|Candle of Dreams By Ruth Ramsey|
I was wrong. She acts as though it happened just yesterday and is madder than an old wet hen. What I did didnâ€™t keep her from having a happy life. She married a man who treated her like a queen and gave her everything she wanted. Her children adore her and take her on trips with them and are constantly calling to see if she is okay. Itâ€™s more than I ever had by far.
Coral Lee has always been one to hang on to things long after they needed to be let go. It seems she never let go or got over it either. How was I to know she hadnâ€™t? I guess I never got over it myself, because what I did has bothered me all these years. I finally told her about it, so I could get it off my chest and clear my conscience. She met my confession with total silence. Now she sits there and broods. Sometimes the tears slip out the corners of her eyes and she dabs at them with the lacy handkerchief we were taught to carry when young, while her free hand clutches the small pile of letters I gave her when I confessed.
â€œCome on, Coral Lee,â€ I plead. â€œPlease forgive me. I was young. Young people do stupid stuff.â€
She stares at me blankly and turns away. I donâ€™t know what to do. My Joe was killed in the war fighting at Iwo Jima. We spent such a short time together, and we never had kids. I never cared to remarry. So here I am, childless, with only my sister left. Sheâ€™s all I have, and she isnâ€™t well. I am the younger, but I care for her as though she were my child. I look at her frail figure sitting in the chair and wonder if I will lose her too. I wonder if clearing my conscience was worth losing her trust. Weâ€™ve never enjoyed an easy relationship. We have always been too different. I may have wrecked all the careful work I have done to build what rapport weâ€™ve had.
Why did I do it? Why does anyone do anything? The young do things without thinking. I was no different. I go about the business of seeing to her needs in the new, painful silence between us. In the silence she preserves so carefully, regret rises up like a tide to swallow me.
Micah is tiptoeing around me and casting soulful, wounded animal glances, looking for some sign that I have forgiven her. Iâ€™m still in shock over her revelation. Without really seeing it, I stare at the world outside our little apartment trying to cope with all the emotions I made such an effort to bury long ago.
I find myself drifting back to the events of that summer back when we were teens on the farm in western Oklahoma. Often the memories of our youth are fuzzy around the edges, but that particular summer and its events stand out in clear, sharp detail.
The prelude to that summer was like any other summer in our short lives. For years, the weather had been horribly dry. Summers were brutal. There was no reason to believe this one would be different.
It seemed that Mother Nature practiced no in-betweens. Between the bouts of rain, the long dry spells made the red dirt of the fields on our old home place into a crazy quilt of red cracks. Anything that budded out in the spring didnâ€™t last long. Frequent dust storms blew in, borne on winds from the west where, the news said, the land was now a vast desert where hardly anything grewâ€”a barren place that came to be known as the Dust Bowl. At the time, I couldnâ€™t even picture the devastation described. It seemed unreal to me, never having been there, although the pictures I saw later brought the reality home. It was enough that the winds brought the smell of dust to hang in the air like a malevolent perfume.
Our weather had been dry so long that the memory of when things were much greener and water ran freely in the now mostly-dry creek bed felt a dream to me. I have a vivid memory of when we were little, and a monster dust storm blew in and obscured the sun. That was the worst storm ever. I remember huddling with Micah in the smothering darkness of the house, made all the darker because Mama hung extra blankets at the window to keep the dust out. The darkness was stifling, and it terrified me, small child that I was. I hid my face in Mamaâ€™s shoulder, sure the world was coming to an end. Sometimes I wondered if there were any dirt left out west, or if there were a vast hole left by all that dirtâ€™s migrating east. I was told later that the chickens, thinking it was dark, went into their coops and went to bed. I remember Mama manning a broom to sweep the dust off the porch and the windowsills afterwards, muttering under her breath about the godforsaken place we lived in. The rustling swish of her sweeping provided a counterpoint to her mutterings.
We found out later that particular dust storm reached all the way to the East Coast. That was the first of many. I donâ€™t think there was ever one worse. We grew used to the pinkish haze that tinted the sky any time the wind blew with any force. We did all we could to keep the dust out, but it crept into our house relentlessly. The dust was our trial. The dust was our enemy. The dust was our reality. When the dust hit, we bowed our heads beneath the onslaughts, covered our faces, and did the best we could. When I look back, it is the dust I remember most.
Across the world, Hitler began his drive to conquer Europe, but that seemed too far away to affect us much. Here at home, hounded by the twin hardships of dust and depression, we were too preoccupied with making ends meetâ€”something that for some families, was well-nigh impossible.
Many farmers gave up and left, tired of trying to wrest a living, however pitiful, out of the land, and took to the road. They sometimes found themselves living in shantytowns in the bigger cities and drifting from town to town in hope of work. Some, lured by the dream of a better life in California, pulled up stakes and headed west. Route 66 was not far from us, and it was heavily traveled in those daysâ€”an almost never-ending parade of desperation.
We fared better than most. We still owned our land. Dad stubbornly hung on to the land that comprised his grandfatherâ€™s homestead. Over the years, Great-granddad, a canny Irishman with big dreams and the hustle to match, added to his initial claim, buying an extra acre here and there until he acquired a sizeable tract of land. He made sure he instilled his deep love of the land in his son and, in turn, in his grandson. Owning land meant everything. Owning land meant one rose above the status of tenant farmer. When he died and our grandfather died, the land passed to our dadâ€”a grand inheritance, as our great-grandfather would have said.
Dad had, along with the land, inherited his grandfatherâ€™s distrust of banking institutions. Because he was no stranger to hardships and bad luck, our great-grandfather stashed every extra bit of money that came his way in a strong box in the hidey-hole in the basement under the house. It was our family secret, that strong box. He saw to it that our grandfather and Dad continued the tradition, squirreling away everything during the bumper years of crops before the drought hit.
Iâ€™m sure both our granddad and Dad felt vindicated in stashing coin away when Black Friday came and the banks failed in 1929. Granddad died the following spring, leaving his only son to carry on in his place. Iâ€™m sure Grandad wasnâ€™t aware of the magnitude of the troubles to come, but the carefully hoarded money in the strong box would be instrumental in helping to carry us through as crop after crop did poorly or failed.
Dad used the money sparingly. The hoard was money he was reluctant to touch. I know it killed him when he was forced to use some of the money for seed during those years, and I watched him grow grayer and more stooped with discouragement. He sold off all the cattle except our old milk cow and added the income to the stash. He bought seed, and met our needs the with money from the federal government. I know it gritted his soul to take help, because he was a proud man, but he was practical. We would do what we needed to do to get by. He lived in the hope that the weather would turn around and we would have good crops again.
The money we stashed back, he insisted, was our cushion against losing the farm. Frugally, he kept the old tractor running, making jokes about its being held together with baling wire. I always wondered if it actually were.
We practiced other economies too. We raised chickens, canned what little produce we could coax out of the parched ground by irrigating the soil in the garden, and made do. When we complained, Dad told us that we should count ourselves lucky that we hadnâ€™t gone bust and wound up joining the people on the highway.
Our house, a good-sized two-story that was almost palatial by local standards, went without a coat of paint. We didnâ€™t buy much of anything new. Mostly, we made do, replacing things only when we absolutely needed to do so. We were very careful with our spending so that no one would suspect we had money and come looking for it.
We were fortunate enough to have electricity, thanks to the Rural Electrification Act, but we were sparing in using it. Electricity cost money. In the better times before the drought, Dad splurged and bought the Victrola radio and a washing machine Mama insisted on having. Dad demurred at buying the washing machine, but when Mama threatened that she would never wash his clothing again and he could just do it himself while listening to the radio, he gave in. Mama was a woman of her word. He knew better than to cross her.
The Victrola was a pure source of entertainment. It stood in a place of honor in the living room and its dark cabinetry was kept carefully free of dust. We would gather around that radio at night, sitting in the shadows of a single lamp, listening to Rooseveltâ€™s Fireside Chats and or laughing at programs such as Fibber McGee and Molly until bedtime. We would turn off all unnecessary lights, and there we would be, sitting in a small pool of light, listening. For all our growing-up years, we were carefully taught to turn off the lights when we left a room. Once, I forgot and left a light on. To teach me a lesson, Dad took the lightbulb out of my room. When he finally put the lightbulb back, after I bumped around in the darkness for over a week, I remembered to be frugal. The habit of sitting in half-lit rooms stays with Micah and me even today.
I sit here now in the darkness of the evening. Outside the window, streetlights are winking on and the glow of the streetlight spills across the letters lying unopened on my lap. I donâ€™t have the strength to open them yet. Even now the memories cause me pain.
I was eighteen and Micah was sixteen that summer. Because I was eighteen, I counted myself grownâ€”something that Dad and Mama disputed with me quite often. I chafed at the restrictions they put on me.
Micah and I were as different as night and day. She was heavy-set, square-shouldered, and big-boned. Her hair, an indistinct mouse brown during the winter, bleached to a golden blonde in the sun and was constantly in rebellion, no matter what she did with it, so she kept it in a short, thick bob that stuck out stubbornly in odd angles around her square-jawed face with its determined chin and strong nose and cheekbones. She looked out on the world from large, watchful brown eyes underneath level brows. She really wasnâ€™t very pretty. Her saving feature was her creamy complexion that merely grew darker in the sun.
In contrast, I was tall and slender and my hair was black and curly. I wore it gathered in a bun to keep it under control, but tendrils still escaped. My eyes were blue. I considered them my best feature. I envied my sister her complexion because mine was pale and prone to freckles if I stayed out in the sun. People were often startled when they were told we were sisters. We looked nothing alike. We differed, as well, in our preferences.
Micah was the one who loved the outdoors. She loved to be out in the fields with Dad, whose former hired hand took off in search of a better life in California. She, to Dadâ€™s surprise, volunteered to help out around the place, and she didnâ€™t seem to mind in the slightest the hard work that he set her to doing. She reveled in it.
I took more after Mama, who once aspired to be a writer, and who hungered after the finer things in life. Like her, I loved books, and music, and took pains to make sure that I was always well-groomed. The last thing I wanted to do was grub in the dirt or do as Micah did and put on a pair of Dadâ€™s old overalls and boots and go stamping out into the barn to milk the cow or feed the pigs.
Mama, of course, was scandalized by Micahâ€™s preferences. â€œItâ€™s just indecent!â€ she complained to Micah. â€œA young lady doing a manâ€™s work. I want better things for you and your sister than to live on a farm all your life. You donâ€™t want to end up living all your life out in the sticks like I did.â€
â€œItâ€™s all right with me, Mama,â€ Micah would reply. â€œI like living on the farm. I canâ€™t think of anywhere else Iâ€™d want to be.â€
That statement would send Mama off into one of her fits as she railed at her younger daughter for having no ambition to rise above her circumstances in life. There was no living with Mama when she was like that, so Micah would shrug her shoulders and head outside, leaving me to deal with Mama.
Mama hated the farm, and the dust didnâ€™t help her attitude at all. The pervading dust would sift into the house, no matter how hard we tried to keep it out by stuffing rags into the spaces in the windows and hanging wet sheets over the doors. During the dust storms, the atmosphere in the house would be stifling, but we didnâ€™t dare open the windows to get air. She would keep up a running diatribe both during and after the storms, while Micah and I, faces covered, would man the brooms and dust cloths in a futile attempt to dispel the dusty film that coated everything. At those times I agreed with her heartily, and wished we could be somewhere else. There has to be a better way to live, I grumped to myself as I swept the excess dust from the wood floors out the door and off the porch.
While Mama continued to be vocal in her disapproval of Micahâ€™s working alongside Dad, Micah shrugged her objections off and continued to help. We needed a hired hand, but not having one was another way to save money. Dad often reminded us of that. He said that hoard of money was like the good, deep well we were fortunate to have on our place. Who knew how long either would last in the face of this prolonged drouth? Better, he said, to be as conserving of the money as we could; therefore, he was appreciative of Micahâ€™s efforts, and, I think, worked her as hard as any man.
I was in my final year of high school that spring and looked forward to spreading my wings a bit and getting away from the never-ending grind. I was hoping to go to stay at Grandmaâ€™s in New York State and perhaps go to school there. Mama was keen on my goingâ€”Dad not so much.
â€œI donâ€™t see why you canâ€™t just stay here and go to college,â€ he grumbled.
â€œAh, Dad, I just want to go places and see things.â€
He sighed. â€œI guess you do. I know I had the itching foot myself. Went back East. Found your Mama. Came home. Havenâ€™t felt any desire to travel since.â€
â€œWell, Micah will still be here,â€ I told him.
Mama sniffed audibly. Micah was a disappointment to Mama in many ways. They just didnâ€™t see eye-to-eye on anything. Micah rebelled against anything Mama said as a matter of course. Since she planned to stay on the farm, Micah didnâ€™t plan on going to college, and she would have been perfectly happy to quit school. School work held as little interest for her as Mamaâ€™s instruction. She viewed both as unnecessary. Only Dadâ€™s stern insistence kept her in school.
â€œI donâ€™t need school to work on the farm,â€ she complained. â€œI know enough to do accounts and about the farm to run it.â€
â€œYou may not always be on the farm, â€œMama told her. â€œYou will need your schooling then.â€
â€œIf I marry one of those rich men you have in mind for me, I still wonâ€™t need all that learning. Iâ€™ll be too busy changing diapers and raising children,â€ Micah retorted, sending Mama on yet another of her tirades. Micah never did learn not to bait Mama that way. I wished she wouldnâ€™t do that. Mama was capable of sustaining a bad mood for days.
Personally, I liked going to school. It got me away from the house and all the discord. I liked socializing with my classmates, especially the boys. Mama disapproved of them because they werenâ€™t good enough for her daughters. I wondered where she thought we were going to meet the kind of young men she wanted us to marryâ€”the doctors and lawyers who would give us a good life. Old Doc Henderson was eighty if he was a day, and his son was a sober-faced man in his late forties with no children. All the eligible ladies around his age made a play for him over the years, but he hadnâ€™t shown the slightest interest. He was definitely a confirmed bachelor. The one lawyer in town was an old man of thirty. Anyone with any gumption and ambition took off as soon as possible to better places. Mama, bless her, just didnâ€™t have a grip on reality.
Whether the town boys were good enough for Mama or not, they were good-looking, and I loved to flirt with them. It was fun to see them blush when I teased them and acted as though they were something special. Of course, every now and then, my flirting was taken seriously, and I wound up fending off not only the boy, but sometimes his angry girlfriend as well. Once Micah and I overheard some of the other girls, who didnâ€™t like me calling me a shameless hussy. Mama would have just died if she heard them. It was a good thing she didnâ€™t. I swore Micah to silence. Better not to chance it. Iâ€™d never be let out of the house again.
Always, always, Micah was my silent shadow. No matter where I went, she went with me. Her constant presence would sometimes annoy me, and I would turn on her. She never answered back, but stared at me and gave me wounded looks until I felt bad and apologized. I couldnâ€™t remember a time when she had not followed me around. Mama liked to tell me about the time I announced that Micah was my baby. I must have been really little. I didnâ€™t remember saying any such thing, but I did remember carting her around in the little wagon Dad bought us to play with.
My tom-boy sister was protective, once appointing herself my defender and hitting a girl in the nose for bad-mouthing me. A huge ruckus followed. She was in trouble for quite a while, and the girlâ€™s mother never did like her afterwards. Micah pretended not to care about the consequences, donning a devil-may-care attitude. The whole thing got to her though. As a result, she didnâ€™t go after the girls who were calling me a hussy. She only scowled.
Underneath the tough exterior she presented, she was tender-hearted and easily hurt. I felt bad for her, but not bad enough to keep from dragging her into my messes or laying into her when she got on my nerves. She would fight back, but we always made up. I expected she would always have my back, but people change, and expectations are just that, expectations.
Itâ€™s funny how certain days in a personâ€™s life stand out, and we look back and see one day or another as a turning point in our lives. It was thus with the day that changed everything for me.
It was an early May afternoon, warm and sunny and ordinary. After attending school all day, we said our goodbyes for the day and dragged, at least on my part, reluctantly, home. The other girls in my group of friends were heading down to the drug store to buy a soda, and I was feeling somewhat put out that I was expected to go home. Micah was whistling tunelessly as she trailed in my wake, and swinging her lunch pail from side to side. Mama would have ripped into her for sure for her whistling like a man.
I was also thinking glumly of the boring days to come and trying to think what in my wardrobe that I could restyle so I would have something decent for graduation. I wondered if I could wheedle a new dress out of Dad. I needed a new dressâ€”no matter that it would be covered by our robes during the ceremony. I could wear the dress to the party afterwards and show it off.
If I asked, I knew I would be treated to a stern lecture about the necessity of watching what we spent. Iâ€™d heard that lecture so often, I was sure I could quote it chapter and verse. I planned on enlisting Mama in the battle. He couldnâ€™t stand against the two of us. Micah needed a new dress too, I decided. Knowing Micah, I didnâ€™t think she would care too much whether she one or not, but it wouldnâ€™t do for us to look too down at heels at such an important event. Maybe for once, she would look decent.
Micah, in the meantime, decided to spin in a circle and accidentally hit me with the pail.
I rounded on her. â€œOw, that hurt! Why canâ€™t you ever just walk down the road like a normal person?â€
â€œWell get out of the way!â€ she retorted.
She ducked the slap I aimed at her and skipped back, sticking her tongue out at me. We squabbled back and forth until we finally reached the drive to our house. The sight of an old, ugly, Ford truck, once green but now scabrous with rust, sitting in front of the house brought us up short and made us forget our squabbling. We stared at the tableau before us.
On the back of the truck was a flatbed that was encased by a cage of parallel boards covered with a beat-up gray tarp. The cage was filled with miscellaneous pieces of furniture that stuck out at odd angles. In a narrow open space between the piled-up furniture and the cab sat three young, ragged, and not-too-clean children, who stared at us with curious eyes. One of them raised a hand to swipe at the snot that was running from her nose, and then wiped her hand on her dress. I stared at her, half revolted. Their mama, a skinny red-haired woman, sat quietly in the truckâ€™s cab, staring straight ahead. She seemed oblivious to the clamoring of the children, who, having seen us, hopped down and ran to her side of the truck, climbing up on the running board, trying to inform her of our presence.
â€œWho on earth is that?â€ Micah asked. â€œThat truck looks like it could just fall apart right before our eyes.â€
â€œI have no idea. Looks like one of those travelling families to me,â€ I retorted, leaning on the gatepost for a minute to watch the scene in front of me. Micah started forward, but I grabbed her arm and motioned for her to wait. She grumbled a bit but complied.
Dad stood on the porch, talking to a tall, rail-thin man with a long, hard-bitten face that hadnâ€™t seen a razor in a while. A worn, dirty, felt hat pulled low over his eyes shadowed his upper face, giving him a sinister look; and he wore a tattered long-sleeved, checked shirt and overalls. From our vantage point by the gate, it was impossible to hear what Dad and he were talking about, but I could guess.
By the looks of things, the family in that decrepit truck probably stopped at our place, looking for a handout. Every now and then people wandered off the highway and stopped by our place, hungry and desperate. Dad would usually send them packing. He wasnâ€™t overly generous with beggars, feeling that they should work for what they got, but he sometimes took pity on the ones with children. He would give the grown-ups some chores that needed doing and then give them some food before he sent them on. I could always tell by his face that sending the children on was hard for him. He would watch them leave, shake his head, and go silently into the house. I doubted he would do anything differently this time.
Intent on the two men, who were deep in conversation, I didnâ€™t at first notice the tall young man standing in the shadow of the porch, listening to the two menâ€™s conversation. He captured my attention when he moved to the truck to hush the children. He took each girl by the hand and led them to the back of the truck again. The younger boy trailed behind reluctantly and clambered back into the truck once his brother lifted his sisters into it. He sat there, glaring after his brother, who returned to the shadow of the porch.
â€œWonder if Dad will send them packing,â€ Micah said.
â€œGuess we should go see.â€ I jerked my head in the direction of the house, and we started down the drive with Micah bringing up in the rear. I called out a greeting, and the young man turned, startled. Gray eyes in a deeply-tanned face under a thatch of dark auburn hair met mine. The world suddenly seemed to shift. I stopped and stood stock still, unaware that I had done so, returning his stare, until Micahâ€™s elbow connected with my ribs.
â€œStop gawking,â€ she hissed.
Startled and embarrassed, I dropped my eyes.
She was the prettiest thing Iâ€™d laid eyes on in a while. She stood there staring at me with such intensity it made me think sheâ€™d never seen a boy before. She stood there, bemused, until her sister poked her in the ribs, and then she looked away. I tried a smile on the other girl, and I got a frown in return. A cough from Pap took my attention away from the girls and back to the conversation going on. I guessed Iâ€™d better listen. Anyway, if things worked out, Iâ€™d probably get a chance to know those two girls better.
Over the past year, my family and I had travelled from town to town, dispossessed when our farm went bottom up, looking for work and a place to stay. In our travels, we passed through so many towns that they acquired a gray sameness in my memory. We werenâ€™t received with much friendliness in most places. People who stayed in place werenâ€™t too friendly to people on the road. I didnâ€™t expect much this time either, judging by the look on the ownerâ€™s face.
Weâ€™d been on the road for several weeks this time, and we showed it. It was hard to keep clean when a person was on the road, and I was all too aware of my dirty overalls and threadbare shirt. Ma was too worn out and sick with a lingering, wracking cough to do much. She would scrape together a meal to feed us all from what little we could manage to scrounge to eat, and then lie down. She put up a brave front, but I knew life on the road was hard on her.
I usually helped her corral my little sisters and brother when they got too rowdy to suit Pap. I made it my objective to keep them away from him and his sudden bursts of anger, having experienced more than once the brunt of that anger, which grew worse after we began our wandering, in the form of a swift, hard smack across the face. Being cooped up in the truck, which was prone to breaking down by the side of the road, didnâ€™t help his temper. The break-downs sent him into a round of non-stop swearing that made Ma put her hands over ears and that was my signal to get the little ones out of the truck and away. Pap could be a hard man to live with on a good day. He was well-nigh unbearable on bad ones. There were a lot of unbearable days lately. Thinking of it, my hand crept up to the side of my head where his latest clout had landed. I quickly dropped my hand when Pap shot me a mean, sidewise look.
What a life we were living! Cut loose from the latest day labor job, we went limping down Route 66 in that battered, old, cantankerous truck, staying in various camps along the way. All kinds of people accompanied us on the road, bound for the legendary land of California, where it was said there was work a-plenty and opportunities for all. We werenâ€™t necessarily wanting to go to California. We were, just as that old song about the boll weevil said, â€œjust-a-lookinâ€™ for a home.â€ Our wandering westward eventually brought us to this place, where the dirt itself seemed to made of blood, and the sky stretched from horizon to horizon over the rolling land that was fretted with deep canyons. It was very different from our place among the wooded hills of Missouri. It possessed a sweeping beauty that was its own. The sunsets were made particularly colorful by the lingering dust in the air, a harbinger of the terrible conditions father west.
We came to and crossed the South Canadian, driving across the long bridge over its fertile river bottom. The river, a shadow of itself, gave no hint that it was capable of turning into a mile-wide torrent of raging water. We were warned not to go down to the river itself because there were pockets of quicksand. Once across the bridge, we stopped to let the kids out to play, stretch our legs, and look around. After all, we had no particular destination. Rootless and drifting, we stopped whenever we could no longer stand it in the truck or the truck broke down. Often, we slept on our mattresses, unloaded from the truck, with only the stars for a ceiling. As they settled down to sleep, I entertained my sisters and brothers with tales of wagon trains until Pap growled at us to be quiet.
On this particular evening, we stopped for gas at a little, white-washed gas station on the Route and spent our last money filling the tank. Pap chatted up the owner and a couple of men hanging out there and found out that a man named Daniel Gillespie might be looking for a hired hand. The owner told Pap that all the man had was his daughter to help him out and a sizeable farm. When Pap wondered if it would do any good to approach the man, the owner avowed that the asking would be free, and suggested that we just head out there and ask. It wasnâ€™t far to the manâ€™s house, the owner said. We would have to backtrack a bit, he told us, since we passed Gillespieâ€™s land before w e got to the station. He gave us directions, and after backtracking and taking a couple of wrong turns, we found the place. The two-story house was imposing and sat on a hill overlooking the valley below. Certainly, it was grander than I expected.
Farther down the road was the high school and a small church with a painted white steeple. I eyed the school grimly. I figured I wouldnâ€™t be seeing the inside of those walls, even if we lucked out and got to stay. My gut twisted.
We entered the drive slowly. Our truck coughed and backfired and died as we pulled up to the house. The noise brought the man, Gillespie, out of his house to investigate. He stood there, arms akimbo, as we got out of the truck and approached him.
â€œWhat can I do for you?â€ he asked.
â€œHowdy, itâ€™s a fine eveninâ€™, ainâ€™t it?â€ Pap moved to the foot of the porch steps.
â€œFine enough. State your business.â€ Gillespie moved to block Papâ€™s ascension to the porch itself. His face was forbidding.
Pap took off his battered hat as the conversation progressed. I knew he was going to have to do some fast talking. Only his hands unconsciously twisting the brim belied his unease as he worked to convince this Daniel Gillespie fellow of his need for a hired manâ€”namely Pap.
â€œWe was heading to California, but we run out of money, and the truck keeps breakinâ€™ down. We were figurinâ€™ on stopping in the next town, so the boy and I could look for work, and the feller that was at the gas station said you could use some help out here on the farm,â€ Pap was saying. That was the first I heard of actually heading to California but then Pap wasnâ€™t one to let me in on things.
â€œHe did, did he?â€ The man glared at Pap from under beetling, brushy, red eyebrows. â€œNice to know someone knows my business better than I do.â€
â€œThen you donâ€™t need the help?â€ Pap asked. I saw the subtle tensing of his shoulders in preparation for rejection. He put his hat back on his head and turned to go. Gillespieâ€™s voice brought him up short.
â€œDidnâ€™t say I didnâ€™t. Just said people ought to mind their own business.â€ It was then that the kids began to clamor and climb out of the truck. Pap motioned to me to take care of it. When I turned to do so, I caught sight of the girlsâ€”well, mainly the prettier one. She outshone her sister.
Daniel Gillespie, following my gaze, glared at the two. â€œYou girls, get on in the house and quit staring.â€
â€œYes, Dad,â€ the prettier one said. Her voice was soft and musical. With a motion to her sister to follow, she came up the steps and brushed by me, so closely that I caught a whiff of jasmine scent as she passed. She didnâ€™t look at me, but the other one stopped and gave me a frank once-over. Her gaze was assessingâ€”and challenging.
â€œMicah, I said go on in the house. Now do it!â€ her father said sharply. Giving me a final, not-too-friendly glance over her shoulder, she did as she was told, letting the screen slam behind her. Her father shook his head and then turned back to us.
â€œPardon my daughtersâ€™ manners,â€ he said to us formally. â€œWhoever told you I needed a hand was right,â€ he continued. â€œI do need some help around here. I canâ€™t pay you much of a wage, but I can help feed you, and weâ€™ve got a hired manâ€™s house that you and your missus and young ones can stay in for as long as you work for me. If you work out and stay long enough and the rains come, so we can make a crop, we can talk about better wages. Until then, a house and a full belly and the occasional dollar is all I can give. If that doesnâ€™t suit, youâ€™ll have to go on your way.â€ He regarded Pap steadily for a moment to see how his offer was taken before continuing. â€œI hear tell itâ€™s a wasteland further out west, and it will be a hard go to get where you are going. You might want to rethink.â€ He gave a pointed look at our truck before going on. The look said he didnâ€™t give us much chance of making it.
â€œThe boy here looks like he can find some extra jobs in town to help out, but I have enough work to keep two hands more than busy,â€ he said as he returned his gaze to Pap.
â€œWeâ€™ll take anything we can get, Mister. Beggars canâ€™t be choosers,â€ Pap said. He glared at me to make sure I didnâ€™t say anything to mess up the deal. As if I would. I knew better. He would have whaled the daylights out of me on down the road. I guessed living here was better than being on the road, but the idea of being stuck here in this place bothered me, and I would be working on a farm. I didnâ€™t see any future in it. It didnâ€™t square with what I wanted to do with my life. Inwardly I railed at the circumstances that were dictating how I spent it. Pap gave an elaborate cough when I hesitated, and I grudgingly nodded assent. What choice did I have, really?
â€œHow are you at running a tractor and keeping it running?â€ Gillespie asked.
â€œI can do just â€˜bout anything around the farm, and as for keeping things running,â€ Papâ€™s mouth twisted in a wry grin and he indicated our truck, â€œIâ€™ve kept that olâ€™ piece of tin runninâ€™ when it should have given up the ghost long ago.â€
Gillespieâ€™s eyes went from Papâ€™s face to his truck. Those beetling brows shot up in amusement and his thin mouth quirked.
â€œThen you ought to be able to keep the tractor running,â€ Gillespie said. â€œI donâ€™t use the old contraption much these days, since I get a government check for not planting things, but I do have plans to do some planting later, and Iâ€™d like it to be running. Are you interested? I could use the extra hands around here.â€
Pap assured him we were.
From the truck, I heard the sound of one of my sisters whimpering. The whimpering made me feel bad for wanting to do something else. My siblings deserved to have food and shelter at least. My dreams would have to be put off for a while, but someday soon, I promised myself, I would get free and strike out on my own.
â€œItâ€™s settled then,â€ Gillespie said as he and my Pap shook hands. â€œThe hired manâ€™s house is back of our house down that road into the pasture. There isnâ€™t any running water in the house proper, but thereâ€™s a pump and youâ€™ll have fresh water. Thereâ€™s an old cook stove in there that will have to do. Iâ€™ll get you some coal to fire it up with. I did have the house wired when I had mine done several years back, so you will have some light. Iâ€™ll see if I can rustle up an ice box for you. I think my dadâ€™s old one is stored away in the shed. You can help me get it to the house tomorrow after you get your stuff unloaded. Oh, Iâ€™d be much obliged if youâ€™re not wasteful of the electricity or of the water, seeing as how we canâ€™t seem to get anything much to fall from the sky and money donâ€™t grow on trees. Iâ€™ll send one of the girls down with some food after bit, so that you can make yourself some supper for tonightâ€
â€œThank you, weâ€™re much obliged. Iâ€™ll be here bright and early in the morninâ€™ soâ€™s I can get started,â€ Pap said. â€œMatt here will be along with me.â€ He nudged me and I extended my hand for Gillespie to shake. His grip was firm and painful. I winced inwardly.
â€œGood,â€ Gillespie said. â€œJust follow the drive around back of the house.â€ He turned on his heel and went inside. From within, I heard the girlsâ€™ laughing and bantering and a womanâ€™s chiding voice. Squaring my shoulders, I followed Pap down the steps and got in the truck.
I wished I could have captured the happy and relieved look on Maâ€™s face when she heard we were going to have a roof over our heads again. I thought that a woman was kind of like a bird. She liked her own nest and her things about her rather than flying around aimlessly. Ma was no different. She grew sadder and sadder as the weeks and months progressed. Her rare smiles held an infinity of sadness.
We would be living in a real house again, however plain and uncomfortable, and I hoped that she would be happy again and get well once the rigors of the road wore off. She started to say something but was seized by one of her coughing fits, which Pap ignored as he prepared to start the old truck.
I piled into the back and squeezed in. After a few false starts and multiple coughs and wheezes that echoed Maâ€™s, the engine sputtered into a shuddering life.
â€œHang on! Nowâ€ I told my sisters and brother. Any response they may have made was stifled in the clattering noise of the truckâ€™s engine. We hung on for dear life as the truck lurched forward and bounced down the bumpy dirt road to our new home.
The hired manâ€™s house was located about a quarter of a mile from the main house. Truth to tell, the house, a clapboard bungalow with a lean-to built onto the back, wasnâ€™t as bad as I imagined it would be. It was shaded by a couple of battered elm trees. I guessed the family once lived in it before they built the larger one down the road. For a hired manâ€™s house, it was sizeable. There would be plenty of room for us.
The house itself certainly needed some work. The paint was peeling badly enough to reveal the weathered, gray boards underneath, and the porch roof sagged somewhat under the heavy load of decrepit shingles. Pap and I would have to shore that up and check the roof for leaks, just in case we were blessed with rainâ€”however unlikely rainâ€™s coming seemed. In spite of the houseâ€™s decrepit appearance, it was still better than most of the places we lived in on our â€œtravelsâ€â€” Maâ€™s term for drifting.
The door opened with a creaking protest to reveal an interior that needed a good cleaning. Cobwebs festooned the corners and competed with the dust to coat everything. A spider scuttling across the floor made my little sisters shriek. Ma stopped at the door and put a hand to her mouth, overwhelmed at the very size of the task. I stepped up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder.
â€œDonâ€™t worry about it, Ma. Iâ€™ll help you as much as I can,â€ I said.
Pap heard me.
â€œYou wonâ€™t have time to be helping her that much. You have to help us earn our keep around here, or we wonâ€™t even have this.â€ Seeing Maâ€™s stricken look, he relented. â€œOf course, there ainâ€™t no reason we canâ€™t all help out for tonight. Matt, you go get some water from that pump over there, and Susie, you take this and get to sweeping.â€ He retrieved a worn broom, an old mop with a mop-head made of old rags, and a bucket that had been left in the corner of the room and handed them to each of us. â€œLooks like whoever left these knew weâ€™d need them.â€
Then he turned to Ma. â€œAnd, Mandy, there ainâ€™t no need for you to be in here while weâ€™re stirrinâ€™ up the dust, so you just go sit on the porch or out under the trees a spell. Weâ€™ll have it to rights in a bit.â€ He took her by the shoulders and gently propelled her out of the house. With a grateful look at him, she did as she was told. In the shape she was currently, there was no way she could do much, and Pap knew it.
Pap may have been a hard man, but when he dealt with Ma, the hardness fell away. He was gentle to her even when he was in a temper and feeling put upon. I guess that was his way of loving her and making up for the hard life she had. He led her out to a place under the trees, grabbed a quilt out of the truck, and told her to lie down and rest. Once he got Ma settled, he rounded us kids up and put us to work.
For the next couple of hours, under Papâ€™s super-vision, we swept and cleaned. My brother Abel and I took turns wagging buckets of water from the pump. Pap retrieved another broom from our truck and Susie and Mary were set to sweeping floors after he and I swept down the walls and ceilings and window sills. I made a game of it by having the girls see who could get the most dust off the floor. Even so, being little, they missed some. I let them do their best, and then went behind them to make sure there was no residue. I made Abel sweep the porch, ignoring his complaints about already doing his share.
In the process of cleaning, we managed to transfer quite a bit of the dust from the house to ourselves. We were just starting to move things in from the truck by the time one of Gillespieâ€™s girlsâ€”Micah I learned laterâ€”appeared with a large wicker basket covered with a red checked cloth. Her lips quirked in amusement when she saw how I looked. I suppressed the urge to tell her off. It wouldnâ€™t do to make the bossâ€™s daughter mad on the first day there. I wiped the sweat and dust from my brow and opened the screen door to let her in.
â€œMama said she imagined you all would like something warm to eat,â€ she said, striding into the kitchen and setting the basket on the old battered table that sat under the windows in the kitchen.
From the basketâ€™s depths, she pulled out a large metal pan of fried potatoes and a large pot of beans. There was also a loaf of homemade bread. I felt my mouth begin to water. Soda biscuits were our usual fare. Fresh baked bread seemed like manna from heaven. A jar of jelly and a small container of butter joined the other two items on the table top. â€œFor the little ones,â€ she said tersely to me, and then continued pulling other items out of the basket. I took the opportunity to take a really good look at her.
Out of her sisterâ€™s shadow, she became a presence all in herself. She was just, well, definite. Her manner said that she was what she was. She was dressed in a pair of manâ€™s worn overalls, scuffed boots, and a tattered green plaid shirt. She really wasnâ€™t dressed any better than I was, and she was only a little bit cleaner. She met my appraising look with one of her own.
â€œIâ€™ve been helping Dad in the fields, since I came in. I like to do it. I intend keep on helping.â€ Her square chin lifted.
â€œIâ€™m sure thereâ€™s enough work, for us all,â€ I said, thinking she could do all of it, if I had my choice.
â€œEnough to keep us all busy,â€ she said tersely as she replaced the basket and turned to go. â€œGood evening, maâ€™am,â€ she said to Ma, who was just coming in the door with the little ones. â€œMama said it would be nice for you to have a good meal tonight, seeing as how you have to make this old place clean enough to live in. Old Jim wasnâ€™t much for cleaning, and heâ€™s been gone a few months, so we were sure the dust took over. It looks lots better already. Oh, I forgot!â€ She slammed out the door, making Ma wince, and came back in with a jar of kerosene. â€œI set this jar down on the porch outside. Dad sent this. He figured you might like some light to see by until we can replace the light bulbs. I think most of them are burned out.â€
She set the jar by an old kerosene lantern that sat on the shelf above the sink. I wondered sourly if the wick in the lantern were any good. I guessed we would find out.
â€œThank you for your kindness, Missâ€¦â€ Ma hesitated.
â€œJust Micah.â€ And she was out the door and gone.
â€œThat was right nice of them,â€ Ma said as she moved to the table to see what Micah brought. â€œWhy donâ€™t you go out and get the plates and cups and knives and forks out of the truck and weâ€™ll have a nice feast,â€ Ma said. â€œWhile youâ€™re at it, dig out our lantern. That one doesnâ€™t look like itâ€™s good for much right now. Pap will have to clean it and trim the wick, if it can be salvaged. I doubt weâ€™ll need it tonight anyway. Weâ€™ll all be ready for bed when the sun decides to go. Look, Sam!â€ she said to Pap as he came in the door, loaded down with a rolled-up mattress. She waved a hand at the food set out on the table. â€œWasnâ€™t that nice of them? Are you hungry?â€
â€œYes, I am, but no oneâ€™s eatinâ€™ until I get the mattresses into the house and the beds ready,â€ he replied as he shifted the mattress to get a better grip. â€œThen we can wash up and eat and go to bed. Mary there is about asleep now.â€ My littlest sister was curled up against the wall, sucking her thumb, her blond lashes drooping.
I went to help him carry the rest of things we needed into the house. He didnâ€™t have to tell me twice. Tonight, we would sleep with a roof over us, and slide between the covers cleanâ€”or as clean as we had been in a whileâ€”after eating our fill of good, plain food and homemade bread. After all that time on the road, a soak in that old galvanized bath-tub we found in one of the rooms and a good meal sounded like heaven to me.
In the days after the family arrived, I watched our new hired helpâ€”specifically the boyâ€”working around the farm. I suppose I should have been glad that I was relieved from the heavy work Iâ€™d been doing while helping Dad, but I wasnâ€™t. I felt displaced. My help wasnâ€™t needed now and my chores were confined to tending the house garden, milking the cow, feeding the chickens and gathering eggs. I didnâ€™t get to spend much time with Dad anymore, and I lost opportunities to stay away from the house, where Mama constantly nagged me about what I needed to do to be a lady. Since I possessed no ambition to be a lady, her constant nit-picking drove me crazy.
I did escape as much as I could, and I spent most afternoons sitting on the fence, watching Dad and the new hired man, who told me his name was Samuel Howard Winston, and his son, Matt, work. The name Samuel Howard seemed fancy for such a rough character, but I kept that observation to myself. Matt worked quietly alongside his father, not saying much, even when the older man, heedless of my presence, cursed him for doing something wrong. Dad raised his eyebrows, but said nothingâ€”no doubt feeling he shouldnâ€™t interfere in another manâ€™s discipline. When the cursing in my presence stopped abruptly, I knew Dad must have pulled Sam aside and told him to stop. Now when Sam started to curse, he caught himself, and cast a narrowed glance in my direction to see how I took it.
Sometimes Mama sent me on errands to the house in the pasture to take extra things she thought the family might need. She felt sorry for the woman of the house, and it was good to have something new in a house, Mama said, going on to say that from the looks of things in that truck, Mrs. Winston might appreciate having something bright and cheerful.
I felt sorry for Mrs. Winston too. She was pale and sickly-looking and high spots of color burned in her cheeks. Her deep, rattling cough was painful to hear. In spite of her wraithlike appearance, she worked hard at whipping the old house into shape, and making it feel like a home.
The kitchen had been scrubbed scrupulously clean, and the old stove gleamed with stove black. The tattered curtains were no more, and the windows were now hung with cheerful curtains made from some feed sack prints Mama sent. A matching tablecloth covered the old, scarred table. Pots scrubbed until they gleamed hung from the hooks on the wall beside the stove
I was always welcomed warmly and she received whatever offerings I brought from mama with gracious thanks. How she really felt about it, I donâ€™t know, but she made good use of anything Mama sent her. Along with practical things, Mama slipped in little luxuriesâ€”a bar of scented soap, a lacy handkerchief. Mrs. Winstonâ€”Amanda, she told me to call herâ€”seemed to appreciate those most of all, sniffing the soap appreciatively and holding the softness of the handkerchief to her face.
Mama scolded me when I referred to Amanda by her first name and told me I was to call her Mrs. Winston, no matter what. Mama also cautioned me not to put on airs and act superior, because there, but for the grace of God and my Granddadâ€™s foresight, went we. Behind Mamaâ€™s back, I rolled my eyes. Mama should have followed her own advice. I bit my tongue to keep from saying it out loud and earning myself a slap.
Using chopping weeds as an excuse to get away from her frequent bad moods, I fled the house one late afternoon. Those stupid weeds didnâ€™t seem to mind the dry weatherâ€”in fact, they flourished, and I fought a constant battle to keep them from spreading and taking over. When I was upset, I found the act of getting rid of the weeds soothing. Chopping those weeds was a way of trying to get Mamaâ€™s remarks out of my mind. Like the weeds, many of the things Mama said took some real rooting out. Nothing I ever did, according to Mama, was good enough. She didnâ€™t mind letting me know that I would never be as perfect as Coral Lee, the living model of what a young lady should be. She seemed heedless of the resentment that the comparison awoke in me.
At the thought of Coral Leeâ€™s supposed perfection, I gave one of the sticker weeds a particularly hard chop. All the things Mama did and said to me were like the goat heads I got in my feet when I was foolish enough to go barefoot. The barbs Mama hurled my way hurt going in and were hard to get out of my mind without causing me more pain. Mama didnâ€™t know half about her precious Coral Lee.
By dint of much whining and wheedling, my sister managed to finagle us a new dress apiece for her graduation. She carried on until Dad gave in and let Mama order the dresses. That was Coral Lee for you. Once she set her mind to having something, nothing got in her way. Having won the battle of the dresses she was now engaged in the new battle getting us some new shoes to go with them. I regarded all that dressing up as an unnecessary bother, myself. The dresses I owned were good enough. Besides, I didnâ€™t wear dresses around the farm, and I couldnâ€™t wait to get out of them when I got home from school or church. The new dress would be fancy, and where on earth would I wear it? I guessed I could wear it to feed the chickens. The notion made me chuckle.
Carefully, I went up one row and down the other, methodically removing weeds from around the plants. Heaven only knew if we would have much produce. The tomatoes hadnâ€™t made at all last year and the green beans had been skimpy. Unless the rains decided to come, I would have to irrigate the garden plot forever in order to have anything grow. Absorbed in my work, I didnâ€™t realize anyone else was in the garden until a little cough made me look up from a particularly stubborn patch of weeds taking root among the black-eyed peas. The boy, Matt, was watching me. He was leaning on a hoe and was staring at me with a half-smile that made me uncomfortable. To cover my unease, I stood up and glared at him.
â€œDo you always sneak up on people and stare at them?â€ I asked him tartly.
â€œI just got here, and you were busy, so you didnâ€™t look up. I was waiting for you to see me. Your pa sent me down here to see if you needed any help.â€
â€œI can do just fine, thank you,â€ I said, wiping a trickle of sweat that was trailing down the side of my face.
â€œI imagine you can, but two of us can get the job done faster. I was told to help you, so Iâ€™m going to.â€ He moved purposely to a row at the other end of the garden and began to work the soil around the corn. With a sniff, I returned to the row I was working on. I slanted a glance at him from under the brim of my sun hat.
I didnâ€™t quite know what to make of him. He wasnâ€™t like the boys I knew from town. His manner showed a stillness that a person usually didnâ€™t see on a person our ages, and his gray eyes were watchful. I guess the stillness and watchfulness came from dealing with that sick mama of his and that hard, old man for a dad. After the first day, when he had been dirty and travel rumpled, he was always careful to be as clean and neat in appearance as a hired hand could be. His voice, when he spoke, was a deep rumble. I heard him laugh once at something his sisters said. His laughter came in short, sharp bursts, quickly suppressed. He irritated me, even as his difference intrigued me.
On one point, he wasnâ€™t so different from the boys in town. On the rare occasions when Coral Lee came out to bring the men something cool to drink, he acted moonstruck. I watched him look at her like a love-sick calf and it irritated me that she made this conquest so easily. Boys never looked at me like that.
I was painfully aware of him, just as I was painfully aware that I wasnâ€™t anyone that boys looked at twice. I was also aware that Mama would have pitched a conniption fit if she knew either of us girls even entertained the idea of falling for someone so, well, unsuitableâ€”that was her wordâ€”unsuitable. How many times did I hear that over the years?
Unsuitable he might have been, but he was easy on the eyes. His fine-drawn features and gray eyes fringed with long black lashes would have been the envy of any girl. His hair, a dark auburn, was a little longer than normal and tended to fall into his face from the side part in which he wore it. He wasnâ€™t heavily built, but was well-muscled and possessed a wiry strength that lent itself to whatever task he was told to do. I didnâ€™t know how Coral Lee, who collected boys the way some people collected stamps, could not be aware of him. Lord help us if she did become aware. She would stalk him until she won him, racking up another trophy, and then move on. Somehow, I didnâ€™t think he would take kindly to being led on. He didnâ€™t seem like the sort to take things lightly.
He and I worked for a long while in silence, until the rows in the garden were done. Without my asking him to do so, he grabbed the hose that hung against the well pump and started uncoiling it. I was content to let him do that. Lugging those hoses and making sure they were placed so the thirsty plants could have water was not one of my favorite jobs, and Dad had hired him for the heavy work. I figured he could earn his wage. I didnâ€™t offer to help him, but I couldnâ€™t resist baiting him.
â€œYou know, I could have done this all myself,â€ I said, watching as his strong, brown hands deftly uncoiled the hose with ease. â€œWe were doing just fine before you came.â€
â€œGuess you were,â€ he looked up from what he was doing and regarded me levelly. â€œYour dad seems to be happy enough that weâ€™re here. Thereâ€™s a lot of work that didnâ€™t get done thatâ€™s getting done now. I was hoping to go into town and find some work, but your old man has kept me busy since I got here, and I havenâ€™t gotten the chance.â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m sorry about that,â€ I retorted. What did he want? Me to feel sorry for him? In spite of my words, I wasnâ€™t.
â€œNot your fault,â€ he said, and turned to go out the gate. He turned back to say formally, â€œNow, if you will excuse me?â€
â€œMy pleasure,â€ I called after him.
He gave me a salute and headed to the barn, leaving me to stare at the hoe he left propped against the fence and to fume at his superior manner. I wanted to throw a dirt clod after him. He acted way above his place in life. He acted as though he were doing us a favor. There were other things about him that annoyed me mightily. For one thing, he didnâ€™t speak like someone who worked as a hired hand would normally speak. His grammar was perfectâ€”Mrs. Dale, our English teacher would love him. He spoke better than I did. For another, I couldnâ€™t get past that polite reserve to ruffle his feathers. He even left the hoes for me to put up.
Scowling, I put the hoes in the little shed back of the garden, and decided to see if there were any bugs on the plants. If I lingered long enough, I could avoid going in and hearing yet another of Mamaâ€™s lectures about my shortcomings and what I needed to do to fix them. If Matt and Mama were in a contest right now for causing me annoyance, it would be a toss-up as to who would win.
* * *