Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- Part II

Last week, I kicked off my three-part story "Buck Naked in McCorkleville" with how I came to live under Miss McCorkle's roof in Charleston, South Carolina. This week, the saga continues. 

One night, about three weeks into my stay in McCorkleville, I heard wailing.

The cries seemed to be coming from downstairs. I opened my door and stood at the top of the stairs, listening intently. Soon I heard the distinctive McCorkle voice raised in anger, while her sister caterwauled like a wounded animal. I didn’t know what to do. Should I knock on her door? Call the police? I decided to go downstairs. As soon as I stepped onto the staircase, the house went quiet. I waited. Still no sound. I crept down the staircase and paused outside Miss McCorkle’s door.

“Well, I don’t care if you’re tired of it!” Miss McCorkle said, peevishly. “We’re havin’ potato soup for dinner tonight, don't you know!”

This was what they had been arguing about? Potato soup? As quietly as I could, I crept back up the stairs, keeping my ears pricked up for the next hour, in case the caterwauling continued. I heard nothing but the sound of nearby cars on East Bay Street.

I had already concluded that Miss McCorkle was ornery. But was she also abusive?

Over the new few weeks, I noticed that my landlady rarely ventured outside. When she did, it was to: water the pink impatiens she had planted on a small square of grass on the sidewalk; broom-shoo a neighbor’s cat from her gravel driveway; or get into her early 70s Nova and putter off to the Piggly Wiggly. On Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings I’d often see her walking home from the Catholic church down the street, dressed in clothes not even fashionable in their day, deep red lipstick painted randomly over and around thin, tight lips.

I’d had had no more actual encounters with my landlady until one brilliant, unseasonably warm May morning. I stepped out onto the front porch and there she was, sitting perfectly still, staring straight ahead, a worn gray sweater draped around hunched shoulders, a net tamping down the blue-gray hair. The Newsless Courier, as wags called the local paper for which I wrote, lay folded in her lap. I wondered if she’d read my article in that day’s paper about female jello wrestlers?

"Good morning," I said. "How are you?"

Miss McCorkle turned her head and peered at me with her gray eyes through Woody Allen glasses, which fought against the oblong McCorkle face. "I'd be better off dead," she declared, with an exaggerated shrug of her shoulders.

I struggled for an appropriate response but Miss McCorkle continued, delivering a detailed accounting of her troubles: a lingering cold, an upcoming visit from the tax assessor, her ailing sister's hospital bills. Hospital?

“Yeah, my sister is sick all da time,” Miss McCorkle explained. “All da time.” I wondered if the sister suffered from malnutrition, what with all the potato soup. Miss McCorkle looked me over, as if suddenly wondering why she had rented to me. I became self-conscious of my pink Oxford cloth shirt. Had it occurred to her at this moment she had rented her top floor to a gay man?

“It’s all too much, too much,” Miss McCorkle continued, folding spindly arms across a defeated chest. “Last month I had to take one thousand dollars out my savings to pay da roof repair man.” A scowl seized her face; she began to sway in the loveseat. "If it's not one thing it's two, don't you know.”

At this moment my attention was diverted by a small green lizard, which appeared suddenly on the steps near my foot. Before I could stop myself I screamed and stepped back, for I’ve always had a terror of creatures with flickering tongues and tails that come off in your hand if you should be foolish enough to grab them.

Miss McCorkle frowned. “It’s just a chameleon,” she chided me. “Squash it!”

Her remedy was more abhorrent to me than the reptile itself. I stamped my foot near the lizard and it scurried away. “Well, I guess I’d better get to work…” I said, edging away from the steps. “I hope you have a good day.”

Miss McCorkle raised her eyes upward, as if to scoff directly in her Lord’s face, and said “Ha!”

“Well, it is a beautiful morning.” I continued to slowly move away.

“It’s too hot,” was her reply. "It’s only May. I hate to think how hot it’s gonna be come June-July."

"I can only imagine," I said vaguely. Just as I placed one foot on the sidewalk, Miss McCorkle called out to me again in her distinctive accent. “Mr. Mahtin,” she said, “I heard you running da eh conditionuh yesterday. It’s too early to be running dat eh conditionuh. My current bills, dey goin' through da roof too, don't you know."

The day before, it had been particularly warm, and I had felt compelled to give the eh conditionuh a trial run. A lot of good it had done me, though. There was just one unit in the entire apartment, located in a window in the living room. It was an aged model with only a handful of BTUs left to rub together, and it only slightly took the edge off the heat in the living room. As for the bedroom, or any other room in the apartment, it made no difference whatsoever.

"Okay, I'll wait a little while longer before I use it again," I said. “Well, I'd better go."

“Yeah, you’ll be late to work.” Miss McCorkle suddenly stopped swaying in the loveseat and pointed a skeletal finger in my direction. "Oh Mr. Mahtin," she said, suddenly animated. "I only let dat apartment to one person, don't you know."

She must have been referring to Nick. Though I had lived in McCorkleville nearly one month, Nick had visited me twice, most recently the weekend just past. It never occurred to me this would be a problem for her.

"I hope you don't mind if I have out-of-town guests now and then," I said, trying to hide my growing irritation. Miss McCorkle had not said anything until that moment about a prohibition on houseguests. If she had, I would have rented elsewhere, no matter how affordable this apartment was. And what did she expect of me, anyway? I was 24 years old. My life was just beginning. I wasn’t going to come home every night and die, all by myself, just so I wouldn’t upset her equilibrium. She was being unreasonable and churlish, and it was dawning on me that this was one little old Southern lady I might never win over.

 “Well, I do mind,” she said flatly. The McCorkle head turned slowly from side to side. "I don't like strangers in my house.”

“Then I promise not to let any in.” I smiled at her and scurried on my way without waiting to hear her reply.


Not long after that encounter with Miss McCorkle, I decided to move my own furniture into her furnished apartment.

Comfort was my primary motivation, though in hindsight, I suspect I was also rebelling a bit against my cranky landlady. Miss McCorkle had furnished the apartment with two narrow single beds, both with mattresses that sagged like fallen soufflés; a whitewashed wooden chair that collapsed the first time I set my 125 pounds on it; a wobbly kitchen table from the 1950s; a lumpy sofa covered with a green, itchy and scratchy fabric and cigarette burn marks; and a plain pine dresser.

Economics were my second motivation. I already owned a double bed with an extra firm mattress, for which I was paying $50 a month to keep in storage. On my reporter’s salary at that time (1982), such an expense was an extravagance I could barely afford.

I knew Miss McCorkle would not be pleased if I furnished her furnished apartment myself. And so, I concocted a scheme, which I was about to put into action on this particular Wednesday night.

Every Wednesday at six p.m., Miss McCorkle went to Mass and was usually gone two hours. As soon as she departed, I flipped through the Charleston phone book until I found a residential listing for Indira Gandhi. The phone rang not at the headquarters of the Indian prime minister but at a new friend's home.

Gilbert was a local eccentric I'd met a few weeks earlier. When informed by the phone company that it cost money to be unlisted in the directory, he had instructed them to list him as Indira Gandhi instead, and astonishingly enough, they did.

Earlier that day, I had told Gilbert about the squalid furniture in my otherwise choice apartment and the financial burden of keeping my own furniture in a North Charleston storage facility. “Say no more,” he had drawled, with a wave of his wrist. “Call me the moment the wench departs and I'll help you move your things in."  

Gilbert materialized within 10 minutes of my call, arriving at my back door, as I had asked. I opened the door and gave him a quick hug. As always, he smelled vaguely of mothballs. He wore a wide-brim straw hat that covered his prematurely balding head; a pair of large eyeglasses that made him look like a bug; baggy shorts that accentuated his skinny, white, hairless legs; and, most improbably of all, flip flops--hardly the sensible shoes one would wear for hauling furniture.

We jumped into Gilbert’s late 1960s station wagon, which smelled of suntan oil, dog dander, and bubble gum. He called the car his ‘portable drawing room,’ and he confided that he kept a bottle of tawny port in the trunk. Would I like some?, he wondered.

"No thank you," I answered, trying to imagine sipping port in a speeding station wagon.

As we entered North Charleston, Gilbert slouched as far down in his seat as the driver of a motor vehicle could without causing a wreck. North Charleston is an industrial city and military base much reviled among proper Charlestonians. “If I’m seen entering a storage locker in North Charleston…” he began, then shuddered at the imagined consequences. “Oh, eyebrows will be raised, questions will be asked.”

Within one hour we had shoved my bed, mattress and box springs into the portable drawing room and returned to McCorkleville. Seeing no signs of my landlady, we hurriedly moved my things in through the back door. Gilbert tripped on his flip flops more than once. Rather than cursing, he would say ‘Dang!,’ revealing his not-so-carefully concealed Arkansas roots.

To make room for my bed, we moved one of Miss McCorkle's two soufflé beds from the bedroom into the living room. And then, to make room for a bed in the living room, we pushed Miss McCorkle's hideous green sofa into a corner and stood it upright, on one of its sides. "Child, it looks as if your apartment had been decorated by Camille,” Gilbert observed, peering at me through his enormous glasses. “Hurricane Camille.”

Our covert operation was completed not a moment too soon, as about five minutes after we finished, I heard the downstairs front door open and close.

Gilbert lingered longer than I'd hoped, as I didn’t want to be upbraided by Miss McCorkle yet again for having house guests. I suggested we go out the back door and get a drink somewhere. He pleaded exhaustion and asked if I had any beer. I found two Miller Lites in the refrigerator and handed him one, which he consumed every so slowly. Eventually, after I feigned exhaustion, Gilbert finally departed. 

A few minutes later, there was a fervent knocking on my door. “Mr. Mahtin!” came the unmistakable voice. “I heard someone in your room!”

I opened the door, but not all the way. “I'm so sorry," I said. "It was somebody from work. He just stopped by for a moment." 

Jello wrestlers, of whom Miss McCorkle disapproved
Miss McCorkle looked even more comical than usual in her quilted pink bathrobe, clutched tightly over her non-existent bosom. Her hair was suppressed beneath a net, through which bobby pins protruded, like crab claws poking out of a fisherman’s net. She regarded me with churlish disapproval. “Well, I told you, I don’t like strangers in my…”

Suddenly the McCorkle mouth formed a small ‘o’ and her eyebrows, which had probably not been tweezed since Jean Harlow died, jumped upwards. “Mr. Mahtin, what’s my sofa doin’ in the corner? Standin' up on one side?” She shoved the door all the way open, pushed past me, and entered the apartment. “You…put a bed…in my livin’ room?”

I explained as best I could that I wasn’t able to sleep comfortably on her soft mattress and couldn’t afford to keep my own bed in storage. Miss McCorkle aimed a skeletal index finger at me and reminded me she had let this apartment as furnished and that’s how it should stay. I apologized and promised to move her sofa back onto all four of its feet. But there was no way in hell I was going to move my bed out, I thought.

As Miss McCorkle turned to go, her face having settled into a scowl, she looked back over her shoulder and said, ‘Who ever heard of a bed in a livin’ room? It’s not proper.”

As I started to close the door, she turned around again. "And I been meanin' to tell you, you should be ashamed of yourself, and so should dose girls!"

“Which girls?,” I asked, truly perplexed.

"Dose jello wrestlin' girls," she said. "I bet dere mommas don't know what they’re up to. And what business do you have, writin' about jello wrestlin' girls? In da newspaper, even!"

"I'll take up the matter with my editor tomorrow," I said.

Miss McCorkle glared at me as if she had more unfinished business to discuss but couldn't recall what it was, her thin lips struggling to form the words that would spew forth yet another accusation. At last she turned without anything further to say and descended the staircase, setting off a series of creaks that emanated either from her bones or the steps, which one I couldn’t tell.


Next time: Trying to make amends, the summer squall, and the big 'eh conditionuh' incident.

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  1. Now you tell me it's a three-parter, Jim! Up to your ol' sneaky ways, I see. No wonder Miss McCorkle gave you 'ell! ;)

  2. Have been not so patiently waiting for part two and you continue the great story! Cannot wait for part three....

    1. Thanks for not being patient with me, Colleen!

  3. I'm dying to know who Gilbert is...

  4. Well Lordy Be. I can totally picture this woman. I'm dying to know what Sister looked like. And, your reference to Baby Jane is absolutely perfect.
    Now, did you keep your bed there? Did you put the couch down? Did Gilbert end up running for mayor? ;-)
    Oh Miss M. I bet she hated small children and puppies.

    1. JuJu, you are too funny. Gilbert never ran for anything if he could walk instead.

  5. I am just now catching up with you and Miss McCorkle. Good stuff. She reminds me of my southern grandmother: characters, undoubtedly, and huge pains in the backside. But, incredible story material. Your descriptions are spot on.

    Bring on Part III!