If anyone has ever sat on a front porch on a sultry summer evening listening to the crickets and bullfrogs, watching the lightning bugs and enjoying the feeling of being snug in your family, that is the feeling I am trying to capture in this story. It is a memoir as well as a tribute to my grandfather, a remarkable man. I am proud to have known him and to carry his name.
He loved to talk and tell stories. He had a story for every occasion. Some he admitted were tall tales. But he always swore this one was true. Maybe it was.
Do This One Thing
A True Story?
I remember sitting on Granddaddy’s porch when I was a child listening to the adults talking. I remember in particular a Saturday evening in summer in the mid nineteen-sixties. Granddaddy’s house sat on the top of a low hill, the highest land in the area. From his front porch we could see the entire community for a half mile or more in every direction. It was twilight, what Grandma always called gloaming. The heat of the day had dissipated and we were outside to catch any cool breezes that might float by. The front lawn twinkled with constellations of lightning bugs providing us with our own private light show. It was a large lawn, stretching about a hundred yards down to the main highway. Granddaddy always called his lawn the avenue. His avenue was dotted with cedars, catalpas and large hardwoods we kids called “climbing trees” because they were great for climbing. Grandma hated us climbing in the trees and would yell, “Y’all come down out of that tree before you fall and break your neck!” We never fell. Well, my cousin Edith fell. And broke her arm. But no necks were ever broken.
A couple of my cousins and I were on the steps that evening. Mom and Dad and my cousins’ parents had gone to the city to dinner and Grandma always watched us for them. So we sat on the porch, watching the sky turn purple, the insect light show, and just enjoying being a family. As sometimes happens in these types of gatherings the conversation turned to ghost stories.
Granddaddy said he remembered one from when he was a young man. Grandma said, “Good Lord, don’t tell that story again. You dreamed it.”
“Dang if I didn’t,” Granddaddy declared. “I know what I saw.”
“What?” we all wanted to know. He had us then. We were spellbound.
“What?” we all wanted to know. He had us then. We were spellbound.
“This happened when I was a young man. Mollie and I had just been married less than a year so it must have been 19 and 23. Remember, Sweetpea? We’d run off in January and got married. We were still honeymooning. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had Raleigh Bryant run me to Garysburg in his horsebuggy. I had my valise with my birth certificate and a change of clothes. I won’t but eighteen, didn’t know nothing. Excepting that I loved Mollie. It was cold as hell, but I was sweating bullets till your grandma showed up. Lord, you were a sight for sore eyes, Sweetpea. I loved you so much.”
“Still do,” Grandma smiled at him, patting his knee.
“We caught the train to Emporia and checked in an old hotel. I wanted to go ahead and check in as Mr. and Mrs. but your grandma was all prim and proper. A real lady. She insisted on her own room under MISS Mary Grizzard. Cost us a whole extra dollar. And a dollar was hard to come by in those days. We found the justice of the peace the next day and got hitched. Then we went back and used that hotel room.”
“Lloyd!” my Grandma exclaimed. We could see her blush, even in the dim light.
“Like I said, I won’t but 18 and Sweetpea was 19. When we got home, all hell broke loose. But we was married and nothing they could do about it.”
“But, Granddaddy. What about the ghost?” At that age I didn’t care about dumb lovey stuff.
“I was getting there. Hold your horses. We were living in the old Mayle house, just a sharecropper’s cabin with 4 rooms, but it was all we needed. It was August, the hottest one I could remember. Me and Sam Massey and another man, I can’t recollect who, were working the field up by old Miz Garris’ place. Alice Garris, now she was a firecracker. She was supposed to have been a looker in her day. They say old man Garris tamed her, but he died before I can remember, so she lived in that big old house alone. She dressed and acted like she had money. Did you ever see that house? It’s gone now. I don’t even remember if it fell down or got burned. It was up, back of Sam Massey’s old house. That’s gone now, too.”
“Yeah, Granddaddy, I remember Mr. Massey’s house but not any other one. They tore it down when I was real little, but I remember it. I remember Mr. Massey would always bring us a watermelon from his garden every summer,” I said.
“Yes, Sam was something else. Most folks didn’t care too much for him ‘cause he was a picker. Always picking at people, trying to get a rise out of ‘em. I remember when your daddy was young, we were working in a field and Sam started picking at him. I let it go, figuring the boy needed to learn to take care of hisself. Purty soon, your dad up and whaled him on the side of the head with a beanpole. Sam jumped up looking like he was ready for a fight but I stepped in. I told Sam, ‘you got what was comin’ to you. Now get back to work’.
“Now, where was I? Oh yeah, we were working the field side of Miz Garris’ house. One day as we got ready to take a break for lunch we were near her yard. We decided to go over and sit under a big tree by the house. Ol’ Betsy, the mule, won’t having no part of it. When we tried to pull her over to the shade, she just bellowed and dug in her heels. ‘Well, just stand there in the hot sun, you dang varmint,’ I said to her.
“It didn’t take but a few minutes under the tree before we smelled it. If you ever smelled a dead body, you won’t never forget it. Sam and me and the other man all looked at each other. Lonnie Birdsong. That’s who it was. I just remembered. Me and Sam were working with your grandma’s uncle Lonnie.
‘When’s the last time you saw Miz Garris?’ I asked them.
‘She won’t at church on Sunday,’ Sam said. ‘Somebody said she was feeling poorly.’ ‘Reckon we ought to go look,’ I said.
“We went up on the back porch and knocked on the door. ‘Miz Garris. Can you hear me? You all right?’ After a few minutes with no answer I pushed the door open. There won’t no such thing as locked doors back then. We all trusted each other. Not like these days when you got people robbing banks and stealing and all. Don’t know what the world is coming to. Anyway, soon as I got the door open, I ran back into the yard and threw up. She was darn sure dead and after several days in August she was purty ripe.”
“Lloyd, must you tell it like that?” Grandma protested. “The young’uns will have nightmares.”
“I’m just telling what I saw, sweetheart. Ain’t nothing they don’t see on tv these days.
“Anyway, ‘Dammit’, I thought. I’m sorry ol’ Miz Garris died but it was also going to make us lose a day of work. We needed to go fetch either the doc or Sheriff Stephenson. When I said this, Sam said, ‘Why break off work? Let’s finish the field and then go get the doc. The old lady ain’t going nowhere.’ ‘Naw, that ain’t right,’ I told him. That old lady deserved more respect than that. Plus I don’t think I could work knowing a dead body was just a few yards away. So Sam and the other man took ol’ Betsy back home and I headed off to Gumberry. It was only a mile or so through the woods and there was a telephone at the general store.
“They had her funeral the very next day. The preacher told me she had been dead a number of days and was purty far gone. He didn’t know if they would ever get the smell out of the house. They even had the funeral out by the graveside instead of inside the church. Prim old lady that she was, I know she’d a been real embarrassed by all the mess.
“That night was hotter than ever. Mollie and me didn’t have any covers on the bed and all the windows were open. We even had the front door propped open to catch any breeze it could. From where I was laying in bed I could look through the door and down the long lane to the main road. I could see low lying mist down by the end of the lane. It just drifted to and fro with whatever breeze caught it. After a bit it seemed the mist was drifting toward the house. As I watched it, it seemed to get thicker. Suddenly it took form and I could see it was a woman in a white dress standing outside the house. I was froze with fear. I saw her put her hand on the door jamb, lift her skirt and step into the house. I immediately saw it was old Miz Garris. Shit!”
“Lloyd! Don’t say that in front of the children!” my grandmother chided him.
“Well, I was scared half to death, Mollie. She stood there looking at me a minute. Then she walked over to the bed and reached down and touched my hand. Her hand was so cold. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move or make no sound. She said ‘Lloyd, they didn’t find my will. It’s in the Bible in my study. You need to tell them. Do this and you won’t ever see me again. You don’t do it, I’ll be back. I’ll haint you.’ She disappeared suddenly and I was released and I set to squallin’.”
“Like to have scared me out of ten years growth,” Grandma added. “He was yelling and wrenching around. Talking about ghosts. You just dreamed it, Lloyd. There ain’t no ghosts.”
“I know blame well what I saw, dammit. The next day I went to the general store and Doc Moore happened to be there. I told him a lie. I said Miz Garris told me before she died that her will was stuck in a Bible in her study. I knew he wouldn’t believe me if I said her ghost told me. Turned out there was a second will in a Bible in her study. And like she said, I ain’t never seen her again. And I want to keep it that way.”
My cousins and I loved the story. We grinned and hugged ourselves in mock terror. It was full dark by this time. I don’t know if I really believed in ghosts back then, but Granddaddy’s house was big and dark and had lots of creaks and groans. I wasn’t about to walk back in that house alone until the adults went in.
My granddaddy loved to tell stories and knew many tall tales. But he always swore this one was true. As an adult I don’t believe in ghosts. They’re just tales we use to frighten the children. But poor old Miz Garris has been resting quietly for 96 years now. I agree with Granddaddy. I’d like to just keep it that way.