Real Mountaineers (From Chapter 26)
by Wayne Caldwell
The Cataloochans who had moved to Saunook—Jake and Rachel, Mattie and Zeb—were tired of farming. Seemed the ground there wasn’t as fertile, and, besides, they were getting to an age where they wanted to sit instead of work. They approached the owner of a defunct Pure Oil station to see if he would lease it to them. “I’m not getting a thing now,” he said, “so if we, say, rent on tenths, a tenth of something’s better’n a tenth of nothing.”
So M&R Pure Mountain Mercantile opened, rushing the spring of 1931 with two dozen quilts Mattie had made, a similar number of Rachel’s paintings, a scattering of tablecloths and pillowcases and other embroidered goods, a collection of peach-pit figurines Jake had carved, and miscellaneous items from the stockholders’ homes. They opened of a morning, built a fire, and looked at one another until dinner. After eating, they watched no one enter the little gravel parking lot until they locked up and went home. After a week or two they posted a sign telling customers how to find them, but no one did until the first of March. They reopened on a daily basis on April first, and by summer were actually selling a few things.
Over the winter they held on, and by the beginning of tourist season had recruited other craftspeople. The 1932 season added canned food, along with baskets and bedspreads, jams and jellies, slingshots and carved fish, bittersweet wreaths and dried corn arrangements, wooden back scratchers and birdhouses.
One day Mattie found one of Hannah’s old bonnets, and thought it might be fun to wear it to the store. A tourist from South Carolina that day bought five dollars’ worth of goods. The man tried his best to buy the bonnet for his wife, but Mattie—not having learned that when a customer offers cash money for something not actually nailed to the building, you sell it—refused to part with something that had belonged to her mother-in-law.
That evening Zeb suggested she wear full regalia—bonnet, one of Hannah’s old dresses, an apron, old-timey shoes—and maybe even affect a cob pipe. “Bet you’ll be our top salesman,” he said.
Before the next day was over she had sold fifty dollars’ worth and would have been ecstactic had not the shoes rubbed blisters on her left heel. A particularly loud individual from the north took Jake aside as he and his family were leaving. “You know why I bought all this here? You’re the real thing. I can find a salesgirl in a skirt and blouse anywhere. You’re real mountaineers.”
“I think we’ve struck oil,” said Jake. “If they want real mountaineers, we’ll give it to them.”
“Yeah,” said Mattie. “Remember when Lige and Penny put a spinning wheel at their boardinghouse? Nary a one of them remembered how to run it, but it brought in the business.” Next day they moved Hannah’s old spinning wheel into the entryway. “Anybody know how to work this thing?” asked Mattie. Before dinnertime Mattie, dressed in one of Hannah’s old outfits, made a passable run at carding and spinning flax. Rachel sketched her profile in silhouette for a series of roadside signs to plant in both directions. The cash register was noisy.
Jake proved a hit with customers, sitting in a rocker beside the fireplace, carving and telling stories. His more outlandish yarns came to be known as Jake Tales, and one day a newfangled folklorist showed up with a tape recorder.
Requiem by Fire
Random House, February 2010