Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)

The Hoover Boys, Part III

from Thunder: Memoirs of Home

by Larry D. Giles

 

One such evening came without meaning to. Worn-out baskets had been picked full, lean mules watered down without thanks. Locust trees nearly dreamed where the thick rope dangled. Long, quiet arms, fingers became shorter, then disappeared like thin Goliath’s in the cooling sky. Day stretched out a long, long way into dark, forgetful, lost, going nowhere. Everyone was somewhere. Except Hoover.

 

Giggling and wiping his mouth, Clanks, along with the family quiet as cardboard boxes, had sputtered by the gristmill on the swamp, dissolved into the dust uphill from the river. The son in the front seat with the red face and small flask hidden in his back pocket was pointing—a little further, closer to Tappahannock.

 

My father’s friend who had never been anywhere except the farm with the rusty logger that looked like a grasshopper, hunched his long, crooked elbows between his dusty knees, his straight black hair dissolving into a faint facade. Fireflies twinkled above the ragweed barely visible along the field, lighting indiscriminately with no place to go, or they had been already and kept it secret. Dreams of daylight were also somnolent. Drifting, they lifted over graves, that part of night or day intent on feeling liveliness when evening breeze has all but died. Hoover was alone.

 

Across the field, beside the bungalow where one of the white sons had walked a decade before over the burr field to give the young father advice on which nails would work best, something drifted into sound. The old car tires rolled all the way from the mulatto’s Big House, spun the boy and his friends through the yellowing evening that smelled of tomatoes and far off mountain laurel. With a dry smile, the drifter beat my father and uncles at marbles, swallowed the last hot cake as well. The yellow girl touched his foot beneath the table. In lieu of the smaller bucket, my father’s siblings were washing their feet in a long bath tub on the porch nestled behind the sprawling limbs of a Rose of Sharon closing white petals. Grandmother softened the youngsters’ spilled shrills that the well water was still cool, though it had been left in the sun to warm. Clean up dem little hooves for prayer, said the fatherless father, Abraham closed good-naturedly on his thick round knees.

 

Hoover should have been home by then, walking like the last fleck of dust along the green corn stalks tangled with morning glory, tassels high up trying to poke out against the browning sky. But he was sitting on the make-shift stoop before the oak well with the wheel and heavy chain. The two privies quietly squatted in private formation. The hens, white puffs of air, fluffed silent on straw mattresses, the long, muddy sows and cows stretched out no longer ornery. He knew it was time to go. He stayed.

 

His head like a hull, he watched the one-room cabin beside the two privies, its door open without a hint of life. In its darkness he knew there was an old stove no longer used, the tarnished skeleton of an iron bed. There was something left of a mat or carpet or linoleum rug with flowers before the bed, a basket turned on its mouth beside the frame. The boards inside looked new, but outside they had been worn down by the sun and wind. Rain had washed them gray.

 

He liked the cabin, singular in the last of the light. His thoughts empty as twilight with no awareness of day, a sapling without fruit, he went in. Sat without thinking on the mat and lay his dark locks back against the tarnished iron, the large spring gaping about nothing. He slept. He did not know he slept.

 

The old jalopy (or whatever it was—Dad isn’t sure) sputtered and puffed to make the swamp hill, bearing close to the deep black ditch, the son then loquacious and saying Give her more gas. The mother was asleep, her face a crumpled sack of dark lines. Sister had kept her too late—all the hushed-up gossip of hands who weren't worth a hill of beans. Headlights, buggy, tired, bounced upon the heated blades of corn, the long earthen lane worn through the grass to the house, lighting the house and cabin in the dark where the boy lay. The boy slept. The boy’s friends listened to their young father’s prayers. The prayers were old, old as a grandmother's wishes above a well.

 

The white mother, growing ever more strange and aloof, let him stay after that, taking him a plate of perch and molasses when someone found him there in the morning, though he had hoped to wake sooner. But still some nights he didn’t stay.

 

On the porch looking out from the graves, the aging mother in the flowered apron would call for him, and he wouldn’t be there. Looking into the quiet dark beyond the privies, she waited for an answer that wouldn’t come. With a small saucer of cake, she came out into the yard, clucked a little like a bantam, poked her head. Nothing. Silence. Across the burr field, the muffled, dying sounds of children. Water. Not Hoover.

 

Not far from the cemetery where her people lay quiet, she would say into the blue air, Is Hoover in the Lil’ House, take ‘m another blanket and some water. Ain' no needs foolin’ wit’ that kid, says the slow son. But he was on the far side of the other porch. Hearing no one, she swept the bedroom floor.

 

Along the swamp road, the boy walked, though mostly he drifted. The darkness was friendly upon his face, the swamp faintly whispering in its own twilight, under the wide bluing sky where two stars looked out from under the straggly clouds. Another night he walked and another. Among the distant whistles of a whippoorwill, the cabin came back to him as if it stood on the hill of clay above the swamp. He imagined the catfish with long whiskers sucking in air down below the corners of the house that hung onto the high cliff. There was a fire warm and crackling in the stove. A jar of Queen Anne’s Lace holding onto the upturned crate. He saw his grandmother there in the yard (someone who looked like her—he couldn't remember her exactly). Cradling a baby girl and the frogs . . . singing down below in the cool swamp bed. Then there was nothing. Bare feet. Dirt.

 

Eventually Hoover stayed in the cabin but I am not sure when. The mother half-smiled but she also reminded him the burrs wanted picking. And the day after that, the tomatoes and squash. The boy picked, though he spoke little of anything, not even the holes the burrs left in his palms. And though he didn’t mean to, he had a knack for making “Dickie Boy,” the oldest, my father “Jug-head”, and Billy laugh and forget their lot, a bit hungry, a bit smudgy beneath sunken papery eyes. And he was wont to suddenly run off somewhere, returning unexpectedly when you couldn’t see where he was coming from. He raked all the time, down by the barn and the cabin and by the two privies. He had even asked the mother if he could move one of her dying rose bushes there (which he did while the other boys sat and watched).

 

Times being slack, the second privy for the help closer to the north cow barn and woods had fallen into ruins. Someone said there was a new deal, but the deal had not come to either farm. A man called the Führer was talking about sending poor folk to a place called Madagascar. Ignoring the boys’ stories as they sat under the trees, Hoover chose the second privy for the rose bush. He set it deep along its side with lots of manure and some sawdust from the abandoned mill in the woods. Though the chickens and guineas strutted in sometimes and looked, the little house was mostly nothing. It and the rose the mother also ignored with a couple of clucks.

The rose struggled. The other boys ignored it as they also ignored gossip, but they did not ignore the little house beside it. A couple of times the boys had to decide, whether to use the old privy or, as they were wont to do, scramble over the field to grandfather’s along the ridge of the field. (Nobody knew where the boy went. He just suddenly dropped the rake and went.)

With a fresh tar paper roof and new green eaves, the good privy had two finely carved holes, one for grownups, I guess, one newer raised one for a child. The raised hole was also newly painted with an additional platform. It was not just for old ladies but for a child wanting to sit up high beside his mother or aunt. The girl used it when she came with her mother to visit her aunt. Since no one was home, Jug-head got it in his head one day when Hoover was tending the rose to use the privy instead of running home.

 

At first my father half tiptoed and strutted around the privy’s wind-blown sides unsure if he would go in. His stomach bubbled something awful, so he finally went in, kicking the door open with the toe of his boots, and the wind did the rest. He must have cockily popped open his suspenders and sat down to his urgent business while the boys gawked from outside. My father sat like a little king on the high throne, as the other boys stood around rather awkwardly, shivered like cold, thin feathered ostriches holding their long craws to their loins.

 

Like a banker who had been jilted, Dickie Boy finally said something with diminished authority, At least you can close the door. It didn’t really matter. Jug-head was too busy to reach for the door which had flung back in the wind, and the boys were blown so close up to the privy they could hear Jug-head puffing like a little steam engine or truck, then a roll of thunder which caused all of the boys but Hoover to twirl and burst into laughter.


Billy, the spindliest and most flappy, spun the most and also was the most amazed. He asked with one hand on his half-falling britches and the other pointing rather wearily at my father, How do it feel, sitting up high where the white girl sit? There was both silence and relief, and Jug-head trying to say in words that didn’t rightly want to come out, Feel—like—heaben I tell you. Dickie Boy and Billy cackled like farm animals at a carnival, but Hoover, being Hoover, seemed distracted, oddly annoyed he could not believe they had broken the rules and laughed.


Finally losing his last wit, he turned his head to the woods, wiggling a little in his tracks and putting his hand between his legs like a pond was going to burst over its banks. It did—his pants were suddenly dark and wet, but he still didn’t laugh—he twirled in the wind and dropped the rake, and like a bolt of lightning or a flash was down across the cornfield and the bushes where soon one scrawny sapling began to shake. Daddy says he quickly squatted like a duck, his kinky hair dissolving into an ear of corn, but unlike my grandfather the biblical scholar who could build houses, fell trees, and tell the best and oddest jokes, never, never did they hear him laugh.

 

Embarrassed perhaps, Hoover was ever more distant in the fields, and he wouldn’t talk, nor would he sweat. The boys would swear and wipe their faces, but Hoover was dry as drought. When the boys retold the story of the privy or spoke of the poor people the Führer wanted to kill, Hoover reached for another basket and out-picked the others. Even when the oldest said Y’all play too much and helped him lift his basket of burrs, Hoover remained aloof.

 

For all of the boys, Sunday mornings had been as singular as the burr fields, though certainly not as testy or hot. Or the gospel sung from greasy pans and white enamel basins gurgling spring water cooled all memory of harshness and heat. A pretty cousin, light-skinned, shiny, would be standing in the shade before the church. The dark flies, however, still waited by the screen door, and the boy’s feet were not washed. The yellow girl who was the second sister, thought of Hoover standing before the mirror where the mother tied and patted ribbons. Another was staying home with the mother, as she was too small for even the stocky father to carry five miles.

 

With rationed grumbles, breakfast had been cheerfully eaten, pennies for the offering plate distributed generously, an old Indian head stuffed under one boy’s pillow. The privy door had been propped open with a stick, the thin red chickens happy. Two of the boys had been made to sit on the porch and wait. For what they didn’t know. The Ford had been sold without goodbyes. Maybe they waited for Mr. Hayes, the Irish man who sometimes took them on the back of his truck. He was the neighbor due south. He looked like the mother across the field but was no relations. Sometimes they climbed up on Scottie’s wagon, the tired black mule quiet as midnight. Scottie was the old black man who lived with Mr. Hayes’ brother, “Shaw.” The grandfather still not a grandfather thumbed thin pages the random breeze wanted, marking the last lines of the lesson he would teach to the winded parishioners. No Hoover.

Good morning for walkin’, said the father gingerly pushing down his boater, and the boys rolled like tires out into the damp sunshine, all far ahead of him, dipping for whatever could be dipped for and aiming to stay clean. The eldest tried not to jump. Sometimes they met Hoover at the first fork where the store stood tired from the long week of crackers and potted meat, sometimes at the second fork further down from the gambling tree. They never knew if he would go or exactly where he would come from—the dirt road near the store perhaps. He never came from the store, nor would he travel through Battery which lay ahead. They had already passed the first fork where the pretty girl swung near some peach trees and the pithy owner who didn’t look like a black man peeped from a window.

“Polly Peach Tree” ain’ going, said the eldest, stifling a giggle for he was thinking of Hoover and the privy. Jug-head was undone though he wasn't sure why. The girl’s arms were twisted into the old ropes of the swing but she kept swinging. (A bee flew over the road which Jug-head slapped at.)

 

Today it was the second fork, where the yellow clay fell from under long mossy banks the eldest women scooped out to chew with coffee. Hoover scooted through a mass of ornery sassafras, a dark smile with a quick smack of powder, desiring a journey yet laying back from it. He lagged like evening dust, quiet as bees in a nest, somewhere between the yellow girl who walked close behind her father and the boys far ahead where the bushes wet the hems of their good britches.

 

What does it mean, Daddy, asked the girl, why does he ask her for water when she was a Samaritan? She was watching a dragonfly light on last summer's thistle. He did not answer but looked ahead where the boys were skipping and laughing about a certain privy. He did not hear them. He would chuckle at the story some other time, as he liked to laugh at things sometimes not so funny. Shelling peanuts beside the pot-bellied stove with the boys at his knees made everything funny, even those early days of marriage when there was no privy and he scrambled like a fox to the bushes and leaves.

 

Living water, he said ignoring their laughter, and he pushed his elbow tight over the bible, thinking what he would say in church. The girl forgot the question, and the dragonfly flew somewhere else.

 

This time Hoover surprised everyone, stuffing his dotted tie in his pockets and walking all the way back with the children full of something hopeful no one explained or cared to give inquiry to. Tangled in the ropes, Polly Peach Tree was still swinging. But near the bungalow Hoover ducked ahead through the cornfield where soon in the distance Daddy says he sat shirtless and barefoot beside the privy where he reverently tended the mother’s dying rose.

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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