Tiny Cagle

Tiny Cagle once lived on Cherry Street, in Sylva’s Rhodes Cove.

I have been thinking about a little woman a great deal lately. Her name was Tinnie Tolley Cagle.

I think that her first name, “Tinnie” is actually a misspelling of her nick-name, “Tiny.” Since she was born on July 14, 1897, and died on May 3, 1984, we know she lived to be 86. Other details of her life are uncertain. Her birth certificate gives Clay County as her birthplace, but she once told me that she thought she was born in Georgia. Maybe not; she was never sure. Her husband Robinson Cagle’s death certificate notes that he was married to “Ina” Cagle. An accompanying document lists his wife as “Ida” Cagle. The misinformation seems endless.

Tiny and Robinson were my neighbors for two decades, and I have vague memories of them 40 years before that when I frequently saw them sitting on a bench below the old Welch & Cable store. They were lively, waving at people passing and calling out to friends. They attracted attention because they were a “mismatched” couple. Robinson was tall and lank while Tiny was not much more than four feet tall, due to her malformed spine. When standing, Tiny looked like a question mark. She was sensitive about her appearance and always attempted to face people, trying to avoid turning her back. When I knew her well enough to ask, I once inquired about the deformity. “A mean ole boy hit me with a rake,” she said. “I was just a baby.”

Then, she smiled, which is something she did a lot. “Sit down and I’ll git you a Coca-Coly.”

The little shack where Tiny and Robinson lived was located in a bend of the Cherry Street road that was thick in rhododendron and laurel. In mid-summer, the foliage sometimes concealed part of the house, and a passing motorist might only catch glimpses of Tiny’s and Robinson’s smiling faces peering out at them. People who walked by were often greeted by Tiny, who would come into the road to talk to people, inviting them to “come and sit on the porch.” I think it was then that I would often feel that this odd couple were not of this earth. It was as though they originated in a fairyland filled with magical creatures, and that, perhaps, they had ventured through a magic door into our harsh world filled with speeding cars and barking dogs. The door had closed and they were unable to return, so they were condemned to stay here, dependent on the uncertain charity of our world.

When I became a frequent visitor, I was sometimes invited inside, where I found an astonishing collection of cast-off items. Three-legged chairs, odd pieces of Linoleum on a wooden floor; lots of religious pictures, a small wood-stove, a ramshackle bed and an ancient sink. I don’t think there was an ice-box. There was no hot water or indoor plumbing, but Tiny had a remarkable water system. It ran through a rubber tube from a neighbor’s spring, under the road and into Tiny’s kitchen. It ran continuously.

In the summer when the neighbors’ gardens were in full production, I would sometimes see baskets of tomatoes, beans and okra. I remember once when she came into the road and stopped my car, clapping her little hands, saying “Honey, I have a peck of peaches. Come have one.”

If you didn’t stop her, she would load a cracked plate with a mix of cream corn, a can of Vienna sausage, a Moon pie, and Ritz crackers. When I drove by in mid-December and saw smoke from the chimney, I wondered how they were living. It pained me to think of the two of them, huddled in that house, feeding wood to that little stove. Any inquiry was dismissed with a great, beaming smile.

“Oh, Honey, we are fine. Had eggs and a biscuit for breakfast.”

Did they? I hope so.

Tiny had a habit that sometimes brought the local police to her house. She stood in the middle of that snug little curve that went around her house while she played sentinel. The place where she stood was called “Tiny’s Curve.” (The name had a certain irony since the term also described this little woman’s spine.) Usually, after a near mishap, in which a vehicle swerved into the ditch to avoid hitting Tiny, the police would explain why she couldn’t stand in the road like that. Tiny would smile and nod. She would ask the policeman his name and ask if he liked cats. That was the real problem. Tiny’s cats.

Early each morning, they would come boiling out from under that little shack, a great multitude of orange, grey and black, and Tiny would feed them. She had condensed milk and sacks of pellets, scraps of bread and meat. I think she must have spent the majority of every day gathering that feast. She sat on a little stool and held court, chanting a strange little nonsense song. She talked to those cats and each one had a name: Queenie, Rose, Billy, Mary, Linda Lou, Patches, Blackie, Betty, Big Mouth, Sweetie, and on and on. She inquired about their wounds and checked them for problems.

I guess you see what is coming, Dear Reader. A week rarely passed without a fatality. I would drive by to see a mangled kitten in the road.

Tiny removed them all and buried them behind the house. Then, she would say harsh things about cars and dogs.

I remember a summer when I was sitting on the porch with Robinson and he was telling me about the time he was snake-bit some 40 years ago. He would remove his shoe and trace a crooked scar with his finger.

“I was working for the WPA,” he said, clearing brush. “Thought I was going to die. After that I couldn’t work without fainting.”

It was in the midst of this tale, that the car came. It was coming much too fast and there, as always, was Tiny in the middle of the road. The driver swerved and skidded. He ended up with his SUV in the yard, just a few feet from where Robinson and I sat. An entire family stared at us and we stared back. Meanwhile, Tiny was busy picking up gravel on the side of the road and when she had a good handful, she came and threw it at the SUV. Robinson stood and spoke to the driver.

“I’m real sorry about that,” he said. “She is crazy and I can’t do a thing with her.”

By that time, Tiny had returned with another handful of gravel which she threw at the windshield. The driver made an attempt to back up, succeeded and then decided to get out and talk to Tiny, who had gathered another handful of gravel. The driver reconsidered and got back in his car and drove away. Tiny got him through the open window with gravel, sand and a cloud of dust.

After that, Tiny returned to her post, checking out Cherry Street for cars and dogs. Robinson went back to telling me about the hardships of working for the WPA, and Tiny went back to reporting on the dangers of living on Cherry Street.

“I see a red car with a Georgia tag down at the Painters,” she said. “Must be that daughter that lives in Atlanta, home for a visit.”

Tiny prowls the roadside, like some ancient mariner, searching the sea for threats, her hand shielding her eyes. Then, she announces alarm.

“Old black dog, prowling around the Carden barn and it is coming this way. Looks like a cat killer.”

All of this was more than 30 years ago. Time moved on as it must and one morning, as I was leaving for work, I found Tiny standing at the foot of my driveway. “I gotta go away,” she said, “both me and Robinson. They’re putting me in the hospital and I guess we will end up in the county home.” Tiny was crying now, but she was smiling as always.

“I was wondering, would you feed my cats?” She grabbed my hand through the window. I’ll pay you back.” I said I would.

Tiny and Robinson ended up in a complex social service agency that left them in different locations. Both were dead within two years. The machinery of progress swept up Cherry Street taking the little shack on Tiny’s Curve like chaff in the wind. Nothing remains now except a space devoid of habitation, cats or interest.

Okay, folks, I am sorry but I am going to get sentimental here and say something corny.

If there is a Heaven, I sincerely hope that there is a little rhododendron thicket just inside, and that Tiny and Robinson are sitting there, in that fey little vine-covered shack, greeting the new arrivals. I would like to think that they finally got back into that magical land from whence they came long ago when they crossed the boundary between Heaven and Rhodes Cove. Of course, I also hope that there are no cars in sight – and that there are lots of cats on the porch.