Saturday, March 12, 2005

Green Tobacco

It is one of those heavy, hot days in Delway. The sun, so bright that every image is sharply focused from the contrast of shadow and light, heats the air to an explosive energy. Suddenly, a breeze builds and clouds appear. The temperature drops quickly, at least 15 degrees.

Haley Mae steps out on the porch. "You better git on in this house. Lightnin's gonna be poppin’ all round here any minute. Come on. I feels it comin’."

I had been out on the small porch off the den. An old wooden barrel, taller than I and stout, which my Mom used as a planter for petunias, stands in the corner of the porch. It is a peculiar barrel. Painted yellow, lord knows how long ago, it shows the wear of years. Through cold, damp winters, and scorching, searing summers, the yellow paint has long since begun to peel and the metal rings holding the staves together have rusted. When the wind blows past the barrel, the earthy fragrance of the petunias wafts over me.

I come to my feet and turn toward the screen door. Just before entering the house, I notice a black man on-foot. He is walking quickly, heading south along U.S. Highway 421 for the Esso station up at the crossroads. He quickens his pace, trying to outrun the oncoming storm. I wave to him and he waves back at me, in a hurried gesture.

I grab the screen door, giving it all the pull that my skinny, five year-old body can manage. It announces my entrance to Haley Mae by clapping loudly twice--once on the brick wall outside and once on the doorjamb.

"Boy, how many times I got to tell you not to slam that door?", she screeched.

Haley Mae feels it important to teach me valuable lessons. She takes care of me while Mama and Daddy are working. She irons constantly from a pile of clothes stacked in an old baby carriage, mine I guess. She also cleans the house. I am not aware of much else, except that she occasionally takes time out of her tasks to teach me things. This is my favorite time. In the past, we have pulled out the crayons, scissors, and an old cardboard box, where she has scribbled the alphabet on tiny squares cut from the cardboard, and illustrated each letter with a drawing. "You know, ‘A’ is for Apple", she would recite. She is not my family, but she takes time to share, to teach, to hug. I have never considered her any differently from me or my family.

The sun is still brightly illuminating the den, where Haley Mae has the ironing board set up in front of the television. She is ironing while watching some "story", her term for "soap opera". As the sun outside is eaten by angry gray-blue clouds, shards of light penetrate the screen door, causing a dance of tiny motes of laundry lint in the stagnant, hot air of the house. I reach out to catch a speck as it drifts past and am frozen stiff by the resounding noise of a clap of thunder. Bellowing through the countryside, it causes the foundation to shake underneath the house. "Best cut this T.V. and iron off. I don't want to draw no lightnin'. You go sit on the couch and behave."

Out of fear of being struck by lightning, I dutifully take my place on the sofa. Penny, a half-breed cocker spaniel with red hair and a constant snarling expression walks over to me and glares as if to say, "Try me if you like. Come on. I’ll have your toes for lunch!" She is always in a bad mood. I decide to avoid confrontation today. Besides, I love her, and Daddy said that if she bites me again, he's going to get rid of her.

The room grows suddenly dark while, outside, lightning splits the sky. The thunder is more frequent...Haley Mae joins me on the couch. She has cut off all the lights and has unplugged all the electrical appliances. We sit in the dark, the room silhouetted by the cool light that streams in through the door. Rain starts to fall, first a few drops, then nothing, then more drops, then nothing. A streak of lightning and a crack of thunder, then the rain returns with fury, changing totally the sharp images of a few minutes before into a blur of twisting tree-tops and gray crape-paper falling down.

A blue pick-up pulls up in front of the house and stops alongside the highway. Its bed is surrounded by what looks like a wooden fence on three sides. As it stops, I can see the tobacco workers huddled in the back, all of them drenched, their thin clothing clinging to their skin. I've been caught by the rain before. I know they 're cold. As the truck slows down, my sister jumps from the back and races for the house. Slowly, as if encumbered by the force of the rain, the truck lumbers off to deliver the rest of its soaked human cargo to their respective homes.

Once again, the door applauds the arrival of someone to the house. My sister has better manners, but she is thinking of the rain, not the door. She stops abruptly in the doorway. Dripping and shivering, she is wearing old blue-jeans, an old dress shirt buttoned at the collar and the sleeves, a bandanna over her head, and adhesive tape and band-aids to cover every square inch of her skin that isn't covered by clothes. The above apparel seems to have decided that it could not be outdone and has bedecked itself with ounces of sand and greenish-black, sticky tobacco gum. She carries the smell of green tobacco with her as she walks.

My sister is covered in the stuff. Worn out by the constant motions of tying green tobacco to wooden hangers, the heat of the day, and the sudden shock of wind and cold rain, she can't even sit down to rest: she'd ruin the furniture. I follow her to the bathroom where she reaches up to pull the string to turn on the light. I stand just outside the door and watch. First to go are the adhesive tape and band-aids. Her hands, sore from the grasping of bouquets of tobacco leaves, of looping string around the stems, and then flipping them over the wooden tobacco stick, over and over, she is now working to remove the tape and tobacco gum that is stuck to her fingers. Her hands show alternating patterns of blackened tobacco gum and sand, white glue from the tape, and light tan skin. Next she removes the bandanna. She starts to unbutton the shirt and spies me watching her from the hallway.

"Go back in yonder and leave me alone. I'm worn out, and all I want to do is get cleaned-up." She pulls the bathroom door shut.

I am hurt. I waited all day for her to come home. For spite, I say, "Don't let the lightnin' strike you in there in the tub, Hateful-guts," thus demonstrating that I have already mastered the sarcasm that the older members of my family use to communicate with one another, but using a moniker that might have made anyone else laugh. It was the worst thing I could imagine at age four.

I am now at a loss of things to do. Haley Mae has gone home to be with her own children now that the storm has abated a bit. She said that she didn’t mind walking home in the light rain that followed the initial downpour. It is a good thing that she lives nearby. Neither I nor my sister could drive even if we had a car. After Haley Mae’s departure, I walk from room to room, seeking something to occupy my attention.

My sister and I share a bedroom, though it is strictly her decor. A small lamp with a frilly shade tied by a faded pink ribbon rests its milk-glass base on the dresser. A pink jewelry box, old as Methuselah, sits full of costume jewelry knotted up in imitation gold chains. Her old RCA portable radio sits on the chest of drawers. I go over to turn it on. It is not plugged in, so I feel certain I won't get struck down for playing it, though the thought does enter my mind with each distant crack of thunder and with each flash of light from the window.

I had been accused of trying to destroy this most valuable of all possessions, the RCA radio. The poor old thing has a two-toned plastic housing. The speakers are covered in beige bridgework of plastic grids. The plastic on the back and sides sports a darker tone of beige. Its knobs are the color of the backs and sides, but lit up with golden paint around the edges, much like the old barrel on the porch is rimmed in rusted rings. Stretching from the center of each knob is a thin, worn line of gold paint. Reaching the arc of the round knobs, they had worn themselves out pointing to the words "On/off", "Volume", and "Tone".

At night, as my sister sits at the dresser brushing her hair, we pick up New York, if it is late enough for the local stations to go off the air. This radio is our "ticket out, our connection to the real world, out there". Or something like that. I only know Delway and this house, the old-store that my father operates and the school where my mom works as a secretary. I know that my sister is dreaming of much more than that and also more than the rows and rows of tobacco plants that she passes on the way to the tying barns.

She sees the radio as a conduit for another world to reach us and teach how to get away. For all these reasons, this radio is treated with respect. It is not just its purpose, but its resilience that gives it importance. For whatever reason, it seems to fall off the dresser when I am nearby, and with each fall, it cracks or breaks in some way, but is able to be repaired with the odd placement of a band-aid or piece of adhesive tape. It still plays rather well, though a bit on the tinny side, despite numerous large cracks in the housing. It is a bit peculiar, I guess. But as I say, it is a prized possession. After I have turned it on, the radio begins to play a local station, playing the songs that appeal to white teenagers in 1964.

When my sister exits the bathroom, she is clean and has a towel wrapped around her hair. I have watched her, in the past, bend over, place the towel around her head and twist it around her hair before throwing her head back to toss the towel into place. On particularly boring days, I have imitated her, but never can get the towel to fold tightly on my head.

She flushes me out into the hallway and tells me that she has to dress. After a few minutes, she comes out of the bedroom and tells me that we need to start dinner. She has been planning to make a cake for over a week and tonight would be the night. I offer to help her.

We go into the kitchen and she retrieves my mother’s stand mixer from the cabinet and starts to arrange the ingredients for her cake. About that time, Mama walks in from work. Sis places the beaters into the mixer and, I, being overly excited by the idea of licking the beaters after the cake is done, plug the mixer into the wall socket. I don’t realize that the on-switch of the mixer has been activated and my sister still has her hands around the beaters.

A scream pierces the air of the kitchen. I look up to see my sister with her hand twisted, her fingers caught in the two intermingled propellers of the beaters. She is unable to move, because the beaters are secured into the mixer and she is crying in pain. Mama runs into the kitchen and unscrews the knob that holds the beaters in place and turns the mixer off. She then pulls the beaters from their slot in the mixer and looks at my sister’s hand. She turns white and grabs her keys. Mom holds the hands that are mangled into the beaters and takes us to the car for a quick drive down to the store where my dad is working. My sister is sobbing throughout the drive.

My dad comes running when he realizes there is a problem. He takes a look at my sister’s hands. Rather than take us to Clinton to the hospital or to a doctor, he goes and grabs a couple of pairs of pliers and starts to bend the metal of the beaters until he frees my sister’s hands from the mechanism. She is able to move her fingers, despite the fact that the metal has bitten into her skin. There is no question of going to the doctor. It is late, and it would mean closing down the store. My dad and mom look at the bruised and bleeding fingers and decide that a little peroxide, a little merthiolate and a few band-aids would be more than adequate for my sister to heal from this accident. Crisis solved, we go back home where my sister is allowed to rest while mom prepares dinner for the family.

There is no cake for dessert. My sister is sore and unhappy that she has to return to the tobacco fields in the morning. I am thinking that I will ask Haley Mae how to spell "I am sorry." tomorrow.



Anonymous Les Geller said...

Great story. I only wish I had such vivid recollections of my childhood.

3/13/2005 03:42:00 PM  
Anonymous suzie swain said...

I really liked this story, I felt like i could identify with the inquisitivness of the young child. I nearly got a tear in my eye from the last paragraph when you say that you want to ask how to spell sorry. Very well written. Lovely to hear the words of a child and to see how he has grown into a man. I am proud of you Ron.

3/25/2005 12:36:00 AM  

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