POETSPLACE

Chapter Six

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1957

Huntington, West Virginia

 

 

 

My Father’s Mother, Mary Markins, was a true character of originality. It was no wonder my Fathers antics were so animated. All one had to do is spend ten minutes with my Grandma to understand where my Father got his energy and sense of adventure. Grandma lived to the ripe old age of 101, finally succumbing to death due to heart failure.

Grandma lived in Huntington as well, on the far west end of the city, across town from where we lived.

Father and I would visit with her often, usually on a Saturday afternoon when she was sure to be at home. On any other day, she may be at the local Red Shield store, selling jars of jelly of home made perfection, or perhaps picking apples from the apple trees that grew in the orchard down the street. If she wasn’t at those places, you would be sure to find her on second avenue at the local office of the Lonely Hearts Club. You see, Grandma was always looking for a new husband.

Her first husband, my Fathers Father, joined the Army during World War I and even though he was never shot or harmed, he never came back home. Her second husband left her for unknown reasons after only a month of marriage. Her third and fourth husbands both passed away of cancer at early ages and her fifth, the man I knew and called Grandpa, died in 1955 of liver failure, due to his enormous consumption of alcohol. Grandpa was always intoxicated. He was a conductor on the C&O railroad and had more than once fallen off the caboose while swinging his signal lantern from the railed steps at the back of the train. Grandma was so accustomed to him coming home drunk and passing out on the floor that when he died, she let him lay for three days before she realized he was dead.

So now Grandma depended on the Lonely Hearts Club to meet potential husbands. The fact that she was nearly seventy, mostly toothless, a mop of thick gray unruly hair and overweight by forty pounds never seemed to dissuade her from writing to men half her age and inviting them to her house for tea and conversation. She always sent them a photo taken forty years earlier, so when they did show up, they usually ran for their lives once they met her face to face. After several months of that, Grandma stopped sending photos, but extended her standard invitation as always. Whenever Father and I visited, the conversation always became heated as he tried to convince her that no young man wanted to be with her, that if she had to write to men, to write to someone her own age. Grandma would always laugh. “What the hell do I want with another old man anyway? They cain’t work, they cain’t dance, and they shore as hell cain’t do nothing for me.” Father never won any arguments with her. Grandma was going to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted and with whoever she wanted to do it with. Case closed.

My Grandma lived in a two family flat. She lived downstairs and her sister, Pearl, my Great Aunt, lived upstairs. They rarely spoke to one another and if you didn’t know better, you would think they didn’t even know each other.

Father and I would always visit Aunt Pearl whenever we went to Grandma's house. My Father, disgusted with his attempts to try to get Grandma to stop writing young men, asked Pearl to call him the next time a young suitor showed up at the house. Pearl was happy to do whatever she could to burst Grandma’s bubble.

She smiled broadly, tobacco juice oozing from the corner of her mouth and promised Dad she would call if anyone came by the house.

 

The Lonely Hearts Club Professor

 

It was only a matter of days before Pearl called Dad to announce that a young man was sitting in front of the house in a shiny red car. He had been there for several minutes and had not got out of the car yet, so if Dad rushed, maybe he could intercept him before he turned tail to run.

Dad grabbed his keys and ran to the car. I was right behind him. I wanted to see this.

We pulled in behind the shiny red car and hurriedly got to Grandma’s porch.

Dad sat down on the porch steps as a figure in the red car peered through the side car window. We could not see him because of the suns glare, but his shadowy figure told us that he was still in the car.

Grandma had not come out of the house, but we heard the dog barking in the back, so we guessed that she was in the backyard. She never let the dog out unless she was with him.

Suddenly the car door opened, a tall young black man got out of the car and began walking toward the porch. “Good afternoon to you sir, what a fine day it is. Would this happen to be 331?” Father stood up, “ It would be young man, and what a fine car you have there!” “Oh yes sir, this here is a 1954 Buick Road master with a 322 V-8 engine, a solid Dyna-Flow Transmission, custom made Leather Seats and a factory installed radio.....yes sir, a fine car!” Father shook his head in agreement.

“What can I do for you young man?”

“Well sir, I have this letter here from a certain lady of color named Mary who has invited me for tea, and I wonder sir, is she about?”

Father rolled his eyes to the heavens, knowing full well that Grandma was up to her old tricks, only this time with a new exaggeration.

The man came closer, his face expressionless but eyes questioning.

“ I think there has been a mistake young man, there is no colored girl here. Only me and my son Johnny here”

The man looked at his letter again, carefully reading it to himself, looking up at the house numbers and reading it over for the second time. “Forgive me sir, but this is 331 you say and there is no Mary here?”

Father thought for a moment, cleared his throat nervously.

“ I didn’t say there was no Mary here, I said there is no colored girl here. No, not a colored girl anywhere around here that I know about.”

“ I see. Well sir, the Mary that wrote me this here letter, the one named Mary Markins, would she be about sir.”

It was clear that this young man was not going to go away anytime soon. His heart was set on meeting his Mary. Dad seemed to understand the urgency of the situation.

“Where you from young man?” Father asked, scratching his head, stalling for time to figure out what to do.

“ Oh I come from Cincinnati. I come down this morning to spend the afternoon with Mary Markins and I shore am disappointed that I drove that Buick all mornin’ for nothin’”

Father seemed flustered. He still didn’t know how to handle this awkward situation.

“ Cincinnati huh, fine town. Been there many times. What do they call you.”

The man giggled a second or two. “ Well sir, my name be Horace, but they call me Professor. Yeah, that's me, the Professor.” he said quite proudly.

“Are you a real professor.”

Again the young man smiled and giggled a bit. “ Well sir, if you mean did I go to school to be a professor then no. But if you mean am I a professor of love, then yes sir, that would be me.”

My Father bristled. “Wrong answer” I thought to myself.

“Okay, okay Professor." he said anxiously, "you drove all that way to meet Mary and meet her you will. Wait right there!”

The professor took a step back as Father hurriedly walked around the house to the back yard. Within minutes, the front door opened and Father came out onto the porch. “I hope you have a good sense of humor professor. You are going to need it. Come on out here Mary Markins, you have a visitor from Cincinnati.”

Grandma came out, hair combed, a long black dress and red shoes.

Horace stared in horror!

“ Well, here she is professor, here’s your beauty queen...lovely now ain’t she?”

Poor Horace never spoke another word, He stepped backwards all the way down the walk, his face nearly white, his jowl dropped nearly to his shirt collar.

Father and I stood frozen, never even blinking while Horace backed down the walk.

Just before he got into his Buick, he said in an angry loud voice, “ You white people is all crazy. You some crazy motherfu.....” The door on the Buick closed, the 322 V-8 roared to life and the full width whitewall tires spun angrily, leaving smoke and smell of burning rubber as they gripped the brick road and quickly disappeared into the narrowness of third avenue

Grandma smiled. Father shook his head in disgust.

After a few minutes of silence, Grandma put her arm around Fathers neck and kissed him on the cheek.

“ Come on in the house" she said," lets have some tea!”

 

Chapter Seven