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Bertha on the Range


By Rita Lizbeth Durham



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     "Dammit, Leroy, give it up!" Cletus snorted and stomped down off the porch, swiping at the gardenia bush in the way as he did so.
     "What? I jes don't fuckin' git it, is all." Leroy tipped his hat brim up further and rounded it with both hands.
     "Well, then don't you worry 'bout it," Cletus said.
Leroy shuffled his feet even though he sat in his rocking chair."I'm jes tryin' to unnerstand her."
     "You oughtta know by now -- there's no understanding Bertha. None at all." Cletus spat tobacco juice down and hit his shoe with a brown stream of fluid. He swore and wiped his mouth. "Goddammit. Hit my shoe." He paused.
     Leroy took the opening. "Why duz she do it? Werk on that dang-fired board or whaever it is?" He stood up. His immense size filled the porch, dungarees bagged at his knees. He lifted his hand to his hat, showing an old T-shirt yellowed under the arms.
     Cletus looked over at him. "She's her own woman, one of them new-fangled ones. Hell, why'd you ask me? Just because I have a college education don't mean I know women." He spat again. "Go figure. I know she's a dang feisty one, sometimes too much for her own good. Principles, Daddy called it." Lighting up a cigarette, he turned back to the porch.
     Leroy thought it over while he surveyed their land, his small dark eyes squinting in the bright sun that blanketed the horizon. He loved this place, loved what it stood for, loved that woman he called his sister, too. A mug sat nearby and he grabbed it up, drinking deep. "Ahhhh, cold beer, hot day -- not much better 'cept for fishin', huh?"
     Cletus grunted and took a drag on his cigarette.
"She's one tough fightr'n I know that," Leroy said. He stepped off the porch into the light, tipping his hat lower. "I guess if'n I don't unnerstand her, I ken still love her. Eldest or not, she still needs us, Clet."
     "Yep." Cletus bent over and wiped off his wet shoe. "I expect you're right. She'll be coming home for that. Home on the range suits her just fine some days."
     "When she follered in our dad's footsteps, I din't mind. Was proud of her, so proud." Leroy tip the mug up to wet his lips. "Jes seems like she's got the sense he had, the way with others. Culd always calm a horse easy 'nuff. 'Member that? Dad'd put her up thar even when she wuz ten, to train them colts and fillies."
Cletus nodded. "True. I know how much she misses him since he died. It was hard on her, real hard."
     "Hard? Shit, near'ta killt her, you know that," Leroy said and shook his head side to side. "Wadn't sure she'd ever git back to her old self." He sloshed the beer around then took another swig.
     "She'll be fine. She'll go on as usual. If they get to her, they'll never know it. Those folks don't like her sometimes 'cause she's tough. They don't know how to take her." He rubbed his forehead hard and wiped the sweat off on his shirt sleeve. "I know Daddy taught her a lot. It'll help her through this and all the rest to come."
     Leroy took a turn to snort now. "Shit. She ken disarm a snake. She don't relize haf the talent she has. No, meybe she does, and they jes don't. But she's jes so sweet, I het like hell to see this kinda stuff."
     "It's her light."
     "Light?" Leroy looked puzzled and scratched his cap.
"Yeah. It just wraps around those in her presence, spills over, bubbly and warm and genuine. It's that special thing Daddy had." He looked up at the sky. "Some might be envious of her, because she's strong. Might not know underneath all that lies a damned smart lady." Cletus stopped and leaned against the porch rail with his arms folded across his chest. "Imagine they're 'bout to find out, though."
     "Hmmm, yep." Cletus was silent for so long Leroy thought he'd fallen asleep standing up. When he finally spoke, Leroy jumped a foot and bumped his head on the porch overhang. "Sheeeittt!"
Cletus looked at him, a blank stare that meant he wasn't seeing nothing but his words again. "I don't get this computer stuff, Leroy, just don't. But Bertha's so all-fired up about it. It must be something good to make her stay amongst the meanness they sling at her."
     Leroy dipped his head in agreement. "Yep. 'Spect so." Deep in thought again, he went quiet.
     "I worry about her. Guess if she's got something to say, she'll write about it. Don't imagine she'll quit, either. She's stubborn as Mama, and her --"
     The screen door squeaked like a fingernail on a blackboard and both brothers turned to the sound.
     "Well, you boys are up to no good, I reckon." Gramma eased her bulk through the door and took up a position on her glider, tugging the long hem of her button-up cotton dress up under her.      "You talkin' about Bertha, are you?"
     "Mighta known you'd be listening through the window, Gramma," Cletus said with a chuckle.
     "Leroy, go fetch me my big Revere Ware pot," she said.
     "Yep, well, that's my favorite granddaughter you're talkin' about. What's she up to now?" She smiled her broad smile with perfect white dentures showing and reached down to her paper bag of green beans.
     Leroy returned with her cooking pot.
     Her tan face lit up. "Well, don't jes stand there. Git over here and help me snap these beans, you boys. Hard werk nevah hurt nobody."
     Both moved towards Gramma reluctantly and pulled up the other two rockers. They knew they were in for a grilling.
     "Oh, nuttin', Gramma," Leroy said.
     "Don't you give me nun of that shit, Leroy Bowdin. Goddammit. I'm a grown woman and ken stand whaever the news may be."
Their eyebrows rose as Gramma cussed. Then they both laughed out loud, good and hearty, their bodies rocking with their chairs.
Cletus was the first to speak. "Bertha reminds me of you, Gramma. She does. That vim and vigor, that spirit. It's in her eyes, too. And though I have a hard time doing the same, she's always cheerful."
     "I ain't always cheerful," Gramma said and snapped a bean for emphasis.
     "Well, most ever day you are," Leroy added.
"Tha's what y'all think," she said and snapped some more. "I jes let others think that, but I carry lots around inside me. Lots." She shifted her weight on the glider seat, and plucked at her white hair, cut short in an easy-care fashion. Knowing eyes swung back to her eldest grandson.
     Cletus said, "See, that's what I mean. Bertha's just like that. Those piss ants don't scare her, they think they might."
Gramma raised her brow at him. "All those years of college I put you through, and you say piss-ants?"
     Cletus ignored the reminder. "Oh, it's this computer thing Bertha's involved in. She's on some board for writers. Did you know that?"
     "Oh, that. Yes, yes, I knew that. Well, honeychile, jes let her be. She learnt from her daddy how to run things and help people. Got that, whadda they call it? Diplom'cy, tha's it." Gramma bent over and spit snuff in the little tin can she kept by her feet. "Though sometimes her passion ken get in her way. Ken't see the forest for those trees."
     The three sat in comraderie, silent except for the beans snapping and dropping into the pot and a sack. One was for the beans to be cooked in and the other for the ends they'd snapped off.
     Gramma nodded in time to her snapping. "Yep, you leave her 'lone, she'll do jes fine. She'll come home, ride them horses, running like the wind, pounding 'cross the fields, hair a flyin' -- that's her meditation. Good for the soul."
     They snapped some more.
     "Bertha'll finish this thing, a Bowdin rarely finds reason to quit, she's like her daddy that way," she said.
Rocking and snapping, they were all in agreement on that.
Rays from the afternoon sun spilled across their laps, first hot, then fading into pinks and yellows as they continued to snap. Puffy clouds cradled the colors like a baby in its crib.
    "Yep," Leroy said, eager to have the last word.

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