Chapter 2 – A Nodding Aquaintance

Chapter 2

A Nodding Acquaintance

Jamie’s eyes jolted open.  Outside the open window the starter in his father’s pickup ground and bullied the engine to life.  He pushed up to look out the window and saw the back of the battered square cab turn away out of the yard and out of view as its tires rasped on the hard-pack sand.

Throwing back his sheet, Jamie shoved up out of bed, slapped his feet down to the floor and immediately turned under a toe.  He bit his lip to force back the forbidden four-letter curse until the pain faded, then deliberately hiss-whispered the word anyway.  He grabbed and stepped into his overalls, heaved them on and promptly got one foot jammed in the leg.  He hopped, jerked harder, tottered against the bedpost and almost fell before his foot finally came free.  He elbowed the straps on over his bare shoulders, spit further forbidden words under his breath and limped barefoot to the kitchen.

His mother glanced up from sliding a piece of split oak into the stove at his appearance at the kitchen door.  “Decide to get up, did you?”

Jamie leaned in the doorway and rubbed his foot.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”  He yawned.

“Cover your mouth when you do that.”  His mother warped a smile.  “Why don’t you pour yourself a glass of milk?”  The cast iron frying pan scraped the black stovetop as she slid it into place.  She laid down strips of streaky lean bacon.

Jamie grabbed a glass from the cupboard shelf and opened the icebox.  “Where’d Daddy go?”

“Just to Silerville to get a few things.  Don’t worry, he won’t leave you behind.  He needs you too much at the mill.”

Jamie studied the bottom of his glass then hefted the white enamel milk pitcher and poured.  “Does he need Ned too?”

Bacon sputtered in the pan and his mother scraped at it with a wooden spatula.  “Now, that’s a good question, Jamie.  I think the answer is yes.”  She pursed her lips.  “But I think a better question might be ‘Does Ned need the mill?’ ”

Jamie looked up.

His mother raised her eyebrows.  “Um-hmm.  I think the answer is yes, but I couldn’t put my finger as to exactly why.  The Lord just works … “

Jamie gulped his milk and nodded.  “ … in mysterious ways.  Yes Momma, I know.”

“It’s true.  And don’t slurp and close that icebox.”

He pushed the thick door on the icebox closed until it clicked.  “I just wish somebody would figure out a different way to say it.  I’ve heard that one to death.”

His mother put one hand on her hip and pointed the spatula at him.  “For that, young man, and for letting Ned spill milk all over, you just put that down and go get some more from Elspeth.”

“Aw, Momma.  It’s not like I told him to.  It was an accident.  Not my fault his daddy read him the riot act.”

“If we hadn’t been there he’d probably have gotten the belt, you know that, don’t you?”

Jamie stared at the floor.

“Go on now.”

“Yes ma’am.”  Jamie hitched his thumbs in his overall straps, slumped out onto the porch and slid into his boots.  He grabbed the milk bucket and banged through the screen door.  Toby bounded up, bounced against his hand for a quick rub and twisted away again, flying in his dancing run.  “That’s right, boy.  Go get her; go get Elspeth.”  Jamie swung the bucket around stiff-armed in a circle as he walked.  He thought of yanking on his little sister’s short leash about the name change and his face tightened into a grin as he stepped up to the milking shed.  “ ’Gramma’ it is.”

The grin lasted till he got back and saw Ned at the table, collar still buttoned up tight, shoveling eggs into his face like there was no tomorrow.

Jamie lifted the milk bucket on the counter with both hands and made a bee line straight for the bacon on his plate.

“Jamie?”  His mother’s gaze dipped to his hands and back up to his face.

“Yes ma’am.”  Jamie rolled his eyes and head and stepped back out onto the porch to wash up.  He took the Mason jar of water that sat to the side and poured it down the top of the pitcher pump to prime it while he pumped on the handle.  Cold, cold water splashed into the basin underneath.  He pumped the jar full of water again, set it back to its place beside the pump, then dipped his hands into the basin and splashed his face.  He shook his head and gasped.  He wiped his hands on his overalls.

As Jamie came back inside he saw his mother spoon scrambled eggs on top of the bacon on his plate.  Ned leaned back and gulped the last of his milk.

Jamie drew back his chair, landed in his seat and crammed food into his mouth.  The thick bacon was strong salt on his tongue.

By the time he looked up his mother’s hands were buried in soapy water in the dish pan.  “Why don’t you two get fishing poles and go get us a mess of fish for dinner?”

“What about getting in the eggs?”

Jamie watched his mother smile down, then glance over her shoulder at him.  “I’ll get Gloria to do that.  You two just go on now.”

Jamie pushed back from the table and took a single step toward the door.  “You sure I can’t stay and watch when you tell her she’s actually gotta work?”  His little sister was not a person who liked doing anything that got her anywhere close to a farm animal, particularly chickens and their associated ick.

His mother straightened and her voice dropped half an octave.  “Go.  Right now.”  She pointed one soapy hand at Ned.  “You too.  Go on, get out from under my skirts; I got things to do.  And don’t let the screen door slam on your way out.”

Jamie only paused to lean down and whisper in Ned’s ear.  “Come on while we got the chance.”  He grabbed his straw hat off the back porch nail and was out the screen door before his mother could change her mind.   He heard Ned’s boots clump and the screen door slam behind him.  Toby danced to greet them then ran straight up to Ned.

“Hold up a minute.”  Jamie stepped inside the backyard shed, his boots scraping on the worn wooden floor.  He reached up to the hooks on the low rafters for two fishing poles, but his hand paused and he took down only one.  He grabbed the bait can from the high shelf, the little trench spade from the corner and dashed back outside.

Jamie led out of the yard, through the garden and toward the cow pasture at a trot.  Toby leapt forward and wormed his way under the gate.  Jamie stopped to open it and held it for Ned.

“Close it behind you, we don’t want Gramma to get out.”

He glanced back once over his shoulder to make sure Ned dropped the latch then trotted down the narrow brown path that curved down the hill toward the woods across morning-wet grass.  He stopped where Toby lay panting, waiting for them at a spreading mulberry tree in the pasture just short of the woods.

Ned followed, gasping a little.  “Where are we going?  What’s here?”  Ned leaned on his knees and his braces bit into his shoulders.  He stood back up and pushed his flat newsboy cap back off his forehead.  “What are we stopping for?”

Jamie glanced at Ned’s boots.  They gleamed shiny brown.  Jamie shook his head, laid his pole down and drove the little spade with the cross t-handle into the cool bare earth under the tree.  He felt Ned’s eyes push on him as he lifted little spade-fulls and gently pawed through the dark dirt for worms.  “This the best place in three counties for bait.  Not only for night crawlers,” he held up one dangling squirming worm longer than his hand and dropped it in the can, “but these too.”  He dug a little deeper then held out his palm to show Ned three little gray-white balls rolled up trying to hide.  “Grubs.”

“Fish like those, do they?”

“The night crawlers are the best for perch but when a bass decides to hit a grub … you’ve just never felt anything like it.”

Ned just nodded.

When Jamie had a dozen or so he scooped a little fresh dirt in the can and covered the dirt with a big handful of fresh grass.  He scraped the dirt across back into the hole with the little spade then pressed it back down with his foot.  He stuck the little spade in the earth.  “Don’t let me forget to pick up the shovel on the way back.  Daddy’ll have my hide if I forget it.”

“I’ve never seen one like it.”

“It’s a trench shovel.  Daddy traded a vet a bushel of sweet corn for it.”

“Was it used in the war?”

“I guess.  He never said.”

Their expedition fortified, they climbed the wooden fence ladder over the barb wire fence next to the woods while Toby again squirmed underneath.  Jamie led Ned down the path through the trees toward his favorite fishing hole, the old grist mill pond that everybody called Little Lake.

Jamie tramped along the path just on the back edge of a trot, focused on the waving light that flowed down through the pines to the path beneath his feet.  If they didn’t get to the water before the air heated up, the fish would drive to the bottom and refuse to bite.

They approached a long turn in the path where it broke from the woods and crossed the dirt road that led to the saw mill.  Across the road they could see the Widow Morrison’s house in its little copse of Chinaberry trees and carefully manicured Cape Jasmine bushes.  Jamie was watching the ground for trip roots when he heard Ned’s voice and felt a tug on the back of his shirt.  “Hey, hold up a minute.”

Jamie turned to see Toby push against Ned’s legs.  “What?  You can’t be tired already.”

Ned reached down to stroke Toby’s neck and shook his head.  “No.”  He nodded toward the Widow’s house.  “What’s he doin’?”

“Who?”  Jamie looked around.

“Him.”  Ned lifted two fingers in the direction of the Widow’s house.  “The way he’s leaning on her mailbox.  Is he drunk or something?”

Jamie’s eyes followed Ned’s fingers to see the mailman standing beside his truck and leaning on one elbow on the Widow Morrison’s mailbox in the cool of the morning dawn.

Nathan Ichabod Hindmarsh Norris loved being the mailman.  His public nickname was Nod, due to his habit of bouncing his head up and down when on the receiving end of gossip.  He was tall and thin with a narrow head and a nose so large his head looked like a triangular stone hatchet.  When gossip was particularly juicy, Nod got to going like a woodpecker.  Jamie had thought it highly likely more than once that Nod was going to bounce the boogers right out of his nose.  His daily appointed rounds were his perfect excuse to wander all over town wedging that nose into everybody’s business but his own.  That peculiar brand of personal drive in a town as small as Miller’s Landing is always unpleasant, but to make matters worse, Nod was not overly particular about what information he chose to collect and subsequently disseminate.  Quantity, not quality was his measure and primary stock in trade.  There is a saying that the vast majority of everything known is trash.  Another saying states that a man is the sum total of all he knows.  One time Jamie’s father told him that to squeeze those two sayings together went a long way toward understanding Nod Norris.   Jamie never found out what his mother thought.  She had been too busy coughing behind her hand while his father deliberately took a slow puff on one of his infrequent cigars.

Nod also made it his special responsibility to squeal on any boy doing anything remotely nefarious within reach of his black ball-bearing eyes and wing-nut ears.  What was not known was conjectured and reported as fact.  Jamie himself had his hide tanned for snitching watermelons from Mr. Thomas’ garden though he had no hand in it.  No matter that he had gotten away with putting banana peels in mailboxes the week before, a single miscarriage of justice was more than enough for Norris to be seen as malevolent enemy.

“He don’t look drunk.”  Jamie watched the man ease letters one by one out of the Widow Morrison’s open mailbox as he leaned his elbow on it.  Nod’s hatchet face was not pointing down at the box where his business was supposed to be, but weaved back and forth toward the sheer linen curtains in the widow’s upstairs windows.

Jamie heard Ned behind his ear.  “Damn if he ain’t doin’ a ‘Peeping Tom’.  Big as all daylights, right in front of God and everybody.”

“Come on, we gotta move.”  Jamie tugged at Ned’s sleeve.  “If he sees us stopped right here he’ll know we’re lookin’ at him.”

Their boots padded on pine straw then ground on dirt as they crossed the road toward the path to Little Lake.

Out of the corner of his eye Jamie saw Norris’ nose jerk swivel over his shoulder at them and then a flutter of letters fell to the ground.  The man stooped to pick them up, straightened, stretched his long neck, hitched his bag on his shoulder and stepped back to his mail truck.

“He looks about smart as dirt and half as graceful.”

Jamie stopped behind the first tree after they crossed the road and peered back.  “He looks about smart as dirt and half as graceful.”  Nod lifted the widow’s letters to his nose.  “Did you see that?”

“Yeah, well.  Maybe he likes the smell of paper.  Why else would you be a mailman?”

Jamie shook his head.  “He ought not to be doin’ that.”

Ned chuckled.  “I don’t see why you’re so bothered.  It’s not like it’s something we wouldn’t do if we ever got the chance.  ‘C’ept the sniffing part.  That’s just peculiar.”

Jamie turned, started down the path again and looked to the ground as he walked.  “Maybe.”  He threw the words over his shoulder.  “But it ain’t right Nod doin’ it.  This is my patch of dirt.  He ain’t supposed to be here, so if there’s any peekin’ to be done …”

Jamie no longer heard footsteps behind him so he stopped and turned around.  Ned stood still in the middle of the path.  Toby sat on the bath beside Ned, looking up at him.

“What?”

“Why don’t we play a trick on him?”

Jamie sidled back up the path.  “What kind of trick?”

“You know, like rocks in his hubcaps or something.”

”How about a couple of dead perch on his engine block?  Or we could put Wandering Tom in the mailbox.”

“Wandering Tim?”

“No, Wanderin’ Tom.  He’s the meanest, nastiest tom cat around.  He’s been yelled at, shot at and chased with dogs.  Some even tried poison.”

“Oh yeah?”  Ned smiled.  “Oh, yeah.”

Jamie ram-rodded his finger straight at Ned.  “Whoa, hold on a minute, that was a joke.  I don’t want to tangle with Old Tom either.”

“Could we catch him?”

Jamie shrugged his head.  “I … I don’t know.  He’s always looking for food.  The widow probably feeds him; she’s soft in the head that way.  A rabbit box trap mebbe, but I don’t know how to make one.”

Ned shook his shoulders once.  “It just sounded like something we could do.”  He pushed past Jamie and started down the trail.

Now it was Jamie that stood still.  The idea grabbed him like a cat clinging to a branch over a barking dog and he felt a slow grin gradually grow on his face.  “Once we built the thing,” he twisted around toward Ned’s receding back, “how could we tell if it was Tom in there or a rabbit or a honest-to-god-stink-up-the-world skunk?  ‘Cause I don’t want no part of no polecat.”

Ned stopped and swiveled back around.

Jamie stared at nothing, talking to himself.  “We could put a little window in it … make it out of screen wire.  The other problem is … we just lower the lid down on the widow’s mailbox, set the rabbit box up on the open lid, slide up the box gate, shake it a little and he’s in there.”

“Jamie, for a church boy you’ve got some ideas.”  Ned grinned.  “Let’s build ourselves a rabbit box.”

“I don’t know how.  Never did anything like that before.”

“We can learn.”

#

By the time they got to the lake the morning mist had already burned away, the last tiny tendril wisps of vapor slow spiraled upward and vanished.

“You wanna have the first go?”  Jamie held out the fishing pole to Ned.

“That’s all right, you go ahead.”  Jamie watched Ned wander off to the end of the faded gray wooden dock, sit down, lean back against one of the pilings and pull his flat cap down over his eyes.  “I don’t get to do nothin’ very often.”

“Suit yourself, but you’re missin’ a whole lot of fun.”

Famous last words, for in spite of the best fishing worms in three counties, every fish slept steadfast on the bottom.  Jamie tried everything he knew, putting the bait deep, keeping it shallow, fresh worms to keep ‘em active, moving all around the dock, under, up and down.  He even tried fishing off the path around the lake, something he didn’t like because it was so hard to work the line through the trees and bushes.  All efforts were to no avail.  At the end he sat down on the dock and frowned at his lonely bobber.

Ned lifted his cap to look at Jamie.  “That’s your ‘whole lot of fun’? ”

“Oh, funny, you’re real funny.”  Jamie lifted his line from the water, ripped the last worm from his hook, tossed it in the water and watched it twist slowly out of sight.  He turned his cane pole in his hand to wrap the line around it and stuck the hook in the cork bobber.  “We just got here too late, that’s all.  And now it’s too hot.  All I been doin’ is drowning worms.”

“What’s that over there?”  Ned pointed toward a cabin nestled deep in trees on the far side of the lake.

“That’s ‘Gunshot Cabin’.”  Jamie looked at Ned out of the sides of his eyes.  “Fella by the name of Burse Coughman decided to leave his wife and just fish for the rest of his life.”

“Burse?”

“It was supposed to be ‘Bruce’, but his momma was too tired to spell after she’d had him, but the point is he built it to get away from his wife.  And she weren’t too terribly happy about it.”

“So what happened?”

Jamie pushed his straw hat back on his head.  “Well, that’s a matter of some debate.  We heard gunshots early one Sunday morning.  Daddy got his shotgun and came down to take a look, but by the time he got here, there was only bullet holes and a bloodstain on the floor.  Nobody’s seen Burse or his wife since.”  He leaned toward Ned.  “Some say Burse and his wife killed each other in a suicide pact and threw themselves in this very lake and one day they’re gonna come bobbin’ to the top, all pale and covered with slime and white eyes starin’ at the full moon.”  Jamie watched Ned for signs of spook.  “You wanna go have a look?”

“Okay, sure.”

They padded through the pines along the edge of the lake until they came to the cabin.  It was a plain rough pine cabin with a single pitch roof and a covered porch that extended a few feet out over the water.  Toby got there before them, jumped up on the porch, sniffed all over the floor boards then jumped right back off the other side, nose to the ground.

“He a hunting dog?”

Jamie watched Ned move into the cabin.  “He loves to sniff things, but we’ve never taken him hunting.  Daddy thinks there’s too many fools down fromRaleigh peppering the woods with buckshot as it is.”

“Well somebody around here hunts.”  Ned handed Jamie a little red pin-on button.  “And your dad might be right.  Some fool has more money than they have sense.”

Jamie looked at the button.  It had ‘Combination Hunting and Fishing License – $3.10’ printed on it.  “Geez.  That’s a lot of money just to stomp around in the woods.”

He stepped inside.  The only remnants of habitation were cigarette butts, a ball of tangled fishing line and a beer bottle.

And a bullet hole in the window.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 2 – A Nodding Aquaintance

    • thanks, Paula. It’s an interesting experience, putting a regular chapter on every week. There’s the energy of needing to make it good so folks will enjoy it and my heart goes into my throat every time I hit the ‘publish’ button. Another couple of chapters and I’ll email Ms. Dystel (or the editor she referred me to) and let her know it’s there.

      Wish me luck. And thanks again.

      B

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