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Cherokee Purple

by Rob Hunter

part 5 of 9

“You.” Wildrose Mahaffey was talking to the sergeant.

“Yes?” Ed Seitz answered, too eager to please. My partner hadn’t quite picked up on the fact that he and I were potential fugitives from an as yet to be named skullduggery, present at the scene of a violent death, and all. I figured if there was anything Rosie Mahaffey could do to help cover up for Norma, his high school love, Ed Seitz and I were going in a jar for long-time preservation.

“You, shut up. You,” here he pointed at Billy Wayne the sergeant who was trying to look inconspicuous as he studied a girlie calendar on the wall near the payphone, “go to the car. Polish the headlights or something.”

“Yes, sir.”

And they were alone together, two now with Ed Seitz and me transparent and Thelma dead. For, as far as Norma and the Colonel were concerned, they were the only people in the room. Or in the world, at that moment.

“You shouldn’t have been so eager, Norma.”

“Rosie, I was eighteen and wildly in love. Parish and I stopped to cut us some trim by the spillway at the old locks. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.”

“You could spare me the details.”

“You have replayed the scene over and over in your mind for twenty years, haven’t you?”

“Ol’ Parrish had a heart attack, didn’t he?”

“Rosie, you are a love, but jealousy is unbecoming. We are all grown up, now aren’t we? Parrish promised me the world, the big, exciting world outside of South Carolina with the good ol’ boys, the Ku Klux Klan, and all the goddamned football-crazy rednecks.”

“Like me.”

“Like you. But I always had a soft spot for you, Wildrose Mahaffey.”

“And I loved you so much I could have bust, Norma. I was hurting.”

“You followed us. Parrish and me.”

“People talk. Word got out that Ol’ Parrish closed his account at the Farmer’s and Mercantile. Got cash. A lot of cash. You didn’t show up for football practice.”

“And you snuck in the bushes like a common rapscallion. You watched us making love. He had a heart attack. I must have been too much for him.”

“The wild hogs ate Ol’ Parrish.” Wildrose Mahaffey’s final offering. The woman shuddered, more in the way of a conversational gesture rather than a deeply felt emotion. There was a roach in her salad rather than a newly-dead corpse between her thighs. The romantic interlude was at an end. It had been a long time, after all.

“How can you be sure?”

“I made sure. Baited him with chocolate-dipped donuts, the kind Thelma loved. The hogs found him. Eventually.”

“Wildrose Mahaffey, how could you have?”

“Did you go for help?” The woman was silent. “I knew you couldn’t come back, ever. You took Ol’ Parrish’s poke and Ol’ Parrish’s car and just left him there. I had to clean things up.” Mahaffey did read a lot of detective stories. “They say newsy women scatter a story about, but the good ol’ boys at the hardware store already hung you out to dry, Norma.”

Norma looked up at the tin ceiling. Three sets of eyes followed her gaze.

“Ol’ Parrish’s treasure is gone,” said Mahaffey.

“Treasure?” Norma.

“Treasure?” Ed Seitz. I shot him an angry look. Oh, for Chrissakes, Ed, shut up.

“Treasure.” Colonel Wildrose Mahaffey. Improving our vocabularies with a word a day, just like in the newspapers.

“Oh, you mean all those fifty-dollar Confederate bearer bonds that Thelma had him nail up inside the ceiling?” said Norma, so sweet that butter wouldn’t melt, etc. “Poor Thelma, she really believed the South would rise again. Yep, they’re probably still up there. The Stars ‘n’ Bars — long may they wave. No, Rosie, Parrish’s treasure is the rolls of mint-condition tin ceilings in the attic at the store. That’s what brought me back home.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

“In Chicago,” Norma added, “I’m a decorator.” There was a beepbeep from the street and a large, moist man in a rumpled suit appeared with a Speed Graphic camera like reporters used in the movies, and popped a pocketful of flashbulbs taking pictures of Thelma’s corpse. In Piedmont, the undertaker doubled as coroner and police photographer.

Thelma was duly removed. Mahaffey’s sergeant took down our local address and telephone, “Just in case we need to ask you boys some questions...” Billy Wayne showed distain at the mention of the General Longstreet. “Red Rose Rialto’s right in town; save you-all the driving. Air-cooled bar and reasonable. Six dollars a night.”

About the same as we were paying for two rooms and by the week. “Thanks, sergeant, but I figure not to have to shell out more to sleep than I make when I’m awake.” And Ed and I were free to go.

“The Rialto?” Mahaffey. He offered Norma an arm.

“The Rialto.” Norma Cawthorne accepted the elbow of the thin-lipped policeman with the metal teeth whose heart she had stomped on in high school. She was duly escorted to the Rialto by Col. Mahaffey. Norma would soon opt for less trendy transportation than the back seat of Wildrose Mahaffey’s prowl car.

Thelma expressed no opinion as the sergeant hopped in back of the long, black hearse and accompanied her to the embalmer’s table.

* * *

“Lots of history hereabouts if a feller knows where to look.” Charley Hoskins had right off spotted Ed and me as hailing from distant parts.

“The Wisconsin plates, right?” I offered.

“I never said I had no supernatural powers. Not like them Cherokee Purples.” Charley smiled broadly and cleared away the Dr. Pepper empties from the glass-topped highway map on his desk. Charley never charged into a subject head-on; he liked to run alongside and nip at the tires. He had a story for every intersection of the Catawaba River basin country and filled us in on the habits of plagues of pigs and possum, prophetic tomatoes and the like.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Charley. “I’m nuts.” He lowered his head and looked conspiratorially to the left, then to the right. This was secret stuff — Kids Only, like we were six years old and signing our names in blood in a tree house hideout.

“But suppose I was to tell you certain tomatoes have a secret vegetable language? The Cherokee Purples, that is. That to those who can understand them they will foretell future events? Well, they don’t; they foretell the past. What they will tell is what really happened. See, no one can recall what took place even a couple of hours ago; that is a scientific fact. History is opinion.”

Ed was astounded; he was a horse player and immediately realized the opportunities presented by foreknowledge. The fact that Charley had just said this was precisely what the Purples didn’t do hadn’t registered. “Harley, couldn’t we just get a hamper of tomatoes at the supermarket. You know, sort of ask them...”

“Ed,” said Charley Hoskins with a wrinkle of his nose, “them store tomatoes don’t know a hill o’ beans.” Crazy or not, Charley was right up on his tomato lore. The Cherokee Purples of the Catawaba River bottom country seemed to pack a historical punch at least equal to that of General James Longstreet of the Army of Northern Virginia.

I pleaded fatigue and we staggered off to slumber land. The bare-board 6x8-foot insides of the General Longstreet’s cabins allowed for a bed, a commode with towel, pitcher and basin and little else. To get the door open you had to stand behind it and pull in as you backed up. If you fell asleep drunk enough, tired enough or had lured in some female companionship, the flashing light from the Flying Red Horse sign out front of the General Longstreet wouldn’t bother you. I was not in the way of seeking out unknown females at this time of my life. So suffice it to say that I was alone and awake.

Ed and I took separate cabins instead of bunking up together; it was Ed’s snoring. The furious bobbling of a terrified uvula down Ed’s windpipe threatened to stop his heart if it didn’t strangle him first. It hadn’t yet. Ed g’zorked away as peacefully as a baby driving a Harley-Davidson in the next cabin.

I was not named for the motorcycle, by the way. I think we’re second cousins or something. The heat had me pinned to the mattress, sweating and naked. There was no relief to be had. The flypaper’s latest captive buzzed mournfully in the light of the Flying Red Horse, sort of a lullaby. I must have fallen asleep.

In my dream, a giant tomato gestured vigilance. Or else. I figured this as a sending. But from whom? The Cherokee Purple looked all-knowing. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But this was a real dream, the genuine article. I had not been drinking, and I, Harley Pigeon, was the Chosen One, tomato-wise. The Cherokee Purples had tagged me; I was it. You can ask Ed about the Cherokee Purples; he’ll swear to ’em on a stack of catalogs. Ed smokes White Owl cigars down to the last inch and is as honest as the day is long. People trust him.

Just how a tomato looks wise beyond its vegetable status is hard to describe; you’re going to have to trust me on this. It was a tomato; go figure. It was bringing me a warning. This was a visitation, back country magic, if you will. It was important.

The Cherokee Purple did not speak, but its attitude said I had better watch out. For what? I checked for falling pianos or rampaging buffalo herds. However, a tank platoon was bearing down on me. If you read pulp fiction from the wire racks at the bus depot as avidly as I do — full color covers, tumbled towers, space ships like the Skylark of Valeron, heroes like Doc Smith and Conan the Barbarian — you would realize clairvoyance, if not the bona fide article as defined by Modern Science, had better be taken into consideration. As things will do in a dream, a shovel appeared in my hand. I started digging a foxhole.

I was called from my tomato séance by a tractor in top gear with its engine revving to make highway speed. Five, maybe ten miles an hour.

Proceed to part 6...

Copyright © 2009 by Rob Hunter

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