JUST FOLKS

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Harlan Medlam had a necktie. He only wore it to weddings, funerals and that great special event that he and his wife, Florence, looked forward to each year, the rural electric cooperative association annual dinner and meeting.

Their strategy would be the same as always in the big auditorium with the white-paper-covered tables set end to end. And they loved the prizes given away at the end of the meetings, including three electric mixers alone that they had won over the years-one now in the kitchen and two in the storage room.

The time in between when they talked about business, such stuff as kilowatt-hours and election of officers, got dull. Harlan and Florence mostly cared about their personal business, but they were patient and persistent, and they were lucky. They had long ago learned that luck is patience and persistence.

“Anybody can be lucky if he works for it long enough,” said Harlan Medlam in that rare moment when he wanted to look wise before others, sticking his tongue against the inside of his old brown, weathered cheek, and tilting his head momentarily before speaking to give it emphasis.

The necktie had been a celebration of that insight. It was his lucky tie, purchased in the 1940s with the end of depression and the boom of war. A luminescent maroon with yellow polka dots that had set off his dark hair, he had bought it in one mad moment when the first time came that he had saved $500 to buy a certificate of deposit.

He and Florence had been lucky to survive, clawing their way through every situation for every advantage. They had let nothing that could move them ahead pass them by.

As the decades passed, and each six-month notice of interest gained on that CD came, Harlan would pause at the most protected spot in his closet, holding the bank letter to run the lucky tie through his fingers. The cord connected him to the harsh realities that had evolved into his current wealth.

He had a suit, too, a different-looking, old, dark, double-breasted thing his parents had bought for him as a wedding gift. Harlan had stayed uniformly thin. Waste not, want not-now that was a saying a person could tie his life to.

“We’re lucky tonight, Florence,” Harlan Medlam said, smiling as he knotted the lucky tie while Florence laid the fingertips of both hands on the front of her rose-flowered dress in a final shift before the mirror. “There’s just a light shower of fine ice crystals falling outside, nothing to cancel a meeting for, but enough to keep a few more folks at home. Don’t forget the sack.”

They got out of the old, black pickup truck in the blackest of nights with a chill north wind pushing the flaky crystals to enter an auditorium brightly lighted, and filled with the steady rumble of talk, coughs and laughs from the crowd filing to the tables.

On every table were the glasses of water, the coffee cups waiting to be filled, the bowls of carrots, celery and pickles and a slice of pie at each place.

“Wait for it, wait for it,” Florence whispered out of the side of her thin lips, patting the bun of white hair that hung on her neck, and nodding to people.

“Harlan, Florence, you two sure look nice all dolled up,” said Paul, eyes twinkling as he ushered his family passed them.

“You’re looking good too, Paul,” said Harlan. “We’re just waiting here a minute to see if they have plenty of room.”

“Sure you are, real nice of you, too.”

Finally Harlan nodded to Florence. “There we go, over at that last table,” he said. “There’s only a few people sitting at the front of it. Most of it’s empty, and nearly everybody’s sat down.”

Harlan Medlam, his gray-splattered dark hair shining in the auditorium lights, smiled in nearly open-mouthed mirth at the big slice of cherry pie in front of him. He rubbed the tip of his lucky tie between his forefinger and thumb. There was a slice of lemon pie at the empty space to his left, and at the empty chair across from him was blueberry pie. At the empty seat across from Florence there was a slice of peach pie.

The rural electric was mighty nice about spreading the different kinds of pie all around in case you and a neighbor wanted to trade, or, thought Harlan Medlam, eat different kinds if not enough people showed up.

“Here, what’s this?” hissed Harlan to his wife. An old man with thick, white hair combed back so it stuck up in a most unkempt way, wearing a jean jacket with big pockets was walking up the opposite aisle. He bobbed his big angular face at Harlan trying to smile in a most congenial way. “The old fool looks like he might try to cut in.”

The old man sat down across from Harlan, and began eating the piece of blueberry pie.

“Here, you’re not supposed to eat that until everybody’s eaten everything else,” Florence scolded.

“Can’t you see they’re just starting to serve the main course at the end of the table?” Harlan asked. “It isn’t seemly to eat dessert first, even though you’re tempting me to. That pie does look good.”

Harlan licked his lower lip glancing once at Florence for possible pie permission.

“Name’s Harkin, and I’m hungry,” said the old man.

Harlin Medlam opened one eye during the invocation prayer to look at his neighbor, only to see that Hungry Harkin had one eye open, too, looking back at him.

The caterers were setting the plates of roast beef, mashed potatoes and peas in front of them now. Ladies followed behind them offering to fill cups with coffee.

“Could you fill the coffee cup next to me, too?” asked Harkin. “That way you don’t have to come back so soon, and I’m fierce cold after being outside.”

He noisily slurped a cup of steaming coffee down in merely three gulps, and hurriedly chomped the rest of the meal without closing his mouth, occasionally emitting a noisy burp.

Florence raised herself in her seat and batted her eyes while frowning disapprovingly at Hungry Harkin. Harlan glanced at her trying to look disgusted too.

Harkin put carrots, celery and pickles on his plate, then opened a side jeans jacket pocket to dump the rest of the contents of the condiment plate into the pocket.

Florence opened her mouth in amazement and worry, widening her eyes as she looked at Harlan, who looked back at her with concerned lips drooping in a frown. “Get the sack out,” he said.

“But folks are just starting to eat their pie, and they haven’t even had the meeting yet,” she said.

“Yeah, but we need to be ready.”

Old Hungry Harkin scratched dog-like at one of his hairy, big ears sticking out from under the bush of hair as he reached over to scoot the peach pie across from Florence next to his plate. He started eating it.

Harlan looked protectively and meaningfully at the lemon pie at the empty space next to him, then stared at Harkin, who was sucking on his fingers.

“Did you folks get enough carrots, celery and pickles down there?” asked someone up the table beyond Florence.

“No, we could use some more,” Harlan said, looking around her to smile. When the plate came down, he dumped its contents into the paper bag between himself and Florence.

Hungry Harkin put both hands on the table, and stared at them like he might come up out of his seat.

An uneasy truce ensued as the officers of the electric association cooperative introduced themselves, and began to talk about the progress of the last year. Harlan stared at his own hand pulling guard duty in front of the slice of lemon pie, and Hungry Harkin sat with his arms folded looking at him.

Harlan Medlam couldn’t stay awake in meetings for long after a meal any more than he could working on his own farm. His head began to sag forward, his top denture drooped off the gum as he gasped, and drew in his first sonorous snore.

“The poor old dear works so hard,” Florence explained to the person at her elbow.

Hungry Harkin grinned and slowly began to slide his hand across the table.

“And now,” the speaker was saying, “I know these folks want to get onto the prize drawing. So if there is no further business, I will declare the official meeting adjourned.”

With that, Harkin seized the lemon pie.

“Aagh,” said Florence as Harlan Medlam came awake at her side reaching with a swift speed that belied his more than 80 years for the pie plate moving across the table. He grabbed the edge of the pie plate just as Hungry Harkin was raising it from the table.

There are those historic moments when the whole world seems to stand still as the telling event unfolds. People old enough remember where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man landed on the moon, perhaps when they received their first romantic kiss, and certainly when lemon pie first took flight.

It was a little bit that way for the Medlams and a few other people here and there during that pause awaiting the first-prize drawing when a piece of lemon pie raised two feet above the far end of the far table, curling end over end before landing on the knot of Harlan Medlam’s lucky tie, and sliding down its length onto his plate.

Prior to the announcement, those who would remember the lemon pie were either staring in disbelief or trying to look away.

“Harlan Medlam, come on up,” called the electric association spokesman up front. “Harlan Medlam, you must be one of the luckiest people I know. You seem to win a prize every year, and here you already have the third runner-up prize, an electric mixer for you plus another one for the friend of your choice.”

Harlan came forward still dabbing at the last of the lemon pie on his tie with his white handkerchief, and back leaving the extra gift mixer in Paul’s hands.

In the meantime, while Florence was politely clapping for Harlan with the rest of the crowd, Hungry Harkin had taken Harlan’s plate to scrape the remains of the lemon pie into his jacket pocket. Then he reached down the table for another piece of pie at a vacant spot.

The prizes over, the meeting over, the crowd was up to leave, visiting in a loud rumble as they made for the exits.

Harlan and Florence Medlam were hurrying down one side of the table putting slices of pie, carrots, celery and pickles in their sack while Hungry Harkin filled his pockets on the other side.

“You know,” said Harlan ruefully rubbing his stained lucky tie as they stood at the exit glaring at Hungry Harkin at another exit a door down. “Some people have no manners, no finesse at all when it comes to making a public display of their good fortune.”

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