The Night It Rained Birds
Afterwards, the old timers always remembered it as the night it rained birds.
It was Elvira Peacock’s cookies that done it. Thing is Elvira’s cookies were the talk of the entire town. Moist and chewy with lots of raisins or coconut or chocolate chips, depending on what kind of cookies she was fixin’ to make. Boy, if you were on her cookie list, old Doc Weathers would jest shake his head with that disgusted look on his face. He had gotten it into his brain that her cookies would be the death of all of us who et them one of these days. Doc was always carrying on about you was what you et. And Miss Elvira’s cookies, he tole everyone who’d listen weren’t no good for your health. Funny thing, as it turned out, he was right. But mostly we jest figured he was one of them alarmist fellers. You know putting a body in his grave long before he took his last breath.
Doc Weathers was about the only one in town didn’t think much of Miss Elvira’s cookies. For the rest of us who was lucky enough to be on her cookie list, it was like being saved. Now, when Elvira was fixin’ to go off on one of them baking sprees of hers, you could kinda tell something was afoot. When she wasn’t planning on baking, she wouldn’t step one foot outta her house, not even to pick up the morning paper offen her porch. Yessiree, that was the tip off and the whole town would know something was up. Then all them boys who made their first stop every morning regular like clock work at Jed McDougal’s diner would hear the big news from Jed who always knew first.
It’d start with him talking bout it to Stash, one of his regulars, who beat everyone else to the diner every morning. Stash was the only real carpenter in town. He didn’t charge that much neither so most folks called him when they needed a new roof or wanted to add on a room or two. Like the Jensens did when old man Jensen passed and his widder moved in with them, him being her son and all. Didn’t work out too good being as how the old lady was kinda set in her ways. I suppose it was a blessing to all concerned when she had her accident. Couldn’t have been more’n 6 months give or take a few after she moved in, the old lady fell down a whole flight of stairs and darn near broke her head open. Course there was some folks who wondered how a lady as sturdy on her feet as Widder Jensen come to be falling down a short flight of stairs and git that there fatal head injury to boot. But Doc said she probably had a stroke what caused her to fall down the stairs. The Jensens had a real nice funeral for her, and with the insurance money she left, they had Stash build them a brand new porch. The old lady would have been happy to see what happened to her money, they’d tell anyone who’d listen. Well, mebbe, but I weren’t never all that sure bout that.
Now this here Stash I been talkin about, if the truth be known, weren’t much of a carpenter and that’s a plain fact. He hadn’t never learned to read or nothing, so you couldn’t hardly hand him a set of plans, like old lady Richards done one time. Fact is he always built whatever it was the way he wanted to so there weren’t no use spending a lot of dough for a fancy set of plans that Stash wouldn’t use. Old lady Richards damn near took off his head after he finished putting that new addition on her house. Claimed it didn’t look anything like the architect said it would. That old cuss Stash weren’t about to argue about it. He just stood there cool as you please with his hand out holding his bill. Told her she’d have to take that up with her architect. ‘Cept the way he pronounced that first part it sounded like he was talking about an arch-atect. I kind of think he done that on purpose to make fun of old George Frye. Besides Mrs. Richards couldn’t complain to George and Stash knew it. Not, that is, unless she wanted to take a trip out to Abbotta Cemetery where old George was pushing up them daisies. He’d departed this life right after he made up those plans for Mrs. Richards but not before she paid him. Old lady Richards was a good Christian woman but she did allow as how it would have been a lot more gentlemanly of George if he had gone and died afore she paid him. But he didn’t and that was that.
So there weren’t no use bellyaching to Stash. He didn’t want to know nothing about it. Far as he was concerned, he’d improved on them plans. Stash never did have no regard for them prefessionals snakecharmers. That was what he called anyone who’d gotten through the seventh grade. Folks says that Stash had quit in the fifth grade. It didn’t matter much. Water under the bridge.
Don’t go gettin’ me wrong, I ain’t saying Stash was a bad carpenter. Stuff he made never fell down or nothing. It just wasn’t real fancy looking. You could ask old lady Richards. It weren’t so much that the addition was flimsy, actually it’d probably last longer than any other building in town, it was just so, well, ugly, that was it. Anyways she raised quite a ruckus about it. Threatened to take Stash to court or get out the old hunting rifle her husband had left her, the one that was so rusty you couldn’t even load it no more and shoot a load of buckshot into his rear end. Not that she actually mentioned where she would shoot it, after all Miss Pearl was one of them church-going ladies who never said nothing the bible didn’t approve of, but she got her point across. Finally old Judge Burgess got into the act. By that time folks was taking sides and the kids would run by Stash screaming “Stash is trash” and stuff like that. Most folks secretly thought the Judge should have minded his own business. It wasn’t like anyone was gonna to get hurt or nothing. But it sure was funny to see the two of em having at one another. Everybody knowed the old lady was as stingy as they come. Mourned after every dime she spent. And she surely didn’t have to. Old man Richards had left her a fortune when he passed. And Stash was another one who was tight with a nickel. The two of them was cut from the same cloth. Weren’t no need for the Judge to put his nose into it and spoil the fun.
Seeing the two of them scraping and carryin on even beat the time old Mrs. Mulberry lost the elastic on her panties and they fell off right when she was climbing on the bus. Landed right in the street they did. Being a real lady and all, she didn’t miss a beat. Stepped out of them quicker than you could say skedaddle, pushed them away and climbed onto the bus. Cool as a cucumber. She was so quick, nobody would have ever known but fer her bad luck to have old Mabel Pyncheon right behind her in the bus line. Old Mabel was the town gossip and didn’t like Mrs. Mulberry. Right jealous of her some says. Anyway she made it her business to tell everybody she knowed about how Mrs. Mulberry lost her panties.
Well now getting back to Stash and Mrs. Richards, the Judge he got things calmed down. Had tea with the old lady and soft soaped her with all that stuff about her being a true Christian and she had to do like the bible said and forgive and forget. Being a woman, she swallered that turn the other cheek malarkey. I guess she figured if it was good enough for her boy Jesus, it was good enough for her. Stash, now, he didn’t much care what people thought, including the Judge. All he wanted was his money and he had that. So like he told us, it was jest like the judge said Case Closed.
But back to Miss Elvira’s cookie baking. Right on the bat, Jed he would suddenly stop pouring the coffee or dishing out them old Danish he claimed was fresh baked, which they weren’t. How we knowed is Pete Ambrose had seen Jed sneaking into the back door of the bakery one time looking careful like to make sure nobody seed him. Which made Pete curious. Besides since the old drugstore had closed more than five years ago, all Pete done was to look mighty good into everyone else’s business. Pete surely wouldn’t never get another job. Who wanted a seventy year old stock boy? He had a small pension and his wife had gotten a little money from her mother when she passed. So they made do. Sometimes Stash would hire Pete to help him on a big job. Like putting on a roof . Stash had a bum knee and he couldn’t climb around them roofs like he used to. Anyway, Pete and the missus they got along. Besides they had a kid, boy, course he was growed up and all. Soon as he got him chin whiskers he skedaddled right outta this town. We heared that he had a pretty good job dealing with them stocks and bonds that rich folks buy. One thing for sure, he never showed his face in town no more. Not even to visit his folks. Understandable, I reckon since they was never a real close family, if you take my meaning. They had never got on all that good. Kid was a real smarty pants. You know the type. Had managed to get hisself a scholarship to one of them big universities. Didn’t even invite his folks to his graduation ceremony, like normal kids would have done. I suppose he was sorta ashamed of them, but still they’s his parents and in my book he still owed them respect.
I gotta admit though he sent them money pretty regular. Not a lot, folks said, but even a little bit’s better’n nothing. He made sure to send them a card come Christmas. Plus, the old man’d get a birthday card most years. But come his mother’s birthday in August and he’d go all out and send her a big flashy gift. Nothing she could ever use, but folks says it was the thought that counted. Me, I wasn’t so sure. The one I remember best was the last one he sent her. This big handbag straight from Paris, France. Some thought it was real pretty with them gold buckles and that big chain you was supposed to hang on your shoulder. I suppose that’s true, but myself I ain’t never seen the sense of giving someone something they don’t have no use fer. But hey that’s me. By the time he sent her that purse, the damn fool hadn’t seen his mother in about 20 years, give or take. If he’d had the sense he was born wid, he would of sent her something she could use. One thing’s for sure, aint no way Evangeline was gonna use that purse the way it was meant to be.
Evangeline Ambrose didn’t have no shoulders, none that would hold that big old purse he sent her. Them that knew bout such things said it had something to do wid her change. One day she was okay and the next she started looking all lumpy and after awhile this big old hump started growing out of her back. By the time she got that purse, it could have come from Topeka, Kansas for all the good it done her. Kinda like that circus fellow Barnum said about there being enough fools in the world to make anyone rich. Well, I don’t hardly know but what he was right. To see Evangeline carrying that purse all over town, not like it was meant to be but hand carrying it so that everyone could see what a thoughtful kid she had to send her sech a beautiful gift. Wouldn’t you know it, the whole town was full of damn fools who agreed with her.
She didn’t get no more gifts from sonny boy after that purse though. It weren’t long after that one of the guys, Seth Pickett I think it was, read about him in one of them big city newspapers in our liberry. Seems he had gone wrong. Embezzling money, don’t you know. Probably some of that there stolen money bought poor Evangline’s purse. Takes all kinds, don’t it? Well, anyway, according to the article somebody ratted him out and he and all his fancy pants ideas wound up in the slammer. So there weren’t no more gifts. But Evangeline still had that stupid-looking purse. She carried it around everywhere even after the word got out about Junior’s little problem. She never put nothing in it. Come to think of it, she didn’t have nothing to put into it even if she wanted to which she didn’t. She let folks touch it, which they all wanted to do at first, but she didn’t let noone fool with them buckles or open it or nothing. After awhile it weren’t new no more and no one wanted to take the time to look at it. Even to please Evangeline. But poor Evangeline still carried that purse everywhere she went. Most of the ladies would run and hide when they saw her coming. But dames like Sally, Jed’s waitress and long-time girl friend, always acted real impressed-like every time she came up to her and asked, in that soft, little girl voice of hers, if she wanted to see her new purse which her darling boy had sent her. And oh, wasn’t it nice that he had made something of hisself so that he could afford to buy his mother such a big, expensive gift. Enough to make you cry your eyes out Sally used to say. I guess she was right.
Well, that there’s Evangeline’s story. Funny how some folks just aint born under a lucky star and that’s just how it is. Nothing they can do about it neither. I guess that’s what them writer fellers mean when they talk about how you jest caint control destiny. Getting back to Pete, Evangeline’s husband, he was the one let on about how Jed came by all them fresh baked rolls and things. When he was running low, Jed would sneak into Foster’s bakery right before closing and buy up all them pastries that hadn’t been sold. Old man Curtis whose family had owned the bakery for almost one hundred years would put the old stuff on what he called his day old counter and knock the price down. ‘Course it was well known in town that Curtis hisself wasn’t a real stickler about them dates. His day old shelf was more like a week old shelf, if you know what I mean. Anyway Jed would bargain with him something fierce and old man Curtis would generally get so steamed up he’d darn near give the whole lot to Jed fer nothing. He’d cart them off to the diner and sell them like they was new. And nobody’d be the wiser. Leastways, they wouldn’t have been if old Pete hadn’t of seen him that one day.
He’d take them outta the box and arrange them real pretty-like on them glass dishes he had. We all knowed the truth thanks to Pete, but nobody really cared. Us fellers didn’t go to Jed’s for the pastries. The diner was like home. We’d all been knowing each other since we was in grade school. It was kinda nice to have a comfortable place to go with your own kind and sit around shooting the breeze and not having to worry about no strangers interfering. We jest knew whatever happened we was in it together every man Jack of us.
Like I mentioned, Jed always knowed when it was one of Miss Elvira’s cookie-baking days. He’d get that far away look in his eyes, sniff once or twice appreciatively and say: “Elvira is making them chocolate chips (or sugar cookies or peanut butter or whatever) of hers.” Did I mention that he roomed at Elvira’s which is probably how he always knowed when she was fixin to do some of her baking. Not that he admitted it. He claimed that he left the house too early to tell if it was one of her baking days or not. Probably she mentioned it to him when they had dinner together, which they did every night. Jed would close up the diner between 4:00 and 5:00 and Elvira would have his dinner ready right when he came in the door. Then he would open the diner back up promptly at 5:00 so his customers could eat.
Thing is Jed’s cooking wasn’t real good. To tell you the truth it was downright awful. Just a lot of pig swill if you ask me. But there weren’t another diner in town in them days, just the fancy restaurant on the other side of town where all the rich folks from up on the hill went. I guess with him being the only game in town, Jed wasn’t motivated to make any changes. He was probably right, too. Folks who et there had to. Didn’t matter how the food tasted. They would have et there no matter. The other thing was that even if the food had tasted better, he wouldn’t have gotten anymore customers, if you know what I mean. It was just one of them things.
So, anyhow, he’d be serving up the coffee and them old muffins and Danish and things in the morning, and he’d stop suddenly and say, usually to Stash first like I said before, “Elvira’s heating up that there old oven of hers. Butterscotch cookies today.” And he’d be right every single darn time. That’s how you’d know for a fact that he had what they call speedy information.
By afternoon the whole town would know that Elvira had gone and done it again. She’d sashay out dressed to kill in her bonnet and go to meeting dress carrying stacks of cookie tins which she’d put into the food cart she’d “borrowed” a long time ago from Logan’s. She’d make about ten trips between the house and that old food cart carrying them big stacks of cookie tins with all her cookies in them. It was like a sacred duty for Elvira carrying them tins from her kitchen to the food cart.
It all started going bad the time she and Pickett had that awful fight. Miss Elvira had just finished up her cookies and was carrying the tins out to the cart. Well, old Pickett was sittin’ out on his porch and he seen her making all those trips between the house and the cart. So he done something stupid. He took it into his head to help her with the carrying. He sure made a mess of things. It was mebbe an honest mistake, but why he didn’t jest mind his own business like he should’ve done, I ain’t figured out to this day. That aint the worst of it. You see old Pickett was real deaf, not that he’d ever admit it but he was, so he didn’t hear her when she tried to tell him that she didn’t want no help.
So Elvira being one of them women who didn’t like to waste a lot of time beating a dead water buffalo, takes her parasol and holds it like a club. But still Pickett didn’t catch on. He kept trying to take those durned cookie tins out of her hands and he wasn’t paying no attention to her protesting. So she just ups and started beating him with that old parasol that she always carried but hadn’t used in mebbe twenty years or so. Well, it was quite a ruckus. What with old man Pickett trying to figure out where all them blows was coming from and still pulling at Elvira’s cookie tins and old Elvira trying to save her cookie tins and keep on beating Pickett.
Finally old Sheriff Castlebee drives up in his old Ford being as how noisy old widder Landry called over to the station house to report that someone was trying to attack Elvira right on her own front porch, in broad daylight don’t you know. Amanda Porcine’s folks was one of the founding fathers of our little town so she growed up here, married old Tom Landry’s son and they was one of our first families, until Amanda and Tom Jr. lost all their money on some real estate deal. It was one of them things where they and some other folks bought up a whole lotta land and was going to build a bunch of houses, sell them, and make a fortune. Well it didn’t turn out that way at all. You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and rats, doncha? The one they all trusted, Mort, the banker’s son, he was in charge of all the money and he was gonna invest it until they needed it. But Mort, now he fancied himself a real ladies man. Always running around, drinking and carousing and doing all them other things that Christian men don’t talk about, at least not in front of their wives.
The shame of it was that pretty little girl he’d married. She got so lonesome what with him never being home and all that she started taking a little bitty drink in the afternoon to make the day go faster. Well, it weren’t long afore she was a drinking first thing she got out of bed and never stopping neither until long after decent folks was in bed asleep. Mebbe if she had been able to start a family, but the doc allowed as how it weren’t never gonna to happen. Real shame, she was such a pretty little thing afore she took up with Mort.
Well, anyway, Mort, we found out later, got some little gal in the family way and them two brothers of hers wasn’t real happy. They wanted to know what he was planning to do to right this wrong he committed against their family. What do you think that darned fool goes and does? He takes all that money them people like Amanda and Tom had entrusted to him and gives it to those brothers of hers so they wouldn’t break his legs.
Poor Tom he just never recovered from the shock of losing all his money in one fell swoop like that. But that weren’t all of it. They lost their house too, the one that had been in Tom’s family for years and that took the stuffing outta him worst of all. He still had a job and made decent money but it didn’t make up for what he’d lost. He was ruined and looking at him you just knowed he knowed it. He never even kidded the guys no more the way he done before. Tom had always been a real jokester if you get my meaning but not no more.
Funny how things turn out. Now Amanda was made of stronger stuff. She didn’t get all weepy or nothing. She jest kinda picked herself up and moved on. Later, she quietly used her small inheritance to buy that little house she lives in to this day. And she tried to encourage Tom. But it weren’t no use and after a time she knew it too. She was a good woman, though, raising the kids and even making sure as how they went to the state technical college. Not where she would have sent them if all them wickednesses hadn’t been visited on them, but she was always a God-fearing woman and she jest kept on doing the best she knowed how and trusting in the Lord. Tom, now he never had no faith. Didn’t even go to church, though she never stopped trying to get him there. But you know what they say you caint teach an old hound new ways. Bout ten years ago, old Tom died, sudden-like, just keeled over at the dinner table they say. Poor Tom, he probably never even knowed what hit him. Doc he signed the death certificate like usual and Amanda had him incinerated being as how she didn’t have no more room in the family plot she said. Some of them old biddies that call theirselves Christian women was running off at the mouth about how Doc should have performed an autopsy and all, but the Sheriif nipped that nonsense right in the bud.
Good thing Tom had left some insurance. Dave Crawford, who handles the insurance business for most everyody in town let out the word that Amanda was doing a lot better with Tom gone. And that’s as it should be. Now, Mort’s wife, she also done herself proud . Flying in the face of all that there bad luck that comes of being in one of them star-crossed families. At first, things went from bad to worse after it came out what Mort done with all them people’s money. Weren’t nowhere he could go that people didn’t turn their backs on him. Can you imagine a whole town not talking to you? Even them that wasn’t involved felt like they didn’t have no choice but to give him the cold arm. It was darn near the worst thing ever happened to this town.
Until the fire. Hell couldn’t be no hotter’n this baby was. You could see it all over the county. They called in fire engines from two or three counties around here, that’s how big it was. By the time they had it all put out, weren’t nothing left of the house, even the garage burned right down to the ground. Poor Mort, they found what was left of him in one of the bedrooms, drunk as a skunk Doc told some of the boys. Funny how it goes sometimes. Mort’s wife, now, she was the one that was always drunk and Mort, why he ain’t never been much of a drinker hisself. Used to tell the boys it gave him hives when he had too much so he had to go kinda slow. But that night the tables was rearranged, and there was the little wife stone-cold sober and him drunk as a lord which was why he didn’t make it out alive. She did though, lucky for her. Funny how things turn out. Mort happening to tie one on that night of all nights when he hardly ever drunk and his wife, the town drunk, not touching a drop. Right after the funeral, she packed up and left town, late at night afore anyone knowed what she was planning to do.
Poor little thing probably figured they’d take what little she saved out of the fire to pay off some of them people he cheated. Anyway, according to Dave, Mort had done at least one thing right and never cashed in his life insurance policy. Probably he forgot about it, because back then when he needed cash so desperately he sure would have turned it in if he had remembered. Not only that but because Chief Pennypacker decided that the fire was accidental, and the policy had one of them double indemnity clauses, she got herself a nice piece of change.
She surely deserved it. Mrs. Fairweather, one of them real showy church ladies, kept up with her at first. Now don’t get me wrong. Mrs. Fairweather was probably a very devout Christian, head of the Ladies Aid at the Church, and the first to take up a collection when one of them shanty folk got theirselves in trouble. But she was a tad noisy and had something to say about everything that happened. Even Pastor Willoughby used to get his dander up what with all her gossipping and such. But she had gotten herself saved a few years back when one of them revival preacher fellers showed up so we figgered she kind of had an in with the Lord.
Anyway, according to Mrs. Fairweather, Mort’s wife got herself hooked up again and seeing as how she was pretty well fixed with the insurance and he was pretty flush himself, things was going good for her. But you know what they say. Seems as how some folks just attract misery and that don’t never change. Just a few years after what happened to old Mort, life took another bad turn on her when the stove in the house she and her new husband bought went up in flames. It was a terrible explosion what with all that kerosene in the stove catching on fire. Folks from miles around heard it like it was in their own backyards. Too bad her husband had picked that day to come home early and take a nap. The explosion blowed him to kingdom come along with the house. They say she was so tore up she couldn’t bear to live there any longer. So she took off. Folks didn’t know for where. Seem like she knowed how to take care of herself so she sholy made out jest fine.
Getting back to Pickett and poor Elvira. Turns out Amanda, sitting in her window as she done most of the time, sat on her spectacles and they broke. So she couldn’t really see who was struggling with Elvira and she somehow got the notion that Elvira was being raped. Right away she put in an emergency call to the Sheriff. Well, the Sheriff knowed there ain’t been no rapes in town fer as far back as he could recollect. In fact, the last time there had been any criminality at all was the time the barkeep over at Stougan’s had to throw some drunken young stranger feller out of his saloon. Unfortunately his aim weren’t so hot and the kid wound up sailing through the plate glass window. Being as how he was so drunk he come out of it with hardly a scratch on him. When he woke up, he was madder than a nest of hornets. He was going to sue the town, and the barkeep, and on and on. You know the type. That’s when the Sheriff stepped in to give him some fatherly advice. Made sure he understood how lucky he was to be allowed to leave our fair city without spending some time in the lockup or paying no fine. That poor fool couldn’t wait to leave after the sheriff finished pointing out to him what’s what. Looked like he was crying with joy to be on his way. It was a little hard to tell what with the way his eyes was all swolled up.
That’s why we keep electing the Sheriff. This must be his eleventh or twelfth term. We all gave up counting years ago. He knows how to get the job done. Very persuasive fellow. He don’t take no guff from strangers wanting to disrupt this here town of ours. Jest like that there campaign slogan he uses every election: A Vote for Ed Castlebee is a Vote for Our Town.
Best thing about the Sheriff, he knowed the difference between thems that been here a long time and deserve different treatment than strangers that come through now and then. When it comes to regular folks who have a right to be here, he don’t let no neighborly disputes get blowed out of proportion. So when Amanda put in that there emergency call, he just sorta low-keyed it. No police cruiser with the lights flashing and the sireens blasting. Instead, he drove over in his own car. He figured, rightly as it turned out, that it weren’t nothing too serious. That’s why we keep reelecting him. He knowed when to let things sort theirselves out.
Of course it weren’t no lead pipe cinch at Miss Elvira’s. By the time he got there, things had went from bad to downright ugly. Elvira was swatting at poor old Pickett with her parasol. Pickett was still trying to grab ahold of them cookie tins she held in her hand and dodge the blows at the same time. Even Amanda had gotten into the act. She was out on her porch screaming something about peoples not being safe in their own beds, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense since Elvira wasn’t anywhere near her bed which was upstairs on the second floor. As to old man Pickett raping anyone, well that was the biggest hoot of all. Not hardly likely far as Pickett’s concerned. He ain’t never even been married. Course there was that talk years ago when he was just a young un bout him and one of them animals of his. But my father put it down to just a lot of gossip mongers who didn’t have nothing else to talk about. I reckon he was right, though some of them farm boys didn’t much care what they be sticking their thing into, if you catch my meaning.
It didn’t take the Sheriff long to get things under control. First he sent Amanda back into her house and told her to lie down and take a nap which she done without protest. That’s the way he was. When he said something, most folks listened. Elvira was a little tougher. She had a mind of her own and once she set it on something there weren’t nothing on heaven and earth gonna make her change it. Excepting this was the Sheriff and he knew how to handle Elvira. So gentle as a lamb, he walks up the steps, puts his hands on Elvira’s waist and walks her far enough away so Pickett can get out of the line of fire. You ain’t never seen anything like it. Sheriff may have been the first man in the world to put his hands on Miss Elvira’s body, don’t you know. She got all pink in the face and darn near dropped them cookie tins she had fought so hard to hang onto. “Well, Miss Elvira,” he says to her all charming and gallant like, “you must have been baking those famous cookies of yourn. Would you by chance happen to have one of them boxes with my name on it?”
Well, right about then Elvira looked as though she was going to dissolve in a big puddle at his feet. She rushed into the house and came back out a few minutes later, a big smile on her face. “Why, Sheriff, I could never forget you. You’re at the top of the list.” You ain’t gonna believe it, but that old spinster looked like she could have taken her clothes off on the spot and got right down to business if the Sheriff had asked. Which of course he didn’t, Miss Elvira being, at this time, right up there. Seventy if she was a day. To hear folks snigger about it, she ain’t never dropped her drawers ‘cepting when nature called.
Of course they’s all wrong about Miss Elvira. The reason I knowed is because my pappy tole me the real story. Seeing as how he made me swear an oath on the bible that I would never let it get out I ain’t. Til now that it don’t matter no more. Elvira weren’t much more than a baby when he was about growed into a man. Cute little thing, he said. He watched her grow up. Seemed like one day she was just a tadpole and next time he saw her she had growed into a nice looking girl. All the boys was mad to have her go out with them. But she ain’t had no feeling for any of them. It was her pappy she loved, more than anything, even her momma. No accounting for tastes I guess. Old man Peacock he was as mean and ornery as a bunch of relatives at a funeral. But to Elvira he was everything that mattered in her young life. She didn’t even seem to much notice when her momma took sick one winter and died in the spring. Poor Elvira! She tried everything she could to get her daddy to notice her. We heard tell that she figured once her momma was out of the way, he’d be all hers.
It didn’t happen that way. For as ornery as he’d always been to everyone else, he’d really loved that wife of his’n. Nothing could make up for her passing. Elvira didn’t have a chance. Big Red, he’d been called that for so long nobody even remembered his real name, had always been a moody feller. After his wife passed, he got worse and worse til he hardly talked to a soul. Like to drove poor little Elvira outta her mind. She had been so sure she could take her momma’s place. But she weren’t quite old enough to know what a man and woman do together at night in their bed. She sure wasn’t thinking of that. Leastways I don’t think she was.
Come spring, a year or so after his wife passed, Big Red took to going off by hisself. He’d leave Friday night without a word. Even Elvira didn’t know where he was off to. First time it happened and he was gone all weekend she like to went off her head with worry. She called the Sheriff so many times, he ordered his deputy to tell her he wasn’t in. Sunday night he came back all of a sudden. Not a word would he say about where he had been neither. We all figured he had gone into town to one of them places a man could get his needs taken care of, if you catch my meaning. Everyone, ‘cept Elvira. Even though she was old enough to know about them things by then, she would have died afore imagining her beloved father in such a place. Course as it turned out we was all wrong. Oh, he was getting some that’s for sure but not from no whore.
He brought his new bride home on the first Sunday in June. Church had just let out and there was lots of people gathered around the church yard talking and laughing. It was a beautiful summer day, I still remember it, with the sky as blue as that there dress she was wearin. The dress she wore when they got married Big Red told us proudly. So the way it turned out, Elvira wasn’t the first to know. She weren’t at church that morning being as how she had woken up with one of her migraines. Ain’t nobody seen with his own eyes what Elvira done when they got to the house and told her the news. Myself, personally, I didn’t think it could’ve been a pretty sight.
She moved away right after that woman come to take her rightful place as the lady of the house. She ain’t never writ to anyone in town, but that didn’t stop Mrs. Willoughby, the Reverend’s wife from finding out where she went. Seemingly after she left town, she made straight for the city, got herself a job in some insurance company and went to night school to improve herself. She didn’t never step foot in town for over twenty year or so. She didn’t write neither, not a card at Christmas or on his birthday, nothing. Like we all said back then, might have been the best thing for the new Mrs. Peacock.
The thing was Big Red hadn’t changed that much after all. Once the hoopla died down, he growed back into his old skin. He ain’t never been real sociable, which was hard on Olivia, that was her name. Pretty thing, she was, with her city-made clothes and long curly hair. Kinda reserved girl, knew when to keep her mouth shut which made her different from most of the other ladies in town. At first, lots of the ladies complained about her big city airs, but that didn’t last long. She was a real hard worker, always the first one to volunteer when the church was running a clothing drive for the poor or feeding the hungry, or them other Christian things Reverend Carrington was always dreaming up to keep the women busy and out of his hair. Moral betterment he called it. Heck it weren’t nothing but giving them ladies with nothing better to do excuses for getting together and gossiping and carrying on.
Getting back to Olivia. She sure was one fine woman. More like a man really, the way she acted. Did whatever they asked her to but didn’t stay around for all the foolishness afterwards. Always gave some excuse about having chores to do and left them women to their own devices. Too bad Big Red didn’t appreciate what an outstanding woman she was. Because when it was too late, well ain’t no use traveling down that road.
‘Bout six months after he brought her home, Big Red stopped talking. I mean he didn’t talk to nobody about nuthing. He still worked at Jake’s lumber yard cutting up the lumber and keeping the yard in order. It weren’t no need of him being talkative, but jiminy it was worth your life to git even a full-sized grunt outta him. Course no one knows what he said to Olivia when it was jest the two of them, but we kinda figured he warn’t a lot more talkative. After awhile it started to show on Olivia, the strain and all. She lost a lot of weight and her face got real pale. Sometimes it looked like her blood had turned white. That beautiful curly hair of hers got all straggly and it didn’t shine like it used to in the sun. Even her clothes didn’t look the same. It was a terrible thing the way that girl changed in just a couple of months.
Even a fool could see things was getting bad up there. We all liked Olivia, even though she was the outsider, and Big Red he was one of us. But weren’t nothing we could do ‘cept watch and wait for them marbles to fall. One weekend Big Red took off. Jest like he used to do when Elvira lived at home. Come Friday night, poof he was gone. Just like that. But Olivia was made of stronger stuff than Elvira. She didn’t go carrying on and running to the Sheriff. She knew is all, she just knew. Sunday night he was back, big as you please. Same thing the next weekend and the next and so on. Still Olivia didn’t say nothing. Poor thing. She just got thinner and sadder and didn’t bother to fix herself up no more the way she used to. Still was the prettiest woman in town even when she stopped trying. But that’s neither here nor there.
It was one Saturday and Big Red had left as usual Friday night. We shoulda known something was up that day, you could almost feel it in the air. About noon, folks spotted Olivia walking down Main Street where all them shops is. Being Saturday the place was loaded with people. And there was Olivia all decked out wearing them pretty clothes she wore when she first got here. She was carrying a big basket of flowers, daisies and carnations and roses, stuff like that and giving them out to all the people she passed on the street. That’s right just giving anyone who’d stop a flower. Some people was rude and wouldn’t take one and she’d calmly put the flower back and walk on to the next person. If someone asked, she say real polite-like, Olivia was a real lady that’s for sure, that she had picked them just that morning from her garden and wouldn’t they like one.
Mebbe someone should have called the Sheriff, but Olivia wasn’t like regular folks. She was different and giving away her flowers didn’t seem so odd as it would have been had, say, Mrs. Carrington been the one doing it. But you know what they say about if hindsight was foresight than nothing much would ever happen. Unfortunately it ain’t. When Olivia’s basket was empty and it took awhile because she had brought lots of flowers, she did have a way with growing them flowers, she just up and left. Going home to sleep it off, we thought.
It wasn’t until 2:00 in the morning that someone noticed the fire at Big Red’s place. By the time, they got the fire truck with all the firemen there, weren’t nothing standing that could be called useable. They found her or what was left of her under one of the beams that had once held the kitchen up. They also found a passel of burned up flowers all over the place. The Chief said it was a real hot fire. He figured probably the burner had exploded. After all, he had told Big Red a hundred times that he needed to get hisself a new one. It was too durn old to keep fixing. Too bad he didn’t listen. I don’t know about no new burner and such but even the Sheriff didn’t look like he believed it when the coroner said accidental death. But you know how it is. When it comes down to it, you gotta stick with kin and folks you been knowing all your life.
Afterward, Henry, who owned the hardware store, let it be known that someone, he didn’t never say who, had ordered three of them big cans of gasoline delivered up to Big Red’s place right before it happened. You kinda got the feeling just from the way he looked when he was talking about it that he wasn’t meaning neither Big Red or Olivia. But we never knowed any more, after the Sheriff stopped up there one day and had a little chat with Henry. He wouldn’t never mention it again. It’s a good thing, a lot of loose talk weren’t gonna bring Olivia back.
Elvira came back to town in time for the funeral. Folks say she ain’t never married or nothing. She stayed around after the funeral and that was that. She and Big Red built themselves a new house with the insurance money and life went on like before. ‘Cept Big Red didn’t go away on weekends no more. Elvira hadn’t changed much jest gotten old and mebbe put on a couple of pounds. She weren’t a pretty woman I wouldn’t say, but she weren’t ugly or nothing like that. She was kinda comfortable looking, that’s all. And that’s the way she stayed.
The cookie thing started after Big Red passed. She didn’t have no money troubles what with the pension she got from that city job she done for about twenty years and her dad’s pension and mebbe a small insurance policy or two. She didn’t much like all them church activities, even though she was a church-going lady. I guess she decided she could kill two crows with one rock by baking cookies that she could give away to poor folks and such and not have to work at the church like the other ladies did.
After awhile she was baking them cookies by the bushel. She handed them out to most everyone in town. If she didn’t like you or got mad at you one time or another you jest didn’t get her latest batch. Folks was careful not to upset Miss Elvira. It was kinda embarassing to be left out particularly seeing as how everybody knew who she passed over. Then you had to apologize to Miss Elvira and she would put you back on the list for the next batch. She had her little rules and you had to abide by them or you wouldn’t get no more cookies. Rule number one was that you had to return the cookie tin after you finished them cookies. She kept track and if you didn’t give it back to her, washed and dried if you please, you weren’t never gonna git no more cookies.
That’s really why she was so mad at Seth Pickett. She ain’t never given him any cookies until one time right before that big old fight they had. Ain’t nobody really knowed what got into her. Maybe him being her neighbor and all. Who knows. You couldn’t never figure out what Miss Elvira was thinking. Anyway, she gave him some cookies. Chocolate chip, I think, that was her specialty. Well, maybe it was oatmeal raison. I don’t really remember. And it don’t much matter. Anyways when she gave them to him, she explained how she was wanting that tin back, washed and dried, like she always did with a new person. Pickett was smiling and shaking his head like he agreed with everything she said. Poor old Pickett. He really was deef as a stone. And Elvira had a funny way of talking. She clenched her teeth and kinda let the words force theirselves out like they was bullets from a gun. So of course Pickett didn’t have the least idea what she was talking about. Well, wouldn’t you know that must’ve been a Monday or Tuesday at the latest. Friday, garbage day rolls around and folks puts out their cans alongside the curb. Miss Elvira was coming back from the store, at least that’s what Amanda said and she ought to know standing guard at that window of hers, and happened to glance at old man Pickett’s garbage heaped at the curb. Well, of course, you know what she saw. At least you can guess, cain’t you? Yup, her precious cookie tin stuffed into his garbage can which would have been hauled away if she hadn’t of happened to see it.
Miss Elvira like to blowed her cork. She rescued her cookie tin and walked up onto her porch, shook her fist in the direction of Pickett’s house and disappeared into her own house carrying her cookie tin. And that was that. If Pickett wondered why he disappeared from the cookie list, he ain’t never mentioned. Knowing Pickett I gotta admit he probably didn’t know and didn’t much care one way or t’other. He was just that kind of guy. Would’ve eaten her cookies if she gave them to him, but if she didn’t, he’d just go and get some store bought ones. Everyone knew that about Pickett even Miss Elvira and that was probably another thing that annoyed her mightily.
So when the Sheriff came and broke up the little tiff Miss Elvira and Pickett were having on her front stoop, we thought it was over. Which shows how wrong you can be. I guess we flat out didn’t know how much Miss Elvira resented Pickett’s attitude. And that’s as it should be. Weren’t given to us mortals to know what makes people tick.
Came time for more of Miss Elvira’s cookies. Course we didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last batch we’d ever get. Jumbles, that’s what she called them. That’s one thing I know for sure. That last time it was them jumbles she made. We never did know why she called them jumbles. They was jest a white cookie with one of them cherries you get in a bottle right in the center of each one.
It started just like every other time. Old Jed he was dishing out the coffee and stale Danish at the counter for all the regulars and Sally was running around serving eggs and hash and toast and coffee to the real customers sitting at the tables. Like usual, he made the big announcement. “Miss Elvira be rolling out them jumbles today.”
That’s how it went all day, jest like clockworks. Only thing different was that Miss Elvira seemed to be running mighty late. Any other cookie day and she’d be out loading the food cart around 2:00, all dressed in her Sunday best with that bonnet all the women claimed was fifty years old if it was a day. Why women didn’t even wear hats nowadays. Funny though, I jest couldn’t picture Miss Elvira without her bonnet.
It wasn’t until after dinner, round about 7:00, that’s what Amanda said later, God bless her the woman was still on duty at her window, that Miss Elvira began to load her cart. Lucky fer Jed, we all said later, that it was his regular night to be staying with Sally, his long-time girl friend. Right after everything came out, Jed musta got religion, for he ups and marries Miss Sally like he should’ve done years ago.
It was round about 7:00 that Amanda saw Miss Elvira finally come out with them cookies. Poor Amanda had been expectin’ to get hers and had gotten a mite worried when her doorbell didn’t ring all afternoon. So I guess she was relieved when she seen Miss Elvira come out on the porch. But she didn’t act like Miss Elvira. For one thing she was rushing. Usually she handled them cookie tins with loving care. Not this time. She almost throwed them in the carriage. Now Amanda figured it was account of her being so late and all. Later on, after it all came out and we knowed what she was up to, it wasn’t so hard to understand why she was in such an all-fired hurry. To be honest, I doubt if Amanda spent much time thinking on it. Her mouth had been watering the whole day every since she heard it was cookie day. She had even pushed her supper up by one hour so she’d have everything digested when the cookies came.
Any other time and Miss Elvira would’ve stopped at her house first seeing as how they was neighbors. But not this time. Wonder of wonders she made a beeline for old Pickett’s door. The one I told you about that throwed her cookie tin away. Well I can tell you Amanda was darn right shocked. Afterwards when she’d tell the story of what happened that night, which she did practically hundreds of times, even if you didn’t ask, them store bought teeth that was in her mouth would start clicking and she’d get mad all over again bout that slight to her dignity. But according to Amanda weren’t nothing in heaven or earth could’ve stopped Miss Elvira that night. Why she marched straight up to Pickett’s front door with not one, but two tins of them fresh made jumbles. Amanda like to died. Two, imagine that, and after all that man had done to insult her. ‘Course by the time Amanda told us about it, we all knowed right well and good why she gifted old Pickett with them two tins of her special-made jumbles.
I was usually the last one to get my cookies being as how I lived way over yonder from her house. So I figured out later when everybody wanted to know, that she must have finished all her deliveries by 9:00 or so. That’s about the time she knocked on my door. I remember looking at Miss Elvira as she handed me the cookies. She looked a mite peaked but I figured that was from all the baking she’d done that day. I wished her a good night’s sleep and she said “the same to you.” It weren’t til later that I reckoned she had really meant it.
Now I’m gettin’ to the part folks always likes best. I almost didn’t try the cookies it being so late and all. I thought mebbe it would be best to wait till mornin. Me with my gall bladder troubles and all. Doc had warned me about eating late at night. Besides weren’t nothing better than a big glass of milk and a couple of Miss Elvira’s cookies to get the morning started. I had about made up my mind but gosh darn I just couldn’t resist. Jest one I promised myself. It was when I opened the tin that I knew something was different about them cookies. I ain’t even gonna try to explain it. They jest didn’t look like Elvira’s cookies. Plus they was kinda throwed in the box like she was in a big hurry. Usually she arranged them just so. It was mighty peculiar. Probably being as how she was so late she hadn’t of took the time she usually did. That’s what I thought then.
I didn’t have to take more than one bite afore I knowed something was mighty wrong with them cookies. I couldn’t even swaller the piece in my mouth. I spit it out in the sink. They was awful. Poor Miss Elvira. She sure had goofed this time. Well, after all them cookies she had baked over the years, I guess she was due. I wouldn’t eat them, but I didn’t want to get caught throwing them away. And we sure had some noisy garbage men. If they told Miss Elvira that they seed her cookies in my garbage, well I jest couldn’t take a chance on that. But I had to give her back her cookie tin and I knowed from experience that she liked to get them back no more’n a couple of days after she gived them out.
That’s when I thought of them durn birds. Pesky little beggars hung around my back yard just waiting for me to lay down the grass seed which they attacked like white on rice. Boy did I have a surprise fur them. Yup, here’s how I figured it. If I fed the birds Miss Elvira’s cookies, wouldn’t be no evidence left for them pesky garbage men and I could return her cookie tin and not feel guilty. I ain’t never heard of birds having taste buds so they’d probably think they died and been carried off to heaven when they seen that mountain of crumbs. So that’s exactly what I done. Right then and there that night so I wouldn’t have to think about it no more.
Thing is I guess I weren’t the only one who came up with that idea. Most folks who got them cookies figured to gift the birds that night. It was kinda funny when you reckoned that darn near a whole town came up with the same idea. It must of been fate or something. Anyway it was a good thing when you think about what could have happened. I don’t rightly know about no one else, but I gotta admit after them birds had been fed I figured I solved my problem and went on to bed that night feeling as virtuous as a Christian after going to church.
I suppose it don’t take no college degree to figure out what happened next. Next morning weren’t nothing but dead birds far as the eye could see. Just like it had rained birds. Most everybody who had gotten that last batch of Miss Elvira’s cookies had them birds lying two or three deep in their yard. And they was all deader than a doorknob.
But that weren’t the half of it, coming to find out. It hadn’t rained no birds in Miss Elvira’s yard or Pickett’s. Which was mighty puzzling until the Sheriff paid a call on Pickett and it all got cleared up. Pickett, poor feller, he didn’t have no taste buds just like them birds. What he had was a real sweet tooth. He must have et all them cookies Elvira gave him. That’s why there weren’t no dead birds in his yard. He aint shared them. It was a real shame old Pickett passing like that. But as folks all agreed at least he died happy full of them cookies.
When Sheriff visited Miss Elvira’s he was in for another shock. She weren’t there. Cleared out lock, stock, and bushel. Course she left that ugly old furniture nobody would have wanted to take with them. But she took most everything else, her clothes, that clock her granddaddy made, and them other knick knacks she kept in the parlor. The other things she took were her baking stuff, them pans and mixing bowls that she always said she couldn’t do without.
Sheriff made sure everyone cleaned up his own yard and we all chipped in to get an extra pickup on the garbage. It was handled real quiet like. That Sheriff is sure worth his weight in gold. No fuss, none of them pesky news folks coming in and starting a ruckus over a purely accidental situation. It was too bad about old Pickett but we gived him a nice send off. The real blessing about old Pickett was that he didn’t have no relatives to go sticking their noses into the town’s business. Believe me, it was done jest the way old Pickett would of wanted it. Frank, the undertaker, threw in his top of the line funeral fer nothing and the whole town came to see him off. Everyone agreed it was the best funeral this town ever had. Doc signed the death certificate. Old Pickett had a little problem with his ticker so there weren’t no trouble with the cause of death or nothing.
Bout them birds. Like the Sheriff said, what with all that chemical stuff city folks use to get their lawns all green and them holes in the ozone, city folks is always complaining about, no wonder all them birds croaked on the same night.
The important thing is that the whole town made darn sure they stood together on this thing. Ain’t that what friends is fer?
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