Timothy C. Phillips
Byron House lay awake while his wife tickled his neck and smiled ever hopefully at his side. As he did
every night, Byron House steadfastly ignored her feeble advances and stared stonily at the spotless
white paint of the bedroom ceiling. He was a man with a lot of things on his mind. Fourteen
sharecroppers worked House’s land. A disagreement with one of the sharecroppers currently knitted his
brow. The Trumbles raised corn on House’s lower east forty. They had moved to Benton County the
previous year from Georgia. They were a typical sharecropper family; there was Old Man Trumble, his
wife, and a gaggle of children, ranging from tow-headed brats to a couple of almost-grown teenagers.
The Trumble’s first corn crop on his land had been decidedly poor. That would not have been too bad;
but there were other complexities.
Foremost among these complexities was a somewhat threadbare tradition suggested that a sharecropper
in such a predicament might not be held responsible for a crop planted and tended by others. Old Man
Trumble probably adhered to this subversive rustic notion, House was sure, as the planting had been
done by the previous tenant. House had decided not to mention the matter, but to instead treat Trumble
congenially. The old man would cave in and pay eventually, he had been sure. However, Trumble had done
the unexpected, and had also decided simply not to mention the matter. Both men had been playing a
friendly game of chicken for a month now. House had always been a stern man, and his thin reserve of
patience was running out. He longed for another strategy, but resisted the idea of a confrontation, as
it was Trumble who had violated decorum, not once, but twice, now. What he needed was new leverage.
He turned and switched off the lamp. His wife ceased her feeble attempts at seduction, and, as every
night, turned over to sigh herself to sleep. Byron House closed his eyes, but did not move. I will
just go out there and see what I can see, he decided. Yes, get something I can use against them.
Slowly, then, he faded off to sleep. And though he did not know it yet, he was a ruined man.
The next day was Friday, and the late morning found Byron House beside a well-wooded pond on the
Trumble farm. He had chosen this spot for surveillance. He had a vague idea of gathering some sort of
damaging intelligence that he could use against Old Man Trumble to at last secure the delinquent rent.
Byron had concealed his aged Dodge truck in the shade and lay in wait. He stayed this way for some
time. Long about ten, he saw youngest Trumble boy, Pip, the, a little fellow of about ten with a
polio leg, heading off up the dirt road, cane pole and a tow sack over his shoulder, can of worms in
hand, singing, “When the roll is called up yonder.” House could hear the clink clink of the boy’s leg
brace in the distance.
The boy was headed down to the creek; House frowned. He had forbidden tenants to fish in the
pond, and he was now confronted with evidence that they were abiding. It was just the sort of thing
he could have used. He suddenly froze. A gentler, falsetto voice had taken up the song, and was
drawing closer. Presently a form showed through the brush over to his left. It was the oldest girl,
Anelda. She walked down to the water’s edge and stretched, very slowly, and for what seemed to Byron
a very long time.
She wasn’t really a bad looking girl, Byron decided. He cast about quickly to see if anyone was
around. There was no one in the misty morning but the two of them. When he looked back he suppressed
a gasp; the girl was disrobing, pulling her thin cotton sundress over her head, right there in front
of God Almighty, Byron House, and everybody, if there had been anyone else there. She hung the dress
on a bush. She wore nothing beneath, he saw, except for panties. Red, white and blue panties.
Byron cringed in the undergrowth as Anelda removed these also, and hung them beside her dress.
Now she was naked as a jaybird, and Byron House watched with eyes like tea saucers from his hiding
place. Lordy Jesus. Holy Moley. Shazam, not a bad looking girl at all, he decided, as her song became
a hum and she waded into the water. His face felt hot. What am I doing here? He hadn’t come here to
spy on a young lady bathing. He was a good Christian man, and a married one, besides. It was just,
that…Byron didn’t know what it was. He retreated in abject horror, as quietly as possible, through
the underbrush, back to his decrepit Dodge, which he let roll quietly in neutral until it reached the
That Sunday in his pew, Byron House exercised superhuman self-control in not turning to look at
Anelda Trumble. The preacher stood up there and talked about the fighting away of sin, and he said
that the resolute man who had found his fortress in the Lord of Hosts would be shorn of his sins, and
Byron House discovered that he was sweating profusely. He resolved to remain absolutely still, and
just wait the service out. However, when the preacher made the altar call, Anelda Trumble came forward
with two other young women to squat directly in from of him; and right there in the house of God
Almighty, Byron House felt his burning, devil-cursed eyes stray to the supple curves of Anelda’s
behind, where he could perceive through her plain white dress, the vaguest hints of the colors of
ld Glory, the flag he’d fought for on the beaches of Italy and France. And suddenly it came to him,
clear as spring water, what he had to do.
On the way out of the church, he was extremely polite to Old Man Trumble, and gave Anelda only a
passing glance and nod. How were things going, he asked Trumble. Fine, just fine, Trumble replied.
Going to take a little spin, take my wife to see her relations out in Georgia Monday. Be gone all day.
That night Byron ignored his wife’s advances and plotted his move. His chance had come; he had been
As I have said, however, Byron House was a ruined man. Other events, of which he was
quite unaware, had unfolded. The sequence of events that utterly sealed his doom had begun just that
afternoon, when young Pip Trumble, who he had observed going fishing, had come down with a stomach-
ache. As it happened, when young Pip arrived at the creek, two boys were already there. They were both
school mates of Pip’s, Brendan Jones and Too-Tall Ostermann. They already had their lines in the
water. Pip had plopped down, panting from the exertion of walking the two and a half miles to the
creek in his heavy leg brace.
“Are they bitin’?”
The boys pulled weeds and chewed the soft stems.
Presently Jones said, “My daddy said he heard a wampus cat cry last night over near Booger Holler.
They were running coon dogs when they heard it.”
“What?” Too-Tall put in. “I never heard of no wampus cat a’crying.”
“Aw, sholy. It’s terrible bad luck to hear one. Sounds like a grieving woman.” Jones said sagely.
“It’s like a curse.”
“Well, when I heard tell of a wampus cat, it was something different.” Pip said. His father had
shared with him the previous winter an amusing anecdote about the wampus cat, in his version an
invisible giant cat that prowls the Appalachian foothills, according to local folklore. It could
walk through walls, he proclaimed, and carry off a yearling calf. He related this version to the
two other boys, who listened impassively.
“Yep, that is a mite different.” Jones put in, noncommittally. All the boys knew that Pip’s people
were Southern, but recently arrived to these parts. They knew that people all over the South probably
told the same tales, but that such lore varies with region, and people like to keep their myths
straight from other, adulterated versions, preferring always the local variety.
“What I always heard,” Too-Tall intoned with some authority, as he was, after, tallest, “was
that a wampus cat was the meanest critter in the world. It was so damned mean, on account of it has
a head at each end, and it can’t take a shit.”
All three boys laughed heartily at this new version of the legend.
“Well, not to disagree with either of you,” Jones rejoined diplomatically, “but I always heard
that a wampus cried and laughed like a girl, and if you heard one it meant sure death for someone
“Aw, well, I never heard that one.” Pip complained. Too-Tall shrugged in half-agreement. Clearly,
in his estimation, Jones’ story was somewhat apocryphal.
Putting the supernatural aside for a moment, Pip regaled the other two boys with the story of how his
cousin Smilin’ Erny got killed riding his bike on the highway two years before. Smilin’ Erny was a
Pruitt, a cousin on Pip’s mother’s side, and the kids had only heard that he wasn’t right, since he
had fell from a boxcar during the Great Depression and cracked his head. Daddy never cared for the
Pruitts in general or Erny in particular, and it was him that first used the name Smilin’ Erny, though
never around mother. Smilin’ Erny was seen everywhere on a second-hand bicycle, always with a broad
smile. This prompted the local legend that he high on home-brew. There was some truth to this,
though, as he often ended up in county lock-up. It had all come to an end the day after one
Thanksgiving, when Mother Trumble had run into the room crying and hollering, “Oh my God it’s
terrible, cousin Ernest has done been killed on his bicycle on the Interstate Highway,” having
received the word from a breathless boy who had run out from town.
Later, after they had got mother quieted down and to sleep, Pip had been sitting on the back porch
and waiting on the Pruitt kin to arrive. Grandpa Pruitt was the first to do so, and he recounted the
tale of Smiley Erny’s demise to Daddy, who sat with a quiet malevolent smile, awaiting the end of the
“On the Interstate,” Grandpa Pruitt finished, “on his bicycle.”
“Well,” Old Man Trumble had spat his Topps snuff into the red dust and considered, “he might’a
been all right if he’d kept her above fifty.”
The boys howled in the early afternoon sunshine. They sat for a while, chewing their weeds and smiling
“Well,” Jones said presently, “Guess I might oughta be getting on.”
“Yessir, me, too.” Too-Tall stood and stretched. “They sure ain’t a bitin’, today.”
“Say, Pip, they’s a bunch of us gone get together and play baseball Sunday. Sure wish you’d come.”
Pip grinned. “Ah’ll bring my mitt!”
Pip shrugged and threw his line out, but soon tired of this effort, once the other boys were
gone. He picked up his gear and headed home. The creak and the click of his leg brace,familiar sounds,
kept him company as he moved along. On the path near his father’s farm, he froze suddenly and let a
long black snake slither past. He gave it the berth of a full minute before moving on. He wondered
if it was a hoop-snake, like his grandpa Forney had told him about, a kind of snake that can grab
the tip of its tale in its teeth and roll like a wagon wheel, fast as a man can run. He wondered if
Jones had ever heard of a hoop-snake, and resolved to bring the matter up at the baseball game.
Pip then decided to take a short cut over the neighboring Culpepper farm, and had passed through
their apple orchard. There, he filled his empty tow sack full of green apples, and proceeded to eat
several that evening, and the following Saturday. Sunday, Pip came down with a tremendous case of
diarrhea. Now, Mother Trumble was big on the Mail-Order medicine, and was a firm adherent to Watkin’s
Mail Order Cough Remedy Syrup (Extra Strong), which she believed to possess amazing curative powers
not described on its packaging.
Thus, Pip was not present in church the Sunday that Byron House had his epiphany, though House
did not notice. Pip was at home, in bed, dosed into a state of near-catatonia by his mother’s
ministrations of Watkin’s Syrup. So it was decided, long about Sunday evening, that the entire
Trumble clan would not make the trip to Georgia.
Old Man Trumble exercised Solomon-like wisdom in the adjudication of the family crisis. He thought
that it would not be fair to young Pip to force him to go on the long road trip to Georgia, while
ill. Mother had long been promised the trip, however, so it would not be postponed. Instead, it was
decided that Anelda, being the eldest girl, would remain behind to minister to Pip, in case he needed
anything. In compensation, she would get ten dollars and be allowed to go shopping in town that
As morning came the next day, Byron House once again found himself hidden in the underbrush on the
Trumble farm. He waited through the late morning, and watched the Trumble’s Oldsmobile leave and
vanish up the road.
Going to Georgia.
Byron felt himself tremble with elation. He ate two ham sandwiches that his wife had packed for him,
believing his story that he was going out to Birmingham to look at a combine that was for sale.
As he chewed, his eyes wandered up the road, and widened in surprise. Anelda. What was she doing here?
There she was, moving slowly up the dirt road, as though forgotten by her relations and was now
trying, in no particular hurry, to catch up to them.
Wonder why she stayed behind? It didn’t matter. She was leaving. Good-looking girl like that must
have a boyfriend somewhere.
As she moved on up the road and out of sight, Byron left the cover of the underbrush and moved
toward the Trumble home. From his pocket he took the copy of the skeleton key that he kept in case
of emergency. He opened the lock and stepped cautiously inside. The back room, he remembered; that
was the girl’s room. He moved quietly as possible to the back room, and stood before the dresser.
He took a deep breath, and opened the top drawer.
There was what he had come for; four neatly folded pairs of them; thin, cotton, red, white, and
blue panties. Now, in yet another fact unbeknownst to the nervously sweating Byron House, was, that at
that moment, a fifth and identical pair of Red, White and Blue panties stretched across the bottom
of young Miss Anelda Trumble, who, having dosed young Pip with Watkin’s Syrup, as per her mother’s
instructions, was striding into town, back to Woolworth’s Department store, where, the previous
month, she had purchased those self-same panties on sale, five pairs for two dollars.
Now it so happened that over the past two days, the continual doses of Watkin’s Syrup had left
young Pip with a fearsome case of the cotton mouth. So it was that he rose in a state of cough-syrup
induced delirium and shambled out to the well by the shortest possible route, which carried him
through his sister, Anelda’s room.
If he had not been half in the spirit world already, he might have been surprised to encounter
Mr. Byron House, his father’s landlord and erstwhile employer, standing in the center of his
sister’s room, with a pair of her red, white and blue panties outstretched before him.
Pip did not pause in his quest for water, but as he passed, he said to the apparition,
“Hey, Mr. house, if you like those, I think they’re on sale at Woolworth’s.”
Pip went to the well and got himself a drink; he didn’t even hear the screen door slam shut
as he drank deeply, before returning to the house, and falling into his bed, and into a deep,
On the way home, Byron pulled the pair of Anelda’s panties from his pocket and breathed deeply
the clean laundry smell of them. He laughed maniacally, wiping tears from his eyes; for his was
a Pyrrhic victory, he knew.
That night, Byron House astonished his wife, as well as himself, by making mad, passionate love to
her, several times. As they slid apart and lay in the darkness, Byron House thought to himself, I
am ruined. It is only a matter of time before the boy tells his parents everything, and I am
destroyed. Pip Trumble awoke the next day, quite sure that he had recovered from whatever had
ailed him over the weekend. As for his encounter with Byron House, he had only a dim recollection,
as if afflicted with an unsettling dream. He grabbed his cane pole and went back to the creek, none
the worse for wear.
As for Byron House, he could no longer face Trumble, uncertain if the old farmer new of
his unholy obsession with Anelda’s delicates. He reluctantly let the matter of the delinquent rent
slide. Perhaps the old man would not ruin his reputation in the town if he allowed the old time
tradition to stand. He casually mentioned the matter to Trumble as they left church the following
“About last harvest’s rent. I hope you know I ain’t holding that agin you.”
And last of course, there was Anelda, who scratched her head briefly over the discrepancy in the
count of her red, white and blue underwear; but shrugged and put it from her mind; her latest
shopping trip had netted three pair of black silk underthings, which she had found at Belk’s on