Willy the Whale


    This story was sent to us by Michael Ringering. Mr. Ringering is a published author, and you can find out about his books here. Also, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing bim, and that interview will be posted next week. 

   Enjoy the story!

Momma told me she was leaving. She opened the screen door leading from the mudroom of our three-bedroom farmhouse, called my name, then warned if I didn’t high-tail it along, she’d leave for town without me. I believed Momma. She always meant just what she said.

A 1933 Lauderdale County Mississippi Saturday morning offered little excitement – at least nothing so intriguing as to evaporate the interest of a five-year-old from a junket to the big city. Trips, in those days, were far and few between. Finding gas to fill our Model A always seemed a challenge, and when it could be had, usually cost more than what Daddy had in his pockets. 

My sisters and I had no concept of the depression or what it meant, but we were in it. Daddy said so. Despite its toll on the world beyond our fifteen little acres, one day seemed pretty much like the next to us. We didn’t feel depressed in the least. It’s hard to long for improved comforts when you have all you need.

Like clockwork, my sisters and I woke each day to the crow of our old Plymouth Rock rooster, Pecker. We ate breakfast, labored through morning chores, attended school, completed afternoon chores, ate dinner, went to bed. Our existence was a small, tidy box centered on love, mostly laughter, and a simplicity that provided comfort and assurances that the sun would rise each new morning. We did not refer to that as the depression. We called it life.

What we knew of the outside world proved minute, comparatively speaking, learning only of harsher realities from classmates or an occasional substitute teacher in the one-room schoolhouse my sisters and I attended four days a week. We had a radio in the front parlor, but little reception. Daddy once stumbled upon a live broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry direct from Nashville, Tennessee. The signal quickly faded to that ever-present static cackle, but it was still the most thrilling seven minutes we’d experienced that week.

One night, when a chorale of crickets erupted into song, jostling me from a pleasing slumber, my senses honed to a conversation in the kitchen. Momma and Daddy were speaking of the times. I often wondered why Daddy had to work so hard; why we girls kept seeing less and less of him. If only we knew the true weight of the burden that had settled so squarely on his shoulders.

“I don’t see as we got much choice, Olivia,” Daddy said, figuring his conversation a private one.

“John, how many more jobs can you take on? You’re working three now. There’s only so many hours in a day and some you need for eating and sleeping.”

“I’ll eat when it’s time to eat and rest when the times say we can rest. All we got in the world is this farm. I’ll see myself to the grave before I let a bank swoop in and steal it from me. Besides, that man says he’ll pay ten dollars if I can get that hay cut, baled and stored before month’s end.”

“I could try and find a job in town mending clothes,” Momma suggested.

“You have a tough enough job right here. I ain’t ‘bout to have you killing yourself while these girls are left to fend for themselves. They’re good girls and they need their momma. I wouldn’t promise a man to do a job if I didn’t think I could do it. Now, my mind’s made up.”

“But John, if we …-“

“Olivia, we’ll get through this.”

I closed my eyes that night to the sound of a kiss. Knowing Daddy as I did, I’m certain he took Momma in his arms, held her as one would a newborn kitten, then kissed her fears away. When it came to providing food for the table, coats in winter and shoes on our feet – when it was we desired to wear shoes – Daddy was as determined a man as I ever knew. When it came to working the farm or working for others, he was as tough as a crowbar.

Daddy came home late one night. I awoke to the slap of the screen door then crawled from bed upon hearing the melodic creek of the wood runners of his rocking chair. Having seen so little of him in recent days, I stumbled into the kitchen rubbing away the bright light splashing against my eyes, then nestled into a spot on his lap reserved just for me. His clothes were damp and his scent that of a man having spent the day stoking a furnace. His arms were dirty – plastered with the kind of dirt that never completely washes away when a man’s working steady – his hands sticky his hair slicked back from sweat. I didn’t mind, because that was Daddy.

“I’m worried, Daddy,” I said through a yawn. “I never get to see you anymore.”

Daddy patted my behind. “Don’t you worry about that, Peanut,” he said, “real soon now, we’ll have all the time together you want. Just have to finish a couple jobs.”

“I miss you, Daddy.” I closed my eyes to the sound of his heart thumping in my ear.

“I miss you, too, Peanut. Keepin’ a farm is hard work. One day, when you’re all growed up and have a family of your own, you’ll know what it’s like to make sure your children have food and clothes, and a roof over their heads. You’ll understand why it is your Momma and I work so hard. But you let me worry about that for now. You worry about your schoolin’, your chores and being the sweetest little girl in town.”

Daddy kissed my cheek then settled his chin atop my head. It was not long before sleep caught up to the both of us.

Momma’s voice was always within earshot in those days. I was in one of two places when not doing chores – on the banks of a small pond adjacent Daddy’s garden, where I spent hours counting tadpoles and writing personal thoughts on a paper tablet, or in an overgrown pasture with my horse, and best friend, Ginger.

This particular Saturday morning, Ginger and I set out early, as she seemed unusually anxious to graze. After gobbling a homemade biscuit and a small bowl of grits, I swept the kitchen floor then collected the morning eggs from the chicken coop. With chores complete, I was ready to absorb the delicate morning sun and a whispering southwest breeze that brushed up with the dawn, ferrying with it the always pleasing and comforting scent of alfalfa and pine.

Sprawled atop Ginger’s back with senses comfortably numbed, my imagination transported me far from our Mississippi homestead to the many worlds I created when time was my own. Mamma’s call interrupted a flight atop a mammoth monarch butterfly named King Sam, who’d rescued me from the clutches of an evil queen intent on stealing the memories of all the little girls in the kingdom. I slid from King Sam’s wings – surprisingly similar to Ginger’s soft, silky coat – into the field of high grasses still moist from the morning dew. I would return to my adventure with King Sam later in the day, assisted by a pencil and writing tablet. I kissed Ginger’s forehead and promised to return as quick as the Model A could carry me home.

Momma stood at the back screen door awaiting my arrival. She smiled when I emerged from a clump of woods guarding the rear of our property. I skipped across the grass to meet her at the top of the steps.

She grabbed my face in the palm of her hands. “My dear child, you are a bird in this world,” she said. “If you had wings, I’m certain you would fly away and we’d only see you in springtime.

Momma’s smile was infectious and her words effervescing. I suspect that is why I had such an affinity for putting pencil to paper, so desiring to construct words and phrases as Momma could.

“Come on now,” she said, brushing a strand of hair over the back of my ear, “we have to get along. Your Daddy is coming home early tonight and I want to make him a special supper.”

“Okay, Momma,” I said. She patted the top of my head as I passed.

“Get your shoes. I’ll meet you at the car.”

Momma had four dresses in those days. One for go to meeting, one for winter, one for summer outings, and one for everyday use. Daddy always said she looked like a bride when she wore her Sunday dress and joked she should never wear it out of his presence. She was in her summer dress that morning; a Robin’s egg blue beauty, fit more for a woman accustomed to the bright lights of downtown. Momma may have dreamed of having an endless wardrobe, but never complained or pressed Daddy – even when we had a bit of money to spare. It was more important her children were well clothed. What outfits she did not make from scratch, she mended used or accumulated by trading eggs, vegetables, or fresh milk.

Momma and Daddy were the most resourceful people I ever knew. They taught us well to rely on our own devices and use the resources God provided. We were fortunate to have a good stock of farm creatures and Daddy’s knack for growing crops in less than fertile soil. We had near forty chickens, three milk goats, a milk cow Daddy won at the county fair, a mule named Igor to haul Daddy’s plow, and Ginger, of course. 

Our animals provided a reliable sustenance in those hard times, and Daddy made sure we treated them with respect. We also had two cats for rodent patrol – although they chose us, not we them – and our dog, Getty, to keep watch over the chickens and property in general. Daddy said they all served an invaluable purpose in our survival. They were more than family to us.

I hurried through the kitchen and down a modest hallway, stripping as I ran, toward a small room shared with my sisters. I tossed atop my bed the light blue overalls Momma made from an old denim seat cover. Rummaging through the bottom drawer of a shared dresser, I grabbed a summer dress similar in color to Momma’s, then stepped into a pair of shoes used for my walk to school. I replaced the yellow ribbon securing my ponytail with a blue one, then scrambled from the room, skipping to a tune I learned in church.

I burst through the back screen door, sending it slapping against its jamb, to a rock sidewalk leading to the driveway. Momma planted a modest flower garden each year, boarding one side of the sidewalk. As I passed, I plucked a Black Eyed Susan from off its stem. I immediately brought the flower to my nostrils and breathed deep. I love the smell of a freshly plucked anything, especially flowers. Blacked Eyes Susan’s were Momma’s favorite. She said they were the happiest of all flowers and reminded her of me. They were my favorite, too.  

Momma was waiting on me by the driver’s side door. 

“My, don’t you look pretty as a picture,” she said, adjusting the bow in my ponytail then patting the side of my face. “You’re quite the young woman.”

“You look pretty too, Momma,” I said. Her scent was that of violets. It reminded me of the changing of winter’s dull, brown canvas, to the vibrancy and multi-color of spring.

“I guess we look smart enough to hop that old train to Jackson,” she said, leading me into the car. “Come on, now. Life is too short to be wasting it away.”

The Model A cranked on cue. It was as reliable to turnover as Igor was to pull Daddy’s plow on command. Momma was an expert driver. She spent the majority of her childhood working the family farm and cotton fields. She was driving farm implements – mechanized or beast-propelled – before she was ten. She guided the car down the long, narrow gravel drive to the county road. I rolled down the window to catch the breeze upon my face.

What an exciting moment to have Momma all to myself. I felt as important as I did blessed. The bright sunshine and blue skies, holding in suspension just the right sprinkling of puffy clouds to entertain with their many manifestations, only added to the thrill. Maybe we would catch that train to Jackson after all. My imagination tossed that nugget about, eventually conjuring a convincing scenario in which a rich and powerful princess would see Momma and I step from the train and invite us to a fancy hotel for a tea party. I giggled to myself at the thought. Life was wonderful.

Not quite yet tall enough to observe the world over the dashboard, I settled onto my knees with forearms glued to the side window frame, staring at the world passing by at twenty-five miles per hour. Momma seldom tested the limits of the Model A’s engine. I don’t think she was driving down a county road, I think she was back on her family’s farm, pulling a hay wagon, or such, through an endless pasture. I was just happy to be by her side.

Our rural community was just that – a farmhouse here and there situated off the road between wide pastures and croplands. We knew most families along the way, at least before hard times forced some to new locations. I extended my arm out the window, flattened my palm, and allowed the breeze to lift and dip my hand as I mulled the goings on in each home we passed. Every so often I asked Momma, “who lived there,” or “how far to town,” – nothing of great import – more just to hear the sound of her voice. When my mind wanted an answer, I asked a question, no matter the situation or circumstance. My inquisitiveness must have driven Momma and Daddy up the wall, but their patience was as steady as a spring rain.

The outskirts of downtown Meridian appeared within an hour of our departure. Pastureland and farmhouses exchanged for whitewashed buildings and single-family structures. I don’t recall a visit to town when traffic was as thick. Cars lined every street and townsfolk shuffled along sidewalks in bunchfulls.

Momma drove up and down Fifth Street in search of a parking spot close to the general store. I spied a mass of people in an empty lot at the corner of 23rd Street, but paid little attention beyond that. Another circuit up then down the street produced a parking space three shops down from our destination. Momma inched the car between two like Model A’s, then reached for my hand. I scooted across the bench seat in response to her tug, being careful so as not to destroy the delicate flower petal in my other hand. 

The sidewalk was busy as a beehive. People pushed and shoved their way along the storefronts, some with destinations in sight, other’s having no particular place to go whatsoever. I thought it quite odd the number of shoppers, considering Daddy’s description of the times and how jobs and money was so scarce. We traveled but a short distance before I realized the majority were not shoppers. 

Every few feet a strange man asked Momma for spare change, a cigarette, food, an opportunity for work. Momma squeezed my hand to a light blue hue, pulling me along as I did my rag doll in romps through the pasture. A police officer approached from the rear, sending men scrambling to the other side of the street or dipping into doorways. He offered Momma assistance to her destination, but she declined.

Momma and I entered Hyerby’s General Store along with a throng of others. An odor, a combination of cinnamon spice, scratch grain and tobacco, tickled my nose. Daddy brought us girls to Hyerby’s last Christmas to gander at the many new toys we could never afford. He did buy us each a candy cane, which was an unexpected but most appreciated treat. 

Men – well, mostly men – all looking ragged and at their rock bottom, formed a long line on the opposite wall, waiting for something or someone. I saw a man exit the store with a loaf of bread packed tight under his arm, but did not make the connection at that moment. Anxious to get her items then back on the road home, Momma instructed me to stay put, not to touch anything, and speak to no one. 

I turned and watched Momma work her way toward the back of the store. As she passed a center counter displaying the latest in women’s pocketbook fashions, she paused, opened her purse, looked to the long line of men standing against the wall, then again to her purse as one would  who’d suddenly realized they’d left their money at home. Following several moments of internal debate, Momma approached a frail-looking young woman dressed in tattered clothes and offered her two coins. The woman’s hand shook then she began to cry. Momma wrapped an arm around her and led her from the line. I lost sight of them as they drifted to the rear of the store, but will never forget the look on that woman’s face when she exited the store with two bottles of milk in her arms.  

I moved away from the doorway to in front of a large picture window framing nearly the entire width of the store. Climbing atop an old wood create, I waited for Momma by watching through a large letter “O” painted on the glass, the world passing by in a frenzied rush. 

My gaze drew to that crowd of people across the street in the empty lot on the corner, specifically to a long, enclosed wood trailer painted bright blue. Large yellow letters stretched the length of the trailer at its top, advertising, “Willy the Whale,” with a picture of the great beast jumping from the water just below. 

Willy the Whale! Wow! – a real live whale in downtown Meridian. 

A man in a straw hat and stripped shirt, standing atop a small stage at the trailer’s entrance, barked with great animation through a megaphone. Whatever he was selling was drawing people from the corner of every street.

Excitement shot through me like a streak of lightening on a summer’s night. I’d learned of whales in school, even saw pictures of them. Unable to reign in my delight, I turned from the window to locate Momma. I spotted her at the back of the store, deep in conversation with a woman working behind a glass counter. I jumped from the crate and sailed across the store, bobbing in and around pedestrian traffic and display cases. I reached Momma’s side and tugged at her dress.

“Momma, Momma,” I screamed, “it’s Willy the Whale! Willy the Whale!”

Momma pried my fingers loose of her dress, but did not recognize in any other manner my efforts to gain her attention.

For heaven’s sake, I thought. How blind could the world be? How could Daddy’s pipe tobacco be more important than Willy the Whale?

I grasped Momma’s dress with my free hand, crushing the pedals of the Black Eyed Susan against her rump. I tugged again.

“Momma, Momma, it’s Willy the Whale,” I yelled.

Momma excused herself then crouched below the counter to meet me at eye level.

“You stop that now, child,” she said, grabbing my other hand. “There’s no call for screaming. Can’t you see I’m talking to someone?”

“But, Momma, it’s Willy the Whale,” I said, pointing toward the front of the store, “and he’s right across the street!”

“We don’t have time for foolishness. I need to finish my shopping and we need to get on home.”

“But Momma ….”

“Go on now. You let me finish. Get on back to the door like I told you, and don’t move again.”

I raced to the front of the store to reclaim my position atop the crate. The man in the straw hat had disappeared, only to reappear seconds later at the far end of the trailer where he was escorting an older couple down a set of stairs. My imagination mushroomed as I gazed upon the enormous picture of the whale. What adventures we could have and what stories we could tell, if only tobacco wasn’t’ so important. I had to meet Willy the Whale. I just had to.

I felt Momma’s tap on my shoulder, but not her command to step from off the crate. She grabbed my arm and tugged gently to gain my attention, but my eyes remained glued to that big, blue trailer. She tugged again, and this time, drew my stare from the window. Whatever it was she saw in my eyes sent her to another place and time. Her gaze turned distant and I could see a memory or moment calling her conscience. Maybe she was lamenting a time when, as a child, she desired to attend the circus or own a doll she’d seen perched in a display case at a general store very much like this one. Wherever she was, I was not about to let the opportunity pass.

“Momma, please, can we go see Willy the Whale? Please?”

Momma smiled and took my hand. I jumped from the crate as if I had springs attached to my feet. Mine was the best Momma in the world.

I waited at the edge of the sidewalk for Momma to stow her purchased items in the car. I jumped up and down trying to see over passing cars and moving bodies, but had no clear view of the trailer. I giggled when Momma grabbed my hand. We walked to the corner then crossed the street. Upon reaching the other side, the trailer appeared in full view and glory. It was enormous. Maybe bigger than our house or school, even. Excitement snaked through my veins. I was hopping like a toad.

Momma led me to in front of the crowd, just below the stage, where the man in the straw hat bellowed solicitation.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to see in person one of nature’s most magnificent creatures,” he yelled, waving his straw hat about as if swatting hornets. “For just a dime you can see up close and in person the largest mammal in the world, straight from the depths of the magnificent Pacific Ocean.”

My mouth fell open. How could I be so lucky as to have such a wonderful opportunity so early in life?

“Young lady,” the man said pointing to me, “how would you like to be the first girl your age to see Willy the Whale? Step right up here and feast your eyes on the largest sea species known to man.”

I looked to Momma, clasped my hands together and began jumping up and down. Momma looked to me then to the man in the straw hat.

“For you and the young lady, ma’am, I’ll only charge a nickel.” His voice boomed like a shotgun blast. Momma reached for her purse, the man reached for my hand.

“People, people, give these lovely ladies a fine round of applause,” he encouraged.

The gathering crowd hailed our interest with thunderous claps. I scrambled up the stairs as quick as my nervous legs could carry me, leaving Momma behind. The man led me to a purple curtain plastered with images of starfish and seahorses. His hand was wet with sweat and hard as a cement block. I looked to him as we waited for Momma to reach the top of the platform. The man smiled. His teeth were light green and his face unshaven. He smelled of wet burlap and something foreign to my senses. Had alcohol been permitted in my home, my curiosity would have been quenched.

Momma drew behind me and placed her hand atop my shoulder. The man in the straw hat prepared us to be amazed then whisked the curtain open …

***

Momma watched me out of the corner of her eye the entire ride home, but did not further burden my psyche with parental advice. I settled against the passenger side door, staring at the floorboard, wishing she hadn’t needed flour, sausage, a new scrub brush and bucket, and Daddy more tobacco. I wished to be alone, with Ginger, in my world were everything was as it was that morning, and every day before.

I methodically rubbed the palms of my hands atop my thighs, sifting through the expectations my mind had conjured while waiting for the man in the straw hit to the draw the curtain. I figured an aquarium, most likely, made of six-inch thick glass and filled with bright, blue, sparkling water, protecting the happy, playful beast. I pictured a box or crate robust enough for a child my size and weight to stand upon to pet Willy, get close enough to breathe in his aroma or share a compassionate gaze. I imagined grandeur, majesty, a miracle.

When the curtain drew open, my legs propelled forward unconsciously and my eyes burst wide with excitement. As reality course-corrected my imagination, my body shook with an unexpected jolt that forced my stomach into my esophagus.

The aquarium? A rickety, glass encased box filled with stinking, green formaldehyde. 

Willy the Whale? Sectioned in five pieces – head, middle front, middle, middle back, tail. Chopped up like kindling for a winter’s fire.

I do not recall the Black Eyed Susan slipping from my fingers, but noticed it missing when I wished to gaze upon its bright, yellow petals once remorse set in – remorse for having plucked it from its life-giving stem. The world had invaded my private space that morning, a sanctuary that had preserved innocence and innocent views of all things and all peoples. 

I looked deep into the sunken, lifeless eyes of that magnificent beast and saw a man begging for change, another pleading for a cigarette, another scavenging for food – all trying to survive. I saw Momma transform from a stranger to a young mother’s only ray of hope. My eyes opened to the struggles of my Daddy to keep us fed, clothed and housed, and his compassion for neighbors who were not as fortunate. I understood my Momma’s insistence we not waste a thing and what leftovers we accumulated, we passed on to others. I awoke to manipulation, betrayal, greed and want. I awoke to my parents’ never-ending sacrifice …I awoke to death. Momma pulled the car into the driveway, turned off the engine and sat quietly as I mulled why the man in the straw hat appeared so gay, how he could accept money for the product he was selling, and how folks in my town to spend what little they had on such disappointment. For nearly thirty minutes, I stared at the floorboard, trying to understand a world I’d never known before. Momma never moved from behind the wheel. Upon wiping my eyes and releasing a heavy sigh, she reached over, cupped my chin and drew my head to her stare.

“The harsh realities of life do not discriminate, child,” she said. “You have to be prepared to pick yourself up and keep going when someone or something knocks you down.” I nodded.

Momma wiped my face. “You have a special gift,” she said, smiling that smile that made troubles disappear. “You have a soul filled with unending spirit and a heart bursting with compassion. I will never have to worry about what you’ll be passing on to your children.” 

Momma led me from the car to the house, holding my hand the entire way. Upon reaching the bedroom, I settled on the edge of my bed, slowly untying the bow securing my ponytail. Though my conscious grieved for poor Willy’s fate, I found myself thinking more of the young mother, and the expression on her face as she fled the store with the two bottles of milk. I appreciated Momma’s kindness in that moment. I appreciated how much she cared. 

When I slipped my shoes from my feet, another face appeared to me – my friend Sally who sat next to me at school. It dawned on me I’d never seen her wearing shoes – even in winter, when all she had to protect her from the elements were homemade, burlap slipovers. I had three pair of shoes. I wanted most that moment to run to the pasture, climb atop Ginger’s back, and ride with her to the ends of the earth, but knew no distance from this place would erase what burned permanent in my mind’s eye. I changed my clothes, grabbed a pair of shoes, and instead, decided to pay my friend Sally a visit.

I will never know if Momma knew what was behind that purple curtain splattered with seashells and seahorses. She never said such and I never asked. She died two years later from a bout with tuberculosis, but with a smile that insured us all that we would someday meet again.

Though Momma’s death was tragic and unexpected, it was truly a celebration of life. Her final moment proved to be a microcosm of the way she lived; with a smile on her face and soft, kind words to assure all that everything would be fine. She left behind several universal qualities that my sisters and I continue to share equally – compassion, dignity, character. She also left something unique to each of us. Her gift to me was the effortless way she expressed encouragement and support. Her voice is constant in my head and ever-present when I’m in doubt or in need of direction. 

It was some years before I understood completely the life lesson presented that Saturday morning, or the reason why it had to be. What Momma tried to explain, and what I would go on to explain to my own children, is that everyone will someday experience their Willy the Whale.

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