Friday, October 22, 2010
This is chapter 11 from my book Hobo-ing America. To find out more about this book or to purchace a copy just click on the Hobo-ing America link at the right on this page.
Bill and His Dog, Larry
Bill Jones was what they call in the South - a good old boy. He was a big man, very tall and very heavy. Bill was the only fellow that I ever met who could sit in the shade under an orange tree and without making a move, sweat profusely - no matter what the temperature.
As all good old boys, Bill drove a pickup truck, collected guns, lived in a double-wide, and knew the art of survival, Southern style.
He had a small fishing boat that he used to trot-line for catfish. He hunted, and had a freezer filled to the lid with venison, wild turkey, ducks, wild hog, turtle, rattlesnake meat, shellcracker, bluegill, catfish, and bags of shelled field peas. When he wasn’t contracting orange pickers, he could be found driving a tractor trailer or hauling and selling watermelons along side some main stretch of highway from the back of a rack truck.
He was a good old boy, surviving in any and whatever way he could manage. The only thing that Bill Jones didn’t have that all good old boys are supposed to have, was a dog. Instead of a dog, Bill had Larry.
Bill and Larry were virtually inseparable. Larry was a stray that Bill had picked up alongside of the road one day. Larry was homeless, jobless, food-less, skill-less, school-less, speechless, transportation-less, and hopeless. He could neither read nor write, and was not too handy in handling numbers either. The orange picking crew had a party when they discovered this. Bill finally developed a system of lines and crosses. Four vertical lines and one horizontal line passing through the four indicated a total of five bins.
After being admonished by Bill a number of times and cheated by his fellow workers on numerous occasions, Larry learned the importance of these marks and adhered to the making of them with a strict self-imposed discipline. Despite all his short comings, as time went on, Larry became Bill’s right-hand man. If Bill was contracting oranges, Larry was driving the Goat; if Bill was selling watermelons, Larry was loading the truck and checking the load; if Bill was catching catfish, Larry was tending the line. If you saw Bill driving down the road in his pickup truck, you saw Larry sitting there shotgun, drinking his “Pessi.”
Larry also had a speech impediment. Pepsi was always Pessi. Larry spoke as if he had a hair lip - but he didn’t.
He looked pretty much like everyone else - but he wasn’t. He was a sad sack; the poor soul of the universe. He did whatever, and exactly as Bill told him, but not without question. Larry was the antithesis of Bill in nature and character. Bill was the capitalist, the businessman, the economic pragmatist. Larry was the peasant, the serf, the blue-collared, blue jean-ed worker of the world who saw only the idealistic.
Bill was shrewd and cunning. Larry was naive and simplicity itself. Bill was roundabout and diplomatic. Larry was to the point and childishly unsophisticated. If Bill said black, Larry said white. If Bill said right, Larry said wrong. What a pair!
Bill took care of Larry’s every need, and was rewarded with Larry’s sincerest loyalty. But this loyalty was certainly not blind or without questioning or criticism. These two went well past the tragic and comical, to the theatrically humorous - a real life Martin and Lewis or Abbot and Costello. Actually, they were more of a comedic country version of Karl Marx vs. Adam Smith.
I think that it all began with the ice water.
Old Bill, at first, brought out to the grove a five gallon cooler filled with ice water. He had it strapped to the back of his pickup truck. He even provided disposable drinking cups. This didn’t last too very long. It was only a matter of time before Bill’s capitalistic creativity came to the surface. After all, this “free” ice water business involved a lot of trouble, time, and money. Bill, one day, added to the ice water, cans of Pepsi, Coke, Sprite, and Hire’s root beer. He offered these to the crew for the current vending machine price.
Nobody seemed to have a problem with this except Larry who shook his head in disgust every time any crew member deposited fifty cents into Big Bill’s open palm. Finally after one particularly long sigh on Larry’s part, Bill turned to his constant companion and moaned pathetically; “Larry, what on earth are you groanin’ about, boy?”
“You only paid twenty-five cents for those sodas, Bill. Why are you makin’ everybody pay fifty cents?”
This was a question that bordered on the infantile or ludicrous to Bill. It was a question that deserved no answer. It was a question that not even his six year old boy had ever asked him. This was a question that was not what one would call stupid. It was not intelligent enough to be labeled stupid. Bill pulled out his handkerchief, wiped his brow, looked about the bed of the pickup truck and then into the eyes of the other listeners. He shook his head slowly back and forth asking the observers with this mocking gesture what one was supposed to do or say to a boy like this Larry.
“Larry, am I forcin’ anybody to buy this ice cold, twenty-five cent soda for fifty cents?”
“Do you see me pushin’ any man’s arm behind his back, or intimadatin’ anybody to buy these frosty, cold sodas for fifty cents?”
“Then tell me Larry, what in the hell is your problem boy? I wish you’d splain it to me boy, ‘cause I’d really like to know? Honest and truly, cross my heart and hope to die, I really, honest and truly, would like to know? If you can splain it to me, son, please do?”
“It just ain’t white.”
“It ain’t right, you say? What ain’t right?”
“It ain’t white to buy somthin’ for twenty-five cents and sell it for fifty cents.”
“Oh, it ain’t! Well maybe you and me best get back to town and get the po-lice onto that dang grocer who sold me this ten cent soda for a quarter. Or maybe we’d best have that man at the gas station arrested for sellin’ me that fifty cent gas for a dollar. Or how about the boy who sold me this twenty-five cent ice for seventy-nine cents?”
“You got the ice for free from Billy Bob. He always gives you things for free from the grocery store ‘cause you let him shoot your machinegun some times.” Everybody standing around the pickup truck laughed.
“Larry, what did I tell you about talkin’ about that machinegun boy?”
Larry rushed his hand up to his mouth in embarrassment. “I’m sorry Bill, it slipped out. I didn’t mean it. But that is how you got the ice.”
“Don’t you know Larry that a man can go to jail ifin he has a machinegun - which I do not!”
“You do so have a machinegun. You keep it in your trailer, right underneath your bed. You even let me shoot it once.”
“Larry,” Bill said, lowering his head, closing one sweaty eye, and staring very sternly in his hopeless little friend’s direction with the other. “I do not have a machinegun in my trailer under my bed. If I did and other folks knew about it, they could tell the po-lice about it and I could end up in jail. Do you understand what I am sayin’?”
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I AM SAYIN’?” Everybody around the pickup truck stood quietly, and stared at Larry.
“Oh, I get it. But you didn’t buy no ice.”
“Okay, so I got this ice for free. Where did I get this fifty dollar cooler, do you suppose?”
“You got it off the Power Company truck last year, when they left it on the ground in the I.G.A. supermarket parking lot by mistake. Don’t you remember? I told you that you shoulda followed that truck and give it back. And you said; ‘Larry, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’ and it looked to you that the Lord had just chosen to giveth to you and taketh from those rich S.O.B’s at the Power Company.”
“Alright, alright, so I don’t buy the ice and I didn’t buy the cooler, but don’t I get up two hours early every day, drive to town, and fill up my free cooler with free ice and store-boughten soda every day so that my pickin’ crew can have ice cold soda out in this steaming hot grove?”
“No, not exactly.”
“What do you mean, no, not exactly!? I don’t know how you can say that when you’re right there with me every dang morning!?”
“That’s right. I’m not only with you every morning, I’m the one who goes over to your trailer every morning, two and a half hours early and gets you out of bed. I’m the one who drives you to town and drops you off at the EAT so’s you can have your breakfast while I go over to the grocery store and fill up the cooler with ice and soda, and get gasoline put into the truck. And then I’m the one who picks you up after you’ve had your breakfast at the EAT, and drives you out here to the grove.”
“Okay, okay. But who gives you the money to go to the store and get the ice and fill up the pickup truck with gasoline and so on and so forth?”
“Well, that’s somethin’, ain’t it!? (a long pause from Larry)...well ain’t it?!”
“I suppose. But it ain’t exactly like what you said.”
“Larry, you’re the nit-pickinest little man I ever met. And you know if I wanted to have this kind of conversation today, I couldda just stayed home and listened to my wife. You’re gonna make somebody a fine wife one day boy.”
“Well, I sure don’t wanna be your wife, she’s already got more to do than you could pay me for, I’ll tell you.”
“Oh really? You feelin’ sorry for my wife, Larry? I don’t hear her complainin’. She’s got a nice big double-wide. She’s got a freezer full of food. She’s got clothes on her back. Her kids is all taken cared for. She’s got her own auto-mo-bile. She got a brang new washin’ machine, and an electric dryer. That’s right Larry, an electric dryer - right INSIDE the house. Rain or shine, she’s got herself clean, dry clothes. Does she seem persecuted to you, Larry?”
“Well, she’s got a washer and dryer all right, but the washer’s been leakin’ all over the place because of the broke hose on the back that you never had time to fix. And that dryer, she’s afraid to use it because it lit on fire four times because of the way you hooked up the electric. And while you’re drivin’ this brand new pickup, she’s drivin’ that old junk box with the broken battery cables. Every time she starts it, she has to open up the hood and re-adjust the cables or it won’t crank; and it’s a standard shift, and the gears keep gettin’ jammed; and in town, in the middle of traffic, she has to open the hood and with a hammer and a screwdriver she has to unhook the linkage. And then she has got to take care of your five huntin’ dogs that you never have time for, and your six kids.”
“Now hold on there Larry, only five of them kids is my younguns. She come to me with one of them boys, you know?”
“Ya, I know. You tell her that fifty times a day. Everybody knows. The whole town knows.”
“Well, Larry, if I’m doin’ such a terrible job, maybe you just ought to take over. I think Essee’s likin’ you better ‘en me anyway. You always kissin’ up and suckin’ around, and no matter what, you always on her side.”
“That’s because she’s always right, and you’re always wrong.”
“Okay Larry - okay you win. I’m always wrong. I never do nothin’ right. I just come out here day after day, seven days a week, sweatin’ my lazy butt off, dealin’ with all the problems, and sufferin’ through the likes of you. I’m just a mean old son of a bitch, who don’t do nothin’, cheats everybody and takes all the money. Why anybody can see that I’m one of the richest mans that is. Why I got money just crawlin’ out my pockets. Don’t I Larry?” (silence) “Well, don’t I? Why everybody in the world is envin’ me. Why I bet Mister Rocket-feller would like to be livin’ in my double-wide, sleepin’ with old Essee, and drivin’ my new pickup truck. Why I can see him right now, rockin’ in that chair out on my back porch, gazing at the view out over my septic tank and sayin’ to hisself; ‘Why I’m just the richest man in the world. There ain’t nobody that’s got a better life than me.’ Can’t ya just see him Larry?” (more silence)
Not too long after this discussion old Bill decided all that brand name soda he was bringing out to the grove was simply costing him too much money. So instead of Pepsi, Coke, and Hire’s root beer, he started packing his cooler with the generic, no-name brand. None of the workers seemed to be overly upset, but Larry was outraged, and very shortly thereafter he had his own cooler, packed with ice, and filled to the brim with Pepsi cola. He wouldn’t take the free ice from Bill’s friend at the grocery store. He bought ice, and he refused to charge anybody one penny more than the exact cost that he paid for each can of Pepsi. Well, it wasn’t too long before Larry had driven poor Bill right out of the soda pop business. Bill didn’t even bother to bring his cooler out to the grove anymore. And Larry was sellin’ “Pessies” like hot cakes.
“Well, you makin’ a lot of money sellin’ your Pessies Larry? Why don’t you go out and buy a couple of more coolers; pack ‘em with three dollars worth of ice every day and start yourself up a little route, goin’ from grove to grove sellin’ everybody Pessies at twenty-five cents a can. Why it seems that you got a real good little business there Larry. How much money did you lose last week – twenty, thirty dollars? Real good idea you got there Larry.”
“I ain’t tryin’ to make no money, Bill.”
“Oh I can see that. You don’t have to tell me that, son. You know, the only thing that bothers me Larry, is why you want to stop me from makin’ money. Is it ‘cuse I’ve been so mean to you? I mean am I chargin’ you too much to live out back of my place?”
“You ... you don’t charge me anything Bill.”
“What? ... what was that? Did you all hear what Larry done said? Would you say that again one more time - and say it a little louder, I don’t think everybody heard that Larry?”
“I said that you don’t charge me nothin’ to live out back at your place.”
“And did I hep ya fix up that old tool shed - put a bed and electric in there?”
“Yeah, you did.”
“And did I take you down to the hardware, so’s you could buy the paint like you wanted?”
“Yes, yes you did Bill.”
“And did I hep ya pick out the radio that you liked so much?”
“And do I charge you anything to eat up at the house with me and Essee and the kids?”
“Nope; no you never do.”
“And do I let you use the pickup truck, whenever you want to - even though you got no damn driver’s license?”
“You … you sure do Bill.”
“Have I ever put a bite of food into my mouth, without offerin’ you a share?”
“No, you always offer Bill. You’re very good in that way.”
“Well thank you. Thank you very much Larry. I think that’s the first kind word you ever done spoke to me. But you know what I don’t understand? Why, if you like me so much, and I’m so good to you - why are you tryin’ to take the food from my younguns’ mouths?”
“I ain’t tryin’ to take no food from the kids Bill.”
“Ohhh, yes you are. Every time you sell one of them Pessies and I don’t sell none of my soda, you costin’ me money. And every time I lose a dime or a quarter or thirty-five cents that means that I have less money for the kids. That means fewer pieces of candy for the girls; that means fewer little toys for the boys; that means one less chicken leg on the dinner table. But I’ll tell you Larry, it’s all right with me. If that’s the way that you feel; if you think I am such a sorry individual, you go right ahead. And when the kids come to me cause they hungry, I’ll just send them out back to you. Maybe you’ll sell ‘em a Pessi for a quarter.”
“I wouldn’t make ‘em pay Bill. I’d give ‘em a Pessi for free.”
“Well, that’s real nice of you - you’re a real good man. I’m sure God will be proud of you. Now let me just go back to the devil where I belong.”
And that was the end of Larry’s Pessi business.
Larry had lived with Bill for a couple or three years before it happened. Larry woke up one morning with a very sharp pain in his skull. Bill said that it must have really been hurting Larry because of the claw marks Larry had dug into the ground as he tried to drag himself from the shed up to the house. When Bill found him he was already dead.
The next time we saw Bill, he told us the whole story.
It seems that Larry had a family that lived back up north in the woods somewhere. The reason Larry couldn’t read or write was because they had him declared retarded when he was still a little tike in order to get a check for his care from the government.
“The boy was a little slow, but he weren’t no retard,” Bill said. “So then one day Larry just upped and ran away. I judged that they was also not treatin’ him too very well. And old Larry didn’t like everybody around thinkin’ that he was a dummy. So he become one of them street kids. I don’t know how he got here to Florida, but you know when I met him I took a liken to him right off, and I put him to work. He was a good boy. I really liked him. Me and Essee put up the money for his funeral, you know. We felt everybody should have a funeral, and have somebody say somethin’ nice about him, before they put him into the ground.
“We got him a little box and hired a preacher. We even found out who his folks were and where they was from. We felt it was only fittin’ that we should invite ‘em. When they showed up at the wake son, you could tell right off who they was. They was the sorriest looking folks I ever did see. They hardly gave Larry a look ‘till one of them spotted that ring on his finger. It weren’t much of a ring, price wise, but it looked like somethin’. I think that old Larry paid twenty-five dollars for it at a yard sale one day. It probably really weren’t worth that much, but you know Larry. He weren’t one to be talkin’ anybody down on anything. I told him that he coulda gotten it for five or ten dollars if he woulda just bartered a bit. But no, he says he wants everybody to be happy. You know how he was. Everybody has got to be happy, even if old Larry has to pay extra.
“But no sooner did one of them relatives see that ring on dead Larry’s finger than he decides that it belongs to him. He goes over to the casket and starts in to tryin’ to pry it off old Larry’s finger. Well when I seed that, I went right over to that boy, and I says; Son, you had best leave that ring right there on Larry hand, if you know what’s good for you. But, he says ... ‘that’s my ring, Larry stoled it from me when he run away from home.’ I told him that he was a damn liar and that I had been with Larry when he bought that ring. So, he backs off. But then a little while later, the whole damn family comes over to me and starts in to tell me that before Larry gets put into the ground, they want all of his valuables put into a bag so’s they can take them on home with them. I tells ‘em that old Larry didn’t have no valuables, and that just about everything he had that was worth anythin’ was right there in that box with him. Well, they told me that they want that ring. And I told ‘em that ring belonged to Larry and that he was taken it with him to wherever ... wherever, he was goin’.
“Well you can bet that they didn’t like hearin’ that, but there weren’t nothin’ that they was going to do about it, I can tell you that.
“It was a nice funeral, and the preacher said some nice things. He didn’t even know Larry, but I’ll tell you what, he did pretty dang good. I really liked that Larry. He was tough on me, but he was a good old boy - maybe too good.
“They said he had a stroke - an aneurysm or somethin’. But he died pretty quick. He was into some real hard pain for a minute or two. You could see where he drug himself on the ground, clawin’ at the dirt tryin’ to pull himself up to the house.
“It was mighty hard for the kids and Essee - she and them younguns really had some feelin’s for that old boy. We had a whole lot of cryin’ goin’ on, let me tell ya - mighty bad time. I’m goin’ ta miss that boy. I’m sure gonna miss him.”