by Ron Parlato
My name is Earl Hutchins and I own the Hutchins Run B&B in Linings, South Carolina. It’s about as much of a bed and breakfast as Hadley’s Rest, a sorry piece of lumber that’s only good for pussy and sour coffee. There’s not much reason to stay at my B&B, either, unless you’re duck hunting or lost. We’re about ten miles into the woods from the nearest town, the accommodations are only fit for shooters and dogs, and despite the second “B” in B&B, there is no breakfast. I keep the name just to attract any strays that’re travelling from Georgia to the Low Country.
When strays do roll up to Hadley’s Rest and hear the screen door of the motel bang open, they keep the car running; but after two hours on an empty swamp road without a sign of human habitation, only witchy-looking dead cypresses, snakes slithering out of the swale, and yellow eyes in the underbrush, they’re just relieved to see another human being, even if it is Rasher Hadley. Most people around here just take any room that Rasher has available, except the ones with holes in the roof. It’s too much trouble to fix it, so he just poisons the coons that crawl in there and shovels them out before they get to smelling too bad. Most of the regulars who bang on Rasher’s door at two in the morning couldn’t care less which room they get and wouldn’t care if he gave them one with dead raccoons still in it. Besides, these ol’ boys are so drunk they can barely manage a few minutes of dog humping before they pass out, so they doubly don’t care what room they’re in.
The Northern strays are different. They want to see the room before plunking down their money, and since Rasher is not one to plump the pillows and leave chocolate kisses on them, one poke into one of these nasty animal dens is enough to send them down the road to my place. “You might try the B&B about five miles south”, he suggests, the “B&B” the only scintilla of hope the strays have that my place will not stink of old truckers and fish pussy.
I’m 6’7”, 82 years old, and people say I look like John Brown from Potawatomie, Kansas – a crazed man and crusading abolitionist who killed, burned, and savaged his way to Harper’s Ferry as though he was liberating Jerusalem itself. Even the thought that I look like that delusional, marauding Yankee is ridiculous. I am the great-grandson of a Confederate major and slaveholder, grandson of a boy who witnessed Sherman’s depredations from the very window of his bedroom and watched his soldiers burn the barn, slaughter the cattle, rape his aunt, cut the slaves loose, and sledgehammer every piece of furniture in the house looking for silver, as well as the son of a father who fought the vile arrogation of power of the Federal Government until his dying day.
When the strays pull in here, most of them are already thinking they’re going to get buggered by some toothless old hillbillies, eaten by a bear, or abducted by some fire-breathing Rebel maniac like me, and I don’t do one thing to disabuse them of that notion. I’m tall and rangy, and mean-looking, most days. I don’t often bother to flatten my hair down or put in my teeth until dinner. If I’m outside, I usually have my shotgun with me – we’ve got all kinds of squirrels, field rats, raccoons, skunks and every other kind of animal that’d rather nest in my attic than in the woods, and I always travel with at least three dogs, mean-looking creatures themselves.
Hell, half these strays come down South just to meet somebody like me. They’ll have nothing to report if they don’t meet some old reconstructed segregationist. The website for a B&B in Jackson highlights the segregationist past of the owner. He has renounced his evil doings and made the proper amends, but he’s smart enough to know how to titillate the Yankee tourists with a few well-chosen quotes from Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis and make a few oblique references to “certain” Southern organizations he belonged to. There’s nothing like confirming old prejudices, and ol’ Bill Harris is one of the best at getting people to do it.
I had one couple drive up here a couple of years ago. As soon as they rolled up the drive, I knew that the license plates said Virginia, but the car was Yankee.
“Where’re y’all from?” I asked.
“Yeah, I can see that,” I said, “but where are you from?”
As soon as I said that, I saw them get that dry-mouthed panicky look. One of my dogs came busting out of the brush behind them, and they jumped like they’d been stuck. And who comes banging up the dirt track in his truck but Bud Lickens, who’d been repairing the duck blind down by the lake. It was a miserable hot day and Bud looked like shit. His shirt was all ripped from tearing through the blackberries, his pants were wet like he’d pissed ‘em, and his hat was all slimy and mashed in like some ol’ dog had been chewin’ on it.
‘Course Bud had a pickup and it was beat up and caked with mud. The windshield was just a gummy slime. He hadn’t cleaned it in weeks, and he had just smeared the bugs back and forth with his wipers.
“So,” I said to the tourists. “I asked you where you all are from.”
Well, they hemmed and hawed. The wife said she was from Virginia, but saw that I wasn’t buying any of that, so she amended herself and added “Northern Virginia” which of course isn’t any more a part of Virginia than Massachusetts, and the husband said he was from Connecticut, which I knew was right because of the way he said it, sounding like a sticky tappet.
Fortunately for the tourists, my wife came along about that time, and you could see the relief on their faces. “Whew!” Couldn’t be that bad if the toothless old bugger has a wife and there’re women’s things in the house.
“Earl, are you boring these folks with your War stories, already?” and “Bud, you look like you been chewed up by a thresher. Don’t you ever change your clothes?”
“Not when I’m working, ma’am,” I said.
I could hear ol’ Bud banging the last nails into the duck blind. He’s always made a big deal about hammering nails. Likes to whack them in so hard the report is like a rifle shot. He’s also proud of the fact that he can pound in a four-inch nail with three strokes. I get a lot of duck hunters in the Fall that sit up there in that blind. Most of them live around here, but enough come from the coast to fill my cabin rooms and one or two of the guest rooms upstairs in the main house. My wife has whined about this for years, duck hunters clumping up the stairs in their boots, dinging the banister, and leaving hair and spit in the sink. Hell, they’re hunters, not damsels in petticoats.
I like my duck hunters. They’re all friends or relatives of mine. None of us have strayed too far from our roots. Our families never had the wealth of the Low Country planters, but we were never crackers, either. We worked the land and made a good living off of it. We all managed to go to school; many of us held elected office, and most of us got into business. Now, most of these friends are getting old and creaky, and I’ve got to push half of them to the blind and prop them up good, so the kick of the shotgun won’t skid their wheelchairs into the reeds; but it’s still a good group.
When it comes to banging on Northern tourists, my wife says that the older I get, the more I resemble that wild abolitionist John Brown. “You not only look more like him, you’re sounding more like him, too.”
She thinks I’m some kind of Don Quixote, ranting and raving about the Old South, or worse – an old, cranky man who’s starting to spill soup on his overalls. Both are true, but I’m not sure what I’d do without my tourists. They keep on coming, wanting to be flogged by an overseer and feel the lash of his whip, suffer his abuse, and look at his ugly, deformed, horrible face. Nothing can replace me. I am the real thing.
I saw the Yankees whispering to themselves over on the verandah of the cabin, probably trying to work up the gumption to tell me they’ve decided to keep on heading to the coast, but, like most couples, they can’t agree and have to bicker. He’s saying to her, “Honey, it can’t be as bad as you think. It’s just a B&B, and, besides, his wife seemed nice enough,” and she’s slicing back at him with “I don’t want to spend one more minute here with that racist and his creepy friend. You never know what they’ll do,” she said, or words to that effect. I saunter over to them, work up the biggest, dumbest shit-eating grin my toothless choppers can manage and say, “Y’all enjoying the evening? Shore is pretty in these parts, isn’t it?”
When my tourists get back up North, you can be sure they’re not talking about the art galleries in Jackson or the etouffee in New Orleans. They’re talking about me. If I didn’t exist, they would have to invent me.
Who am I, you might ask? I am a vaudevillian. I am Ivan Karamazov’s Devil. Without my imaginary whip and chains, without my ironic abuse, without my devilish tricks and temptations, and without my weird and mysterious past, why would you ever come here? Life without me would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.
I have no purpose, no agenda or motive other than for you to hear horrible things, to see Sherman’s bullet holes in my shutters, and the bleached and empty tarpaper shacks on my back forty, to hear the pounding of shotguns over the cornfield and my treacly drawl. My oratory is for you. I am a preacher, your pastor, a big tent revivalist, an actor, and your worst nightmare.
My guests left the next morning. Paid me in cash, which I knew was because they didn’t trust me with their credit card, figuring I would use it to buy Klan robes or defraud them somehow. Like my wife says, the War Between the States was fought 150 years ago, so why not leave it there, dead and gone. I’m an old man, dribbling on my shirt and forgetting where the hell I put my teeth. Maybe she’s right, but, goddamn it, every time I get one of these Yankee fools down here, the sap rises, and I feel like pissin’ off a bridge.