The bit and bridle had been fitted with care as if the mule and the old man were the best of friends and the trip was meant to benefit both. The wagon offered a plaintive moan as Will stepped up and clicked his cheek to signal Noah to start. The mule raised his head, but waited for a command from the reins—it was just his way.
This day was to be special. And when the pace quickened without a prompt, he suspected the mule must have known, too. Somewhat ahead in his chores, Will had earned the morning to himself and visions of what awaited him swirled in his head.
Fingers of rising mists set deep summer leaves aflutter and summoned a host of katydids in shadowed thickets to the rhythms of the river, but neither man nor mule seemed to notice. Will whistled an old tune he’d heard from his father on the evening porch in days gone by and remembered now that the old man lay at rest in a copse of trees just ahead beside his mom and baby Ev, and a host of others who’d come to him in dreams when he’d the time to pause and consider. Sheets of chicory by the wayside wore smiles of chalk that had plumed along the road, and heat devils ahead shimmered and beckoned to what lay just beyond the next ridge.
And other than Noah’s tail in pursuit of tiny pests, the ride had become routine with bumps and ruts jarring what few teeth Will had left. In the shadows of a giant oak, a general store loomed ahead, the one Will was allowed to enter. As the wagon slowed, a dragonfly hesitated before his face as if to ask his business here, but his eyes remained on the notion he’d rehearsed the week just past.
By instinct the mule led the wagon to a stop beneath the tree, gnarled and twisted by time and circumstance. And the old man, his forehead glistening, jumped to the ground and laid his palm on the rump of the mule as if to confirm their bond of companionship.
He knew to allow the screen door to close without a slam and, with head bowed, he removed his hat and waited in silence. Toward the center of the room a potbellied stove drew rapt attention from three locals whose legs splayed wide from well used rockers. Overalled and ruddy, the mute congress greeted the intruder with sloe-eyed stares.
His eyes fixed on laceless shoes and his fedora fig-leafed over his middle in time-honored tradition, he stood slump-shouldered with an emptiness known only to souls anchored to a lifetime of servitude. Bleached overalls hung from one shoulder over a faded tee and revealed creases of sweat and arms that knew the value of a full day’s work.
A wary glance confirmed that his very presence was a breach to the agenda of the gathering and, emblematic of his station here, he lowered his eyes.
“What chu want, boy?” the storekeep barked from behind the counter, his arms akimbo.
“Plug o’ tobaccah, suh,” his head unmoved, his jaw smooth and tight.
“How much money you got, boy?” The query echoed from an ageless caste wrought by guile and deception.
“A nickel, suh.”
“A nickel?’ The tone foretold a momentous discovery in the making. A pie-faced constituent of the gathering rubbed his chin and added, “I ain’t heard of too many his kind could raise that kinda money, Gus. Wonder where he got it?”
The storekeep paid scant attention to the delegate, his unyielding glower locked on the shadow at the door whose meager weight shifted from one foot to the other. Beneath a tenuous veneer of resolve, fear began to roil within the old man’s chest.
“Where’d you get the nickel, boy?” the voice softened as if in appeasement, but the tag hung heavy around the newcomer’s heart.
“Mah wife, Besse.”
“Where’d she get it?” Three sets of eyes volleyed with each parry heard.
“She take in wash.” His forehead furrowed, but his head remained bowed, his demeanor inured to a dominance he knew he could not best.
“Yeah, I know her,” allowed another from the floor. “She’s a good ’un. Works tol’able.” A restive peace returned to the gathering as a tide of motes awakened by a fickle breeze vanished unnoticed.
“Well,” said the storekeep, scratching the nape of his neck, “the price of a plug’s gone up to seven cents. You got two more pennies on you, boy?”
His feet remained moored to the floor, his chin on his tee, his lank body in motion like a pendulum closing in on the end of its swing. The three by the stove eyed one another with nods in agreement with the proceedings in progress.
“Boy?” His voice squeaked with agitation.
“You got seven cents?”
The petitioner lifted his head, his mouth agape, but clogged with indecision. Pink crescents of his widened eyes and lower lip cast an eerie image of a harlequin caught in feigned surprise. His eyes slowly shut, the voice of his heart hidden in thumping defeat. “No, suh,” seeped out, his discomfort heightened by an agitated gnat in his face.
“Hmm. Can’t hardly let chu have a plug for less’n seven cents. Let’s see now.” The storekeep peered long at the ceiling, his mouth puckered tight, his brow creased hard. Will’s eyes strayed toward the man, but his head remained bent to immutable mores rooted deep within the grit of these people. “I ’spose I could let chu have a cull plug for a nickel. Maybe not the flavor o’ fresh, but somethin’. You want t’at, boy?” he asked with a specious smile.
With a nod, his countenance dropped in an aura of self-denigration expected by the gathering.
“You wait right where you are, boy,” the man pointed a finger, “I’ll get it.”
A knife tapped the table in the room toward the back and in his apron the grocer strolled out with a small fold of paper in his hand. More instructions were left as the storekeep moved toward a closet on the far side of the room. “Stay put, boy. I’ll be right back.”
The three in council eyed him, top to bottom. Aware of their stares, he could imagine a cataract of abuse that was sure to follow his departure. Gnats danced about his neck as perspiration dissipated in the stillness of the moment, but his gaze remained on his weathered shoes.
The storekeep returned with the paper folded square and stood erect before the customer, his feet wide apart. “You got ’at nickel, boy?”
“Yah, suh,” came the whispered reply. A small coin purse emerged from a tattered pocket and with care he withdrew the coin and placed it in the palm of authority. Now, with his purchase secured, he nodded and left.
The unforgiving sun humbled all movement below as he paused to consider the new treasure in his hand. Expelling a sigh, he appeared pleased with the animal that had waited with patience in the expanding heat of the day. With care he placed the paper deep in a pocket, and mounted the old wagon, and paused to inhale in the shade of the old delta where regret is given no invitation, no quarter. Inside the store he could hear the exchange, though he understood few words being shared. He then signaled Noah it was time to go home.
“What’d you give ’at boy, Gus?”
“Just a short plug o’ seasoned tobacco.”
“Whatcha mean by seasoned?”
“Got a pinch o’ cayenne pepper in it,” he grinned. “Gonna taste like fresh melon on ’at boy’s tongue.”
A hiss of snickers broke into an orgy of guffaws shaking distended bellies in the rural emporium. Will could hear the fading laughter, but paid it no mind.
For a time the wagon bounced along the corrugated road, but, determined by its own accord, it suddenly stopped under a canopy of trees. The old man sat patiently as a stream of relief splattered on the road beneath the mule. No hurry now, he mused. He considered retrieving his cache and savoring it here, but then thought better of it. This would follow one of Besse’s fine dinners as they’d sit on the porch and dream of better times to come.
The wagon moved anew and the old man gazed long at wildflowers now bent in submission to the suffocating heat. Yet crowds of common dandelion here and there stood proud but ignored and surreptitiously spread seed in the slipstream of dust that followed all movement of life. A lone egret patrolled the currents of the river nearby, oblivious to the echo of hooves along the endless road of the levee. And lances of light danced about through shadows as the mule settled into a steady pace once again, leaving a sepia portrait on the landscape, an old man in a mule-driven wagon frozen in time.