When I awoke, it was Saturday – my favorite 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.
Noise was coming from the kitchen – growling and cursing. Pappy was up – naturally. As he said, “I goes to bed with the sun and gits up with the sun” so I knew he’d been up since about five. He was probably out checking his peach trees. Now he was back in the kitchen, “starvin’ hungry,” no doubt; hopelessly trying to do breakfast for himself. It was time to get up.
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 make coffee.
“Where’s Jeb?” I asked. “He ain’t in his bunk.”
“Wanted to do sump’n, so I sent him out to feed them chickens.”
“Pappy. I fed them yesterday afternoon. They don’t need feedin’ today.”
“Yeah, I know. But he’s real keen to do stuff, and them chickens’ll only git fatter. 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 favorite 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.”
“What the heck’s tortillas, Jeb?” asked Pappy. “Don’t matter. We ain’t got none...I don’t think.”
Jeb replied, “It’s a kind of Mexican bread. I can make it. All I need is some flour and a few extras.”
I said, “We got everything else right here. We’re growin’ some chili peppers in the garden that Mammy planted years ago. I ain’t never cooked them. They’re real hot.”
“They’re not too bad, if you take the seeds out.
“Hey Kid! We’re going up to Coopersville this morning, right?”
“Yep. Soon as we’re done here.”
“Good idea boys,” said Pappy. “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. And 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?”
“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.”
“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 soon. Uncle Bob will be ridin’ with me but 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 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. How grand can things get? ...Y’all!”
It wasn’t long before we both got over our laughing. 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 along Main Street here, but there’s some houses too. In town, we call Dinkins Road ‘Main Street’. Most of the streets here in town are paved as you can see, and from that famous traffic ‘laaght’ I told you about, South Road comes up to Main Street. Most of the townsfolk live near South Road, behind the shops on the south side, houses clustered together like you’d expect in a small town. Beyond those houses, there’s 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.
“There ain’t much development on the north side, just stores. Behind the stores, 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.
“Altogether I think we got about a thousand people livin’ in Coopersville, and a couple of hundred school kids. That’s why we got such a big school – nine classrooms from grades one to twelve.”
“What do kids 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 move away. Those who live here either work in the shops in town, run a farm, or commute somewhere else for work.”
“It must be hard on kids having to leave home after graduation, just to get a job. I guess I’d better go in and register for school.”
“School don’t start for another week, so there probably ain’t no-one here, but I’m sure we’ll find someone 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 some spending money. Do you get an allowance, Kid?”
“Yeah, some. Not enough.”
As we continued our walk, everybody we passed stopped to say hi and introduce themselves. 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, but it didn’t stop his sarcasm.
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 realize what he was actually saying. No-one heard anything they didn’t expect to hear. Jeb didn’t bat an eye. He was the innocent picture of kindness and sweetness; and was making new friends.
We reached the famous traffic lights. On the south-west corner was Brown’s General Store.
I said, “We should go in here. Brown’s is pretty much the center 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 a real, old-fashioned, general store; hardware, tools, work clothes, kitchen stuff, tractor parts; almost anythin’ ‘cept food. 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, “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.”
“Hello, Jeb. I’m really sorry to hear about your parents,” said Mrs. Brown.
Marly snarled, “Caleb Jackson! You keep calling me ‘Young Marly’ and I’ll start calling 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 turned to Jeb, looked up at him, smiled and 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. I don’t know exactly why, but I was getting a little hot under the collar. I noticed Marly 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 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...”
At that moment, Mrs. Brown beckoned to me to come and check out our post box. There was some mail for Pappy. A minute later I was back. I said, “I’m showin’ Cousin Jeb all around Coopersville. We’re goin’ to the co-op next, so I guess we’d better be on our way. Bye, Marly.” Brown’s was getting stuffy and I wanted to get outside in the fresh air.
Outside Brown’s, Jeb muttered “Marly’s nice! And she’s very pretty. Did you see those big brown eyes she has?”
I squirmed, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“You like her, don’t you? She likes you. I can tell.”
“What’d ya mean? Hey, 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 taller and she can jump so she’s a ‘spiker’. We kinda make a good team. But that’s all. She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Sure,” said Jeb, quietly.
Across the street, on the north side, we came to the co-op and 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. 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; tells you what an egg is worth and what a wild turkey will cost you. She’ll 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 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 ain’t entirely legal. And, there’s more than one homesteader south of town who makes white lightnin’. Corn ain’t just for gnawin’ off the cob.”
Jeb’s eyes opened wide and I chuckled. “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. 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 yellow, Cadillac convertible – wavin’ at everybody. You’ll recognize the car ‘cause he has POLICE painted on the side. Kitty buys him a new Cadillac every year – each one a different color 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 colored shirts with pearl buttons; always sportin’ a gigantic Stetson hat. And strapped to his hip is this oversized Colt 45 with an extra-long barrel, like that famous Buntline Special. Thinks he’s Wyatt Earp, 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.
“And thinkin’ about drug problems here, there is some marijuana smokin’ done 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’re pronounced guilty. No-one is ever innocent. You’re 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 Mrs. Maxwell.”
“Are you sure? I’m not positive I want to meet that woman.”
“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 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 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?”
“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?”
“This is the favorite 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.”
“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’. Need I say more? It don’t matter too much to me. Max’s burgers are great.”
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. ‘Licensed to Sell Alligator Meat’.
I laughed, “You just ate ‘gator meat. 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 large, red, clapboard building. It had a 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 center 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 was a big downstairs area, with lots of windows and a pair of swinging saloon doors. A waft of something very tasty emanated, letting you know there was good food being prepared somewhere inside. There was also an upstairs area that was faced with about eight small dormer windows. Looked like some bedrooms.
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.”
“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, 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 listen to the music, have our own party, sing songs, 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.”
“Not tonight if that’s okay with you, Kid. I’m tired and still disoriented.”
That evening, after Pappy went to bed, we 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 happy. Jeb was going to be a good friend; I could tell; even after only a day or so of knowing him.