When I awoke, it was Saturday – my favourite day of the week.There was always something good to do on Saturday.I fed the chickens the afternoon before so maybe, just maybe, Pappy wouldn’t ask me to feed them again until the next day.I would be free to spend Saturday with my new friend, Cousin Jeb.
A lot of noise was coming from the kitchen.Pappy was up.Like he said last night, “I goes to bed with the sun and I gits up with the sun” so I knew he’d been up since about five.He was probably out checking his peach trees.Now, “starvin’ hungry,” he was hopelessly trying to do breakfast for himself.It was time to get up.
I looked down at the lower bunk but there was no Cousin Jeb, and I didn’t hear his voice amongst the growling and cursing coming from the kitchen.I got dressed and headed to the kitchen to find Pappy aimlessly banging pots around; his way of telling me to get out of bed and make him some breakfast.At least he managed to light the stove and put the kettle on for coffee.
“Where’s Jeb?” I asked.
“Wanted to do sump’n, so I sent him out to feed them chickens.”
“Pappy. I fed ‘em yesterday afternoon.They don’t need feedin’ today.”
“Yeah, I know.But he’s real keen to do stuff, and them chickens’ll just git a little fatter.I’m goin’ to brood ‘em in a couple o’ weeks, then we’ll take ‘em up to Folkston.Go call him in, then rustle up some grub.”
It wasn’t long before the three of us were enjoying Uncle Bob’s bacon, fried up with stewed tomatoes and onions – my favourite breakfast.
Jeb said, “Back on the Bayou, Ma often made a Mexican breakfast called ‘Huevos Rancheros.’If you like, I can make it for us one day.”
Pappy added, “I remember.Mammy used to spice up breakfast once in a while, and she called it…what you said.Told me it was Cajun.Tasted good.”
“No, it’s not Cajun, it’s Mexican.Eggs, tomatoes, onions, some salsa, and a couple of chili peppers.Ma added cheese.And tortillas, of course.”
Jeb replied, “It’s a kind of Mexican bread.I can make them.Just need some flour and a few extras.”
I said, “We got everything else right here.Growin’ some chili peppers in the garden that Mammy planted years ago.I ain’t never cooked ‘em.They’re real hot.”
Jeb continued, “They’re not too bad, if you take the seeds out.”
“Hey Kid!We’re going up to Coopersville this morning, right?”
“Yep.As soon as we’re done here.“Pappy, I’m takin’ Cousin Jeb up and show him our big city.”
“That’s good.Couple ‘o things, Jeb.Louisiana State, or the Feds, is settin’ you up with an allowance ‘til you come eighteen.You gittin’ money from ‘hurricane relief’ or some such.Bank’ll set it up.
“Don’t fergit, school starts next week.Put yer name in there too.”
Jeb said, “I was hoping we could come into Coopersville from the other side, like I did on the ride in with Pappy.Can we do that?”
I said, “Sure can.We’ll go through the tobacco fields on the north side, and come out at the other end, then work our way back.”
Pappy said, “Don’t do that, Son.Them’s Gordy Fowler’s ‘baccy fields.He don’t like you kids traipsin’ through all the time.To hear him tell it, yer ruinin’ his crop. “I’ll be takin’ th’eggs up to the co-op in the flatbed.Uncle Bob will be ridin’ with me.You two can hop on the back if you like.”
Soon we were sitting on the back of the flatbed nursing a couple of crates of eggs, and before you knew it, we were standing on the sidewalk at the far end of town, right in front of the school-house.
“Wow! You got sidewalks!” chimed Jeb, mimicking my Georgia accent.He was so sarcastic.If he had been wearing his shiny black boots, I would have kicked dirt on them.
He chuckled a bit and added, “Sorry Kid.I was just a little surprised.This school is bigger than I expected.”
In my best Cajun accent, I replied, “Yassuh!And if y’all look a-ways down Main Street the’ya, y’all gonna’ catch sight of the biggest dang traffic laaght right smack-dab in the middle of town, all decked out with a red, green and even a yella’ laaght.Y’all!”
“What?A real actch’al traffic laaght.That must mean there’s another road in this here big city that crosses Main Street raaght in the middle of ‘Coopersvaille’.Just how grand can things get?Y’all!”
It wasn’t long before we both got over our giggling, and Jeb asked, “Well, it did surprise me.How big is Coopersville?”
“Let me see.We’re at the east end now, and Ruby’s is the last place on the west end, so it’s ‘bout half a mile altogether.Mainly, it’s shops and stores along Dinkins Road here, but there’s some houses too.In town, we call Dinkins Road ‘Main Street’.Most of the townsfolk live behind the businesses on the south side.From that famous traffic ‘laaght’ I just told you about, South Road comes up to Main Street.
“There ain’t much development on the north side, just shops.Behind the shops, you see the trees runnin’ down the little hill ‘til you come to Fowler’s tobacco farm. Outside of town, all along Dinkins Road, there’s only one string of farms on the north side.
“On the south side it’s different.Lots of little dirt roads and tracks laced all through those pine woods back there.Families hidden all over the place in little homesteads. Everywhere else is farms ‘til you reach the swamp. “Altogether I think we got about a thousand people livin’ in Coopersville, and maybe a couple of hundred school kids.That’s why we have such a big school – nine classrooms from grades one to twelve.”
Jeb asked, “What do kids here do after grade twelve?Is there a nearby college?What are you going to do?”
“Y’know Jeb, I ain’t seriously thought about it.I’m only fifteen but I know that almost everyone leaves Coopersville to get more trainin’ and to find work.Most don’t come back.Remember that rule from the feds I told you about?‘If you leave and stay away six months, you can’t move back.’Some, not many, still live here, workin’ in Folkston or some other nearby town, but most just move away.Those who live here either work in the shops in town, run a farm, or commute somewhere else for work.”
Jeb said, “It must be hard on kids having to leave home after graduation, just to get a job.Like Pappy said, I guess I’d better go in and register for school.”
I replied, “School don’t start for another week, so there probably ain’t no-one here, but I’m sure we’ll find at least one of the teachers at the co-op, farther down.”
We began our walk down Main Street.I showed him all the usual stuff – churches, cafes, liquor stores, etc.When we reached the bank, Jeb went in to get his account set up.He came out grinning; stuffed a bunch of bills in his pocket, and said, “That was a good thing to do.They had my first allowance already so I have a little spending money.Do you get an allowance, Kid?”
“Yeah, some.Not enough.”
We continued our walk down Main Street.Everybody we passed stopped to say hi and introduce themselves to Cousin Jeb.Being a small town, everybody knew everyone else.Coming from the big city, this was outside Jeb’s reckoning and it made him feel comfortable and welcome.
To everyone he smiled and replied, “It’s nice to meet all you Coopers-villains.”Each time he said it I jumped and looked around, afraid someone would recognize what I knew he was really saying.No-one heard anything they didn’t expect to hear.Jeb didn’t bat an eye, just smiled, the picture of kindness and innocence.With each person we passed, Jeb was making new friends. Finally, we reached the famous traffic lights.On the south-west corner was Brown’s General Store.
I said to Jeb, “We’ll go in here.Brown’s is pretty much the centre of Coopersville.Ma Bell, Georgia Hydro, and Pony Express think so too.”
“That’s what we call our fine US Government Postal Service. “Everythin’ stops at Brown’s.Oh, we got a supermarket too and a big drug store down the road a ways, but Brown’s carries all sorts of things.It’s like a real, old fashioned general store – hardware, tools, work clothes, kitchen stuff – almost anythin’ ‘cept food.You can even get a pizza if you like!
“We do most of our shoppin’ here and at the co-op.Everybody from outside of town has a post box here for mail, and telephone messages.Come and meet Mrs. Brown.
“Howdy Mrs. Brown.Oh!Hi, Marly.”
Mrs. Brown, “Hello, Caleb.”
I stammered a little, “This here’s my cousin from N’Orlins, Jebediah Bilodeau, but I call him Cousin Jeb.His folks were killed by Katrina, so he’s come to live with Pappy and me.Jeb, this is Mrs. Brown and her daughter, young Marly.”
Mrs. Brown, “Hello, Jeb.I’m real sorry to hear about your parents.”
Marly spoke crossly to me, “Caleb Jackson!You keep callin’ me ‘Young Marly’ and I’ll start callin’ you ‘Short Ass Caleb’!I’m the same age as you.And, I’m taller than you.”
I winced at that.Jeb grinned.
Then, with a blushing smile, Marly said, “Howdy, Jeb.I’m pleased to meet you.My name is Mary-Lou Brown, or Marly, for my friends.”
Marly actually bobbed or curtsied a fraction, and held her hand out to Jeb, her eyelashes fluttering in a most coquettish way, just like a southern belle. All the while, she kept glancing at me.Jeb took her hand, bowed, kissed it, and I could see he was blushing too, just a little.I don’t know exactly why but I was getting a little hot under the collar.
Marly was blushing too.I noticed she was now looking straight into Jeb’s eyes, “You sure are tall, Jeb.”
“You sure are tall, Jeb,” I mimicked in thought.I mean, what kind of comment was that? Marly was just trying to needle me.
Jeb replied, “I’m six foot five, but I’m nearly seventeen now, and I think I’ve finished growing.How…”
Just then Mrs. Brown beckoned to me to come and check out our post box.There was some mail for Pappy.When I came back to Marly and Jeb, she was looking up at him with her big, brown eyes.She was saying nothing, so I spoke up, “I’m showin’ Cousin Jeb all around Coopersville, and next we’re going down to the co-op, so I guess we’d better be going now.Bye, Marly.” Browns was getting a little stuffy and I wanted to get outside in the fresh air. From Marly, “Bye, Caleb.Bye, Jeb.Nice to meet’cha.” Marly curtsied again and Jeb just nodded.
Outside Brown’s, Jeb muttered “Marly’s nice!And she’s very pretty.Did you see those big brown eyes she has?”
I squirmed a little, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“You like her a bit, don’t you?I can tell.”
“What’d you mean?Hey, she’s just a kid.She’s on my school volley-ball team and she’s pretty good.I’m small so I get to be a ‘digger’.Marly’s a little taller and she can jump so she’s a ‘spiker’.We kind of make a good team.But that’s all.She’s not my girl-friend.”
“Sure,” said Jeb, quietly.
Down the street, on the north side, we came to the co-op.We wandered over to have a look around.This would be a chance for me to calm down again.
Jeb asked, “From what you and Pappy have said, this co-op seems to be the most important building in Coopersville.What’s so special about it?”
“Folks all around Coopersville can buy pretty much anythin’ they want from the stores, up and down Main Street.But it all needs money, and for a lot of us, the only way to get money is to sell things we make.Like Pappy and I do eggs, chicken, corn and peaches.We all bring stuff up here to the co-op.Of course, we do most of our buyin’ here too – mainly fresh food, but people bring all sorts of stuff they make or don’t want any more.
“No money changes hands at the co-op, only credit.Everythin’ is managed by the ‘Queen of the Co-op’, Kitty Maxwell.I mean Mrs. Maxwell!You have to call her Mrs. Maxwell.Everybody has to call her Mrs. Maxwell.She has all the power in Coopersville, even more than her husband, the mayor. “She has a big computer somewhere that she uses to record what you bring in and what you take out, absolutely everythin’.She’s totally in charge of it all, and tells you what an egg is worth, and what a wild turkey will cost you.She will also tell you what you can get for a pound of ‘gator meat, or a bottle of home brew.Like I said, absolutely everythin’.”
That startled Cousin Jeb.“What?Alligator meat?”
“Thought that would grab you.What I told you yesterday is true.Quite a few folk around here bring things in to Kitty which are maybe not entirely legal.And, I didn’t tell you but there’s more than one homesteader south of town who makes a little white lightnin’.I hear there’s even someone growin’ marijuana.Kitty don’t mind.She sets a price for all things.You’ll notice a door near the back that she claims is her furnace room, but it’s always locked.That’s for the stuff she doesn’t want the cops or feds to see.
“I think that when the feds cruise around in their choppers, as well as lookin’ for poachers in Okefenokee, they’re also lookin’ for hidden marijuana plantations or whisky stills.They often catch someone but there’s always another to take over.”
Jeb whispered, “All under the control of the tyrant, Mrs. Maxwell.Don’t you find drug pushers trying to sell stuff around the school?”
“No!We have Sergeant Walters.He’s Kitty’s nephew, our sheriff, who patrols all the Coopersville area.Everybody knows everybody else, and Sergeant Walters would notice anyone prowlin’ ‘round the school.
“You’ll probably see him sometime today cruisin’ Main Street in his brand new, shiny yellow, Cadillac convertible – wavin’ at everybody.You’ll recognize the car ‘cause he has PO-LICE painted on the side – PO on the driver’s door, and LICE on the rear door.Kitty buys him a new Cadillac every year – each one a different colour than the last. “You’ll recognize Sergeant Walters even if he ain’t in his car.He’s very big and a little too fat.He’s always wearin’ his fancy coloured shirts with pearl buttons and sportin’ his gigantic Stetson hat.And strapped to his hip is this oversized Colt 45 with an extra-long barrel, like that famous Buntline Special.He thinks he’s livin’ in Tombstone. He tries to pretend he’s tough, but he’s mostly a pussy-cat.But don’t cross him.Like a cat, he can get mean if you don’t toe the line.
“And thinkin’ ‘bout drug problems here, there is a little marijuana smokin’ done ‘round here by the older kids.If they want to smoke, they can get their toke from the ever-helpful Kitty.Some of us younger kids have tried it too, once or twice, but she won’t sell it to anyone until they’re seventeen.”
“Imagine that.Not until the ripe old age of seventeen.What a bunch of slippery ‘Coopers-villains’ – and I don’t mean Coopersvillians.I thought Uncle Bob was larcenous but, from what you tell me, it really looks like the notorious Kitty Maxwell tops the bill.Where’s the jail?I’ll bet there isn’t one.”
I replied, “Oh, yes there is!It’s down the west end near Ruby’s.Mostly it’s to take in drunks so they can have a warm bed to sleep it off.If people really do bad things the state troopers come and take them off to Folkston to a real jail and a judge.Petty crime, like break and enter, or shopliftin’ is dealt with here in the co-op accordin’ to the special laws of Kitty Maxwell.
“See this steel post right here on the corner in front of the co-op.That’s ‘Kitty’s Post’.If you get caught doin’ any petty crime, Kitty holds an open court here on Saturday mornin’.Your crimes are read out for everyone to hear and then you are pronounced guilty.No-one is ever innocent.You then get hand-cuffed and, rain or shine, you get chained to ‘The Post’ for four hours on that Saturday, with a sign attached to you tellin’ everyone what crime you committed.Everyone sneers at you.There ain’t much petty crime in Coopersville.No-one’s there today so I guess things are quiet this Saturday.” “You ever been chained to ‘The Post’?” asked Jeb.
“Yeah, once.I got caught liftin’ a chocolate bar from the co-op, couple of years ago.I don’t want to talk about it.
“C’mon in and I’ll introduce you to Kitty Maxwell.”
Jeb replied, “Are you sure?I’m not positive I want to meet that woman.”
“Believe me, it’s necessary, if you want to avoid goin’ to jail, or The Post, every time you come up to town.Kitty likes to know who’s in her town.Once you meet her, then we can look around a bit, see what they have.It’s real interestin’ in there!”
We went in.
After Cousin Jeb and Kitty had their little chat and Jeb registered for school, we had a look around the place. Jeb again stuck his nose out a little too far for my liking.“What’s behind that locked door, Mrs. Maxwell?”
Kitty smiled innocently and said, “Why that door’s locked ‘cause that’s where I keep special things that ain’t ‘propriate for young people, like licker.I won’t let Caleb in, but you look like you’re nearly an adult, and I don’t see why you can’t come in sometime.”
Jeb asked, “Don’t you want to know my age?”
Kitty, “Oh, I think I can trust you.”
It certainly looked like Cousin Jeb made a hit with Kitty Maxwell.
Then we left and continued our walk.Soon we came to Max’s Burger Barn.“Hey, Jeb!I’m hungry.Wanna stop for a burger?”
“Yeah.I’m hungry too.”
“This is the favourite hang-out in town for the older kids who have cars.And my gang, the volley-ball team, can sometimes be found chompin’ on fries here on Saturdays.‘Cept for me, they all live up here in Coopersville town.”
“Yeah.I notice there isn’t a MacDonald’s or Burger King, or any of the big companies here.I wonder why.”
I replied, “See that sign up there.It says, ‘Max’s Burger Barn’.‘Max’ is short for ‘Maxwell’.Kitty owns this town and she ain’t goin’ to let no other burger baron in to take over.
“It don’t matter too much to me.You’ll see.Their burgers are great.”
At Max’s, there were a lot of kids around but none of my gang were there.We enjoyed one of their ‘Swamp Burgers’ with all the trimmings.
When we finished, I asked Jeb, “Did you like the Swamp Burger?”He said he did, so I pointed to a sign on the wall. It said, “Licensed to sell alligator meat.” I laughed, “You just ate a ‘gator burger.That’s what they put in their Swamp Burgers.”
“No kidding,” he replied.“Yeah!It didn’t taste like beef, or pork, or chicken.Could have been alligator.”He started to laugh, too.
We were nearly at the west end of town when there loomed in front of us a very large, red clapboard building, with a large parking lot out back and a huge neon sign – the only neon sign in Coopersville.The sign blinked on and off – ‘Ruby’s Juke Joint’.There was a large veranda out front with lots of Adirondack type chairs and porch swings. Ruby’s was right in the centre of Main Street, or it would have been except Main Street curved around to the north side.Ruby’s was mostly hidden behind a bunch of trees.Only a small bit of the front was visible as we walked down the street.We couldn’t see inside, but there appeared to be a large downstairs area, lots of windows and a pair of large swinging saloon doors.A waft of something very tasty emanated, letting you know there was good food being prepared somewhere inside.There was also a large upstairs area that was faced with about eight small dormer windows.Looked like some bedrooms upstairs.
Jeb had a surprised look.“What’ this?Ruby’s Juke Joint?”
“Well, Jeb. Let’s get things straight right from the top.There ain’t no ‘Ruby’!Ruby’s Juke Joint is Kitty’s pride and joy.It’s the biggest thing in Coopersville and Kitty runs it with a velvet coated iron fist.I’ve never been inside – kids ain’t allowed – but accordin’ to reports it has a fantastic restaurant, there’s music always comin’ out, as you can hear, and, on the weekends, it’s alive with singin’ and dancin’.There’s a band on Saturdays and the place is always jumpin’.You can hear it all over Coopersville and down as far as Jackson farm when the wind is right.Drives Pappy nuts.
“Not too long ago, I found out what Ruby’s was also up to during the quiet times in the week.There’s a lot of pretty girls living here.But I’m sure you cottoned on to that right away, Jeb.”
“Yeah, I wondered.I guess Kitty manages almost everything in Coopersville.” I continued, “I’ve been up on Saturday night a couple of times with my buddies, but we don’t quite feel welcome yet.According to Kitty we gotta be sixteen first, then we can have root beer, or Pepsi, hot dogs and other stuff.Kitty might even let us have a real beer occasionally.We still won’t be able to go in – not until we’re eighteen.Kids have to stay outside on the veranda, but that’s okay.We just listen to the music, have our own party, sing songs, maybe dance, if you can find a girl to dance with, and go home when we get tired.
“If you’d like, we can come up this evening, bein’ that it’s Saturday.”
Jeb answered, “Not tonight if that’s okay with you, Kid.I’m a little tired and still disoriented.”
That evening, after Pappy went to bed, we just sat out front, listened to the music coming down from Ruby’s and talked and talked – for hours – mostly about Jeb’s Ma and Pa, and their life on the Bayou. I felt good.Jeb was going to become my best friend; I could tell.Even after just a day or so of knowing him.