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.
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.”
“But this hair restorer is a new formula,” said Uncle Zenus. “Records show that the Bushmen of Tasmania were using it as far back as five thousand years ago. Have you ever heard of a bald Bushman, Rufus? Heh, heh.”
“No. In fact, I ain’t never heard of a Tasmania Bushman before.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Rufus. I’ll let you have this at half price. A trial bottle. I usually get a dollar a bottle, but you can have it for fifty cents, on account of you giving me and the boy a ride to town. Heh, heh.”
By this time we had reached the post office, which was housed in Mr. Kicklighter’s store. Buckhalter fingered in a pocket and found a silver fiftycent piece.
“Guess I’ll give that stuff a try,” said Buckhalter. “Goldurned if you couldn’t sell sand to an A-rab. Here I stop to give you a lift to town, and what do you do—sell me a bottle of hair restorer.”
“But, Rufus, I’m doing you a big favor. I’m giving you all my profit. The sale don’t mean a thing to me. I just wanted you to try this new formula. But don’t spill any. It’s been known to make hair grow on a watermelon and make whiskers pop out on a cue ball. Heh, heh.”
One Sunday when I was out buggy riding with my grandparents, we stopped by my grandmother’s family home, now shared by her brother Zenus and her spinster sister. The fields, untended for many years, were grown up in pines, the barn was rotting down, and the rambling house was in an advanced state of dilapidation. Only the scratchings of the chickens kept the dog fennel from growing up to the porch, which went around three sides of the house. Uncle Zenus and Aunt Addie were sitting on the front porch as we approached, in cowhide-covered rocking chairs.
“How-de-atchoo,” Uncle Zenus greeted us as he came down the steps to hitch our mare to a fence post. “Sorry you’re late for dinner. But do get down and come in. We can give you a glass of water and a toothpick. Heh, heh.” Pa thought Uncle Zenus’ humor was inane, but my grandmother thought he was clever. Maybe that was because he was her brother.
Despite the slighty unkind remarks they made behind his back, the women of Crowder never turned Uncle Zenus away from their doors without talking with him and looking over the things he had for sale, even though they might not always buy. But most of them wound up buying something. Like Mrs. Wally Saunders. After knocking on Mrs. Saunders’ door Uncle Zenus quickly opened his case and had its contents in full view when she stepped out onto the porch.
“Good morning, Mrs. Saunders, heb, heh,” said Uncle Zenus, an ingratiating smile spread across his red face. “Need any pepper this time? You were almost out when I came by last month. Got some real fresh pepper today. Just come in from the Spice Islands across the Pacific. Heh, heh.”
Mrs. Saunders took the pepper, and from the way she held onto it Uncle Zenus knew he had made a sale. He immediately switched the conversation.
“Here, Mrs. Saunders, please read the label on this new liniment,” he said. “It oughta do wonders for your husband’s rheumatism. Heh, heh. Its principal ingredient comes from an herb that grows two thousand miles up the Amazon River. Its wonders were discovered by missionaries.
“Here, smell it. Don’t it have a pleasant, penetrating odor? Just the thing for tired, aching muscles. It’ll make a new man out of your husband.”
“Well, I don’t think it possibly could be that good,” said Mrs. Saunders, giggling. “But it might help him some after a hard day of chopping wood. How much is it?”
“Usually I get seventy-five cents a bottle, but since you want the pepper, I’ll let you have the liniment for fifty cents. Heh, heh.” Uncle Zenus dipped into his suitcase and came up with several kinds of seasonings. But Mrs. Saunders stopped him.
“No more today, Zenus,” she said. “This is as much as I can buy now. Next time you come by, bring me some more of that tonic you sold me last spring.”
“I sho’ will, Mrs. Saunders. Well, that’ll be sixty-five cents, fifty cents for the liniment and fifteen cents for the pepper.”
Taking the pepper and liniment inside, Mrs. Saunders returned in a couple of minutes with sixty-five cents in silver, which she counted out as she dropped it into Uncle Zenus’ cupped hand.
“Well, thank you, Mrs. Saunders, heh, heh,” he said, having already closed his carrying case. “A good dayde-do to you. Heh, heh.”
That was the Uncle Zenus I remember, the glib peddler with a crazy kind of humor. But I used to hear my grandmother say that when he was a young man, Uncle Zenus was one of the hardest workers anywhere about Crowder.
He would plow from daylight until dark six days a week, and when there wasn’t work to be done in the fields, he would find something else to do, such as hoeing the fencerows or, in the winter, chopping wood and splitting rails. Then one day—it was on a very hot day in July—something happened to Uncle Zenus. It had rained for nearly two weeks straight, and the weeds were as high as the cotton. Uncle Zenus was sweating and thinking as he followed the mule and guided the cultivator. During the past couple of years cotton prices had been so low that he had barely broken even. And now it was the weeds. The rows seemed longer and longer, the field bigger and bigger. Uncle Zenus knew he could never catch up with those weeds; they were just too far ahead of him. At the end of a row he shouted at his mule:
Uncle Zenus unhitched the mule and led it to the barn, where he removed the harness and bridle. Then he went to the house.
“What on earth are you doing, putting up the mule and coming to the house at this time of morning?” asked his surprised sister. “Anything wrong?”
Uncle Zenus didn’t answer, but as he stepped onto the porch he removed his weather-beaten, sweat-soaked straw hat and, with all his might, flung it upon the floor.
“Dad blamed if I ever hit another lick of work as long as I live, so help me!” he shouted.
And he didn’t.
Soon after Mr. Johns, a peg-legged man, came to Crowder, a small boy called him “Peggy.” Mr. Johns laughed loudly at the name, slapped his good leg, and said he liked it. Thereafter everybody called him Peggy.
Peggy had moved in with his brother and family who lived in a weathered yellow bungalow on the roadside be- tween our house and town. He was a tall and rawboned man with deeply wrinkled, weather-beaten skin. Tobacco juice drained down his chin from the corners of his mouth and stained his beard stubble. He showed a mouth full of yellow, snaggled teeth when he laughed. When the weather was warm, Peggy used to sit on a bench in the front yard under a big sycamore tree and whittle, and when the weather was cool, he would sit inside beside a fire and whittle. When he grew tired of whittling at home, he would hobble downtown to Monk’s Garage and whittle with the rest of Crowder’s loafers.
Peggy used to carve fancy slingshot handles for me. He liked slingshots and could shoot one better than anybody else I have ever known. His gray, hard eyes were very sharp. He could hit a sparrow on the wing or hit a running rabbit. I once saw him knock a bullbat out of the sky. He could play marbles well, too, though he had trouble getting into shooting position because of his peg leg. I seldom ever won a game from him. He tried to teach me how to put english on a marble, “like you put english on a pool ball,” but I never got it.
“Your thumb just ain’t long enough, young ‘un,” said Peggy.
About a year after Peggy came to Crowder, a convict camp was set up beside the road about half a mile from our house. The striped-suited convicts began the laborious handwork of improving the road through Crowder, using some mule power but mostly back power. I had to pass the convicts on my way to and from school. They were about equally divided between blacks and whites, but all wore leg chains—chains long enough to permit them to walk but not long enough to permit them to run. Several guards stood about with double-barreled shotguns cradled in their arms. They were stout, grim men who, the way they looked at you, made you fear them more than the convicts. Occasionally a guard would shout an order in a gruff voice.
One morning as I walked past the laboring convicts I was surprised to see my friend Peggy. He was leaning against a fence post near the road, with a double-barreled shotgun in his arms.
“Hi, Peggy,” I greeted him.
“Hi, young ‘un,” he answered, not unfriendly, but in a reserved manner that discouraged talk.
With his left jaw distended by a “chaw” of tobacco and the brown juice draining down his stubbled chin, Peggy looked as grim as the other guards. The convicts Peggy was guarding were a rough-looking lot, too. They were as slender as soldiers in combat and they gave me hard glances after I had spoken to Peggy. I imagined that they snarled silently, and I felt frightened as my eyes met theirs. Thereafter when I passed Peggy’s convicts, I walked on the opposite side of the road, feeling a little queasy as I passed. If Peggy was looking in my direction, I would raise a hand and smile halfheartedly, but said nothing. He would nod his head without smiling.
Work on the road progressed rapidly. Soon the convicts were working within sight of our house. We could hear the clanking of the chains as the men shuffled about and hear the drivers shouting at the mules, and sometimes we could hear the guards as they cursed at the convicts. One morning while we were eating breakfast a shot rang out, then a second shot.
“A shotgun, I gad,” said Pa.
Man-screams followed from the direction where the convicts were working, then an uproar of confused voices, together with the shouts of orders from the guards. We rushed to the window to look, but we could see nothing unusual. The convicts seemed to be working as rapidly as ever, so we returned to our meal.
A little while later, as I passed the convicts on my way to school, I came upon Mr. Kicklighter, the mayor and peace justice of Crowder, and Lazy Dog Johnson, the marshal. They and several other men I recognized were standing over a convict who was sprawled, face up, in a ditch. His chest was covered with foamy blood, and the ground about him was stained red. I did not stop, but walked on with my heart thumping wildly.
“Hi there, young ‘un,” came a friendly voice.
I swung my head and saw Peggy. He was standing on the roadside, his good foot and peg leg spread apart, with his shotgun cradled in his arms. He wore a broad grin that showed his snaggled teeth. He was more cheerful than I had seen him since he had become a convict guard.
“Hi, Peggy,” I answered weakly.
In Crowder the shooting was the main topic of conversation. And so it was in school. Peggy, I heard, had done the shooting. The convict, so the story went, had gone after him with an axe, and Peggy fired two loads of buckshot into his chest at close range. That afternoon I stopped at Monk’s Garage to pick up the latest information.
“That man Johns is a killer,” said greasy Monk Cartwright as he assembled a carburetor. “He just as soon shoot you as look at you.”
“Yeah,” said Rufus Buckhalter, “I hear he’s killed more convicts than any other guard in the state. He killed two convicts in one month a little over a year ago. He got laid off for that. And that’s why he’s been here, living with his brother.”
“Even the other guards say he’s too quick on the trigger,” said Fidley Tootle. “The convicts all hate him. I hear that the man he shot this morning—a fellow doing life for murdering a brother-in-law—had told other convicts that he aimed to get Peggy, even if it cost him his life.” “Well, Peggy was laid off the job at noon—until they can make an investigation,” said Monk.
It was getting late as I approached the place where Peggy lived. I was adjacent to the faded yellow house when he called out:
“Hi there, young ‘un.”
I was startled, for Peggy was sitting on the opposite side of the road, partly hidden by a patch of dead dog fennel. I turned to see him grinning. He folded his whittling knife and dropped it into his pocket as he got to his feet.
“Come around on Saturday and let’s play some marbles and shoot a slingshot some,” said Peggy. “And bring some of them good shooting rocks from near your house. The rocks here ain’t much good for a slingshot.” “Yes, sir,” I said nervously, and without stopping.
“See you Saturday, then,” said Peggy
“Yes, sir,” I said.
But as I walked on I knew that I would not be back on Saturday.
Juddie Matlock had his twenty-first birthday a week after Crowder Elementary School opened. I was in the third grade, and Juddie started in the primer. For the first time I realized it was possible for a grown man to be unable to spell such simple words as cat , rat , and dog .
Juddie was a tall, lanky cracker from the flatwoods. He hardly knew what to do with himself during recess. Our teacher, Mr. Beaseley, must have sensed Juddie’s uneasiness, for he spent a lot of the recess periods talking to him. At other times Juddie would just stand around and watch our games, and when we played baseball, he sometimes would play with us. But he had never played games before, and he wasn’t any better at baseball than the smaller kids.
It surprised me to see how awkward a grown man could be. As time passed, though, we all got to like Juddie a great deal. He was quiet, maybe too quiet. But Juddie would do anything he could to please others. He had a lot of consideration for the kids.
One thing Juddie didn’t like to do was to umpire baseball. It embarrassed him to discover that he had rendered a decision that someone objected to. He would stutter and stumble over words as he hastened to change his decision, only to discover that the other side was now displeased. In the end, he found, an umpire couldn’t satisfy everyone. After that he refused to umpire.
Juddie had to walk several miles to school, and when it rained, he had to wade through the flatwoods most of the way, carrying his shoes over his shoulder. He would stop on a footlog at a branch near the school and put on his shoes. For some reason he didn’t like the kids to see him barefoot. I never saw Juddie’s folks, but they must have been very poor. He wore overalls that bore several patches. They also were about three inches too short for him. His shoes had been half-soled with the fiber lining from an automobile tire.
The classes sat in groups in the oneroom school. Juddie sat with the primer class. Although his desk was among the largest in the room, like those used by sixth-grade pupils, his legs stuck out on either side, his sharp knees standing at the level of his desk top. He looked rather comical, the way he sat there clumsily but methodically writing c-a-t and r-a-t and biting his tongue in a concentrated effort to get the words right.
On the first Tuesday in November Juddie was missing from school. Mr. Beaseley explained that he was taking the day off to vote. Noting some bewilderment in the faces of the pupils, he added:
“You must remember that Juddie is twenty-one and has the right—and the responsibility—to vote. You all will vote some day yourselves.”
“But, Mr. Beaseley, how can anybody in the primer vote?” asked Freddie Surrency, in the fifth grade. “Somebody who can’t even spell cat and rat ?”
“Well, Freddie,” replied Mr. Beaseley patiently, “nearly half the people in Crowder can’t spell cat or rat , but they vote. They just get somebody who’s educated to help them mark the ballot.”
“But suppose the person who helps them is dishonest and tells them to vote for the wrong person?” asked the incredulous Freddie.
“That’s why you—all of you—must go to school and learn to read and write and figure,” said Mr. Beaseley. “If you can manage to get through the sixth grade—even if you don’t go on to high school or to college—you can at least read and mark a ballot yourselves. And people can’t cheat you like they can an illiterate.”
That afternoon as we walked past Mr. Kicklighter’s store, where the balloting was being conducted, Juddie was sitting on some sacks of feed, with his knees tucked under his chin, and he was smoking a cigar. He looked mighty pleased with himself. Several of the kids yelled at him: “Hello, Juddie.” “Who’d you vote for, Juddie?” asked Ronnie Driggers.
But Juddie returned the greetings in a matter-of-fact way, and he didn’t answer Ronnie Driggers. He seemed to want us to consider him a grown and important person that day. And so he turned his head from us after speaking, not haughtily, though, and blew a cloud of blue smoke toward the sheet-iron porch roof. Next day he was back in school, clumsily writing c-a-t and r-a-t and acting like the same old friendly Juddie.
As time went by, however, it became plain that Juddie was dropping behind. The little fellows in his class were beginning to spell simple words. And while Juddie pondered hard over how to spell a word all the little hands in the primer class would be reaching for the rafters. Mr. Beaseley had a lot of patience with Juddie because he was trying so hard, never showing the exasperation that he ordinarily showed when the rest of us had trouble with our lessons.
On the last afternoon of the term before Christmas holidays Mr. Beaseley told us to put up our books. We had what we called “society.” We sang songs, had a spelling bee, sang more songs, and Mr. Beaseley read some stories to us out of his own books. Juddie enjoyed all of this very much, and he especially liked to join in the singing, but he didn’t join in the spelling bee. Juddie couldn’t spell, of course. Just before time came for us to go home, Mr. Beaseley made a talk. He told us how he hoped we would enjoy ourselves over the holidays and how he hoped Santa Claus would be good to us. Then he paused a moment for a change of pace.
“Juddie won’t be with us when school takes up in January,” he said. “Juddie is leaving us for good. He asked me to say a few words in his behalf.”
There was a buzz through the schoolroom, then quiet as all eyes were focused on Juddie, who, as usual, sat with his knees sticking up in the air on either side of his desk. He was wearing a sad smile.
“Juddie would like for you to know how much this short term of school has meant to him,” continued Mr. Beaseley. “As you know, Juddie never attended school before. He wanted to learn how to read and write. He has learned how to write his name. But he’s not young like the rest of you, and learning comes hard. However, he wanted me to tell all of you to be sure to go on to school and to learn how to read and write and to do arithmetic. Now, let’s all give three cheers for Juddie Matlock—all together:
“Rah, rah, rah for Juddie Matlock; rah, rah, rah for Juddie Matlock; rah, rah, rah, for Juddie Matlock.” And school was dismissed with the cheers still ringing in our ears.
I never saw much of Juddie after that, because he lived far out in the flatlands, where I had no reason to go. But I have often wondered how he made out. I used to hear that he was one of the best crosstie cutters and turpentine chippers in that part of the country.