Long before we ever lived in it, our little shotgun house sat behind Grandpa’s homeplace. Daddy said he had it moved in the early ‘30s, when it had only three rooms: a bedroom, a small kitchen, and a hallway-sized dining room.
”Our cook lived in it when I was a boy,” Daddy said. ”She was good to me, made me fried apple pies.” He paused. “Mr. Sam Birmingham rolled the house up here on logs,” Daddy continued, “pulled it with two horses.”
Daddy and Mama ran off to Chesterfield and got married on Sept. 15, 1931. They kept their secret for a while, then set up housekeeping in that little house. A year or two after that, they had a little boy who went back to Heaven before they ever saw him. So Mama made collars at the shirt factory and Daddy worked in construction while they waited for more children.
By 1942, when I came along, Mama and Daddy had added a living room, with a beautiful set of French doors, which stood in stark contrast to the homemade boards which blocked the entrance to the bedroom. The room also had a fireplace with a wood stove and a mantelpiece. This was the same mantelpiece I wrote about some time ago, which became the surface I used to write my sister’s name on in first-grade pencil, at a time before my sister learned to write.
Mama read to us in that living room, Reba on her lap, Olive and I seated beside her. We wore the cover off “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible,” the book which inspired me to change my name. The one my parents gave me was Leonidas Constantine Smith III, a name I eventually accepted as noble, but at that time considered it to be too heavy for a little kid to bear. The load was lightened by an abbreviation I answered to, but I did not like Leon very much either; who ever heard of a famous man named “Leon?”
So, about the fifth time Mama read us the story of David, I decided to change my name. From a child I was cautioned not to mess with my family name, because I was the only one left to keep our branch of Smiths alive. But my parents never said a word about my given name.
On the day I made my decision, I did not tell my parents; I did not retain Mr. Enos Edwards to file a request with a judge; I did not fill out any paperwork. But I resolved to answer only to “David,” and so, as far as I was concerned, the fait was accompli. Here’s how Mama got the news.
One day, I crawled to my hiding place through the triangular hole made by the wooden stringer on the left side of the front-porch steps. Most of the time I had the good sense not to stay under the house long enough to be discovered. But that day I stayed too long.
I heard the screen door open and slam shut, then the call: “Leon.” I wanted to answer, but I did not want to give away my hiding place. Mama kept calling. I kept quiet.
I could not tell when she really meant for me to answer, the way Boznocker could when his mother called him. If Jimmy was off the reservation when he should have been home, the first call he would hear was “Jimmy.” When he was knocking around our house, Boz never answered his mother the first time she called. But when “Jimmy” turned into “James Herbert,” Boz got ready, and when he heard “James Herbert Boswell,” he struck out for home. Mama was at a disadvantage, because it was hard to make an imperative out of “Leon” and “Leonidas Constantine.”
But about the fifth time she called out “Leon,” I heard her say, “I need you to answer me.”
“My name’s not Leon,” I said softly.
“Leon?” she said with a sigh.
“Mama, my name’s not Leon.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m under the house.”
“Come out, Leon,” she sighed. “You nearly scared me to death.”
“I can’t mama. That’s not my name.”
“What is your name?”
“I don’t know.”
“The one in the Bible Story book.”
“All right,” she sighed. “Come out … David.”
“Yes Ma’am,” I said, and wriggled out.
She hugged me, and was wise enough to humor me, calling me “David” until I thought better of my decision and asked to return to my given name.
When I was older, I explored the space under the house by bending over and walking under the high north side. I saw the pillars that looked like stacked-up concrete blocks under the front of the house. But at the back, where the house was low, I couldn’t see any pillars at all. Outside, I did notice some 8×10 timbers left over after Mr. Theo Wright finished the new room in 1948. Daddy said the timbers were sills. I think Daddy planned to have someone place them under the low end of the house. But he never got around to doing so.
If the sills had been disappeared under the house, we couldn’t have used them as our jungle gym, where we climbed, ran back and forth, jumped up and down and on and off, then ran around and repeated the process. One day, my sister saw a plant growing near the west end of the sills.
“It looks like a cumber,” I said.
When we brought Daddy to see our discovery, he said, “That’s not a cucumber. We’ve got us a watermelon.”
“How’d it get here?” we asked.
“It’s a volunteer.”
“What’s a vol…un…teer?” we asked.
“’Volunteer’ means we didn’t plant it,” he said. “It just grew up by itself.”
“Where’d the seed come from?” we asked.
“We must have dropped it when we ate watermelon last year. It stayed in the ground all winter, then sprouted when it got warm.”
From then, we kept a close eye on our watermelon.
Next time we took Daddy to see it, he smiled and said “It’s going to be a … whopper.”
Sure enough, before long, the whopper had grown longer and fatter than a cucumber. When it reached the size of a football it really took off. I think we may have even laid sticks on the ground to see how much it grew. One day I tried to pick up one end of it, but it was too heavy. That evening, Daddy came out and thumped the whopper. It made a clunking sound.
“It’s time to cut it,” he said.
“Can we just let it grow and grow, Daddy?” we asked.
It’ll just rot if we don’t eat it,” Daddy said. “God gave us this whopper to eat.”
“I tell you,” he said. “We’ll come out and thank the whopper before we cut it.”
So we did, and then felt better about cutting whopper loose.
Daddy cut the vine with his pocket knife, leaving just a little pigtail of a stem on the whopper. Then, Mama brought some pages from the Observer and placed them on the picnic sills. Daddy hefted the melon onto the sills, saying it must have weighed 40 pounds.
Mama handed him the kitchen knife. “Y’all listen,” he smiled. “If it cracks, it’s a good ‘un.”
When he cut it, Whopper went “cra-a-a-a-ak. ” Daddy pulled it open like a book.
“Give us some, give us some,” we chanted.
Daddy laid the two halves side by side on the newspaper and cut a thin slice from the melon’s heart for each of us. It was the reddest, sweetest, juiciest watermelon I’ve tasted, before or since. Then he cut one half into wedges, and then halved each of them. Then cut the wedges in half for us. We ate and ate and ate. “We love whopper,” we said.
“You sure do. You young’uns got more on you than you got in you,” he laughed.
“Let’s put all our seeds on this paper, “Daddy said when we finished. “We’ll leave them on the ground and see if we get another whopper next year.”
When watermelon time came, we watched the whopper spot, but we never saw another melon sprout in the whopper’s place. I guess that kind of grace comes only once it a while, to make it special.
I had more than my share of special graces in my very first space for living, maybe that is the reason that, to me, has become a living space.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.