The Talented Taxidermistbyronde©
Being Sheriff of Tuckahoe County, Tennessee means I get to see a lot of things. I say, “get to see”, but sometimes, I’d rather they just left me out of it entirely. Some of the things I’m called upon to take care of aren’t much fun, like when Clarence Upton’s boy wrapped his old blue convertible around that big oak at the end of Miller’s Lane. Not pretty, that one; not pretty at all.
Sometimes it can be really hard to keep a straight face. One Wednesday night, Mabel Harrison called me from Janet Mason’s house and asked me to drive over. Mabel’s married to the town Mayor, Dwight, and she’s also the president of the library board. Janet’s the town librarian, so I didn’t give it a second thought. I figured Mabel had gone to Janet’s house to talk about some library business. She was standing on the front porch when I arrived, said her car wouldn’t start, and asked if could I help her.
“I’ve got some jumper cables, Mabel, but why didn’t you just call Bob down at the station?”
Mabel fidgeted a little, looked through Janet’s living room window and then back at me. She started to say something, then looked back through the window and smiled. I thought her lips pursed up just a bit. She made a little waving motion with her hand, and turned back to face me.
“Sheriff Thompson, I can’t trust anybody else. If Dwight found out I was here tonight…. I love him and all, but….You know how people talk in this town.”
I said I understood and got her car started for her. As she drove off, I just had to chuckle. Janet had been looking out that window at us. That wasn’t all that odd, but the black net negligee she had on was. It didn’t leave much to my imagination, and I doubted it was her normal evening attire. I’d always wondered why Janet never seemed interested in any of the young men in town. Mabel didn’t seem the type to be a member of the girl’s team, so I figured she might have just climbed over the fence for one night. I haven’t seen her back there since, but they do seem to go to a lot of library conventions together.
Other things I see leave me wondering. Six years ago, I stood on Mose Beasley’s front porch for three hours before Hazel took the shotgun barrel off Mose’s crotch and gave the weapon to me. Mose breathed a sigh of relief, and Hazel ended up giving him a big hug. She’d got it in her mind that Mose was messing around with the new schoolteacher who moved to town that year, and was gonna blow away his privates. Thankfully for all those involved, Hazel’s sister, Emma, had been visiting for a couple of months, and called me when all the ruckus started. All three of them were standing on the porch when I drove up.
Mose swore he’d only been over there once, and that was to give the schoolteacher some tomatoes. Hazel claimed he’d been there a lot more than once and had been giving her a lot more than tomatoes, too. It seems that Mose hadn’t been performing some of the duties of a good husband lately. He hadn’t been able to…, well, to put it in Hazel’s words, “his dick’s as limp as a wet dishrag. He ain’t done nuthin' ta me fer the last month. I jest know he’s giving it to her ever chance he gits and if he can’t keep it‘n his pants, I’m gonna fix ‘im so’s I don’t have to worry ‘bout it no more”.
Well, I listened, and talked, and listened some more. Virginia Sharp, the schoolteacher in question, was the subject of a lot of the gossip in the little town of Buck Lick. All the women were carefully watching their men. Virginia was generously endowed, so to speak, and seemed to enjoy the attention all those curves produced. She always did her yard work in a loose halter-top and little shorts that showed her butt cheeks when she bent over.
I kind of had to side with Mose, though. It just didn’t seem possible that he’d been banging Virginia. I finally convinced Hazel that since Virginia was about twenty-three and Mose was seventy-one, there was probably nothing for her to worry about.
She gave me the shotgun, and hugged Mose for all she was worth. Mose looked at me over her shoulder and smiled. I was patting myself on the back for my negotiating skills, when I realized he really wasn’t looking at me. Mose was looking at Emma.
I’d thought Mose was probably just slowing down a little in his golden years, you know, but now I wasn’t sure. Emma was a real looker, or at least she had been at one time, and she was five years younger than Hazel. The quick little smoochy face Emma made at Mose caused me to wonder a little. When Mose grinned back at her, I was suspicious. When he stuck his tongue out and wiggled it up and down between his pink, toothless gums, I decided I’d better hold on to that shotgun for a while.
Anyway, I see a lot of things.
Buck Lick is the county seat of Tuckahoe County, and it isn’t much different than most other small towns. Down at the end of Oak Street, Spring Crick runs into the Red River and that’s where Burton’s Park is. It’s named after Jesse Burton, a Tuckahoe County girl who served as a spy for the Confederacy. She posed as a lady of the evening to steal information from the Yankees about troop movements and battle plans and such. Apparently, Jesse was a pretty good spy, because the Yankees never found her out. She must have been pretty good at her cover trade too. She came back from the war with a suitcase full of money she’d liberated from the Union officers she’d met. When she passed to her reward, back in thirty-three, she owned about half of the town. There’s a statue of her down in the park right beside the flagpole and the old cannon we fire on the Fourth of July and Veteran’s Day.
Down the street there is Mason’s Grocery, Jeffers and Son Hardware, and Fred’s Barber Shop. A few years ago, Betty Jane Bailey went to beauty school down in Johnson City, and now she runs the Clip ‘n Curl beauty parlor. She started it in her trailer, but last week, she moved her chairs and sinks and dryers into the old jewelry shop across from Mason’s.
If you look up the street, right there where the highway goes through town, that’s Bob’s service station. Jolene’s Diner is on Main, just across from my office and next to the library, and down at the other end of town is the local watering hole that goes by the name of The Saddle Club.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that we also have a house of ill repute. Well, it’s really just Lizzy’s home, but she does take care of certain needs for a few men in the community. The sign in her yard says she does Swedish massage to ease away those aches and pains, but if you’ve got an extra ten bucks, she’ll massage away that other tension too.
She doesn’t bother anybody except the moral members of the Buck Lick Women’s Bible Society and Social Club. Those uppity women hate her. I suppose they might have something to worry about. According to my wife, Jenny, most of ‘em consider sex to be right up there with murder and blasphemy when it comes to sin. Wouldn’t surprise me if a few of their husbands develop some aches and pains from time to time. Well, actually, I know they do, but what happens in private isn’t a concern of mine as long as nobody gets hurt. Besides, Lizzy’s really a nice woman and she showed me a few things when I was nineteen. I’ve never had an official complaint that was based on any factual information, so I let Lizzy be.
All in all, Tuckahoe County and Buck Lick are both pretty quiet. We haven’t had a robbery in fourteen years, if you don’t count when Billy Hagers stole Donna Mae Cruder’s bicycle. I don’t think we really ought to have to count that one, because Billy was only six at the time and he said he was sorry. Funny how that one worked out. Donna Mae married Billy last year.
My job is mostly breaking up the occasional marital dispute, making sure the locals get home OK after a night at the Saddle Club, and keeping the drag racing out on River Road down to a minimum. In my spare time, I’m kind of a surrogate father to Jimmy Joe Jackson.
Jimmy Joe is the youngest boy of Gerald William Jackson, the daddy of a whole clan of Jacksons that live up on Chelsea Ridge. Old Gerald fathered twelve kids - eight boys and four girls, if I recollect right - all by one woman. That woman, Maude, had one goal in life. She wanted her sons to do something with their lives besides go into the family business. I could understand that. The family business had been the same for generations. The Jacksons make some of the smoothest corn liquor this side of the Smokies. I always get a quart at Christmas. They put a couple of peaches in a mason jar, top it off with their best run of the summer, and let it mellow in their root cellar until Thanksgiving. Goes down real easy on Christmas Eve. Yeah, I know, but just because I’m a sheriff doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good whiskey. They make a pretty good living at it, if you don’t count the jail time in Knoxville now and then. It kind of slows down their production when one of them is up there.
Maude tried everything with her first seven boys, but didn’t get much of anywhere. None of them had the gumption to improve their lives. Then, along came Jimmy Joe. He had the distinction of being the first Jackson to make it from first grade all the way through high school. It took him fourteen years to do it, but he made it. Maude knew this one was going somewhere, and she was tickled pink.
Now, most folks think there’s something wrong with Jimmy. The women at the Buck Lick Women’s Bible Society and Social Club say Maude and Gerald are first cousins, but I don’t know about that. Jimmy Joe is a little on the skinny side, and his right eye kinda looks down most of the time, so maybe they’re right. I don’t know. I think Jimmy Joe’s just a little different than most other folks. OK, maybe he’s a lot different, but he’s not a bad guy, once you get past that eye. Since few people in town will talk to him, he’s kind of adopted me. When Jimmy Joe has a problem, I’m the one he comes to for help. I get lots of practice helping him.
The first time I saw Jimmy Joe, he’d come down off the ridge with old Gerald. They’d run out of sugar and came to town for a couple hundred pounds so they could start the next batch of corn to fermenting. Jimmy Joe’s eyes got about as big as soup bowls when he saw the big city of Buck Lick. I could tell, then, that he wasn’t cut out to be a moonshiner. He moved to town as soon as he could. Maude staked him to a few dollars until he could find a job.
Jimmy Joe rented an old trailer down on the south end of town, and got a job with Cyrus McClain. Cyrus does all sorts of work for people in Tuckahoe County. If you have a septic tank that’s acting up, you call Cyrus. If your cow dies, Cyrus’ll come out in his old truck and haul it off to the rendering plant down in Adelaide. Cyrus is also an important link in the Jackson’s moonshine distribution network, and that’s how Jimmy Joe hooked up with him.
I learned one of the things that brought Jimmy Joe down off the ridge was the girls in Buck Lick. I couldn’t blame him much. His cousins were the only single women on Chelsea Ridge, and I knew his cousins. As Jimmy Joe once told me, “They ain’t one of ‘em got as much sense as a coon dog”. I guess when you get educated, you raise your standards some.
Now that Jimmy Joe had some money and a place to live, he started looking for a wife. There are several pretty girls in Buck Lick, and Jimmy Joe took after all of them. The only problem was, just as soon as Jimmy Joe laid eyes on one, she’d haul ass for the next county. The end came when he saw Cindy Jean Davis picking blackberries down by the river. Jimmy Joe walked up behind her, tapped her on the shoulder, and said “Hey”. The poor girl like to jumped out of her jeans. She ran all the way back home, and didn’t come out of the house for three weeks. Jimmy Joe came to my office and asked me to help him find a girlfriend.
Well, I tell you, I didn’t rightly know what to say. I mean, like I said before, Jimmy is a good kid and all, once you get past that eye, but the girls in town wouldn’t stop running long enough to get to know the boy.
I told Jimmy the first thing he had to do was stop scaring the hell out of every girl he met. He was confused.
“Why’s they scared? I ain’t gonna do nothin’ to ‘em lessen they wants me to.”
“Well, Jimmy, I know that, but maybe you oughta try not sneakin’ up on ‘em like you do. Girls don’t usually take to that. They like it when they can see you coming.”
“Done tried it that way. Soon’s I gits close, they make this face like they’s been skunked and run off.”
Well, like they say, this was one of those sticky wickets. Most women have this thing about being clean and smelling nice, and it’s one of the things I really like about them. Jimmy just didn’t understand when I said maybe he didn’t smell quite right.
His job was, how should I say this, an unusually fragrant occupation. On a hot July day, if the wind is right, you can tell when Cyrus drives into town. His old ton truck has seen it all, and a lot of it has soaked all the way through the pine boards on the bed. Those boards are a real odd shade of greenish-brown, and the smell kind of reaches out of the truck bed and grabs you by the throat when it goes past. Since Cyrus and Jimmy Joe rode all over the county in it, they’d gotten used to the mixture of septic tank ooze, ripening cow innards, and the occasional dead skunk. Jimmy didn’t even give it a thought that he might smell the same way.
“Don’t know why that’d be. Mamma teached me to wash up, and I does it, just like she said.”
I knew Jimmy washed. Maude had taught all her kids that one bathed once every week, even if one did not need to bathe. I figured Maude had taught that lesson well, but I also had proof that Jimmy washed. Gloria’s McBride’s house sat on Spring Creek about a quarter-mile downstream of Jimmy’s trailer. Gloria had called me out to her house a few weeks after Jimmy moved in.
Every Sunday afternoon, Jimmy jumped in the crick behind his trailer with a bar of Maude’s homemade soap and scrubbed himself clean. Gloria had spotted the soapsuds that Sunday, and went up to her attic so she could see over the trees. It was pretty hard to convince her I couldn’t drag him off to jail just because he was standing there naked in Spring Crick. I did make the suggestion that if she’d just stay away from her attic window on Sundays, she wouldn’t have to look at him.
“Well, Jimmy, I can’t rightly say for sure, but it might help if you’d do it a little more often.”
“Ya think that’d do it?”
“Well, it’d be a start. You know, while you’re at it, you might as well dunk those overalls and your shirt in the crick too. Women like a man who takes care of himself and dresses real sharp.”
Jimmy nodded understandingly. “I’ll try it out. Thanks, Sheriff.”
I should have expected the call from Gloria. Jimmy was sitting in an old chaise lounge in his back yard, naked as the day he was born and waiting for his overalls to dry. It was my fault. I figured Jimmy’d have at least one other pair of overalls and another shirt. I don’t really know what Gloria was so worried about, though. That big red oak beside her house hid all of Jimmy from the waist down.
The next time I saw Jimmy, he looked a lot better. Those brown splotches on his overalls were faded some, and he smelled more like crick water than Cyrus’ old truck. I asked him if he’d had better luck finding a girlfriend.
“I thought I had one fer sure, t’other day. Becky Sue Lingle, that girl what lives in the big house next t’the Baptist church? Well, her daddy called us to fetch a dead coon out from under the porch. T’weren’t but a minute an’ I had that kritter in a gunnysack an’ in the back o’ the truck. Becky Sue come out to pay us, on account o’ her daddy was down at the hardware store. I give her a big grin, an’ she grinned right back. Didn’t run off ner nothin’, so’s I figgered I’d ask her iffen she’d like to go down to Jolene’s fer a milkshake.”
“And what’d Becky say?”
“Well, she ‘llowed as how she had to warsh her hair, so she couldn’t go. City women does that, don’t they? Warsh their hair a lot, I mean?”
“Yes, they do. Jenny washes hers about every other night.”
“Well, good. I’uz thinking she’d turned me down even though I warshed up real good. Next time I see her, I’m gonna ask her agin.”
“Well, you do that, Jimmy, and let me know how it turns out.”
“Yep, I sure will. Oh, hey. I’m gonna git edgicated some more.”
“Yeah? You don’t say.”
“Yep. Mamma said you couldn’t never have too much edgicashun. I got to figgerin’ that girls might like me better iffen I had me another diploma, so I went and signed up.”
“Where you gonna go?”
“See, that’s the best part. I don’t have to go nowhere. Cyrus and me, we’uz hauling trash out t’the dump fer Mrs. Westing, an’ I found me a box plum full o’ her husband’s huntin’ magazines. They was this ad in the back of one of ‘em ‘bout larnin' to be a taxydermist.” I sent ‘em a letter an’ they sent me back the papers. Got my first lesson in the mail today. It’s all ‘bout skinning critters so’s ya can stuff ‘em so’s they look right. That’s what a taxydermist does, ya know. Stuffs critters an’ fish so’s folks can hang ‘em up er sit ‘em on tables and such. Didn’t larn much from that’n though. Daddy teached me how to skin critters when I’uz six, an’ it’s ‘bout the same. Th’ next lesson is on tanning hides. Taxydermists have to know how to do that, too.”
Jimmy grinned every time he said “taxydermist”. I imagined he’d worked on that word for a while before he got it down pat.
“Well, you’ll probably do all right with that, Jimmy. There’s no taxidermists closer than Johnson City, and that’s twenty miles away.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figgered. Ain’t nobody would drive all that way when they got one right here in Buck Lick.”
Over the next few months, I didn’t see much of Jimmy. I supposed he was busy studying his correspondence course in taxidermy whenever he wasn’t working for Cyrus. Once in a while, they’d drive down Main Street with the big tank and pump they used to clean out septic tanks, so I knew he was all right. It was a little worrying, though. Jimmy usually talked to me at least a couple times a week.
I hoped he’d be successful, but I wasn’t holding my breath. Hunting and fishing is almost a lifestyle for a lot of the men in Tuckahoe County. Many of their wives grew up in families where hunting and fishing helped make ends meet, so they’d learned to hunt and fish, too. A lot of these homes had at least one deer head on the wall. Some of them had so many mounted deer, fish, birds, and other animals they looked like museums. All the sportsmen in town swore by the taxidermists in Johnson City.
Things were pretty quiet for a while, until Gloria called me again. She claimed there were strange odors coming from Jimmy’s trailer. I drove out to find out what Jimmy had going on.
“The lesson said I had to practice. I got some coons and possums from Daddy, but he skinned ‘em all wrong. Then I figgered out somethin’ I could practice on. I’m gittin’ better all the time. Come look.”
Well, Jimmy was right. In fact, the boy was pretty good. I thought Mrs. Andrew’s Siamese tomcat looked almost like he was ready to jump off his oak branch. Lucille had wondered why Felix didn’t come home, and had asked me to keep an eye out for him. Now I knew why I hadn’t seen any stray cats in the alley behind Jolene’s for a while.
“Uh, Jimmy. These are pretty good, but I wouldn’t show ‘em to anybody just yet. You don’t want people to see what you can do until it’s just right. In fact, if I were you, I’d take ‘em out in the woods and bury ‘em before you open up for business. Some people…, well, they wouldn’t think you were much of a taxidermist if all you’d worked on were cats. They want to see deer heads and ducks that look like they’re flying and such. You need some of that stuff to show ‘em.”