The ramshackle farmhouse on Taggart Road held two Witts, three LeClairs, and one Belmont. Kyle, Hannah, Jessie, Monique, Darren, and Sadie, ages 16, 14, 11, 10, 6, and 2.
Kyle served as the male head of the household, Mae's last husband, Benny, having walked off across the garden toward Tubb's Stream on a Friday, fishing pole in hand, the day after Sadie came bawling into the world, and had never been seen since.
Folks down to the four comers store, Pitman's Groceries and Cold Be-r, historically sided with underdogs, and so nodded in unison with sentiments favoring Benny's decision.
"I ain't talkin' her down, you understand," said Whitey Pitman, expressing the sentiments of most, "but, just maybe Mae got what was due her, given the god-damned army Benny married into. Some hard raisin' a parcel that ain't your own. Double hard when a fella can't know for sure if he's gonna appear home after a mill shift and find his bed how he left it in the mornin,' or find Mae settin' up camp with a new prospector."
"Pity on the kids, is what it is," Hedda Pitman added with a teeth tisk that could suck corn niblets out of another man's dentures. "Ain't one of 'em that'll stand a chance in this world."
"I dunno about that, Hedda. Kyle, now, he comes from decent stock, least on his daddy's side. His daddy Earl was a Christer 'fore he put Mae up a stump, but I'll give him his due. Worked like a damn draft animal afterwards. Never seen a man work hisself so hard, and cuttin' hardwood for Ab Meacham ain't no piece of cake to start with." Pete Helms eyed the small knot of faces while putting fire to the end of a Lucky Strike.
"Wore hisself out between day-shiftin' with Ab and night-shiftin' with Mae, I'd imagine," Joel O'Keefe added with a snort. "Whitey, let some warm air into that cooler an' bring us out some Pabst." He slipped a ten dollar bill from his wallet which put Whitey into gear. "Woman like Mae ought to come with a warnin' label."
"Still, she ain't a half-bad lookin' woman."
Hedda denture sucked again. "Eye of the beholder, Pete, eye of the beholder."
"Dog's ass is interestin' acreage to another dog."
"So's gnawin' at a moose's innards."
The light chuckle seemed to stir the shelf dust in front of the Campbell's Soup and B&M Baked Beans, then slide along the gouged counter of pine to agitate the two-gallon container of pickled eggs.
"Y'know, Kyle bein' a limb on Earl's tree ain't necessarily all to the boy's advantage." Whitey set his Pabst on the counter and a foot on the box of canned corn (Special- This Week Only, 3 for $1.00). "Tell 'em, Hedda. That Ladies Auxiliary thing you was goin' on about the other night."
Hedda sniffed, the eyes shifting to her like stage spotlights. "I wouldn't have spoken of it, Whitey, if I knew I was going to be called on it in front of company. Christian, it ain't."
"Neither's these two," Whitey answered.
Male eyes exchanged knowing glances. It might take a minute or a half hour, the glances said, but Hedda was to withholding gossip what a sieve was to withholding water.
Time trickled, a low stream in a summer drought. Beers lifted and fell in slow motion.
"I ain't saying I agree," Hedda said, sniffing and wiping the moisture from the cooler's glass door. "But I ain't saying I don't, neither."
"Eye of the beholder, Hedda, eye of the beholder." Pete sucked in a lungful of southern tobacco smoke and sent a stream of exhale jetting toward the fishing tackle on the back wall.
The sarcasm wasn't lost, if Hedda's baleful stare was any indication.
"It was only for being neighborly in time of crisis," Hedda said, excusing the Auxiliary's appearance at the farmhouse. "Pastor Eldridge had heard through various breezes that the family might as well be livin' in a fox den. Heard that Mae had taken to bed, an' Kyle was tryin' to run the whole shootin' match."
"Hannah'd be of an age for lending a hand, wouldn't she?"
"Fourteen, course she would, but that's another tail on the donkey, if you'd wait for a pin." Hedda bristled.
Ladies Auxiliary material was not to be confused with yarn spinning over drinks at the American Legion bingo nights or beers here in the store. Ladies Auxiliary material was considered news, even printed in the area weekly, Ginny Poirier, Auxiliary reporter, elected to do the writing honors, her year of college at Farmington and poem for the '57 high school yearbook making her the most qualified.
"Boys didn't mean nothin' by it," Whitey said quietly, winking toward Joel and Pete. "Open the throttle a tad, Hedda. If your stories was food, we'd all die of starvation before it got to table."
July sun-fire waged a dust war against the screen door.
The Pitman's mongrel, Pepper, scratched in his sleep on the front stoop.
Jake Haskins' Ford pickup rattled into the Blue Seal Farm and Feed Store across the street.
"Betty Pike was the one to bring Mae an' the kids a casserole an' pie, though it was Annie Taylor who did the cookin'. Lord knows that Betty couldn't be bothered with more'n taking credit. She come back with eyes glowin' like embers in a piss fire, just sizzlin'.
"'Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do,' was the first words out of her mouth, and lucky it was they made it through, so puckered was she by her visit. An' Betty ain't been one to make a biscuit into a loaf, neither."
"Whitey?" Joel waggled his empty and nodded toward the cooler. "You ready, Pete? Grab for yourself there, too, Whitey. How about you, Hedda? No Auxiliary members'll be bringing theirselves here this afternoon 'less Whitey's got more'n canned corn on sale."
Hedda gave a discreet, but inwardly pleasured, nod to Whitey as he arched eyebrows in a yes or no forehead.
"Can't keep 'em in town with canned corn, Whitey," Pete said and tossed his empty into the corner bucket. "Meat an' birds is what'll keep 'em waitin' at the door. Some of that rump roast, maybe. I see stores downriver can sell it at a buck ninety-eight a pound. Makes you look like a damn pirate with them $2.39 posters in the window."
Hedda had quietly opened her Pabst and was waiting for the spotlight to return via respectful quiet.
"She thinks there's some funny business goin' on at Taggart Road."
"Betty Pike thinks that there's funny business goin' on at every school bus stop where there's kids over twelve an' at least one wears a bra."
Pete Helms blew smoke in a coughing splutter. "Jesus sufferin' on a woodpile," he said, catching his breath, "if that ain't as close to the truth as I am to the cooler. God damn woman showed up at Maggie Riley's yard sale an' spent three hours goin' through the men's clothes lookin' for somethin' she might recognize as comin' from somebody else's closet, if you get the drift of the tide."
Hedda sipped loudly and waited. Men just didn't understand Ladies Auxiliary discussion rules.
The three gossip interlopers exchanged eye cautions. Put Hedda off the scent now and the gossip trail would dry up quicker than an unemployment check.
"Couldn't let that one pass by unnoticed," Joel said with a nod of deference, ceding the floor to Whitey's smarter half. "Fill her up, there, Whitey, when she's lookin' empty," he said, pushing some change across the counter, a physical show of apology.
Hedda sniffed for no other reason than to make the crows wait on the wire a bit longer for the farmer to leave the field of rumor. "About nine-thirty in the mornin', Betty brought them supper fixings," she said. "Still warm from Annie's oven, a towel wrapped round the box to keep in the heat just in case the young ones hadn't had any breakfast yet. Casserole'll stick to young ribs better'n that box of sugar they pass off as cereal these days.
"Monique was the one to greet Betty at the screen door. 'Pretty as a spring morning,' was what Betty said. Them big brown eyes and that angel face'll break more'n one heart before that one's through romancing. But, the rest of the visit was nothing but vinegar and didn't last any longer than it took Betty to put two and two together."
Hedda's hard stare slapped against the faces opposite, daring one comment to squeeze from between the tightened lips. Using Betty Pike as a simplicity example was treading on dangerous grounds to begin with. "Monique went running off to the bedroom, and Mae come out not long after. 'Still buttoning up,' was the way Betty told it, and she swore on her mother's good name that she heard a man's voice talkin' real low just before Mae come into the kitchen actin' all nice and gooey."
"Kee-rist, Hedda, a man in Mae's bedroom is about as rare as horseshit during the July 4th parade." Joel shook his head and finished off his beer.
"That the whole shootin' match?" Pete asked. "C'mon, Whitey, the way you was talkin', I figured we'd be in for something needin' earmuffs and a visit to church before Sunday."
Hedda's quiet stare was hot enough to set the beer to boil. "No, that ain't the whole shootin' match!" she snapped. "Maybe if you was to cut the hair out of your ears more often than you change shirts, you'd hear enough to learn somethin'!"
Whitey avoided eye contact with his wife, settling, instead, on the display of Remington shells and the three used Savage 30.06 hunting rifles in the far case.
"It ain't the presence of a man, it's the man hisself!" Hedda added with vehemence, a schoolteacher readying to box a student's ears for being so utterly stupid.
Joel and Pete nodded in unison.
"Thought as much," Joel said as Pete took refuge in the intricate process of lighting another Lucky.
"With Betty standin' right there, Monique leans into the bedroom and says clearer than an October momin' sky, 'We're gonna have a casserole an' pie tonight, Kyle."
Hedda leaned back against the counter, arms crossed over her ample breasts, Pabst still imprisoned in her large left hand. She eyed the visitors like an osprey sighting a salmon, waiting for the flicker of recognition.
Pete squinted through the tendrils of cigarette smoke. "If she's sayin' what I think she's sayin', Whitey, I'd watch the evenin' paper real close for vacancies on the nut ward."
Joel began to giggle silently, his loose body shaking, making him look as though he were jello being touted around on a child's dish.
Hedda's face turned red and then quickly opted for maroon.
"Yep, leave it to Betty Pike," Pete continued, heedless of the storm warning signals. "D'you know that she believes Jesus had his legs crossed during the Crucifixion because he was just accomodatin' them Romans who only had one nail left?"
Joel's giggles turned to snorts and a volley of small farts as he tried desperately to avoid becoming a basket case on the spot.
"Go ahead," Hedda said in a low hiss. "I'd expect no less from you two. And you," she turned her stone-rigid face toward Whitey. "Are you going to just stand there with your face hanging out and let your wife of thirty-seven years be idiot fodder?"
"Man can believe as he wishes," Whitey replied. "That's only fair."
"Maybe Kyle just happened to be there," Pete offered. "Ain't no crime for a boy to be in his ma's bedroom. I been in my ma's bedroom plenty of times."
"You've been in many a ma's bedroom plenty of times," Joel jibed. "Made many of 'em into mas if the Ladies Auxiliary's to be believed."
Hedda's Pabst hit the counter so hard that beer leapt through the small opening and splattered on the varnished pine. "I'll not hear the Auxiliary be made fun of in my own place," she said resoundingly, "Betty Pike not withstandin'. She might be a bit slow on the uptake at times, poor soul, but there's nothin' wrong with her hearin'. If she says it was Kyle in that room when Mae was still undressed, then, by all that's holy, it was damn sure Kyle."
The threesome waited for the dust to settle.
Without a word, Pete tapped the money he'd set on the counter earlier, and four more beers appeared from the cooler.
Across the street, Jake Haskins was heard yelling at the Grover boy to "Take it easy on them chicks" when he put them in the pickup.
A puff of breeze brought a weary thank-you huff from Pepper as he stood, shook as if he had the ague, turned in three circles, and flopped back onto the stoop with a groan.
"Ain't as though such doings in a family hereabouts was unheard of," Whitey offered as the Haskins' pickup tires popped gravel in a series of tiny explosions. "Remember the Bascums?"
Nods of remembrance, irrefutable.
"I always thought that whole thing was blown out of proportion," Joel said. "Brother and sister curiosity just got more'n it should be, was the way I heard it, Missy being only fourteen an' all. If anything, it was Teddy's fault. Sixteen-year-old growing up the way he did sure as shit knew better, though them Bascums were an odd lot to begin with."
"Said a mouthful there," Whitey agreed.
"What's Pastor Eldridge plan to do about it?" Joel asked. "Seems to me if the Auxiliary's sayin' that ol' Zip's makin' the rounds on Taggart Road, the good Pastor ought to earn his shepherd's pay by seeing to one of the flock."
"The Pastor will heed his heart in such matters," Hedda said, beginning to feel the glow of redemption. After all, hadn't she'd met the heathen enemy and made them cower?
"Pastor Kyle Eldridge always does," Pete said, sliding a glance at Hedda and seeing her twitch and then blanch to ashen white. "But then again, like you say, Hedda, it's all in the eye of the beholder."