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The Box of Contents


ISSUE:  Summer 1985

It was going to be a burner, one of those days when you wake up and the soles of your feet are wet with sweat. The way it had been, one day after another, with no letup. After a while it gets to a man, unhinges his brain, assuming he had some sense to start with. That’s what happened to Billy Floyd at the auction sale. The heat wasn’t the only reason, but folks understand weather. The sun shines on the sinners and the saved.

In Billy’s case the reason he acted the way he did was in his blood, and the heat just brought it out. For as far back as anyone knew, Billy’s people had never amounted to squat. Lots of high-flown notions and plenty of excuses. There was something downright childish about all of them but without the innocence folks are always hanging on children. I never held with that idea anyway. Some people go to the grave without learning anything. You can call that innocence if you’ve a mind, but to me it’s plain dumb.

People looked out for the Floyds because God knows they couldn’t fend for themselves, brought them food out of the garden or invented jobs for Billy. Each time Billy would stick his hands in the bib of his overalls, grin, and say, “You didn’t have to do that.” Hell, we knew we didn’t have to, but if we didn’t who would?

There’s nothing new about auction sales. The minute a man had something to sell there was someone around to sell it for him and someone else to buy it as long as it was cheap enough. That’s human nature. And there never was a short-age of reasons for a sale. Sometimes it’s a case of a man selling out because he’s tired, or sick, or sick and tired. Or maybe he drops dead, like Henry Sterret did, and his widow lets herself get talked into selling everything she and Henry put together, plus all the things that were handed down from generation to generation and haven’t been out of the family for 150 years and more, so she can buy a condominium in Florida or some damned place.

The hottest day of the year was exactly the sort of day Beulah Sterret would pick to hold her sale. I went to school with Beulah and thought for a while I might marry her, but Henry came along and saved me. As she grew older, Beulah got the habit of saying “what” to anything. She claimed she was hard of hearing, but it was just her way. You had to say things twice, sometimes three times before you could get an answer from her. The wife maintains it’s hard enough to get me to say things once.

Having what you might call a family interest, there was no way I was going to miss this sale. If I went for no other reason, I was determined that Beulah get enough money, as long as it wasn’t mine. The wife had her eye on Beulah’s pie safe. I couldn’t see that it was much different from ours, but I learned long ago not to argue about things like that.

I could see right away that this was going to be the biggest sale of the year. We arrived at the Sterret place in plenty of time, but it was all I could do to fit the pickup into the pasture that had been turned into a parking lot. There were maybe 20 people in line to sign up and get their number. Not just the usual folks, but people who had come out from town, plus antique dealers. You can tell the dealers by the way they dress. Local folks put on clean clothes to go to a sale. Dealers don’t care what they wear.

I was glad to see Ferris Bull would be the auctioneer. Not everybody would agree, of course, because if you put it to a vote 10 percent of the people would hold that the world is flat, but it’s pretty generally accepted that Ferris is the best.

He was thanking the crowd for showing up—he always starts that way, then thanks them again during the sale and at the end—because people like to feel good about themselves. “Can you hear me back there?” he yelled. Then he made some jokes about the heat. Nothing funny, just to get folks in the proper frame of mind. He introduced his wife, who sat under a beach umbrella at a little table behind him and wrote down the number of each buyer and what he bid, so when it came time to settle up there could be no argument. Then he introduced his two assistants, who held up what he was selling so everybody could see what they were bidding on. Finally he gave the rules, which weren’t all that complicated: if you were top bidder, you bought it, had to pay for it, and have it off the property by the end of the day.

The thing about Ferris is that he’ll stop right in the middle of the bidding to kid along with the folks. If someone drops out he’ll say something like, “We had a good time while it lasted, didn’t we?” Or if a lady can’t make up her mind whether she wants in or out he’ll say, “Don’t worry, ma’am, you haven’t spent it yet.” But the thing I like best is that he works just as hard over a box of contents as for a bush hog. He’ll squeeze out the last quarter like if he didn’t get it he, the widow he’s selling for, the county, the state, and maybe the whole damned country was heading for the poorhouse. I admire that in a man.

I’ll explain a box of contents because it has to do with Billy Floyd and what happened. A box of contents is just like it says, a collection of junk that isn’t worth the effort to throw away but represents the principle that there is nothing in this world someone won’t buy if you put it together with more of the same and the price is low enough.

I hadn’t taken two steps before Billy Floyd, Box of Contents Billy, saw me. He was standing to one side, getting what shade he could from a catalpa. On either side of him were his boys, looking so much like their father it was like they had no mother at all. The same round face, pale kinky hair sticking out the side of CAT caps, red-rimmed eyes like they were coming down with sties. They even stood with their hands tucked into the bibs of their overalls.

Ferris sang his first “Lookee here,” which is the way he introduces each object before trying for an opening bid.

“It’s a burner,” Billy said.

“You can say that again.” There’s no need to try and say something smart about the weather.

“Good crowd.”

“Sure is.”

I turned and saw Ferris take off his cowboy hat, wipe his forehead with the end of a towel his wife kept for him, then begin his song. Any auctioneer worth anything has some phrase he sings over and over. It doesn’t have to make sense because all it does is keep the sound going between the numbers. Ferris’s is, “What’ll ye give?”

“I want you to meet my boys,” Billy said. “This here is Bobby. And this is Rich.”

I shook hands with them. Ferris was on the money now and singing away.”How’s your wife?” I asked.

“Compared to what?” He laughed so hard people turned around to see what was funny.”She got a cold. Ain’t that something, a cold in this heat?”

I started to edge away. “Got to find the wife.”

“She’s over there.” He nodded and kept his hands in his bib. You had to think that maybe his chest would fall off if he didn’t keep hold of it.”Talking to Missus Sterret.”

Ferris was on his next “Lookee here,” working his way through a table of dishes and pots.

I found the wife sitting beside Beulah, both of them working up a sweat fanning themselves.

“You want to give Ferris that fan” I said, “I bet it would fetch a good price on a day like this.”

Beulah smiled at me and said, “What?”

“He says you could sell your fan,” the wife said.

“Why would I want to do that?” Beulah asked. She was wearing a straw hat, fastened under her chin with a pull string. It covered her white hair without hiding it. Didn’t hide her dark blue eyes either. If anything, it made them bluer than ever. Her eyes were always her best feature.

“Good crowd,” I said.

The wife jumped right in before Beulah could “What?” me. “He says there’s a lot of people.”

Beulah smiled. Either the dentist did one hell of a job or those were still her teeth. Her smile was another of her good features.”Henry and I have a lot of friends. I hope I’m doing what he would have wanted, selling out and moving to Florida.”

“Of course you are, dear,” the wife said,

“You think so?”

I wondered how Beulah could hear the wife but need an interpreter for me.

“I keep thinking,” Beulah said, then stopped as if she forgot what she was thinking.”When I move away I won’t be able to be with Henry.”

If you want to be with him, all you have to do is take up residence in the cemetery, which I don’t see you being in such an all fired hurry to do.

I didn’t say it, but the wife looked at me as if I had.

“Billy Floyd came over to pay his respects,” Beulah said. “Of course Henry was always good to him.”

“Henry was good to everyone,” the wife said.

“Had his boys with him,” Beulah went on as though she hadn’t heard the wife.”The three of them like peas in a pod.”

The fact is Henry Sterret was better than good to Billy. All of us did our share of looking out for the Floyds, but Henry worked it overtime. If all Billy paid was respects in exchange for all the hard money Henry paid him, then Billy was miles ahead.

“I’ll see you later, Beulah,” I said.

And naturally she answered, “What?”

Ferris had cleared the first table and was working on a box of contents. Of course Billy was right up front, raising the bid from a quarter to 50 cents. Four bits was about his limit, but he was known to go as high as a dollar. Above 75 cents he moved 10 cents at a time. Would have moved at a nickel pace if Ferris had let him.

The wife found me standing in front of the barn, looking over the tools that would be put up for sale.

“I guessed I’d find you here,” she said.

“You guessed right.”

“Don’t tell me there’s a tool in this world you don’t already own.”

She said not to tell her, so that’s what I did. But you don’t get the better of that woman so easy.

“Looks like old junk to me.”

“Mostly is. Appears she already sold anything worth owning. At least I hope she did and didn’t give it to the son-in-law.”

“That reminds me.”

It didn’t remind her. Almost nothing I say ever does.

“Reminds you of what?” I couldn’t resist it.

“I talked to Beulah. She wants us to have the pie safe, so she’s going to tell Ferris to hold it back near the end. That way some of those dealers may give up and go home before the bidding.”

“She wants us to have it she could give it to us.” I didn’t say a word about “us” wanting the pie safe.

“I thought I’d tell you, so you don’t go wandering off. I want you with me when Ferris puts it up.”

What she wanted was an accomplice. She was bound and determined to get that pie safe and wanted me standing next to her so when she bid more than the damned thing was worth I couldn’t come back at her later for spending too much.

“That cultivator looks interesting,” she said.

“The colter is missing.”

“Never mind. I bet one of those dealers will be glad to get it.” All the time she was talking she was stirring the air with her straw fan, not cooling anything but spreading the heat more evenly.”You look hot,” she said.”The ladies from the rescue squad auxiliary are selling ice tea behind the house.”

“You want some?”

“That would be nice. And see if they have any crumb cake.”

“Where will you be?”

“Right here.”

I must have stood in line 30 minutes. Somebody I never saw spilled Coca Cola on my fresh shirt, then when I finally got the ice tea and crumb cake a woman backed into me and dropped tea all down the front of my pants. Of course the wife wasn’t where she said she’d be.

I found her sitting with Mrs. Ramsey, who took one look at me, pointed to my pants, and laughed.

“Looks like you had yourself an accident,” she said.

I told her the accident wasn’t all mine and gave her my ice tea.

I heard Ferris announce that as soon as he finished selling what he was on he was going to move down to the barn and sell the tools, so that’s where I headed.

There was no breeze, not even a whisper. If you so much as shuffled your feet a cloud of red dust rose maybe six inches off the ground and hung there. A soul fresh from hell would feel right at home, might even ask for a cold drink to cool down. A few at a time, folks began to gather. The red dust was thicker and rose higher. It was a different crowd from the one that had been bidding near the house. There were more farmers, fewer women, not so many young people, and just a sprinkling of damned dealers with their shirts open clean down to their waists and dirty looking handkerchiefs knotted round their necks. There was a fat one with pants drooping low on his hips who looked like a candidate for heat stroke. His hair was strung down his neck and he kept shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. With every step he planted his foot like he was coming down stairs and wasn’t sure where the last step was.

The tea had dried on my pants, leaving a ring and a rusty stain. I edged over to stand next to Fatso because no matter how grubby I looked I had to be better than him.

“I never knew it could get this hot,” he said.

“It’s a burner,” I allowed.

Ferris was bent almost double to hang onto the sidewall of his pickup as one of his assistants drove it down the grade to the barn. His shirt was wet clean across the back and under the arms, and there was a wet spot in the center of his chest. “We’re going to sell all the tools,” he announced, “and then we’ll sell the wagon.”

All the time I had been standing there I had seen only the burned-out motors, the pumps and wrenches, the mauls and axes with busted helves, the horse collars and hames, and I hadn’t even noticed the wagon. A wagon is not something a man is likely to overlook. I moved forward as if it was a mirage and I had to touch it to be sure it was real.

It appeared to be some 12 feet long, flatbed with almost new two-inch boards over a steel frame. You could use it to haul all kinds of heavy equipment. At the back was a pair of hinged ramps that folded onto the bed, and there were U bolts front and rear to chain down whatever it was you were carrying. Henry must have rigged it out himself. He was always good at things like that. There were rubber tires and the frame had been lengthened. You could put two small tractors on it and have room to spare. I knew I didn’t have to check the hitch, not if it was put on by Henry Sterret, but I did anyway.

Ferris had given I don’t know how many “Lookee here’s” and was singing away by the time I got through looking the wagon over. Now, I’m not saying I needed it, but I never met a farmer who had too many wagons, any more than I met a woman who had too many clothes, or didn’t need another pie safe. I didn’t mean to chase it out of sight, but as long as the price was right I wouldn’t mind owning it. I looked around to see who might bid against me. Near as I could tell there were four. I knew Sam Baldwin and Mike Browner. Neither of them would bid high. The other two I never saw before.

“Nice looking wagon,” someone said.

I looked up and there was Billy Floyd grinning across from me. His boys were still beside him, each with a box of contents tucked under an arm. I looked away from them and checked my watch like I was worried about the time. It would make no sense to praise something I was thinking about bidding on,

I moved back beside the fat man, who had bid on the cultivator with the missing colter, and I never would find out what it brought. He was bidding on an old grain shovel with a crack in the handle. The bid was one hundred dollars and damned if he didn’t raise it. I moved away from him in case whatever he had was contagious.

As the red dust rose, so did the prices. I figured if I ever emptied out my barn I could be a damned millionaire.

When the last rusty rake and burned-out motor was sold, Ferris mopped his face. Word of the prices must have spread and folks wanted to see who was spending all the money. All the people who had been waiting up at the house for the furniture and clocks to go moved down to the barn. The dust was almost as high as the wagon bed and so thick people were fanning it away, which only made it worse.

Any auctioneer likes for there to be a lot of people, but Ferris had to know that there wasn’t more than a handful of us who were ready to bid. Maybe he thought he could get some excitement going or at least have some fun. He gave a “Lookee here,” then stepped onto the tailgate of his pickup and half jumped to the wagon. He stomped his heel on the boards to show how solid it was.

“How thick you reckon these boards are?” he asked me,

“Inch,” I lied.

“Two,” Mike Browner said.

“More like three I’d guess,” Ferris smiled. He pranced up and down the wagon, pointing out features like he knew what he was talking about.”All right, folks,” he yelled.”What we got us here is an A-number one flatbed wagon. It was Henry Sterret’s and he wouldn’t have had it unless it was the best. What am I bid? Who’ll start at 400 just to get on the money?”

The wagon was worth all that and more, but wouldn’t nobody in his right mind start there. I was willing for the bidding to end there and maybe go some higher, but if that’s where you began there would be no telling where it would go.

Nobody said a word at four, so Ferris right away dropped to three and sort of leaned back on his heels like he was doing everyone a favor to start so low. Still no one said anything. “Two hundred and let’s go,” Ferris barked, making believe he was disgusted with us for being cheapskates.

“Fifty,” Billy Floyd said.

“Thank you, Billy,” Ferris smiled. Then he stopped, pushed his hat back, and puckered his lips.”Billy ever tell you about the time this stranger come up and asked him, “You lived here all your life?” Know what Billy told him?” Everybody knew what was coming, so Ferris waited while we got ready to laugh. “”Not yet,”” he finally said.

To me that’s a funny story, and I laugh every time I hear it. But Billy practically doubled over laughing. In the end folks were laughing at him more than at Ferris’s story. Maybe that’s where things began to get out of hand.

“All right,” Ferris said, then had to say it three or four more times before folks settled down.”We’re on the money at 50 dollars. Do I hear 100?” And he started singing.

If he was going to get 50-dollar jumps it wouldn’t be any time before he was back where he wanted to begin.”Not so fast, Ferris,” I complained.”We got plenty of time.”

Ferris changed his tune to 75 and Sam Baldwin got in. Ferris was asking 100 now and got it right off from one of the two men I didn’t know but who I figured would bid. I hung back because it doesn’t matter who has the first bid, it’s who has the last one that counts.

The bidding was getting close to 300, and I was ready to begin. Ferris was singing away and waving his arms. Then for no reason I could figure out, except that he liked the attention his first bid brought him, Billy Floyd loosened one hand from the bib of his overalls and put in a bid of 325, skipping right past 300.

Billy Floyd bidding 325 dollars made less sense than the fat dealer bidding more than 100 for a busted grain shovel. At least the dealer figured he could sell the damned thing for more than he paid. Come to think of it, that may have been Billy’s idea too, but no one will ever convince me that Billy had any idea what the wagon was really worth. He had no experience, and, even if he had, the Floyds were the sort of people who don’t profit from mistakes but go on making them as long as they live. I’m not saying he didn’t have the money, or couldn’t borrow it, because he was always a hard worker and had a good name for paying what he owed, but he needed that wagon like a bull needs teats or Ferris Bull needs another mouth.

In any case, Ferris shouldn’t have done what he did next, not with Billy’s boys standing beside him. He turned away so Billy couldn’t see him and winked at the crowd, and them damned fools smiled back and encouraged him.

Ferris started singing for 350 and got it without trying too hard. Then he turned back to Billy and asked for 375, Billy grinned at him and nodded.

Four hundred came and went. Then 450. And it was Billy bidding against the field. As soon as it got over 550 even those who hadn’t seen Ferris wink knew what was going on. Maybe Billy knew it too, but there was no way for him to baek off, not with his boys standing beside him.

The bid was running up to 700, and folks were starting to laugh. Not just those who knew Billy and knew that he lived in a tenant house that didn’t have even a nodding acquaintance with paint, where a flush toilet was still a sort of novelty, but even the town folks and the dealers. It was all in fun, though I didn’t think it was funny. And there was Billy, his face red and sweating, his red-rimmed eyes bulging. He knew folks were laughing at him, and of course it made him dig in his heels. I felt so sorry for the damned fool, but I didn’t see how I could make him stop.

Everybody was joining in the bidding now because they knew no matter what they bid Billy would bid more. When it got to a thousand dollars the laughter was so loud Ferris could barely hear the hid. At 1,100 everybody broke off at the same time. Fun is fun, they must have figured, but it was getting so high they were afraid Billy might stop too,

Billy still grinned, but there was a look of terror in his eyes. If a hole had opened in the ground, he would gladly have dropped through it and just kept going. He stuck his hand back in his bib and looked around for someone, anyone, to continue bidding. Maybe he didn’t know what the wagon was worth, but he had to know that at 1,100 dollars he was the sort of fool people would talk about forever.”Remember the day Billy Floyd bid 1,100 for that wagon?” And everybody who heard would start laughing.

Ferris closed out the bidding fast, and Billy’s hand shook as he raised the pasteboard with his number on it. The wagon was his. It might take him a year of paying interest to pay for it, and during that time maybe his family wouldn’t eat so good, or the kids get new clothes, and all of us would have to invent more jobs than ever for him, but he owned a flatbed wagon that wasn’t good for anything except carrying heavy equipment that he didn’t own and never would.

Folks were buzzing and had stopped laughing. Ferris sensed the change in mood. It was all fun as long as the bidding went on, but now that it was over and they could see the panic on Billy’s face the fun was over. Ferris runs an honest sale, as honest as an auction sale can be, and if anything is misrepresented, even by accident, the buyer has the option of refusing purchase and it goes up for bids again. Those are the rules.

“Now, if this wagon ain’t exactly what we said it was—” Ferris began.

“The hitch is busted,” I snapped back.

“Man says the hitch is busted,” Ferris yelled into the microphone. There was a kind of sigh from the crowd.”Take a look at it, Billy,” Ferris said.

It was his way out, I don’t care how dumb he was, he had to know it. All he had to do was look at the hitch and nod his head, not even say a word, just nod. Nobody would say a thing about there being nothing wrong with the hitch, and the bidding would start over again.

Sweat rolled down Billy’s neck, soaking his shirt and leaking clean through his overalls. He walked all around the wagon before he reached the hitch. Bent over to examine it, then kicked it once from each side.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with it,” he said. He had to swallow in the middle to get the last words out. The minute he said it something happened to me. I still felt sorry for him, but I was mad because he didn’t seem to give a damn what I felt.

“You sure?” Ferris asked.

Billy stood straight, his face wet, his hands stuck back in his bib.”I’m sure.”

Ferris looked at me, then looked at the crowd and shrugged.”All right, folks,” he said, “we’re going to move back up to the house now and sell the furniture. If anyone needs some refreshment, the ladies from the rescue squad auxiliary have a stand over there.”

The crowd moved off, following Ferris in the pickup, and raising a fresh cloud of dust. Billy stood beside his wagon— it was sure as hell his now. His eyes bugged, sweat rolled off his face like it was tears, his mouth opened but still with that damned grin. His arms hung at his sides, and you could see the fiery scar on the inside of his left forearm where he pinched it in a baler. His boys were still beside him, each clutching his box of contents.

It didn’t seem right to leave him there, but it wasn’t right to go on staring at him like he was a prize fool, which of course he was. I started to ease away and was almost to the incline leading back to the house before Billy caught me.

“That’s a fine wagon,” he said.

I allowed as there was nothing wrong with the wagon.

“Man could haul a lot of equipment on a wagon like that.”

I allowed that too.

“Saw you looking at it,” Billy said. “Thought maybe you were going to bid.”

“I considered it.”

“Fact is,” Billy tucked his hands back in his bib, which made him look more natural, and ducked in front of me like he was afraid I might run off.”Fact is, you could use a wagon like that.”

“A man can always use a good wagon.”

“I could let you have it for 50 dollars over what I paid.”

“I don’t think so, Billy.”

He blinked a couple of times to get the sweat out of his eyes.”Look, you always been fair with me. I’ll let you have it for exactly what I paid, without any profit for my trouble.”

Sure I felt sorry for him, but I was still mad and that wagon wasn’t worth a penny over 500—550 tops—and there wasn’t 600 dollars worth of pity in me. Besides, if folks were going to be telling the story about how Billy Floyd paid 1,100 dollars for a wagon that was worth half the price, I sure as hell didn’t want them substituting my name for his.

I shook my head and tried to move on, but Billy kept in front of me and blocked the way.”If you didn’t want the damned thing, you had no business looking like you did.”

“I look any way I damned please.”

“And another thing, you had no right trying to shame me in front of my boys.”

“I didn’t try to shame you.”

“Yes, you did.”

I couldn’t answer because he was right. There wasn’t a soul who knew Henry Sterret who wouldn’t also know that the hitch on his wagon would never be busted.

“And don’t think you fooling me now,” he added. “You want that wagon so bad you can taste it, but first you have to jaw me down.”

“That’s enough,” I said. Folks say I got a short fuse, but I swear it would take a saint on a day 20 degrees cooler not to lose patience with such a fool.

“All right,” he called after me, “you had your chance. And don’t come running to me next time you need somebody to do your work.”

I kept walking because there wasn’t anything else to do, but you could have boiled coffee on the back of my neck. I heard him say, “You boys stand right there and see nothing happens to our wagon.”

There wasn’t any question what he was going to do now. The ether had started to clear, and he realized he owed 1,100 dollars for a wagon he couldn’t use if Henry Sterret had left it free and clear in his will. All Billy could do was approach every last soul who had bid against him and hope there was a bigger fool than him to take it off his hands. I could have told him that maybe God made some but not often. That’s what I was thinking when the wife found me.

“Where have you been?” she said. “I’ve been looking all over.”

“Take this,” I said and handed her the pasteboard with my number.

“Where are you going now?”

“I got an idea.”

I found Beulah on the front steps of her house, chin in the palm of one hand, sitting spraddle legged like an orphan. The straw hat was hanging down her back and her hair had turned frizzy with the heat.

“I want you to do something,” I said.

“What?”

I said it again.

“What can I do?” Damned if she didn’t have a pretty smile, even if maybe it wasn’t hers.

“Billy Floyd paid 1,100 dollars for Henry’s flatbed wagon.”

“What?”

She wasn’t going to get the best of me. I ground my teeth and repeated it.

“Someone told me,” she said.

“Beulah, you and I both know that wagon ain’t worth but maybe half that.”

“I don’t know any such thing.”

It was a wonder the way her hearing improved when there was a dollar sign in front of the words.”I’m not going to argue about what you know or don’t know,” I said. She cupped her fingers round her ear. “I want you to go to Ferris and tell him you made a mistake. The wagon shouldn’t have been put up for bid. You had already sold it to me.”

“I thought you would want that wagon,” she said. “You should have bid. I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t talk Billy into selling it to you for not much more than he paid. He never struck me as being greedy.”

“It ain’t his greed I’m worried about.”

“What?”

I let it pass and went on. “You go tell Ferris and I’ll give you 600 dollars.”

“What about Ferris’s commission?”

“I’ll pay that too.”

“Six hundred is a long way from 1,100, even with the commission thrown in.”

“It’s a hundred more than the wagon is worth.”

“What?”

“Are you going to talk to Ferris?”

“I couldn’t do that. It’s against the rules of the sale. If you want that wagon, you’re going to have to deal with Billy.”

The way she would tell it, I came to her to beat Billy out of his wagon and her out of 500 dollars.

I went back down to the barn, taking a wide turn so I wouldn’t have to look at the damned wagon. By the time I started back to the house, people were loading the things they bought into their pickups, crossing back and forth like it was moving day at the insane asylum. I saw the wife marching across what used to be grass but was now just trampled down green dirt.

“Ferris getting near the pie safe?” I asked.

“I already bought it.”

“How much?”

“I settled up. Why don’t you bring the pickup to the gate and I’ll help you load it?”

If she had got it cheap, I wouldn’t have had to ask. If I pressed her, she might tell me, but she sure as hell would blame me for not being with her.

I backed the pickup to the gate and damned near knocked into Billy, then jumped out of the cab to be sure he was all right.

It was a brand new Billy Floyd who was smiling at me, not grinning but smiling. It sure wasn’t the man I’d left a while back. It wasn’t even the man I had seen standing under the catalpa with his boys. Unlikely as it seemed, I guessed he had found a bigger fool than himself, so when folks told the story about Billy and the wagon they would have to add that there was at least one other fool in the world, and it didn’t take Billy long to find him.

“Who did you sell it to?” I asked. I wanted to know only to be sure to stay clear of the man.

“Didn’t.”

“Didn’t?”

“No, sir. I asked around but didn’t nobody want it.”

Then what are you so damned happy about? I wanted to ask it so bad I could feel the shape of the words in my mouth.

“I see the missus bought that pie safe,” Billy said.

“We’re going to load it in the pickup.”

“No need for that. I got a wagon. Me and the boys will haul it for you.”

What’s that old saying? If you fall in a pile of manure, might as well go in the fertilizer business.

The wife came up to see what the delay was about, and I told her Billy was going in the hauling business.

“You folks are my first customer,” he smiled.

We walked to the top of the grade that led to where Billy’s boys still kept watch over the wagon.

“Mind you don’t scratch it,” the wife said. “I don’t want it bouncing around.”

“We’ll handle it like it was a baby. I got a blanket somewhere in my pickup to wrap it in, and we’ll tie it down. The boys can ride in back to be sure it don’t slide.”

We walked a few steps down the grade, then Billy called to the boys.”Hi, Rich, Bobby. Come up here.” They started up the slope, carrying their boxes of contents. “Put them boxes down,” Billy yelled. They stopped and stared at their father to be sure they heard right.”Put them down I say. We got us a job of work to do.”

The wife supervised the loading of her pie safe on the wagon. I wandered back to the pickup. I could hear Ferris still singing, but there was only a handful of folks left. Beulah sat on the steps of her empty house, still spraddle legged and with her chin in her hand. The drawstring from her straw hat made a red line along her neck.

When the wife finally came, I backed the pickup to the road so she wouldn’t have to walk through the pasture again in her good shoes. I drove about a mile, waiting for her to say something. She knew I was waiting, so she waited too.

“What do you reckon got into Billy?” I finally said.

“Can’t imagine.” I knew without looking, from the way she said it, she was smiling.

“You going to tell me?” I demanded.

“Not if that’s the way you ask.”

We rode another mile. Hell would freeze before I asked her again.

“Beulah talked to him.”

“What?” I said. She spoke so soft I wasn’t sure I heard. That got her laughing so hard it was another mile before she could talk at all.

“Beulah spoke to him.”

“You said that.”

“You know Beulah. Why are we slowing down?”

“So I can hear what you have to say. When you finally get around to saying it.”

“Well, right after I bought the pie safe I went to find Beulah. She was standing with Billy. They didn’t notice me, but I could hear them.’I see you got Henry’s wagon, ’ Beulah says. Billy has that hangdog look. You know the way he does. Beulah just goes on with what she has to say.’As far as I’m concerned, I’m glad it was you and not some stranger.’

” “They were laughing at me, ’ Billy says. “They’re still laughing.” “

“Never mind about that,” I said.

“Beulah had that look in her eye.”

“What look?”

“Watch the road,” the wife said. “I don’t know how to describe it. She goes along from one year to the next without really saying anything, then suddenly her eyes change and you know this time she means what she’s saying and you better listen up. “I talked to a man about shipping my car down to the new place in Florida,” she says to Billy. “You know what he told me it would cost? Five hundred dollars.” “

“Five hundred dollars?” I exploded.

“That’s just the way Billy said it,” the wife laughed. “Don’t you see what Beulah was doing?”

“For 500 dollars I’d drive her car from here to Alaska and back.”

“So would she and she never drives anywhere but around town. I have no idea what the man told her, but I know it wasn’t any 500 dollars.”

“What’s this all about?” I asked.

“I’m getting to it.”

“Eventually.”

“Billy tells Beulah that he’ll carry the car for her. “The minute I heard you got the wagon I thought of that,” she says. “Since I’ll have to pay such an outrageous sum, I would much rather it be to someone I know than to a stranger.” “

“So she’s picking up where Henry left off,” I said, “No wonder Billy was smiling when I almost backed the truck into him. I’d be smiling too if I was in his shoes.”

The wife shook her head and pursed her lips like she does whenever she has something important to say.”Billy actually took his hands from the bib of his overalls,” she said.”His shoulders straightened and you could see the load coming off. “You and the mister, rest his soul, always been more than square with me,” he says.”And that’s a mighty fine thing you’re offering to do for me. It ain’t that I don’t appreciate it. But I just can’t accept. Not this time. I’ll be glad to carry your car for you, but I won’t take a penny more than expenses,”“

“You sure that’s what he said?” I asked.

“I was standing right there.”

“It just don’t sound like Billy.”

“I heard it with my own ears.”

I didn’t say a word to her about talking to Beulah.

When we got home, the wife started fixing supper. I poured some whisky in a tall glass over ice and moved out on the porch to cool down and wait. About a mile off I could see a cloud of dust, which was probably Billy and his boys bringing the pie safe. It was too far to be sure. I drank a little and ran the cold glass back and forth across by forehead.

Maybe the wife thought there was something different about Billy now. Like there was no knowing what he might do next. In my book that made no sense. He was a Floyd, and it was just like one of them to turn down 500 dollars from a woman who had more money than brains. You would never catch me doing a thing like that.

Personally I wondered how long it would take for Billy to get tired of being in the hauling business. I would be willing to take the wagon off his hands when he did and pay him what it was worth, minus wear and tear of course.

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