A CASUAL INTRUDER
Toby was looking forward to spending time with Eva Lofton later that day; they both would be hoeing weeds among the cotton stalks in his father’s patch. Toby’s father had already left that morning to attend a farmers’ committee meeting in the county seat.
Toby was sixteen, the only child of Ella and James Kemp, a couple determined to improve their standard of living since the country was finally coming out of the Great Depression. The price of cotton had increased over the prices of the past years.
Toby’s demeanor suggested self-confidence, though no one would have called him a “smart Alec.” He was almost six feet tall and usually walked at a slow pace except when he was in uniform on the basketball court. He was a forward on the team at the consolidated school he attended.
After Toby left the kitchen that morning, he walked into the front room of the small farm house his family had occupied as long as he could remember. His mother was sitting on the settee, which was located at angles in the corner opposite the front door. Beside her feet were an aluminum syrup bucket that had been converted into a lunch pail and a half-gallon sized Mason jar that had been wrapped in burlap to keep the water inside it cool.
Toby knew that he and his mother had some time to wait before Eva arrived. She had to walk from her home, which was two miles away. He thought of listening to a local string band, which broadcast its program every weekday morning.
As he reached to turn on the radio on the table beside the settee, Ella said, “Don’t turn on the radio. You know the bat’ry is gittin’ weak, and’ we wanna listen to I Love a Mystery tonight.
“Yeah, I wanna find out if Doc and Reggie git away from them vampire bats in the tower where they hid from the bad guys. I hope we git power soon. Then we won’t have to worry about bat’ries.”
Ella shrugged. “But then we’ll have to worry about payin’ the light bill every month.”
“How long will we have to hoe today? I wish Eva would hurry and git here, so we can git started. It gits plenty hot out there by ten o’clock,” Toby said.
“You know how long we work is up to your daddy. He’ll be back by noon tine. Remember he did not hire the Lofton girl to keep you company. Her dad is not able to work; he’s got t.b. His kids are tryin’ to earn a little money. Don’t talk to that girl all mornin’ ‘cause the talk slows both of you down on them long rows,” Ella cautioned.
“Yeah, I know, but it’s awful temptin’ to talk about school next fall. Eva is goin’ to try out for the basketball team. Last year very time I got on the bus to go to an away game, I’d be wishin’ Eva was goin’ with the other girls on the team.”
Ella had begun to stare into the distance. “I wonder if Bud Brown found his wife last night. It’s not the first time he’s gone lookin’ for her, though she hasn’[t run away lately as often as she used to. Her and Bud used to fight a lot and when Bud would go to work, Clara would leave the house, sometimes not even wearin’ her bonnet.’
“What did they fight about?” Toby asked.
“Oh, this’n that I guess. Sometimes they fought because Clara took a notion to re-do the inside of the house though it might not have been six months since she had a carpenter in there movin’ walls and cabinets. One room got bigger, the others littler. I s’pose Bud got tired of buyin’ the materials and payin’ the carpenter.”
Ella absent-mindedly touched the burlap on the jar beside her.
“Mr. Brown sure was nervous yesterday when he come to the field. I wonder where he found his wife,” Toby said.
“Maybe she went to their daughter’s house. She lives over at Miller Grove. But the daughter won’t let her mamma keep hidin’ from Bud. She loves her daddy, too, and feels sorry for him when he gits so upset.
Yesterday he was almos’ cryin’. I was feelin’ sorry for him, too. There’s always two sides to a spat. I think it’s cruel of Clara to hide from her husband—sometimes two or three days,” Ella said.
Toby walked over to the lunch bucket and shook it as he picked it up.
“Mamma, do you thank you packed enough dinner for us? This don’t feel very heavy.”
“I packed all of the corn bread that was left from yesterday. Did you git up last night and eat a snack? I could’ve sworn there was more bread after we finished eatin’ last night than there was this mornin’ when I went in to fix breakfast,” Ella replied.
“Maybe Daddy ate some of the bread. You know he likes to crumble it in a tumbler of milk,” Toby speculated.
“This mornin’ your daddy said he didn’t know nothin’ about how much bread was left over last night,” she said emphatically.
Suddenly from behind the settee there is a slight rustling noise and the sound of a sneeze, one of the more peculiar kind of sneezes that come from the human nostrils.
Toby stepped back quickly and looked toward the corner of the room from which the sound came. A woman in a plain cotton dress, her hair in disarray, stood up and rested her hand on the back of the settee. Ella stared in amazement at her neighbor, Clara Brown.
Clara rubbed her eyes vigorously. “I didn’t sleep too good,” she said, looking directly at Ella. “O’course, you’d know why. Your husband snores somethin’ awful.”
Clara continued as if she did not expect a response. “ So Bud was lookin’ for me yesterday, was he? He didn’t waste time—he never does. I left the house after he went back to the field. “
A bemused expression came over Clara’s face. “Was his voice shakin’ when he asked fer me? Did he tell you whre he had already looked? Maybe he looked into the cistern to see if I’d jumped in there. He’s done that before.”
Ella gestured toward the space behind the settee. “Did you lay on that hard floor all night? How could you possibly git comfortable there?”
“I come to your house while you was in the field yesterday. I found a piller on that cot in the back room and brought it out here. By the way, I enjoyed listenin’ to Fibber McGee and The Great Gildersleeve last night. I wonder if Bud had the presence of mind to listen to his programs. He was prob’ly too worried about me, “ Clara remarked.
Ella and Toby looked at each other as if they had just realized how long Clara had been inside their house.
Pointing to the bucket and the jar, Ella said, “ We’ve got more hoein’ to do today. We’re jus’ waitin’ for the Lofton girl. She’s goin’ to help us.”
Toby glanced out the window to see Bud Brown opening the gate and walking into the front yard. Turning toward Clara, he said quickly, “Your husband’s here.”
Clara brushed several locks of hair from her forehead. “He prob’ly didn’t sleep a wink last night. He wants to ask agin if you’ve seen me. If Bud Brown learned a lesson from this, I’ll be surprised.”
Smoothing the sides of her dress, she walked out the front door.
“You must have seen Eva walkin’ behind Bud Brown. It’s time we got started hoein’,” Ella said, handing the jar and the bucket to Toby. Then she looked toward the settee. “I ain’t ever goin’ to bed in this house again without lookin’ behind that settee.”
Toby shook his head from side to side. “That woman’s crazy. Thanks to her, I’m goin’ to feel hungry all afternoon.”
Robert Cowser, a resident of Tennessee, enjoys writing fiction and non-fiction set in East Texas during the Great Depression or the World War II years. Recently his works have appeared in Muscadine Lines and in Fiction/ Non-Fiction, an athology published at Texas A & M-Commerce.