VII Firewater

VII Firewater
by Fred Chappell

Beneath the hairy hams hung from the hooks
Virgil Campbell talked in his grocery store:

I just got back from the hundredth anniversary
Of Clay County. I have kinfolks that way,
They asked me out to see the spectacle.
The local politicians—just to give you
A notion—were calling themselves town fathers.
So then I know something’s bound to happen.
If I had fathered a town I wouldn’t brag
About Hayesville. I mean, there’s a matter of pride.

“First off, the usual stuff. Speeches crammed
To the gullet with lies; sorghum-judging,
Jam-judging, cake-judging, quilt-judging; ribbons
Handed out to the grandmaws and the livestock.
And then the square dance contest. (I got to say
The Hiawassee Stompers can flat out clog some. . .)
I was rolling with it right along,
Had me a laugh and a sip or two . . . J. T.,
They had them a beauty queen. That gal was healthy,
I’m here to tell you, and ought to season out
As comfortable as a split rail fence
And keep as many varmints off your ground. . .
Maybe my taste is running sophisticated,
I’ve lived too long in the wicked city of Pigeon Fork.

“The main attraction, besides the knife- and fist-fights,
Was the Clay County Hundredth Grand Parade,
Celebrating their most famous products.
--Now what’s Clay County famous for?”

My father said.
                                               “And everybody knows it,
But who’d’ve thought they’d parade it on the street?
Damn if they didn’t. They went up Standing Indian
And told Big Mama to build a model still
And put it on a wagon and ride with it.
Ten years they’ve been trying to prosecute
That woman for running shine, and out of the blue
They come up hat in hand to ask her sweetly
To waltz it down Main Street in broad daylight.

“And she said Yes. The notion had to tickle her
Once they got past her mean suspiciousness.
So there she was. I saw her. Swear to Jesus.
Sitting in a rocking chair on a wagon
By the cooker, and the copper worm
Strung down behind her, and smoke just boiling out
Pretty as you please. A cat would’ve by God laughed.
Big Mama weighs close onto three hundred pounds,
But the Hayesville Beauty Queen didn’t sit prouder.
She gave a special wave to the deputy sheriff.
Grinning grinning grinning like she’d stole
The courthouse weathervane. Rocking and grinning and rocking.

“Behind her came the Briar Hill Bluegrass Band
On another wagon pulled by a one-eyed mule.
That’s what I thought, the way he drew to the left.
But then he’d pull the other way; and began
To kind of hop and stagger. At last he gave a lurch
And lay down in the traces and went to sleep.
Somebody hollered out, ‘That mule’s drunk!’
Sure enough he was. Drunk as an owl,
Just from breathing the smoke that was pouring out
From Big Mama’s model still. The music stopped.

“Because they’d caught her at last. After all those years. . .
But what are they going to do? They’d invited her;
They begged her to do her stuff, and so she did.
Here came the deputy. ‘You’re under arrest,’
He said—but smiling so the crowd would think
It was part of the act. Big Mama’s boys stood up—
Wearing phony beards, barefoot with beat-up hats,
Just like the hillbillies in the funny papers—
And threw down on the deputy three shotguns.
Whether they were loaded I don’t know.
He didn’t know. Except Big Mama’s bunch
Nobody knew. Fire don’t flame as red
As that man’s face. He waved them along, smiling
Till his jaw hurt. It’ll take a month to relax
That smile away. They drove on around the square,
Getting their money’s worth, leaving behind
That passed-out mule for the deputy to have fun with.
And went on home, back to the rocks and laurels.”

“Okay,” my father said, “it’s good to know
The eternal verities still hold their own,
That poverty and whiskey and scratch-ankle farming
Still prop the mountains up.”
                                            “But it ain’t that way,”
The old man said. “Big Mama’s quit running corn,
Except for home use. Ain’t no profit in it,
With the price of sugar up and the appetite down.
Growing these Merry Widow cigarettes,
That’s where they make their money.”
                                              “Kind of a shame,

Tradition dying away. The funny papers
Will come to be all anybody knows.”

“It ain’t that bad. I know one high-grade still
Still making. If you’d care to have a snort.”

“Why not?” my father said. “Time keeps grumbling on.
Let’s drink us a drink: here at the end of the world.”

     Midquest: A Poem
     Louisiana State University Press, 1981

VII Firewater