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There are many things in life that I have never figured out, things which forever seem a mystery. There was a time, with the arrogance of youth, when I thought I could—given enough time—figure out anything. Science, now, that’s how you do it, and mathematics. By the 1950s we had figured out how to fly faster than the speed of sound; we had flung satellites in orbit, and we would, before the end of the century, put a man on the moon and return him safely home. We had discovered penicillin. We had recently conquered the scourge of polio. Surely, there was nothing that lay beyond our reach or beyond our understanding. So I thought before I learned how very much we really did not know and how puzzling the simplest events could be. So I profoundly believed—before Uncle Grover conjured my wart.

Toads To Blame

I played in the dirt and handled toads routinely in those days. Such was the way of child’s play where I lived. And child’s play is a child’s job. Warts were, therefore, an occupational hazard. My wart was of astonishing size and was situated at the extreme vertex of my elbow. When I touched the alien growth with the fingers of my opposite hand, it lacked feeling and moved about as if only incidentally attached to my arm. Looking in the mirror, my arm twisted awkwardly upward, I observed it. It was as if one of my cat’s eye marbles had taken up residence under the skin on my elbow. I stared at it in the glass for a long time. It was amazing and frightening at the same time.

I suppose I had infused the knot of flesh with a virus—an organism of which we were ignorant then—by my habit of resting my chin on my fists, my elbows securing a foothold in the dirt, to form a steady A-frame. Thus stabilized, I—preternaturally a scientist at heart—could satisfy my curiosity by looking at things: by observing ants scurrying down a trail among the leaves; by staring at the ripples tadpoles made in the rainwater of the bar ditch; or by watching the waves break on the beach of the Bayfront. My wart was a huge and awkward knob of flesh. It was annoying.

Once, during a visit to Ma Bertie and Pa’s house in Panama City, Florida, my grandmother noticed the ugly growth. She reached out and gently stroked my elbow with her free hand. “What you got there, honey chile?”

“Just a wart.”

“Does it bother y’all?”

“Some.”

She paused a minute and stirred silently some Sun Perch she was frying for supper. Then she spoke deliberately. “Go down the street to the white house at the end, the one with the big porch. Show your wart to your Uncle Grover. He’ll know what to do ‘bout it. . . . Run along now; supper’s almost ready.”

A Visit to Uncle Grover’s House

I did as she instructed, but not without trepidation. Uncle Grover Cleveland Moates was one of my Pa’s elder brothers. He was an even more ancient variation on my grandfather, smelling of decrepitude and Camel cigarette smoke, with age-spotted hands, and deeply creased, leathery skin clinging to his jowls where sprouted a thin haze of white stubble. He said little the few times before when I had visited him with my grandparents on his porch, and what he said was gruff. To go to his house alone was intimidating. I walked past the live oaks beside the lane, their menacing Spanish moss fingers admonishing me not to venture into the unknown at the end of the street. The ominous shadows of the evening also were creeping ahead of me toward Uncle Grover’s house as I walked toward it. They arrived just before I did. But I was relieved when I saw my great uncle lounging out front in a ladder backed chair, his lanky legs crossed before him. I had no desire to enter his alien white-washed frame house. Who knew what lurked inside?

Walking up to his slightly bent, cadaverous form, I pretended more courage than I felt and showed him my wart. “Ma Bertie said I should show you this here wart.”

Uncle Grover pushed back on his balding head a felt hat and adjusted a pair of rimless spectacles that rode astride his monumental “Moates” nose.

“She’s a big ‘un, ain’t she?” He commented as he uncrossed his legs and sat upright. “You want me to conjure it for y’all?”

“What do you mean?

“Conjure it; make it go away.”

“You can do that?”

“They call me a ‘wart taker’ cuz conjuring works a’time. Done it for lots a folks afore. You want me to get ridda the wart, or not?”

“I guess so.”

A Wart is Conjured

“Well, just stand still, boy! Stop yore fidgetin’. Let’s us just see what we can do.” He grasped each of my shoulders with his bony right and left hands and roughly squared up his hesitant client to face him head on. He slid forward to the edge of his chair. It creaked a small complaint as he moved. I stood on the ground before him, trembling slightly. Doubling up my arm, my uncle, the wart taker, held it against my chest with one hand where I could feel my heart beating hard against the inside of my chest. He began gently rubbing the end of my elbow with the upturned palm of his other hand and simultaneously mumbling a quiet incantation. His gaze was fixed in concentration: distant, looking over my shoulder.

After a few seconds he announced, “Wart’ll be gone in a few days.”

I felt a little disappointed. “You don’t gotta bury a dead cat or something?”

“No, there’s no need. Best things are simple. No need for prettification.”

I thanked him in my most polite manner. (My mother would have been proud, I thought.) Parting amenities completed, I ran back to my grandparents’ house and dinner, happy to be done with the unsettling ritual. I, nevertheless, was skeptical and would have forever remained so until two days later when we returned home to Mobile. I reached into the car through an open window to fetch a toy from the backseat and brushed my elbow against the door frame. The wart ripped from my arm and fell onto the floor, a bloody knot of flesh. I stopped doubting Uncle Grover then. He had, indeed, conjured my wart. It was not as I had expected, nor do I know how he did it, but it was, in fact, gone from my arm, never to return.

I Despair of Understanding

There are things that I have learned to be true that I don’t understand. There are other things I will never understand, partly because I will not live long enough and partly because I have been to the edges of my understanding and looked over. And partly, too, because some things defy figuring out.

I can still hear Uncle Grover’s gravelly voice saying, “Well, Sammy Gene, you don’t need to dress it up any. Sometimes a thing is just itself, and it’s a mystery.”

I think I hear him mumbling: slow, low, solemn: “Wart, go away! Wart, go away! Wart, go away!” His hand is trembling, circling gently, touching my planter’s wart that mistook my elbow for a foot. His hand is as soft as a whisper in your ear, as gentle as a moth’s wing upon your forearm, touching, doing its work profoundly but also almost imperceptibly. I know now that Uncle Grover Cleveland Moates, a retired octogenarian, sitting on his porch in overalls, was wiser and closer to the truth than many whom I have met and who wear black gabardine university gowns and sit on the dais and from whom all wonder has drained away.

Some things, I have concluded, are and will ever remain, indeed, just themselves— a mystery.

The Moates boys (left to right): Noah Webster, Grover Cleveland, Christopher Columbus, John Adams Family photo.

The Moates boys (left to right): Noah Webster, Grover Cleveland (wart conjurer), Christopher Columbus, John Adams Photo credit: Annette Moates Sasser (Uncle Grover’s granddaughter) ca. 1952

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