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A Bushel of Poke Salad and a Gallon and a Half of Coal Oil
Sunday Stories from the South
Uncle Jim didn’t care much for Lyin’ Ed and nobody really knew why. Some speculated that it had to do with the fact that both had been sweet on Aunt Ginny decades earlier. Others reckoned that it stemmed from a schoolyard rivalry that had followed them into adulthood and now into old age. Aunt Ginny once gave voice to the notion that Uncle Jim “just don’t like his face. It sits on his head wrong. He’s got proud eyes.” While it wasn’t immediately clear to me what proud eyes looked like, she assured me that it was in the Bible and the Lord hated it too, along with five or six other things.
One might assume that Uncle Jim’s general disapprobation of Ed was due to his incessant lying. But one would be wrong. Ed lied like other people breathe. And everybody knew that he was windier than a bag full of buttholes.
That’s how he came by the name “Lyin’ Ed.” Most amazing is not that people would call him that to his face, but that he would smile and answer to it. As far as most were concerned, “Lyin’” was his Christian name. The theological paradox notwithstanding.
In the mornings after he had tended to his cows and fed his mule, Lyin’ Ed often went over to my Aunt Glenda’s house to sit on the porch and jaw. One morning as they sat drinking coffee and enjoying the sweet smell of honeysuckle Lyin’ Ed noticed Maggie, Glenda’s lumbering bloodhound, out of the corner of his proud eye.
“Looks like Old Mags has got the mange,” said Ed.
“Yeah, I’ve tried everything I know to get rid of it,” Aunt Glenda said. “We’ve washed her with burnt motor oil. I gave her a buttermilk bath. Even tried a store-bought salve. Nothin’ seems to work.”
Ed said, “Do you have poke salad growing around here?”
“Yes. It grows wild by the fence row out behind the house. Why?” Glenda asked.
“Pick you a great big mess of poke salad and boil it. Cook it all day. Make a strong pot liquor out of it and let that dog soak in it for at least an hour. It’ll clear up that mange almost overnight.” said Ed.
So she did. She gathered a bushel of those god-awful greens and boiled them until the walls sweated pot liquor. “Poke Salad smells almost as bad as chitlins,” Glenda told me later. “Like somebody decided to stew a mixture of rotten turnips and dirty drawers.” But Aunt Glenda was determined to follow through and cure old Mags’ mange.
“I boiled those weeds until the water was as dark as Mercurochrome,” Glenda said. “Then I poured it into an old Number 2 wash pot. I argued with Mags, cussin’ and threatenin’, until I had the front half of her standing in the lukewarm pot liquor. But that wouldn’t do. Ed told me I had to soak the whole dog, and for at least an hour. So I picked up her hind end and squeezed her down into the wash tub.”
Then Aunt Glenda put a question to me. “Have you ever tried putting a 30 gallon dog into a 15 gallon tub?”
“No ma’am,” I said.
“Well, I have and it ain’t easy. It’s like trying to baptize a cat in a tea cup.” she said. “I tried just holding her body down in the soup but she wasn’t having it. She’d rare up and shake until there was as much pot liquor on me as was in the pot. She even tried to bite me a time or two!” Glenda said, feigning surprise. “But I sat out yonder on my knees in the yard, fightin’ to keep that mangy dog in that tub for a solid hour.”
“Well, did it cure her mange,” I asked.
“Hell no!” She snapped. “But I told Lyin’ Ed if he came back over here expecting coffee and a kind word he’d end up gettin’ the same treatment that I gave old Mags. And he’d be wearing that Number 2 wash tub as a hat!”
A few days later Lyin’ Ed showed up at Uncle Jim’s farm all out of sorts. Jim saw him coming up the driveway in his old beat up Ford and met him at the gate. He never let him in the house. “If a man will lie, he’ll steal,” he often told Aunt Ginny.
“What do you want, Ed,” Jim said, not even trying to sound neighborly.”
“It’s Old Jack,” said Ed. “He’s in a bad way. I don’t know if he’s gonna make it.”
Old Jack was Ed’s mule. He named it after Jack Kennedy. But he assured everyone that this was an honorable gesture towards both mule and President since all three were staunch Democrats.
“What’s wrong with Jack,” Jim asked, with little sympathy.
“He’s colicky and won’t pass his oats. Hasn’t for days.” said Ed.
Now, for those unlearned in such technical jargon this means that the mule had the colic and was impacted, unable to move his bowels. It’s not uncommon, but it is quite serious.
Uncle Jim looked into Ed’s proud eyes and said, “My mule, Remus, got the colic a while back and I doctored him myself.”
“What did you do?” Ed asked.
“I poured a gallon and a half of coal oil down his gullet to lubricate his innards.” said Jim.
“Coal oil?” asked Jim, a bit surprised.
Uncle Jim nodded in the affirmative. “A gallon and a half.”
“Thanks, Jim!” said Ed as he hopped back into his pickup.
About a week later he came tearing down Uncle Jim’s driveway like he was running from the law. He made it all the way to the front door before Jim caught him on the porch.
“What's the matter with you?” Jim asked.
“I did just what you said, Jim. Gave Old Jack a gallon and a half of coal oil.” said Ed.
“He’s dead! Graveyard dead!” Ed hollered.
Uncle Jim just raised his eyebrows a little. “Well I declare. My mule died too.” He said as he turned and went back into the house. Aunt Ginny scolded him a bit but Uncle Jim said, “I never told the man that it would work. He just asked what I did for my mule. Serves him right if you ask me.” Then he added, “Ya’ know, I normally don’t like his face. But I kinda liked watchin’ those proud eyes bug out when I told him that Remus had keeled over too.”
In the South, everyone knows a “Lyin’ Ed.” And everyone seems to have a tale about a Remus or an Old Jack. The late Jerry Leath Mills, past professor of literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, after having studied Southern writers and storytellers for decades concluded that the earmark of true “southerness” was the presence of a dead mule. “Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus) constitutes the truly catalytic element…” wrote Mills.
Southern yarn-spinners were killing off mules long before Faulkner drowned a team in the Yoknapatawpha River in As I Lay Dying in 1930. Mules have been plowed until they dropped, beaten to death with sledge hammers, run over by freight trains, bitten by rabid dogs, frozen, and, in one of Capote’s stories, accidentally hung from a chandelier. Perhaps the most inventive has been Cormac McCarthy, who had one beheaded by a mentally unstable opera singer in The Crossing.
I don’t know why my people are drawn to stories about dearly departed mules. Maybe it has something to do with the creature’s virtual indestructibility functioning as a symbol of causes lost and best laid plans come undone. Whatever the reason, they are as ubiquitous in Southern lore as kudzu and sweet tea. And everyone from Erskine Caldwell to Uncle Jim has made a contribution to that genre known as Southern Gothic. For my own part, I think that a dead mule goes a long way towards humbling the proud eyes that are too often prominent on the faces of a certain kind of southern man.