Nobody loved Woody more than I did. I adored the silky feel of his curly, copper hair. The rough creases on his hands were wild terrain for my fingers to explore. He loved me to scratch his back when he was tired and massage his shoulders when they were sore. Woody was a lean, solid man and if he didn’t have the biggest brain in the county, it didn’t bother me any. He was a genius with engines with his hands generally, and that was enough for me. I loved him first and best.
Everyone called him Peaches when he was a baby. His skin was creamy, spotless, and his cheeks blushed up in the sun like the skin of a ripe peach. As he grew older, he broke out in freckles, so he earned a new nickname: Spots. By then he was half a head taller than the older boys in his class, and accurate with his fists, so "Spots" was short-lived. When I came to know him in high school, he went by Woody, short for Robert Woodrow Jameson. I don’t think anyone ever called him Robert or Bob until he went to prison. Son of a bitch warden didn't let the man be called his name of choice.
Woody married his neighbor, Sarah Gutterson, out of necessity. Sarah was a year behind us in high school. She wore her brown frizzy hair in braids most of the time. Little springs of curls escaped around her forehead. "She looks like a bug with all those kinky antennae shooting out of her head," I told Woody. He agreed, but just didn't care, I guess. "Damn, Arletha, I’ve got to do the right thing," he whined.
Sarah clung to him like a wood tick, nearly sucked the spirit right out of him. No one was surprised when Sarah produced a baby in the winter. She got Woody, all right, but it was a weak victory. Woody moved his little family into his folks' house. He and Sarah and the baby slept together in one bedroom, and his folks in the other. The arrangement suited Woody just fine, but Sarah had higher expectations. Woody wasn't ready to be the family man for which she shed her virtue so easily. As much as I loved Woody, I had sense enough to bide my time.
Woody's father, Daniel, and his brother Bud were wild as young men. Back in the 1920s, they partnered up and built a big barn on the hill above the cedar woods behind the family farm. The Jameson family had owned those woods since before the Civil War. Daniel had the idea of running a saw mill at the bottom of the hill. The brothers built a kind of trough out of scrap metal from the top of the hill down to the mill. They dragged the logs down the trough with ropes and mules. The brothers planned to build a road to truck the cut-up lumber from the saw mill to market.
The men did pretty well. Bud saved his portion of the profits in a crockery jar under his bed. When Bud's bride mistook the money jar for a chamber pot, he made her hang the bills on the clothesline one by one to dry in the sun. She sat in a cane rocker under the clothes line all day to keep laundry thieves away. After the incident, Daniel announced that he was putting his share into the Cedar County Savings and Loan. He checked his balance regularly and by the end of the decade, he had enough to install indoor plumbing on the old farmhouse.
In 1931, Daniel Jameson put on a clean shirt and a string tie and drove to the Savings and Loan to pull out his money. He was probably happy thinking he would never spend another winter dawn stuck to a frozen outhouse seat. He stood in the street outside the bank with a crowd of angry farmers and businessmen. The bank had failed, and Woody's father lost every cent he had. Daniel bowed his head, sold the car he had driven into town, and walked home. He farmed his land and never set foot in his woods again. A man from St. Louis came once to talk about a deal for the walnut trees, but Daniel chased him away with a pistol. Bud could not handle the saw mill on his own, so he sold the equipment and split the money with his brother. With his half, Bud opened a general store and installed a gasoline pump.
From back when I first met Woody as a kid, he was already hooked on the dream of making big money with little effort. Later, in high school, I noticed Woody hanging around outside the school one day. He shuffled around but would not go into the building. I asked him would he walk me to my classroom, and he said he could not as he had a lot on his mind.
"It must be awfully grim to make you turn down a pretty girl who just wants an escort to her English class?"
"It is," said Woody.
"Maybe I can help," I said.
Before Woody could turn me down, I took his hand and started walking in the direction of town. We sat on a bench in the cemetery all morning. By the end of the day, we were partners in a scheme to sell walnut trees. I was also in love with Woody and had schemes of my own.
Woody took a jar of my mother's strawberry preserves home to his parents. His father was devoted to strawberries in any and all forms. He piled the preserves on his biscuits the next morning and was laid low by the raging trots before dinner time. Two days he spent in deepest misery, unable to work or rest. Five large trees were harvested while the old man lay weak and helpless on a cot in the kitchen, close to the back door for his frantic trips to the outhouse.
When his father recovered, Woody presented him with most of the money earned from selling the walnut trees. Woody claimed a share. I offered to hide it for him, in case his folks got snoopy.
"I guess the money is half yours," he said. "They weren't my trees anyway."
"You never know when an emergency would come up and you would need some ready cash," I said. "What if your father got sick again? What if he died next time? You would need some ready funds to keep the farm going and to take care of your family and your mother."
"That seems only fair. He isn't a young man anymore," Woody said. I took some bills from Woody's little bundle and placed them in the top of my left stocking. I carried them for several days to show Woody when he started talking about giving the rest of the tree money to his mother.
I was right, of course. When Woody's father learned of his son's betrayal, he threatened to beat him with a strap as soon as he got his strength back. Mrs. Jameson convinced her husband that selling a few trees did not warrant such hostility within the family. As the sale could not be undone, and the trees could not be returned to the earth, Daniel resigned himself to the loss of the wood and the walnuts. It helped that he believed he received all the proceeds from the sale.
Before I could turn my business relationship with Woody into something more romantic, Sarah Gutterson sat on his lap for a soda at the diner where I worked part-time. Before I could turn Woody's affection in my direction, Sarah claimed she was having his baby. His having a family did not alter my feelings for Woody. After high school, I moved into a couple of rooms above the Snappy Lunch, where I still waitressed. The owner, a former mama's boy named Clem, let me stay there rent-free. There was still a price. Clem did not visit often and wasn't much bother when he did. A few kisses and some baby talk telling him what a good boy he was usually sufficed.
Woody started visiting me when his wife and parents ganged up on him for not having a paying job. I was glad to listen to his complaints, but I knew I was only part of the attraction. I kept a jar of moonshine whiskey in the café's cooler for when he came around. On orders from Woody's mother, the Jameson family abstained from alcohol. I was happy to provide what Woody's home did not, be it liquor, or a friendly ear, or bedroom nonsense. Sex without strings was what men like Woody preferred, and what women like me preferred to provide, at first. Sarah had not announced a new baby on the way, so I saw my road to Woody as clear.
The diner counter was shaped like a big U, with stools on all sides. I worked one leg of the U, and another waitress worked the other. Behind us was the pickup window and behind that the kitchen. We served mostly truck drivers at the counter. The locals took up the tables under the front windows. Farmers sat at the tables for hours over coffee and toast. The locals were more polite, but the truckers tipped better. That's always the way with men: the handsy ones pay the bills but respect comes empty-handed.
The customers complained about their aching backs, their pay, their in-laws, their bosses and their wives. The Depression was mostly over by 1939. It had not hit the farmers in Missouri as hard as it did city people. If a family had a garden, a cow or two or some hogs, they always had food. Money for anything else was scarce, though. Gasoline was a big expense for farmers and the truck drivers. I heard them complain about gasoline prices at the Snappy Lunch counter every day.
"Bud Jameson charges eighteen cents for a gallon of that gold he sells," said Lyle Howerton. He drove a milk delivery truck for a big dairy in Springfield. Brought me bags of cheese curds whenever he stopped in the diner. I guess for a milk deliverer, cheese curds seemed like a good gift for a lady. The curds never got Lyle any favors from me.
"Bud is Woody's uncle. You think Woody might ask his Uncle Bud to give a businessman's discount for a local trucker?"
"Woody doesn't usually do favors unless there's something in it for him," I said.
Lyle drained his fourth cup of coffee. "Arletha, honey. Think you might persuade him in my direction?" Lyle asked.
"I sure might. But then there would have to be something in it for me."
Lyle circled a finger around the bottom of his coffee cup. He used so much sugar that it never dissolved completely. There was always a little island of sugar in his cup. "Any particular something you had in mind?" he whispered.
"Anything so long as it isn't made out of cheese."
"How about one of those lacy, flowered handkerchiefs like the other waitresses wear in their breast pocket?" he asked. For Lyle, using the word "breast" not proceeded by the word "chicken" was a sin. His cheeks flushed crimson like he had scarlet fever.
"You shouldn't talk to a lady like that. Not in a business establishment," I teased.
I walked away to get the coffee pot. I felt sorry for Lyle and gave him a little tail swish to think about on the long drive to Stockton. When I returned, he covered his cup with his hand. "You still seeing Woody?" he asked.
"If he comes around, I see him," I said.
"Will you ask him to talk to Bud, please."
"I like any kind of flower on my handkerchiefs, but little pink roses suit me best of all, don't you think?"
"I do indeed," said Lyle. He removed his hand from on top of his coffee cup and reached for the sugar dispenser.
"Now, how about some more toast? I'll bet if I looked hard on the top shelf of the pantry, I might find some strawberry preserves."
Lyle flushed again. I disappeared into the back of the diner. I kept a few jars of my mother's preserves hidden in the pantry to dole out to my Casanova customers, or sometimes, with a shy man like Lyle, just for pure torment.
Woody's daughter was nearly three and his son was on the way when Sarah announced she would no longer live in a single bedroom under the thumb of her mother-in-law. If Woody wouldn't get her into a proper house with indoor plumbing, then he could just buy her a bus ticket and she would take the babies and move in with her parents in Springfield. They had a two-story house with four bedrooms. Woody talked to me about what he should do. I suggested he use his tree money to buy the bus tickets. After seeing his family off, Woody returned to the farm to find his suitcase and a basket of canned vegetables on the front porch.
The Jamesons were finished supporting Woody, and I was not about to start. I told him visits to the boudoir above the diner were still on the menu, but he would have to earn his own money for my tips. I sent him to my cousin, Eugene, who inherited repaired cars, motorcycles, tractors—anything with an engine—in his grandfather's old blacksmith shop. In hard times, people had to make do with what they had, and a man who had his own tools and a place to repair things could always squeeze out a living. I told Eugene that he could do worse than Woody for a partner.
My Woody was widely known as a genius mechanic, but he needed a boss who knew how to push him without putting him off work altogether. Woody worked more in fits and starts, when the moon was in the right phase, or when if it wasn't too cloudy, or if he wasn't too tired, sore, puny, peaked, or standing on death's door and straddling the threshold. Still, people were always calling him to come and look at a tractor, or a thresher, generators, grass cutters, even freezers. Woody Jameson was a regular Melvin Purvis when it came to deducing what the problem was, even if putting the contraptions back together in what they call a timely fashion was where Woody stalled out.
Once when Woody was working for Eugene, a customer brought in a Ford pickup with a busted axle or some such thing. Woody promised to get right on it as the man needed his truck to haul hay before it rained and ruined it. Woody had likewise promised the owner of a John Deere Model D tractor to replace his burnt-out clutch. He worked on one and then the other, until he had two piles of parts on the floor between the vehicles.
Woody took a lunch break and then a nap break, and when he got back to the garage, Eugene's dog had run through the parts, back and forth, until they were a mixed-up mess.
"Look what your dog has done to my job," Woody said.
"If you're going to leave the garage, you have to tie him in the back," Eugene said.
"Well, he's not my dog now, is he?"
"Woody, you don't have the brains of a gnat or the sense of a tree stump."
Eugene was at least partially correct, but Woody was still mad. Right on the spot Woody said, "I quit." He threw down his tools and walked off, as was his custom. Woody returned to Eugene's shop later in the evening, a jar of liquor under his arm. The tractor and truck parts were still in a jumble as he had left them. After a few drinks, he and Eugene worked just fine together all night long. As drunk as he was, Woody managed to sort out the parts and get both vehicles running before the sun came up. When the owners came to pick up their equipment, they insisted Eugene discount their bills because the work took longer than Woody promised. "Well, that's on you boys. If you need work done by a certain time, you have to tell me, not my assistant." Eugene accused Woody of costing him money, which started another fight, and Woody quit again.
Poor guy, Woody just didn't have the head for planning or organizing, or lots of other abilities required in normal, adult life. Woody was an artist with machines, and like most artists, he could be irresponsible, lazy, unreliable, and completely without repentance. He knew his shortcomings very well, having been apprised of them on many occasions by his folks, his teachers, Eugene, and his Uncle Bud. I never criticized him, though, or tore into him for his failings. That is why I always found Woody easy to boss. All he ever cared about was his art, his machines. On all other subjects he accepted my instructions. He agreed to everything I told him to do or not do. Having few ideas of his own, he assumed mine were good. Woody knew his place is what I'm trying to say. If that isn't a sound basis for loving a man, then I don't know what love is.
On December 7, 1941, Woody and I sat in the dark diner, listening to the radio. We drank coffee because it just didn't seem right to be drunk when the country had just been attacked. Right away, Woody started fretting about being called up to the Army. "I'm just not made for fighting. You see how my wife, my folks, and Eugene push me around. Do I fight back? No. Because I'm a man of peace."
I twisted my fingers through Woody's copper curls. "Hush," I whispered. "There must be something good about a war," I thought out loud.
"What are you saying?"
"Why else do men keep having them?"
Woody slept in my arms that night. So far, the war wasn't bothering me too much.
One day, a man came into the diner and he could not shut up about tires. "They are the new gold," he said. "Any fella with a good steady source of used rubber is going to make a killing in this war." The man laughed at his unintended pun. Any man who laughs at his own jokes has all the audience he deserves.
"How do you figure that?" another customer challenged him.
"Easy, the Japanese have taken the sources of rubber over in Asia. We won't be able to make much new rubber, and what is made will go to the military."
Woody ambled into the diner, looking for a free cup of coffee. He sat down on the stool next to the tire man.
"Listen to this guy, honey. He's got an idea for making money from old tires."
"That so?" said Woody.
"The name is Sam Hendrickson."
Woody shook Sam's hand and said, "Pleased to meet you."
They might have sat there beside each other quietly until a real customer came in, so I hurried things along so I could hear. "Tell Woody your plan," I said. "He's in the automotive business himself."
"Is that so? Well, I don't want to give too much away. I wouldn't want you to take my idea and run off with it and make a fortune on your own," Sam said.
"He won't. But, I might," I said.
Apparently, Sam thought that possibility too remote to consider. He pointed to the coffee pot behind me. I filled his cup and wiped the counter slowly, all the while listening as Sam laid out his plan.
It seemed that the government was willing to pay for used tires. Goodyear and Firestone had ways to repair the rubber and use it again. What was it? Not much of a plan, really. Sam wanted to search all around for junked cars and trucks, take the tires and store them until he had enough to hire a truck, and haul them to where the government would pay him so much a pound.
"I can get you all the tires you want," said Woody. It was true that he was a human census of all the rusted out, abandoned cars in the whole county. He scavenged them for parts regularly. Sometimes he went as far as Jefferson City or south to Cape Girardeau if he heard of a source of good, free parts.
"Great!" said Sam. "The problem is, I have no place to store them until we can turn them in. We can't just turn in tires two or three at a time. We need a place big enough to store enough tires to make it worth our while, yet remote enough where someone won't jump our claim, so to speak."
"How about the saw-mill barn?" Woody said.
There it was: the intelligence I knew Woody had and always believed he would one day show. The saw mill was perfect. The tires would be out of sight up in the woods. The barn was covered in brush and vines that have grown up in the last twenty years. Most people didn't even remember it was there. There were even the beginnings of a road leading to and from the saw mill. Enough for a truck to follow at night.
Sam and Woody shook hands, and the business was formed.
It turned out that Woody was quite competent as a scavenger. If he entered property where someone lived to retrieve tires, he always asked permission. If the landowner was a widow or elderly woman on her own, Woody asked if there were any chores she needed done before he left. Sometimes he cut down annoying shrubs, patched a window screen, or shored up a set of porch stairs. Once he was asked to dig a grave for a beloved dog who had died just that morning. Woody did one more thing before he left the property: he asked for the resident's gasoline ration cards. "Even with these tires, that vehicle can't ever be fixed to run again. It would sure help me in my business to support the war effort if you let me have your gas ration card." He picked up one or two nearly every trip.
Still, gasoline was a big problem throughout the first half of 1942. Sometimes the old ladies with the tires had no ration cards, and no matter how much Woody offered to pay, no one would sell him as much gasoline as he needed. We fought about it sometimes.
"You should ask your Uncle Bud to give you a family discount on his gas. Charging twenty cents a gallon to relatives should be a war crime," I told Woody one evening. We had just eaten the left-over sausage gravy from the diner. I brought the whiskey jar upstairs from the cooler. I had an idea of my own.
"You and Sam are onto something good. You could make enough to buy the diner," I suggested.
"What would I do with a diner?" he said.
"We can open a repair shop in the old garage next door. You could do oil changes and sell batteries while the customers eat lunch."
"I'd have to work pretty fast to do an oil change or lube job. Truckers eat and run, you know that," said Woody.
"That's the best part. You make them hang around a while and I keep feeding them. All we need is enough to buy the diner. The garage can come out of my profits," I said.
It was a mistake to throw too many ideas at Woody at one time. I returned to the topic of cheap gasoline for the tire runs. Woody sat silently through two glasses of whiskey. Finally, he said, "I doubt Uncle Bud would cut his prices for me."
"You can't know if you don't ask him," I said.
"He knows I have other people's ration cards, so he won't lift a finger to help me."
"You didn't steal those cards, did you?"
"No. I would never do that."
"Look, don't ask your uncle to help you out. Just say, 'Here's fifty cents for the gas. I'll do the same for you if I get a chance.' Better yet, just fill up the truck and drive away." I carried the dishes down to the diner and washed them, giving Woody some time to think it over.
Woody spent days considering the idea. He looked at it from every direction and inside out, but he still could not commit to it. One morning, the sixth I believe of Woody's contemplation about stealing a tank of gasoline, he received a letter from the United States Selective Service Board. Private Jameson was instructed to report in ten days in Springfield or face arrest.
"Lord have mercy," he screamed. "They are out to kill me, honey."
"Calm down, Peaches. I had a feeling this might happen someday. Wait here."
I disappeared into my closet and returned wearing a large apron over my dress and a small pillow under it.
"What?" Woody asked.
"We get married, then we go to the draft board and tell them you are about to have a child, and before you can say wet diapers, you get excused from the draft."
"I am already married, remember? Anyway, they're taking married guys up and down the state. Every state has quotas they have to fill, you see."
I removed the pillow from under my skirt but held on to it. I flopped down on the floor beside Woody's chair and caressed the pink flannel pillow as if it were a real baby. "Mommy loves you, and Daddy, too."
"Shut up, Arletha. This is serious. This is my life, not some girlish game."
"What do you think we should do?"
Woody leaned forward and cupped my face in his rough hands. "You've got to shoot me in the foot. It's the only way."
"Now I know you are crazy," I said. I jumped up from the floor and threw the pink pillow against the wall.
Woody ran down the outside stairs to his truck parked behind the diner. He returned with a towel bunched up like he had grabbed it off a clothesline and ran. He unwrapped an old Colt pistol he traded for work on a motorcycle.
There was a loud knocking at my door on the stairs. It was Sam. Woody hid the gun and let his partner in.
"What a load!" he cried. "We are going to clean up on this one, but we have to move fast. The government has declared a nationwide rubber drive starting June 15, the day after tomorrow. They're paying a penny a pound. You've got some big tractor tires in the saw mill, they must weigh 200 or 300 pounds each."
"I have bigger problems right now than used tires," said Woody.
I ran downstairs to the diner for two Coca Colas. When I returned, the men were sitting at the table, their heads in their hands. I've always said if you want a man to do something, convince him it was his own idea.
"Maybe Sam would oblige you by shooting your foot," I said.
"What?" Sam yelped. "Not until he hauls this load for the rubber drive. I want my money before I do any shooting."
"Nice talk, Jesse James," I said.
"Even if I wanted to, Sam, I don't have the ration cards for gas, and we don't have enough to buy it. Gas is going for twenty or twenty-one cents a gallon!"
"Your Uncle Bud is charging twenty-four cents," I said.
"That's treason!" Sam exploded.
I stood at the side of the table. If I had a ruler, I would have smacked them both on the knuckles. "Think it through," I said. "Fill up the truck and just drive off. Uncle Bud wouldn't bat an eye if he saw you out his store window filling up a machine. Load up the tires tonight, take the tires to this rubber drive thing, and when you get back, I'll shoot you myself, Peaches."
Woody agreed that no other solution to the problems of the gasoline and the draft notice was to be found. Even Sam didn't have anything better to offer.
"I'll go to the gas station with you," I said to Woody.
"I don't want you involved in this," he said tenderly.
"It was my idea. Take the gun."
"Gun!" Sam exploded again.
"Shut up, Sam. You stay here."
I pulled Woody down the outside stairs behind the diner and climbed in the passenger seat of Sam's truck. As we drove to Bud's station, I asked Woody if he had bullets for the gun.
"Sure. Right here," he said. He pulled a few bullets out of his shirt pocket and held them out to show me. When I tried to take them, he pulled his hand back. "You're not going to load it."
"You'll be more confident if you know it's loaded," I said.
"I'm not about to shoot my father's brother," he said.
"That's up to him, now," I said.
Bud’s general store stood on the county road, in front of a pair of old walnut trees. Bud sold bushels of walnuts in the fall, and they didn’t cost him a thing but the effort to pick them up off the ground. That’s what I call a person with endless good luck. The store looked like every other little store in the state, glass counters on one side in front of shelves of goods, and a couple of chairs beside a potbellied stove that served as the town gossip center.
Woody parked the truck at the gas pump. He put his hand on the door handle. "You're not going inside," I said.
"Sure. I'm going to ask Uncle Bud for a discount and if he doesn't get it, then we fill up and run."
"There's no reason to talk to him before you rob him," I pointed out.
"I have to give him a chance to cut me a deal. He's my own family, don't you see?"
I gave in to Woody's absurd logic and agreed to let him do all the talking. First, he offered to overhaul Bud's Ford for a discount on the gas. Bud said he couldn't do that. "Wouldn't be fair to my other customers."
"How about I haul something for you with the truck, for free?"
Bud crossed his arms over his chest.
"Come on, Woody. There's no dealing with this man," I said. I tugged on Woody's sleeve until he turned and headed out the door.
"Fill up the tank," I said.
"I don’t have any cash on me."
"Just fill it, before Bud realizes that you don't."
Woody lifted the nozzle and cranked the pump. I took the gun out of Woody's belt and held it under my pocket book.
"It's not safe pumping gas with a loaded pistol," I said.
When gas splashed out of the overfull tank, Woody replaced the nozzle. I was already in the front seat of the truck. Woody ran to the driver's seat just as Bud came out of the store to collect for the gas. Woody jammed the gas pedal and we spun gravel out of there. Bud ran after us shouting something about the sheriff. He wouldn't stop, so I fired out the back window of the truck. The glass shattered and sprayed everywhere. It sounded like water running over rocks. I hit Bud in the arm, and he stopped running. I never knew I was such a good shot. The way the truck was bumping, I could easily have hit him in the head or in the gut.
Woody got two years for armed robbery. He told the judge it was his gun and he pulled the trigger. The judge looked at me standing beside Woody. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Mrs. Jameson," I answered with a demur smile. I had worn my pink pillow under my dress, just in case. What judge would put a pregnant woman in prison even for armed robbery?
Woody was taken to the penitentiary in Jefferson City. When you think about it, we all came out pretty well. The Army didn't draft Woody because he was in prison. Sarah divorced him and took her kids to Oregon to marry a veteran with a Purple Heart. Sam made it to the rubber drive and collected a fortune. When he came back through town looking for Woody, I served him a breakfast of biscuits and strawberry preserves. When the strawberries kicked in, I traded him the restroom key for Woody's share of the tire money. I bought the Snappy Lunch with most of the tire money. And of course, we did win the war.
Some people are born with good luck and some with good looks, I always say. Poor Woody got neither, but it doesn’t matter because I got enough of both to carry us.