The church house, that’s what everyone called it, sat snugly if quietly and dangerously on the corner of Lexington Street at Jefferson. It was a cross compass, four-point roof design and bleached white clapboard home, with an abrupt steeple pitch ridge-crown and it was crucifix austere. And an old cannibal lived in it. At least, that what all the neighborhood kids said.
Oh, I know, it was 1965 and there weren’t supposed to be cannibals anymore, or witch’s and witchcraft and such like, but for nine-year-old boys with active imaginations, who grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and watching “The Outer Limits” on TV, anything, including cannibals, was possible. And we knew it was true because Mickey Tyler’s older brother had told us that his sister told him that her boyfriend said that his cousin’s friend had been eaten. The old cannibal had enticed the young man into his home with figs from the trees in his backyard, and once he crossed the evil threshold, he was gruesomely attacked and eaten raw, bones and all, right there on the spot. If it wasn’t true, why had Mickey’s sister snuggled in so close and held her date so securely all the way home? Oh, we knew, it was true all right. It had to be!
The old cannibal’s name was Barkley. Anyway, that’s what it said on the mailbox and nobody ever saw him, except on market day, when he would hobble out through his hard scrabble front yard on a cane and an old axe handle, climb into a rusted and decrepit Packard that belched and coughed great blue clouds of exhaust, for the short drive to the grocery across town. In attendance with him, would be his witch’s familiar; a pigeon-toed, ill-tempered and scarred old pit-bull mix, named Rex, who barked and snarled at everyone and everything. It was widely rumored that whatever the old cannibal didn’t or couldn’t eat of the children he had coaxed with ripe figs into his house, Rex the pit-bull devoured.
It was the figs that did it. Ripe figs in the summer sun are just almost too much a temptation for a little nine-year-old boy, even for cannibals and devil-dogs. I figured that if I came in through the rear from Homestead Road, through three neighbor’s backyards and was quiet enough, I could hop the fence, pick two or three figs and be gone before Barkley, the old cannibal or his devil-dog knew I was ever there. And that’s what I was going to do.
I knew I was safe in the backyards of the other houses. Mr. Jenkins was a retired schoolteacher who didn’t love children but tolerated them. Mrs. Wright was a middle-aged widow woman in the next house: she and Mr. Jenkins played Chinese Checkers or Yahtzee or some other clandestine game together, two or three nights week into the wee hours, or so Mickey Tyler said his mom and dad had told him: and Mr. and Mrs. Singleton would think that I was there to play with their children or to take a shortcut home and would never even give me a second thought as I tramped through their garden. I would be out of harm’s way all the way to the back fence of the cannibal’s church house. All I had to do from there would be to hop the short rail, grab two figs, one white and one black, and be gone before anybody, before him or his devil-dog knew the difference.
I huddled in the dark shadows of the hedge for a long time, listening to the distant Cicadas whine in the July heat. The heavy air was perfumed with the pungent scent of ripe figs. Flies and honeybees buzzed all around the rotting fruit that collected on the ground. It was cool and quiet in the shade. Nothing seemed amiss. I climbed the rail and dropped softly to the ground. I crept to the nearest tree, reached up and picked a large, plump and sticky black fig. And then I heard it.
Rex, the devil-dog, pit-bull mix let out a horrific howl! I froze.
“Who’s out there?” The old cannibal bellowed.
I knew I couldn’t out run Rex. I was trapped.
“I said, who’s out there?” He called out.
My thoughts raced. Maybe, if I just stood still, he wouldn’t see me?
“I swear,” he said, trembling on his cane and axe handle, “I’ll loose the dog on ya!”
I turned and looked to the fence. I turned back to Mr. Barkley and Rex. I was too far in to run and too far gone to turn back. I would have to come forward and confess.
I stumbled like a condemned man a few steps forward.
“It’s me, Mr. Barkley.” I stammered.
He glared into the shadows of his heavily burdened fig trees.
“Me, who?” He demanded. “Come forward, so I can see you!”
I stepped into the hot sunlight between the white and the black.
“Mitch Peterson.” I confessed.
Rex waddled three steps forward and growled menacingly. Mr. Barkley stayed him with a growl of his own.
“You out there stealing my figs?” He asked me.
My entire nine-year-old life flashed before my eyes. It didn’t take very long.
“No sir, I mean yes…” I mumbled.
Mr. Barkley stood as straight as his spine and withered legs would allow.
“You like my figs, boy?”
I answered him. “Yes, sir.”
“Then the proper thing would be to come to my front door and knock, not sneak through the back like a thief. I hate a thief!” He spat, turned and stumbled back into his church house. A short shrill whistled followed and Rex trotted in behind him. The screen door slammed behind them.
I was caught, trapped and I knew it. I would have to go and ‘fess up’ and make it right, because in 1965, little boys did not defy adults, even if it meant being eaten by an old cannibal and his vicious devil-dog pit-bull mix.
I stood trembling in the sunlight on the front porch of the church house. As I reached to knock on the screen, it was suddenly and violently thrown open. Mr. Barkley wavered in the jamb on his cane and axe handle. He narrowed his eyes and squinted at me. Rex the dog took a tentative step forward from behind his master and growled low and tremulously.
“You the little thief?” He demanded.
I took in a deep and ragged breath.
“Yes, sir.” Was all I could say.
“Well, what have you got to say for yourself?”
I hung my head in shame more than fear.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
He stood there a moment, unsure if he should eat me or let Rex have at me first.
“You afraid of me, boy?” He asked.
“No…” I lied.
“My dog, then?” He inquired further.
I lied again. “No, sir.”
He turned and spat. “Then why are you shaking?”
Not only had I been caught trespassing and stealing, but now I was lying. I was going to hell forever and a day for sure. I looked up at him with wide white and pleading eyes. I didn’t know what to say.
He shifted on his cane and axe handle.
“Yeah, I know,” he began, “what all you kids are saying about me. You think I’m a cannibal, don’t you?”
I stared at him.
“No, sir. I mean, I uhm, that is, I didn’t think…”
He waved a tired and dismissive hand at me.
“You like figs, son?” He asked.
“Yes, sir.” I mumbled.
“Then you don’t have to steal them. All you have to do is ask.”
And with that he turned and hobbled back into his house.
He didn’t eat me and neither did his dog! He hadn’t attacked me or cast on me an evil spell: could I have been wrong about him all this time? I was suspicious… maybe it was a trick? Maybe he was just trying to entice me into the house and then he would eat me? I wanted to run but I couldn’t. Something about him did not smack of cannibalism. I had to find out what. I knocked on the door.
“Mr. Barkley? Could I have one of your figs?” I asked him after he returned.
“Yes, you could.” He said and then he stood there.
I didn’t know what to do. Should I enter? Should I run? I didn’t know.
“Son,” he said warmly, “don’t you know proper English? Yes,” he continued, “you could have a fig, everyone could. The proper way to ask is ‘May I?’”
I cleared my throat. “May I have a fig, sir?” I corrected myself.
“Yes, you may.” He replied. “Only, don’t call me sir, I have worked for a living all my life. Call me Choice. That’s my name and that’s what my friends call me.”
He waved me into his home and toward the back door. As I came abreast of Rex, I froze.
“Don’t bother about him.” Choice said. “He’s old and blind and barks at everything. Give him your hand to sniff and a tickle behind his ears. He’ll remember you from now on.”
I reached down to Rex with the back on my hand. He leaned forward and took in a deep lungful of air, snorted and then sniffed twice. I gave his right ear a scratch. He let out a long satisfied sigh, rolled over on his back and splayed his curved legs. I tickled at his exposed belly. He squirmed and grunted like a happy pig. So, Rex wasn’t an evil devil-dog after all. He was just old and blind and nervous.
Once in the backyard, I surveyed the two fig trees. Which to choose? A white or a black? I had only asked for one, but I wanted two: one of each. I had been caught, in the moments before, lying and stealing. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. I returned to the screen door, opened it and called in:
“Mr. Barkley, sir, may I have two figs, a white and a black?”
“Yes,” he called back, “and don’t call me sir!” He snapped.
I came back into the church house with my figs, ripe and plump and full, one in each hand. Choice was sitting in his easy chair, with his back to the sun as it spilled through a yellowed shade onto his shoulders. He was reading a book. He laid it across his lap and stared at me intently.
“You say your name is Peterson?” He asked me.
“Yes.” I answered.
He pointed south. “From over Market Street way?” He asked further.
“Yes.” I replied.
He turned to the window and looked out.
“Your mama, she’s ailing, been so for a few years now?”
“Yes.” I answered him again.
He turned back to me.
“What’s she ailing from?”
“I don’t know.” I said as I stared at my feet.
There followed a long strained silence. Rex groaned in his darkness in the corner.
“Think your mama might like some figs?” He finally asked.
My face brightened.
I don’t know.” I said. “Maybe…”
Choice Barkley motioned to a china cabinet in the corner.
“Up there,” he began, “reach me that big bowl on the second shelf. You go out and fill it for your mama. You can bring it back tomorrow or the day next.”
I filled the bowl with an assortment of figs, white and black, said goodbye to Choice Barkley, the old cannibal, gave Rex’s ears, the terrible devil-dog and pit-bull mix, another tickle and skipped off toward home.
“You did not!” Mickey Tyler taunted me the following afternoon. “You did not get a bowl full of figs from old cannibal Barkley and his devil-dog Rex!”
“Did so!” I insisted.
He regarded me with incredulity. “The how come you’re not ate?”
“Cause he ain’t a cannibal, that’s why.” I sneered.
Mickey Tyler shoved me.
“You’re a liar!” He shouted.
“Am not!” I exclaimed.
Mickey took an emboldened step forward and grinned.
“Are too, if you say that old man ain’t a cannibal! You’re a liar and a cheat and I’ll bloody your nose if you say so again!”
I balled my fist and tightened my jaw. My honor as a man had been called into question.
“Well, then I say.” I seethed and punctuated my statement with my fist. I hit Mickey in the eye and knocked him down.
Mickey sat on the ground blinking, holding his eye.
“You hit me!” He exclaimed.
“That’s right.” I snarled. “And I’ll hit you again if you get up or say I’m a liar and a cheat again.” I shook my little fist at him.
Mickey Tyler’s eyes, one swollen and one blue, widened with fear. He scrambled to his feet and ran for his house down the block, screaming for his mother all the way.
“Mommy!” he cried as he ran, holding his face.
Two days later, I was knocking on Choice Barkley’s front door with his empty bowl. He opened the screen.
“Well, young master Mitchell.” He breathed. “Back for more figs?”
I held out his bowl.
“No, sir… I mean Choice. I still have some but I brought your bowl back.”
He turned back into the dark confines of his home. He called to me over his shoulder.
“Well, come in if you’re coming but don’t let the flies and heat in.”
I followed him to his cluttered musty living room. He collapsed with a dusty huff into his old and overstuffed easy chair. He laid his cane and axe handle on the floor next to him.
“Too bad you don’t want more figs.” He began. “Pity to waste all that fruit but it’ll all go the ground again this year. I’m too old and crippled up to get out there myself.”
He reached over to a small nightstand next to his chair, took up a delicate bone china coffee cup and sipped loudly at it.
“Want some coffee?” He winked and asked.
I smiled and wrinkled my nose.
“No, thank you.” I replied. “I could pick your figs for you.” I offered.
He grinned slightly.
“And what would we do with them?” He asked me.
He settled back into his chair, laid his head on the rest and sighed.
“My father planted those trees years ago. Long before you were born, even before I was. My mother- she was Italian and from the old country- she loved figs. My dad was a hard drinking, stout lipped Irishman who never said much but he landed himself in the local pokey one night after a drunken brawl. My mother was so upset she cried for a week! Nothing my father could say would soothe her. She said she didn’t want a drinker and a barroom brawler for a husband. She told him that she was going to leave him and go back to Sicily. Nothing he could say would pacify her. After a couple of weeks of tears and constant heartbreak, he came home from work with two potted yearling fig trees: one black fig for his sin and transgression and one white, if she would have it, for her holy forgiveness. He planted them and told her,
“If you’ll stay and love me, as long as these two fig trees stand, I’ll never touch another drop or raise my voice above a whisper, or my hand, no matter the provocation, to you or anyone.”
A small hidden tear ran down his weathered face.
“He remained a sober and quiet spoken man to the day she died, and until the day he passed, some six months after her. In all those years he never drank, nor raised his voice or his hand in anger.”
I sat on his couch and watched him for a long and silent moment. Rex, the blind and evil devil-dog whined and ambled over and laid his head in his master’s lap.
I looked at the book on Choice’s gnarled arthritic knees.
“What are you reading?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Poetry.” He answered. “Robert Frost.” He said without being asked.
I studied him.
“You know poetry?” He asked me?
I shook my head.
“No.” I said.
He sat up straight, cleared his throat and began to recite from memory;
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
“My mother stayed and my father named me.” Was all he said, when he had finished.