Wednesday, October 29, 2003

the sweetest tomatoes

The Clay County Fair was a goin' full tilt. The rides were full with long lines for all the good rides. The feller at the pony rides didn't have much to do till some proud mountain mama came along an' their youngin' started squallin' about ridin' a pony. He would perk up then an' grin. He could shame a quarter from even the poorest soul for a pony ride.

The bench outside the rabbit barn was a gatherin' place of sorts for many of the older fellers at the fair. It was close to all the food vendors, but far enough away from the midway and all the loud games an' rides that a person could get a little good conversation in.

Uncle Billy sat by himself on the bench. Several fellers had come an' gone over the space of an hour. All had news to offer about which youngin' won in this or that 4H barn. The turkey judgin' was goin' on an' Uncle Billy expected a report soon from that contest.

He had spent most of the mornin' makin' brooms an' talkin' with folks. His hands had another idea right now, though. Ever' now an' again he suffered with a little arthritis. Today it was worse than it had been all week. He reckoned it was keepin' his hands wet an workin' with the broomcorn for such long periods. He sat with one hand in the other. For good measure he would rub the knuckles softly, hoping to rub the ache out.

As he sat there, he heard someone callin' his name. "Hey, Uncle Billy. Uncle Billy, over here. Here."

There was folks goin' all different directions an' Uncle Billy couldn't see where the voice was comin' from till Junebug Burns plopped himself down on the bench beside Uncle Billy. Junebug had some sheep that were going to be judged later that day an' he was right smart nervous about it. Folks were sayin' that his sheep were the best to come through the fairgrounds in a long time. Junebug hoped that was true. He could use the money from a good auction to put away for college. He wanted to go to college over to Cumberland Baptist College to study an' be a teacher. He promised anyone who listened to him that he would come back an' teach in his hometown of Beloved when he was done.

"Uncle Billy, you look right tired."

"I reckon sleepin' on a cot in a barn ain't as peaceful as I might like, Junebug. How 'bout you?"

Well sir, I just don't mind it a bit. They is so much to do here I don't sleep much anyways."

Uncle Billy chuckled, "I don't know that I would repeat that to your Mama, Junebug."

"No sir, that might be a foolish thing to do."

"How are the sheep this year, Junebug? Think you'll win it?"

Junebug sat an' studied a little while before he answered, "Well, I don't rightly know. Lots of folks have stopped by an' looked 'em over. I think I got as good a chance as anyone."

Junebug watched Uncle Billy rubbin' his hands for a second or two, "Them hands hurtin' you?"

"Yessir, some days is better than others. They hurt more in the mornin's than any other time."

"Mine don't do that none."

Uncle Billy grinned, "No sir, I reckon they won't for another 60 years or so."

"You hungry, Uncle Billy?"

"Mountain men are always hungry. You?"

"Always."

Uncle Billy chuckled. He figured Junebug had spent his money on games an' was lookin' for a good meal. "Reckon you want to go over an' get somethin' to eat with me?"

"Nope, I got somethin' for you an' me to eat right here."

Junebug reached into a bag he was carryin' an' pulled out two of the prettiest red, ripe tomaters Uncle Billy had ever seen. Junebug had a salt shaker in his hand as he handed the bigger one to Uncle Billy.

"Those are nice tomaters, Junebug. I appreciate that. Nothin' better than a tomater with a little salt."

Junebug already had a mouthful as he agreed. The two sat an' ate slowly, each enjoyin' the sweet taste of the tomaters. Ever' now an' again a little juice ran down their lips. Both were quick to catch it and place it back in their mouths. The tomaters were just that good. A feller didn't want to waste a drop.

Uncle Billy chuckled, "I reckon we are both eatin like we are starved. Only thing could make these better would be sittin' in the garden eatin' 'em right off the vine."

Junebug grinned, "Onliest thing could make 'em better is you an' me sneakin' into that garden after dark an' sittin' between the rows eatin' 'em in the moonlight."

"Now, Junebug, what garden did you sneak into? Are these from someone's garden? When did you sneak out?"

"Uncle Billy, I ain't sneaked off the fairgrounds. I promised Pap I wouldn't an' I keep my promises. Just don't ask no questions."

Uncle Billy looked at Junebug for a long time. He had slowed his eatin' down at the prospect of eatin' ill gotten gains. He studied the small piece of tomater he had left for a long while. "Junebug, they don't sell tomaters here at the fair, do they?"

"No sir, they don't. Eat up, Uncle Billy. You are askin' too many questions."

Uncle Billy sat up. He knew something was wrong!

"Junebug Burns! Where did you get these tomaters?"

"Uncle Billy, here is the way it is. Ms.Hazel bugs me to death at church all the time. She tells me to stand up straight, wipes my face with spit an' a hankie if she thinks she sees a little dirt. She tells my Mama on me all the time an' I get in trouble from her carryin' on. Her tomaters was already judged an' won a blue ribbon. They was a whole basket full an' I felt like she owed me a couple."

"Ms.Hazel? Oh, Junebug, if you get caught there will be no end of this! Of all the folks to swipe tomaters from...Ms.Hazel. That woman is a thorn in my side too, Junebug. She will have out hides if she catches us. I'll have to go over to her house for a Sunday dinner to apologize. That woman wants to get her hooks in me anyway, son."

"Well, I reckon we better eat up real fast, Uncle Billy. Don't want anyone seein' us eatin' her tomaters, do we?"

With that thought, both man an' boy put the last bite of sweet, red tomater in their mouth and swallowed hard an' fast. Both grinned a little as they sat on the bench in front of the rabbit barn. Neither said anything for a long time.

"Uncle Billy?"

"Yep?"

"Stolen tomaters is the best."

"Junebug!"

"They are, Uncle Billy. Sneakin' in an' swipin' a tomater makes it sweeter. You said they was good."

"I reckon, boy, I reckon. Just don't tell anyone we ate Ms.Hazel's prize winnin' tomaters. Just my luck I'd have to end up marryin' the woman to end her shame."

Junebug looked at Uncle Billy with a grin that sliced from ear to ear. They shared a secret that bonded them that day. In the years to come Junebug would grow closer to the old man. Eventually he would learn to make brooms from Uncle Billy. Years later he would sit in a barn makin' brooms an' tellin' stories Uncle billy told him on days just like this one. Them tomaters changed the directions of Junebug's life.

Junebug was right. There is nothin' sweeter than a swiped tomater...

Unless it was pullin' somethin' over on Ms. Hazel. Man an' boy both enjoyed that sweet, red secret.
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