By June Adkins (USA)
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(This is a chapter in a book.)
Coming from town late on Saturday. I yelled at my brother, “Hayes! Slow down. You’re gonna miss the turn!
Hayes is my brother, my favorite brother actually. He’s just 1 year younger than me, over 6 feet tall with nice wide shoulders and strong arms. He’s gonna graduate this year, the class of 1936. The other three brothers are so much younger, that mostly, I get to mother them. My two little sisters, too.
He chuckled and gunned the engine. We swerved around the corner onto McElmo Road. The kids huddled in the back, slammed against the side of the pickup bed.
“Why do you do stuff like that?”
“Aw, Emmy, don’t get your bowels in an uproar. I know what I’m doing.”
“We could lose one of your brothers or sisters that way,” I said as severely as possible.
A light seemed to dawn. “Sorry.”
I patted his shoulder. “It’s all right, Hayes. Just be more careful, okay?”
He geared down as we started the slow descent onto the canyon floor. The best gardening in Colorado, or so it was said; biggest peaches, tomatoes, best melons. Everything grew better in McElmo Canyon.
“Why is that?” I asked Hayes, like he knew what I was thinking.
“Why is what?”
“Why does everything grow so good down the canyon? Bigger, tastier, juicier?”
Hayes gave me his know-it-all grunt. “Elevation.”
Elevation of Montezuma Valley is over 5,000 feet; down the canyon it’s 4,000, some places lower, on farther down.”
He went on. His strained patience told me real clear, “stupid girl.”
“Lower altitude so it’s warmer down here and the soil’s real fertile. Makes real good garden crops.”
“That’s why,” he concluded.
Early spring rain and snow mix skittered across the dirty, nicked windshield.
The old pickup bounced over the icy ruts. I glanced through the back window at the five lumps huddled together under the old quilts in the pickup bed. Hope they’re okay.
“Did you get what you needed in town?” I asked him.
“No, they didn’t have the right kinda pistons for my project no place in town. Maybe Miller’s got some. Long way down there, to the bottom of the canyon, but gotta get some somewhere.”
The pickup coughed and sputtered.
“Sure do need to replace this old junker,” I said. “Maybe when Papa’s feeling better.”
Sometimes Papa got so sick with the asthma, but this time was worse, lots worse. “Is Papa gonna get better, Hayes?”
He swallowed and blinked. “Sure he is. Don’t you even think otherwise.”
I shut up for a few minutes. Until I couldn’t stand it.
“Well, I got most everything we needed. Coffee and sugar and yeast. Got eucalyptus leaves to make a poultice for Papa, like Mama said.”
I craned my neck around, peered through the back window. “Gotta get Raymond some kinda warm hat or his jug ears gonna freeze right off. Poor kid.”
“Maybe if I used a different kind of piston, it’d work,” Hayes said.
Gone again. He might be sitting right next to you but he was altogether someplace else.
I focused on the cliffs on each side of us, red sandstone, growing higher and higher; the canyon floor growing wider and wider. We turned into our yard, under the naked, clicking branches of the weeping willow and into the shed next to the barn. I woke up the shivering kids and herded them into the house. Back to the regular routine of life on our farm. The best part of it, Saturday in town, was over.
Monday morning, five o’clock and through the kitchen window, I saw Cletus Meyers and his dogs tromping by the house in the cold gray dawn. Hat slouched way down, peeking out from under.
“There he is again, Hayes.”
Hayes looked at me over his coffee cup, shoveled a forkful of biscuits and gravy into his mouth.
“Who’s there, Emmy?” he mumbled through his biscuit.
“Cletus Meyers,” I said.
Hayes swallowed and got up, stared out the window.
“Just walkin’ by,” he said. “Wonder if he’s under orders from Hank Meyers to foul up the ditch.”
I picked up his dishes and put them to soak in the dishpan heating up on the wood stove.
“Aw, gee whiz! I hope not. Last time ol’ Meyers let that dead skunk float down the ditch to get hung up on our footbridge, left it stinky for weeks. Just now able to cross the bridge and get to the outhouse without gagging.”
Hayes wiped egg off his lips with the dishtowel and chuckled. “Ain’t gaggin’ over the skunk stink, anyway.”
I slapped his hand and grabbed the towel.
“Just regular outhouse stink,” I agreed.
“It ain’t true that we take more water than our share, is it, Hayes?”
“Cripes, no. Specially not during the winter. Ol man Meyers is just plain mean.”
I shook my head. “I guess so. He sure is mean to Mae and her mama. Wonder if Cletus ever helps out with the work. Sure don’t look like it.”
“Maybe Cletus got the large hearts for you, Emmy.”
I picked up the iron skillet from the dish water weapon fashion and glared.
“Well, shoot, Emmy, you’re not a bad looking girl. A little tall, your hair’s a little frowzy, but you got a flirty little smile. Nice figure.”
“Hayes Dawson, you better shut your pie hole unless you want to meet up with the business end of this skillet.”
His lips pursed. “Okay, I’ll shut up. You’re scaring me to death.”
We laughed. Then, remembered and quieted ourselves.
“Mama in with Papa?” he whispered.
I nodded. “He ain’t doin’ too well, Hayes.”
He pulled his threadbare jacket over his broad shoulders, anxious to get out to the barn and work on that infernal machine he was building. He sat back down, ran his hand through the perpetual sandy forelock over his eyes.
Time to get out the bowl and give all the kids a haircut, I knew. Not a hard job. Just messy. Kids hate it when I make them sit still with the cereal bowl on their heads and let me cut around the rim. Shake the hair every place. On purpose.
I sighed. I could hear the little kids rustling around upstairs. Samuel, the brother next under Hayes, trying to round ‘em all up, being authoritative. He’d better quit his bossing and hurry up. He’s got chores to do before school.
“Emogene,” Hayes said.
Now he’s got my attention. Nobody calls me by my whole name. Least ways, not the family. I sat down across from him. This was serious.
“Emmy,” he started again. “I’m not going back to school.”
“What!? Hayes, why? You’re almost done, just finish this year. Don’t be a idiot.”
“Don’t need high school. I got ideas that’s gonna make money, big money. I’ll take care of our family. You think that half-built machine in the barn is just a hobby? Hell no, Emmy, that’s our ticket to easy street.”
“Don’t swear,” I said.
He puckered his lips, blue-gray eyes wounded and misunderstood.
I felt bad I was cross. “Well, Hayes, you better talk to Mama.”
He gave me that big ol’ Hayes grin, jumped up, blew me a kiss from the kitchen door and was outside in a gust of late winter wind.
The door opened and he stuck his head back in.
“I’m going down the canyon to Millers’ place this afternoon. Won’t be home for dinner.”
“Don’t forget to bring in the firewood!”
I was answered with a gust of cold wind as the door slammed shut.
I saw Cletus Meyers shuffling back toward his brother’s house, his coat collar pulled over his ears, staring sideways toward the house, the dogs running ahead of him and through the fields.
The kids tumbled into the kitchen, demanding breakfast. I hushed them, fed them and readied them for school, remembering this time to tie up Lucille’s shoe with binding twine so the sole won’t flap around, and sent them out to wait for the buckboard to the one room school for grades up to eighth. We’re the last district to have a horse drawn wagon instead of one of those new school buses. Maybe next year, the school board said.
I caught Leon, our second grader, one of the two redheads, sneaking a handful of garlic cloves out of the pantry.
“Leon Dawson! You ain’t gonna rub garlic all over the wagon seats again, just so’s the Dobbins kids will mess up their clothes and get in trouble. Gimme that!”
He handed over the garlic. I swatted his behind as I pushed him out the door. “Be good! Please! Just try!”
Mama came out of the bedroom, eyes red rimmed, the freckles standing out on her pale face.
“Hold down the noise!” she hissed. “Papa’s in a bad way.”
I went to her, tried to put my arm around her. She was so little, my mama, and pudgy-round from giving birth to 7 babies, but she was bony just the same. She shrunk away from me, biting her lips with her toothless gums, making her whole face cave in.
“Can I look in on him?”
“You better get to work,” she said.
I nodded, a little relieved, anxious still.
The Dobbins family, across the canyon, needed me to do their cleanin’ and cooking since Mz. Dobbins took sick, stayed in bed after the last baby. Only her third. Poor little one, stillborn. I earned $1.00 a week. I got to keep a quarter sometimes. Had plans for the $1.50 in my hidey hole I’d stashed away.
I kissed Mama real quick on her forehead. She blinked fast and I turned away.
I passed the Meyer’s house, hoping to get to talk to Mae. She was my best friend, but ol’ man Meyers wasn’t letting her talk to me much. She didn’t have no brothers and sisters which was pretty hard on her. I had to do a lot of kid-tending it was true, but I was never lonesome. And as each one got older, there was one more to help with the farm work.
Mae had to do the work all alone, her and her mama. And ol’ man Meyers tried to get a family of boys work out of the two of them. By any means. I saw lots of bruises on Mae. Sometimes a black eye. Mrs. Meyers, too.
Didn’t see Mae, but Cletus waved from the porch.
I nodded. Papa’s sickness riding hard on my mind. I shook my head and swallowed hard, forced myself to think about something else.
I quit school last year to work for the Dobbins. Mama was sorry, but she said “Your pa’s not feeling good. You’re a big, strong, capable girl. I’m hopin’ you’ll help out.”
And Hayes was so close to graduation! And he was quittin’. That boy!
I liked school, loved to read. Homework was a good reason to read. No excuse now. Too much work to do. Too many important things in life. No point in reading about them.
Papa was real life. Oh, Papa! Such a big man and strong, loved to tell us stories, play the fiddle and get us all to dancing. Mama clapping her hands and joining in. And such a hard worker. My papa just couldn’t be this sick. I swallowed hard. No tears. No crying. Not from me.
I let myself slide down the bank to the creek bottom and hitched myself up on the fallen Cottonwood tree to cross the creek. I pretended I was a tight rope walker like I saw at the picture show one time a long time ago. Not easy to get up the other bank on the other side. Slippery. Slow going.
I did my work at the Dobbins’ place but my mind wasn’t on it. Around 4:00 o’clock, I knew I had to get home. Don’t know how I knew it, but the knowing was real strong. I told the oldest girl, Lila, how to warm up the dinner leftovers for supper. She’s only seven, but she’s smart. I warned her to be careful and headed off home as fast as I could. Everybody teased me about my walk – kind of a bouncy lope – but I could cover some ground fast.
I opened the back door and Mama was standing in front of the bedroom door. She grabbed me, hugged me for just a second. Now I was scared. She pushed me away, clutching my arms tight.
“Get Hayes to go for the doctor,” she said. “Now.”
“I can’t, Mama, he’s gone to Millers.”
She crumpled, just for a minute. Her face was so white her freckles stood out. She jerked herself up, straight as straight.
“Tell Samuel to go get Mr. Meyers to go for the doctor. He’s got a good pickup.”
Mr. Meyers? My head said. Would he?
“I’ll go, Mama,” I said. “Keep Samuel here to take care of the chores and the kids.”
She didn’t protest and let me have my way.
I didn’t take even a minute to say goodbye. I still had my coat on; I shoved my stocking cap down on my head and took off for the Meyers’ place, running the two miles.
Cletus was on the porch, rocking ‘way back on a kitchen chair, looking mournful. He stood up when he saw me puffing up their roadway.
“What’s the matter, Miss Emmy?”
“Papa…needs the… doctor,” I gasped out. “Please…will Mr. Meyers go for…the doctor?”
“You come up here and rest yourself, Miss Emmy; I’ll go ask my brother would he do that. Please just sit a minute.” He patted the kitchen chair.
Mr. Meyers came to the front door as Cletus opened it.
“What’s this all about? What’s the hullabaloo?” Loud, annoyed.
Cletus asked him for me. Mr. Meyers stood before me, his arms folded across that big chest, frowning. Underneath my anxiety, I noticed that Mr. Meyers was a handsome man, if he wasn’t so mad looking. That dark mole under his left eye kinda popped out. Mae had one too, but hers looked like a tear drop.
I knew tears were coming but I couldn’t keep them back. “P-p-please,” I stuttered.
He turned abruptly and walked toward the shed that housed the pickup. He glanced over his shoulder and raised his arm in a “Come on!” motion.
I went as fast as I could. Don’t think I could have run no more, but I did. He pulled the pickup out and I climbed in.
“I’ll drop you off at your house. Prob’ly needed there.” His voice was gruff. I wondered if he cared just a tiny bit, under all that roughness.
We pulled into our yard and tromped on the brakes hard. Mama was standing on the porch, coatless, her arms wrapped around herself. I jumped out of the car and ran to her. She shrugged me off, her face wet. From the rain? Or tears?
“He’s gone,” she said, her voice flat.
In the same tone, she said to Mr. Meyers, still in the pick up. “Thank you.” I don’t think he heard her, but he turned the pickup and headed back up the road towards his place.
We went inside. The kids were all in the front room sitting on the floor, some were hugging each other. Lucille was sitting by herself, sobbing, using her long brown hair as a snot rag.
I wanted so bad to put my arms around them, to rock them like I did when they were babies and tell them everything will be all right.
But it won’t. Not ever gain.
Mama stood stock still. She said, real loud, but with a funny kind of muffled voice. “That’s enough!”
“All of you, just stop that nonsense. We don’t need no crying, no sniveling, no carrying on. Your Papa is gone. We got to go on, do the best we can. And crying ain’t part of it. I catch anyone bawling, they’re gonna get the switch. Dawsons don’t cry ‘bout nothing.”
The crying stopped. A kind of awestruck silence settled on the room.
We stared at her. Bigger than our grief as the way Mama looked.
Lucille tugged at my arm, pulling me down to her level. “Mama’s got teeth!”
Indeed she did. The littlest ones never seen Mama with teeth. They were kinda big and she had trouble talking around ‘em. Papa’s teeth.
The silence held on and we all just kept staring.
No need to waste ‘em, I guess, bury his false teeth with him when she could put them to good use.
“Did you hear me?!” she said with a slurpy kind of noise.
“Yes, Mama,” I said. The others joined in, one by one.
Lucille, peeking from behind her hair, nodded and murmured, “Yes, Mama.”
“Emogene,” she said, “Tell your brother when he gets home.”
She went into the bedroom and closed the door. A noise. The squeak of bedsprings.