It had rained. The ground along the path to Jasper was particularly sopping. Luis pulled his boots and mud-coated trousers from the earth as he turned onto the thoroughfare that crossed through town. Slick mud and puddles would be a common sight for another month, possibly two, but today’s puddles were from the night before. The storm was departing and as he crossed the floorboards in front of the post office, Luis developed a lithe spring in his step. There were no clouds. There was no work. It was a Sunday, and he was a man with a purpose.
In the alleyway between the post office and the arms shop, he was accosted by a broad-shouldered figure. Luis quickly recognized the shadow whose beard draped over the rough fabric of a well-worn cotton shirt. Gray hairs shown through the gaps that ivory shirt buttons once adorned.
“Hold up now. Where ya off to in such a huff?” Luis backed against the wall to get some distance between himself and the old man, who was close enough for Luis to see the dried soup clinging to the corners of his grin and beard.
“Just walkin’, Old Barnaby. Nothin’ special.”
The grizzled beard brushed at the younger man’s dusty sleeve and turned his head down to the end of the thoroughfare. The general store was opening. A click and slurp emerged from his mouth as Old Barnaby turned back to Luis and placed his long arm around his shoulder. “Come on, son. I’m goin’ that way.”
Luis immediately shook him off, his face indignant. “I don’t need no geezer walkin’—”
“Ya shut yer mouth and show respect, boy!”
Luis recoiled at the outburst. The old man’s face was as decrepit as before, and there was no sign of anger. The comment was then swept away as quickly as it had been released. Luis allowed Old Barnaby to lope ahead of him a few steps so that he could regain his composure.
“Ya need to grow up,” said Old Barnaby. “Kind of man are ya?”
Luis scratched his head and turned to look at him. “Law says I am and I grown up enough already, so I’m a man.” He squinted as he turned away from Old Barnaby to the corner where the grocer was sweeping the floorboards in earnest.
“Just can’t say what kind.”
Old Barnaby shook his head and let out a deep groan from passing gas, or possibly disgust. “See,” he began, “that’s what I mean. If another man questions the kind of man ya are, ya don’t start talkin’ about it. Ya look that man in the eye and tell him yer the kind of man who’ll clear out a couple of his front teeth if he don’t shut his trap.”
“So ya want me to hit you?” asked Luis.
Old Barnaby raised his brow and continued his steady pace toward the end of the path. “Ya do and ya’ll find y’self in the pile of horse shit we’re passin’. Now tell me, kid. Where do ya find yerself going with s’much intent?”
“General store,” said Luis. “Going to meet a gal there.”
“Of course, of course. A bit of the hokey pokey, ey?” Old Barnaby chuckled as he croaked out the word “pokey.”
“No sir, none of that. She don’t know I’m sweet on her yet.”
Old Barnaby paused for a moment and squinted as if trying to see into Luis’ head. “She don’t know? That ain’t no good. Ya have to show her. Talkin’ won’t do much when yer too scaredy to get close. Have to show a woman ya have confidence. Let her know yer interested, and more importantly,” he added at the waggle of a finger, “let her know that ya know she’s likin’ ya. Don’t matter if she knows it yet or not. She’ll come to see it.”
“But ain’t that like forcin’ myself?”
“No, kid, no. What’d I tell ya about bein’ a man? A man knows when he’s bein’ persuasive and when he’s been a poor Christian. A difference, y’see?”
Luis shook his head. “Not Emma, no sir. She’s real smart. She’ll know I’m bein’ fresh.”
Old Barnaby shook his head as they passed the general store, where he managed to take a couple of plums from a wooden fruit stand. Luis paused to look at the stand when Old Barnaby grabbed his sleeve and pulled him along.
“Here, kid. One of these a day’ll keep the teeth white as a bone.” Luis took the plum into his hand and glanced at the windows of the store anxiously.
“Ain’t that apples?”
“What’s apples?” said Old Barnaby.
“For teeth. Apples’re for white teeth.”
The old man suckled a piece of plum into his mouth. He slurped the juice that seeped from the wound as he muttered, “I don’t like apples. I like plums.”
Plums in hand, they made their way to the side of the general store where a young woman of seventeen or so emerged from around the corner onto the thoroughfare. She held the hems of her blue dress in her hands as she stepped across the muddy avenue, her eyes fixed on the storefront. The shadow from the bonnet she wore partially concealed her face, which became clearer and clearer until Luis could make out the dimples of her cheeks and smattering of light freckles.
“That’s yer gal, is it?” said Old Barnaby.
Luis nodded and deftly bit into his plum, watching as she moved closer to the men while crossing the street toward the general store. He forced down the plum in his mouth before discarding the remainder into the mud.
“Wastin’ a plum, y’fool.”
“Yea,” muttered Luis. Old Barnaby watched as Luis straightened his shirt and swept the dirt off his trousers, ready to advance.
“All right, son. Just mind what I told ya.”
“I will.” Luis stepped forward to meet her as she approached the storefront floor. He bunched his fists and grimaced slightly – sweaty palms were inevitable.
“Um, mornin’,” said Luis.
“Good morning,” said Emma. Luis gazed at her in silence.
Old Barnaby shook his head and bit into the plum. “Goddamn kids,” he sputtered, and stepped out onto the fresh mud.