Possum Grape Wine
by W.E. Turner
Back in the late summer of ’67 there was some news over in Lawrence County, around the town of Caroline, that caused quite a stir for a while. This news spread quickly, travelin’ by the telephone lines that were saggin’ under the weight of the mournin’ doves that time of year. Now, them doves would all magically disappear the next week, when September First and dove huntin’ season rolled around, but them doves wasn’t what the news was all about, anyway.
“Did you hear?” one party-line member would say to another after dialin’ that neighbor’s two-digit access code, “The Old Bachelor’s gettin’ married.”
“You’re kiddin’,” the person at the other end might come back if she hadn’t already heard the news. “Who in the world would wanna marry that dirty old man?”
“Twila Thiery, from down by Sarcoxie,” came the reply. “She’s known ‘im ever since they were kids in school. Evidently, Jake came a-courtin’ ‘er sometime last week....”
“Jake. Jake Bodre. The Old Bachelor.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s his name. I ‘member, now. Only thing we ever call ‘im is ‘The Old Bachelor,’ seems like. But why’s Twila gonna marry him? He ain’t nothin’ but a dirty old man.”
The same conversation would repeat, much like this or somethin’ similar, as each of the people from the first conversation would call up someone else to tell them the news. Other things that might also be included in the conversation of the two women (or whoever was talkin’) would be a discussion on Jake’s reasons for wantin’ a wife and Twila’s motives for acceptin’ his offer and then they’d go on to discuss all the other gossip that kept those people on the party line occupied most of the time.
Now, Jake Bodre was, indeed, a dirty old man. It’s not that he leered at women or pinched their bottoms or made suggestive remarks when they drove past his farm or anything anti-social like that; he was simply filthy. When Jake was outside workin’ on his farm and his heavy, dark-green Dickies work shirt got too warm (which it usually did about mid-April), he’d take the shirt off and continue his chores in his undershirt.
Now, this undershirt was a sight to behold. It was the only one Jake owned (or, at least the only one people ever saw him in) and by the middle of April, it was already a rusty tan color because it probably hadn’t been taken off since Jake bought it and put it on that January. Then, all summer long, Jake would tend his cattle, get in hay, mend his fences, cut firewood for winter and do the million other things that had to be done on a farm, all the while wearin’ that undershirt above his dark-green Dickies work pants. Jake didn’t go in for overalls, like so many other farmers in this part of the country do, but he did wear one of those AC-Tick work caps. If you was to ask him about it, he’d tell you how he figured that if he wore overalls and that work cap, too, that’d make him look more like a railroad engineer than a farmer. And Jake never wanted to fool anyone about just who and what he was, so he wore Dickies instead.
As the summer progressed, the sweat stains under the arm holes of Jake’s undershirt would gradually get longer and darker and the body of the shirt would get browner, just like Jake’s skin. Some folks said The Old Bachelor had Indian blood in him and that might have been true, ‘cause he did get awful brown in the summer; so brown that even his dirty undershirt was light-colored by contrast. To make matters worse, Jake chewed and was not too careful about where he spit, so that added another dark streak down the shirt’s front where it stretched across his old-man’s potbelly. By the end of summer, when the possum grapes out in the woods were just turnin’ purple but were still sour, Jake’s undershirt would be as dark as his work pants. Then, about the time a hard frost came along and the possum grapes turned sweet, the dark-green work shirt would go back on and at least Jake would look cleaner. It’s not like Jake never washed. He’d wash his hands and face and take a bath at least once a year and he’d shave about once every four or five days. But you could tell he never washed that undershirt.
Once a year (usually around January, when merchandise like that was on sale at the store in Caroline), The Old Bachelor would go to town to buy himself a new, white sleeveless undershirt. You know the kind. It has those little vertical ribs in it and, when it’s new or washed, all those ribs are tight together and even a large-size one looks like it would just barely fit a child. Jake would go in and just pick one shirt up off the shelf there in Paul Frieberg’s Feed and Hardware and he’d take it up to the counter. Paul would always greet The Old Bachelor with a real friendly, “Hi, Jake,” as he rang up the sale and if there were any other customers in the store, that would be the first time most of the other folks knew he was there. You might think folks could smell him as he came in, but that wasn’t so. Seems like Jake always took a bath and got all cleaned up before he came to town.
Now, some folks might think the Old Bachelor, livin’ alone like he did and never havin’ anyone to talk to on his farm except his cattle, would take an opportunity like this to discuss farm prices or the weather or to make some other kind of idle chit-chat, but he didn’t. Oh, he might tell Paul he needed some feed or nails or somethin’ else for the farm but that was about all he’d say. Or he might go out and fill his old Hudson pickup with gas from the pump out front of the Feed and Hardware, then tell Paul how much he’d put in the tank, but that’s all. The Old Bachelor didn’t ever seem to talk much. He’d just pick up what he needed, pay for his purchases and then drive on back out to his farm.
The whole thing about Jake buyin’ a new undershirt was just a normal, everyday business transaction, but it always caused a bit of a stir among the citizens in the town.
After all, there wasn’t much goin’ on in Caroline anymore, since the Lead Mine closed down. Paul Frieberg’s Feed and Hardware and the grocery next door (which Paul owned, too) were the only two businesses left in that town since Ruby Gutterman closed down her beauty shop. That is, those were the only two unless you count The Beer Joint across the street from the grocery as a business, too. Now, lotsa folks don’t consider a beer joint a legitimate business, but The Beer Joint (and that was its name) probably did more business than any other place in town except maybe the Post Office.
Anyway, everyone figured Jake had come to town and bought himself a new undershirt because his old one fell apart from all that dirt and sweat and everything that had gone into makin’ it look so filthy. Jake’s buyin’ another undershirt almost became an annual event there in Caroline, but you never knew just when it was gonna happen, exactly, so it didn’t draw a crowd or anything. But word always got around that The Old Bachelor got a new undershirt and that’d give everybody over at The Beer Joint and all the folks on the party line somethin’ to spice up their conversation with for the next couple of days.
Now, people knew Jake had runnin’ water and a bathtub in his farmhouse, but nobody knew for sure how often he used it.
Most of the older folks could even remember hearin’ about when Jake’s papa had installed the indoor plumbin’. Their’s was one of the first farms in that part of Missouri to be so equipped (usually, back then, just the people in town had indoor plumbin’ and even some of them didn’t). To put the plumbin’ in, the elder Bodre had used some of the money he’d gotten from the Caroline Lead Company for the lease of his land. The land where the Caroline Lead Mine got dug was all Bodre land.
Caroline was on the east edge of that vein of galena, or lead ore, that used to run from Caroline, through Carthage, Webb City and Joplin, Missouri and on over into Kansas, where there’s even a town named Galena. Now, I know there’s a town called “Galena” in Missouri, too, but their lead mine was two-three miles out of town. That ain't quite like Galena, Kansas, which was built right on top of the lead mine. In fact, ever once in a while a little bit of Galena, Kansas, disappears into one of the old mine tunnels when the ground under some of their buildings collapses.
Anyway, when the lead had all been mined out and used up for bullets and put into gasoline to cause smog and keep engines from pingin’ or made into paint that would make people sick years later and such, nothin’ much was left of that land where the mine was dug but a bunch of holes in the ground and great big piles of slag and rock that had been dug out of the mines. Later, someone discovered that some of the slag contained a workable amount of sphalerite, or zinc ore. The refiners came back, then, and smelted the zinc out of the sphalerite so somebody could galvanize all those corrugated tin panels farmers roof their barns with, and they put what was left over of the slag back into the holes left from the lead mines. This kind of flattened the land out a little but it still left big ol’ piles of rock all over the place because all the mined-out rock wouldn’t fit back into the mine shafts. Of course, nothin’ much would grow on that overworked land where any of the mines had been but, after the miners and smelters got done with it, they turned the title of the Caroline Lead Mine land back over to the Bodres. By then the family had lots of money from the rent of their land and a lot of land where nothin’ much would grow but scrub oaks and pokeweed and possum grapes. Eventually, all the Bodres died off except Jake.
No one knows exactly when folks started callin’ Jake “The Old Bachelor.” Of course, any unmarried man is known as a Bachelor and in that part of Missouri back then, if a fella was older than about 21 or 22 and still wasn’t married, he was known as a Confirmed Bachelor; just like any girl who wasn’t married by 19 or 20 was a Spinster and if she got to be as old as 25 and still hadn’t found a husband, she was known as an Old Maid. But everybody figured that Jake was probably the most confirmed Confirmed Bachelor around those parts.
Now, Jake Bodre probably got to be known as “The Old Bachelor” because he always just looked old, even when he wasn’t. Bein’ out in the sun on his farm all the time wearin’ nothin’ but an undershirt (and pants and shoes, of course) his skin got wrinkled up pretty bad. Then, too, he had a goiter on his neck where his thyroid had got all swelled up (it kept him out of the Army durin’ the war) and that and his three or four-day growth of beard and wrinkled skin and white hair (also caused by his thyroid condition, some say) just made him look old. Then, too, maybe folks started callin’ Jake “The Old Bachelor” because it was kind of a mean thing to say, like he wouldn’t ever find a wife.
Folks liked bein’ kind of mean to Jake for a couple of reasons. One was because he always looked so mean himself when he stared at people as they passed by his farm on that rocky, dusty road that ran past the old lead mine. You’d drive by in your car and you’d see him out in the barn lot or sittin’ on his porch or on the upstairs veranda in a stiff-backed, cane-bottom chair and he’d stare at you as you went by. If you’d wave at him as you passed, he’d wave his hand back at you, like folks always do out there in the country, but he never smiled or let his eyes light up with any kind of recognition. He’d just look at you like he was the meanest man in the world. Not that he was mean, or anything, but he looked mean.
Another reason folks kind of liked bein’ mean to The Old Bachelor was he wouldn’t let people hunt on his land. He had a lot of land, too, in different places around the county. Most of it prime huntin’ ground, too. In fact, that land where the lead mine was, with all it’s scrub oak and pokeweed and possum grapes and all, was always just thick with mournin’ doves and quail and rabbits and squirrels and ’coons and fox and deer and all kinds of other game. But Jake wouldn’t let you hunt on it. Now, there might be a reason for that, though, other than just meanness. Seems like back in the ’30s, after the lead mine closed down but before they started pullin’ the zinc out of the sphalerite, some kids did go huntin’ on that land around the mine. And somehow, one of them kids died when he got buried under a pile of slag that slid down off one slag heap. Jake’s dad felt pretty bad about that. Even though it was just an accident, it was still his land it happened on and he felt responsible. So old Mr. Bodre wouldn’t let anybody hunt on the mined land after that. About five years later, his father died and afterwards, Jake just kept on enforcin’ the ban his dad had started. Ol’ Jake was a creature of habit, just like lotsa folks are. That’s why him gettin’ married came as such a shock to everyone.
By the time he married Twila, The Old Bachelor must have been pushin’ 60 or so. Of course, Twila was no spring chicken herself. She wasn’t a bad lookin’ woman, though.
She a widow lady that attended the Church of Christ and knew just about everybody in that part of the state. One of her daughters lived up north of Caroline and her son lived in Pierce City and her other daughter lived down in Sarcoxie, so Twila was always goin’ back and forth between them. Everybody around there knew her and liked her. She was a clean-livin’, God-fearin’ woman, but they all knew she was independent-minded and had kind of a sharp tongue. Now, even though everybody liked ol’ Twila, they always made sure they stayed on her good side. If you was to cross her, she could just flay the skin right off you in nothin’ flat with that sharp tongue o’ hers. Some folks even say that’s why her first husband died: that she nagged him to death. But it wasn’t. It was a heart attack.
After folks got over the surprise of The Old Bachelor gettin’ married at all, they decided Twila was just the type of woman he needed. When you say she was “clean livin’,” it meant just that. She always kept herself and her house clean and tidy and folks figured she accepted The Old Bachelor’s offer because it offered a kind of a challenge to her. They knew that was just the type of thing Twila liked. They think she enjoyed the idea of cleanin’ up The Old Bachelor’s house and cleanin’ him up, too. Those same folks also thought that’s the very reason Jake proposed to her. They figured he asked her to marry him just so she’d come and clean up his house, which still had the same curtains hangin’ in the windows that Jake’s mother made, and his Ma had been dead for twenty years. Those folks figured there was twenty years of unswept floors, unwashed clothes, undusted furniture and unmade beds in Jake’s old two-story farmhouse. They figured that house was just like Jake’s undershirt; fallin’ apart from age and neglect and dirt and all, so he thought he oughtta get himself a wife to clean it up for him.
Nobody knew exactly when Jake and Twila slipped over to Mt. Vernon, the county seat, and got married. A neighbor, Charles Gutterman (whose wife used to run the beauty shop), said he got a phone call from Jake one Monday and Jake asked Charles to look after his cattle for a few days while he was out of town. That wasn’t really unusual, ‘cause The Old Bachelor would usually ask Charles to do that when Jake took steers to market or went off to buy more cattle or somethin’ else for the farm. But four days later, Jake showed up back at his place with Twila and all of a sudden, folks realized they couldn’t call Jake “The Old Bachelor” any more. First thing you knew, people started droppin’ over for a visit (somethin’ that never happened when Jake was livin’ there by himself) and before long, there must have been fifty or sixty people at Jake’s house, just like they’d been invited, which they hadn’t.
Lots o’ those folks saw the inside of Jake’s house for the first time in twenty years that night. It was kind of a disappointment to some of ‘em. It wasn’t like they expected it to be at all. The wallpaper was sort of dingy and the rugs were a little worn and threadbare in spots and, of course, Jake’s mother’s curtains were faded and thin, but otherwise the house was in pretty good shape. There wasn’t any piles of trash and dirty clothes everywhere and there was no thick coat of dust on everything, the way some folks thought there would be. The bathtub showed signs of bein’ used regular (you could tell because of the stains caused by the hard water from Jake’s well). Folks even found a Maytag wringer washin’ machine and a clothesline out on the back porch of the house and that washer looked like it got used regular, too. Now, don’t ask why Jake didn’t ever wash his undershirt in that washer. He just didn’t. Some things, you know, are just a mystery.
But those people did find one thing at Jake’s house that they hadn’t expected to find at all. That was Jake’s Possom Grape Wine.
Now, the plant that folks around this part of Missouri call the “Possum Grape” is just a wild grape; small (about as big around as a man’s little finger) and it’s sour, even when its color has gone from green to dark purple, like it does about the end of August. But when a good, hard frost comes along, those grapes turn sweet (that why it’s called a “Possum Grape,” because it plays ‘possum until a frost).
After it’s all sweetened up, though, the Possum Grape tastes kind of like a Concord Grape, only not as sugary. Kids love to find a bunch of Possum Grapes in the fall, after a hard frost has come along, because that meant they could eat the sweet grapes, get their mouths all purple and spit the grape seeds out through their teeth at other kids. The vines the possum grapes grow on can usually be found in thick woods or any thicket that isn’t Bushhogged regular, but most of the plants never bear fruit. That’s because the vine is kind of like the lilac bush; it needs to grow about seven years or so before it will flower and get enough grapes on it to make ‘em worthwile to pick.
Jake, of course, had all that land where the Caroline Lead Mine was that was too rocky to run a Bushhog through and which had been lyin’ fallow for years, so you might say he had his own private vinyard there. Every autumn, Jake said, he’d wait until a hard frost came along to sweeten the grapes and then go out to the mined land and pick buckets and washtubs and barrels just full of possum grapes. Then he’d bring these possum grapes back to his barn and run them all through the cider press his dad had owned, strain the juice, add yeast and and whatever else you add to wine and then let it ferment in big, wooden tubs out in the barn. When the wine got hard enough, Jake would draw it off into Mason Jars, seal the jars and label ‘em as to what year it was bottled and store ‘em all in his cellar to let ‘em age. He even laid the jars on their sides and would go through his cellar and turn ‘em over every once in a while, ‘cause he read somewhere that was what real winemakers do. Jake could tell you, too, which years were the good ones for the Possum Grape Wine and which ones were not so good.
Jake’s Possum Grape Wine was a big hit with everybody. Charles Gutterman, who thought he was some kinda connoissuer of wines (and he might have been, too; after all, he always ordered ‘Michelob Dark’ beer and all sorts of other fancy stuff at The Beer Joint in Caroline) said the taste of Jake’s Possum Grape Wine reminded him of “Nouveau Beaujolais.” He must have liked it, too, because he drank so much of it he got fallin’-down drunk and threw up in the yard before Ruby could get him back into their car to take him on home.
Now, bein’ a newlywed and all, of course, Jake was kinda the center of attention at this little charivari, I guess you might call it. He was all cleaned up, too. He had on a clean white shirt and some dark slacks that looked new. Everyone wondered where his dirty old undershirt was but nobody, of course, had the gall to ask him about it. But one look at Jake could tell you he wasn’t comfortable. Before everyone left from this little impromptu party, Jake disappeared.
After the last guests were gone and the house was back to bein’ quiet, Twila found Jake sittin’ in his straight-backed chair on the upstairs veranda.
“What’s the matter, Jacob?” Twila asked him. Twila was probably the only person besides his mother that ever called Jake “Jacob,” and nobody ever heard her call him anything else.
Jake just kind of snorted and reached down beside him to pick up his jelly-jar glass of Possum Grape Wine.
“I ain’t used to this,” he said after a while in that slow, drawlin’ way he had o’ talkin’. “Ain’t used to havin’ a bunch o’ people around me.”
“I know,” Twila said with a little bit of a sigh and a little bit of a smile. “But it’ll get easier. You’ll see.”
Again there was a long pause as the old couple looked out over the Caroline Lead Mine land.
“Twila,” Jake said at last, “I wanna be respectable. That’s somethin’ I ain’t never been. My family was always respectable, but somewhere ‘long the way, I lost it. I’d kinda like ta get it back if I can.”
Twila just reached over, laid her hand on Jake’s shoulder and didn’t say anything.
“So,” Jake went on after a while, “if I ever get back to the way I was..., ...you know, all dirty an’ smelly an’ everthang. Well, you just tell me, ‘Jacob. You need a bath.’ And I’ll do ‘er. I’ll do ‘er ‘cause I’m kinda likin’ this feelin’. Kinda like bein’ respectable. Wanna keep on bein’ this way. Wanna see if I can be as respectable as you.”