A Thanksgiving Tradition With Bailey White
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris. Over the years, we've spent quite a few Thanksgivings in the company of a former first-grade teacher and avid gardener from Southern Georgia. Her name is Bailey White. This year, her tale is about a small town good-for-nothing and his dog.
(Soundbite of short story)
Ms. BAILEY WHITE (Author, "Nothing With Strings"): (Reading) They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it took a medium-sized town in south Georgia to take care of Mr. Ronald Hamilton(ph) for most of his long life. Ronald Hamilton was a fastidious little soft man with delicate hands and feet - absolutely useless. He did not have anything wrong with him that had a name. He could add and subtract and type 25 words a minute. And in fact, he did manage to keep a job for a few weeks at a time working for some capable, kind-hearted woman at the local Red Cross chapter filing papers or at the Salvation Army sorting clothes. But before long, the can't-help-its would creep back in, and he would give up the job and go back to living off Fern Haskell's(ph) Sunday dinners.
It was mainly women who looked after him. He lived in Lou Nell's(ph) little garden cottage in back of Lou Nell and the judge's big, white house on Calhoun St. Fern Haskell had him to her Sunday dinners and made sure he took enough home with him to last him several more meals. Ronald had what they called a little drinking problem. His driver's license had been taken away years ago, and every day he would toddle down the street for Florence McIntyre(ph) to give him his antabuse pill. Ronald was sneaky, and Florence would have to watch to see that he swallow it and not hide it under his tongue so he could spit it out later and go back to drinking.
Florence drove him wherever he needed to go - to the grocery store for a five-pound bag of sugar so he could bottle up figs from Lou Nell's tree or to Thrash Apparel(ph) so he could buy a new hat on sale. It was understood that Ronald would pay Florence a little something for gas, and give Lou Nell a few dollars a month for the light bill, not so much because they needed the money, but so that Ronald could keep his dignity and not think of himself as a charity case. But Ronald didn't care a thing in the world about his dignity. And there would be a month without the light money and a month without the gas money, then three months in a row. And suddenly there Ronald would be larded up in Lou Nell's garden house on a brand new peach-colored damask settee watching "As the World Turns" and eating Godiva chocolates out of a gold box.
When the judge grumbled occasionally, Lou Nell said, well, he's no trouble to anybody, and he's helpful. He edges the Ophiopogon. But Lou Nell's Ophiopogon borders were bristling with little oak saplings. And on Sunday nights, Fern was the one who ended up in the kitchen up to her elbows in dishwater, while Ronald stayed back in the den teaching the grandchildren string games. But it was a paradox because, in spite of his taking ways, Ronald was the most generous and pleasant person you could ever hope to meet. One year, Mrs. Florence McIntyre fell on some financial hard times and had to sell some of her fine old family things. "Just a lot of old stuff," she said bravely. "Just stuff I don't need."
Mr. Floyd Hollis(ph) hauled it off and sold it one thing after another to the highest bidder on a Thursday night at the Starlight Auction. The next day, Ronald invited Florence to come to tea to cheer her up and get her out of her big, old, half-empty house with pale spots on the walls where familiar furniture used to be. He gave her every comfort of pillows behind her back and Afghans on her lap and a bowl of Sweet Shrub at her side. He served his famous figs and creamed cheese, and he poured her tea out of her very own Royal Crown Derby 18th century tea service he had bought for himself at the Starlight Auction.
It was all over town before that tea was cold. Her very own tea set and bought with the very money he should have been paying her for gas. That sweet woman taken such good care of him all these years, and he turns around and does her like that. But Florence McIntyre didn't seem to mind and chuckled about it. "That's just Ronald," she said. "I enjoyed that afternoon. Those figs were the best thing I ever put in my mouth."
One time, when there have been a lapse of five or six months paying Lou Nell rent money, Ronald disappeared and came back home four days later with a fuzzy little brown and white puppy. And not just any little puppy, this was a collie dog from the fine old Hannover(ph) line of Scottish collies. Ronald had ridden the bus to Atlanta, bought the dog from a kennel in Decatur, and smuggled it back home under his jacket. That little puppy grew up to be the most magnificent dog anyone had ever seen, with the kind of dignity of bearing that takes your breath away. Ronald named her Helen of Troy because of her great beauty. It was a sight to see the two of them walking around town, little Ronald with his crab-like gait and the elegant white and gold dog at his side looking this way and that, like royalty.
Ronald kept her beautifully, brushing her fine coat several times a day and cleaning out her perfectly tipped ears with a special unguent on a silk rag. The dog seemed to have an ability to read people's moods and behave in a way that would improve difficult situations. She instinctively knew how to act under any circumstance. She would fetch a stick, swim across a river, and romp joyfully with playful children. But she knew to move gently and carefully around old people. With babies and toddlers, she would lie down so as not to frighten them. And they would happily crawl all over her and bury their sticky fists in her fur. She was welcome everywhere, in the Shady Rest Nursing Home(ph), on school playgrounds and Sunday school. John Thrash(ph) at Thrash Apparel welcomed her into the store. He said she made the clothes look better. Even the judge who kept hunting dogs like wild animals in chain-link pens and had a disdain for fancy house dogs loved Helen. "That's a fine dog," he said. "A mighty fine dog."
It didn't happen all at once, but gradually things began to change after Ronald got Helen. Far from bringing him respect, the dog seemed to take it away by her contrast. People who had held their tongues began to lose patience with Ronald and to say cruel things such as "What is wrong with Ronald exactly?" and "Why can't he keep that job? That dog could do that job, for goodness sake." Even Florence lost patience with him. And when he showed up day after day for a ride downtown, she snapped, "Ronald, we just went to town yesterday. You need to make a list."
It seemed to pain Helen when people snapped at Ronald. She would stand up, turn around, and lie down again, her sable and white tresses billowing out around her like the finest satin. She would look sorrowfully down her long nose at Florence and give a low whine. Then, Florence, not so much for Ronald, but to keep from hurting Helen's feelings, would sigh and say, "All right, Ronald, come on. Get your coat, let's go."
In the middle 1960s, the town's great benefactors gave a huge donation to the hospital. The whole main part was rebuilt and modernized, and a new wing was added on the east side. The first two floors were pathology and maternity, and third floor was something new, Three East(ph), a mental ward. And it was about this time that Ronald began to lapse now and then into a condition that put him outside the reach of his caretaking ladies. It might be his little drinking problem or just nerves. Lou Nell would call up Florence. "Ronald is not himself," she would say. And Florence would drive him out to the new mental ward of the hospital and have him admitted.
The judge took care of Helen when Ronald was in the mental ward. He didn't pen her up with his hunting dogs, not that fine lady. He took her to work with him at the courthouse. She would lie quietly on the Persian rug in his office with all the law books in glass cases and old portraits of old judges on the walnut-paneled walls. She would lay her elegant head across her slim, white feet and wait patiently for Ronald to be turned loose from Three East. Helen looked good in a law office. All the clerks and secretaries and lawyers would stop by to see her and say, "What a noble dog."
They were right. Helen was a noble dog. But such depth of character doesn't spring from nowhere, even in a dog. It was suffering that ennobled Helen, a deep unfulfilled longing for maternity. This longing would manifest itself once or twice a year in a false pregnancy. For several weeks, Helen's breasts would fill with milk and her personality would change. She would act ridiculously feminine, rolling over on her back with a cloying smile on her face. Ronald hated these episodes. He didn't like her to act like that. Her milk-filled breasts took away the slim show dog figure that he was so proud of, and he was embarrassed to be seen with her. For those weeks he would keep her shut away with all her pitiful longing in one of the judge's dog pens until her milk dried up and she became her old regal self again.
It was near Thanksgiving one year that Helen had one of her false pregnancies, and Ronald lapsed into one of his nervous spells. Someone called the judge. Ronald had been spotted wandering way out of town late at night. The judge told Lou Nell and the well-oiled machinery went into motion. Lou Nell talked to the doctor, got Ronald admitted, and Florence drove him out to Three East. Fern Haskell came and cleaned out his ice box, and the judge came and got Helen. There was all the usual speculation. Did he skip his antabuse? Was it an old sorrow from his past crept back to trouble him? "Poor Ronald," they said. "Maybe it's Helen. You know how he hates these false pregnancies."
Thanksgiving was a beautiful, clear, cold day. The judge went dove hunting in the afternoon and came back about sundown, filthy, dirty, and covered with blood, way more blood than you get shooting doves. He stank of something Lou Nell had never smelled before - rank, bitter, and wild. "Come look in the back of my truck and tell me what we're going to do about this," the judge said to Lou Nell. In the back of the truck was a big cardboard box wobbling. The judge opened up the folded flaps on top and peering down inside from on tiptoe, Lou Nell could just see in the bottom of the box a writhing black mass. From the kitchen porch, Helen of Troy began to cry pitifully.
"I shot their mama," said the judge. He reached into the box and came out with a tiny, black, bristly baby pig. He held it tight with both hands, and it squirmed and writhed so violently you would think it would break its own bones. The pig began to scream with an ear-piercing shriek. "I caught as many of them as I could," said the judge. By then, all the baby pigs were screaming. And up and down the street porch lights came on as people came out of their houses to see what was making such a racket.
In all that screeching, no one heard another sound, the ripping of screen wire. And suddenly there was Helen of Troy. With one magnificent leap, she cleared the tailgate and landed in the back of the truck. She frantically nosed at the box, jumped up on its edge tipping it over, and the baby pigs poured out screaming and squealing and dashing about in the back of the truck. "Henry, do something," said Lou Nell. But Helen of Troy knew exactly what to do. She lay down on her side, and one by one, the little pigs found her, ten in all of the little black squirmers. She nuzzled them close, lifted her back leg to accommodate the last one, and then there was nothing but the happy contented sounds of snuffling and suckling.
One by one, the porch lights went out. And Helen looked up at Lou Nell and the judge with the deepest gratitude. "Henry," said Lou Nell, "get them out of there. That's the worst looking thing I ever saw in my life. What will Ronald think?" "Who cares what Ronald thinks?" said the judge. "Everybody's happy now." Lou Nell was right, though. When Ronald came home from Three East a week later and saw Helen of Troy with her little family, he turned cold towards her. He wouldn't have anything to do with her. It wasn't as sad as you might think, though, because by then, Helen was so preoccupied with her maternal responsibilities, she didn't take much notice of Ronald, either.
That Thanksgiving was the beginning of a lot of changes in that town. Florence had to have back surgery and couldn't drive, and Fern's last grandchild went to college and the Sunday dinners stopped. It became necessary for the ladies to wean Ronald off of their care. About that time, a facility called Happy House opened up out on the Wigam Highway(ph), an efficiently run establishment that provided care for people who couldn't quite do for themselves - a mentally retarded man, a young woman with a crippling emotional condition, a middle-aged man in a wheelchair with a degenerative muscle disease. It was the most natural thing in the world for Ronald to move out to Happy House, and there, surrounded by people with worse afflictions than his vague can't-help-its, he began to shine. "Everybody's happy now," the judge had said on that Thanksgiving Day, and it almost became the truth.
When the pigs were gone, the judge bred Helen of Troy with an Albert Payson Terhune collie from upstate New York, and five of her puppies grew up to be grand champions. The judge, an honorable man, gave all the money to Ronald, and Ronald furnished his private room at Happy House with fine, French-polished antiques he bought at the Starlight Auction. And he lived out his days in high comfort eating Godiva chocolates and watching "As the World Turns" on a brand new, color TV.
(Soundbite of music)
NORRIS: Storyteller Bailey White. Many of her previous stories are collected in a book called "Nothing with Strings."