Words is peculiar things, needful at best and mighty hurtful at worst. Soft, comfy words, like a momma cooing to her tyke, draws folks in. But hurtful words are akin to a kick in the shins -- they pushes.
Like fer instance love and wars, they's nothing but a tastle of words. Well, a bit more, but you get my drift. Take a case of fistcuffs, the fracas ain't over till one or t'other yells 'uncle'. And if a feller kisses a gal without sparking her right proper, she'll slap you up one side and down the other. At least that's the way it was for me.
I told you all that so I could tell you about all this.
Back a short spell, fifth of May it was. A pirty Spring morning, birds satiating the air with their chirping, the smell of honeysuckle to curl the nostrils. And a lone calf bellering at the top of her lungs for her mommy.
It ain't that I got such a spectacular memory that I recollect all this. It's that it was precisely twenty five years from the day I was born. Ma gave me these bib overalls I'm wearing. The reason they is so loose and crept up so far off my boots is because the mercantile don't stock nothing my size. Don't take me wrong, I'm healthy as a plow horse, and near as strong. Pa says I'm gangly. Ma calls me wirey. And I ain't gonna tell you what some other folk call me.
Well, that morning I was strolling along side Puddin' Lake on my way to the mercantile to spend this here shiny quarter Uncle Jeb gave me for my birthday, and to walk down Ma's sow belly and grits, when I spied a peculiar sight. This old man, must a been fourty at the least, and maybe near double that, if you twist my arm to guess, was sittin' on this log near on to the water's edge.
Now, normally I wouldn't a thought much on it, and would'a just passed on by minding my own affairs. But the log the feller was sitting on was one I am partial to, and I took a smidgen of offence to it being sat upon by someone I hadn't knowed. So I figgered the only thing to do was to go up and get to know the feller.
Besides, sometimes I gets a hook put in my belly and the only way to stay the hurt is to slack up the line. Like a callin' you could say. Preachers get it a lot, so I been told.
"A fine how-do-you-do to you," I says to the feller with a bit of a tip of my hat. I do that a lot, tip my hat I mean, but usual to the ladies. But there is times a bit of respect is due to old codgers -- I mean gents, as well.
The feller just sat there sidesaddle a' that log, neither stired nor spoke a word. I was thinking he was maybe deef..., or maybe he was taciturn. Now, that's about the only fancy word I know..., taciturn. Aunt Beth taught it to me. She's the school mar'm down at Skunk Junction. Mighty nice lady, Aunt Beth. But she really ought to ease up on the beans and cabbage if she's going to be in a closed-in room with a bunch of tykes, if you get my drift.
Now I don't rightly know just what taciturn means, except to say it pictures one who don't talk much.
I eased up on the feller a step or two, like you eases up on a polecat so's not to spook him, then I eased back, for the same cause.
I mean, you'd think a feller like me who's spent most of his days shoveling manure and kneelin' in hog wallow, that his nostrils could handle about anything throwed at them, if'n they weren't burnt out from it all. At least I'd a thought so. But there's a peculiarity that comes to folks what lives long enough to get old. Like spinster librarians. It ain't that I spent much time in libraries, for their aren't none here in Tumbleweed. But in Skunk Junction there is one, and Miss Winny, the librarian, her clothes appears to have taken on the odors of mildewed books. It ain't that she smelled bad mind you, just peculiar.
Now this feller, he smelt bad. More than bad, he stunk awfull.
If cloths takes on airs of the places they's travelled, then that thread-bare grey suit must a been everywhere..., and not washed in two coon's ages.
Lord knows a feller who spends most of his day with pigs ain't got space to go criticizin' others. But I takes my Saturday bath, and at Sunday meetin's folks don't meander off at my nearing.
Now this feller here, he ain't got nothin' more to do than sit next to a whole bunch of nice, clean water. It seems only fittin' to me that he take a step or two into that lake, clothes and all. The sun would dry him off right quick, his suit would sit smarter on him, and be a mite lighter too, I suspect.
I got to thinkin' that if I could get him a wee bit closer to the water, I might could maybe nudge him a smidgen. Then I could toodle down to the mercantile and get him a big bar of lye soap with this here quarter I got.
I says to the feller real friendly like, "I usual sits on the end of the log and lets my bare feet dangle in the water."
Now, I was only three paces from the feller, and spoke just under a bear's roar. So either he hear'd me just fine, or his ears don't work.
I made a funnel with my hands and surrounded my mouth and I let two fingers pinch closed my nostrils. Then I leaned in at the feller. "Felled that old tree when I was twelve!," I bellered. "Landed it right there so I could dive off'en it into the water. You can do the same, if you're a mind to!"
The feller looked up at me, kind a slow like. Well, not all the way up, with him being squat and lumpy and all, it was a ways to my head. But I suspect he saw the bib of my overalls alright. And I could see his scraggly hair danglin' over his weather-beat face, not far different from old ropes layin' wet on a craggy rock.
"You were speaking to me, young man?" the feller says quiet-like.
I yanked myself up straight, surprised to hear the old feller talk. It weren't only him talkin' that shook me, but his words were peculiarly tangible for coming out of a mouth that didn't move much at all.
"First you yell at me," the feller says, more to my feet than to to my head, "then you refuse to speak. Is that the way you treat sojourners in this part of the country?"
"Beg pardon, Mister," I says real quiet like, the sound of it almost squeaky. "I was just trying to be neighborly and thought maybe you was deef or something."
"No, I'm not deaf. I'm just not used to people speaking to me unless they are telling me to move on. And I'm just too exhausted to travel any farther."
The old feller's eyes had a way of not looking at a thing for long before jumping to something else. Reminded me of how I was when Ma queried who'd been spooning out of the ice cream freezer.
"So, where is it you're headin'? If you don't mind me gettin' over-personal, mister."
The feller poked the bark of the log with that stick like as if he was lookin' for bugs, akin to a chicken scatchin' for a worm, then said: "My name is Olyphant, young man. And it's not as much where I am going, as it is that from which I am leaving that concerns me at present."
A peculiarly odd thing to say, I'm a thinkin'. I had to run it through my head a time or two so as to half-way figure out what he meant. Most things this feller Elephant said rattled my brain a bit.
I found myself kind a' took to the old man in spite of my better judging. Possible I was pity-swayed on account a his lookin' like a sizable wort toad, an' empty as the holler log he was perched on.
"So, where is it you're comin' from, Mr. Elephant?" I said it kind a gentle-like so's not to spook him, seeing's how I was troddin' soft ground. He sat quiet a spell, then straightened up considerable. I thought sure he'd run off.
"Have you ever sailed across the sea to such enchanted lands as Japan or Siam?" the feller said while he poked a finger at the sun what was hangin' low like a halo over Cherry Hill on the other side of Puddin' Lake. He talked kind a funny, gentlemanly-like. Not fittin' to the look of him.
"Can't rightly say as how I have, Mr. Elephant," I says to him in my best edgy-cated voice. I wanted him to know he weren't talkin' to no dummy. No sir. I got me a third grade edgy-cation. Two years of it. "I mostly grew up right here in Tumbleweed" I says. "But once government folks come and fetched me to the county seat. Wanted me in the Army, they did." Pride kind a poked my chest out a bit, I reckon, cause the feller looked up at me admirin' like. Or maybe it was a curiousity kind a look, now that I come to think on it.
"The name is Olyphant," the lumpy feller says, "Ollie Olyphant. You were in the Army then, I take it, Mr....I'm sorry, I'm afraid I didn't catch your name."
The feller stutters his words, I reckon. But I didn't think it kindly to call his attention on it. And his remembrance is poor seein's how he told me his name nary a minute ago.
I stuck my hand out at him and he lay his hand into it. Kind a reminded me of a wet guppy in a wood vise. "Most folks just calls me Clem, Mr. Elephant. You can do the same if you'd care to."
I wiped my hand on my overalls an' picked up a nice throwin' stone that catched my eye. You know the kind, lays flat in your hand like a silver dollar. I thought to keep it, but then thunk better of it. I skipped the rock at some little waves that was lappin' at my feet like a litter of pups at a water trough. Five skips I got from it. My bestest is seven with a plunker at the end.
"Nope," I replies. "They didn't take me in the Army. An' I'm right glad of it too. Them Army fellers poked and prodded me like a prize steer at an auction. Hardly a spot on me that weren't either prodded or had somethin' jabbed into it."
"I suppose," he said, "the Army rejected you due to mental deficiency." Mr. Elephant was kind a grinnin' a little when he said it, like as if he knew somethin' I didn't. I thought I ought to be piqued a tad, but I weren't.
"If that's a fancy way a' sayin' I got flat feet, than I s'pose so. Main reason they told me was, the government couldn't afford the cow-hide to keep me shod."
I studied the look on Mr. Elephant, a thing not easy to do on account of him always looking down at the log he was sittin' on, sideways of me. The feller just dug harder at the log with his stick for a spell.
"How 'bout yourself, Mr. Elephant? You hitch up with the Army an' go to those there fancy places you spoke of ?"
Mr. Elephant turned his little pig-like eyes up at me, an' I wished he would go back to diggin' for bugs. He had the kind of look what makes a feller want to chuckle..., guilty like chuckle I mean. Like a clown at the circus, tryin' right hard to make you laugh, while all a time lookin' so sad an' miserable inside. At times I figered the laugh part would bust right out, an' then right quick I feared I would bust out bawlin' like a kid goat with his head stuck in a fence.
"Just call me 'Ollie'," he said to me, but I could tell his thinking weren't even close to where his talking was.
"Well, that's right thoughty of you, Mr. Ollie," I says. (I tell you it's me talkin' so's you don't get con-fused, seein's how I talk so regular-like.) "But it ain't respectful to call older folks by their given name. 'Xcept once, maybe. Back a piece I gave a how-do-you-do to Mrs. Epstien. She asked a thing of me to the which I replies with a 'yes Ma'am'. Then right off she proceeds to wallop me atop the head with her carryin' bag, saying she ain't no 'madam'. I don't rightly know what I did amiss, but I gives the lady a wide berth when I spies her."
Mr. Ollie offered no response, so I bent over double and kind a looked up at his turned-down head. "So, did you do those things you told of ?"
Mr. Ollie just kept pokin' at the log with that there stick of his, quiet as a stalked deer at huntin' season. I was just thinkin' that I ought to leave him be, when he says real quiet-like;
"I don't want to burden you with my problems, Clem. Besides, I'm sure you have better things to do."
Now, me, I couldn't see how talkin' about the Army or foreign places was his burden, less'n he was escaped from one or runnin' from the other. I thought hard a time or two, maybe even four or five, about what I was near-on about to say. On one account because Mr. Ollie's looks an' words were weighin' heavy on my heart, an' for another, I was about to downright tell a fib because I had a horsecart full a chores that needed tendin' to.
I sat myself on a pointy rock that was close on to my log Mr. Ollie had found for his self. The rock weren't comfortable, but neither was the rest of me. An' the rock gave me reason to fidget.
"I got nothin' pressing to do," I says. "Besides, sometimes a folk just oughta help carry other folk's burdens, like the Good Book done told us to do."
(to be continued)