Growing up in small town Alabama we enjoyed the freedom of running wild outside without worrying about murderers and kidnappers. There were no murderers except for the man across the street from our house who was crazy and would shoot squirrels with a .30 06 and eventually went to prison for shooting his wife one afternoon with a .45. And of course there was the lady down the street that ended up going to prison for hiring a hitman to knock off someone, the details are a little fuzzy since that happened before my time. Maybe it wasn’t as safe as I remember, but we certainly didn’t worry about anything as children. Besides that, we only ever played with Jared and Creed, the two neighbor kids down the street. And Bargain Town, the town drunk.
Perhaps you don’t know, but Bargain Town was a chain of dollar stores in central Alabama. I only remember the one in Childersburg, but I say chain to sound more prestigious. I don’t know who gave him the name Bargain Town, but it stuck. When my brother found out his name was Wayne Edwards and called him Mr. Edwards being respectful, Bargain Town got upset and retorted, “You ain’t gotta call me Mr. Edderds, son! Bargain Town, or just plain ole B.T. is good enough.” Bargain Town was perpetually inebriated. Zach once watched him trip over a sales receipt in the parking lot of the local grocery store where he bought his beer. I think he was about 6’3” if he ever stood up straight, but he was stooped over from the burden of a lifetime of poor decisions. He probably weighed 160 lbs even without a haircut, as his dark hair was usually a month late for an appointment with the barber. He always had a trucker hat, the kind with the foam front and mesh in the back. His eyes were beady and black and his skin looked like wrinkled leather, another testament of his hard living. He had a twitch in his face and his hands were very shaky from years of alcoholism. He was a faithful Milwaukee’s Best drinker and rolled his own cigarettes with Bugle Boy Tobacco. It was quite a scene to watch him roll a cigarette since he struggled so much with his shaky hands. He would bite his tongue to keep his face from shaking, and on a good day only spilled about half an ounce of tobacco. Bargain Town looked like a weather beaten scarecrow walking down the street always carrying a case of “Momma’s Best.” His gangling limbs were made all the more unwieldy, due to his extreme skinniness. He was a gaunt caricature to be sure, but harmless.
I first remember meeting Bargain Town in a game of hide and seek at Jared and Creed’s house. It was my turn to search for the other three boys when a voice came from across the road, “He’s over there behind ‘em bushes.” Startled, I whipped around to see who had spoken. There sat Bargain Town, Indian style drinking a can of beer. He was in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture. We were petrified of Tom Bell, who was about 85 years old and owned half of Vincent, and was half blind with age. Legend has it that he had boasted, “Vincent is as big as I want it to be.” I’m not sure why we were so afraid of Mr. Bell, probably because we thought he was going to catch us playing on his land, which we were all to guilty of doing, it being a shortcut to the river and all. This fear was only exacerbated by the fact the Mr. Bell had nearly killed Jared with his ancient Ford truck one day when Jared burst out of the woods on a bicycle. Fortunately Jared got away with only a broken arm. The fact that Bargain Town was sitting in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture so casually, in broad daylight made him an instant hero in my eight year old mind. Here was a man who was immune to the crippling fear of Mr. Tom Bell. Bargain Town flippantly tossed his empty beer can into Mr. Bell’s pasture, stood up, took what seemed like two steps to the fence that stood about five yards away, and throwing his leg in front of him stepped over the decrepit barbed wire fence. We went on to find all of the boys.
From then on, it seemed like just about every time we were playing, Bargain Town was with us. Whether we were fishing, walking the tracks, or just playing in the pasture. Sometimes Clemmy came too. Clemmy was Bargain Town’s girlfriend, I think. She was about the same age and looked like a raisin. She didn’t talk much. They had another friend named Peanut that had a car. I’m not sure what Peanut’s name was, but he stank to high heaven. I could smell him three aisles away at the grocery store. We didn’t hang out with Peanut.
Bargain Town talked with a peculiar idiosyncrasy in that he finished every sentence with “and evah’thang”, or “and evah gol’dang thang”, or more colorfully “and evah G.D. thang.” Oddly enough he would use the initials and the full vulgarity equally. This made for interesting conversation.
I remember one day Jared, Creed, Zach and I were walking down the railroad tracks on our way to our favorite swimming hole. We had just passed the water tower and were at the intersection where the service road crossed the railroad tracks, when we were hailed by Bargain Town to “hold up”. Looking over into the field, another of Tom Bell’s, we saw where Bargain Town had constructed a tent by draping a blue tarp over a round bale of hay. We waited for Bargain Town to come and meet us, he gathering all of his accoutrements, namely his case of beer and cigarette ingredients. He finally made it to the crossing and I guess the fifty yard trek had winded him because he said, “Hol’ on a minute boys, I got to set down and have me a col’beer, an’ evah’thang.” Bargain Town did not drink beer, he drank “col’beer.”
Bargain Town was a bit of a philosopher. It was a bit hard to follow a drunken man with a wandering dialect when you are eight or nine years old, but I did my best. He said to me that it was not good to not talk, “You keep all that in ye head, an’evah’thang, and never let it out, an’evah’thang, and then one day it all comes out and it blows up! an’ evah’G.D.’thang.” He usually saved the G.D. for the finale, and thus drove his point home. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. I guess me not talking made him nervous.
Once He finished his beer he stood up and said, “Where y’all headed?” We told him that we were going swimming in the creek. “That creek ain’t deep enough, let me take you to the spring, an’evah’thang.” So we discussed it amongst ourselves and as our usual swimming hole was only about knee deep in most places we thought that it was a good idea and agreed to let Bargain Town lead us to deeper waters. We did not take into account that this spring was right in the middle of Tom Bell’s pasture, so we were nervous the whole trip.
We finally did arrive without Mr. Bell noticing and firing up his Old Ford to run us down ( I make him much more of a villain than he was, he was in fact a kind man who had beautiful handwriting, if that makes a difference.) The spring was in the middle of the creek that was surrounded by trees. Bargain Town flopped down and began to roll a cigarette, “There she is boys, I’ll be in after I have myself a col’beer an’evah’thang.” We began to strip down to our trunks and wade into the water. The water was freezing, even in August, and the spring was deep, but not very wide. The most amazing thing about a spring like that is how crystal clear the water is. We were having a big time ducking each other under the water and playing Marco Polo when someone pointed out that B.T. was turned away from us and taking off his shirt. It doesn’t seem odd or out of place to take your shirt off to go swimming, but in all our years hanging with B.T., he had never been swimming with us and thus we had never seen him without his shirt. We were shocked by what we saw. I’m not talking about the extreme farmer’s tan, because we all sported one of those, but the long scar on his back that ran from his left shoulder to his right hip. He had told us about being in the “Pen”. He would get upset if you didn’t use his lingo on a lot of things, I learned that “jail” or “prison” were quite offensive terms to someone who had done time in the “Pen”, or Penitentiary, although I still struggle to make out the difference. “I used to help cook in the Pen, an’evah’thang. They wouldn’t wash the beans and they’d be bugs and worms an’evah’thang in ‘um. You always ‘post to wash ye beans ‘fore you eat’em an’evah,thang.” Although we had heard this story a few times, none of us had ever dared to ask him why he had been in the “Pen”. Here we sat in the water looking at the proof of how he got in. We stared in wonder. Finally someone bucked up the courage to ask him how he got that scar. “Somebody cut me.” This is all the answer we got, but it seems that I heard the story from an adult when I told them about the scar.
We were told that Bargain Town had been in a bar fight. Someone had followed him into the bathroom and slashed his back with a jackknife. Bargain Town in turn broke the toilet tank lid over the knifeman’s head. This may have been why he ended up in the Pen.
I think it was less out of being stingy and more out of respect that Bargain Town never offered us alcohol or cigarettes. He was not evangelistic in his bad habits, but rather knew that he was a sinner and realized that we were untainted from the vices that bore down so hard on him. Bargain Town was from a generation which still believed in right and wrong and he knew that he was wrong. Even with this knowledge he could not break free from the consequences nor the grip of a life time of bad decisions. It’s pitiful to think about now that I’m an adult and this should be reason enough for anyone to avoid alcohol.
As I got older, I got a job at the local grocery store. We no longer went on long walks through the woods with Bargain Town, pausing every hundred yards or so to wait on him as he had a col’beer, but I still saw him a couple of times a week as he came in to get groceries and beer. Mostly beer. Since he didn’t have a car and was never sober enough to drive anyway, sometimes he would come to the store with Peanut, whose stench preceded him. But more often than not, he came alone. One day I was stocking the milk in the cooler, one of my only duties at the store on the evening shift, when I noticed Bargain Town walk in the front door, which could be seen from behind the milk shelf in the cooler at the back of the store. I knew that he was going to come get a case of Milwaukee’s Best so I decided to mess with him a little. As he stumbled over to the beer case and reached in to retrieve a case of beer, I held down each case that he grabbed for a few seconds as he struggled to pull it out. I put on my best ghost voice and said as spookily as I could, “Bargain Town!” He wheeled around and looked down the aisle both ways wondering who had called him. I said his name again, and he jerked around and hunkered down to look through the beer shelf. He recognized me and realized that I had been pulling his leg. “Shoowee! I thought my Momma’s Best was talking to me!” For the rest of the evening I wondered what Momma’s Best had told him over the years.
I would not recommend that you let your children roam around town with the town drunk, especially these days. I know that Mr. Edwards would have not let anyone bother us, and I don’t think he would have let us partake in his bad habits even if we had begged him, stingy would have taken up where honor left off. Through the eyes of a young child I watched first hand as Bargain Town struggled through life with the crushing weight of alcohol addiction. I watched him stumble over the lines in the road, and try catch his balance while standing still. I watched the involuntary twitching in his face and his trembling hands as he tried to roll his own cigarettes. I watched him week after week buy case upon case of the cheapest beer sold at our little grocery store. Somehow I don’t believe that this was the life he had hoped for as a young man. Maybe it was, but I doubt it. Although us boys spent far too much time romping around town with a drunken man fifty years our senior, at least none of us turned out to be alcoholics. I think Bargain Town would be glad to know that.