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Authors: Clyde Edgerton

Walking Across Egypt

BOOK: Walking Across Egypt
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A Novel.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill   1991



Anyone who lives alone would agree—cooking only for yourself isn't very satisfying. Neither is playing hymns on the piano with only yourself to sing along. Watching a soap opera or two every day might get to be a habit and taking in a little stray dog might cross your mind as a possibility.

Mattie Rigsbee is 78. She lives by herself in her brick ranch in Listre, North Carolina. She's been alone since her husband. Paul, died of a heart attack five years ago. ("He went in the blinking of a eye sitting in his car at the stop light on Tuney Lake Road.") Mattie is what you'd call very independent, but she is, after all, 78 and. as she keeps having to explain to people, "slowing down" (though her neighbor, Alora Swanson, is always quick to point out that Mattie does cut her own grass, plant her own tomatoes and butter beans, and run the Lottie Moon missions fund drive at Listre Baptist Church).

Like any half-way serious wife and mother, Mattie Rigsbee has looked forward to enjoying grandchildren in her declining years. But what's happened is that her children, Robert (he's 43 and runs the Convenient Food Mart in Bethel) and Elaine (Elaine, past 35 and a feminist, has quit dating for awhile in order to gel to know herself better), haven't gotten married.

This is the scene into which Clyde Edgerton, a writer who enjoys watching what happens with unlikely couples, drops Wesley Benfield. Wesley Benfield is adolescent, illegitimate, and delinquent, with a mouth full of foul language and bad teeth, and a craving for good food. He is less of a possibility even than the little stray dog.

Just as he did in his wonderfully funny first novel, Raney, Clyde Edgerton takes us inside the houses and hearts of people living in the modern South. And, with Edgerton as guide, these visits invariably end in laughter. Mattie Rigsbee, Wesley Benfield, and all the folks who complicate their communion—sheriffs, dog-catchers, pastors, deacons, funeral home directors —readers will recognize as old friends. And, while the roads these two latter-day saints walk may seem divergent, they do meet finally—on a path out of loneliness, as in a line from one of Mattie's favorite hymns; ''Walking across Egypt, our hearts together band."


 Published by.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Post Office Box 2225

Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

a division of.

Workman Publishing Company, Inc.

708 Broadway.

New York, New York 10003

© 1987, 1991 by Clyde Edgerton. All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America.

"Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV)"

Words and music by John Prine. Copyright © 1971 Walden Music, Inc. Sour.

Grapes Music. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Design by Molly Renda.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.

Edgerton, Clyde, 1944-

Walking across Egypt.

I. Title.

PS3555.D47W3 1987   813'.54   86-20645

ISBN 0-912697-51-2

10   9   8   7   6   5


In memory of Lex Mathews--






The dog was a tan fice—cowlicked, thin pointed sticks for legs, a pointed little face with powerful whiskers, one ear flopped and one straight.

He was lying on the back steps of Mattie Rigsbee's brick ranch one summer Saturday morning when she opened the door to throw out a pan of table scraps for the birds. She placed her foot on the step beside him. She was wearing the leather shoes she'd cut slits in for her corns. The dog didn't move. Holding the bowl, Mattie stepped on out into the yard and tried to see if it was a him or her so she could decide whether or not it would have been possible to keep it if she were younger and more able. If it insisted on staying she'd have to call the dogcatcher because she was too old to look after a dog—with everything else she had to do to keep up the house and yard. She was, after all, seventy-eight, lived alone, and was—as she kept having to explain—slowing down. Yet her neighbor, Alora Swanson, was fond of saying, "Yeah, she cuts her own grass, and keeps that place looking better than I would, or could." Alora liked to tell about how Mattie fell in the kitchen and fractured her hip when she was seventy-six and then worked around the house for two weeks before finally, after a sleepless night, consenting to go to the doctor—who had to put a pin in. And during those two weeks Mattie picked butterbeans at least four or five times. After the pin was in, Alora would say: "Mattie, I told you it was broke. I told her it was broke," she would say, looking around. "I said, 'Mattie, it could be broke. You better go to the doctor.' But she wouldn't go. You know Mattie."

The dog, lying on the steps with Mattie bending over trying to see if it was a male, looked sick. It had no spunk—wouldn't even get up so she could see if it was a male or not.

"Well, bless your little heart," said Mattie. "Where in the world did you come from?" The tip of the dog's tail moved once. "Are you hungry, Punkie? You look kind of skinny." The dog snapped at a fly. "I guess I'll have to fix you up a little something to eat."

The dog sat up slowly.

"Well, I'll declare," said Mattie, "you are a male."

Back inside, Mattie put the bird bowl in its place by the sink, bent over and pulled out the cast-iron frying pan which she declared was getting too heavy for her.

She then warmed some beef stew and water, poured it into a small bowl over two opened biscuits cooked that morning, and started outside with it. Maybe he's gone, she thought. She wanted him to be gone so she wouldn't have to put up with him until she called the dogcatcher. She would have run him off if he hadn't been so skinny and lacking in spunk.

The dog had not left. Mattie put the bowl down a few feet away so he would have to walk and she could tell if he'd been hit by a car. He stood, walked over to the bowl and with large gulps ate all the food. He looked up at Mattie when he finished.

"You ain't been hit," said Mattie.


When Robert, Mattie's forty-three-year-old unmarried son who ran the Convenient Food Mart in Bethel, fifteen miles away, came that afternoon—he usually dropped by on Saturdays—he said, "Mama, what in the world do you think? Of course he ain't going nowhere after you feed him." Robert and Mattie were in the kitchen.

"Well, he was so skinny."

"He's skinny because he's got worms. Look at his eyes." Robert, thirty pounds overweight and graying at his temples, ate from a bowl holding a big piece of apple pie and three scoops of vanilla ice cream.

"I know how to tell worms," said Mattie.

"He's got worms." His mother was going to stand right there and not believe the dog had worms when anybody could look at the dog's eyes and tell he had worms. Why couldn't she just relax and say, "Okay, he's got worms"?

She was standing at the counter, dipping a scoop of ice cream for herself, wearing the brown button-up sweater, unbuttoned, with the hole in the elbow, that she'd been wearing every day, summer or winter, until at least mid-morning for ... Robert knew for ten years at least. "I don't know if he has or not," she said.

"Okay, Mama." Robert had recently read an article in Parade magazine which explained how grown children could avoid misunderstandings with their parents. It said to give up trying to change them. So he decided to give up on the worm argument even though he knew he was right.

"I couldn't just chase him off," said Mattie, "as skinny as he is."

Robert, holding pie and ice cream in his spoon over the bowl, looked at her. "But now you're going to call the dogcatcher?"

"You know I can't keep a dog."

"Why not?" Robert wished she could get a little company, companionship of some sort. Something to care for. An animal maybe, a parakeet. He spooned the pie and ice cream into his mouth.

Mattie turned to look at her son. "With all I got to do around this place? Besides, I'm slowing down."

"All you'd have to do is feed him," said Robert, pie crust on his lower lip.

"Use your napkin. You know it takes more than feeding to keep a dog. I got as much business keeping a dog as I got walking across Egypt. I don't even know why I'm talking about it."

Monday morning, Mattie called Bill Yeats and asked him to come get her chair bottoms. She wanted the bottoms of her four kitchen-table chairs and her den-rocker bottom re-covered with some kind of oil cloth. They were looking so dingy and she needed something she could just wipe off without worrying about it.

Bill said he'd come after lunch. Mattie told him to come around eleven-thirty and she'd have a little bite for him to eat. There was that chicken in the refrigerator. He said he'd be there.

She decided she needed a couple of short boards—so she could place them across the open bottoms of the two chairs she used most often—her kitchen chair and the den rocker. If she put it off she might forget and fall through a chair. She had some boards in the garage. She walked out the back door. She limped slightly from the hip fracture, but, as usual, walked with purpose, her brown sweater hiked up in the rear.

The dog was in the back of the garage. Mattie had refused to name him because of her plans to call the dog-catcher. He got up and walked toward her. Looked like he had gained a little weight over the last day or two, but still he didn't have much spunk. He'd been eating regular for two days now and he did not have worms. Robert jumped to conclusions.

Mattie found two short boards in the back of the garage, started back to the house, stopped and said to the dog, "Listen, I'm going to have to call the dogcatcher. I don't have time for a dog. Shouldn't have kept you this long."

She brought the two boards into the house, then decided she might as well go ahead and take the chair bottoms out and put the boards across two kitchen chairs. Bill would be there before long. She could have everything ready when he came. They would have a little more time to sit and talk. It was just four screws per chair. Bill would be impressed. She'd put on the chicken and then do it. After it cooked, she could give the neck meat to the dog—with some gravy and a biscuit or two. She ought'n to spoil him though, she thought.

She spooned grease into the frying pan, cut up and washed the chicken, salted and peppered it, rolled it in flour, and placed it in the frying pan, piece by piece. Then she got her screwdriver, carried each of the kitchen-table chairs past the kitchen counter over to the couch in the den, dragged over the rocker from in front of the TV, sat down on the couch, turned each of the kitchen chairs upside down, unscrewed the screws, and took the bottoms out. The rocker was a little more difficult. It was heavy for one thing. She turned it onto its side and unscrewed the screws, which were larger than the others, and tighter.

When Bill came, she had the bottoms leaning against the wall by the back door. The chairs were in their places and the boards from the garage were across two kitchen chairs.

"Sit down at the end of the table there; dinner's about ready," said Mattie.

"This is mighty nice of you, Mrs. Rigsbee." Bill pulled out his chair. "You took the bottoms out already?"

"Oh yes. They're over there by the door."

Bill looked. "I declare Mrs. Rigsbee. You beat all."

"Well, I try to do what I can."

"Something sure smells good. You didn't have to go to all this trouble."

"No trouble. I cook three meals a day. Except for once in a while I'll warm up leftovers—just can't go like I used to. It slips up on you. You'll find out."

"I'm already finding out—I'll tell you." Bill adjusted the board he was sitting on, looked down at it.

"Well," said Mattie, standing at the stove, fork in hand, turning to look at Bill, "I'm lucky to have been able to keep going so long. I thank the Good Lord every day."

"Yeah, well, you sure keep going. That's for sure. Mmmmmm, that smells mighty good."

BOOK: Walking Across Egypt
8.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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