“The worst that can happen is they kill us,” Elva says. That ain’t my hope, but folks do bad things when hard times hit, and these boys know hard times.
I nod. If I could talk, I’d say, “It were yer idee, Girl.” Me and Elva are out to make sure these boys get home with the grub we bought ‘em. We follow ‘cross the cemetery, over a barbwire fence, through a patch of rag weeds, buckbrush and persimmon sprouts, to a lean-to under two big sycamore trees at the bend in the creek. A woman sprawls in the dirt, her head restin’ on a battered foot locker. Her dress top sags open, her face pale as flint rock. Flies have a go at her mouth, but she pays ‘em no mind. A baby nekkid as the day she were born, kicks and squirms on a dirty blue blanket ‘side the lady.
“This is mostly where we stay,” the oldest boy says, diggin’ at a clump of dead grass with the toe of his dirty tennis shoe.
The lean-to is just a paint-splotched tarpaulin draped over a tree limb that slopes down in back, tied to stobbs hammered into the ground, sides just gunny sacks thrown over ropes and held in place with rocks. The front is open to the air ‘cept for a blanket threaded on a rope that’s pulled shut for night-time privacy, I reckon.
Under a nearby sycamore, a boy and his dog crawl from a tent made of cardboard. A woman bent over a fire says, “Lovelle, stay out that swimmin’ hole today, hear? And go to school. I don’t want to bury a drowned son like that momma had to last week.”
“Yes, Ma,” the boy says, his words faint. He gives me and Elva a hard look, but don’t speak. A older feller, his leg twisted ‘round a hickory sapling, his face hidden by a straw hat, leans agin the tree to get his wind ‘fore he hops off toward a tin-roof shanty. Six or eight more cardboard and scrap wood huts, ugly as wasp nests, are scattered in the weeds.
Me and Elva are in Hooverville, where folks don’t live, just hang on. These places commenced when Herbert Hoover was president, but nowadays, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s the top dog in Washington, D.C. Still, things ain’t changed that much. Newspapers say F.D.R.’s Works Progress Administration put men to work and ended the great Depression. I reckon folks here don’t read the news.
Inside the lean-to, the only household goods I see are two flatirons on the footlocker, a folded ironin’ board next to a cane rocker and a rickety-lookin’ cot with a wadded up green blanket on it. Outside the shack, in brown grass, is a white enamel chamber pot, what Pap called a thunder mug. They’s privy, I reckon.
The boy who panhandled us first, points to the woman in the dirt, “That’s Momma. She’s sick two days. Baby’s Suella.” He puts a hand ‘side his mouth and yells, “Joan, you here?” A tousled-headed girl, eleven or twelve, who was curled in the rocker so deep I took her for bed clothes, stands. Her blue dress most drags the ground. A man’s tie, decorated with blue and yellow flowers, dangles from her neck. She wears heavy, scuffed boots that make her legs look thin.
The oldest boy says, “She ain’t feelin’ so hot, neither.”
Elva says, “Hi everyone,” like she’s greetin’ cash-payin’ customers at the Upstairs Diner where me and her work. “Nice to meet you.” She looks at Joan, “Where’s your cooking pot?” Joan, who I take is a older sister, jerks her head toward a fire ring behind the lean-to. Elva asks, “Water?” Joan points to a glass butter churn. She has a pretty face, with eyes black as fresh-hulled walnuts and hair yellow like wind-blown chaff.
Elva pours water from the churn into a pan, dumps in stew makin’s, and hands it to me. I kick the char off a log, and start a fire usin’ wrappin’ paper as kindlin’. When it flames yellow, the younger boy adds small twigs, “Ya got that goin’ in a hurry,” he says; “Tried all mornin’ with no luck.”
The older boy tosses fire wood toward me, “Paper brung them embers that lingered from our fire to life.” He adds, “Had us a fire with nothin’ to cook last night.”
When the flames go good, I settle the stew pot between two rocks, then go inside to help Elva with sandwiches. Me and her ate at the Upstairs after our shift, so we ain’t hungry.
The older boy shakes his momma awake. She snatches the 7-Up from his hand and takes a long swig, “Anythin’ fer Suella?”
“Yes, Momma. Sit up. We got company. They brung eats.” Baby Suella kicks and whimpers. The lady scoops her up and skootches closer to the rocker.
Elva hands out sandwiches, then crouches next to the footlocker, “These’ll hold you ‘til the stew’s ready.”
From the dirt, the lady says, “Ya caught us a bad time. Me sick and all.” Her hand hides her mouth, “If I’d knowed company was comin’, I’d swept and had the boys get in fresh water.”
Elva says, “Don’t worry, ma’am. Hamus and I don’t expect fancy.” She looks ‘round, “You got a man?”
The oldest boy, his voice low like he’s tellin’ secrets says, “Pap took off outta here last week like we was three-headed ghosts with polio. Momma don’t want to think on it, but he’s gone fer good. Stole my ball cap right off my head.”
The woman gums her sandwich, then with long fingers, takes a gob of chewed food from her mouth and pushes it ‘tween Suella’s lips, “Eat, chile.” When she speaks, her voice is hoarse like she ain’t talked in a while, “Yeah, Ralph took off. A week Wednesday.” I figure Ralph to be her husband. “Cain’t say I blame him. Livin’ in dirt with no roof over yer head and six mouths to feed. His ass was red that this were the best he could do, though it were his lazy ways that brung us here. Mr. Perfect never done one thing wrong to hear him yammer.” She takes ‘nother gulp of 7-Up. “Nah, he’ll never come back.” She puts a strand of hair behind her ear, and glances at me. “How’d yer man git so bad scarred?”
Elva answer, “House fire when little. Burned away his voice box. He can’t talk, but he’s a good man.”
“Didn’t say he weren’t. We all got our cross to bear. That’s his’n, I reckon.” Her voice holds tears. “Hope Mr. High and Mighty Ralph finds his life’s treasure, since we ain’t good ‘nuff fer him. He’s partial to hard drink and soft work. Left me in a big hole, that’s for sure.” She takes a breath. “Reckon the boys can fend for themselves. It’s Joan I worry on.” She swallows, “Boys don’t got problems like a young girl, but life’s hard for all of God’s childrun.” She pushes more chewed sandwich into Suella’s mouth, “Joan’s time ain’t come yet, but it will soon. Men sniffin’ ‘round already. And no daddy to protect her.”
Joan who was balled up in the rocker agin, sits up, looks ‘round, wipes her hands on her dress, and falls back in the chair. Her momma says, “I weren’t ready ‘til I met they’s Pop, but he weren’t first.” She looks at her boys, “’Nuff said.” Suella whimpers. Her momma picks her up, “It were right Christian ya to stop by. Come agin when the garden’s ready. We’ll fix green beans and new ‘taters. Quilt, if we got lamp oil.” At the mention of a garden, I roll my eyes. I ain’t seen a hill of beans or a ‘tater vine nowhere.
Elva says, “Let’s go, my man.” She pinches my wrist when she says this. The brothers start up the hill with us. A gaggle of scruffy-lookin’ hooligans watch from the shadows, probably drawn by the smell of cookin’ meat and onions.
A boy yells, “Ya owe me, Willard. I give ya some of my Fudgesicle yestriddy.”
Williard must be the oldest boy’s name, ‘cause he picks up a thick stick, “Leave us be, Leo. Momma’s sick. Joan, too.”
“It’s charity yer takin’,” Leo yells; “Ya ain’t got no Daddy.”
A man in dirty overalls, his face dark with whiskers, a leather hat hidin’ his eyes, says, “Don’t give a shit if it’s from the devil. Food’s food. Me an’ mine are hongry.” He waves eatin’ utensils. “We ain’t eit since Sunday.” The question of when the last time somebody ate, is why me and Elva is here. To make certain the boys didn’t get robbed or sell what groceries we bought ‘em, we’d followed them here.
Me and Elva had just finished our ten-hour shift at the Upstairs Café where she’s a Soup Jockey and me Grill Master. I were headed for Abe’s when Elva come up and asks can she walk with me.
Now, Abe Bedford’s the best piano player the world’s ever heard, and my friend. ‘Fore his Granny died, Abe held concerts in London, Paris, France, even New York City. It were a lucky day for us Music Freaks, the band we cripples put together, when Abe joined up. His name alone landed us a radio show and honky-tonk jobs across Cole County. A month or so back, Abe come up sick. That’s my concern ‘cause the Bank Lady, Miss Duncan, hired me to see that Abe eats right and don’t stay up all night playin’ music like he’s been known to do. I don’t take one red cent for helpin’ him. After all, what are friends for? I do bed down at his house, even if he is colored and me white.
Last night were bad for Abe. After I put him down ‘round nine, he got up two hours later and played Happy Birthday over and over. He’d commence a song, then skip to ‘nother one without finishin’ either. I coaxed him to bed three times, but this mornin’ he were slouched on his piano bench, his face wet with drool, his skin ashy. It were a struggle to put him down agin, I tell you.
At my mornin’ break at the Upstairs, I ran to the bank to tell Miss Duncan that Abe needs a doctor, like I’ve been told to do. “Abe’s heart is bad,” I wrote on my paper; “Send for a doctor.”
Miss Duncan read my scribbles, “Mr. Zanderhook, I had no idea a fry cook like you diagnosed illnesses. Leave by the side door, right now, before a bank officer sees you. I’ll send Dr. Staley by when his schedule permits.”
I want Elva to know what happened. Me and her have worked together at the Upstairs four years. She comes to our dances right regular, and is up on the fact that the Music Freaks voted to not play any more dances or be on the radio ‘til Abe’s up and ‘bout. I’ll put what happened at the bank on paper once we’re at Abe’s, ‘cause when me and Elva talk, she sometimes don’t understand my grunts, hisses, face looks and hand gestures. Writin’ takes that away.
I were taken aback, I tell you, when Elva asked to walk with me. She’s pretty as a violet, friendly as a wren. She and her boyfriend, Bill Weir, are to be married soon. Some nights Elva rides up front when Howard Wilson drives me and Abe and Stumpy Hazlet, who has no legs, but plays the fire outta a guitar, and our singer, polio-crippled, sweet-voiced Della Holt, to our dance jobs. Howard hisself, has a stub arm. To play his fiddle, he pins his bow to his shirt sleeve. When he moves his arm, the bow makes the music he wants.
I figure Elva wants to tell Abe get well. We walk. It’s a fine October evenin’ with air crisp as a fresh apple. While we stroll, Elva reports on her sister’s bad health, and that her Momma bought canning jars with the five-dollar bill Elva given her last week. At the Little Red Store, on Ozark Street, most to Abe’s house, this kid, whose name I now know is Willard, sidled up to me. “Hey, Mister, could you spare three cents for a 7-Up? Momma’s sick two days, and a 7-Up would make her better, I betcha.”
The younger boy looks on. Elva asks the older boy, “When did you last eat?”
“We have a big bait most every day,” he says. His tennis shoes make his feet look long. His sweat shirt is faded red and could use a good scrubbin’. His hair ain’t combed, but don’t look bad.
Elva turns to the younger boy. “You his brother?” He nods.
Elva takes his arm, “Don’t lie. When was the last time you ate?”
He looks down at the dirt, “Two, three days ago.” He puts his hands up, expectin’ a hard wallop from big brother. It don’t come. He’s barefoot, wears a St. Louis Browns ball cap and overalls two sizes too big. He ain’t too acquainted with soap and water neither.
Elva says, “Wait here.” She’s inside the store, fast. I motion to the boys I’ll be back and trot after her. It’s dark inside with the smell of apples and coffee and candle wax. We fill four sacks with groceries. Elva gives each boy a sack to carry, and me and her have one as well; “We’ll follow you home,” she says.
I’d rather we’d go check on Abe, but tag along with Elva. Now, we’re standin’ on a narrow path in Hooverville with mad, hungry men blockin’ our way. “We’re hongry, too,” a bean pole of a boy says.
The man in the flat hat who spoke up earlier says, “Guarantee ya. Me and mine are gonna bait up tonight.”
A woman with a blue bandanna ‘round her head, in a red and blue apron, pushes through the crowd, “Wilmer Ray Burks, ya an’ yer sister Elizabeth Irene, git over here. We ain’t so poor ya havta beg fer handouts. Yer Daddy’ll feed ya tomorrow mornin’. Evenin’ for shore.” She pulls both kids up the hill.
Mr. Flat Hat says to Elva, “I’ll take that stew, ma’am. It’d cook just fine at my place.”
“You’d steal from a family with a sick momma?”
“Ain’t my momma who’s sick. Mine died a year ago, Girly.”
Elva whispers, “Hamus, get the rest of the groceries.” When I’m back with two bags, she says to Flat Hat, “You look like a leader. Take these. See everyone a share. And leave these folks alone.”
He grabs the sacks. “Ya got it, Pretty Girl.” He eyes me up and down. “Think a scarred-up banjo player who plays music with a darkie can keep me from takin’ ya if I want?”
“You recognize him, huh? Do something stupid and he’ll put it on the radio. Fast. The sheriff’ll come and clear this place out. You don’t want that. You got grub. Now, move on.”
Flat Hat gives her a long look, then turns. The mob follows him mebbe twenty yards up the hill. Willard, the oldest boy, asks, “When didja say that stew’d be ready, ma’am?”
“Anytime now,” Elva says; “Anytime.”
Me and her walk past the gang. Flat Hat and a man with a baseball bat jaw. Bat Man taps the ground with his bat. “Feelin’ froggy, Humphrey? Jump. I’ll beat ya shitless.”
Flat Hat says, “I didn’t say cut ya out. I said, cut my brother and his’n in.”
“Same thing.” We follow the path to where it forks, and look back. The lean-to is a dark blob through the smoke that’s settled like fog below us. The men black shadows.
Elva says, “Who’re we fooling? Our boys won’t get one mouthful of that stew. It’ll be stolen before we’re up the hill.”
We wind our way through the tomb stones, cross the street in front of the store where we met the boys. A man in overalls and shock hat stops us, “Know where an honest man can get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work?”
Elva says, “No. Sure wish I did.”
I reckon that’s as good a answer as you can expect from a Soup Jockey and a banjo player. Now, mebbe we can go tend to Abe and his needs.