Low Middling

© 2008

I was sitting in Mrs. Hancock’s sixth-grade geography class when Tommy Joe told me the news. Bobby Cook shot himself in a hunting accident and died alone in the woods. It was like someone had stuck me with one of those long hat pins my mother wears in her black Sunday hat. It took his father and a  bunch of other men from the mill village a long time to find him when he didn’t come home for supper. And when they did, Bobby Cook was crumpled up in a barbed wire fence,  his shotgun a couple of feet in front of him. He must have leaned the gun against the wobbly fence and tried to climb over it. The gun must have slipped down the fence and one  of the sharp barbs of the wire caught the  trigger,  and  the twelve  gauge went off.  Got him in the head.  Tommy Joe said the  casket  wouldn’t be opened at the funeral because Bobby Cook’s face was blown off.
And then, Tommy Joe said that his father, Wormy Hooper, was saying Bobby Cook shot himself on purpose, ’cause of what his poppa had done down at the cotton mill. That’s when Mrs. Hancock came over and  slapped my wrist with a ruler for talking in class. She didn’t do anything to Tommy Joe.

I remember that day just like it was yesterday.  Flat,  skinny streams of sunlight fanned through the school window in  narrow fingers. It was fall and hunting season had just begun,  bringing a fresh beat to every boy’s heart because, as with many  parts of life in Cedarhill, there was a passage, something handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, and you can’t ignore those urgings or rites.
After the sting in my wrist went away, I looked over at  Tommy Joe. He was staring out of the window, just looking at  nothing, I guess.  Maybe he was thinking about God and what the  preacher always said about the good dying young. I never did know  why  God  would want the good to die young,  but that’s what the  preacher said always seemed to happen to the real good  ones.  He  said  he  guessed  God needed them more than we did.  I  never did understand that, either.
“Sunny, I loved Bobby Cook,” Tommy Joe said.
That was Tommy Joe. He was quick to love and to defend.
We all did. Bobby Cook was part of a foursome of me, Sunny—that’s my nickname, but the only one I’ll answer to. I got it  the day Tommy Joe saw me when my family moved from a mill town  in Atlanta to Cedarhill when I was five. He said I had a face as  bright as the sun ball. That’s the best thing anyone ever said to  me.
Well, there was me, Bobby Cook, Tommy Joe Hooper and Benny  Cato. We hung out together in Cedarhill mill village where we  grew up, riding bicycles, shooting marbles and filling in the  blanks until the day came we would go to work in Cedarhill Yarn  Mill, just like our fathers and mothers, and their fathers and  mothers. It wasn’t something the family discussed. Going to  shift work in the cotton mill and turning over your weekly  paycheck to the family was another one of those rites of passage.
The three of us met that afternoon after school at  Mullinax’s Feed, Seed & Implements where you could buy  everything from live chickens to cradles and caskets. Ben  Mullinax helped his father, Adam, run the store. Adam started the business when Cedarhill was nothing more than a dirt road rail crossing on the Southern Railroad Line. Adam liked to say that the feed and seed store took you from cradle to grave and  everything in between. It was sort of a landmark, and the only  place you could gather important news around a potbellied stove  streaked with the stains of so much tobacco juice it was  difficult to tell what had changed the stove’s outer skin the  most, coal smoke or spit tobacco.
The store was also the best place to go for softdrinks and  parched peanuts from a big brown burlap sack Mr. Mullinax always kept open for anyone who wanted them. Me, Tommy Joe and Benny liked to crack open the nuts and drop them into our Cokes, fizzing them up and then drinking the whole goopy mass and eating the nuts in a kind of glutinous mesh. It wasn’t for the faint of  heart or old men with no teeth.

The men around the stove, broganed and overalled, were  talking about the other member of our foursome and how he had  died. They were saying some pretty bad things and I knew it  wouldn’t be long before Tommy Joe would either leave or speak his mind.
“That boy never was right,” said Floyd Mullinax, Adam’s  nephew.
“I heard tell he took to reading the Bible a lot.”
“What’s wrong with that, Floyd? You could probably stand a  little more reading in the Good Book.”
That was Pinky Leadbetter. He was younger than the others and was always quick with a joke. Everyone liked Pinky. He said funny things all the time and usually could make a bad day good with his tongue. He also carried a hawk-billed knife on his hip, which was very impressive. He used it in the mill to clean  bobbins, but the word around the mill town was that Pinky Floyd  would carve a rib cage just as quickly as a bobbin. And clean it  just as fine.

“Well, what I meant was that his father told me he’d catch  the boy late at night reading the Bible. He’d read well into the  morning and then when he’d get home after the day shift, he’d find the boy still reading. It ain’t natural to read a thing, even the Bible, that much.”
Some of the others, who had been so long away from church  service they had forgotten whether it was Holy Ghost or Holy Cow, nodded in agreement, spitting and reaching for more peanuts.
“Bobby Cook was my friend, and he was bettern’ most of you  here,” Tommy Joe said. It was a low, down deep voice he used in  situations like this. He wanted you to know that he was coming  from somewhere dangerous. It was more like a dog growling than a  boy speaking.
“Whether he is bettern’ us ain’t the subject, Tommy Joe,”  Floyd Mullinax said. “We are talking about why he up and shot hisself like that.”
“Who said he shot himself? It was an accident.”
“Well, that ain’t what your daddy was a saying. Wormy was putting it out that the boy killed hisself. Said he was already  in the fence, to make it look like a accident, when he pulled the trigger. That’s what Wormy was saying. He told it on the night shift in the spinning room while he was doffing.
“You going to ‘spute your paw, boy?”

“He didn’t kill himself. I know Bobby Cook and it was an  accident.”
Tommy Joe put his Coke down and walked out of Mullinax’s,  stuffing his hands into his pockets. I followed and Benny did too, just as soon as he swallowed the entire Coke and peanut mess.
Tommy Joe was built on the order of a triangle, with the  small part at his belt buckle. His shoulders were wider than they should be, which gave him a strange, three sided look. It was almost as if someone put a two-by-four across his shoulders and then draped a shirt over him. We used to kid him that he looked just like Buster Crabbe in one of his shoulder padded suits he  wore in the movies. And Tommy Joe was about as flat chested as you can get and still have a chest. One look at him and you knew instantly he is Wormy Hooper’s son, all right. All the Hoopers were so skinny you could almost see through them.
But despite his size, Tommy Joe had more courage than a boxed up bobcat. He’s had to. Being so skinny and all has  done other things to him, like enlarged his ears, eyes, nose and  mouth. I think it all got pulled tight around his head, which was larger than it should have been and over emphasized his other features. I would never tell Tommy Joe this, however.
The others of us were fairly average. Benny Cato was big and  round. He ate a lot and was always hungry. I’ve seen him eat an entire rack of biscuits and bulldog gravy and then polish off a blackberry pie before his mother found out what he had done.  From the rear, Benny looked like his pants were always caught up in his crack, which we kidded him about. It was only because he eats all the time. But I liked Benny. He was always the same.
Me, I was about as average as they come. My father said I had the family chin and my mama said I looked like her father. He was a moonshiner, so I always feared the sheriff had a long memory and held grudges. Mama said Grandpaw was always one step ahead of the local law and the federal boys. She pronounced it “fedral,” like it was a rat or some bad awful disease.
The only abnormal thing about me, I guess, was that I never  did want to go to work in the cotton mill. Tommy Joe and Benny  were counting on getting a job there. I was hoping something  would happen that I wouldn’t have to go. That was always a sore  point between me and my father. He drank a lot of moonshine and  beer, mixed together, and I always believed that my not wanting to be a linthead—that was what the townspeople called all of us who lived in the  mill village—was what made him drink so much.
Some nights when he was about as mean as a three-legged dog  over a bone, he’d call me names and rush at me with anything he  could find handy—broomstick, mop, baseball bat. His aim was  about as bad as his temper, thank goodness. He’d say I was a  pansyass school kid and what did I think I was, wanting to go to  college for Christsakes?  Hell, nobody in his family had ever gone off to one of them college schools and I damn sure wasn’t going to spoil things by going and getting some kind of highfaluting education. And, he was tired of spending money on a bunch of dumbass books for me to read. And, I was spending too much time in the library. What was the matter with comic books, he’d ask? We got them free at the commodities office where we picked up government cheese. He’d say that I was as worthless as low middling cotton. “It ain’t got no staple and neither do you,” my daddy would say.
Mama liked her beer, too, because it helped to dull the  pain in her back from working all night on graveyard or in the weave room all day. It also helped her bear the constant shouting at home or the crash of something being thrown by daddy at night. She would tell me not to make daddy mad any more with that talk about going off to college. It wouldn’t’wouldn’t do any good. We didn’t have the money and, besides, I had to go to work in the yarn mill, just like my brothers and sisters.
It was difficult to get by those rites of passage in  Cedarhill. Life was measured by shift work in the mill village. The old-timers used to say that when you died, you had better make sure it wasn’t on your shift, or Mr. Andrews, the mill  superintendent, would dock your pay.
I think that was what got me about Bobby Cook’s funeral. The day they buried him, the mill whistle blew, like it did every day at the change of shift work. It blew several times for some reason. It was real eerie. The mill whistle just kept blowing, like it was crying, or something.
Later, I found out that the whistle had gone on the blink,  and they were trying to fix it. Funny it should happen the day we buried Bobby Cook. Me, Tommy Joe and Benny went to the funeral. We had to, Tommy Joe said. It wouldn’t be right to let them put away our friend and us not be there to see him gone good and proper.
I didn’t want to go, but I was more afraid of what Tommy  Joe might do if I didn’t go than I was of seeing Bobby buried. I  had never been to a funeral up to that time. It seemed that  Bobby’s death marked the beginning of funerals for me. I sort of  got used to them after a while.          There was a lot of wailing and crying inside the Primitive  Baptist Church where his folks were members. They call his people holy rollers and I began to understand why after about the first five minutes when the preacher began. He shouted and jumped and finished all of his sentences with an “unh”. He jerked all over like he was sick and when I asked Tommy Joe if he was okay, he punched me in the ribs and said that was the way they did things in this church. Holy rollers, he said, are like that. They enjoy religion most when they are hurting the loudest.           The stronger the preacher preached, the more profound, bone deep moaning and urgent weeping noises rose up from the amen pews closest to the pulpit. It sounded like a nation of people dying in those front rows. Then, the preacher said something that was like an open hand slap in the face.
“The other day when I was in Atlanta, I took a trolley car  to go see Brother Collier in the big Baptist Hospital they have  there. Brother Collier is in the hospital as you all know,  having an ulcer removed from his stomach. They say they are taking out more than half of his stomach.
“The man running that electric trolley told me that I was to get a transfer coin, so I could transfer from his trolley to the next one without buying another ticket. He said I could just use the coin to transfer on over.
“I got to thinking about that this morning as I was dressing to come here to preach this young boy’s funeral.
“Death hasn’t stolen Bobby Cook from our midst, yanked this  boy from his family, from the maternal love only a mother  really knows, like Mary. No sir. Death hasn’t won a thing here. You know what Bobby Cook has done done? He’s done  transferred over.”
When Brother Simms, who was shaped like an apple with legs,  said those words, I thought Bobby Cook’s mama was going to need  surgery. She went into gyrating hysterics and then passed out  right in front of the casket.

It was several weeks before we got back to anything like  regular everyday life. Everyone at school seemed to want to talk to me, Tommy Joe and Benny about Bobby Cook. We got so we were tired of discussing it because it brought back too many memories. The day the thing really got over with, though, was something.

Charlie Hutto, a big farm boy with smudge of a fuzzy  mustache under his nose, gathered a bunch of the fellows around  outside the basketball gym and began to ask us once more about how Bobby Cook died and did we think he had killed himself.
“No, he didn’t kill himself. It was an accident,” Benny  said, acting disgusted, just like he had heard Tommy Joe do.
“Well, I heard it was because of what you all did with Betsy Jo Hopkins.”
My heart stopped for the briefest of moments, and I quit breathing for a few seconds.
Betsy Hopkins. How had he heard about that? Only the four of us knew what really went on that day. She must have told someone.
I waited for Tommy Joe to say something. I sure wasn’t going to. Benny looked as if he had eaten something bad and it was making his stomach turn.
“What about Betsy Hopkins, Charlie?” Tommy Joe said. His  voice wasn’t quite to the bulldog range yet.
“Well,” Charlie said, turning to the other fellows and smiling, “I heard that all of you took her up to Mill Hill and took her pants off and was going to screw her until you got caught. And you got caught because you dumb bastards were in Mr.  Holtzclaw’s hog pen and he found you when he was coming up to  slop the hogs. Anything to that, Tommy Joe?”
Boy. Betsy Jo must have spilled all the beans. Charlie  had it right down to the last nail in the coffin on that. Me and  Benny looked at Tommy Joe, who was glowering at Charlie now. His  eyes had narrowed to BBs and his big lips were purple and sort of turned outward. I knew it was going to be fighting time if  something wasn’t said soon. And, there was not much of a chance of Tommy Joe winning over Charlie Hutto, who was twice his size and was strong enough to break an anvil.
“We weren’t in the hog pen,” I said. I don’t know where that came from. But I was afraid not to do something, because I was just dead certain that Charlie Hutto was about to kill my best friend in the whole world. “We were behind it.”
Actually, we were in the hog pen, but I didn’t see any need  in drawing more attention to that minute detail. Benny and I,  who Tommy Joe said were too young for such things, were the  lookouts that day. He and Bobby Cook were inside the pen, over  where it was dry, next to a china berry tree that Mr. Holtzclaw  had used as one corner of the wooden hog fence. Mill Hill was owned by the yarn mill, but Mr. Andrews said anyone who wanted to could build a hog pen on it and keep hogs there, as long as it didn’t get to smelling too bad.
Mr. Holtzclaw was German who made his W’s sound like V’s. He was always running his tongue in and out of his mouth, as if he were trying to taste his words. It was like he was spitting, but wasn’t. His tongue usually got in the way of his words, and it made him sound even funnier, especially when he got mad. My daddy and the other men in the mill called him Kraut because he had fought in the war and was taken prisoner and shipped to the U.S. because he was a textile mill worker. He was kept at a prisoner of war camp near Cedarhill and after the war, he got a job in the mill, somehow. My daddy always said he was a spy and that this country let him stay ’cause they got information from him and made him do some spying for them.
We forgot about hog feeding time that day. Me and Benny got so interested in what Tommy Joe and Bobby Cook were doing that we failed in our lookout duties. It wasn’t at all like Charlie  Hutto said. Betsy was only 13 years old and try as hard as they  could, Tommy Joe and Bobby Cook just couldn’t do nothing. It was  like they were ramming into a stone, cold wall. Sometime later, Betsy Jo made it known that she had lost her maidenhead that day, but we  knew better. The only thing lost that day was pride.
Bobby Cook kept asking Tommy Joe if he was getting in. Tommy Joe said he thought so, but wasn’t sure. Neither one of them knew what it was supposed to feel like, though they were sure not going to let me and Benny know that they had failed at their first attempt with a woman.
Just as Bobby Cook’s turn came to try his hand at Betsy, Mr. Holtzclaw walked up. He caught Bobby with his pants down and one leg out, like a dog taking a pee, about to climb on top of Betsy.
“Vaaat are you doing there?” he blubbered in part English  and thick German.
The sound of that heavy German voice knocked me and Benny  over into the pen, right into the muck. Tommy Joe was caught by  surprise, and Bobby Cook’s little thing, which wasn’t much bigger than a piece of licorice, just wilted. He jumped up, and stumbled over Betsy’s spread out legs. He fell into the muck, too.
Tommy Joe made it for the fence, but a big Holtzclaw hand  caught him just behind the neck and held him like a bug.
“You boys, get youselfs up to your feets. And you, frauline, you get youself dressed. I’m taking all of you to the  authorities.”
I had never heard the Cedarhill police referred to as the  authorities before. I thought Mr. Holtzclaw was talking about  taking us to Mr. Andrews’ office, and I knew that was bad news.  My daddy would explode into a million bits of anger over this.
Before Mr. Holtzclaw could think next, Tommy Joe swung his  arm hard and broke free. He leaped over the fence and knocked  over the wagon carrying the buckets of hog slop. With his  attention riveted to his slop, me, Benny and Bobby scooped up  Betsy Hopkins and we hustled over the fence and ran down the  backside of Mill Hill toward Cedar Creek.

I wasn’t sure whether or not Mr. Hotlzclaw had gotten that  good of a look at all of us, so for the next several weeks, we  all stayed away from his mill house and it was two summers before we  ventured back to Mill Hill. Betsy Jo Hopkins never spoke to any  of us again. She grew up into one of the prettiest girls in  our class. Only, she finally got pregnant and had to quit school.

“So, Bobby Cook shot himself over trying to screw Betsy Jo Hopkins,” said Charlie Hutto. “And his little pecker fell flat.”

That was it. Tommy Joe lit into him with both fists, but it was like a fly going up against a swatter. It was all over before it began. Charlie Hutto hit Tommy Joe an uppercut in the chin and just about knocked his brains out. Charlie Hutto laughed as he walked away with the other boys.

Me and Benny bent over to help Tommy Joe get up, but he pushed our hands away. He was angry. He had the courage of his convictions, but he didn’t have the muscle to carry them out.

“We got to fix this,” Tommy Joe said that day in the dust in front of the gym. “I’m telling Bobby Cook’s father what happened that day, so he can stop feeling so bad about his boy,” Tommy Joe said.

Ever since the death, Bobby Cook’s father, Abner Lee, thought his boy killed himself because he had tried to get a labor union organized in the mill. There was a lot of talk about Abner Lee and his Communists unionizers. Fact is, there was a lot of unrest at the mill, and Abner Lee was blamed for all of it. He was called an agitator. Most of the black mill workers were friends of Abner’s as well, and that didn’t help, either, especially with men like my father, who thought all blacks ought to be put on a boat and shipped back to where they came from. He wasn’t sure where it was—Africa or some place—but they ought to just go on back. “We lost a war because of them,” he said, “and we damn sure don’t need no blacks in the mill, taking a white man’s wages.”
“We going to tell Mr. Cook what happened,” Tommy Joe said as he dusted off his pants legs. “We got to,” he said. “We probably helped kill Bobby.” We also learned later that Bobby Cook had really liked Betsy Jo, but read in the Bible about how it was a sin to fornicate out of wedlock. He thought he had sinned against God and Betsy Jo kept blaming him for what happened. Me, Tommy Joe and Benny never knew about this part, ‘cause Bobby Cook didn’t want us to know how sick he was over what had happened. We could see small changes in him, but nothing big enough to make him blow his head off. We never knew that part about Bobby Cook.
That day that Tommy Joe said we had to fix the situation made me realize that there are some things in life that are hard to think out and then make right, but necessary. Bobby Cook might had killed himself because of all the turmoil going on in the mill village and school, much of it aimed at his father and family and Betsy Jo. But me, Tommy Joe and Benny didn’t think anything of it, until we understood that Bobby Cook was really hurting inside and trying to work around some really big stuff, stuff that we had not even thought of yet. Like sinning that day on Mill Hill with Betsy Jo and then his father taking up with black folks like that, which in Cedarhill was enough to get you lynched.
We never did get to tell Abner Lee, though. Not long after the funeral, he was fired from Cedarhill Yarn Mill. Mr. Andrews said it was because Abner was missing too many days of work lately. Nobody really believed that, though. We knew it was because Mr. Cook was trying to get a union organized.
My father said it was good enough for Abner. “He’s just a Communist in work clothes,” my father said. “He ought to go to Russia and take the blacks with him.” He said that as though Abner had been trying to do some harm, but all I could ever understand was that Abner simply was trying to get higher wages for the workers, white and black. I could never figure out why my father was against Abner. My father always complained about the mill’s low pay, the “front office,” he called it, taking out this and that amount from his paycheck. And there was Abner, all the while pushing the mill for more money and better conditions in the mill village, where the mill owned the houses we rented. It didn’t make sense.
Me, Tommy Joe and Benny Cato were never the same after that fall. Something had changed inside us. Tommy Joe said it was because we were still boys but had to work out some grown up problems—sex and death and hate.
We decided that hunting season that had taken our friend just like he never was there, that we would wait now on all of those things to catch up with us. We would wait.


About tennwriter

FRED BROWN is a retired Senior Writer for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. He has been a journalist for 45 years and is a member of the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame. He is a recipient of the Malcolm Law Trophy for Feature Writing and in 1983 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Journalism to study at the University of Michigan. He has published both fiction and nonfiction. Brown has a B. A. Degree in English Literature from Presbyterian College. Other highlights of his career include: Books and Stories Authored: Marking Time: East Tennessee Historical Markers and the Stories Behind Them, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn. 2005. Discovering October Roads: Fall Colors and Geology in Rural East Tennessee, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn., 2001. Co-authored with Harry Moore. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith, published by John F. Blair Publishers, Winston-Salem, N.C., May, 2000. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald. Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Writers, published by Emerald House/Blue Ridge Publishing, Fall, 1997. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald "We Can Eat Sparrows," New Millennium Writings, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Fall & Winter, 1996. "The Devil's Roost," Voices From the Valley, Knoxville Writer's Guild anthology, 1994. Snake-Handling Believers, 2 chapters in book by Dr. Thomas Burton, University of Tennessee Press, 1993. History of Commission on Religion in Appalachia, 1992-93. "Seniors: Telling Tales to Life's Upperclassmen," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, fall 1992. Coker Creek, Crossroads to History, history of a mountain community and its people near Tennessee-Georgia border, 1991. "Character Building," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, fall 1991. The Faces of East Tennessee, a history of East Tennessee Counties, 1990. "Tillman Cadle, Memories of the Coalfields," Now and Then, The Appalachian Magazine, Center for Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University, Vol. 7, No. 7, fall 1990. Trader Jon, a biography; Castle Books, Memphis, 1986. "Mining Reform," Sierra, Vol. 71, No. 5, September/October 1986.
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