It had rained. The ground along the path to
Jasper was particularly sopping. Luis pulled his boots and mud-coated
trousers from the earth as he turned onto the thoroughfare that crossed
through town. Slick mud and puddles would be a common sight for
another month, possibly two, but today’s puddles were from the night
before. The storm was departing and as he crossed the floorboards in
front of the post office, Luis developed a lithe spring in his step.
There were no clouds. There was no work. It was a Sunday, and he was a man with a purpose.
In the alleyway between the post office and the arms shop, he was
accosted by a broad-shouldered figure. Luis quickly recognized the
shadow whose beard draped over the rough fabric of a well-worn cotton
shirt. Gray hairs shown through the gaps that ivory shirt buttons once
“Hold up now. Where ya off to in such a huff?” Luis backed against
the wall to get some distance between himself and the old man, who was
close enough for Luis to see the dried soup clinging to the
corners of his grin and beard.
“Just walkin’, Old Barnaby. Nothin’ special.”
The grizzled beard brushed at the younger man’s dusty sleeve and
turned his head down to the end of the thoroughfare. The general store
was opening. A click and slurp emerged from his mouth as Old Barnaby
turned back to Luis and placed his long arm around his shoulder. “Come
on, son. I’m goin’ that way.”
Luis immediately shook him off, his face indignant. “I don’t need no geezer walkin’--”
“Ya shut yer mouth and show respect, boy!”
Luis recoiled at the outburst. The old man’s face was as decrepit
as before, and there was no sign of anger. The comment was then swept
away as quickly as it had been released. Luis allowed Old Barnaby to
lope ahead of him a few steps so that he could regain his composure.
"Ya need to grow up,” said Old Barnaby. “Kind of man are ya?"
Luis scratched his head and turned to look at him. "Law says I am
and I grown up enough already, so I'm a man." He squinted as he turned
away from Old Barnaby to the corner where the grocer was sweeping the
floorboards in earnest.
"Just can't say what kind."
Old Barnaby shook his head and let out a deep groan from passing
gas, or possibly disgust. “See,” he began, “that's what I mean. If
another man questions the kind of man ya are, ya don't start talkin'
about it. Ya look that man in the eye and tell him yer the kind of man
who'll clear out a couple of his front teeth if he don't shut his trap."
"So ya want me to hit you?" asked Luis.
Old Barnaby raised his brow and continued his steady pace toward the
end of the path. "Ya do and ya'll find y'self in the pile of horse
shit we're passin'. Now tell me, kid. Where do ya find yerself going
with s’much intent?”
“General store,” said Luis. “Going to meet a gal there.”
“Of course, of course. A bit of the hokey pokey, ey?” Old Barnaby chuckled as he croaked out the word “pokey.”
“No sir, none of that. She don’t know I’m sweet on her yet.”
Old Barnaby paused for a moment and squinted as if trying to see
into Luis’ head. "She don’t know? That ain’t no good. Ya have to
show her. Talkin’ won't do much when yer too scaredy to get close.
Have to show a woman ya have confidence. Let her know yer interested,
and more importantly," he added at the waggle of a finger, "let her
know that ya know she's likin' ya. Don't matter if she knows it yet or
not. She'll come to see it."
"But ain't that like forcin' myself?"
"No, kid, no. What’d I tell ya about bein' a man? A man knows when
he's bein' persuasive and when he's been a poor Christian. A
Luis shook his head. "Not Emma, no sir. She's real smart. She'll know I'm bein' fresh."
Old Barnaby shook his head as they passed the general store, where
he managed to take a couple of plums from a wooden fruit stand. Luis
paused to look at the stand when Old Barnaby grabbed his sleeve and
pulled him along.
"Here, kid. One of these a day'll keep the teeth white as a bone."
Luis took the plum into his hand and glanced at the windows of the
"Ain’t that apples?"
"What's apples?" said Old Barnaby.
"For teeth. Apples’re for white teeth."
The old man suckled a piece of plum into his mouth. He slurped the
juice that seeped from the wound as he muttered, "I don't like apples.
I like plums."
Plums in hand, they made their way to the side of the general store
where a young woman of seventeen or so emerged from around the corner
onto the thoroughfare. She held the hems of her blue dress in her
hands as she stepped across the muddy avenue, her eyes fixed on the
storefront. The shadow from the bonnet she wore partially concealed
her face, which became clearer and clearer until Luis could make out
the dimples of her cheeks and smattering
of light freckles.
“That’s yer gal, is it?” said Old Barnaby.
Luis nodded and deftly bit into his plum, watching as she moved
closer to the men while crossing the street toward the general store.
He forced down the plum in his mouth before discarding the remainder
into the mud.
“Wastin’ a plum, y’fool.”
“Yea,” muttered Luis. Old Barnaby watched as Luis straightened his shirt and swept the dirt off his trousers, ready to advance.
“All right, son. Just mind what I told ya.”
“I will.” Luis stepped forward to meet her as she approached the
storefront floor. He bunched his fists and grimaced slightly – sweaty
palms were inevitable.
“Um, mornin'," said Luis.
"Good morning," said Emma. Luis gazed at her in silence.
Old Barnaby shook his head and bit into the plum. "Goddamn kids,"
he sputtered, and stepped out onto the fresh mud of a damp morning.