My Boy Elroy

From In the Mountains of America

By Meredith Sue Willis


My grandmother's store sat at a curve in the road on Wise Mountain. It was a general merchandise store and mail drop-off for all the farms and hollows and ridges and folds of the mountain. People used to come down near noontime and wait for the mail. The store had so much open space that they pulled the kitchen chairs and nail kegs and dynamite boxes from the mines near the iron stove even in hot summer weather, just to localize the conversation. My grandmother's main stock in trade by the time I stayed with her for two summers was Pepsi Cola, pink snowball nickel cakes and canned lunch meat. She also sold a lot of pressed chewing tobacco: mostly Red Man and Day's Work, which looked like a yellow candy bar to me on some days and dried dung on others. She had staple goods in her store too, bags of flour and meal, but over the years she found that the fewer large items she sold, the less she had to enter on her credit books; people tended to pay cash for Vienna sausages and Dreamsicles.

The people waiting for the mail used to tell stories. I loved the slowness of the telling. I would line up coins in the coin drawer or sit on a sack of cornmeal and look out the window and let their voices carry me along. They took turns speaking, never interrupting each other, using short blasts of words: quick-speakers, not Deep South drawlers, but mountain talkers, rat-a-tat followed by a space. After a decent appreciative interval at the end of one story, someone else would start. I loved to be a part of those stories. Some times I wished I could be big enough to sit on a nail keg and take a turn, but mostly I was a little awed by the people, and happy to watch them from a distance. They had mouths that weren't like people I knew, cheeks that had collapsed around toothlessness, and the men sometimes wore their bodies bare inside stiff blue jean overalls. The women sat with their knees apart and discreetly waved their dresses up and down for ventilation. So I stayed at the window, or behind the counter with my grandmother, keeping a distance.

She always kept a distance herself, never joining them in the circle. People called her Mrs. Morgan, even the ones she called by their first names, and no one ever came in the living quarters in back of the store. When I asked her why, if Mrs. Robinson was a good woman, she never went back in the kitchen, my grandmother said, "Oh, honey, you have to be real careful when people owe you money." To tell the truth, looking back, I think my grandmother's pride entered into it. She had sent her children to college, and while she didn't boast, people knew my father and my Aunt Ellen were both schoolteachers. My grandmother had a very precise line in her mind between good and bad. Educating your children and paying your bills were on the good side. Politeness was good too, and she was polite to everyone, but she told me very clearly the difference between good people like the Robinsons who would give you the shirt off their back and the other ones you couldn't turn your back on for three seconds or they'd steal the varnish off the counter top.

And then there were the Possetts, who were in another category altogether. I first heard them mentioned in the course of someone's story around the cold stove. "Worthless as a Possett," someone said, and I asked my grandmother later just what is a Possett. She said, "Euh, euh," in her special tone of humorous disgust that was supposed to make me giggle. "You stay away from those Possetts," She said. "They have cooties and they marry each other. Euh, euh."

One day Earl Robinson started telling a story about the Possetts, how they had a fire and lost a child, or maybe two. "They never could count that good," said Earl. He paused then, and no one haw-hawed, but even I figured out the joke. "The ones that lived got burnt too," said Earl. "All but that big Elroy. He just high-tailed it out of there, didn't lift a finger to help." He went on and on, and then other people turned out to have Possett stories too, many stories about this family that didn't have sense to pull each other out of a burning house.

One morning shortly before my mother and father came to take me home that summer, the Possetts came to the store. "Law, law, here come the Possetts," said my grandmother, who had gone out front to sweep the little square of cement under the step. She ran and put a piece of canvas over the bags of meal, and she told me to close the kitchen door and stand by the ice cream freezer. I was not suppose to get close to them, but if any of them wanted an ice cream, I was to get it out and then scoot it across the white enamel lid of the freezer. I was as excited as if they had declared Christmas in August, watching through the big plate glass window as the Possetts came down the yellow dirt road, past the one-room schoolhouse, across the asphalt, barefooted, one after the other, two full-grown men in overalls first, the old one with no teeth and a straw hat--but to my shame I couldn't see that he looked all that different from a fine man like Earl Robinson--and the younger one chubby and round-shouldered, strawberry blond. After him came the old Possett woman who wore a boatnecked dress with no sleeves or waist, as if she had simply stitched two rectangles of fabric into a garment. The younger woman had a little baby in her arms.

"Look at them," whispered my grandmother. "They think that boy Elroy is the smartest thing that ever lived. They buy him shoes in the winter and keep him fat. He got to second grade, too, before he turned 16 and quit. I just wondered which one of them fathered that baby."

I don't understand that, I thought to myself, but I understood more than I wanted to. I tried to pay attention to the children, counting them, examining them. The little baby plus a boy, two girls, and another boy. My stomach wrenched and I stopped counting as that one came across the road. He seemed to have no chin; I tried to look away; I ran to my station by the ice cream freezer, but when I turned back, the little boy was only four feet from me. He had big eyes that seemed to roll all the time because his face was pulled down by terrible stretching from his cheeks over his lower lip area. His little white bottom teeth were exposed as a bulldog's and you could see all the healthy red flesh that should have been inside his mouth.

My grandmother said, "Is that your boy that got burned?" Mr. Possett said, "Ee-ah," or something like that, grinning all the while, reaching behind him and grabbing the boy by the head tugging him around for my grandmother to see. "Don't talk no more," said Possett. "Still eats, though."

My grandmother grabbed a handful of peppermint balls and maple chewies and gave them to the boy. It was as if her hands had to give to him just as my eyes had to look. When he couldn't hold any more candy, it started dropping on the floor and the other children ran and picked it up. Mr. Possett brought himself an R.C. Cola, and after a while Elroy whined until he gave him a nickel for one too. The mother Possett took some of the wounded boy's candy and shared it with the big girl and baby. They sat on the kegs and boxes and looked at us, at the store. Once in a while Elroy would make a sucking noise with his R.C. Cola. After a while Mr. Possett brought some chewing tobacco and two strips of licorice which he tore into pieces for all the children, and then they left, back across the asphalt, up the road past the schoolhouse, into the pine woods again.

My grandmother got a rag and wiped every wooden box a Possett had sat on, and rubbed the plate glass where a Possett had rested his cheek. She moved fast, as if she were doing something she couldn't have stopped if she'd wanted to.

I said, "What did they come down for?" She said, "They came down to go to the store."

It was almost time for the mail, and Mrs. Robinson showed up, and Mary from down the road, and after a while Earl Robinson. This time my grandmother did the talking, more than I'd ever heard her say to her customers. She told about the Possetts coming, about the girl with the baby big as life and Elroy fat as the hog for winter, and the boy with no chin. She went on and on, and there was no climax to her story, just the necessity of telling it.

The next summer I didn't go down to stay by myself with my grandmother. I didn't go down until our yearly visit, and everything seemed different. My grandmother directed all her remarks to my father, and called herself an old widow-woman, and said if things got much worse she was going to end up having to marry that dirty old fellow with the greasy black hat who had the tiny store down the road. "Euh euh," she said. "He's so old and dirty. He sleeps in the same room as the store." And, it seemed to her, the boys were getting worse and worse and meaner and meaner, and all the time she was getting older and feebler and more of an old widow-woman.

It didn't make any sense to me at all because she had never looked bigger and better to me. Her hair was still brown, and she moved briskly around the kitchen, and her eyes sparkled.

My father didn't take it seriously either, and he called her by her first name. "Now Ella," he said, the way he always did when he was being cheeky. We were sitting around her kitchen table eating an apple pie she'd made for us from a bushel of Rome Beauties someone gave her on their bill.

"You don't know," she said.

"Come and live with us," said my mother. "You know you're always welcome," said my father.

My grandmother said, "I didn't write you about the convicts, did I? I'm getting so forgetful nowadays."

My mother and father looked at each other, and then my grandmother settled in and told us about how a few weeks back folks were sitting around waiting for the mail boy and told about a certain Hines from Jenkins, Kentucky, who had broken out of jail in Pikeville. These Hineses, apparently, were the most evil-hearted bunch of boys who ever lived. They would shoot up churches and kill off people as soon as look at them. Especially old widow-women.

"Now Ella," said my father.

Well, anyhow, as it happened, people were worried about the Hineses coming over this way, and Earl Robinson said he was going to send down one of his boys to sleep in the store, but my grandmother, said of course not, she was fine. "Well," said my grandmother, "that very night I had this evil Hines fellow pecking at that very kitchen door. And Elroy Possett the toadstool too."

Involuntarily we all glanced at the door. It was a screen door to a little back porch, also screened, with a rocking chair where I loved to sit and read. She kept her brooms out there, the coal scuttle, and baskets of produce people gave her: the Rome Beauties, potatoes, peaches in season, and more tomatoes than she could ever eat. This porch had a door and three steps down to the garage and coal house. The thing that frightened her that night, she told us, was that the knocking was on her back door instead of at the store door. She had been watching Bret Maverick on television when she heard it, and she walked into the kitchen without turning on the light because she had a bad feeling and wanted to look at who was knocking before they saw her. She passed the telephone, thinking all the time she should call the Robinsons, but she didn't want her imagination running away with her. She didn't want to act like a timid old widow-woman even if she was one. "So," she said, "I ended up with convicts at my back door and no help but myself."

"Come and live with us, Mother," my father said, not fooling around now.

"And do what? Set in a chair? No, I'll just keeping on working and getting deeper in debt till some convict really does get me."

She had stood in the dark kitchen, peering at the shape on the steps, pressing at her outer door. No friendly voice saying, Hey, Mrs. Morgan. Nothing she could recognize as a Robinson or an Otis. The television was still going in the background, cowboys shooting. She made out another man down on the ground at the bottom of the steps, and at a little distance, by the garage wall, a cigarette ash glowing. Three of them, she thought, and that was when her blood ran cold. Three men, and she was sure they were convicts. She spoke suddenly, harshly, as if the force of her voice could blow the man off her steps. "What do you want?"

"You the store lady?" he said without so much as a Good Evening.

"Store's closed," she said, working on a plan in her mind. What she wanted to do was ease herself over to the telephone and gently give a message to the Robinsons. It was a party line, and with luck one of the girls would be on the phone already, talking to her boyfriend. She had heard the Robinson's ring just a little while before, and she thought she might be able to whisper that she needed help without these convicts hearing her over the television. "Store's closed, boys," she said.

The fellow pressed his shadow face into the screen wire, trying to see. He gave a slimy little laugh, and she thought she could smell whiskey. "Aw," he said. "We was wanting something, too."

"Who's we?" said my grandmother. "Do you think I open up to every Tom, Dick and Harry?" The snicker again.

"I don't think you know us, ma'am." She knew he could break the little hook and eye on the door in no time, and once he did that, once he started breaking her things, she would have lost the chance to do anything but scream.

A voice came from the cigarette glow. "Tell her to give us a drink of water, Ed." She was sure the one staying back so far was the leader. He was the Hines. The dangerous one with his picture in the paper, standing back out of sight.

The third one, the big hulk, at the bottom of the stairs, said, "Naw, you said I could have a R.C. Cola to drink."

My grandmother said, "Elroy Possett is that you down there?" A snuffle and a giggle.

"Yes, ma'am." Well, my grandmother saw it all in a flash then. She saw the convicts running across Elroy, who was probably sitting on a rock by the side of the road, and them asking him who had money around these parts, and him saying, Oh Mrs. Morgan, she owns a big store. That's how dumb the Possetts are, my grandmother said. The most money they can think of is me and my poor little in-debt store with nothing but books full of credit. She told us it made her so mad to think that Elroy Possett had got her in all this trouble that she threw the light switch, jut hit the whole bunch of them with the spotlight my father had installed so she wouldn't stumble going out to load her coal scuttle. Light all over Elroy, who shaded his eyes. The fellow up on the steps already had a hat pulled low over his eyes, and the one down by the garage stepped back in the shadows so she never did get a look at him.

"Now why'd you do that?" said the one called Ed, and my grandmother took a closer look at him, narrow shouldered, with clothes that didn't fit, like they belonged to another man. Like they'd been stolen, she thought.

"Tell her what we want, Ed," said the man in the shadows.

"Well," said Ed, "we was travelling and we got hungry and this fellow here said you could sell us some lunch meat and bread and pop." While he talked my grandmother kept looking at his hat, a regular man's dress hat of a greasy black color, and it reminded her of something, and all of a sudden she was sure it belonged to the old fellow with the little store about a sixth the size of her own. She thought, Lord Lord they killed that old man who wanted to keep me company, they killed him and took his money and his hat and now they're going to kill me. It was the hat that set her imagination to working: She wasn't the kind of person to imagine out of nothing, but the hat and the grease spots made her see the old bristle-chinned fellow lying with his throat cut in a pool of blood in that store where if his head was at the stove then his feet must be out the door. She saw her own blood then too, on the linoleum of her kitchen floor. Saw her apron and her plaid print dress. Saw a terrible stillness of sunrise on herself laid out on the floor with no life in her. She heard another snuffle from Elroy Possett, and it infuriated her that a filthy oaf like Elroy Possett was going to be the death of her.

She got so mad that she snarled, "What are you laughing at, Elroy Possett? It isn't funny these poor boys being hungry and thirsty in the middle of the night like this and wanting a little something and you know very well I can't open up this store."

"Yes, ma'am," said Elroy. The one named Ed with the old man's hat said,

"Just some lunch meat, lady."

"Can't open the store," she said. You know I'm not one to have wild ideas, she told us; it was something about the Possett that gave her the idea. "I can't open my store, much as I'd like to."

The man in the dark said, "And why's that, ma'am? We surely would like a little something to eat."

My grandmother kept looking at the Possett, the only one of that whole family with any meat on him, no doubt stealing from his mother and the little ones, no doubt giving his sister that baby. She said, "Elroy Possett knows why, don't you Elroy? I can't open up because of my boy Elroy."

There was a little silence, and Elroy Possett said, "Yes, Ma'am."

She said, "You know all about my poor Elroy, don't you?"

Ed said, "What are you talking about?"

Elroy Possett said, "Her boy Elroy."

"How many Elroys is there around here?"

"Two of us," said Elroy Possett, and my grandmother's head began to swim. Some moths and beetles were flapping and flying and banging on the spotlight, and the one named Ed slapped at them.

"Tell us about him," said the one in the dark.

"He's a bad boy," said Elroy Possett.

"Now, Elroy," said my grandmother, feeling a kind of joy, things happening, she wasn't still yet. "Now, Elroy, don't talk about my poor boy like that. He never hurt me."

"He hurts other folks, all right."

The one down in the shadows said, "Where is this fellow? I'd like to see this Elroy."

"Law," said my grandmother. "I'd never disturb him."

"Don't disturb him!" said Elroy. And my grandmother turned out to have underestimated him, because it was Elroy Possett who made up the next part. "That Elroy sets in the store next to the money box with a shotgun, and nobody never gets near nothing."

Ed cursed. "Why the--"--Blank, my grandmother said--"Why the blank did you bring us here then?"

Elroy Possett was having a good time; his imagination was working away. It must have been a real treat for him, said my grandmother, to feel his brain working. "Yes, sir, that Elroy sets right there with that shotgun and blows folks' heads off. He sleeps in the daytime an shoots burglars at night. He shot lots of burglars."

My grandmother was getting worried that Elroy was going to ruin it by saying too much. "Now Elroy, you're exaggerating."

"Why ain't he in jail? " said Ed.

"Well, he never killed anybody." said my grandmother. "He has real bad coordination, my boy Elroy. He never hurt those boys, the time Elroy's talking about. They wasn't supposed to be in the store, after all. The sheriff agreed to that."

The one down in the dark said, "Tell him to step aside then, ma'am, he'll do what you tell him."

"Law no," said my grandmother. "I'm sorry to say that I'm not a trusting woman. I have a suspiciousness in me."

"Let's go," said the one in the dark, and the cigarette went hurling off. "She ain't letting nobody in her store."

Elroy Possett said, "That Elroy is ugly too. And he ain't bright."

Ed cursed again, and cursed Elroy and stomped down the steps and Elroy went after him.

My grandmother said she went around checking all her window locks then, and she got out the butcher knife and sat all night in the kitchen with the knife in her lap.

"Why didn't you call the Robinsons? said my mother. "It was getting late," she said. "Besides, I always like to do what I can by myself."

"We're getting you a gun," said my father.

"I'd shoot my foot. Beside, it turned out those Hines boys got caught earlier that day all the way over in Danville. Those boys weren't the convicts after all," she said. "Although I do believe they were mean as convicts."

I said, "What about that hat?"

She shrugged. "Two hats. The old man was fine. I got a message from him the next day through the bread boy. He wanted to take me out for a drive on Sunday. In my car."

"Just the same," said my father. "We're getting you a gun."

"All I need," said my grandmother, "All I need is for the no-good people to pay their bills."

I said, "Did Elroy come back? Did you ever see him again?"

"Of course," said my grandmother. "He brought the whole family down again a day later. The whole defective mess of them. They stood around my store for three hours and never bought a thing." She looked at us. "Do you know what they were waiting for?"

I knew, but I said, "What?"

She gave a nod with her chin. "They were waiting to see my boy Elroy."




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