Daddy wasn’t just a magnet for strange characters. He beat the bushes to flush them out. If that hadn’t worked, I believe he’d have up tacked up posters. Mother had no way of anticipating who he might drag in for supper, overnight, or until further notice. I never did understand why she didn’t murder Daddy. He must have slept sometime! Willie Tharpe was a holdover from Daddy’s childhood. Daddy came in late from work one evening a few days before Christmas about eight-thirty, after one of his rambles, as he so often did. Though he worked shift work, Mother could never anticipate his arrival. As the “Man of the House” his time was his own. Making the living was his only responsibility. It was up to Mother to handle the rest. That evening, Willie Tharpe creaked up behind him in an ancient truck with a shack on the back; not a camper, a shack. About fourteen dogs piled out of the truck windows and shack as he coasted to a stop, in a place of honor, right in front of our house. Eventually, Willie emerged, swatting dogs with his hat and cursing inarticutely, in the style favored by the toothless. Mother was appalled, knowing anyone Daddy dragged in this late, especially anyone from such an interesting position on the social scale, was likely to be a houseguest. This was especially concerning a day or two before Christmas, when we’d be having company. In an expansive mood, Daddy ushered in Willie Tharpe and as many of the dogs as could squeeze in before the door slammed on them. The dogs, unused to houses, ran around jumping on us, knocking over end tables, and peeing on the Christmas tree, till Daddy had us shoo them out. Daddy was clearly thrilled to be able to show off his home and family to Willie, an old and valued family friend. The house had looked pretty good till Willie’s dogs ransacked it, but it was a wreck now. Mother had “waited supper” for Daddy, since Daddy insisted we all eat as a family. We’d been starving for hours. We scurried to the table as Mother served up the reheated beans, potatoes, and gravy, just serving the fried chicken and biscuits cold. Though Willie’s toothless mumbling was impossible to understand, Daddy interpreted for us as Willie loaded his plate time after time, after first reaching for the liver and gizzard with his hand. The liver and gizzard were such favorites that we took turns at getting them, a matter of such import that Mother managed it herself. He ate with his knife, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and spewed food as he mumbled. We stared in fascination. Mother never even noticed his terrible manners. After supper, he poured his coffee in his saucer, blew on it noisily, and drank from the saucer, smacking loudly after each slurp. It was repulsive. He burped without covering his mouth. When all the chicken was gone, he reached for the platter and scraped all the “scrambles” onto his plate. The “scrambles” were the crunchy bits left on the platter at the end of the meal, the prize Mother divided among us children. My mouth flew open to protest, only to catch Mother’s dirty look to “mind my manners.” A meal with Willie did more to reinforce the importance of manners than a hundred hours of instruction. Mother should have thanked him. When it came time for bed, Daddy explained Willie would be sleeping in Billy’s room. Billy could bunk in with Phyllis and me. Mother looked fierce, but didn’t say a word. She pursed her lips and left the room. In a minute she was back with Billy’s night clothes. “Where are the dogs going to sleep?” She nearly spat at Daddy. Daddy had always prided himself on never allowing dogs in the house until the mishap earlier that evening. “Oh, the dogs will sleep in Willie’s truck.” He was jovial, obviously not unaware of Mother’s malevolent mood and his longstanding rule on no dogs in the house. Willie looked surprised and pained. It was late December 22 and really cold. Willie muttered the first thing I’d understood that night. “I allus’ sleeps with them dawrgs. Thas’ the onliest thing that keeps an old man like me from freezing. We all pile in together. We sleeps good thataway.” Daddy was clearly torn between his principles and his old friend. “Willie, I ain’t never had dogs in the house and I can’t start now. The dogs can’t sleep in the house.” He was saved. Willie didn’t argue, just mumbled and went off to the back bedroom. Mother was still furious. While Daddy was at work the next day, Willie hung around by the kitchen heater, smoking his smelly hand rolled cigarettes. He was in Mother’s way all day, as she sputtered around baking and making her Christmas preparations. He smelled like his dogs, becoming more rancid smelling by the hour. The odor became more nauseating combined with the scent of cinnamon, candied fruit, orange slices, and vanilla. Mother periodically opened the doors and windows to air the kitchen. Her mood was black by the time Daddy came rolling in at three thirty. Uncharacteristically, he’d come straight home from work, probably concerned for Willie’s safety. He took Willie off gallivanting. For once, we didn’t have to wait supper. Mother’s mood improved with Willie out of the way. We made popcorn and sang Christmas Carols. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve! Santa would be coming! Mother sent us on to bed. The next thing I knew, Daddy was yelling, “Get some water! Get the kids out of the bedroom!” As we flew out of our bedroom, a wet, naked old man made his rickety way into the kitchen, followed by a swirling pack of dogs. Meanwhile, Daddy dragged smoking quilts out to the back yard. As the story unfolded, it seems Willie had been smoking his hand rolled cigarettes in the comfort of the nest of hounds he’d slipped in after the house was abed. He’d drifted off to sleep. Alerted of the burning covers by one of the dogs, he’d called out for help, getting Daddy in on the action. Not surprisingly, Willie moved on the next day. Wisely, Daddy didn’t protest. We enjoyed a lovely Christmas. It was a few days before Willie’s Christmas gift to us became apparent. The house was infested with fleas. Deprived of their host, they attacked us with abandon. Happy New Year!
to be continued