“Hell, I been married so long I don’t know how to be anything else.” Clenching his teeth, he turned toward the cab of the truck, slammed his fist into the door. “Tell me, Joe,” he moaned. “What’s a man to do? What’s a man to do?”
Mama said, “Even though Sissy waited so long to say anything about what she’d seen, I had already suspected things weren’t…” Sighing, she glanced toward the window then back at me. “Ruth, there I was, lying in the hospital up there in Atlanta, and all the while I kept thinking something just wasn’t, well, right back home… that maybe something was happening… and…” She shrugged. “I don’t know. Call it women’s intuition, but that’s how I felt. Then as soon as I got home, I knew somebody had been up to no good.”
“How could you be so certain?” I asked. Not that I didn’t put any stock in women’s intuition – I liked to think my own was fairly keen – but I also thought our female imaginations could play a role in how we interpreted events, at least at times.
“How?” Mama said. “Because I have eyes, that’s how, and all I had to do was take one look at Della Gaddy and another at Joe Caldwell, and I could tell something had happened between the two of them. There was that girl, moping around, not having two words to say to anybody; and Joe, he wasn’t much better. Moody as the devil, he was, and heading off into town almost every night, drinking and doing God-only-knows what else.” She wrinkled her nose like she smelled something offensive. “The man’s eyes were always bloodshot, and he smelled like a brewery half the time.” She expelled another sigh. “I swear but their doldrums rubbed off on your daddy because he was just as moody as that girl and his brother… moping around, not himself at all.” Shaking her head, she added, “It was one pitiful, gloomy house for me to have to come home to after having Horace, and that’s the truth.”
Suddenly feeling very tired, I closed my eyes and fought the almost overwhelming urge to go to sleep – just sleep and forgot it all – Della, Uncle Joe, everything. Forgetting, after all, would be far less painful.
“I don’t know if you remember the ice storm that hit around the middle of that month,” Mama said.
“Yes, I remember,” I murmured.
“Then you recall how the electricity was out for over a week. So was the telephone. I don’t know what we would have done if anyone had happened to get sick, or, God forbid, I’d taken a turn for the worse.”
My eyes still closed, I listened to her words blend with the somniferous back-and-forth, back-and-forth creaking of her rocking chair.
“There we were,” she said, “virtually icebound on the farm, me bedridden, a new baby in the house, and everybody walking around with long faces and not a civil word to utter between the lot of them. As I said, it was a gloomy house, all right.”
A winter storm rode the jet stream down from the North, creeping across central Georgia like a bandit during the night and bringing with it freezing rain and intermittent snow. When we awoke the following morning, it was to a world encased in ice. Trees had become crystalline sculptures, and the air was filled with the sound of their burdened limbs cracking – the noise like spasmodic rifle fire – each time the cold wind huffed across the farm; and all around, the countryside sparkled and flashed and glistened – like a surrealistic scene from a fairytale.
The roads were virtually impassable, and power lines and telephone lines were down; but, on the positive side – at least for Lena and me – all schools were closed. Not that Sissy shared in our joy, mainly because, as she said, “What fun is it to be outta school if I can’t listen to the radio or call my friends?” And since she was so displeased with Mother Nature and obviously wanted to make her displeasure known to everyone in the vicinity, Sissy spent most of the first day shut up in our bedroom, grumbling to herself, and reading some stupid magazine called True Love, which she had borrowed from Sarah Jacobs and which Mama would have burned had she known it was in the house.
As for Mama, she spent the day alternating between lying in bed, lounging on the sofa in the parlor, or caring for Horace, although she did join the family for meals, even if she seemed to have little appetite and mostly sat there at the table complaining about the “inconvenience of living without electricity” and “the incompetence of the REA.” (In her opinion, the Rural Electrification Association should have restored power the moment it went out and not a minute later.)
Daddy and Uncle Joe, on the other hand, didn’t seem all that bothered by the weather. Instead, they just put chains on the pickup’s tires and went about their work around the farm. And Della was just as unperturbed by nature’s little joke. In fact, she acted like not having electricity was no big deal at all. “I lived without it for years before the REA ran power to my mama’s house,” she said, “and I sure don’t need electricity in order to cook or clean.”
The biggest problem presented by the power outage was a lack of running water since electricity was needed to operate the pump in the well house. Mama didn’t like this situation at all. Glaring at Daddy, she said, “Will, you’ve got to do something. I will not have dirty dishes stacked all over the kitchen or dirty diapers smelling up my house.” So Daddy and Uncle Joe hooked the old wooden bucket back up to the windlass on the well (It had been removed years before when plumbing was installed in the house), which would allow us to draw enough water to use for cooking, washing Horace’s and Carson’s diapers, and even taking a “spit bath” if we wanted. Then, just to be certain that Mama had enough water, the men brought huge oaken barrels from the shed, put them on the back porch, and proceeded to fill them to overflowing by making countless trips back and forth from the well to the back porch. After that, Mama stopped fussing about the lack of water, but she still found plenty of other things to complain about and, in fact, was in such a foul mood that everyone went tiptoeing around the house, probably out of fear of becoming the latest target of her disapproval.
At one point, Daddy took us girls aside and told us Mama was “feeling poorly, what with having Horace and a his-toe-rec-toe-mee, all at the same time;” so we should try to stay in our room as much as possible and just “keep outta her hair.”
As a result, Lena, Sissy, and I spent the first two days after the ice storm in self-imposed exile, alternating between snarling at one another from our individual corners of the room and putting our animosity aside long enough to meet by the gas heater and play a game of Monopoly or Go Fish. Being confined quickly got old, however, at least for me. I was an “outdoor” person, plus a tomboy, and by the third day, I’d had enough not only of being closed up indoors but also of Sissy’s snotty attitude. I also wanted to explore the pristine wonderland I knew would become a slushy bog in no time at all. So dressing as warmly as I could, I tiptoed down the hall and out the front door (I didn’t want Mama to hear me and start yelling); then I headed to the barn, having decided I’d go visit Miss Whiskers and her new kittens, which were up in the hayloft because Mama wouldn’t allow cats in the house.
I was in the loft, petting the kittens, when Daddy and Uncle Joe drove in to load the pickup with grain for the cows. Afraid Daddy would tell me I needed to be inside where it was warm, I scrunched down between two bales of hay, and kept stroking the gray-and-white kitten I had claimed as my own and named “Flicka,” like in one of my favorite books, My Friend Flicka, since Daddy wouldn’t buy me a horse. Then again, he had offered to buy me a mule, his argument being, “A horse, it don’t have good sense. Just as soon walk off a cliff as not. If you want something to ride, I’ll get you a mule. Got more brains than a horse.” I’d told him I didn’t want “no doggone mule;” I wanted a horse, but it hadn’t done any good. He’d kept saying horses were stupid and mules were smart.
Holding the kitten, I shifted around until I could see through one of the cracks in floor; and as I stroked Flicka, feeling the soft vibrations of her purring beneath my fingertips, Uncle Joe got out of the truck and walked around to the tailgate. Then he began to wave his hand, the one with the missing fingers in order to guide Daddy, who was backing the pickup into the barn. When the truck was inside and situated to both their satisfaction, Daddy killed the engine, climbed out of the truck and, together, he and Uncle Joe started slinging bags of grain into the bed. And the entire time, they never said a word to one another.
I whispered into Flicka’s ear, “It won’t be long ‘fore they’re gone.”
But I was wrong. When the men had the truck loaded with a sufficient number of bags, instead of climbing back in and heading down to the pasture as I had anticipated, they each took their Camels out of their pockets and proceeded to light a cigarette. Even in the loft, I could smell the aroma of the tobacco as they stood smoking and propped against the side of the truck.
Uncle Joe leaned back and blew a perfect smoke ring, then blew another, and without looking at Daddy, he said, “Well, you gonna talk about it or not?”
Daddy shrugged and looked down at the dirt floor of the barn, as he replied, “Talk about what?”
Uncle Joe said, “You know damned well what.”
“Joe,” Daddy said and sighed. “There ain’t nothing to talk about.” With that, he pushed away from the bed of the truck.
Uncle Joe put his bad hand on Daddy’s arm.
Daddy jerked his arm away.
Uncle Joe said, “You got young’uns… a wife and -”
“What? Don’t you think I know that?” Daddy whirled to face his brother. “Hell, I been married so long I don’t know how to be anything else.” Clenching his teeth, he turned toward the cab of the truck, slammed his fist into the door. “Tell me, Joe,” he moaned. “What’s a man to do? What’s a man to do?”
“Leave her be,” Uncle Joe said, his voice low.
Still standing with his back to Uncle Joe, Daddy slowly shook his head from side to side. “I can’t,” he said. “I don’t know how.”
Uncle Joe flung the half-smoked Camel into the dirt, crushed the cigarette with his boot. “Damn it, Will, but what about her?”
Daddy said, “I can’t think that far ahead.” He then opened the door, climbed into the cab, and cranked the truck.
Sighing, Uncle Joe stamped the cigarette once more for good measure before he walked over to get in the truck, but just before he opened the door, I heard him say, “I ain’t gonna let you do it, Will. I ain’t gonna let you.”
Then the truck pulled out of the barn, but I continued lying there in the warm hay, scratching my kitten’s ears, listening to her purr, and wondering what Daddy and Uncle Joe had been discussing so intently. Who was this “she” to whom they’d been referring? Yet the longer I thought about it, the less sense their conversation made, so I eventually quit trying to understand what had obviously been “man talk.” I was only a child, after all, and what did I know of such things?
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Mama said. “I was really glad when the REA finally restored the power. I swear, but kerosene lamps make such a mess… soot all over the place… and that smell, it gets on your clothes, in your hair, and just makes everything stink.”
Reclining in the chair, my eyes still closed, I listened to the now steadily diminishing thunder as the storm marched north toward Atlanta.
“People just can’t appreciate electric lights until they have to stumble around in the dark a while,” Mama added. “Not to mention the other things – like, well, like heating pads. I certainly got tired of having to use a messy hot water bottle. Dry heat, it helped the soreness after my hysterectomy, but that wet heat… it just seemed to just aggravate it and make it worse.”
In my mind’s eye, I saw Uncle Joe struggling with the clasp on the locket he had bought Della for Christmas, smelled the warm clean fragrance of Della’s new sweater, and heard my uncle say, “Leave her be, Will, leave her be.”
Sighing, Mama said, “Not that getting the power back seemed to help anyone’s mood. They were all just as glum as before; and once the roads were halfway passable, your uncle went right back to frequenting the local bars and staying drunk half the time.” She sniffed. “It was no wonder he went and got himself into something he couldn’t talk his way out of with that smart mouth of his.”
My eyes still closed, I listened to my mama’s voice blend with the fading echoes of the dying storm. I knew what she was going to say next – she was going to bring up the night that had changed all our lives forever.
To be continued
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