Now this happened a few years back, back before all that business with the hurricane and long before anybody thought we'd ever have a black man in the White House. I was workin' for Big Daddy Peck, who had half of Pike County in his pocket. It was the sort of job where you'd wear a monkey suit and it's all yes sir, no sir, I'm your best friend, sir, which route to the golf club would you like this week, sir? Ninety percent of it was listening like you gave a shit. I maybe drove five miles a week and made some decent bank doing it. For forty thousand a year when you were fresh from the swamps, even the worst conversation sounds like scripture.
Peck's family was old money, baked into the clay of the earth along with all the other old things in the South: Indian ruins and old bones and slavery. You didn't have to dig too far under the skin with Peck and his folk to find the old aristrocracy—scratch Peck and he bled plantation.
His family was nothing but politicians and judges, sawdust senators and tenured professors. He had a way of looking at things around him like he was floating above it all. He could make a friendly clap on the back feel like he was reaching down from the sky to give you the blessing of the Almighty. If he wanted anything out of you, he'd make you feel like a million bucks and when you got in his way, he would crush you and yours like you were an anthill beneath his heel.
Now Peck had aspirations. He wanted to get up in the government. He knew all the right people and he was savvy enough to know what notes to play in public: he went to church every week and his motto was "do no charity unless sufficient cameras were nearby."
So he set out to reinvent himself, I guess. He had a problem, you see. Nobody trusts a politician who's single. You look at a man running for office and he doesn't have a smiling wife in the background, you wonder what's wrong with him. A man who can't build or take care of a family isn't a man you'd trust running your county road commission, let alone a town or a state.
And Peck was newly single. His old wife, a clean young lady I got along with just fine, had discovered Marxism in college. Filled with strange new ideas about self-empowerment and the importance of class struggle, she left him, taking a negotiated quarter of his net worth as she marched purposefully out his door.
This was a conundrum to our senator-to-be. He needed a lady to hang on his elbow and support his platform, nod at all the right parts during press conferences and make a great showing at all the tea parties with all the other prospective first ladies. She'd have to look neat and fine dressed up, but be just down enough to earth that Joe Sixpack and his best girl Lady Franzia would feel right about voting for them.
For an up-and-coming politician, marrying is every bit as important as building up a business partnership. Marry wrong and who knows what will happen to your career?
In typical fashion, Big Daddy Peck went to work with all the romance of a Walmart shopper buying socks. And as his driver, I watched it all, commiserated with him during each and every one of his failures.
He tried tapping his social circle for prospects. It worked out about as well as you might expect: the daughters of the local aristrocracy were either not photogenic enough or were too salty and backwoods. The best prospect looked fine on film, but had a lisp and had been seen dating the local Grand Dragon. The second best prospect was educated and a pillar of the local religious community but had IBS and hay fever half the year. Beyond that point, quality took a bit of a nose-dive and he began using online dating sites. We'll skip those ones.
The problem was, no matter who he went out with, there'd always be something wrong with them. This woman had cross eyes, that one was too old. Another one, who initially looked fine, turned out to be a Libertarian. That one had terrible fashion sense. Another had facial piercings and liked Adolf Hitler a bit too much.
The last one, before he finally broke down and asked me for help, was an atheist and had family up north. No self-respecting Mississippi politician could be seen in the company of people who can't stand eating boiled peanuts and call Coke "soda pop." It wouldn't be English.
So he comes to me and asks my opinion. I couldn't tell him much. With me, the girls come and they go—mostly go, to be honest—and I didn't bother myself much with it beyond that. I told him I could introduce him to someone that could, though: my grandma 'Retta.
Old 'Retta was a piece of work, bless her heart. Nobody knows when she was born, only that she'd been busy dying since before Carter was a thing. She was ninety pounds on a humid day, more piss and vinegar than actual physical presence. On the hottest day of the year, she'd still sit on her porch, wrapped in her old cardigan, rocking away. She had a look in her eye so sharp, though, you'd always treat her with the highest respect, more out of fear she'd cut you off at the knees than anything else. She could compress a century of daggers into one glance.
She was from a town way back in the swamps called Pellar, which you've probably never heard of. It's the sort of place you'll never find unless you know someone who's been there and anybody who's not in Pellar isn't in a hurry to go back to Pellar. It's the sort of place that's so loosely organized, you count the population as whoever's currently living within earshot of the one bar. There's one street there and it leads out of town.
She had a reputation as a magic worker, what outsiders call "hoodoo". I don't know anything about that, but she could make things happen. At the very least, if you needed advice, she'd be the one you'd go to. You might not like what she said, but it was always right.
I told Peck about it and he was desperate enough to go along with it. I think he thought all of his servants—at least the ones with enough melanin in their skin—were secretly voodoo wizards or something. Me, I just threw the line out there and wondered what would happen if he bit.
We went up north and east a ways. Out past where the highway crumbles into gravel, and gravel turns into rut. Then we turned left and went into the swamp and that's when the roads got really bad. We found 'Retta rocking away on her porch on one of those humid spring days where the air's so damp it's like the sky and the bayou have traded places.
She listened to his story without much expression at all, just rocking away on the porch, staring off across the lawn to where the cypress trees began to grow, stroking her tabby without any regard for the cat's actual comfort. Finally, the cat left, hackles up, and she stopped rocking. She motioned for Big Daddy Peck to get close and she told him this:
"You need a test, boy? I can give you a test."
And she reached beside her to the table of powders and things she kept within reach and she mixed something for him. I didn't look too closely at what she added in there, but Peck did, and his facial expression began to darken. In spite of all his flaws, he was a religious man, by creed if not by action, and he had opinions about witchcraft.
And then Grandma 'Retta said the Lord's prayer over what she'd mixed up, bowed her head and, with quick and precise motions, folded up the packet. Peck's expression cleared and he began to look eager but puzzled. Typical southern Bible-thumper, I thought: won't look at any hoodoo, but slap enough crosses on it all and they eat it up with a spoon. One moment they're all brimstone, damnation and hellfire, the next they're handling snakes and chanting with the rest of us.
She handed him the pouch and told him "Now, here's your test. Any lady who can drink this without making a face can handle anything politics can throw their way."
Peck took the package, tucking it into his white-breasted suit. And we left.
On the way back, he was beside himself. He gave me a raise and called my grandma a backwoods genius—in those words exactly, even though if 'Retta were in earshot, she'd probably smack him one across the jaw for being condescending.
A few days later, Peck had a date, a young lady he'd met from E-Harmony, of all places. She'd taken a bus into town and Peck had me drive the limo over to pick her up.
It was shaping up to be a hell of a night, if only on a meteorological level: the sky had that bubbled green look to it which usually heralds the worst storms. There was an ozone tang to the wind which didn't bode well for outdoor activities or anything much besides hiding inside behind locked storm windows. As we drove back to the clubhouse, I could hear, even over the blues I had on the radio, distant thunder.
By the time we pulled into the clubhouse's parking lot, I had a good feel for his date. Alesha Jenkins. Rail thin and with muscles like piano wire. Curves in all the places a girl that thin could have curves. Hair like a basket of corn, eyes washed pale blue like an old pair of denim jeans. Her voice was rich and vibrant and she had a listless energy to her like a breeze passing through a field of sorghum.
And that was all she had, sadly. Saying she was dumber than a bag of hair would have been an insult to bags and to hair. She had opinions about all the things that didn't matter and wasn't shy about saying them. She spent one half of the drive chewing bubble gum and the other half punching out texts on her low-rent flip-phone. After a while, I raised the barrier behind my seat just to give myself some peace. Even Peck's smile was somewhat strained and he was the sort of person who'd eat a shit pie on a dare if the pay-off was a girl half this pretty. This girl was dumb as a brick and half as square, and that's a fact.
When we got there, Peck motioned me inside with him. We'd had this drill before—if the date's going south, he finds the woman not sufficient for his political aspirations, he'd make a sign and I'd suddenly get a phone call from the office, cutting the proceedings short, no muss no fuss. I had a feeling I'd be getting that phone call soon.
The club was the sort of dark wood and polished brass kind of place where a judge could brood over the day's proceedings with a dram of fine Scotch and a Cuban cigar. It smelled smoky and complicated, a place where a century of local aristocracy had fled to hide from the changes and travails of the twentieth century and some of it had seeped into the wood. I thought it smelled like shit in there, but Peck liked it just fine.
He ordered drinks for himself and his date: some Pappy VanWinkle on the rocks for himself and for Alesha? He had something new he'd like her to try. And he slipped off to the bar, ordered some soda water and stirred in 'Retta's powder.
Whatever it was, it mixed together dark and clean. Alesha sniffed at it, popped her chewing gum out, stowed it beneath the table and then downed one good swallow and all without making a face. She put on the kind of smile Miss America might make stepping on a dog turd while on camera, began to say something and then slumped forward, the only thing stopping her forehead from hitting the table her right hand, which was conveniently in the way.
I was a little worried there, that my grandma had given Big Daddy some kind of crazy swamp roofie, but Alesha rallied soon enough. She straightened up and then smiled a genuine smile. She stood up, a little clumsily, smoothed out her tight dress and said "Why, I do believe I've been making an ass out of myself the entire night. That was just what I needed, Mr. Peck. Would you care to dance?"
Peck watched the whole thing with fascination and then shrugged and took her hand. As they walked off to an open part of the floor in a place where nobody had danced in decades, she shot me a look over one shoulder. It was piercing and slightly mocking and far too old for the rest of her.
The next morning, I found Grandma 'Retta had passed away. The funeral was one of those quiet affairs. Hundreds of folks stopped by, but there was little noise. Local folk in their finest, swamp folk in whatever they had was clean, policemen and fishermen, farmers and lawyers. Everyone in that part of the county dropped in to send her off. I paid my respects, kissed Old 'Retta on the cheek one last time but didn't bide for too long: there was something off about her facial expression there in the coffin, something uncharacteristic. Perhaps a touch of fear, even, like what had happened was horrible and she had just gotten an awful surprise. Maybe she'd died, even, before she found out what it was.
Half a year passed. I'd left my job in favor of starting my own limo service. Alesha and Big Daddy Peck married. I wasn't invited to their wedding. Last I heard, he was busy running for office way out west, in some parish on the far side of Louisiana and no doubt, Alesha stood behind him the entire time.
And that was a true story, bless their hearts.