He blew into our lives in late August, 1952, a tramp with a green rucksack and long, brown braids framing a weathered face.
He slanted me a gap-toothed grin and tipped his hat to my mother. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he said.
The Farmer’s Almanac had predicted a good year for potatoes, and so Daddy had planted the entire south five in hills which were now, after a week of ruthless Missouri sunshine, beginning to wilt. From my place at Ma’s knee, I could see him manning the fork and cussin’ into the wind. It was a good crop, alright. But there sure was a lot of it, I guessed.
The stranger grinned when he heard Daddy’s cussin’ carried on the wind. “I heard in town y’all might be needing some help with your potatoes,” he said.
Ma looked up from snapping beans over the large, silver colander in her lap. “Maybe,” she said, eyeing the stranger warily. “You’ll need to talk to George. Amy Ann, go get your Daddy.”
I put down my bucket of pale, dry bush beans, the last of the summer harvest, and ran across the yard for Daddy as fast as my chubby legs would carry me. I was ten years old that summer, a solid girl with yellow hair and a whole load of freckles who lived in hope of a growth spurt which, sadly, never arrived.
I wonder sometimes, looking back, if Daddy would have taken the tramp on if he hadn’t been so mad at them potatoes, ’cause he was mighty mad and feeling, I think, pretty desperate. There was no telling when this Indian Summer was about to fade off into autumn, and potatoes could go bad if they were put away wet.
The stranger called himself Reuben. I remember Daddy striking a hasty bargain with him and setting him up on a bunk in the barn. He would sleep there, take his meals in the house with us, and at the end of the harvest, he would move on with a few dollars in his pocket. Reuben shrugged and shook Daddy’s hand. I think it was a better deal than he had expected. Reuben hoisted his rucksack over his shoulder and headed for the cot in the barn.
As it turned out, our new hand was a hard worker. He and daddy worked side by side the first few days, and once Reuben knew how deep to drive the fork without spearing any potatoes, Daddy let him work on his own. But it was a new experience, having a stranger to meals with us. He was quiet and polite, but with the appetite of three men. Ma and Daddy didn’t even try to make small talk with him, and I sensed in my own way an odd tension that had settled on our household since Reuben’s arrival. Ma stopped chatting to Daddy about the weather or about anything. And my Daddy, always quick with a smile and a joke, had become quieter and quieter.
My attempts to break the silence were met with little amusement from my parents, but Reuben didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to like me. I’d often find him flashing me that gappy smile, and, whenever Ma and Daddy weren’t within earshot, he would talk to me. He told me stories of his travels to Mexico and how he once worked building roads up in Alaska where it was so cold your snot froze in your nose holes, and the sun didn’t come up for half a year.
To a girl who’d never been past the Barton County line, these tales struck me as wildly exotic. And for the very first time in my life, a grown up was talking to me, not like I was a little girl, but like I was grown up too. It was a feeling I liked very much.
And so I became Reuben’s shadow. If he was splitting wood, I would perch on a stump and chatter away, my ears longing for tales of more adventure. He told me about when he lived in San Francisco, how he was married there, but that his wife had jumped off a really high bridge and killed herself. I sat on my stump, eyes wide as saucers, my heart thumping out of my chest. In the whole of my life, I had never known anyone could live such adventures.
We had to be careful though, Reuben and I. I wasn’t to tell Ma or Daddy none of this or else Reuben would be a goner. When Ma or Daddy happened upon us talking, we knew to shut up, and that one of us better get plenty busy or else we’d get a chewing.
Mealtimes got stranger and better all at once. When Ma scolded me for chatting too much at dinner, Reuben reached under the table and patted my knee. Just the once, but it was enough to tell me he understood. I stared at my plate through a haze of tears and was so grateful for that understanding. Over the course of days, there were more and more reasons for Reuben to have to understand me, and his pats on my knee became more frequent, and then he just left his hand there sometimes for ages. It gave me an odd feeling in my stomach, a shaky feeling that I did not understand at all.
The harvest was coming to an end, though. The potatoes had been conditioned and were being put to storage, and I knew Reuben would be leaving soon. As good a friend as I thought he was, part of me was looking forward to that departure and a return to our old life, the life where Ma and Daddy talked and laughed together again. The weather was starting to turn, and a storm groaned its presence in the far distance, turning the leaves upside down on the trees and blowing great gusts of wind against our shutters. I slept fitfully, watching the rise and fall of the sheer curtain dancing against the drafty window. It was not raining yet, but it was on its way. I could smell it.
In the wee hours of morning, I woke from the strangest dream of brown hands on my throat and a lady jumping from a bridge. My sheet was a sweaty snake coiled around my waist, and I was suddenly desperate to use the outhouse before the rain began. I crept from bed and down the stairs, a path I knew so well I could navigate it with my eyes closed, but suddenly I came to a stop on the first landing. It was dark as a pocket, but I knew I was not alone. I could hear breathing. I could smell whiskey.
“Hey there, Amy Ann,” whispered Reuben. “What’re you doing up? Huh?”
“I gotta pee,” I said.
He laughed a whispery laugh. “Here, honey – let me help you to the outhouse.”
Something inside me said that would be wrong. Really wrong. “No, it’s ok,” I whispered back in the dark, moving to the edge of the landing to make the last few steps to the kitchen and safety.
Reuben’s hand shot out and he took my elbow then, laughing his whispery laugh as he pulled me down onto his lap. I could smell his whiskey breath on my yellow hair and felt the sudden urge to throw up. “Let me go!” I hissed, praying Ma and Daddy didn’t hear. They’d have my hide for sure.
“Calm down, Amy Ann, I ain’t gonna hurt you none,” he said, but he wouldn’t let me go, and I had to pee so bad, and I was so scared of Ma and Daddy finding me here like this.
I struggled silently against a grip that was only growing stronger until I was suddenly freed. Reuben nearly cried aloud in disgust. “You … little…” He leapt unsteadily to his feet. “You peed on me!” he whispered fiercely, indignantly, brushing at his trousers.
Daddy’s bedroom door flew open just then and the kitchen light came on with a loud click. It was the sound of my heart stopping. Blinded by the sudden light and my own tears, I just stood there on the landing in a growing pool of hot urine that soaked my nightie and stung the cuts on my bare feet. God help me, I could not stop.
Reuben was frozen on his feet, swaying slightly. “‘Tain’t what you’re thinkin’,” he said.
Daddy just looked at him hard. “It’s exactly what I’m thinkin’,” he said.
“She just tripped on me is all,” he said. “I was helping her up -”
“Get out.” Daddy’s voice was hard and final as a grave stone. “Now.”
Reuben wasted no time tottering down the stairs and out the front door, slamming the screen door behind him.
When he was gone, Daddy turned to me. “Amy Ann,” he said gently as he could, “come here, child.”
I let out a wail, knowing for sure I was in for a hiding. Big girls don’t pee themselves. “I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m sorry…” I moaned miserably.
Daddy cleared his throat. “You got nothing to be sorry for,” he said, holding his hand out to me and giving me a little nod of encouragement. I ran to him, dripping wet and all. Daddy cupped the back of my yellow head and smashed my face against his chest so hard I thought I would be crushed. I wiped my tears and my snotty nose on his sleep shirt and sobbed, wrapping my arms around his waist. Daddy rubbed the back of my head with his right hand. It was then I noticed what he had in his left. “Go to your mother, Amy,” he said. “She’ll get you all cleaned up.”
“Am I in trouble, Daddy?”
“No, honey. You’re not in any trouble. No trouble at all. Go on now,” he said, “go to your Ma.”
Ma was standing wide eyed in the doorway, clutching her hand to her chest. She held out her arms to me then, and the two of us watched Daddy slip out the kitchen door and into the night. Dazed, I let Ma strip me down and help me wash. She then pulled one of her own flannel night gowns over my head. It was miles too big, but it smelled of Ma and comfort. She then tucked me into her own bed beside her, and the two of us lay in the dark listening to the beginnings of a storm and trying to sleep.
“Was that a gun?” I whispered into the thick darkness.
“No, Amy Ann,” whispered Ma, “that’s just the banging of the shutters.”
I didn’t believe her. We lay in silence for the longest time, pretending to sleep and listening to the rain.
As the first gray light of a wet morning dawned, the screen door opened at last. I heard the pump in the kitchen and the splash of water as Daddy stripped to the waist and washed. When he was clean and dry, he joined me and Ma in their big bed, wrapping his strong arm around us and stroking my hair with a hand that still smelled of blood and freshly turned earth.
A short story by Mother Hen
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