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Eddie Rakeleaves

Eddie Rakeleaves won third place in Literal Latte's Third Annual Fiction Awards. It became the first in a collection of short stories about life in fictional Marshallville, VA in the 1940s. (Several other Marshallville stories have since been published.... some day, the collection.

 


EDDIE RAKELEAVES

            I remember thin blue sky, the taste of honeysuckle and wonder.  It was back

before innocence melted, before the faraway war came to an end and the plum trees broke

under the weight of the ice storm and the town grew hard.  In those days the plum trees

made sweet white canopies of promise, slowly turning heavy with purple fruit.  This was

the summer of my eighth year, a time of loneliness.  I would gather the plump, dark balls

into a paper bag, twist its top into a stem for carrying, and go wandering the town.

            I found: Eddie.

            Before there was a town, even, there was Eddie Rakeleaves.  Eddie had just

always been somehow, like the pockets of pottery-clay on the creek bank, or the grove of

silent, gnarled water oak trees out past the dairy farm.  I knew for a fact he had been in

Marshallville before my granddaddy died.

            That summer my daddy was traveling for the college, and it seemed like Mama

was busy all the time, starching collars and canning fruit, or writing book reports for the

Woman's Club.  She would say, "I declare, Andrea James, I don't have time to think up

one more thing for you to do."

            Just about everybody, including my big sister Miriam, was off at Girl Scout Camp

or spending the summer with some cousins, and I thought I was about a hundred years

away from being worth paying attention to.  Eddie Rakeleaves, though, was a person who

would look you in the face and pay attention.

            In the summertime Eddie wore a smudgy red plaid shirt and baggy overalls, like

the ones Cox's Store sold to the farmers and the railroad men.  Eddie smelled of dry

leaves and black earth, woodsmoke and safety.  His face was dark and leathery; it

reminded me of the shiny black boots that lined Mr. Spinks' shoe repair shop, where

Miriam and I used to go to get free paper dolls from the Cats Paw Shoe Polish people and

just to smell the mysterious, oily shoe polish air.

            The first time I met Eddie he was getting a drink from the springhouse pump in

the far back of the yard.  Oh, I had seen him plenty of times, raking leaves around town or

resting on the iron bench in front of Mr. Meyberg's General Store, so I knew who he was; we

just had never really met.  I waited until he'd taken a long drink from the tin cup and tied it

back onto his overalls strap with a leather shoestring.

            "Hey, Eddie," I said then.  "My name's A.J. and I live here.  Andrea James

Gilman.  I'm gonna be eight in August."

            "Ah know," he said.

            I smiled up at him, and he returned the favor with a sort of crinkly movement of

the lower half of his face.  Mostly, he smiled with his eyes.  His front teeth were missing,

but that seemed somehow exactly as it should be.

            "You thet chile always ridin yo' wheels through the alley up 'hind the feed store,

where you got no bi'ness to be."

            I withdrew my smile.

            "Ain't no place for a chile," Eddie said.  "They carrying on, drinking moonshine

whiskey, th'owin' dice, all hours of the day and night, in that back room of the feed store. 

Look like they oughta be calling it sump'n other than a feed store.  Ain't no place for a

chile, 'hind there, 'round those carryins-on."

            Eddie's face had a frown up top, but his smile stayed on the bottom.  I think he

understood right off that I was a Person of Adventure.  Eddie was a person of adventure

too.

            "But don't you nevermind," he said.  "You be ridin' round town, maybe you jest

see that Ah'm nearto.  Time Ah'm rakin' around nearto, ain't no harm gonna come to no

chile."

            I hadn't been worried about harm around the feed store, but that seemed fine to

me anyhow.

            "I got lemonade here," I said, holding up the Mason jar still cool from the

refrigerator.  "And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  You want some?"

            "Don't mine if I do," said Eddie.  It was midday on one of those central Virginia

June days that almost smother you with stillness.  We sat on the roots of the pin oak tree

beside the fish pond, split the sandwich and drank lemonade-- me from the Mason jar and

Eddie from his handy tin cup.  Afterwards, Eddie brought out a couple of penny candies

from Mr. Meyberg's store and that sort of sealed our friendship.

            One wandering, lonely day of the next week I found Eddie Rakeleaves a few

blocks away, working in Mrs. Selby's garden.

            "Wutcha doing, Eddie," I asked, even though he was obviously digging.  I needed

to establish how botherable he might be.

            "Miz Selby, she's fixin' to put in some summer veg'tables," said Eddie, without

breaking the rhythm of his hoe or shifting the easy hunch of his shoulders.  "I'm turnin' up

the soil for her, and gettin' that trash and weeds hauled off so's it's all ready."

            "Can I help, if I don't get in the way?," I asked.  I wasn't eight yet, but I knew

about staying out of the way.  I also knew how cool the black earth would feel to my bare

fingers, and that somewhere in the near future was probably one of Mrs. Selby's apple

pies, because I could smell them cooking.

            "Reckon so," said Eddie, still swinging his hoe; "'ceptin' Ah can't be stoppin' to

talk till I's done.  You can be liftin' that trash into the basket.  Look like you closer to the

groun' than me; I mout's well save myself a stoop."

            I got the frayed bushel basket from Mrs. Selby's back steps, sat cross-legged on

the ground and tried not to ask questions.  The ground was damp from early summer

rains, and full of roly-poly bugs and earthworms.  Once I started to say, "Eddie, can

you...?," but he only leaned sorrowfully on his rake and fixed me in a disapproving gaze.

            "They's time for workin'," he said, "and they's time for socializin'.  We be getting

the working done first.  You mine that."

            So I minded, and we worked, and I forgot most of my questions.  When Eddie

was through, the edges of my hands were scraped black but you couldn't really tell I had

done anything and I felt pretty horrid.  Eddie came over with his rake on his shoulder.

            "You all right, Chile," he said in a serious voice.  "You done a right smart job.  I

reckon we'll go eat up some of that pie now."

            Mrs. Selby gave us slices of hot apple pie on her plates decorated with little Dutch

boys and windmills.  I think that was the day I asked Eddie if he'd ever had a name

besides Eddie Rakeleaves.  He said, "Reckon not.  Folks set too much store by what other

folks call 'em.  Reckon Eddie Rakeleaves does jes' fine for me."

            But I found out people called him other things, too.  My Aunt Rachel told me Mr.

Gresham, who lived next door to the Selbys, told Mama I oughtn't be sitting and talking

with "that old nigger."  Mama never mentioned it to me, maybe because that was a word

we didn't use, but I hated Mr. Gresham for using it about Eddie.  Aunt Rachel said Mama

just looked hard at Mr. Gresham and didn't answer him.

            I got gladder and gladder to be friends with Eddie.  He knew how to find

sourgrass hiding in the lawns, and about other good things to eat like the tender white

ends of grass stems if you pulled them out just right.  He could find four-leaf clovers

faster than anybody I ever saw, and could make a whistle by stretching a blade of grass

between his two thumbs.  When it rained, he knew where to launch pine bark boats down

the edge of the curb, and then where to go watch them come out at the other end of the

culvert.

            Eddie Rakeleaves also knew the town.  I thought Mrs. Jeffers the librarian was

stuck-up and mean, because she was always saying, "SHHHHhhhh" with a left-right-left

jerk of her head, or pointing out that my bicycle wheel had killed the alyssum she'd

planted at the edge of the sidewalk.  Mrs. Jeffers' mouth was a pencil-thin line that turned

down at the corners, and her shoulders slumped like she was about to say, "Well, I give

up, then."

            Eddie said: "Jes' don' you be aggravating Miz Jeffers.  You git right over there,

hep her plant some new flowers.  Miz Jeffers, she got all the trouble she need, with that

no-count husband."

            "Oh, yeh?," I said.  Eddie seemed pretty riled up about my aggravating Mrs.

Jeffers, I thought.  He was scraping tar off the side of his shoe, one day when I was in a

particular frown, the day of the alyssum incident.

            "Folks say Mr. Jeffers got gassed in the last war, sacrificing for his country. 

Hmp. Dat man fit as you an' me.  Runnin' around on her, that's what.  Lie 'round the

house, complain everything she do.  Look like he coulda stayed home and got up enough

energy they coulda least had some chirrun.  Miz Jeffers, she did want chirrun, now she

ain't 'bout to have none, she told me dat.  You jes' get on over there, ask can you help her

plant some new flowers."

            Well, so I did.  I stuffed my fists down in my overall pockets, and just walked

right up to Mrs. Jeffers' door, past where Mr. Jeffers was drinking iced tea in the front

porch swing.  ("Hmp," I said to myself.  "Gassed in the war indeedy.")  Which gave me

the courage to face Mrs. Jeffers.

            "Eddie Rakeleaves sent these rose moss plants," I said, pointing to the box in my

bicycle basket out by the gate.  "He was thinning out some beds down the street.  I

thought maybe you could put them out by the sidewalk.  And I'm sorry I mashed down

your alyssum."  I got all that out by running the sentences together.

            "Why, that's really nice of you, A.J.," Mrs. Jeffers said.  "Really sweet."  I hated

being sweet worst of everything, but I didn't say so.  I just stood my ground.  Next thing I

knew, Mrs. Jeffers and I were planting rose moss, after which she invited me into her

lemony-smelling kitchen, which was just about the cleanest kitchen I had ever seen.  She

unwrapped a brand new bar of hotel soap for me to wash my hands with.  Then we had

some of Mr. Jeffers' iced tea (he never did make a move to get up or shake hands), and

some homemade oatmeal cookies, and it was altogether a very pleasant afternoon.  Mrs.

Jeffers still slumped her shoulders and didn't smile much, but she did say I could come

back and borrow her Nancy Drew books.  Afterwards I felt we sort of shared a secret

about her husband being no-'count, and we were friends.

            Most everybody in town was friends with everybody else in those days, of course. 

Everybody worried together about the boys overseas, and about whether the crops would

be good and the trains on time, and why the storms brought so much lightning.  People

said there were some things not meant to know.

            Mama said Eddie knew things because he gave away kindness.  "People know so

much meanness," she said, "but Eddie only recognizes kindness; and he always has some

to give away.”  I guess he gave away a lot.  In return, people told him things.

            For instance, Mrs. Bannister told him about how a horse stepped on her foot when

she was little and that's why she walked funny, only she told him the whole story,

including how the horse got crazy and they had to shoot it.  And Mr. Ed Crosley told him

that his brother, Mr. Sam Crosley, hadn't really gone to South America with the mining

company but was actually in the state penitentiary for stealing some money; Eddie only

told me that after Mr. Ed Crosley died in July, because he knew our second grade wrote

letters to people in the penitentiary and he said maybe I should write Mr. Sam because

he'd be lonelier now.

            I don't think Eddie told me any real secrets, except about planting certain crops

only on the full moon, stuff like that.  But he told me there were people and places best

left alone.  Such as the old Gordon property, and Miss Selma Gordon herself.

            The old Gordon property was out the Sawmill Road, near where my friend Jody

lived.  It was boarded up after Mr. Gordon died.  We all knew it was haunted, due to the

fact that Confederate soldiers had been hidden in the attic and Marybeth Williams' great

aunt told her there was a terrible massacre, after which the hair of Mr. Gordon's maiden

aunt-- she was just a young girl then-- turned white and she never spoke another word out

loud, ever.  We could see what were plainly blood stains below the attic windows, and on

cold nights you could hear the moans of those dead soldiers, sort of shivery, pitiful

sounds.

            Early the past spring old Mr. Gordon's daughter Miss Selma had moved back in

from somewhere, taken the boards off the windows and put a lamp with a fringed shade

in the parlor.  You could see it from the road.  Miss Selma wore orangey lipstick and high

heeled shoes, and didn't pay any attention to the fact that the porch was rotting off.  Eddie

said, "Miz Selma, she rotten jes' like her porch."

            Jody and I just wanted to see what the house looked like inside.  But Eddie said,

"Ain't no place for you chirrun to go callin'" when I told him that.  Jody's mama had said

about the same thing.  She said, "Miss Selma's business is her own business.  Reckon she

will be moving on."

            Jody and I were friends at school, but I didn't see her much that summer because

she had to help out on her mama and daddy's farm a lot, since her big brother had joined

the Navy.  I sometimes rode my bicycle out in the afternoon to spend the night.  In the

morning we would put it in the back of the pick-up truck and Mrs. Taylor would bring me

home when she came to town to deliver eggs and butter.

            Visiting Jody's farm was one of the best things I knew to do.  We would tell ghost

stories in the hayloft at night, and in the morning we would get up in the early quiet to

feed the pigs and chickens and gather eggs.  I liked sneaking my hand under the pillowy

hens and trying to pull out a warm egg without mama hen's flurrying off.  At the big,

wooden kitchen table Mrs. Taylor would have breakfast ready, not just bacon and eggs

but things like potatoes and fried apples and pork tenderloin that we never had at our

house except for Sunday dinner.

            Near the end of the summer Jody invited me to come spend the night, on

Thursday before butter-and-eggs day on Friday.  Jody and I lay on our stomachs in bed

that night with our faces almost out the open window, listening for owls and animal

noises.  There was just a little bit of haymeadow breeze, and Jody said she could smell

rain.

            In the morning, sure enough, there were purplish clouds out beyond the chicken

house and the sky seemed very close to the ground.  Mrs. Taylor said she had been

listening to the radio, and we'd better hurry with the chores because there was a storm

coming.  So we pulled on our shoes and ran out the back, banging the kitchen door as we

were not supposed to do.  Jody hurried to scatter the chicken feed, and I went to the far

end of the hen house where we always started gathering the eggs.  Down the ridge

beyond the pasture you could see the front of Miss Selma's house.

            And there was a strange thing.  Mrs. Jeffers' car was parked in the road, and Eddie

Rakeleaves was walking down the front path from Miss Selma's, carrying what looked

like a big load of laundry, with Mrs. Jeffers following along and sort of helping him.  I

didn't see Miss Selma anywhere.  By the time I gathered up the eggs and caught up with

Jody, they had put the laundry in the back seat and the car was gone.

            "Does Miss Selma take in laundry, you reckon?," I asked.

            "Maybe so," Jody said.  "Sometimes I see a car at her house, but Mama says Miss

Selma's business is her own business, that's all she knows.  Me, I think Miss Selma tells

fortunes and stuff, behind that fringed lamp."

            Well, about that time we could feel the raindrops blowing against our hair so we

broke into a run to finish up, and when I got to the kitchen and smelled the breakfast

biscuits and baskets of chicken covered up under red checked napkins I remembered how

hungry I was and forgot everything else.

            We drove into town fast, ruts already forming in Sawmill Road.  Mrs. Taylor

made two stops to deliver eggs, skirting the edge of town rather than going right through. 

When we got to our house Mama wasn't there.  I put away the eggs she always got from

Mrs. Taylor on Friday's, and went upstairs to read.  It was lunchtime when I came down

and found Mama with mixing bowls all over the kitchen, but the dark rain made it seem

later.

            "I'm going to need you to run some things over to Mrs. Jeffers' house," she said. 

"I've been over there already, but I want to send this casserole and some hot cross buns. 

Seems Mr. Jeffers died last night."

            I was getting some cold milk out of the Frigidaire, and Mama's shoulders were

bent over the sink.

            "I already saw Mrs. Jeffers this morning," I said.  "She had Eddie Rakeleaves

helping her carry some heavy laundry or something out to the car in front of Miss Selma

Gordon's.  It was awfully early."

            "Oh," said Mama, sort of flat without turning around.  "Well, I think I wouldn't

mention that to anyone; you know, A.J., everybody's got too many other things on their

minds.  Let's just try to help Mrs. Jeffers with what lies ahead, alright?"

            That seemed okay with me, too.  Poor Mrs. Jeffers, so much to do, keeping her

house so shiny clean and everything, but at least now she wouldn't have to put up with

that no 'count husband.  I didn't feel sad at all about Mr. Jeffers dying; but I figured I

wouldn't mention that to anybody, either.

            Later that afternoon Mama wrapped the casserole and hot cross buns up in a sheet

of oilcloth, and told me just to take them around to the back door of Mrs. Jeffers' house. 

The rains had slacked off some by then.  I went around the side, toward the kitchen porch

where Mr. Selby was unpacking the big coffee pot from the Methodist church.  Inside,

Mrs. Selby and some other ladies were arranging pies and cakes and plates of salads, and

talking in quiet voices.  They took my package, and told me I could have as many

cookies as I wanted to eat on the way home.

            White, sweet lily smells hung damply around Mrs. Jeffers' house, and I could hear

pieces of sentences: "...peacefully, in his sleep...," "a great comfort to Mildred...," things

like that.  I was glad to get back out the kitchen door with my pocketsfull of cookies.

            I didn't see Eddie Rakeleaves anywhere that weekend.  The next week everybody

started coming back from summertime places, and two new families moved to town with

fathers who worked at the college and children close to my age.

            And then I started third grade.  The ice storm came in the winter; people said it

was just natural, after all the summer lightning.  Mrs. Jeffers painted her house white with

blue trim, and Mr. Selby built a sort of greenhouse where Mrs. Selby began some new

apple trees, and the old Gordon place burned to the ground, nobody was sure why.  But

Miss Selma had moved on, just as Jody's mama predicted.

            I sort of forgot about Eddie.  One October afternoon, though, I saw him raking on

Maple Street and I thought about how the summer had been OK after all, when he and I

were looking after things together.  I turned to wave then, just in time to see him smiling

with his whole face, and lifting one hand in a kind of salute.  Inside my head I heard him

saying, "You all right, Chile; reckon you all right now."