Ben heard the approaching footsteps and shoved the bullet under his pillow and began innocently singing:
“Do your ears hang low, do they flop, do they flop?
Can you tie ‘em in a bow, can you tie ‘em in a knot?”
He sat on the edge of the bed as the doorknob turned.
“Can you throw them o’er your shoulder,
Like a regimental soldier . . .”
His mother and twin sisters marched into the room as he slowly finished, “Do your . . . ears hang . . . low.”
His mother solemnly spread the money on the bed. “Thirty-eight dollars and twenty cents. Ben Reed, I cannot believe it.”
He shrugged. “It’s not like I robbed a bank.” Peg winked at Ben, rubbing her hands together as if she was counting money.
Their mother raked a pile of the contraband to one side. “Twenty dollars of this is going to the Lottie Moon offering at church.”
“Twenty dollars! Leave me some.”
Author’s Note: The Lottie Moon offering is an annual mission offering made by Southern Baptists. It underwrites foreign missions and is collected at Christmas. Learn more at www.imb.org
“Oh, I’m just getting started.” She held up the five-dollar bill. “You’re taking this to Widow Young after supper.” She stuffed three dollars in her apron pocket. “And that’s mine for washing your clothes this month.” She raked the rest of the money into a manila envelope. “You’ll be getting three dollars and eighty cents later. That’s ten percent—and it’s all yours.”
Ben put his hands on his forehead. “Momma, that’s not how they figured it in the Bible. I believe that tithe was the other way around.”
“Not in your Momma’s math, and in this house, Momma’s math is the only kind that matters. Besides, all but fifty cents of that is going into a savings account at the bank.”
Ben’s shoulders sagged. “I’ve been robbed.”
“No. You robbed, making those poor soldiers pay a dollar for a coke.”
“Please, let me keep a little more.” He turned to his sisters. “Y’all are in cahoots with her.”
His mother’s fist slammed down like a gavel. “Case closed.” She kissed him on the forehead. “Appeal denied.” Satisfied that justice had been served, she turned on her heel. His sisters, still snickering behind their hands, followed in her wake.
Ben counted to five-Mississippi, listening for returning footsteps. Pulling the brass cartridge from under his pillow, he removed the folded note from the shell, re-reading the four lines of numbers and words slowly. He inhaled the faint smell of gunpowder in the cartridge and slid it into his pocket. He now had a plan and headed into the kitchen. “Momma, can I go over to Ma’s house?”
She eyed him carefully. “If you promise not to ruin your supper, and be back ‘fore dusk-dark.”
He sprinted out the door as her parting words echoed, “And watch for rattlesnake pilots in those leaves.” Blue joined him at the gate, loping along as they crossed the creek bottom. It was a quarter-mile through the woods to the home of his grandmother, Doshie Reed. Her family called her “Ma” and Ben loved her more than anybody in the whole world.
Arriving, he slammed the screen door to announce his arrival. “Got anything for a country boy to eat?” She was working in the kitchen, dressed in the only way he’d ever seen her: long, flowing dress, gray hair up in a bun, skinny arms working hard. In her sing-songey voice, she said, “Well, we don’t usually feed hoboes, but today I’ll make an exception.”
He began their ritual. “Ain’t your name Ma? What kind of name is that?”
“Oh, it’s an old Attakapa Indian word.” She gave him a big hug. “For the person who spoils you and pours a big dose of love all over you.”
Ben had gotten one of her flour hugs. “Ma, you’re making that Indian stuff up, ain’t you?”
She rubbed his head. “It sounds like me, don’t it?”
“Sure does.” As she hugged him again, he inhaled the smells that marked his grandmother: lye soap, talcum powder, and the faint odor of Garrett’s Sweet Snuff. These were mixed with the kitchen aromas of frying bacon and baking bread. He’d timed his arrival right.
“You’re just in time for a snack. Would you like Ma to get you a hot peach tart?”
“Momma told me not to ruin my supper.”
“Well, what your momma don’t know won’t hurt her, will it?”
“Not one bit.”
She took out a pan of hot tarts from the cook stove. “While they’re cooling, you use the fly-swap to keep the flies off.” After about a minute, she winked. “All right, a hot tart deserves a cold glass of milk. Go out to the well and bring in the milk.” As he raced outside, she warned, “Be careful and don’t break the jug.” He pulled the rope up from the well and untied the burlap sack that held the gallon of fresh milk, holding the cold jug against his face.
She poured him a pint jelly jar full of creamy milk and set it beside two steaming peach tarts. Between bites and gulps, he said, “How’s PawPaw today?”
She nodded toward the bedroom. “He’s been in there jabbering all morning.”
Ben chuckled. “Ma, he ain’t said a word since his stroke.”
“Honey, there’s lots of ways of talking that don’t take words.”
“What do you talk to him about all day?”
“Everything and nothing. He’s a captive audience, and I try to take advantage of it.” She lifted a pan of sizzling bacon. “Run in there and tell him hello.”
Ben eased into the room where his grandfather was sleeping. He’d never gotten used to seeing how this strong man—his hero—had withered down to what he was now. “Morning, PawPaw.”
His grandfather’s eyes opened and were joined by a crooked smile. He tried to form words, but what came out was gibberish, followed by a tear rolling down his left cheek. Ben kissed the tear and pulled up a chair bedside. “It’s good seeing you, Pa.” Ben rubbed his grandfather’s hand, filling him in about recent events in his life. When he saw Ma in the doorway, he said, “How do you and him talk?”
“We tell each other all day how much we love each other.”
“With our eyes, and with gestures, and our hearts.”
Ma walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. She placed her flour-covered hand on his cheek, tenderly stroking his face and turned to Ben. “See what I mean?”
“Yes Ma’am, I do.”
She turned to Pa. “Spencer, do you wish you’d married Deborah Granger instead of me?”
He vigorously shook his head, a scowl spreading over his long face. She winked at him, “If you had it to do all over, would you marry me again?”
He dipped his head up and down, a lop-sided grin evicting the frown. Ma said, “He’s bobbing that head like a woodpecker on a wormy willow oak tree.”
“Ma, what’d he try to say?”
“It was ‘I love you.’”
“How do you know?”
She walked Ben to the kitchen. “I just know.” Dusting the flour off her apron, she said, “I hear-tell they’re dropping flour-sack bombs from them Army planes. Sounds like a real waste to me. Flour’s for making biscuits and tarts.”
“Especially tarts.” He finished his second tart, then pulled the bullet from his pocket and tossed it on the counter where it rattled against a pot. “Look at that.”
“What’s that?” She walked to the counter.
“It’s a bullet a soldier tossed at me and Elizabeth in town.”
She picked it up and removed the note. “Baby, go get Ma’s bifocals off the settee.”
He returned with the glasses. “Lizzie said he hollered, ‘You’re beautiful. Write me.’ I’m not sure if he was yelling at me or Lizzie.”
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t you,” She adjusted the glasses on her nose.
“What’s that note mean, Ma?”
She unfolded it and read slowly,
Private Harold M. Miller
Company K, 127th Infantry 32nd Division
Ben looked over her shoulder. “What is it?”
“Looks like a soldier’s address.”
He stood on his tiptoes. “So that’s why the soldier threw the bullet at us?”
“Not at us, but at your sister. You know she is one good-looking woman.” She held the bullet in her long fingers. “Did Elizabeth pick this up?”
“Not that I saw. She told me to leave it alone.” He finished the milk with a big swig. “But you can see I didn’t.”
“I can see that.” Her eyes narrowed. “Who else knows about this?”
“Not a soul—nobody but me, you, and the Lord above.”
“Not even Peg?”
“She was gone when it happened.”
“Why’d you bring it to me?”
“’Cause you’re the smartest person I know.”
“Yes’m, and you make the best peach tarts in the whole world.”
“So that’s why you came.”
“Well, that and the bullet.”
She held the cartridge up to the light from the kitchen window. Ben studied her wrinkled hand and how the purple veins stood out on her hand. In the light from the window, he could nearly see through her thin fingers.
She addressed the bullet as if it was in cahoots with them. “Mr. Bullet, I’ve been worried about my granddaughter and her boring life.” She winked at Ben. “You might just be the answer I been praying for.”
“Ma, are you talking to me or the bullet?”
She said, “Both. This bullet might help us help her.” She carefully placed it in a pastel stationery box. “Every tub sits on its own bottom.”
“Ma, why do you always say that?”
“Because I like the way it sounds. I’m gonna keep this bullet. The three of us might just go into cahoots together and help Lizzie get some romance in her life.”
“But what about Peg?”
“Son, I’m most concerned with keeping her out of romance. That girl likes anything wearing pants. But your sister Elizabeth, she’s just too serious. We’re gonna try to help her.”
She peered out the window. “What time’d your momma tell you to be home by?”
Framing his face with her hands, she kissed his forehead. “You best be going.” As he trotted off, she hollered, “And watch for snakes—especially those ground rattlers in the leaves.”
Ben was running as fast as he could. He turned to his faithful companion, Blue. “It’d take a mighty quick snake to bite us.” The dog barked twice and they picked up speed as they entered the swamp, seeing the lights of home through the trees.
“Every tub” sits on its own bottom” is a self-responsibility statement still used among old-timers in our piney woods. How would you explain its meaning to an outsider?
What were the sayings and proverbs of your ancestors?