“If those blooms are any indication, you're going to be running hard for the county pumpkin title this year,” said Peetie Womac, patting Hooter on the back as he surveyed the velvety yellow-orange blossoms bursting with promise.
Lonnie Johnson stared at them, too, and fired a jet stream of Mail Pouch right in the center of one of them. “No disrespect, Hooter, but it's still the sickest thing I ever heard of. It just ain't right.”
Hooter just gazed lovingly at his pumpkin patch, never changing expressions. “What would have been wrong is if Norvis and the board would have said I couldn't do it. This is my land. It always bothered me it was just setting idle.”
The ground in question consisted of three adjoining plots in the Victory Hill Cemetery, just north of Apache Flats. There was enough room in the quarter section allocated to the cemetery to bury everyone who had ever heard of Apache Flats, much less lived there or ever would. Like most locals, Hooter had been gifted his own plot—suitable for a family of four—at a young age by a well-meaning relative. The other two he bought at auction a few years back when the cemetery board needed to come up with some extra cash for maintenance. Hooter was happy with the fire-sale price but it grated on him to own ground he couldn't even graze.
Finally, it occurred to Hooter that the sandy ground at the cemetery and the amount he owned was the perfect mix for growing pumpkins. Following an expectedly contentious meeting, the cemetery board reckoned there were no regulations preventing it, though they would write some for any future questions. They instructed the caretaker, Norvis Underwood to let Hooter sow his pumpkins. “Next thing you know, he's gonna want to string Christmas lights,” Norvis had grumbled.
All told, Hooter's plan made sense to some but offended others, like Lonnie, to the core.
“It ain't like they're bothering anybody,” said Hooter. “Besides they add some color. Except for Decoration Day, it doesn't seem like folks get out here very often.”
So it was that the trio was lost in reflections of the dearly departed when the two-way in Lonnie's feed truck bellowed: “Come quick! There's been an accident at Nelda Isselfrick's.”
Hooter dropped his watering can and dove onto the flatbed, while Lonnie and Peetie commandeered the cab. Hooter couldn't help but notice that the grass and gravel Lonnie's spinning tires sprayed against a few nearby tombstones didn't seem all that respectful. He'd remind Lonnie of it next time something came up about his pumpkins.
A Little Mindless Carnage
When they got to Nelda's, she was drifting aimlessly in her porch swing, head buried between her hands in grief, surrounded by several supportive neighbors and friends.
Claud Burkhart, Apache Flats' voluntary police chief—actually coerced by means of the annual official drawing of the municipal straws—was down on all fours examining what appeared to the remains of Nelda's prize-winning flower garden. Shreds of color from what had been roses, wisteria, iris and crepe myrtle dotted the manicured lawn like confetti scattered by a New Year's Eve drunk.
“Boy's,” said Claud, “Looks like we've had a drive-by weed whacking in broad daylight.”
“They weren't weeds,” shrieked Nelda. “Would you please quit saying that.”
“I'm sorry. You know what I mean. Your flowers were apparently, well, they seem to have been weed whacked. Not that they were weeds, but they were whacked like they were.”
Anywhere else, such vandalism might not draw such a crowd. But all those gathered knew mutilating Nelda's flowers was akin to ransacking her house.
“I'd just gone inside for dinner,” sobbed Nelda. “I couldn't have been there more than 20 minutes. I never heard anything.”
“Don't that beat all,” said Claud. “Never heard anything? We all know about her ears.”
Indeed, every male in attendance, at one time or another in their youth, had been done in by Nelda's ability to not only hear someone riding a vehicle or steed down the street, but her ability to match stealthy late-night sounds to their owner. That followed by a quick and angry phone call to the respective parents about children allowed to run wild had made her anything but popular with kids.
“Yeah,” said Lonnie. “You figure, either she's lying, or it had to be someone with a silencer.”
Hooter was stifling a giggle. “Yeah, Lonnie, that's the ticket. A weed whacker with a silencer, or maybe it was one of those garden Ninjas. Put out an all points bulletin for anyone carrying a gas can and 2-cycle oil, armed and dangerous.”
“Hush,” said Claud. “I know how all this sounds, but this is serious. Who'd do such a thing? It's obviously someone who knows her, someone was trying to make a statement.”
“That's right, boys,” said Lonnie. He puckered up to spit, but saw Nelda glaring at him, thought better of it and just swallowed with a mighty gulp. “We best call around, see if anybody else has had any trouble.”
Before he could wander off, Nelda stood up and crossed her arms in defiance. “Hooter McCormick. You come here this instant and tell me where you're Aunt Pinky's at. This is just the kind of meanness she'd be mixed up in.”
“Unless she got a better offer she ought to be on her way back from Lubbock,” smiled Hooter. “She left at daybreak to go get her eyes checked.”
“Well, Claud, I'd definitely question her if I was you,” sniffed Nelda.
On the one hand, what Nelda inferred made sense from the standpoint that her and Pinky's legendary rivalry extended to all things including flower gardens. One year Pinky would add a magnolia tree that folks said couldn't be grown in these parts. The next Nelda would rip out a row of petunias and plant mock oranges in their place. On and on it went, each one growing a lush variety of flower's that would have made Martha Stewart look like nothing more than the dandelion queen; a knowing and silent victory all that mattered.
On the other hand, the only person Hooter knew who took her flowers as personally as Nelda was Aunt Pinky. He couldn't see her resorting to destruction, no matter how much she might dislike Nelda.
“Looks like you might be able to question Pinky yourself,” said Lonnie, eyeballing the boiling cloud of dust that had begun just south of town.
The Misery of Company
Aunt Pinky left half the rubber on her tires sitting in the street as she reeled her candy-apple red Lincoln to a squealing stop at Nelda's curb. She popped out of the door with her jaw set, eyes flashing, and her favorite purse windmilling like a buzz saw.
“Nelda Isselfrick,” announced Pinky, oblivious to the bystanders, “You cross-eyed, grizzle-chinned witch, prepare to meet your maker.”
Hooter and Lonnie jumped in to keep Pinky away from Nelda, feeling the sting of the Conchos on her purse and the lash of her tongue.
“You let me go, boys. Let me go, I say! I leave for a half-day and this conniving skunk of a woman comes and rips up my flowers. Didn't even rip them up. I don't know what she did, but they're everywhere, what's left of them. Carnage is what it is. Even that hail storm in '53 didn't do the damage that she's done.”
Nelda had picked up a sharpshooter spade to defend herself. She had it raised over her head, meaning to cold-cock Pinky when Claud and Peetie got her in an arm lock.
“You crazy old walrus,” shouted Nelda. “Don't you even have sense enough to look past that overgrown clown nose of yours? Somebody got my flowers, too. I thought it was you.”
“Oh, Nelda, you don't mean it,” said Pinky in sincere concern, finally looking around. “Not the new coral verbena, too?”
Nelda bit her lip as she nodded. “And you, did they get your salmon bleeding heart?”
To everyone's utter amazement, the two rivals wrapped their arms around each other and sobbed in commiseration.
“Go figure,” said Hooter to no one in particular.
The victims looked up in unison with scolding eyes and one voice: “You find whoever did this, you find them before the sun goes down and you bring them to us.”
“Well, ahhh, now,” stammered Claud. “We'll do our best. But even if we do find them that quick, there has to be due process. We can't just turn them over…”
“You do as we say, young man, or your parents might learn some very interesting information about a certain son who took a certain trip to Mexico when he was a senior in high school.”
Claud looked stricken. He just nodded his eyes and headed for the car.
As the town's matriarchs consoled one another, Hooter was shaken by a horrific thought that hit him like a lightening bolt in a tin can: “My pumpkins!”
To be continued…