Before Rupert Goody waltzed hisself into Claytonville, I nearly always knew how my days would start and how they'd end. Could've bet my last nickel on nearly everything in between. That's how I like things--predictable. That's how come I spend my days at Uncle Beau's.
Let me explain right off the bat that Uncle Beau ain't really my uncle. Ain't no relation to me at all. Everybody in Claytonville calls him Uncle Beau. Always have, far as I know Uncle Beau's General Store's been around as long as Claytonville has, I reckon. Maybe longer. Anybody looking to find me might as well start at Uncle Beau's cause there ain't no other place I'm likely to be excepting school. It's for darn sure I ain't going to be at home.
It beats me how come the Good Lord plunked me down in the middle of a family like mine--all wild and unpredictable.My brothers are all the time saying the reason our family is named Helton is cause there's always a ton of hell going on. Mama slaps them silly when they say that, leaving her red handprint on their cheeks. They start howling and holding their faces and she says, "Y'all hush up that bawlin' before I give you something to bawl about." Nine times out of ten at least one of them puts her to the test. "I swear, John Elliott, I'm gonna blister your hide," she yells. Then she's swatting and everybody's ducking and carrying on and I'm hightailing it over to Uncle Beau's.
When I complain about my ton-of-hell house, Uncle Beau listens and nods his head and most likely he'll say, "Well, I reckon that calls for a PayDay" Then he grabs a candy bar off the shelf and tosses it my way. I wolf down that sweet and salty treat real fast cause that's what I'm used to, eating the good stuff fast before somebody grabs it.
Uncle Beau always shakes his head and says, "Jeekers, Jennalee, slow down." But he don't have to worry about nobody grabbing food off his plate. Sometimes I peek into his little room back of the store. See all his stuff in there just the way he likes it. Nobody using his comb or getting dirt on his pillow.
Sometimes I pretend like I live there with Uncle Beau. Like I got my own little room back of the store. Got my stuff right out on the dresser and don't nobody take it. Even got my own bed. My ton-of-hell house is so filled up with kids that if I don't grab the daybed behind the kitchen, I get stuck with a creaky old cot or a lumpy bedthat smells like pee, thanks to my sister Ruth. Imagine that. An eleven-year-old sleeping with a bed-wettin' baby.
Only way to get that daybed is to go to bed real early, which I do. That's how come I get up with the chickens. And that's how come I got to know Uncle Beau so good. He gets up with the chickens, too. Turns that sign around in the store window so it says, "Open." Puts the bargain table out on the porch. Starts the coffee to brewing.
Most of the time, it's still dark when I head out for the store. I ain't even to the front door good before I hear ole Jake's tail thump-thumping on the wooden floor.
"That you, Jennalee?" Uncle Beau calls through the screen door.
"No, it's Gravel Gertie," I say, which sets Uncle Beau to laughing. I got no idea who Gravel Gertie is, but Uncle Beau says she used to be in the funny papers.
I help Uncle Beau put out the doughnuts, trying not to lick my fingers cause he hates it when I do that.
"You gonna give everybody cooties, Jennalee," he says. "Then where would I be? No customers coming in my store giving me money cause they all home sick with the cootie fever."
When the sun starts peeking over the mountains, Howard Harvey brings the newspapers and some bushel baskets of produce. He takes the shriveled-up squash and rotten tomatoes to feed his hogs and I help Uncle Beau sort out the fresh stuff. I act like I don't know what time it is.
"Okay, Jennalee," Uncle Beau says. "Time to get that head of yours filled up with something besides nonsense."
"Shoot," I say "Ain't nothing at that school worth my time."
Uncle Beau tries to hide his smile, but I see it. His eyes crinkle up and his whiskery chin quivers. He points his finger at me and says, "Don't you go gettin' too big for your britches." His fingers are all crooked with arthritis and sometimes I stare at them. Uncle Beau says they're "whomper-jawed" and cusses about them. "You get old, Jennalee," he says, "your fingers get all whomper-jawed and it's a damn hateful thing."
I go on off to school to waste my time till three o'clock and then I go right back to Uncle Beau's store. By then, there's folks sitting around on the porch smoking and drinking soda. Ole Jake looks like he ain't moved a muscle since I been gone, but his tail starts thumping again when he sees me.
"Want me to empty the bottle caps?" I ask Uncle Beau.
"That'd be good, Jennalee," he says.
I take the key off the hook by the door and open up the soda machine. Uncle Beau likes bottles, not cans. "Tastes better in a bottle," he says. I agree.
I empty all the bottle caps into a milk carton. I take the milk carton around back to the shed. Then I go back and sit on the front steps and listen to the grownups talk. Making jokes I hardly ever get. Telling the same stories over again for about the umpteenth time. Once in a blue moona car pulls in, sending dust flying and making everybody stop talking and look up. If it ain't somebody from Claytonville, it's most likely some tourist asking directions to Cherokee, where the Indian reservation is. We stare, inspecting their car, eyeing their clothes. If there's a kid in the car, I set my face hard and stick my chin up, acting like this is my store. Somebody on the porch always says, "Just keep headin' that way and you can't miss it." As the car's pulling away, Uncle Beau'll holler, "Hold on to your wallet when you get there, Paleface." We all laugh.
Cherokee attracts tourists like a horse attracts flies. The streets are lined with shops and motels and diners. The Tomahawk Inn. Big Chief's Cafe. Running Wolf's Souvenir and Gift Shop. For five dollars, you can have your picture taken with a real Cherokee Indian chief. For twenty dollars, you can buy genuine deerskin moccasins.
"Made in China," Uncle Beau points out, showing me the bottom of the moccasins in his store. "All that Indian bullcrap stuff is made in China." Uncle Beau's got a sign in the store window says, "Why Pay Cherokee Prices? Buy Your Genuine Indian Souvenirs Here." He's got beaded belts and headdresses with colored feathers. Tom-tom drums and tepee salt-and-pepper shakers and wooden napkin holders with "Great Smoky Mountains, Home of the Cherokee" carved on them.
I love that stuff. I wipe the dust off, try on the moccasins, beat the drums. Uncle Beau don't sell much of it. I guess most folks would rather pay more to get their souvenirsfrom real Cherokee Indians. Sometimes they ask Uncle Beau if he's Cherokee. I know for a fact Uncle Beau ain't got one drop of Cherokee blood in him. "One hundred percent pure North Carolina paleface," he tells me. Course, that ain't what he tells them tourists when they ask if he's Cherokee. "Son of a chief," he tells them. After they leave, he looks at me and says, "Chief fry cook and bottle washer."
At closing time, I help Uncle Beau bring in the bargain table. I turn the sign around. Closed. Uncle Beau tells me, "Button the door, Jennalee." That means lock up. I eat a doughnut and give one to Jake. Uncle Beau opens the cash register and puts the money in a leather pouch. I do my homework while Uncle Beau listens to the news on TV He only listens, cause the picture's all scribbly. Besides, he don't see too good anyhow.
Then I say, "What time is it, Jake?" Thump-thump goes that tail.
"Quittin' time," I say.
Me, Jake, and Uncle Beau walk along the road. I have to try hard to walk slow. Uncle Beau breathes loud and wheezy and he don't talk much. There ain't much to look at along the way except trees and honeysuckle. Maybe some blackberries. Sometimes I find things beside the road, like whiskey bottles or hubcaps. Once I found a burlap bag with a squirrel's tail inside. Uncle Beau nailed it to the shed behind the store and it's still there.
If it's warm, we might go down to the creek. Uncle Beau takes off his shoes and puts his feet in the icy mountainwater. He says it's good for his corns. I jump from rock to rock and hardly ever fall in.
When we get to Mountain Creek Baptist Church, I say bye and head on down Arrowhead Road toward my house, hoping my sister Marny ain't got the good bed yet. I turn and watch Uncle Beau shuffling down the road, Jake ambling along beside him, sniffing at everything in sight and lifting his leg about a million times.
And there you have it, a day in the life of Jennalee Helton. Least, that was a day in the life of Jennalee Helton before Rupert Goody waltzed into Claytonville and upset the applecart.