Bootleggers’ Legacy, part 4

George wobbled slightly as he entered the diner. Belle, who had been watching for him, came out from behind the counter.

“Well, come on in and sit down, Mr. George! I jes’ got yer table all cleaned off and ready-like. You got what you said you was gonna bring me?”

George allowed himself to be led to his favorite table. His morning coffee had been liberally doctored with ‘shine, and he was feeling in love with the world. His tongue felt a little loose, too. Grinning goofily at Belle, he said, “I shore do, Miz Belle! I got it right here in my pocket.” He fished around in one side pocket of his overalls and came out with his old beat-up flask. “Naw, not that’un,” he said thoughtfully, reaching for the other pocket. From that one, he pulled a shiny, new flask. “This’un’s fer you, Miz Belle.” He handed it to her, and she grabbed it and whisked it out of sight into her apron pocket.

“You gon’ hafta learn to be more… more… You jes’ can’t be lettin’ jes’ anybody see, Mr. George! I heard tell, from some o’ them folks what come through here from Shreveport, that them revenuers from down Baton Rouge way been pokin’ around up here lately,” she scolded. She slipped a dollar bill into a napkin and handed it to him.

“Aw, Belle, ain’t nobody else in here ‘cep you ‘n’ me!” He started to tuck the napkin into his pocket, then stopped and brought it to his nose. “Hoo-wee, I better run this to th’ bank ‘stead o’ takin’ it home! Lispeth’ll have a conniption iffen I come home smellin’ like yore perfume!”

Belle flounced indignantly. “It ain’t that strong, and ‘sides, ain’t gotta be nobody else in here fer somebody t’see you!” She gestured toward the filthy windows that overlooked the street.

George snorted. “Hadn’t nobody been able t’see in them windows since 1904!” He took a bold sip out of his flask to show her how sure he was no one could see him. Sniffing first the flask then the air around him, he made a sour face. “And it is that strong, you drown out th’ smell o’ my whiskey!”

Belle huffed and stormed off into the kitchen. As if on cue, the front door swung open. A flood of bright light and pollen preceded a grizzled old man into the diner. Jim Folson flung his hat at one of the hooks by the door, never looking back to see it sail to the floor. His eyes locked onto George. “Say, there, George, you doin’ alright today?”

There was an odd pitch to his voice that George noticed, but immediately dismissed. He half-stood and touched the top of his head. “Doin’ jes’ fine, Mr. Folson, sir, howsabout y’self?” There was only a fifteen year age difference between the two men, but Jim Folson had been grown and married by the time George learned to talk, so he had always been “Mr. Folson.”

Jim’s gait seemed to stutter a bit as he walked to George’s table. He stood there awkwardly for a moment before George realized he was waiting to be invited to sit down. “Have a seat, iffen y’ hank’rin’ fer one, Mr. Folson.” The older man looked around quickly and pulled out a chair. His hands twitched nervously on the table and George noticed he was sweating, despite the mild spring air.

“George, I was… well, I was wonderin’ if maybe, I mean, if you can, could you… ah, could I get a pint o’ them corn squeezin’s folks been sayin’ you have?”

George frowned. “Now, who’s been sayin’ I got anything like that?”

Jim glanced around again, this time with a somewhat frantic air. “Jes’ folks, George, now, y’got any, or not?”

“Not with me, Mr. Folson,” George sighed. “I gotta run home here in a little bit to take Lispeth some sugar ‘n’ flour, an’ I’ll pick you up a pint whilst I’m there. Now, it’s a dollar a pint. You brang a dollar an’ meet me ’round back o’ here at two o’clock, a’ight?”

A look of immense relief coupled with guilt crossed Jim’s face. George misinterpreted the expression entirely. “Aw, now, Jim, ain’t nuthin’ wrong with a bit o’ th’ drink here ‘n’ there. It’s that crazy law what’s wrong. Don’t you worry none, we’ll get ya fixed right up an’ ain’t nobody gon’ be none th’ wiser.”

Jim nodded, then stood up so fast he nearly knocked over his chair and made a beeline for the door, leaving his hat where it had landed in the floor. Belle emerged from the kitchen just in time to see him push twice on the door, remember it opened inward, jerk it open and scurry out. She aimed a quizzical look George’s direction, got a shrug in response, and rolled her eyes.

That afternoon at two, when George rounded the corner of the diner, two men in snake boots and dark dungarees were waiting for him instead of Jim Folson. George turned and tried to run, but the men were faster than he was. They tackled him just as Belle heard the commotion and stuck her head out the diner’s back door. “Belle!” He yelled when he saw her. “Get Junior! Tell ‘im they got me! Th’ revenuers got me!”

Before Belle could answer, the two men hustled George into a wagon and its driver shouted to the team of horses pulling it and took off.

Belle stood there open-mouthed at the corner of the diner for several seconds, watching the cloud of dust disappear down the road. Finally, she turned and walked slowly back toward the door. A movement in the shadows at the end of the alley stopped her in her tracks.

“Who’s there?”

“Just me, Belle.” Jim Folson stepped out into the dusty sunlight. He twisted a grimy kerchief back and forth in his hands and refused to meet Belle’s eye. Belle might never have done well in school or had any real ambitions, but she was a savvy old bird, and in a flash she realized what he was doing there.

“Why, James Mason Folson! Did you have anything to do with them revenuers grabbin’ George?” Jim didn’t answer immediately and Belle stomped her foot hard. “You sorry, no-good, side-windin’, lily-livered, backstabbin’ sneak of a worthless mule’s tit! You jes ’wait ’til Junior finds out – no, you wait til Lispeth finds out! There won’t be nothin’ left for you t’ do ‘sides sneak outta town and hope she don’t catch up with yore flea-bitten hide!” She proceeded to stomp inside the diner and slam the door, then opened it again long enough to yell, “And don’t you even think of steppin’ foot back in this here diner again! Ever!” She slammed the door again, leaving old Jim to slink off home.

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Bootleggers’ Legacy, part 3

Elisha scowled at the jug of clear liquid George pulled from under the drip-spout. Gingerly, he raised it to his nose and sniffed. George guffawed loudly and slapped his thigh as shock, revulsion, and amazement vied for dominance of Elisha’s face. “Aw, ‘Lisha, them’s jes th’ singlin’s! Gotta run it back through again ‘fore it’s done!”

Elisha wasn’t sure if his shivering was the result of the damp, cold early December weather or of the powerful odor of the “singlings.” Either way, he was ready to be back in front of his fireplace. “How long’ll that take?” His voice came out a hoarse growl escorted by a cloud of his breath’s steam.

“Have a batch done by mornin’, I reckon,” George said. He gestured at the other still, where the low fire generated barely enough heat to warm the ankles of a man standing next to it. “This’un’s working through its second run now. You got them jars?”

Elisha nodded. “Omer’s gon’ bring ’em up when he gets done stringing that east fence.” With that, he turned and hurried back down the path home.

That first batch filled a dozen quart jars: six for Elisha and six for George. By the time the second batch was ready, George had “sampled” one whole quart and gave another away to a friend, while Elisha’s six jars sat quietly in his springhouse. The second batch yielded another six jars apiece, and before Prohibition went into effect that January, Elisha had thirty quarts of the clear liquid stashed away. George had sold twelve of his jars around town, sipped his way through eight, and given away another four. A meager six quarts comprised his entire stock.

On a crisp, clear morning in February, Elisha and Omer rose before the sun and, under cover of the pre-dawn gloom, loaded fifty quarts of White Lightning into a hidden compartment in the back of Elisha’s old Model A Ford. By sunrise, they had left Bienville Parish behind and were well on their way to Columbia.

A week earlier, Elisha had made the same trip carrying only a single jar of corn squeezin’s. In Columbia, he had looked up an old school friend of his and George’s who ran a saloon. Since January, Jack had taken his business “underground,” converting the building’s front to a small feed and seed store. In the back, business as usual continued unabated — in fact, with all the other saloons in town closed, business for Jack was booming. What he needed, he told Elisha, was a source of high-quality liquor. When he opened the jar Elisha presented and took a whiff of the contents, a broad grin spread across his face.

“More where this came from?” Jack had asked. Elisha assured him there was, and in minutes a bargain had been struck. Both men spat into their right hand and the deal was sealed with a handshake. Now, Elisha was about to make good on his end of the arrangement for the first time.

It was nearing noon when the Model A rattled to a stop in the alley behind Jack Horton’s Feed ‘n’ Seed Shop. The drive had taken longer than it ordinarily would, in part because Elisha was being careful not to draw attention and in part due to the fragile nature of their cargo.

Jack met them outside the back door. When Elisha pulled the panel covering the hidden stash, Jack’s eyes lit up. “Looks to be…” he counted rows and made a quick calculation. “Fifty quarts! Well, I’ll be a mule’s ankle! You want that hunnert dollars in gold? Or notes?” The tone of Jack’s voice made it clear he would rather pay in notes. When he heard the amount, Omer’s eyes bugged and he stared at Jack with his mouth open.

“Gold, Jack, and put your tongue back in your head, boy,” Elisha snapped at Omer.

Jack shrugged resignedly and turned to go inside the building. Over his shoulder, he called out, “He’p yore Daddy unload, Omer, don’t jes’ stand there like a bump on a log!”

Omer snapped out of his stunned attitude and grabbed a flat of a dozen jars. Elisha glanced around quickly. Seeing no one else in the alley, he picked up another flat and followed Jack inside, with Omer trailing behind. By the time all the jars were inside, Jack had re-emerged from the storefront carrying a small oilcloth package. He handed it to Elisha, who hefted it and nodded in satisfaction.

“Thank ya kindly, Jack. We’ll be back in a month with another load, Good Lord willing and th’ crick don’ rise.” He shook his friend’s hand and slapped him on the shoulder. He looked at Omer, then gave Jack a wink and a sly grin. “Say, Jack, you reckon I oughta let the boy drive home?”

Jack chuckled at the excitement on the young man’s face. “Sure, ‘Lisha, I think that’s a right fine idea!”

Elisha nodded at Omer and walked around to the passenger’s side of the car. “You know how to work the crank, right, Son?”

In response, Omer enthusiastically grabbed the crank handle and started winding. When the engine roared to life, he leapt in next to his father and proudly put his hands on the wheel.

Elisha managed to keep a straight face as Omer put it in gear and tried to back out of the alley. Jack, on the other hand, did not. For several seconds he roared with laughter at the confused look on Omer’s face. Finally, taking pity on him, Jack held up his hand for the boy to wait. Puzzled, Omer let off the gas. When he did, Jack reached under the rear wheel and pulled out the wheel chock. Omer’s face flamed red, but he had the good grace to smile and thank Jack.

They hadn’t hit the edge of town before Omer let out a whoop. “A hunnert dollars!! In gold!! Hoo-wee! And again next month? You think we can make that much whiskey again by then?”

Elisha gave his son a stern look. “Boy, you gotta remember to keep this secret. No goin’ on, gettin’ all excited and runnin’ your mouth. If Patty wants to know where th’ money come from, you tell that woman to mind her place and stay outta men’s bidness. Y’hear?”

Omer nodded solemnly. “Yes, Daddy. Don’t worry none ’bout Patty. If it’s not about the baby comin’, it don’t pass her mind, these days.” He paused, then went on, “But d’ya really think we can produce another fifty jars in a month?”

Elisha looked thoughtful and didn’t answer. Omer kept driving and waited for his father to process the figuring he was obviously working through. A couple of miles later, Elisha spoke. “Well, if we’re t’have fifty jars, that means producin’ a hunnert — fifty for us, fifty for George and Junior. If you and Junior stay busy and don’t slack on makin’ the mash, y’all can get two quarts a day outta each still. At that pace, we oughta be able to have sixty jars next month. But fifty’s all I’m askin’.” Anything past that y’all make, and the rest is yours t’ sell. But – and I’m only gon’ say this one time – first time I catch you with liquor on your breath, your part in this is done. I’d rather run the still m’self and have you breakin’ up ground for spring plantin’ than have my son be a drunk. Understood?”

Omer didn’t hesitate. “Yessir. I ain’t got no interest in drinkin’ that stuff, Daddy. I done seen what folks think o’ Mr. George. I don’t wanna have ’em look at me like they look at him.”

Elisha nodded. “Good boy. Now, for this run, most o’ th’ gold goes into the farm. We buy seed and equipment and fertilizer and such. Next run, we’ll see about buyin’ some nice things for th’ womenfolk. I’m gon’ give you a little piece o’ this…” and here, he patted his pocket, “but I want you t’ put it back and not spend it.”

The sun was flirting with the tops of the trees as they pulled back into Elisha’s place. Omer remembered the wheel chock this time and set the Model A facing the road. Omer followed Elisha inside, where Ada and a very pregnant Patty were busily preparing supper. Elisha slipped off into his and Ada’s bedroom, where he weighed the gold to make sure Jack had been square with him. Satisfied, he pinched out a small nugget and a few grains which he secreted in an empty shotgun shell. After placing the “dummy” shell in a box of real shells, he carried the box out to Omer.

“Here’s them shells for your Winchester, like we talked about.” He gave Omer a pointed look, which, to the boy’s credit, he understood.

“Thank ya, Daddy. I’ll put ’em up for now, just like you said.”

Elisha turned to his daughter-in-law and raised an eyebrow at her distended belly. “How many young’uns you reckon you got in there? Bound to be two or three!”

Patty smiled and hugged him awkwardly. “Jes’ one, I think, Mr. ‘Lisha. And I think it’s a boy. Come April, you’ll have yoreself a grandson!”

Elisha settled himself into his big chair and smiled contentedly. “That’s mighty fine, Patty, mighty fine indeed.”

Breedism is Bigotry

My husband and I breed American Pit Bull Terriers. We love our big, gentle babies, and treat them like our children. They sleep in the bed with us at night. They are wonderful creatures who bring light into our lives. Yet, every day, we have to face the reality that people all around the world see our precious pups as “bad dogs” for no reason other than their breed.

Hatred of a group of entities because of their parentage, origin, or heritage is nothing new. It is part of the base nature of humans to look askance at anything unfamiliar or not fully understood. It is a sad and shameful truth of American history that our Constitution declared slaves to be only valued as three-fifths of a person. A mere 160 years ago, the United States Supreme Court held, “[A] negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves” whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen. Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).

Since those unenlightened days, cultures around the world have developed beyond such ignorance. Fortunately, the United States has been at the forefront of the march toward equality for all people, despite the continued bigotry of some members of our society. We have successfully swung the pendulum to the other side, such that, now, bigotry and racism are widely recognized as the hateful ignorance they embody.

Or have we?

In a day and age when intolerance of a person because of what color they are, or who their parents are, or from what religious or philosophical background they hail, has become anathema, it is simply galling to me that there are people running around trying to get a certain group of dogs “banned” (read: these foaming-at-the-mouth haters want all dogs in the category unilaterally and mercilessly slaughtered, annihilated, not just oppressed or abused) simply because of their breed. What galls me even further is that this vocal minority is gaining followers instead of being recognized as the hate group they are.

That’s right, hate group. To the same extent as the KKK, BLM, Antifa, and other race-specific groups have been correctly dubbed “hate groups,” the people who cry out for mass genocide of American Pit Bull Terriers comprise a hate group. They are as guilty of blind, ignorant bigotry as those who claim one race of people is superior to another.

An individual is an individual, whether human or animal. No individual should ever bear on their single set of shoulders the burden of stereotypes based on heritage. A black man should not have his character pre-judged by any other person based strictly on the color of his skin. A white woman should not have to deal with people pre-judging her based solely on her race or gender. A person of mixed racial heritage should never have to face others’ scorn because of his genetics. By the exact same token, no dog should ever have to fear death or oppression at the hands of those who hate him because he is a pit bull – or because he is any other breed, for that matter.

Bigotry is wrong. Fundamentally, morally, and, for humans, even legally wrong. Yet, for dogs, bigotry and breedism is on the rise, not the decline, and all because of a few hateful and ignorant souls. Those who would take a stand against bigotry in any form should sit up and take note, then take action.

If you stand against bigotry and hatred, the new front in the war to defeat such ignorance is that of breedism. “Breedism is bigotry!” This should be the battle cry of all those who believe in equality and justice for all.

Bootleggers’ Legacy, part 2

Elisha took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with a grubby handkerchief. The sun was high overhead, and the early October heat was as stifling as it had been in August. It had been a productive morning. Pieces of the old fort now lay neatly stacked at the edge of the little clearing, and atop the small rise where it had once stood was a clean, bare spot. Elisha dropped the head of his sledgehammer to the ground and leaned on its handle, surveying the results of his work with a look of satisfaction. He and George had spent a lot of time here, as boys. Many a deer, squirrel, and rabbit had landed in stew pots as a result of their time in these woods.

A rattling, clattering noise behind him shook Elisha out of his reverie. Turning toward the sound, he saw George lumbering up the trail towards him, pulling an old, beat-up mule wagon. The wagon was loaded down with two huge crawfish pots, a coil of copper tubing, and what appeared to be an old brass bedframe.

“Hoo-wee!” George looked around the clearing in amazement. “You done gone and got it all set t’ rights!”

Elisha scowled. “Yeah, well, been out here all morning. Thought you’d’a been here already.”

“Took some doin’ t’ talk Lispeth outta her good crawfish pot. Had t’ promise her I’d get her one o’ them newfangled ”namel’ ones outta th’ Sears and Roebuck catalog.” George rolled his eyes as if his sweet, long-suffering wife were one of the most unreasonable creatures he’d ever met. Truth was – and everybody in town knew it – Lispeth Simmons put up with more grief from George than any less patient woman would have.

“Well, let’s get started.” Elisha slung the sledgehammer over his shoulder and helped George pull the wagon to the top of the rise.

It was well-nigh dark by the time they finished building the twin stills. Neither looked particularly sturdy, but George swore they would work. “Now, we just need us some corn,” he announced, grinning.

Elisha nodded solemnly. “Like we talked about, we’ll use a batch o’ my seed corn and what you got left from your fall crop to test ’em out. I got to go to Jonesboro tomorrow, but we’n get started Wednesday. You sure you know how to do this?”

George cocked his head to one side and scratched his salt-and-pepper beard. “Well, I seen it done. My pappy’s brother – ‘member Uncle Tommy? – he ran a still down Natchitoches way. Out b’hind his house. I watched him do it a bunch o’ times.” He paused and reached for his flask. Uncapping it, he closed one eye and peered hopefully into it. By the disgusted look that settled across his face, Elisha figured the thing must be empty. Unsurprising, given how many trips out of George’s pocket it had made that afternoon. Elisha just hoped George could stay sober long enough to figure out how to run the still, or the whole plan might fall apart.

Early Wednesday morning, Elisha and his son Omer carried four fifty-pound sacks of seed corn to the stills. The Missuses Harrison – Elisha’s wife Ada and Omer’s wife Patty – were left with the impression their husbands were setting up feeding spots at their deer stands. As Elisha explained to Omer, “If you want something kept secret, you don’t tell the womenfolk.”

Arriving at the little clearing where the stills stood, father and son were surprised to find George already there, apparently sober. He had his old mule wagon loaded down with three barrels of freshly cut corn. Elisha and Omer let their bags slide to the ground next to the wagon.

“Now, George, you remember our deal, right?” Elisha nodded to Omer and continued, “We gonna get it all said and settled here with Omer to witness. It’s my land, your materials, and both our corn goin’ into this. We work it equal-like, and split all the liquor fiddy-fiddy, right?”

George screwed his face up into a deeply offended expression. “Well, now, you know I’m a’gon honor our agreement, ‘Lisha. Didn’t hafta bring the boy with you for that.” He grabbed a half-barrel of corn off the wagon and dumped its contents into the two big pots. “Here, Omer, take this down to th’ crick and bring it back fulla water.”

Omer looked at his father. Elisha nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Omer took the barrel and trudged off toward the creek. As soon as he was out of earshot, George wheeled on Elisha. “You don’ trust me after all these years? Have I ever lied to you?”

Elisha threw his arm around his childhood friend’s shoulder. “Just for show, George. The boy’s not worth his salt as a farmer. I told his mama I’d find something for him to do. He’ll be more like’ to take all this serious-like iffen he thinks he’s…” Elisha trailed off, as if he were searching for a word, and George nodded wisely and winked.

“Well, seein’ you put it like that, I reckon maybe we can use ‘im.”

When Omer returned with the water, he set it down by the wagon and looked expectantly at the older men. Elisha peered at the water, the corn, and the stills, then at George. “Well? Whadda we do now?”

George took on a knowledgeable air and said, “First, we gotta make us a mash. Gotta soak all this corn for a while, then mash it up.” He took a dented metal bucket and started scooping water into the barrels of corn. “You ain’t got nothing to soak yours in, so we’ll jes’ start with mine.”

Omer and Elisha exchanged glances and shrugged. “How long’s that take?” Omer asked.

George thought for a minute, then answered, “Til it sprouts, boy, til it sprouts. I dunno, ’bout eight, ten days.” He continued ladling water into the barrels until all the corn was covered. “I reckon I’ll jes’ leave the wagon here fer now. Lispeth ain’t gon’ notice.” He cocked his head to the side. “Say, y’all ain’t told Ada ‘n’ Patty ’bout all this, have ye?”

Elisha shook his head firmly. “Naw,” he said, “Women gossip. Can’t have folks knowin’ ’bout this place. Me, you, and Omer, here, ‘s the only ones knowing. Figger maybe you might wanna bring Junior in, just so’s we can have the help.”

George nodded, then squinted at the sky. “Well, guess I better get on back to th’ house. Lispeth thinks I’m huntin’ and if I’m gone much longer she gon’ ‘cuse me o’ drinkin.'” He shook his head as if such an accusation would be wildly outlandish. Omer turned his back to hide his amusement.

Elisha clapped George on the back. “Yep. We best be heading home, too. Meet up here next Friday morning?”

George nodded. “Yup.” He turned and shuffled off toward the path to his house. Elisha and Omer started back home, too.

On the path, they walked in silence a ways. Omer finally spoke. “Daddy? You think that old drunk knows what he’s doing?”

Elisha did not answer until the back of his house was in view and they could smell Ada’s famous fried cornbread. Keeping his eyes fixed on the back door, he answered quietly, “I sure hope so, son, I sure hope so.”

Bootleggers’ Legacy, part 1

Elisha and George huddled together over the newspaper from Shreveport. It was several weeks old and smudged from dozens of fingers running across the pages, but the words of the headline were still unmistakable: PROHIBITION TO START IN JANUARY. George shook his head and took a swig from his flask. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he said, “Well, I reckon we got us three more months to stock up. That dadgum Congress and this fool Volstead, whoever he is. Parson says it ain’t gon’ be agin’ the law to have liquor, but ain’t nobody gon’ be able to sell it, legal-wise, nohow.”

Elisha sat back and pulled his pipe from the bib of his overalls. His expression was thoughtful as he went through the ritual of painstakingly filling the bowl from a crumpled bag of tobacco he produced from the depths of a hip pocket. Preparations made, he patted himself down for matches and found none. “Belle!” At his bellow, the diner’s only waitress poked her head out of the kitchen.

“Whatcha need, sugar?” Her sun-leathered skin was heavily powdered and Elisha was fairly certain her brassy orange hair color was not the shade God had given her.

“Matches!” Elisha was perfectly capable of putting together actual sentences, but when he was deep in thought, he tended to communicate in short grunts and growls.

Belle sashayed over to their table, the heavy floral scent of her cheap perfume marching before her like an advancing army. She reached into her apron and held up a book of matches. Waving them back and forth in front of Elisha, she simpered, “Are these what you was wanting, hon?” Elisha grabbed the matches and growled. Belle shook her head and laughed. “You’re welcome, you old coot!”

As she disappeared back into the kitchen, George looked around the otherwise empty diner. Elisha tucked the stem of the pipe between his lips and gripped it with his teeth. He carefully struck a match and lowered it to the tobacco. He gave another grunt, this time of satisfaction, as plumes of smoke began to billow out on either side of the pipe.

He puffed away in silence for a few minutes. George, long accustomed to Elisha’s thoughtful brooding, looked back at the newspaper article again, squinting at the smudged text. He gave it up after a while and let his eyes roam around the diner. Dusty photographs of people no one remembered adorned the walls. A veneer of grease and smoke coated the windows overlooking the street. Once-shiny tiles covered the bar, now chipped and faded and dull.

Finally, Elisha broke the silence. “I got that spot back in the woods – y’know, where we used to have our fort?”

George grinned. “I ‘member that fort! You stole the nails we used t’ build it out of ol’ man McDunnow’s barn!”

Elisha chuckled at the memory. “Yeah. He was pipin’ mad when he found that box o’ nails gone. Was a three-dollar box of nails! He never did find out it was me, neither. Rest his soul.” Elisha touched the top of his head as if to lift his hat, which hung on a hook by the door. Then his face turned serious again. “You got the makin’s of a still?”

George cocked his head to the side. “Well, I ‘spect maybe I do. You thinkin’ of breakin’ the law?”

Elisha stood up and brushed the crumbs from his lap. “You just see if you got what we need.” He dug in his pocket and discovered his tobacco, three peppermints, and a toothpick before two dusty dimes and a nickel emerged. At the end of the bar, he pounded his fist, sending two loose tiles skittering to the floor. Belle stuck her head out again and saw Elisha reaching for his hat. Walking to the register, she stumbled a bit, and Elisha caught a whiff of whiskey fighting its way through the perfume. When she saw the coins Elisha placed in her outstretched hand, her eyes widened.

“A nickel tip? Why, ain’t you in a right generous mood, Mr. Elisha?”

Elisha let out a sound that was neither grunt nor cough nor laugh but somehow a combination of all three and stalked out into the early fall’s slanting afternoon sun.

Witch burning

“She’s a witch, man, I’m telling you!”

Mike looked warily at his cousin. Jason seemed really worked up about the whole thing. His eyes were bulging and Mike could see beads of sweat forming over Jason’s lip.

Mike looked away and squinted up toward the stoplight. He blocked the late afternoon sun with his hand so he could see the light change.“Alright, alright, so she’s a witch. So what?” He tried to make his voice as calm and soothing as possible.

“We gotta burn her, man, like at the stake!” Jason’s eyes were starting to take on a maniacal gleam.

Mike was stunned. “What?!? Are you crazy? Boy, you done lost your damn mind!” The light turned green and he stomped on his old pickup’s gas. As the truck dove into the intersection, a late-model SUV shot across its path, the driver apparently oblivious to the light he’d just run. Mike jammed both feet down hard on his brake pedal and cut the wheel, missing the SUV by a hair. Horns erupted from every direction. When they came to a stop, Mike glanced over at Jason. His eyes had bulged even further out of his head and his mouth was a round “O” of terror. Mike ventured a look around. Horns were still blaring and traffic at the intersection was at a halt. Half-dazed, he slowly released the brake and crept forward. Traffic resumed behind him as if nothing had happened.

Neither of the boys spoke. Mike pulled into the first available parking lot and dropped the truck into park. They sat in silence for a few moments, then Jason muttered, “Witch. Gotta burn witches.”

Mike lost his cool completely. “We just almost died!! What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?” He slammed his fists on the steering wheel as he yelled. His hands were shaking as he reached for the crumpled cigarette pack on the dashboard. Once he had a smoke in his mouth, he started fumbling for a lighter. “Gimme a light,” he growled. Jason just stared out the window. Mike cuffed him on the shoulder. “C’mon, man, gimme a light.” Jason slowly reached into his pocket and withdrew a Bic.

Mike lit his cigarette and took a long, calming drag. A sidelong glance at Jason told him the conversation wasn’t over. He blew out a long stream of smoke and took the plunge. “Ok, why do you think she’s a witch?” He pulled out his phone and typed a hasty, “Runnin late,” to Kim. When he set his phone down, he turned and gave his cousin his full attention.

Nobody really knew what exactly was wrong with Jason. As a child, he tested just high enough to stay out of Special Ed classes, and struggled just to keep a D average. Always big for his age, the fact he failed several grades only made him stick out like a sore thumb among his smaller classmates, a fact about which the other children tormented him daily. He hated everything about school, and finally dropped out of the ninth grade a few months before his eighteenth birthday. Some believed he was mildly retarded; others maintained he was terminally lazy. Mike, who, along with their cousin Chuck, spent more time with Jason than anyone else, knew he was somewhat slow-witted and gullible, but once he got an idea in his head it stuck with the tenacity of super glue. If Jason was really convinced Kim was a witch and that burning her was the thing to do, it was going to be hard to convince him otherwise.

“She got cats. Black ones. And there’s an upside down horseshoe over her door. She got all them candles. And I seen a book of spells on top of her TV. She’s a witch.” Jason’s voice was calmer now, but had a stubborn edge to it.

“Look, man, even if she is a witch, it’s just business. She’s got the best stuff for the best price, and she’s just down the road. What business of ours is it what her religion is?” As he mentioned “stuff,” Mike’s anxiousness to get this conversation over with and get to Kim’s to make the pickup mounted. He drew another long puff on his smoke.

“S’posed to burn witches.” Jason was starting to get agitated again.

“Who told you that?” Mike was exasperated. He suspected he knew who had been talking to Jason about Kim, and it infuriated him. “It was Ashley, wasn’t it?” Jason’s mouth clamped shut and his chin jutted out rebelliously. Mike wiped his hand down his face in frustration. “Dude, you know you can’t be listening to her! You know she lies about everything! She was just trying to start trouble! Look, burning witches was something a bunch of ignorant, superstitious people did a long time ago. You go doing something like that today and you gonna go to prison for the rest of your life!” He heard his voice rising and practically squeaked out the last word. He took a deep breath and tried again. “Have I ever led you wrong?” Jason cocked his head to the side and started to answer, but Mike interrupted before he could speak. “On purpose?” He clarified. Jason shook his head. “And Ashley has, hasn’t she? She lied to you about that money she borrowed, didn’t she?” Jason nodded miserably. “She’s tried to get you in trouble, too, hasn’t she? Remember when she told Aunt Peg you stole money from Grandma’s purse?” Jason’s head fell further and his nod was even slower this time. “So, dude, you can’t be believing anything and everything she tells you! Even if Kim is a witch, it’s not our business or our job to do anything about it, ok? We just buy from her, that’s all.”

Jason sat for a moment with his head down. He appeared to be deep in thought. Finally, he lifted his head and looked at Mike and smiled. “Ok,” he said.

Mike tried to put the truck in gear and realized it had died. He turned the key and the ancient engine rumbled to life. Easing out into traffic, Mike asked, “So, we cool?”

Jason just kept smiling in that blissfully blank way he had and said, “Yeah.”

They came to the outskirts of town and turned down a narrow, roughly-paved road. Old trees lined either side of the lane, their branches forming a gloomy tunnel that led to Kim’s lonely little house. When they pulled into Kim’s driveway, Mike groaned. There, parked between Kim’s beat-up Nissan and Chuck’s Jeep was Ashley’s bright green Mustang. He pulled in behind the Nissan and parked. As he and Jason walked toward the side door, one of Kim’s many cats – a black one – darted across the walkway. Mike looked up from noticing the cat and caught sight of the upside down horseshoe over the door. A chill rippled up his neck even as he scornfully dismissed the sudden fear that shot through his mind. He looked over his shoulder. Jason’s eyes were starting to bulge again and he was sweating profusely despite the cool fall air. Mike shook himself and let out a nervous laugh. “We just need to get high, man, that’s all.” He reached up and knocked on the door.

The pungent aroma of burning incense greeted them first as the door swung inward. Kim stepped out of the gloom inside wearing a long black dress with a wide, flowing skirt. “Boo!” She stared at the odd looks on their faces, then threw her head back and laughed. “You should see your faces!” She gasped between giggles. “You look like you seen a ghost! Get inside!” She ushered Mike and Jason inside to where Chuck, Ashley, and Ashley’s boyfriend Paul were sprawled out in the dark living room. Heavy curtains were drawn over the room’s only window leaving thin cracks of the sun’s last rays to draw lines in the smoke before dancing across where Ashley and Paul were tangled together on the couch. The tray of lit candles on the coffee table cast weird, dancing shadows in the hanging smoke. Chuck and Kim were sharing the love seat, so Jason perched on a barstool he dragged in from the kitchen and Mike folded himself into the big papasan chair.

Chuck relit the cylindrical pipe he was holding and passed it to Mike. Mike took a long, deep hit off it and handed it off to Jason. He held the smoke in his lungs for several seconds before exhaling through his nose. The familiar delicious tingle immediately flowed to the tips of his fingers and toes and his lips. Twin plumes of smoke emitted from his nostrils, and in the growing euphoria settling over him he thought they looked like a dragon’s breath. The pipe came around to him again and he took another satisfying hit.

Conversation in the room drifted into silence as the pipe continued to make the circle. Mike stared vacantly at the muted old console TV, trying to make sense of the fast-moving images. His gaze wandered to the top of the set, and the relaxed, comfortable fog in which his brain had been lolling parted. There, on top of the set, was a large, black, leather-bound book with odd symbols on the cover. He blinked several times trying to focus on the unfamiliar characters. He turned to look at Kim and was startled to see her staring at him, a curious look on her face. Something about her gaze disturbed Mike and he looked away quickly.

Ashley must have seen him looking at the book, too, because she suddenly broke the silence. “Hey, Kim, what’s that book on top of the TV?” Her voice was light and casual but there was a derisive undertone to it.

Kim arched one eyebrow before she answered. “It’s Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law,” she said, her icy tone daring Ashley to inquire further.

Paul utterly failed to notice the growing tension between the girls. He piped up from his corner of the couch, “So, what, are you like a devil worshipper or something?” He sounded genuinely curious.

Without taking her mocking eyes off Kim, Ashley answered, “No, silly, she’s a witch. Isn’t that right, Kim?”

Kim started to stand, but Chuck laid his hand on her leg. “Just ignore her, doll. She’s not worth it.” Kim’s eyes dropped to the meaty paw on her thigh and she glared icicles at its owner. Chuck got the picture and withdrew his hand sullenly.

Kim leaned forward and looked hard at Ashley. “Yeah. I’m a witch. Got a problem with that?”

Mike did not like the direction this was going at all. The tension was ruining his buzz. It looked like violence might erupt between the girls, and Chuck was not one to take any kind of rejection lightly. Mike wanted out of there before things escalated further. He decided to step in and try to sidetrack Kim.

“So, uh, hey, can I get like a gram? I got this thing I gotta go do.” He heard the nervousness in his voice and hoped no one else did. Jason was staring hard at Kim and he looked ready to jump in if things got rough. Mike swallowed hard as Kim’s granite gaze slid towards him.

“Yeah. Hang on, I gotta go get my scales.” Kim stood and strolled out of the room, hips swaying provocatively.

As soon as she was out of sight, Ashley whispered loudly, “Can you believe she just admitted it? Are y’all just gonna sit here and act all cool about being in a witch’s house? I mean, it’s almost Halloween! What if she turns us all into toads or something?”

Mike rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to tell Ashley to shut up, but before any sound came out Kim bellowed from the bedroom, “If anybody’s gonna get turned into a toad, it’s gonna be you, you stupid bitch!”

Ashley’s eyes widened as Kim stepped back into the living room, scales in one hand and a thin black wooden rod in the other. She set down the scales and stepped close to the end of the couch where Ashley sat. She pointed the rod at Ashley and began muttering arcane-sounding syllables.

Later, Mike was never quite sure if he had actually seen what happened next, or if it was a product of his drug-addled mind. But his eyes told him a pale blue light was beginning to emanate from the end of what he could only think of as a wand. Ashley, who had grown up scuffling with her brothers, did not hesitate. In a flash, she jumped up from the couch and punched Kim in the mouth. As soon as Kim stopped murmuring, the blue glow disappeared. Ashley hit her again before any of the guys made it to their feet and Kim fell backwards into the coffee table. Melted wax sprayed out around her and the stench of candle smoke mingled with that of scorched fabric quickly overpowered the odor of incense. The bag from which Mike’s gram was to be measured skittered across the floor and came to rest against Jason’s feet, dusting the toes of his black shoes gray. Mike stooped and grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket.

Ashley’s breath was coming hard and fast. Paul tried to sit her back down on the couch, but she jerked away from his touch. Chuck tried to help Kim stand up and got a similar response. Mike grabbed Jason’s arm and pulled him towards the door. Jason, entranced by the drama unfolding in front of him, refused to budge.

“Come on, man, we gotta go! I don’t wanna be here when the cops get here!” Mike tugged harder on Jason, but Jason outweighed him by a good sixty pounds and stood unmoved. Mike looked back at the others in time to see Kim pull herself to her feet. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, then – Kim again leveling her stick at Ashley like a gun, this time screaming her incantations, Ashley grabbing the heavy glass ashtray from the end table and smashing it across Kim’s head. With a sickening thud, Kim collapsed in the floor. Ashley stared down at her for a long moment, the others looking wildly back and forth from Ashley to Kim’s crumpled form.

Mike’s throat felt like it was lined with sandpaper. He swallowed hard. “Is she…” He couldn’t quite bring himself to finish the question, but Paul answered it anyway.

“Nah, man, she just unconscious.” Mike suspected Ashley’s boyfriend was not as calm as he sounded.

“Gotta burn witches.” Jason’s matter-of-fact declaration turned everyone his way. “Well, we gotta do somethin’,” he continued. “She wake up, ain’t gonna be no cops and jail. She gonna kill us all. Or worse.” He shuddered.

“I hate to say it, but the dummy’s right.” Paul immediately put up his hands in apology as both Mike and Chuck stepped towards him. “Sorry, sorry… but he is right. We can’t let her wake up. Even if she don’t do some witch thing to us, if she call the cops, we all end up in prison.”

“But we didn’t do anything!” Mike protested. “We was just sitting here! Ashley’s the one who hit her!”

“You really think that’s gonna matter to the cops? I’m telling you, man, she gets the law involved and we all going down!” Paul slammed his fist into his hand. “She ain’t worth no prison time. We gotta make this clean.”

“Gotta burn witches,” Jason agreed softly.

“Look, I’m out. Do whatever, but I’m out. C’mon, Jase, let’s get on up outta here.” Mike tugged on Jason’s arm again but Jason shook his head.

“Burn.” There was that crazed glint in the big man’s eyes again.

Mike glared at him in frustration for a few seconds, then grumbled, “Fine. Let Chuck drive you home. I’m out.” He turned to walk out the door, but Chuck’s voice stopped him.

“You in this, too. I seen what you put in your pocket. You leave, you leave the bag. Stay and help, we split it up.”

Mike was torn. He didn’t want to leave the bag. He didn’t want to go to jail. He didn’t want to leave Jason there. He didn’t want Kim to come to and do something horrendous to him. He didn’t want to have Chuck mad at him. Reluctantly, he turned back. He sighed. “What we gonna do?”

Paul and Ashley had disappeared into Kim’s bedroom. Chuck grinned. “I know what I’m gonna do.” He unzipped his pants. “She wouldn’t give me none before, I’m gonna take it, now.” He pushed the coffee table aside and rolled Kim onto her back. Mike looked on, sickened, but unable to summon the words to tell Chuck to stop. Jason stared, too, jaw agape. Chuck had pushed the voluminous black skirt up and straddled the inert form when he froze, peering intently down at Kim’s blank face. He looked up at Mike and Jason, and Mike thought he saw a faint shade of green creep across his cousin’s face. “She ain’t breathing, man, she ain’t breathing.” His enthusiasm for conquest seemed, among other things, to have deflated completely.

He quickly stood and was zipping his pants when Ashley and Paul reemerged from the bedroom carrying two heavy blankets. Ashley looked from him to Kim, observed the state of Kim’s dress, and rolled her eyes. Paul knelt down next to Kim and started rolling her into his blanket. Without looking up, he said, “There’s a gas can on the porch. Somebody go get it.”

Chuck looked at Mike. Mike, still unwilling to participate, looked at Jason, who lumbered out onto the porch and returned moments later carrying the red plastic jug. Paul took Ashley’s blanket from her and rolled it, too, around Kim’s limp body. Then he took the gas can from Jason and started sprinkling the blankets with it. Gasoline fumes added to the already overwhelming mixture of aromas in the room, and Mike nearly gagged.

When the can was empty, Paul set it down. “Matches.” He issued the word like a command and everyone dug in their pockets. Six lighters were produced, but no matches. Mike spotted Kim’s box of matches on the floor. Hating himself for it as he moved, he picked up the box and handed it to Paul. “Everybody take one.” Paul handed out matches to the others. Mike was last. He took his hesitantly. When everyone had a match, Paul held the strike strip out over the roll of blankets. Ashley struck her match first and dropped it. It went out as it fell and hit the soaked blankets with an ominous hiss.

Paul struck his match next. It flared to life and Paul held it for a moment as it settled into a steady flame. When he dropped it, the responding burst of ignited fumes and gasoline was instantaneous. Everyone jumped back and ran for the door. An eerie, shrill wail followed them as they ran for their vehicles. Mike was deeply grateful for the lack of neighbors as he and Jason jumped in the old truck and tore back towards town.

They had not yet turned back onto the main road when Mike’s phone started singing his text tone. He glanced at the screen long enough to see Chuck’s name and the words, “My house 9pm.”

By nine o’clock, Mike and Jason had pinched a considerable portion out of the bag and stashed it away and had worked their way through most of a fifth of whiskey. Chuck’s “house” was a converted toolshed behind their grandparents’ house, and to get to it Mike and Jason simply squeezed through the hole they had cut as boys in the fence between Mike’s parents’ backyard and their grandparents’.

They slipped into Chuck’s door to find Ashley and Paul already there. Ashley had obviously taken time to shower – her hair was still wet and she was the only one of them who didn’t smell like smoke and gas fumes.

“First things first,” Chuck demanded as soon as he saw them. “Where’s the stuff?”

Mike produced the bag from his pocket, and Paul grabbed it. “That’s not all there was!”

“Yeah, well, some of it spilled before I picked it up.” He had already planned what to say and gone over it with Jason. There wasn’t any way to go back and check, now, was there? Paul looked doubtful, but clearly he was no more keen on the idea of going back to Kim’s than anyone else.

Ashley pulled a small scale from her purse. “Got baggies?” Chuck took the three steps necessary to reach his “kitchen” and tossed her a box of fold-tops. She set to work divvying the white powder five ways.

“So, what we gonna say when the cops come asking questions?” Mike eyed the size of the five small piles and was glad he’d pinched as much as he had.

“We wasn’t there. We don’t know nothin’.” Chuck’s voice was firm. He sat down in his ratty old armchair and pulled a box from underneath it. From inside the box he pulled a glass pipe, which he loaded by pinching from two of the piles Ashley had in front of her, disrupting her careful measurements. She glared at him, then scraped it all together and started over. Chuck grinned at her and switched on the TV.

The newscaster wrapped up a segment on the new mall opening up in a nearby city, and turned to face a different camera with a somber expression.

“Firefighters are still working to extinguish a house fire just outside town this evening,” he announced. An image of Kim’s home, engulfed in flames, appeared over his left shoulder. “Apparently, the conflagration had been raging for quite some time before motorists on the highway saw the smoke and called 9-1-1. It has not yet been determined if there was anyone in the home, or how the fire started, but Fire Chief Carr is on the scene and assures WFTR there will be a thorough investigation.” His face transformed from serious to light-hearted in a blink as yet another camera took over. “But it looks like we may get some rain to help those fellows out, eh, Rob?”

The weatherman appeared not to have heard the story as he brightly responded, “That’s right, Frank, and boy, is it overdue! Tonight the clouds will finally roll in…”

Click. Chuck dropped the remote into the chair next to him. A morose silence descended on the room. The only sounds were Ashley’s scraping noises as she focused intently on her little piles. Mike suddenly discovered a hangnail that required his full attention. Jason and Chuck stared at the darkened screen, while Paul watched Ashley’s obsessive scraping.

After a while, Ashley finally decided the piles were even and began pushing each one into a separate baggie. She handed one to each of the guys and stuck one in her purse after tying a knot in it. The pipe lay cooling on the table – for once, no one was interested in lighting it. Finally, she scooped up the keys to the Mustang and jerked her head towards the door. “C’mon, Paul, let’s go.”

Paul shrugged and stood. “Later, guys.” None of the cousins spoke as the couple left.

A few minutes later, Mike stood, too. Jason didn’t move. “You gonna crash here tonight?” Mike asked him. Jason looked at Chuck, who shrugged and gestured toward the couch. Jason nodded wordlessly at Mike.

Mike made his way across the dark backyard and through the hole in the fence. From the window of his tiny studio apartment over his parents’ garage, he could see when the lights went out in Chuck’s shed. Alone in his room, Mike finished off the bottle of whiskey. Just before he passed out, he thought he saw a faint blue light coming from Chuck’s window.

The next couple of weeks were tense. The investigators quickly found traces of gasoline and the charred remains of Kim’s body. The police were asking questions all around town, and someone eventually told an officer the cousins spent time with the deceased. Someone else let slip there had been animosity between Kim and Ashley, and before long all five conspirators had been brought in for questioning. One by one they were told someone else had talked, and one by one the cousins fell for it and struck a deal with the prosecutors.

Jason caved first, still convinced they had done the right thing by burning a witch. When the officers took him in for questioning, it only took a few minutes of prompting before he spilled his guts. Once he did, neither Mike nor Chuck saw much point in holding out and both scrambled to make deals. Chuck left out the part where he had planned to rape Kim’s unconscious body; Mike declined to mention picking up the bag of dope; both lay the blame for Kim’s death squarely at Ashley’s feet.

When the deputies stormed Paul’s house at three o’clock in the morning and took him in for questioning, he tried to hold out, but when faced with the evidence Jason, Mike, and Chuck had given, he started singing like a bird. He and Ashley had been fighting more and more in the weeks since Kim’s death, and he was only too happy to save his own ass by pointing the finger at her.

In the end, none of the boys served more than a couple of months in jail. After a lengthy trial, Ashley was convicted of aggravated arson and murder in the second degree and sentenced to thirty years in prison.

On the day the trial ended, Jason, Mike, and Chuck met Paul coming out of the courthouse. Paul had a hunted look on his face. Mike broke away from his cousins and reached out his hand to Paul. After an awkward moment, Paul took the outstretched hand and as he did, his face crumpled. Chuck stepped forward and put his arm around the stricken fellow, and a few seconds later, Jason lumbered over and joined them. Together, they made their way to the parking lot. They reached the green Mustang first. Mike recoiled.

“You driving her car?” His voice was incredulous.

“Yeah. She ain’t gonna need it anytime soon.” Paul gave a sad half-shrug and Mike’s heart went out to him.

“What you doing tonight, man?” He asked. Again, the same wistful twist of the shoulder.

Mike looked over Paul’s shoulder at Chuck, who sighed and rolled his eyes. He could see where this was going. He threw up his hands and mouthed, “Whatever.”

Mike slapped Paul on the back. “C’mon, man, follow us to Chuck’s. I think we all need a little pick-me-up.”

Chuck’s Jeep was parked next to Mike’s truck. When they were out of Paul’s hearing, Chuck asked, “You think that was a good idea?”

Mike gave him a hard look. “Damn, dude, the man’s been through a lot. Let’s just hang with him for tonight.” Chuck was shaking his head as he climbed behind the Jeep’s steering wheel.

The Mustang was already in Mike’s driveway when he and Jason pulled in. Chuck drove around and parked at their grandmother’s. He was unlocking the door to the shed when Mike, Jason, and Paul squeezed through the hole in the fence. No one said much as they filed inside. Chuck dug beers out of the fridge for all of them. Mike pulled out shot glasses and poured four shots of whiskey. The dismal silence was broken by the sounds of empty glasses hitting the table and pop tabs hissing open. Chuck pulled the box from under his chair and within moments, the air was filled with acrid smoke. Someone found the remote and clicked the TV on, but no one could focus on the screen. The flickering images cut eerie trails through the smoky air.

At first, Mike thought the TV was responsible for the blue glow. As it got brighter, he blamed the alcohol and the pipe. The pipe was being passed again and he reached for it. He put it to his lips and lit it. As he inhaled, it seemed like the blue light was flowing into his lungs. He started to exhale and started to choke. It felt like his lungs were on fire. Instead of fading, the burning grew more and more intense. Tears filled his eyes and he looked up at the others. Through the haze, he saw Chuck grabbing desperately at his strangely glowing crotch. A wail of pain cut through the silence, and Mike looked frantically at Jason, whose open mouth seemed to have blue flames pouring into it. Paul joined in the screaming as his hands took on the same eerie glow. It looked like his hands were on fire.

The cousins’ grandmother heard the keening screams and ran to her window. Intense blue light poured through the windows of the shed in the back yard. She quickly dialed 9-1-1, but by the time she heard the sirens approaching in the distance, the shed was engulfed in blue flames. Police, firefighters, and EMTs poured into the back yard in time to see the little building collapse in on itself. The four bodies they later pulled from the ruins were charred beyond recognition.

As Ashley shuffled down the row of cells to her new home for the next thirty years, catcalls and taunts followed her. The officers stopped her at a cell occupied only by an unmoving form rolled up in a blanket on one bunk. Ashley felt the chains on her ankles fall away as one officer knelt next to her feet. She shook away the pins and needles in her hands when the cruelly tight cuffs were removed from her wrists. When the cell door grated open, both guards shoved her hard and her knees hit the rough concrete of the cell floor. She hardly heard their jeering as she eyed the roll of blankets warily. It shifted and heaved when the door slammed shut.

The guards laughed at the screams that followed them down the corridor from the new girl’s cell. There was always a lot of racket when they brought in new fish. They settled back into their chairs at the corridor’s entrance and had just gotten comfortable when the fire alarms went off.

The investigation that followed went on for months before reaching the conclusion Ashley must have somehow ingested some substance that caused the fire. Every inmate they questioned all told the same story – as soon as the guards were gone, bright blue light exploded from the new girl’s cell, followed by an ear-splitting shriek. Then silence. Dropping the now-closed file into his filing cabinet, the warden shook his head. At least he’d had the good sense to put the little arsonist in a cell by herself.

Southern by Birth, Country by the Grace of God

I grew up in the Deep South — specifically, in Northeast Louisiana, which embodies all that is the glory of redneck, deep-fried southern-ness. My hometown’s high school football team is the Rebels. There is still prayer at the high school football games. High school games are *the* Friday night event during football season. People drink their tea with ice and lots of sugar. When they ask for it, they say “Please,” and, “Thank you.” Children say, “Yes ma’am,” and, “Yes sir,” to their elders. Hospitality is considered chief among the social graces, and no one speaks ill of anyone else without adding, “Bless his heart.” I am proud to be a Southerner, and I like to believe some of us have learned from the mistakes in our culture’s past.

There are still city folks in the South, though, and the differences between the city folks and the country folks are like night and day. While I am proud to be southern, I am grateful to have been raised in the country.

I went cow-tipping when I was in high school. More than once. At my school, there was a fifteen minute grace period before tardies were issued during deer season – and the hunters usually slipped in just in time, still in camo gear and with shotguns or rifles left hanging on their trucks’ gun racks. The house in which I grew up was so far out in the woods, I could stand on the porch and yell at the top of my lungs and no one but my parents could hear. We were COUNTRY!

The first time I realized I was different from the “city” kids, I was in second grade. During recess one day, I was telling my friends (mostly boys) about having spent the previous Saturday fishing with my Dad. With all the aplomb and dignity of a seven-year-old tomboy, I gave an intensely graphic description of the scaling and gutting process and finishing by proudly announcing my pivotal role in the cooking process – dipping the raw fish in the meal and handing it to my Dad. Just as I gave my rapt audience the story’s thrilling conclusion, two girls who had been eavesdropping erupted into exaggerated gagging noises. “Ewwwww… You *ate* it? Gross!” (Yeah, *that* was the “gross” part. Huh?)

I was baffled, and decided they must simply be stupid. But then I started noticing other little things. There were my friends and me – our dads hunted and fished and took us with them. Our moms and grandmas had gardens and grew their own vegetables. We ate what came from the woods and the water and our own backyards. When things broke, we fixed them or asked our parents to if we couldn’t. Most of us had a variety of “pets” that wandered through our lives – ‘possums, snakes, nutria rats, turtles, frogs – as well as the usual smattering of dogs and cats. We played in the woods, unsupervised, for hours on end and no one worried about us.

My first few visits to “city” friends’ houses were unsettling. I couldn’t understand why the houses were so close together and wondered where we would play. I didn’t like sitting inside and playing quietly with toys or watching TV. I usually didn’t voluntarily go back to those friends’ houses a second time.

Until I started college, I stuck with the country kids. I went to high school at the smaller rural area school instead of the big school in town. My social exposure was limited to kids at school and church – these were the days before the internet and smart phones.

It was, therefore, understandably a shock to my naive little country gal system when I started college and moved into a dorm on campus. I was repelled and fascinated at the same time, and eventually fascinated won out. I tried to conform. I tried to become sophisticated and worldly-wise like my dormmates. I absorbed it all like a sponge, and had a glorious and drunken good time doing so. I even moved to Dallas, Texas, for a couple of years. It never felt quite right, though. I felt like I was trying to live in someone else’s skin.

A decade and a half slid by before life handed me an opportunity to move back to the country and I took it. I moved into a little house just a few miles out from my hometown, on a little country road. I loved it. It felt like letting my hair down after having it up all day and night, or like kicking off shoes at the end of a long day and stretching out stiff toes. A few years later, I got even further out in the country when my husband and I moved to my dad’s family’s farm. I dove headlong into gardening and canning and sustainable living.

It’s been a homecoming in more than the literal sense. It’s as if I have come home to myself, to what I truly am and was always meant to be – a country gal.

I have never left the Deep South except to visit. I’ve always been a southerner and proud of it. But I did leave the country, and I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to return to it. I am southern by birth, but country by the grace of God!