I must have been about five the first time Grandpa Eli told me the story of the Pickers and the Picks. He was sitting in his rocking chair on the back porch of the modest plantation house he’d built twenty years earlier. My imaginary friend, Claudia, and I were having a tea party under the shade of the weeping willow. A clump of purple flowers plucked from the wisteria vine trailing along the back picket fence served as our grapes, while half-a-dozen emerald leaves pilfered from a hothouse geranium represented mint cookies.
“Becky Leigh,” he called. “Did I ever tell you the story of the Pickers and the Picks?”
“No, sir.” I headed for the porch. “What are Pickers, Grandpa?”
“Pickers are mainly folks who are big on the outside, but small on the inside.” He gave a push and the oak rocker resumed its familiar cadence. “Not necessarily tall and heavy big. Pickers are more like puffed up big.”
I climbed into his lap, nestled into the crook of his shoulder. “Like popcorn puffs up when you cook it?”
“No, more like a sore that’s got infected and is puffed up with mucus and poisons.”
He laughed. “That’s a true fact, Miss Becky.”
“What do Pickers do?” I asked.
“Pickers hunt for someone who looks like easy pickin’s.”
“Easy pickin’s? You mean like when Momma makes Papa and me pick dewberries along the railroad track instead of by Lost Mule Bog because she says it’s easy pickin’s along the tracks? But it’s not really. It’s just the bog is messier, and you know how she hates messes.”
Grandpa stopped rocking. “Are you going to be quiet and let me finish my story, young’un?”
I covered my mouth to stifle a giggle. It was the funniest thing, my grandpa pretending to be mad at me. “Yes, sir. I’ll be quiet.”
The rocker started up again. “As I was saying, a Picker hunts for someone he thinks will be easy pickin’s. That’s usually someone smaller, younger, or weaker in some way. It can be someone whose only weakness is that he or she is a nice person.”
I tapped Grandpa’s shoulder. “How does a Picker change nice people into Picks?”
“Well, he screams and hollers at them. He makes them do things they know they shouldn’t do. Champion Pickers are experts at bullyin’, intimidatin’, and dominatin’ other folks.” The rocker stopped once more. “Do you understand anything I’m saying, Becky?”
“I think so. Maybe. Will I be a Picker or a Pick when I grow up, Grandpa?”
“Can’t say for sure. Let’s try an experiment.” He helped me down and pointed to a line of ants marching across the porch floor. “Go stand by those ants.”
I did as I was told.
“Now, Becky, I want you to stomp them ants as hard as you can.”
“Why should I kill the ants, Grandpa? They’re not hurting me.”
“Because you can, girl. Because you can.”
I began to stomp. I stomped the ants in the middle of the line, the ants in the back of the line, and all the ants at the head of the line. I stomped so hard my cat’s dish vibrated across the floor, tumbled over the edge, and landed in the azalea bushes that circled the back porch. I didn’t stop stomping until all the ants were either dead or beyond my reach.
Grandpa Eli motioned for me to come back. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. “That’s what Pickers do, Becky. They hurt other living things just because they can.” Pulling me closer, he asked, “How did stomping those ants make you feel?”
I lowered my eyes. “Bad. I felt bad, but . . .”
“But when I was stomping them I felt . . .”
“You felt strong?”
I nodded, too ashamed to acknowledge my Picker-like feelings in words.
“How do you think the ants felt?”
“Terrible,” I said. “And so will Pinecone when he sees his supper is gone.”
“Don’t you worry about that cat. He won’t starve. But that’s what happens when a Picker gets riled up. Lots of innocent folks get hurt too.”
“Does this mean I’m gonna be a Picker when I grow up?”
“It’s all up to you, child. You don’t have to be a Picker or a Pick. You can choose to be nice to people and insist that they be nice to you.”
I climbed back into his lap. “And if they’re not nice to me?”
“If you stand up to the Pickers in this world, they’ll leave you alone. Remember, they like easy pickin’s.”
“Have you ever been a Picker, Grandpa, or a Pick?”
“Sure. At certain times in life, most people are either a Pick or Picker. It usually takes a lifetime for folks to figure out they don’t have to be either one.”
“Grandpa, do you think a Picker, a champion Picker that is, can ever change?”
“Maybe. With the passage of time and a heap of prayers, I think anyone can change.”
I gave him a hug. “I think we should start praying for Momma right away.”
Grandpa Eli smiled. “I think you’re right, Becky Leigh.”
I did start praying. But after both my grandfather and my beloved Papa died, and after the only noticeable change in Momma—despite eight years of fervent prayers—was her new husband, I stopped. I let the tales of Pickers and Picks slip from my mind and forgot Grandpa Eli’s warnings on the perils of becoming easy pickin’s.
Not until one day in November of ’63 did I recall the lessons of the porch. That was the morning Momma and her new husband, Frank, went to the Miller’s house to watch President Kennedy’s funeral, and the time I got caught slipping into my new stepbrother’s room to borrow some paper. It was also the day a seventeen-year-old boy decided to teach a thirteen-year-old girl a lesson she wouldn’t forget. That was the day I knew for sure I was a Pick.