Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

It Was the Shoes

R. W. Haynes

The dog had a funny look about him. He wasn’t 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 didn’t seem to be focused on anything in particular, but he was looking at the house with a kind of familiar disdain.

I walked out the front door and went up to him. “I’m 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 business elsewhere.

“I live up the road here,” said Mr. Veatch, “and I been seein’ your car go down here, so I thought I’d walk down and introduce myself.”

“I’m glad you did. I’m glad to know there’s somebody living nearby. Mr. Veatch, would you like to come in the house and have a drink of whiskey?”

“No, I won’t come in the house,” he said. “If you don’t 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.”

“Well that’s fine. I was just about to have one myself, and they say it’s better to drink in company.”

“I don’t drink at all unless I’m 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.”

“Do you take ice or water?” I asked.

He shook his head and shuddered slightly. “I like it like it is.”

I 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 didn’t want to seem critical, so I poured myself the same amount in a glass.

He tasted the whiskey as though he wasn’t 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. Mac?”

“Don’t believe I have.”

“Mr. Mac makes white liquor up in the hill country.” He lifted his eyes as it were to the hills. “It’s good liquor.” He paused. “Cure what ails you. I ain’t no drinkin' man, but you know the apostle says to take a little for the stomach’s sake.”

“Well, if that’s what the Scripture says, I reckon we ain’t got no choice but to do it.”

Mr. Veatch looked carefully at me, his eyes glittering slightly. “Hum,” he said, then again, “Hum.” He shook his head briefly, “I reckon we ain’t.” 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.

“Yes sir. I’m hoping to finish up a degree in English. It sure seems like a slow process sometimes.”

“I figured you was a student. Are your folks from around here?”

“My mama is from Franklin County. My daddy’s people are from Alabama.”

“What was your mama’s name?”

“Wentwood. There’s still some of ‘em around.”

“From Franklin County.”

“Yes sir.”

“What was her daddy’s name?”

“He was Dr. John Wentwood, from up in Troublesome.”

“And his brother was a doctor, wasn’t he?”

“That’s him.”

“I declare. They’re all buried up at the Presbyterian church.”

“Yes sir. I believe they all had been Methodists till right after the war.”

“Nothing wrong with a good Presbyterian.”

“Well, Mama became a Baptist when she married Daddy, but she still defends the Presbyterians.”

“Nothing wrong,” he mused, “with a good Presbyterian.”

The telephone inside the house began to ring. I ignored it. Mr. Veatch said, “Is that your telephone?”

“Yes sir, but I never answer it ‘less I want to.”

“You ain’t expecting no important calls?” He seemed concerned but slightly amused.

“It’s probably somebody from Olan Mills.”

“I let my daughters answer the thing. I don’t even like to talk on it.”

The squirrels raced back through the trees on the side of the yard and plunged back into the big water oak.

“Here they come again,” said Mr. Veatch.

“They love that oak tree. Would you like some more whiskey?”

“I believe this drink I’ve had will hold me. It’s about time for me to take a nap.” He stood up. “I need to walk back towards the house.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. We shook hands. “Come back and see me some time.”

“I 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 driver’s 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?”

“That’s me.”

“My 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 don’t recommend that you drink it all at once,” she said, poker-faced.

“You tell him I appreciate it very much, and he need not to worry.”

She sat quietly looking at me. “He wants to know if Miz Junie Wentwood was your aunt.”

“She sure was.”

“She was the one that had the nervous breakdown, right?”

“That was her. I helped bury her a couple of years ago, poor thing.”

She reached over and twisted the ignition key. The Impala’s engine murmured with smooth power. “She couldn’t 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.

My 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 mama’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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.

The Wentwood place was across the street from the church, and I don’t 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 couldn’t have been too concerned about dressing up beyond what was reasonable. Those old Confederate veterans there like Mama’s Grandpa Smith or Grandpa Wentwood might have preferred a little more dash and flash on my part, but we’re kin, and they don’t care any more. Time was, no doubt, they appreciated good shoes. Good thing Aunt Junie didn’t have anything better on her feet, that day.


Robert 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

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