Grandpa Neely piddled aimlessly around his woodworking shop, a small building behind his very small house on North Seventh Street, less than a ten-minute drive from Trinity Lane High School.
“So, you’re after a story,” he said as he picked up a plank of wood, held one end to his eye and looked down the length of it. He was checking to see if it was straight. That much I knew. I knew about level, square and straight. He had taught me those things. If only algebra were about those things.
“Right – a good story, a killer story.”
He raised his eyebrow at that expression.
“But you’ve got plenty of stories, Max. Plenty of things you could write about,” he said. “I know. I told you about them.”
He was right, of course. Grandpa Neely was my major source of information. He knew everything that was going on, it seemed. Particularly things having to do with Trinity Lane High School.
“Yeah, but this story needs to be big – bigger than anything I know so far.”
“Well, I’m not sure I can help you with that.”
And that, I believed, was patently untrue.
Three things about Grandpa Neely:
One, he used to be mayor of Nashville. Back in the late 1940s, he was Mayor Cornelius Lee, and people were talking about his running for governor or senator.
Two, he served six months in prison, convicted on a bribery and conspiracy charge. I was too young to have any first-hand knowledge of this. Nevertheless, I was convinced of his innocence. One of the reasons I wanted to become a journalist was so I could investigate the charges against him and clear his name. When I told him that once, he just smiled but offered no encouragement at all.
Three, he wasn’t really my grandfather. He was Woody’s. I just adopted him, and he adopted me. I hadn’t known many people in my life, but of those I did know or knew about, he was the best.
“How’s your car running?”
“Like a top.” I drove a 1961 Volkswagen, and it did run like a top – when it had gasoline in it. Rather than a gas gauge, it had a reserve tank. When the gas in the regular tank ran out, you reached down to the floorboard, flipped a level and ran on the reserve tank. It had one gallon. That was supposed to get you to the nearest gas station. But since I was rarely going to the nearest gas station when this happened, I would continue on to my original destination. I started carrying a small gas bucket in the back seat and hoping that I would always be a short walk to a source of gasoline. I had learned about siphoning along the way, too.
Grandpa Neely asked about my car because he had made a call to somebody he knew and had gotten me that car for $150 – which he paid himself.
“And your job? Is Doc Miller treating you okay?”
“Job’s great, Grandpa. Couldn’t be better.”
My job was another thing that Grandpa Neely was responsible for. He and Doc Miller were friends from way back, he said, and when he found out that the Doc needed help, Grandpa gave him a call. Doc’s son, Monty, had just graduated from Trinity Lane last June, and instead of going to one of the local colleges, like his parents had planned, he joined the Marines. He was doing patrols in the jungle, not serving up milkshakes and closing up at nights for his dad.
That was me now. The store was just a couple of isles of small items and toiletries, a pharmacy that the Doc ran alone, and a soda fountain with a six-stool counter. I usually went in sometime in the afternoon after school. The doc left around six o’clock, and the understanding was that I could pick a closing time between eight and nine o’clock. We never did too much business at night, which left me time to do homework if I needed to, and the only math involved was making change for the customers. That I could handle.
I got a dollar seventy-five an hour, way above the minimum wage. I suspected the wage had been negotiated by Grandpa, but he never would own up to it.
“And your grades? How are you doing in school?
“Great, Grandpa! Never better?” I said it too quickly and with too much enthusiasm.
Grandpa was still examining his plank of wood – cedar, I think – but raised an eyebrow again and directed that eye toward me.
Grandpa Neely would always ask me about my day in school, and he never took “Nothing” as an answer to the question, “What happened?” If I said “Nothing,” it was twenty-questions time. So I always had a few things to tell him. I even told him about Woody’s probabilities and about the conversation between Billy B. and Bobbi that I overheard. I included that because I knew he was a big basketball fan.
In turn, Grandpa would usually tell me some rollickingly funny story about politics in Nashville when he was in the thick of it. He had a telephone in his workshop, and it rang regularly; he also called out regularly.
So it was that kind of afternoon. We were talking, and then the phone would ring. He would then call someone else, while I poked around his shop. Then we would talk again. I told him I needed to get going over to the drugstore. He opened his mouth to say something, but before any sound came out, there was a loud knock on the door.
The door opened, and a large, barrel-chested man with more chins than hair worked his way into the shop.
“Pike!” Grandpa said in as loud a voice as I had ever heard him use. “Pike Lewis! You old son-of-a-gun. Thanks for dropping by.”
Grandpa’s usual calm demeanor gave way to signs of delight and affection. They hugged and shook hands as only old friends can do, told each other what a “son of a gun” each was, how much each one hadn’t changed a bit, and on and on. I sat in the corner and watched with amusement. It was always good to see Grandpa happy.
After a couple of minutes, Pike turned to me and said, ”Well, now, Mr. Mayor, just who is this cute little lady?” That one remark told me a lot about Pike. Bobbi Foster is pretty. I’m not. I’m plain. Not bad, but definitely plain.
“Pike, this is Maxine Wayman,” Grandpa said. “She’s a friend of my grandson, Woody.”
“Well, I am very happy to make your acquaintance,” He stepped toward me, hand outstretched. When I offered him mine, he engulfed it with both of his. He had that politician’s way of making you think you’re the only person in the world. “Where is it you go to school, honey?”
“Trinity Lane.” I knew what was coming next.
“That Billy B. – he’s quite a basketball player. Do you happen to know him?”
“Well, yeah, a little. I’ve had a couple of classes with him.”
“I think Woody knows him pretty well,” Grandpa Neely cut in, relieving me for the moment of further conversation. “Nice fella. So, Pike, what have you been up to lately?” Grandpa Neely then looked at me and said, “Pike was Davidson County sheriff when I was mayor.”
“Well, a little of this and a little of that,” Pike said vaguely. “Say, Neels, you see that football game yesterday. Man, that was something. Didn’t think the Packers were that strong, but there you go. Had ‘em at 10 and lost a bundle.”
The Super Bowl, the first, had taken place the day before, and the Green Bay Packers had beat the Kansas City Chiefs. That was all I knew and all I cared to know.
Grandpa Neely shook his head. “Pike, you never learn, do you?”
The conversation went like that for a few minutes – football, old times, people they knew. The more they talked, the more I felt like I was on another planet. Grandpa Neely was obviously enjoying himself.
I checked my watch and hopped off my stool where I had been sitting.
“Well, I need to go to work.”
“Where do you work, honey?” Pike asked.
“She works for Mel Miller. You remember him. Runs a drugstore over on Dickerson Pike,” Grandpa Neely said. “Maxine closes up for him most evenings.”
“Sure, I remember old Mel,” Pike said. He turned to me. “You tell him Pike Lewis says hello. Say, I heard his boy is in Vietnam. Now that’s something to be proud of. You’ll tell him, won’t you, hon?”
“I’ll be sure and tell him,” I said. “Bye, Grandpa. See you soon.” I pecked him on the cheek and was out the door.
It didn’t take a great detective to put it together. Pike Lewis was part of a political cadre that Grandpa Neely once headed. Their opponents called it the East Nashville Mafia, and they held sway in Nashville’s city politics for most of a generation. It was a loose-knit group, but they understood what they were about – protecting the interests of their part of town against the rich and power-hungry snobs on the west side of town. I’d get Grandpa Neely to fill me in on the details later.
My drive to Doc Miller’s included a detour of a few blocks that took me by my house. I was checking to see if my dad was home yet. His car wasn’t in the driveway, so I didn’t stop.
Then I swung by Woody’s house to see if I could get any indication that he was home yet. There were several cars in his driveway and in front of his house, but nothing told me he was home. I’d call later.
All the cars told me that Woody’s mother was having another meeting. Cornelia Lee Harper was trying to follow in her father’s footsteps. She was a member of the Nashville city council, and word was that she was going to run for mayor at the next election. She was trying to put the old East Nashville Mafia coalition back together. Woody – in his world of numbers and equations – stayed blissfully ignorant about all that.
I found it fascinating. Cornelia was trying to become the first female mayor of Nashville and one of the few women in the country to hold such an office. And she was a Trinity Lane grad.
Maybe there was a story in that.
“Hi, Doc, how’s it been today?”
Doc Miller gave me a short smile, not something that happened often. Still, he looked tired. He wore a white mustache that matched his thinning white hair. His wire-rimmed glasses completed his kindly-old-druggist look.
“It’s been a good day,” he said,
“We heard from Monty today.” Melvin Montgomery Miller – his nickname at school was 3M – was the Miller’s only son, and he was 6,000 miles away.
“That’s great, Doc. How’s he doing?”
“Well, you know Monty. Everything’s fine. The weather’s fine. My platoon is fine. Nothing much is happening. Can’t tell you where I am or what I’m doing.”
“I’m sorry, Doc. I know you’d like to know more.”
“Just hearing from him is the big thing.”
I busied myself with the details of running the place for the evening – checking the soda fountain, washing a couple of glasses, looking in the refrigerator to make sure we had plenty of milk and ice cream. People came from miles around for one of Maxine’s world-famous banana splits.
“Say, I ran into a friend of yours a little while ago.”
Doc was counting some pills and putting them in a bottle. “Oh yeah, who’s that?”
“Pike, huh? I guess he’s out of prison.” I took a second or two to take that in..
“Yeah, he dropped by to see Grandpa Neely when I was there. He said to tell you hello.”
I couldn’t tell how Doc Miller felt about that. We were interrupted by a customer who wanted a kind of lipstick we did not have. I walked her over to the lipstick display and convinced her that one we did have was just as good, better in fact. And it was much cheaper. She left happy.
Doc Miller had been one of the East Nashville Mafia, I was sure. He had never held any office that I knew of, but he had known Grandpa Neely for many years. And there were lots of people who came in the store and seemed genuinely fond of him.
By the time the lipstick maven left, Doc was packing to leave. He did that between five and six each evening, and when he walked out, I was alone in the store. I fixed myself a burger, fries and strawberry malt for supper and got lucky because nobody came in to interrupt the process. It felt like a slow night.
There was an old black-and-white in the back room of the store. Doc Miller had put it there the day after the Kennedy assassination in 1963 so he could keep the store open and still see what was going on that weekend. As far as I could tell, he had never turned it on again. But he had never told me not to either, so I usually tried to hurry him out the door by five-thirty so I could watch Walter Cronkite.
By the time I got it on, they were in the middle of the report from Vietnam. I imagined myself in front of the camera, Marines tramping through a village behind me, and me telling all of America what it was like in the war zone that day. Or maybe instead I would be in the Associated Press office in Saigon after a day of roaming through the city and the countryside, filing a dispatch that newspaper readers all across the country would see the next morning. They would also see “Maxine Wayman, AP Correspondent” on top of that story.
When I was done with Walter, my food and my dreams, I came back out to the store and found it still empty. No surprise there. A bell on the door would have alerted me if anyone had come in. My schoolbooks were tied together with an old bookbelt and sitting on top of one of the three small tables in the back of the store where customers who ordered food from our very limited menu could eat in peace. I loosened the bookbelt and drew out my algebra book. Mother of Mary, would that someone would interrupt that.
I interrupted myself by letting my thoughts drift to Doc and his wife and Monty. I couldn’t imagine what they were going through. It would be nice to believe that Monty was carrying out some light duties and sleeping securely every night, but everything you read about Vietnam told a different story. It was always the Marines on the go, seeking out the Viet Cong, pacifying villages – whatever that meant – and the like. And who slept securely in a jungle?
Maybe Monty was my story. Maybe I could get Doc Miller to let me write to him and have him tell me what it was really like to be fighting the Reds – tell me things you couldn’t read in the Tennessean or Time magazine. A big dose of Foxhole Patriotism. Miss Flowers would love it. Who could resist that? I’d be a chinch for the scholarship.
I made a mental note.
Meanwhile, algebra. Old Wilson had loaded us up with homework that night. It probably had something to do with my less-than-precise explanation of the problem I had to do at the board earlier that day. Normally, I would have put in a call to Woody and had him over there forthwith, mowing down those problems on page forty-three of the book. But, sometime during sixth period I had re-thought my life’s strategy on math and had decided that what I was doing was not working for me any more. Today, I said, begins the new me. I’m going to my own homework. I’m going to understand this stuff if it kills me. I’m going to ace the next algebra and give Wilson a fatal heart attack in the process.
I opened the book to page reading the new section we started on page forty. Two sentences in, I was getting hints that my bold new strategy was crumbling. By the end of the third sentence, I was flipping back pages to try to figure out what some of the words meant. By the fourth sentence, I was wondering if the book was actually written in English.
Then the bell above the door rang its toneless ring, the door opened, and I had my first customer of the evening.
It was Pike Lewis.
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