1955. “Mama! I done struck oil! Black gold! Millionaires!”
Valerie stretched her kneaded dough balls into the bread pans, covered them with a tea towels and rubbed her hands on her apron. “A millionaire, is it? What have you been up to, Punkin?”
“Mama, Californy is the place we oughta be! Look!” Vicky thrust black, oily hands up to her Mama’s face.
Val grabbed a wrist and critically studied the oil, getting a smidgen of it between her forefinger and thumb. Feeling the slick consistency reminded her of motor oil. “Where did you find this, young lady?”
“I was walking the creek lookin’ for a frog to take to show and tell.”
“First, I warned you about water moccasins and copperheads in them woods, specially around the creek. You was around Snake Harbor, wasn’t you?”
“No ma’am. I was down where they put that great big old tile that you can walk through. I saw me one copperhead, but he was baskin’ on a rock and paid me no mind.”
“Baskin’ was he? Second, you got a month left before school starts back. How many times have I told you to quit draggin’ wildlife up here?” Val stopped a moment and looked at her daughter sideways. “How was you finding oil without digging, and why would you be digging for frogs? Fess up, Punk.”
Vicky shuffled her muddy Hush Puppies. “It was right there in a little pool, honest, I didn’t do no diggin’ at all. Cain’t we be millionaires anyhow? And move to Beverly?”
“Well, I am gonna get a shovel to dig with. Let’s go see what this came from.”
By the time she got back to wash up and fetch the tractor, her bread had overflowed the pans and had bubbles all over it. She slopped it all back into the kneading bowl and into the icebox. “I’ll deal with you later! I gotta find straps!”
Her small tractor chugged up the shallow creek bed toward the giant tile right at dusk. They had cleared a ton of matted leaves and dug through thick clay to discover a Desoto stuck there according to the hood ornament they’d busted off. Val slipped the end of as strap around the front axle by feel. It made a sucking noise as it came from the muck. The back bumper had to be tied back on. “This looks pretty good for being 30 or 40 years old, don’t it Punkin?”
Eddie had left all his tools behind when he traipsed of to Mexico with that tart. Val sniffed ‘good riddance’ in the southern direction and backed the rusty wreck , with both bug-eye headlights still attached, into the shed where he’d always parked his fancy Chevrolet. While they waited for the mail order Desoto book to arrive, they did a monstrous lot of water toting and cleaning. They dug up the tail lights. They transferred the corked jugs from the trunk safely. They also solemnly buried a disorderly skeleton near the pet cemetery. It seemed the unlucky fella had been running whiskey and got caught in a flood before the tile was put in, it could have even been before TVA.
1965. Val sat on the porch rereading the Desoto book section on steering because some dreams never die. When the car rumbling down the gravel road slowed to turn up her driveway, she dropped the book in her lap and resumed shelling butterbeans. An angular Dick Tracy kinda man got out of the really flashy Studebaker Avanti and walked up the step. White with tangerine seats! A fleeting picture of her Desoto with that color scheme flew through her mind. Refurbishing that beast had not progressed very far the past year or ten.
“Mrs. Eddie Beauchamp?”
“Mrs. Valerie Beauchamp. What can I do for you?”
“I am Vince Padget, and I understand you found a wrecked Desoto.”
She kept shelling beans. “Who says?”
“I heard it from my sister who had a friend who’d heard it from a teacher at an educator conference in Louisville. She said your daughter had done a show and tell on it.”
She set the bean basket at her feet and rose. “I’ll let you see it if you’ll tell me your interest. I’m thinking it might be worth a thousand dollars or so, depending on the buyer.” The guilty feeling from naming such an exorbitant amount made her face flush.
As they stood by the heap, he laid a hand on it. In a hush, he said, “This could well be it.” He straightened and stated, “My father drove such a car and disappeared in these parts in 1930.” He turned to her. “There would have been whiskey jugs.”
“Over there under the hay.”
“There would have been bones.”
“Over yonder, see that green lump with the white cross on it?”
“I’ll give you $10, 000 for the car, jugs and bones.”
“Mr. Padget, if that was your daddy, you take all of that with my blessing. We had no twinklin’ that any family would come to claim any of it.” She held out the book. “You can take this too. I won’t need it.” She bowed her head and imagined the Lord smiling in her direction.
He went back to his Avanti and returned with a black leather case. “In our family businesses, we mainly use cash. I brought quite a bit of cash, thinking you might be difficult.” He passed the case to her. “Take it all, for your generosity.”
“I can’t take all this, sir. What do you think the car is worth just as an antique?”
“Adding the sentimental value, I believe the contents of that case will cover it.”
She figured Padget probably wasn’t his name at all. “Would bringing this back give your mama some rest, finally knowing what happened?”
“I know it would.”
“Then just take it!”
“My honor will not allow it. I see no car here; do you have one? Does that roof leak? Will that tractor last another season? That little girl on your porch, will she be able to go to college? All I ask is that you don’t go into detail about me or the family. I would advise putting a grand in the bank as payment for the car, as many people know you had it. Keep the rest private or you’ll give half to the government in taxes. That doesn’t seem right to me. The government doesn’t appreciate private, family matters.”
Shady money. Should she give that black temptation back and send him on his way with what he came for? Or could it be that case of his was full of gray money, like the gray water from the washing machine that bypassed the septic tank. Not everything has to be officially processed. “I will accept your money and keep mum about it, I promise you. God bless you and your family.”
She bought a barely bruised Ford pick-up out of state and got her kitchen done up all modern. She bought a sewing machine you didn’t have to peddle and steam iron. She traded in her tractor for a better one and had been getting good corn crops in. She planted fifty apple trees in the old cow pasture, had a deep well put in and swapped her wringer washer for the a new boxy kind. She spread all that spending out over a few years, trading at different places. The apple trees grew stately and bountiful.
1965. As the Kitchen Aide kneaded the bread dough, Val hugged Vicky and grinned. “Look at the mixer, ain’t it the cat’s meow? It’s all your fault, you know that Punkin? All we got now is your fault for huntin’ frogs.” She looked at her daughter sideways, adding, “You just keep getting them good grades and you can study biology at the college. I hear they cut frogs up and look in their innards.”
Vicky opened the fridge for a Wink. “Mama, that’s dissection and we’re doing it this year in High School. She leaned back on the kitchen counter and took a long slug of the citrus soda. “College is really expensive and I don’t know if my grades are good enough for a scholarship. How much of that gray money we got left?”
“None of it. All of it got invested around here and now it’s our farm and orchard bringing the cash in. If you want more than that, you’d best go frog huntin’ again.”
Vicky thought about all the sweat and toil put into the farm; the money helped but wouldn’t have stretched nearly as far without her Mama’s dogged determination. Taking a deep breath and puffing it out, she made the internal commitment to get that scholarship. Frog money already gave her an amazing start, now it was her turn to do the rest.