Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Coon's Age

“Hey, Sylvester,” Harold Jenkins hollered, glancing into the drugstore as he passed.

Old man Callie looked around, frowning slightly. He put on his glasses and stared hard through the screen door. Hardly anyone these days called him by his first name like that. He was used to being addressed as either “Mr.”, in deference to his age or, by men close enough to his age to be that familiar, as “Sly”, which was not in fact considered his name any more, but tribute to his long political history in the county.

“Yeah, sure, Harold!” Sylvester Callie yelled back after a moment. “How ya doin', boy? Hey, come on back here! Hell, I ain't seen you in a coon's age. Come on in a minute.”

“I been around,” Jenkins drawled, opening the screen door slowly.

He paused to scrape his boots on the welcome mat, nodding vaguely at the small group of men sitting at the tables near the soda fountain. The men nodded back just as ambiguously. Jenkins wasn't anybody's best friend, but he wasn't a stranger, either; most of the men in the drugstore had known one another for half their lives. Mr. Callie, being older than everyone except Jenkins, had known some of them all their lives. “I know 'em like the back of my hand!” had been his political catchphrase for years.

“Listen, Sylvester, I heared they was a rumor 'bout that Connie Rae of yours bein' messed up with ole Roger 'fore he killed himself. They anything to it?”

Everybody except Sylvester looked up with interest. All of them except Jenkins and Sylvester looked uncomfortable. Nobody but that old fart Jenkins would have had the nerve to bring up his granddaughter to Mr. Callie's face. Since the question had been asked, though, they listened.

“Good lord, Harold,” the old man said casually, taking his cigar out of his mouth, “just 'cause we grew up together don't give you the right to say any goddamn thing that occurs to you, you know?”

“Well, Sylvester, you know you don't learn nothin' if you don't ask,” Jenkins said stubbornly, drawling almost as slowly as Sly had done. He took off his hat and ran his hand through his gray hair for a moment, then put his hat back on.

“Shit, look at the old bastard's hand tremble,” Ed Maldy, the young druggist, thought, hiding his grin behind his milkshake. “Guess he finally remembered who he was talkin' to!”

“No harm meant,” Jenkins said, surprising Ed by looking Callie straight in the eye. “You don't wanna talk, don't talk; it's your bizness. I thought you liked to talk.”

“I ain't above talkin', Harold,” Callie said amiably, glancing around the room casually now, checking the other men's expressions. They were, as expected, watching him carefully. Sylvester smiled and went on.

“I got this old by out-talking a whole lot of men that's quiet in their graves now, poor bastards. You know, I'll be 78 next November and I don't recall as how I've ever been shy about talkin'! But you know that. I don't know much 'bout all this with Connie Rae, now. I have thought about it some, though, I reckon.”

“Yeah?” Jenkins nodded.

“Oh, yeah. I figure it like this about ole Roger. There ain't no way o' telling what women are apt to like or admire in a man—hell, some of 'em have even loved me! And not so long ago that I can't remember it, neither. 'Course, I got a memory like a elephant!”

Several of the men laughed appreciatively at the old man's joke. They generally figured it was best to stay on his good side. They weren't wrong, either; now as always, just as they imagined, without even looking at them Sylvester Callie was uncannily aware of who smiled and who didn't.

“Oh, hell, Sylvester,” Jenkins grinned, “you and me used to chase the girls together once upon a time and we caught some, too, I reckon. But that was a long time ago. What's your damn point now?”

“Yeah, well, that kinda thing just sticks in your mind, I reckon. Women! Yeah, buddy. But that Connie Rae now,” he continued, “she don't confide much in me, she never did. I suspect as how she's a pretty hot tomato under all them thick dark winter clothes she's always wearin', an' if she met a man she liked, who knows what would happen. All hell might break loose. She might burn 'im up! Ole Roger was pretty likeable, we all knew that. Maybe all hell finally did break loose, huh? But whether she burnt him up or he burnt to the ground all by hisself ain't nothin' for a grandpa to speculate about, now, is it?”

“I reckon it ain't,” Jenkins said, looking at him hard. “Not usually, nohow. You still ain't said nothin', you know.”

“Well, I guess I know that,” the old man nodded, speaking smoothly. “I ain't finished yet, you see.”

Everyone waited while the old man paused to light his cigar, almost holding their breath. The old man had a sense of timing; he made them wait just a little bit longer than breath could be held before he spoke again.

“In short, you dipshit idiot,” he grinned, “I ain't got no way at all of knowing who or if she dallied—excuse my euphemism, boys! I don't know if it was seven kinds of fun for her or what. I don't know if the boy was a rootin' tootin' dead-eyed shooter or a pansy hidin' back there behind all these women's lifted skirts. Him being dead an' all, I guess it don't matter. I kinda wonder, though, if this whole damn thing wasn't some kinda perfidious revenge cooked up by ole Roger's wife, but I don't know. No, sir, no, I don't know nothin' 'bout that. If it was revenge, though, she musta put some damn hard work in on it 'cause the poor bastard sure is dead! Went down to the creek myself that day and took a quick look before they moved him. Never seen anybody'd who'd killed himself so efficiently!”

“Yeah. That's what I heard,” Jenkins muttered.

“Yeah,” Sylvester nodded. “Sure enough a ugly business. Well, no matter. I just wish it hadn't happened, whatever the hell it was! It didn't do the community no good.”

“You right about that, Mr. Callie,” Ed Maldy said. The other men nodded their heads in agreement. Jenkins snorted rudely and walked toward the door.

“I ain't never had the pleasure of talkin' a whole roomful of men to death like you have, Sylvester, but I reckon I been listening to you buzz like this for half a century, and it ain't killed me yet. You can call it gossip if you want to, but I know what I know. An' all that dern talk of yours ain't gonna make it otherwise!”

“I agree a hunnerd per cent, Harold!” Sylvester Callie grinned as Jenkins opened the door and paused to look back. “Come on back anytime you need to get your facts straight! I'll be glad to help you out!”

The other men slapped the tables and laughed like schoolboys. Jenkins slammed the door behind him, but not before he heard Callie say, “Hey, Ed, lemme have one of them cherry Cokes, if you'll be so kind.”


At Callie's funeral the next year, some were surprised to see old Jenkins turn up. Some said he came for spite, to show he'd outlived Sylvester.

“He was a crooked bastard,” Jenkins explained to someone, “but he was our crooked bastard, so I showed up for his funeral. Is that against the law now?”

Nobody allowed as it was, and Mr. Jenkins walked home alone. It wasn't evident in his stride, but he was feeling a lot feebler than he'd felt in a long time.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself, “just 'cause another ole man's dead don't mean I got to feel so beat up!”


4th draft: 03/04/03
©1990 Ronald C. Southern