Friday, April 16, 2010

Short story submitted to glimmertrain 7/18/10

Strawberry Nest
Philipe LaMancusa

For my grandfather, growing up in a small town in Northern Georgia, life was neither confusing, nor was it challenging; it just was. The rituals and dramas of youth were played out, as they had been for generations, with no surprises and few variations. A child’s year began each spring and culminated in the ocher skies that signaled the ending of summer’s independence. Fall and winter were restrictive, with reprieves of too few holidays and no conception of incremental time.
Universally, children are on wavelengths of their own; adults, young and old, are strange and alien to their ken and comprehension. As we all know (or eventually find out), adults, as well, have no clear understanding of themselves; awareness of the passage of time and its significance is their reward for maturity. Wisdom is a diaphanous veil of subjectivity.
And so it turns out that being grown up is what proves the most challenging and this is that kind of story, the kind of story about being grown up. This is the recounting of near a century ago, when life in the rural south was a system of orbits and auras, where grownups revolved around each other in degrees of intensity. This is the story of how one man’s attempt to understand, and make peace within himself, if nowhere else, had all the earmarks of a great catastrophe and all the prospects of a grand adventure.
Tom Callas came back a little later than other survivors of the Great Conflict overseas and without fanfare. He was a son of the sons of the pathfinders and trailblazers of the Chattanooga Southern Railroad that had come through the American south with oxen and wagon in the 1880’s, and had stayed to build a town and a life for themselves and the generations that would follow.
His arrival could have been viewed as surreptitious were it not for the lack of ceremony or grace that came as natural to him as falling off a log, or in this instance, falling out of a train. Tom took his leave of a slow moving freight train with the markings of the Tennessee Alabama Georgia Railroad, locally known as the TAG line, one fine April morning and hopped off at the Blanche water tower just south of the Pigeon Mountain tunnel. He was too excited to sit and wait another mile or minute and eager to put his feet on home soil. His time away hadn’t changed him much physically, but his heart was emaciated with longing for red clay dirt in his lungs. He landed lightly on the balls of his feet, tripped and skinned his knees, bruised his chin, chafed his hands and, by divine providence, received a lung full of red clay dust. Ask and you shall receive.
Unselfconsciously he picked himself up, stretched tall and took a deep breath; he held his nose up like a coonhound ‘ownin’ the line’ and slapped the red clay dust from his clothing with a worn and shapeless slouch hat. He had made his exit from the train on the far side of the tower, and set off through the familiar woods, like a nefarious lover slipping through the back door; the scent of poplar, black walnut, fox grapes, and wild jasmine intoxicating his senses while the tall pines that held up the sky hushed the terrain like a cathedral. This was Lookout Mountain area and he was well acquainted with the Smokey Mountain countryside. Tom Callas was a healthy twenty-two year old man and he was glad to be alive and home.
Shortly he reached a country lane where he stopped at a little store run by coloreds and splashed his face in the yard pump, drinking from his hands cool well water, splashing his face and snorting like an old steam shovel; a few local ancients in rockers and some half pints playing with a wagon hoop watched his performance. Unfazed, Tom flashed a lopsided grin and waved with his neckerchief. He hitched up his britches, shouldered his rucksack and headed toward Burgess: a postage stamp of a town nestled between the soft rolling land and the hard steel of the railroad. The day was as perfect as warm pie on a kitchen windowsill.
Being alone for more time than is normal for a person sets him ‘talkin’ at hisself’ as hill folks would say and Tom had been alone a long time and was no exception; “I used to play here when I was just a little’n and the smell’s just the same,” he said to no-one in particular. His lean frame traveled easy and quick and he passed the four miles into the town with spring in his step, in his heart and in the woods of Walker County.
“Yonder lie Blue Pond, and yar Little River by the trestle, uppin’ to Cherokee and down to Gadsden” he recited like a schoolboy, nodding his head, eyes wide and jaw set proud.
“It’s the smells that really bring you back”, Tom Callas later told Mick Percy, the town’s sheriff, pharmacist and only practicing lawyer.
Mick had sat out the Great War on the advice of his Grandpappy, who had seen action at Chickamauga in sixty-three, where over ten thousand young men a day had lost their lives in a half a week of slaughter. Mick was nobody’s fool and didn’t relish becoming fodder in a conflict that had so little concern for, what he considered, the sanctity of human life. The boys who came back from this last one had witnessed horror and terror beyond belief and a good percentage of them had missing parts of their anatomy that he was sure was not only damn inconvenient, but added nothing to their employment opportunities, which in the early 1920s was slim to nothin’ thereabouts, if you couldn’t mine the coal or harvest timber.
Mick had allowed that he was hell-bound-lazy from birth and only aspired to live up to that potential; spending as much of his time and his Daddy’s money on schooling and finally settling down to a two story clap board house more or less in the center of a town where few crimes were committed, rare litigation was heard and only an occasional headache powder or horehound cough syrup was ever needed in this terminally healthy and sane little town.
Townsfolk up and about their business on that fine Tuesday morning would have taken little notice of a young man tramping through town, if not for his familiar hill-folk gate and the shock of red hair escaping from under his hat; even then they were only reminded of someone once familiar. Tom walked the dirt streets until he got to the small ‘business district’ and then took to the wooden sidewalk.
Of course, Mick Percy was bench lounging in the shaded area in front of his office/residence and of course, Mick Percy recognized him.
“Hey, Red.”
“Hey, Mick” Tom replied. Tom stopped and went to stand in the shadow of Mick’s overhang, adapting a friendly posture but not sitting unless he was invited as was country custom. Mick did not ask him.
“Jest gettin’ back?”
“Yep.” Tom replied.
“How was it?”
“I’ve had better times.”
“Got plans, Red?” Mick asked.
“Live as long as I can without fuss, I guess,” Tom said.
“Sounds fair,” said the Sheriff, Pharmacist and the town’s only practicing lawyer and Tom Callas wandered on, marveling at the fact that he was here and it was now. As if by homing instinct, he found himself headed down to the place in town that had always held sway in his mind, that place in Burgess known to its townsfolk as, Four Corners.
It seemed in those days that every small town across America had an intersection that divided it into quadrants: economic, social, political and geographical; that junction was usually known as Four Corners. Burgess was no exception. In the case of Burgess, the four intersecting roadways pointed one by one to the coalfields and lumber mills, the affluent and white sections and the ‘dark side’ or negro section of town. The fourth roadway led you out and away from Burgess and all it’s functions and foibles; this was the road that Tom had taken six years ago, when he went to seek his fortune and found a world at war. He could not but stare.
Miss Emily Early was nothing, if not that. All of her life, all twenty-six years of it, she had been prompt, dependable and sturdy. She was the first one in her family to get highly educated and she was proud of her teaching skills. Since the colored children’s schoolhouse had burned last year, she had found work and lodgings at Miss Minette’s where she instructed, directed and motivated a staff of maids, waiters, porters and pot washers with kindness, intimidation and maternal sternness worthy of the Mary Sharp College from which she was a graduate. She dealt fairly with tradespersons and supervised the rotation of the plantings and pickings of the truck garden out back; it was her inclination to keep and stay busy and productive. With honor and pride she had ‘indentured’ herself to Miss Minette for two years time with the payment, by Miss Minette’s solemn word, being the rebuilding of the school. Emily Early was going to do proud by Miss Minette, if it took every bit of patience, humility and hard work she could possibly muster. Her motto was, “All we have in life is our time;” she couldn’t quite put a meaning to it, but she had read it someplace and believed that it was as good a motto as any for her life. She was known to dispense these words freely and often to slack employees, and when she did, she felt good about it. To the less than motivated staff of Miss Minette’s, it was taken to heart like water off a duck’s back.
Tom found a room in the back of the newspaper office for a dollar a week and looked for a job with no success. He bought a second-hand bicycle and got around easily. Uncomfortable with his own people, he took to riding out at night down to the negro section of town with his hat pulled close and bundled up; the nights that spring were just cool enough for the outfit and the foolishness. He would envy the ease in which evenings seemed to pass there. Here were simple folks, he thought, poorer than dirt and yet they seemed to weave through each other’s lives, as if from a common thread. “Goldurnit” Tom thought, “life around these colored folks is so damn near…” he searched for the word “predictable!
I reckon it’s white folks unpredictability that screws up theys lives like it do”. And all of a sudden he felt…enlightened.
One day he hit upon a novel thought, an idea to find work in the less reputable section of town and found himself knocking at the back door of the Royal Palms Hotel. The door was opened by a tallish, light skinned colored woman, not noticeably unattractive, in a grey, calf-length, house uniform dress; he caught the scent of gardenias and ladies notion store powder.
“Sorry, Mister, we don’t open until nightfall; Sheriff’s orders.”
“I’m looking for work,” Tom said
“Doin’ exactly what?” asked Emily with a hint of suspicion and sarcasm.
“Anything really,” Tom said. “Mostly, I can cook”
“Cook? That’s for women and coloreds, and if’n I can beg your pardon, Suh, you aint one of those.”
“All the same,” Tom said, “I do have experience.” Equally, he thought to himself, he had the scars to prove it.
Minette Crawford owned, had built and named the Royal Palms Hotel in Burgess, although there was not a palm tree within four hundred miles and no royalty to speak of within a thousand. The Royal Palms wasn’t exactly a hotel either, for one thing it was only open at night and for another, none of the male guests who frequented the Royal Palms ever did much sleeping there. Right now Minette Crawford was anything but happy. “I swear, for every pound of cook I get in here I get ten pounds of trouble.” You can assume by that statement that the trouble was of the domestic help kind, and it was; another of her key kitchen staff had come down sick, not shown up or simply walked out. She adjusted her ample frame behind her parlor desk and reminded herself that this time next year, she would be comfortably retired in Paris… Paris, France that is. She had busted her butt for enough years and was really, really ready for a long stretch of stress-free living. One more year in Georgia, she mused, if only she could keep the girls in line and the kitchen running smoothly. “Damn that nigra bitch” she muttered, taking off her thick eyeglasses and slamming down her book of French verbs.
Emily was not in the best of moods either; when Minette wasn’t happy, t’weren’t nobody happy and she had put Emily through paces that day enough to try the patience of a saint. That and that damn fool white boy had shown up again at the back door looking for work, this time with some kind of coloring on that evidently he thought could almost pass him for a negro, although Emily, for the life of her, couldn’t reason why anyone would want to do that. She was feeling just testy enough to turn to Miss Minette and say coolly: “there’s a colored boy by the back door, says he’s a cook, says his name’s Cal Thomas.”
Miss Minette closed her eyes and folded her hands across her ample girth. Emily stood quietly at the door, minutes ticked by like flies on a dung heap.
“God Almighty’s scrotum!” cursed Minette at last, “tell him to cook me something and I’ll see, but make no promises, hear?”
“Cook you what?”
“Hell, if he’s a cook, he’ll find something to cook; that’s what cooks do, isn’t it? Cook?”
Three nights later, Mick heard a commotion out behind the newspaper office and went out to find the night porter holding a pistol on a black boy; at their feet was a bicycle.
Mick addressed the porter by name.
“What’s going on, Earl?”
“I caught this boy trying to steal Tom’s contraption.”
“It’s alright, Tom sold it to him, I witnessed it” Mick said
Where’s Tom? Earl asked suspiciously.
“Moved on, and I appreciate your citizen’s concern, but you’ll have to let this one pass; the boy aint done nuthin’ wrong… at least not tonite. I’ll keep an eye out, rest assured and I’ll take it from here.” Earl wandered off slowly, shooting hard looks back at the colored.
“Red, that was a close one.”
“I thank you, Mick.”
“Well, Red, seein’s I sold you the pigment, I couldn’t have them bury no appaloosa in town. Someone would be sure to pass remarks. Besides, I knew your folks and I couldn’t very well let your insanity go un-abetted. Just keep your hair covered with that black bandana and you just might make it back to Minnie’s.”
The day of his acceptance into Miss Minette’s employ, Tom/Cal had surveyed the kitchen, starting with the larder and vegetable area before shooting his head out the back door to see what could be incorporated into his meal from the garden; the meal would make or break his employment opportunity and he wanted to show his stuff without, he mused, showing his all. “Don’t play all your cards at once,” was his philosophy. He turned to Emily and asked politely “Could you get one of them boys,” here he eyed some of the staff loafing by the back door, “to kill me a nice tender young chicken fo Miz Crawford’s lunch? And fetch me some special china?” He turned his attention to setting the wood right in the big stove and never looked to see how she was going to accomplish his request; “please” he added, with a tone of genuine respect. At that point, they both became in charge of the household.
He worked quickly and quietly and the kitchen staff made believe that they were working at something or other, but what they were doing was watching the man, a stranger to them, build a masterpiece of food, while moving with the grace and motion of a dervish dancer.
When the food was ready for service, Cal/Tom plated it nicely, stretched up from his hunched position and said, “Behold Miss Emily; that which was not, is.” Thus speaking, he retrieved a pipe from his pocket and went outside to smoke, wiping his face with the neckerchief that he had pulled from his back pocket.
A while later, Emily fetched him from the shade of an outside oak. “I don’t know what you cooked for the Missy, boy, but you got yourself a job and she wants to talk at you.”
Miss Minette was studying her French book when Cal was shown in; she looked him over myopically and took a deep breath before beginning. “Well, your cooking is passable and I’m willing to put you on, trial basis, of course. Make no mistake--the hours are long, the pay is low and the kitchen is hot. You’ll be on call most days, so you bunk in the back; Emily’ll get you settled and you start work…now.”
“I need to tell you that I have high class clientele here, coming in from as far as Memphis, going as far as Atlanta and what they want is to relax, have a good meal and some genteel company.” Here Miss Minette took another deep breath into her deep lungs and continued. This was the longest conversation, albeit one sided, that she had had in months.
“The dinners will be for two at a time mostly and then there’s breakfast in the morning. You’re off from work after breakfast Sunday morning and all day Monday; that suit you?” she asked.
“Yes’m and I thank you kindly,” said Tom/Cal.
And so began Tom Callas’ tenure at the Royal Palms Hotel as Cal Thomas, and from the beginning he was under scrutiny. Emily spent a good deal of time each day darting in and out of the kitchen, like a gadfly, for the first few weeks, until she was satisfied that the new cook not only was a good fit, but performed to her standards as well. Cal treated her with the respect of her station and was content to exceed expectations with his cooking.
And so he cooked. Roasts and chops, as tender as a mother’s love; wild greens with the taste of the woods and fence lines from where they were gathered; butterbeans and Crowder peas from the gardens; creamed potatoes, lighter than butterfly wings; cakes and ice creams and cobblers and crisps, so satisfying that it would bring water to your mouth just recalling their taste. Smells, cooking odors and gaseous miasmas emanating from that locomotive of a wood burning stove and ovens, attracted layabouts who passed time outside the hotel in idle states of olfactory contemplation and meditation.
A turn in the young couple’s relationship came on a late May morning; breakfast was over and the staff had trundled off to do whatever they did before the night’s occupation. Cal was about to step outside for a sit and a pipe and found Emily at the door, arms akimbo, facing an itinerate salesman selling notions from the back of a dilapidated wagon.
“Ahm tellin’ you, Suh, we don’t need nuthin,” Emily was saying.
“I aint talkin’ to you girl. I wants to see the ‘Lady’ of the house” said the salesman. “I’ve got some real quality stuff that I know she’ll be wantin.”
“Miss Minette’s not to be disturbed after eight a.m., period.”
“Now you listen here, nigger…” the salesman said, taking a threatening step toward Emily; looking up saw Cal standing behind her, his arms crossed and holding a cleaver the size of a scimitar.
The salesman whirled, eyes wide and gaped at some street loungers who were snickering, a good funny at the salesman’s expense.
“You saw him! You saw that buck threaten me! He wanted to kill me! You all are my witnesses! He fairly screamed as he fled back to his wagon and made a beeline towards the office of the Sheriff, Pharmacist and the town’s only practicing lawyer.
Emily turned and saw Cal leaning against the wall, tamping golden flakes of tobacco into his pipe. “What did you do?” she asked, raising that eyebrow like she was famous for.
“Who me? Nuthin.” Cal said, “I was just gonna have me a smoke ‘fore I clean up the morning mess; that white man must be seein’ spooks.”
“Now, why don’t I believe you?” Emily said sternly, with just the slightest trace of a grin.
“You look right handsome when you smile, Miss Emily; you should try it more often.”
It wasn’t a day later, at a reasonable hour, that the Sheriff came calling on Miss Minette and asked to see Emily and ‘Cal’ as well.
“Well, Minnie ” Mick started with a deep sigh, “it seems we got a complaint about some darkie threatening to kill a white man, salesman by trade, and he was meaning to press charges.” Here Mick stared at Cal with a knowing look.
“Well yourself, Mick,” said Miss Minette. “What’s that got to do with these two?”
“Third, ‘well’ and it’s a deep subject, Minnie. It seems that before he could make a formal complaint, he received a visit from someone who scared him off with the threat of bodily harm, to wit, a gelding performed with alacrity for the purpose of intimidation.”
“Get on with it, Mick, and stop using those ten cent words; do you think that these two had anything to do with that?”
“Hell, Minnie,” said Mick, “ it couldn’t have been one of them; feller said some white boy was the perpetrator, with hair like a nest of wild strawberries, his words not mine; I just wanted to know if your staff had any ideas on the subject, seemed like the alleged ruckus started on your property.“
Here both Miss Minette and Mick Percy turned on the couple that looked up honestly and shook their heads.
“No Suh and No M’am, we don’ know nuthin’ ‘bout no white man; things pretty peaceful ‘roun heah, these days, aint that right Miz Emily?” said Cal Thomas, in his best servant’s voice. Emily nodded in agreement.
“Oh get outa here, you two; anything else Mick?” said Miss Minette.
“Naw.” Mick half smiled, “I guess that’s all. Hey Cal, what’s for dinner tonight?”
Tom had planned Celery Victor, Chicken Villeroi with sauce allemande, pommes soufflĂ©, followed by watercress salad and a light sabayon.” Cal grinned and replied, “Why sheriff, Suh, I thought it perfect weather for some chicken with creamed gravy and field peas.”
`The two young people closed the sitting room door quietly behind them, looked into each other’s eyes and exhaled a deep and holding breath.
“Cal, you sure can grovel when you have to,” said Emily.
“Part of my larger education,” said Cal.
“Didn’t Mr. Booker T. Washington write something with a title like that?”
“I believe that he did, Miss Emily”
“Let’s get back to work” she said, and as they walked together toward the back of the Royal Palms Hotel, towards the kitchen and the rest of their lives, the backs of their hands brushed one another and without a thought otherwise, there came the linking of their little fingers.
Emily smiled, “Strawberry nest, indeed”.

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