Ruben was a big man. Well, a big child, really. He was what you call a “breech birth.” I reckon you already know what that is, correct? Anyway, he came out with the umbillical cord wrapped around his neck, and the doctor thought he must surely have strangled to death, but that isn’t hat happened. Nosiree! He slapped him in the ass, and the little bastard started bawling like…well, like a baby. They cleaned him up and hoped for the best. But Ruben (named after the Bible character I reckon) was always going to be really special, if you know what I mean.
But keen! Man alive! He could add up whole lists of numbers in his head; got so where, come inventory, the owner fo the dry goods mercantile and the candy shop, and the feed lot, and the general store would all hire Ruben out to add up the numbers for him as if he was some sort of human adding machine. As if you could just crank the sonofabicth by one arm, and get the correct answer every time.
They even tested him on this WITH an adding machine, and found out that he was correct every time. He only ever flubbed once or twice, and only by a few cents or a couple of digits. But, man, could he really tally up those totals, no matter how big they were.
Of course, there were other strange things about him, too. For instance, he very seldom wore his pointy-toed boots on the right feet. No matter how many times his Ma took them off and put them on the RIGHT FEET, he’d always take ‘em of later and put them on the WRONG feet, with the cowboy toes pointing all cattywampus in the wrong direction.
And he always wrongly buttoned the shirts, and his belt was always hanging loose, and the buttons on his trousers unbuttoned; he sometimes put his pants on backwards. No, I don’t think Rube was trying to make a fashion statement; he was just daft, ya’unnerstan’? But, man alive, that old boy was smart as a whip when it come to the numbers! And he was smart on other ways, too.
A man once told my father that he actually spent the night over at Rube’s as a house guest, although I can’t imagine why. This man had been taken by the claim that Rube could be awakened in the middle of the night, out of a dead sleep, and could be asked what time it was, and he could tell you EXACTLY, to the minute, what time it was. And he never, ever failed at this. So the man was skeptical.
And roundabout half past three a.m. , the man (who must have been staying awake in anticipation of just such a test of the legendary Rube Fields’s chronometric acumen) tiptoes into the room where Rube is sleeping and very politely wakes the man, asking him, “Say Rube, my watch has stopped. Do you know what time it is?”
Oh lordy! Of course, Rube still half-asleep, sat up and shook his great greasy head and said, “Why Clem, I believe it’s 3:45,” and then must have laid back down and started snoring again almost immediately, because the man who woke him found himself just about amazed at the demonstration.
And maybe he found himself feeling a little creepy, too.
But, you know those aptitude tests where they ask you about the velocity of an eastbound train and a west bound train and when it will arrive and so on and so forth? I had something like that on a test they gave to me at Joliet, but I’ll be damned if I could ever answer such a question. But Rube, well, he could tell you sure enough and not miss by a minute.
And that man, believe it or not, could tell you how many times a railroad wheel turned over from Lexington to Louisville and back again. Got to where the railroad conductors wouldn’t even charge him fare, only for his meals. He was what I suppose in these days they call “celebrity.”
Lord, though, that man was a big eater. Daddy said Rube was tall, greasy, cross-eyed, stuttered and stammered, always looked like he just crawled up out of bed, and his bed might have been a hayloft. I guess his Ma tried to keep him clean but it was a hard task.
Long legs, big, enormous gut…Daddy always said Rube was like a big man baby. Man child.
Brings me to another point about him, and this one is strange. Robert Ripley strange. Now, Rube was a BIG eater. Man just loved to eat. And when he was a little boy, and would hang aroudn the school playground–Rube never went to school himself, but he sometimes was allowed playtime with the other kids, although I think they teased and bullied him a piece.
Well, Rube liked the idea of eating all them lunch pails full of crackers and cheese and sandwiches and whatnot. But he didn’t have any way to get his mitts on them, and Rube wasn’t no bully; he wasn’t going to strong-arm a bunch of smaller kids to get their lunches.
So Rube got kind of blue about it I guess. Well, one day, Rube is supposed to have been sitting out in the sugar cane field with a machete, cutting and eating that sugar cane. I’m sure Rube was probably happiest when he was all alone, when there weren’t nobody there to mock him or stare at him or pick on him. Anyway, he goes to cut him some more sugar cane and, whaddya know?
Suddenly, a snake popped up out of the cane.
According to local legend, Rube stared at that snake. And I reckon the snake stared at Rube. And maybe they made eye contact…Hey, maybe you can help me with this? I once heard that snakes are actually blind. Is that true? You guess so? Huh. Well, maybe something a might strange was going on, because time must have stopped for a moment like they say. And Rube just looked that snake in its beady little eyes, and reached out his hand, and I don’t guess he even dropped a bead of sweat…and he just picked it up by the neck and put it in his pocket. And then, remembering all those school lunches he wanted, he went to work looking for more snakes.
They talked about it for years.
Rube sneaking around the playground, his pockets bulging with wiggly, squiggly snakes. Well, when the bell rang, and the kids came outside with their pails, what do you think that big, crazy lummox did, huh?
Well, Rube sneaked up to the edge of the playground, and just threw them snakes everywhere. A little girl gets a snake crawling across her little show, and some barefoot boy with dirty toes sure don’t want to step on no snake, and, all of a sudden, you have a veritable Exodus of little tots run screaming from the playground like the most deady of all devils has appearead in a puff of sulfur smoke on the playground sand.
And Rube just waited until they were all gone, and then went aroudn to where they had dropped their lunch pails, and scooped up what he wanted. And they talked about that for YEARS after it happened, old codgers sitting aoround the stove in the general store, spinning tales and rememberin’
But Daddy said it didn’t always work out so well for Rube. Isaac Lamphere was one of the meanest old cusses in the county and he and his brother Dud were usually drunker than a pair of proverbial skunks on Kentucky Bourbon or their own sourmash concoction.
Well, one day, as they were sitting on the porch of their shack, passing the jug back and forth, here com Rube, just as innocent as can be, carrying his lunch pail. And they both started hollering at him some, I guess sort of being friendly but sort of mocking him as the village idiot. Whatever the case, Rube didn’t pay it much mind, but just held out his arm and waved and continued walking down the road until he was out of sight.
Well, those two hillbillies drank some more, and some more, and a little more, until finally, they were full-on soused. And they must have wandered in and out of the shack here and there, and left their jug of sourmash out in the sun, and then come back out…and somebody tipped up the bottle. And do you know what happened?
Out pops a snake. Yep. Straight from the neck of that jug. Well, they reared back in surprise and anger, and finally, after their drunken noggins cleared a bit, they started grumbling about how it could have happened. And, remembering the story of Rube and the school lunches, and knowing the man had a special afinity with snakes, they soon began to blame Rube for coming back and putting a snake in their jusg when their backs were turned. Something like that.
And two old hillbilly cusses like that, you don’t want to make angry at you. Meaner than hell, both Isaac and…oh, what was his brother’s name? Angus? Maybe that was it. I can’t rightly remember now.
Anyway, they fetched their dog, a big, black monster looked as if he could eat a baby and come back for second helpings, not a dog you wanted to tangle with, in other words–and they put a log chain around his neck, and set off after Rube.
At this point, Rube was probably about halfway home when he heard the dog barking and the men yelling and cussing, and he turned, and, as daft as he was, he figured out pretty quick that neither of them meant him anything in the way of good.
Well, Rube took off running, heading off into the brush and across a feild, with those two old hornets and their killer hunting dog hot on his heels.
Daddy was plowing when he said he looked up, and lo and behold, here come Rube running as fast as his fat body would allow him across the open field, all sweat dripping down into his eyes, and frog legs with the pointy boots on the wrong feet, and huge sweat stains all over his chambray shirt.
And daddy stopped plowing and Rube come up to him and just fell at his feet blubbering, saying, “Silas, aw! You got to help me Silas! Them bad boys is gonna switch me!”
Truth be told, they was going to do a right more than just switch him. Could hardly be called “boys” either, considering they both were on the high side of forty, but Daddy always got a kick out of telling this story, and I’m sure that’s the way Rube actually said it, Daddy would have remembered that.
Anyway, so Daddy ushers him into the barn , and tells him to go hide in the hayloft, and here come the brothers and their dad-blamed mean old junkyard dog. And they both have fire in their eyes and whiskey in their guts, and their just plum certain that Ruben Fields is the one that put that serpent in their jug o’ syrup. And one of ‘em says, “You seen that cotton-pickin’, plug-ugly, bandy-legged, feeble-minded polecat Rube Fields come runnin’ past here, Silas? We mean to string that sonofaheifer up!”
Daddy acted surprised and like he couldn’t find his backside with a flashlight. Which, in them days, it was advisable for a black man to act like when confrontin’ a couple of angry, drunken white men. But I digress, I guess.
“Why, no sir, Dud! Ain’t seed nor heerd nuthin’! Say, What’s that scoundrel been up to now!”
The hair on old Isaac’s head stood straight out like a porcupine, and his entire face turned beet red, and Daddy said you could just about see steam coming out of the skinny old bastard’s ears. His eyes popped out like a cartoon character, and he shouted, “Did? Did? Damn it! I’ll tell you exactly what he did! That halfwit went and put one of his infernal serpents onto us, that’s what! Like to have bit my arm clean off, and that’s no easy feat! Why, I’m amazed we’re still here to tale you the sorry story! Why, when I find that fat, bandy-legged no-account, I’m…”
But he couldn’t finish his sentence, because he was about to erupt like a volcano, and frankly, it seemed as if, as he stood there with spit flying out from between his half-dozen or so teeth, he had actually forgotten the faculty of speech. Daddy said it was all he could do to keep from laughing, knowing that Rube was inside hiding in the hayloft. Daddy also said he was scared they were actually going to hurt Rube if they laid hands on him.
Somehow or other though, he convinced those two idjits to go ahead and give it up. Or, at least, he managed to steer them on the wrong trail, knowing that the more they sobered up and the more time passed, they’d gradually give up and go home. Until then, thoygh, Rube was going to be spending the night with us. Which was fine, except Daddy said later he should hitch Rube up to the plow and send the mule back in his place, considering just how much food Rube could put away.
I guess the last thing I know about old Rube is the story of a time he actually did stick one of his snakes in the mouth of a tea kettle. Here, this is sort of funny.
Rube’s mother was baking rhubarb pies for a church social, and Rube’s nose for rhubarb pie was pretty good, and, as I’ve already told you, his stomach was pretty much a bottomless pit. And so his ma is sweating over the cook stove, and old Rube comes in across the yard, and he has a few slithery friends stuffed into his pockets. He comes up the back steps there, I guess, into the kitchen, jst following his nose after being outside, playing in nature–alone, as he always was.
“Hey Ma! Man alive, that’s a good smelling pie!”
Rube must have looked at those pies like a wolf sizing up a stray sheep. Maybe his eyes started blazing and his jaws started dripping like in a cartoon, I don’t know, but his ma turned to him and said “Now Rube, you just keep your hands off boy! Them’s for the church picnic tomorrow. Now, scat!”
And she turned her back, and swished out of the kitchen a moment, giving Rube plenty of time to work his trick.
Now, I don’t know if he did it for meanness, or because she hurt his feelings…or just because he thought it might be a way to scare her out of the kitchen in time for him to get him ahunk of one of them rhubarb pies, but, man alive, when he saw that tea kettle, he crept up to it like a bandito, and put one of those damn snakes in the tea kettle. Can you believe that?
So anyway, his Ma comes back in the kitchen, and Rube is standing there looking as guilty as a polecat in a chicken coop and, after a few minutes that tea kettle starts to whistle, and his Ma goes up to it, and she screams! And screams! And goes running out of the house with her apron over her heard, screaming like a madwoman, and everyone near enough to hear her turning out of their houses and onto the porch, pulling from pipes and smokes and wondering just what in cotton-pickin’ hell had done got into that feeble-minded Fields woman. Must be something to do with her idiot son, they probably reckoned, and of course they were right.
[laughs and then breaks into coughing spasm.}
I never did learn what happened to Rube. I reckon as he moved north when his folks died. Maybe he found some folks to take care of him, or was moved to an institution, ’cause a feller liek that sure as heck couldn’t take care of hisself. I can sort of see him in my mind’s eye: a fat, frog-legged, sweaty, dirty man, with pie stains running down his shirtfront, and his boots on the wrong feet. I can see him walking into the sunset of them yesterdays, counting the times the wheels on them trains turn over and over. And do you know what?
Anyway, I guess I went off on a tangent, even thought as you made out it was okay. You came to hear all about Mr. Strib, the third-rung Clyde Barrow. Not about Ruben Fields, God rest his soul.
You do know they cooked Mr. Strib in the electric chair, correct?