The Morality of Thomas Jefferson

(issue #12 The Smoking Poet)

Pop is named after Thomas Jefferson, but I think that’s where the similarity ends. Pop isn’t nearly so smart. He didn’t finish elementary school and he’s probably never read the Declaration of Independence. We don’t live in a big house and we don’t have servants—well, I don’t anyway. Pop has me.

I have to clean the house and work in the store ever since Ma died.

Pop’s store isn’t much of a place to anyone beyond the locals, but it serves its purpose well enough. It sits close to the road; right atop the hill’s crest, where plenty of cars driving by and everyone in the valley can see its new, pretty red metal roof. He’s awful proud of that roof… Put it on all by his self just last spring. A real eye-catcher, it is.

“Come on, Bess,” he says to me.

I’m always five steps behind him wherever we go. It isn’t that I don’t want to walk with him, because I do. I just can’t keep up with those long legs of his.

“Quit picking those darn weeds. We have to be open in…” he hooks his thumb on the chain that disappears into his pocket and yanks his pocket watch out with one efficient jerk, “seven minutes.” He picks up his pace, not by moving his legs faster, but by taking even longer strides.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence says: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… I’m here to tell you, it is self-evident that we are not. If we were, my legs would be much longer.

I tuck the bouquet of blue and white wildflowers in the pocket of my smock and break to a trot—and almost catch up.

By the time we reach the store’s porch, we’re sweating like we’ve been working in the sun all morning. It’s going to be another hot one. It hasn’t rained in over two weeks, but the river and thick trees keep the air so heavy, even the birds are quiet. The only noisy critters are the frogs calling to Pop to go fishing, but Pop acts like he doesn’t hear the call—as usual—shoves the skeleton key into the keyhole.

There’s a heavy thunk of the lock disengaging. He gives an approving nod and shoves the door open wide, letting the sunbeam streak the width of the store to spotlight the shiny copper-bottom pans that arrived three days prior. Pop had to move a whole shelf of tools to open enough space for them, but it was worth it. Their gleam makes the whole store feel fancy.

I grab the vase from beside the cash register and hurry to the pump out back to get fresh water for the flowers. I figure I have about thirty seconds before Pop notices I’m not sweeping.

Sure enough. I barely get the vase back into place when I hear him say, “The morning’s a wasting. We’d better get the dirt off the steps,” and then he goes on out ahead of me.

But he doesn’t sweep. He just stands there staring at air, with his shoulders back and his spine so straight you could check boards for warps against it. When he gets like that, I know he’s was thinking of Ma.

Everyone misses her. I don’t know why she died exactly. Some say it was because of her diabetes, but I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t there. Pa was right there holding her hand, but he’s not talking about it.

Finally, he shifts his sight toward the north—so I do too.

The top of a gray head tips from side to side almost more than it bobs up and down. Ol’ Jack is coming.

…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…. Pops is the only person who seems to know that, where Ol’ Jack is concerned—even if he hasn’t read the Declaration of Independence. He waits until he is sure it’s Ol’ Jack, and then he hurries back inside and does an odd thing. He starts stirring in the icebox behind the counter.

We just cleaned it yesterday and there’s nothing in there but about a dozen eggs, a couple pounds of butter, and four quarts of milk, so there’s nothing he could be doing in there—except maybe cooling off a little—and he always tells me not to be wasteful whenever I stand the door open for more than a few seconds.

As Jack approaches me, he shifts his basket to the crook of one arm and tips his invisible hat, “Good morning, Bess. You’re always a pleasure to see,” and then he limps on inside.

Jack is sitting his basket on the counter when I go back in. He pulls back the frayed cotton towel and holds up an egg. “I got twenty-seven of ‘em. I only got a little cash, so I’m hopin’ you need eggs.”

“That’ll be just dandy, Jack,” Pop says. “I just looked when I seen you coming. We’re down to our last half-dozen.” Pop seems to be handling those eggs as if they were made of blown glass. Eggs are fragile, but not that fragile. “You just get what you need and we’ll settle up when you’re ready.”

Jack works his way through the tables, gathering the smallest quantities of salt, sugar, coffee and corn meal available and brings them to the front. “Do I have enough?”

and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer…

Pop picks up a small pad of paper and a pencil so sharp he could stab a flea on a dog without touching its hair and starts working out his calculations. He makes a big deal out of it and makes Jack wait so long the old man begins to fidget. “Well,” he says at last, giving the page one last tap with the tip of his pencil. “The way I got it figured, you still have ten cents left.”

…that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Jack dumps the little bit of change he has onto the counter and waits while Pop counts it, scoots two nickels back over and loads the basket with the groceries.

After the old man leaves, Pop disappears with a bucket and leaves me to assist Mrs. Abney, who has just stopped in for some lace to finish the dress she is making.

As I’m working out the transaction, Mrs. Abney asks to add nine eggs to it. “I’m taking an angel food cake to the church social, you know.”

I know. Everybody knows. Mrs. Abney always takes angel food cake to the church socials. I open the icebox, count out her nine eggs, and put the remaining ten back.

Mrs. Abney barely gets out back on the road in her pretty, yellow De Soto before I run after Pop.

I don’t go far to find him, nor do I want to stay once I do.

He’s out back shoveling dirt in a hole; and the entire area reeks of sulfur and, with so little breeze stirring, the stink isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Pops props his foot on a nearby crate and wipes some egg goo from his cuff.

He looks up and sees me watching him. “What’re you looking at, little girl?”

…Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…

I spin on my heels and hurry back inside, picking up a feather duster and going to work on the cereal display.

When Pops comes back, he goes right to straightening the canned goods, making sure every label faced out and every can is neatly aligned, without saying a word.

…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Pop is Thomas Jefferson. He’s smart.

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