|"Summer Jam," by Emily Peery (2-3-2007)|
Daddy stood six foot two and could wrestle a bull to the ground if he wanted. His hands were the size of the disk that turned up the ground on the back of his tractor. They were as hard as the metal and tough. The disk would churn up the earth in great chunks, the steel hitting rock and throwing it to the side. This was my daddy. This was the man that married my momma.
The mountains loomed over us like Gods that summer. They predicted the rain and kept it from us, as though we had committed some foul sin. The tiny river ran slow and the cows, thirsty for water, mucked it with their hooves and manure. Daddy wouldn't keep them out. The branches that fed the ponds were dried up, and he wouldn't make the cows suffer any worse for it. I had to help wet the cattle's backs with black oil that summer to keep off the flies. Momma wore the same clothing day after day--ragged tank tops and faded overalls my father could no longer squeeze into. The cuffs she rolled at the bottom, not taking the time to hem them. White paint was splattered on one from when daddy painted my uncle's fence line for him.
My uncle's wife had a sharp nose and was hard to please; she wanted everything to be clean and pristine. To her the smells of the barn were like torture, so daddy painted the fence in front of the house to help appease her. That fence had been planted by my great-grandfather. He had taken the wood and cut it round and smooth for his wife, and it had been a pretty fence that blended with the surroundings. It was not like the rusty red iron stakes that sunk in the ground with barbed wire. But when daddy painted, he painted over the smooth markings where my great-grandfather had sanded it to perfection. He painted over where he and my uncles had carved their names; the dark moss that grew in the grooves had been smothered.
My momma went out every day in the stifling heat and waded through dry grass to reach blackberry rows. The berries were small and puny, and the bush was sparse. She gathered what she could and then with sore fingers would walk back to the house and wash her bundle to make jams. She slaved over the stove top canning and making jams. Her ratty tank tops drenched with the steam from the cooker and her sweat. No one else could stand the heat to stay and help. All I would do was to write the dates on the tops of jars after they had cooled. Momma would kiss me on the forehead and let me eat off the stirring spoon as if it were a a sucker. Then, she would have to go rest with a cold washcloth on her forehead and on the back of her neck.
That is how it was day after day. Daddy stayed out in the fields with a sad look on his face. Momma worked herself hard to put up food for the winter. We kids did what we had to, aware that something was wrong in our little world that was left unspoken. It was during this summer that momma got sick. She had cancer. She took to staying in bed, laying on sweaty sheets with the windows wide open and fans blowing on her. Grandma would come and take her to the hospital. Daddy slept in the living room and never talked to any of us, only to momma. My uncles came. They helped to work in the fields, but they had little to do. The grass wasn't growing and the crops were hardly alive. My uncles had their own land to tend to, but what they did in the fields with daddy was just to give him silent company. We did our chores quietly and did not speak of what was wrong. We laid on our bellies on the hardwood floors searching for a cool spot and watched cartoons until daddy came in. Then we went to our rooms and sat in the heat.
Soon our aunt came, the one daddy had painted the fence for. She came in the used car my uncle had bought her. Still, it was nice car, nicer than the one my momma drove. It was white, and the dirt from our rock driveway clung to it. She stepped out wearing a frilly yellow dress with blue flowers. Daddy had been down at the barn when she came and I walked her down to meet him. He was feeding when we went, and the cows in the barn where at the trough along the fence line. Her dress billowed in the slight breeze and caused a mild stampede. The cow's eyes bulged out at her dress and they turned choppily, running into one another, pushing just to get away. Daddy didn't say anything about her dress. He just thanked her for coming and asked me to lead her back to the house. She picked her way back up the road making small talk with me, trying to find out some small gossip on the family. She smelled like grandma's potpourri.
When we stepped into the house she walked around in little circles looking at everything. Her nose was in the air, and she peeked through our cabinets. She ran her fingers along the shelves and touched momma's collection of corn husk dolls. The floors creaked under her feet and she moved slowly. The only sound was of the creaking. She moved the toe of her shoe on the floor in a circle.
“I guess your mother hasn't been able to do much cleaning has she?”
I felt my cheeks flame. My older sister stepped forward to say something when my aunt picked up one of the jars of jam I hadn't taken to the cellar yet. She popped the top of the jar off and sniffed the contents; she dipped her pinkie in delicately and licked off the jam with a smile. She then laid the jar back down without putting on the lid or refrigerating it.
“I am going to be taking care of you for awhile.” Her smile was thin as she said this. She motioned for me to get her things from the car, and I worried about if she meant she was staying the night. Momma's room was not cleaned, and the bed had not been made. There was no where spelse for her to sleep.
That afternoon my aunt had us all to vacuum, dust, and mop the entire house. She walked around with one of momma's aprons on and gave out orders. She turned on the air conditioner, which daddy had only turned on to keep momma comfortable. I knew we did not have the money right now to have it on, and momma was not here. My aunt did my parent's bedroom by herself. She tidied up the clutter and stripped the bed bare. She wore yellow rubber gloves as she did it. She told my sister to get out fresh sheets and wash the old ones in hot water. When she saw my brother making a half-hearted attempt to beat out the kitchen rug, she grabbed his arm and whacked the rug hard with it, telling him that that was how to beat a rug. When daddy came in that night my aunt had heated up a chicken casserole she brought with her. Daddy told her that it was good and then went out on the porch to sit before bed. We cleaned up the dishes while my aunt watched “Wheel of Fortune” and then she sent us to take our baths. We were in bed by eight thirty.
Sleep did not come easily, even though the house was chilled. Sometime after my aunt had retired to bed my father came in. I could hear his heavy footsteps drag on the floor, his unmistakable sound. I heard the TV turn on and then go off again. I thought about my mother. I had only gotten to see her once in the hospital. She had been tinted a pale green color, and a tube was in her neck. She had needles in her arms, and I had been afraid to sit on the bed because when she moved the needles tugged on her skin. She had had surgery and was receiving radiation the doctor said. What I remember most though, is her smile. She smiled at us. Her body weak and discolored, dragging her down into blackness, and she smiled at us. Her love radiated into my heart and was so powerful I could hardly stand it. My grandma cried while we were there. She hugged us one by one to her bosom and called us poor children. She said that that was what happened when a woman led a hard life. She glared at my father, and he left the room. All he ever did that summer was stare off into the distance, his face impassive.
My aunt stayed for two weeks. I left to the fields whenever I could. I hid in the itchy grass and watched bugs crawl over my hand. I dug my fingers into the hard earth and spat into it to make it muddy. The cattle were skinny and my uncles began to bring feed with them. My father would turn away like he didn't see when they brought it. The barn cats got to where they wouldn't come out anymore. I wondered if they were alive. My brother scolded me and asked where I thought the cat food went then if they were dead. I wanted to tell him that my aunt used it to feed us and then told him that the raccoons ate it.
It was a Saturday when the church ladies arrived. There had been a steady trickle of them already. They came with casseroles and puzzles to occupy children's minds. But, these ladies that came where from my aunt's church, not ours. They looked like clowns at a circus climbing out of their dusty old vehicles, some with old fashioned hats clutched to their heads. Like a Baptist Revival they clambered up the porch and swooned on the railing. My sister said later that she could have sworn that the porch heaved a sigh when they left. Once inside my brother, sister, and I were put on display. We stood lined up next to the kitchen table as food passed before our eyes. We were scrutinized until our backs were literally against the wall. They spoke loudly to one another, never really listening for a reply; they only spoke so that they themselves could hear the music. Shrill and nasal their noise assaulted our ears and our home.
Our aunt stood and smiled smugly. Praise fell down from heaven upon her shoulders for doing her Christian duty. At some point they became bored with us and the women began talking about their ailments. One woman had ulcers, another headaches, and finally one lady rolled up a dainty sleeve to say that she had gotten a strange rash from gardening. She complained about having to wear longer gloves, and how hot they made her. My brother promptly replied that he had a case of ring worm the past summer that looked a lot like that rash she had. My aunt did not have to cook for almost three days after their visit.
One night it got late, and I did not go in for dinner. I could hear my sister calling for me. I laid there in the dead grass, blades sharp as knives sticking my skin. Dusk had settled and I could see part of the red sunset. Red sky at night-sailors delight, red sky at morn-sailors be warn. My momma had always said that. I laid there in the grass not wanting to move while the light faded quickly from the sky. The crickets and bugs made their comforting whirl and it filled my mind with thoughts of lying with my head in my momma's lap. She would rock her chair slow and hum, running her fingers through my hair. I heard my father bellow for me then. But I did not reply. Time sped past and I laid there in the grass. I knew they were looking for me. I could hear his boots thundering on the ground. Suddenly he was near to me. I jumped up to run from fright and his mighty hands latched around my waist. I screamed and started to wail loudly. My father crushed me to him and still I kept on. My throat got sore and my thrashings slowly subdued. Worn out, I lay in his arms. My heart thudded wildly, but he did not raise his hand and he did not say a word. I shifted my head and looked up at him. It was dark but I could see his face was shining. A sob broke from my father's throat, his tears no longer silent. How long we stayed in the field, him standing holding me, I do not know. But he held me and rocked me as he cried, his tears of grief running over me. The anguish I could feel in my father's mighty arms and the pain crying out from his chest made my soul hurt. The grass rustled slowly, and the sound of a barn owl and the crickets was all that broke the silence my father left. He cradled me to his chest. The roughness of his hands pressure on my back made it hard to breathe.
“It's alright, it's alright,” my father murmured.
Time passed that night and when my father's mourning was done, he walked back to the house carrying me. At the porch my aunt met us; my father only nodded to her and brushed past. He took me to the room I shared with my brother and laid me gently on the bed. Silently, he pulled off my shoes and left the room without looking in my face.
My aunt bustled in shortly. She wore a frilly white night gown. It had long sleeves and reached down to her ankles, but the part around her throat scooped deep. Her neck was scary. Thin and with two veins running like twin columns, blue down her neck. They bulged and the skin clung tightly to them and the bones. Her hair was brushed and fanned out. She had not come to look for me; she had stayed in the house and showered. My aunt sat on the foot of my bed delicately. She smoothed out her gown, and I wondered how she could sleep with all the itchy lace. She started to speak to me angrily about how I had ruined everyone's evening, and I pulled the covers up over my head. I was tired and drained. My aunt tugged at my sheets and like a reflex my feet kicked out and they hit her hard on the fanny. She yelped and tried to hold me down. I kicked her harder, my legs churning up the sheets. My brother sat up in bed stunned. My aunt left the room crying out of angry frustration. Daddy was outside on the porch; he did not know what I had done yet. I could not feel bad about it. I knew that in a few weeks time she would be gone and my mama would be home. She had to come home. My momma with her faded tank tops and bright smiles, my momma who smelled so good, like soap and fresh bread. I knew that my red sky was dawning.