- THE RED SCARF
The following is an excerpt from “The Red Scarf,” Richard Mason's novel loosely based on his own childhood in Union County. It's published by August House. Ernest Dumas, another son of Union County, comments about this story:
“My cousin Bobby in Texas, who is about 75, remembers sitting in the car in front of Peg's Pool Hall one day when he was small and there was a big brawl involving the constable, Wing, and some roughnecks. One of them took the constable's gun and was about to shoot him but someone came to Wing's aid and subdued the fellow.”
Friday, November 24th, 1944
Norphlet is only about 650 people, but it was a whole bunch bigger during the oil boom of the 1920s. It ain't much of a town now. Most of the buildings are vacant, and me and my friends have a lot of fun playing war games in them. Of course, in a little, dinky town like Norphlet I know everybody by their first name, and they sure as heck know me, 'cause I'm their paperboy.
I passed the pool hall, which we call Peg's Place, the Red Star Drug Store, the Post Office, and there, right next to the Post Office, is the City Cafe. Old Mrs. Martin owns and runs the Cafe, which serves up a great blue-plate special usually featuring catfish or buffalo fish caught out of the Ouachita River. Me and Daddy go by there at least once a week to eat catfish. ... Well, I'll admit the City Cafe could use a little fixing up 'cause old Mrs. Martin can't see very good and she lets the Cafe get a little messy. Heck, it's more than a little messy, and Momma just shakes her head when Daddy tells her we're going to eat there. Momma ain't about to eat there.
Mrs. Martin is a really old widow woman of about 50, a kinda large woman who wears her gray hair in a big bun on the back of her head and never wears no lipstick or nothing. Her old blue checked dress that she wears most every day comes down to her ankles, and she wears rolled-up hose. She has a voice like a foghorn, and when she yells an order from out in the Cafe to Bubba, who is a-cooking back in the kitchen, he can hear her clear as a bell. Momma said Mrs. Martin's Pentecostal, and they don't allow no makeup or nothing like that. However, she does dip snuff and carries a little cup around to spit in, but I guess that's all right with the Pentecostals. Of course the snuff, stale beer and Bubba frying catfish in the kitchen without no fan makes the Cafe smell to high heaven, but, heck, nobody gives a durn 'cause the food's so good.
I smiled and almost laughed out loud as I looked at the plywood Mrs. Martin had nailed in the windows after the big fight last week. Heck, that brawl — I'm telling you it was one of the most exciting things Norphlet has seen in a heck of a long time. Dang, I wish I could've been there instead of just hearing about it. ...
You might know it was some of them sorry oilfield roughnecks that started it. ... This past week three of them roughnecks, who work on Mr. Crotty's drilling rig out near Snow Hill, came a-walking into the Cafe right before it closed. ...
The driller, who's the boss of the crew, was a great big man who was way over six feet tall, and I'll bet that guy weighed at least 275 pounds. Everybody around Norphlet knows he's as mean as a snake, and he's always getting into fights. I don't have a clue what his real name is, but everybody calls him Big Six. ...
Well, this sorry bunch had a day off, and they'd been down the street in Peg's Place guzzling beer and raising a ruckus all afternoon. They staggered into the City Cafe and told Mrs. Martin they wanted a bunch of fried catfish with all the trimming, and for her to hurry up 'cause they were really hungry. She yelled out to Bubba back in the kitchen.
“Three cats; load 'um up!”
According to some of the other customers the whole bunch was about three sheets to the wind — you know, drunk. Bubba, who had already closed the kitchen, stuck his head out of the kitchen and yelled back at Mrs. Martin.
“Grease is done got cold, and I ain't 'bout to heat it up again!”
Mrs. Martin went back in the kitchen and after a little talk, Bubba stuck his head back out and yelled to the bunch.
“Y'all just hold your horses; it's gonna take a while.”
“Better not take long!” yelled Big Six.
Bubba gave them a bad look and then went back in the kitchen. Course, since he had to heat the stove and the grease in the deep-fat fryer it took a whole bunch longer, and after about 10 minutes Big Six started beating his steel hardhat on the table and yelling at Bubba. Pretty soon them other two roughnecks was a-hollering and yelling.
“Hey! You sorry son-of-a-gun! Hurry up! We're hungry. Get your lazy, worthless butt out here with our food!” That's what they was a-saying, according to Mrs. Martin, who went over to the table and yelled for them to shut up.
Mrs. Martin was trying to clam them up 'cause she knew Bubba didn't take kindly to nobody yelling at him. You know, I don't know what Bubba's real name is, but everybody in town just calls him Bubba. Heck, Big Six is a big man, but Bubba is something else. He's by far the biggest man in town, and he ain't particularly easy-going and, shoot, you don't dare complain about his cooking. A few years ago Bubba was working as a roughneck on a drilling rig, and when they was a-pulling the drill pipe out of the hole the pulling chain broke and flew clear across the floor, whacking Bubba 'longside his head. The story I heard was that Bubba's brains were almost hanging out and everybody was sure he was a goner, but they hauled him off to the hospital and put a steel plate in his head. ... Well, he talked kinda slurred and later, when he started walking again, he'd throw one foot out to the right and the other to the left. It was a walk like nobody in Norphlet had ever seen, and walking around, talking and swaggering like that, he was plain scary, especially to little kids. Dang, when old Bubba came a-walking down the sidewalk people just scattered. But, shoot, Bubba, he ain't mean a-tall. In fact, me and John Clayton are friends of Bubba's, and we come by and talk with him most every day, but lordy mercy dang, don't make him mad 'cause, oh my God in heaven above, if he loses his temper you'd better run like a scalded dog.
Bubba heard them roughnecks a-yelling and barged out the door carrying a big black iron skillet. He was swaying back and forth, walking kinda spraddle-legged, and tobacco juice was dripping out of the side of his mouth, and you could tell he was getting kinda mad.
“By God!” Bubba yelled. “If I hear one more word from you worthless bunch of trash, I'm gonna clean house with this here skillet!” He waved the skillet over his head and spit tobacco juice in the can he was carrying. Well, them roughnecks was quiet for about 10 seconds until Big Six leaned back and started laughing at Bubba.
“Whooooo! Haaaa! Ha! Ha! You shore a-scarin' me! Now get your dumb butt back in the kitchen and fix us some supper.”
Course, that just got them other roughnecks a-going. I guess all that beer they drank down at Peg's Place musta gone to their heads because all of them started laughing and making fun of Bubba. Then Big Six threw his steel hardhat at him and yelled, “Hit this big fellow! Ha! Ha! Ha! You're all mouth! You mumble-mouth, wobble-legged slob! Now, get your butt back in the kitchen and fix us some supper, or I'm gonna kick it back!” The hardhat sailed across the room and banged against the wall, almost hitting old Bubba.
According to one of other customers sitting at the bar, when that hardhat hit the wall beside him, Bubba's mouth dropped open, tobacco juice ran out both sides of his mouth, his eyes crossed, he bared his teeth and let out a roar.
“Ahhhhhh, you worthless trash! Makin' fun of me! I'll teach you some manners! Bubba walked over to where Big Six's steel hardhat was lying and swung that skillet at it.
Boy, Bubba crushed Big Six's hardhat almost flat and then kicked it like you would a football and it hit Big Six right above the ankle.
Mrs. Martin squealed like a stuck pig 'cause she durn well knew the place was about to break loose.
“Now, stop it, Bubba! And Big Six, you just calm down!”
Shoot, Mrs. Martin might as well just kept her mouth shut ‘cause there weren't nobody paying no attention to her.
“Ahaaaa! You worthless . . .” But before Big Six could get up, Bubba kicked the leg of the chair that roughneck was sitting on so hard it broke and sent Big Six sprawling out on the floor. Then Bubba drew back his skillet.
“Ahaaaa! No! Bubba! Don't!” screamed Mrs. Martin.
But Bubba was already drawed back and swinging.
His first swing knocked all three beer bottles off the table. Glass went everywhere, and them other two roughnecks jumped back out of skillet range.
Big Six yelled, “Don't!” just as the second skillet swing whacked him across his shoulder. ... My Lord, people started a-yelling and a-hollering and everybody but them roughnecks started running for the door, as Bubba tossed his coffee can full of tobacco juice across the room and drew back to whop Big Six again.
Mrs. Martin let out a high-pitched scream that you could've heard a mile away and slapped old Bubba across the back to try and get him to stop. Heck, Bubba paid about as much attention to Mrs. Martin as he would a mosquito.
“Now, I'm gonna teach you a thing or two!” Bubba stood over Big Six, who was really hurting from the skillet swat on the shoulder, and drawed back the skillet. Mrs. Martin was trying to hold on to Bubba, but she weren't doing no good, and Big Six, he was a-trying to crawl away as Bubba started to whap him again. Bubba was gonna whap Big Six right on top of his head. Course, if he had, old Big Six would be dead as a doorknob right now.
“Help! Help! Don't hit me again!” Big Six was a-hollering as he tried to crawl away. About that time them other two roughnecks decided to get into the fight.
“Git 'em!” yelled one of the other roughnecks as they rushed Bubba, and before Bubba could swing, they tackled him.
“Ahhhhhh!” Bubba screamed and slapped one of the men halfway across the room with his free hand and started after the other with the skillet. Big Six finally got up off the floor, jumped on Bubba's back and tried to choke him, but he didn't even slow Bubba down. It was one of the dangedest fights you ever did see. Bubba trying to corner one of the other roughnecks while Big Six was riding his back, and the other roughneck, the one Bubba had knocked across the room, was trying to hit Bubba with a beer bottle while old Mrs. Martin ran around the Cafe waving her hands over her head and screaming like nothing you've ever heard. ...
Well, by now the Cafe was just going crazy with screaming customers, yelling roughnecks and Bubba, who figured his skillet was gonna clean house. Bubba still had Big Six on his back, trying to choke him, and was chasing the other two around the Cafe, knocking over chairs and scaring customers, when he and Big Six fell right 700 pounds hit that table, glasses, plates and wood splinters went a-flying.
About that time Mrs. Martin, who had been running around screaming, trying to stop the fight, ran outside yelling at the top of her lungs. “Call the law! Call the law!” She looked around and spotted City Constable Curly Sawyer, who was coming out of Peg's Place about half drunk. Curly, who pretty much stays a little drunk when he's not sleeping in the chair down at his office, wobbled down the street toward a screaming Mrs. Martin.
“Curly! Hurry up and get in there and stop that fight! They're a-tearing up my Cafe!” she yelled.
“What? What?” said Curly, who looked a little confused and staggered across the street the opposite way from the Cafe with Mrs. Martin right behind him, yelling her head off.
You know, Curly's not much of a constable. Daddy told me he's the laziest man he's ever known, and I guess Daddy's right 'cause I've never seen old Curly do nothing but drink beer in Peg's Place. ...
“Dang it, Curly! Do something!” she yelled right in his face. “They're in the Cafe! The Cafe!” she screamed and pointed across the street.
“Oh, yeah; the Cafe, yeah.” Curly nodded as he stumbled toward the Cafe.
“I'm getting right on it, Mrs. Martin. I'll take care of this bunch of sorry trash!” He drew his pistol and stumbled through the door waving his big .45, yelling at the top of his lungs, “You in there! Stop that fightin'! Stop! Y'all's under arrest!”
According to Mrs. Martin, Bubba still had the skillet in his hand and was swinging at anybody in range. One of the roughnecks had picked up a chair leg and was trying to fend off Bubba while Big Six, who was dodging the skillet, tried to hit Bubba. Curly had no more gotten the “Stop the fightin'!” words out of his mouth when Big Six snatched up a beer bottle and chunked it at him. That beer bottle caught old Curly 'longside his head and broke into a million pieces.
“Ahaaa! Oh! Oh! By God, you're gonna regret that!” Curly screamed as he staggered back out the door into the street, cursing at the top of his lungs as blood trickled down the side of his head. “I'll teach you worthless bunch of trash a thing or two!” he screamed, wiping the blood off his face. With that, he turned around, cocked his gun and started firing. Heck, Mrs. Martin said Curly weren't shooting at nothing in particular. He was just aiming at the Cafe and, by golly, Mrs. Martin, she went plum crazy as glass started shattering.
“My Cafe! My Cafe!” She was yelling as she hopped around waving her hands.
Curly shot out both front plate-glass windows, the door window and most of the glasses sitting on the bar before he ran out of shells. When the shooting started, everyone in the Cafe hit the floor, and when the smoke cleared they couldn't believe that not one person had been hit. Curly staggered in and arrested the whole bunch, but since Norphlet ain't got no jail he let them go with only a warning and made them pay Mrs. Martin for the broken windows and table.
As they were leaving, Big Six shook his fist at Bubba and yelled at him, “Hey, you big wobble-legged slob! We're gonna get your behind! Next time we'll see how tough you are! I'm gonna beat you to a pulp!”
“Come on back any time, and I'll beat the fool outta you with this skillet!” yelled Bubba as he shook his skillet at him.
“That's enough!” yelled Mrs. Martin. She shooed Curly out the door before he could fire another round.
The next morning after the big shootout, me and John Clayton stopped by the Cafe to check out the damage, and there was Bubba a-cleaning up the mess. Shoot, the story about the fight and Curly's shooting had gotten all over town. John Clayton stuck his head in the door of the Cafe.
“What you want?”
“Well, Bubba, we heard you really cleaned house with that skillet.”
Bubba, who was wearing a Red Man baseball cap, was chewing on a toothpick on one side of his mouth and had a plug of tobacco in the other side of his mouth. He smiled and walked over to the door where we were standing.
“Dang right, I done cleaned house, and if old drunk Curly Sawyer hadn't shot things up I'd have finished the job.” He leaned back against the door and spit in the coffee can he was carrying.