Authors: Truman Capote
Tags: #Short story collection
This drugstore was maybe old-fashioned, but it was large and dark and cool: during summer months there was no pleasanter place in town. At the left, as you entered, was a tobacco-magazine counter behind which, as a rule, sat Mr. Marshall: a squat, square-faced, pink-fleshed man with looping, manly, white mustaches. Beyond this counter stood the beautiful soda fountain. It was very antique and made of fine, yellowed marble, smooth to the touch but without a trace of cheap glaze. Mr. Marshall bought it at an auction in New Orleans in 1910 and was plainly proud of it. When you sat on the high, delicate stools and looked across the fountain you could see yourself reflected softly, as though by candlelight, in a row of ancient mahogany-framed mirrors. All general merchandise was displayed in glass-doored, curio-like cabinets that were locked with brass keys. There was always in the air the smell of syrup and nutmeg and other delicacies.
The Valhalla was the gathering place of Wachata County till a certain
Rufus McPherson came to town and opened a second drugstore directly across the courthouse square. This old Rufus McPherson was a villain; that is, he took away my uncle’s trade. He installed fancy equipment such as electric fans and colored lights; he provided curb service and made grilled-cheese sandwiches to order. Naturally, though some remained devoted to Mr. Marshall, most folks couldn’t resist Rufus McPherson.
For a while, Mr. Marshall chose to ignore him: if you were to mention McPherson’s name, he would sort of snort, finger his mustaches and look the other way. But you could tell he was mad. And getting madder. Then one day toward the middle of October I strolled into the Valhalla to find him sitting at the fountain playing dominoes and drinking wine with Hamurabi.
Hamurabi was an Egyptian and some kind of dentist, though he didn’t do much business, as the people hereabouts have unusually strong teeth, due to an element in the water. He spent a great deal of his time loafing around the Valhalla and was my uncle’s chief buddy. He was a handsome figure of a man, this Hamurabi, being dark-skinned and nearly seven feet tall; the matrons of the town kept their daughters under lock and key and gave him the eye themselves. He had no foreign accent whatsoever, and it was always my opinion that he wasn’t any more Egyptian than the man in the moon.
Anyway, there they were swigging red Italian wine from a gallon jug. It was a troubling sight, for Mr. Marshall was a renowned teetotaler. So naturally, I thought: Oh, golly, Rufus McPherson has finally got his goat. That was not the case, however.
“Here, son,” said Mr. Marshall, “come have a glass of wine.”
“Sure,” said Hamurabi, “help us finish it up. It’s store-bought, so we can’t waste it.”
Much later, when the jug was dry, Mr. Marshall picked it up and said, “Now we shall see!” And with that disappeared out into the afternoon.
“Where’s he off to?” I asked.
“Ah,” was all Hamurabi would say. He liked to devil me.
A half-hour passed before my uncle returned. He was stooped and grunting under the load he carried. He set the jug atop the fountain and stepped back, smiling and rubbing his hands together. “Well, what do you think?”
“Ah,” purred Hamurabi.
“Gee …” I said.
It was the same wine jug, God knows, but there was a wonderful difference; for now it was crammed to the brim with nickels and dimes that shone dully through the thick glass.
“Pretty, eh?” said my uncle. “Had it done over at the First National. Couldn’t get in anything bigger-sized than a nickel. Still, there’s lotsa money in there, let me tell you.”
“But what’s the point, Mr. Marshall?” I said. “I mean, what’s the idea?”
Mr. Marshall’s smile deepened to a grin. “This here’s a jug of silver, you might say …”
“The pot at the end of the rainbow,” interrupted Hamurabi.
“… and the idea, as you call it, is for folks to guess how much money is in there. For instance, say you buy a quarter’s worth of stuff—well, then you get to take a chance. The more you buy, the more chances you get. And I’ll keep all guesses in a ledger till Christmas Eve, at which time whoever comes closest to the right amount will get the whole shebang.”
Hamurabi nodded solemnly. “He’s playing Santa Claus—a mighty crafty Santa Claus,” he said. “I’m going home and write a book:
The Skillful Murder of Rufus McPherson
.” To tell the truth, he sometimes did write stories and send them out to the magazines. They always came back.
It was surprising, really like a miracle, how Wachata County took to the jug. Why, the Valhalla hadn’t done so much business since Station Master Tully, poor soul, went stark raving mad and claimed to
have discovered oil back of the depot, causing the town to be overrun with wildcat prospectors. Even the poolhall bums who never spent a cent on anything not connected with whiskey or women took to investing their spare cash in milk shakes. A few elderly ladies publicly disapproved of Mr. Marshall’s enterprise as a kind of gambling, but they didn’t start any trouble and some even found occasion to visit us and hazard a guess. The schoolkids were crazy about the whole thing, and I was very popular because they figured I knew the answer.
“I’ll tell you why all this is,” said Hamurabi, lighting one of the Egyptian cigarettes he bought by mail from a concern in New York City. “It’s not for the reason you may imagine; not, in other words, avidity. No. It’s the mystery that’s enchanting. Now you look at those nickels and dimes and what do you think: ah, so much! No, no. You think: ah,
much? And that’s a profound question, indeed. It can mean different things to different people. Understand?”
And oh, was Rufus McPherson wild! When you’re in trade, you count on Christmas to make up a large share of your yearly profit, and he was hard pressed to find a customer. So he tried to imitate the jug; but being such a stingy man he filled his with pennies. He also wrote a letter to the editor of the
, our weekly paper, in which he said that Mr. Marshall ought to be “tarred and feathered and strung up for turning innocent little children into confirmed gamblers and sending them down the path to Hell!” You can imagine what kind of laughingstock he was. Nobody had anything for McPherson but scorn. And so by the middle of November he just stood on the sidewalk outside his store and gazed bitterly at the festivities across the square.
At about this time Appleseed and sister made their first appearance.
He was a stranger in town. At least no one could recall ever having seen him before. He said he lived on a farm a mile past Indian Branches; told us his mother weighed only seventy-four pounds and that he had an older brother who would play the fiddle at anybody’s
wedding for fifty cents. He claimed that Appleseed was the only name he had and that he was twelve years old. But his sister, Middy, said he was eight. His hair was straight and dark yellow. He had a tight, weather-tanned little face with anxious green eyes that had a very wise and knowing look. He was small and puny and high-strung; and he wore always the same outfit: a red sweater, blue denim britches and a pair of man-sized boots that went clop-clop with every step.
It was raining that first time he came into the Valhalla; his hair was plastered round his head like a cap and his boots were caked with red mud from the country roads. Middy trailed behind as he swaggered like a cowboy up to the fountain, where I was wiping some glasses.
“I hear you folks got a bottle fulla money you fixin’ to give ’way,” he said, looking me square in the eye. “Seein’ as you-all are givin’ it away, we’d be obliged iffen you’d give it to us. Name’s Appleseed, and this here’s my sister, Middy.”
Middy was a sad, sad-looking kid. She was a good bit taller and older-looking than her brother: a regular bean pole. She had tow-colored hair that was chopped short, and a pale pitiful little face. She wore a faded cotton dress that came way up above her bony knees. There was something wrong with her teeth, and she tried to conceal this by keeping her lips primly pursed like an old lady.
“Sorry,” I said, “but you’ll have to talk with Mr. Marshall.”
So sure enough he did. I could hear my uncle explaining what he would have to do to win the jug. Appleseed listened attentively, nodding now and then. Presently he came back and stood in front of the jug and, touching it lightly with his hand, said, “Ain’t it a pretty thing, Middy?”
Middy said, “Is they gonna give it to us?”
“Naw. What you gotta do, you gotta guess how much money’s inside there. And you gotta buy two bits’ worth so’s even to get a chance.”
“Huh, we ain’t got no two bits. Where you ’spec we gonna get us two bits?”
Appleseed frowned and rubbed his chin. “That’ll be the easy part, just leave it to me. The only worrisome thing is: I can’t just take a chance and guess … I gotta
Well, a few days later they showed up again. Appleseed perched on a stool at the fountain and boldly asked for two glasses of water, one for him and one for Middy. It was on this occasion that he gave out the information about his family: “… then there’s Papa Daddy, that’s my mama’s papa, who’s a Cajun, an’ on accounta that he don’t speak English good. My brother, the one what plays the fiddle, he’s been in jail three times.… It’s on accounta him we had to pick up and leave Louisiana. He cut a fella bad in a razor fight over a woman ten years older’n him. She had yellow hair.”
Middy, lingering in the background, said nervously, “You oughtn’t to be tellin’ our personal private fam’ly business thataway, Appleseed.”
“Hush now, Middy,” he said, and she hushed. “She’s a good little gal,” he added, turning to pat her head, “but you can’t let her get away with much. You go look at the picture books, honey, and stop frettin’ with your teeth. Appleseed here’s got some figurin’ to do.”
This figuring meant staring hard at the jug, as if his eyes were trying to eat it up. With his chin cupped in his hand, he studied it for a long period, not batting his eyelids once. “A lady in Louisiana told me I could see things other folks couldn’t see ’cause I was born with a caul on my head.”
“It’s a cinch you aren’t going to see how much there is,” I told him. “Why don’t you just let a number pop into your head, and maybe that’ll be the right one.”
“Uh, uh,” he said, “too darn risky. Me, I can’t take no sucha chance. Now, the way I got it figured, there ain’t but one sure-fire thing and that’s to count every nickel and dime.”
“Count what?” asked Hamurabi, who had just moseyed inside and was settling himself at the fountain.
“This kid says he’s going to count how much is in the jug,” I explained.
Hamurabi looked at Appleseed with interest. “How do you plan to do that, son?”
“Oh, by countin’,” said Appleseed matter-of-factly.
Hamurabi laughed. “You better have X-ray eyes, son, that’s all I can say.”
“Oh, no. All you gotta do is be born with a caul on your head. A lady in Louisiana told me so. She was a witch; she loved me and when my ma wouldn’t give me to her she put a hex on her and now my ma don’t weigh but seventy-four pounds.”
“Ve-ry in-ter-esting,” was Hamurabi’s comment as he gave Appleseed a queer glance.
Middy sauntered up, clutching a copy of
. She pointed out a certain photo to Appleseed and said: “Ain’t she the nicest-lookin’ lady? Now you see, Appleseed, you see how pretty her teeth are? Not a one outa joint.”
“Well, don’t you fret none,” he said.
After they left, Hamurabi ordered a bottle of orange Nehi and drank it slowly, while smoking a cigarette. “Do you think maybe that kid’s okay upstairs?” he asked presently in a puzzled voice.
Small towns are best for spending Christmas, I think. They catch the mood quicker and change and come alive under its spell. By the first week in December house doors were decorated with wreaths, and store windows were flashy with red paper bells and snowflakes of glittering isinglass. The kids hiked out into the woods and came back dragging spicy evergreen trees. Already the women were busy baking fruit cakes, unsealing jars of mincemeat and opening bottles of blackberry and scuppernong wine. In the courthouse square a huge tree was trimmed with silver tinsel and colored electric bulbs that
were lighted up at sunset. Late of an afternoon you could hear the choir in the Presbyterian church practicing carols for their annual pageant. All over town the japonicas were in full bloom.
The only person who appeared not the least touched by this heartwarming atmosphere was Appleseed. He went about his declared business of counting the jug-money with great, persistent care. Every day now he came to the Valhalla and concentrated on the jug, scowling and mumbling to himself. At first we were all fascinated, but after a while, it got tiresome and nobody paid him any mind whatsoever. He never bought anything, apparently having never been able to raise the two bits. Sometimes he’d talk to Hamurabi, who had taken a tender interest in him and occasionally stood treat to a jawbreaker or a penny’s worth of licorice.
“Do you still think he’s nuts?” I asked.
“I’m not so sure,” said Hamurabi. “But I’ll let you know. He doesn’t eat enough. I’m going to take him over to the Rainbow Café and buy him a plate of barbecue.”
“He’d appreciate it more if you’d give him a quarter.”
“No. A dish of barbecue is what he needs. Besides, it would be better if he never was to make a guess. A high-strung kid like that, so unusual, I wouldn’t want to be the one responsible if he lost. Say, it would be pitiful.”
I’ll admit that at the time, Appleseed struck me as being just funny. Mr. Marshall felt sorry for him, and the kids tried to tease him, but had to give it up when he refused to respond. There you could see him plain as day sitting at the fountain with his forehead puckered and his eyes fixed forever on that jug. Yet he was so withdrawn you sometimes had this awful creepy feeling that, well, maybe he didn’t exist. And when you were pretty much convinced of this he’d wake up and say something like, “You know, I hope a 1913 buffalo nickel’s in there. A fella was tellin’ me he saw where a 1913 buffalo nickel’s worth fifty dollars.” Or, “Middy’s gonna be a big lady in the picture shows. They make lotsa money, the ladies in the picture
shows do, and then we ain’t gonna never eat another collard green as long as we live. Only Middy says she can’t be in the picture shows ’less her teeth look good.”