The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Celebrate the Fourth of July, 1933 with a Story from Pete Peterson


*this story is apropos of nothing but another South and how it may have been a while back and how sometimes we forget just how far we’ve all come. — Valerie 

Valerie MacEwan

Old Fashioned Fourth of July by Pete Peterson

The flames that ate baby sister Mandy alive and turned Pap to a black cinder, blistered me some and burned away my talk box. Nobody knows how the fire started, nor where my Momma’s at. I lived cause of Miss Ethel’s nursin’ and Pap said to always pay yer debts, so tears be hanged, I’ll play the freak.

Last night she said, “We’ll have a dinger of a good time in Yellowbird, watch a parade and see soldiers shoot and eat fried chicken and apple pie and peach cobbler and ice cream.” This ain’t cause of me, but today’s when we celebrate the birthday of our country, the good ole U.S. of A. I ain’t up on what that means nor how to do it. Pap taken me and Mandy and Mom to a shindig down river in St. Charles like this, where boys throwed fire crackers that skeered the dogs and made horses go wild-eyed and made Mandy wet her pants. She crawled up on my lap and hid her face, her stubby fingers holdin’ on to my overalls like a baby possum to its momma’s tail.

When the fireworks ended, Pap went to feed the mules. Mom saw her chance and skipped off to a speakeasy. Three days later she come back, smellin’ like piss and whiskey. Pap laid her in the wagon and fed her biscuits and warm milk. Mom swore she’d and her last drink. Come daylight, we hit the road hopin’ she’d honor her pledge so we could rent a house, plant a garden, and me and Mandy go to school like regular folks.

Now Miss Ethel says, “Take off that hat so they’ll get a good gander.” The lace doily she sewed to Ryman’s old cap to shield my scars from the sun and hide my ugliness goes into my pocket. Without it, I feel nekkid. I wish Pap were here so we could go fishin’ and not be sport for ladies.

“Ryman found him in a hollow tree bad burned and near froze,” Miss Ethel says. “The fire snuffed out his daddy and baby sister, may they rest in peace. His momma too, though she mighta wondered off and the coyotes got her. We ain’t rightly sure.”

These stiff necks don’t give a handful of mulberries if Mom’s dead or alive since she weren’t they’s type. These gals would no more drink beer if they’s well was dry than they’d loan a neighbor a spoon of brown sugar. But beer were Momma’s favorite, next to rye whiskey.

Miss Ethel turns me this way and that. My eyes sting. A lady touches my face. “Feels kinda like a lizard don’t it?” Another says, “It’s a miracle of the Lord Jesus you’re alive today.”

She could be right. Still and all, I’m glad Miss Ethel were around to bandage my burns and spoon warm soup down my gullet and do nursin’ things that made me live. I ain’t sayin’ Jesus wouldn’t a done the same, only that he didn’t, and Miss Ethel did.

When the ladies ooh’s and ah’s slow, Miss Ethel leads me to a bench under a big elm. “Wait here till I fetch you for eats.” She goes back to the church group.

Ryman found me in January. I ain’t been alone since, ‘cept nights, so I breathe deep. The show I jist put on tuckered me out. I’m ready to nap. If Mandy were here, she’d cup her stubby hands around my face, her head on my chest and look at me in the kindest way with her Chinaman’s eyes. I’m most sorry I couldn’t pull her outta the fire, like I tried.

It seems at first to be a good place to nap, with only women voices comin’ from the tent behind me where they rustle up grub for the noon feast. Then, a youngun squalls from a nearby wagon and a bob white quail whistles. A fire cracker goes off.

“Look at this can,” a boy calls. “It’s bent all to shit.”

A man yells, “Yer gonna blow off a hand tyin’ them M-80’s together. Take your mischief elsewheres afore I call the constable.”

It goes quiet agin. A breeze stirs the leaves, causin’ ghost and goblin shadows to chase across the dirt under the elm. On the road, me and Mandy slept under the wagon. Sometimes a hoot owl would call from a tree next to our camp sending a chill up my back. The fire snaps like a broke bone. Sparks shoot up and die in the black air. I wish my blanket weren’t so doggone thin.

Now, footsteps open my eyes. Two boys, run up, eager as pups to explore the woods. “Whatja sittin’ here for?”

I can’t answer.

They eye me. The biggest one wrinkles his forehead. “What happened to you? Your face is red as blood.”
He leans close, like a horse reachin’ for grass through a wire fence. His nose most touches mine. I give him a loud hiss. He jumps like a yellow jacket stung him and runs off, screechin’. The other boy, bellers and lights out after him, dust flyin’ from bare heels.

I settle hat and doily over my eyes and wiggle down. The boys are back afore I can nod off, bringin’ bigger fellers with ’em. They sneak up on all fours, like Injun braves after a buffalo. I’m used to bein’ the freak. I sit up straight.

“What happened to you? Was you scalded or somethin’?”

I nod.

“Yer the ugliest somabitch I ever saw.” He smells like hay and sweat. “I bet you’re a asshole, too.”

Quick, like a water moccasin strikes a mouse, he snatches my hat and doily.

This riles me, I tell you. I’d fight ‘em, but it’s six to one, with them six.

“Hey, Scarecrow, want your hat?” He shakes it in my face. I grab for it. He tosses it to another boy.

“Look at this girly lace.” He grabs a handful of dust and throws it in my face. “That’ll fix ya. Now ya can’t see, nor talk.”

The dirt stings. Tears fill my eyes. If I had a club I’d whack ’em.

“Cry baby, cry baby. See the baby cry.”

I’m yanked to my feet, my arms pinned and spun around. I go dizzy and fall into the dust. The boys laugh and yell. I ain’t laughin’.

A boy jerks me up and pulls a egg from his overalls. “Hey, everybody. Watch me. I’ll crown him king.”

He pretends he’s a radio announcer. “And now, dear listeners, come along as I christen ‘Scarecrow, King of the Uglies.’” His egg cracks agin my head like a blacksnake whip. The egg innards, warm as snot, slide under my shirt, ooze down my belly and plop on the ground between my bare feet. All I do is squirm.

The boys shout. “Give him a parade. Give him a parade.” Another egg splats agin my head.

“What’s goin’ on here?” a grown-up voice says. It’s Ryman, Miss Ethel’s husband. “I wondered what the ruckus was.” He grabs the boy who just broke his egg on my head. “What’s yer name?”

“Ed Standis.”

“Yer daddy, Hiram Standis?”

“Yes, sir.” He’s tunin’ up to cry.

“Get him. I want a word with him.”

A passel of men have come up. Like Ryman, they musta heard the whoops.

“That’s him.” The boy points to a stubble-faced feller.

“Hiram, get over here.”

Hiram Standis sidles up. He wears clean overalls and a new-lookin’ straw hat.

“Hiram, I seen somethin’ that makes my blood boil. Yer boy broke a egg on this feller’s skull. He’s the one Ethel’s been nursin’. This rubs me wrong.”

“Now, Ryman, they was just funnin’. Boys bein’ boys.”

“Fun? When’s bein’ pelted with hen eggs fun? How’d ya like it if I broke one on you?”

Hiram Standis shrugs. “Boys playin’. No harm done.”

“Don’t be a bird brain. Your boy apologizes or I’ll bang you with somethin’ harder’n eggs.”

“Now Ryman, hold on. Ain’t no reason to get fired up.”

“Hiram, this a one-sided game. When’s the little feller’s turn to plop ‘em back? You and yer boy both are getting’ a ass whuppin’ unless he says sorry.”

Ryman’s hand is on my shoulder. “This boy’s had a run of bad luck that would kill most of us, but he’s got more guts than a turkey buzzard. Last week he weren’t strong enough to go to the privy. Today, he’s here.”

Hiram eyes Ryman like a auctioneer sizes up a prize bull, his face white as peeled cucumber. Ryman stands solid as a corner fence post, his fists fryin’ pan big.

Hiram turns to his boy. “Yo’all shouldn’t a done what you did. Make apology.” Hiram slips into the crowd. “Ain’t kids sumthin’? Never know what they’ll do.”

The men drift off. Ryman makes all us shake hands and say sorry. “The parade’s startin’ soon. Let’s go.”

*** ***
The men line up with guns. The town constable and a top dog from the Yellowbird Bank and his wife stand up front. The constable says, “The pretty lady’ll drop her handkerchief. I’ll call ready, aim, fire. Yo’ all raise your gun and shoot three times. Squeeze ‘em off together, okay?”

Grover Cleveland, Ryman’s 14-year old son, laughs like a guinea hen when he shoots his gun. He represented the Call family. He’s smiles at the fiercesome noise the guns make, then stands with gun stock on the ground. Some of the men go over to a cotton wood tree, pull on blue jackets with brass buttons, select they’s musical instruments and line up with the band.

A boy, no bigger than me, beats a drum. The men march up, then stop in front of the shooters. A feller waves a stick and the band tootles “Dixie”, that song folks around here like. Two old men wearin’ gray outfits trimmed in yeller with two rows of shiny buttons, come forward. The crowd claps and yells, ”Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah.”

Miss Ethel says, “These gentlemen fought in the Silver War. Ain’t many heroes like ‘em left nowadays.”

That war musta been some time ago, cause these fellers are wrinkled and stove up. Pap told me oncet the Silver War were a bad go all around. It sure ain’t my idee of fun. Pap said sons fought daddies and brother went agin brother. That sounds plum silly to me.

The taller old gentleman yells, “Attention. At Katy’s count, forward, march.” When the men move, he goes, “Hip, two, three, four. Hip, two, three, four.”

They lift they’s feet in a funny way, go down to the wagons and back, twicet, then stop. A band member blows his horn. Four men in witch hats wearin’ white bed sheets from head to toe, come up. They wave a red, white and blue flag with a big blue X on it and white stars in the X.

Ida Mae, Miss Ethel’s oldest daughter, says, “The Ku Klux Klan and Confederate flag. Don’t they know its July 4th, 1933, not 1863?”

A white sheet man waves a Bible. ”Let us pray.” From how he does this, you’d think he had God on wages. He says Jesus hates them who mingle with the coloreds and the white race better watch out or else negroes will soon vote and go to school with our precious little ones and sainted white ladies will be locked away to protect their sweet womanhood. I ain’t up on why he prays this way, only that he did.

These fellers strut off to claps and whistles. Mr. Lucas yells, “Attention.” The men stick out they’s chest and tuck in they’s chin. A boy with a bad case of sweats blows what Ida Mae says is “Taps.” The parade ends and the feast begins.

The fried chicken and biscuits and cream corn keep comin’, and I load up. Grover Cleveland leans over and whispers, “Dummy, think yo’ momma’s found her a black man now yo’ Daddy’s dead?”

Ryman says, “Hush, Grover. Don’t talk like that to him, hear?”

Grover rolls his eyes, “Can I go show folks my turtle?”

Yestriddy he caught a big snapping turtle on his trot-line. He brung it along in Miss Ethel’s wash tub. I know trot-lines, since Pap were a everday fisherman. It’s just heavy string with hooks danglin’ down ever three or four feet. You bait the hooks with worms or minnows, then knot the line to a stake or tree limb and stretch it across a creek or river and tie it at the other end.

Grover Cleveland’s fishin’ spot’s too wide for his line to reach across, so he knots it to a saplin’ fifty feet or so out. He poles out in his skiff twice a day to pull in fish and rebait his hooks. Mostly, he catches catfish or perch or drum or buffalo. He sells most of them to neighbors or town folks. Sometimes, he hooks a big turtle like yestriddy.

Ryman says, “Go on. No egg fights and keep outta Dark Town.”

That were good advice, but I’m afraid it didn’t take with Grover. Nor me.

* * * * * *
The music hits when I’m a the clearin’, its sweetness gold as honey. My feet heel and toe like a puppet on a string. Folks gather under what Pap would call a brush arbor, tree limbs laid over forked poles set in the ground. Two colored men make music. They laugh and cut up so you can tell they’s havin’ a grand time. The swig from a Mason jar and hop around like grass hoppers on a leaf. Everone’s colored.

Kiss my wrist. I’m in Dark Town, where Ryman said don’t go. I plop next to a sycamore tree with a straight look at the music makers, but can’t sit long. On most songs the guitar player strums, then sings, afore he blows the hand organ. Angels ride the fiddler’s bow, his music’s so fine. They play a mournful song, followed by a happy one, with hardly no stoppin’ between tunes.

A cigar box sets on a hay bale. Folks drop pennies or nickels in it from time-to-time. The musician’s nod at this. That’s they’s wages, I figure. I’d yell and holler, if I could, so I jig like I wear new shoes. The musicians smile and point at me.

I figure if I ain’t welcome, a darkie’d tell me to move on. Not one darkie comes to gander at my scars. On the road, me ‘n Pap would come on colored folk’s right often. The only difference between them and us worth I could see were they ate better. Sometimes they’d give me a hunk of corn bread or slice of bacon, which I appreciate. Mandy too, since I’d share.

Two girls, dresses hiked up so they can wiggle, make the dust rise with they’s fast feet and gyratin’ bodies. I reckon if Ryman finds out I come here, he’ll whup my ass, mebbe make me leave his bed and board, though I figure Miss Ethel won’t stand for that. I know I should head for the wagon, but my feet won’t go.
Howsomeever, before you can say Merry Christmas, the sun’s low. The fiddle player says, “Milkin’ time. Last song comin’ up. Thank yo’all for havin’us.”

The dancers wipe off sweat, give hugs and head for they’s mules. Some of ’em put a jar of jelly, loaf of bread or chicken leg beside the cigar box. It hurts my heart when the music stops. I could gorge on it ‘til next Tuesday. I wish I could stay here, safe and music fed forever.

The guitar player comes up. I’m flummoxed and forget I can’t talk. I squeal and point at him. He laughs.

“I’m Harry. That’s Hob.” He bows low and points to the lean to.

“We ‘preciate you comin’. Now be off to whoever brung you.”

I reach in my pocket and take out the nickel Miss Ethel given me earlier to spend anyhow I see fit and hand it to him.

“They ain’t no need for that.”
I bow like he did earlier, hands under my chin. Hamus Zanderhook pays his way. Harry Gaither’s brown eyes search mine. “Much obliged, friend. Now go.”

I head at a fast gait toward the bridge. I disregarded Miss Ethel’s instructions comin’ here. She said when my nap was over to come to the big tent. I woke up with a strong urge to wander. Pap said it were a good idee to know where you was, so if you come back again, you’ll know where you been.

I hop down from the wagon and head toward the railroad tracks. Two girls stop the hand slap game and look at me like I’m lice in little brother’s hair. The girl in the blue dress covers her mouth. The yellow dress girl rolls her eyes. They both snicker.

A foot bridge crosses a crick jist past the tracks. On the other side, a path leads to a clearin’. That’s where Hob and Harry’s music hits me and all reason flies away. Now, I’m at the bridge, headed for the wagon when Grover Cleveland runs up. He carries Miss Ethel’s tub. It’s empty.

Grover says, “Ya lost, Dummy? You’re in Dark Town. Daddy said don’t come here. I’m gonna tell.” He laughs. “Yo’ ain’t got no more meat on you’n a coat hanger, but darkies would boil it off and eat ya anyway.”

He saw my look at the empty tub. “I sold my turtle for seventy-five cents.” He says the money amount real slow. “I give a pickaninny a dime, took her down to the culvert and did a job on her. I won’t get a stiffy for a week.” He laughs and runs off.

Across the bridge is a stump. My heart about stops. Sittin’ there like a gray wolf waitin’ for a fat rabbit, is Granny Krebs, a widder woman who comes and goes like chokeberries in the spring, or sleet in the winter. She reads tea leaves and brags she can forecast storms and divine the future. I ain’t seen her since the day afore our shack burned down.

“Member me?”

I nod.

Folks claim Granny carries a haunt, that if she comes at calfin’ time, you’ll have a calf born with two heads. If you eat chicken and dumplings for supper and she’s at your table, you’ll burn dead chickens within the week.

“I seen ya with them darkies,” she cackles loud. “They don’t mind ugly folks, I reckon.” She draws on her pipe. “It’s a miracle of the Lord Jesus Christ you’re alive.”

I nod.

“Seen yer momma at all?”

I shake no. Most everone knows nobody’s seen Momma since the fire.

“When I come by yo’all’s cabin the night afore it burned, yer cupboard were bare as flint stone. I come back the next day with a mess of squirrel stew and grits. They was only ashes where yer cabin stood. I seen things there that made chills go up my back.”

Her pale blue eyes eye me close. “Let me warn ya. She’s alive and she started that fire sure as a skunk’s black. I found yer Pap’s and sister’s remains and given ’em a Christian burial. Thank ya, Lord Jesus Christ.”

She knocks ash from her pipe. “Where yer Momma is, I ain’t divined, but she’ll cause ya travail for years to come.”

Then, like a spider web blowin’ in the wind, she disappears into the trees. I’m too skeered to follow her and run to the wagon.

* * * * * *
Now that we’re headed home, I figure Grover’ll brag about how he sold his turtle, but he dangles his feet off the back of the wagon, silent as a toad frog. I’m taken aback. Then it comes to me. If he says he got money for it, Ryman’ll make him share with his sisters. That ain’t Grover’s way.

My heart slows some and I rest agin the wagon sideboard. The wagon sways when it goes over a bump. The sound of the mule’s hooves on the dirt road makes my eyes heavy.

Miss Ethel speaks up. “It were a fine day, even if Hiram Standis showed his red ass. What’d you call him, Ryman? A bird brain?” We all laugh. She goes quiet.

Grover Cleveland whispers, “I’m gonna tell where I seen you when we’re home.”

Ida Mae hears this. “Grover, where’s yer turtle?”

“Turned it loose in the crick.”

“I’ll bet. Ask me, a black family’s gonna have turtle soup for supper.”

Hob and Harry Gaither’s music swirls in my head. I wish I could play a musical instrument so fine that when I strike the first note, folks’ll smile and be happy, but that’s jist a dream. I don’t have a instrument to play, nor a voice box to sing with. Still, Pap said a feller could always hope. That’s what I’ll do. Hope and hope and hope. That way mebbe I’ll forget Granny Krebs’ warnin’ about my momma.