You remember the end of sophomore year in college? You didn’t want to go home for the summer again, live under your dad’s roof and work for your mom. It was 1975, and you needed your freedom. You hungered for a chance to be your own person; to do adventurous, dangerous, reckless, shit and have more crazy sex than a good Baptist girl should even think about. Right?
Me too! So I jumped at the dubious opportunity to spend the summer hitchhiking around the south selling bibles for the Thomas Nelson Company.
All I had to do was knock on every single door, in small town neighborhoods, and convince the “woman of the house” to buy a bible. It was a matter of odds. If I worked hard and followed the script, my product would sell itself. I had family bibles, children’s bibles, large print bibles and medical dictionaries.
A group of my friends were going, my boyfriend was going, so I was going too. My parents didn’t have the energy to stop me, and frankly, my dad was a “you made your bed now lie in it” kind of a guy, and I think he hoped I would learn a valuable lesson from my life on the road.
Let me give you a visual: I was a gullible, 108 lb, 5’7″ tall, mini-skirted, blonde chick, who wanted to see the good in everybody. I’d never known real hardship, hunger or sadness. I’d never been physically, sexually or emotionally hurt in anyway, and the possibility of such, never crossed my mind. I thought I was untouchable; a cute, middle class, peace and love, wandering waif, without a clue in this world.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go. – Oh, The Places You Will Go! By Dr. Seuss
Ah yes, I was on my own in the wilds of Arkansas foraging for Bible lovers. My roommate would drop me off at 9 am each morning in a predetermined location. We had a map of the City of Paragould taped up on the beige, paneled wall of Number Aught indicating the places we’d been and where we would go next.
Once I got to my location, I walked. If I finished a section of town, I hitchhiked to the next hood duty bound to canvas the area, knock on every door, assess the needs of my customers and close the deal. Some folks invited me in, some slammed the door in my face. Some were nice and some sic’d their dogs on me. The door answerers were mostly women whose husbands were at work or had run off with “that whore down the street.” I was young and it surprised me how unhappy married women were. The lonely or angry women were glad to see me. They would offer me Pepsi Colas and Moon Pies and rant about how “they didn’t have nothin no more and never did noways anyhow.”
They listened to my spiel and flipped through my sample books and I impressed upon their God-fearing souls about the benefit of having more than four or five bibles, even though they said, “we is Bible poor.”
I had a beautiful, glossy, white family bible with gold leaf on the page edge, and a place in the middle to list your family as far back as the Mayflower. For an extra five dollars, I would emboss their last name on the cover. I’d throw that in for free if they bundled it with our illustrated children’s bible or my large print edition. That was a popular choice. I sold one to a pregnant mother of six who wanted me to take a small antique sewing machine in trade so her husband wouldn’t know she’d spent money. And another one to a woman who wanted her maiden name on the cover because her husband had never been saved and she didn’t want to offend Jesus.
I was happy with my sewing machine transaction until I realized I had to hitchhike back to my drop off point with it, a good five miles away. The top of the machine had a handle and created a decent balance to my sample case. For the first mile and a half, it wasn’t bad. After that, I took to bouncing them both off my legs as I walked to alleviate the strain on my arms. I walked the entire way. I guess nobody wanted to pick up a girl with that much baggage. My poor legs were so bruised and sore I got a few sympathy sales the next week.
If I knocked on the door of an ungodly house, I was prepared with a Medical Dictionary that told stay at home mommas what to do if their baby was choking or running a fever or stuck a bean up their nose. If they didn’t have a baby then I showed them the ten effective ways to ease the pain of a blistering burn or the bloat of nagging constipation. Older people loved the Medical Dictionary. They would regale me with all of their aches and pains, illnesses, symptoms, and family medical history. It slowed me down, but every time I tried to graciously cut them off, they would offer me sweet tea and a piece of buttermilk pie. That’s not something you can turn down in that part of the country.
It wasn’t all pie and sweet tea though. I ran into trouble more than a few times. Sometimes the ones who invited me in had ulterior motives.
I was certain walking door to door selling bibles in a small town in Arkansas would be easy. I would have no problem hitchhiking around neighborhoods carrying a 35-pound sample case for six hours a day. I wasn’t concerned about fending off voracious dogs, nasty old men, wretched single mothers with starving children, Southern Baptist Preachers, and The Law. What could go wrong?
The Thomas Nelson Book Company spent a long weekend prepping its recruits for selling. We had snappy presentations, pat answers to every objection, how to handle unfriendly natives and what not to say if we were stopped by the cops and didn’t want to pick pieces of flashlight out of our heads.
My roommate, Mary and I lived in one of seven crappy trailers lined up in a sloppy row, next to the railroad tracks in the town of Paragould. We were in Number Aught.It took forty-five minutes and knocking on the other six trailers before we knew what that meant. Most of the residents weren’t home and Number 1’s occupant assumed Mary and me were the stupidest girls in Arkansas for not knowing aught meant zero. I told him we were from Kentucky and he gave us a pass, as if Arkansas was a brain trust for the rest of the civilized world.
I was happy with, Number Aught. It had taken us two nights of sleeping in my roommate’s car before we found our new place and it was worlds better than the string of other rentals we checked out.
The first place was an 8×10 room over top of a shed with rusty metal bunk beds and a shared bath. We didn’t wait to see with whom we would be sharing it. Black curly man hair carpeting the plywood floor and used condoms in the trashcan painted a clear enough picture.
We also checked out an ancient Airstream parked in back of an auto body shop. It was a dark, moldy cave with kicked in doors and two inches of fetid water in the bottom of the shower. Tempting though, as it was next to a Piggly Wiggly.
The last place before we settled on good ole Number aught was scary in a fresh, new way. It was at the edge of town next to a large drainage ditch. The cute whitewashed cottage was set up on skinny posts about three feet above the ground. A Baba Yaga tale flashback gave me pause, but it was cute and I was tired of sleeping all scrunched up in the front seat of a Camaro. A sad looking black cat under the porch completely ignored us as we approached the bright red door. Perhaps a good sign?
We knocked twice before we were assailed by a drunk, middle-aged, portly woman wearing only a girdle and bra—an extremely big bra. To her credit, she grabbed a shawl off a hook on the wall once she saw it was us, and not whoever the hell would be ok with being greeted by Mae West on a binge.
In retrospect, I can’t believe we went in, but we were in our late teens and still dumb when it came to sexual weirdos. Mary and I followed her staggering self down the hall until a man’s voice from the back yelled, “Bring em in here sugar,” enlightened us.
Fight or flight took over. We turned and ran like hell. I remember hearing the garters on her girdle clicking as she stood at the door shaking her fist (and the contents of Big Bra) at us.
Ah… to live and learn. The pervasive theme of the rest of my summer.
to be continued…
Baba Yaga by Sharon McLeod, is used with her permission. See additional work by Sharon at www.sharonmcleod.com
I was a long-legged, skinny, Sun-In blonde chick. Who, at nineteen, was more naive than a young girl should be so far from home. I play back the memories in my head and wonder how the hell I made it out of Mississippi unscathed.
Unfortunately, my Number Aught roommate’s dad died of a heart attack and she went back to Kentucky. I was ready to head back too, but The Company persuaded me to relocate to Corinth, Mississippi. Apparently Paragould, Arkansas was a hotbed for our competitor, The Southwestern Bible Company, and I was always one step behind their salesman.
My boyfriend moved to Corinth too and to save money we planned to stay together. It was just a little three room place in half of an old farmhouse owned by Mrs. Beatty, a sweet elderly woman who may or may not have believed us when we told her we were married. Living together was not really acceptable at that time. I hated lying to her until I found out she was a voracious potty mouth when she watched Big Time Wrestling. I felt like it kind of evened us out.
My boyfriend had to go back to Paragould for another couple of days to finish up some deliveries so I stocked the freezer with Boiling Bags and chicken pot pie, then mapped out my territory for the next several days. He took his car, so Mrs. Beatty agreed to drop me off at 9 am at the highlighted spot on my map. Tuesday was the day she got her hair washed and set at The Beauty Nook, so it was on her way.
I stepped out of the car onto a dirt road with a patch of weeds so tall the chiggers didn’t have to crawl up my legs they could jump straight to the elastic in my underwear. The dilapidated street was rich with sleeper sofas and Frigidaires in front and colorful junkers up on blocks in the back. A mix of lysol and lard hung in the air like wet clothes blowing on the line.
Mid morning I was chatting up our Medical Dictionary to a pasty, pre-diabetic seventeen-year-old mother of three in a fall down duplex who said, “If’n I knowed about them diseases it might make my baby git sick.”
Sadly, I heard that kind of thing a lot from uneducated, worn out, young mothers who quit high school to “like it or not,” populate the South. There by the grace of God…not I.
Soldiering on, I dodged a couple of mean dogs, danced with a couple of chickens then finished up the rest of the houses on the street. The noon whistle sounded so I stopped at a gas station for a Yahoo and a Bit-O-Honey then stuck out my thumb to hitch to my next location.
Segregation was alive and well in Mississippi in 1974. My next stop was where the locals called, Nigger Town. I can’t tell you how it makes me want to vomit to put those words on paper, but I need to tell it like it was.
We were told at the Thomas Nelson Company Orientation that the “blackies” (their word not mine) “were suckers for the word of God.” Later, when I tried to deposit a check from a sale I made there. The pinched-face teller at the bank told me, “That check ain’t no good even if it is good. This bank don’t deal with people from Nigger Town and neither should you.”
I wanted to punch pinch-face in the throat.
I was in the third grade when they integrated Kentucky public schools. My small town was old and steeped in racism and resentment. It didn’t change without conflict. I heard that word often back then but not from my family. My mom and dad grew up poor and humble. They were instilled with a genuine sense of kindness and equality that they passed on to me and my siblings. Racists pissed me off then and they piss me off now.
The dusty road was lively. Shirtless, barefoot girls and boys were running around yelling, chasing chickens and playing kickball. They had nailed cardboard squares into the dirt for bases and rolled a football cattywampus to the kicker at home plate. I admired their skill, they made a zig-zag run at the ball, booted it hard and sailed it past the mimosa tree. A solid home run. I felt such joy watching little boys and girls jump up and down chanting a victory cheer.
Sprawling live oaks, Kudzu and a trail of purple-stained popsicle sticks led me to my first customer. I opened the rickety gate walked up to a white clapboard house that was desperately in need of a few more Bois d’arc stumps to support it’s rolling foundation. A pink, Huffy bike with candy cane streamers in the yard got my bible brain a twitching. I could sell a Children’s Bible, a Medical Dictionary and a Family Bible. Red geraniums on the steps and a fat yellow tomcat gave me a feeling that this is where happy people live. A dog yipped behind a peeling, yellow door and woman’s calm voice said, “That’s enough Smitty, you done done your duty.”
The heavy-set, elderly, Brillo haired woman in an orange patterned housedress looked me up and down through the screen, dried her hands on a kitchen towel safety-pinned to her dress and said,“What can I do for you, child?”
I jumped right into my rehearsed spiel. She cut me off after a few seconds, cracked the door and said, “I can’t have no white girl standing on my porch in the middle of the afternoon, My neighbors will think I’ve been up to something. Get in here tell me your business and be quick about it. I got cornbread in the oven.”
The odor of Ben-Gay and cornbread made me hurt and hungry at the same time. She patted a doily graced sofa and said, “Sit child. I’ll be back directly, you gonna need something to cut this dusty day.”
When she came back from the kitchen with a large glass of sweet tea, I was ready for her. My best sellers were laid out on the sofa, I recited my introductory lines then showed her a gleaming white Family Bible with gold embossed letters. “This,” I said, “could be your pride and joy. It is the holy word of God and everything Jesus says is noted in red. There is also a section here in the center for you to list all of your kin, going way back to great, great, great grandparents.”
She completely ignored my sales pitch and said, “I’m Mrs. Lottie Green, but you can call me Miss Lottie. What’s your name child and how old are you? And don’t lie to me, I can tell when people are lying.”
The Company told us not to give our real names. I had been using Linda. I lied about my age too and told her I was sixteen. Another idea from the Company-If you’re younger, you can work a pity sale.
Miss Lottie said she didn’t believe me but she wouldn’t hold it against me just yet and let me go on with my pitch. She was politely smiling and nodding the whole time. I was feeling it! I would close this deal, make my way through the neighborhood and hitch back to the farmhouse in time to watch General Hospital with Mrs. Beatty. But no, Miss Lottie wanted to “talk Bible.” I went to Sunday School as a kid so I held my own, for a while.
She was quizzing me on the Beatitudes when her face lit up and through the screen door, I could see a large white caddy pull up out front. When the dust settled, two tall, wide and menacing looking men got out and headed for the house. Apparently they had got word someone was visiting their mamma.
Miss Lottie jumped up and said, “Oh my babies are here!”
She must have noticed the “freaking out look” on my face and said, “Oh don’t worry honey, them’s my sweet boys. They won’t hurt you none as long as you ain’t up to no good.”
No telling what they considered “up to no good” was when it came to their mamma. I figured I should leave this little homecoming, fast.
But it turns out, I didn’t leave until the sky turned over a few times and the Kudzu had all but covered that little pink Huffy.
Miss Lottie’s boys didn’t want nobody messing with their mamma, and I get that. I’m sure salesmen came around all the time to prey on the elderly, especially around the time they got their Social Security check. So when she went out the front door to greet them, I packed up fast and headed for the kitchen looking for a way out the back. There was none.
Who doesn’t have a back door?
I hear the screen door slam and a deep male voice say, “Well where the hell is she? If she’s good as you say, why’d she up and run off?”
I went back into the front room in time to see Miss Lottie slap a large baby man on the arm and say, “Hush up now, that child sells bibles, she don’t want hear your cuss mouth. There’s Linda!” she exclaims. “Honey this is my baby boy Samson and this one here is Solomon. And no, they ain’t twins. Solomon is older and wiser by thirteen months. They are going to be nice while you tell them what you got to show me.”
“Hi. Good to meet you. I really should be going.” They could crush me with one hand.
Samson steps up close, points his finger at my chest and says, “I agree. You need to get yourself on out of here. Mamma don’t need no bibles. She’s bible poor as it is.”
Solomon pulls a pic out of his back pocket, sticks it in his hair, sits down, lights a cigarette and says, “No, I want to see what this white girl thinks she has that we need.”
“I’m going to get us all some sweet tea.” Says Miss Lottie. “Linda honey you go ahead and get started. I’ve heard the first part anyhow.”
Please don’t leave me.
“Well, come on let’s hear it then, bitch,” says Samson sitting on the arm of a pink slip-covered recliner and peeling off his shirt, a Number 32 Browns jersey.
His dark, muscular chest reveals two long jagged scars across the front. “Know how I got these blondie?”
This bullshit intimidation pissed me off and in a false self important sense of stupidity, I say, “Oh, did your kitty cat scratch you, baby boy?”
He rises up a to grab me but Solomon pushes him back and says,
“Sit your ass down and put your damn shirt back on bro. We ain’t got no problem with this girl, yet.”
Miss Lottie comes back with sweet tea and cornbread. “Did I miss anything?”
Her demeanor has changed now that her sons are here. It’s like I’m company and she’s proud to show off her family.
“Solomon here,” she says, handing him a piece of cornbread buttered and on a pretty pink napkin, “he done got himself a good job, a girlfriend and that nice shiny automobile out there. And Samson, well he’s got some growing to do, but he’ll be all right, in time. So you just pull out them bibles, Linda and show us how it’s done.”
It was a scary kind of fun seeing these big men balance cornbread on their knees and sip sweet tea. Mamma was going to have it her way. I loved it! I bagged the idea of a multi-book sale and decided to focus on our large print bible. It always saved me. I would go to church on Sundays in Arkansas and sit in pews next to the older gentry, open my large print bible and hear the whispers all around me.
“Lord have mercy, look how big that writing is.”
“I can see it from here.”
“I don’t even need to put on my glasses.”
I made often made sales in the parking lot that Sunday.
“Miss Lottie,” I said, “I think you may like this even if you are bible poor.” I handed it to her with the 23rd Psalm book marked with the gold ribbon. “Open it and tell me if you like it.” She opened it and beamed.
“ Oh my, look it, boys,” she said passing it around. “I can read this without squinting nor nothing.”
They are nodding, munching and giving me the dead-eye.
“How much is it honey?”
“Well, it is the low price of only twenty-four-ninety nine.”
“That all for the word of God?” She said. “My boys can afford that for they mamma, can’t you Solomon.”
Solomon, hung his head, nodded and said, “Yes Mamma.”
He pulled a fold of cash out of his shoe, peeled off a couple of twenties and handed them to me. “Linda,” he whispered, gritting his teeth, “I’m buying this bible for mamma, you can keep the change, then you are going to get your white ass out of here and never come back. Got it?”
Inhale, exhale. “Got it.”
Mamma was smiling as she closed her eyes and recited the 23rd Psalm. Apparently she knew that one by heart and didn’t need a large print bible. She was perfect. I got teary-eyed.
I packed up, smiled and backed out the front door, not letting it slam and not breathing until I was off the porch, through the gate and down the street. I felt like I done good and evil at the same time.
The kickball teams had lined up and were drinking out of a hose attached to a spigot in the ground. Three teens had taken over the football, making bullet-like passes between them. I felt good, like I could go home happy now. I went through the desert and came out in the promised land. Hell, I’m skipping and humming the theme song to Chariots of Fire as I go past the mimosa tree when, BAM! The back of my head explodes as dirt and dandelions rush to my face.
It’s dark and hot and it smells funny. I don’t believe in hell, so it must Mississippi in the summertime.
“Yeah, don’t crowd her though, give her some breathing room.”
I open my eyes and all I can see is three big white toothed grins inches from my face.
“There she is!” Miss Lottie says. “I knowed she’d come back to us.”
“She’d better,” said Samson. “It’s too hot to be digging a grave.”
“Oh shush now,” says Miss Lottie. “Don’t scare her with that nonsense.”
“What happened?” I ask. I’m confused, I remembered leaving.
“Well now child, it was just bad luck,” says Mis Lottie. “Nobody meant to do you harm. Your head just got in the way of them boys and their football. But you’ll be alright.”
My head felt like it could fly right off my body. I reached up to hold it in place and I felt the wet and stickiness in my hair and saw that my shirt was a bloody mess.
“Oh hell! What the hell happened? Why the hell am I still here? Let me the hell out of here.” Swearing has always helped to calm me but I wasn’t just cussing, I needed answers.
“Honey just rest a bit . You got a bad bump on your head and I need to tend to it,” says Miss Lottie.
“A football did this?” I say. “ Why am I bleeding?”
“You fell face first on a big ole tree root Blondie,” says Samson. “Just shut your mouth and let my momma take care of you. You’ll be fine.”
“No, no, no, I need to go to the hospital. I may have concussion. Was I knocked out for long?” I was dizzy just sitting up and felt like I was going to vomit. I’m was seeing halos around everything.
“Oh, bout an hour or so.” Says Solomon.
“Jesus! Take me to the hospital.”
“We can’t,” says Miss Lottie. “My boys can’t be seen carting a bleeding white woman to the hospital. That wouldn’t set well with anybody. It’d get them into a lot of trouble and they didn’t do nothing wrong this time.”
“But I need help-a doctor, PLEASE! I’ll tell them what happened. Nobody will blame them Samson or Solomon”
“You must not know where you are child,” says Miss Lottie. “It don’t work like that around here. Now, sit up, put this ice pack and your head and read to me from the good book. I can’t let you pass out.”
“Screw the good book!” “I can’t read right now. I need to leave. Please, just take me home, I’m staying at a house over on…Uh…it’s a farmhouse, it’s white and it has a yard and a nice woman named …uh…I don’t remember the details, but if we drive around I’m sure I can find it.”
“No child, not today. I can’t send my boys off on some wild goose chase, b’sides you are better off here where I can watch over you.
So I stayed put and, but for the pain in my head, it was the best time I had in Mississippi. Samson and Solomon warmed up to me. They hung around their momma’s house all that day and the next week. As soon as I could sit up without getting sick, we played cards, checkers and sweet tea pong. Miss Lottie would have no beer under her roof. I read to her from the Bible and ate more fried chicken and okra and collard greens than I have since.
After a couple of days I could stand up and walk around. Which was sad because I truly enjoyed it when Solomon picked me up in those muscular brown arms of his and carried me to the bathroom. He would sit me down on the edge of the big old claw foot tub so Miss Lottie could come in and watch over me in case I got dizzy again.
When the boys weren’t there, she would tell me stories about her childhood. Stories layered with poverty and prejudice but told without hatred or resentment. She always focused on the good times with her family and the small things that made life bearable and gave her hope.
It is still hard for me to understand her acceptance, “that’s just the way things were back then.” But I am what I am, and have no point of reference in my own life for such cruelty. I can get angry and empathize but I’ll never really know.
I felt good enough to leave after five days. Solomon drove me around until I saw Mrs. Beatty’s house. It took longer since I had to sit in the back and keep my head down most of the time, just peeking up when we drove by white farmhouses. Apparently, a black man driving around with a white woman would get stopped and there would be some made up reason to slam him down on the ground, cuff him and haul him into jail. No matter what the white woman said. Solomon said the police had stopped him several times to make sure he hadn’t stolen his own car.
My boyfriend was back from Arkansas by then and wondering where the hell I’d been. He was sitting on the front porch swing looking lost when we pulled up, and little freaked when Solomon walked me up to the house. But he was a good guy, never one to jump to false conclusions. I thanked Solomon, kissed him on the cheek before he left, causing Mrs. Beatty to almost faint behind the screen door.
The rest of the summer I had bouts of dizziness and nauseousness, but never did go to a doctor and it eventually went away. My enthusiasm for selling bibles quickly wained. It got so that I hated the job as much as the pervasive racism of Cornith, Mississippi. I made very little money that summer and not long after we were back in Kentucky I broke up with my boyfriend. His Bible selling experience turned him into a hand raising, praise Jesus, born again Christian. I just couldn’t handle that. But all and all, I benefitted from the experience and Miss Lottie and her boys will always have a special place in my heart.