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Collard Greens and Grits

by Ron Van Sweringen

Willie Perkins pulled the shotgun trigger and was instantly knocked off of his feet. A moment later the old screen door on the back porch burst open ahead of a flustered woman holding a broom in her hands.

“Willie Perkins,” she yelled, crossing the yard toward him. “You done lost your mind, boy?”

Before he could answer, Florence May was pummeling him with the broom, screeching like a cat with its tail caught under a rocking chair. “You crazy? You could kill somebody shootin’ that thing off, boy!”

Willie scrambled to his feet, trying to ward off the blows. “Sorry Ma’am,” he managed to blurt out, still protecting himself. “I was practicing.”

“Oh Lawd!” came a wail from Florence May, pointing at a clothesline full of freshly washed laundry. “You done shot holes in Mrs. Howard’s best sheets!”

* * *

At eight o’clock the next morning, Willie stood waiting at the bus stop beside Miss Florence May Brown. Although he was tall for his twelve years, he hardly reached the woman’s shoulders. Willie was scrubbed until his brown head shone, and he wore his good Sunday clothes including, miracle of miracles, shoes and socks.

The tall thin woman waiting beside him wore a homemade shift of flowered cotton, starched and perfectly ironed. A wide-brimmed straw hat, pulled down tightly on her head, shaded her dark face from the morning sun. She carried a bundle, carefully wrapped in creased brown paper and tied with white string.

Florence May Brown was a hard-working, God-fearing woman doing her best to get by in a less than accommodating world. Opalville, Florida was a little town straddling the Florida-Georgia line. Its only claim to fame was a railroad stop.

Here, Florence May eked out a living for herself by doing laundry for white folks in town, baking the best apple pies in Opalville and running a garden large enough to feed herself and the boy. Cash money was as hard to come by as a steady job, but a few silver dollars were hidden away in the small cabin the two shared.

Florence May would rather be kicked by a mule than face Mrs. Howard with her ruined sheets. No two ways about it, she would have to pay for them, right was right. That boy had been nothing but a headache since she took him in, her sister Bertha’s child or not.

The bus let them off at the corner of Webster and Devine. A two-block walk to Judge Howard’s home and the firing squad, Florence May thought. It was a little before nine and hot as Hades already for a June day in 1954. A lazy day for some folks, she thought, passing the large homes set back on their cool green lawns.

“All right, boy,” Florence May turned to Willie, as they reached the Howard’s front walk. “Don’t open your mouth unless you’re spoken to.”

“Yes’m,” came the soft answer. Willie Perkins wished he had never found that shotgun in the first place.

The ring of the door buzzer sounded louder than usual, filling Florence May with dread. Finally the frosted glass door opened, as Judge Howard tried to maneuver his wheelchair out of the way.

“Good morning, sir,” Florence May started to greet the old man, until she saw his predicament. “Let me help you sir,” she said, quickly going around him and tilting his wheel chair enough to clear the crumpled carpet.

“Danged oriental rugs should be thrown out, “ he scolded, looking at his two silent visitors. “Well, come on in, boy,” he grunted. “Too damned hot to keep the door open.”

Willie moved quickly, never taking his wide eyes off of the old man.

“I came to see Mrs. Howard about the laundry, your honor,” Florence May said.

“Well, looks like you’re going to have a wait then,” Judge Howard replied. “She’s in the tub, soaking in cool water and mint leaves. Says it improves her disposition, but you couldn’t prove it by me.”

“If we could just wait here...” Florence May started to say.

“No, I don’t think so,” he interrupted. “Come into the kitchen and make yourself useful. Mrs. Jordan, the housekeeper, quit yesterday, and I want my breakfast.”

The three made their way down the hall and into the large kitchen. Florence May stood beside Willie, still clutching the bundle of laundry.

“You know how to cook bacon, grits and sunny side up eggs, don’t you?” the old man asked Florence May.”

“Yes, sir,” Willie volunteered excitedly, dancing in front of him, “my Aunt’s a right fine cook.”

Florence May looked down at the smiling boy who suddenly reminded her of her sister. She felt like wringing his neck for not keeping quiet as he was told.

“What’s your name, boy?” Judge Howard asked.

“Willie Perkins,” the boy answered eagerly.

“Well, Willie, run down the hall and fetch me the newspaper off of the radiator. Reckon I’ll catch up on things while I wait for my breakfast.”

Twenty minutes later, after a cup of what Judge Howard called “the best coffee I ever had,” a plate of bacon, eggs and grits was set before the old man. As he devoured the food, Florence May gave out a sigh of relief. “Lawd what a trial,” she thought.

“Willie,” Judge Howard said to the boy, “Take this newspaper up to Mrs. Howard in the bathroom at the top of the stairs. Don’t bother to knock, just take it on in.”

“Yes,sir,” Willie answered, picking up the paper and bounding away.

“Don’t worry,” the Judge said, seeing the exasperated look on Florence May’s face. “My wife always wears what she calls her bathing apparatus. The boy won’t see anything. Lord knows I haven’t seen anything in forty years.”

Florence May tried to cover her smile but it was impossible and she broke into a laugh.

Just then a high-pitched scream rang out.

“Sounds like her disposition is improving already,” the Judge smiled. “What’s your name, girl?”

“Florence May Brown,” she answered slowly.

“Well Florence May,” he winked at her, “How would you like a job cooking my breakfast every morning?”

“Yes, sir,” Florence May answered, feeling faint, “that would be fine.”

“Well then, consider it done,” the judge replied, shouting down the hallway. “Agnes, come down here.”

Suddenly Florence May remembered the ruined sheets, seeing the brown paper package on the kitchen counter. At that moment, Agnes Howard appeared, filling the entire doorway.

“Edward, what in the world is going on down here?” she demanded, wrapped in a pink satin lounging robe with feather trim and a head full of oversized pink curlers.

“I’ve hired Florence May, here,” the judge answered. “She cooks a mighty fine breakfast and makes good coffee.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Howard,” Florence May managed, as Agnes Howard turned toward her.

“Can you keep a clean house, Florence May?” Agnes Howard asked, her hands on her hips. “I mean clean, with no dust balls under my bed.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Florence May replied.

“I see you brought my sheets back.” Agnes Howard smiled, opening the package on the counter. “My rose and daisy sprinkled sheets with the lace border.”

Before Florence May could say anything, there was a shriek from Agnes Howard. “They have holes all over them! My sheets are ruined.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Howard,” Florence May pleaded. “That’s the reason I’m here this morning. My sister’s boy Willie, well, he fired off the shotgun and hit your sheets. I’ll pay you for them.”

“No you won’t,” Judge Howard interrupted. “You’ve done me a favor. I never liked sleeping on those danged flowers anyway.”

All of this time, Willie had been standing quietly in the corner, the steam taken out of him by Mrs. Howard’s scream in the bathroom.

“Agnes,” Judge Howard said, motioning to Willie, “This is Willie Perkins.”

“We’ve already met,” Agnes Howard replied, eyeballing Willie. “Well, come along Florence May, let’s see if you can do anything with my hair. I have a garden club meeting in an hour and a half.”

As Willie pushed the Judge’s wheelchair down the hall, Agnes Howard called from the top of the steps, “Judge Howard, the next time Wilber comes over, kindly see to it that he puts a lock on the bathroom door.”

Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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