When we lived in Bryson City, North Carolina, my parents hired a poor woman from up in the hills to babysit for us one evening. I was eleven, Bob was nine and Kathi was six years old.
The woman they hired was short, squat and wrinkly. Her hair was up in curlers when she came to the door. I was shocked. I’d seen Mom with bobby pins in her hair but she never went outside like that, except to hang clothes up on the line.
“Dinner is in the ‘fridge. Just warm it up in the oven and help yourself. We’ll be home by midnight.”
Mom showed the lady into our small, yellow kitchen, opening the door to the ‘fridge and pointing to a big casserole dish.
“Thet’s a real nice ‘fridgidaire ye got.”
“You kids behave,” Dad admonished as we three gaped at the strange lady.
Bob ran out to play baseball with his buddies. Kathi’s friend had brought her dolls over for a tea party. Mom said she could stay until dinner-time.
I figured I’d draw the baby-sitter once she got settled in. Most baby-sitters sat and read magazines. Except for Marilyn. I sure did miss Marilyn from the trailer park. She’d put on records and dance with us, teaching us the latest moves.
The new lady went out onto the cement front stoop and sat down, sighing heavily. From the right pocket of her jacket, she took a tin can with no label. From the left pocket, she pulled out a square of brown stuff that looked like peat I’d seen up around the Great Lakes. Only this wasn’t as loose. It was packed tightly.
Strolling around in the front yard, I pretended not to watch the odd ritual. I clutched my sketch pad and soft pencil close to my skinny chest.
With a tiny pen-knife, the baby-sitter cut off a section from that brown square and shoved it into her mouth. She chewed while staring down into the Smokey Mountain Valley. I sidled over and sat down at the other end of the stoop.
“What’s that stuff?”
“Ain’t what fine ladies do—chaw. Filthy habit. Don’t you never take it up. Once you start, you won’t never quit.”
She spat a stream of brown liquid into the tin can. The sound was similar to milk squirting into a metal bucket. Mom had taken us to a farm where we were allowed to try milking a cow. It wasn’t easy.
As the can filled up, I was grotesquely fascinated. After ten or so spits, the baby-sitter walked over to the ditch near the dirt road in front of our house and pitched the contents of the can into it. Eww! So that’s what happened to the terbaccy—it got absorbed by muddy water and flowed down into the valley.
Staring was rude. So I went inside, sat down at the kitchen table, opened my sketch pad to a clean page and began to draw. I worked hard, using the India rubber eraser Dad had given me for my birthday. It was difficult getting the baby-sitter’s squint as she spat. I’d always had trouble drawing hands and this was unusually hard—chubby fingers clutching a tin can. I worked and worked, not noticing when my sister came in and asked,
“Are we going to have dinner soon?”
I looked up, eyes burning, fingers sore from my efforts. I’d used up three pages of expensive paper trying to get the baby-sitter looking real. My drawings never turned out the way I could see the subjects in my head.
“Let’s go ask.”
I led Kathi to the front door. There sat the baby-sitter, still staring into space and spitting into the can.
“Yuck!” my little sister ran into our bedroom.
I didn’t know the baby-sitter’s name. That detail had been left out by the grown-ups. So I just said,
“Uh, hi—we’re sort of hungry. Should I go get Bob?”
“You do that honey, I’ll get them vittles het up.”
She brushed dust off her calico dress behind and sat the tin can down on the stoop. I followed her into the kitchen and set the table for four. Place mats, silverware, cloth napkins Mom made from scraps, glasses for milk.
I’d forgotten to get my brother. Dashed out the back door and found him near the mole cliff. The boys were rustling around, trying to make moles emerge from their holes.
“Stop it, Bobby. Mom says we can’t do that ever since Kathi got bit.”
“Anyway, time to eat. C’mon home.”
I rushed back to the kitchen and found the baby-sitter bending over, squinting into the ‘fridge.
“Do you want milk?”
“Child, I ain’t had milk in yarns. Water OK by me.”
I filled three Tupperware glasses with milk and carried the other glass to the tap, getting it nearly full with water. I’d always had shaky hands, so carrying a full glass wasn’t easy. I did spill a little and rushed to get a rag from under the sink.
“Honey, that’s my job. Fixin’ vittles, watchin’ over ya’ll an’ moppin’ up. Now let me earn my keep.”
She shoved the casserole into our oven and turned the dial to 400.
“Might be purt while. You set and draw. I notice you like to sketch. Mah Pappy’s a good drawer. Uses cardboard an’ charcoal sticks. Burns ’em good, hickory. A right smart a drawer, my Pappy.”
“What does he draw? Faces or animals?”
“All sorts—Jesus, Joseph, Mary, sheep, cows, Noah’s Ark. God Almighty in th’ clouds, trains, tractors—th’ whole world in one piece. Gets big ol’ boxes from work. He work for Mr. Sossamon. Rolls out them cardboard, tacks it up on th’ shed. Draws an’ paints for hours. Got a whole bunch. Some folks buys ’em. Decent cash from them Yankee tourists.”
I couldn’t contain my excitement.
“Can I see? I want to see!”
“Pappy a bit strange. He don’t like people much. Listens to them preachers on th’ radio an’ avoids crowds. Works a’ th’ devil, he calls people. But I reck’ if your Mama an’ Daddy don’t mind, maybe one day you kin come up an’ see fer yerself. Tell me if he crazy or not.”
“No! It sounds real neat!”
Bob came in, filthy.
“Wash up!” I commanded.
“You can’t boss me.”
“Son, now—wash yerself up shinin’ clean. Dinner about on th’ table.”
“Don’t take th’ Lord’s name in vain.”
Dad always said that when we used the word ‘Geeze’–I didn’t see how that was taking the Lord’s name in vain. I thought God was called God.
We ate in silence, a little afraid of the baby-sitter. I wasn’t as scared as Kathi or Bob. I knew all about her Pappy and terbaccy.
“Ya’ll young’uns get yer hands washed, faces too an’ set down for a television play. I got dishes t’ wash an’ can’t watch over ya’ all blessed time. Child—fetch me that can, will ye?”
Slowly opening the front door, I approached the tin can as if it were an unexploded bomb from the second world war. Dad had been in the Pacific and told us all about those dangerous things.
I kicked the can gently, to see if any brown liquid would splotch out. With no idea as to what ‘terbaccy’ was, I figured it could be some kind of grown-up poison. Teachers always warned about the dangers of alcohol, firearms and cigarettes.
Finally, I picked the can up and clean table. I set the can in the center of the Raleigh Times. She got out the brown square, now quite smaller than the first time I’d seen it. She cut a bit and began to chew, her jaw moving slowly. Her eyes half closed and she stared at the wall.
That terbaccy must be like Dad’s scotch. Grown-up stuff that made people go into another world. I vowed to try it one day, if I could find out where to get a hold of some.
The next morning at breakfast, I eagerly babbled all about the baby-sitter, terbaccy, her Pappy’s artworks, how much we’d loved the cheesey tuna casserole and cherry pie. I begged to be allowed a visit to see the drawings of Jesus, God and trains.
Dad looked at me like I was crazy. Which I was.
“What the hell? Tobacco? Was she chewing in the house? Where’d she spit it?”
Tobacco? So that’s what terbaccy was. Yuck. I hated the smell of cigarette smoke. Both my parents smoked Winstons non-stop. It was especially yuccky in the car on cold days with all the windows rolled up tight. No, I wouldn’t chaw. That was for sure.
“She only did it outside. She had this little can.”
“Eat your eggs.”
“I am! Can I go up and see the artwork?”
“Hell no, I don’t know anything about that guy. Jesus and tractors. He sounds like a nut.”
“It’s the baby-sitter’s father. You know her.”
“She was last minute. We got invited to the Club by Sossamon, so your mother walked up the hill and asked her.”
“Bill Elder, she came with decent recommendations from our neighbors.”
“That’s not saying much. They’re ignorant.”
“They most certainly are not.”
Well, that settled it. Whenever Mom and Dad got to arguing, there was no way to get a request in edgewise. I’d have to either forget about seeing the wild art or sneak up myself. Maybe Bob and Kathi would go with me.
But a few weeks later, Mom had boxes full of food and hygienic supplies ready to take up to the hill folks. They were proud and did not want charity. So we’d sneak up onto porches, leave the boxes and run away.
“Could we Please go and see that art, Mama! Please!” I begged.
“They probably need a few things. So OK.”
“YAY!” I danced around in the kitchen.
Mom drove part way up the mountainside. But we had to walk a far ways. Bob, Kathi, Mom and I each carried boxes full of canned goods and other items.
“We’ll go to the baby-sitter’s home last.”
It was a hard climb, on dirt trails through rhododendron and azalea thickets. But we finally got all but one box delivered.
“This was to the last house.”
We followed Mom, who carried a box full of goods.
The house was normal, like all other hill people’s homes. Just like our Grandma Bonnie’s. Unpainted wooden walls, rickety stairs, tin roofs, brick chimneys that Mom said were hand-built.
But the shed!! A little shed standing a ways from that house, it was covered with tacked-up cardboard.
Wild paintings covered every surface! Bright red, gold, blue and green colors swirled into images of angels, devils, people lifting their arms up toward clouds, ocean waves covering donkeys and people. It was magnificent. I ran around the shed, studying every inch of each painting.
Bob climbed a pine tree. Kathi followed Mom.
Our baby-sitter came outside and sat on the porch with Mama and Kathi.
“Dixie is in 7th Heaven.”
“I reckon she is. She a artist like my Poppa. Little crazy don’t do no harm fer painters.”
She spat into her can.