Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Dandy Chapeau

Suzanne Brunson


The white, hot sun beat down on the cracked, red clay. Isom Brantley’s bare scalp, once just as red as the dry, used-up soil, was now white as a baby’s behind. Bald for more years than he could count, his trademark was a beige felt cowboy hat, which he had removed. The hat had been steamed and fashioned at a haberdashery in Atlanta, and was always worn over a faded bandana which he would periodically remove, roll into a one inch band and then re-tie back around his forehead. It was meant to catch excess sweat which otherwise might stain the string-tied rim of the hat or cause it to stretch out of shape. Each night, he would place it back into its original box, “…to keep its shape.”

Isom now held the curled felt rim in his right hand, having tipped it for Inez Murkwalter as she exited the musty general store. He truly believed in and gave all credit due to this dandy chapeau which had saved him the misery of sunburn, sunstroke, sun squinting and sun rash. It had made him feel like a real man again instead of merely a used up old field hand, which he was. It did not, however, stop chigger bites or brown calluses, water blisters or chapped lips. Most disconcerting was the fact that it had once been spat upon by Homer Dexley in a fit of temper, thus the brown stain on the front rim which had finally begun to fade, taking the edge off the subsequently tense meetings between the two men.

The glaring sun pushed through the old store’s doorway and across its pine board floor, creating a yellow glowing rectangle which pointed directly at Archa Dart and Knocky Ledbetter. Both men sat in splintery old ladderback chairs, leaning up against a six-foot high stack of corn meal sacks lined neatly along the back wall. Knocky’s rear end hung out of the bottom of his chair where the caning had finally given way.

“Mornin’,” nodded Archa who’d taken over running the store when his Daddy passed the year before. He’d rented his thirty acres out to old George Jefferson Washington, the Negro tenant who had helped him keep the place running ever since he had first walked behind a plow. Folks said he and George were half brothers, but he didn’t see it and figured George wouldn’t be near so black if it were so anyways.

“Yep,” said Knocky, a farmer who lived alone out on the Atlanta highway. Once his chores were done and it being the heat of summer with nothing to do but wait for a harvest, he’d join Archa at the store just to sit a spell.

Isom nodded to both as he worked the rim of his hat, then tipped it toward the two men.

They both nodded and he put it back on over the bandana.

Isom finally spoke, “Hot enough fer ya?”

“Yep,” said Knocky.

Isom looked at the counter, eyeing a jar of hard candy next to a stickpin full of receipts.

“You just missed old Homer Dexley.” Archa half grinned when he said it and stretched out in his chair.

Silence.

“He asked after you. Was here first thing this mornin.”

“Yep,” added Knocky.

“Inquired as to your health,” continued Archa, his eyes twinkling.

“Yep, he did,” added his seatmate.

There was a long pause while Isom appeared to be pondering this information. Finally he spoke.

“Well, sir, I spect it must be a hunnert degrees out there right about now.”

“Yep,” said Knocky

Archa would not be swayed.

“Homer was lookin a little peaked, if you ask me, which nobody ain’t done.”

“This here hat done saved me a case a heat stroke.”

Isom tapped the rim and smiled back at Archa.

“Why I could be layin' out there in a field just deader’n a doornail and not nobody keerin enuf to check on a old geezer,” he continued.

“Yep.”

“You sure as heck don’t wanna get what’s ailin’ Homer Dexley.”

“It ain’t been this hot all summer,” Isom continued.

“Homer said he was all bent over in his stomach all night. Said it was a crampin’ somethin’ awful.”

Isom shifted his weight and leaned on the counter cupping his chin in the palms of his gnarled old hands.

“It be drier out there than old widder Cleary in a full moon.”

Ignoring this comment, Archa proceeded to make clear his concern for Homer Dexley’s current state of health.

“I believe old Homer’s got him somethin perdy serious if you was to ask my opinion.”

Isom was quiet for another moment, then replied, “I bet we gonna have us a real hot, dry spell here, if I do say so.”

“Yep,” agreed Knocky.

Isom straightened up and ran his hand along the blond wood counter, inspecting his fingertips for dust.

“I b’lieve I’d like to get me a fresh pouch of chew, Archa, that stuff over there,” and he pointed to the highest shelf behind the counter.

Archa reared up out of his chair, leaving it upright next to Knocky, and eyed the shelf.

“You sure you ain’t mistaken that chew for this here stuff I got just this week. Been cured real good.”

“No. I’ll take the pouch up there, Romey’s Rich there in the green wrapping.”

“Well, Isom, I ain’t sold none a that Romey’s in quite a spell. That’s burley from Kentucky. You ain’t never chewed burley.”

“That’s what I want.”

Now Archa was perturbed, knowing for a fact that Isom had never in his entire life touched a brown burley leaf, never mind from Kentucky.

“Do you think you might be a bit tetched in the head from all that sun?”

Archa laughed at his own joke.

Isom smiled real big and chuckled.

“Now Archa, don’t you go spreadin' no rumor, you hear?”

Isom continued to laugh.

“Yep,” and Knocky brushed off his pants leg.

Into the store walked Jimjim, Knocky’s three-legged hunting dog. Jimjim walked in a circle at Knocky’s feet, then settled down in a ball, resting his head on his paws, eyes wide open.

“Aw, Knocky, Jimjim’s got fleas mighty bad.”

“Give him some a that burley you're so ashamed of!” laughed Isom.

“Come on, Jimjim, git, now. Go on.”

Knocky gave the dog a nudge and he trotted back outside to the front stoop, did another circle and settled back down. A brown and white mix, he was mostly hound with big floppy ears and even bigger floppy paws on a squat little body. Jimjim got his left hind leg caught in a rabbit trap when he was just a pup. He had gnawed himself free and limped home only to have his mama push him away. Knocky had spoon fed milk to the puppy until the other pups were weaned. He had turned out to be the best tracker in the litter.

“Jimjim’s a good hound, ain’t he Knocky,” Isom smiled.

Archa had walked around Knocky’s chair, giving him a little sideswipe with his boot, and was now leaning on the near end of the counter.

“So what can I do you for Isom?”

“Why don’t you cut me a piece of that there ‘logny?” and he gestured toward the glass case on the far end of the worn oak counter.

“Well sure, Isom, though I can’t think what you’d be wantin bologna for since it’s just past dinner time?”

“Don’t you worry bout it,” and Isom smiled.

Archa pushed the sliding glass cover to his right and reached in past the pig knuckles for an unopened package. He pushed the door shut and picked up a long knife which was poking, handle side up, from a box nailed to the back of the counter. It was the largest of several knives and the wood handle was almost black from years of being held by Archa and having soaked up traces of meat grease from most every piece of meat Archa, or in his absence, Myrtle Dart, had ever sliced in the twenty odd years they’d been running the place. Myrtle’s father had first built the store around 1902 and only recently had Archa been forced to shore up the front porch. He had gone ahead and added on a storeroom to the back while he was at it.

Archa sliced a thick piece and began to wrap it. Isom waved his hand.

“Nah. Hand it here Archa. I think Jimjim needs some meat. How bout it Knocky?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

“Just not in here, Isom. I don’t need no fleas.”

Isom walked over to the door and the once docile yard dog was now standing at attention, tail wagging and tongue hanging out with drool dripping onto the doorframe. Isom didn’t make him lay down or roll over or shake. He tore off a corner of the meat and tossed it at Jimjim who caught it in one loud snap.

“Jimjim needs him a bone, Archa. Ain’t you got no bones layin around?”

Isom threw another corner of the meat and patted Jimjim. He threw the last big piece at him and then walked back over to the counter. He pulled an off white handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his hands on it, then put it back into his pocket.

“Stay,” said Knocky.

“All right now, where’s my burley?”

Archa sighed and pulled a ladder over to fetch the pouch.

“Here it is, Isom, but I think you’ve lost your marbles.”

“Naw, I ain’t lost nothin. I just seen Homer Dexley over to the undertakers. He doubled up and croaked just a bit ago.”

“Well, lordie, Isom, why’nt you say so? Lordy, Homer Dexley. Um, um.”

“Yep, he’s dead all right. Burst his appendix wide open. Wouldn’t go see Doc Herbert till it burst. So, anyways, gimme my tobaccy.”

“Homer’s dead and you still want this stuff?”

He handed the green pouch to Isom who paid him and walked toward the door. He paused, turned and smiled as he tore open the pouch and put a chunk in his jaw.

“Yep this was Homer’s favorite brand and I aim to go over to the undertakers right now.”

“What are you talking about, Isom?”

“I figure by the time I walk over there, this wad’ll be all juiced up and I aim to spit on him when I get there.”

Knocky wiped at his pant leg again, “… Mm mmm. Just ain’t no accountin for folks these days.”

***

With a journalism degree from the University of Georgia in hand, Suzanne Brunson has toiled through the years as a newspaper editor, a reporter, an occasional columnist, a Vanderbilt fundraiser, a freelance writer, and is the author of one novel. She is a member of the Council for the Written Word and the Tennessee Writer’s Alliance.

© Suzanne Brunson

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012