Wouldn’t none of us been in school much longer, but Sassafras Jackson had made up his mind he was going to start cutting out anyway. Miss Metcalf was in a different mood than normal that day, so she hadn’t even mentioned that Sass never showed up at all. She was up to the board writing our numbers on there and us just trying our best to keep up.
One boy—Wallace Something—He don’t even live around here no more. Ain’t real sure what happened to him. Anyway, that teacher didn’t like old Wallace anymore than she’d of liked eating a live bullfrog. But this one day, couldn’t Wallace even bother her. She was writing our arithmetic and just humming something a little to herself. “It Is Well with My Soul” probably. Miss Metcalf always did like that one even up until she died and I was calling her Judy. The whole time she was writing and humming, Wallace was back there trying to get some little girl to talk to him.
She told him about how she’d done be gone so wasn’t no need in cutting out with him, and then I knew it must be something big happening.
Well, Miss Metcalf turns around and she sees them both and she says, real pleasant, for them to pay attention please, but I thought maybe she said it between them teeth of hers a little. Like whenever she says something you’re about to get hit for.
When she turned back to the board them two started saying wasn’t she in a good mood, and yeah it was about the best mood they’d ever seen from her. And reckon what got into her that put her in such a good mood. The girl said it was merciful. A merciful mood.
And Miss Metcalf—couldn’t nobody get one over on Miss Metcalf just like you can’t get one over on your mamaw—she turned around and told them both what a good word merciful was. And said she reckoned she was in love and couldn’t nothing ruin it for her today.
Well, they had all kinds of questions at that. Who did he work for? Does he got his own farm? Is he getting one? Ain’t got one? Well, a man just about can’t make it without a farm. He from around here? Well, what you got against the men around here. You don’t know where these outside men have been. That sort of thing.
She told them all about him and how he taught at the college over in Berea.
And after all that, she asks us do we got those numbers down and said when we did we ought to just go on ahead and leave. Enjoy the day.
I never seen the beat. Enjoy the day. So I copied them numbers down just as fast as I could with this little yellow pencil I got for Christmas. It was just down to a nub by then. Once I had them numbers, it didn’t take me too long to do the figuring—I was a good hand at math and that was about it—and then I was out the door saying bye to Miss Metcalf.
I left about the same time as some of them girls and they asked me where was I going. Said they was going down to the bridge if I wanted to go with them.
So I asked reckon any of them boys will shoot marbles with me down there.
They said sure somebody would.
So I got my bag out and walked down to the bridge with the girls. My shooter, that’s the great big heavy marble, you know. My shooter was about the best one I’d seen around here, and I tried to tell them girls that. But, you know, they was just going on like girls.
Said it sure tickled them Sass bothered to cut out of school the only day that teacher was ever going to let us out early. One of them called him an idiot. Said what good did it do him cutting school at the end of eighth grade when he was just about done.
We didn’t go so long as you back then. I just went eight grades, but that’s what about everybody did. You could still make some money that way; not like now. They’ve got you kids in school way up ‘til you’re grown.
Them girls went on for pretty near forever about how so-and-so said such-and-such that he never said but might as well have. By the time we got in earshot of that bridge, I knew enough gossip to start selling me a newspaper, and maybe that’s what I should have done. Ain’t been a president except Reagan who wanted to let nobody farm no way.
Once we hear the ruckus down at the bridge, I knew right away why Sass was cutting school. I told them girls it sounded like Sass had him a band. With how they went on, I should have figured they’d already know that since they knew just about anything else.
They told me of course he does. Said everybody knows Sass is getting out of here to pick banjo.
And it sounded like pretty good picking at the time, but not nothing like you probably heard from him on that television. If they still even play him on there.
Anyway, we get down to that little concrete bridge that takes you off Blackwater—it was wood back then but so you know which one I’m talking about—and I hadn’t never seen so many people jammed around it. And just about all kids too. Sass was frailing on that banjo ‘til it sounded just like the creek under there. I bet I still ain’t heard nothing sounded more like standing over a creek after you got let out early from school. He’d hit them strings and everyone of them would just roll out real slow all the way to the hills and then come running right back around.
I tried to find some boys to shoot marbles, but everybody was just listening to Sass and that band of his. He’d got a boy picking guitar and a girl on fiddle who I thought he’d have to get rid of if he planned on getting out of here. Didn’t nobody want some girl playing fiddle even if she wasn’t so fat. I guess I was wrong on that one, but I think them music people just couldn’t turn down Sass.
They played plumb ‘til it started to get dark, but I still never found nobody to shoot marbles with. I didn’t much care though on account of Sass’ picking. I just set down in the road beside the bridge and got my marbles out to practice with. I didn’t want to set them on the bridge in case one was to fall between the boards.
They was some grownups who set and clapped for a while, but most of them left. Just when I was figuring I’d better go too, least if I didn’t want to get whooped, the band stopped. The boy on guitar went over and started talking to them girls, and they was all of a sudden quieter than a molly mule that’s thinking about getting loose. They didn’t even make no noise when they was giggling.
While he was busy with them girls, just about the only grownup left came and talked to Sass. I could tell he was pretty queer right off because he had on a waistcoat and I didn’t see nobody wearing waistcoats around except Daddy, but them was all from when he went to the college. So I figured whoever this man was he must have went to college too. He yanked at a chain and pulled a pocket watch out—I always did like a good pocket watch—and he said Sass had been picking that banjo for pretty near three hours just since he showed up and didn’t Sass ever get tired of picking.
Sass said no, sir. And said he wished they’d get back to it sooner or later, but that girl was already packing up her fiddle.
The man snapped his pocket watch shut and I got a little look at it. I ain’t ever been able to find one like it. That watch didn’t have no hands nor no numbers. It was just white. You just looked at it and knew what time it said, and inside the lid it shined so it could shoot your reflection back at you from anywhere. I saw me and knew then Daddy was going to whoop me when I got back either way. And when a man’s got seven boys and ain’t got but one arm, he sure does learn to whoop with it. Then I figured if I was getting whooped either way, wasn’t no use to hurrying.
He just slid that watch right back in his waistcoat pocket and told Sass that you can’t rely on nobody else if you got somewhere to be and asked him did he know what he meant.
Sass said no, he didn’t know what he meant because sometimes a body will let you ride his horse or something if you was to need it real bad or if he was a man of the Lord.
That sounded like the right answer to me, but that man said no that wasn’t it at all. Not somewhere to be where a horse could take you but somewhere to be where you had to earn it. Somewhere far off.
Sass started frailing his banjo and looking up like he was just thinking on what that man said. The man just watched him.
I figured I’d better get my marbles back in their sack, so I started cleaning them off with my shirt one at a time and putting away. I always left the shooter for last.
Sass asked if the man meant somewhere like China and couldn’t you just dig.
And right then I thought I’d figured why Sass was cutting school. He must have already learned about all he could because he just kept giving right answers. Course you know that digging don’t work, and so did that man.
He just called Sass “boy” and said that ain’t even almost how you get to China and wouldn’t nobody want to go there no way. Asked him did he want to really pick that banjo or did he want to pick his teeth until they fell out with a bunch of sorry rednecks.
That caused Sass to quit frailing and he asked what did that man know about really picking a banjo.
The man reached back in his waistcoat and I thought sure he’d get out that pocket watch, but he got out a little knife and said Sass couldn’t pick the banjo no better than just a man if he was still a man.
Sass had to let his strap hold the banjo up cause he finally let it go. He had his fists up and said just wait a minute cause he didn’t plan to start peeing sitting down.
The man in the waistcoat put his hand up on his forehead and called Sass “boy” again. Said calm down and he didn’t mean like that. He meant like this and showed Sass a little jar that he used his knife to pry open. Asked him was he really using his soul anyhow.
Right then I figured he must really been the devil. I looked down at the marbles that still wasn’t in the bag. Everybody else’s best shooter was fancy some way or another: some color they like or different colors running through it or one boy said he got his shooter from his daddy and his daddy won it off Jesse James. Mine wasn’t nothing like that. It was big and clear. Only thing special about my shooter was that it worked. I picked it up and pressed my thumb behind it trying to figure how much damage a good marble could do if you put it right in a man’s eye. Maybe enough to save Sass and tell him get on back to school tomorrow. Tell him to finish his learning the way he’s supposed to and just get to farming. What’s so bad about playing the banjo for friends and family and people who knows you?
But I was afraid I might miss the shot, and it turned out that man wasn’t no devil because Sass asked him. Said are you the devil.
But the man said shoot no he wasn’t no devil. Didn’t Sass think the devil had something better to do than sit around watching some boy pick banjo.
And that sounded just about right to me, but still, knowing how it turned out, I wish I’d just put that shooter in his eye. Maybe not that; I never wanted to hurt nobody, but I wish I’d took Sass out of there somehow.
Anyway, Sass put his hands down and said that word real quiet. Soul. Said, what did he want to know about souls for anyway? And how was he going to put it in a jar?
The man rubbed his knife on his pants leg and said Sass wasn’t using it, and he knew a lot of people willing to buy souls. Besides, he said, a man can get a whole lot done in one life when he ain’t so burdened with all the troubles of the spirit.
Now, I started to feel bad for this man on account of he couldn’t have had no mommy. If he had, she would have done like mine did. She taught me about the fruit of the spirit and the gifts of the spirit, and what is a man ever going to get done without the fruit of the spirit? And how are you going to say the gifts of the spirit is a burden? But that man didn’t say nothing about those, and Sass didn’t bring it up neither. Instead, Sass just said he’d have to think about it.
Every night after, Sass kept coming there if his band showed up or not. I went now and again when I thought I could find somebody to shoot marbles, but the banjo never did sound like a creek again even if Sass played “Cripple Creek” on it. Instead of rolling out real slow all in one direction, it would just push and pull you every which way and all at the same time right out past every hill and every sky you could see. And Sass just stared down at the bridge, tapping his foot.
Morton Russell is an unpublished Appalachian writer who earned his MFA at the Bluegrass Writers Studio through Eastern Kentucky University. He seeks to create authentic representations of Appalachia to combat the stereotypes and exploitation the region constantly battles.