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  • Writer's pictureAnne Hodges White

LuLu's Southern Beach House School for Wily Deceivers - 4

The machine towered above me, three feet higher than the table it sat on. The brassy edges of the contraption caught what sunlight there was. The surface of the thing crawled with activity. Princes hunted down the front and sides of it, their arrows frozen halfway to forest creatures that ran around to the backside. Princesses, their long hair hanging in dull relief, waited in towers. I knew these people! But wait, there was more. Lads chased naked peasant girls. Everyone scampered around in bare feet, their mouths open in what I imagined to be shrieks coming from pleasures I planned to ask about. I reached out to touch a prince. Mama yanked my hand away like the machine burned with the fires of Hell. LuLu laughed that wet and warm dirt laugh.

A single lever, worn shiny at the end, stuck out from its right side. Next to it, a slot, polished from use, opened, and lower down, a hatch gaped like a lower lip. I climbed up on a chair to see better. Three windows across the top and, in the windows, bunches of fruit. Lemons, oranges, cherries. And little bells. A half-goat-half-man stood on top. Light from the high roof caught on his horns.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Is it a cash register?

My mother stared at LuLu who giggled. Over my head, Mama mouthed the name of it, maybe, but I couldn’t catch it. She had that wide-eyed look she took on when LuLu got too far out ahead of her.

Then Mama took a deep breath. Mrs. Hodges. Please. It’s illegal. And dangerous.

The words flew at me like other unspeakables and pushed cold fear into my belly. You had catching the polio bug in Morehead City, you had getting sucked out to sea by a rip tide, you had being demoted to the Red Bird Reading Group, you had going to Hell, which had been described as a burning place where sinners got poked day and night by guys who looked a lot like the goat-man with a spear.

LuLu paid Old Man Sanderson, who grunted his thanks. Put it in the boot, would you, Spider? she said. And tie that blanket around it real tight.

On the way back to the beach house, Mama kept looking back at me—How you doing, honey?—and I kept checking out the road for who might be following us or, worse, pulling up alongside with lights flashing.

Hodgie sat in his rocker at the end of the porch. LuLu hit the brake. It’s not even noon, she whispered to Mama, who was not moving so much as an eyelash.

I grinned and waved at him like I’d been on the mainland for a week and had missed him terribly.

LuLu shouted out the car window. Back early?

Hodgie nodded and rocked. Mama grabbed for the door handle but LuLu had her by the sleeve. She told her to stay put: You look guilty. Then she turned those impish eyes on me. Go keep your Hodgie company. She left me at the end of the walk and drove around back to the garage, her left elbow resting out the window. Rounding the corner, Mama looked back at me like maybe she ought to be doing something.

Hodgie looked up at me with that plank face. Where y’all been?

LuLu’s rump-sprung chair cradled me. My legs stuck out. I studied a stubbed toe like nothing else had ever been so fascinating, and gave some thought to being a new criminal. Hodgie rocked and sang: It ain’t gonna rain no mo’, no mo’ / it ain’t gonna rain no mo’ / How in the heck can I wash my neck / if the wash rag’s on the floor? He smelled of summer: tobacco, Old Spice, starch, and Wild Turkey, different from his winter smells of tobacco, gun oil, hunting dogs, starch, and Wild Turkey. Nice Hodgie smells.

Hodgie, what’s that song about anyways?

He didn’t know. Just ordinary folks making up stuff to fill up the long summer days and conjure some excitement, he reckoned. He patted my arm and chuckled. I couldn’t know it yet, but that was the last summer he sang it to me.

The next week, LuLu moved the machine into the One Night Room where the goat-man and his wild friends would suffocate in the hot gloom. When I peeked in, he leered. I suspected he had in mind one of the sins I hadn’t been let in on, the kind you burn for.

Mama dried the breakfast dishes. When she was jumpy, her semaphore eyebrows moved about. Mrs. Hodges, you’d better hope nobody gets likkered up this weekend and reports that thing. It’s illegal for a reason. One plate clattered against another.

LuLu filled up the ice pitcher that sweated on the marble-topped table Hodgie used for a bar. She coughed into her white hand and gave me a wink.

And it’s immoral. Mama said. And then without much conviction, Don’t you think?

Why? I asked.

Because… she trailed off, maybe looking for safety in my other grandparents’ beach house up the dune. And besides, she said to LuLu, Mr. Hodges will want that thing out of the house the minute he sees it.

Published in 2013 by "Prick of the Spindle," this true story is a family favorite, often told and enjoyed. It's long, so I'll post it in serial. More later ....


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