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.