Note: This column originally printed on April 19 but is being reprinted due to an printing error that omitted the first portion. We apologize for the error.
On Saturday nights before we got girlfriends, I would meet James Griffin at his daddy’s store when he got off around 8 p.m. Then we’d go hang around the streets of Polkton. Sometimes, we would gather over near the shirt factory in front of the section that had once housed Gene Godwin’s store. Other times, we would congregate near the soda shop across the street — run by James and Eunice Staton, who would sell you fountain cherry Cokes, peanuts and comic books in the daytime.
At night, four or five of us hung out around the phone booth beside that “drug store” to see who would call. Most of the time it was this same girl, who jacked her jaw at anyone who picked up. She’d quit around 9 p.m. After that, the evening was not so predictable, so mostly we watched the cars coming by and waved or hollered as appropriate.
The most exciting thing I remember took place on one of those Saturday nights. Four or five of us were standing at the end of the shirt factory block, in front of the section that had once housed Mr. Lum Harrington’s store. It was getting close to midnight, when a car pulled up and parked. I don’t remember the car, the driver, or where they came in from. Although I do remember the names of the two passengers, I have not used them in this story.
The little one I’ll call Big Lip, because he worked some and talked a lot.
The taller one I’ll call Feets. He had a regular job, but when the Eagle flew on Friday, Feets headed off for fun on the dance floor, where he excelled with the body parts that gave him his name.
The encounter between these two must have started in the car, because as soon as they hit the street, we heard Big Lip mouthing at Feets. Although I don’t remember what was said first, I do know what was said last. That was when Big Lip called Feets the son of a dog’s mama — but not in exactly those words.
Now, Feets didn’t mind Big Lip’s cussing him, but he wasn’t going to have a dried-up little piece of compost talking bad about his mama. So he said, “If you don’t quit cussin’ my mama, I’m going to kick your______.”
Well, Lip didn’t — so Feets did. But he didn’t hit Big Lip where he said he was, or even in the mouth. He just walked up to him and whopped him up above his ear with his fist.
As Big Lip went down, he quit talking. After he came back to his senses, he started talking again.
“I can beat Feets with one hand tied behind my back,” he explained. “But I’m just going to sit here on the blacktop for a while.”
After he rested a while, he said, “I could beat him up right now if I wanted to, but I’m going to let him rest up a little bit before I lower the boom.”
I don’t know how long Big Lip stayed there on the pavement. But with the show over, and the vanquished still talking, the rest of us left for home. By Monday, the fight was being called the shortest fight in Polkton history: “Only two licks were passed. Feets hit Big Lip, and Big Lip hit the street.”
The shortest fight in Polkton history had not been Big Lip’s finest hour — that hour occurred some years before.
It was in the fall, on registration day for Miss Myra Lockhart’s seventh-grade class. Having reached the age of emancipation, her hold-overs came by to say they would not endure the seventh grade for a second or third time. To graduate was no longer in view, but to quitu-ate was.
Before Big Lip left the classroom for the last time, he came over to the big windows where James and I were longing for the free world along the Ansonville road. One quitu-ator had been trying to scare us to death with stories about Miss Myra.
“That old woman’s going to kill YOU,” he laughed.
“That’s a lie!” Big Lip observed.
“You ain’t dead are you?”
“No,” the other boy said. Then he stroked his smooth chin with thumb and index.
“Lip, are you calling me a lie?” he wondered as he slapped his fist against his open palm.
Big Lip turned his palms to the ceiling, and shrugged his shoulders. Some of the other first-timers began to pay attention. This could turn into a fight.
“’Cause I ain’t never told a lie,” the agitator said, punctuating his words with slaps of his fist.
Big Lip was not intimidated in the least. “You told one just then,” he shot back.
When those words sunk in, the whole class laughed and laughed; even Big Lip and the Liar joined in. That laughter broke the tension just in time, because Miss Miss Myra walked into the room and all bricka-bracka ceased.
As the quit-uators gave her their tidings and departed, and we answered the roll for the seventh grade, I kept thinking about what Big Lip said. I knew that to tell the truth is noble, and that a stable society depends on doing so. But I had never heard lying condemned so quickly and so well. The words made me realize that I, too, fell under Big Lip’s condemnation. It was his finest hour.
After I graduated, I remembered his words, but I forgot about Big Lip himself. The situation didn’t change after I moved away, but when I moved nearby 28 years later, he came to mind again. Big Lip was nowhere to be found. I asked around about him and learned that Big Lip had disappeared some 10 years after the two-lick fight. When folks realized he was truly missing, they formed a search party. The party found him lying dead just east of Polkton, in a field by the railroad tracks. He had not been run over by a train.
I never learned what really happened to him. But had already learned, and will not forget, the words spoken in Big Lip’s finest hour.
I’m sorry he’s gone.
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.