What Cannot Be Avoided
Jamie blinked as slow morning light etched the world. A glance showed that Ned slept on, buried face-down under twisted sheets except for a patch of black hair poking up and one protruding foot. Quiet clatter echoed from the kitchen. No voices called to him so he slid his book from the bedside table. He pulled the pages apart at the cardboard marker. As he waited for light to ripen the words on the page into meaning he thought maybe he could bring the book with him today in case of stubborn fish. Robinson Crusoe breathed and walked upon the sand of his island until his mother’s two-tone morning song, ‘Ja – mie’ and the smell of bacon reached out to him. He got up, slid into his overalls and padded into the kitchen.
Jamie looked around. “Daddy left for the mill already?”
His mother smiled as she laid bacon and oatmeal on the table. “Left way before light. Went to Silerville to get a few things, but never fear. You have plenty of time for breakfast and get a few things done for me before he gets back.”
He jumped a foot when Ned spoke behind his ear. “Morning, Miz Garrath.”
He turned around to Ned and spoke through clenched teeth. “Don’t do that.”
“Sorry.” Ned was already dressed, hair combed and shirt collar buttoned up tight.
Jamie sat down at the table and stared at Ned’s top button. “You’re know you’re gonna choke off the blood from your brains, don’t cha?”
Ned didn’t respond.
His mother set cold milk oatmeal in front of both of them. “Don’t dawdle; there’s things to do.”
There certainly were. Between milking, trimming and filling the kero lamps, getting in the eggs and a hundred other things his mother had for a body to do, there was no room to slide fishing or reading in edgeways.
The final hopes for reading Crusoe to pigheaded fish died when his mother set them to hoeing in the garden.
“The weeds in there are ankle deep, so get to it. Watch you don’t chop off any more stalks of sweet corn or I won’t have enough to put up come canning time.”
The ground of the garden beneath their feet was sandy, dry dimpled from the last rain. They slid their hoes just beneath the surface crust to slice off grass and weedy intruders. As he churned at the ground, Jamie’s mind ached, starved for something to think about and reached back for Crusoe to fight off the weight of creeping dull anger, burning feet and aching back. He didn’t know if Crusoe even had a hoe on his island paradise, but imagined himself under palm trees waving to the trade winds and cannibals invisible in the woods beyond just waiting for him to make a mistake. Ned wasn’t exactly Man Friday, but when Jamie looked up at him, he sure seemed to work like it, bent over and hard focused on his hoe, one shirt sleeve waving unrolled. Up the rows and down, up and down, until finally even Robinson Crusoe had had enough, and Jamie straightened and stretched the knot in his back.
The train whistle blew in the distance. “Well, holy hell and hallelujah.“ Jamie pushed his hoe into the sand and leaned his face on the end of the handle. “Hey, Ned.” Ned continued chopping, so he spoke a little louder. “Ned.”
Jamie lifted his hoe to his shoulder. “Quittin’ time. That’s the noon train from Silerville at the crossing. Time to eat.”
Ned straightened. “Suits me.”
They plodded from the garden, fine gray dust coating their boots and the bottoms of their trouser legs. The hoes clattered into the corner of the tool shed as they dropped them off. Jamie spoke to the fishing poles that beckoned to him from the rafters. “Sorry fellas. Maybe later.” He slid his hands flat into his back pockets and turned away.
As he walked up toward the house, he saw his father’s square cab pickup in the yard and Ned leaning over the tailgate looking into the back. Jamie stopped beside him. There were four cardboard boxes along with a half dozen hanks of plow line, three cans of Pittsburgh Paint, a pile of thick link log chain, several rolls of flat leather drive belts of various sizes, a small can of kerosene and a large can of gasoline.
Ned leaned his elbows against the side of the pickup and pushed his flat cap back on his head. “Today?”
Jamie nodded. “It’s a pure possibility.”
Up at the house they swept the dust from their boots and pants with the outside broom then clumped onto the back screen porch to pump water over their hands and faces. They dried off with the flour sack towel, then stepped into the kitchen.
Jamie’s father sat at the head of the table. One hand held his newspaper down flat while the other paused in the air with a serving spoon full of potato salad. He peered through low-slung reading glasses at the public notices. Gloria sat beside him with both hands pressed to her lap and swiveled her head around, mouth open, like a baby sparrow beggin’ for bait.
His mother lifted a plate of fried chicken to the table. In addition to the chicken and potato salad there was fresh bread and sweet green tomato pickles on the side. This was topped off with dripping glasses of deep golden sweet iced tea. Jamie and Ned both reached for their glasses and slurped before they scraped their chairs away from the table and sat down. They both reached for the bowls and plates of food.
“Heads down.” His father’s voice froze Jamie’s hand in mid-reach. He tried to keep the twist out of his mouth, put his hands down into his lap and bowed his head. He stole a glance up at Ned, who followed his lead and did the same.
“Lord, help us in work, help us in faith, help us to love. We thank thee for thy bounty and all thy many blessings, Amen.”
‘Amen’ was the starting gun for putting on the feedbag. The next few moments passed in silence punctuated with the rustle of his father’s newspaper and serving spoons rattling on plain white plates.
Jamie heard his mother. “Grant? Leave some for somebody else.”
He looked up and saw his father stopped with serving spoon in the air, a small mountain of potato salad on his father’s plate.
“What about me, Daddy? I want some too!” Gloria was not about to be left out when there was complaining to be done.
“All right, darlin’, all right, hereyago.” His father spooned sticky cream potato salad from his own plate onto Gloria’s.
“Daddy, those are yours; I want mine off the big plate.”
His father’s voice dropped half a tone. “You’ll eat these or nothin’, young lady.”
Gloria dipped her head and pushed out her lip.
His father finished tapping the salad onto her plate and set the dish back down. “This afternoon I’m gonna pick up Snow down at Fred and Adam’s then go on down to open up the mill, see what kind of shape it’s in. You boys want to tag along?”
Snow was his father’s foreman at the mill. “Right after dinner?”
His father nodded. “Soon as we finish eating.”
“Jamie, don’t cram your food in that way.” His mother’s voice in his ear. “You’ll ruin your digestion. There’s plenty of time.”
Fork still in his mouth, Jamie looked up and watched his father glance up at his mother, then back down at his paper.
“Your momma’s right, Jamie.” His father picked up his knife and slowly cut up the green tomato pickles on his plate. “Now that I think about it, I’ve gotta get some papers together before we go down there anyway. So slow down and eat like you’re supposed to.” He set down the knife on the edge of his plate and picked up his fork.
Jamie mumbled as close as he could get to ‘yessir’ with a mouthful of potatoes.
Gloria shook her fork in the air at him. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Jamie tried to press the smile from his face as she was silenced with a quiet hiss and a pointed finger from his mother.
His father turned his paper over. “You know that hobo we found down at the crossing a while back? The one with the watch? They found out who he was.”
“Really?” Jamie’s mother lifted the iced tea pitcher from the table, stood up and stepped over to the stove. “Who was he?”
“Howard Hawks from Silervillle. It says here he went missing when his wife and daughter died from the flu. Apparently he just wandered off. His family’s been hunting for him ever since.”
Jamie looked up at Ned. Ned just shrugged and went back to stabbing at his food.
Jamie’s father shifted pages. “Joe Louis and Max Schmeling are gearing up for their fight.”
“Reading at the table again, honey?” Jamie’s mother dropped ice cubes into the tea pitcher.
His father did not look up. “Only time I have to do it.”
His father looked up at her over his reading glasses. “Reading at the table? It may not be strictly polite, but ‘barbaric’ is carrying that a little far, don’t you think?”
“No.” Jamie’s mother placed the pitcher on the table, sat back down and forked a chicken thigh onto her plate. “Louis and Schmeling. It’s the Romans and their gladiators all over again.”
“That’s as may be, but I still hope Louis pounds him into the canvas like he did Baer.” Jamie’s father rattled the paper, folded it and placed it back down. “Maybe that’ll shut up this Hitler fella for a day or two.”
“Isn’t there something a little more pleasant to share in there?”
“Well, let’s see.” Jamie’s father picked the paper up and turned to the next page. “There’s a beauty contest.”
“That’s no better.” Jamie’s mother dropped her wrists to the table, fork and knife upright. “They parade those girls in those swim suits like a cattle drive of boiled chickens. It’s shameful, that’s what it is.” She sawed at her tomatoes, scraping her plate.
His father lifted the paper to peer closely at it. His voice reached out from behind the gray newsprint. “Well, I hate to tell you honey, but these gals aren’t wearing any suits at all.”
“What?” Jamie almost spit potatoes. When he looked up he saw Ned’s wide eyes blinking at his. “Can I see?”
Jamie heard his mother’s knife clatter onto her plate. “You hush, young man. They wouldn’t put a picture like that in the paper.”
His father’s voice quivered a little bit behind the rattling paper. “They’re a bunch of cows, is what they are.”
“Grant! I’ve never heard you talk such a way. They may not act like they’ve got good sense or any raisin’, but that’s no reason for you to talk like that. What ever makes you say such a thing?”
Jamie’s father peered around the edge of the paper. “It’s a beauty contest for cows, Honey. Angus and Shorthorn, mainly. Lipstick, dresses and all.” He ducked back behind the paper. “They’ve even got a little crown. Maybe we could enter Elspeth if we live close enough. I wonder what they do for the talent competition?”
His mother’s chair scraped back. She got up, walked around the table, whacked her husband twice on the head with a folded towel, completed her circumnavigation and sat back down.
“Where is it at, Daddy?”
Jamie watched his father rub his chin. “Ahhh … let’s see … Kansas. Too bad.”
“I wonder if we could do that here?”
“Ohh.” His mother tossed her napkin onto her plate and started clearing the dishes. “Never heard of such a fool thing.”
With his mother putting food away and his father settled at his desk, Jamie eased his escape out onto the front screen porch to read. Ned followed, lay down on the glider and closed his eyes. Jamie had just sunk down into the part where Crusoe was building up his cave for defense against savage natives when his father came out of nowhere.
Jamie was yanked out of his escape to paradise. “Uhh … Robinson Crusoe.”
“It’s a good book, I like it.”
“Not much point in reading a book again once it’s been read good and proper, don’t you think?”
“Folks go to see movies over and over don’t they?”
His father stood over him, hands clasped behind his back. “Come on, let’s go to the mill. Let’s go do something.”