Freddy nervously tucked his hands inside the bib top of his overalls, his fingers brushing against the bare skin just under his chest. Did he just hear his teacher right? Had Miss Ila Jean actually said that?
"Frederick, are you listening to me?" Miss Ila Jean sternly questioned, enunciating each syllable and rolling the r's, her rotund belly bouncing at the effort of each new word.
Freddy pulled his hands out of his overalls and nervously brushed a shock of red hair off his forehead. "Yes'm. I heard you," he replied as he lowered his eyes.
"Fine. I will walk with you home after school and dine with your family, " she trilled in her faux operatic manner, with the same gusto as if she'd proclaimed the Queen of England would be joining them. Miss Ila Jean was a big fan of the talking pictures, and often told them she believed she could be a better actress than those on the big screen.
His ten year old mind tore through different scenarios the rest of the day. Was Miss Ila Jean going to tell Mama and Papa about the time he'd tied Jimmy Singer's shoelaces together on the playground and made him fall on his nose, causing a waterfall of blood to gush forth? Or was she going to let them know about the time he'd been smoking corn silk cigarettes with the older boys? Truth be told, there were several things she could be tattling to his parents about, and although Miss Ila Jean had whaled him good for these offenses, he knew Papa would punish him again with the belt at home if he found out.
His friends gathered round him at lunch and commiserated. "She came to my house and 'bout cleared out the whole table! She even out ate my dad, " his friend Tom told him.
"I hear she just likes free meals, and that's why she goes to her students' houses, 'cause she knows the families will have to feed her, even if she eats enough for an elephant," Jerry shared, drawing laughs from the other boys.
After school, Freddy gathered his Karo Syrup lunch pail and listened as Miss Ila Jean instructed him, " I will gather your brother, Tommy, from the first grade teacher and walk to your house with him. You hurry on ahead and let your mother know I am delighted to dine with you all this evening." She unconsciously licked her lips, no doubt thinking of Mama's well known talents in the kitchen.
By the time he reached home, Mama already had a pot of chicken and dumplings going on the stove and set the table with the mish- mash of cutlery and plates they owned. Though none of it matched, she often reminded them, it was clean and serviceable. Mama sighed wearily when he told her of their self invited guest. "I only have one chicken for this, but I can throw some more dumplings in. We'll cut smaller slices of the pie, although I hear that woman can really eat, " she said in her soft drawl that reached all the way back to her native South Carolina flatlands. "Go call the horses up into the pens, as Papa wants to do some plowing after he eats."
Papa had been forced to take a job at the cotton gin while still making a go of the farm because President Hoover's promises about making the economy prosperous had turned inside out. They were making it, but barely, which was more than could be said for lots of folks in 1930.
Miss Ila Jean soon arrived with Tommy and introduced herself while Mama tried to smooth her hair and brush off her work apron. "I know my students and their families love to meet me, and tonight, it is your turn, " Miss Ila Jean magnanimously declared with all the flourishes of a high school declamation champion, which she often reminded her students she had been.
Papa wasn't home from work yet, and Miss Ila Jean took the opportunity to ask Mama where the necessary room was. "Well, Miss Ila Jean, all we have is an outhouse, and it's right back there, " Mama said gently as she pointed out the back door. And a nice outhouse it was. A two seater, and Papa had recently finished it off with some deluxe wooden shingles. Miss Ila Jean didn't look delighted at the prospect of it, but squared her shoulders and headed out.
Freddy watched her disappear through the wooden door next to the horse pens. Nick, one of the big bay plow horses, swished his tail nearby. He'd developed an affinity for chewing on wooden things, from fence posts to tree branches, and they had to keep an eye on him.
What happened next was something Freddy would remember for the rest of his days. Nick, seeing Miss Ila Jean enter the outhouse, ambled over to it himself, near as it was to his pen. Shortly after Miss Ila Jean had latched the door, Nick spotted the new wooden shingles on top of the outhouse. He took a quick nibble of one, and was so delighted with it that he quickly attacked the rest of the roof with unbridled enthusiasm.
Now, the outhouse only sat on a platform not anchored fully into the ground, to aid in ease of portability when it was time to move it.
Nick's chewings tilted and shook the outhouse, which drew horrified screams from its occupant.
Thinking back on it later, Freddy never could figure out why he didn't move to do something to stop Nick, but he didn't, and Mama was in her bedroom, trying to pretty up, unable to hear the shouts of terror.
Nick heaved one more time at the shingles, yanking upwards with his powerful neck and causing the outhouse to tip forward. A loud thump from inside heralded the latch giving way to Miss Ila Jean's portly body. The door flew open, and Miss Ila Jean rolled out, legs perpendicular to the ground, knickers around her ankles.
When Freddy later told this story to his children and grandchildren, he always mentioned that the last he saw of Miss Ila Jean was her running down the road, screaming and moving as fast as her short, chubby legs could carry her. She handed in her resignation without explanation that night and was never seen in those parts again.
Freddy shared the secret with only Nick for many years, and Freddy often gave Nick an extra carrot or two, just to sweeten the pot.