Crowder Tales

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Although readers won’t be able to find the town of Crowder on the map, Nixon Smiley assures us that there is such a place. “Youflatter me with the suggestion that I could have imagined Crowder,” he says. It is a small, dirt-poor farming community on the Florida-Georgia border; and when the author was orphaned as a small boy in 1918, he was sent there to live with his paternal grandparents. Thejollowing recollections of his childhood are excerpted from a forthcoming book, also to be called Crowder Tales, which will be published this month by the E. A. Seemann Publishing Company. Mr. Smiley has recently retired after more than twenty years as a widely read columnist on the Miami Herald.

1. Uncle Zenus

The people of Crowder were divided in their opinions about my Uncle Zenus. Some said he was the sorriest man in Crowder. Others said he was the laziest. But all had to admit that he possessed enough wit to get out of hard work. Uncle Zenus had a reputation of having not “struck a lick of work in over thirty years.” He made a living peddling Watkins products. He drove an old horse, Blossom, riding about the country in an old buggy that looked like it would fall to pieces within the next mile. In a trunk in the back of the buggy he carried cases filled with liniment, spices, tonics, corn plasters, bunion removers, and hair restorers. Some said he also peddled moonshine. But Pa (as I called my grandfather) said that wasn’t true, that Uncle Zenus drank all the shine he got his hands on.

Uncle Zenus, on the wrong side of middle age, was of medium build, pudgy and shapeless, and always in need of a haircut. His hair wasn’t necessarily too long; it was just unruly. He had several gold teeth that he displayed with pride when laughing. But his teeth were no more prominent than his enormous, pockmarked nose, while his ears were the biggest I have ever seen on a human. Pa said they should have been on a mule. Women used him to measure the lack of masculine appeal in other men.

“Why, I’d just as soon go out with Zenus the peddler as with that fellow” was something you often heard.

But Uncle Zenus did have a gift of gab and an original, although corny, sense of humor. He spoke to everybody he met, including strangers, and I don’t recall ever seeing anyone pass up a chance to talk with him, including Mr. Kicklighter, Crowder’s mayor and richest citizen. Although Zenus enjoyed little respect and nobody except my grandmother, his sister, would have entertained him socially, most people seemed to like him. Many enjoyed exchanging banter with him. Uncle Zenus punctuated his greetings and his gab with a dry, shallow laugh- “Heh, heh.”

One day I saw Uncle Zenus walking up the lane toward our house, carrying a small case. His buggy had broken down, and he was reduced to peddling afoot. He was on his way to Crowder to the post office and had stopped by to see if he could borrow Pa’s buggy. But Pa was using the buggy, and Uncle Zenus had to hoof it. Being idle at the time, I accompanied him. We had walked only a short distance along the dusty road when Rufus Buckhalter stopped his Model T beside us.

“Howdy, Zenus,” said Buckhalter. “You all want a lift to town?”

“Howdy there, Rufus, heh, heh,” said Uncle Zenus. “We sho’ do want a ride, if you got any to spare today. Heh, heh.” We got into the car, Uncle Zenus in the front seat and me in the back seat beside his carrying case.

“Heaven bless you for giving a tired man a lift,” said Uncle Zenus, wiping his forehead with a red polka-dot handkerchief. “Heh, heh.”

“Never seen you walking before, Zenus,” said Buckhalter. “Where’s your buggy?”

“Broken down, like me,” replied Uncle Zenus. “Heh, heh.”

“Same old Zenus, ain’t you?” said Buckhalter. “Never change.” “Same as ever, heh, heh,” said Uncle Zenus. “But I cain’t say the same for you, Rufus, old fellow. Danged if you ain’t losing your hair faster than a spring chicken losing its feathers on a Sunday morning with the preacher coming to dinner. Heh, heh.”

Buckhalter automatically raised his right hand to his head, slipping it beneath his black felt hat and rubbing his nearly bald head. Worry lines appeared in his forehead. Then he seemed to have a second thought.

“How in the hell do you know I’m fast losing my hair, and me with my hat on?” demanded Buckhalter.

“Mrs. Buckhalter told me when I stopped by to deliver some vanilla extract that she had ordered.”

“Humph. And she’s noticing it too?”

“Now Rufus, you ain’t no spring chicken, and I hope you ain’t gonna get fried, as well as plucked,” said Uncle Zenus, leaning over the seat to open his case and bring out a bottle. “I got just the thing here that’ll stop your hair from falling out, Rufus. . . .”

“Shucks, Zenus, you trying to sell me that hair-restorer stuff again? I done tried two bottles, and it ain’t done a bit of good.”

“Well, that stuff I sold you was for men with a lot of fat under their scalps. Heh, heh. I guess I didn’t have you figured out right, Rufus. You ain’t no fathead. Heh, heh.”

“I was a fathead for buying your hair restorer in the first place.”