By James Hold
[Copyright 2017 James Roy Hold
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POLK SALAD ANNIE
“Finally you meet a girl who’ll take off her top for you—outdoors even—and that’s when some jerk with a gun decides to get the drop on you.”
I glanced up from my beer to take in the author of that outburst. It was Old Stumpy, alone in a corner of the Trinity River Bar, talking to no one in particular. Getting no reaction from the other bar patrons, he got to his foot, adjusted the crutch under his armpit, and with a final hitch of the rope suspenders holding up his trousers, (rope belts and suspenders were still considered a fashion statement in that neck of the woods) he hobbled out the door. Before going though, he paused to mumble, “But he sure got his in the end.”
I asked my friend Big Don what that was all about. Don was the town lawyer and he knew everything. Before he could answer me though, the band—that is to say, one guy sitting near a makeshift stage, playing a laptop guitar, launched into the opening riff of “Polk Salad Annie,” a Tony Joe White song from 1968 or thereabouts. He had a huge grin on his face and several bar regulars laughed as he played the riff a second time. Big Don was one of those who didn’t laugh. Instead, he pushed back his chair and, walking over to the grinning guitarist, placed his hand around the fretboard and squeezed down on it with such force as to make one believe he would snap it in two. My friend Don was a big fellow, broad shoulders, deep chest and all, although the years had added a few inches to his waistline; still he could be an imposing figure when irritated.
“Son,” he addressed the musician calmly, “I appreciate a good tune as much as the next guy. But if I ever hear you play that song again in my presence, I guarantee you’ll have to strum it with your sphincter muscle—if I make myself clear. Now why don’t you play something nice, say ‘Wildwood Flower.’ I’ve always liked that one.”
The guitar player was a brash young punk, but one look at the big hand squeezing the guitar’s neck, and imagining how it could easily be his own neck, promptly agreed to play the requested song—“As many times as you’d like, sir,”—although he would need a few minutes to retune first.
“Good grief, Don,” I remarked when he returned to our table. “I’ve never seen you get so riled before; especially over a song.”
“Aw, don’t pay it no mind.” Big Don resumed to his former demeanor. “It’s just somebody’s idea of a joke. A joke I don’t happen to think is funny.”
Now my curiosity knob was dialed to ten and I pressed him for details. Don ordered another round of drinks and shifted his weight in his chair. The chair responded with a drawn-out creaking sound that seemed to express the mental turmoil clawing its way upward through Don’s conscience. After a moment’s silence, he took a generous gulp of beer and told me his long-suppressed tale.
It goes back to the late ’60s [Don told me] around the time that song came out. You tourists may think us backward today but things were positively primitive back then. It was mostly pig farmers, trappers, and moonshiners, practically all of them drunks. I’m not condemning anybody, mind you; just stating the facts. Still, we were largely decent people with only a few truly bad apples. Worst of the lot was Backwater Gary. And odd name, I know, but he was an odd fellow, your stereotypical bayou hick with overalls, straw hat, and scraggly beard. A powerful fellow too, although a lot of that came from him never coming within ten feet of a bathtub.
How he made a living, I don’t know. People suspected he was a moonshiner but you couldn’t prove it by me. All I can tell you is he was a mean, nasty drunk with a short temper and a long rifle.
Well, one day Backwater Gary came into town and stopped by Stumpy’s general store. Stumpy wasn’t ‘stumpy’ back then. He had two perfectly good legs. Anyway, Gary shows up and there’s a girl with him; young thing couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen. She was attractive enough in an adolescent way, but fairly skinny and underfed. Stumpy tried inquiring, politely enough, who she was but Backwater Gary told him to mind his own business. The poor girl cringed at the sound of his voice and Stumpy pitied her, slipping her some hard candies when the old drunk wasn’t looking.
The rumor mill started shortly after that. Some said the girl, her name was Annie, was a distant relative Gary had gained guardianship of. Others said he won her in a poker game or that some out-of-state scumbag had given her to Gary to settle a debt. All we knew was he kept her at his place on the edge of a moss-covered swamp and he seldom let her out of his sight. The only time he did was when he was sleeping off a drunk, or…
“Or?” I had to prod him to continue.
Or [Don went on] when he’d “rent” her out for extra cash. It was a reprehensible situation to be sure, but what could we do? A lot of the agencies we have today didn’t exist back then. Besides, we had no proof of anything, and the lowlifes he dealt with weren’t going to say anything.
This continued for a year or two and all that time Stumpy grew more and more infatuated every time Gary brought her around to his store. Then one day Gary caught Stumpy slipping her some candy and he tore into her on the spot. Jerked her around by one arm, slapped her, tore her clothes. Stumpy came from behind the counter with an ax handle and broke the thing over Gary’s head. It knocked him silly for a moment or two and in that time time, Annie threw herself into Stumpy’s arms, and thanked him. It was the first time anyone ever heard her talk and, well, to be nice, from her way of speaking, we all gathered she was a bit slow. Maybe that’s how Gary landed her in the first place. The poor thing probably didn’t know any better and hooked up with him thinking he’d be an improvement over what she’d come from.
In any event, Gary soon came to and Annie went to his side and helped him to his feet. Gary was more subdued after that and he and Annie walked quietly to their truck, got in, and drove away. But the parting look he gave Stumpy could have withered the wood off a bodark, and we all knew he’d never be coming back to Stumpy’s store again.
Unfortunately that didn’t stop Stumpy from going to Gary’s place. Having once held the tender young girl in his arms, the seed had been planted and he had to have her again.
“Was Stumpy a bachelor at the time?” I had to ask.
“Not then, no.” Big Don shook his head. “But that’s an altogether differently story. Anyway—”
Stumpy took to prowling around Backwater Gary’s place nights and Sundays when the store was closed. Which was stupid seeing as Gary’s lived smack-dab in the middle of gator country. He had himself this plywood shack with a back porch patio set up overlooking a mud hole, and night’s he’d get drunk and shoot at alligators and turtles from up there. Never killing them, mind you. Gary was too mean for that. He’d just shoot off their toes or put out an eye when he could. Like I said, a disgusting fellow.
So late one Sunday afternoon, while Gary was sleeping off one of his binges, Stumpy’s out there watching and sees Annie off in a patch of polkweed. “Poke sallet” was probably the only thing she knew how to fix. Which surprises me given what we know of her mental state. You have to cook the stems three or four times, each time in fresh water to get all the toxins out of it. Folks say it tastes like cooked greens or spinach, but I wouldn’t touch the stuff. Still, it wasn’t spinach Old Stumpy was after. He comes upon her and she’s wearing this peasant blouse and skirt outfit, and what with her limited knowledge of men and knowing only the degenerate types Backwater Gary exposed her to, she pulls off her blouse and throws herself into his arms—only to have Gary show up behind him with his Winchester.
Well, Gary fired his rifle into the air and Stumpy took off running, straight toward the mud hole behind Gary’s shack. The same mud hole where all them alligators nested. Given the circumstances, I can’t say I’d have done anything different. He managed to cross the mud hole but not before the gators mangled his foot. In the end, Stumpy lost his foot, his wife, and eventually his store; took to drink and turned himself into a first-class drunk. That’s when all the “Polk Salad Annie” jokes broke out with people humming or singing the song every time he walked by. Stupid behavior on the townsfolk part, and spiteful; but that’s how some people are.
“What about Annie?” I interrupted. “What happened to her?”
Gary decided to teach her a lesson in obedience, although it was really just an excuse to vent his cruelty. I happened to be out that evening, coming back from drawing up some contracts for a client, when I passed the road behind Backwater Gary’s place. That’s when I heard the shooting. I figured first it was just him having his way with the gators only then I heard a loud scream. A female scream, terribly afraid and begging for mercy. Now I was one of the few people Gary would back down to, seeing as I was bigger than him and had faced him down in a fight some years before, so I took my chances and let myself into his shack and onto the patio out back.
I’ll never forget the horror that met my eyes that night. There was Gary, drunk as usual, sitting in a bamboo chair with his Winchester at his knee, and below him, at the bottom of the mud hole was poor Annie tied to one of the support posts, whimpering and crying in absolute terror as the gators stirred but a few yards from her. The drunken devil had taken her there and tied her to a pole in punishment for doing the only thing she knew to do when confronted with a man. And there he was, waiting for any gator to approach her, then firing his rifle into their eyes and sending them flopping back into the stinking mud from whence they came.
The anger that welled inside me was indescribable. I grabbed the drunken brute by his shoulder, spun him about, and planted a fist so deep into his face I thought I might need a crowbar to pry it back out. Then heedless of the gators below, I raced down and cut the girl loose and brought her back into the house. After that I hauled Gary into town and had him thrown in jail.
That old mud hole must’ve lost six or seven gators that night. What Annie lost can never be explained. What Backwater Gary would lose, much later, could not have been anticipated.
Nothing came of the case however, for Annie would not press charges against him, and the judge would not accept my argument that the girl was mentally incompetent and needed someone to speak for her. From this I came to suspect our esteemed judge could be counted among those degenerate lowlifes with whom Gary bartered Anne’s services; how else to explain his ability to escape the long arm of the law despite the brute’s many run-ins?
And so things went back to the way they were. Then it happened one night some months later that my legal services took me back to the road by Backwater Gary’s place. And as I hurried past, I once again heard screams. But they were different screams this time; the screams, not of a woman, but of a man. My first thought was to wonder if Old Stumpy, in his constant foolishness, had gotten himself in trouble again. I walked on my toes through the bushes at the top of the path leading to the mud hole, peeped through the bushes and saw—
God only knows how it happened but there was Backwater Gary at the bottom of the mud hole, his arms tied above his head to one of the support posts while above him on the patio sat Annie with the Winchester in her lap, looking down uncaringly at the helpless screaming victim below. How she dragged him down there, or tied his arms above his head (she being much shorter than him) will always be a mystery. In any case, it was too late for me to do anything to help the bastard. Before I could act a large one-eyed gator leapt from the mud, took Backwater Gary in its powerful jaws, and pulled him to the bottom, leaving behind only an upper arm wrenched from its socket, still dangling from the post to which it was tied.
I was sick then. Yes, the man was a brute and a drunken bastard, but even a drunken bastard did not deserve this. Not that he hadn’t brought it on himself, given the way he hazed and tortured those gators over the years. And I told myself I’d defend them pro bono if it ever came down to a hearing.
Big Don finished his beer and set the glass down as if to indicate that was the end of the story.
“Wait,” I stopped him. “There’s no way that’s all there is to it. What about Anne? What did the authorities do to her?”
“What could they do?” Don shrugged apathetically. “According to her testimony, Gary had gotten drunk and fallen over the porch rail into the mud hole. She fetched his rifle hoping to help him, but she’d never been taught anything about firearms and didn’t know how to load, aim, or fire it.”
“And they believed her?” I asked suspiciously.
Again Big Don shrugged. “You have to remember, the judge had ruled earlier that she was mentally competent to testify so they had to take her word for it.”
“They let her go?”
“Had to. Hear tell she relocated to New Orleans where at least she got paid for what she knew.”
I took all of this in with mounting disbelief. “But what about the man’s arm tied to the support post? Surely that indicated some degree of foul play?”
Don signaled for another beer and took a sip before answering. “Funny thing, that. When the sheriff went to investigate all he found was a severed arm lying in the mud. There was no rope anywhere to be found.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“No. Although they did find some footprints. I say prints, but it was really just one foot, as though someone had hopped about in the mud.”
“You’re saying Stumpy—?”
“I’m saying nothing of the sort. Although it could explain how somebody managed to tie Gary’s hands over his head. But then for all you know it could have been any number of men who had it in for the guy. Heck, even I could have done it if I had a mind to.”
With that, my friend Big Don got to his feet and bid me goodnight. And it was only then I noticed that he, along with a number of other patrons in the bar, all wore belts made of rope instead of leather. But as I mentioned at the start of the story, people here still regard rope belts and suspenders as something of a fashion statement and an outsider shouldn’t go jumping to conclusions because of it.
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