The Plagiarist of Winfield Shoals

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            I hope you’ll enjoy my short stories enough that you’ll be interested in reading my novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope, which can be purchased online (yahoo.com, bn.com), from the montedutton.com web site and at several independent bookstores in the Carolinas. Here’s the full story of Eddy Dunnaway and Papa Jack.

 

When he was eleven years old, and made his allowance by stacking cans on the shelves of Dunnaway’s Curb Market on Thursdays, Eddy thought his grandfather, Jackson Dunnaway, was the wisest man on earth. “Papa Jack” gave the best advice. One Thursday, after the grocery order was up and the two of them were sitting outside, sipping small Co-Colas while Preston Ragsdale ran the cash register, Eddy asked Papa how to play cards.

“Why come you need to know how to play cards, Eddy my boy?”

“They say when they have a camporee, everybody stays up all night, playing poker in Bryan Burford’s tent, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, the older boys’ll take every nickel you got.”

“Huh,” Papa said, thinking. “Is that Royce Burford’s boy?”

“Yes, sir. He’s a Eagle Scout.”

“Well, Eddy boy, let me give you a little tip,” Papa Jack said. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, and you gotta know when to fold ‘em. You gotta know when to walk away and know when to run. Don’t never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.”

Eddy didn’t really understand what Papa Jack was talking about, but the way he said it sure made it seem important.

“Got it,” Eddy said.

“You’ll be fine, my boy,” Jack said, and somehow Eddy was. He eventually learned all the manly virtues – gambling, smoking cigarettes, cussing – from the older Boy Scouts who had been well versed in the fundamentals of leadership.

Papa Jack was famous in Winfield Shoals, though not as exalted in the minds of the general citizenry as in the impressionable one of his older grandson. Jack was the type of man of whom people often said, “Jack Dunnaway? He’s a character, all right.” Jack talked to everybody the same way he talked to his grandson, which is to say he copied things he’d heard off TV, listened to on the radio, and read in the newspapers, and passed them all off as his views, which was difficult inasmuch as most people he talked to watched just as much TV, listened to the same radio stations, and took the Winfield Shoals Beacon and The State paper.

Plus, sometimes Jack didn’t get his plagiarisms exactly right, which was another reason he was one of the town’s characters and not one of its leaders. Occasionally, when a passel of young’uns queued up at the soft-ice-cream machine, Jack would tell them, “All right, damn ye, it’s first come, first come!” and even little kids scratched their heads at that one. If the chairman of the board of the Coca-Cola Company, or, more likely, the fellow who owned the local bottling company, had been standing in front of the counter of Dunnaway’s Curb Market, Papa Jack would have let him know, without stooping to uncertain terms, that a Small Coke, in its dignified, seven-ounce bottle, was measurably better tasting than its ten-ounce cousin, the elongated Large Coke. The chairman of the board wouldn’t have dared dissent, just as the people of Winfield Shoals didn’t dispute Jackson Dunnaway’s words, simply because it was too much trouble.

Papa Jack was obsessed with the notion that every company in the world was buying up every other company in the world. About eight o’clock at night, long after the shifts had changed at the cotton mill and there wasn’t much for Eddy and Papa Jack to do but look at each other, the old man would stand over next to the Health & Beauty Aids and hold court. He’d pick up a box and hold it up as if he were making a television commercial.

“All right,” he’d say to Eddy, “Doan’s Pills. Who owns Doan’s?”

“Beats me.”

“Johnson & Johnson! Who owns Johnson & Johnson?”

“Don’t know.”

“Pepsi-Cola! Who owns Pepsi-Cola?”

Et cetera. Et cetera. Ad infinitum.

 

Every kid loses his innocence. Every kid experiences life’s complications and loses something in the translation. Eddy Dunnaway wasn’t an exception. As he tumbled into the tumult of adolescence, Eddy’s admiration of his grandfather gave way to amusement.

Sometimes Papa Jack’s eccentricities were tough calls.

Eddy was handy with a couple Magic Markers and some poster board, so Papa Jack always trusted him with the task of creating signs for display in the produce department. Eddy would take notes and draw up the signs, using red as a base and black as a trim. He outlined words, shadowed others, and generally held a high regard for himself as a sign painter. He dreamed of brushes and bottles, feeling as if Magic Markers were starting to limit his artistry.

“All right,” Papa Jack would say, as if Eddy were his secretary, taking dictation. “Onions … twenty-nine cents a pound.”

“Check,” Eddy said.

“Lemons, seven cents each … four for twenty-eight.”

Eddy scratched his head. “But, Papa Jack, seven cents each is four for twenty-eight!”

“That don’t matter,” he said. “Woman come in here, she ain’t thinking about math. She’ll say, ‘Well, I just need one lemon, but, well, since they’re four for twenty-eight, I believe I better get four!”

Then Papa Jack started laughing, and Eddy could see his false teeth going up and down on his lower gum. Eddy felt very embarrassed when he printed the lemons sign, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized Papa Jack was probably right.

“Well, what if somebody who’s smarter than that reads it?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Papa Jack said. “I’ll say, ‘Lord have mercy, Mrs. Prescott, Eddy must’ve made a mistake.’ Then I’ll open the cash register drawer, pull out a little slip of paper, and pretend it’s a list of prices. ‘Oh, yes, here it is. It’s four for twenty-five cents.’”

That’s when Eddy learned how to take one for the team.

 

DSCF1353Papa Jack often regaled Eddy with tales of his days in law enforcement. Eddy loved those old sepia prints of a young Papa Jack, wearing a double-breasted suit, looking like Elliott Ness or Melvin Purvis. G-men.

What he left out was that he’d had a drinking problem in those days that cost him his job as a deputy sheriff. For ninety percent of the time, Papa Jack was now a teetotaler, but when he fell off the wagon, he did so with a thud, most dependably around Christmas.

One morning Granny Dunnaway – Papa Jack’s wife was named Mena – answered the phone, and it was Thom Robinson at the liquor store up on top of the hill, about a quarter mile farther out West Broad Street from Dunnaway’s Curb Market.

“Mena, you need to come up here and get Jack.”

“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I come up there and drag him home,” Granny said.

“Mena, Jack’s sitting right out front, in the Cadillac, and he hasn’t got a stitch of clothes on.”

“I’ll be right up,” Granny said. “Thanks, Thom.”

When Papa Jack went on a drunk, it just had to run its course. Sometimes, he’d go off to some hospital to dry out, but most times he just stayed locked up in his room at the big house, empty bottles lying on the floor, stinking and unshaven, until, finally, he came out the other end and got straight again for six months or so.

 

Although Eddy Dunnaway and Papa Jack worked together almost every day, Eddy wasn’t his grandfather’s favorite. His younger brother was named Jackson, and it made a difference. Jackson, three years younger, was the athlete in the family, which left Eddy to be the brain. Papa Jack didn’t know the Green Bay Packers from the Boston Celtics, but he had seen the Dodgers play one time in Brooklyn. When Eddy made his bumpy way through the high school football program, Papa Jack claimed he was at the games, but there wasn’t much evidence he did much more than read the newspaper.

“Did you see that block I laid on that boy from Carboro Ferry in the third quarter, Papa Jack?”

“Oh, yeah,” the old man said.

The best evidence of Papa Jack’s incredible regard for his namesake’s athletic ability was the time Eddy set up the silver screen and showed home movies one Fourth of July. They all watched the Super-Eight highlights of the entire family jumping off the diving board at the pool beside the house. When Jackson executed a straightforward, head-first dive, Eddy let Jackson disappear in the water and reversed the projector so that he appeared to hop right up off the bottom and land back on the board.

“Good God Almighty!” yelled Papa Jack. “I ain’t never seen no boy can do nothing like that!”

Everyone laughed uproariously. Papa Jack didn’t get it, and no one told him Eddy had been playing a trick. As Papa Jack got older, he became even more eccentric. Occasionally, he would insist on saying grace before dinner. Granny Dunnaway would expect the worst and seldom be disappointed.

“All right, boys and girls, bow your heads,” he’d say. “Good food, good meat, Good God, let’s eat!” Everyone else would laugh and Granny Dunnaway would hiss.

At the store, sometimes Papa Jack would mysteriously disappear, in most cases to go to “the farm.” One time he ran the Cadillac over a terrace and got it stuck there. Daddy had to get the tractor to pull him loose. Another time, he set the pasture on fire, and another time he bumped that white Cadillac into something because he took a can of flat-white spray point from the store and sprayed a coat of it over the scratch, which, of course, made the otherwise shiny Sedan de Ville look ridiculous. One just didn’t spray-paint a Cadillac, not unless his name was Jackson Dunnaway.

Papa Jack also snuck out to the big house next door to watch Sanford & Son on Friday nights at eight o’clock, which enabled Eddy to sneak out a case of Pearl beer – he was under-age but did pay for it – to take to the Boy Scout camporee where he had learned to play poker half a decade earlier. The Scoutmaster, Mr. Wallace Simpkins, told Eddy he was personally going to make sure Eddy never made Eagle Scout after that fiasco, and Eddy didn’t stay a Scout much longer. He did prepare well for college, though, by developing a taste for beer.

 

Papa Jack was never happier than the second weekend of September in 1991. By then, Eddy was already out of college. He was living at home but commuted sixty miles, round trip, six days a week, to write sports at a small daily newspaper. He’d spent the summer writing about American Legion and minor-league baseball teams. Jackson was a senior at Hobart-Loudermilk College, where he started at cornerback on the football team and got his share of playing time at guard in basketball. It was the grand opening of a new stadium, a dividend of the previous two seasons’ success. Papa Jack, now seventy, insisted on driving, which was a cause of some concern. He seemed ten years younger, though. Granny Dunnaway’s carping at his driving didn’t faze him. He ignored her and kept looking back to Eddy, his father Preston and mother Jean, while regaling them with all the law-enforcement tales they’d heard dozens of times before. Eddy’s favorite was about the time “Bean killed Corn,” in which Papa Jack never succeeded in making it clear that killer and victim were named Bean and Corn and it wasn’t some parable about growing vegetables. They all rolled their eyes like they’d done a hundred times before.

The highlight of the morning, and the trip to the game, was when the white Cadillac zipped by a field of cotton, by then was rare in upstate South Carolina. Papa Jack got all misty-eyed. He could have been a character in Gone with the Wind.

“Good Goddamighty,” he said. “What more money I couldn’t make if I could get my hands on some of that good, old, six-dollar-a-day labor.”

Eddy looked at his father. He didn’t need to say what he was thinking. Well, hell, I hope so. Neither could keep a straight face. By then, the minimum wage was four or five dollars an hour, and who’d want to pick cotton for that?

They picnicked outside the stadium. Papa Jack stopped people on the way in, informing them emphatically that Number One was his namesake, Jackson Dunnaway, and he was the defensive captain. The Night Owls won convincingly, and the band played, and Papa Jack yelled as loudly as anyone else, “H-L-C! H-L-C!” At the end of the third quarter, still in the game though the team was four touchdowns ahead, Jackson intercepted a pass near the home sideline and picked up several blocks as he made his way laterally across the field, aiming for the corner of the far end zone. Pinned in at the two, he tried to cut back left, and his right foot was planted when he took a devastating hit that ripped apart his anterior cruciate ligament.

Eddy could swear he heard pop from the stands across the field.

Thus ended Jackson Dunnaway’s athletic career. Papa Jack’s face was ashen as they visited him in the hospital, and the drive home was almost completely silent. By midweek, his mother told Eddy that Papa Jack had gone on a drunk. It had been a while. The following weekend Eddy was watching Georgia play Clemson on TV. He had no local team to cover because the college in Tebbetts didn’t field a football team, and his mother and father were off at the South Carolina-Duke game. The phone rang.

“I need you to come up here right away,” Mama Dunnaway said. “Jackson’s fallen down, and I can’t get him up.”

What she hadn’t told Eddy was that Papa Jack was in the back yard of the big house, writhing on the ground in nothing but his underwear. He had fallen, and he couldn’t get up. It was all Eddy could do to get him in the house, and the stench was enough to make his stomach turn. As he carried him up the steps, through the kitchen, and to his bed, Eddy could see the panicked look in Papa Jack’s eyes, and he could feel the old man’s heart, pumping furiously and out of rhythm. In his bones, Eddy could tell the old man was about to die.

Memories lie out there, stretching on and on.
Memories lie out there, stretching on and on.

He didn’t do anything. He hoped he was wrong. He wasn’t.

When he got back home, Eddy didn’t feel like watching the ballgame anymore. He felt like drinking. He went to The Wolverine pool hall, and several of his friends remarked at what a rotten mood he was in. Eddy didn’t say much. He just brooded. Doom hung over him. He wasn’t surprised when the bartender came over and said he had a phone call. He wasn’t surprised when his father told him his grandfather was dead.

Papa Jack had just gone to the well one too many times. He’d gotten too old to fall off the wagon. He hadn’t been able to talk his way out of death, not with Bean killing Corn, not with sage advice he’d learned from a country song. At the end, he was just an unfulfilled old man, rewriting the past and trying to rationalize a life that had never lived up to expectations. The only way he’d ever been able to put his inferiority to rest was with a bottle.

When the word came that his grandfather was dead, Eddy Dunnaway had been drunk, too. When he got home, his father was drunk. It was the family way. The cycle they rode was vicious.

 

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