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Authors: Joan Williams

Old Powder Man

BOOK: Old Powder Man
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Old Powder Man

A Novel

Joan Williams

In memory of my father, P. H. Williams

And for my mother, Maude

Do not go gentle into that good night
,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light
.

— DYLAN THOMAS

Frank Wynn never spoke much of his early life but could have told you in detail of the vivid afternoon it was decided they would move to Mill's Landing. He and Poppa were in the store late when Cally came in, her hat on, her face flushed and alive, having just gotten off the train from Delton, where she had been to see a new doctor. “Mill's Landing,” she had said, coming in, and the door jangled its bell closing behind her. “How do you like the sound of that?”

They should have known what would happen next, they said later. But Poppa, seeing her happy face, said his first thought was, That doctor found something the matter with her.

Her eyes, like the rock candy in a big jar on the counter, glistened, pale and crystal-colored, and she clutched in one hand a paper sack with the name of a pharmacy on it they could only half-read.

“Mill's Landing?” Poppa said.

“The saw mill town on the river old Jeff Rankin started,” she said. “Son's heard of it, haven't you?” She turned from Poppa to Frank.

Son answered, “The family owns all that other land over in East Arkansas?”

“Yes. For miles today we passed land with sharecroppers' cabins painted with blue roofs, Rankin land.” She repeated in a soft, pretty way, “Mill's Landing. They need somebody to manage the commissary at the mill.”

Poppa, understanding at last, said, “Now, Cally!”

“The ad in the paper said ‘a qualified person,' and I said to myself, Henry is. You know the dry goods and the grocery and the meat business now.” She held up three fingers to prove it.

I don't know anything about shoes or ready-made clothes, Poppa thought. But it was no excuse to offer Cally. Her mind was made up, he saw, and he had never once in thirty years changed it.

Son, astonished, said, “Mammy, are you talking about going? We just got here.”

Cally said, “Poppa's not going to do a thing in this world running a grocery in this little crossroads, and it's my fault. I never should have moved us here from Cotton Plant without coming to see it first. It sounded like a whole lot more than it is. But you can't mistake working for the Rankins. I phoned the manager, a Mr. De Witt, and made an appointment at three o'clock tomorrow, Henry, and he said don't be late. There's a bus you can take in the morning.” From the sack she took an oversized bottle of cherry-colored liquid and held it to the light. “Three good tablespoons a day!” she said, and they told by the clinking in the sack there were more bottles in it. Returning the bottle, she stood looking into the sack like a child into its Christmas stocking before twisting it closed. “This new doctor says it is my gall bladder. I knew it was.”

“I thought the man last month said there wasn't anything the matter with it,” Poppa said.

“He didn't know anything. A woman I met in the post office told me about him, and they were both of them old as Methuselah. You all close up and come on. I'm going to cook supper.” She went out to the small house next door that came along for little rent to whoever leased the store.

Son said, “How many's this?” and counted them: “Jackson, Brownsville, Dyersburg, Tennessee, Magnolia, Parkin, Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and here.”

“It's a whole lot for a country boy that didn't intend to move any more than five miles from where he was born,” Poppa said and looked back there: a wide place in the road, he called it. His family still lived in the insubstantial house next to the country church where his father had been and his brother now was the pastor. House and church stood in an old field, remnants of a corn crop growing up to the front steps, not a tree near for three acres. Having moved the five miles to town, Vicksville, Tennessee, Poppa claimed to have left home in search of shade. He was seventeen and soon employed in the dry goods store of a man not rich, but educated for the time and place, who sent two daughters to boarding school in Nashville to learn more thoroughly than in a country school. His third daughter, Cally, was only fourteen. The next year, she and Henry quietly married.

As her family had cautioned, Cally realized shortly to forego education for early marriage was a mistake. Her sisters married well. Suffering from a feeling of inferiority, Cally determined to live her own life beyond that with which Henry would have been content. Mild, meek, totally sweet, he was satisfied with not getting ahead. Every position Cally heard of she thought was better and took for Henry, who never ceased wondering what made her so restless, what made her think by changing her address, by making him change not only jobs but professions, she would change anything else. She had not. After the dry goods business, she had him manage a meat market; he was just catching on when she switched him to the grocery business. They moved first to places larger than Vicksville, then to places smaller. Criticized, and rightly, Cally also was admired for her determination and willingness to work. Bringing up two children, Frank and Cecilia, she had, when there had been no extra money, which was frequently, turned to catering and brought the family past many bad times. She loved Henry and his devotion was steadfast. He only sighed that afternoon in the store, thinking of the alien sound of Mill's Landing, as he had sighed the other times thinking of the alien sounds, and having counted the cash and closed the store, told Son to look on the bright side. Maybe in the new place he would make enough to go on and on paying for Cally's medicines and for her doctor's bills.

Three years later, Son and Poppa could agree Mill's Landing was the best place they had ever lived. Poppa was doing better than he ever had before. He told Son he dared even feel roots, for Cally seemed pleased—dared even hope Mill's Landing was where his bones would rest. This morning, waking, he looked again with satisfaction at what he could see of the small, sound house; it seemed to be sleeping too, dark green shades drawn all around shut, like eyelids, its essence into darkness. Knowing autumn sparkled, Poppa got up and had almost finished shaving when he heard Cally get out of bed. Hurrying, he nicked his chin, opened the door and stood aside as she came toward it. “Morning, Boss,” he said, prepared to ask for witch hazel, with the cut oozing blood, but she turned toward him a face of pain, real or imagined no one ever knew, and he saw her mouth was already full of pills. Dressed, he went to the kitchen and began breakfast, but soon Cally was there, surveyed her domain and said, “You wake Son.”

Poppa would have knocked on the door had his daughter-in-law been at home, but since Son's marriage a year ago, Lillian had spent as much time with her mother as she spent here. The Lord knew, Poppa excused her, entering, there was not much for a young woman to do in Mill's Landing. Lillian, at seventeen, was five years younger than Son, and only slightly older than Cecilia who, at Cally's insistence, had been sent to boarding school in Delton, the nearest city. To Poppa's astonishment, money for the tuition had appeared ever since when a bill did, as Cally had promised. There was no high school in Mill's Landing. Children of the twelve other white families in town went by train twenty miles to Marystown, Lillian's hometown, where Son had met her. Until he brought Lillian home his bride, the family had never heard of her. They knew only Betty Sue who lived three miles away. Two springs and summers, with the evenings so long, Son had taken the buggy and gone to visit Betty Sue after the commissary closed, a rough, hard trip over a deeply rutted road. On Sundays he brought her back to Mill's Landing. They had gone through town and on down to the river where young people came from the countryside around to barbecue; or they swam in the bayou at the edge of town, behind the commissary, just opposite the mill, where old, twisted, grey-brown, sometimes topless cypresses provided spring boards from which to dive, seats on which to rest. Poppa remembered Betty Sue as bony, redheaded, laughing, with unsmoothed edges, a country girl, pure and simple. Son had met Lillian on a Saturday night in Marystown, where everyone went for the nearest fun; had seen her on frequent steamboat parties the young people took; going up river to a pavilion in Caruthersville, they danced until daylight to a band imported from one of the Virginia universities, and returned on a steamer for New Orleans, which let them off at Mill's Landing. Son did not know how to dance and not to know meant not to learn. Cecilia had offered to teach him and sensed he was too shy.

In Marystown, Lillian's mother ran a genteel tearoom on Main Street, tucked between the post office and bank, patronized at lunchtime by merchants and planters who on Thursdays, when the tea room was kept open until eight, brought in their families for supper at five. The men gave her their business because they admired a “widow woman” who had gone out in the world to make her own way. Lillian had grown up helping her mother after school but a year short of graduating gave it up, seeing no earthly good an education could do her. It certainly was not leading toward the early marriage her mother urged. Afterward she worked in the tea room full time, only refusing to wear a pink uniform and frilly apron like the other girl her mother employed.

What part of the two years Son took out Betty Sue, he also took out Lillian, the family never knew. But one Saturday evening, closing up the store, a year ago, Poppa had looked up to find that fall had come. The sun had gone. He was counting cash in almost total darkness where a few weeks before at that hour the store had been flooded with a dying daylight. Beyond the houses across the road, the cotton fields lay dark and gloomy, and while he watched, they had disappeared altogether, and he had looked at a night sky. Chill enveloped him and at the same moment, the doctor's boy had passed in shirtsleeves, pedalling his bike, and Mrs. Owens opening her front door, had pitched him a jacket, which he caught with one hand and put on, pedalling still. It caught more'n me by surprise, Poppa had thought, and the summer's death had touched him with shock, like the death of someone he knew.

He had had a similar shock on another morning when, shaving, he had looked at himself in the mirror and his instinct had said, quite calmly, You don't have much longer. Maybe two years, maybe more.

His razor halfway to his face, Poppa had looked at himself in surprise. But why? There's nothing the matter with me.

I know it. I don't know why. I just know.

Poppa, furious, had argued a few mornings, declared he did not believe it, had been defeated, and now almost accepted the defeat.

That Saturday, discovering himself in early fall darkness, he had reached overhead, pulled a string, and turned on the unshaded bulb hanging from the ceiling over the register, and was counting cash again when Son suddenly stepped into the circle of light, dressed in his best navy blue suit, the high collar of his stiff white shirt already making a red circle about his neck, his black shoes polished to a silvery sheen. He had been carrying a light topcoat and Poppa had seen it with approval thinking, the boy might need it.

“Poppa.”

Poppa had looked quickly at Son, knowing it was something important.

“I'm going to get married. After I'm gone, tell Mammy. Would you lend me some money?”

Poppa had handed him a roll of bills, noting half-conclusively it was two hundred dollars.

With thanks, Son had gone to the door and looked back grinning, a cockeyed, crooked sort of grin, handsome, somehow foolish-looking, and yet brazen. Out of incredible blue eyes, health and youth and hope and promise had looked at Poppa. Why couldn't it be me? he had thought with a startled, jealous twinge and said, “You're making an old man out of me, boy,” and forgave him.

“I'll be here when the store opens Monday, Poppa,” Son had said.

BOOK: Old Powder Man
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