ISAAC BLUNT HAS A FAR AWAY LOOK ON HIS FACE, which means he is thinking. The Blunts don't think a whole lot, so that look's one you learn to catch right quick. It's a cold day, with some spitting snow in the air, and Mo-Mo has already whittled a fair-sized stick down to nearly nothing.
"Once a man has a goiter, he's marked," says Isaac. Warden Merrill nods and scoots his rocker across the concrete floor closer to the pot-bellied stove. We all know about the Blunts and their goiters. Back before the war, they kept to themselves out past Deerskin, and they all looked like turkey gobblers and were mighty proud of it, too. Their daddy raised them up that way, which says a lot.
"I got a birth mark in a private area," says Jim Folsom Smith. The others make strange faces, but I don't, even though I'm the only woman there. We're all of an age, and time renders sex out of a person if they live long enough. That's nowhere in the Bible, but it seems a fact to me. I'm smoking some rum-flavored tobacco in my pipe. Prince Albert has been giving me heartburn lately.
"We don't need to know no more than that," says Mo-Mo. His real name is Morris, but he’s been called Mo-Mo since he was a baby. Names have a tendency, I’ve found, to stick around even when they’re not wanted.
"Got me a lot of dates in the old days," says Jim Folsom. "Mostly it was just curiosity, I expect. Word gets around. Blessings are where you find ‘em."
Word had always gotten around about the Blunts and their goiters. On Saturday, the old man would bring the whole brood of them to town, and they could have been the poster family for pellagra and what have you. But he had trained them in pride. Which is where Isaac picks up the story.
"My daddy didn't have no more idea than nothing where the goiters come from, since he didn't allow none of us to see the doctor on account of his sweet pea," says Isaac.
"Hee-hoo," says Sam Robins. "They's a lady present, Isaac."
"For heaven’s sake, Sam," I admonish. They all knew what I was. I'd stayed married to my husband, Watson, for many a year, but we did not indulge in what you might call boy-girl interactions. Watson lingered for two days after the tractor rolled over on him, but he wasn't in pain. Blessings are where you find them.
"No, no, his sweet pea ain't what you think it is," says Isaac. "It was what he called his little finger on his left hand. See, it had this, well, risen on the end of it, always had been there. And they took him to the doctor in town when he was a teen boy, I reckon, and the doctor cut his sweet pea clean off. Put daddy to sleep, and when he woke up, his sweet pea was gone."
"Well, I'm glad it weren't the othern," says Jim Folsom. Leon Pomartry comes over and stokes up the stove with an iron rod and warms up our coffee. We all started smoking before we knew it killed you. The only who quit was Ardell Moon, who had to, since he died.
"Anyway, on account of his sweet pea, daddy didn't let us see the doctor," says Isaac Blunt. "Anytime one of us got sick, he would physick us hisself with alum and cold toxins, and what have you. It never hurt none of us too bad. But back to the goiters. We knowed we was different, always did. At school, they used to call Lucy Mae "Gobbler," and she thought they was praising her. She thought they was jealous. Same with Janie Patricia and Starlene Cynthia."
"Starlene," says Mo-Mo. "There's a sad story."
"Ah ha," says Warden Merrill. He usually says that for no special reason. I guess it sounded warden-like back when he was the warden, which was more than 20 years ago. I knew what Mo-Mo meant about Starlene. She had married early and died in childbirth with a baby which measured 29-inches long and weighed 19-and-a-half pounds. The baby lived, but he didn't amount to anything.
"So, everybody started teasing us, calling us the Gobbler Family," says Isaac Blunt. "And a thing like that can hurt! It can. And see, we all liked them goiters, was proud as if we'd been borned with gold crowns on our heads."
"I heard of a baby born with 12 fingers over in Monroe," adds Sam Robins helpfully. Sam doesn't talk a lot and is sort of an honorary member of the Tuesday Morning Coffee Group here at Pomatry's Store on Highway 15 outside Branton. He moved here from somewhere up north, Minnesota or Kentucky, but we don't hold it against him.
"Unh huh," says Isaac. "Well, this were different, Sam. When Mama told us about God's chose people? We thought that was us, because we all looked different, and we was different. Daddy always said, when we went to town, to hold your head high, you're carrying my name."
"And a goiter," says Mo-Mo.
"Yes, and that was a reason for us to be prideful. See, we felt sorry for all them girls with skinny necks."
Just then, we heard a shrieking of brakes then a bright metallic crash followed by a kind of lingering whang out front of the store. I was to the door first, me being somewhat more spry than the others, especially Mo-Mo who walks with a cane which is topped by a dragon's head. He calls the cane Bessie after his late wife. We all knew Bessie, and everybody thinks he has a point. The spitting snow has eased off, and there’s low scudding clouds and the dampness of rain upon the air. Two cars have collided on Highway 15.
"Call the ambylance," says Jim Folsom Smith.
"Call the po-lice," says Warden Merrill
"Call a preacher," says Sam Robins.
"I ain't through," says Isaac Blunt.
TURNS OUT THE WRECK DOESN'T AMOUNT TO MUCH, just a couple of bent fenders and two people from out of county who have to wait for the sheriff and a wrecker. They are right ill with one another. She is a student going back to college, named Shaye? She wears black lipstick and black fingernail polish, and has hair dyed black. Mo-Mo seems to think she's the anti-Christ or something. Warden Merrill, keeps fiddling with his hair. Men are pathetic creatures, all in all. A man of 75 years will without fail think he's attractive to a woman of 20. You cannot train a man up to the truth, and I stopped trying years ago.
The other victim interests me more. He's a traveling insurance salesman named Hobart Meadwell. He is a failure. You can read failure like it was Braille, especially in a man. A man gives off failure. Hobart Meadwell gives off failure. He is a dumpy little man about 40, I'd say, dressed all in brown. He has an eager sourness about him that is off-putting to me, though none of the others notice it.
They pull a chair up to the stove, and one of the Pomartry boys, Harold or Steve (I'm not sure of them because my eyesight is going) stokes the fire and brings them coffee.
"My daddy's gone kill me," says Shaye. "You know I'll get blamed. The cops always blame the woman."
"Have you ever served time for a criminal offense?" asks Warden Merrill. Hobart snuffles out a disdainful little laugh.
"I think that's what I'm doing right now," says Shaye flatly.
"Whoa-ho," says Mo-Mo, and he begins to giggle. A giggling old man can be cute, but in Mo-Mo's case, it don’t apply.
"Hon, he didn't mean anything," I say. "He was the warden here for years, and he always tries to find connections with strangers."
"I served time," says Hobart. We all look at him. Isaac Blunt rubs his throat and looks sad, and I know he wants to resume his story and hope he has the sense not to. If so, it would be unlike any of the Blunts that every lived around here.
"You got any sugar?" Shaye calls to the Pomartry boy. He comes over and hands here the sugar dispenser, and she pours about half a pound in her cup.
"That will give you the sugar diabetes," says Sam Robins. "I got the sugar diabetes."
"What'd you do time for, son?" asks Warden Merrill, warming up to Hobart.
"Forgery," he says.
"That's not so bad," says Warden Merrill.
"And arson and possession of an illegal firearm, and illegal drugs, and theft, and resisting arrest," says Hobart.
"Why me?" asks Shaye of the heavens or perhaps just of the rafters.
"That's not so good," says Warden Merrill.
"It was an accident. I had a little anxiety problem, so I went to my ex-wife's house and took her Xanax and took back the gun I'd give her for our wedding anniversary? Then I tripped over her Christmas tree and it falls down and lights the carpet? I'm having an anxiety attack? You can't think straight? So, I run out, and her house burns down, and they caught me later, and I didn't want to be caught. That's the whole entire story. Do you all have insurance?"
"I have some Xanax," says Shaye. "I'm going to take one now. Any of you want one?" We all decline, even Hobart, who says his days of anxiety have long since passed because he has found Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Shaye takes her pill and settles back.
"Where'd you do your time?" asks Warden Merrill. "Do you know Warden Hightower down in Dooly County? Finest man I ever met."
"That's right, just hold you head high, because you're carrying my name, that's what my daddy said," continues Isaac Blunt, as if nothing had intervened. Shaye looks him up and down with something amounting to disbelief. Isaac is about five-nothing and weighs around four pounds, so it's easy to stare at the man. “Poor Isaac” is what he's been called all his life.
"I was in Floyd County," says Hobart. "Good food up that way. Young lady, are you a student at the university?"
"Yeah," says Shaye. "I can't believe you burned down your ex-wife's house."
"I bet you don't know the value of renter's insurance, do you?" he asks hopefully.
"My grandpaw did time for moonshining," says Mo-Mo. He seems fiercely proud of the fact and awaits condemnation with a chin-lifted eagerness. He seems disappointed when nobody rises to the bait.
"I got a birth mark in a private area," says Jim Folsom Smith. Shaye looks like she's going to be sick. She's a handsome lass, I'll give her that, with light blue eyes and a label pin which has two Greek letters.
"We don't need to know no more of that," says Mo-Mo. Isaac turns to Shaye and all but takes her hand in his.
"Once a man has a goiter, he's marked," he says earnestly. Shaye touches her tiny wrist with her dainty fingers to take her pulse. She counts in her head, but you can see it happening. She shrugs. It must not be too high.
"I'll be better in half an hour," she says.
"So, let's us go back to where I was," says Isaac. "Like I said, on account of his sweet pea, Daddy didn't let us see the doctor. He'd wiggle the stump of his sweet pea and say, 'Chilren, a doctor done that to my sweet pea, and I ain't letting one cut nothin' off of you.'"
"How about the rest of y'all?" asks Hobart. "Do you know the right amount of life insurance is five times your annual salary?"
"None of us got a annual salary," says Mo-Mo.
"I got my pension from the state," says Warden Merrill, somewhat hurt. "And I get 40 dollars a month from the National Retired Wardens Association. Let me tell you about the day Adel Hixon excaped."
"Hon, we've heard that a right smart amount," I say. Warden Merrill looks downcast, but Isaac Blunt picks it up so quick nobody has a chance to react.
"So, when we started growing them goiters, Daddy figured it was a natural thing," says Isaac. "Sally Ann was the first one growed a goiter, but hers was just this small little one, like a risen. Then Mama and Joe Bobby growed theirs, and then Daddy, and they was all of a size to impress. I was really feeling low, because I hadn't grown no goiter of my own, you understand."
"I think I'm going to vomit," says Shaye. "How long does it take for the sheriff to get here?"
"The sheriff was drunk the day Adel Hixon escaped," says Warden Merrill. "That's why I had to do what I did." He pauses and leans forward confidentially toward Shaye. "I was a hero. You don't have to say I said that. It's common knowledge in these parts."
"You know, I might have me a Xanax," says Hobart. He slumps back in his gray metal chair and his trousers slide up revealing white work socks. Shaye gets herself a small blossom of giggles. She digs in her purse and comes up with a bottle, uncaps it, hands Hobart a Xanax, which he takes with a sip of coffee.
"Taking a pill with coffee will make your head explode," says Sam Robins amiably. "Everbody knows that."
"Sam, hush up with your old tales," I say.
"I swore these off, but just this onct, it would be a soothing," says Hobart. "I wished I'd a took one when she did. I bet you're starting to soothe, aren't you, honey?"
"Not yet," says Shaye with a hopeful smile. Lot of hopeful going on around Pomartry's Store this morning.
"And I'd watch my neck in the mirror every morning and worry about it," says Isaac. "I'd think, well, maybe that's a little bit of one growing there. Because a feller has to have something different about him to stand out. If a man wants to make his mark in this world, he cain't be like everybody else. He's got to up and take charge of the world afore it takes charge of him."
"Here it comes," says Shaye, leaning back and closing her eyes.
"Bless your heart," says Hobart. He reaches out and taps her hand, and her small fingers curl up as if to catch a passing leaf, just once and then her palm going flat again.
"Then one day, there wasn't no mistaking it," says Isaac. He'd be singing "Camelot" by now if he knew the words. "And for a week straight, it growed and growed until it was the biggest goiter in three counties, and Lord, I was as proud a boy as ever walked the Earth. For a huge goiter is a prideful thing, though a painful one."
Shaye leaps up and runs around wildly. Me being the only other woman there, I know what she needs, so I take her to the bathroom and come back. They are lighting their pipes, so I light mine. Hobart watches me with some interest.
"Actuarial-wise, pipe smoking ain't as bad for a man as cigarettes," says Hobart. "I'm not up on what pipe smoking does to a woman, though."
Shaye comes back out, and the men all rise, but she seems better and holds up her hand to fend off any queries or help in being reseated.
"Before you go on, there's something I have to say," blurts Shaye. She bursts into tears and doubles over. Hobart pats her on the back, but she shrugs his hand away. She sits up and starts to speak then starts to bawl again.
"Let's get her a headache powder," says Mo-Mo, which is his solution to everything from cancer to digestive distress. He leans forward. "A Goody's, though. Them othern don't work."
"I don't want a headache powder," says Shaye. "I'm all right now. I just want to say that—" and she all but falls apart crying and howling, and Warden Merrill looks at his watch. He's missed another chance to tell about the day Adel Hixon escaped, which makes it a bad day for him. She pulls herself back together. "I was blackballed by Epsilon Delta at rush!"
There's a general lack of sympathy at this point. Nobody but me is quite sure what Shaye is talking about, and I attribute it to the Xanax. A person will say anything when she's relaxed.
"We could take you at the Moose Lodge," says Warden Merrill helpfully.
"I didn't fit in with them because of what they had heard about me," says Shaye. Her nose is running, and I get the Pomartry boy to fetch a box of Kleenex, which she rips open, throwing the lid on the floor and snatching out four or five in one handful. "The word was around that I was a tramp."
"You are?" asks Jim Folsom Smith. The man's smiling like a fool, but men can't help it. I believe I am correct is saying that's a scientific fact.
"No, I'm not!" cries Shaye. "It's a nasty story told about me by Mary Elizabeth Cuffington, who was a year ahead of me in school and got there before I did and was pledged to Epsilon Delta, and I thought she'd be my big sister, but then I think she's the one who blackballed me. This isn't real." She touches the pin and sniffs and the tears stop and then start again. By now, all the men are huddling closer, and I have to admit that in distress, Shaye has gone from being disdainful to needy.
"That Jezebel," says Jim Folsom Smith.
"Anyway, I wanted y'all to know I'm a failure," says Shaye. "First I get blackballed and then I have a wreck in East Jesus. My daddy's gonna kill me."
"This here's Branton," says Isaac Blunt.
"East Jesus is four miles from here," says Mo-Mo. Sometimes Mo-Mo has what you might call a wry sense of humor.
"I'm sorry, and then this man starts telling this terrible story about about his—about that thing, and it made me sick," says Shaye.
"That could be a cancer of the intestinal lining," says Hobart, smiling. "Have you thought of life insurance, miss?"
"Wait just a galdern minute, the story of my goiter ain't a terrible thing," says Isaac Blunt. "All us carried them things until I went into the service when the war started. Something about salt, I disremember. Now they'd come out from the county health department before. They was after us like a pea hen on a bedbug."
"I'm going to yak," says Shaye, holding the wad of Kleenex tight against her mouth.
"Janie Patricia and Starlene Cynthia, they didn't see a thing wrong with it, either, and we didn't mind being called the Gobbler Family, but daddy was the one fought for us most of all," says Isaac.
"Your father wanted you to have goiters?" asks Shaye.
"It was because a doctor had cut off his sweet pea, and so daddy had no truck with them doctors," confides Isaac Blunt. Shaye leaps up and runs to the bathroom herself this time. The men all bless her heart. Jim Folsom Smith refreshes his breath with a little spray vial he keeps in his pocket, and then he lights his pipe again.
"I forgot to admit that I was convicted of cruelty to animals, too, but that was an accident," says Hobart Meadwell. Mo-Mo has finished whittling his stick down to nothing. He's all ears, a smiling man. "See, she had this yappy toy poodle named Bitsy, and when I accidentally kicked over her Christmas tree, and it fell down and lighted the carpet, Bitsy run into the back and wouldn't come out. You ever seen a marshmallow burnt up? That's what she looked like. They had pictures in court. I was remorseful over Bitsy."
"I'd a made you chop cotton for killing a dog," says Warden Merrill. "I always say let the punishment fit the crime."
"How does chopping cotton pay for killing a poodle?" I ask.
Shaye comes back out of the restroom, and all the men stand in greeting. Shaye smiles beautifully, and then they sit down.
"That's just what it will be like when I'm ready to walk down the aisle, and everybody stands up," says Shaye. The Xanax has obviously kicked in completely, and she is happy again.
"Except them that knows you are a tramp," says Sam Robins. Not even this comment can ruin her demeanor now, and she brushes it off like a crumb from a lapel.
"This feller admitted to being a killer why you was gone," says Mo-Mo, nodding toward Hobart.
"I'm sure you had reason," says Shaye, touching Hobart on the hand.
"I did have reason," says Hobart. "You are an understanding girl. I'm glad you run into me, and I had the chance to meet you."
"I ran into you?" says Shaye. Her face crumbles into a passion. "I ran into you?" Her voice is trembling, on the verge of a cracky shouting. "The heck I ran into you."
"You did," says Hobart, whose feelings are hurt now.
Just then, the sheriff pulls up outside, and Shaye and Hobart, by now arguing and using unpleasant words, head for the door and out it, and the others, sensing that fun is about, go with them, leaving only me and Isaac Blunt sitting in our wicker rockers near the pot-bellied stove.
"I remember now,” says Isaac, sorrowful. “They give me iodine in the service and made it go away." He has a distant misty look of fondness. "It's hard to lose the best part of yourself. Sometimes when I awake up, I touch my neck and expect to feel it there. At least I never lost my sweet pea."
"Blessings," I say, “are where you find them.”
Philip Lee Williams is the author of 17 published books, the latest being a novel, Emerson’s Brother. He is a member of the Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame and lives in Oconee County.