Lines: A Southern Journal
The Ghost of Pork-N-Beans
Yep sir, I’ve seen a ghost. All the way back last spring. I remember it like yesterday 'cause the carnival was in town and I'd saved enough money so me and Susie could go to it. That's my little sister.
Pork-n-Beans had been missing a couple weeks and Mama said give her up for dead 'cause she always played on the tracks that run across our drive and probably got hit by a train and knocked halfway to Horseshoe Junction. Mama's never wrong, so when me and Susie seen Pork-n-Beans out by the shed one night acting like she didn't know us, we knew it was her ghost and left her alone. 'Course, she ignored us quite a bit when she was alive, too, or she wouldn't have strutted her little orange tail down to the tracks after we told her not to. Cats listen about as good as people.
Well sir, one day I took off down the tracks toward Glover's Store just to look around. I didn't bring the seventy-eight cents I'd hid to keep Daddy from using it to buy mayonnaise again. Not far from the house, off to the left, I saw some vines that were naturally bent over to form a sort of cave. There was an old quilt in there with some empty beer cans--Falstaff--so I knew a hobo had put in and Mama wouldn't like it. I wouldn't be able to walk to the store if she found out because she don't want me around hobos. She's afraid they'll influence me.
Sure enough, a man come up out of the ditch to my right. He was tall and skinny, had on jeans, dirty T-shirt, black vest and a derby with more holes than Nixon's defense, Daddy'd say, but a doozie of a rabbit’s foot dangling off the back of it. He leaned down right in my face and grinned, I guess. His teeth looked like Miss Neely's picket fence after Daddy ran over it with the tractor.
"Where ye going boy?"
"Nowheres in particular, sir."
"Got nee money?"
"Lying, ain't chee?" He had a high voice that had the same effect on my ears that dead mice do on my nose.
"Naw sir, not lying." I turned my pockets inside out. "I ain't carrying no money 'cause I'm saving it for the carnival."
"Huh? Savin' it, eh? Hmm..."
"Yep sir, the carnival'll be in town next week and I been carrying bottles back to Glover's Store for Miss Neely and picking up bubble gum and chewing it to soften it for her and-- "
"Saving it where?"
"Same place everybody else does, I reckon. In a jar."
He straightened up, tugged on his vest and started putting on airs like he's somebody.
"Well pardon my rudeness young man," he said. "I neglected to introduce myself proper. They call me King Joe."
"King of what?"
"Well...King of the railroad." He started waving his arms and carrying on like Brother Banks at revival. "See, I got lots of money. I keep it hid, like you do. I go all over the country on the railroad checking up on things. And when I run out of money I go back home and get more. I don't worry about nobody stealing it on account of I got a pretty good hiding place." He paused to scratch the oily mess under his hat, which he finally removed when he couldn't reach the right spot through any of the holes. "'Course now, I'm always looking for new ideas on where to hide it. I like to move it around, see?"
"Hey!" He snapped his fingers. "I got a good idey. You tell me your hiding place and I'll tell you mine!"
Now, something didn't sound right about that, but I figured it out soon enough. "Well, okay," I said, "but you tell me yours first."
He hesitated. Didn't count on me being so smart.
"All right." He leaned down again and showed me the picket teeth. "I keep my money in a big rattlesnake-skin box, covered with bones, down in a hollowed out tree stump behind the slaughter house on my estate." He smiled like he was done, then added with a wave of his hand: "With poison ivy all around."
“Whew!” I wondered why he would ever want to move it.
He straightened up real proud-like for a second, then got back in my face. “Now, where's your'n?"
Well, I's plum embarrassed to tell him my rinky-dink hiding place after that, but he insisted so I looked around to make sure we’s alone, then whispered, "Mine's in a mayonnaise jar in an old tire leaning against the shed.” I waved my hand. “With a dead tree close by."
He straightened again and started goose-necking to try to see the shed.
"It's behind the house," I told him.
"That 'cher house up there?"
"Yep, sir. Only one in sight."
"Hey! How 'bout I get some candy later from this Glover's Store and bring it to ya? Naw, guess I better not. Your Paw might not like that, huh? He might get mad, huh? Think your Paw'd get mad?"
"I don't know. He'll probably sleep till nine o'clock tonight. He leaves to go to work at ten. Works in a factory all night. Farms some, but--"
"Ten, eh? Well that's just a little past my bedtime. I'm always asleep by nine of the clock. Us kings need our rest, you know." He looked over at the quilt and stretched. "Matter of fact, I think I'll grab forty winks right now."
I figured I better warn him while I had the chance. "Uh...Mr. King Joe, have you seen an orange cat around here?"
He made a sour milk face. "Ain’t seen no cats. Don’t want to, neither."
He started toward the quilt and I followed. "Well my cat ran off and got hit by a train. She’s dead now. Me and Susie named her Pork-n-Beans ’cause she’s that color. Hey, what kind of beans are pork-n-beans anyway? Nobody can tell me. Everybody just says they’re 'pork-n-beans.' Except Daddy. He tells me to shut up and be glad I got any kind of beans to eat and pass the salt.”
King Joe sat on the quilt, took his boots off, then used them as a pillow when he laid down. I could see he wasn’t interested in what I’s saying so I got back on topic. “But anyway, I wanted to warn you about my cat Pork-n-Beans. If you see her, stay away. She’s a ghost.”
He sat up and paled whiter than his T shirt, which I guess ain’t saying much. “A g-ghost? Who?”
“Pork-n-Beans. My cat.”
This disturbed him something fierce. “A ghost of a c-cat?”
“My Mama used to tell me to beware of cats. Said they’s super-unnatural varmints. I hate ’em, myself. Live or d-dead.”
He eased down, covered his worried face with the derby and commenced to mumbling about cats. I turned toward Glover's store and seen a Coke can on the tracks and stomped it to make it stick to the heel of my sneakers. When I did, King Joe sat up so fast his derby went flying forward, upside down with the rabbit foot leading. He cut his eyes left and right, then crawled over like a scared mouse to pick it up. I left him to his worries.
Daddy left for work right when the news came on. Mama put Susie to bed and watched the top stories but didn’t pay much attention. She was waiting for the news to go off so the late movie could come on at ten-thirty starring Bette Davis. When they started talking about the weather she declared they didn’t know as much as a one mule farmer, and got up to clean the mess she’d made fixing Daddy’s tomato sandwiches for work.
Directly, she turned the kitchen light off and came stomping back in the living room.
“Somebody’s in the back yard,” she said. Then she reached up over the couch and took down the shotgun. I followed her through the kitchen and out on the back porch. She pointed toward the shed and sure enough, I could see a white shirt moving around. Mama took aim.
All of a sudden, out of the darkness, I heard a cat screech, like it was on the attack. Next thing I heard was King Joe’s voice hollering something about cats and ghosts as he lit out across the yard.
Mama probably coulda went on and left him alone but she never was one to waste a trip to the gun rack, especially around the time of a Bette Davis picture. We ran through the house and I opened the front door so she could hit the porch in stride. King Joe’s white shirt was moving down the drive at a pretty good clip when she fired up into the trees, sending leaves, twigs, and pecans raining down on his holey derby. He ran faster and hollered louder--more about cats and ghosts, and added a thing or two about Mama. Only he said “Mother.”
Susie got up, said she’s scared of the thunder, but when she
saw it was Mama with a gun she went back to sleep.
I never told Mama I knew who it was in the yard because she’d a-got mad and sent me to bed and told me I couldn’t walk to the store anymore. And I’d a-missed the movie. As it was, it didn’t have much action anyway, just some kissing and corny music. I fell asleep wondering if that was a stray cat we’d heard or Pork-n-Beans' ghost, and cursing King Joe for being too dumb to find the house with the candy he’d promised.
The carnival finally came and Mama took us in the truck while Daddy rested for work. Me and Susie got in free; Mama had to pay seventy-five cents, which she did in pennies and nickels. Daddy helped me out a little on the money but we still had to limit ourselves to two rides, two games and one thing to eat. I had a caramel apple with nuts, Susie had pink cotton candy. I rode the Scrambler, Susie, the Merry-go-round, and we all rode the Ferris Wheel together. Mama embarrassed me. She sang along with the tune they were playing--Goodnight Irene, whoever the heck that is. But I won her a candy dish throwing pennies and she won Susie a teddy bear by shooting a red star completely out of a piece of paper. She said the gun was crooked and she had to ‘compenstate.’
It was fun walking around in the bright lights and noise, and smelling the smells but I got bored after a while and started sneaking back behind the tents and peeking in. I didn't see anything good until I got to the big tent where the pony rides were. The sides didn't quite meet the back and when I peeped through the gap guess who I seen: ’Ol' King Joe. He was in there by hisself, humming real nervous-like and scooping some unmentionable stuff into a wheelbarrow. He had on the same old clothes, and I swear it looked like cat scratches on his face. I almost felt sorry for the blasted fool and shoulda left him alone but I couldn't resist letting go with one good Meow. When I did, he dropped his scooper and ran out so fast he had to stick his arm back in and feel around for the derby. I skeedaddled.
After the carnival pulled out and I’d saved more change, I decided to nickel-up and walk to Glover’s Store for a bag of candy to go in the dish I'd won. When I’s going down the tracks I looked off to the left, over by the little cave of vines, and who do you think I seen stretched out on the old quilt? It was Pork-n-Beans. She pawed on the quilt, whipped her orange tail back and forth and licked on the cans of Falstaff. It gave me the gooseflesh to see her. She looked so real that if I didn’t know better I’d say she wasn’t even dead.
River T. Huffman lives in an old farmhouse in Gibson County, TN. He writes about the strange characters (mostly relatives) who populate his world.
Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012