Saturday, July 23, 2011

Saturday Musings, 23 July 2011

Good morning,

The unbearable heat of summer lurks an hour from where I now sit, in a blond-wood rocker, on my porch, with my five-dollar estate sale table as a laptop perch. Beside me, the old porch chair abandoned by a departing law school friend sits with only an exercise ball for company. Its joints gave way a few weeks ago, and have not yet been re-glued. The plants on their stands seem happier for several days of excessive watering. The occasional neighbor listlessly wanders down the cracked sidewalk, getting in a few feet of exercise before the temperature rises. The gas man pulls into the driveway behind my Saturn, and the morning's activity begins.

But I have drift into the past, as I tend to do on these lazy days. My surroundings fade, and in their place appears a wooden porch in Winslow, Arkansas, built by a carpenter friend with lines that come to an apex in the middle of the highway. I appreciated the artistry, although natives often stood and wondered at the foolishness. Middle of the road, they mused, shaking their heads at the oddness of it. Huh, well, don't that beat all.

Heat surrounded me that afternoon, the thick, cowardly southern heat that flees at sunset with the sweep of the mountain's evening chill. With a glass of cool well water on the table and a book in my hand, I daydreamed about the life I planned to lead in my new home.

A year later, I would have erected a wooden fence on the property line and would not have been visible from the highway. But that day, anyone passing could see me idling away a perfect Saturday, and sure enough, someone did. An old Chevy truck, from the late '50s or early '60s, pulled down my gravel drive. As it slowed, I squinted, trying to see the driver. In those parts, in those days, most anyone would stop for most any reason, but usually I would recognize a neighbor's face.

This one had nothing about it that seemed familiar. Creased lines on either side of a lean jaw, light brown stubble, home-shorn hair. I judged the man to be in his mid-30s. He stepped lightly across my yard, and stood below the spot where I had risen to greet him. Mornin', he ventured. I returned the comment, glancing over at his vehicle.

I could see a woman in the passenger seat, and a couple of kids peering around the rusty side of the truck. Small children, none too clean, and hungry-looking. I turned my attention back to their father.

The slimness of his face topped an even thinner body, but his arms looked strong and his shoulders square. I knew what would come next. He had not stopped to beg, but to ask about work, and I started thinking about what I could have him do that might allow me to give him a few dollars with which to feed his family. The '80s had been hard on country folk, with dogged droughts and a collapse of the free-wheeling economy of the '70s. These wanderers might otherwise have been working a farm that had been in their family for generations.

I did not have to wait long for the man's request. In a voice that did not tell of the pain it caused him to inquire, he asked if I had any chores that he might do. I thought about the rick of wood that could be re-stacked, the north plot of land that needed bush-whacking, a door frame that sagged in the unfinished addition. I nodded, and gestured for the family to disembark from the truck's dusty confines.

The woman showed herself to be in her late 20's, with a boy eight and a girl six. The children ran around the front yard while their mother and I made lemonade, and their father dragged my small tool collection out to get done what he could before the sun set. I found myself chattering to the kids with their silent mother alongside me, and my nephew's calico cat, George, whom I had inherited when my nephew developed asthma, running around with the boy chasing her.

I fed them grilled cheese sandwiches with thin slices of tomatoes purchased from a farm up the road. The man ate his while standing alongside the porch but the woman refused what I offered. The boy ate two and the girl one and a half, and when I had washed the few dishes, I came back outside to find the mother sweeping the floorboards of my new porch, while the children napped on the seat of the truck, and the man cleaned the blades of my mower.

I gave the man some money, more than the hours he worked might be considered worth, and silently watched as his wife calculated whether they would find somewhere to sleep on the strength of it. I put a bag of cookies into the woman's hands, the set of my mouth telling her not to protest. The man gently hustled his children into the bed of the vehicle, helping his wife into the cab, softly closing the door for her. I looked beyond the little scene, to the curve of the hill on the east side of the highway, and the line of trees that followed the mountainside to the neighboring farms. Those trees would sway with the mildest of winds, but they stood motionless in the heat of the late afternoon.

With his family secured, the man had only to turn and thank me. I folded my arms across my chest, and fastened a smile on my face. By thirty-four years of age, I had suffered my share of humiliation, and did not lightly visit any on another human being. I would make his task painless if I could. Thank you kindly for what you did for me today, I told him. You can't know what it's like, living out here on my own, being unable to do those chores.

He paused. The brown of his eyes met the grey-blue of mine. We heard a jay call to its mate, in the still of the afternoon air. A long moment eased between us. He broke his gaze, then, and glanced at the land to the north of my house. You oughtn't tell people you're alone, he said then. There's some might not have ought but bad on their minds. I conceded his point with a little shrug. Some mightn't, I admitted. He nodded, just once. Well, thanks for the food and such, ma'am, he said, finally. I put out my hand, and the slim one he put into it felt strong and cool. He met my eyes again, and nodded again. Might be, I'll be back this way, in a couple of weeks, and I'll check on you, he said, and then, with a smooth maneuver that raised very little dust, he pulled his truck back out onto Highway 7, and headed north, into Fayetteville.

The gas man has finished replacing our meter, and the heat of the Kansas City summer has settled around me. I pull myself back into the present, and watch as the worker backs his truck onto Holmes Street, and drives away, to his next appointment.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.