KristinLWare_BranchingOut_StoryBoyThis is sixth grade.  We’re in that dim little hallway outside the closet-sized room where they sell popsicles during recess.  The big boys are teasing me, but it’s friendly bullying that I don’t mind.  They’re asking me leading questions.  They just want to get me started.

Okay, I’m eleven years old, very hormonal, both smart and ignorant, full of myself, crazy for attention and admiration.  It’s 1953.  We’ve just gotten TV at our house—two channels—and I’ve watched George Gobel, an especially likeable stand-up comedian.  I’ve seen Jerry Lewis movies—I’ve even seen the Francis-the-Talking-Mule movies.  Also my grandfather is a loquacious man who loves talking about the old characters in town.  Old men walk up to his house just to sit around listening to him spin his yarns.  So even though I can’t name it, have little understanding of it, and don’t know what will come of it, I have precedents for what I’m about to do.

You ever get a whiff of Crow Jim KingThat’s a man killed a little girl one time with just how he smelled.  Walked up beside her and stood there and made her heart stop.  Poor little thing.  He said he didn’t mean to do it.  Said he had witnesses who’d swear he never touched her.  Little Stoots girl, lived out on Blue Clay Ridge this side of Fort Chiswell.  Had a hare lip.

The big boys still have their grins hanging on their faces, but they’ve shut up their teasing.  I’ve got their attention, and I can keep it as long as I don’t stop.

I’m not my grandfather.  His tales are rehearsed—he tells the same ones again and again—whereas I’m new to this oral thing.  I have to figure out how to tell my stories while they’re tumbling out of my mouth.  Also, my grandfather’s tales may be exaggerated, but I’m pretty certain they’re mostly the truth.  He loves—and has absorbed—the kind of local history that’s generated by Ivanhoe, Virginia—the violent, droll, quirky, and unpredictable plots of daily life.  The idea of making something up—as necessity dictates to me because I don’t, as he’d put it, know a damn thing—would offend him.

But we take the same starting point.  Crow Jim King is well known by my grandfather.  He’s a part-time hired man—not the first person my grandfather signs on for work, but somebody who’s always available for his late summer farming crew.  My grandfather delights in teasing Crow Jim by bringing up some of the old tales—the adventures and mishaps of Crow Jim on his drinking binges.  From being around him when he works for my grandfather, I know Crow Jim pretty well.  Also he’s the crow-like old coot who had my paper route before I took it on.  He “broke me in,” went with me my first couple of mornings to show me the singular ways each customer prefers to have The Roanoke Times delivered to a porch, box, shelf, or fence slot.  Crow Jim has even demonstrated to me how one discharges snot from one’s nostrils on chilly mornings.  Furthermore, I’m acquainted with Crow Jim’s legendary body odor.  For poor people in our rural area, bathing and dental hygiene are luxuries, and Crow Jim is the poorest person I know.  Plus he’s a heavy smoker of his own hand-rolled Prince Albert cigarettes and his breath has taught me to keep my distance.  I’ve got enough to go on.

Little girl probably never knew what hit her.  She was standing there.  This shabby man in an old black hat comes up beside her—doesn’t even look at her or say hello.  Just sort of settles in beside her there at the door of Price’s store where she’s waiting for her mother to come out.  All of a sudden she smells something she thinks could be the inside of a bear or a whale.  She gets dizzy.  Her eyes roll up inside her head.  She falls down. 

James Newman snickers, and Bernard Burchett snorts, but the other two big boys aren’t amused.  They’re giving me their mean slitted eyes that say I’d better not stop there.

She’s buried up there in the Church of God cemetery.  You can go up there and see for yourself.  Look for Iris Stoots on the stone. 

I shake my head sadly.  This is what they want.  Stinked her to death, I murmur.  Their faces tell me I should stop now.

David Huddle’s seventh book of poems, Black Snake at the Family Reunion, will appear from LSU Press sometime in the future.  He’s also the author of six books of short fiction, two novels, and a book of essays, The Writing Habit.  He teaches at Hollins University and has work in recent or forthcoming issues of Green Mountains Review, The New Yorker, Appalachian Heritage, and the online fiction issue of The American Scholar.

Photo by Kristin L. Ware