Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Town without Butter

Tom Sheehan


It happened in the town that had no butter, a town where little popcorn was sold and nearly every person was thin. Most people living there liked to run. On a snappy dawn some of them ran marathon distances without breaking a sweat, climbing often into the lower ranges of the Smokies. If butter was in town, the butter packers brought it, illegally.

Pearl Trimm came into the square from her morning run to Hartnet High Knob, five miles out and back, and saw three men standing beside the bank looking suspicious. It wasn’t that they were fat or just overweight, but they looked like unhappy bankers. Pearl had an idea of what they were up to, conspiring some way to repeal the butter law or trying to skirt it: butter was not allowed across the town border. The three men, a bit hefty, were in charge of the three banks in town.

Pearl ran over to them wearing a yellow running shirt, blue shorts and a blue sweatband across her forehead. Five feet eight inches tall, she weighed 121 pounds, with a blazing red hair ponytail in a white ribbon. The morning sun fit into her smile, shaping her mouth, lighting her eyes. Her skin was unflawed by any minor imperfection and her eyes promised music and dancing were comfortable in her soul.

She put her hands on her hips, the stance of a nineteen-year-older.

“Hey, guys, you still trying to slip that butter thing through the town meeting? It’ll never work. I know they’ve been on to guys like you since butter was ousted fifty years ago. Why try to get it back? We’re better off with butter gone. Toast is great with mom’s extrawnerry jam.” The kidding was in her voice. From the corner of her eye she saw Banker Caldwell snap his belt up a notch. It was not a harmless gesture, she realized. Once he had been trim, long before he started worrying about losses, balances, business in general. She thought he at one time had probably been a good looking man.

“Butter’s a way of life in some towns. Why not here?” Banker Bramstock got in his two cents worth. Once he’d been a sprinter, lean and mean at that. He made a hideous liar out of such talk at the moment, being the widest of the three men. His eyes were caves of forgotten dreams, the plump cheeks stealing too much from them.

“A way of death, you mean,” Pearl retorted. “Statistics will show we’re all better off without butter. It’s a paralyzer. On potatoes. Corn. Toast. Pasta.

Especially popcorn, the way theaters had buckets of it. At a quarter a whack, too.”

Now she noticed Banker Caldwell’s mouth was practically drooling. “I trust there’s no contraband coming into town, gentlemen. No side orders of butter slipping through with the green things like asparagus, spinach, really fresh green beans with lots of pepper, a little salt thrown to the wind. No pats and slabs and bars and tubs like they used to have. Lord, we were little more than a piggery in those days.” Pearl patted her midsection. She noticed it did not go unnoticed by any of the men, all old enough to be her father, or Banker Caldwell to be her grandfather.

For a moment Bankers Caldwell and Coldbit were near apoplexy over the illegal menu sported on them. “I was up at Pure’s Pass near High Knob this morning. I noticed strange tracks in the ground. I’m suspicious. Likely they’re from some butter packers who made the trek over the mountain with a load.” Each man looked at his toes and then into each other’s eyes before looking into hers. Distance grew in their eyes as well as long planning, with a bit of discernible suspicion, she thought.

Banker Coldbit’s sweet tooth was often a half pound of butter and a loaf of hot bread. At the moment his jaw was caught at a strange angle of gnashing a stubborn morsel of food, probably a greasy remnant. He managed to say, “You’re so thin it should be no problem to you. You have no worries. Why do butter packers bother you?” He coughed once on his own words and added, “If those tracks were from butter packers. Butter packers indeed!” His proud head was like a snotty colt’s suddenly knowing he can run like the wind.

Pearl said, “Butter packers don’t bother me. Butter does. Wise people got rid of it long ago. We’ve been blessed since. We’re thin, healthy, and we can run down day’s end. We’ve got a fifty-year head start on fat, every living one of us.” She eyed their paunch lines.

Banker Coldbit replied, “But each man should have his own choice, whether to run or not, whether to butter or not butter his bread, his toast, his popcorn, his waffles before he puts on maple syrup. Ought to be law.” His eyes were red and a thin drool ran from the corners of his lips. In his thick neck the esophagus sent its contractions with a known taste. Banker Bramstock had to put out a hand to support Banker Coldbit, to keep him from falling over from a butter tantrum.

“Hey, Pearl,” yelled a voice from across the square, “Archie Benbow caught some butter packers this morning, in Simms’ barn. Had more’n a thousand pounds of grease in their packs. The grease valise, huh!” His laugh set off the next statement. “They plain out rented mules from Stafford’s Stable on t’other side. Believe it?”

“What’s Archie going to do with it?” Pearl yelled back, her eye on the three bankers, standing at quick attention, fully aware that Pearl had questioned the fate of the illegal butter and not the butter packers. A mere sign of the times; in butter-free Saxford butter packers were treated, when caught, like minor celebrities, like the loop-the-loop drivers she had heard about in old Charlestown near Boston doing the Bunker Hill loop in speeding cars and daring the police to hinder, never mind stop, their reckless rides.

“Having a bon fire tonight down t’the lake, to celebrate this holiday. He’s going to burn every ounce of it before it gets passed off t’the children. You know how Archie is.” Knowledge of Archie, town sheriff and butter chaser nonpareil, hung itself in the air. The three bankers, faces saddened, wallets obviously to be thinner before Archie’s fire went out, looked at Pearl Trimm.

“Did you report the butter packers, Pearl?” Even if he had been handsome at one time, before the butter packers had gotten to him, Banker Caldwell could muster a mean sneer.

“That’s not my job, and you know it. That’s Archie’s job. I don’t like butter. I’m against butter. The three of you are my strongest argument. Look at you! What woman would ever want to be with you, slobbed with butter, your whole life sliding away from you, the skids greased unto eternity? Snuggling with you must be like trying to catch a greased pig like they do over by Elizabethton at the October Fair.”

A subtle snap of her hip accompanied the plain disgust on her face. She turned from them and walked off a dozen steps, her svelte shape in the running togs about as beautiful as any of them could remember. Stopping, turning, she said, “If you only could remember what it was like before butter, you’d gladly give up some of your money, some of your stature, some of your fat.” Her departure across the square was sylph-like, silken, sleek, and carried heavy chains that linked near-mythically into the long past of each banker.

Banker Coldpit said to his counterparts in a whisper, “I’m tired of losing my money having butter packed over the mountain and having it burned up for some silly celebration. We get a proficient crew or turn to something else. I cannot have my bread with jam or my green beans without butter. It’s an effrontery to the select. Not so much the masses, but the select. It’s due men of our stature.”

But stature had nothing at all to do with the eventual repeal of the butter law, not in Saxford. And it was Pearl Trimm herself, a few years later, who got the repeal started.

Saxford, then on a high lake metropolitan water source, had deactivated the old standpipe at Pure’s Pass and had built a park at the base of the iron-plated tower. Rust was the sole climber of that old skyline marker homebound Saxfordians could see from twenty miles away. And it was here that Pearl Trimm, four years married, used to bring her twin boys to play and where she showed them the route of the butter packers, how it came up from near Stafford’s Stables on the downside. Pearl could point out fifty places where their ineptness trapped them, by Archie or one of his butter-packing deputies angling on their trail.

One day one of Pearl’s twins, Angus and not McDermott, fell into an abandoned pipe near the standpipe. It did not look good for the boy. The entire rescue attempt was in serious doubt, for the pipe had been inserted down through a hole in solid rock an old timer remembered had taken weeks to drill. Someone suggested dropping a rope down the pipe but they were concerned about accidental strangulation. The boy was stuck, down about thirty feet. It was heart rending hearing him crying for his mother.

In the gathering crowd was a midget from the carnival soon to arrive in town. The diminutive one’s name was Silas Aberhorn and he volunteered to be lowered down the pipe headfirst to save the boy. “All I ask,” he said, “is that you coat me with something slippery so I don’t get caught myself.”

Alert Pearl Trimm Averguard, most anxious mother, yelled to the crowd. “Any butter packers here?”

Five hands were raised. One belonged to Pearl’s father. “My load’s under the trash barrel.” He sprinted to the edge of the park where the barrel squatted in the standpipe shadow. Turning the barrel like a bottle cap, he spun it off the screw-threaded base and pulled a large pack from below. Archie and his butter packing deputies shook their heads in disbelief, missing that hiding place. The crowd began to cheer.

Pearl hugged her father.

Silas Aberhorn, stopped well short of normal growth, greased with butter and more slippery than any pig ever free at Elizabethton, went head first down into that narrow pipe to retrieve Angus Johanne Averguard from his certain death below the standpipe at Pure’s Pass. It was one memorable day that came before another memorable day in the history of Saxford.

The next evening Pearl stood at the special Town Meeting, faced the gathering and said, “I make a motion that we do away with the butter law.” Blond and curly-haired Angus Johanne Averguard sat on one side of his mother and redheaded McDermott Cleston Averguard sat on the other side. They held hands behind their mother’s back as she spoke.

A near silence loomed in the air.

In the back of the auditorium Robert Bruce Trimm, an old and wizened butter packer with a long history, was whispering small asides about geography and route passages, telling Archie Benbow and his deputies a few things they had never known about the old trade. The discussion went long into the night.

And new legends had already begun about Saxford’s butter packers.

***

Tom Sheehan’Epic Cures, short stories from Press 53, won an IPPY Award. A Collection of Friends, Pocol Press, was nominated for Albrend Memoir Award.  He has nine Pushcart and two Million Writer nominations, a Silver Rose Award from American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) and the Georges Simenon Award for Excellence in Fiction. Recent work is in Ocean Magazine, Birmingham Art Journal, The Blotter Magazine, etc. His next book will be Brief Cases, Short Spans, from Press 53 in Winston-Salem. He trained with the 278th Regimental Combat Team in 1950.

© Tom Sheehan

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2008