As is my wont, I took an extended drive through the nearby rural areas of my state recently. Having a need to answer the call of nature and fill up the tank with gasoline, I stopped at an ancient store and gas station on the return trip.
Upon exiting the establishment, and attempting to dust myself off and hopefully to remove the smell of the brine from the pickle barrel, I encountered three idlers on a bench just to the right of the door. Apparently, I had ignored their presence on the way inside (the call of nature being extremely loud and clear when I stopped and rushed into the store), one of them verbally accosted me.
“Must be a city slicker,” said the man on the right end. “Too good ter even say hello to three gents. How’s it going, sonny?” he demanded.
“Sonny?” I returned. “I bet I’m older than you. You in your fifties?”
“Younger than that,” he replied. “Won’t be fifty for two more years.”
The man beside him said, “Don’t be payin’ no attention to Turk. He can’t see much, deaf as a door hinge, and he’s overdue to eatin’. He can’t see you’re older’n him. Now Emerson here,” he pointed to the man on his other side, “he’s as contrary as they come, but he likes it that way.”
I smiled. “Pardon me for being rude. It was unintentional. You see—”
“Yeah, I seed it,” the man in the middle continued. “When it’s time to go, especially at your and my age, there’s not always a lot of time for palaverin’. Where you from?”
I introduced myself, gave him a brief background, and shook his hand.
“What’s up with Emerson?” I inquired.
“He’s just that way,” said the same man. “Wasn’t like that all his life. In fact, when he was younger, he was nearly completely the oppsite. Had a bad experience. Ruined him for conversation and such.”
“Don’t go telling my life his’try,” bellowed Emerson. “Anybody’s gonna tell my story, it’s gonna be me. I doubt if you’re in’trested, are you?” the inquiry was directed at me.
Always looking for new fodder, I pretended to mull it over for a few seconds, then told him I would be happy to hear his story.
“All right, but don’t be int’rupptin’ me, you hear? I’ll tell it my way. If Charlie tries to c’rrect me, don’t be payin’ him no mind.”
Charlie was obviously the man in the middle, and apparently the most talkative of the bunch. After I agreed to Emerson’s terms, he remained silent for at least 5 minutes before commencing.
“Well, Charlie ‘uz right,” he finally cranked it up. “I’m an ornery cuss nowadays, but up ’til my mid-twenties, I ‘uz the quietest, meekest person ’round here. Helped ever’body I could, never telled no one no when they asked. Ever’body liked me.”
“That’s right,” said Charlie. “Nobody ever said a bad word ’bout Emerson. Never!”
“Shut up!” Emerson snapped. “This here’s my story. Let me tell it ‘thout any intaference from you.”
Suddenly, Turk shouted, “A woman done ‘im in, that’s all! Heartless woman. Never loved ‘im!”
“That’s ‘nough,” Emerson turned to Turk. “Don’t ya be talkin’ ’bout the love a my life!”
Turk drooped his head and shook a little bit. I believe the shaking was a permanent fixture, for I had noticed it previously.
Emerson continued after a pause of another 2 minutes, “I ‘uz 20 years old when I met Doris Anne. She ‘uz the most prettiest girl ev’r born ’round here. A livin’ doll, she ‘uz. Wasn’t she beautiful, Charlie?”
Charlie nodded agreement.
“And wouldn’t ya know it, I fell in love ‘ith her the first time I ev’r talked to her. We were the same age, in the same class in school, but we nev’r talked then. I ‘uz a little shy, and she had her pick a boys. Don’t know why she decided ta like me. Wasn’t til a couple a years after school ‘fore she noticed me.”
“I know why!” yelled Turk. “She wanted yer money!”
“Well, that may be,” Emerson nodded agreement, “but she loved me. And I loved her. I did anythin’ for Doris Anne. Anythin! She wanted ta go ta a movie, I took her. She wanted ta get some new clothes, I took her. Anythin’ she wanted, I ‘uz more’n happy to get for her.
“I tell ya, she ‘uz the sweetest thing ’round. Bes’ dancer, bes’ kisser, bes’ ever’thin’. I ‘uz in love for the only time in my life. Only time! But nev’r more! Nev’r more agin’ as long as I live. Ain’t no woman nor no man ev’r gonna tell me how ta live or talk or do anythin’ ev’r agin.”
Emerson paused here. After a couple of minutes, I decided he had stalled his engine and I was about ready to leave, but he turned over his motor and cut right in again.
“Ev’rbody ’round here said she led me ’round like I had a hook in my mouth, and she had a string and pulled me ev’rwhere she wanted to go. Mind you, it was true, it was. But I din’t care. I thought I knew what wuz happ’nin’, and I liked it.
“Bein’ led by a hook in the mouth! Ev’rbody said it. Charlie said it, Turk said it, Jim Cooper said it, Harley Porter said it. Ev’rbody said it! And they ‘uz makin’ fun a me.
“Two whole years Doris Anne and me ‘uz a couple. We ‘uz plannin’ on gettin’ married. Big plans! Church wedding with all our friens invited. Punch and cake and dancin’ after’ards. Big plans!”
Here Emerson paused again. I opened my mouth to ask him a question, but he prevented me.
“I said no in’truppin’ me, din’t it?” I meekly nodded and smiled a little.
Four days b’fore the weddin’, Doris Anne decided she wanted to go fishin’. She loved to fish. That ‘uz one of the things I ‘dmired ’bout her. A country woman.
“Well, we took off walkin’ down the streets to go the fishin’ hole. Of course, ev’rbody ‘uz yellin’, ‘Bein’ led by a hook in the mouth!’ at me. Din’t make me mad, though. Doris Anne din’t care, either.
“We got ta the fishin’ hole and set ta fishin’. I’d caught some blue gills and a sunfish, but Doris Anne hadn’ caught nothin’. I could tell she ‘uz getting’ frustrated. She yanked in her line, checked it, and then whisked it ’round her head a couple a times, and then cast it out…or so she thought.
“I turned ’round while she ‘uz whirlin’ the pole, and when she cast out, the hook went d’rectly inta my mouth and came out my cheek, where it got stuck.
“Nat’rally, I reacted, got up and I hit her in the jaw with my fist. Knocked her out cold.”
Here Emerson paused again, but I was not about to attempt to jump start the story again. The interval seemed like an eternity. I know it was over 5 minutes.
“And that’s what happ’ned ta me, and the love a my life,” said Emerson. “Questions?”
I jumped in, “So she left you when you hit her?”
“No, no, no. That’s not it a’tall,” replied Emerson. “She din’t leave me. No, no! When she came to, she said she ‘uz sorry, but I told her I’d had ‘nough.
“I told her I now un’rstood what the town mean by me bein’ led by a hook in the mouth, and if that’s what our life tagether ‘uz goin’ to be, with her draggin’ me ’round with a hook through my jaw, and her yankin’ the line ev’rytime she wanted me ta do somethin’, then I ‘uz callin’ off the wedding, and I did. Shore glad I figgered it out b’fore the wedding, and not later.
“I made up my mind no one ‘uz going to do anythin’ like that ta me ever agin. Imagine! She led me out ta the fishin’ hole just b’fore our wedding just ta get that hook in my mouth so she could a ruled ov’r me all our lives.
“I ain’t never let anyone ever tell me what to do since then. I’m my own man, I am. I still can’t b’lieve how ignorant I ‘uz ’bout what ev’rbody meant, but I ‘uz too stupid to understan’.”
I decided I had heard enough, and after thanking Emerson for his history, resumed my journey home. On the way, I recalled some of the students I have taught who, upon engaging with their first love, temporarily walked through life with hooks in their mouths.