Pot-Bellied Stove

P

I never could write as well as Lewis Grizzard. That didn’t prevent me from trying.

One of the best Ameribilia I ever ran into was the old country store, especially in the winter time.

The pot-bellied stove in the middle of the floor, too hot if you sat five feet away, about right at ten feet. That was your front side. Your back side had to hope the emanating heat somehow circled behind you, which if the stove had been going for a while, probably resulted in a four or five degree change behind you.

It was the participants around the stove that made it interesting.  All in overalls. Some crop farmers, some cotton farmers, some chicken farmers.

And me not dressed in overalls, standing out about like somebody drinking a Coca Cola at a Pepsi convention.

The trick was for them to feel like I belonged, and I felt the best way for that to happen was to listen more than I talked.

At first I was a curiosity, because they stared at me as one of them invited me to pull up a chair. I wasn’t quite sure where to put the chair, because I thought I might be infringing on a sacred circle.

They didn’t seem to mind if I became the one who unbroke their circle, so to speak, although we were all still in a circle with the intrusion of an outsider.

They still sat there staring silently until finally one of them spoke up. Complete sentences were not foremost in their minds.

He didn’t take his eyes off me, “You Birmingham?”

“I am from Birmingham.”

Another, “Lost?”

“No, I’ve been down this road more than once, and told myself I would stop one day.”

A third, “What for?”

Now that question was hard to answer, because if I answered it wrong, I doubted there would be any more stories that were circulating before I arrived. I went for humor. “I heard you fellows always tell the truth.”

There was a round of laughter, and it repeated a second time, kinda like a wave at a football or baseball game that goes through the crowd and reverses and comes back the other way.

The first fellow who spoke, spoke again. “I was just telling my friends about that catfish I almost caught.”

“Like the one in Andy Griffith?” I asked. Surely they all watched Andy Griffith I assured myself.

“Naw, this was bigger than Andy Griffith’s catfish”, he left no doubt.

“The size of the catfish in the movie “Grumpy Old Men?” I was going for major proportions.

“Who’s grumpy old men?” the second one chimed in. “We only have one grumpy old man, and he’s sitting right there.” He pointed at a fourth man. “His wife tells us all the time he’s the grumpiest man on the face of the earth.”

The fourth man spoke up, “The wife provokes me.”

I liked his phraseology of referring to his wife as if she were a third party.

I didn’t exactly know what to say. Should I sympathize with the outnumbered fellow or go with the crowd. I went for the sympathy. “Surely they exaggerate about you.”

He looked at me, “Nope, they got it about right.”

Another wave of laughter, rolling back a second time from the last man to the first.

A fifth man who had not been heard from looked at me and spoke up, “You got a story to tell?”

I knew there was no way I could come close to matching any stories they had. I just threw it out there. “No way can I come close to your stories.”

Finally the sixth fellow, the cotton farmer opened his mouth. “Did I tell you fellows about the rattlesnake?”

The first fellow smiled, “Only a hundred times, but tell this city slicker. How long’s that rattler now?”

I thought he was going to say once upon a time, but instead he began, “I was chopping cotton.”

I interrupted him, “What is chopping cotton?”

He wasn’t annoyed. “Chopping cotton, getting the weeds out. I looked down, and no more than five feet away from me was this rattlesnake. He was big around.”

The second fellow joined in, “Watch out fellows, he’s about to add three feet to that snake.”

The snake man continued. “I back up and the snake slithered forward as much as I backed up. We did that six times. It was almost like the snake had a measuring stick.”

“How long was it?” I asked.

He resumed his tale, “At that point I could see eighteen feet.”

The third fellow questioned him, “How could you tell it was eighteen feet?”

He was a little pseudo insulted, “Cause I step back three feet at the time. I’ve measured it”

“That sounds reasonable,” I said to everybody’s laughter except the storyteller.

He looked around at everybody, including me, as he resumed his story. “That rattler looked at me, and I looked at him. He rattled a little to let me know who he was. Then he turned south and I turned north and both of us took off.”

The third man joined in, “Now you know last time you told that story, the snake was only fifteen feet long.”

It was late in the afternoon, and I knew they had to return to their chores before nighttime which came earlier in winter. Some of them probably working well beyond dark.

I shook the hand of each of them.  “Come back and see us”, the first who had spoken said to me. “You’re one of us now.”

I drove away with a good feeling. I had just become a member of a select society of men whose hands I saw calloused, and whose skin was still bronzed by the summer sun this late in winter, and whose wrinkles in their faces and necks were absolutely premature.

A stranger who should have never belonged, but now I did.

I remembered he asked, “You Birmingham?”

A little of me was not anymore.

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