The son Shirley raised hasn't forgotten his family. "If not for Karl, I don't know what direction I'd be headed in—I love him," Jenny says. She cried when Karl bought her a little red runabout so she could get to beauty school and back. Torese, Jenny's son, says "Yes, sir" to Uncle Karl out of loving respect. Torese won't wear anything on his feet but purple-trimmed Cons—what Uncle Karl wears. Torese wears his hair cut like Uncle Karl's, too.
"Karl was a happy child, a loving child," says Shirley. Karl was four when his father, J.P., left and still a boy when J.P. died of bone cancer. Shirley had eight children then. But Shirley can't be beaten down. She worked for 18 years at the sawmills in northern Louisiana, where she ran forklifts and operated planers. Then she worked the poultry houses at night, cutting chickens into parts.
"I saw my mother wear cardboard in her shoes, just so each of us could have a good pair," says Malone. "I saw what the water did to that cardboard. I can never repay her."
Ed Turner also saw. "She worked so hard," he says. Turner and Shirley were married in 1975, and Turner, a plumber by trade, tried to get her to retire, so he opened Turner's Grocery & Washateria on Alternate Route 2 near Summerfield, 26 miles from El Dorado, Ark. Shirley still works hard: She puts in about 65 hours a week in the store.
Ed had wanted a child. So Shirley had Tiffany, who, at nine, is the baby, after Karl. "Karl would get into devilment every now and then," says Shirley.
"But he was always respectful," says Ed. "Called his elders ma'am and sir."
Shirley tells about the time Karl and Terry stole melons from a neighbor's patch and broke open some of the ones they didn't steal. The neighbor came to Shirley and said he knew she was hardworking, so he didn't want money; he just wanted to make sure this didn't happen again. That was not enough for Shirley. For the next six weeks, Karl and Terry cut and stacked wood for the neighbor and threw a big log on his fireplace every night.
Ed will tell you of the time Karl flipped a car. Ed was going to break the news to Shirley. Karl said no. "Wanted to do it himself," says Ed. "He was responsible."
In late September, just before the Mailman left for his winter home in Salt Lake City, Shirley piled Tiffany and a couple of grandbabies into the car, put a lawn-sized garbage bag filled with greens in the trunk and drove over to Dallas, where she made Sunday dinner for Karl: hot-water bread, fried chicken, catfish, potato salad and the greens. "You know, I'd like to find a woman I could marry one day," says the Mailman. "But I think I expect a little too much."
"It'll have to be a country woman," says Shirley. "She can have lived in the city all her life, but she has to have a country heart. We don't go out to eat every night. We cook. We work. We save. We're just country people."