Was the Shoes
dog had a funny look about him. He wasnt barking, but he
seemed intent upon something outside. I looked out the window
and there was an old black man standing motionless under the big
water oak in the front yard. He didnt seem to be focused
on anything in particular, but he was looking at the house with
a kind of familiar disdain.
walked out the front door and went up to him. Im Bill
Wentwood, I said, and held out my hand. He shook it and,
in a raspy, pleasant voice, told me that he was Mr. Veatch and
that he was pleased to meet me. We looked at each other for a
minute, and I commented on the fine weather, and he agreed. Two
squirrels chasing each other through the treetops leaped into
the water oak and scampered and scooted about its upper branches.
We watched as they dashed and leaped about and finally took their
live up the road here, said Mr. Veatch, and I been
seein your car go down here, so I thought Id walk
down and introduce myself.
glad you did. Im glad to know theres somebody living
nearby. Mr. Veatch, would you like to come in the house and have
a drink of whiskey?
I wont come in the house, he said. If you dont
mind. But if you have a small drink of liquor it would sure be
a pleasure to have one without any of my daughters around.
thats fine. I was just about to have one myself, and they
say its better to drink in company.
dont drink at all unless Im either with somebody or
by myself, Mr. Veatch responded. Put it in a coffee
cup if you have one. I always like to drink out of a coffee cup.
you take ice or water? I asked.
shook his head and shuddered slightly. I
like it like it is.
brought out a bottle of Ezra Brooks and poured him a pretty good
snort in a coffee cup. I usually like some water with it, but
I didnt want to seem critical, so I poured myself the same
amount in a glass.
tasted the whiskey as though he wasnt sure what to expect.
He swallowed a little and looked appraisingly at the cup. Sto
bought liquor, he said. Have you ever heard of Mr.
believe I have.
Mac makes white liquor up in the hill country. He lifted
his eyes as it were to the hills. Its good liquor.
He paused. Cure what ails you. I aint no drinkin'
man, but you know the apostle says to take a little for the stomachs
if thats what the Scripture says, I reckon we aint
got no choice but to do it.
Veatch looked carefully at me, his eyes glittering slightly. Hum,
he said, then again, Hum. He shook his head briefly,
I reckon we aint. His actions all seemed in
accord with some obsolete combination of courtesy and theatrics
in which speech, gesture, silence, and expression produced an
indescribable sense of timelessness and authority. Do you
go to the university? he asked.
sir. Im hoping to finish up a degree in English. It sure
seems like a slow process sometimes.
figured you was a student. Are your folks from around here?
mama is from Franklin County. My daddys people are from
was your mamas name?
Theres still some of em around.
was her daddys name?
was Dr. John Wentwood, from up in Troublesome.
his brother was a doctor, wasnt he?
declare. Theyre all buried up at the Presbyterian church.
sir. I believe they all had been Methodists till right after the
wrong with a good Presbyterian.
Mama became a Baptist when she married Daddy, but she still defends
wrong, he mused, with a good Presbyterian.
telephone inside the house began to ring. I ignored it. Mr. Veatch
said, Is that your telephone?
sir, but I never answer it less I want to.
aint expecting no important calls? He seemed concerned
but slightly amused.
probably somebody from Olan Mills.
let my daughters answer the thing. I dont even like to talk
squirrels raced back through the trees on the side of the yard
and plunged back into the big water oak.
they come again, said Mr. Veatch.
love that oak tree. Would you like some more whiskey?
believe this drink Ive had will hold me. Its about
time for me to take a nap. He stood up. I need to
walk back towards the house.
to meet you, I said. We shook hands. Come back and
see me some time.
will, he said. Neighbors need to stay in touch.
He turned away and began walking slowly up the road. I went in
the house and, when I looked out the window, he was still not
very far away, stepping carefully and deliberately as he made
his way up the drive under the oaks and the pine branches.
A late-model white Impala rustled down the driveway early the
next afternoon. It pulled up by the big oak, and the window on
the drivers side rolled down. I walked out through the screen
door and stood looking at a youngish black woman with a Clarke
Central sweatshirt, sitting behind the wheel. She was wearing
a UGA baseball cap with a basketball on the front. She looked
at me without expression and killed the engine. Howdy,
she said. Are you the gentleman that lives here?
daddy sent you something. She reached over beside her on
the seat and hefted a gallon glass jug of clear liquid. She grasped
it with both hands and lifted it through the car window. I took
it from her and stood holding it. She made a quick face. My
daddy says he dont recommend that you drink it all at once,
she said, poker-faced.
tell him I appreciate it very much, and he need not to worry.
sat quietly looking at me. He wants to know if Miz Junie
Wentwood was your aunt.
was the one that had the nervous breakdown, right?
was her. I helped bury her a couple of years ago, poor thing.
reached over and twisted the ignition key. The Impalas engine
murmured with smooth power. She couldnt help it,
she said. She checked the rearview mirror and then looked back
at me silently. You have a nice afternoon, she said.
She backed the car into the driveway, pulled around, and drove
back toward the road. I unscrewed the cap from the vinegar jug
and smelled the white liquor within. Lord have mercy,
I said. I took the jug in the house.
aunt Junie Wentwood lost it fairly badly many years ago. Some
of that runs in the family, like it or not. Anyway, she got it
in her head that all the black people wanted to kill her, so one
day she decided to get in the first lick and went after her mamas
laundry lady with a butcher knife. She was a young woman then,
and the laundry lady was already in her late sixties, but my aunt
couldnt catch her. The black lady sped about three quarters
of a mile down the dirt road to her house with my aunt right behind
her with the knife. The lady got the door slammed just in time,
and my aunt was still stabbing and hacking at it when her brothers
came running up and caught her and got the knife away. Then she
got hysterical, and they had to send her to Milledgeville. She
never got out. When she died, thirty or forty years later, my
uncle asked my dad and me to be pallbearers. We were glad to help,
but I didnt have any dress shoes with me and ended up at
the funeral wearing a borrowed pair a size or two too small. The
shoes became painful in the course of the ceremony, and for some
reason I kept thinking of that poor lady running for her life
just across the road there from the church, where the road is
now paved, and where life one day long ago had become a blur of
panic and cosmic disorder.
Wentwood place was across the street from the church, and I dont
think I have ever gone back to that church for a funeral when
I had the right clothes. I always had a coat and tie but no dress
shoes, or I had the shoes but just blue jeans and a clean shirt.
It never bothered me much, because my people were pretty much
farmers who couldnt have been too concerned about dressing
up beyond what was reasonable. Those old Confederate veterans
there like Mamas Grandpa Smith or Grandpa Wentwood might
have preferred a little more dash and flash on my part, but were
kin, and they dont care any more. Time was, no doubt, they
appreciated good shoes. Good thing Aunt Junie didnt have
anything better on her feet, that day.
W. Haynes, originally from Statenville, Georgia, has been
a college professor of English in Laredo, Texas, for the past
fifteen years. Several of his poems have been published in the
e-zine Ampersand Poetry Review.
R. W. Haynes