"...it was a 'can't put me down book.'
Fabulous. Great story."
Fabulous. Great story."
~M C, a reader
Copyright 2012 by Jo Huddleston
Sanford County, Tennessee
The back of Poppa’s big hand smacked across Jim’s face and flung him against the splintered timbers of the barn wall. “What're you doin’ outside when you ain’t finished your chores?”
“Uh . . . me and The Twins was just foolin’ around, Poppa.”
Poppa scowled at his son. “Well, you best get that hay pitched down for the mules. The Twins need to draw water for the animals and shuck corn to feed the hogs.”
Jim stood and tried not to think about how much his face hurt. “They’re comin’. We’ll get to it all, Poppa. We’ll finish before dark.”
John Lee Callaway’s hand curled into a fist at his side. “You’ll do it now! Don't you sass me.”
Jim watched Poppa’s temper build. His face flushed. His dark eyes withdrew beneath heavy brows and his fury spewed out misdirected or unmerited. When Jim saw the storm rise in his poppa’s dark eyes, he knew he’d better get the chores done or feel the sting of Poppa’s backhand again.
“No time for loafin’.” Poppa glared at Jim. “Loafin’ won’t pay the rent. Quit shunnin’ your work, or you won’t never amount to nothin’.”
“Yes sir, Poppa. I promise I’ll do better.” Jim obliged Poppa with words he wanted to hear.
Jim grabbed the hay rake. He’d had about all of this he could take. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t please Poppa.
He rubbed his stinging cheek. He would’ve thought he’d been used to this by now, but he wasn’t. His face still hurt, but it hurt a lot worse on the inside. Not that he’s ever let his father see that side of him. The crops hadn’t brought in what Poppa had counted on, and Poppa always took it out on him. But better him than his younger brothers. He lived for the day he could leave all this behind and make his own decisions. Make his own way.
Recovering from his poppa’s slap, Jim steadied himself against the mules’ stall. The mules’ long ears twitched and their eyes widened and rolled toward the commotion. The pervading stench of animal sweat caused a wave of nausea to punch Jim in the stomach. He pulled his lips into a tight line to keep from retching then climbed the crude wooden ladder to the barn loft to throw hay down for the tired mules.
“Twins, come on.” Jim shouted out to his brothers as he shoved the rake into the pile of hay and hefted another load. “Poppa says it’s time to get to work.”
Robert and Richard rushed into the barn, leaving the rusty hoop they’d played with to roll and wobble away to its death. Jim gave them a warning nod to get busy.
Robert pointed to Jim’s face. “Did Poppa hit you again?” he whispered.
Jim wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and saw the blood. Jim nodded and spoke in a low voice, “Get to your chores before he gives you the same.”
They grabbed the water buckets and headed for the well in the backyard. Jim knew The Twins would stay at arm’s length from Poppa and his bad temper as if he were a coiled rattle snake.
When Jim finished pitching hay, he left the barn. He squinted up at the lowering sun to see how much daylight they had left. The scarlet fireball almost touched the rooftop of their modest home and within the hour would settle against the cornstalks on the far side of the house. By the time they finished their work and made their way toward the house the sun would slip below the west edge of the field for the night. Then they would get some relief from the summer heat of the day.
The next morning, the savory smell of frying ham nudged Jim into a new day. He blinked against the predawn gray stabbing at the window. The curtains his momma had made from empty cotton feed sacks hung limp and offered little hindrance to the impending sunrise. Increasing light reached with long, bony fingers to push away the night's rest.
Jim rolled over to turn his back to the morning’s first light, but flinched from the pain that riveted his left shoulder and cheek. Now wide awake he touched his sore lip and his mind replayed his poppa’s outburst last night before supper, and the force with which his shoulder had landed against the barn wall.
As hard as he tried, Jim couldn't understand his father these past few years. Why had he become so volatile? Jim remembered a kinder Poppa. When he was a little boy, Jim would climb onto his father’s lap and snuggle close. Poppa would cross his long legs and Jim would “ride the horsey,” sitting astride Poppa’s swinging foot. He recalled how his father would throw back his head and fill the house with his infectious laughter.
Of late, though, Poppa had begun to brood. He spoke in an abrupt manner to family members and showed impatience with their efforts. Criticism became his trademark. Jim dreaded Poppa’s sour attitude that dampened the mood of any room he entered.
Thinking now of more recent times, Jim’s festering anger rose like bitter bile, burning his throat. Guarded anger against Poppa. Anger at the family’s frugal lifestyle, at the way they had to scrimp to exist. At all their back-bending work with nothing to show for it. Anger at the shield of humility behind which his momma always seemed to cower.
Jim often spoke to his momma about this. “I wish you could find some way to take up for yourself. I hate to see you the butt of Poppa’s harsh demands of obedience.”
“Jim, we’ve hit on some hard times lately and we should support your father.” She continued shelling peas, not meeting her son’s gaze.
He pressed her on the situation. “But you didn’t cause the hard times, Momma. He should treat you better.”
Elizabeth Callaway would only reply, “Jim, the Bible tells wives to submit to their husband’s leadership.”
Some leadership, when a husband treated his wife and children just a little better than his farm animals. What kind of God expected people to bear up under a Poppa's high-strung behavior?
Now it was time to get up and start all over. Try to keep the weeds from overtaking their Appalachian crops. Tenant farming taxed the body and mind. Old Man Thomas came as regular as the seasons to collect his rent money. Jim could recall few frills. A new pair of shoes before the winter snows exploded from the clouds and an apple or orange found in a sock hung by their meager fireplace at Christmas.
On Saturdays in the spring and summer Momma and Poppa took vegetables from their truck garden, along with any extra eggs, into Newton and sold them to the town folks. The money they made had to get them through the winter when the garden grew barren. Even so, with all their hard work and scrimping, Mr. Thomas still owned the thirty acres they worked, and the house and barn.
Despite his throbbing shoulder, Jim shrugged into the long-sleeved shirt he wore yesterday and snapped his faded bib overalls across his broad shoulders. He pushed his feet into his high-topped leather work shoes covered with yesterday’s copper-red dust.
Jim reached back into his bed and shook his sleeping brothers. When he walked by the other bed in the room, he tousled his sisters’ hair and drawled, “Get up. Almost breakfast time.”
The heat from the wood fire in the cast-iron cook stove met him at the kitchen door. The midday August heat he’d be working in later today would be even hotter. He started to complain but decided against it. If his momma could prepare their meals in such smothering heat, he could endure the discomfort for a little while.
“Good mornin’, Momma. Smells good in here.” She returned her son’s hug with one arm and continued to stir bubbling gravy with her other hand.
“Do you feel good this mornin’?” she asked her firstborn.
“Yes, ma’am,” he fibbed and bent down to kiss her smooth cheek, careful not to let his momma see the injury on his left cheek. She hadn’t seen the violent display of Poppa’s temper last night in the barn and Jim didn’t want to upset his momma by telling her.
She had enough on her, caring for the other four kids and seeing to the needs of her demanding husband. Now the new baby was due soon.
“Here, let me take up the gravy, Momma.” He wrapped a towel around the handle, lifted the heavy cast-iron skillet, and turned toward the kitchen table. With a large metal spoon he raked the steaming pale gravy into the bowl his momma had set out.
“Thank you, Son.” She tucked a loose strand of auburn hair back into the plain bun she wore on top of her head and bent over to look inside the oven. “The biscuits are almost done. Go tell the others breakfast's ready.”
Jim turned toward the door and collided with Poppa coming into breakfast.
His father started to say something until his gaze fell to the bruise marring his son’s cheek. For a flickering second Jim thought he saw regret in his father’s eyes and that his father was sorry. But then just as quickly, that guard came up and his father was “that man” again.
“Whoa . . . watch where you're goin’!” Poppa ducked his head to clear the top door frame. “You tryin’ to knock me down?”