Muh said, “That’s enough weedin’ fo’ today, baby. I’m’a go on in the house an’ make some cornbread. Sound good?” She pointed to the pile. “While I make lunch, get rid o’ that, please?”
I says, “Yes, ma’am,” and I look around for a couple of old rice sacks to put ‘em in. Muh lived two, three blocks from the rice mill, right across the tracks, so we always had some sacks around to put stuff in.
About halfway through, and I hear some familiar footsteps. Sure ‘nuff, it was Uncle Hime, coming home after a morning jaunt. I figger he gonna close the door and climb in bed, but he fooled me. He just set on the barn steps and cross his legs.
Well, since he come up and set, an’ he was my uncle, I spoke to him. Where I come from, you speaks to people, especially if they older than you. Just good manners, is all. And, when you speak, put a handle on they name, Uncle or Auntie, or Cousin, or somethin’.
Kids nowadays wanna call old folks by they first name, like they shot hookey with ‘em. White kids, ‘specially, be callin’ they momma an’ daddy Sally an’ Bobby… an’ the parents answer! They do that in front’a me, make me wanna slap em’!
I says, “Good mornin’, Uncle Hime, how you doing?”
He look up at me, and says, “M-mornin, nephew.” He kinda squint at me, and says, “Y-you-you’s Abbie’s boy, aint-aint ‘cha?”
I says, “Yes, sir. The youngest one.”
He nodded, then he started filling his pipe. I go back to pickin’ wine bottles, but I got my eye on him, cuz it aint too often I see him like that, y’know? He fish around in his pockets, then he point at me. “Boy-boy, you got a match?”
Well of course I didn’t, I hadn’t tried to start smoking just yet. Muh kept matches in the house, you know, to light the stove and the heaters, in wintertime.
I answered, “No, sir, but I’ll go get you some in the house. Hold on, I be back.”
I went in the house, and Muh had a skillet on the stove, and she had poured the first batch of cornbread batter in. It was just starting to sizzle and bubble, and, in about fifteen minutes or so, she’d have that first one ready. Man! I hated to go back outside, cuz there was nothing like watching hot cornbread come out of the skillet, but I was on an errand, and the sooner I finished, the sooner I’d eat.
I said, “Muh, Uncle Hime asked for a pack of matches.”
She pointed at the cabinet, then she looked at me. “Hime’s back, huh? What he doin’? He’s drunk?”
I says, “No, ma’am, he’s sittin’ on the steps, fixin’ his pipe. He ask me if I’m Helen’s boy, so he aint drunk.”
Muh look at me, kinda in surprise. “He talkin? With sense?”
She sat down, an’ put her head in her hands. “Lawd, please remember Hime. Give him his good mind back. Please.” She stood up, and started stirrin’ the bowl for a minute, kinda hummin’ a church hymn to herself. Then she look at me, an’ says, “Go bring him the matches, ‘fo he takes off. But whiles you out there…” she paused a bit, “Talk to him, please. Just…talk to him.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, grabbing the box, and walking to the door. I looked at her before I walked outside, stirrin’ the bowl of batter, and singin’.
Precious Lord……take my hand
Lead me on…….an’ let me stand
I…I’m tired……I am weak
Through…through the storm
Through….through the night
Lead me on
To the light
Take……take my hand
And lead….lead me on
I handed Uncle Hime the matches, and walked back to the last few bottles. “Thank-thank ya, Nephew,” he said, surprising me a little. Not that he didn’t have good manners, Uncle Hime was one of the most well-mannered men I knew. Even when he was on top ‘o his wine, he’d still tip his hat at the wimmen folk. It was just that he didn’t just nod his head when I handed him the box, which is what he’d normally do.
I turned around and said, “You welcome,” and just kinda looked at him. He fished a match out of the box, and struck it, and lit his pipe, just as smooth an’ calm as you please. No, he wasn’t drunk, not at all. He puffed, and blue smoke billowed around his head. He leaned back on the door frame, just a-puffin’, and you’d swear he was Governor Rockefeller, the way he looked, all calm and dignified. He says, “Nephew, when-when you fin-fin-finish with that, I nee-nee-need you to run t-t-to the store to pic-pick me up some t’bac-bacca.” He held up the package. “I-I’m run-run-runnin’ low.”
I nodded my head. “Soon as I finish this, and eat lunch, I’ll go to Benoit’s and get you some.”
It was his turn to nod now. He took a deep puff on his pipe, and said, “Zo-Zorah cookin’ some co-co-cornbread, aint she?” It was more of a statement than a question, cuz he said right then, “I-I-I can smel-smel-smell it.” You know how people who stammer talk. It’s like the words is kinda bobbin’ and weavin’ in they mind, then it come out all of a sudden an’ surprise ‘em, like… Bam! and it come outta their mouth. But don’t make fun of ‘em. They can’t help it.
I looked at him. He was really talking, and with good sense. Now how in the world he could smell that cornbread with all that Virginia Extract pipe smoke comin’ outta his mouth and nostrils, you, me, and the Three Wise Men will never figger out. But, he said it, so–?
He pointed at the four sacks I had filled. He said, “Zo-Zora got you pic-pic-pickin’ up all’a my dead-dead friends, aint she?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
He laughed, a wide one, where I could see all in his mouth. I don’t mean no harm, but I could tell my uncle aint had no close fellowship with a toothbrush in a long, long time, no sir. Black and yellow, and most of ‘em broke off.
“How-how l-l-long them b-been down there?” he asked.
I looked around at the sacks, trying to hide my surprise. Uncle Hime an’ me aint never held a conversation this long before. I don’t know, I guess we aint never had nothing to talk about, ‘fo this time. Usually, when I picked up his friends, he wouldn’t be nowhere around. “Week-and-a-half, two weeks, maybe,” I answered.
I got kinda bold, since we was talkin’ and all, and, since he knew who I was, and, more important, since I had been spending the last half-hour bending my back in two picking up somethin’ I didn’t get a taste of, I felt like askin’ a question.
He looked up. “What?”
I hesitated a bit. I wasn’t that bold. After all, he was more than just my uncle, he was my great-uncle, Muh’s last living brother, at that. I had to make sure I asked my question right.
“Uncle Hime…why you drink…all of that?” I pointed to the sacks.
He looked at me kinda sideways, and I leaned toward the house, ready to make a run for it. Fists or a switchin’, I didn’t know what was comin’ next.
But, he surprised me. He crossed his legs back the other way, and re-leaned on the frame of the door. “Tha-tha-thass a goo-ood question,” he answered, bobbing his pipe in his mouth. He patted the step beside him. “Sit d-d-down, an’ I t-t-tell ya,”