In this next chapter of the backwoods novella BAT IN A WHIRLWIND, Ben is working for the very last time in the café before he leaves for Tulane on Monday.
To read BAT IN A WHIRLWIND, Chapter 14. HOTTER THAN THE DICKENS, right click here and select “Open,” or to download as a free pdf file to read at your leisure whenever, select “Save Target (or Link) As.” You can access the previous 13 chapters for reading or download from the chapter list on the book page.
BAT IN A WHIRLWIND
Excerpt from Chapter 14. – Hotter Than the Dickens
I was washing a tray of cups and glasses, saying goodbye to the loathsome dishwasher, when Daddy came back and with a strange, broad smile said, “Mr. Stein thinks it all looks so neat and kept up. He’s going to buy the place!”
“Fantastic!” I exclaimed and truly happy for him, gave him a congratulatory clap on the shoulder. Daddy looked at me with a fishing buddy smile and left me standing there amazed.
Several more parties came in, and while working on automatic, I realized that I actually did feel awful sad about leaving the Hill now. Before, it had just been me leaving, but now the folks would be going away too. There’d be no Piney Hill for me to come back to on visits. My familiar café with all its furniture and dishes and silverware would be swept up and away in this whirlwind that was whisking me off to New Orleans, like Dorothy to the Land of Oz.
In a while without customers, when I was hanging out by the register with Melvin, old Jim from the filling station, and Melba, Daddy and Mom came in. She was smiling to beat the band. Daddy said he’d talked Mr. Stein into hiring Melvin full time and assured Melba she didn’t have to worry none about staying on as morning cook. He said Mr. Stein wouldn’t be making any changes at the service station either, at least right now.
The real surprise was that Mr. Stein was in a big hurry to move in on Monday, so we needed to move out right away. To my amazement, Daddy’d already made arrangements to put up our furniture in Mr. Bledsoe’s barn. Melvin said he had him a strong boy with a truck that did chores for his mama. He went over to Humpersneck to fetch him.
All of a sudden I got real concerned remembering our zoo and asked Daddy what about the animals. To my relief, he’d already made good plans there too: Clark would take his birddog and hounds, and we’d put Duchess and Lobo with Mr. Jack down at Paraclifta where they’d live at his pretty house. And he’d also stable Lady till the family could get settled in a new place. Clark would also take Fauntleroy Fox down to the real zoo in Texarkana, and Martha Hooper would adopt the cats. The hogs would go to Mr. Stein with the place.
“And when Mom gets our stuff packed up,” Daddy announced, “we’ll just all of us head off to New Orleans.” In horror, I staggered back against a stool. “So when Melvin’s boy gets here,” he went on to me, “y’all can move the furniture up to Bledsoe’s barn.” He handed me a ten-dollar bill and instructed, “When you’re done, give this to the nigger—and anything we’re throwing out. I got to go with Mr. Stein down to the bank in Texarkana to finish up this deal.” And with that, he left us standing there.
A truck driver down the counter was looking up like wanting something, so I took the coffeepot. Back again with Mom, I leaned up on the register and said, not without irony, “Well, looks like you’re going to a city after all.”
“Thank God!” Mom said with a big smile and dried her cheeks with a napkin. “I’m so glad. We’ll get us a place, and you can live with us.”
Horrified again, I said flatly, “No, I’ll live at the dorm like we planned.” Not waiting for an argument, I took Melvin’s cup back to the dishwasher. There was no way I was going to miss out on living in that Robert Sharp dormitory as a Tulane greenie-wienie. I figured it didn’t actually matter if the family came to New Orleans too, because I was still going to be gone off to college. When I came back out front, Mom was leaving to pack. No trouble about my stuff. It was packed already for Monday. Then I had a horrible thought: Leaving tomorrow, I couldn’t take my last ramble in the woods. I’d never see my grotto again!
In about 15 minutes Melvin pulled up by the mailbox in his red Plymouth, a big rattle-trap green truck following behind. As I crossed the road, a Negro boy got out of the truck, about my age in old overalls and clodhopper shoes. But you couldn’t tell much about him the way he looked at the ground. “This here’s Zaya,” Melvin said with a pat on the fellow’s back. “He’s a good boy and works hard. Zaya, this here’s Mr. Ben. He tell you what to do.”
The black boy looked up at me for a moment and muttered politely, “Mr. Ben.”
Melvin went to take over for me in the café, and I had Zaya hang on while I checked on things in the house. Mom was real busy with the living room full of boxes, and Janie was out in the backyard folding up the bedclothes. I quick changed into my old Bermuda shorts because I knew it was going to be some hot work. As I was about to go out, Janie handed me her folded up cot from under the weeping willow with, “You gotta get the bed yourself, big brother.” So the folks’ mattress off the storm cellar was our first item to lug to the truck.
Then we loaded up the living room, all the chairs, sofa, TV, rugs, bookcase and some heavy boxes Mom had ready. Zaya’s truck had a bunch of boards for sides around the flat bed, and we roped things down too. He was sure enough strong with amazing muscles under his overall straps, reminding me of that banana guy on the dock. The smell of his sweat was like a horse or maybe a deer, very animal. Zaya acted surprised to see me working right alongside him, which I suppose probably didn’t happen much with white folks. Mostly he’d just wait for me to tell him what to do next and say, “Yessir” a lot.
On the first trip to Mr. Bledsoe’s barn, Zaya explained that his name was really Isaiah like the Bible prophet. “When I was little,” he chuckled, “Folks think I was saying, ‘I Zaya.’” Suddenly he said, “I hear tell, Mr. Ben, your family is papists.” I confirmed that, not wanting to argue fine points. “Well,” he said, “our preacher say y’all believe whatever the Pope say.”
“Not just anything,” I objected, by now definitely not a believer in papal infallibility. I was secretly amused at the thought of this cluster of three houses we were just now passing being called DePope. I explained, “He’s sort of like the President of the Church, you know, like the President of the United States.”
Clearly Zaya didn’t understand. “Well, we Baptists and follow the scripture of Jesus.”
“I know,” I said, but I really didn’t. Catholics supposedly followed the teachings of Jesus too, but Father Jordan told me it wasn’t good for folks to read the Bible because there were lots of things in it needing explained by Holy Mother Church. At the time I didn’t wonder about that, but now I certainly did. With my new belief in the God in everything, the Bible didn’t mean much to me anymore, if it ever did. I looked at this strange Zaya with his gleaming black skin and could clearly feel the inconceivable God in him too.