Excerpt from "Raise a Holler" by Jason Stuart
Reviewed in the Dew Book Review Section today, November 18th.
Culloden County, Mississippi -- 1967
Hank Grady reckoned he had rather live in a hole in the ground than hear his daddy spit any more Jesus at him. Actually, Coffee Holler pretty much was a hole in the ground. A great big hole that ten or twelve families could all live round the edge of and still not be yelling distance from another. It was good for farming, but Hank’s daddy was no farmer. Josiah had a far higher calling.
All Hank wanted was to be at least halfway like a normal boy. Last night Josiah had to “take out the rod” on him again for asking for a pair of blue jeans. Just for asking. Blue jean pants weren’t fit for anyone but them hippy agitators and no good white trash. Hank wasn’t sure how far above the latter he really was, but dared not argue the point.
It was the summer of the Great Liberation: Free Speech, Ban the Bomb, Burn the Bra and End Containment Policy--whatever that meant. One of the biggest rallies below the Mason-Dixon was happening not twenty miles south of him and Hank sat on his front porch reading the Psalms (the rest of his punishment) and trying to get comfortable as he couldn’t lean up against anything; the welts on his back were still too painful. He was sick of the Psalms. He was sick of the Proverbs. He was sick of The Word, in general.
“When you finish your lessons, I need you to get on over to the Karmichaels’ and pick a few bushels of peas for their tithe; Sammy didn’t have no money again this month so I’m goan let him by with peas. Don’t slack around, neither. I want them peas. Your mama’ll make ‘em up for dinner.”
“Well, can I take the car, then, at least?” Hank asked.
Josiah scowled at his son as though he was set arm-in-arm with Lucifer. “You are the shame of me, Henry,” he said, and every time it came out more like Hanry. “It never did hurt a boy to do a little walking. ‘Sides, I’m taking the Buick on over to Jim Rayham’s to see about a hog.”
Hank wondered briefly where it had gone so wrong between him and the old man. Mostly it was the preaching. Once, they had been good allies. Hank had learned quick to drive the car at barely ten years as Josiah found it useful for someone else to drive him around to see to his fold. That way he could focus on the leading of the spirit and not on the highway. Hank got the job by default as he was the only one available. Women, of course, should never drive cars. Nor wear pants for that matter. One cannot preach against a sin if he harbors it in his own household. Such was the Josiah Grady motto.
Hank watched his father walk away humming to himself. As soon as the Buick was out of sight, the good book was tossed aside and Hank was in a dead sprint toward the woodline, his freshly-pressed blue button-down shirt quickly unbuttoned and flapping behind him in the wind. He knew he was in for another tanning for shirking but this one, he decided, would be worth it. He might not come home for a day or two.
The woods behind the Grady house ran all the way nearly to Witch Creek Swamp. They were thick with oaks and pines mixed in together, creating a strange landscape of green and brown every fall. Right now, though, it was high summer and Culloden County was trapped in a heat suffocating enough to knock a grown man down. Hank poured sweat from every part of his body as he eased through the woods, pitching rocks at squirrels and whistling Hank Williams songs and thinking about cream pies and root beer.
“Damn, son. I can see them welts all the way through that undershirt,” Billy Parker called out from the old treehouse above Hank. “Y’asked for jeans again, didn’t you?”
“Leave off it, Billy,” Hank said. “You got anything to eat? All mama fixed today was chitlins and eggplant and I hate that shit.”
“No. I’m broke. I quit my job again,” Billy said. Billy jumped down from the treehouse, his knees hitting dirt, and brushed himself off.
“Why? It can’t have been that bad. Leastways you get to have a job,” Hank said. “Daddy won’t let me get one, but I can sure as hell buck hay all day for Sissy Walter so Daddy can take Momma horse-riding like he’s some kinda fine gentleman. And somebody can’t pay his tithe, I get to go slave away in a field collecting daddy some free groceries. Man, I ain’t never gonna get no car.”
“You done got your khakis dirty. Gonna get a beating for that, you know,” Billy said.
“I don’t care anymore,” Hank said. “I done got beat so much I don’t really feel it no more. He thinks I’m gonna start preaching in his damn church next year. Fat chance. Worst thing he could ever do is let me in front of them folks and say whatever I’m a mind to. I’d let him have it. I’d let all them shitasses have it.”
Billy didn’t know why, but he liked Hank. Most people didn’t, though not particularly because of anything Hank had ever done. Josiah had a slightly better time of it than most anybody in the Liberty community. He lorded his position over everyone, too. He had never been too timid to call out one of his congregation for one sin or another. Guilt was his weapon against everyone and if alluding to some fellow’s adultery or other could gain him an extra dollar or two in the collection plate, then that was what he would do. Hank was guilty through association. Showing up to school in fresh-pressed khakis and a tie when everyone else did good to have a half-shredded old pair of jeans on his butt didn’t help Hank a whole lot, neither.
But Billy did like Hank. He could be funny if given half a chance. Plus, Billy felt sorry for him. They lived across the woods from each other and Billy was the only one who actually saw what it was like for Hank. Hank’s daddy kept him half-starved even though he could have fed him as much as he wanted. And the way he beat him down on every single thing Hank ever liked or wanted, even though Hank didn’t look it in school, Billy figured him to be the poorest kid he knew.
“Come on, Hank,” Billy said. “I think my daddy might have left a few biscuits at home. Plus I know where he keeps his sippin’ whisky and we ain’t got shit else to do today; we might as well get drunk.”
Billy Parker lived in a two-room cabin back off TVA Road. His mother died two years prior from snakebite. It was just him and his daddy now and they were neither one the cleanest of folks. Hank loved Billy’s house, though. Maybe just because it was the exact opposite of his house. Hank’s ma, Ruth-Ann, kept it spotless and switched him at least half as often as Josiah beat him if he didn’t keep his things picked up. Not that he had many things he could strew around.
Billy poured each of them a short glass of whisky as Hank snatched up Billy’s Daddy’s copy of Cherokee Bob and started thumbing through it in a hurry. Seeing as Josiah allowed Hank to read from one book and one book only at his own house, Hank rarely had a shot at reading anything else. Hank actually loved to read, though. He wasn’t sure if it was because he genuinely cared about books or just that he wasn’t allowed. Either way, he wanted them. He had managed to train himself to burn through text as quick as possible, sometimes able to read whole books on the fly, if they were short enough. He’d long since ate up the piddling few at his school. He looked most forward to his haircuts where he could usually finish every magazine on the shelf before his number was up and that was the only method Hank had for staying up on the world outside his own backyard.
Hank took his book and went out and sat on the porch. He leaned against a post and watched an old van creeping up the drive.
“Hold on, somebody’s coming,” Hank yelled back. Billy walked out and handed down the whisky. “Who is that? Truck looks funky.”
The old van was rusted down and cluttered with stickers and old advertisements for pots and plows and various whatnots. It gave a quiet, steady hum as it rolled up to the house. Regardless what the outside looked like, Hank could tell what was under the hood was in fine shape.
“Howdy boys!” the man said climbing out of the seat. A big black raven lighted on top of the van as the man got out. “You fellers’ ma or daddy around?” He was tall, with a scruffy white beard, an old gray suit and a crisp, blue fedora hat on his head.
Both boys gave a long, blank stare. Finally, Billy said, “No, my daddy ain’t here. Ain’t got no ma. What you need?”
“Name’s Shockley, Boys, Baxton Shockley. Y’all can call me Baxton,” he said pulling out a tall, black cane with a big brass ball at the grabbing end. He had a big scar under his left eye and Hank couldn’t quite figure if the eye itself was glass or not.
“Hey, I know you,” Hank called out. “You’re that feller sells firecrackers.”
“That’s right, among other things. Glad you remember me, boys.”
“We don’t need no firecrackers,” Billy said.
“Well, boys. I could tell that from looking at you. You both stink of broke. Course, I can’t see as to what two fine young‘uns like you is doing wasting away a whole good summer dawdling around and drinking up your daddy’s whisky. Y’ought to be out making you a little spending money.”
“Easy for you to say, Mister,” Billy said. “Don’t nobody want to hire no kid to do no job that pays nothing. Not around here noway.”
“That’s why you say to hell with ‘em, like I did. Hell, boys I was no older’n you when I set out on my own. Sold six stray mules to a farmer back then name of John Paulson. O’ course, them was days when they was stray mules ambling around the country. Not likely to be any now, though, I reckon. But I reckon they’s plenty other things worth a sight more.”
“Yeah, like what?” Hank said, unconvinced.
“Like gold, maybe.” Never know what you find up in them hills on the Okatooga, or up round Boon in them old mines.”
“I sure ain’t no miner,” Hank said.
“Not to mention they’s a fortune in bootleg whisky just a sitting up under Culloden Mountain.”
Hank’s eyes lifted at that.
“Since a good while, boys. Been settin’ there since the old days when they ran whisky all through this county. Whole gang of ‘em. Got run out by the revenuers, back in ’38 or so. Left a huge pile of whisky, dope and what have you just a lying about somewhere up in them cracks. Folks went looking for it a time or two, but ain’t nobody ever found it yet.”
“Probly cause it ain’t there,” Billy said “Them boys wouldn’t just leave it all sitting there.”
“Would if’n they’s all sent-up or shot-up,” Baxton said. “Anyways. Probly a sight of whisky money stashed up there, I’d reckon. Feller’d make himself rich right quick if he stumbled into that mess. Yessir. Just giving you a shot at something. Might as well go have a look. What else you got to do today?”
Hank and Billy just looked at each other. Billy took a sip of his whisky and sat down, apparently done with his interest in this Baxton Shockley.
“Well, anyways, I’m goan ease on down the road,” Baxton said. “Tell your pa I came round. Might be up this way again a day or two.”
“Yes, sir,” Billy mumbled in response. Baxton climbed back in his van and crept back down the drive and was quickly out of sight.
“What a coot,” Billy added at length.
Hank sat and thought on what Baxton said. He knew from listening to his father gripe on about everything that kept him bothered, which was ample, that there had been a bunch of old boys running whisky and wine up and down all through Culloden County back during the Prohibition. Even after Prohibition was let up, folks had for some reason always voted to keep the county dry which was why Billy’s papa had to cook his bathtub white lightning. Hank thought the taste was piss-awful, but it got the job done in a hurry. It did seem to make some sense that something might be lying around prime for picking in the hills. And if not, there was always the nice looking girls at the lake in the summertime. Their daddies’d keep Hank and Billy at arm’s length but looking was free, back then.
“I say we go for it,” Hank said.
“Well, like he said, what the shit else we got to do today?” Hank asked.
“Not drive forty-eight miles to the ass-other end of the county to get lost in some damn cave looking for a bunch of bullshit that ain’t there.”
“Aw, quit whining, and let’s just stinking go,” Hank said. “Sides, at least it’ll keep me away from my daddy for a while. You forget, I’ve still got a blistering coming when he gets home and don’t find them peas.”