The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Book Peddler

By Grace Cash © 1989

Issue: September, 1989

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

The rainbow book peddler came in 1927, in the summertime, when most of our "living" took place outside the little unpainted house on the hill. Even though he was a stranger, we gathered around his rattling old Ford truck, spellbound at the shelves of books he hauled around in the truck bed, boarded up like a cattle stall. The rainbow colored jackets set us all afire to display the books on the center table in the parlor.

Mama had us catch up an armful of laying hens. She thought that would pay for the set, but the peddler felt of their stiff-feathered wings, and their soft under feathers, and he told her she needed to catch up six more hens if she was to get the full set. We started once again running down the plump Rhode Island Red hens, grown heavy from setting three weeks in nest cushioned with wheat straw.

They skedaddled out of our reach, squawking and brandishing their ruffled feathers; the Dominecker rooster's tail feathers spread into a black and white speckled fan, and his red comb dipped this way and that, agitated because he couldn't rescue the hens. We finally ran down the six hens, ourselves as out of breath as the layers, and the oil-tongued peddler crammed them into the cages with the other disrupted chickens from up at our neighbor's houses.

Papa stood at the mailbox, watching every move. He was afraid to say anything, since the book peddler had made it plain that if he didn't buy the books, he would be consenting to what might someday cause us to blame him for our lost condition. Even Mama hated to sell the good egg producers - hens that had proved their maternal worth ten times over, clicking across the red barnyard, having the full run over our white sandy front yard, and on around to the red clay yard facing the highway. Mama's lucky number for a setting hen was thirteen. Nearly every time the setting hen hatched thirteen golden, chirping chickens, looking like a soft velvety halo had dropped around her four pronged feet.

The rainbow book peddler guessed right off that we were church people. He noticed our humbleness, and obedience to our parents. But he had no way of knowing that we stood to our feet, and remained standing, till the grown folks visiting at our house were seated. If there were not enough straight chairs to go around, we kept on standing there - like children-ghost.

While Mama's hens squawked and clawed at the neighbors' hens, the peddler smiled all around at us. Then he got into his rust cankered truck, and started the motor. His right arm resting on the side of the door, he clamed the metal siding with his feet, and smiled at us again, standing there staring at him as we always did when visitors came or went, and Mama clutching her seven rainbow books, and Papa already turned clenched mouthed into the petunia bordered walkway leading to the front porch. Then the book peddler drove on off down the road, stirring up a cloud of red dust, on his way to the Clinchem District, where Papa and Mama were raised, ready to peddle his books to our blood kin.

Papa had no intention of reading the books - the Bible was all he needed, there on the center table. After Mama read the first book of her set, she told him something was wrong, meaning what she read hadn't measured up to what she had heard from the church pulpits and curtained off Sunday School rooms. Papa told her to burn the books, and he expected her to strike the match to them at the woodpile, the whole shebang going up in red flames.

Mama was afraid that if she burned the religious books, it would bring down a curse on the house. She took the rainbow books to the pasture and threw the books into a gully, the orange, lavender, rose, blue, purple, pink and yellow jacket covers flashing temptingly back even then. The book set had brightened up the parlor, dispelling the gloom cast by the high rolled headboard of the mahogany bedstead; always grubby looking no matter how much Mama bleached the knobby textured white counterpane. She scoured the wooden floor spotlessly clean, and put a new coat of white mud on the fireplace every Saturday, looking ahead to parlor company. The way things turned out, I didn't get to sit in one of the straight chairs, flanking the dresser and the round topped metal trunk, and pick out which book I would read first.

As soon as I could steal away to the pasture, I got the books out of the gully, and hid them in the fodder loft. The clean fodder odor drifted down to the stables, housing our cow and calf, shut up at night on the milking side of the clay baked hallway. The stables on the other side housed our landlords big red mule, and the graying slow gaited mule, two hands shorter than Red. I enjoyed my hiding place, but after I finished reading the books, I was completely turned around. I was convinced that what waited, after death, might be a dreadful thing. This newly realized fear never left me day or night, in spite of all my church training, and racing with Carl to read the Four Gospels before he did - and back of that, the mourners' benches and our August baptism in the Henderson's pasture pond.

I tore the coarse, pulpy leaves from their jackets, and threw that part in the deep gully, where a grave like recess at the bottom had, several months ago, swallowed hundreds of printed pages. Ruth used one of the binders for a scrap book, and I made four collections of poems and stories, including Mark Twain's serialized "Tom Sawyer," coming out in the tri-weekly newspaper Papa subscribed for at the county seat.

Then I made a very special book, which contained newspaper clippings and pictures of two famous 1920's prize fighters, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Papa had an absorbing interest in boxing, and I inherited that trait from him. But nothing entranced me like movie stars. I simply adored the Hollywood actors and actresses that filled my sixth book: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin because as familiar to me as the tin type pictures Mama had of her Arkansas kinfolks, whom she had never seen since her Grandfather Miller migrated from Georgia in 1869. Mama thought a tin type likeness was better than nothing, just as I had to be satisfied with my scrapbooks of favorite boxers and movie stars, although I couldn't see them fight in the ring, and on the movie screen.

My scrapbooks were bulging with flour pasted newspaper clippings when I was seized with a nagging fear that keeping a prohibited thing in the house might cause my downfall. I threw the six book jackets into the cavern, and watched them take their place with the books' original contents in the bottomless grave. Then I felt myself again, and ready to return to the tried and tested customs of the community.