Well, you get older and you begin to lose people, kinfolks and friends. Or it seems to start when you’re getting older. You wonder who was looking after such things when you were young. The people who died when I was young were about all old. Their deaths didn’t interrupt me much, even when I missed them. Then it got to be people younger than me and people my own age that were leaving this world, and then it was different. I began to feel it changing me.
When people who mattered to me died I began to feel that something was required of me. Sometimes something would be required that I could do, and I did it. Sometimes when I didn’t know what was required, I still felt the requirement. Whatever I did never felt like enough. Something I knew was large and great would have happened. I would be aware of the great world that is always nearby, ever at hand, even within you, as the good book says. It’s something you would maybe just as soon not know about, but finally you learn about it because you have to.
That was the way it was when Big Ellis took sick in the fall of 1970. He was getting old and dwindling as everybody does, as I was myself. But then all of a sudden he wasn’t dwindling anymore but going down. First thing you know, he was staying mostly in bed. And then he had to have help to get out of bed.
Heart, the doctor said, and I suppose it was. But it wasn’t just that, in my opinion. I think pretty well all of Big’s working parts were giving out. He was seventy-six years old.
I’d walk over there through the fields every day, early or late, depending on the weather and the work. I was feeling that requirement, you see.
I would say, “Big, is there anything you need? Is there anything you want me to do?” hoping there would be something.
And he would say, “Burley, there ain’t one thing I need in this world. But thank you.”
But he didn’t mean yet that he was giving up on this world. I would sit by the bed, and he would bring up things we would do when he got well, and we would talk about them and make plans. And in fact he really didn’t need anything. Annie May, who loved him better than some people thought he deserved, was still healthy then. As far as could tell, she was taking perfect care of him.
We called Big “Big” of course because he was big. He was stout too. His strength sometimes would surprise you, even as big as he was. He sort of made a rule of not putting out more effort than the least he could
get away with. He wouldn’t pull his britchies up until they were absolutely falling off. But if he thought he needed to, or ought to, he could pick up a two-bushel sack of wheat and toss it onto a load like it wasn’t more than a basketball. Once I saw him pick up an anvil by its horn with one hand and carry it to where he needed it and set it down gently as you would set down an egg.
Big was a year or so older than me, and for a while that made a difference and I had to give him the lead. But as we got older we got closer to the same age, and we ran together as equal partners. We didn’t settle down when we were supposed to, we were having too good a time. For a long time we stayed unattached, unworried, and unweary. We shined up to the ladies together, and fished and hunted together, and were as wild nearly as varmints ourselves. We ran many a Saturday night right on into Sunday morning. I expect we set records around here for some of our achievements, which I don’t enjoy talking about now as much as I once did. But some of the stories about Big himself I will always love to tell.
One time we heard about a dance they were giving at the schoolhouse in a little place named Shagbark over on the far side of the river. We went to it in one of Big’s old cars that never got anywhere except by luck. But we did get there, after a stop in Hargrave to get a lady to sell us some liquor. It was good stuff, Canadian whiskey, the real article.
It was a good dance too, good musicianers. They had this fellow playing the piano. He had twelve fingers and he was making music with every one of them. I never saw such a thing before. I haven’t since. And they had a more than adequate number of good-looking girls. We got to where we were just letting it happen, we didn’t mind what. We didn’t know a soul over there and nobody knew us. We didn’t have a thing to worry about, and we were cutting up like a new pair of scissors. And then all at once it went kaflooey.
Big was wearing his suit. We’d had to buy our whiskey in half-pints, it was all the lady had, and he had stuck one of those into the inside pocket of his jacket. He got to dancing with this girl, a good-looking girl, a big girl, a fair match for him. She had on a lot of bracelets and things. She was jingling like a two-year-old mule in a chain harness. He got to feeling fond of her, and he pulled her up close to him, to where she could feel that bottle. And that was what changed things. Maybe she wasn’t too smart, maybe she was a little bit loony, as some girls are, but she thought that bottle was a handgun.
Well, John Dillinger was on the loose at that time, and nobody knew for sure where he was. That gave this event a sort of framework, you see. First thing you know, everybody was glancing toward us and whispering. We got the story later. That big girl hadn’t much more than told what she thought Big had in his pocket before they figured out that he was John Dillinger and I was his driver.
Everybody began to leave. They weren’t long about it. They made use of both doors and every window, all of them being wide open, for it was a hot night. It wasn’t long until Big and I were the only ones left. We were puzzled until, as I say, we heard the story. And then we enjoyed it. Especially Big enjoyed it. For a good while after that if you wanted to make him giggle all you had to do was call him “John.”
To know how funny it was you have to picture Big the way he looked that night, all rumpled up in his suit and sweating, hot too on the track of that big girl, smiling like sugar wouldn’t melt in his mouth, his feet stepping and prancing all on their own, for he had forgotten about them, and if you’d asked him to tell you right quick where he was, he wouldn’t have known.
He was a wonderfully humored man. Things that would make most people mad just slid off of him. He would forgive anything at all that he could get the least bit of amusement out of. And any amusement he got he paid back with interest. He was full of things to say that didn’t have anything to do with anything else. You’d be talking to him maybe about getting his hay up or fixing a fence, and he would say, “You know, I wish I’d a been born rich in place of pretty.”
One time when we were hardly more than grown boys, I got sent word of a dance they were giving on Saturday night down at Goforth. Well, it was a girl who sent the word, and I sent word back I couldn’t come. The reason was I didn’t have any good shoes, though I didn’t tell her. I didn’t have shoes nor money either. It was a time when money was scarce.
But the day of the dance I happened to go by Big’s house and there his good shoes were, shined, sitting out on the well top. Wasn’t anybody around, so I just borrowed the shoes and went my way and wore them to the dance that night. They were too big of course, and sometimes I had to dance a while to get all the way into the toes. I must say I danced the shine off of them too and nicked them up here and there. I left them on the well top at Big’s house just before daylight.
Since he hadn’t had any shoes to wear to the dance, Big got a full night’s sleep. Next morning he left the house with the milk bucket on his way to the barn just after daylight, and there his shoes were, right where he’d left them the day before, but now they were all scuffed up.
“Well, shoes!” Big said. “I don’t know where you been, but looks like you had a good time.”
You almost couldn’t make him mad. But if you didn’t watch yourself he could make you mad, just by being so much himself he couldn’t imagine that anybody could be different. He didn’t go in much for second opinions. He stayed single until his mother and daddy both were dead, and then he married Annie May pretty soon, which maybe was predictable. He liked company. He didn’t like to be by himself.
Being married to Big, after the long head start he’d had, was not dependably an uplifting experience. Though Annie May was a good deal younger than he was, she was made pretty much on his pattern, ample and cheerful. But she could be fittified. I’ve seen her mad enough at Big, it looked like, to kill him, and maybe he’d be off on another subject entirely and not even notice, which didn’t help her patience. One time when she got mad and threw an apple at him—it would have hurt; she had a good arm—he just caught it and ate it. I didn’t see that. It was told.
But she never stayed mad long. One time when I went over there she was just furious at him, mainly because he wouldn’t bother to argue with her over whatever she was upset about in the first place. She was crying and hollering, “I’m a-leaving you, Big! You’ve played hell this time! I’m a-leaving here just as soon as I get this kitchen cleaned up!” That was like her. You wouldn’t have minded eating dinner off of her kitchen floor. And of course by the time she got the kitchen cleaned up she had forgiven him. I think she loved him )because) he was the way he was. They never had any children, and he was her boy.
Maybe because they didn’t have children Big and Annie May let their little farm sag around them as they got older, the way a lot of such couples do. Big’s daddy had the place in fair shape when he died, but he died during the Depression, and so Big couldn’t have made a fast start even if he had wanted to. He and Annie May lived well enough, but that was mainly Annie May’s doing. She made a wonderful big garden every year, and kept a flock of chickens and some turkeys. They always had three or four milk cows, milked mainly by Annie May, and they sold the extra cream and fed the extra milk to their meat hogs. So they always had plenty to eat. Annie May was as fine a cook as ever I ate after. When they had company or a bunch of us were there working, she would put on a mighty feed. Both of them loved to eat, and they loved to see other people eat.
But Big never tried for much or did much for his place. He wasn’t, to tell the truth, much of a farmer. When he went to help his neighbors he’d work as hard as anybody, but put him by himself on his own place and getting by was good enough. He was a great one then for “a lick and a promise” or “good enough for who it’s for.”
I don’t know that he ever owned a new piece of equipment, except for a little red tractor that he bought just to be shed of the bother of a team of horses. When he got the tractor he stubbed off the tongues of his old horse-drawn equipment and went puttering about even more slipshod than before. My brother Jarrat and I swapped work with him all our lives, you might as well say, but when we went to his place we always took our own equipment. Jarrat’s main idea was to get work done, and he didn’t have enough patience to enjoy Big the way I did. “If he gets in my way with one of them cobbled-up rigs of his, damned if I won’t run over him.” That was Jarrat’s limit on Big, and Big did keep out of his way.
His final sickness was pretty much like the rest of his life. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get well, or to die either. He didn’t make much of it. The doctor had said a while back that he had a bad heart and gave him some pills. Big more or less believed the doctor, but he also let himself believe he would sooner or later get over it. I don’t think he felt like doing much about it.
Annie May said, “Big, for goodness sake, let’s take you to a heart doctor or something. You can’t just lie there. We can’t just do nothing.”
“I ain’t going anywhere,” he said. “I’m just feeling a little dauncy is all.”
She knew better than to push him. Easygoing as he was, when he took a stand you couldn’t shake him. He could just lie there. They could just do nothing.
If he had been suffering, if something had hurt him or he had been uncomfortable, maybe he would have done something. Maybe he would be living yet. But the only thing the matter was he was getting weaker. His strength was just slowly leaking out of him. He
didn’t have much appetite, and he was losing flesh. But he was comfortable enough. He wasn’t complaining.
So nothing was what they did. That was the way Big had solved most of his problems. He would work hard to help his neighbors, because he liked them and liked to be with them and wanted them to get their problems solved. He would wear people out talking to them and fishing for their opinions on anything whatsoever. He would go to no limit of trouble to have
a good time, and he’d had a lot of good times. But when it came to doing some actual work for himself, he often simplified it by not doing anything.
That was why, when Big took sick, the old Ellis place, as some of us still call it, was pretty well run down. There wasn’t a chicken or a hog or a cow. Another neighbor, a young fellow, was growing the crop and making a little hay on the shares, but that was all.
Social Security, I reckon, was taking up the slack.
I got used to making some time every day to go to see how Big was doing and to sit with him a while. What was harder to get used to was the place. The fences all gone down. The barns and other outbuildings all paintless, and the roofs leaking. The lots grown up in weeds and bushes so you couldn’t open the doors that were shut, or shut the doors that had been left open. And every building was fairly stuffed with old farm tools, most of them going back to Big’s daddy’s time or before. Big always figured they might come in handy.
What they did, it turned out, was come to be antiques. When the farm was sold to a Louisville businessman after Big died, and the tools and a lot of the household plunder was auctioned off, about everything was bought at a good price by collectors. After she was too old to use it, or even want it, Annie May had more money than she ever imagined.
Walking across the fields, the way I usually went when I went to see Big, I would have to appraise every time what had become of the place, a good little farm dwindled down almost to nothing. Nobody going out to milk anymore. Nobody going out to feed
the chickens or the hogs. You really couldn’t see that anybody still lived there until you got to the yard. The yard was still Annie May’s territory—her last stand, you might say—and it was kept neat. The house itself, the cellar and smokehouse out back, they still showed care. And well off to the side, out of the way, the rusty dinner bell that hadn’t been rung in years was still perched on its leaning pole. A man on a tractor couldn’t hear it. The bell was going to turn out to be an antique too. At the sale two ladies bid for it until you’d have thought it was made out of gold.
The day that was going to be the day Big died I went over there first thing in the morning, as soon as we finished up at the barn and ate breakfast. It was a fine morning, cold and bright, the sky blue and endless right down to the horizon, and everything below shining with frost. We had finished with the hog-killing the day before, and I was bringing some fresh spareribs and tenderloin, thinking they might tempt Big to eat. Until then Big and Annie May both were talking like he was going to get well.
But that morning things had changed. I could feel it as soon as I stepped in through the kitchen door. Annie May was busy setting the kitchen to rights. She didn’t try to keep me from seeing that she was crying. Two of her friends, neighbor women, had come to be with her and help her, as the women do when there’s trouble. What had happened was they had figured out—Big first, I think, and then Annie May—that Big wasn’t going to get well. The whole feeling of the house had changed. My old granny would have said the Angel of Death had passed over and marked the house. Call it superstition if you want to, but that was what it felt like.
“I brought some meat,” I said.
“Lyda thought maybe Big would like something fresh.”
“Well, God love her heart!” Annie May said, taking the packages from me, as if she was mourning over them.
And then she said, “Go on in, Burley. He’s awake.”
I went in. Big was lying in the clean bed in the clean room, looking no different really, but that feeling of being in a marked house was there too. The counterpane was white as snow, and white as it was his hands lying on it looked pale. They looked useless. When I came in and shut the door, he raised a hand to me and gave me a grin as usual. But now he seemed to be grinning to apologize for the feeling that was in the room. He would always get uneasy when things got serious, let alone solemn. He disliked by nature the feeling that was there, but he didn’t refuse it either.
He said, “Well, Burley, it come over me that I ain’t going to come out of this.”
I went over to the bed and gave his hand a shake. I took my jacket off and sat down by him. His hand and his voice were weak, but they weren’t noticeably weaker than the day before.
He said, “I’m about to be long gone from here.”
“Oh, sho’ly not,” I said.
“It’s so,” he said.
I said, “If it’s so, old bud, it’ll make a mighty difference around here. We’ll look for you and we’ll miss you.”
He had been stronger than me all his life, and now he was weak. And I was sitting there by his bed, still strong. What could you do? What could you do that would be anyways near enough? I could feel the greatness of life and death, and the great world endless as the sky swelling out beyond this little one. And I began again to hear from that requirement that seems to come from the larger world. The requirement was telling me, “Do something for him. Do more than you’ve ever done. Do more than you can do.”
As if he had read my mind, he said, “I appreciate you coming, Burley. You’ve stuck by me. I imagine I’ll remember it as long as I live.” And then he giggled, for in fact it was a fine joke.
“Well, I wish I could do more. Ain’t there anything at all you want?”
“Not a thing. Not a thing in this world.”
We talked then, or mostly I did, for a while, about things that were going on round about. And finally I had to leave. They were busy at home, and they’d be looking for me. Big had said he wasn’t long for this world, but he looked about the same as yesterday. For all I knew, he might live a long time yet. When somebody tells you he’s going to die, you can’t say, “Well, go ahead. I’ll just sit here till you do.” I was going to be surprised when I got word that afternoon that old Big had sure enough left us.
“Well,” I said, “I got to be getting on home.” And I stood up.
He raised his hand to stop me. “Wait, Burley. There is something I want you to do.”
“Sure,” I said. “Name it.”
“Go yonder to the press”—he used the old word—“and open the door.”
I went to the closet and opened the door. It was where they kept their good clothes, Annie May’s Sunday dresses, not many, and Big’s suit, all put away there together.
“Ain’t my pistol there, just inside?”
The pistol was in its shoulder holster, hanging on a nail in the doorjamb. It was a .22 revolver, heavy-built and uncommonly accurate for a pistol. It was the only really good thing Big had ever owned, and he had taken care of it like a king’s crown. He bought it new when times were good back there in the Forties, and the bluing was still perfect except for a spot or two where the holster had worn it. I had always thought highly of it, and he knew I had.
“It’s right here,” I said.
“I want you to take it. I’d like to know where it’ll be after I’m gone.”
It flew into me then just how far toward the edge of things we’d come, two old men who’d been neighbors and friends since they were boys, and if I’d thought of anything to say I couldn’t have said it. For a while I couldn’t even turn around.
“Put it on,” Big said. “Button your jacket over it. I don’t want Annie May to see it when you leave.”
I did as he told me. I said, “Thanks, Big.”
“Sure,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll be seeing you.”
He said, “Yeah. See you later.”
So I had come to do something for Big, if I could, and instead Big had done something for me, and I was more in debt to the requirement than ever.
I went out through the kitchen, speaking a few pleasantries with the women, and let myself out. I sat down on the porch step to put my overshoes back on, and started home. And all the time the requirement was staying with me. “Can’t you, for God’s sake, think of something to do?” When I got to about the middle of the barn lot, I just stopped. I stood there and looked all around.
Oh, it was a splendid morning, still frozen, not much changed at all. The ground was still shining white under the blue sky. I thought of a rhyme that Elton Penn was always saying in such weather: “Clear as a bell, cold as hell, and smells like old cheese.” Maybe that was what put me in mind to do what I did.
When I looked back toward the house, the only thing between me and the sky was that old dinner bell leaning on its post like it was about to fall.
Big’s pistol, when I pulled it out, felt heavy and familiar, comfortable. It was still warm from the house. There were five cartridges in the cylinder, leaving an empty chamber to rest the hammer on. I cocked it and used my left hand to steady my right. What I wanted was a grazing hit that would send the bullet flying out free into the air.
Even as the bullet glanced and whined away, the old bell summed up all the dongs it had ever rung. It filled the day and the whole sky and brought the worlds together, the little and the great. I knew that, lying in his bed in the house, Big heard it and was pleased. Standing in the lot, I heard it and I was pleased. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. It was a grand sound. It was a good shot.