Fizzle Bodner came knees and elbows through the canes down to the creek where we were poling our half-drums up and down the tributaries of the Amazon. We aimed our rifles and shot him down.
“Huh! I ain’t goin’ to fall in this mud. Anyway, you ought to come up to Miz Blake’s. She’s got a lottery.”
We poled the tubs over to the planks we called a dock.
“Lottery? What kinda lottery?” Dick said.
“Beans.” Fizzle told us as we stepped carefully onto the rickety boards. We only had eight penny nails, and the dock might jump up if you stepped too far from the middle.
“Yeah, beans. You guess how many, and you get the jarfull.”
“Beans. Who would want a jar of beans?”
“Jellybean beans, you stupe. ‘Beans.”
Doug tied his tub to the stake we drove into the mudbank. If the coal mine upstream didn’t wash any coal – which it probably wouldn’t, this being Saturday – it would stay there.
“Well, I guess we ought at least to take a look. Maybe we can find some empty coke bottles on the way and share a Nehi.”
Miz Blake’s Grocery was the front room of a frame house with a wooden porch. The screen door was decorated with a giant blue and green parrot with red wings advertising Holsum Bread. Inside was a counter and an icebox filled with cold drinks. Behind the counter was Miz Blake, usually, arms thin as saplings and glasses like the bottom of an RC cola bottle. There was a glass front display case with lunch meat and cheese inside, plus a few slow flies who couldn’t find their way out. The countertop itself was more or less covered on the left with glass containers with screw-top lids on the slant, filled with Double Bubble or jawbreakers or red and black licorice whips. On the right was a cash register with the drawer open, and next to it an electric machine with a circular blade for slicing the bologna and salami.
A square foot or so of counter was left for her to pass you the goods and for you to hand her the money to pay for them.
Straight behind her was a doorway covered by a curtain made from flour sacks, behind which Mr. Blake presumably sat most of the day spitting into a number ten can; at least that’s what we usually saw when the curtain was parted by Miz Blake. Her cotton dress hung on her skinny frame like she was only bones inside, and we guessed that she must be not the mother, but the grandmother of Mary Sue Blake, a girl in our class.
Mary Sue, we knew for a fact, was not that skinny. We sometimes watched her silhouette on the window shade when she undressed to take a bath. She definitely had some flesh on her.
“What’re you kids after?” asked Miz Blake.
I spoke up for the bunch of us. “Fizzle says you got a lottery running, and we want in.”
“Well, you just might be able to take part, if’n you got two cent each.”
We all three of us turned our eyes onto Fizzle. If we could look x-rays he would have been fried like a moth on a candle. “You didn’t say nothing about no two cent, Fizzle.”
“Well, that might be ’cause I didn’t know about it. It was Ronnie what told me, and he didn’t say nothin’ about it costin’ no two cent.”
He stood up pretty well for himself, for being such a pipsqueak, you had to hand him that. Anyway, we got some bottles to turn in. Ronny was Fizzle’s buck-toothed brother, and we lived on the edge of punching each other in the face. I couldn’t tell you why, we just had that effect on each other since the first day we met.
“I ain’t taking no bottles lessen you washed ’em, and they’s a spickit outside there in case you ain’t.” We already knew she would say that, and the bottles – they was six of ’em in all, was clean as a whistle, ever one of ’em. We handed them over.
“Well that six cent you got comin’, boys. That’s three shots at the lottery.” She put the jar up front on the counter for us to get a good look.
“First give us the six cent. I like to handle the money a little before I spend it.”
“Hey, four cent of that is our’n.” Dick and Doug Smith maybe weren’t twins but sometimes they talked like they was, the words coming out exactly together.
“All right. Take it, though I don’t see what difference it makes if we’re just going to give it back to Miz Blake.”
“You goin to give her your two cents worth, and we do our own. That’s the way this is goin to work.”
“You mean I ain’t goin take part in the lottery, and I’m the one that told you about it? That ain’t fair, Pat.”
I was busy counting all the beans I could see, and it was pretty clear nobody was going to guess to the exact number of beans. So I asked, “What’s the rules here, Miz Blake. Do you have to guess the exact number of jellybeans, or the closest one gets the jar?”
Dick and Doug spoke up. “How do you know how many in that jar?”
“I put ’em there myself, and I’m the onliest one that knows the exact number, don’t you worry. Not Mr. Blake, nor Mary Sue neither knows what’s in that jar.”
“So how does it work?” I insisted. “I ain’t going to spend good money if it has to be the exact number. Only a Einstein could figure that out, using triggernometry and such.”
“Me neither,” put in Dick and Doug.
“Nor me neither”, said Fizzle.
“Heck, you don’t even have two cent, Fizzle. How you goin’ to ‘ticipate in a lottery without hard cash?”
He scowled at me like he wanted to bite my knuckles to get at my pennies. “Awright, Fizzle. Fair’s fair. You and me can go halves. If I win, you get half the jellybeans.”
Miz Blake shook her head at that. “You don’t get two guesses, just one, and don’t think you will. Two cent, one guess.” She brought out a piece of paper with the name of the jellybean company at the top and showed us a short list of names in a kind of shaky handwriting which I figured was hers. It was folded over so you could see the names, but you couldn’t see the numbers they guessed. I noticed Tommy James already had bought three guesses; leastways his name was down three times in a row.
“I see Tommy ain’t taking no chances, boys. Maybe we should put our heads together and make a spread of guesses. Then whoever gets the prize can divide up with the rest of us. How’s that sound?” I looked at Miz Blake for some reason, though it weren’t any of her business. She sucked at her false teeth and glanced over our heads out the screen door.
Her teeth clicked when she got them back in place. “The closest guess is the one what takes the whole jar, that’s the rule the company put up.”
“Let’s go out on the porch and discuss this investment,” I said.
It’s not that I was the leader, nor were we a gang. I was the only one with an idea in my head, the way I looked at it. When we needed a field to play baseball on, who found a place to make one? Me. When we wanted to play Tarzan swinging in the trees, who brought grapevines out of the big woods and tied them to the trees to swing from the rocks in the front field? Me. I could rattle off more, but you get the point. Most of the brains on Lee Road belonged to me, which is not saying much when you look at who else there was. And if anyone took in into his head to challenge me, they better gang up on me, since I was a year or two older that the others. Only Dick sometimes would come swinging at me in an argument, but then he was used to his father laying into him with a two-by-four and could really take it, and even him I could take down if necessary.
So when we sat down on the porch, they all waited for me to tell them what we should do. “I believe there can’t be more than five hundred jellybeans in there, so that ought to be our high guess.”
“Huh. What do you know? It looks more like a thousand to me,” said Fizzle.
“You stay out of this, Fizzle. You don’t have any financial stake, so your opinion don’t count. What do you think Dick? Doug?”
“I counted two hundred and fifty just on one side of the jar. S’got to be at least a thousand, maybe two,” was Dick’s opinion.
“You counted? I’m amazed. I didn’t know you could count more’n a hundred…”
He was quick as a hornet, and luckily missed my nose.
“Awright, just teasin’, Dick. So you make the high guess, and I’ll make the low guess, how’s that suit you? And whoever wins, shares equal with ever’body else, OK?”
I gave Miz Blake the two cents, and told her to put two names down for my guess: seven hundred. Dick and Doug made only one guess, one thousand beans. With their other two cents, they got some licorice sticks. Don’t think they shared them. They didn’t.
More than a week passed before Miz Blake figured she had all the names she would get, and the winner was to be announced after dinner on Saturday. By one o’clock every kid from the neighborhood and a whole bunch of adults as well were hanging out. Quite a few had a cold drink in their hand, so Miz Blake was seeing it worth her while. It wasn’t so much the jar of jellybeans that brought folks out, it was knowing that other folks would be coming out. A few bottles were in brown paper bags, so you knew it wasn’t just Grapette they were drinking.
When Fizzle Bodner showed up, he was accompanied by his brother, Ronny. And like everybody else who came down the street of East End, they had to stop and stare into the window of the Chevrolet place. On display was the most beautiful machine ever made. A bright red Indian Chief motorcycle, the one with the saddle big enough for a horse. To straddle that gas tank promised unimaginable thrills. Every speck of chrome was shining like a king’s ransom in silver. The fender guards were the sexiest ever, shielding spoked wheels. And the headlights: Mae West coming at you.
I was practically touching the plate glass, so when Ronald whacked me on the back of the head, my nose flattened out and blood spurted down the window. I whirled around swinging, but he was halfway down to the dry cleaners, ducking into the alley toward the lot for abandoned cars. Just at that moment, Miz Blake came out on the porch, and behind her was Mary Sue, the jar of jellybeans in her arms like a baby doll. I pulled out my handkerchief and stopped the blood flow and joined the bunch of folks, maybe twenty in all. I took my place next to Dewey, a slightly retarded young man from across Main Street. I could get even with Ronald later on.
“They’s exackly one thousand two hundred and twelve beans in this here jar,” said Miz Blake. “An’ the closest guess was one thousand, put in by the Smith brothers.”
“You mean like the cough drops?” said Dewey. “I didn’t so nobody here looks like the Smith brothers – they both got beards.” Everybody had a laugh at that.
“Aw, Dewey, you know I mean Dick and Doug, standin’ right there next to you. You boys come on up here and take this jar before Mary Sue drops it.”
“Just wait a minute Miz Blake, put in a man I didn’t know, about the age of my Dad, it looked like. My guess was one thousand five hundred.”
For the first time, Mary Sue spoke up. “That’s not as close as one thousand.” She was always the best one a arithmetic in our class. “One thousand is only two hundred and twelve off the right number, and your guess is five hundred off.”
“She’s right, Samuel,” somebody mumbled. “The boys win. You just goin’ to have to buy some off of them for your youngsters.”
I stuck right close to Dick and Doug as they headed home, and Fizzle was right beside me. We had a right to half of them jellybeans, and all we needed was something to put them in. I ran into Bowling’s Market where Mom always sent me to buy baloney and bread. Mrs. Bowling reluctantly gave me a paper sack and I headed back out into the street. The others were already half way across the field behind the Chevrolet dealer, following the path between the rusted out junk cars.
Last winter I convinced Fizzle that the frost flowers that formed on the door handles of cars tasted like vanilla ice cream. His tongue stuck to the handle of a Nash Rambler and a little piece of it stayed there when he pulled away screaming. A dirty trick, maybe. But Ronald had got me kicked off the school bus when he stuck me with a pin in the butt and I kicked Mr. Guildersleeve in the elbow. Too bad it was his brother had to pay for it, but there you are.
A sudden chill went up my spine when I saw that Dick and Doug were held up right by the Nash. Ronald Bodner was going to exact a ransom in the form of jellybeans, it looked like to me. He was wrestling the jar out of the hands of the Smith boys, or trying to. They weren’t likely to let go, either. But before I could jump into it, there was candy all over the path, with glass shards glittering amongst the beans.
I couldn’t help myself, with all the momentum I had from running to catch up, I swung at Ronald’s buck teeth, and he danced around in a circle, holding onto his mouth, blood dripping between his fingers. When he finally stopped stomping around he spit out a front tooth.
There wasn’t much sense to continue the fight. The jar was busted, I had a cut on the knuckle of my right hand, Ronald had lost a tooth and we all sort of faded our different directions toward home. Fizzle stayed behind trying to sort glass from beans, but gave it up pretty quick.
And that’s just about the size of it. But not quite.
That was Saturday. On the next day, Sunday, we were on the back porch, us three kids, Jack, Sue and me, looking the funnies of the Charleston Gazette, when there was a knock on the front door. Through the screen door we could see right through the kitchen to the living room. Dad, holding the newspaper in his left hand, was talking to somebody outside the front door. Somebody at least a head taller than Dad, to judge from the way he was looking up through his thick spectacles. I jumped down off the porch and took off toward the outside toilet, hiding around back. I was sure it was Mr. Bodner and was afraid he would knock Dad’s block off. Mr. Bodner was a big man that worked in the mines.
But it didn’t turn out like that. It was worse, at least for me.
Dad gave me a good whipping with the razor strop, one I would remember for a long time. And that wasn’t all. That tooth would cost twenty-five dollars to cap, and I had to pay for it. That was about ten weeks of my earnings delivering the Fayette Tribune up and down Bunker Hill number one and two, and the bottom land between them.
But the worst of it was that every time I saw Ronald Bodner, as long as we lived in the same town, he would grin at me. That gold tooth shone as bright as that pirate’s with an eye patch in The Black Swan, and every other buccaneer movie down at the King Theater. It used to make my blood boil, seeing that tooth. Sometimes it don’t seem like there’s any justice in the world.
There are several versions of this story, but they’re all pretty similar. I chose the one that was the newest, from September 2013, and made a few minor fixes.
Patrick Meadows 1934 – 2017.