Brenda Wilson Wooley

Fish Bones

He was always around, it seemed, mopping his perspiring face with a red kerchief as he came in from the fields, laughing uproariously at something or other, digging into one of Maw Maw’s delicious meals. A large man with a huge stomach, craggy face and a semi-hawk nose, his glasses were perpetually fogged up, lenses as thick as Coke bottles. His hair was wavy and white and sometimes there were streaks of yellow running through it.

“Why is his hair part yellow?” I said.

“The sun caused it,” Mother replied.

He could put away more food than anyone I had ever known, especially Maw Maw’s big country breakfasts. “Them biscuits and gravy’s the best I ever ate, Mary,” he’d say, sopping his plate with his last biscuit.

He was my grandfather’s hired hand and his name was Arthur Elliston. We called him Mr. Arthur.

After Paw Paw retired, he and Maw Maw moved into town. Since Mr. Arthur had also retired and had no place to live, Paw Paw found him a little shack and moved it to a field about a quarter mile from their house.

I never thought much about Mr. Arthur. He was just there, like Maw Maw’s big old-fashioned sofa with its multi-colored pillows, greeting my siblings and me with, “How you runnin’ it?” But I grew to know him well after my grandparents moved into town and my younger sister, Pitty Pat, and I began spending a lot of time with them.

Maw Maw often invited Mr. Arthur to supper, so he was usually there when we were. And always on Tuesday nights when we watched our favorite television show, “The 64,000 Dollar Question.” He laughed and cheered and slapped his knee all through the show, the laughing and cheering and knee-slapping becoming even louder when contestants went to the next level. Once he missed his knee and slapped mine, almost knocking me off the sofa. He apologized with, “OH! You alright, Brenda?,” then continued puffing on his pipe, smoke rolling here and there, wondering aloud if that night’s contestant stood a chance of winning the big prize.

Mr. Arthur had worked for the family since Mother was a girl. When I was around eleven, she told me she once asked him if he had ever been in love. He hesitated. “Well….once,’ he said, “But that was a long time ago.”

I later learned there was more to the story. Much more.

Mr. Arthur grew up on his parents’ large Kentucky farm, and he inherited it after they died. But he lost it to his neighbor after he had an affair with the neighbor’s wife.

How the neighbor ended up with the Elliston farm isn’t clear, but everyone seemed to think the woman’s husband found out about the affair and Mr. Arthur signed the farm over to him.

Why would he do such a thing?

I spent a great deal of time wondering what happened, various scenarios drifting through my mind: Since they were neighbors, he and Mr. Arthur were friends, I surmised, calling out greetings as they rode by each other’s houses in their wagons, waving across their fields. Perhaps they borrowed farm equipment from each other every now and then.

But how did the affair begin?

I pondered on that a while, then came up with a scenario: Maybe the man was away from home one day, and Mr. Arthur was mending a fence adjacent to their land and saw her in the yard. Maybe she was taking her wash off the line. Or working in her flowers. First, they waved at each other. Later, they began talking; general things at first: “It’s a nice day, ain’t it?” she says. “Your flower bed looks mighty nice,” he says. She smiles and he finds himself looking at her in a different way. She ain’t bad looking, he might have thought; kinda pretty, really. Before long, he is thinking of excuses to go by the farm when the man isn’t home, maybe to borrow a wrench or a shovel or some such thing. After a while, the talk gets more personal and she starts telling him things, like how lonely it is out in the country, or her husband never takes her anywhere.

At that point I began obsessing about what their names might have been, going through many before settling on “Fred” and “Vivian.”

Then one day when Fred is gone, Vivian begins confiding in Mr. Arthur, telling him how miserable she is, how jealous Fred is of her, never lets her go anywhere alone. As time goes on and the talks become more personal, she confides that she was very young when they got married, that she doesn’t love Fred and never has.

It is probably some time before the relationship becomes physical. Perhaps they kiss in the yard a few times. After that, maybe Vivian begins signaling to Mr. Arthur; perhaps she has a dinner bell in her yard and yanks it a couple of times to let him know Fred is gone. Maybe Mr. Arthur responds by tying his red kerchief on a certain fence post to let her know he is on his way.

The affair might have gone on for years before they were found out. Or it could have been as short as a few months.

Regardless of how long the affair might have been, the day comes when Fred rumbles up in his wagon unexpectedly and finds Mr. Arthur in his house. Maybe he is coming out of the bedroom, carrying his shirt or his shoes, or both. And Vivian is in her slip, or naked. Or, heaven forbid, in bed with Mr. Arthur, making passionate love. (I block my mind to that. I picture Mr. Arthur looking exactly as he does now and it doesn’t fit!)

Fred goes into a blind rage, grabs his gun. “You bastard! You god damn bastard!”

Vivian huddles in a corner of the bedroom. “Put the gun down, Fred!” she screams, “You’re the only man I’ve ever loved, Fred! Ever! Don’t do this….please!!!” Or maybe she turns on Mr. Arthur, “He forced me, Fred! I tried to fight him, but he broke into the house and had his way with me!”

Mr. Arthur stands barefoot, in his undershirt. Maybe he says, “Fred….now, Fred take it easy…” Or perhaps he is frozen, unable to utter a word.

I could not wrap my mind around how they got from there to the signing over of his farm to Fred. Did Fred tell him he would kill him if he didn’t sign it over? Hold a gun to his head? Or could the couple have planned the whole thing from the very beginning to get Mr. Arthur’s farm? I quickly dismissed that theory; I liked to think he once had someone who loved him dearly.

At any rate, Mr. Arthur lost his farm and had no place to live, so he became a hired hand, living here and there. Sometime later, rumors go around that he fathered Vivian’s child. A daughter. But the rumors die down after a while and the years pass.

I don’t know how Paw Paw found Mr. Arthur, or Mr. Arthur found Paw Paw. He worked mainly for Paw Paw, but sometimes he could be found at my paternal grandmother’s farm where he helped my uncle with the farming for a while, then back to Paw Paw and Maw Maw and other neighbors until he retired and ended up in the little shack across the field.

And then came that cold December night that is forever etched in my memories.

Pitty Pat and I were spending the night with Maw Maw and Paw Paw. We had fried catfish for supper, so Maw Maw sent Paw Paw down to Mr. Arthur’s shack with a plate piled high with catfish and all the trimmings, a couple of slices of white bread lying atop. After supper we watched television, and later Maw Maw fixed us big cups of homemade hot cocoa with puffy marshmallows floating in it.

At bedtime, we headed to the front bedroom and crawled onto the big feather bed, weighted down by two or three of Maw Maw’s thick quilts. We whispered and giggled for a long time that night; I remember Pitty Pat looking at the little wind-up clock on Maw Maw’s chest of drawers and saying, “My goodness, it’s midnight!” We drifted off to sleep to the comforting sounds of Maw Maw and Paw Paw’s earth-shaking snores.

Hours later, we were jerked awake by a knock at the front door.

We sat up in bed and stared at each other. “Who could that be?” I said. “We better call Maw Maw,” said Pitty Pat.

Suddenly, we heard the faint sound of a man’s voice.

“Eddie? Mary? Ohhh…”

Ripples of fear rushed through my body. I had never heard such pain in a person’s voice

“Ohhhh…ohhh…Eddie, Mary?”

We yelled for Maw Maw who was out of the bed and across the living room in nothing flat.

“Arthur,” she said as she opened the door, “Is that you?”

“My chest…my chest,” he said, his voice even weaker, “Ohhh…”

Pitty Pat and I huddled in the bed, shivering and listening. I felt I needed to do something. But I didn’t know what to do.

“Sit down,” Maw Maw said, “Come on, now, sit down here.” She rushed to the kitchen. We could hear her pouring something into a glass, rushing back to the living room. “Here, drink this,” she said. We heard him guzzling from the glass, putting the glass down, “Ohhhh…,” drinking a little more, “Ohhh…”

Pitty Pat and I jumped out of bed and ran to the door just as Paw Paw dashed into the living room. He was in his long-handle underwear, hair sticking up, a startled look on his face.

Maw Maw grabbed his arm. “You’ve got to take him to the hospital,” she whispered, “He’s really bad.”

After they left, Maw Maw, Pitty Pat and I sat in stunned silence on the sofa. “Maybe I shouldn’t have given him that whisky,” Maw Maw said, her face etched with worry, “That might’ve been the worst thing for him.”

The next morning at breakfast, we learned Mr. Arthur had had a heart attack.

“He’ll be alright, won’t he?” I said.

“It’s too soon to tell, hon,” Paw Paw said, “They’re giving him some tests.”

Later that morning, we accompanied Maw Maw to Mr. Arthur’s shack. I don’t remember why we went, maybe to pick up clothes or other things he needed.

The shack was dark and dreary and smelled of pipe tobacco. The stove had gone out; I could see my breath in the room. A pair of Mr. Arthur’s bib overalls and a red plaid shirt hung on nails just inside the door. On the little table was the plate Paw Paw had taken to him. Last night, it had been piled high with fish and all the trimmings. Now, all that was left was a pile of fish bones, picked clean.

Mr. Arthur was in the hospital in Paducah for several days. On the day he was released, Daddy accompanied Paw Paw to the hospital to bring him home. Plans had been made for him to stay at my grandparents' house so Maw Maw could take care of him until he got back on his feet.

When they arrived at the hospital, they found Mr. Arthur’s room empty. They were told he had suffered another heart attack and died only minutes before they got there.

Pitty Pat and I were in our bedroom that morning; I was drawing pictures of women’s faces and Pitty Pat was reading a Revealing Romances magazine. When Mother came in and gave us the news, I was dumbfounded, unable to speak. But I remember hearing the voices of my little brothers and sisters as they played somewhere in the house and being thankful that we were all together at home.

The funeral was held at the funeral home in Bardwell on New Year’s Day, 1956. I went with Mother. I didn’t really want to go, but I felt I should.

Mr. Arthur looked odd in a suit. It was the first time I had ever seen him in anything other than bib overalls and a red checked shirt. His hair was very white, no traces of yellow in it, and his face looked serene, peaceful. And very pale. Organ music was playing, but I could barely hear it. The few people who were there were talking loud; too loud, it seemed to me. And there was a huge lump in my throat that refused to go away. All I could think of was that plate of fish bones, picked clean.

Brenda Wilson Wooley’s work has appeared in more than thirty-five publications, including The Birmingham Arts Journal, Kentucky Monthly Magazine, Looking Back Magazine, Etchings Literary Journal, Existere: A Journal of Arts and Literature, and Barely South Review. She makes her home in Paducah, Kentucky, where she is working on a novel.

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