Willy May



The auditorium was packed by the time we got there. Mama and I had come to hear George perform. Miss Hill’s annual recital was about to take place. This was the year that I had “sat out” and did not take lessons.  So, I was attending the recital as a spectator only.

  There was a good crowd gathered, as usual.  Entertainment was rare in Richton, particularly free entertainment.  If you had no stomach for Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, there were far more contemporary composers whose much lighter music would be performed tonight.  Not only that, but Miss Alline had learned early in her teaching career, to intersperse the piano solos and the occasional duet, with vocal numbers. These were staged as little mini Broadway production numbers. Usually, a boy and girl were featured in a romantic situation. Thus, even I was featured a year or so later, with Mary Jane Fangue (pronounced Fon-GEE, with a hard G), that memorable year she was in my class, singing “How About You?” Amazingly, I still remember the words to this wonderful old song, some sixty-five years after singing it that night!*

`Now, we stood in the open doorway that led outside the building, surveying the crowd. We had come to hear George play his Mendelssohn Scherzo in E Minor; the composition that he had won the Federated Music Clubs’ contest with last month.  I felt a thrill of excitement when I realized he had beaten Kathryn Moody! She was my Dream Girl. And a very good pianist, to boot.

  “Hi, Miz Imbragoolyo! Y’all sittin’ with anybody?” the loud, unmistakable voice of Willy Mae Fitch cut through the noise of the crowd’s mixed conversations like a well honed ax.

  We moved over to the row where she was sitting, next to the aisle, and climbed over her skinny legs. I sat down beside her. “Now, we are,” I announced sassily, as I sat down.

  She hooted. “Francis, I just love you boys!” She usually included George when she said anything about me. “Y’all always make me laugh”. How hard can that be? You laugh all the time. That’s what I really wanted to tell her. It wasn't a flaw: it was a blessing.

I sat there, looking left and right. There was Ann Odom, sitting with Jackie Wilson’s mother. Mrs. Wilson was our room mother this year. I had begged Mama to let me put her up for election as our room mother, but she adamantly refused to consider it.

  “Stage sure looks purty!” Willy Mae said now. I looked up. I had not even noticed it until she called my attention to it. “Alline musta chopped every pine tree between here and Thompson’s Creek t’get that many!”

  In truth, the stage did look lovely. But it looked more like a garden party was about to take place than a “formal piano recital.” Pine trees lined the entire stage, making entrances and exits precarious; there was artificial wisteria made of crepe paper (very realistic looking) and woven all around and over the tree branches.  The old Cable Nelson upright stood forlornly against the far side of the stage, and was ready to do battle with all of Miss Hill’s pupils.

  “Time t’get started!” Willy Mae announced.  Several people turned around and gawked at her. She just laughed, and said, “Well, heck! It’s adder seb’n now!” Those who knew her (and that was most of the crowd) joined in her laughter.

  As if she had heard what our neighbor said, Miss Hill flipped the switch and the auditorium lights went off.  The stage really looked gorgeous now, with the sudden change in lighting.

  A small girl waddled out on the stage. She was dressed to within an inch of her life, as Mama later said.  She walked over to the piano stool, hopped up on it and began to play her little piece.  She managed to get through it without mishap, and the applause was deafening when she finished. “That’s all a’them Findleys, clappin’ fer their own young ‘un,” Willy said, in what was for her, a subdued voice.

  Then followed six more piano solos, mostly by beginning students. All acquitted themselves admirably. Next, we were to have the first of our “Musical Interludes”.

  Joe Davis walked out on the stage, accompanied by “Sister” Lott, whose real name was Erin Joy. Nobody called her that.  Miss Hill slipped unobtrusively onto the piano bench and began the introduction to Joe’s solo. It was “The House by the Side of the Road”. Joe sang it very well, I felt.  “Sister” did nothing more than stand there, in her pretty light blue evening gown that matched Joe’s blue silk shirt that he wore with a solid white suit. In truth, she did lend something to the staging of the number. I could not quite decide just what it was. Maybe it was her matching blue parasol that she was carrying, and when she’d think about it, give a twirl to.

  “I’ll swear t’God, that young ‘un’s just too purty t’be a boy!” Willy Mae informed the entire audience. If Joe heard her, he certainly did not give any indication that he did.  But, he was a pro, after all. At least by Richton standards.

  And then, in deference to the fact that he was already performing, Willy Mae leaned over and whispered (still loudly enough for anyone seated six rows in any direction to hear) “Well, tell me, Francis, does he still bring his dolls to school with him?”

  I was embarrassed to be a part of her noisy display, and said very quietly, “I don’t know.”

Estelle Hinton was next on the program, right after Joe’s tear jerking vocal solo, performing “The Glow Worm”.   Willy Mae and I waited with bated breath as she flirted with disaster several times. Estelle managed, mercifully, to get through it, by the hardest. I noticed that Willy Mae kept the beat by patting her foot on the seat ahead of her. And then “On the Road to Mandalay”, by Oley Speaks, was next on the program. It was to be played by Bobby Nicholson. Bobby was dressed in a full-skirted evening dress of white, polka dotted taffeta. On her right hand, she wore a wrist-band that held a single red carnation. She looked lovely! Unfortunately, she did not play at all as well as she looked. There is a certain harmonic cadence that occurs several times in the course of the piece each time the refrain occurs (it was actually a vocal solo that had been arranged as a piano solo by Miss Hill, herself),  and each time Bobby came to it, instead of making it an authentic cadence (and thus ending the piece) she took one of the deceptive cadences, which led right back to the beginning.  After about three of these “New Begginings”, Willy Mae said, “Lord, I think th’ girl’s lost!” none too silently.

Finally, much to all of our consternation, Bobby stopped completely. You could have heard a feather drop on a pin.  Then, there was a hissing sound from just behind the piano (which was backed up to our painted backdrop. This just happened to reproduce the forest motif so dear to Alline Hill’s heart). Was there a leak in a gas line? Was the air being let out of a car tire? No, it was just a desperate piano teacher giving her usual advice to anyone who bombed out on a performance: “Start over!”

I won’t bore you with a description of Bobby Nicholson’s many abortive repetitions. But when she finally managed to find the proper dominant to tonic resolution and rose triumphantly from that creaky old piano stool, Willy Mae Fitch could be heard jubilantly saying, “My God, I thought we’d NEVER get to Maderlay!”

The rest of the recital had definitely been an anti-climax.  Even the fact that pretty little Maurice Walley shocked the whole of Richton society when she made her entrance onstage and her frothy gown got caught on some of the tree branches and ripped about a three inch tear in it. “Dammit!” she said, all too audibly.

And of course Alline Hill was savvy enough to know when she had a sure-fire performer: Save the best for Last. When George gave his perfect performance of Mendelsson’s virtuoso delicacy, he literally brought down the house.

Now, two weeks later, as I stood in the pasture with George, we discussed this momentous occasion. And then I began whistling the haunting theme music from “The Secret of Treasure Island”. This was the serial that Harry Lee Boone was showing on Fridays and Saturdays at his theater.  I had never been interested in serials, mainly because Mama made them sound like such a con game. When Sammy would come home and tell us all about “Clyde Beatty in Darkest Africa”, Mama would cluck disgustedly.  She maintained that Sammy was paying fifteen show fares (seventeen cents a throw) to see this one movie. What she didn’t take into account was that he got to see a western, also.

  But when Harry Lee opened his “Community Theater”, which George called “Teatra de Commune”; in competition to Hertha McCormack’s “Richton Theater”, “Teatra de Richitontoni” (I didn’t question the authenticity of his dubious Italian) George and I pledged our allegiance to good ole Harry Lee.  Then, when he hired George to play his accordion between the shows on Saturdays, my brother got to see all the movies there free. That was his only salary. But what more could anybody want out of life?  Harry Lee also introduced the “1-2-3-FREE” club.  Each time you went to a movie, you had your membership card punched, and on the fourth visit, the movie was a freebie.  Well, by going to westerns (which I really did not enjoy, even at that age) we both got hooked on this serial. It was really wonderful, we thought at the time.  It was made by Columbia, and had a lot more class than the many serials I saw afterwards, made by Republic Pictures.

  At the conclusion of each week’s episode, there would be a calamity of such magnitude that nobody could have possibly survived. And yet, the following Friday night or Saturday afternoon, the hero or heroine miraculously escaped unscathed.

  Now, on this mild afternoon, I began to question my brother on what he thought would happen to Captain Cuddles and Gwen Gaze (the heroine).

  We were walking towards our barn, as George said he had not the slightest idea how the serial’s dilemma would be resolved.  There was also a ghost, which we later found out (not at all to my satisfaction) was nothing more than a projection on buildings and walls by a flashlight!  There was buried treasure: tons of it.  I’ll never forget the line that I felt, at the time, was one of the greatest lines I had ever heard: Captain Cuddles says, wrapping his arms around lots of fake jewelry and gold coins, as he is being crushed under mountains of rock as the volcano erupts all over the place, “It’s mine! All mine!” And then he is buried forever.

  I chanced to look towards the house as we were opening the gate at our barn, and there stood Willy Mae Fitch, again! And this time she had Leroy with her. She always called him “Lay-Roy” and George had immediately began saying (under his breath) “on the floor and stomp him!” This never failed to cause me to crack up! I told my brother about our unexpected guest, and instead of trying every method he could think of to get out of having to see them, as he always did, he seemed positively eager to do so.

  By the time we were walking down the hallway, we could hear Willy May dispensing her usual juicy items of gossip. Suddenly Mama erupted with laughter. That got my attention. We walked in just in time for Mama to say, ”Well how did that happen?”

  “Hi, boys! Y’all c’mon in!” You would have thought Willy May was welcoming us to her own house.

  “Just wait’ll you hear this!” Mama said.

  WillyMay took adeep breath. “Ok, George-- now you know how nosy all of them Wilsons are—and then she waited as if for confirmation. George merely smiled.

  “Well, Jackie was tryin’ t’find out what these two fellers were moving from one truck t’the other, down there at the “Chicken Roosts'- and before he knew what hit him, someone else in one ‘a th’ trucks cranked up the motor and begin t’back up. Course, he couldn’t see Jack, an’ by the time he heard that kid scream, it’s a wonder he ditn’t break his whole durn head”!

  I was appalled! Why hadn’t I heard anything about this?

  She then went on to explain that Jack was in the hospital room directly across the hall from hers. She had been there because she had to have an appendectomy and had to be fed intravenously. They opened the doors of both rooms, to make it possible for Willy May to watch Jack eat; hoping that his appetite might inspire hers.

  “But, I swear t’God, that young ‘un can eat more crap faster’n anybody I ever saw. Yeah---there he’d be, eatin’ hamburgers and ice cream, while I’d be in my room, eatin’ my needle soup!”

  I was watching Leroy playing with one of my favorite toys over in the corner of the room. I had to look away, as he began tearing it up. Mama always said children like Leroy were “touched by God”, and would not see him mistreated in her presence. I felt like saying that I would just love to be able to touch him. Mama also used the other side of that coin when describing my friend Jack: “That boy has the very devil himself in him.”


A Backward Glance (1932)

Bryson Fitch felt bewildered. Willie Mae’s father had just presented him with an ultimatum: either he marry the girl, or he’d get his “worthless” brains “blowed out”.

It was the afternoon of the day after the accident that had cost him his left arm. He really did not feel like discussing a wedding, with or without a shotgun. And he most definitely was not ready for parenthood. But he had enough sense left to understand that Clifford Brown was in no mood to be understanding or sympathetic.

“Well, you see, Mr. Brown---the truth of th’ matter is that I don’t rightly see how I can be expected to work t’provide fer Willy Mae—much less her an’ a young ‘un.”

“Listen, you no count sonuvabotch---nobody’s asking you t’provide anything but a name. Do you get that, MISTER?”

“Well, just who th’ hell’s gonna provide fer ‘em, then?”

“The same person who’s provided fer Willy ever since she came into this world.  Now, move your dead ass and get in th’ car. We’re goin’ to call on a preacher.”

“You mean right now?”

“That’s right. Say, is anything wrong with yore hearin’?”

“Naw,” he said, petulantly. “Jist lemme tell Mama where I’m goin’.”

“OK. You got one minit!”

When Bryson returned to the car, Clifford drove back home and said, “Now you jist set hyere till I go fetch your blushin’ bride.”

“Where you been, Papa?” Willy Mae asked the minute he walked into the house.

“I been pickin’ up that sorry assed peckerwood you’re a-gonna marry. That’s where I been.”

Katie Brown sauntered into the hallway where Willy Mae and Clifford stood. She brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. She had been in the process of canning peaches, and was hot and sweaty. She wore an apron over her dress, and it was speckled with dots of peaches and the rich syrup of canning.

“You wanna come along?” he asked her.

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Where we goin’?”

“I got me a young one-armed Casanova out in th’ car. I’m hauling him ‘n Willy t’th preacher man.”

Katie wiped her brow with a sopping wet handkerchief. “Yeah. I wouldn’t wanna miss our only young ‘un’s weddin’.”

“Well, shake a leg, then.”

“Lord, gimme a minit, will ya? I gotta at least wash my face, an’ change my dress.”

“Well, make haste. We don’t want him t’jump outa th’ coop.” Clifford looked at his wife’s departing figure. “An’ fer God’s sake, put on some shoes!”

It was hot in the car, with the four of them trying not to come into bodily contact with each other.

Willy Mae wanted to ask which preacher was going to perform the ceremony, but she did not think it prudent.

There was a shower of loose gravel as Clifford Brown brought the car to an abrupt halt in front of Rev. McClain’s house.

“Lord, is he the preacher you got?” his wife demanded querulously.

“I didn’t exactly wanna broadcast it to Richton that Willy wuz getting’ married today,” her husband informed them all. “Come on, get out’n th’ car.”

They all crawled slowly out of the car and stood awkwardly awaiting his further instructions.

Willy Mae watched as her father walked up on the porch and knocked on the screen door.  Mrs. McClain came to the door. Willy Mae watched as they two of them exchanged a few words, and then her father shook his head and started back towards the car.

“He ain’t chere,” he sounded slightly disgusted.

“Well, did ya tell him we wuz a-comin’?” Katie asked.

“Yeah! Course I did. I told him yestiddy I’d bring ‘em by today.” He paused, as they got back into the car. “Course I didn’t know exactly what time hit’ud be.”

“Well, no wonder!” his wife exclaimed. “I hope you didn’t think he wuz gonna wait around all day till we got chere!”

There was no response to this. The car began to move again. It moved so slowly that his wife felt compelled to add further fuel to the fire. “Where you gonna go now?”

“That’s just hit.  I dunno ary other preacher that’d be home right now, this time ‘a th’ day.”

Clifford stared blankly ahead as he drove aimlessly down the road. And then, as if he had made up his mind, he turned around and headed back the way from which they had just come.

None of them dared ask him why he had done this. You did not question Clifford Brown.

It was soon evident to the other three people in the car that they were traveling towards New Augusta.  That was the county seat of Perry County.

New Augusta is even smaller than Richton, and the courthouse there is old and run down.  The car pulled up to one of the side entrances, and Willy Mae’s father parked.

“Y’all git out ‘n come on in,” he ordered.

They got out and started following him into the courthouse.  He went straight to the office where he had obtained the wedding license the day before.  The matronly clerk looked up and said, “Hi, Mr. Brown. What can we do for you today?”

“Is there a J.P. around?  We need to have th’ weddin’ hyere, I reckin.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Jordan just stepped out for a minute. He oughta be right back. If you’ll just have a seat over there--”. and she pointed to a row of chairs against the wall.

Grumbling to himself, Clifford steered his small wedding party to the chairs, and they sat there miserably.

Just as Clifford was about to give up hope, Justice of the Peace, Luther Jordan walked into the office.

“Well, well,” he greeted them. “What have we here?”

“These two need t’get married,” Clifford said almost quietly.

“Well, I’m just th’ feller t’do it,” Jordan said.

Katie Brown served as a witness, and the clerk was the second one.  Clifford gave the bride away only too willingly.

Back in the automobile, which was stifling hot by this time, they traveled home in silence.

As they turned the corner, by Stevens’ Store, Willy Mae stared straight ahead at their home.  But Clifford slowed down, just after rounding the corner. He drew up to the little white bungalow that the Parkers had vacated and stopped the car.

“Why we stoppin’ here, Papa?” Willy Mae asked.

“This hyere’s your new home.”

“Oh, Papa!” Relief flooded Willy Mae’s body. She had just assumed she and Bryson would either be prisoners in her parents’ house, or told to get a room somewhere.

She leaned across the seat, and planted a moist kiss on Clifford’s cheek.

“Aw, go on, now! I jist paid th’ rent fer one month.  I didn’t buy th’ place. But, long as ya live there, hit’ll be paid fer ya, aw right enough,” he said gruffly.

Katie pretended to try to get something out of her eye.

Bryson could find no words of gratitude with which to thank his new father-in-law. He did not feel the least bit grateful for any of the events of his wedding day.

As the couple entered their new temporary home, Willy Mae was determined to make Bryson a good wife, and do her best to keep him with her.




Bryson Fitch went out in a borrowed automobile two days after his nuptials and was killed in a one-car crash.  He had run right into a huge oak tree.  There were some who said he did it deliberately, rather than live with Willy Mae, but the official cause of death was listed as accidental.  Willy Mae refused to believe that he had killed himself rather than live with her and their child.

James Leroy Fitch was born two months to the day after his father’s death. He was not a pretty baby.  As a matter of fact, he was so homely that his paternal grandfather could not stand to be in the same room with him.

And how he could scream and cry and carry on. Not just a lot, but all of the time! Poor Willy Mae tried desperately to love her offspring, but it was simply not in the cards. As he grew, he developed a nasty disposition and obnoxious demeanor.  He had no personality.

One person in all of the world doted on this miniature demon: Katie Brown. She loved the very ground on which he trod. 

At almost any time of the day, if you happened to walk past the white bungalow, you’d hear poor Willy Mae’s exasperated, “Lay-ROY! Now, you quit that! You hear me? Quit it right this minute!”

His first name, James, was never uttered.  Most people never knew that he had more than one name. Leroy (always pronounced Lay-roy by his mother) fit him to a tee.

By the age of five, which is the time of their visit to the Imbragulio home, he was not quite as hideous to look at. But for any small improvement in his physical make up, he more than compensated with his ever-worsening disposition.

He was the terror of the town.

Finally, Willy Mae more or less adopted the attitude of “Oh, hell, let him do what he wants to as long as it doesn’t affect me.”

When we moved back to Ellisville, in 1943, Leroy must have been about ten.  He had ceased to be of any concern to our family, because Willy Mae had stopped bringing him with her on her infrequent visits to Mama.

When we moved back to Ellisville, in 1943, Leroy must have been about ten.  He had ceased to be of any concern to our family, because Willy Mae had stopped bringing him with her on her infrequent visits to Mama.

In the years that followed, I lost track of the pair of them, and the parents of Willy Mae, as well.  I am told that Willy Mae finally was  wed  a second time. But this was many years after her first disastrous marriage.

Those who do remember her at all, say that she was Richton’s original Minnie Pearl.   That epithet seems, to me, perfectly justified.


*I like New York in June—how about you?  I love a Gershwin tune- how about you? I love a fireside, when a storm is due. I like potato chips, moonlight and motor trips- how about you? I’m mad about good books- can’t get my fill- And Franklin Roosevelt’s looks, give me a thrill. Holding hands in a movie show, when all the lights are low, may not be new—but I like it- how about you?
































































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