The Play For Phronie

Daryl Gay | December 4, 2019

So what would YOU get him? For Christmas, I mean. For months, I’d wracked my gourd trying to come up with the perfect gift. However, hermits being hermits, there just ain’t a whole lot of wants and needs in their world.

And Jake was the hermit-est of them all: what he couldn’t parlay, he’d pilfer. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it ain’t like he robbed banks and such. But if he’d’a set his mind to it, he likely coulda sweet-talked the guard into opening the vault and helping him tote out the loot.

Assuming, of course, that said sentry wasn’t overwhelmed by a couple decades of BO.

On that subject, one of the highlights of my young life came, best I recollect, right around the turn of the century. It was the year Phronie Peters moved to town with her pa Mordecai.

Mordecai, aka the Chicken Man.

I was out following Pa’s pointer, Belle, one brisk morning, attempting to flush lunch. Off a couple hundred yards came a clatter of banging—and it weren’t no shotgun. Hammer, it was, and a busy one at that. But there ain’t no folks out this way…

“You gonna kill us some quails or watch a building go up?”

My reverie snapped, the thought occurred that while it was fairly easy and common for Jake to sneak up on me, bypassing Belle was quite a rare feat. Guess he swamped her sniffer.

“What’s all that racket, Jake?”

“Chicken houses. Mordecai Peters.  Gotta dau’ter named Phronie. I’m’a’thankin’ a’marryin’ her.”

“You’re a’thankin’ a’marryin’ every female above the age of 18 who ever stepped foot in the county, and it’s nearly got you shot or hung on about 19 different occasions. What makes Phronie different and who would ever be mean enough to hang a monicker like that on a girl?”

“When you see her you’ll know. And Mordecai.”

Simple enough answers.

“She beautiful, like all the rest?”

“Looks like yer Pap going to town Satdy.”

Confusion was standard fare for any discussion with the hermit, but this…

He knew he had me, and shone all two teeth replying: “Looks like a mule team from the front and a buckboard from behind!”

OK. So maybe “Phronie” fits.

“You tried to court her yet?”

“Well, that’s kinda what I wanted to talk to you about. I ain’t seemed to had much luck lately… (more like half a half-century, I thought) and need a mite of advice.”

“First thing, take a bath. Second, change clothes. Third, trim 4 feet off the beard.”

Baleful. Yep. That’s the look I got in response.

“You got a mean streak in you, boy. Yer pap is a Hooks, and he’s the best folks I ever knowed. But yer little Ma was a McCrackin, and  her brothers run me through these hollers more’n once, threatenin’ just like you: they was gonna give me a bath! Yore McCrackin’s shining right through.”

“Might be. But it’s like this: no bath, no Phronie. By the way, that chicken house is a monstrosity; Ol’ Mordecai must have a million chickens.”

“Nope. I counted ’em.”

“Ain’t no way, Jake. If you’re so smart, what did you come up with?”

“Exactly a grand total accumulation of… TOO MANY! But I been trying to help him with that problem.”

“So you purloin his poultry plus pursue Phronie? Sounds like a plan. 

“Look, I’m heading home for a three-pack of Octagon soap and will meet you at the creek in an hour. I gave you those brogans for Christmas four years ago, and they ain’t never left your feet. Take em off when you get there, and I’ll come in from upwind.”

“I gotta?”

“Just think of Phronie, Jake. And all them free chickens.”

Sliding in just long enough to hawk soap, shrubbery shears and a pair of my own overalls passable for courtship, I raced back to eventually witness a sight I thought never to see: Jake soaped and up to his neck in creekwater!

(Which we somehow forgot to mention to the EPA…)

An hour later, shiny, shorn and shoed, he set off toward yet another quest of the love of his life.

Or at least somebody to whack the hide off squirrels and rabbits, clean fish, cook and split firewood…

Looking back, I’m glad I never got to meet Phronie Peters.

I saw Mordecai at the hearing, during which I testified as a character witness that, “Yes, Jake is quite a character, but no, he would never assault a woman.”

Besides, it was he who was assaulted, and in rare fine fashion. Within a minute of proposing, Phronie had tossed him around that construction site like a sack of wheat and nearly stomped him into flour with her own brogans. Fortunately, she ain’t real quick on her feet and Jake eventually managed to outdistance her.

The judge—who HAD met Phronie—was quick to agree with my assessment and dismissed the charge. Mordecai was so mad he packed up Phronie and his chickens and moved north to Macon.

I saw Jake later at his shack, and he was fairly tore down about the loss. Of chickens.

And that’s when it struck me!

So when Christmas morn dawns, the old hermit will awake to his special gift: Roosevelt the Rooster and his bride, Hermeline. A little upkeep and Ol’Jake will have eggs for life and his own passel of poultry cluckin’ round the shack every day. I, however, ain’t countin on it…    

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