Southern Folks: Ghost at the grocery store

Southern Folks

When I was a little boy, living over in Middle Tennessee with my grandmother, Miz Lena, I loved going with her to the grocery store. Most times, Elizabeth, Grand Mom's longtime housekeeper, would come along.

If I played my cards right, I could talk Grand Mom into buying a pack of Pinwheel cookies. It helped that she loved them too. And it wasn't too hard for me to convince her that we should buy cereals that offered free prizes inside the box.

I think she kinda understood. Most of her everyday plates, glasses, cups and saucers she got free out of boxes of laundry detergent. There were stacks of unopened boxes of Cheer and Tide out in the garage.

Saturday mornings, the garage door would roll up, and Miz Lena, over the course of several grueling minutes and a few inches at a time, would back out her very wide '57 Caddy. It was mint green with a huge chrome grill, wide whitewalls, silver-shiny hubcaps and swooping fins in the back. She'd bought it brand new a year ago. I doubt she'd driven it more than a thousand miles.

Grand Mom would put it in park, and Old Tom, a big-bellied black man who had worked for my grandmother for several years, would take over from there. He'd spray it down with the hose and manually bubble-bath it to a sparkle. I'd keep him company. He'd grunt and rub. Old Tom used to tell me, with a twinkle in his eyes but certainty in his voice, "It all in how you does da windas an' da wheels dat make it shine."

Grand Mom, her grocery list in hand and Old Tom just behind her, would walk around the car and give the Caddy an up-close and thorough inspection. She'd point to a water spot, and Tom would immediately rub it out. She'd always find something.

Once Grand Mom deemed our ride was aesthetically fit to drive down the road and into the public's scrutiny, she'd say, "Good job, Tom. Awright, y'all, let's git goin'. At this rate, we'll be lucky to git back home before dark." It was only 8:30 in the morning.

Elizabeth and I would pile into the back seat. Me, always behind Grand Mom. Elizabeth, across from me. In the mid-'50s, black people weren't allowed to sit up front. No respectable Southern housewife would dare be seen riding along with a black woman in the passenger seat.

Even with her seat raised and pulled up as far as it could go, Miz Lena could barely see above the dashboard through the steering wheel. She looked like she was driving a big green battleship.

I was happy to sit in the back seat with Elizabeth. Riding up front with Grand Mom was no fun. Ever since her near-fatal car wreck, she was hyper-sensitive to all sounds and movement. It's hard to sit perfectly still when you're only 8 years old.

Whenever I did end up sitting in the front, she was constantly getting after me with, "Looka here, stop all that kickin' the seat. Yuh better not be puttin' a scratch on my white upholstery. Yore gonna mess around and cause me to run into somebody. Now, sit still and don't be askin' me all them questions."

If she had actually hit someone, it wouldn't have done much damage. Miz Lena rarely drove more than 10 miles per hour. From the time we pulled out of the gate until we got to the store, it looked like we were leading a funeral procession all the way up the road to the Piggly Wiggly parking lot.

The many drivers behind us probably reckoned the leader of the convoy was a senior citizen. Nobody honked. They wouldn't dare. That would be rude. People were more respectful and patient with old folks back then. Besides, there just wasn't that much a rush. They'd get to where they were going soon enough. Hopefully.

As we headed into the curve, about halfway into town, there was an old white, two-story house on the left. You could tell that it had been a grand place at one time. Now, it was overgrown and faded.

The sidewalk up to the porch had been blackened by the winters. Anything that wasn't dead was overgrown. A big red shutter on the side of the front picture window was crooked and holding on by a thread. A rusted flagpole in the center of the gravel driveway had managed to stay upright. You could see a little piece of Old Glory still flapping from the chain. Somebody had taken target practice on the oversize, caved-in mailbox up by the road.

There was a balcony above the front porch, with yellowing drapes pulled across the big windows. According to Elizabeth, that's where Ms. Marker, the Ghost Lady, was. Just sitting there. Rocking. Talking to herself.

Next to Grand Mom, Elizabeth was the most pragmatic woman I knew. She was in charge of the day from the time she woke up. But when it came to spooky stuff, she was a mess. The big red devil with horns, all snakes and her occasional ghost sightings were her undoing. She'd go from jovial to "uh-oh" in a heartbeat.

In a loud and cautious whisper, she told me all the "goobly-gobblies" about Ms. Marker. Elizabeth's expressions shook me more than her story. She'd be wide-eyed, rubbing her hands, looking around. Pretty soon, I started looking around, too.

She said, "Her name be Ms. Marker. She got one foot in da grave. Da other one, she still here. She half dead and half alive. If yuh gits too close to her house, she suck you in. Peoples goes missin' up around dere all da time."

Elizabeth started bobbing her head back and forth, put her hands on her hips, leaned down, got right up in my face and loud-whisper shouted, "And she shop at da Piggly Wiggly!"

Sometimes, Elizabeth could scare the willies out of me.

I was on my knees at the cereal section thumbing through the choices, checking out the pictures of the prize offerings inside the boxes. Important decisions to make. Sugar Crisp generally had the best freebies. Elizabeth, with the shopping cart, was standing behind me, going over Miz Lena's list. Grand Mom was up by the cash register, socializing with the "regulars."

As I was perusing, I remember hearing a "clonk-clonk-clonk" sound. I looked down the aisle and saw a little old lady, wearing a gray pleated cloak, hat and gloves and no taller than her shopping cart. She was looking at something. That was about it. Nothing special about her. I went back to my research.

Next thing I knew, Elizabeth was high-stepping it, going the other way, up the aisle and around the corner. Something was wrong. I took off after her, a box of Sugar Crisp in hand.

I caught up with Elizabeth two aisles over. She grabbed me by the shoulders and exclaimed, "Dat's was da ghost lady! Right next to us! She dat little white lady! Sweet Child, we needs to find Miz Lena and git outta here."

On the way home, dead silence in the car. Elizabeth had managed to squeeze into my regular seat behind Grand Mom. That left me closest and most vulnerable to the Ghost Lady's spell. I was so thankful that we passed by without me getting sucked out of the car. I could see, from the corner of her eye, that Elizabeth was watching and that, she too, was relieved that I had made it.

Out of the blue, Miz Lena said, "Looka here, what's goin' on with you two?" I told her that Elizabeth had seen Ms. Marker in the store.

Grand Mom said, "Elizabeth, if you seen her, then you seen another one a' yore ghosts. Evelyn Marker's been dead for years. I knew her. Not bigger than a minute. She was a swimmin' champion, till she got her leg cut off in a car wreck. She lived in that old house back yonder for all her life. They couldn't get her to wear a fake leg. She'd just hop around. She finally settled for wearin' a peg leg. Her on that stump. Yuh could hear her comin' from a mile away, makin' that "clonk clonk clonk" noise."

I felt a chill go up my back. I looked over at Elizabeth. She was looking at me with her eyes as wide open as they could get and a "see there, I told you so" expression on her face.

From that time forward, anytime we fired up the Caddy and headed toward Piggly Wiggly, Elizabeth and I scooted back and forth across the back seat, staying as far away from the Ghost Lady's property as possible.

We never saw Ms. Marker again. Thank goodness. Boo!

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment industry before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at or through Facebook.