Loy Swilley showed up at 408 East Fifth Street in El Dorado courting Mother when I was about six. My father had died a few months before I was born. Loy heard on the ship on the way back to the States from what he called “them islands” (off New Zealand) where he had been a Seabee in World War II that Mother had become widowed.
Loy and Mother knew each other before she married my father, so Mother recognized this energetic little guy when he knocked on the door, and invited him in, thinking he was selling something. There were lots of door-to-door salesmen just after the war. Loy stayed a long time, never coming to his sales pitch. Finally, Mother, who was ready for the visit to be over, said, “Well, Loy, what are you doing for a living?” Loy replied, “I drive nails.” That’s when it dawned on Mother that this master carpenter had come courting.
I thought his name was “Boy Swilley” for a long time. I would ask, “Mother, is Boy Swilley coming tonight?” The answer was increasingly yes. He brought ice cream, candy, boxing gloves, a football, bats and balls, all my brother Curtis and I could hope for. He would also, from time to time, hold me awkwardly—I was as big as he was—on his knee. He didn’t really want to, but he was trying to impress Mother by appearing to be good with children. He always had a fresh pack of Dentyne gum and he smelled of whiskey and Camel cigarettes.
Mother suspected he was a drinker, so when he proposed sometime later, Mother said, “I will marry you if you will quit drinking and build me a house.” Pop said OK so they got married. He didn’t quit drinking, but he built her two houses.
Pop didn’t like our dog Fuzzy very much. Curtis and I got him when we first moved to El Dorado. He was a Spitz mix, a black and white ball of fur when he was a puppy. I wanted to name him Teddy Bear because he had the markings of one, but Curtis wanted to name him Fuzzy, so we named him Fuzzy Teddy Bear Ford.
Once Fuzzy followed me to school. I had run him back home two or three times, but after I got out of sight and into the school, he came and plopped down right outside the door. The principal called the dogcatcher and he came to pick him up. My teacher let me go out and talk to the dogcatcher, but he said he couldn’t let him go because the principal had called them.
I went to the principal’s office to borrow the telephone and called Mother at work. She said for me to go back to class and that we would go get Fuzzy that evening. I hurried home after school and when Loy came home, we drove to the pound and there was Fuzzy in a cage. If he could have turned red, he would have. Loy got mad at Fuzzy for that and for barking at night. One night he got up and whipped Fuzzy for barking. I saw his hand bleeding when he came back inside and said, “Did he bite you?” Loy replied with just a touch of uncharacteristic sarcasm, “No, you know Fuzzy wouldn’t do that.”
My stepfather’s father lost his lucrative grocery store business during the depression and started peddling groceries all over town from a homemade pushcart. He had eight nondescript dogs that accompanied him every day. They made a formation around him similar to a military guard unit. If neighborhood dogs came out barking, these soldiers would turn them back.
Mr. Swilley rang a dinner bell as he traveled to alert housewives to his presence. He did a brisk business in every neighborhood on his route during the 1950s when I was a kid. As the women came out of their front doors, he called out a list of the fresh vegetables he had that day. By the time he got to our house three miles from town, he was generally out of turnip greens or collards or tomatoes. Many of these were fresh from his own garden.
Mother, who worked in town, told her father-in-law he was welcome to go into our house to get a drink of cool water, which he did on a daily basis. She always left several pones of hot water cornbread, his favorite, out for him. (He called them dodger biscuits). Mother also had a standing order with him for a small package of cinnamon rolls and a bunch of bananas.
In the summertime when I was out of school, I would hear his bell from wherever I was playing—at the park, in a tree, at the creek, behind the church, in the ditch—and go home to eat a cinnamon roll and a banana and visit with him.
He did and said the same things every day. When I came in, he always said, “Danny, you old booger, where have you been?” I always told him specifically and in some detail. He listened attentively, with no comment. Then he would say, “I brought you some nanners and rolls.”
Mr. Swilley then ate a dodger biscuit and drank a glass of ice water while I devoured a cinnamon roll or two and a banana. Then he took out his pocketknife and cut a tiny plug of tobacco and pushed it way back into his jaw. Then he always said, “Tell Miss Pearl I enjoyed it.” Then he went on down the road, ringing his bell, with his little canine army regrouped around him.
When he was dying, he knew it. He went to bed in his little house on Jefferson Street and relatives went into the bedroom one by one to say goodbye. When it was my turn, I went into the room that smelled like tobacco and Watkins liniment. Mr. Swilley said weakly, “Danny, you old booger, where have you been?”
Hiding my sudden emotion, I replied dryly, “In yonder in the living room.”
Mr. Swilley laughed. It may have been his last laugh. He died the following week. He was in his nineties.