“It starts gettin’ hot, and folks start dyin’. That’s just the way it’s always been. Way it’ll always be, I reckon.” – Martha Bea
Martha Bea’s a God-fearing woman from Whistling, Alabama. That’s no real place, but Martha’s as real as it gets. If God had any sense, it’d be the other way around, and he’d fear Ms. Martha. She once told me I was “as useless as a California weathergirl.” Nobody shoots straighter than Martha.
Martha fell in love once in 1968 to a man called Henry Jenkins. They were a funny looking couple all the townspeople would comment. Martha Bea was a large woman with a face full of scowls while diminutive Henry was always smiling from ear to ear.
The summer of ’68 was record hot, as I’m sure you recall or have at least heard from your elders. The air was as thick as mud and hard to breathe through your nose. No one caught a single catfish from March to November that year.
Young men (boys really, if you were to ask anybody) were especially vulnerable in heat waves.
“Boys get the jimmy legs and they start thinkin’ funny,” Martha says.
Ms. Eloise Washington tells about the darker side of summer, “Boys go from barefoot to shiny, new shoes overnight. And you knew them shoes was just new to them. We ain’t got no shiny shoe store in Whistlin’.”
“That lazy Sheriff don’t even go across the way into the woods anymore. Too much paperwork.”
On one particular July day in 1968, the Murphy brothers were sick of sitting in front of a half- dead fan, moving as little as possible to avoid any extra sweat and exertion. They’d run out of ice to put in their lemonade and the big plastic bowl that sat in front of the fan. They were as bored as housecats.
They decided to go to Hundred Yard Lake to cool off. Of course, that’s a misleading name – Hundred Yard Lake is really more of a pond. And on a hot summer day, it’s usually filled side to side with folks looking for relief.
The three Murphy boys, known for their athletic stature, made the trek down to the lake. By the time they arrived, they were dripping in salty sweat and starting to get double-vision.
Sure enough, Hundred Yard Lake was overflowing with like-minded Whistling residents, including Henry Jenkins.
The boys waded in, disrupting the circle of swimmers, sending some slipping here and there to try and accommodate. In the chaos of the reordering of bodies, no one seemed to notice when Henry was pushed below the surface.
He was discovered the next day, by a new round of Whistlers seeking asylum.
“It may not’ve been on purpose, but it wasn’t no accident either,” says Eloise. “From the way folks tell it, there was clearly only room for one and a half Murphy boys in the lake that day.”
Martha scowled, as she always did, “Them boys ain’t bad, they was just big as horses and hot as chicken feet.”
Martha Bea never loved again, and she thought of Henry every time she made biscuits for Sunday supper. Biscuits were Henry’s favorite.
Eloise once asked Ms. Martha if she thought about leaving Whistling after Henry died. “Nope. Movin’ would be just like gettin’ a cat to fix a mouse problem.”
Eloise was kind enough to translate, “Ghosts gotta good way a following a person ‘round no matter where they is. Heat too.”