Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question.
Come down over here and sit next to me. I’ve got a story I need to get off my chest. Right there. That’ll do. Is this fan botherin’ you? . . . Oh dear me, this Indian Summer is wringing us all dry.
Now. Pour yourself some of that tea and git me a glass as well.
Thank you, darlin’.
Well, get comfortable. This story started a long, long time ago. Long before you were even a twinkle in your daddy’s eye. It’s about my friend Billy. You’re too young to remember Billy, but everyone who met him never forgot him.
He had a way with people. I guess some might call it charm. I wouldn’t call it that. It was more like possession. He possessed you when he was near you. I knew to stay away. Many of us ladies would warn each other about that sort of a man. Don’t think now that back in the day things were all ice cream socials and batting eyelashes. No sirree. We ladies had to be careful. And we had ways of warning each other. Code, you might say.
I told my daughter Hazel to stay away too. But he never took a liking to her. I was very thankful for that.
He did take a “liking,” if you will, to many women. He had a certain type. He was always kissing’ ’em. Didn’t matter if they were interested or not. He frankly liked it better if they weren’t interested. Didn’t matter if they were old or young. He kissed ’em anyway.
Georgie Porgie was more appealing.
It wasn’t that he was enjoying the women per se. It’s not that he liked their perfume or their smile. No, he liked the possessing.
There were rumors about some boys too, but they were just rumors. I don’t have words for that one.
All over Montgomery Billy had a reputation. We would see him on the street cars pinchin’ and grabbin’ and kissin’.
We in the WCTU were pretty sure that Billy’s Daddy started his little business to keep an eye on him. Evangelists all over the country were having trouble with their masher sons. And I’m pretty sure Ol’ William Smith was trying to control Billy Jr anyway he could.
We all saw the girls come and go. He liked the shy ones who could speak pretty or write music or make costumes for his stage plays. I tell you what, that Billy loved the ermine, but he loved purple more. And if he could get a wisp-of-a-thing to fancy him up, he never felt more powerful.
Now, I’m an old lady, but I still remember, with great fondness by the way, where babies come from. You young folks think you know everything, but I know a few things myself. So just between you and me, you should know that Billy didn’t just stop with grabbin’ and pinchin’.
There was a little girl adopted out up in Indiana. I don’t think her mama ever forgave herself for that. Her mama died completely alone just a few years back. And her story dies with her. I cry when I think about that lovely lady.
But there were others. There are always others with a boy like Billy. And that is where my story gets interesting.
Russet Desdemona Pastel. Now that’s a funny name when I say it like that, but that was her name. We called her Rusty. She was just a lovely girl. And I’ll tell you what, did she know her way around a needle and thread! That girl could look at a haute couture dress for just ten minutes and go home and copy it right then and there with her own sewing machine! We all envied her.
Billy liked her too. Not in the way that makes a girl feel cherished though. In another, ugly way.
She worked for Dr. William making costumes for Billy. She worked hard because that Billy needed to dress up. And well, one day she found herself carrying that ol’ scoundrel Billy’s baby.
We didn’t talk about this back then. We should have. I think all you young folks would have had an easier time now if we had talked then. But we didn’t. Now we all knew that Billy had sired this child. We all knew it. But no one dare speak it.
Rusty left Dr. Smith’s business to go back home up in the mountains. This was after the War. A lot of men were returning from service. Good men who had endured their own shell shock. I’ve heard that for us ladies, our shell shock was being . . . well, stuck like Rusty. Just like the men in war. Makes sense when you think about it. Watching death and destruction outside of yourself isn’t that much different from feeling destruction inside of yourself. Destruction from a masher.
Rusty met a nice man back at home. A good man. Jacob Siddons Johnson. We called him Johnnie. Johnnie Johnson. Johnnie didn’t mind that Rusty was . . . well, that she came with a family.
They married quietly and quickly. And her little boy — a spittin’ image of Billy, by the way, and just like Billy’s other boys — was born within the bonds and protection of marriage. Ashley Benjamin Johnson. Beautiful name for a boy, isn’t it? I think so. A name with character.
This was after the War. The Big One. And Johnnie had been honorably discharged. But he couldn’t find work. Now, I never understood that. After the War, factory jobs were everywhere, especially for soldiers. He could have moved up to Detroit or Chicago for good work. So many did that. But do you know where he went? He went to ol’ Billy’s place down in the foothills. I’ll be. . . . I’ll never understand that either. Why leave your family to go back there with a 3-month-old baby? What would ever possess a man who had promised to honor and adore a lovely lady like Rusty . . . what would possess him to take her back down to be near the likes of Billy!
We all figured Dr. William paid ’em off.
But back they went. And little Ashley grew up playing next to Billy’s other boys, Billy 3 and Smitty. They were a handful of years older, of course. Boys don’t much care for babies seven years younger than they are. And, of course, they didn’t know the truth growing up. We ladies knew. We could see. Ashley looked nothing like Johnnie. Billy’s wife knew too. Poor ol’ Frances Kay. Ever since she said “I do” to that monster of a husband, I never once saw her crack a smile. Poor dear. . . .
Now. Ashley grew up just fine. He was well-favored in Billy’s company. No one harmed him. Billy was sure of that. And Ashley thrived as a child of privilege in that harsh place. And with that higher-than-normal confidence and good breeding and growing up outside of Billy’s rage, Ashley went on to make a good life. By that I mean, he made a truckload of money. More money than Billy and Fran’s children combined. More money than I’ll ever see.
And people do what people do. They move on. Love their wives. Birth their babies. Bury their parents. Marry off their children. Welcome their grandchildren. We all do.
But for Billy 3, well, times changed more for him than for the rest of us. Or maybe he was less ready for the winds of change. Like a little hot house tomato, I guess, Billy 3 just wasn’t ready for the change in seasons.
His place . . . well, it was really his granddaddy’s place, but you understand . . . his place started losing money. After years of saying he didn’t need no credentials, he suddenly needed credentials. And to get those credentials, Billy couldn’t be CEO of his own family business.
What to do? If the family can’t be the chief officer of the family business in order to keep the family business, what can the family do?
Well, thanks to his daddy’s “charm” some seventy years earlier, Billy 3 found his solution. Sure, Ashley wasn’t his full brother. Just a half-brother. But he was Billy Jr’s full son. And by the time of the winter of their lives, they all knew the whole story.
And with all that money, did any of that matter?
Maybe Billy Jr.’s philandering was exactly his plan all along. . . .
Daisy Lee Archibald lives in Castleberry, Alabama. Miss Daisy enjoys canning, crocheting, Bible reading, and getting ready for the Strawberry Festival.