For generations, my mother’s family were bootleggers all the way down to my great grandfather, a grizzled, old man with a withered arm who constantly chewed tobacco and who was always licking the little reservoirs of brown tobacco juice that gathered at the corners of his mouth.
Despite his appearance, he was the most popular man in three counties since he managed to make the best sour mash around. According to my grandmother, it was a matter of great pride to him, and he never sold a single quart without first testing it himself.
“It’s a sorry sumbitch that won’t drink his own likker,” he used to say.
Such pronouncements were rare for the old man though because he had a peculiar reverence for language that didn’t permit him to talk to people who talked much. Instead, he preferred to sit quietly in an old wicker bottom rocking chair on the edge of the porch and spit tobacco juice off into the grass. He would time each of his spits to the forward rocking of the chair.
For all his reticence, though, the old man didn’t mind sitting and listening to other people swap stories and gossip. But the only times he ever interrupted were when somebody challenged his conviction that a Baptist was a bootlegger’s best friend or when his nephew Hiram came around. Hiram got under the old man’s skin like a blister. And the old man whittled himself a birch cane and laid it beside the rocker just in case Hiram ever irritated him enough and the old man wanted to crack Hiram’s skull.
I remember my grandmother telling how one day Hiram came over and was teasing my great grandfather about his arm which he had to lay across his lap whenever he was rocking.
Almost everybody knew the story about the arm, how it had been shattered by a Minié ball at the Battle of Chickamauga, and how the surgeons, rather than amputating it, had removed the shards of bone and attached a banjo string from my great grandfather’s elbow to his wrist. By some miracle he did not contract gangrene and the string never bothered him unless Hiram was around.
“Why donche pull out that banger string and pick us a tune?” Hiram teased.
The old man’s face reddened.
“That ain’t real funny, Hiram.”
“Whatsa matter, cain’t ye do it? I didn’t figure ye could.”
“It’s a little pile of shit I care what you figure, Hiram.”
Hiram began hooting as the old man reached down for his cane and with a single motion swung it in a wide arc at Hiram’s head. He cracked Hiram’s jaw with it.
“Goddammit,” Hiram cried, “you done broke my jaw!”
The old man spat once in the yard and resumed rocking. Then he said,
“Y’know, Hiram, I’m figurin you’ll be needin a string to wire them teeth together. Maybe I got one you can borry.”
The old man pointed to his arm and grinned, his rusty old mouth showing pieces of tobacco.
“You crazy old sumbitch, I ought to kill you,” Hiram screamed.
But already the left side of Hiram’s face was beginning to swell and tears were streaming down his cheeks. All my great grandfather had to do was hold up the cane.
As a matter of fact, Hiram never did anything to pay the old man in kind. And according to my grandmother, he even tolerated rather stoically all the bad jokes about how all my great grandfather had to do to get Hiram to shut up was “raise a little cane.”