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January 10, 2012

For Nicholas

Lighter of candles and finder of lost things

 

The Pecan Man

by Cassie Dandridge Selleck

Chapter One

In the summer of 1976, the year of our Bicentennial, preparations for the Fourth of July were in full force. Flags hung from the eaves of every house along this stretch of Main Street. The neighborhood women were even busier than usual. I watched them come and go from my rocking chair on my own front porch.

Every now and then a slight breeze moved the heavy, humid air and, if there was no traffic going by, I could hear the flags rustling along the row. I sat with a piece of cardboard in one hand and a glass of sweet tea in the other. The ice always melted before I emptied the glass. I used the cardboard to augment the gentle blowing of the ceiling fan, which I was sure put out more heat than cool with its low purring motor constantly going. I kept it on though. I liked the sound. 

Back then, the streets of our small Florida town were not unlike the streets of Andy Taylor’s Mayberry, or Atticus Finch’s Maycomb. We even have a similar name, Mayville. I always like to say, “That May sure got around, now didn’t she?” 

There’s no one here to laugh at my jokes anymore. I used to have a maid who came every day. Blanche was black as pitch and twice as heavy. I asked her once how she got her name, seeing as how Blanche is French for white and she wasn’t even close. She said she was born as light-skinned as me and that her daddy had left soon afterwards saying no baby of his could be that pale.

Her mama waited a couple of days before naming her. Just held her and rocked her and sang her own tears dry. Seems she was more than positive she had never lain down with another man since the day she was born and she felt certain he would believe her and come home. When he didn’t, she carried the baby in her arms all the way to the public library just off Main Street. Libraries back then wouldn’t check out books to Negroes, so she found a book of baby names and sat right down on the floor. Nestling her sleeping infant between her crossed legs, she started on the A’s. When she got to Blanche and saw what it meant, she reckoned it was as fitting and pretty a name as she had ever seen, so Blanche it was.

Had her daddy stuck around a bit, he’d have seen his baby girl turn darker and darker as the months rolled by. Blanche once told me she figured he was the one who lost out, not her, and I thought that was a right healthy way to look at it.

Blanche worked for me through birth and death, joy and sorrow and Lord knows we had a lot of sorrow in all the time we spent under this roof. Most people figured she was crazy to put up with me all those years, but Blanche and I had an understanding. It was a vow we made back in 1976. Neither of us spoke of it afterwards, but it hung between us like a spider web, fragile and easy to break, but danged hard to get shed of once the threads took hold.

It’s been a quarter of a century since fate sealed the two of us together. Blanche got fatter, but never looked a day older than she did back then. I, on the other hand, have managed to get thinner and more fragile, if that’s possible. I’m 82 years old. I was 57 then, and recently widowed. I’d tell you about my husband, Walter, but he doesn’t really play a part in this story so I reckon there’s not much point. Funny…I don’t remember what color Walter’s eyes were. I’ll chalk that up to what age does to an already feeble mind. But I remember every single detail about what happened with the Pecan Man.

Though mostly vacant these days, the buildings on Main Street once housed dress shops and jewelry stores with diamonds and gemstones glistening on oceans of blue velvet in the front windows. Ezell’s Department store survived the arrival of J.C. Penney, with its shiny tile floors and ornate marble staircase, but they went to mostly rugged men’s wear for years afterward. Penney’s could never compete with the smell of denim and leather and the creak of wooden floors when it came to the male populace. 

In 1976, the bank was building its new home out on the highway and their old four-story relic downtown was sold to a company that provided counseling and other services to alcoholics, drug addicts and the like. They called it Lifeways, but that was just a euphemism for nuthouse and most of the residents weren’t going to stand for that kind of element in our neighborhood. Dovey Kincaid got up a petition to keep them out and we all signed it, but we lost in the end. Frank Perley was head of the city commission and he made sure his wife’s cousin’s company got in. After that our neighborhood went downhill fast. People moved out by the truckload and practically gave their family homes away.

It’s still a beautiful, if somewhat ragged, neighborhood and I do what I can to keep my own house looking stately and neat. Our streets are lined with pecan trees so large that two men could wrap their arms around their trunks and only barely touch fingertips. The trees used to look majestic, but now they just look tired. Their limbs droop miserably and the Spanish moss that once served as regal attire now hangs limp and shaggy like the beards of the homeless old men who pass by daily on their way downtown.

Several blocks from there, the opposite direction of my neighborhood, is what we call colored town. Oh, I know it’s not right to call it that these days, but that was what we called it then and I’m too old to relearn the etiquette I had drilled into my head from the time I could hold a spoon.

Blanche raised five children of her own there, plus the two grandchildren she took in when her youngest daughter ran off with a drug dealer. She might have been mad at that child if she hadn’t known what she did about the whole situation. As it was, Blanche couldn’t find it in her heart to blame her daughter for any of the bad choices she made, considering the role she played in this story.

The events of that year were the real driving force behind the mass exodus from the neighborhood. It was the year of the Pecan Man. None of us knew how much impact one skinny old colored man could have in our lives, but we found out soon enough.

There is a wooded area not far from downtown that has sat neglected for as long as I can remember, although it was not nearly so grown over with weeds when I was a child and played there. It is widely known now to shelter several homeless men, one of whom is blatantly crazy and should be an inpatient, if you ask me. Back then, only one man was known to inhabit the place and that was the Pecan Man. Whoever first gave the man the name pronounced it Pee-can and it stuck.

The Pecan Man took up residence there in the summer of 1975, but it took a while before anyone ever figured out he actually lived there. Maybe it was his gaunt frame or the ghostly way he just seemed to appear from those woods riding a bicycle as old as he was and every bit as thin and rumpled. Whatever it was about him that struck people as frightful, it didn’t take long before parents took to calling their children in whenever he appeared.

They called him the Pecan Man because he always had a sack full of pecans tied to the handlebars of his rickety old bike. Turns out he got most of his sustenance from the nuts of those prolific trees. He’d stop all along his route to who-knows-where, picking up any pecans that had rolled onto the sidewalk or street, but leaving alone any that so much as touched the yard of the tree’s owner. This was the widely accepted rule and I never saw anyone break it, not even the children, and I’ve spent many an hour on this porch watching.

The neighborhood children made up a song that they sang as they jumped rope in their yards. I heard it enough times to know it by heart and I still wake up some nights in a cold sweat with the rhyme pounding over and over in my head.

     Mama call the po-lice

     Catch him if you can        

     Everybody scared of the Pecan Man

Then they’d launch into a list as long as they could make it by filling in the names of every man, woman and child they knew. The winner was the one who called out the most names without missing a jump. 

     David scared of the Pecan Man

     Jimbo scared of the Pecan Man

     Mary Beth scared of the Pecan Man

     Rita Gail scared of the Pecan Man

     Miss Abernathy scared of the Pecan Man

 

and so on.

Chapter Two

 

When you’re as old as I am, it takes a while to make a point. The Pecan Man had a name – Eldred Mims. I called him Eddie. The people of Mayville didn’t know his name at all, until he was arrested and charged with the murder of a sixteen year old boy named Skipper Kornegay.

Now, twenty-five years later, his name has made the papers again. I suppose it is noteworthy news that Eldred Mims died in prison of old age. His sentence was twenty-five years to life. I guess it worked out on both counts.

I feel pretty certain that most townspeople would just as soon forget the man, but now that I’m the only one left who even knows the whole truth, I think it’s time I told it.

In the spring of 1976, the Pecan Man began mowing my lawn. For two weeks I watched him ride that rickety old bike out of the woods dragging an equally pathetic lawn mower behind him. He wouldn’t return until late afternoon, his ragged shirt plastered to his gaunt body by wind and sweat. I figured he’d found a few yards to mow outside of our neighborhood, since no one near us would hire him. This was before the murder, mind you, when people just thought he was dangerous because he was homeless and black. After the murder they were certain of it. I just thought he looked hungry and I was willing to take a risk.

On the third Monday that I watched him strike out for parts unknown, I flagged him down with a whistle my Mama taught me years ago. It’s a pretty darn good whistle, too. It startled him enough to make him bring his bike to a shaky halt at my driveway. I waved him up to the porch. He left the mower and pushed the bike as far as the stoop.

“Mawnin’, Ma’am.”

Eldred Mims had an unusual voice, high-pitched and squeaky, and each word was punctuated by the smacking noise made when his toothless gums made contact. It was like they were made of suction cups. The sound was distracting at first, but you got used to it easy enough.

I used to joke to Blanche that I couldn’t understand why the neighbors were so afraid of the man.

“One thing was certain,” I’d tell her, “He may gum you to death, but he sure ain’t gonna bite.”

Where was I now? Oh, yes, Eldred Mims stood in front of me; beat up old cap in hand.

“Mighty fine day, isn’t it?” I asked him with a wave of my fan.

“Yes’m,” he smacked out his reply. “Look like it go’n be fine, ‘jes fine.”

“Care for a glass of tea?”

He looked taken aback by my question, as if it were the last one on earth he expected me to ask. Then he shuffled his feet, rubbed his neck with the hand that held his limp cap and mumbled something I couldn’t understand.

“Speak up, man!” I complained. “I can’t hear worth a hoot.”

“I said, No’m, tha’s okay, but I thank you for axin’. I sho’ nuff do.”

“Hot as it is out here, you don’t want tea? What’s the matter with you that you can’t accept my hospitality?”

Now, I knew doggone good and well he was trying to be polite by not accepting, but I was pretty sure it had been a while since he’d had a glass of cold sweet tea and, quite frankly, he looked like he could use some. I pressed on.

“Blanche!” I hollered over my shoulder, throwing my voice in the general direction of the door.

Blanche’s wide body appeared in the doorway a moment later. I always got a kick out of watching for her materialize at that screen door as if by magic. Of course, there wasn’t any magic to it. It was just that you couldn’t see her until she got right up to the screen and the outside light hit her white uniform.

“Blanche, we have a visitor here. Could you bring this gentleman a glass of tea?”

She answered by stepping out of the door and reaching for my glass.

“I’ll get you some more while I’m at it.” And she disappeared the same way she came.

“I’m Ora Lee Beckworth,” I said with a far less intimidating tone.

“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am,” was his shaky reply.

“You got a name?”

“I reckon I do, but mos’ folks jus’ call me the Pecan Man.”

“I knew that much,” I said, “but, I’d rather call you your given name, if you have one.”

“Eldred, Ma’am.”

I realize now that he must have said “Eldred Mims” and not “Eldred, Ma’am” like I thought, but that’s the way I heard it at the time.

“What’d your mama call you?” I asked.

He grinned then, displaying an engaging smile despite the missing teeth. “She call’t me Eddie.”

“Eddie it is, then,” I said and returned his smile.

Blanche reappeared with the tea just as I persuaded him to park his bike and sit on the edge of the stoop. He mumbled a thanks and took the glass from her, holding it tightly in his lap like he was afraid he might break it.

“So, you mow lawns for a living?” I asked.

“Yes’m, I do.”

“Interested in doing mine?”

“Yes’m, I reckon I am.”

“Okay, good. This is what I need. Every Wednesday morning, I need my front and back lawn mowed. Every Saturday, I need my flowerbeds weeded and hedges trimmed as necessary. Can you handle that for me, and how much do you charge?”

“I can do that for ya, Miz Beckworth. Won’t cost ya’ but five dollars a week, I figure.”

“Five dollars a week!” I let my indignation set in before I continued. “Why, that’s highway robbery! And I’ll have you know, I am not a thief!”

He looked at me, confused and slightly horrified, but his eyes lit up when he realized what I meant.

“I’ll pay you ten dollars and not a penny less.”

He grinned again. “Yes’m, that’ll be fine. It sho’ will be fine.”

“A day.” I added, pleased with his reaction and even more pleased with myself for causing it.

His face fell.

“No’m,” he said, “that’d be too much. I can’t take ten dollars a day jus’ for mowin’ this here little bitty lawn and pullin’ some puny weeds out da’ garden.”

I realized I’d pushed it too far and, though I thought the job well worth my offer, I backed down without taking offense at his unintentional disparagement of my garden.

“Fine,” I said, “but lunch and all the tea you can drink come with the job both days. And, if I were you, I wouldn’t turn down one of Blanche’s sandwiches or she’ll be downright offended.”

“I’ll ‘member that. I sho’ will.”

After he left that day, Blanche appeared at the screen door with a pot of beans in one hand and two colanders in the other. We sat in companionable silence listening to the low whirring of the fan and the rhythmic creaking of our rockers keeping time for the soft percussive pops of the beans we snapped. When we’d finished all she’d brought out, she set her colander in the crook of her arm and sat gently rocking as if she held a sleeping baby and not a pot of beans. Finally, she stood up and gathered all she’d brought out. She didn’t look at me when she spoke. She looked out across the front lawn.

“That man is old and homeless, but he ain’t stupid, Miz Beckworth. Don’t be hurtin’ his pride more than he can take, you hear me?”

I didn’t answer, but she knew I heard.

Eddie showed up on time every single day he worked for me. I never saw him with a watch, but he always seemed to know what time it was. He would start mowing promptly at 10:00 a.m. and finish just before noon. He would never join me on the porch, but ate on the same side of the stoop without fail.

We didn’t talk much, although Lord knows I tried to get information from that raggedy old man. I think it was the not knowing that made people nervous. Several of my neighbors made their disappointment in my choice of employees readily apparent, but I ignored most of their complaints. That is, until Dovey Kincaid dropped by with a lemon chess pie and a bucketful of advice.

I’ve known Dovey since she was a newlywed and moved into the house across the street. I’m only fifteen years her elder, but by then she was treating me like I was old and feebleminded.

“Hey, Miss Beckworth!” Southerners always call their elders Mr. or Miss Whatever. Doesn’t matter if you’re married or not; the only thing that changes with familiarity is whether they call you by your first or your last name.

Anyway, Dovey never called me Miss Ora Lee. I never liked her enough to let her get familiar. Truth be known, callin’ me Miss Beckworth was her way of saying she didn’t want to be familiar in the first place, but that was fine with me. Southerners are mostly happy to give tit for tat.

Dovey didn’t wait to be invited to sit down. She put the pie down on the table beside me and settled her big ol’ square behind into one of my rockers.

“Beautiful day, ain’t it, Miss Beckworth?”

“It started out that way.” I could barely disguise my contempt. Dovey Kincaid hasn’t visited me one time in her life to be social. I could tell right off she was on a mission.

“It sure did, Miss Beckworth. It really did.” She sighed like she’d just had a bite of heaven and settled herself into the rocker.

“What brings you all the way across the street, Dovey?”

“Well, I was just bakin’ a few pies for the Woman’s Club bake sale and I looked out and saw you sittin’ here and I thought to myself, ‘Now, Dovey Kincaid! Here you are bakin’ pies for charity, and there sits your very own neighbor over there all by herself!’ So, I whipped off my apron, picked up a lemon chess pie and headed right on over.” She smoothed her skirt with both hands, then clasped them together like she was saying a prayer and dropped them into her lap. Then, as if she had forgotten her manners, leaned forward, cocked her head to the side and aimed her best debutante smile right in my direction.

I grinned back, but not in the name of being mannerly.

“Is that so, Dovey?” I chuckled. “Well, that is just as charitable a thing as I can imagine. I’ll make sure Blanche takes it home with her tonight.”

I asked a mental prayer of forgiveness for insulting Blanche that way, but I just couldn’t help myself.

“Oh! Well, of course, Miss Beckworth,” she sputtered as tat collided solidly with tit (if you’ll pardon the expression). “But, I do hope you’ll try a little bite yourself before you do. I worked awful hard on that pie for you not to at least get a taste of it.”

“I appreciate the thought, Dovey, but I’m afraid it might be a little sour for me. Lemon gives me gas.”

Judging by her expression of horror, she no doubt wanted me to think I had offended her gentility, but she forgets the fact that sound carries a long way when windows are open. She may not have lost her virginity on her wedding night, but Lord knows she lost any discretion she might have had.

“What do you really want, Dovey?” I asked as she composed herself.

“Well, I did want to ask you about that awful old man you’ve hired to mow your lawn. Now, I know it’s none of my business, but do you think it’s a good idea to have him in this neighborhood all the time? Honestly, Miss Beckworth, we don’t know a thing about this man and you’ve got him over here plunderin’ through everything.”

“Plundering? He’s weeding my garden, Dovey! How do you get plundering out of a little yard work?”

“Well, you know what I mean. He’s just getting mighty familiar with your property. It isn’t right, Miss Beckworth! The other day, I saw him rummaging through your garage when your back was turned.”

“I sent him to look for some slug pellets, Dovey. He’s trying to get my flowerbeds back in order, for crying out loud.”

“Well, still – I don’t think it’s good for him to be around all the time. It’s bad enough that we’re three blocks from the loony bin. Now folks ridin’ through will be imagining that the neighborhood’s gone colored all the sudden. And besides that, it just isn’t safe.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Dovey! That man couldn’t hurt a fly if he wanted to. He’s seventy years old if he’s a day.” (I was ten years off on that, but I didn’t know it at the time.)

“Maybe so, but he’s got a dangerous look to him and I don’t like it. And he’s fit enough to haul that mower around everywhere he goes. That says to me that he’s fit enough to do whatever harm he has a mind to.”

“Well, it says to me he’s hungry, Dovey, and if you had a charitable bone in your body, you’d be baking a pie for him. Now, you can take that pie of yours and waddle your fat butt on home. No one here needs your kind of charity.”

Don’t you know, she scooped that pie up and was back inside her front door before the rocker she vacated came to a rest.

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One Comment
  1. Delcina (sharp)Dixon permalink

    Oh my goodness!!!! I am going to have to get this book. I do not have a Kyndal at this time but am getting one soon. It is great. Brings back a lot of memories.

    GREAT GREAT BOOK. Great wrighting also…..

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