The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
The next morning at nine o’clock, an old red pick-up truck was parked in front of 201 Magnolia Street. “Mabus Hauling and Trash Removal” was printed on the doors in peeling yellow paint. An American flag fluttered from the roof of the cab, letting everyone know the owner was patriotic, as if the row of ‘”V for Victory” stickers on the rear bumper weren’t enough. Uncle Mabus had lost his only son during the invasion of Normandy, in a little French village whose name he couldn’t pronounce, in a part of the world he would never see.
Everyone in Opalville, black and white alike, respected Uncle Mabus as a hard-working, honest colored man who could be depended on in an emergency. His old pick-up truck transported many a sick stranger to the hospital in the middle of the night, with never a payment asked.
His most distinguishing feature was a full head of nappy white hair in tight little knots, contrasting sharply with his dark shiny skin and lively black eyes. He was of average height, slightly stooped at the shoulder and in his sixty-second year. Uncle Mabus still had the spring in his step of a younger man and a laugh that “could match the angels’ harps,” Cordella claimed. He wore faded bibbed overalls, a grey t-shirt and around his neck, and a red polka-dot bandanna to catch the sweat. A large yellow Lab with a scarred coat waited patiently in the bed of the truck, obeying the command “Stay, Snake Dog.”
An hour later, the old red pick-up was making dust swirl as it traveled the five miles down a dirt road toward Black Water Lake and swamp. The surrounding fields had greened up from a heavy rain the night before and the smell of honeysuckle and wild jasmine was thick enough to taste. Patches of wild lavender broke through the weeds and stalks of Queen Anne’s lace lined the road above myriads of tiny yellow butter-cups.
Uncle Mabus was behind the wheel. Cordella and Erthelene sat beside him. Billy Joe and Snake Dog lay on an old mattress in the truck bed, the dog staying in the boy’s arms the whole way, forging a bond between the two that would last as long as they both lived.
The old cabin appeared at a bend in the road, sitting back a good distance on the five acres allotted it. Erthelene had not seen the cabin in over twenty years and she squeezed Cordella’s hand when it came into view. Weeds and wild blackberry vines covered most of the split-rail fencing.
Uncle Mabus kept a good deal of the working land clear, along with the walking paths, so the general configuration of the property was visible. A long porch protected the front of the two-story frame structure, and a large pecan tree to the right of it shaded most of the metal roof.
A dilapidated chicken coop stood at the rear of the house and two old wire clothes lines were still stretched between sturdy oak trees. A stand of grey cypress ended the view a short distance from the back porch, marking the beginning of Black Water Swamp.
Erthelene and Cordella stood arm in arm while Uncle Mabus helped Billy Joe down from the truck, Snake Dog barking and running circles around them both.
Erthelene bent down, putting a hand on each of the boy’s shoulders. “Don’t wander away from the house,” she said, “y’hear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Billy Joe answered excitedly.
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on him,” Uncle Mabus said, motioning for Billy Joe to follow him. They took a winding path around the house, the young boy holding the old man’s hand with the yellow Lab close behind. A little way down the path, they came to an old split-rail fence where Uncle Mabus found a shady spot and sat down. Billy Joe climbed the fence, straddling it like a cowboy on a wild stallion.
“You see that writing there?” Uncle Mabus asked, pointing to a wooden sign posted on a large oak tree. “Can you read it?”
“Yes, sir,” Billy Joe answered, “it says BEWARE GATOR POND.”
“That means you never go beyond this fence boy,” Uncle Mabus said with his eyes wide. “That’s ‘Black Water Lake’ through those trees. There are gators as long as my truck in there. You could get et-up by of one of ’em, that quick, if you don’t listen to me.”
Uncle Mabus had made his point. Billy Joe slid down from the fence and found a grassy spot between the Lab and the old man. “How come you call him Snake Dog?” the boy asked, scratching behind the Lab’s ears.
“Why, because he can smell a snake from twenty feet away and make quick work of ’im too,” Uncle Mabus answered. “I’ve fried up many a rattlesnake he’s sniffed out, and they taste mighty good.”
“I’ve never tasted rattlesnake,” Blly Joe said with a smile.
“If you move in here, I bet you’ll have your share,” Uncle Mabus answered. “In fact, Snake Dog and I might see to it.”
* * *
The screen door banged shut behind the two women. “Sure could stand a coat of paint,” Cordella remarked, standing in the dusty living room with its small brick fireplace.
“Paint, soap and water, and a whole lot of elbow grease,” Erthelene agreed, shaking her head, “and a few new panes of glass wouldn’t hurt either.”
There were two bedrooms on the second floor, beyond a small landing at the top of the stairs. After walking through both of them, Erthelene turned to her sister and said, “It will do fine, but we’ll need a new outhouse!” Both women broke into laughter.
“Nice and tight, to keep the snakes out,” Erthelene added on a somber note.
* * *
A week later, the black woman and the white boy moved into the old cabin, beginning many long days of hard work bringing it around. After lunch each day, Erthelene sat in an old rocker on the shaded porch, her shoes off, cooling herself with a palmetto fan until she dozed off. Billy Joe also slept in a hammock at the end of the porch. Snake Dog slept beneath him on the floor, ears twitching for any unfamiliar sounds .
One morning, just before lunch, Erthelene noticed a dust swirl from the road. She couldn’t see who it was because of the unpicked cotton in Mr. Benson’s field. She hoped it was Uncle Mabus with the missing glass panes for the bedroom windows.
Erthelene was surprised when two mules pulling a dusty wagon turned into the driveway. A black man under a large straw hat brought the wagon to a stop by the front porch. Snake Dog pushed up against Erthelene’s leg, giving a low growl of warning, and Billy Joe came running onto the porch to see who the stranger was.
“Good mornin’, ma’am,” the man said politely, removing his hat and standing up. Erthelene was shocked by his size, well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and heavily muscled arms. He was clean-shaven and of a medium color, not as dark as she. His age was hard to guess, but she placed it near her own.
“Good day,” Erthelene replied. “Are you lost?”
“No, ma’am, don’t think so,” he smiled, jumping down easily from the wagon. “Mr. Mabus asked me to replace some window glass for you. I have them right here in the wagon.”
“Mr. Mabus is my uncle,” Erthelene replied, wiping her forehead with a handkerchief. “I appreciate you coming out here, but I can’t pay you much for the work.”
“No payment is necessary, ma’am,” he answered, “but I wouldn’t refuse a piece of that cornbread I been smelling a mile away.”
“The least I can do is feed you,” Erthelene flushed. “What are we to call you?”
“Folks around here call me ‘Big John.’ That will do just fine.” He smiled.
“All right, Big John, I’m Miss Erthelene and this is my boy, Billy Joe, and this is Snake Dog,” she replied, turning to the kitchen door. “The windows that need repairing are in the bedrooms upstairs. We’ll eat as soon as you’re done.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Big John agreed, putting his hat on while Billy Joe and Snake Dog rushed to greet him.
* * *
Cordella sat the cup of coffee down on her kitchen table and then poured another one for herself. She stood across from Uncle Mabus, watching him sip the cup for quite a while, until she couldn’t stand it any longer.
“What are we going to do about it?” she blurted out, annoyed by his silence.
“Do about what?” Uncle Mabus answered, knowing full well what she was getting at.
“You know what. That white child that Erthelene intends to raise as her own.”
Uncle Mabus sat the cup down and leveled his eyes on Cordella. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s nobody’s business but hers. That child has no family and nowhere in this world to go but an orphanage. If they give each other comfort, then I call it the Lord’s work.”
“You might call it the Lord’s work,” Cordella snapped, twisting her hands, “but some people around here won’t see it that way. I’m afraid for her. She’s headed for trouble.”
“Relax woman.” Uncle Mabus smiled. “I’m already working on it, along with some broken window panes.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen