# MAMA B’AR AND LUTHIFER
# PERRY COUNTY, KENTUCKY
# Fall 1930
Sometimes, a lucky break can open up opportunities and brighten horizons for everyone touched by the rays of that lucky sun. Other times, it can merely confer power on an unworthy person who lacks compassion, allowing her to dominate, control, and destroy the destinies of others.
Barbara Jean ‘Mama B’ar’ Biddle simply could not believe what was coming out of Luther’s mouth—not an uncommon state of existence for the two of them, married only five years before. So accustomed was she to no luck turning to bad luck, and back again, that this thing Luther—called ‘Luthifer’ by his friends and enemies alike—was now telling her sounded just plain fishy. Luthifer was the king of the hair-brained scheme, and he had no real or even discernible skills outside of their marital bedroom—and even that skill set had been flagging lately.
“Now, look here, Luthifer, Sweetie-Pie. You just gon’ have to tell me this again, ‘cause it just don’t seem like somethin’ that ever happens in real like. You know what I mean? Like to regular folk? Like to people like us?” Mama B’ar’ tried her damnedest to convey to her husband of four years that she wasn’t doubting his honesty. She wanted him to know that she was doubting his intelligence instead.
Her constantly calling Luthifer stupid nonplussed him. She did it various ways nearly every day. That was just Mama B’ar’, but she could cook, she kept a hell of a house, was a decent enough mama to their young daughter, Lurline, and for being ‘a good, Christian woman,’ she had been great in bed from the second time he ever even laid eyes on her. Being called stupid all the time was a small price to pay for titties like them there, Luthifer had thought many times over the years.
“Now, Baby-Doll,” Luthifer started, “I know it’s hard to believe. Hell, I can har’ly believe if myse’f, but I heard the man on the radio say that we’s livin’ in a new era. Because of that stock market crash and whatnot—”
“Hold on, Sugar. Luthifer Biddle, you just hold on a good minute, will ya’. Now you know y’all don’t know nothin’ about no stock market, Luthifer Ray Biddle. So don’t be talkin’ about it like ya’ even know what that is, Honey-Lamb!”
Luthifer knew Mama B’ar’ was right, but it still hurt sometimes for her to doubt him so. But he swallowed his pride for the moment and pressed on. “So anyway, the man in the radio said that money and economics and all that shit done changed all over the world, so we gon’ start seein’ things happening for the good and the poor that mebbe we ain’t never even thought was possible.”
“Uh-huh,” Mama B’ar’ said, skeptically, “Such as Mr. Gantry, a man we knowed just about all our life just walkin’ out of this here store one day, killin’ hisself, and leaving nobody behind to carry on in his store and his rooms up above it?”
“‘xactly! Tha’s what I’m sayin’! Plus, they say that that Mr. Hoover, Mr. President J. Edgar Hoover, is gon’ change everything for the workin’ man.”
“And y’all tellin’ me you all paid the court three green, American dollars, and they just somehow jus’ handed y’all the deed, the keys, and a business license to operate this here store?” She could not resist the urge to deepen her inquiry by tightening the questions he had to answer, and by searching out his lies and omissions.
“It was $3.25. I had to pay the recordin’ costs too.”
“Now, first of all, Luthifer, hon, where could you possibly have found to put your hands on three dollars when you ain’t had no job since it was Mr. President Wilson sayin’ he was gon’ fix things for the workin’ man?” Although she suspected he would have no response to the charge, she paused just long enough for the message to sink in. he surprised her with an answer.
“Don’t you doubt yo’ man, Mama B’ar! Don’t you never doubt the man that you got. I won five dollars, five dollars cash money, playing billiards over to the pool hall. Some shiny shoe wearin’ suit was tryin’ to show out for his lady, and I beat his natural ass.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she replied, showing all signs of lingering doubt, “there is no need for vulgarity, Luthifer. Now then, you say you won five dollars, so you oughta have pert near two of them dollars left to feed yo’ family wit’, right?”
“Winnin’ at pool is thirsty work, woman,” he boasted, “and ain’t a workin’ man entitled to celebrate his victories at the end of a long, hard day?”
“Mmm-hmm.” She opted to ignore this response, which she had already expected to receive from him, and wasn’t frankly, worthy of her reply. Her investigation continued. “And you say this here store, the one we been shoppin’ in since—. Well, shit, Luthifer, I don’t think I can remember a time when this store wa’dn’t here, or a time when Mr. Gantry didn’t own it.”
“Well, it’s our’n now, Mama B’ar’. I got the papers. It’s our’ now.” Luther reached into the back pockets of his positively filthy dungarees and dug for an uncomfortably long time before he drew out a set of intricately folded and profoundly stained papers showing that he did, indeed, own the general store outside of which they currently stood.
Mama B’ar scrutinized the papers, looking for the typical Luthifer loophole. Finding none, she pronounced, “Then I guess I better learn how to run a store. ‘cause Lord knows you ain’t gon’ be able to do it!”
After an extensive weeks’-long cleaning and re-organizing campaign, Mama B’ar’ renamed Gantry’s Sundries as ‘Mama B’ar’s Family Market.’ When it opened a week after the new sign was painted and posted, a line of impoverished residents, many hoping for a do-over on their past failed credit accounts, wound out the door and almost around to the creek that ran directly behind the store. Mama B’ar’, having located Mr. Gantry’s accounting book, offered to refinance existing accounts by placing liens on cars, trucks, farm implements, animals, and other hard goods on which she could turn a profit. Not one account holder declined her offer. Customers came, and they never stopped coming.
# LURLINE AND THE BRUTE
# HAZARD, KENTUCKY
# Summer, 1946
Meeting the most interesting person one has ever met and meeting in otherwise bleak circumstances can easily become the unpromising beginning to both a terrible relationship and a sad, short, unfulfilling adult life. This meeting would disrupt and potentially destroy Lurline’s life and other lives not yet in being.
Little Lurline Biddle was 19 and the undisputed prettiest girl in all of Perry County. At least in the shadow of that raggedy, craggy blue hill at the center of this remote and desperate place, she was without equal in terms of looks, brains, or talent. Lurline wasn’t exactly pure as the driven snow, but she had her standards, and she wouldn’t go all the way with a boy unless he made a cursory promise of her a future and that future was better than what she had here, working in Mama B’ar’s little store in Hazard. Lots of boys made such promises, collected their rewards, and then reneged.
Lurline had always intended to remain relatively pure until marriage, and, after a short stint of libidinous behavior in her early teens, she realized that there weren’t many appealing opportunities to turn the head of a girl like her in a place like Hazard, so she closed up her metaphorical shop and bided her time in her mama’s real one.
Working at the store was a better opportunity than most of her girlfriends had because, at least there, she had some access to people and conversation. Mostly Lurline spent her days just looking at magazines that came in for other people, and dreaming about a life, any life, that was better than the one she had.
On an especially hot, dusty summer day in late July, no more special than any other, the buxom brunette, aspiring blonde leaned over the counter, propped on her elbows, and read Screen Scene and drank a Pepsi Cola from the reach-in cooler resting on the front steps. Mama B’ar had run back up to the house, and, because their house was a few good miles away, that usually meant she wouldn’t be back until it was time to close up the store for the night.
The Andrews Sisters were on the radio behind the counter, singing something catchy and brainless about trees and sneaking kisses. The music, which she did not love, was infinitely preferable to Lurline than the still, taunting silence that would otherwise torture her throughout her summer workdays. Not terrifically better, but better.
Had she a choice in the matter, Lurline would much rather have had some jazz and blues to listen to, like Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway, or maybe even Louis Jordan or Louis Prima, but the only station that came in on their old set was from downtown Hazard, and the good white folks on the mountain wouldn’t hear of allowing that ‘coon music’ to play on the airwaves in their proper little southern town. The coloreds, who were all right from a distance, had their jukes and whatnot, so until they could afford to open a radio station like the one Jimmy O’Hara had in downtown Hazard, the airwaves rightly belonged to the whites.
The houseflies and horseflies flew and landed aggressively and with purpose, and they, along with the oppressive heat, made the dreary day even less pleasant than it needed to be. Lurline had tried swatting a particularly large, angry fly with the raggedy old swatter that hung on a nail behind the glassed-in countertop, to no avail. Because the swatting surface was, by this time, more hole than netting, the jumbo fly stayed where it was for a moment, having been completely missed by the swatting surface, and then, sensing a renewed vigor from Lurline, flew off, landing on the tip of her dark, come yellow, bangs. This fly seemed to taunt her. Instinctively, Lurline slapped her forehead, crudely trying to bring down the wrath of God on this fly. She missed badly the fly, but hit her own head spot on.
“Ow! Dang it!” she screeched, rubbing her forehead more dramatically than was necessary. “Well, y’all won that round, I suppose.” She laughed for a moment, stopping when she realized how pathetic her self-amusement would be to a casual observer.
“Lord, here I am talkin’ to vermin and beating my own self up! I swear this place would even get to the Good Lord Jesus if he ever had to endure what I go through day after day after blessed day in this hellhole!”
Mama B’ar had railed on her earlier in the summer when she caught Lurline using a brand new swatter from the store’s inventory. Her mama had said, “I just know you didn’t take inventory from my store for your own personal use, girly!”
“But Mama B’ar,” Lurline had answered, “I’m killing flies so the customers will be more comfortable inside the store. Plus, I can put the swatter back on the hook after I’m done with it.”
“Lurline Elizabeth Biddle, don’t nobody want a swatter covered in old fly guts! Girly, why don’t you use your head for something oth’r’n a hat rack sometimes?” Mama B’ar was always quick to imply that Lurline was stupid. But then Mama B’ar thought everyone was a little bit stupid. Over the years, Lurline had come somewhat to believe it to be true about herself. Mama B’ar had that effect on people.
Lurline watched a different gigantic fly creeping along the spout of her Pepsi bottle and then eventually make its way into the motherlode of cool, sticky, sweet goodness inside the container. But then an article on “starlet of the moment” Norma Scherer grabbed her interest, and so Lurline had little time or attention for the flies any longer.
The spring on the wooden screen door groaned arthritically, and the lazy, rusting cowbell pathetically announced that someone had walked into the store. Lurline wasn’t feeling very sociable today, so she didn’t even look away from her magazine. Whoever it was could wait. Norma Scherer and Clark Gable could not.
“Y’all let me know if’n ya need somethin’ or another, okay?” She pronounced the perfunctorily courteous words lazily while turning her page to the next article about people she would never meet. Then, without looking up or interrupting her reading, she took a swig from her dwarfish, green-tinted glass bottle.
To her friends, family, and neighbors, Lurline’s accent was not any different from what they had heard every day of their lives. To the uniformed stranger, the man who had just entered her domain, her voice was honey-dipped, hot as the day, and lusciously syrupy. So like the flies surrounding her bottle, the soldier ambled up to the counter and hovered over Lurline, giving him an unobstructed view right down the front neckline of her blue and white gingham checked blouse. Goodness gracious me! the shudder-some man thought while literally smacking his lips.
Lurline felt his eyes molesting her body and, after giving the stranger a moment to take it all in, she finally looked up.
“Y’all need something, mister?” she asked testily.
“Well, yes, miss, I do, as a matter of fact.” He had a vague accent, or more like a non-accent. Lurline couldn’t tell where exactly it was from, but it sure as hell wasn’t from Hazard, or from any part of Kentucky.
“Well, y’all ain’t likely to find it down in my bosoms, I reckon.” The stranger’s self-satisfied look evolved into one vaguely, but insincerely, approximating shame. Lurline, bored and starved for attention, let the well-proportioned, reasonably attractive serviceman off the hook with a lovely country-girl smile. It had been months since she had last seen soldiers around here, and even though his uniform was untidy, and the sleeves were discolored where the chevrons had been removed, and he clearly hadn’t shaven for days, he was still a damned sight more interesting than her magazine at that moment.
She looked him up and down, dramatically craning her head so that he would feel conspicuously observed as well.
“Y’all ain’t heard?” she asked, looking his uniform up and down.
“What’s that, miss?”
“The war is over. We won.” She said it so deadpan that Bernard Dukes could not immediately discern whether Lurline was having him on. She was.
“Well, yes, ma’am, I was aware. Matter of fact, I was there, right there in Germany when Hitler ate that bullet.”
“Uh-hmm,” she said, her skepticism hanging all over her voice like clothes on Mama B’ar’s clotheslines. “And I’ll just bet you helped him hold the gun while he did it to hisself.”
Bernie liked that this supposedly simple country gal was on top of his lie immediately and that she was not going to let him have anything for free. This was gonna be fun, and in Bernie Dukes’ life, fun had been indeed in short supply for years.
“So where are you on your way to, mister?”
“My name is Bernard. Bernard T. Dukes the Third. But you can call me Bernie. All my friends do.”
“Mister, I don’t know you, so we sure as hell ain’t friends just yet. Hold your horses, and let’s see how it goes, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am. I stand corrected.” He went through the motions of lowering his head in a semblance of humility, in case she required that. She did.
“And anyway, if we was to become friends, I reckon I would call you Brute, on account of you seem kinda edgy.”
“That’s all right with me, miss. Brute. I kind of like that.” He smiled, hoping his crooked grin could pass for handsome allure to her. “Now, might I inquire what, if we were to become friends, you might allow me to call you?”
“You may inquire. My name is Lurline E. Biddle the First. You may call me Miss Biddle for now. We’ll work up to you callin’ me Lurline.”
“That’s a square deal, Miss Biddle.”
“So, where on earth are you headed, Mr. Dukes?”
“And how do you know, Miss Biddle, that I’m not headed right here to, um, uh, Hazard, Kentucky?”
“Because nobody who ain’t from here ever is headed to here, Mr. Dukes. And you clearly ain’t from here.”
“As it just so happens,” Dukes cleared his throat and straightened his uniform tie dramatically before he continued, “that I’m on my way back from the war and I’m looking for a place to settle in.” Lurline noticed that the knot was loose and the tie itself hung well below the level where a well-dressed serviceman might wear it. His jacket was unbuttoned and his wrinkled dress shirt carried evidence of his last good meal. The scraggly face above the tie revealed skin lightly scarred from a probable combination of poxes and popped pimples. Lurline thought it made him look rugged, and that was a turn-on to her, but she was too much of a lady to make that patent to him.
“Well, you got to know that this ain’t it,” she offered earnestly, gesturing about her. “This cain’t be where y’all’re going if’n y’all are lookin’ to settle in. I mean, y’all seem like a smart enough man, so y’all’ve probably figured that out already.”
“The United States Army paid for a bus ticket back to Indiana, and this was a stop on the way home from New York City, where our ship docked. Hazard seemed nice enough, so I thought I’d stop over a few days and figure out what’s next for me.”
“New York City?!” she exclaimed excitedly. “You been to New York City?!” This was the first exciting thing to happen to her in probably forever. Exciting in every sense of that word.
“It makes sense, I suppose, that you’d stop here on your way and all.” It encouraged Lurline that the man seemed to have a plan. Or, more precisely, he had a plan to make a plan. But at least that was something—and more than she had. She knew it, and he suspected it to be true.
“So where is it y’all’s plannin’ on sleepin’?” she inquired, sensing an opportunity to please Mama B’ar and to benefit herself at once.
Dukes had considered making a sexual reference in response and wisely decided not to risk it—yet. “I would be much obliged if you could recommend a lodge or rooming house somewheres near here, Miss Biddle. Like I say, I’m new here.”
“We got some rooms upstairs here. You can rent one room, shared bathtub, outdoor privy, and you supply your own meals. Two dollars a day, $10 a week, two weeks up front. Right now, there ain’t nobody else up there, so you’ll pretty much have the run of the place ’til tourist season.”
Dukes suspected correctly that the ‘tourist season’ line was a throwaway intended to create urgency, but he wanted to impress the pretty girl who stood before him, so he withdrew his roughly used leather wallet from his rear pocket and drew out four five-dollar bills. “Let me go on ahead and pay up for two weeks. Would that be all right, Miss Biddle?”
Her soft blue eyes bucked in response to the money he had laid on the countertop. “Why, yes, Brute, it would. And, please, call me Lurline.”
# LURLINE AND BERNIE
# HAZARD, KENTUCKY
# Fall 1946
Their first outing had Lurline and Bernie taking in a picture at the only open theater in town. Bernie had got them admitted for free by wearing his uniform—tired and smelly though it was—on their date. Patriotism was still alive and well in America’s heartland, and far be it for Bernie to decline the kindness of patriotic strangers if being kind made them feel good. Still, Lurline wondered if this man had a suit like a gentleman, or was he a bit of a bum? He spent money on her, so it contented her for the moment.
Within ten minutes of the movie starting, Bernie was holding Lurline’s hand. Within the first half-hour, he and she were kissing and heavy petting, and not paying any attention to John Garfield or Lana Turner, as riveting as they were on the large, worn screen. By the time the credits were rolling on the film, Bernie had worked Lurline into a lather and pulled his hands out from under her skirt just before the lights came back up. She was in love, and Bernie had found a situation he could work with. So, they went on dates in public, and also met up in private to “finish up.”
Lurline was careful about making the tall stranger not only wear a French letter—which devices he had amassed plenty of in the Army—but also to pull out right before his stuff came out “just in case.” It worked to prevent her from becoming pregnant, and it kept away diseases. But it did nothing to keep them from being discovered and Mama going berserk.
On Sunday, three weeks after Dukes had first wandered into their store, Mama came back home earlier than expected and found Lurline and Bernie jay-bird naked, committing fornication on the Good Lord’s day of rest—and on Lurline’s great grandmother’s handmade quilt. Mama’s angry words and her double-barreled shotgun once and for all ushered Bernard T. Dukes out of her home, her rooming house, and her life. She allowed Lurline to remain for just a week longer, meanwhile undertaking to call her daughter every unsavory epithet she could think of, and treating her like an unredeemable, forever fallen woman.
After taking this torment for a week, during which she pined for her new man and then planned her own escape, Mama B’ar reopened the wound of Lulu’s molestation at the hands of her father, and essentially blamed Lurline for what Daddy had done to her on the nights when Mama went to bingo over at the church. So Lurline had had enough.
When Mama said, out of her own snaggle-toothed mouth, that if Lurline hadn’t led Luthifer on by “always prancing around like a dumb whore,” Lurline saw clearly that there was no further value in a relationship with Mama B’ar Biddle. Some horrible things, once said out loud, can never be taken back, and even though Lurline ultimately had instigated the physical encounters with her father, she never accepted that she alone was to blame.
She went to Mama’s old, fat, ceramic Negro cook cookie jar—the one with the cracked lid—and withdrew $200 from the bank of Mama B’ar. Hastily drafting a “goodbye forever” missive, placing it where the stack of cash had been, and walking over to meet her man at the open-air Greyhound Bus stop became the first and most important steps in the rest of her life. Bernie had told her that the bus would depart that stop promptly at 3:02 p.m., and that if they weren’t already there and waiting with their luggage, the driver probably wouldn’t even stop. She would be there, or she would be nowhere.
Lurline and the Brute were on their way into a new phase of their lives. They were Indiana-bound, going to a place Lurline hadn’t really ever considered before, let alone visited, but from which she would never return. She placed all of her faith in the hands of this man, expecting that he would always protect her and provide for her and that he would marry her and work while she stayed home and cared for their babies.
If circumstances had been any different, and if Mama B’ar hadn’t caught them in the act of “enjoying each other’s company,” Lurline would’ve made Bernie wait a day or two so that she could get Judge Carpenter there in Hazard to make them man and wife, but they needed to make a hasty escape, so the wedding would need to wait. Life outside of Perry County, Kentucky was ahead of them, so far be it for her to be rude and make it wait any longer than necessary.
Bernard T. Dukes the Third wasn’t perfect by any means, but Lurline believed she could love him into being a better man than he was inclined to be. Or die trying, she thought. At that, she smiled, and he asked her why.
“Oh, just thinkin’ about you, Baby.”
About Steven E. Savage
Steven E. Savage lives just outside of Dallas, Texas. An accomplished novelist, television writer, and screenwriter, Steve’s writing generally draws upon either his experiences as a former criminal defense attorney, his life as a U.S. Marine in a former life, or his love of literature—particularly Southern Gothic.