Died-in-the-wool rednecks and Southerners are hard nuts to crack. The explanation lies mostly in that when focused on the cracking you forget the requisite circumstance: They’re nuts.
The first words Merle said to me were, “Hey man! You ain’t queer or nothin’ are ya?”
I should have known then my neighbor across the street was either going to be a lot of trouble or a lot of fun.
Merle and Vickie moved to Hickory Hollow in 1983 when the first house went up. Theirs’s was a 1,200-square-foot ranch on a concrete slab. It was a proud day in Merle Williamson’s life. He was 22 and moved to the big city to start a good job as an electrician at the Ford Plant. He bought a real house, made of brick, for his wife and their two young children. Neither of them ever had a house that didn’t have wheels.
You’da thought they’d a packed up the truck and moved to Bev-er-ly.
Some 24 years later, Merle and Vickie were still there. The house expanded to 2,000, then 2,600-square-feet. Between 1983 and 1994 they had six more children, all boys sans Merlene, the youngest, who looked like her momma but smelled like her daddy.
Merle’s father was a pig farmer in Breckinridge County, Ky., who raised his son to give the shirt off his back or his last meal to anyone. That son was also raised with a mistrust of anything not rural, but he’d lived in a large city for a quarter century and gleaned some peripheral sophistication as a result.
Still, he was cut from a different cloth. The ones you use to check your oil.
Like his “Deddie” and his deddie’s deddie before him, Merle only knows one kind of work: hard. He’s got saddle-oiled hands that could squeeze spring water out of sand. With forearms the size of deck posts and deep divots on the corners of each eye from repeated physical strain, one look at Merle and you get the feeling a Kodiak bear would see him coming down the path and just opt for early hibernation.
Pausing to cut the grass last week, I walked over to Merle’s front yard where he was trimming Vickie’s bush.
(A Chinese elm with a Black & Decker Hedge Hog … get your mind out of the gutter.)
“Look at that sumbitch!” Merle said, to me and Vickie, who was pulling a weed out of Merle’s flower bed.
(A dandy lion while wearing a pair of Target brand goatskin gloves … you people assume way too much about my prose.)
Merle was pointing at Roger Swinson, two doors down from me. He had just finished cutting his grass.
“He’ll just leave them grass clippin’s on the sidewalk and in the road,” Merle said. “Fuckin’ lawyer types. Takes six water breaks to cut a 40X40 front yard with a got-damned self-propelled mower. Finishes in less than 30 minutes, never rakes, never edges and leaves his two weeks worth of grass clippings layin’ out there thinkin’ some magic street suckin’ genie comes along and cleans up. Ain’t got no pride, ain’t got no sense … lazy mutherfucker.”
“Amen, Brother Merle! Tell us how you feel, preacher man!” I said in my best Baptist congregation voice.
“Well, shit. It ain’t like it’s hard to sweep 15 feet of sidewalk. I mean, got-damn! He’s got a fuckin’ leaf blower!”
“Why do you care?” I asked.
“Pencil dicks like him are what make the neighborhood look bad. It ain’t right. The rest of us work hard to make Hickory Hollow a nice little place to live.”
“Well, go tell him to sweep it up. Or shit, let’s me and you go over there all mad and shit and threaten to kick his ass.”
“Why don’t the two of you nutless wonders go over there and sweep it up if it’s buggin’ you so much and it’s just 15 feet of sidewalk,” Vickie snapped from the flower bed.
“Oh stay out of it, Vickie,” Merle said.
Merle told Vickie to shut up once in 26 years of marriage. It was during the 1985 Daytona 500 when Bill Elliott outran Lake Speed, ending the elder’s career in bittersweet fashion. Merle loved Speed and was a little emotional listening to the MRN broadcast of the final dart to the finish. When Vickie walked through the living room reminding him to take out the trash, her request drowned out Barney Hall’s call of action in turn three and it just burst from deep in Merle’s beer-soaked belly.
Vickie calmly walked into the kitchen, removed a small, cast-iron skillet from the stove drawer and Merle didn’t hear the crossing of the finish line … or anything else for three days.
“He’s just damn lazy, that’s all,” Merle said. “Guess his momma musta been on top when he was conceived.”
“How you figure?” I responded.
“Well, you git some of them personal afflictions from the way your deddie was while you was conceived. He was on his back, lettin’ momma do all the work. He was lazy.”
“Shit Merle,” Vickie said. “If that were true, all eight of your kids woulda come out drunk and wearin’ socks.”
“Vickie, shu …”
His voice trailed off as Vickie straightened up and shot him a look that would stop a cock fight.
“Well, Merle. Whatcha wanna do about it?” I asked.
“I’d like to drag his uppity ass outside, duct tape his arms, hold him upside down and make him to lick up all that grass.”
“Yeah, but what are you going to do about it?”
“You wanna go over there with me and sweep?”
We weren’t sweeping two minutes before Swinson came out the front door with a confused look on his face. He’d just showered and had on his Barnes & Noble outfit … short-sleeved plaid button-up, yellow Duck Head shorts, polished, $350 Cole Hahn dress shoes and no socks.
“Can I help you fellows with something?” he said in as Ivy League an accent as a University of Kentucky graduate can fake.
“Nawwww,” Merle said, head down, smacking the push broom down the sidewalk. I didn’t respond. “Well, what, exactly, do you think you’re doing?” Swinson scoffed.
“Cleanin’ up after some lazy-ass who doesn’t know how to properly care for the neighborhood,” Merle said, looking at Swinson through wrinkled eyebrows without raising his head.
“Um … well … it is my yard, so if you don’t mind …”
“Well?” Swinson said, now standing in front of Merle.
“Well, um, well … I do mind, pissy-britches. It’s your yard, but it’s our sidewalk and I try to be neighborly and look out for the older folks, who might slip on your uppity, lawyer grass, you little yup-fuck. Now move your ass and don’t worry your pretty little head about finishing the job. I’m sure your wife would agree that would be out of character.”
Leave it up to a redneck to drag someone’s wife into it.
“Roger, just go back inside,” I said, moving between them. “Merle’s got a pet peeve about landscaping, you only have a little bit of sidewalk, we’ll just sweep it up for you and be on our way.”
“Well, that’s not the point.”
“It is the point, Roger. Now go back inside before Merle gives you a better reason to sue him. He’s a little off, if you haven’t noticed. If he decides to beat your ass, I’ll just have to sit here and watch. And maybe video it for YouTube.”
“This is ridiculous,” Roger said. “Get off my property, you … you …”
Merle picked up his broom and held it like a bat.
“You … rednecks!”
It’s not that we aren’t rednecks. We are. But it was his tone, insinuating that someone with that qualification is somehow less than him. With one hand on Merle’s chest and the other pointing a determined finger at Swinson’s little puckered up, anus of a mouth, I unleashed.
“Look, you pretentious frat boy fucker. You can be condescending. You can scoff at our houses, clothes, cars, wives, kids. You can live in your little delusion of a life that you’re better educated and aren’t blue collar like us and play golf and yuk-yuk it up with your snotty friends at your knob slob country club all you want. But if you’re going to insult a redneck, you owe it to humanity to do it right.
“Say something clever, like, ‘I’d join you guys in your little crop rotation experiment boys, but I fear I have too many teeth.’ Don’t fuckin’ condescend on us with your snotty, rich boy routine.
“You’re obviously not a good lawyer or you’d live in Glen Oakes and not here with the middle managers and Ford factory fuckers. We put the ‘hick’ in Hickory Hollow. Your life adds the ‘hollow’ part you latte-swishin’ stock ticker slave.
“And I’ve got news for you, Roger. Two weeks at a retreat at Harvard is a far cry from Harvard Law, so get rid of the sweatshirt and take that silly sticker off the back of your Volvo, you slug spoo.”
Roger stared at me with fearful eyes and an open mouth. He was either embarrassed or pissed because he was as red as an albino’s ass at a bondage convention.
“Fuck you guys! Sweep the goddamn sidewalk!” he yelled and went inside.
Merle and I swept the sidewalk as best we could, laughing the way we were. Later we sipped on some cold beer on his front porch and watched Roger walk across to Merle’s sidewalk.
“Can I hep ye?” Merle said, smiling.
“How did you know all that shit, Patterson?” Roger said, ignoring Merle.
“What shit?” I said.
“The Cole Hahns, the bad lawyer, the Harvard retreat … how’d you know all that shit?”
I chewed on the notion of an honest answer, one that would include three salient points:
1. He’s not the only educated cat on the block with a white collar job
2. Logic is a bitch when you can’t recognize it, and
3. A friend is a legal secretary at his firm
Then I remembered something Milton once told me. He said it was my God-given responsibility to fuck with asshole neighbors. So, I opted for the fun response.
“Why don’t you walk your pretty little hair plugs back across the street and ask your wife.”