Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)

from THUNDER: Memoirs of Home

“The Hoover Boys” Part II

 

Across widening fields and shady yards, the two farmhouses watched the children come like plums. First a blossom that blushed in warm colors, then brown limbs that needed tending. The white ashy sky that had given ragtime and marriage, a casual tip of a fedora, was skipping over a bank of fragrant honeysuckle where sound stumbled and got up speechless.

 

Just as silently the shears went missing. Then the finger of a Jersey glove. Recalling the nearly forgotten faraway cities of freedom and brotherly love, neither household thought America could have fed the world yet left only a dollar for the local church. Days still seeking the future held onto moonlighted nights and evenings of only a few brown eggs, rationed sugar and poultices on red patches of measles. In deepening dark, a hoot owl hooted. A whippoorwill called from the long, dusty shadows of the land, eaves newly aging and unsure of what must be shared or given outright. White men and dark loaded jars onto wagons and trucks and the dull, yellowing evening covered them up.

 

Till dark my grandfather made fields where there were no fields. Early he scoured close to the spring, the mossy shoulders of dipping knolls that rested cool below the scattered sandstone and stringy yuccas. And when he ran up against the red oaks that insisted the spring belonged to them, he tended the land of his neighbor. This quietening ditty of expansion was neither new to the neighbors whose several hundred acre estate had wandered all the way to the north swamp, but the children on either side of the long snaky ditch beside the road barely listened anyway. Poked with testy blackberry shoots, sassafras and some veins of wiregrass holding fast, reluctant sandy corners lay down. The land bore fruit and sun fell upon long vines.
 

Children’s the Lord’s blessing, said the new reverend, brushing by a half-strangled tie, a newly hung portrait of Coolidge’s benefactor, eyes still glowing haughtily with old magnanimity. And despite the missing shears, the church, smoky and fragrant with homemade preserves, was obsequious with hope.

 

Better keep a fire tonight in the orchard. That goes for me, too, Willie, says the neighbor as though speaking to his own grandfather, then returning like a distant cousin to the sprawling house to peek under the mattress upon which his mother lay twisted beside her cane, the roses half-signifying at the dark rattling window.

 

Granddaddy had bristled, his eyes fretting and ripe as he stepped out of the church into the flappy October wind. Holding onto their mother’s jewels, the young women struggled to keep on their new hats. A few like my grandmother had stayed home near the dining room stove because the youngest was teething. Pinstripes and young men buckled. From the juiced-up cities of the north, the huge, low-hanging clouds of 1929 were rolling in, their slippery solemn whispers and complaints eventually blowing into Battery. The blushes that had followed the War’s end and a subsequent feeling of resurgence now began to turn into lines and forks where direction wandered into the underbrush.

 

A large plate of dusty dreams, the changing climate eventually entered the swirling curtains of the new house my grandfather had built several years before mostly himself, an early proprietorship which both tested his spirit and gave him joy. He had slaved with a couple of breezy neighbors standing by and telling him what he was doing wrong. No, it don’ go there, the short, lazy one said, catching granddaddy’s work shoe with a winey spray of tobacco.

 

Slowly the man who never knew his father was becoming himself and finding his home. The mother who had secretly held him in a place only he could occupy was turning into a basket of tomatoes, a rippling row of black-eyed peas brashy with light. He blew out air as tirelessly as an old bellows. The air was spirited, forgetful, moving as effortlessly as Saturday moves into Monday and the Monday after that, then only seeking the comfort of an armchair by the window where he could brush it across his face with his straw hat. A plump yellow girl had come wobbling through the house as though she had always been there. He drew her to his side like the page of a bible, prayerful but thinking also of the peas that needed fertilizer. The dung of the mule would not be enough.
 

The local bank was closed, and the only dollar bills passed hand to hand alongside woods or in the field. Avoiding the girl’s long Shirley Temples and growing fonder of Job, my grandfather rubbed large brown hands that were also calloused and sore.

 

A garden coming in during drought, the women and children and boys laughed in back rooms, along porches where the earth eroded clean, yet in the thinning air a couple of the boys (though never the elder, maybe my father) were becoming irritable, new plantings where the burrs were setting in despite the lack of rain. Why so many tomatoes, one nagged. Farming is the old man’s way. With this he grabbed a catalog to admire the pistols and shotguns, resorted to the privacy of the privy in lieu of a Tombstone he also admired, which then especially the family couldn’t afford.

 

With some help from my mother’s great-uncle who was the local carpenter and one of the locals who kept a bottle in his back pocket (there were several men who did), granddaddy had sawed and hacked the cedar planks into the earth on stump land and brush. He pounded hard into night above the slightly gullied slope where thunderstorms insisted they should leap over the large farm of the whites and cut a deep gash in the black lower land. Must be plumb, says the uncle red as a beet. He sneaked a swig that was both sweet and tart.

Even with the stealthy on-set of the Depression (granddaddy just called it hard times), sometimes it seemed both farms were blessed. There were several sprawling pigpens and outcroppings and barns dropping out puffs of sallow hay, the larger much older house across the field with a cemetery holding onto the swelling earth. Like chicks and piglets and pups, little bushes that wouldn’t stop blowing along the edges of the house, life wouldn’t stop coming and also growing. One of the first children was lost in childbirth, but during the 30’s most were born healthy as brimful baskets.

 

When the children were barely teens, maybe a little before (my father’s memory wanes in and out), a couple of the boys got their first work on the farm across the road, tipping around the cemeteries as though they were deep wells or emissaries of life that even in death may still have had work to do. But they also worried over their worn-out shoes and what would be served for supper. They fantasized about girls they would not see in school because they had to stay home to plant seedlings and work the farm. Of course, the farm being owned by whites had no particular relevance to them, as the somewhat straggly, sleepy house had been set so deep in the shade of a grove of locust trees the children sometimes barely noticed it was there.

 

Except there were pigs there that didn’t care who slopped them, horses looking expectantly through stable openings. And “Clanks” who also helped. He was the black man who lived in the attic. His origin an ignored mystery, he was good at everything but acted like he didn't care about anything—the banjo he plucked out near the wagon shed, the ramshackle school hack he drove, a hardy chuckle he gave absently when something went flat. And times and thoughts were random and also tough as nails—and besides sometimes even the white family said wait till next week, and they already had one colored boy in rolled up britches and suspenders who ate more than his share of the food, raked the cemetery twice a day, and refused to leave. (Clanks, who was always walking about and complaining about his feet, ignored him.)


Someone said the boy had been passed about and run around from a nearby dirt road where moms were fairing even more roughly. The neighbor's sawmill business had suddenly shut down. Stories were starting to circulate that not any of the colored men had work. But the runaway was lucky. The white family kind of liked him, though nobody knew his real name, and when asked his name or who his people were he would shrug up his shoulders and barely say a word. Who, he whispered, grasping the rake, and ran off suddenly toward the cemetery.

 

My father and his older brother (who loved everyone) and the younger one who later sometimes tagged after them liked him, as well. “Your name O-ver?” asked the youngest before becoming more interested in the long bench nailed between two trees where a thick white rope dangled. The boys treated him a little like family without knowing what family was, though he was both strange and familiar as an old winter coat you forgot you had but found one cold, blistery February day at the bottom of the wardrobe. At first, he wouldn’t stay overnight or one of the older white brothers or uncles wouldn’t let him, but after work the white mother in a flowered apron and half stockings would send him a plate out under the locust tree which he would eat with such delight the boys had to spit at the guineas to stop themselves from crying.

 

Promptly at 6:30 p.m. he would return the plate to the steps clean as a milk bowl and then, like an apparition, disappear down the side of the cornfield, but again when the rooster crowed or at the latest when the sun came up, he would be sitting on the step again hunched limberly into himself like a large frog or skinny cat. The middle white brother, a bit more aloof and some said not as smart as the others, called him “Hoover” because he had started coming to the house during Battery’s hard times. When the boys would say the name, they would chuckle and hold onto the first sound, as though they were hooting like night owls or marking the dead, letting the sounds die off and mix with the softly dying wind. “Hoooo-vaa.....”

 

The boy, eleven or younger, would not respond, and everyone knew he wasn’t from any place they knew. Twisting a bit like a dry flappy rag and pulling inward at his elbows that always seemed to want to crisscross like bones in a pine box, he wouldn’t talk about much, but once in a while if you mentioned his father he would rear back his head as though laughing at a joke you didn’t make or maybe he was looking or laughing right into the face of God. He was crazy like that, especially at morning work time. But at lunchtime or when the boys took a break he was hard to beat at marbles or checkers, tall and lanky like his new friends (not Daddy) and whistling a tune you never heard but thought you knew and felt in some remote extremity of the soul. Wistful as daylight without work, a dreary evening when all the adults have driven away to visit an old sister close to the river, he didn’t care much about anything except the plans for getting in the next day’s hay, and he would only steal in a quick game of tag because someone skipping suddenly into the yard hit him hard beside the head, and even that only moved him as though he had some other agenda.

Larry D. Giles has taught writing in Tappahannock and Richmond where he received two writing fellowships, the prestigious REB Award for Teaching Excellence, and an educational leadership fellowship. His first book of poetry is currently in publication.

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