A good man is hard to find
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A good man is hard to find
(The Avon Book of Modern Writing, 1953)
THE grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her
connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s
mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his
chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here,
Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip
and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls
himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you
read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my
children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my
conscience if I did.”
Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the
children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as
a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the
top like rabbit’s ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a
jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “You all ought to take
them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and
be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.”
The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John
Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why
dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers
on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising
her yellow head.
“Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss
something. She has to go everywhere we go.”
“All right, Miss,” the grandmother said. “Just remember that the next time you
want me to curl your hair.”
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.
The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She
had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner,
and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn’t
intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss
her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and
accidentally asphyxiate himself. Her son, Bailey, didn’t like to arrive at a motel with a
She sat in the middle of the back seat with John Wesley and June Star on either
side of her. Bailey and the children’s mother and the baby sat in front and they left
Atlanta at eight forty-five with the mileage on the car at 55890. The grandmother
wrote this down because she thought it would be interesting to say how many miles
they had been when they got back. It took them twenty minutes to reach the
outskirts of the city.
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and
putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The
children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief,
but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets
on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and
cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a
purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing
her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.
She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor
too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour
and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees
and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out
interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some
places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly
streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on
the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them
sparkled. The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone
back to sleep.
“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley
“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state
that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”
“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a
lousy state too.”
“You said it,” June Star said.
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were
more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People
did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro
child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked
and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained. “Little niggers in the
country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said.
The children exchanged comic books.
The grandmother offered to hold the baby and the children’s mother passed him
over the front seat to her. She set him on her knee and bounced him and told him
about the things they were passing. She rolled her eyes and screwed up her mouth
and stuck her leathery thin face into his smooth bland one. Occasionally he gave her a
faraway smile. They passed a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the
middle of it, like a small island. “Look at the graveyard!” the grandmother said,
pointing it out. “That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the
“Where’s the plantation?” John Wesley asked.
“Gone With the Wind,” said the grandmother. “Ha. Ha.”
When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened
the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and
would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window.
When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and
making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape
of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and
June Star said he didn’t play fair, and they began to slap each other over the
The grandmother said she would tell them a story if they would keep quiet. When
she told a story, she rolled her eyes and waved her head and was very dramatic. She
said once when she was a maiden lady she had been courted by a Mr. Edgar Atkins
Teagarden from Jasper, Georgia. She said he was a very good-looking man and a
gentleman and that he brought her a watermelon every Saturday afternoon with his
initials cut in it, E. A. T. Well, one Saturday, she said, Mr. Teagarden brought the
watermelon and there was nobody at home and he left it on the front porch and
returned in his buggy to Jasper, but she never got the watermelon, she said, because a
nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials, E. A. T.! This story tickled John Wesley’s
funny bone and he giggled and giggled but June Star didn’t think it was any good. She
said she wouldn’t marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday. The
grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was
a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out and that he had
died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.
They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a part
stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of
Timothy. A fat man named Red Sammy Butts ran it and there were signs stuck here
and there on the building and for miles up and down the highway saying, TRY RED
SAMMY’S FAMOUS BARBECUE. NONE LIKE FAMOUS RED SAMMY’S! RED SAM! THE
FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH. A VETERAN! RED SAMMY’S YOUR MAN!
Red Sammy was lying on the bare ground outside The Tower with his head under
a truck while a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree,
chattered nearby. The monkey sprang back into the tree and got on the highest limb
as soon as he saw the children jump out of the car and run toward him.
Inside, The Tower was a long dark room with a counter at one end and tables at
the other and dancing space in the middle. They all sat down at a board table next to
the nickelodeon and Red Sam’s wife, a tall burnt-brown woman with hair and eyes
lighter than her skin, came and took their order. The children’s mother put a dime in
the machine and played “The Tennessee Waltz,” and the grandmother said that tune
always made her want to dance. She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only
glared at her. He didn’t have a naturally sunny disposition like she did and trips made
him nervous. The grandmother’s brown eyes were very bright. She swayed her head
from side to side and pretended she was dancing in her chair. June Star said play
something she could tap to so the children’s mother put in another dime and played a
fast number and June Star stepped out onto the dance floor and did her tap routine.
“Ain’t she cute?” Red Sam’s wife said, leaning over the counter. “Would you like to
come be my little girl?”
“No I certainly wouldn’t,” June Star said. “I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place
like this for a minion bucks!” and she ran back to the table.
“Ain’t she cute?” the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.
“Arn’t you ashamed?” hissed the grandmother.
Red Sam came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up
with these people’s order. His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his
stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt. He came over
and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel. “You can’t
win,” he said. “You can’t win,” and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray
handkerchief. “These days you don’t know who to trust,” he said. “Ain’t that the
“People are certainly not nice like they used to be,” said the grandmother.
“Two fellers come in here last week,” Red Sammy said, “driving a Chrysler. It was a
old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they
worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now
why did I do that?”
“Because you’re a good man!” the grandmother said at once.
“Yes’m, I suppose so,” Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer.
His wife brought the orders, carrying the five plates all at once without a tray, two
in each hand and one balanced on her arm. “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s
that you can trust,” she said. “And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” she
repeated, looking at Red Sammy.
“Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that’s escaped?” asked the
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” said the
woman. “If he hears about it being here, I wouldn’t be none surprised to see him. If he
hears it’s two cent in the cash register, I wouldn’t be a tall surprised if he . . .”
“That’ll do,” Red Sam said. “Go bring these people their Co’-Colas,” and the woman
went off to get the rest of the order.
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible. I
remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no
He and the grandmother discussed better times. The old lady said that in her
opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way
Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no
use talking about it, she was exactly right. The children ran outside into the white
sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree. He was busy catching
fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a
They drove off again into the hot afternoon. The grandmother took cat naps and
woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. Outside of Toombsboro she woke
up and recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when
she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and
that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors
on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the
garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey
would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked
about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors
were still standing. “There was a secret panel in this house,” she said craftily, not
telling the truth but wishing that she were, “and the story went that all the family
silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .”
“Hey!” John Wesley said. “Let’s go see it! We’ll find it! We’ll poke all the woodwork
and find it! Who lives there? Where do you turn off at? Hey Pop, can’t we turn off
“We never have seen a house with a secret panel!” June Star shrieked. “Let’s go to
the house with the secret panel! Hey Pop, can’t we go see the house with the secret
“It’s not far from here, I know,” the grandmother said. “It wouldn’t take over
Bailey was looking straight ahead. His jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe. “No,” he
The children began to yell and scream that they wanted to see the house with the
secret panel. John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over
her mother’s shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any
fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do. The
baby began to scream and John Wesley kicked the back of the seat so hard that his
father could feel the blows in his kidney.
“All right!” he shouted and drew the car to a stop at the side of the road. “Will you
all shut up? Will you all just shut up for one second? If you don’t shut up, we won’t go
“It would be very educational for them,” the grandmother murmured.
“All right,” Bailey said, “but get this: this is the only time we’re going to stop for
anything like this. This is the one and only time.”
“The dirt road that you have to turn down is about a mile back,” the grandmother
directed. “I marked it when we passed.”
“A dirt road,” Bailey groaned.
After they had turned around and were headed toward the dirt road, the
grandmother recalled other points about the house, the beautiful glass over the front
doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall. John Wesley said that the secret panel was
probably in the fireplace.
“You can’t go inside this house,” Bailey said. “You don’t know who lives there.”
“While you all talk to the people in front, I’ll run around behind and get in a
window,” John Wesley suggested.
“We’ll all stay in the car,” his mother said. They turned onto the dirt road and the
car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The grandmother recalled the times
when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day’s journey. The dirt road
was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous
embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of
trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with
the dust-coated trees looking down on them.
“This place had better turn up in a minute,” Bailey said, “or I’m going to turn
The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.
“It’s not much farther,” the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible
thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the
face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner.
The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it
rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing,the cat, sprang onto Bailey’s shoulder.
The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was
thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The
car turned over once and landed right-side-up in a gulch off the side of the road.
Bailey remained in the driver’s seat with the cat-gray-striped with a broad white face
and an orange nose-clinging to his neck like a caterpillar.
As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled
out of the car, shouting, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” The grandmother was curled up
under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come
down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was
that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.
Bailey removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window
against the side of a pine tree. Then he got out of the car and started looking for the
children’s mother. She was sitting against the side of the red gutted ditch, holding the
screaming baby, but she only had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder. “We’ve
had an ACCIDENT!” the children screamed in a frenzy of delight.
“But nobody’s killed,” June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother
limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim
standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side. They all sat
down in the ditch, except the children, to recover from the shock. They were all
“Maybe a car will come along,” said the children’s mother hoarsely.
“I believe I have injured an organ,” said the grandmother, pressing her side, but no
one answered her. Bailey’s teeth were clattering. He had on a yellow sport shirt with
bright blue parrots designed in it and his face was as yellow as the l shirt. The
grandmother decided that she would not mention that the house was in Tennessee.
The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees
on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods,
tall and dark and deep. In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of
a hill, coming slowly as if the occupants were watching them. The grandmother stood
up and waved both arms dramatically to attract their attention. The car continued to
come on slowly, disappeared around a bend and appeared again, moving even slower,
on top of the hill they had gone over. It was a big black battered hearse-like
automobile. There were three men in it.
It came to a stop just over them and for some minutes, the driver looked down
with a steady expressionless gaze to where they were sitting, and didn’t speak. Then
he turned his head and muttered something to the other two and they got out. One
was a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on
the front of it. He moved around on the right side of them and stood staring, his
mouth partly open in a kind of loose grin. The other had on khaki pants and a blue
striped coat and a gray hat pulled down very low, hiding most of his face. He came
around slowly on the left side. Neither spoke.
The driver got out of the car and stood by the side of it, looking down at them. He
was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore
silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He had a long creased face
and didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on blue jeans that were too tight
for him and was holding a black hat and a gun. The two boys also had guns.
“We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” the children screamed.
The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was
someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him au her life
but she could not recall who he was. He moved away from the car and began to come
down the embankment, placing his feet carefully so that he wouldn’t slip. He had on
tan and white shoes and no socks, and his ankles were red and thin. “Good
afternoon,” he said. “I see you all had you a little spill.”
“We turned over twice!” said the grandmother.
“Once”,” he corrected. “We seen it happen. Try their car and see will it run,
Hiram,” he said quietly to the boy with the gray hat.
“What you got that gun for?” John Wesley asked. “Whatcha gonna do with that
“Lady,” the man said to the children’s mother, “would you mind calling them
children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous. I want all you all to sit down
right together there where you’re at.”
“What are you telling US what to do for?” June Star asked.
Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth. “Come here,” said
“Look here now,” Bailey began suddenly, “we’re in a predicament! We’re in . . .”
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re
The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!”
“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to
be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of
Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked
even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.
“Lady,” he said, “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean.
I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”
“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” the grandmother said and removed a
clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and
then covered it up again. “I would hate to have to,” he said.
“Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man. You don’t
look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”
“Yes mam,” he said, “finest people in the world.” When he smiled he showed a row
of strong white teeth. “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my
daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said. The boy with the red sweat shirt had come
around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip. The Misfit squatted
down on the ground. “Watch them children, Bobby Lee,” he said. “You know they
make me nervous.” He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and
he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn’t think of anything to say. “Ain’t a cloud
in the sky,” he remarked, looking up at it. “Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud
“Yes, it’s a beautiful day,” said the grandmother. “Listen,” she said, “you shouldn’t
call yourself The Misfit because I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at
you and tell “
“Hush!” Bailey yelled. “Hush! Everybody shut up and let me handle this!” He was
squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn’t move.
“I prechate that, lady,” The Misfit said and drew a little circle in the ground with
the butt of his gun.
“It’ll take a half a hour to fix this here car,” Hiram called, looking over the raised
hood of it.
“Well, first you and Bobby Lee get him and that little boy to step over yonder with
you,” The Misfit said, pointing to Bailey and John Wesley. “The boys want to ast you
something,” he said to Bailey. “Would you mind stepping back in them woods there
“Listen,” Bailey began, “we’re in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this
is,” and his voice cracked. His eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt
and he remained perfectly still.
The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the
woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second
she let it fall on the ground. Hiram pulled Bailey up by the arm as if he were assisting
an old man. John Wesley caught hold of his father’s hand and Bobby Lee followed.
They went off toward the woods and just as they reached the dark edge, Bailey turned
and supporting himself against a gray naked pine trunk, he shouted, “I’ll be back in a
minute, Mamma, wait on me!”
“Come back this instant!” his mother shrilled but they all disappeared into the
“Bailey Boy!” the grandmother called in a tragic voice but she found she was
looking at The Misfit squatting on the ground in front of her. “I just know you’re a
good man,” she said desperately. “You’re not a bit common!”
“Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered
her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I
was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. ‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘it’s
some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to
know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’“ He
put on his black hat and looked up suddenly and then away deep into the woods as if
he were embarrassed again. “I’m sorry I don’t have on a shirt before you ladies,” he
said, hunching his shoulders slightly. “We buried our clothes that we had on when we
escaped and we’re just making do until we can get better. We borrowed these from
some folks we met,” he explained.
“That’s perfectly all right,” the grandmother said. “Maybe Bailey has an extra shirt
in his suitcase.”
“I’ll look and see terrectly,” The Misfit said.
“Where are they taking him?” the children’s mother screamed.
“Daddy was a card himself,” The Misfit said. “You couldn’t put anything over on
him. He never got in trouble with the Authorities though. Just had the knack of
“You could be honest too if you’d only try,” said the grandmother. “Think how
wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think
about somebody chasing you all the time.”
The Misfit kept scratching in the …