Saturday, November 1, 2008
After a day playing on the countryside, six-year-old Julie plodded homeward in the falling dusk, carefully following the fence as she crossed the hill. She walked up the steps to her house and stopped abruptly in the doorway. Her mother was bending over the bottom drawer of the chest, trying to stuff in a pillow with the things already in it. Her father, hammer in hand, was dislodging the side rails of the bed from the footboard. Julie saw the darkened area around the slit for the rails where she had bent so many nights to squash the bedbugs as they crawled out, and she could still smell their rankness. Marie was dragging a heavy box from the kitchen, stooping almost double, one hand balancing the pots and pans stacked in it so they would not slide to the floor.
“What’s happenin’?” asked Julie.
“We’re movin’!” exclaimed Marie. “Daddy got us a place.”
“Where’re we goin’?”
Her father looked up from where he had leaned the pieces of the bed against the wall. “We’re gonna move over to Enterprise, on Mr. Bailey’s place.”
“Yeah, Mr. Bailey says I can work shares this year, but I gotta be there tomorrow. He’s still got some hay that he ain’t had time to get in, and if I want the place, I gotta start on it tomorrow, bright and early.”
“Are we gonna walk?” Julie still couldn’t grasp the whole idea.
“Naw, Murray’s gone to see if Mr. Hugo will take us in his truck. He’ll be back directly.”
“Julie,” said her mother, “take that tow sack over there and run out to the garden and pick all the turnip greens you can see how to. We’re gonna need all we can find to take with us.”
“I need a coat,” said Julie. “It’s getting’ cold out.”
“Here,” said Estelle, “throw this quilt over your shoulders. And hurry up. Murray’s gonna get back any minute, and we’ve got to be ready to go so’s we can get there by midnight. Your daddy’s got to get some sleep before he has to get on that hay rake in the mornin’.”
Julie wrapped the quilt around her shoulders and held the extra folds in her hands. She picked up the sack and walked out to the patch. Night had fallen but the moon had not yet risen, and she could hardly distinguish where the grass and weeds ended and the greens began. She knelt down, felt for the roughness of the turnip tops, and began to pick the greens. She crawled methodically through the patch, stuffing handful after small handful into the cloth sack, trailing the loose folds of the quilt after her.
The sack was almost a third full when she heard the sounds of the truck coming down the road, its headlight flickering through the trees as it turned into the bottom. She heard the muted conversation of Murray and Mr. Hugo as they parked the truck and got out. She kept picking. She heard them begin to load the truck with the meager furnishings of the house. She kept picking. She wondered if they had not had time to finish, but she also knew the value of the food she was gathering, so she did not stop to investigate. She picked until the moon began to rise and cast long shadows over her. Finally, the sack would hold no more, and, grasping it by the top, and folding the quilt into her arms so she would not trip over its bottom, she dragged the sack back to the house.
“We’re ‘bout ready to go,” said her father, as he lifted the sack for her. “Looks like you got enough to hold us for a while.”
Julie looked around the only home she had ever known. Gone was the table; gone were the benches; the spot where the stove had been was a vacant cavern, the disconnected stovepipe still sifting soot onto the pine boards of the floor.
The bedroom was equally bare. The only things left in the big room were the nails driven into the two-by-fours that had held coats and extra clothes. Now they, too, were empty, and they cast spike-like shadows on the boards of the wall as the kerosene lamp on the floor flickered and gave out its meager light.
“Bring your quilt with you, Girl,” said her father. “You’ll have to ride in the back of the truck with Marie, and it’s gonna get real cold before we get there, so you’ll have to wrap up good.”
Estelle came back in the house and slowly walked through each room to make sure she was not leaving anything. “It’s a little sad to be movin’,” said Estelle to her husband. “But maybe we’ll have some good neighbors over at Enterprise. Goodness knows, I ain’t had any here.”
Julie walked out of the house with her mother. Her father, lamp in hand, stopped one last time to latch the front door. He blew out the lamp and started slowly across the yard. Mr. Hugo was impatient to be on his way—he had a long night’s drive ahead of him, and he still had to drive back after unloading the truck.
“Better hurry up,” he said, “it’s a long way over there. I don’t mind helpin’ you folks out, but I gotta get back and get me some sleep, too.”
“Don’tcha forget about the cow when you come back by, “ said Mr. Mathis.
“Oh, don’t worry your head about that,” said Mr. Hugo. “I’ll keep her fed and milked ‘til you can get somebody passin’ that way to bring her. Or ‘til you can get back for her.”
“We sure do appreciate your helpin’ us out this way,” said Mr. Mathis.
“Well, that little old calf is measly pay for movin’ you folks, but considering you been such good friends, I reckon fair’s fair. And the missus and me sure can use the milk from the cow for awhile, seein’s ours is dry right now.”
“I’ll be back to get the cow just as soon as I get Mr. Bailey’s hay in, ‘cause we’ll need the milk, too, ‘til we get set up.”
Julie and her mother stopped in the middle of the yard. They turned and looked back at the house, the house where the Mathises had lived for almost ten years. Julie knew no other home, and she looked at the sagging door, at the windows with the rotten screens, at the porch caked with dried red clay from the stompings of many shoes, and she felt a tug at her heart.
“What kinda house will we have at Enterprise, Daddy?”
“Don’t know, Child, didn’t get a chance to look at it, what with Mr. Bailey bein’ in such a hurry and all. But a house is a house, and we are lucky he’s got one empty this time of year. Come on, now, let’s get loaded up and get on our way.”
They continued their way across the barren yard to where the truck was packed and ready to go. Murray and Marie had already seated themselves in the cab.
“Marie,” said her father, “you’re gonna have to get in the back with Julie.”
“Aw, Daddy, it’s gonna be too cold to ride back there!”
“The cab’s too full, what with Murray and your momma and me. Your momma’s gonna have to sit on my lap, now. You go on back there and wrap up good with Julie, and it won’t be long ‘til we get there.’
“Yessir.” said Marie, and she sullenly opened the door and went around to the tailgate of the truck.
Julie found a toehold on the rim of the tire and stepped from it to the edge of the bed of the truck. She climbed up the planks of the side rail, grabbed one end of the table, and pulled herself over the furnishings, piled helter-skelter. She waited while Marie also crawled into the mound and sat down on a chest near the rear of the truck. Julie carefully clambered over the pieces of furniture until she found a mattress behind the truck’s cab. She sat down on it and wrapped the folds of the quilt around her. “Marie, come on back here, and you won’t get so cold. You can get under my quilt.”
“I want to ride in the cab, too,” pouted Marie.
“Come on back with me,” urged Julie.
Okay, then, just freeze your ‘hind-end off, thought Julie, as she snuggled deeper into the nest she had made for herself. Wonder if there’ll be anybody at our new house for me to play with, Julie mused. The wind flapped a corner of her quilt, and she tightened her hold. Maybe they’ve got a schoolhouse I could go to! She peeked out from under her covers and saw Marie still sitting in the exposed rear of the truck.
“Aw, come on, Marie, it’s cold back there. Come under the quilt so it’ll be warmer!”
“Don’t want under your old quilt!”
As soon as the others had positioned themselves in the cab, she heard Mr. Hugo turn the key in the ignition and start the truck. The engine sprang to life, and slowly, very slowly, the Mathis household moved out across the yard to the main road, the pieces of furniture groaning and settling as the truck picked up speed for the trip to Enterprise.
Written by: Bettye H. Galloway
Originally published in The Oxford So and So
Born, reared, and educated in Oxford, Lafayette County, Mississippi; retired
from Mississippi state service (primarily the University of Mississippi) and
as executive vice president of a drug testing laboratory.