by Maria Mize
A short story about two Kentucky friends: one Virgil Beaver.
From the back-woods of Kentucky, he was --- a regular hillbilly. Virgil Beaver was his name. As I think back on him, the Dixie ballad plays on my mind: Virgil Cain is my name and I served on the Danville train… Virgil’s surname weren’t Cain, but he had the first name down good. Likewise, he was a rebel --- not yur run-of-the-mill sort of guy.
Virgil Beaver and me grew up together --- next door neighbors as a matter of fact --- about a hollow apart. As kids, we played together, went to school together and had a lot a firsts together --- first drinks, first smokes, first farts.
In the summertime we camped out most nights in an old pup tent, tellin’ stories --- like Indians around a campfire. There we were with flashlights while ghost shadows danced all around, tellin’ scary stories until we were so spooked we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. With hearts poundin’, we’d be trippin’ all over each other, flashlights bobbin’, as we scrambled outa’ there like two wayward firecrackers on the fourth of July --- through the yard and into the house. Boom! The door slammed behind us, and we were safe again. Slumped down against the door, we were catchin' our breath and tryin' to act normal --- too tough to be scared. I can hear Virgil’s mama now…, “You two boys okay out there?” Virgil reassured her, “We’re fine mama... just inside for a spell.”
After we grew up, Virgil had this stupid floaty pen he carried around --- Betty Boop in a hula skirt. He loved that dumb pen. Shake it and she’d dance real jerky like. His uncle brought her back from the islands where he was stationed for awhile. Virgil Beaver was an Army-reject --- probably too dumb to get in, like me.
Whenever Virgil brought out that floaty pen he lit up like a Christmas tree with a flashin’ star on top. He was proud of his uncle too --- just ooh-in’ and ahh-in’ over him and all his medals --- a genuine decorated soldier from WWII, he was.
Virgil never had a bona fide, flesh-and-blood girlfriend. I think he was too fidgety to settle down with a woman. It’s quite possible in the back of his mind he knew his days were numbered. Betty Boop was sort of a substitute girlfriend. He carried that pen around wherever he went. I can just see his big smilin’ face whenever he pulled her out. She was one of them conversation pieces, a real novelty.
The goof ball that he was, Virgil would do almost anything for a laugh. He was always makin’ faces. Heck, he even slow-danced with Betty Boop when things got dull. He was the life that kept every party or get-together movin’ on a fast-track to fun. He was my best friend.
That last summer, I went over to Virgil’s to hang out for awhile. It was a sweltering hot Saturday afternoon in the middle of July. Virgil’s mama was fannin’ herself and swishin’ around in one of them MuMus she always wore. She was big as a house, a grand piano in a four-room shack. With nothin’ better to do that hot day, Virgil brought out a couple of shotguns, and we blasted tin cans off a stump most all day. He was a pretty good shot. Me, well I never could shoot worth a lick. My shoulder ached from the kick and my ears rang for the remnant of the day. We shouted back and forth to hear each other.
Virgil and me worked the mine together, five days a week. Whenever we came out of there, we were black as the coal we mined and weary clear down to the bone. Hard work can be most satisfying because your personal time becomes valuable, new found treasure. The smallest of things are significant. After all your energy is expelled, a hot shower, a cold glass of water, rest and relaxation are most enjoyable. Just sittin’ on a porch swing with a kind-hearted woman and watchin’ the sun go down satisfies the soul after a long hard day at the mine. Even sleep comes easier --- there’s never tossin’ and turnin’ when you’re exhausted.
Every other Friday or so, after a long hard week at the mine, we like to go down to the bar to meet up with the boys and toss back a few cold ones. We have dart competitions or shoot pool for entertainment. Sometimes when Virgil was around, if things slowed up and he thought we needed a little spark, out came Betty Boop. She was quite the show girl in them days.
One Friday night in particular was eerie and forebodin’ almost… it was a night when deep inside you get a funny feelin’ somethin’ might be loomin’ on the horizon. For that same peculiar destiny-driven reason, the other boys turned up absent that night, and it was just Virgil and me. We were a hootin’ and a hollerin’ all evening about whatever.
At about 1:30 a.m., we called it a night and walked outside. We were met head-on by four big mean, no count, drunk sons ‘o bitches that we’d never seen before. They were outside layin’ in wait for anybody to come out so they could start a fight. …Unfortunate for us we walked out when we did.
They started off tryin’ to egg us on with name callin’ --- we was girls, pantywaists, dumb bunnies, you name it. Then the pushin’ started like we was two volleyballs. Four against two ain’t never been a fair fight. I don’t know where those sons ‘o bitches came from, but their mamas never taught ‘em no manners. They was plumb filled up with meanness, and their double-barreled fists found their marks on our faces and any other accessible body-parts. They beat up on us pretty good and knocked out a couple ‘a Virgil’s teeth.
After the fightin’ was done, I glanced over at Virgil. He was Count Dracula incarnate with blood oozin’ over his lips and spillin’ down his chin. He had a painful, funny lookin’ grin on his face. We walloped them four pretty good too --- broke a few noses by the looks of ‘em --- and had some bloody, bruised up knuckles to prove it. We were never so stupid to back down from no bullies. Gave them four a run for their money, we did. It wasn’t too long before they had enough of us and high-tailed it outa’ there. That’s when me and Virgil was all high-fives --- heroes for about an hour.
We stumbled back into the bar and drank a few to calm our nerves before finally partin’ ways for the night. My girl, Sally, was home waitin’ for me. She was mad --- unreasonable and ready for the insane asylum, almost --- like always when I go out with the boys and forget the time. My hurtin’ was a nice distraction. She cleaned me up sweet and gentle with the salve while I sat there real docile like.
Poor Virgil wasn’t so lucky. He was dead before the sun came up on Saturday. That was the night they drove old Virgil down. The sirens were ringin’, but the people weren’t singin.
By the looks of the scene, they must have run him over and drug him half-a-mile before he finally dropped loose. Their bent-up bumper came to rest on the road a yard or two from Virgil. If it weren’t for all them sirens flashin’, Virgil might easily have been mistaken for a dirty rolled-up piece of carpet. Same time I was gettin’ cleaned up and taken care of, somebody was runnin’ him over for sport. If the runnin’ over didn’t kill him, he was left to linger in pain like forgotten road-kill. It hurts to think about his final moments --- a tragic end to a good man.
After it happened, the Sheriff figured it was young punks out on a joyride who did it… or maybe one of them rich city boys that don’t care about nobody but hisself. I told him I knew exactly who it was --- them four, no count sons ‘o bitches that beat us up outside the bar. Surely, those predators laid in wait for Virgil. Without conscience, they were a mean and hungry pack of laughin’ hyenas.
With the bumper as evidence, the Sheriff was a blood hound on their trail, not lettin’ up ‘til them no count buggers were lined up at the jail. That’s when them yellow-bellies turned on one another. Then the Sheriff marshalled ‘em down to the courthouse to stand trial for their misdeed. It eases my mind that they ain’t havin’ no more dirty rotten fun --- at least while they’re at the penitentiary. I never want to see them again.
A day or two after Virgil was killed, me and Sally went down to his funeral. Big mama swooshed up to the casket and kissed Virgil’s cold dead lips. Then she ceremoniously laid Betty Boop on his belly. We said our good-byes, and drove up the hill to the cemetery where the minister said his piece from the Good Book. The undertaker closed the lid, and it was over. We stood there and cried ‘til our eyes were clean dried out. But that was a long time ago.
For the longest time, I wondered “why” --- “Why Virgil? Why not me? Surely he deserved to live as much as me. Why do those four live on while Virgil is dead and buried?” Sally was always there to remind me that it just ain’t healthy to dwell on it. She’d say, “You got to grieve and move on.” I did grieve a long time for my friend. When I wasn’t at the mine, sometimes “why” moved back in to haunt me. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. The best distraction for me was doin’ something --- whether it be work around our house, in the garden or whatever.
Since Virgil passed, much has changed in my life. Sally and I go to church whenever the doors are open. The Lord has helped me through my grief. I never had a personal relationship with Him until Virgil died. His death hit me hard and forced me to focus on the more important things in life. The Lord keeps me movin’ forward in the right direction, past the sadness. He’s a friend that sticketh closer than a brother. He’s a comfort that never goes away, regardless of where you find yourself.
Virgil’s mama is still a big part of our lives, no pun intended. She has us over for supper every Sunday after church. She calls me her adopted son. We share many fond memories of a time not so long ago.
You ever been coon huntin’? Me and Virgil went coon huntin’ once with the boys. I never hit no coons, but Virgil sure hit one. His mama skinned that old coon and made Virgil one of them Daniel Boone hats. He wore that coon-tail hat everywhere --- except for the mine of course. At the mine, we always wear these bright yellow hard hats geared up with flashlights that shine out over yur forehead.
I don’t go coon huntin’ any more. Since Virgil died, I never had much of a reason. Killin’ animals never really appealed to me, and I couldn’t shoot straight anyway. You have to keep your eyes open to hit anything, and I never could bear to watch. Unless the need arises to hunt in order to feed my family, I’ll stick to tin cans.
After Virgil went on to a higher place, it took a while before I enjoyed bein’ with the boys again. I still miss Virgil. He was so dumb he was funny. Dumb people make nice companions --- they’re easygoin’. You don’t have to act smart or say cute stuff. You can talk nonsense, laugh and look at stupid floaty pens all night and never get bored.
There’s not much higher learnin’ in these parts, not that it’s not appreciated. We went to school with some who went away to school and never made it back. A few came back to be our teachers, doctors, ministers and such. I never considered further education for myself. I enjoy my work at the mine and the friendships I’ve made there. I’m content. The work we do at the mine is necessary and beneficial to society, and it suits me fine. I do have higher hopes for my youngens'.
Sally and I have a family now --- two boys and two girls as a matter of fact. We live a quiet life in the country with plenty of fresh air and sunshine. In the warmth of the summer evenings, we listen to the crickets sing and the hoots of the old barn owls, while the kids chase fireflies in the yard. The stars always seem to sparkle brighter against a pitch black sky and the moon smiles down as we relish in our little peace of heaven.
At bedtime, I’m the appointed storyteller. I’ve got so many tales that spill out of my mind about the antics of Virgil and me from another time not so long ago. I don’t mention the details of Virgil’s final night --- God rest his soul --- perhaps I never will.
As it is, my four happy children don’t tire of daddy’s stories. Story tellin’ has become a fine art I hope to pass down. They’re always cajolin’ me, “Tell us another story about you and Virgil.” They know I love it. Sally says they’re tryin’ to prolong the inevitable, but that’s okay by me. Sometimes when they’re startin’ to nod off, I tear up and my voice gets low and crackly. That’s when I turn out the lights and whisper good-night.
It’s been a while since me and Virgil had fun together; yet in my mind it was a few days ago when we were shootin’ guns, laughin’ or runnin’ frantic into the house after one too many scary stories.
Besides a good wife and family, a man needs a friend or two he can count on in this life, and I am privileged to have known a good man named Virgil Beaver.