“Imagining a Son’s Barns Elsewhere From Here” by Tom Sheehan

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I once worked in the south, went through the south to and from an appointment in Korea in 1950-51, have written many stories set in the south, had four books published in the south and many Internet and print appearances in the south, including Dead Mule some time in the past in that southern exposure.

Val MacEwan deadmule.com

These were more than echoes, the soft sounds I was hearing from the rear of the barn sitting back from the main road in a far part of Tennessee where I once worked, half a dozen fat pigs to one side, corn as deep as Iowa on the other side, and the terrain level across the road flush with blueberry bushes until a slow rise tipped the landscape in its favor… and in mine. In my son’s favor, too. He lives by this barn. Perhaps I had lived waiting for its sassy voices.

There, in his barn, I was a listener as well as a watcher. Tennessee mornings I must say, even on torrid summer days, are as placid and as huge as glaciers, and crawl into the mind through more than one sense. But there you have it: Tennessee mornings are also like Tennessee barns, always having something to say to you, never taking no for an answer, shaking you awake as if the scruff of your neck is in their hands, leaving a bit of dust for memory’s sake. These wooden memorials to sweat, old times, another life, crept into my notes years ago, at first promising poetry, and now they creep out again, reasserting their observations, touching on the process of memory as I look in on old hand-written journals of trips to and through Tennessee and other places, seeking the ever road.

I have seen these barns merely announced by Bull Durham signs, or knotted and slabbed vertical boards twisting their long signatures, saying how long they’ve been at the job, the squared edges of a barn long gone to age or antiquity. At another glance, usually from some rise in the road I’d been dusting for a few miles, a ridgepole, perhaps angry, perhaps too long under duress from angled sides, perhaps the snow of too many winters still with a hand in a kind of slow-combustion’s weakening, shows its tendency to sag, to bend under that duress. A ridgepole draws down into itself in the threatened manner of implosion, and a compelling universe of interest. Barns, Tennessee barns for sure, have their own signatures. They roadside leap at me, every last one of them.

My son’s barn might have been a schoolhouse. I imagine it against a steep rise of green hill, off by itself. Can I really see the waving leaves in a mass of green? I would grant that it was a school, and after one final graduation of sorts, and gentled by the slow, steady, plodding rough draft of 100 oxen, it was dragged from its first setting to the land he now farms there, now just near the new Little League Field. Now it houses a home-made 50-gallon-drum stove, a tractor for all purposes, a Harley motorcycle past its prime, tools an inveterate collector would love because the labor expended with them is almost visible to a keen eye. And leather goods have hung so long on one wall that their legends are inscribed like vertical signboards, and their odors hang on for eternity. Off on one wide-planked bench taking up one whole wall, sits the old Jonsered chainsaw I used for twenty years in my own forest fighting the cost of oil; my gift to Tennessee winter and a warm hearth. My son says it still operates with a vengeance, but now with a 20-inch blade. One might say I have passed my former strengths on to him.

One would also be keen to know how many McGuffey Readers might have passed through this old barn on the way to intelligence, awareness, imagination, above and beyond ‘ritin, and ‘rithmetic. That revelation would take the highest art of contemplation.

Yet it is not the only barn he has. Here, they come in twins. Just across the yard, closer to the road, over a slab board fence we erected one day a few years ago to keep the corn in and the horses out, past the 40-50 foot long, 4-foot high walls of logs set for the next winter, sits another barn. Which one predates the other, I have no idea, but this second barn has housed Tony the pony (a bit wild in his time if you ask me, being an outlander), sheep and goats and ducks and chickens, and mice to be sure, and perhaps a small army or lusty battalion of termites, dust beetles, unusual mandible-carrying small critters, somehow intent on destruction. It is sure that such creatures come the same way and at the same speed that erosion hits Mother Earth herself, a slow onslaught and assault you may not be able to see, but you sure have to fix, “once the weather gits good enough for toolin’,” as my son might now say in adoptive speech.

From its stalls, its storage bins, its freezer against one wall standing like a foreign icon, has often come every bit of a late meal at his table. Squash stuffed with sausage, sweet and regular spuds, green beans so thick they could choke you, tomatoes red as Old Glory, ham in slices so sweet and so thick they seem without end, and once salty enough to have been dragged through the surf a few miles away. I think now of rhubarb pie, apple pie, blueberry pie or blueberry muffins, some now and then tossed with “a thickly spun heavy cream takes your breath away.” If there was one thing that exists now and one thing existing back when the school was first built, wherever it was located in town, the meals are the same; “they stick,” as my mother used to say about her oatmeal, “to the very backbone that carries your day.”

It is strict testimony that some barns you come across on these roads know how to kneel down in their slow absorption without being too melancholy about it; both of his barns do, looking over their shoulders, sighing, whispering, I’m never sure which in these Tennessee-gray mornings. Beams, long checked since their greenery, seams at log lengths, remain as strong as the tree they were sprung from. They tolerate much that is happening to them, have patience: surely, inwardly, they host the sly armies of creeping squadrons, dragooned columns gnawing away at time, flighty creatures busy as downtown on Saturday nights, ceding fathoms to dark hungers. The warp and twist of checked timbers sit silent as skulls, heady lintels and cross braces at straddled chests are being crushed, sills aching to cry, all standing their serious doubts. They cling at themselves, sing a song of reprieve at dusk, and eventually heave into morning’s mirror another night of survival. It is why I love these old Tennessee barns, his barns, like many of the others I have seen on similar roads coming down here from Saugus, and riding away to more distant parts of Tennessee, and eventually taking the long, silent road to bean suppers as they once were. Or still are as far as I know; I think I’d bet on that.

Yet, the straggled barns en route are still falling down slowly, taking pulse at rugged oak wrist, finding their own bright hearts of trees cored in gallant crosspieces, joists, perhaps in hoof-thinned grasping planks. Even in the fading ever-summer lofts, there are dreams to rediscover, dreams cached away for yearned awakenings. After all their times, barns have a right to keep up their odors, their signatures, the silence in the mows, the secrets in check.

Here, at this son’s place, I look over shoulder at a barn looking too, back at its slow, labored beginning. I feel a crosscut saw vibrate and whistle, feel axes shiver at wood’s edging, see the breaths of two men rising in a column as if one lung works for the two of them, ritual of a barn-raising, cutting at air.

A poet friend, as close to me as only my family might know, says his barn always accepts the graces of early October evening. He swears that miniature shadows stroll cautious as kittens out of hay-golden eaves; the mow is night itself, a spectral darkness inflated against hazardous roofing where a dozen knot holes pinpoint a constellation and long against morning light reveal the truth of north. Wall nails and spikes are crucial with evidence; old leather traces, bridles, other gear bays or roans sweat into, hang limp as bookmarks marking the last data of a thousand journeys one man has taken along the fence, the rides into town and back. Where a whisper leans in the weaving of a heart striking for new legends, a child’s dream is etched.

Friend says his father’s great gray horse, Humboldt by name, froze standing up in a ’38 storm. That magnificent creature, leg broken, heart-heaving, brought the gentleman safely to his final bed. Only the barn remains, October light fissuring through checked walls. Even the photographs are gone. Fire, pasture and old age have captured everything, except the barn revolving axially above his eyes, stabs of light drifting through this dark planetarium. Oh, how I envy his memories, the tales he might spill if such were his calling.

I know, when they finally die, move to a newer century, these hallowed barns, these homes away from home, the dust from last century (more likely from the one before that, and then another move back) settle deeper in the earth. Their wide doors tell tattle tales when jammed open by a heavy broom and show the demise of contours. Barns of this size, kneed in the groin by too many January storms, sucker punched, that have taken wet coughs from too many Aprils, August retreats from fire when gummed capillaries draw back to old dowsing grounds, always show age; but it’s stylish, classy, the way blue ribbons are worn, proud, head high, a look straight into the eye.

It is here in Tennessee barns where iron and wood trade their final secrets. Under rust’s thickest scab, metal keeps its black shine. Abrade it with rock or stone and the line of light leaps out, just like the flesh of wood flashes its white mysteries as it orbits marks of lunar growth. Often it is here where a mole tortures underground, a host of bats hangs above like gloves out to dry in the dim light, and in the twisted by-roads and blossoming paths the termites, carpenter ants and dust beetles chew the cud of oak sills or risers an ash released to two-hand saws.

Through once-green pine, now checked, stippled, full of eyes where knots continue to let themselves down, or square nails, blunt as cigars, are suddenly toothless, you’ll find occasionally a star if you’re still in your tracks and breathless. Stars incessantly thrust themselves into holes where barn parts continue to fall to earth, never to be mined. A century or two or three of shivering takes its toll, shakes elements free as slowly as earthworms at work.

For all the standing still, there’s action, warming, aging, the bowing of old Tennessee barns, the ultimate genuflection we might miss if we don’t pause on the road, take a breath, smell the old barns beside beds of roses, and Little League fields as new as smart phones.

You can bet, those barns talk back.

 

 

“Saturday Afternoon at the Drive-In” by Al Lyons

*We love this story because it rings so true. Real Stories of Real Folks Posted As Real Fiction.

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in sunny St. Petersburg, FL during the time of Webb’s City, where the mermaid show was free and the ice cream cones were 10-cents each. Once, in my youth, I attended a donkey-baseball game. I spent many a Saturday watching Creature Feature and Professional Wrestling on TV-44, while carefully adjusting the rabbit ears and tinfoil on the back of the set. In college, I waited tables dressed in bib overalls and a straw hat at Skeeter’s Home of the Big Biscuit. I believe eggs and bacon should always be served with grits, as the good Lord intended, although I do endorse the sacrilege of added cheese. I know in my heart that God is a Gator. Several years ago I escaped to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western NC. I have a homemade camper and a homemade fiddle, and I can be found wandering in the mountains, when I lose track of time.

deadmule.com

It was a summer Saturday afternoon full of potential and promise. The sun was out. There was no chance of rain. And next door, the Nicholsons were cussing and hollering.

It started as a barely discernible murmur in the early morning with an occasional yelled retort and the slamming of a door. But after lunch, they sent their two boys out of the house, latching the screen door behind them, and we knew it was going to be a proper row.

I came out to work on the lawn, keeping mostly to the front yard for a good vantage point. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, on the other side, came out to sit on their porch and waved when I looked up from trimming the shrubbery. The widowed Mrs. Keene was working on her garden, tending to her dahlias and marigolds across the street. The Nicholson boys were running around their yard, catching roly-polies.

By mid afternoon, the murmuring at the Nicholson place had become an intermittent rumble that rose to an occasional crescendo accented with assorted bangs and crashes. During a lull, poor ol’ Nicholson came out, looking somewhat haggard and beat. Clutching a PBR, he sat down on the stoop, looked over at me, and smiled sheepishly; he then gestured toward the house and shook his head. He sat out there for a half-hour or so with his boys throwing roly-polies at him as they ran about the yard.

Having emptied his PBR, he crumpled the can in his right hand. He stood up off the stoop and opened the screen door, but then ducked suddenly as a guitar sailed over his head. It arced in a grand trajectory and landed on the other side of the walk. It bounced twice, popping two strings. Nicholson sat back down at the stoop as if to contemplate this new development.

Shortly thereafter, the screen door opened again ejecting a recliner, which rolled down the steps end over end and landed next to Nicholson on its back. Nicholson, recognizing an incremental change in fortune, came off the stoop, righted the chair and sat down.

“There now, Jonesy,” he called over to the porch next door, You wouldn’t happen to have a cold beer for your neighbor, would you? Seein’ as I’m fresh out at the moment. Maybe the sports section, too?”

Jones slowly rose from his porch chair, disappeared briefl into his house, then returned and tossed Nicholson the paper and a fresh PBR. Nicholson, to his credit, caught the paper, but fumbled the catch on the beer. The can popped open as it bounced off the stoop. Beer sprayed all over Nicholson, as he chased the rolling can down the walk. Then he stumbled and dropped the paper, which landed in a puddle of foam. The Nicholson boys dropped their roly-polies and chased their old man. Widow Keene looked up from her dahlias and marigolds and frowned.

Nicholson righted himself, fetched the can, and wiped the spilled beer from his face and arms. Retrieving the soggy paper, he sat back down in the recliner. He was carefully studying the baseball scores when the screen door opened again and Mrs. Nicholson came out on the stoop holding the television set with both arms extended above her head.

“Now, now Beatrice, love,” Nicholson said, glancing up from the paper over his glasses, “how will you watch your soaps?”

Mrs. Nicholson scowled, but she turned and took the TV back into the house. Nicholson himself seemed to take this as a sign of transition. He bottomed up the PBR and walked back in. He usually napped in the afternoon. It was calm for the next hour or so. Without the distractions, I finished the shrubs in short order. Widow Keene, who retires early, finished up her flowers and went back inside. The Nicholson boys were still outside stirring up ant hills with sticks.

After dinner, I had just finished edging the walk when Nicholson came out carrying a knapsack and making his way toward their old Ford Galaxy.

“I guess this is it Jonesy,” he called over to his neighbors, “I’m going to stay with my brother and sister-in-law down in Valdosta.”

He was putting the knapsack in the trunk when the screen door flew open again and Mrs. Nicholson tossed out a battered suitcase. She achieved a higher arc with the suitcase than she did earlier with the guitar. On the third bounce, it exploded open, disgorging its contents onto the lawn. Nicholson set about gathering his scattered T-shirts and shorts, pajamas and socks. The boys, chasing lightning bugs, jumped over his long-johns.

Mrs. Nicholson came running down the walk with her keys in her hand. “Hell, no! You ain’t goin’ to no Valdosta. Not in my Ford Galaxy, you ain’t. That was my Daddy’s car. You can hitchhike. You can take the bus. You can walk to Valdosta, for all I care. But you ain’t taking the car.”

She jumped into the car, slammed and locked the door, and started her up. She revved the engine a couple of times then threw it into reverse. She accelerated down the driveway and poor ol’ Nicholson had to jump out of the way to miss being hit. She kept going: out the drive, into the street, then across the street into old widow Keene’s yard, beyond widow Keene’s dahlias and marigolds through the front wall of her house.

Geez, there was one hell of a crashing sound, and when I went out into the street to gander a better look, I could only see the front half of the car sticking out. Mrs. Nicholson lookedstunned, her hands still on the steering wheel, wide-eyed with her mouth agape. She reminded me of a caught bass.

Widow Keene had been in the bath when she heard the roar of the approaching engine and the crash before feeling the house tremble. Dressed in a floral bathrobe, her hair wrapped in a towel like a turban, she ran from the bathroom screaming “Earthquake! Earthquake!” The back end of a Ford Galaxy sat where her bureau should have been.

The law came and took reports. Mrs. Nicholson said the gas pedal stuck, although it had apparently disengaged upon impact. It took the tow truck nearly an hour to winch the car out. They duct-taped plastic garbage bags over the hole in widow Keene’s house.

The Nicholson boys were sitting on the stoop, with jars of lightning bugs.

“Where was mama going?” the younger one asked his brother.

“She was going to widow Keene’s drive-in.”

“Widder Keene don’t have no drive-in.”

“She does now.”

“Grandpa! Grandpa!” by Jeanne Lupton

southern legitimacy statement:
Since coming to Northern California ten years ago from a lifetime in Virginia where my father’s Quaker family had lived sinnce around 1720, i can see my time there more clearly as material and have enjoyed working with memory to write about it. Hope you enjoy.
**We encouraged Jeanne to find her voice. The little voice tucked away in her heart. Well, dammit, she did. How old are you when you remember? Six? Four? You will find this touching and brilliant. Odds are, you too will start remembering and when you do, write us a piece of your history. You can be six or four… or eighty.

waiting for grandpa by val macewan

Grandpa! Grandpa!

Grandpa Snores

My fourth birthday. I am in the back yard with good old Grandpa. Daddy’s Pop. He has deepset hazel eyes and gray wavy hair that stands up high on his head. He shows me again the pine he planted when I was born. He waters the hollyhocks and hydrangeas. I am helping. I gently pet Grandma’s cat, Clawed.

Then upstairs in the room at night I cry because I hear a bear. Grandma comes in and says it’s only Grandpa snoring.

Grandpa Makes Me a Letter Opener

in his wood shop in the basement. He says to be careful of the gadgets and gizmos. They are sharp. He shows me how to tighten the vise around the letter opener to hold it still so he can sand it smooth. He is making the letter opener for me. Grandpa’s woodshop smells of fresh cut wood.

Grandpa Talks to the Radio

We’re in his kitchen listening to the Senators’ game. I am seven.

“Hey battah battah!” Grandpa yells.

The window is open. On the sill is his limburger.

“Grandma makes me keep my cheese outdoors! She says it’s smelly.”

We laugh. I think Grandpa is afraid of Grandma.

“Want some nice limburger?” He waves it in my direction.

“Nooooo.”

We laugh.

Grandpa makes a limburger sandwich and eats it with his beer. Standing up. By the radio, watching it.

“Run Dammit!” Grandpa yells.

The baseball game on the radio makes me drowsy. Like I’m dreaming it.

“Attaboy!”

Grandpa Plays Tennis

Grandma goes with him to the courts at Bluemont. She crochets, sitting in the car. Grandpa plays a set. He is good at tennis. Grandma watches now and then. Keeping an eye on him. Sunshine, cool air of October in D.C. I am nine. Grandpa is 60. Grandma is 55. They have been married 37 years. They have five grown children.

Between sets he goes for a drink of water at the fountain. He falls down with a heart attack. She looks up and sees him on the ground. She runs to him. She cries “Jim Jim,” kneeling beside him, shaking him, holding his hand. She cries for help. He lies still. This is what Mother tells me.

Grandma Needs Me

Mother tells me to walk over to Grandma’s. Grandma needs me. I’m a little scared to see poor Grandma. Well, I am her favorite grandchild. I was named for her. I am crying as I start out through the neighborhood to walk the few blocks to her house. I had felt Mother’s sadness, and our sadness for Daddy and Grandma, but now I feel my own sadness. I am a girl whose grandpa died today. I wish I would see someone I knew so I could tell them. My Grandpa died! I just found out. I feel the drama of it. I feel important. Pyracantha bushes on either side of the door to Grandma’s house wear clusters of orange berries. Gone are the white flowers and Japanese beetles of summer.

I find Grandma in the dark bedroom, sitting on the edge of their bed, dabbing her eyes with her hanky. I go sit beside her, pat her, say I’m sorry. Grandma cries, puts her arm around me. This is okay, I’m not scared. Poor Grandma.

Grandpa Sleeps

at the funeral parlor. Dark paneling, deep carpet, glow of soft lights.

Why? Why? My father says, “It was his time to go.” Mother says, “He’s in heaven now.” But why? It doesn’t make sense. I do not understand why such a thing had to happen to Grandpa and upset everyone. We were just fine before.

We go up to the casket. Grandma stands there in her Sunday meeting dress and hat. She holds Grandpa’s folded hands in hers, talking low to him.

I whisper, “Grandpa! Grandpa!” I pat his arm. He is gray except for pink cheeks and lips. Poor Grandpa in his blue Sunday meeting suit. He is the first dead person I have ever seen. I feel a little dizzy. I see that the life has left him. I see that he has left us. I see for myself. I feel grown up seeing Grandpa lying there. My little sister didn’t get to come to the funeral parlor.

I call him silently. “Grandpa! Grandpa!” I close my eyes, and there he is smiling at me. There he is inside, my Grandpa still. “Attagirl!” Grandpa is part of me. But Grandpa is gone, too. He won’t be listening to baseball now. He won’t be watering the flowers. How will I live without him? “Grandpa! Grandpa! I miss you.”

“Fried Tomatoes and Milk Gravy” by Margaret Frey

My Southern Legitimacy Statement is as follows:

I’m a native of New Jersey, South Jersey to be precise. My family and I were transferred to Tennessee a decade ago. I write from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Though I have yet to develop a taste for grits or okra, I have fond childhood memories of fried tomatoes, best summer dish around!

Summer Tomato Production Slows Down

Mother called this meal Depression food. Can’t talk to that because I wasn’t around for FDR’s ‘crash and burn.’ I’m here for the rerun and know this: no matter how mean the world gets, people gotta eat. Listen up!

When in Jersey do as the Garden Staters do: pick the big reds when they’re firm and juicy. Can’t afford to grow or buy ‘em? Borrow them. Look at it this way—you’re doing gardeners a favor. By mid-season, they’ll be rapping on doors, begging neighbors to share the endless bounty. Jesus made a mega-mistake with the loaves of bread trick. A single Jersey vine could feed the world.

Basic recipe:

5 or 6 large, ripe Jersey Fresh tomatoes

¾ cup flour

salt & pepper to taste

¼ cup butter (½ stick)

1/3 cup cooking oil

1 cup milk

Keep the slices regular, ½ to ¾ inches thick. Get your hands on a cast iron skillet. Once it’s seasoned, cast iron is the best there is, even over an open fire. In a pinch, it’s an effective weapon. Smack a man’s head with a cast iron skillet? He’s unlikely to trouble you again.

Dredge the tomato slices in ½ cup flour, salt and pepper to taste, then drop the slices into preheated oil and butter, cooking until brown and crisp, both sides. You can substitute the cooking oil with Crisco, which is still cheap [but disgusting] at $5 a can. Turn the slices carefully so the flour coating remains intact, then plate the slices—all but one–and keep warm. With a fork, mash the remaining tomato slice in the pan. Mix with remaining flour. Add milk slowly then cook and stir over a high flame to thicken. Once done, drizzle the yummy gravy over the tomatoes. If you’re having a boom-boom day, sprinkle the plate with sugar and serve with sweet sausage.

Loved this recipe as a kid. Mother served fries on a huge tomato-shaped platter, something she bought at the A&P or traded for green stamps. I still love the reds, all sizes and shapes though Buddy, my man of good times and bad, complains he’s developing an acidic stomach.

Not me. I can’t eat too many because of the summers they conjure—my sister and I running along the Delaware, bare feet, wet hair, our hound Teddy panting, yelping, ready for adventure. Barbeque smoke wafted in the breeze, lacing everything with the taste of charred meat and hot peppers. Down river, sailboats bobbed. Blue-green dragonflies flitted over the shallows. Later in the season, we searched for cattails and ravaged swollen milk pods. Perched on the river wall, we’d watch the pale seeds take to the air, a thousand tiny parachutes.

In the season of fried tomatoes, the world was full, expectant, stretching out longer than a freight train. I could eat fried tomatoes until the day I die. Maybe after.

So dig in, child, before they get cold. Let summer rush your veins.

“Jolene Jolene” by John Michael Flynn

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I live in central Virginia, and I teach English at Piedmont Valley Community College. My wife and I have owned a little townhouse on the outskirts of Charlottesville for five years now. One of my writing mentors was the late George Garrett, who back in the mid-eighties encouraged me to write and got me a full scholarship into the University of Michigan, where he was then teaching. My story derives from my time as a very young man working as a tobacco farmhand in western North Carolina.

3

I’d stood up too quickly, machete in hand, dizzied by a head rush, sweat raining down my sides. This dream woman, I tell you, she wore a long skirt and floated like a ghost between the rows, her blond tresses shimmering as she danced over wide green fronds.

There hadn’t been a message from her. She was the message, and made of the windswept ashy light that I’d sometimes see misting the late dawn across hollows in Cullowhee Mountain. That silver patina of allure gleaming out of pines so frail and translucent, and ever so temporal – like the past, like any moment of certainty. Here one minute, gone the next.

I stood in that field and I gasped at my dream woman. She’d locked me within the pearly shine of her lips. I embraced her, and the two of us gleamed like smooth pebbles under a creek’s surface. She was water for my thirst, shaping damp beads of speech I couldn’t shake off my lips.

Wiping my brow, sucking in deep breaths, I resumed bending over to swing my machete again. I struck the tobacco stalk two inches off the black earth, perfect swipe, one clean gash into a stalk that snapped like green bamboo crackling as I tilted it, the whole of the plant, breaking it free at the gash, lifting, wrestling with it, dodging all leaves as they swiped across my face, tar burning in my eyes, sweat stinging as I turned and twisted until I’d mastered the plant. They were six feet tall in some cases, no small bit of vegetation. Tangle on, I told myself. No end to this ‘backer until Harlan’s field is cleared. Harlan and his brother, based in Franklin, handled more allotments than anyone else in Macon County. I took it as an honor to be in their employ. Jolene saw things differently, but there was more to her leaving me. There just had to be.

Impossible, I thought, but my dream woman had come. I’d seen her happening. I felt a kind of thrill, but I was so tired it hurt just to keep arms at my sides.

I drove the plant sideways over a conical steel tip fixed to a wooden stake, watching that green stalk splinter but not break completely. That is the trick. Get it on the stake but do not destroy its stalk. Then push the stalk down all the way, and think repeatedly of the word: impaled.

I tilted the plant in the same direction as the others, already impaled, four of them on each tall wooden stake. Four was enough. They’d be left one after another, each like a little pup tent to dry in the field for a few days until their leaves started to yellow, or else it looked like rain. Then we’d hang ‘em in the trucks and spend longs days moving them to Harlan’s barns to cure.

I removed the conical steel tip, and dropped it like a tin-man’s cap on to the next stake. Harlan got a rise out of seeing a field done, and so did I, with all that staked tobacco tilted like leafy tents stretched row after row as far as the eye could see. All the little nubby cut stalks like busted teeth in the loam. All the money Harlan was due to make once his harvest was cured, baled, sold at Winston-Salem, and stored for three years in Kentucky warehouses.

The trick was to establish a rhythm, economical use of the body, control of breathing, slow air singing a humid opera in my nostrils, a tarry tobacco reek, so heavy, so piquant at times. I took that conical tip off one stake and fit it on to another, row after row: plants, stalks, leaves and wooden stakes. Nothing soft, easy, or slick about it.

Hot heathen labor in the restless sun. What early settlers bought slaves for, shipping them over, whipping them into the earth, making their fortunes on a leaf that couldn’t be eaten.

All kinds of rabbit-crazy thinking went on in my head under that raving sun.

I sucked in another breath, kept my rhythm, and when I needed a jolt, I looked for that woman again. I didn’t always see her. Sometimes, I saw stray mist – or was it smoke? I saw it rising and falling from breezes that pushed the verdant fronds; lifting them so high that for a moment they’d whiten with the horizon in front of me, the whole field buzzing like a white-hot insect. Yellow winds shifting gently, syrupy, sweat boiling from my forehead, and the leaves, those fronds so lovely to watch, white, yellow, silverfish at times – and such a lovely word: fronds. I kept mumbling it. Frond, fronds, fronds….

Sharp yellows and greens. That taut tobacco aroma lacing hot heavy winds that lay like bath waters in a sea of soft green, bottle-green, and then turning on a dime into limeade green and flashing brilliant velveteen green peppered with high occasional golden yellows.

My head, my head – full of purple prose for my laborer’s brain, nothing edited about it. Jolene, Jolene, why’d you leave me? I’m coming to you, Jolene. I’m having visions. Once this is done, once I’m free and paid, we’ll be together. I’ll be riding a Greyhound due north to Manhattan to be with you. I miss you like I’m a character out of an old song.

Dang. This heathen work. Gonna kill me by the time I’m thirty.

But my vision wasn’t of Jolene. She was a blonde. What did that mean? Not now, I thought. Not on this day when I had finally made up my mind.

I saw the two of us thirty years on. Nope. She wasn’t Jolene. She was someone else, the next woman I was destined to meet. I knew this, somehow, just as I knew my days of heathen work were not over.

At least, I wouldn’t realize my fear of dying as a lonely bachelor. Was I insane? I knew nothing. I was driven by hope, delusions, wishful thinking. Just shut up, I told myself, and keep chopping ‘backer.

Once sure that conical steel tip was secure on the next stake, I bent again and swung back my arm like old John Henry with hammer. I brought down my machete with aim and purpose true. Thwack. Nothing more satisfying than learning to use an effective tool well. Thwack. A machete, if anything, can be effective, and that ain’t no lie. Thwack.

All this work, I told myself, the way I hold this long heavy blade, the way I grip its handle – it’s all making a man of me. All my fathers – and I had many – would be proud.

After so much time in tobacco fields, I never took a cigarette for granted, no matter how harmful they were to one’s lungs. I needed one and so I lit up and damn near lost my lighter in my slippery tar-black sweaty hands. If I ran north to Jolene, none of those urban sophisticates in Manhattan would want to hear about this kind of work, this life here, and how beautiful it was to take a smoke break and look around. To smell the soil. To feel the cutting breeze as it swept in to carve away the settled heavier winds and heat. To see over the tops of all those fronds how the distant hills remained still. My eyes followed them. They rose and dipped and moment by moment changed their soft benign colors.

Better I kept my mouth shut once I got up there. Let Jolene do the talking.

Nothing was impossible. I could handle Manhattan. A smile glowed across my face as I thought of how Jolene was going to pleasure me once I got there.

I heard someone yelling. I couldn’t see him. He was yelling at me to hurry up, to keep moving, to get it done. It was Harlan’s nephew, all right, no surprise there.

I put out my cigarette and looked around for my blonde. She wasn’t there. She’d left me.

I saw a snake move toward my boot. Startled, panting, I jerked away. Eyeballed that skinny thing, gripped my machete and raised it. I let it sing down through the air, sounding a chink when it hit soft dirt, cleaving that snake in half.

Wasn’t no copperhead or eastern rattler, that’s all I knew. I watched its cleaved rope of a corpse as it twitched. Maybe wasn’t no snake, at all. Maybe it was some part of my soul. In the fields, the mind turns to gruel. Jungle instinct takes over. More than once I’d started babbling.

Jolene, Jolene, what’s a poor boy like me gonna do in that big city?

Running on fumes, I resumed getting my rows done. I ignored Harlan’s bellowing nephew. I knew I had to change myself. Nothing was gonna stop me.