About me

Monday, November 10, 2008

Batman, Henry, and Papa

Batman, Henry, and Papa
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 1105

A version of this essay was published in Assessing Writing as an example of a high school student writing in response to a question regarding the fictional character who has had “the greatest influence on your life.”

Of the fictional characters who’ve made an impression on me, I’d have to pick Batman, not because of any one thing that he ever did, but because of what he could have done, or more precisely, what I could do were I Batman. What is it I would do were I Batman, you ask? Well, were I Batman with wealth untold, with physical resources unimaginable even to the United States military, and with what appears to be nearly Jedi-like training, I would banish from this realm the malevolent newspaper editor who removed “Henry” from the Raleigh News and Observer.

Now why would I do such a thing? Why would I fight for a newspaper cartoon that never used a single word, that was more often printed in black-and-white than in color, and that described the odd world of a bald-headed boy with a round nose, a silent boy who thought mostly in punctuation marks, who always wore shorts, a tucked-in t-shirt, black lace-up shoes with rolled down socks, and little more except for maybe a scarf in the snow?

Why would I blast that editor from the face of this planet, and let Martian Moon Maggots gnaw the fetid remains that somehow survived the searing ionic blast of the polyphasic batpistol from my goody-packed Batman utility belt? Because he, she, or it saw fit to end the one cartoon that my grandfather read to me while I sat on his knee every Sunday for as many Sundays as I remember being small enough to fit on his knee and for a good many Sundays after that. He could even read the weekday Henry cartoons, and make them seem every bit as good as the Sunday color cartoons though they were black and white on the weekdays.

You want to know what else? No jury of my peers would find me guilty of anything more than justifiable homicide for doing so.

My parents would visit my grandparents nearly every Sunday, either for dinner or just after dinner. (Dinner is what we called what the rest of the world called lunch.) Papa, that’s what I called him, would lift me up on his lap, and proceed to find a 30-minute story in the maybe 10 colored panels of Henry in the Sunday paper. I know now he was keeping me out of the kitchen while my mother and grandmother finished putting our meal on the table, but then I thought he knew secrets untold as he spread the paper across my lap atop his.

You know what? Now that I think about it, he probably did know some secrets.

This man taught me to how to select ripe watermelons so Grandmother could make preserves from the rinds, a process that proves enough sugar can make about anything good. Gathering watermelons from a sandy field in late July or early August isn’t really the kind of work you would expect a young boy to remember fondly, so you might be wondering a little here, and often, a snake or spider will make a home under the larger melons, presenting quite the start when you reach to break the stem and take the melon up in your arms.

Well, the thing about it was that he and I ate the cool sweet heart from each melon, and fed the rest, full of seeds, to the chickens. We only took the rinds, still wet and sparkly where he’d scrapped the red melon meat away with his pocketknife, back to the house for my Grandmother.

Papa was a bee charmer with a dozen or more hives along the edge of the small field near his house. When he gathered honey in the summer, I’d appear as though summoned to help. Of course, my kind of help was to scoop honey from the large washtub with my fingers, and to chew errant chunks of comb as fast as his gnarled fingers could set them aside for me. The gentled bees swarmed all around the tub, the trays holding combs waiting, the jars filling under the corncob-stoppered spout at the base of the tub, and the sweetened boy-fingers racing from dripping rack to smacking lips, all golden laden with fresh late spring honey.

Papa taught me to shave a scalded pig with a wet blade, not dry, the blade being a straight-edged razor. The water protected the edge, and prevented Papa’s early return to the sharpening strop. He taught me to fish for bream and bass with dead crickets gleaned freely from the wooden box in which the chirping living crickets awaited the paying customer, a sharp hook, and sure watery death in a gaping fish maw.

He taught me to water and feed the earthworms he farmed, to select only the largest, and to be sure I counted to 100 and a little more as I filled the rusting soup can for sale to our neighbors and other gentlemen from the church. In the parking lot of Wimpy William’s Emporium, he explained that I needed to wait outside in the car, a green Nash Rambler, rather than go in with him to deliver fresh worms for sale; Wimpy sold beer in there.

In the summer of 1968, Papa carried my limp grandmother up the trembling flight of wooden back steps that he built some decades before, laid her dead by massive stroke on the squeaking bed, and called his sons, one my father, to ask them to come. “Mammie’s dead,” he said. That’s what he called her, and that’s what they called her.

The brothers then sold the homestead, and Papa moved from home to home for the next several years, an eternity I’m sure it was to him, intruding on the patterns of life, long ago established in the absence of extended family, until he settled alone in the white frame house across the now-paved road from where we lived. A few years later, the brothers, my uncles and daddy, settled Papa’s estate and shared the resulting $75.

So there, you have it. In my opinion, the Henry cartoon should appear in the front page of every newspaper in the land, and when I’m king of this realm, I’ll make it required reading. Maybe I’ll even create some Henry classes, which would be a definite improvement over those about Homer Simpson. That’s why I would like to be Batman, if for only a moment.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Chicken Stew
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word Count: 1700

There are many variations on the chicken stew. My grandmother, Lily Penny, made the best that ever was and ever will be. Be sad if you never sat at her table. What you’re about to read is my variation on her stew. I would never try to match hers. There are easier ways to fail in this world.

The chicken

Go to Food Lion, and buy a whole chicken. Make sure it’s a fryer, not a stewing hen. A stewing hen can be cooked for the rest of time, and still, it will not be edible. You’ll find a carcass of a stewing hen that I left by the road in Tunis, NC. The hen is on the right side of the road where we parked the RV fifteen years ago and pretended to cook. I boiled that beast three hours, and it remained unchanged. It smelled good, but a magician’s rubber chicken would have done better in that pot. Dins that evening became beer and corn chips.

Grandmother did not have a Food Lion available. She had to send Papa out to the backyard with a hatchet. You can do that too, but I doubt you’ll find a chicken in your yard. If you do find a chicken in your yard, you’re in for a treat.

Alternatively, Food Lion sells chicken in cans. The small tins found near the canned tuna section are what I buy. Three or four of the small cans will do. If you buy tinned chicken, you’ll also want to fetch a couple of liters of chicken broth.

You want to avoid the canned whole chicken in the big tin. That particular product is an abomination unto the stew.

While you’re at Food Lion, pick up some beer, at least a 12-pack. Get a big onion too.

Preparing and cooking the chicken

If you bought a whole chicken, there will be a pack of chicken innards inside the bird. Use your own discretion here. For some, it’s not a stew without a giblet lurking about. However, I toss the giblets into the trash, despite how much I enjoy a big dinner of fried chicken livers. If you put the giblets in the stew and I’m there, make sure the beer you bought is readily available with a bourbon chaser, as I’ll need serious medication and sedation if I accidentally chomp down on a boiled chicken heart.

If you got your chicken from the yard, the innards will be in about the same place, but not so neatly arranged and removed.

I’ve never found innards in the canned chicken, which is one more reason to buy chicken in little tins.

Put the chicken in a large pot, cover it with water, add a fist full of salt, and set the pot to boiling until the chicken falls apart. I usually turn the chicken a few times in that process, and when the turning breaks off chunks of the chicken, I know I’m done.

Turn off the heat in whatever manner is appropriate for your cooking site, and remove the chunks of chicken from the pot. Put the chicken chunks in a bowl, and let them cool. I usually let the chicken cool long enough to have two beers, which are medicinally required to heal the fingers I just burned.

Disassemble the chicken. I retain only the chicken meat, which I shred into wee pieces, but there is nothing wrong with keeping the skin, knuckles, and other parts. In fact, my mother would search out the chicken knuckles, were she at your table. Laurie would seek the tail. My grandfather wanted the saddle.

The above steps involving chicken dismemberment are not required if you bought tinned chicken. All you have to do is open the cans, dump the chicken in the pot, add the broth, and boil it all for a while. You’ll still want those two beers to heal the cuts on your fingers from the tins.

Bear in mind that your duty with the stew is to meet the mystical requirements of your guests.

The pastry

Making the pastry is a bitch. The cleanup is the mother-of-all-bitches. This is why so many people make dumplings, which are an abomination unto the stew. If you’re going to make dumplings, just move north and eat corned beef or something.

The pastry is made from water and white flour, plain or self-rising doesn’t matter except in one step to be described anon. The brand doesn’t really matter either, though I buy White Lily flour as my finances permit. More often, I buy Food Lion flour.

My grandmother was ever poised to make pastry. She had a small room off her kitchen where she made pastry and biscuit dough. She also chased chickens and the occasional duck out of that room when they’d fly through the window, but that’s another matter not germane to the current discussion and certainly beyond the scope of this instruction.

Into a large bowl, dump a lot of flour, add water, and work the mess into a smooth, not sticky, ball. The trick here is to stop earlier than later. Work that ball of dough too long, and you’ll need a steam roller for the next step.

Coat a large flat surface with flour. Do not underestimate the amount of flour you want on that surface. Grandmother’s countertop in that little room was deep in White Lily flour. Pull off a small ball of dough, and flatten it on the flour-coated surface. Heavily dust your rolling pin with flour, and start rolling. I find it difficult to get the pastry thin enough because I prefer very thin pastry. However, some people like thick pastry, such as Laurie. When he was present, I leaned hard into the rolling pin, which probably accounts for extra beer he chugged at that moment.

If you bought self-rising flour, remember that the pastry will rise and make thick pastry. Remind Laurie of the rising, and he will smile. In turn, he might also drink less beer, which will mean you have more.

At some point, you have a sheet of dough of some thickness. Slice this sheet into long strips, and layer the strips on a platter with generous dustings of flour between the layers. Here is where you can get thick pastry regardless of the rolling you just did. Two perfectly thin noodles will merge no matter what, providing evidence of your sorry status in this world. Get used to it. Besides, this merging will produce a big smile from Laurie, and he will tip his beer to salute the General.

It is acceptable to curse the merged pastry strips.

I no longer require the punishment that is pastry making. Yes, I can self-loathe easily enough without the help. I pick up a box of Aunt Anne’s frozen pastry. At Food Lion, the frozen pastry is a few steps from the beer. The real Aunt Anne makes her pastry in Downeast, North Carolina. She freezes it in the freezer out on the front porch. Do not confuse her with the northern knockoffs.

The Stew

Bring the pot of broth and chicken to a rolling boil. While waiting for that to happen, chop the onion into little pieces, and toss them into the pot. It’s permissible to have a beer while waiting for the pot to boil. It is not permissible to watch the pot, unless you need another beer.

Now we reach a controversial point, that being the inclusion of sage in the stew. I like sage in my stew, and I tend to use it in excess. My grandmother would have my hide for that. Of course, she would also have a little something to say about the beer in the fridge. We won’t even think about her reaction to the onion. Laurie likes sage and onion in his stew. We agree on something. Go figure.

The point is that now is the time to add sage if you want.

By the way, the best sage is freshly rubbed by a barefooted, young man wearing overalls with a single gallous and nothing else but maybe a straw hat sitting atop his tousled mane. He should rub your sage gently with calloused hands in a white, slightly cracked, bowl on his lap, with respect and pride, while sitting on a folding chair under a pecan tree. For this essential service, he may sit this night at the big table for the stew.

When the pot is finally in a full rolling boil, chug the last of your current beer, and start dropping the pastry strips into the pot, doing so one strip at the time. With your third hand, stir the pot to keep the pastry from sticking. I drop pastry strips into the little swirls of boiling broth according to my mother’s explicit instruction. You should too.

The pastry strips are cooler than the broth, especially if frozen. If you drop them in too fast, the boiling will stop, and the pastry will clump. Clumped pastry is an abomination unto the stew, and you should throw it out with a flourish and a curse. However, Laurie will object to wasting perfectly cooked thick pastry. Be prepared to fight for what is right, and remember this is why we have beer.

At some point, all the pastry is in the pot. Bring the pot to a rolling boil, stirring as needed, and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Let the pot simmer until the thin pastry strips are translucent. It takes about one beer for proper simmering to complete.

The eating

Take the pot off the fire, and plunk it onto the table, preferably on a towel or something so you don’t have to refinish the table tomorrow. Spoon the steaming mass of manna onto chipped plates from a previous generation, listen to Laurie complain about the stew being too hot to eat, remind him of the beer, and settle in for a meal that links you directly to the lineage of North Carolina peeps who dined on this fine meal long before there was a North Carolina. The Sons of Liberty and Lumbee Elders are smiling tonight.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Drinking Water

Drinking Water
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word Count: 760

Versions of this essay have been published in the Greensboro News and Record and the Blotter

We were picking up early-season sweet potatoes on the second blistering afternoon of a hotter than normal August in eastern North Carolina. 1968, it was. The deep furrows of the potato plow bared the cool sand that had not faced the brutal sun in well over a year; the brown, damp soil turned quickly to gray, dry dirt, pocked with sweet, swollen, orange tuberous roots, occasional quartz stones, and errant rusted bottle caps from hot seasons and thirsty diggers past.

We were an invading force, stripping the land of the luscious blue-green vines and occasional potato blossoms, leaving in our wake the naked, drying soil, ripped in rows long hidden, tangled with withered, stringing vines and yellowing leaves.

The fruits of our labors were lines of wooden crates from Mexico filled with “Number One Sweet Potatoes” bound for the early market of North Raleigh. There, the going price would be two, maybe three, times what we would get next month. The boxes were arranged in jagged lines along corridors in the dusty field, awaiting the men who would grunt, lift, and stack them on my daddy’s old flatbed truck with six in-line cylinders, dual rear tires, and a growling bull-gear. The truck was barely able to heave its load through the axle-deep sand of the newly pillaged field.

Six of us worked quietly in bare feet, short pants, thin or no shirts, and, occasionally, hats. The vapid conversation of the cooler morning had left with the dew, and now, an hour past lunch, the discussion of the food that was and the weekend that would be had both withered in the unrelenting heat. We went about our labor, automatons bent on simple, if ragged, survival, approaching the ends of the rows, each in turn, those in front helping those to the rear, no one getting to far ahead or too far behind. I was rarely the first or the last, but usually toward the middle, sometimes helped, sometimes helping, always pulling the countless tubers from the ravaged soil.

The end of each row meant a break in the shade, a cup of cool water, a chance for some to sit and for some to lean, a brief rest in the welcomed breeze that stirred the shade of the wild cherry trees. Our water sat in an orange Igloo cooler on a concrete block under the tallest cherry tree, five gallons, a chunk of block ice, one cup, and six people, five black and one white: me.

I was second in line to drink, and for the first time in my fifteen years, I faced the certain and undeniable prospect of drinking behind the coloreds. Ahead, a young woman of about my age drained the cup, sighed in the lingering pleasure of cold water on a hot day, and handed the cup, a molded, dimpled smoke-green glass of undistinguished design, to me.

I reached for the wet cup, still cool from the chilled water, the intensity of the moment searing my brain, burning my soul far beyond anything the glaring, scoffing sun, glinting from the lip of the cheap five-and-dime glass, could ever do to my shirtless back. White people didn't drink after coloreds, an unexplainable, heretofore immutable, and now apparently untenable law with me at the cusp of eternal damnation.

There I stood, cup in hand.

There was no visible spit on the rim, but I had watched those brown lips, heard that soulful sigh, and even imagined a slight string of spittle spun from lip to glass as she lowered it, closed her eyes, and swallowed the water that cooled her.

I wonder if she saw, or felt, my pause. Did the others? Did they feel the same for having to drink after me?

I held the glass in my right hand not wiping the rim, drew my water with the left, raised the cup to my face, gazed at the distorted reflection of my nose, lips, and tongue, and drank it all, ignoring the cold chill that burned my throat.

Was this burning the mutation I feared? Was it my soul in flight, fleeing its soiled and impure vessel? Was it the end of the life I had known? Would friends and relations shun me? Would dogs chase me? Would God cast me beyond purgatory, now that I was one of the damned, one who had drunk behind the coloreds?

My throat thawed while the chill spread through my heated innards, bringing a shiver to my spine, and I handed the cup to the smiling, wizened gentleman behind me.