Kids were fascinated by the way Shorty got around East End. In those days, the only paved road in our part of town was Highway 50, unless you count the short road up the hill to the Gospel Tabernacle. The remainder of roads were mud tracks, sometimes covered with what they called red-dog, the rose-colored residue from the burned-out slate dumps down at Minden. On these, cutting back and forth across what was once the Rhodes place, we regularly stubbed our toes if we went barefoot on our bikes, and new cars were turned into rattle traps in a few months. In the winter the depressions were yellow slime pits, or frozen plates between the jagged edges of red dog.
Shorty scooted up and down these pathways and byways on a mechanic’s dolly, his knuckles propelling him faster than many of the Pontiacs and Hudsons yawing along in his wake. Shorty had lost his footing grabbing hold of the ladder of a C&O coal car, his usual mode of transportation. He knew every switching yard in the southern half of the United States. Where the spurs ended up, and how the gondolas were composed for uncoupling along the way. In the late thirties and early forties, there was still a small army of tramps who toured from one hobo jungle to the next.
On the day of his accident on the C&O, Shorty had just had an argument with his old maid sister Fanny, a schoolteacher in one of the company towns down the mountain from Oak Hill, a place called Pax. It was his habit when in his hometown to sleep in Fanny’s spare room, and since he spelled as an experienced short-order cook when in a bind for drinking cash, he cooked breakfast and dinner for his sister. He liked to pull his own weight, though as his more ambitious brothers—seven of them—liked to say, he didn’t have much weight to pull.
On this Saturday morning, a day when Fanny could linger over her food in her housecoat, loud silk practically squawking with parrots, he baked some buttermilk biscuits, fried half a pound of bacon, browned some potatoes he found in a dish in the Frigidaire, and when he heard Fanny’s heeled bedroom slippers come down the hall, he dropped two eggs into the hot grease.
“Morning, Fanny,” he said to the frying pan. “You want one egg or two?”
“One’ll do,” she answered in a thin voice. “I’m not too hungry.”
He recognized the tone, and glanced around. Sure enough, her face had that pained look of the mistreated woman. Pigshit,he said to himself. She’s been out with that traveling man again.
He gently turned the eggs with a practiced flip of the wrist. Over lightly, the voice in his head went on. That’s the way I like my eggs, and that’s the way I like my women.He grinned, picturing old Judge sitting by the fire out by the tracks in Oklahoma somewhere when he said that very line. He slipped the eggs onto a stoneware plate next to the bacon strips, cracked another brown speckled shell on the corner of the stove, eased it into the popping grease where it spread into a perfect circle with a yellow sun in the middle. …you think you’re sumthin’, dontcha, there with your tits sunnyside up.Judge claimed that was from a poem, but Shorty didn’t believe it. They didn’t say things like that in poems.
“Paper says there’s mudslides down at Gauley, again,” Fanny said. “Looks like the mine operators would learn. You cut down all the trees, the mountain is going to let go. And if you build houses on the side of the hill, they’re going to pile up right at the bottom.” She rattled the paper. “Just look at that.”
He twisted around and stuck his face up close to the picture. Since he had stepped on his specs in the pool room the other day, he couldn’t see too well. He could tell it was a miserable bunch of folks looking on their ruined homes, but the details were blurred.
When he turned back to cookstove, the white had begun to harden at the thin edge. He flipped the frying pan—too rough, because then the yellow broke. He had to wait till the yolk stopped running before turning it out onto the plate, and by that time the fringe looked like a starched doily.
“Shit” he said out loud.
“Now, you know I don’t permit foul language in my house, I don’t care if you are my brother.”
He ignored her, knowing that after a night out with Wick, if she wasn’t in a good mood, singing “God bless America” in her high, child-like voice while she made up her bed, then she would be surly and scratchy, like to set his nerves on edge. The blue veins popped up under the tattoos on his forearms like worms rained out of the earth. He could feel his temples tense up. He wanted a shot of whiskey.
Instead he took the biscuits out of the oven, wrapped them in a clean dish towel like warm puppies in a basket and set her egg in front of her, underneath the newspaper. He pulled out his chair, sat down, and snatched up a biscuit before she laid away the newspaper and spread the pale yellow napkin on her lap.
She took one look at the sorry egg on her plate and slammed her fork down on the maple table. “Now, you know I just can’t stand lace on my eggs.”
He already had his fork halfway to his mouth when she said that, and he froze, his forehead crumpling. His hand began to tremble before he went on and took that first bite. Then he carefully split a biscuit and spread butter on both halves.
“And look at how you’ve scratched my varnish, the way you drag that chair of yours across the floor.” She pointedly cut the lace from the egg and shoved it to the side.
After forcing a couple of mouthfuls down his constricted throat, he saw from the way she broke the back of her bacon with the fork that she was building up to another complaint. He braced himself; he had only been back in town a week and would like to hang out at least until he could pick some apples and put a few dollars in his pocket before moving on, maybe back to Texas for the winter. He didn’t want to lose his temper.
Bacon bits flew around her plate like chips from an ax. “Another thing: I hate to repeat myself, but could you please spare me the sight of your dentures when I go to the bathroom. I just hate it.” She patted her lips daintily and sighed. “Even if you are my own flesh and blood.”
She used never to say anything about his false teeth, but ever since she found them in the toilet bowl one morning after he’d really laid one on, she had to remind him every chance she got. Now he ground his prosthetic molars and broke up his own bacon, crumbling it in his fingers over his two fried eggs.
Fanny looked at him in disgust. “I don’t believe I’ve seen such awful table manners in my life. Now I dare you to wipe those greasy hands on that napkin.”
That was it. He slammed his hands down, bouncing the plates and the cups in their saucers. He laid his napkin, neatly folded, beside his plate, after which he lifted the skirt of the matching table cloth and wiped his fingers one by one.
She was horrified, and for once words failed her, both hands crushing her own napkin to her mouth.
Then, he stood up, the chair legs screeching on the varnish like fingernails on a blackboard.
“Just because Wick didn’t dip his last night don’t mean you have to be on the rag with me,” he shouted at her, wet crumbs flying through the sunbeams coming through the kitchen window.
He turned on his heel and stepped through onto the back stoop, slamming the screen door behind him as hard as he could.
“Now, you just come back in here and finish your breakfast. There’re hungry mouths all over this planet, but you only think of yourself.”
He heard her but didn’t answer, didn’t look back once.
An hour later, he stood in the gathering mist at a bend on the grade where the C&O was slow enough to board. He hadn’t counted on the wet iron rungs, and the bacon grease didn’t help his grip. He watched his legs slide under the double trucks, his last thought before losing consciousness: That’ll show the nagging bitch.
So that was the end of his traveling days. The rail insurance paid his hospital bill, bought him a pair of wooden legs he hauled around for a while on crutches, and gave him a pension. Those were the days of trouble in coal-mining country, and most of the company lawyers were too busy tending to more serious matters. It was easier to pay off anybody hurt on their right of way, make some kind of settlement, and get on with the real business of making money.
It wasn’t too long before Shorty—nobody seemed to remember his real name any more—traded his crutches to a grease monkey who had a pickup fall on him and break both his feet, in exchange for the dolly. He chucked the wooden legs and pushed himself around on that dolly for the next ten or fifteen years. He couldn’t get up the steps into Fanny’s house any more, except on his butt, so he rented a shack down in the bottom behind the lot of junked cars. You used to see him, winter and summer, rain or shine, heading up to the saloon out beyond Bowling’s Market. The bartender, a fat Hunk nicknamed Belch, kept an oversized high chair down at the end where Shorty held court on The New Deal, the Filthy Rich, and the advantages of living with tramps to living in middle class society.
I never knew him to enter into a church, not even for funerals, until he ended up there after he skidded under that old ten-ton Reo carrying a load of soft coal to the school. The driver never even stopped, thinking it was just another pothole in the road.
Fanny was my mother’s friend from their school days, and I went with her to the Tabernacle for the service. On the way to church, wearing her pillbox hat reserved for Sundays and other important occasions, she told me as much as I know about Shorty. You know he had syphilis, from the way he carried on before he lost his legs,she whispered to me as a sort of coda. She off and on tried to teach me about sex, usually with dirty jokes. I made a mental note to look up “siffilis” when I got home.
I was surprised to see a full-sized coffin for Shorty up by the altar, and all through the eulogy, while Fanny whimpered under her veil, and a pew full of brothers cringed beneath the dire warnings from the preacher, I thought about it. It seemed like a real waste, that much coffin.
When it came time to view the deceased, the part I liked best about funerals, I filed along with the others. Shorty looked strange to me lying down. Somehow his arms weren’t long enough. It took a while to register, but finally it was plain as day. He was wearing shoes and long pants. What tipped me off was the way his trousers were creased just below the pockets, and the material was faded to where his pants had been folded and pinned all those years. From about the knee down they looked good as new. Fanny had dug out and attached his artificial legs.
I wonder what they did with the trolley he rode on. It sure would come in handy for lugging stuff home from Bowling’s Market.