After the disturbing Q drops yesterday, thought it might be a good time for a break and some levity. Our research on this issue will be grim and sordid. Here’s something to brighten your day. In our family, we refer to the Cattawampas story as our $100 story. It’s a winner.
My first husband owned a construction company and he was having a difficult week. They were pouring the foundation for a large school and some of his concrete workers were ‘missing’. The ‘pour’ had to be done at one time and was a logistical nightmare – 36 hours straight. At one point, there were 23 concrete trucks lined up. At night, the concrete had to be covered, and the men worked under lights. He rarely came home that week, sleeping in his car, and when he did come home, his clothing had to be thrown away. His body was showing the stress and I felt badly for him. He used to love it when I rubbed his back after a long day, but that week, everything on him, hurt.
Back at the B&B, we had a house full of business guests all week and we were humming.
By Friday, the pour was done and he was feeling victorious. As is typical for construction guys on a Friday, they headed to the beer store. He stopped at the butcher and had 1 1/2″ ribeyes cut specifically, which I was marinating. He was home by 4:00pm, firing up the grill, and surveying the yard work required for the weekend, when a lady from the Historical Commission pulled into our driveway. I was sitting at the computer in the library. The desk is in front of a large window which looks out to side porch and porte cochere, but the window is covered with lace curtains. So, I could not see to whom he was speaking.
His voice got louder and the woman was gesticulating wildly. They were arguing. I thought, “that’s odd”, and I rounded the corner to the side porch to open the door and see what was going on. There she was Jane, an elder member of my lady’s club. She insisted my husband repaint, at his expense, a commercial awning for a historical building downtown, because it did not match her “historical” paint chips from Sherwin Williams.
The LAST thing my husband needed after the week he had was a lady from the “Hysterical Commission” in his driveway on Friday night while he was ready to drink beer and cook a steak. I walked outside to talk to Jane and try a little diplomacy. One of the things I did before we bought the house was take a senior level class on historical architecture and period correct interiors. As gracefully as possible, I explained to Jane, the Sherwin Williams “historical collection” was from the Revolutionary War (Newport Blue, Colonial Yellow, Williamsburg Green) but the building in question was built in 1877, more “Williams Morris” color scheme, and thus the color chosen, was, in fact, period correct.
She didn’t like that answer. She wanted it re-painted at husband’s expense, which would also change the customer’s color scheme for their corporate logo and brochures, already printed. Husband yelled. She yelled. He yelled some more. She threatened to withhold final payment on the job. He yelled. She started crying. He didn’t care about her crying. She finally left.
Husband went back to drinking beer and cooking a steak. Don’t bother husband on a Friday night when he’s cooking a steak after a long week.
Guests arrived, thank heaven they didn’t show up in the middle of Jane in the driveway, and all was well. By Sunday, everyone checked out, I spun the rooms, a mountain of laundry, and by 3:35pm, Sunday afternoon, I was back at the computer desk, in the library, peering out the window, waiting on more business guests to check in. Husband was at the round desk working on a large bid and I was helping him. The house was pristine, immaculate, rooms were perfect, I had 4 rosemary-lemon chickens in the oven so the house smelled wonderful. It was husband’s favorite dish and I was still trying to be nice to him after his bad week. The yard was perfect, flowers blooming, driveway was so clean I could eat off the concrete.
And that’s when it started.
Out of the corner of his eye, husband saw a car pull up in the driveway. Immediately, he said, “Sonofabitch!” and he took off around the corner for the door. Me, again with the lace curtains, couldn’t see who it was. Yet, husband knew exactly who it was. I took off after husband. He stopped at a dresser by the door and snagged a 357 and shoved it into the back of his blue jeans. My eyes went wide. I had never actually seen him do that before. He was out the door in a flash, and I was chasing him when I actually uttered the words, “Whatever you do don’t get blood on the driveway!”
A few steps onto the side porch he glanced back at me. His jaw was set. His eyes were fixed. I could see the veins in his arms and neck. He had that look on his face that all wives know. He sternly told me, “STAY there!”
Okay. Of course, I stayed inside. But….. what the heck? Was my husband going to kill someone in the driveway? Did I need to find another gun and defend my own husband? Were we under attack? We had guests due to arrive within the hour. I was frantic. I raced around the corner back to the library, and stretched hard over the desk, to move the lace curtains to see what the heck was going on.
What a vision it was…
In the driveway was a pink champagne colored Lincoln Town Car from the late 1970’s with a burgundy vinyl top. Huh? Out of the car stepped Billy and Lenny, my husband’s ‘missing’ concrete workers from the prior week. Billy and Lenny were cousins – somehow.
Billy was a middle-aged black man who had 23 children. He was a fast talking guy who should have been a preacher. Billy’s wife, or girlfriend du jour, made terrific egg salad and pimento cheese sandwiches. Billy used to share her sandwiches with me and they were sumptuous, always with sweet dill pickle. I liked Billy but I knew he could be trouble. Billy was wearing a bright purple, polyester leisure suit and a canary yellow shirt, with a purple tie. He was dressed like he was going somewhere important.
Lenny was the black version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’ve never seen a more perfectly formed man. No lie. Lenny was wearing a kiana floral printed shirt, shiny polyester, with a huge collar, like we wore to discos in the 70’s, and it was so tight the buttons were barely holding. Beneath an enormous black belt that had to belong to his father, he had on burgundy slacks, polyester, with no pockets. The pants were so tight I could see the outline of the quadriceps in his legs… and everything else.
Keep in mind, 30 seconds earlier, I was thinking I needed a gun to defend my husband and our home was under attack. With Billy and Lenny in the driveway, I was annoyed. What the heck were they doing here? I was expecting guests. Everything was perfect. They needed to go away, and they sure as heck did not need to make my husband angry after last week.
I watched from the window a little while and husband seemed to calm down, but he was shaking his head emphatically. Five minutes passed, 7 minutes, 10 minutes, I kept checking my watch. They weren’t going away. Patience is not my strong suit and I was frustrated. I estimated the potential for ‘murder in the driveway’ decreased significantly, and decided to take a chance, outside. I quietly sneaked onto the porch, and took a seat on the top slate step, about 30′ away from the men but close enough to hear.
They were arguing about money. Billy and Lenny wanted some, but my husband didn’t want to give it to them. My husband was mad at them for not showing up since Monday afternoon. The concrete pour started on Tuesday. They let him down when they were needed most.
Suddenly, Billy saw me, and decided he would try to tell me his story of woe, make his appeal to me since he wasn’t getting anywhere with husband. Folks, this is good. I’ll never be able to tell this story as well as Billy did that day, under the shade of the porte cochere, but I will try. Grab another cup of coffee for this one.
Billy: Miss D, Miss D, I see you there. Miss D, you have to help me.
Me: (Reluctant and frowning) Oh yeah? Tell me Billy, why should I listen to you?
Billy: Miss D, your husband owes us money for working on Monday and he won’t pay us for our honorable work on Monday. As a graceful southern woman, I beg of you to interVENE with your husband in the name of family honor. (He really does speak in this way)
Me: (In my best southern accent and following his lead) Billy, where money is concerned there is no grace. AND as a fine southern woman, I would hardpressed to go against the will of my husband. YOU know that. For me to even consider such an action, there would have to be a right POWERFUL reason…..
I looked at husband, quizzically, as husband was well known for paying bills. By then, all three men drifted into the shade under the porte cochere. It was 95 degrees in the shade that day and the men were beginning to glisten with sweat. Husband was slightly to my left and Billy and Lenny on the right. Lenny was quiet but Billy could do the talking for them both. I waited for husband’s answer as to why they should not be paid.
Husband: I lent both of you $100 LAST Friday, which you still have not paid back, which is equal to wages for Monday. AND you didn’t show up on Tuesday or for the rest of the week. Where the hell have you been?
Me: Yeah, where the heck have you two been? I depend on you two to take care of my husband and the jobs we have. His thumbs are still cracked from last week! And his boots…. I’m still cleaning them off. You have made my life difficult and hurt my husband.
Billy: Oh, we couldn’t come to work on Tuesday. Just…. couldn’t……
Husband: Why the hell not? You knew it was the biggest pour we’ve ever done.
Billy: Aunt Sarah died.
Now, understand, Billy and Lenny have an enormous family. Yet, a death in the family is a death in the family. Southern tradition takes over and a very strict protocol is set into motion.
Billy: I had to see to the body and make ‘rangements.
Me: Why were you making arrangements as a nephew? One of so many? That doesn’t make sense to me, Billy, and thus, I am not inclined to help you.
Billy: It’s my job for the church. (See there, I knew Billy was going to be a preacher some day.)
Husband: So why didn’t you come to work on Thursday and Friday? (In the south, people are buried quickly and by protocol. Next day is visitation and the following day is burial.)
Billy: We couldn’t bury Aunt Sarah cuz we had to wait for the family to come home from Chicago. Some of them have jobs and they could not leave Chicago until Friday. They drove all night….. straight through, Miss D…… Quickest we could have the ‘visiting for Aunt Sarah was on Saturday. It was a mighty long trip for them, Miss D….., I promise.
Billy: (Continuing) Lenny and I dug the hole. (This was new to me.)(For those who are not used to black southern culture, it is a great honor to be chosen as those who ‘dig the hole’ for the dead family member and family members always dig the hole.) I wasn’t familiar with this custom, so in my mind, I was visualizing these two digging the hole, in August, in the heat and humidity of Mississippi.
Billy: (Sensing he was winning me over) Oh, please Miss D, your husband just has to lend us $100. (Notice how it went from ‘pay us for past wages to ‘please lend us’. Lenny nodded ….. a LOT, it seemed very important to Lenny to have the money.)
Me: Again with the money? Billy why do you need $100?
Billy: Well, we had a problem at the funeral.
Me: What kind of problem at the funeral can be solved with a $100 bill? (Husband reared back, eyebrow raised, —– waiting on this answer)
Billy: Well, we had the “visiting” on Saturday and all was fine. Relatives all there, and “X” made the sandwiches you like so much, you know Miss D, the ones you like. (I nodded). Lot of food, good town turnout for Aunt Sarah. You know how much she was loved. Everything was fine. Real fine. On Sunday, we had the ceremony to bury Aunt Sarah and I preached (he’s preaching now), which was a great honor bestowed upon me by my congregation. The “bearers” (pallbearers) carried Aunt Sarah out to the cemetery. And all of Aunt Sarah’s sisters and brothers, those that were still living, were there, as were all her children. We picked a beautiful shade tree for Aunt Sarah, you would be proud, Miss D. It was so beautiful.
Me: (Billy had set the perfect picture in our minds. Husband was calmed down and beginning to empathize. Billy sensed he had us in the palm of his hand. He was preaching, alright. I broke the calm) Why didn’t you invite me to the funeral, Billy? I go to all the funerals. I would have brought a covered casserole.
Billy: Oh, Miss D, you’re the lady of this fine house (not working on me). You’re way too busy to be bothered (not working on me). And besides, if you came, you know Miss Ann would have to come, too (Miss Ann was my mother-in-law, and Billy was right about that one. Miss Ann would have been a problem.). Billy continued with his tale…. putting us back at the scene of the funeral, under the shade tree. Billy was a master storyteller.
Billy: We lowered Aunt Sarah into the ground, her final blessed resting place, as we all sang hymns (Lenny humming in the background as if on cue). But Lenny and I didn’t dig the hole quite big enough, Miss D. We were using those yellow straps to lower her (straps taken from husband’s job site) and we were having trouble. The congregation sang another verse as we tried to put Aunt Sarah in the ground……… cattywampus.
Husband turned away to stop from laughing. I grinned but did not laugh. I did not know the word, catawampus. I had the image in my mind. They’re trying to shove the casket into too small of a hole, so they decided to place the casket at an angle, I guessed. I was hanging on the edge of my seat.
Billy: Well, at about that time, Buford (another cousin) noticed a tree root was in the way, and he stepped down real hard on that tree root to clear the way for poor Aunt Sarah. So she could finally be put into the ground…….. and at rest……… and we almost had it Miss D…….but….. at the last minute, the casket flipped on that blasted tree root and spun ’round….. like a whirlybird…… And there went Aunt Sarah, face down in the dirt……
Aunt Henrietta: (closest to the edge of the hole) She’s going to HELL!!!!!!!!!!!! My dear sweet departed sister is GOING TO HELL!!!!!!!
In the culture, if someone is buried face down, they are ‘going to hell’. Bedlam ensued and several women fell to their knees…. with the “vapors”. Aunt Henrietta lost her hat in the commotion, into the hole, with dead Aunt Sarah.
Aunt Henrietta, “She’s not taking my hat. She always stole my favorite hats!” and “I want my hat back!” and “Dear Lord, SAVE ME!”
Husband was still furious, not listening, not sold, and growing impatient.
Me: So what did you do Billy?
Billy: Well, we rushed everyone back into the church for a little while and Sudry played the piano. You know Sudry, Miss D, you like her, and she plays a pretty piano (I had no idea who Sudry was). The women served more Hawaii punch (Hawaiian punch from a can) and the men went outside to reconnoiter. We scooped up Aunt Sarah, who was really heavy by then (Huh? Heavy?) Then, Lenny and I tried to make the hole a little bigger for Aunt Sarah and the cousins helped. But it started to rain. You know, afternoon shower….. just spitting a little rain. It was all okay, but it was powerful hot. The sun came back out. The congregation returned to the grave and we sang once more. We lowered Aunt Sarah to the great beyond. (Billy’s prose was award winning) and I said her final prayer.
Me: So why do you need $100 from my husband, and why are you here with us, instead of with your family? Aren’t they waiting on you? (Husband in the near distance, tapping his foot, impatient and irritated)
Billy: Well, Miss D, it’s a powerful hot day (he stretched his arm beyond the porte cochere into the sun and wiped his brow for emphasis), and we’ve been through so much. We need to go and buy beer…….
The need for beer almost caused a murder in my driveway? But I couldn’t get past the mix of culture, the vision before me. Every sense I had was pegging on overload.
I looked at my husband and “Give him the $100.” Husband was stunned, “Are you kidding? We’ll never see that $100 again!” I said, “I don’t care…., and please trust me this one time. I will tell you why, later.” Husband was confused, but he did trust me. He went into the house and returned with 5 – $20 bills. The men left.
We got back into the house, barely inside the door, and he asked me, “Why in the hell did you do that?” I smiled and explained it pained me to see him have such a horrible week because of those two men. I knew how hard he was working. Yet, in the end, he gave me a great gift. I told him, “That’s the best damn story I’ve ever heard. They dug a grave and tried to shove the casket in the grave…… “cattywampus”. I learned a new word. Then, Aunt Sarah fell out of the casket…. in front of all the relatives…. women in hats, wearing their Sunday best…. men in leisure suits…….singing hymns with Aunt Sarah going to hell….. and they want to borrow $100…… cuz….. beer…….” I was howling with laughter, “Are you kidding? It’s a $100 story. I’m gonna tell this story so many times, it will be worth $100 to me.”
Seeing how I reacted changed my husband. All the tension from his face and shoulders was gone…. poof! He started to chuckle. It was pretty funny. And no blood in the driveway was a good thing. Over time, the cattywampus story evolved into HIS story. He laughed just thinking about cattywampus. And he told the story at least 100 times.
But it’s not over.
About six months later, the phone rang in the kitchen. It was the local prison from the next county, with a call for me. It was the prisoner’s ONE phone call. It was Billy. He said, “Miss D, I need your help. You’re the only one who can help me. You’re a powerful woman and I need your power.” Again, not working on me. He went on to explain that if I could just see my way clear to pay for his 128 parking tickets, AND drop off $20 a the prison he would be most grateful and pray for me.
I grinned, after all, it was Billy. I thought for a moment and figured I might be able to get him out of the parking tickets…., but I asked him what the $20 was for.
Billy: I sure could use some cigarettes, Miss D.