Far from Ordinary
Etta walked from her farmhouse out to the hot field, carrying a quart jar filled with fresh brewed tea. It contained shards of ice chipped from a large block that sat cooling an icebox back in her kitchen. She had the glass container wrapped in a red checkered dishtowel to hold in the chill and protect it from the afternoon sun. The ice tinkled musically as she trudged her way carefully across the broken soil.
Her husband Louie strained against the leather reins when she approached, yelling out a loud “Whoa!” to the sweating mule he guided. The animal had been pulling a single blade plow all morning, and halted obediently.
Louie wrapped the reins loosely around his plow handle before removing an old straw hat. He pulled a large red handkerchief from the back pocket of a pair of tattered overalls, and wiped at his sweltering face. Then he held the rag up to his nose and blew out the dirt. He bowed his head to stare down at his shoes while he mopped at the back of his sunburned neck.
The mule stood still, swishing its long tail back and forth. The hybrid animal wore a set of blinders, and appeared to be smiling at some inner thought. Horseflies buzzed around the creature’s flanks. One lit to bite and draw blood, causing the mule’s hindquarters to jerk and quiver. The fly darted away, and then another landed while Louie crammed the sweat-soaked rag back into his pocket and set his hat back on his head.
He reached for the cold drink his wife held, handing her back the damp dishtowel. Unscrewing the lid and giving it to Etta also, he held the jar up to his mouth and began to gulp down the amber liquid. His Adams apple jerked and bobbed as he swallowed, while small beads of water ran from the cold jar to slip between his rough fingers and fall to the dusty ground. He gripped the weathered plow tightly with his left hand, keeping his eyes shut as he drank.
The mule stomped one of its back legs, chasing off another horsefly. Louie stopped momentarily to eye the old mule with suspicion before returning to his drink.
He lowered the jar after another long swig and surveyed the remaining unplowed field, and then with a sigh he finished off the last of the cold sweetened tea. When he was done he poured out the scant ice that remained and returned the empty container wordlessly to his wife. He then carefully unwound the reins from the plow handle, and using both of his weathered hands, snapped the leather sharply against the mule’s back one time.
A harsh “Get up!” broke the stillness and the mule set off once again, breaking the earth for planting. The woman turned around to pick her way across the fresh-turned furrows, and she went quietly home.
These people rented their farm from my father. They were poor and didn’t have much, but their screen door always stood unlatched, and fascinating things went on there that kept me coming back.
Chickens and guinea fowl ran loose in the hard-packed dirt yard. A sow and several of her noisy little piglets all rooted around in a muddy pen a distance away from the back door. A small tired shed off to one side was home to some strange bits of rusted farm machinery. On the far end of the lot someone had built a grape arbor, and in season it was loaded with delicious white grapes.
Etta was a fair cook so I ate there a lot. She had a knack for making a tasty squirrel stew, along with homemade biscuits and fresh-churned butter. Often this lean woman would pour me a glass of fresh cow’s milk over cracked ice, sweetened with sugar and vanilla. The ingredients helped mask the taste of bitter weed that her cow sometimes ate.
Louie seldom laughed. He never talked much either, but he tolerated me well. On some days I trailed behind him while he and the mule plowed his fields. When he planted peanuts he would regularly pause for a breather and let me step forward to the hopper. Allowing me to dip my hands in and scoop out a handful of raw seeds to eat usually made the old man smile.
During tobacco season, he let me stand beside him at the front of the burlap-lined sled and help guide the mule. At the end of one day as we headed for the barn, I stood at the rear, balancing on two wooden runners. I held on tight to the frame, enjoying the ride while he drove and cursed at his mule.
We had a full load of tobacco to deliver before dark, and as I looked down at the leaves gathered, I saw a bright green caterpillar. Before Louie could notice it, I scooped the tobacco worm up and quickly hid the thing in my pocket. I wanted it kept safe for my collection, knowing that he would certainly kill the pest.
He was a hard-working man, but he drank moonshine at times.
Early one evening Louie sat out on his back doorstep in the shade of the screened porch. A strap from his overalls had slipped off of one shoulder, and both his shirt and shoes were gone. He had been drinking heavily all day, and by now was so unsteady he could barely sit up without falling over. His wife and three children had gathered around him, and they were all taunting him for some reason. I had just walked into the yard, so I stopped some distance away and watched to see what was going on.
Louie had a double-barreled shotgun placed between his legs, and the barrel pointed up under his chin. He sat and rocked from side to side while I stood still, and then I looked on in disbelief as he reached down by his knees and started fumbling for the trigger.
He never wore false teeth while drunk. His stubble-covered jaw started to work up and down like he wanted to speak, but no sound came from his lips. The family crowded in closer.
His eyes intently followed the actions of those uncooperative fingers. They each played along the stock, patting and searching about in vain. His children stood by and looked on, but had stopped speaking. Then Etta bent over and screamed in his ear,
“Go ahead, Louie. Pull it. Pull the gol’damn trigger!”
I turned around then and ran home, fearful that he would.
But the next day I saw Louie back out in the field, silently guiding his mule again.