Thursday, October 18, 2012

Prison Blues

Grandpa Clyde never stopped to see us until daddy went to Parchman Prison to serve three years for shooting a man when they were both three sheets in the wind.  That’s what Mississippi folks called being drunk.  He yelled whoa at the lathered Jim and Pete, his matching pair of mules, as they entered the yard having been trotted the ten miles to our house.      

     Dottie, our Tennessee coon hound nipped at their hooves as they came to a halt.  “J. J. get that dog away from them mules. That dog is just like you kids-worthless”. Betsy, ten years old, put her arms around six year old Carol who was sniffing trying not to cry.  Both looked at their dirty bare feet wiggling their toes in the dust.  Grabbing Dottie by the collar, I kneeled by them feeling the ground thru the knees of my ragged overalls.  All three of us stared at him with hatred as he stumbled on the broken door step. 

     Knowing he would only be inside long enough to talk to mama and get a dipper of water, Betsy and Carol eased toward the door of our one room shotgun shack.  They were my lookouts as I stole from grandpa’s wagon filled with yellow corn, red tomatoes and luscious green watermelons.   Grabbing tomatoes, onions and corn, I dashed to hide them in Dottie’s dog house.  I was always tempted to steal a watermelon but that would be missed causing trouble for mama.  When the old wagon started up the road toward town, I grabbed my stash and ran inside.

            Mama never scolded me for stealing from grandpa.  Around back of the house, I helped mama with her garden but there was not enough rain or too much.    Meals were usually potato soup or biscuits and homemade gravy.  Bossy was going to calf any day so there wasn’t any milk.  The only chicken we had left was a shrewd Dominet grey and white rooster who had managed to stay out of the ferocious jaws of the many fox that roamed the hills and mama’s stew pot.

            Now that I was trying at thirteen to be the man of the house I believed mama when she said grandpa was the meanest and stingiest man that ever lived.  She was the youngest of nine children working on the farm from daylight until the last ray of light left the sky.  Going to school only during the winter months, she never had a pencil with an eraser.  Grandpa always broke the pencils giving the eraser end to the older siblings.  

     Hearing Dottie yelping, mama and I wiped sweat from our burning eyes to see Sheriff Autry turning the corner of the house. Terrifying thoughts flashed thru our minds.   “Earline, it’s not about Davis but Clyde filed for custody of the kids claiming you can’t feed them.  I can’t allow you to stay here alone.  I’ll be by tomorrow to get all of you.”

            “You know he just wants us to work but I can’t fight the law.  We’ll be ready about noon.” Turning toward me, he said, “Jeremiah, help the girls get their things together.”He’s the only one to call me Jeremiah.  I have always been called J.J. even through I was baptized Jeremiah Jenkins Andrews.
            Grandpa was vicious and spiteful. There was plenty of food but we could only have sorghum and cornbread.  He seemed to delight in making us miserable. Carol cried a lot upset for being away from home causing grandpa to be even more hateful.  Our troubles accelerated when one night Carol knocked her plate off the homemade plank table.
            Grandpa giving Carol a menacing look said “Get down and eat off the floor”.

            Mama was a petite woman but stood up to the sassy old man.  “Pa, she’s not eating off the floor”.

            Grandpa jumping to his feet roared, “She’ll go hungry.”

            “No, she won’t.  I’ve got two eggs.  You’ll do without at breakfast.”
Grandpa slammed the door without looking back. When mama got riled, grandpa knew to leave her alone especially when it came to us kids.  Pa never beat us the way our cousins were beaten by their pa. When pa was drinking wanting to whip one of us, ma was like a she-bear protecting her cubs. I got plenty of whippings but not when pa was drinking.

Early the next morning, Grandpa was going to town.  My job was to hitch the mules to the wagon.  I found two cockleburs and put one under each of their collars.  Watching grandpa climb into the wagon, I had to hide a grin.  Sitting on the wagon seat he pulled on the reins and yelled “giddy up.”  Being unable to control the mules, grandpa grabbed the seat while Jim and Pete bucked kicking up dust and tangling the harness.  When I finally calmed the mules, the chains were tangled and their collars were under their necks.  The cockleburs fell to the ground as we tried to rearrange the harness.  Quickly turning on me, grandpa knocked me to the ground reigning blow after blow. 
Covering my head with my arms, I saw mama hit grandpa with a stick of stove wood.  Mama yelled, “J.J. hitch those mules and get to the house.” “Get the girls and our things.  We’re going home.”  Mama grabbed flour, sugar, lard and jars of food as I helped Carol and Betsy into the wagon.

After we unloaded the wagon and turned the mules toward home, I knew mama was worried as darkness crept over the horizon about grandpa coming for revenge.     We were flabbergasted when a middle of the night noise revealed daddy at the door.  Grabbing him, mama said “Davis you’re home.”   We were astounded that he was released after ten months for good behavior.

Dottie barking woke us from a sound sleep to find Sheriff Autry and grandpa in the yard.   Anxiety showed on their faces as daddy opened the door.  “Davis, I didn’t know you were here.  Clyde said Earline and the kids stole some food.”

“Pat, I’m home.  Clyde worked them like slaves.  I don’t want to go back to prison but you had best get him out of my yard.

Turning to grandpa he said, “Clyde, go home before Pat has to carry you in a paper bag.”

As the years passed, grandpa and his wagon pulled by the aging Jim and Pete never stopped by our house.  Betsy and Carol went to school.  I dropped out to help work the farm. Daddy disheartened at never getting ahead took to drinking more and more.

The farm has been sold. Mama, daddy and grandpa are gone.  I never talk to Betsy and Carol.  I’m locked away at Parchman Prison serving life without parole for murder.  Daddy was beating mama when I grabbed him shoving him down making his head hit the stove. The judge and jury wouldn’t believe it was accidental.  I’m singing in the chain gang and chopping cotton.

I’m chopping in the bottom wid a hundred years
Tree fall on me, I don’t bit no more care
Ho, Rosie
You told a promise when you fit met me
Well now you Wasn’t going to marry, till uh
I go free Big-leg Rosie, with her big leg drawers

Got me wearing those striped overalls.

  By Revia “Jenks” Perrigin