Miss Ollie's Yard Work
by Mary Anne Sanders
The proprietress stepped out the front door of her well-kept three bedroom home at 522 Liberty Street, the faint sound of a jukebox in her parlor seeping through the front windows. In two hours it’ll be dark enough to turn on my sign, she thought, proudly glancing up at the neon numbers 522 above the door. Though she told everyone that the new electric house number was red in honor of her beloved St. Louis Cardinals, most people knew better. The digits screamed the crimson call that Miss Ollie’s three employees, practitioners of the world’s oldest profession, were available for evening engagements.
The majority of the madam’s clients these days came from railroad workers, train engineers and young servicemen away from home that would hike to her house from the L & N Station on South Royal Street. But they weren’t her only customers. Many well-known businessmen of Jackson, Tennessee —bankers, lawyers, doctors, policemen and even preachers — were patrons who would slip into her house both day and night, some with standing appointments.
East Chester Elementary School had just let out that day in May of 1944 as the occasional child trudged past the seemingly innocuous house and headed for home. Now a group of three boys was approaching on the sidewalk.
“Hugh Browder, come over here.”
The boys stopped in front of the white gate. “Yeah, Miss Ollie?” The thin dark-haired lad in faded knickers left his peers and stepped up onto the front porch.
A diminutive gray-haired woman in an old-fashioned long black dress limped forward and pointed her walking cane at the front yard for emphasis.
“Hugh, this grass has just gone wild from all the rain. I need you to cut it today.”
For the last two summers Hugh had been cutting Miss Ollie’s yard for extra spending money, though on the sly. His parents had told him as early as he could remember never to go near that house nor speak to anyone that lived there. He never understood why. Ever since he’d walked home from school, the ladies he’d spot sitting in the metal porch rockers were always friendly to him, and would even bring him a glass of water while he trimmed bushes and cut grass.
“Aw, Miss Ollie!” he replied. “I was goin’ down to Campbell Lake to go fishin’ with my buddies. Cain’t I — ”
“Now you heard me, Hugh Everett Browder. I’ll see your momma when she fixes my hair tomorrow. Don’t make me tell her you work for me sometimes.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hugh looked down dejectedly. If she told Momma I came over here, my fishin’ pole ‘d be used on my backside.
He sighed. “I’ll go on get your push mower out of the garage.”
Sure is hot and sticky for May, Hugh said to himself as he struggled with the heavy mower that gnawed on Miss Ollie’s backyard grass with reluctance. Stopping to catch his breath, Hugh pulled a bandana handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. Just as he was dragging the mower up to the uncut side yard, he spotted a policeman’s dark blue uniform emerge from the back alley behind the house, then disappear into the opposing side yard. Heavy steps followed on the front porch planks.
It was Sergeant Clifford Browder. Hugh’s father.
Yikes! Daddy! He’ll skin me alive if he sees me here! But if I don’t finish this yard, Miss Ollie’ll fire me and tell on me to Momma. Hugh panicked. As his eyes searched the property, he swiftly chose the only possible way out of his dilemma. Grabbing the handles of the mower, he pulled it over close to the white shingles, slid himself under the house through the open space between brick supports and yanked the mower in behind him.
Surrounded by a shelter of shadows and cobwebs, the welcoming cool of the earth comforted Hugh as he lay on his stomach, waiting for his father to exit. Now he heard several sharp footsteps tread with purpose on the hardwood floor above him. Wonder why he’s in there? Miss Ollie never gave nobody no trouble. Hope he don’t take her to the jail … I won’t get paid. Now he began to hear a forceful banging, rhythmic and constant, in the room directly above him. Maybe Daddy’s helpin’ her with some odd job. Whatever was going on, he knew he must remain as still as a lazy slug down there.
Just then, he felt a sudden intense throbbing on his face. A yellow jacket! He swatted at it angrily, his teeth clenched from his now stung cheek. But he rapidly realized that his movement was a colossal mistake, as more of the insects began to swarm around him, inflicting their painful venom where their predecessor had been earlier.
Now with stings not only on his face but on his arms and legs and in horrendous pain, Hugh could contain himself no longer. He screamed in torment and scrambled out from under the house, ran up the side yard to the front sidewalk and bounded for home, his arms flailing around his head as the swarm chose to accompany their casualty.
“There, I think I got ’em all.”
Hugh was adamant. “I ain’t goin’ to school, tomorrow, Momma. Not lookin’ like this.”
With her son planted on top of the oak kitchen table and stripped down to his underwear, Maudeen Browder had just finished dabbing the numerous welts with her trusty laundry helper, Sawyer’s Crystal Blue. Luckily, she’d been preparing liver for supper and happened to have yet another method on hand to relieve his discomfort. Turning to her cutting board on the counter, she sliced the ends off of two fat vidalia onions.
“Now start holdin’ these on each sting for a while. It’ll pull out the pain.”
The kitchen screen door squeaked open as Hugh’s father entered, his movements slow and deliberate as he placed his policeman’s hat on top of the white porcelain icebox.
“Well, look at Mister Blue Polka Dots!” he exclaimed, easing into a chair next to Hugh, his mouth in a reserved grin. “What happened to you? Bother a hornet’s nest?”
“Leave him alone, Cliff. A swarm of bees got hold of him when he was playin’ ball down at Lancaster Park.” After flipping the sizzling beef liver over in the iron skillet, Maudeen wiped her hands on her apron. “I’m goin’ to check the mailbox.”
Once his wife was gone, Cliff stood up and wriggled out of his pants without warning. “Quick, hand me over that Crystal Blue.” He began to methodically dab bluing to his own evidence of an insect attack.
Hugh’s eyes were as wide as his mother’s hips. “Daddy?”
Clifford looked up from his legs at his son and smiled. “There was a big old crack in that hardwood floor.”
Two days later Hugh was sufficiently recovered enough to return to Miss Ollie’s and carry on with his yard work, secure in the knowledge that his mother would never know of his father and him conducting any business at 522 South Liberty Street. Clifford never asked Hugh for specifics; neither did Hugh ask him.
Now the boy was back at it again, struggling in the side yard with the old push mower when Miss Ollie appeared, limping through the grass while relying heavily on her cane.
“Hugh, that grass can wait. I got somethin’ more important I need you to do. I’ll give you a whole dollar bill if you’ll go to the courthouse for me.”
Wow, I could put that back on a real fishin’ pole! No more ol’ cane ’uns.
“Sure, Miss Ollie!” he exclaimed. “What you want me to do?”
She pulled from the side pocket of her black muslin skirt a man’s leather billfold. “I want you to go down to the General Sessions office and give this to Judge Jeter. He left it here by mistake last night. Then come on back and finish up this half-baked lookin’ yard.”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll run down there and find ’im.”
With its pink marble floors and walls as cold and unflinching as the rulings of many a judge and jury, the first floor hall of the Madison County Courthouse was a reminder to visitors that it was the end of the line for those who flirted with the wrong side of the law. The stand of Smithy the shoe-shine down the east wing seemed to provide a welcome leaven of humanity and eccentricity to the house of judgment.
“That you, Hugh?” asked the one-armed shoe-shine man in his dusty bowler, the back of its rim full of holes with colorful snippets of cloth woven through and cascading down the man’s neck.
“Smithy, am I glad to see you! I’m lost. Can you tell me where Judge Jeter’s office is?”
“Yeah I can. Do you want me to?” he asked with a deadpan look, then laughed. “Just messin’ with ya, boy. His office down yonder on the left. But he in that courtroom right behind you.”
The provoked voices penetrating through the frosted glass of the courtroom almost made Hugh decide to wait, but then the image of a fine new Shakespeare fishing pole easily overwhelmed his reticence. He pushed the double doors open.
Attorney Lafon Butler, whose height of six-four always presented an imposing impression, was forcefully speaking. “So Your Honour, my client Kine here was just tryin’ to pull up that dead tree stump on his farm with a chain hooked to his Ford pickup. Then here comes that half-wit brother of his. You know Lup’s always been mad ’cause the farm wasn’t willed to him, Your Honour. So he gets this hare-brained notion to go to the tool shed and pull out an old porcelain commode. He set it right in front of my client’s truck and sat down on it to stop him.”
“I object!” yelled the equally striking gentleman, Pigford Tramm, as his three hundred pound physique rose with incredible alacrity. “My learned colleague is assuming a fact not in evidence. There’s been no proof that my client is a half-wit. And Your Honour knows we’re contestin’ that pitiful attempt at a will that my said colleague drew up.”
“Overruled,” said Judge Jeter, whose chin was propped up in his hand, and whose sleep deprivation was evident from the left eye’s refusal to open with his right.
Pigford Tramm was undeterred and ready for battle. “Look here, Josephus Jeter, you’ve still got it in for me since I ran against you last year, and I’m not going to allow — ”
Upon seeing little Hugh Browder standing inside the double doorway, Judge Jeter quickly initiated his method of deflection from Tramm’s accusation.
“What are you doin’ in here, Hugh Browder? This isn’t the place for young fellers,” said the judge, feigning irritation.
“Yes sir, I mean, yes your majesty, but I been sent here by Miss Ollie Pope.” He raised a tremulous hand to reveal the billfold. “She said you left this at her house last night and to come give it to you.”
The pallor of Jeter’s face, usually ruddy from a permanent burn due to his Tennessee River fishing hobby, was now the color of Griffin Funeral Home’s lightest pancake makeup. Popping up from his judge’s chair like a hot corn kernel, he bounded down from his bench over to the boy, grabbed the billfold and pushed open the half-glass doors with a splat of the hand, but not before the sound of his political nemesis’s laughter and that of everyone else jarred his hearing.
Hugh wasn’t sure whether Judge Jeter was angry with Miss Ollie or with him, but he knew he must hurry back to Miss Ollie’s and warn her. Not to mention finish that yard.
Shopkeepers, drivers and pedestrians couldn’t help but notice the obese judge sprint with wide steps down the sidewalk headed toward Liberty Street, while young Hugh dashed off ahead of him and banged on the open screen door below the infamous number 522.
“Come on in, Hugh,” said the aging businesswoman from her green vinyl rocking chair.
Hugh bounded through the flailing door that cracked sharply against its frame. “Miss Ollie! The judge is real mad! I just know he’s comin’ here!”
“Now don’t you worry ’bout that, son. You just go on back to that side yard and — ”
“How dare you!” Judge Jeter had flung open the abused door and now stood behind a terrified Hugh.
With a gentle push of her one good leg, Miss Ollie resumed her leisurely rocking. “Go on outside now, Hugh. Everything is fine.” Hugh walked out to the front porch, but determined to step beside the door to listen.
“You conniving old hag! You could have called me on the phone, or sent me a note, or even waited until I came back on Saturday night … But no! You had to send that boy to my courtroom and interrupt a contentious criminal case and worst of all, embarrass me! You old bat, I’m gonna have you shut down for good.” With a wag of a finger the size of a sausage link into her face, he stepped back to examine its effect.
Miss Ollie continued her tranquil movement for a moment, then calmly spoke. “Josephus, it seems that you not only forgot your billfold last night, but you forgot something else. You didn’t pay before you left. I need my ten dollars now.” She held out a petite hand with raised veins that suggested a dainty shrewdness.
Looking as if he’d been poked with a Smith and Wesson to his back, the judge meekly opened the billfold and handed over a ten dollar bill.
After Miss Ollie planted the money in her skirt pocket, she began her serene rocking yet again, but now with an accompanying smile as sugary as her mother’s chess pie recipe.
“So, Judge, since you’re already a steady client signed up for the reduced payment plan, should Pansy expect to see you at the regular time Saturday night?”
A native of Jackson, Tennessee and a retired teacher, Mary Anne Sanders is the author of the nonfiction book Nearing Death Awareness: A Guide to the Symbolic Language, Visions and Dreams of the Dying. Recently she ventured into fiction and, in 2013, won first place in the Gulf Coast Writers Association’s Fiction Contest and the President’s Prize from the Green River Writers Project.