Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in the South, but I’ve been around. I carry it with me everywhere.
An Evening with Friends
Jo-Jo shook loose tobacco onto the paper, rolled it and ran his tongue along the edge. He stowed the near-empty pouch and the book of papers in his pants pocket, then lit up, inhaling the smoke deep into his lungs.
Letting the cigarette dangle from the corner of his mouth, he hoisted his pack onto his shoulders and started down the road. He didn’t know where he was going, except away.
Things had been slow at the garage, and this morning Frank had cut him loose. “I’m real sorry, Joe,” he said, “but lately they ain’t been enough work for the both of us. I’m just scratching out a living as it is.” He handed him the few dollars pay he had coming, wished him luck, and that was it.
There was no use looking for another job in this place, there weren’t any, so he’d gone to the boarding house and gathered his belongings into his father’s old army knapsack.
He looked around the room one last time. It was the closest thing to home he’d known these last two years since Dad died. A good place mostly, clean, with one hot meal a day, and Mrs. Higgins was only a little nosy. He didn’t owe her anything, so he had to leave now, while he was square. Dad always said a man paid his debts.
He walked for most of the day, stopping to stick out his thumb when he heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle, but none of them even slowed down. As evening came on, the temperature dropped and it felt like rain. Low clouds covered the sky and a stiff breeze caused dried leaves to scrabble across the asphalt. He turned up the collar of his jacket as the light faded and darkness slid into place. More than anything he wished for somewhere dry to spend the night; even wild creatures could expect that much comfort. Better hunt for a barn or a shed.
Jo-Jo had a general idea of his whereabouts and reckoned the odds were better of finding out-buildings if he turned off the main road. He lifted his arm to shield his eyes as an oncoming car slowed, its headlights picking out a narrow lane, tires crunching over gravel as it turned off the highway.
Bound to be folks living up that holler, might as well try it. He followed the twin rear lights for about a quarter of a mile, then stopped, waiting till the car had disappeared before fishing a flashlight from his coat pocket. He played the light around, revealing a dense thicket enclosed by a barbed wire fence on either side of him, but there was a clearing just ahead, and set back from the road, a house.
Hugging the tree line, he moved cautiously up the driveway. Jo-Jo licked his lips, nervous, his hands shaking so that he dropped the light. He froze, sure that he was caught, but the beam exposed what had been hidden by the dark. The front windows were broken out, and the porch roof had caved in on one side. He pushed through the knee-high weeds. It was a falling down shack, but it was shelter.
Once inside, he made a careful survey of what must have been the main living room. It was in rough shape, but the floor was mostly sound and there was a fireplace. He moved on through a couple of otherwise empty rooms to the backdoor. The yard revealed a woodpile and the expected shed. He filled his arms with wood and headed back inside.
Some of the firewood was rotten, but there were enough solid pieces to get a small blaze going. Sitting before it, he had a smoke and listened as the rain dripped from the eaves and through holes in the roof. He thought it must be the most lonesome sound in the world. There was a can of Vienna sausages and a sleeve of crackers in his pack, but he wasn’t hungry. Jo-Jo felt empty, but not from hunger. He placed his bedroll near the hearth, curled up on his side and closed his eyes.
Music. He raised up on his elbow, wide awake and listening. The room was bright with lamplight and a radio played an old Andrews Sisters tune. He was lying on a sofa.
“Well, young feller, we was wondering if you’d ever wake up.” The speaker was an old man whose white hair stood up in tufts about his bald pate.
Jo-Jo sat up, ready to fight if threatened. He knew he was trespassing, and expected trouble, but he decided to play along until he saw what was what. “Who are you?” he asked.
The old man ignored him, saying, “Rosemary, tell Gram he’s awake.” For the first time, Jo-Jo noticed the young woman who leaned over the top of the sofa. Her blonde hair flipped up on the ends, her brown eyes sparkled, and full lips, emphasized by bright red lipstick smiled down at him. She was so pretty that he forgot his predicament for a moment as he stared at her.
“Okay Pops,” she said, leaving the room. She returned after a moment with an older woman and another girl.
The lady wore her iron-gray hair pulled back into a severe bun and her spectacles magnified her eyes to twice their size. They were friendly eyes, though, with laugh lines fanning out around them. This girl was attractive, too, with thick brown hair hanging in a single braid over her shoulder, and dimples that made a frequent appearance, but Jo-Jo felt sorry for her. She would always come in a poor second with Rosemary in the room.
“We’re so glad you’ve come to our little party,” said Gram. “I’ve popped corn and me and Valene are ‘bout to make popcorn balls. We got cider warming, too.”
Pops had joined him on the sofa and he dug his elbow into Jo-Jo’s side. “I’ve got something a little stronger, if you’ve a mind,” he said, his mouth stretching wide into a nearly toothless grin.
As the other ladies returned to the kitchen, Rosemary grabbed him by the hand. “Let’s dance,” she said. He rose and glided about the room with her in his arms. He realized now that he was dreaming, but he could smell popcorn and the girl certainly felt real. She began to talk as they danced. “I’m engaged, you know,” she said. “To Henry. He’s in the navy right now, but he’ll be out soon and he’s got the promise of a job at the Ford plant in Detroit. We’re gonna get married and buy a little house there and have lots and lots of babies!”
Gram and Valene came into the room then with platters of sorghum popcorn balls. Jo-Jo ate three. He hadn’t had a treat like that since he was a kid. Pops gave him a mug of cider. “There’s a little something extry in this’un,” he said, with a wink. Jo-Jo sampled a good bit of it, then began to feel sleepy again.
He woke up cold. The fire had gone out and he lay on the hard floor. Jo-Jo sat up and looked about, rolled a smoke with the last of the tobacco. Man, he’d love a cup of coffee. He stood and stretched, went outside to take care of business, then returned to retrieve his things. Time to get moving. As he lifted his pack to his shoulder a piece of paper fell from the mantel. He bent to pick it up.
It was a picture. Of an old couple and two young girls. His dream people. Odd. Feeling a little unsettled, he started to put it back on the mantel, but changed his mind and stuck it in his shirt pocket instead. He went to the door. It was a pretty day, the morning air crisp and bracing. “Detroit, huh,” he said aloud. “Bet they could use a good mechanic.” It was a far piece, but now he knew where he was going.