it or not, the guys in the red house needed guards.
“Take my money? Awhh, shoot! No way!” I said taking in the urinal on the far side of the wall. A poker table sat in the middle with four men playing. These games lasted anywhere from two days to a week. None of the gamblers were permitted to leave the building. Red and Jackson made sure of that. Who truly knows how much some of the men cashed out with in the end.
My legs weren’t long enough to use the facilities, but I figured since I was in the room with Alabama’s finest: I’d have to impress them. I couldn’t be whining to Pawpaw about going outside. I unzipped my pants right there and let’er rip.
All the men laughed to high heavens. I think I understand that nickname much better now to say the least. After I’d adjusted my jeans, I climbed in a seat between Pawpaw and Uncle Bo, who wore a polyester bowling shirt along with a pair of mint green pants. His thinning brown hair stuck up in every direction possible as he tossed a chip into the pot. The three other men were clad in black suits, Uncle Bo stuck out like a lone mallard in a hen house.
“Tim, now you remember... never tell Aunt Doty about this,” he slid a few chips my way purposefully skipping Pawpaw. Owen could pull two Aces out of the middle of the deck, he was blackballed from gambling in Colbert County. Not from defaulting, more like, from being to damn good.
Royce Duncan, who served as the kingpin of the entire operation, shuffled the deck before dealing me into the game. His hair was black as coal dust, his eyes were just as dark. Instead of color, it looked like his pupils had shadows.
“Oven, lets sit this one out. We need to discuss...” With his words Royce left the table with Pawpaw trailing behind him. The two of them sat beside each other on the couch in the corner of the room both of them lighting Kool’s before talking.
Five card draw wasn’t completely alien to me. Pawpaw tried to teach me what to toss back and what to hang on to when we dickered around together. I threw my basis chip in, adjusted my hat, and traded out two cards. Uncle Bo thought I needed advice, he tilted in his chair and tried to look at my cards before I jerked them close to my chest. Pawpaw never treated me like a baby. I guess that’s why Uncle Bo always managed to piss me off.
Haygood Duncan, who was Royce’s nephew started the bet. All the guys seemed to be throwing in a dollar or two when we had chips worth a hundred. By the time everything circled around, I shoved all my chips forward.
“All in,” I didn’t have time to play around. I’d never actually gotten a pair before and these two five cards had to win something.
“Little Dillinger’s all in, I’m out,” Haygood said with a grin a mile wide.
The other guys folded one by one. I stood up in my chair gathering all the chips doing little dance moves. I’d never won anything before. Maybe I had Pawpaw’s gambling luck.
“I’ll kill the son-of-bitch! Mick Minor ain’t gonna see another fuckin’ day!”
Pawpaw smashed his hat down on his head before stomping toward me. He scooped me up like a didn’t weigh a pound and rushed out of the red house cussin’ up a storm. The vein in the side of his neck bulged showing every beat of his heart. I’d seen him mad, hell, I’d made him mad, but the look in his eyes told me not to worry about the chips I’d just won.
By this time, the moon was making it’s appearance giving away the only light. Pawpaw reached under the seat, grabbed a flashlight, and jammed it into the grill so he could even see to drive.
I don’t remember the ride to my parents house. All of it happened in a fuzzy haze with a cheap flashlight leading the way into the dark Alabama night. He dropped me off, opened another Schlitz and fishtailed away. I went inside and didn’t say more than five words before I went to bed. Pawpaw always told me to brush my teeth, so I got up to do that while I worried about my grandfather.
By the time I woke up the next morning, Pawpaw was in the penitentiary waiting trial on murder one.
Looking back on it: I’m not so sure that Royce hadn’t set him up. The way that Pawpaw told it to me time and time again... well, that option makes a hell-of-a-lot of sense.
After being told from the kingpin that Mick, who was Pawpaw nephew, had pulled a knife on his own mother and cut the left side of her cheek; he went lookin’ for trouble since it was his only sister, Modine, that had suffered. We’re talking about the same person who, if he ever came-a-knockin’ when my Daddy wasn’t home, I had permission to shoot before he got to the front door. My cousin Mick’s brain juice only took to flowing when drugs or fighting were involved.
The Dump was Mick’s favorite hang out. Much like the red house, there was gambling, drinking, and drugs involved, but The Dump wasn’t upscale, and nothing about it was organized. Royce Duncan played poker with the Lieutenant Governor. Mick Minor played with a pimp named Jessiethro if that gives more light to the contrast.
That night the old shack was empty except for Mick and a hooker named Flossie. Other customers scattered when Mick showed up. They never knew if a warning shot would be fired or if Mick would gun down everyone at the Craps table just for the hell of it. Pawpaw parked outside drew his Barlow knife with his .32 pistol stuck in the back of his waistband in case reinforcements were needed before he went to the door.
Locked up tighter than a drum. He told me he almost left if it hadn’t have been for the screams. Owen thought Mick had his own mother in The Dump hurting her in some kind of bad way judging by the sounds. He drew his pistol, shot out the doorknob, and kicked it open. Mick had poor Flossie, who everyone knew as the cheapest hooker in town, pinned up on the wall with her arms and legs spread eagle. Blood poured from a knife wound and dripped all down her chest. He was using her for target practice with a set of throwing knives.
A flying blade sliced through the feather of Pawpaw’s hat before he could brace himself for cover. He drew his gun and pointed it at Mick’s forehead locking his eyes on all the crazy not three feet away. His hair was so blonde it looked albino, his own face had been clawed with infected scratches which had more than likely been inflicted by Aunt Modine. He wore engineering boots scuffed to high Heavens, whitey-tighty underwear and no shirt. Mick threw another knife, this one hit Flossie’s right forearm.
“Hey! You crazy cocksuckin’, bastard! Let that girl go, you hear me?!” Pawpaw held the gun steady before cutting through the ropes releasing the woman’s legs, then her arms.
“Uncle Owen you touch those ropes, and I’ll put a bullet in yer damn head! I’ll do to you what I done did to Mama!” Mick had went over the barrier keeping him halfway sane and Pawpaw said there was no way to bring him back.
He threw a knife that sucked Pawpaw’s hat right off his head and pinned it to the wall behind him. The whole situation knocked Owen for a loop and Mick charged ripping the knife free from Flossie’s forearm. The gun flew just as Flossie collapsed from loss of blood.
Oven had brut strength, and Mick had crazy. When the two collided they tore down an entire side of the shack before Pawpaw had his hands on his attacker’s neck punching him with everything he had. Mick refused to roll and continued wildly slashing at any skin he could make contact with.
A knee straight to the gut caused him to slump over at such a rate Mick’s neck caught his own knife. He severed his carotid and bled out before Pawpaw could stand to his feet.
Even after the ambulance picked up Flossie, she never woke. The only witness to the events that actually transpired was in a coma with grave-faced doctors not giving her much of a chance to recover.
Pawpaw had made enemies with every branch of the law. Most of them ended up being personal vendettas since their wives vowed to leave them for Oven Crosswhite. They refused to listen to the story, so he had no choice. He shelled out twenty thousand dollars to be represented by Garland Wentworth, the slickest of the slick. The judge had agreed to drop murder one to manslaughter by the time the Fall cotton was picked. Pawpaw was still looking at gobs of years wasting away in Kilby Prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Before his first hearing, Garland took a ramp off I-65 at the speed of light. He flipped his Suburban all the way back to five o’clock traffic getting thrown from the SUV and getting smashed by an eighteen-wheeler.
The judge postponed the trial until Pawpaw could find another attorney. He forked over another twenty grand to Masterson White. Remember, this was the seventies, forty grand could buy two ranches in El, Paso, Texas along with hundreds of heads of cattle.
The money could only be coming from one place. I swear, the man made more cash in prison than he did on the outside. He hustled poker and cheated many a Bubba out of his funds. Not to mention Kilby had placed Pawpaw in charge of the K-9 training program. The man had a gift with animals. Something about his Native American bloodline gave him prospect into a dog’s mind. A wild coyote would do exactly as he said just like he understood each syllable passing Pawpaw’s lips.
During Pawpaw’s unfortunate jail time, I talked to him once a month when he was allowed to call collect. All the cows were eatin’ right, I told him about fixing his truck. I think he was more worried about me screwing it up to the point of no return. I bawled my eyes out when he had to hang up. Of course, Oven didn’t know that and he never will.
Meanwhile, the unimaginable happened and Flossie had pulled back into reality. She told officers the truth, and began calling Kilby herself on Pawpaw’s behalf since he saved her life. The wheels that had been rusted with metallic decay began to turn in Pawpaw’s favor.
Spring came around and so did my ninth birthday. Mama felt so bad with my heartache that she gave me Pawpaw’s .32 revolver. To me, that sounded like he was never coming back. I whaled with tears as I blew out the candles on the cake.
“Quit’cha cryin’ you little cocksucker!” He laughed with his belly shaking as he ran over to scoop me up.
Heroes are hard to come by in this life. Mine may not have been anyone else’s but he made it just in time for chocolate cake. He opened a Schlitz, told me I could keep his pistol, and brought me a wolf puppy he’d acquired through one of his prison buddies. Prince rode in the truck with us for almost fifteen years. To this day I’m still cleaning out the shed where I stored all those damn black walnuts.
Bio: Kimberly Bowling is a born and raised Southerner. Her work depicts the quirks of the South from an honest perspective told like none other with first hand knowledge. Her short stories will appear in FollyMagazine, New Voices of Horror Magazine, where she has recently signed on as Assistant Editor. She resides in Muscle Shoals, Al with her family, German Shepherd and an orphaned fox named Todd.