Humpback, Crooked Letter, I
a short story
BY JOHN C. CHRISTIAN
Several days before Christmas, George Allston Parker III placed an emergency telephone call to his old friend Cecil Hobbs. And that evening, at about half past seven, most of George's friends and clients dropped in to sample Mrs. Parker's legendary wassail and holiday hors d'oeuvres. Since Cecil and his son, Raiford, had recently installed the dual septic tank system at the Parkers' new residence, George was sure that he could count on his old pal Cecil to get him out of this jam. Actually, it was probably nothing more than a minor clog, but with a house full of important guests such unmentionables needed to be quickly rectified.
"Whose tank are we pumping out tonight, Pop?" asked Raiford, leaning over the large black steering wheel. Last year Cecil had converted his 30-year-old Chevrolet farm truck into a septic tank pumper, and in one year he and Raiford made more money in the septic and sewer business than they had made in the last five farming.
"We're going to the Parker's -- our friend, George Parker, of Quail Feather Downs. You know the neighborhood, the one where all of the mailboxes look like little birdhouses." said Cecil facetiously, as he stepped off the front porch hobbling to the truck -- his right shoulder dipping heavily. "It seems he and Mrs. Parker are having a Christmas party tonight and their septic tank got backed up."
"Oh my God!" said Raiford. "The ultimate faux-pas. How do you explain such a thing to your guests? With the house all gussied up for the holidays, these things are not supposed to happen."
Raiford took his coffee mug off the dash, set the hand-brake, and tapped a plastic spoon against the rim. Pursing his lips, and extending his pinkie, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. I'm afraid we have a wee bit of a problem this evening. One of our dear guests has reported to me that a trace of effluvium is emanating from the bidet. So I must beg of you to refrain from using our facilities. Messrs. Cecil and Raiford are on their way to rectify this most unpleasant situation. If everyone would please gather in the kitchen we have some delightful hors d'oeuvres for your dining pleasure -- a right special tray of lefrosteed-tumble-turds."
Cecil's sewer and septic business had become highly profitable in the last year because the city could not tap in the new subdivisions fast enough. Ever since the county had widened "the old wagon road," as Cecil's daddy used to call it, the subdivisions began encroaching on the old cotton fields. And with all his farm equipment idle, putting in septic tanks and drain fields had made good use of Cecil's equipment.
Cecil's daddy was once a cotton farmer, just like his daddy before him, and for 100 years or more Cecil's people had shipped their copious harvest off to the Dixianna Cotton Mill. But something happened. The Great Depression hit, the land wore out, and the weather changed. Cecil's daddy said that things got so bad that when the crows flew over their farm they brought their own lunch.
To save the family homestead, Cecil's daddy planted pine trees and went into the pulpwood and timber business. His first big timber sale was to George Parker Jr. It seems George Jr. had cut a sweetheart deal with a New York export company, and turned a handsome profit off the sale. Of course, Cecil's daddy wasn't in on the deal so he ended up on the short end of the stick. The sad part was that with Cecil's illness and all the hospital costs, Cecil's daddy didn't have enough money left over to replant his land, and he had to let his fields lie fallow for several years. George Jr. offered to lease the land and plant additional trees. He maintained the lease for several years and when he harvested the second crop of trees, he didn't offer Cecil's daddy one red cent. It was said that this money paid for his son's law schooling.
The county agent said the planted-pines had helped somewhat in stopping the erosion. He said that planting cotton year after year had worn the land out and that the erosion had carried off the ancient topsoil. Only the subsoil, Cecil clay loam, as the county agent called it, was left. It was only fitting then that Cecil's daddy name him after the soil that for generations had nurtured his forebears. There was another soil type, on the lower forty, called Appling, but somehow Cecil sounded better on the baby boy than Appling.
What puzzled Cecil the most was how this Piedmont soil could produce mighty oaks and towering poplars, and yet it allowed his mother to conceive and bear a child with such a cruel deformity. Cecil's parents were not aware that anything was wrong with their child until they noticed he began to walk with a waddling gait shortly after his fifth birthday.
With the money that Cecil's daddy made on the sale of the planted-pines, they sent him to Duke Hospital for corrective surgery. The doctors at Duke referred to his condition as kyphosis -- an abnormal curvature of the spine that gives the back the appearance of having a lump or protuberance. After the operation, the orthopedic surgeon performed plaster immobilization, and encouraged Cecil's parents to place him on a firm mattress, preferably with a bed board. Along with emotional support, they were instructed to logroll him every four hours.
Not a day goes by that Cecil isn't thankful for his strong and handsome and healthy son. Without him he wouldn't be able to manage their business. Cecil could operate the backhoe without too much trouble, but for the other jobs, like laying the clay drain field pipes and spreading the crushed gravel in the leaching trenches, he needed his son's strength. Cecil knows that his son is somewhat embarrassed with their "night soil" business and that Raiford's jokes about driving the "honey wagon" are really a diversion.
Cecil copied a Bible verse and glued it to the dashboard of his truck. It says: "Deuteronomy: Thou wilt ease thyself; go and dig therewith a stenchy moat." Every morning when Raiford jokes, Cecil reminds him; "If it was good enough for Moses, it's good enough for us!" Cecil always brings up the fact that it really isn't that dirty a job. With the rubber gloves, the long wrenches, and vacuum hoses you don't even have to wash your hands before lunch.
Cecil was glad that Raiford was doing well with his classes at the local community college and that he was working towards getting his four-year degree in business management. With the price of real estate escalating and the city limits encroaching on the farms, Cecil realized it was probably just a matter of time before some golf course developer offered them an obscene amount of money which they wouldn't be able to refuse. Such an offer would be mighty tempting to Raiford, Cecil thought.
"We're here, Pop," said Raiford. "Ain't it a pretty sight, the white paper bags, with candles in them, twinkling along both sides of the Parker's driveway?"
The Parker's house, a two-story English Tudor, stood on a slight hill on the choicest lot on the cul-de-sac. At one time this part of the subdivision was part of the Hobbs' farm, and Cecil's daddy used to bring him here to play and look for arrowheads and pottery shards. Cecil thought, even as a child, that he had been given a sagacious gift, a keen eyesight, for locating such treasures. After a freezing rain, he would find bits of pottery and arrow points of quartz, chert, or flint, resting on little dirt pedestals. He would collect them all and store them in a small buckskin bag. He knew that the nomadic hunters had left behind these artifacts, knapped from primordial crystalline rocks, just for him.
Closing his eyes, Cecil thought back to those crisp wintry days of his childhood. He rolled down the window of the truck and on this cold December evening he breathed in the damp air of the Carolina Piedmont, taking in its rich odors. He could smell the old fields, the gnarled trees, the moldering leaves, the damp clay, and the tilth of more than two hundred seasons of cultivated earth.
Even last year's deadly drought hadn't diminished the beauty of Cecil's gently undulating land. In the still and damp evening air, Cecil knew he was born of the Piedmont. He thought of his people buried under the sycamores in the Presbyterian churchyard who came and carved this farm out of the primeval forest so many years ago. Like the sweet-yellow corn, the crookneck squash, the speckled butterbeans, and the walnut trees in the side yard, he received his nourishment from the ancient loamy soil. But sometimes at night Cecil pondered why the bounty of this land that had coursed through his body and the bodies of his family, which had carried forth for generation after generation, had stopped with him.
"Raiford, pull off in to the yard a bit, and watch out for Mrs. Parker's pansy bed," said Cecil. "We don't want to drip oil on George's new driveway."
"Pop," said Raiford. "I'll go ahead and turn the water off at the meter and meet you around back at the septic tank."
Cecil cleared his throat, fastened the top button on his shirt, and fidgeted with the snap on his overalls, as he walked up the flagstone steps to the front door. He lifted the heavy brass knocker and rapped it several times against the door. Through the frosted sidelights he could see the Parker's guests milling about.
Even though it was a great while ago, every time he found himself in a situation with a group of people the taunts of his childhood crept back into his memory.
"Are you Cecil from Mississippi?" the children would call out.
"No, I've already told you, I'm from right here," Cecil would say.
Chanting, the kids would say, "You must be from Mississippi `cause you're: M/I/crooked letter/crooked letter/I/crooked letter/crooked letter/I/humpback/humpback/I."
"Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas, my friend -- come on in," said George, as he leaned down and put his arm around Cecil, spilling a little of his bourbon cocktail. "Cecil, we need to take care of this problem, I've got some important clients here, and I need to get this show on the road."
"Sure, George. The water will be off for a minute or two, and we'll have you back in business before you can light the ol' Yule log."
Cecil flicked on his flashlight, opened the yard gate, and walked toward the lantern that Raiford had set up over the septic tank. A thought came to Cecil, and it occurred to him that in all the years he had known George, he had never seen George sober. Here was purblind George out in the suburbs, with the finest house in the neighborhood; a double car garage, two heat pumps, and a dual septic tank system, and George just didn't get it. What more could one ask for? The only thing worse than being deprived of life, Cecil thought, was being deprived of life and not knowing it.
Raiford removed the tank lid with an iron hook and lowered a narrow ladder made of 2x4s into the tank. An odor of shut darkness and rank miasma greeted him as he pulled on his rubber hip boots.
"Give me some more light, Pop, it's dark as a privy down here. I need to find the sump pump."
"I hope George doesn't decide to flush the toilet while I'm down here. As Shakespeare said: `I would detest being shat on from a great height.'"
"Shakespeare? Is that what they teach you in college?" asked Cecil, smiling.
Back at the house, the party had moved to the Parker's master bath. Someone had accidentally flushed the commode or the bidet, and since the water had been turned off, the pipes were dry. The voices from the party were echoing into the septic tank chamber, through the dry pipes, amazingly clear.
A theatrical voice boomed. "She gave me sanctuary! She gave me water!" And then George told another Quasimodo joke, while he dragged his right foot, like the character in the old Hunchback of Notre Dam movie. The party roared.
"I think you've had enough to drink, George -- please stop!" said Mrs. Parker.
"Come on, Honey, you know Cecil and I are buddies. Our families go way back."
"Enough, George. Now stop it. I've heard enough!" said Mrs. Parker.
Raiford clenched his teeth and looked up at his father, but Cecil had turned away staring into the starry night. "Hey, Pop; I found the culprit. The problem is right here, twisted around the float-valve arm. Lower the honey bucket. We've got ourselves a Coney Island hotdog and a big white rat."
Raiford pulled the elongated condom and the soggy sanitary napkin off the ball cock and dropped them in the honey bucket. Raiford pushed down on the ball cock, and the float-valve arm sprang back up into its correct position. "Pop, you go on ahead, I'll dispose of the evidence, and I'll meet you at the front door."
Before Cecil could knock on the door, the door opened, and there was George with his Santa hat on, putting a golf ball, across Mrs. Parker's oriental rug, into a Waterford crystal tumbler. "Cecil you're just in time, we're about to light the Yule log. May I offer you an eggnog?"
The doorbell rang again, behind Cecil, and Raiford stepped into the hallway and wiped his feet off. "Nice chimes you got there Mr. Parker. Real nice," said Raiford. "Pop, you forgot the ticket."
"Honey, please bring me my reading glasses," said George to Mrs. Parker. "Well boys, how much damage have you done me in for? You know I'm still in debt to your Grandpa. Now don't go and try to gouge me." Cecil and Raiford forced a laugh along with George. George squinted at the ticket, on the clipboard, and held it at arms' length. "What does this say here, Cecil?" In his best courtroom voice, George read the ticket. "Problem: (1) Coney Island hotdog and (1) white rat."
"What the hell does that mean, Cecil?" said George, looking over the top of his reading glasses.
"George, you had a jammed ball-cock," said Raiford.
"Jammed ball-cock? Oh George, that sounds so serious," said Mrs. Parker, over the laughter of their guests.
Reaching behind the brass umbrella stand Raiford pulled out the honey bucket. "Excuse me folks -- coming through," said Raiford, as he walked towards the fireplace. He picked up Mrs. Parker's silver ice tongs from the punch bowl, and reached into the bucket. Everyone stood motionless. "Now, we don't want to go and clog up our landfills, do we folks?' And with a flip of his wrist Raiford tossed the white rat and the Coney Island hotdog into the glowing holiday fire. And for a few seconds the embers sputtered, and then with a great and colorful blaze the latex and cotton burned brightly. The dancing flames cast a warm glow across the Parker's festive gathering.
Raiford quickly backed the pump truck down the driveway trying not to run over the flickering bag candles. "Merry Christmas, Pop," said Raiford as he looked towards his father. But Cecil did not answer, he was staring at the Parkers' house all aglow in holiday lights.
The lights from the candles, one in each window, mixed with the clear twinkling lights of Mrs. Parker's decorated tree. Cecil watched as the lights streamed from the windows and reflected an ethereal radiance over the frosted ground. He thought it was a warm sight against a cold and black and silent night.
He saw that the lights went beyond the Parkers' yard, and that the glittering light had fallen across the bare branches of the sycamore trees in the churchyard. Cecil could clearly see that the lights were shining across the woods and the loamy fields that he had once played upon.
John C. Christian is a native of Wilmington, N.C., grew up in the Carolinas and Florida, and now lives in Columbia. He is a freelance writer of short stories, book reviews and essays. This story is from his yet to be published short stories collection Buffalo at the Beach.