Authors: Fannie Flagg
For Eudora Welty and Willie Morris
To the Public at Large:
As a character in this book I can tell you that everything in it really did happen, so I can highly recommend it without any qualms whatsoever. Although I am not the main character in this book, I will tell you this much: I own my own house, keep it clean, and I pay my taxes. I’ve never been to jail and I am most probably older than you are unless you have one foot in the grave and in that case, Hello, friend.
I do not claim to be a professional critic but I like a book with a beginning, a middle, and an end and hopefully a plot and a few laughs in between. I hate a book that jumps around. Also I can promise you, this is not one of those personal tell-alls that will bore you to death by talking about how wonderful somebody is now, how bad they used to be but then got saved and now they are wonderful again. And as of this morning I have not gone addlebrained like my neighbor Mrs. Whatley, who thinks her grandson Travis is still working in the tire department over at Sears instead of where he really is and will be for the next five years unless he gets off for good behavior. But I am not one to carry gossip. I cannot afford to in my business. Believe it or not, I still work for a living although I sometimes wonder why because with all the taxes I pay I could just as well stay home and collect my benefits and do just as good but when I don’t fix hair for a few days my fingers get all itchy. Besides I have to go in and try to make sure my daughter does not ruin another custome
’s hair (a few hairs fall out and they want to su
) or burn the place down again. Also I need the money. I am still paying on my car that Dwayne Jr. wrecked, not once but twice in six months.
I cannot depend on my children but tha
’s another story. Enough said. You get the picture. I have a lot of nervous energy but I am not perky. There is nothing worse than a perky old person. It is not natural. Although I am not a main character, being in a book has made me stop and think. So before I get myself out of the way and let you start, I will say this: people’s lives are sure ruled by a lot of what-ifs, aren’t they? For example, on a personal note . . . what if I had died giving birth to Dwayne Jr. (not an unpleasant thought, considering recent events
. I would not even be here, but more important to the story you are about to read, what if Dorothy Smith had never met the Oatman Family Gospel Singers? What if Betty Raye Oatman had never even met Hamm Sparks? What if Hamm Sparks had not met up with foul play? Oh, I could go on and on but I won’t. I hate when somebody tells me how something ends. And a word to the wise: don’t be like me and skip to the last page. I have ruined many a book doing just that. As I said before, I am only included in the story every once in a while but after you finish, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts you will wonder how I have managed to wind up as good-natured as I have.
Mrs. Tot Whooten
P.S. Don’t ever marry a man that drinks.
THE TIME: THE 1940s
THE MOOD: HOPEFUL
in town that had an extra room took in a boarder. There were no apartment buildings or hotels as of yet. The Howard Johnson was built a few years later but in the meantime bachelors needed to be looked after and single women certainly had to have a respectable place to live. Most people considered it their Christian duty to take them in whether they needed the few extra dollars a week or not, and some of the boarders stayed on for years. Mr. Pruiet, a bachelor from Kentucky with long thin feet, boarded with the Haygoods so long that they eventually forgot he was not family. Whenever they moved, he moved. When he finally did die at seventy-eight, he was buried in the Haygood family plot with a headstone that read:
The homes on First Avenue North were located within walking distance of town and school and were where most of the town’s boarders lived.
At present the Smith family’s boarder is Jimmy Head, the short-order cook at the Trolley Car Diner; the Robinsons next door have Beatrice Woods, the Little Blind Songbird; the Whatleys up the street have Miss Tuttle, the high school English teacher. Ernest Koonitz, the school’s band director and tuba soloist, boards with Miss Alma, who, as luck would have it, has a hearing problem. But soon the Smith family will take in a new boarder who will set in action a chain of events that should eventually wind up in the pages of history books. Of course they won’t know it at the time, especially their ten-year-old son, Bobby. He is at the moment downtown standing outside the barbershop with his friend Monroe Newberry, staring at the revolving red and white stripes on the electric barber’s pole. The game is to stare at it until they are cross-eyed, which seems to them to be some sort of grand achievement. As far as amusements go, it is on a par with holding your breath until you pass out or dropping from a rope into the freezing swimming hole outside of town named the Blue Devil, so cold that even on a hot day when you hit the water the first shock jolts you to your eyeballs, stops your heart, and makes you see stars before your eyes. By the time you come out your body is so numb you can’t feel where your legs are and your lips have turned blue, hence the name. But boys, being the insane creatures they are, cannot wait to come crawling out covered with goose bumps and do it all over again.
These were some of the activities that thrilled Bobby to the core. However, for Bobby just life itself was exciting. And really at that time and that place what red-blooded American boy would not wake up every morning jumping for joy and ready to go? He was living smack-dab in the middle of the greatest country in the world—some said the greatest country that ever was or ever would be. We had just beaten the Germans and the Japanese in a fair fight. We had saved Europe and everyone liked us that year, even the French. Our girls were the prettiest, our boys the handsomest, our sol-diers the bravest, and our flag the most beautiful. That year it seemed like everyone in the world wanted to be an American. People from all over the world were having a fit trying to come here. And who could blame them? We had John Wayne, Betty Grable, Mickey Mouse, Roy Rogers, Superman, Dagwood and Blondie, the Andrews Sisters, and Captain Marvel. Buck Rogers and Red Ryder, BB guns, the Hardy Boys, G-men, Miss America, cotton candy. Plus Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, Amos ’n’ Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and
could grow up and become the president of the United States.
Bobby even felt sorry for anyone who was not lucky enough to have been born here. After all, we had invented everything in the world that really mattered. Hot dogs, hamburgers, roller coasters, roller skates, ice-cream cones, electricity, milk shakes, the jitterbug, baseball, football, basketball, barbecue, cap pistols, hot-fudge sundaes, and banana splits. We had Coca-Cola, chocolate-covered peanuts, jukeboxes, Oxydol, Ivory Snow, oleomargarine, and the atomic bomb!
We were bigger, better, richer, and stronger than anybody but we still played by the rules and were always good sports. We even reached out and helped pick up and dust off Japan and Germany after we had beaten them . . . and if that wasn’t being a good sport, what was? Bobby’s own state of Missouri had given the world Mark Twain, Walt Disney, Ginger Rogers, and the great St. Louis World’s Fair, and aboard the battleship
the Japanese had surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur. Not only that, Bobby’s Cub Scout troop (Bobwhite Patrol) had personally gone all over town collecting old rubber tires, scrap paper, and aluminum pots and pans. That had helped win the war. And if that wasn’t enough to make a boy proud, the president of the entire United States, Mr. Harry S. Truman, was a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Missourian, and St. Louis had won the World Series. Even the trees stood a little straighter this year, or so it seemed to Bobby.
He had a mother, a father, and a grandmother and had never known anyone who had died. He had seen only photographs in store windows of the boys who had been killed in the war. He and his best friend, Monroe, were now official blood brothers, an act so solemn that neither one spoke on the way home. His big sister, Anna Lee, a pretty blue-eyed blond girl, was quite popular with all the older boys, who would sometimes hang around the house and play catch or throw the football with him. Sometimes he was able to make a quarter off the guys just to leave them alone on the front porch with Anna Lee. In 1946 a quarter meant popcorn, candy, a movie, a cartoon, and a serial, plus a trip to the projection booth to visit Snooky, who read Mickey Spillane books. And after the movie he could go next door to the Trolley Car Diner, where Jimmy, their boarder, would fry him a burger if he was not too busy.
Or he might stop by the drugstore on the corner and read a few of the newest comic books. His father was the pharmacist so he was allowed to look at them for free as long as he did not wrinkle or spill any food on them. Thelma and Bertha Ann, the girls who worked behind the soda fountain, thought he was cute and might slip him a cherry Coke or, if he was lucky, a root-beer float. Downtown Elmwood Springs was only one long block so there was never any danger of getting lost, and the year-round weather couldn’t have been more perfect if he had ordered it off a menu. Each October a nice big round orange harvest moon appeared just in time for Halloween. Thanksgiving Day was always crisp and cool enough to go outside and play tag after a big turkey dinner and snow fell once or twice a year, just when he needed a day off from school.
And then came spring, with crickets, frogs, and little green leaves on the trees again, followed by summer, sleeping out on the screened porch, fishing, hot bright sunny days at Cascade Plunge, the town’s swimming pool, and so far every Fourth of July, after all the firecrackers, whirligigs, and sparklers were gone, lightning bugs and large iridescent blue-and-green June bugs showed up in time to make the night last a little longer.
On hot muggy August afternoons, just when you thought you would die of the heat, clouds would begin to gather and distant thunder boomed so deep you would feel it in your chest. Suddenly a cool breeze would come from out of nowhere and turn the sky a dark gunmetal gray, so dark that all the streetlights in town got confused and started coming on. Seconds later an honest-to-God Missouri gully washer would come crashing down hard and fast and then without warning pick up and run to the next town, leaving behind enough cool water to fill the gutters so Bobby could run out and feel it rushing over his bare feet.
Although Mr. Bobby Smith had only been on this earth for a very short time and at present occupied only four feet eight inches of it, he was already a man of considerable property. Most of which he kept in his room on the floor, on the walls, on the bed, under the bed, hanging from the ceiling, or anywhere there was an empty space. As the decorators would say, he was going in for that casual, devil-may-care, cluttered look that his mother had the nerve to say looked like a Salvation Army junk store. It was only an average-sized bedroom with a small closet, but to Bobby, it was his personal and private magical kingdom full of priceless treasures. A place where he was the master of all he surveyed, rich as a sultan. Although in truth there was nothing in the room that a sultan or anybody else, for that matter, would want unless they were in the market for a box of painted turtles or an assortment of rocks, a flattened-out penny he and Monroe had put on the streetcar tracks, or a life-sized cardboard stand-up of Sunset Carson, his favorite cowboy, that Snooky had given him from the Elmwood Theater. Or maybe two silver dollars or an artificial yellow fish eye he had found behind the VFW or a small glass jeep that once had candy in it, for about five seconds. Among his possessions that year was a homemade slingshot, a bag of marbles, one little Orphan Annie decoder pin, one glow-in-the-dark ring, one compass, one Erector set, three yo-yos, a model airplane, a boy’s hairbrush with a decal of the Lone Ranger on it (a birthday present from Monroe that Monroe’s mother had bought), a cardboard Firestone filling station complete with pumps, a bookshelf full of ten-cent Terry and the Pirates, Joe Palooka, and Red Ryder books. Under the bed were several Spider-Man, Porky the Pig, Little Audrey, and Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books, plus an L&N train set, his plastic braided Indian bracelet a girl gave him that he thought he had lost, and one white rubber handlebar cover from an old bicycle.
But Bobby’s world was not limited to just what he could see or touch or to the space inside the four walls of his bedroom. He had traveled a million miles in the L&N train under his bed, ridden up treacherous mountains through long black tunnels over raging rivers, and in the little plane hanging from the ceiling he had flown around the world, often over Amazon jungles teeming with alligators. Even the streetlight on the corner provided Bobby with a wonderful show. As he was lying in bed on breezy summer evenings, watching the shadows made by the leaves of the poplar tree dancing on the side of the house next door, they soon became palm trees, swaying back and forth in the warm trade winds of the nearest tropical island. Some nights he could hear the faint strains of Hawaiian music and see rows of hula girls dancing right above the Robinsons’ bedroom window. So enthralled was Bobby with this image that he had sent off for a ukulele. Nobody was more disappointed. He had expected it to play a song when strummed but it had not. The sound it made was a far cry from music, Hawaiian or otherwise, so he quickly moved on to the harmonica and was convinced he was really playing a song when he wasn’t. So great was his imagination that when he rode a broomstick handle around the backyard he could see the dust and hear the sound of the thundering hoofs as he galloped across the dry western desert. That year he went to sleep each night with his eyes full of cowboys and Indians and his head filled with voices. “Tom Mix and the Ralston Straight Shooters are on the air!” “From out of the West comes America’s fighting cowboy!” “Quaker Oats . . . delicious, nutritious, makes you ambitious!” “You bet ’um, Red Ryder.” “I’m back in the saddle again.” “Well, I’ll be a lop-eared kangaroo if it isn’t roundup time.” “Me Tonto, you Kemo Sabe.” And his favorite, “Hi-yo, Silver, away!”