The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Donna J. Dotson “Gus”


Gus showed up at the widow Haynes’ house about a year after her husband’s death. He was three years older than her eldest son and she offered him a bed in the attic. He ate hot meals with her nine kids and worked on the farm from sun up to sun down, seven days a week. The Depression years were lean and when the boys joined the Army and went off to fight in wars, Gus stayed on in his little room in the attic and kept the farm alive. The widow Haynes was a bossy woman and she didn’t listen to any lip from the people in town questioning why this man was living in her attic. She didn’t care what anybody had to say, she was grateful for the help. She was busy keeping a roof over her family’s head and food on their table. Gus paid them no mind.

In the winter time, Gus built huge fires in the woodstove and put plastic over the windows to keep out the cold air. He insulated the attic walls with empty feed sacks and some of the many blankets that the widow Haynes crocheted. Heat from the wood stove didn’t reach upstairs. The widow Haynes gave Gus a shoe shine kit that had belonged to her late husband. It came in a wooden box with an upside down foot on the top. Gus stored it under the edge of his bed. His work boots were never shined. He always wore dark green pants and plaid shirts…cotton in the summer and flannel in the winter. He only owned white socks and his undershirts were stretched and stained from years of wear. Gus never complained.

Gus never married. As far as anybody knew, he hardly ever left the farm except to go to the Feed and Seed or occasionally to drive the widow Haynes to the mill. Rumors followed them to the movies on Saturday nights. All the kids grew up and moved out and had children of their own. When they came around for Christmas dinner or to hide the Easter eggs, Gus was always there. On Sunday afternoons, Gus liked to sit with the radio up to his ear and listen to Nascar races, mumbling obscenities at the announcers. Gus’ jaw was always stuffed with tobacco and he talked so fast, one could barely understand a word he said. Gus found it impossible to complete a simple sentence without the use of at least four or five curse words. Children giggled at his mettle. Nobody ever thought he was a bad influence.

Folks often said that Gus and the widow Haynes bickered like brother and sister, though to the best of anyone’s knowledge they were not any relation. There were whispers sometime around the late 1960’s that the two had gotten married by a Justice of the Peace when they went to see the Biltmore House. It had just opened and harvest season was over. The kids never questioned it. Nothing changed after that. Gus slept in his room in the attic and worked on the farm. The widow Haynes crocheted blankets or scarves, preserved vegetables and fruits from the garden, cooked meals and bossed Gus around. At Christmas time, Gus bought the widow Haynes bedroom slippers and she bought him new white undershirts. All the grandkids came to visit and everybody was glad to see Gus, with his jaw full of tobacco juice and fluent profanity.

A heart attack stole the widow Haynes’ penchant for bossiness. Gus took over her part of the chores as well as the task of nursing her back to health. He slept lightly in his attic room and the kids struggled to understand his tobacco slurred words over the telephone when they called to check on their mother. She never really regained her strength, but Gus never faltered. He stoked the fire in the woodstove in the winter and canned green beans in the summer. He kept the tractor running to work in the fields where he planted corn and potatoes and wheat. Every Saturday night, Gus shined a pair of black loafers he bought to wear with his dark green pants and white socks in case the widow Haynes felt up to going to church on Sunday. He still listened to the race on the portable radio propped on his shoulder but turned it down low, so she could nap. He prepared the same meals she had cooked for him for years and washed the dishes after they ate.

A house full of kids and grandkids gathered around the dining room table at Christmas. Everyone brought a covered dish and colorfully wrapped boxes filled with white socks and undershirts for Gus and nightgowns and matching slippers for their mother. The younger children all gathered around Gus’ chair to giggle as he cursed playfully over helping them assemble their model cars and comb Barbie’s hair. The fire in the wood stove was roaring and the family all melded together in the cheer of the season. The air was filled with love and the silent understanding that the end was near. When the day was over, each bed was filled and children slept on every spare sofa and carpet. Gus crept slowly to the top of the attic stairs and tucked his shiny church shoes under the edge of the bed. Kneeling next to the shoe shine kit, he thanked the good Lord for family.

When the widow Haynes passed away quietly in her sleep, Gus called each child. He cursed through tobacco-stained teeth and sadness. Neighbors brought casseroles and cakes. Gus tidied the house. Everyone gathered in for the funeral. At the church, Gus followed behind the long line of family into reserved pews. Prayers were offered up for the family. Tears of grief flowed. Gus reached in his pocket for his handkerchief and touched a tarnished silver band.