The Lord made Mr. Benny’s bottom lip strong and capable of protruding farther than normal, so that his cigarette could sit on it, secure, and both hands could be free for his work.
Mr. Benny had a heap of work.
He didn’t let that rush him, though. He was the last of the Salt of the Earth and everyone knows that the Salt of the Earth do not make haste. Or if they do, they make it slowly.
He was scooping out watermelon hearts the day I met him.
“I done grown so many in that long bottom,” he explained. “Sara said she’s bout sick of ‘em. So I just cuttin’ the hearts out. That’s all we eat anyhow.”
He stabbed the juicy pink flesh with his Old Timer knife, cut a circle of meat and handed it to me.
“I came to hear the lion story, Mr. Benny,” I said with my mouth full and then wiped the sweet-water off my chin with the back of my hand.
He didn’t say anything at first, just kept steady working through his melon pile.
I was thinking maybe he didn’t hear me and getting up the courage to ask again, when he leaned back, reached into his shirt pocket, rolled a cigarette and stuck it in his lip-shelf.
Then he began:
“Well now, I gotta tell you ‘bout another world first. The world I grew up in, it ain’t like this here world. I reckon you know what I’m talkin’ about. The road into Augusta was a one lane dirt road, with farms scattered down to the river, then we’d cross Fury’s Ferry barge and head downtown where all the action was, about 20 miles it was. We’d walk our cows into town to sell ‘em. We’d go with Mama shoppin’ sometimes, and then we’d get to use the wagon. No, it ain’t the same world…. I remember when they first came up with income tax,” he narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw, so that his moist cigarette bent in two. “Ain’t had no peace since them d— revenuers.”
After a long pause in which Mr. Benny chewed on that poor cigarette, I was afraid his train of thought had been derailed for sure. I’d heard some colorful stories about the Dang Revenuers, as they were unaffectionately called around these parts, but that wasn’t what I came to hear.
As if he read my thoughts, Mr. Benny looked up sharp and his bright blue eyes met my hazel ones.
“Sos, one day,” he said, “We heard tell that the World’s Traveling Zoo was coming to Augusta.”
He paused again. I nodded and smiled, as if to say: “That’s good. Keep-a-going!” But Mr. Benny didn’t take the hint. The pause wasn’t finished yet.
He leaned over and spit into the dirt. As if to say, “Easy does it sister. What’s your hurry?” I realized that I didn’t have to worry. Mr. Benny had started this story good and strong, and the Salt of the Earth don’t start what they can’t finish. I leaned back and (in lieu of a cigarette) grabbed another watermelon heart to suck on.
“Yes, sir,” he went on. “The peddler came and told us. Mama gave ‘em a chicken and he gave ‘er some fabric, a bag of brown sugar and 6 peppermints. One fer each of us. Then he told us ‘bout the zoo. Mama told ‘em we weren’t interested in that mess, she did. She said we had too much work fer that foolishness. But Stanley and I, we couldn’t sleep fer weeks, fer to thinkin’ on it. And when the day came, we could hardly eat our supper. But we did, cause Mama would’ve noticed. We went to bed in our clothes and waited. Seemed like Daddy never would go to sleep that night. Finally the house was quiet. We opened the window. We’d greased it real good. Yes, sir- we’d thought about this, sure ‘nough. Then we took off to Augusta. The miles never went so fast, I tell you. We saw things that night that filled our minds fer years. I’d never en’ heard of an elephant- and there we were, 10 feet from one! There were monkeys, a giraffe, foreigners – the whole shee-bang. It was something else.”
He stopped to put another cigarette in his mouth. I’m not sure what happened to the last one. It might have just dissolved.
“Soon it was time to head home, but before we left Stanley and I overheard some folks talkin’ bout the lion.
“Supposed to be a lion,” one said.
“Didn’t ye hear?” said the other. “The lion done escaped. This morning they went to fed ‘em and ‘e was cleared out. Chewed through the cage.”
My blood ran cold at them words. Stanley and I was pretty close, and when I looked at him, I reckon his did too, but he grinned. Stanley always did have a powerful grin! Daddy used to say he’s like a bird-dog. Good to have around, loud, fun-loving- but Stanley’s fer Stanley, if you know what I mean. I didn’t. Until that night.”
He paused for dramatic effect, as he heard his daddy and granddaddy do before him.
“That road back home was longer than it’d ever been before. We was so dog-tired, but we hurried on, cause we was trying to get home before Daddy woke up. There was a full moon. We met up with some friends at the Ferry, who took us as fer as Hell’s Neck in their wagon. Then we still had a few miles to go. Stanley decided we’d take a cut through and get off the main road. “Shortcut” he said. Though I still mean to pace it one day an’ see if he was right. No sooner did we take that deer path, when we heard It….. There was something behind us. It moved when we moved, and stopped when we stopped. And it weren’t no mans, feet neither. I weren’t no more than 12, but I knew’d a beast when I heard one.
“Coyote?” I whispered to Stanley. He don’t say nothing. “Panther?” He just keep walkin’ fast.
I was lookin’ fer to Stanley to call the shots and finally he says, “Run!”
We ran, lemme tell you, we ran. And all the time something on our tales, like a fox on a turkey. We was nearin’ the home stretch when my legs started given out. I was smaller ‘en Stanley then see. Well, I reckon this’s when the bird dog came out’a him. Stan, he says: “Benny, you can’t move no faster ‘an that, you might as well step aside!”
“No!” I exclaimed, “He didn’t!”
“Sure ‘nough, he did! And ain’t never acted sorry ‘bout it since!”
We laughed together and shook our heads.
“Well being caught in the back, so close to the home-place was ‘nough to make me move like I done never moved, before or since. Stanley an’ I was neck to neck when we reached the yard, jumped over the fence and fell on the front door. Our fear of Daddy weren’t no longer our strongest sen-sation. I was ready for a hundred peach tree switches, just as long as I could get inside.”
He laughed, low and long.
“Well?” I asked. “What happened then?”
He seemed surprised. He reached up and moved his ball-cap back.
“Did you get switched?” I asked.
“Well, you know…. I can’t rightly remember.” he said vaguely.
“What about the lion?” I asked desperately.
“Well, I reckon he’s still out there,” he said matter- of- fact-ly. He got up with a heave, picked up his watermelon-heart bowl and headed toward the house.
“Ain’t nobody seen him!” I yelled after him.
“Ain’t nobody not seen ‘em either,” he said mysteriously and spit over his shoulder.
(This is another piece born of a prompt from my friend Sarah. Look for a Spring post soon!)