Michael Wade: Collard Heaven (Fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement (one of the best ever): After we moved to the burbs off the farm in Down East North Carolina, my Daddy wanted to make sure his boys didn’t forget our roots. So one summer when I was thirteen or fourteen he announced he’d found jobs just outside town for my brother and me. An hour after sunrise the next day we were muddy and soaked and shivering from the dew, our forearms already black from tobacco gum we wouldn’t get scrubbed off completely until after school started in September. By ten o’clock it would be so hot in the field you couldn’t think, and Maude, the mule who pulled the sled you put the leaves in, would be pretty gamy. Flatulent, too. She wouldn’t stop if you said “Whoa.” You had to say “Why,” because her owner, the boss, had a speech impediment. “Why, Maude. Why.” This is what we asked, all day long, like little philosophers, that whole summer.

Collard Heaven

He ain’t got out of his car yet, but I see his sour face through the Cadillac’s windshield, and I already know what he’ll say. I’ve heard it before.  

“I didn’t buy you a tractor and plow a field so you can let the weeds and bugs take everything. You got to stay on top of it, son.

“This right here – this is nothing but pure sorriness.”

Waving his hand across this piss-ant field, an L-shaped half-acre of weeds and yellowed greens I wish was still the front and side yards of our double-wide. Excuse me, his double-wide. He don’t let us forget who we’re supposed to be paying rent to. 

We pretend we ain’t noticed his car. We make him get his fat ass out and waddle up the back steps, stomping hard enough to make the walls tremble. 

He shoves his cigar into his mouth and punches the doorbell, but he’s forgot it don’t work, and that really pisses him off. His face gets redder, and he near about bites the cigar in half. He slaps the door three times hard with the palm of his hand, and I know he wishes he was doing it to the side of my head. 

Me and Cindy’re watching him through the crack in the curtains. He’s squinting in the glare and can’t see us, and we have to shove fists in our mouths. We’ve had a beer or three, and we’re about to bust a gut laughing.

Then we kind of look at each other, and Cindy shrugs and all of a sudden decides now’s the exact moment she needs to play Suzy Homemaker. She runs off and starts the first load of laundry she’s done in a week.  

So I’m on my own with him, and I roll with it. I swing the door wide open. “Welcome!” I say.  “Come on in the house, take a load off!”

“You’ve let ’em get too big, Tommy,” he says. “I tried to tell you, with the rain they’d get too tall to plow with the tractor, and that’s just what’s happened. It’ll have to be done by hand now.”

“Well, it’s nice to see you too, Deddy,” I say. He just shakes his head and turns and goes back out. I see him open his trunk and take out his damn rubber boots.  

This is how he does. He knows I ain’t going to let him hoe them thick weeds out of the collards by himself. As much as I might want to. 

With the coast clear, Cindy steps out of the laundry closet and catches me at the open refrigerator door chugging a Bud. Fortifying, you might say.

“Happy farming!” she says, and flashes me a double thumbs-up, like in a TV ad.

I give her the finger and head out.

#

So that was the rest of the day, me and Deddy sweating in the collards, kicking clay off our boots. The big piles of weeds we pulled wilted between the rows. Whenever I couldn’t stand it I’d say my stomach was bad, I needed the bathroom, and come in and down a beer. If he knew what I was doing at least he kept his mouth shut.  

When we finished he said: “I don’t know ‘bout you Tom, but water ain’t doin’ it. You wouldn’t have a beer you could spare, would you?”

So we both sat on the front steps and drank one. I made sure I sipped slow so I wouldn’t  finish mine until he was done. The things you do for family.

“Field looks good, don’t it, when you get it clean like this,” he said. “They’ll green up now. This moisture, give ’em a day or two, they’ll be purty again.”

I guess. Purty is not a word I’d use in connection with collards. Tasty, neither. I’ve always thought they taste like sweaty socks cooked in fatback, you want to know the truth.

More than once I’ve overheard Deddy tell people I’d of been better off if we’d stayed Down East on the farm. But I think he’s really talking about himself.

Where I’d really of been better off is one of them rum islands you hear about, coconuts and mangoes and bananas and so on falling out of the trees, and you can just about walk on the fish, they’re so thick in the cool blue-green lagoon. You wade out and a fat one’s roasting on your fire three minutes later. 

“I’m more of a live-in-the-moment kind of fella,” I once said to Parson, the rich son-of-a-bitch builder my sister Jeannie married. “I’m kinda an American version of one of them Zens.”

“Yes. The guys remember that about you, Tom,” he said. All snotty. This was not long after Cindy’d made me take him up on a job offer. That lasted all of three weeks. I am not cut out for the construction industry.

Or for farming, far as that goes. I wasn’t but five when Mama died and Deddy got tired of basically working for Ward Bank down in Ft. William, which gave out the loans for the equipment and everything else, including seed in the spring if the last growing season was bad enough. At least that’s how he’s always told it. 

Still, let him get back down there fifteen minutes and he’s grinning like a pig in cool mud, right back into it with my aunts and uncles, the ones still farming. Talking nitrogen and cockleburs and yields, bitching about the corporate farms screwing up the land.

He moved us to Ludlow and took that job with Savoy Electronics because he thought it would be better for Jeannie and me. That’s all it was. He might tell his Ludlow friends he’s got farming out of his system, but I know better.  

That’s why I got a cold chill, even though it was about a hundred and fifty outside, when he shut down his riding mower last August right next to these very steps and said: “Tom, there’s no reason in the world this little bit of land ought not to be making you money. What else you got to do?” 

I had another beer, I’m sure, and forgot all about it. But he didn’t. Once he gets a scheme in his head he’s latched on like an old pit bull. Early this spring he spent three thousand on the fifty-year-old Farmall tractor that now sits under my shelter, and emailed some farmer’s markets, and before I could object he had the yard plowed up.

“You can pay me back a little at a time,” he said. “Good a mechanic as you are, won’t be any problem for you to keep this old tractor running.”

That’s another of Deddy’s fantasies. I was a shade tree mechanic back in the day, but there ain’t no call for that now. Now it ain’t nothing but swapping out parts until the computer’s happy, and that ain’t me. Anyway, I got no reason to apply for mechanic jobs, or much else. Once they check and see your driver’s license has been permanently revoked, twice, well the rest, as a human resources lady told me last time I tried, is irrelevant.

Last real job I had was three years ago. I kept up the equipment at Stokesdale Country Club in Durham, and they treated me good. Sent me to school, even, first school I’d been to since tenth grade. There’s a lot to it keeping them fancy blades and so forth to certain tolerances. Some friend of Deddy’s had heard about the job, and Deddy talked Gorman, the maintenance supervisor, into looking the other way about my license, since there was this old fellow Dunhill I could ride to work with.

But then Dunhill got sick and quit, and Cindy had to get up an hour early so she could drive me and still get to her own job, and let me tell you that whole situation got to be some major stress. Which is part of the reason I busted the shop radio into a million pieces on the concrete floor and walked out, that very last time Gorman told me to turn my goddam music down. “Long-Haired Country Boy” was playing, and it’s one of my all-time favorites.

I will say that job was neither the first nor the last time family has come through for me. After I lost the golf course job, Cindy’s hours got cut and we were about to get evicted from the house we rented out there between Ludlow and Durham. There was one day I’d had too much to drink and I said to Deddy I thought I could pay the rent doing mechanic work on my own, if only I had a decent warm place to work in.

 Son-of-a-bitch if Deddy and Parson didn’t show up the next afternoon with a truckload of building materials. The landlord had told Deddy it was okay for me to wall in the carport and make me a workshop. What Deddy worked out with him was he’d let the rent slide another month, long as I didn’t have more than two or three customers’ cars parked in the street at a time, and what he was left with would look like a garage. 

Then, the other surprise, Deddy and my stepmom Wanda, they’d looked into it and damn if they hadn’t figured out how to get me my license back. All that kinda stuff is beyond me, but not Deddy. He paid off fines and court costs and restitution in three counties, including the one down near the beach, from way back in the day, where the truck run up the steps and near about all the way into the sanctuary of that Free Will Baptist church not two hours before Sunday school was supposed to start. Not only that, but then both of them, Deddy and Wanda, they stood in Sunday clothes with Jeannie and Parson in front of the hearing lady and all of them put their hands on Bibles and testified I had stopped drinking and would pose no risk to the public.

Even after that I still had to go regular to see another lady, the alcoholic counselor. She said I was lucky to have such family support, and I said I sure was.

You could tell Deddy was feeling pretty good about himself after we’d got that far. Tommy, he said, I hope you see how much your people believe in you, in spite of everything. With the shop and all it’ll be a whole new start. 

Well, between the counselor and the hearings and so forth – more major stress in my life, believe me, and sure no picnic for Cindy, who was carting me around – I never did find time to start on the workshop. But I did wire a nifty bypass around that gizmo the state put on my truck ignition. The way it works is you’re supposed to blow a clean breath or the truck won’t crank up. 

 

Here’s my luck: I got pulled over drunk the very next week, and they found the bypass to boot, and that was that.

I did forty-five days in the Durham jail, and while I was in there Deddy bought this place. He can afford it because it’s way out here, the middle of nowhere. And now he’s made it our little collard heaven. We’re a little behind on the rent, and I get tired of him bringing that up. I get tired of a lot of things Deddy says to me. 

But look at him here on the front steps, content with his one beer and his cigar and his nice clean field. The expression on his face, he’s like one of them Zens, in the moment. You’d swear he’s listening to the surf crash out on the reef, looking at a perfect blue-green lagoon.