Amelia hadn’t seen another car on the two-lane country highway for fifteen minutes. She did see a tractor coming from the opposite direction, but the driver had turned down a rough road before she had reached him. Never one to enjoy visiting elderly relatives, she had known about this assignment for weeks but she had put it off. Now that she had a Saturday with no plans and no excuses, she made the drive to the nursing home. As she turned into the parking lot, Amelia thought about seeing her Grandma Genny that last time. She had spent her final years in a nursing home much like this one. Remembering the smells of antiseptics and wet beds still made Amelia’s stomach turn. She also remembered how confused her grandmother had been and Amelia wondered if she would be able to get the information she needed today. She pulled into a parking spot and cut off the engine. After rummaging in her backpack in the front seat, she found and removed her tape recorder. She pressed RECORD and spoke into the microphone: Testing. Testing. It’s November 3, 2012 at 9:30 a.m. I’m sitting in the parking lot outside of the Dogwood Meadows Nursing Home. I’ve come here to interview my Great-Great Aunt Frankie. My mom told me that Aunt Frankie is a big talker so I’ve brought a recorder. This one has…two hundred hours of recording space—I hope that’ll be enough. The assignment from my creative writing teacher is to find an elderly relative and ask him or her questions about growing up. Then we’re supposed to compile all of our information into an essay that shows (sound of rustling papers)—and I quote—“a common thread throughout the narrative.” I’ve got a list of questions here but to start with I’m going to ask her if there’s a memory from her childhood that she thinks about every day. Then we’ll see where that takes us. Okay, I’ve got my coffee and my notebook. I’ve got to get this done before Thanksgiving break so…I’m going in. (click)
Nobody in town could re-sole shoes like my daddy. Many a time I remember him comin’ home late of an evenin’ on account of that sweaty pile of shoes and boots in the back of his shop. Daddy always said that Nadine Henderson could make a pair of shoes last longer than what you’d think was humanly possible. She did wear a ladies’ 11 1⁄2 extra wide, so you could hardly blame her for keepin’ ‘em a good while. Why, she had to drive clear down to Nashville to get them big shoes! Anyhow, Daddy was workin’ at pryin’ up her cracked outsole when Little Jack came tearin’ in. He banged open the door so hard he knocked off the little brass bell that hung just above the header and it skittered across the floor like it were scared, too. I jumped off the barrel where I was sittin’ and pullin’ tacks off some old work boots. I scattered them bent tacks all over the shop, he scared me so. Daddy hollered at him and told him to speak up, but Little Jack could only stand and breathe hard. I still remember his big white eyes and his ribs pokin’ out the sides of his overalls. We was stuck to the floor, waitin’ for him to talk and then the words he spoke were like a bucket of ice water in my face. He said, “Mister Frank… he dead…yor boy…is dead.”
Matt had pitched hay since he was first able to walk. Left hand gripped above the right. Dig deep, swing high. He knew the rhythm of the motions like an experienced swimmer knows his strokes. He was a hard worker, but his mind wandered easily. He would allow his natural grace and athleticism to direct his pitchfork so he could think about the girl in town with the upturned nose and curly brown hair or the truck he was fixing or any other ideas that floated into his mind.
Lining the outside wall of the barn, there were tidy bundles of hay made during the hot, dry months of late summer, and Matt’s job today was to move the last of the old hay from the loft to make room for the new. With one final scoop, he heaved a forkful down just as the barn door opened and a shadowed figure entered.
Matt heard an unfamiliar cry of bewildered irritation. This was not one of his seven younger brothers or sisters who he had just cloaked in dry straw. This was a woman’s voice— young, most definitely annoyed. Matt slid down the ladder, his bare feet clutching the smooth sidepieces. In an instant, he was brushing hay off a young woman’s shoulders. She was in her early twenties, wearing a pale yellow dress dotted with yellow and green flowers. The dress had stylish puffed sleeves nearly as high as her chin and a nipped-in waist, flattering to her petite figure. Perched on her head was a lime green hat, bowl-shaped and perfectly suited for catching each tiny twig of hay. Matt couldn’t help but think she looked like some sort of autumnal queen with her golden crown. She noticed his amused expression as he regarded her hat, so she quickly took it off and slapped it against her leg. Her red hair spilled out of its hair pins, leaving unruly curls all about her forehead. One curl danced in front of her right eye. Matt was so struck by the force of her beauty and the afternoon sun streaming through her burnished curls that it took every bit of willpower for him to stay his desire to touch that red coil.
The young woman blushed, her cheeks coloring nearly the same degree of red as her hair. “I’m Anna, Ernest’s wife,” the young woman declared as she held out a small, white hand by way of introducing herself. “You must be Matt.”
Matt was struck dumb by her words. Sunlit dust swirled around them both. Was he standing in the eye of a tornado or still on the bleached pine floor of his father’s barn?
“Ernest has told me so much about you,” Anna said politely, with her best city manners. Matt stared at the small piece of straw glued to her red lips for what seemed like an eternity until he collected himself enough to speak.
“We didn’t ‘spect ya’ll ‘til tomorrow,” he said slowly. “I’m awful sorry ‘bout mussin’ up your clothes…Anna.”
Matt hadn’t intended to say her name just then, but with a pause, two syllables, and a warm rush, his words for this redheaded stranger held more meaning and emotion than all the conversations he’d had with the girls in town in his entire life.
“I told Ernest that I wanted to walk a little,” Anna mumbled, two hairpins between her teeth as she attempted to fix her tousled hair. “Maybe I should get on back to the house. Your mother said if I saw you I should tell you to come in and wash up for supper.”
“Yes’m,” was all that Matt could say. As they began to walk toward the house together, Anna introduced several awkward topics for conversation.
“Do you like working on the farm?”
“Ernest said he mostly worked with your father fixing shoes growing up. Do you ever do any shoe repairs up at the shop?”
“Ernest seems to like his job. He said you’re the one who got his truck running. Do you like fixing trucks?”
“What’s that growing on the far side of the garden?”
“They’re awfully big. Are they hard to grow?”
Their awkward, lopsided conversation continued in this manner all the way to the house, consisting mostly of Anna asking questions that Matt would answer with a shy, brief reply. As they approached the back porch, Ernest swung open the screen door to meet them. He advanced on Matt with a firm handshake and an arm proudly gripped around Anna’s waist.
As they stood facing each other, any observer would see two brothers with different physiques and tastes in fashion. Ernest wore a thin moustache perfectly resting on his upper lip. His hair was oiled to a fine sheen that complemented his dark eyes and lashes. He was several inches shorter than Matt, with a slighter build. His charcoal suit pants were neatly tailored to show off his trim lines. Looking at his brother, Matt realized that Ernest had made a calculated effort to impress his family, and as his mother beamed at Ernest, he realized that the effect was working.
“Good to see ya, Ernie,” Matt said as he pushed his way through the group to enter the house. As he passed his mother, she nodded in the direction of the wooden stand just inside the door, where he saw a pitcher of water and a faded blue towel. His grimy appearance must have seemed more obvious than usual, compared to this prodigal in his Chicago clothes.
With his long legs, Matt took quick strides to reach the room he shared with his four brothers. He splashed cold well water on his face and dried it on the towel, which was now more brown than blue. Then he used the towel to wipe down his chest and arms. He ran a wet comb through the golden hair on top of his head and used his fingers, then his palms, to smooth down the browner sides. He put on a shirt and his other pair of pants, and suddenly wished he had a mirror. If he had seen his reflection, he would have noticed a muscular man of almost thirty, tanned from spending the summer in the fields. He would have paused to notice how different his eyes were from those of his brother Ernest—his pale blue to Ernest’s deep brown.
With no other reason to stay indoors, Matt finally re-emerged from the house to join his family. Even before he reached the door, he could hear the laughter that always accompanied one of Ernest’s visits.
“No, Anna, he’s not dangerous. He’s just…”
“Dumb as a bucket of rocks,” George, age twelve, piped in.
“George, you hesh up. You know that Rufus Haskell can’t hep how he is,” said Momma.
“He just spends most of his days mowing the medians down by the square,” Ernest continued. “It’d be helpful to the city if his push mower had a blade in it!”
Ernest’s southern drawl was still evident, but five years in Chicago had cleaned up some of the country words and phrases from his vocabulary, like the basket in a percolator sifts through the coffee and leaves behind the grounds. Matt imagined all the y’alls and reckons sitting there at the back of Ernest’s throat, waiting to be used, when he realized that Ernest was addressing him.
“Matt, tell the one about Rufus and Miss Bennie Lee,” said Ernest. “Anna, you’ll get a kick out of this one.”
“Nah, Anna doesn’t wanna hear that…” Matt mumbled.
Shy as he was in public, in his family circle, Matt was known as the entertainer. He had a natural musical ability and he was an excellent storyteller. He could amuse his younger brothers and sisters, especially George, Frankie Jane, and Della Mae, for hours with tales both true and fictional. Though unaccustomed to having a stranger present during story time, Matt eventually cleared his throat and began the story.
“Well, it seems ole Rufus was pushin’ his mower down by Vine Street, when he saw he’d gone off ‘thout his belt. He kep a-pullin’ his trousers up and pushin’ that dang mower and stoppin’ to pull his trousers up again. He’d put on his daddy’s ole trousers that morning and everybody knows that Big Daddy Rue was so big it was easier to go over him than go ‘round him. Anyhow, Rufus walked over to the school to see ‘bout getting some rope to tie up his britches. That just happened to be Miss Bennie Lee Waddle’s first day of teaching. She grew up in Alabama and had never been, well… formally intr’duced to Rufus Haskell. He walked up to the window closest to the teacher’s desk and pounded his fist on the glass. Miss Bennie Lee was scared nigh out of her stockins by this rough-looking bag of bones. She yelled to him, ‘What d’ya want?’ thinking he was a-comin’ for her pocketbook. Rufus yelled back, ‘I’s needin’some rope—‘bout dis long.’ Right then, Rufus held up his hands to show the length of rope he was a-wantin’ and he dropped them britches down to his toes. Poor Miss Bennie Lee fainted clear away and hit her elbow on the side of her desk on the way down. When the children came in for school that morning, they found their new teacher a-sittin’ on the floor and cryin’ like a newborn baby.”
Though most of them had heard the tale many times, by the close of Matt’s story they were all wiping their eyes and holding their sides from laughing. Only Anna retained her composure. She was unacquainted with this folksy kind of humor and considered certain parts of the story to be inappropriate.
“That poor woman,” she said, as much to herself as to anyone listening.
“Miss Bennie Lee?” said Momma, “Oh, she got over it mighty quick. We’ve got some real char’cters in Morgan’s Hat.” She affectionately patted Anna’s hand. “Gad night a-livin’! I’m out here a-jawin’ with you younguns and your daddy’s gonna be home and hungry ‘nuff to eat the south end of a northbound skunk.”
The screen door slammed behind her. Frankie Jane, not quite nine years old, used the change in subjects to begin her interrogation of Anna. She liked to tell stories just like her oldest brother Matt, but there was a definite difference in how they collected their material. Matt would sit back and silently watch people to form his stories, and Frankie Jane liked to interview them, often to the point of intrusion.
“Anna, Della Mae and me wanna know ‘bout you. We heard you and Ernest met up in Chicago, but is that your home? I mean, where did you hail from?”