The following story is really not as crazy as it seems.
All right, it probably /is/ but I refuse to take sole credit for it. I was practically invited to write it. But I stand by it -- if I have to justify it, I'll just say it's a response to all the To Kill a Mockingbird crap The Charlotte Observes is foisting on the world at the moment. Frankly, I'm shocked that Southern Gothic never garnered that much parodic response in its own time.
The color of the past is brown.
Not the rich tones of a sepia print or the hazy, golden brown of nostalgia. It's the washed-out, pale brown of dust. Memories don't die, don't get lost as much as they get buried in a sea of choking, wan dust.
At least, that's how it was in that town. Dust colored road. Old clapboard houses, once white, faded down to the color of old dust. Even the stains on the road -- tobacco juice and horse shit -- were brown.
Even old Benbow was brown, old and tanned, and his old linen suit just as faded as the whitewashed boards he sat in front of.
Well, I called him Benbow. I'm not rightly sure what his real name was, but I read a book once -- about flags or somethin' or other in the dust, incidentally -- and he struck me as mighty similar to that Benbow. So I started to call him that. He never corrected me. Looking back, I always assumed he never got the joke. I'm not so sure now.
I walked by him on the way to fetch Mamma some lard and Nehi back from the store.
"I don't take to no women what wear brooches," he said.
That's how he started a conversation with you, a salutation out of nowhere. I say started. Maybe just clued you in to the conversation he already had going on in his brain.
Okay, I thought, I'll bite.
"Why's that Mister Benbow?" I asked.
"Well, you sit yonder there and I'll tell you," he said, as he motioned to the two stairs up to the boarding house porch." When he did so, he returned to silence briefly. After a minute, a brown splat flew out of his mouth and arched delicately in the space between us. When it came down, it covered a scraggly old daisy, the only thing in Miss Hattergold's hopefully desingated "flowerplot" to survive the heat. The only thing in town that wasn't brown.
"I met her down in N'Orleans," he said. "She wore a blue dress with white pokke dots. And gloves. And a big white sun hat. And a silver brooch. Looked like a cat. Almost the size of your fist. That shoulda told me something. But it didn't.
"She wearn't no young woman. Musta been nigh 70. Sorta smelled o' mothballs and sech once you got close to her. And, Lord help me, I did get close to her.
"I first seed her gettin' off the train down at the depot. She just stood, lookin' around with her mouth a little open, as the porter arranged her bags on a cart. Then she clapped eyes on me.
"I warn't but 16 or so. A shoeshiner. Couldn't get no other work that young. Leastways, not addicted to laudnam like I was. Anyways, she claps eyes on me, and I am looking good. I beat a newsie t'death just the day before, and I was all decked out in nearly-new knickers, suspenders, bowtie and a cap. I weren't surprised t'see her lookin', lascivious like.
" 'Lucius?' she asked, a little uncertain.
" 'No'm,' I said.
" 'Surely it's Lucius! The Sweet Lord has finally returned you back from whence he took ye.' She seemed a right smart certain. I wa'n't.
" 'I don't reckon I know nothin' 'bout no Luciuses, ma'am,' I said.
" 'And he's given you back your limbs. You're sound as ever you were! They told me you'd been... injured. All the other boys who came back, they were missing arms and legs. What must have you had to go through if you... couldn't come back to me?' She pulled a little lace hanky outta her sleeve and dabbed her eyes.
" 'I'm tellin' you woman, I ain't no kind of Lucius. My name is...'
" 'I'm a rich woman, now, Lucius. I took the money they gave me and opened a store. And then another store. And then a whole plantation. Now I own 87% of Mississippi, and good hunk of Arkansas, too. They called me hard. They called me a cold woman. But what else could I be when you were gone?' She dabbed her eyes again.
" 'Eighty-seven per cent.?' I asked.
" 'Reckon you done found your sweet Lucius, sent back by Jesus to find ye. I also reckon He wants you to go and buy me a muffelata. Shinin' shoes and starin' at sweaty male crotches all day is hungry work.'
"She smiled. 'I expect so. I'll be back directly, Lucius.' Then she squeezed my hand. "Then I won't never be far from ye again.'
"I'll be honest here. I thought I had landed in some tall cotton, boy. I expected to be retired for good at age 16. 'Course it don't work that way. Never does.
"It weren't too long ere she came back with my sandwich and a bottle of Co-Cola. It didn't hardly smell like old people when I took a bite. She was happy with just a pickle and a squirt of Old Thomason's Remedy for the Dried Up and Spinisterish. When she suggested we 'repair to my suite at the Pevensy' I couldn't say no. I insisted that we stop at the Woolworth's on the way there so I could stock up on my medicine, though.
"When we got there, she shet the door. She looked strangely at me.
" 'I b'lieve you know what I want now, Lucius. I been a-waitin' since them Yankees up in Fredricksberg done took ye from me them 47 years ago.'
"I weren't no fool. I know'd what she was arter. I war'n't inclined to give it to her, but that 87% of Miss'ippi was a powerful inducement to sweet a-moor.
"She winked at me as she crossed over the room. 'I ain't never bathed since last we were as one. I didn't wanna cleanse myself from your presence.'
"And damned if it weren't true. She took off her pantaloons and the flesh of her thighs above the stockings was black as an ole blue buck. I felt some of the muffelata come back to me.
" 'At least now I knows where old people stink comes from' I thought, as I took an extry large swig of laudanum. I took another just to be safe. I finished the bottle as she took off my shirt.
"I don't rightly know what happened next. I get all hazy. She sort of threw me onto the divan and she took advantage of me. Maybe you heard that 'ere joke about the old workin' girl what suffered the drynesses. I can tell you the first part's true, any road.
"Thank god she kept her top on, so I couldna seen what lay beneath that. All I saw was that ol' cat brooch a zoomin' to me and from me over and over till it was over.
"I say over.
"Th'excitement musta been to much for that old girl, cause she expired right at the height of ecstasy, as it were. Or maybe I choked her to death then. I don't rightly recall. As I said, things went to hazy. All I knows was she was dead when I shot my load.
"I ran outta that room fast as I could get her bony old carcass off'n me. I didn't stop to tell no po-lice or hotel management. What could I tell 'em? Nothin' such as they'd credit. I didn't stop running till I got right to this very spot."
Well, I thought to myself, right there's a moral for a body. Don't be missin' round with no crazy rich war widder. Ain't no gold at the end o' that rainbow.
Ol' Benbow snorted as if he reckoned what I was thinkin'.
"More moral than that. Wa'n't a week passed till my old pecker turned black and fell off. I ain't never had no women since. 'Syphilis' is what ol Doc Forrester called it. Think on that, youngin'."
I got up to walk away. It was almost sundown and Momma was gonna need her lard to fry up a chicken. Benbow's eyes followed me as I walked away.
"Now you mind them old women with brooches on now, y'hear me? You mind..."