The hint of a smile crept across the old man’s face, but shrugging his shoulders, he continued towards the rear of the store.
I reckon he was in his eighties, ole Jess Haire, but spry as a man half his years. He was rawboned, nigh emaciated, and a body’d be hard pressed not to wonder if he was taking in proper nourishment.
“Hello Mr. Haire,” Peanut saluted, lifting his blood-splattered butcher’s apron to wipe his hands, “What can I get you?”
Standing with legs erect and only his upper torso slanted forward, he peered into the scantily stocked meat case. The old man held this position as if ponderingperhaps trying to recall what he had come after.
Straightening at length he responded, “I reckon nothing, Peanut, nothing tonight. I was just seeing what you had.”
“The case’s low right now, it’s near closing time, come back in the morning.”
“Alright, Peanut.” Abruptly turning, he stepped back towards the front, his movements near robotic, as if his joints were bolted together.
It was a small building, this meat market-grocery, a favorite gathering place for menfolk given to gossip and tale spinning. Its claim to fame was Peanut’s fresh butchered meat and the half-dozen weekly ball boards.
“Come on, Uncle Jess, just one story before you leave,” Big Don pleaded.
“Yeah, come on, Mr. Haire,” I joined in the appeal.
Exuding a sigh, the old man’s body seemed to grow limp as he succumbed to our pleas. We’d heard those stories a hundred times, but always hungered for one more recounting. Old Jess didn’t tell a story using only words. He’d employ every part of his body. It’s hard to say which was the more entertaininghis words or his gesticulations.
“Which one should I tell?”
“Any of ’em,” I chirped, thinking how much I loved his yarns. Now when I say “yarns,” I ain’t implying there might have been any fabrication in the old man’s narratives; I believed every word was gospel truthI’m talking, here’s my right hand to God kind of truth.
“The carny and his monkey,” Big Don snapped. (One might suspect that was his favorite).
The old man shrugged, as if saying, not that one.
“What about the Model T?” Don entreated, glancing towards the door and the entering customer. “Evening Jake,” he apathetically intoned.
“Evening Don,” Jake replied, nodding his hatted head.
Don didn’t like Jake Bales, figuring he was just plain ignorant. True, Jake didn’t have a lick of formal education, but now and again, he’d pull off a mighty good cut on Big Don. Don never forgave him for those embarrassing moments and would often subject him to a blistering fast grilling to prove Jake’s incompetence.
“Jake, if you’re so smart, tell me, what’s a pecan?” he pronounced it pee-kan, stressing the pee.
Jake, after a moment of deep thought, answered, “One of them hen-sized birds with great long tail feathers.”
Big Don chuckled. “What’s a widget, Jake?”
“Ah, that’s an easy one Don. It’s one of them short people about so high.” Jake held his large hand stretched out about 3 feet or so off the ground
Frustrated, Big Don, queried, “Well Jake, how do ya spell Jose?”
Jake lifted his russet-hued hat slightly, his forefinger scratching a dab at his hairline afore intoning, “H - O - Z - A, I reckon.”
“Man, you’re stupid Jake!” Big Don half shouted.
The old man and I nodded a greeting to Jake and we all watched as he strolled towards the store’s rear.
“Tell us the one about the farmer and the railroad, Mr. Haire,” I suggested.
Old Jess’s visage fairly glowed, dipping his head in acquiesce, he began his tale.
“I was just a kid, maybe fourteen, when ole Caleb Cunningham brought lawsuit against the Southern Railway. He was plenty mad ’cause a train had run over and killed one of his cows. ‘My best milk cow,’ he allowed.
“Hearsay had it that the railroad had all them Lenoir City lawyers in their back pocket. Well, Caleb weren’t nobody’s fool and knowed not to go to court without proper representation, so he drove to Knoxville to find him a lawyer. Asking around on Gay Street, a feller directed him to an attorney’s office. Seems it was up in the Burwell Building.
“After telling this lawyer his plight, the attorney agreed to take his case. After a dab of haggling, they agreed on a fee of eight dollars. Reluctantly, Caleb pulled eight crumpled one-dollar bills from his pocketbook and handed ’em over.”
In sync with his speaking, the old man reached behind him with his left hand as if retrieving a wallet and his right hand parroted plucking them bills out one-by-one ere pocketing the make-belief wallet.
“Now, unbeknownst to him, this lawyer he hired was given to drink and was might near out of business. Around Knoxville it was rumored he’d sell a client out for as little as a bottle of cheap whiskey.”
The old man hesitated as if allowing time for his words to sink in. Big Don and I made nary a sound; hanging upon the old man’s every word, imbibing of each deftly mimed gesture. Suddenly, he shifted his gangly frame from one foot to the other then back again, those glistening, gray-green eyes fairly dancing as he broke the silence.
“Well after a goodly spell, the case finally come to trial, the defense having had it put forward a couple of times. Ole Caleb and his lawyer was there along with about a half-dozen railroad lawyers, each of ’em dressed in what looked like brand spanking new, three-piece, pin-striped suits. Caleb was dressed in his work overalls and his Knoxville lawyer had on a navy blue suit so shiny it nigh blinded folk with reflections off the courtroom lights.
“After the court bailiff’s, ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez’ and instruction for all people having business afore the court to draw near, followed by ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court,’ all those folk what were there to give testimony was told to raise their right hands.”
At this, the old man, with back swayed a speck, lifted his right hand in mock swear never skipping a beat in the cadence of his elocution.
“The burly bailiff then cantillated, ‘Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God?’ Whilst answering, ‘I do,’ ole Caleb noticed a feller on the other side of the courtroom, the town drunk, answering ‘I do,’ as well. He found that mighty puzzling.
“Caleb’s lawyer addressed the judge sounding plenty eloquent, whilst presenting his client’s case. The judge seemed to pay little heed to the Knoxville lawyer, and when his oration ended, he instructed ‘Mr. Cunningham’ to tell in his own words exactly what had happened. Ole Caleb, spoke right up, telling how he’d found his best milk cow had been runned-over by the train. ‘Are you sure it was the train that hit your cow, Mr. Cunningham?’ the judge asked. ‘Yes sir, your honor, it was the train sure enough; the five o’clock train what passes through my river-bottom field every single day.’”
Lifting a scrawny leg as if taking a step backwards, the old man continued with his story.
“The old judge told Caleb he could step back and sit down.”
Old Jess mimicked a body being seated. A couple customers holding meats wrapped in brown butcher paper loitered nearby listening to the old man’s tale. Jake, after having briefly spoken with Peanut, was now seated on a wooden dope case near Big Don. All eyes and ears were attuned to the old man.
“Well, one of them railroad lawyers in his hundred-dollar suit stood up and addressed the judge. ‘Your honor, my client, the Southern Railway, disputes Mr. Cunningham’s allegation.’ ‘Have you any witnesses?’ questioned the judge, never looking up, fountain pen in hand, his graying, partially glabrous head bent as he pored over documents of another case.”
The old man bent his own head as if examining the tops of his dustless black wingtips. With left arm lifted at the elbow, his fingers and thumb wrapped about an imaginary pen, he made scrawling motions in the air, making a body presume the old judge had been left-handed.
“’Yes, your honor,’ he replied. ‘Then call him up here,’ instructed the judge, his voice sharp and terse as if annoyed.
“The town drunk, sporting brand new store-bought clothes, sidled to the front, pausing just below the judge’s bench. The railroad lawyer started to speak, but was abruptly interrupted by the harried judge. ‘What’s your name?’ he snapped. Stammering, the bibber spoke, ‘Shaky, sirShaky Spencer, judge.’ ‘Your given name,’ the court bailiff interjected. Shaky looked towards his lawyer who silently mouthed the word ‘Bledsoe.’”
The old man pursed his lips, mutely mouthing the same name over-and-over. He glanced first at me and then towards Big Don. We were transfixed as we always were during one of the old man’s narratives.
“Well, after several attempts, the lawyer just leaned forward and whispered into Shaky’s ear. ‘Bledsoe, sirBledsoe Spencer’s my name, your honor.’ His answer sent titters throughout the courtroom, invoking the judge’s admonition to keep quiet.”
Old Jess paused, clearing his throat. Gazing into his ancient face with eyes deeply ebbed set over cavernous cheeks and narrow parched lips; I couldn’t help wondering just how many more years he’d be around
“That old judge peered over his glasses at Shaky for a spell, before asking, ‘What did you come here to testify about?’ Shaky looked at the railroad’s lawyer, his eyes pleading for help. That youthful lawyer kind of cleared his throat before saying, ‘Your honor, Mr. Spencer is…’ The judge cut him off in mid-sentence, ‘I suspect, young fellow, that Shaky, uh, Mister Spencer can speak for himself.’ Turning his attention back to Shaky, the judge asked, ‘Alright, Mr. Spencer, what have you to say about this matter?’ Everybody in that courtroom was on the edge of their seat kind of leaning forward to hear what Shaky would testify.”
Saying that, the old man put both hands out from his sides, elbows bended, palms down, fingers extended and sort of half squatted demonstrating how those courtroom spectators looked that day.
“Shaky swallowed hard and finally spoke. ‘Well, your honor, sir, uh-’ Seems Shaky could hardly think of what it was he was supposed to say. Finally recollecting, he begin to incant, ‘It was Friday afternoon, sir, uh, your honor, sir, and I was powerful thirsty. I figured I’d go down by the river and get me somethin’ to wet my whistle. Uh, uh, I was takin’ a shortcut through Caleb’suh, I mean uhuh, through Mr. Cunningham’s farm when, uh uhwhen I comes across his old Guernsey milk cow.’”
Old Jess would lift those stovepipe legs, slow and deliberate. His upper and lower leg parts hinging like a stringed marionette, he pantomimed a walk across that field, ere suddenly throwing both arms back in mimicked surprise. After a few seconds, his discourse continued.
“Yeah, ole Shaky was sticking to the story those lawyers had rehearsed with him purdy good. ‘Well sir, uhyour honor, I seen she was just standin’ thar all by herself, uh’ he covered his mouth and coughed one of them dry wino coughs, the kind what a feller that’s wanting a drink coughs. After a few hacks, he kind of cleared his throat, then in a heightened, crackly voice stammered, ‘And I was a wonderin’ how come she was so durned fur from the barn so near to milkin’ time.’ Shaky paused, his dark, BB-like eyes peering about that courtroom.”
The old man’s eyes glanced back and forth between Big Don and me.
“I reckon ole Shaky was seeing if any of them folks was believing that yarn he was spinning. ‘When I got real clos’t, your honor, I seen somebody, uh, I seen that somebody had tooken a rope and tied that blame cow to the railroad track.’
“That being said, Shaky, whose hands was sure enough shaking by then, dropped his head and hushed speaking. ‘What happened then?’ queried the judge. Lifting his head, Shaky looked that old judge dead square in the eye and said, ‘Nothin’ your honor, being powerful thirsty, I just break into a run towards the river to get me a drank.’ The courtroom burst out in laughter causing the judge to pound his gavel several times to restore order.”
The old man raised and lowered his right fist rapidly.
“One of them railroad lawyers then stepped forward holding a fifteen foot piece of rope in his hand. ‘Your honor, the defense would like to submit this rope removed from the dead cow’s carcass into evidence.’ Peering over the top of his bifocals, the judge just nodded. He then turned to Caleb Cunningham’s lawyer and asked if he had any questions of this witness. The big city lawyer dropped his head a dab saying, ‘No your honor.’ ‘Very well,’ allowed the judge, ‘I reckon you can hightail it for the river now Mister Spencer.’ I’m telling you, such laughter resounded through that courtroom even the judge’s repeated gaveling could scarcely call it to a halt.”
The old man paused. Fetching a plaid handkerchief from his back pocket, he swiped it over his brow, then dabbed it lightly at each corner of his mouth ere folding it neatly and stuffing it back into his pocket. In that instant, a body could catch the weariness in his visage and a dullness in those normally bright eyes. Yes, in that moment, the old man looked every bit his age.
“With the laughter finally subsided, the judge in a low, stern voice addressed Mister Cunningham. ‘Have you anything further to say on your behalf?’ Ole Caleb Cunningham slowly raised up from off his chair. ‘Yes sir your honor.’ His cheeks were ablaze with crimson and anybody could tell he was plumb fighting mad.”
The old man had a twinkle in his eye whilst he slightly squatted feigning a feller seated, those gangly knees crisply bended, ere slowly straightening to rise. He continued his story with a calm, low voice, and a subdued, almost grave demeanor.
“Old Caleb stepped quickly forward and peered upwards into the judge’s eyes. ‘Your honor,’ the old farmer said, ‘the railroad’s train not only runned over and killed my best milk cow, they bought off my Knoxville lawyer what I paid eight dollars to represent me with nothing more than a fifth of Old Fitz whiskey. Then they give ole Shaky Spencer, what everybody knows is the town drunk, five dollars and a set of new clothes to come here today and lie. And your honor, I’m thinkin’, iffin they’d have give him ten dollars’”
The old man’s voice hesitated, no doubt a pause inserted just for effect, ere deadpanning.
“‘he’d have swore that cow was driving the train!’
“Again, laughter roared though the courtroom, and this time the old judge made no effort to squelch it. At length the court bailiff stood and lifted both arms then slowly lowered them with palms facing downwards, and the spectators fell silent.
“Well now, that old judge wasn’t nobody’s fool either. He looked down at ole Caleb standing there in his work overalls, then looked over at them half-dozen railroad lawyers in their fancy new pin-stripe suits. Back and forth, he looked twixt the twain. And as he looked, a body could see them scales of justice weighing in his cold blue eyes.”
The old man held his hands out, his arms tight at his sides, elbows bended and upturned palms full-opened with his scrawny fingers held straight. He’d slowly lift one hand whilst at the same time lowering the other. Up and down, those hands went and his eyes were almost afire from glowing so brightly, as his smallish head turned on its turkey neck from the left then to the right. After a time, those dry, narrow lips moved.
“A quietness rivaling death’s vigil fell over that courtroom. Every soul had eyes fixed on the old judge. Finally, he lifted his gavel, letting it kind of hover in midair. Then in a voice low and powerful solemn, the venerable old judge spoke. ‘Gentlemen, both the patience of this court and the scales of justice have been sorely tested this day. But do know that the patience of justice is ever enduring and her balances weigh sure and true.’
“Sounding his gavel sharply…”
Simultaneous with his words, the old man’s hand that had been lifted in illustration, dropped suddenly as if pounding a gavel against its sound block.
“that wise old judge thundered, ‘Judgment for the Plaintiff in the amount of twenty dollars!’
“Well, I’m telling you, that courtroom erupted with cheers and applause for the greater part of five minutes.”
He faintly smiled, no doubt satisfied in his telling, then turned to leave. Big Don stepped quickly to open the door for the old man, both of us silent as he passed into the darkness.
David Dyer is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based writer.