The white shirt

The Noyes House

A few weeks ago, I asked one of my distant cousins, E.O. Lester, who has an exceptional knowledge of Vance family history, about an old house, always referred to by my grandparents  as the old Noyes house, that sat in a small clearing in the woods just beyond the corn field to the north of the farmhouse. From the best of my recollection, I was 5 or 6 years old the first time I laid eyes on the dilapidated but still erect structure.

 

Granddaddy sat me on his lap on the old gas-powered 1010 John Deere tractor, and we jostled through pastures, over a rickety, rotten bridge, and through the woods from one end to the other where, through a small clearing atop a hill, there was a gap in the rusted bobwar (the rest of the world probably better recognizes it as barbed wire) fence leading to the dirt road running in front of my grandparents’ house to the right and on to Sebastopol to the left. The Noyes house stood crippled in the hilltop clearing some 20 or 30 yards back from the bobwar gap.

 

Enveloped in the shade of the giant pines surrounding it, the house was small, its footprint probably not much bigger than 20′ x 20′. The roof sagged and was somewhat still covered in asphalt shingles that were no longer serving their intended purpose. The gray, weathered, wood plank siding was bowed and warped in all directions and showed no evidence of ever being painted, but I’m sure it had to have been at some point long before. The roof overhang in the front indicated the presence of a shallow front porch just deep enough for a rocking chair. However, if there had been a porch, it had long since rotted and fallen off, taking with it any support posts that may have helped to prop up the roof. There were doors at the front and back of the house that were either both open or had been both removed. I never ventured close enough to find out even if I had been curious about their status. There were also two double pane windows on the front, one on either side of the front door, and one in the north wall.

 

The structure was entirely uninviting, even to a curious little boy like myself. The drooping front porch gave the structure an almost human quality. It reminded me of a scolding, furled brow, one similar to the one Daddy would give me when I’d done something that he knew that I knew better than to do. I’m sure Grandma and Granddaddy told my cousins and me not to play in the old house, but their warnings were completely superfluous. I never had the urge, and as far as I know, neither did my cousins. It also didn’t hurt that the house was completely surrounded by a thicket of impenetrable African boma-like thorny wild blackberry vines.

 

By the time I went off to college at Mississippi State, the house had collapsed without notice and had been slowly consumed by the elements and the land on which it sat until the only evidence of its existence was a few sun-bleached, weather-worn, creosote-treated sill logs mostly concealed by a blanket of pine straw and the same thickets of wild blackberry vines that guarded the structure when I first laid eyes on it years earlier. Although, at certain times of the year, flowers would emerge through the thick mat of pine straw and give a gentle reminder of the clearing’s former tenants.

 

That piece of property was logged a few years ago, and the loggers used that flat clearing next to the road as the loading pad. Whatever evidence that might’ve laid hidden in the undergrowth, even the flowers that made their presence known for those many summers since the house’s last inhabitant, is absolutely gone, now.

 

Apparently, according to E.O., the house’s last occupant was Mr. Noyes, an old black man with a cloudy, slightly-enlarged, bad eye, who lived there beginning sometime in the late 1930’s and remained there until no later than the early 1950’s. I’m not sure what ultimately happened to him, if he died while living there or if he left to go live with his son somewhere up north. (My dad seems to think he went to live with his son in Chicago, but dad would have been a little squirt, at the oldest, when the house was vacated for the last time and can’t be sure.)

 

E.O. remembered exploring the house while squirrel hunting with some of his Mississippi kin around 1956 and said that even then the structure looked wonky. He said there was no sign that there was ever electricity or running water in the house, nor was there any furniture left inside. The hunting party did find an old suitcase, though, containing letters Mr. Noyes wrote to his son while the younger Noyes was in the military.

 

The Baileys

E.O. then relayed to me a story that his father told him about a family who lived in the humble structure before Mr. Noyes came along. The Bailey family took residence there sometime in the 1910’s or 1920’s. The patriarch, Bob, was the sawyer at my great-grandfather’s sawmill and lived in the small house with his wife, Beulah, and a son in his late teens or early twenties named Al, who worked at the sawmill with his father. Bob was reportedly a very good sawyer and also looked after the business side of the sawmill as well.

 

It was customary that at noon on Saturday, all the hired hands on my great-grandfather’s farm would knock off to get slicked up and smelling good before heading off to town for a little fun, a chance to interact with an agreeable woman, and possibly some extra-legal imbibing, as those were the days between the passage of the 18th and 21st Amendments to the Constitution when the G-men and Revenuers were scouring the countryside collecting bribes, destroying stills, and disposing of contraband liquor. 

 

One particular Saturday afternoon, Bob and Al walked into the house after a morning at the sawmill to eat a bite of lunch and get spiffed up before the trip to Union to unwind after a hard week of work. After lunch, Al hopped up and ran out the front door snatching up the galvanized metal bucket from its place on the porch beside the door and bounded through the front yard, across the road, and a dozen or so yards down a well-worn path to a spring bubbling cold and clear, filling a small pool before flowing down a narrow ditch into a pond on the neighbor’s farm. Since there wasn’t a well near the Baileys’ house, this spring was their main water source. Al dipped the metal bucket into the pool, filling it with the cool, sweet spring water before returning to the house carrying it as quickly as he could without sloshing all of the water out.  

 

When Al came back inside with his bucket of water to get freshened up for the trip to town, Bob was complaining about having indigestion and yelling at Beulah for putting vinegar in the turnip greens. He said that she knew vinegar gave him indigestion, and she was just trying to get back at him for leaving the back door ajar that morning when he left for work because a raccoon slipped in while she wasn’t looking and was sitting in the middle of the kitchen table dipping a biscuit in the honey jar when she returned from making their bed.

 

Beulah was shrieking back at him saying that she didn’t use vinegar in the turnip greens because she didn’t have any vinegar in the house, but if she did, she damn sure would have used it in the greens because the coon scared her so bad that she bolted for the shotgun kept beside the front door. She was going to blast the hide off of the little trash panda helping itself to breakfast without an invitation. But, as she started toward the door, she tripped over Bob’s union suit that he’d taken off and left on the kitchen floor the night before. (He’d gotten some sizable chips of sawdust caught in the access flap during the aftermath of a piece of over-ripe persimmon he’d eaten for lunch that day and his derriere couldn’t stand the irritation any longer.) When she fell, she banged her elbow on the black iron wood stove and knocked over the nearly-full brass spittoon (that Bob was supposed to have already emptied) which spilled all over the floor and the side of her head. Thankfully, the commotion of her fall and the subsequent tide of spit scared the raccoon so much that he shoved the rest of the biscuit he was eating into his mouth, took two more for the road, and snatched up the jar of honey before making like a tree and getting out of there.

 

As his parents were going at it, Al slithered unnoticed into his room to get slicked up and to also avoid any stray bullets that might be fired haphazardly in his direction. He washed off as much of the week’s funk as he could with the soap and basin of water on his dresser before disguising the rest in a thick cloud of aftershave. After he cleaned up enough so that the flies stopped swarming around him, he began digging for a clean shirt in the drawers of his dresser only to realize that his last shirt nice enough to wear to town had an odd purple stain on the left shoulder.

 

When he heard the roar of battle in the kitchen subside sufficiently, Al popped his head out of his room and asked if he could borrow one of his dad’s shirts. Bob grumbled something under his breath about putting a bear trap in the outhouse while still giving Beulah the evil eye and then told Al could wear his white collared shirt because he didn’t feel very well and wouldn’t be going to town with the rest of the guys that afternoon. Beulah chimed in immediately, warning Al that the shirt was the only decent shirt Bob hadn’t already ruined by being a clumsy oaf, and if he did anything to mess it up, she would make him sleep on the porch and she’d turn his room into a chicken coop.

 

Bob got up from the table, motioned for Al to follow him into his bedroom, and walked out of the kitchen ignoring Beulah as she continued to yell at him about all of his shortcomings as a man and a husband. Once in his room, he gave Al the shirt and plopped down on the bed to take a little snooze. He told Al to shut the door to his bedroom as he left, hoping that if Beulah couldn’t see him, she would forget about being mad at him and leave him alone long enough to relax and let his indigestion pass. 

 

About five minutes after Al left his dad to rest, a car horn gave 3 staccato beeps before bellowing out a long final beep to summon and also annoy Al. The jokesters’ attempt to razz their buddy had the unfortunate unintended effect of annoying an already fuming, hot-headed Beulah who burst through the front door demonstrating the breadth of her colorful vocabulary and wielding a double barrel shotgun pointed at the Ford loaded with fellows anxious to get to town. The sight of Beulah with the gun and her reputation among the workers on the farm scared the driver so bad that he almost transformed the driver’s seat into a makeshift outhouse as he dumped the clutch and took off with no concern as to whether his passenger had made it onboard. As the car got just past the driveway, Al came bolting out of the house past his mother, chasing the car down the road for a hundred yards or so, until the driver was absolutely sure they were out of shotgun range. Then, he slowed the car just enough for Al to catch up and climb in before speeding off to the relative safety of Union where there were sure to be fewer armed, angry women.

 

Several hours after Al’s departure, Beulah decided she’d left Bob alone long enough and figured it was time to give him another dose of her patented brand of hell. She entered the room with deliberate haste, beginning her diatribe before the door was even all the way open. Bob was laying on the bed with his eyes open, staring up at the ceiling, unmoving, with no expression or reaction as his wife laid into him again for all the reasons he was a sorry excuse for a man. After a minute or two, Beulah stopped and said, “Are you even listening to me, you jackass???” When Bob didn’t move, she slapped him across his cheek. His head turned, but that was all. She grabbed his shoulders and shook him, but there was still no response. “Bob!” she yelled as the realization of his lifeless state slowly washed over her. Her anger melted, and a single tear trickled down her cheek as the happy memories of their life together came rushing back to her all at once. After she spent a good 20 or 30 seconds basking in the comfort of those three or four good memories, she hitched up her girdle, put on her boots and set out down the road to my great-grandfather’s house to round up some folks to help get Bob boxed up and planted somewhere.

 

Late that afternoon, the Bailey house was aflutter with men and women from around the community. Some of the men washed and dressed Bob’s body, preparing it for burial, while others built his coffin from the pine lumber sawed that morning by Bob and Al. Meanwhile, the women gossiped back and forth wondering if Beulah might have killed Bob while they fussed over food and flowers for the funeral.

 

Beulah just sat on the front porch with a glazed-over expression, rocking in her chair while a dozen of her neighbors flitted around inside her house. Occasionally someone would pop his or her head out to ask her opinion on some small detail, but she just sat there rocking, fuming, stewing in anger and resentment toward Bob for dying before he finished all the chores on the list she gave him Thursday afternoon.

 

Then, one of the men (who pulled the short straw) sheepishly peeked around the door frame before working up the courage to come out and meekly ask Beulah about a white shirt for Bob to be buried in. When he had asked, she stopped rocking, thought a second, turned toward the man, cocked her head, looked him square in the eyes, and said, “Ain’t but one white shirt in this house, and that son of a bitch, Al, wore it to town.”

 

 

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