by C.K. North
Colton Rhodes finished the damned hole. It wasn’t a work of art, but it was a job done. He took the shovel back to the little white shed joined to a chain link dog pen and spied his granddad’s black Chevy coming up the road. It rolled up the cracked drive, braking in front of the brick rambler. The eight-year-old tossed the shovel into the shed and rushed over to say hello.
“Whatcha planting, Colt?” Pap asked, easing out of the cab and motioning to the mound of tan clay on the grass.
“This girl at my school says yella roses are her favorite. I’m fixin’ to bring her a whole bouquet before the school year ends.”
Pap chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well son, September ain’t usually the time to get something in the ground…”
“Oh Marshall, be nice!” The passenger door creaked open and Grandmaw stepped out. She walked up to Colton, pulling him to her hip in a sideways hug. “I’m sure she’ll love ‘em, sweetie.”
Pap shook his head. “Where’s your brother at?”
“Feedin’ the cows.”
The three looked across the yard towards a lumpy five acres marked off by white metal stakes with red tips strung with electric wire and watched the skinny fifteen-year-old exit a cedar barn with an empty feed bucket at his side. Jeffrey Rhodes looked up, waved, and made his way over.
Pap hollered across the yard, “You ready to get to it? We’re starting awful late.”
Jeffrey joined them at the driveway, beating feed dust off his pants.
“Yes sir. We’re ready.”
“How’s your dad?” Grandmaw asked.
“Still laid up. The painkillers ain’t doing much.”
She nodded. “Well I’ll tend to him and y’all focus on the corn.”
A week ago, Jeffrey and Colton’s dad had an accident at work. Mumbling about his back was the only detail he gave the boys. His crop of yellow corn had been picked but needed shucking, so he’d called Pap to help his sons get it done.
Jeffrey, Colton, and their granddad sat the concrete porch with twenty bushel baskets crowding their feet, covering the steps, and sprawling onto the yard. The boys went to work yanking the cobs free and flinging the torn husks into a wheelbarrow to feed to the cows.
They weren’t one basket in before the sweet corn called out an army of mosquitoes. The insects swarmed—sticking and moving—on their arms, legs, and necks. Before long, Colton found himself slapping more than he was shucking.
The three kept at it while the light of the day got small. Corn silk covered their knees and the tops of their boots. The window to the kitchen creaked open and Grandmaw hollered over a holly bush, “Marshall, why don’t you bring those boys in for supper?”
Colton set his corn down when Pap replied, “No Mama, we’re going to stay out here and keep at it. We still got a ways to go.”
Grandmaw’s face clouded. The window creaked back down.
Colton slapped his shin. He missed and the mosquito zipped away. Flustered, he looked at his granddad, who shucked away, unaffected by the bugs.
“Pap, you ain’t getting bothered by these skeeters?”
The old man kept shucking, grunting as he said, “nope. They don’t want me.”
“Cause I got vinegar in my blood. Good and sour. They only want sweet blood like you got.”
Colton thought on this, smacking his ankle. “I tasted my blood once. It didn’t taste sweet to me.”
“Does to them,” chimed Jeffrey.
“How do you get vinegar in your blood, Pap?”
“I’m working now, ain’t I?”
Granddad grunted a laugh. “This ain’t work.”
The screen door swung open behind them, banging against a bushel basket as Grandmaw slid out, holding a large white plate stacked with sandwiches— a thick slice of fresh tomato between two pieces of white bread.
“Brought y’all a little snack.” She stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the remaining bushels. “Looks like it’s coming along.”
The sun set and the boys shucked in the dark, working under the dingy glow of the bug-crusted porch light. Jeffrey finished his last bushel, ripping his final corn out hard, like he was mad at it.
Colton was the last to be done and his forearms ached and his tummy rumbled and he was every bit ready to call it quits. Pap groaned, pushing his rear end off his bucket, stretching his taut limbs, peering into the distance.
“Y’all come with me.” He bent down and grabbed a basket of freshly-shucked corn which whacked at his side as he wandered into the blackness.
They followed him to a divot in the yard filled with sand and river pebbles that was intended to be used as a fire-pit, and instead became a place where the dogs pissed. The old man pulled the moldy tarp off the mound of firewood and began tossing logs into the sand. Jeffrey bent down and arranged them in a tent shape.
“Colton, run inside and get some matches.”
When Colt returned three thick stumps had been placed in the sand. Pap got the fire going and as the flames licked up the logs, the old man twisted a Y-shaped twig at the edge of the fire. He worked in another one and placed an ear of corn on the sticks, balancing it above the glowing wood.
“Y’all go find some branches like this and do what I’m doing. We’ll have some corn for supper.”
The front door opened and Grandmaw’s perm was silhouetted in the rectangle of light. She stomped down the steps and marched into the yard and up to the fire.
“What are you doing, Marshall? These boys need a proper supper and to get to bed.”
Colton turned into a statue on his stump, sitting silent and wide eyed, waiting for his granddad to lash back. But the old man leaned forward, rotated his ear of corn, and calmly said, “Mama, we’re doing just fine. We got food right here.”
“This ain’t enough. These boys need more than this.”
“I think this is exactly what they need.”
Grandmaw looked at Jeffrey and Colton, “You two come on in now, and I’ll fix you something.”
Colton met his grandmother’s stare with big, pleading eyes that said, ‘yes, please take me inside. I want your stuffed peppers.’
But Jeffrey said, “We’re okay Grandmaw. Can we stay out a bit longer?”
She huffed, turned on a heel and marched back to the house. Colton watched her swat a mosquito on her arm when she got under the porch light.
Pap pulled his corn from the smoke, picked it clean, and tossed the cob into the fire. It sparkled momentarily before the flames turned it black like an old curse come to fruition. He set another ear on his sticks to cook.
The smell of the woodsmoke called to Colton like a memory from a past life. He was enchanted by the September night; the chill in the air, the hoot of the owl, the vibrating cicadas, the blanket of stars in the plum-colored sky. He took a bite of the charred corn and asked his granddad, “was this what supper was like when you were growing up?”
The old man shrugged, chewing. “Well, we ate a lot of corn in the fall. In the winter, it was mostly potatoes. It would get miserable cold on our walks to school, and my Mama would cook us each a baked potato that we would keep in our pockets and use to keep our hands warm. We kept ‘em in our pockets all morning and when it came lunchtime that’s what we ate.”
The eight-year-old repeated, “All you had for lunch was a potato?”
“Yes sir.” The fire reflected in the old man’s eyes. “Hell there were days we didn’t have a thing to eat. My Daddy worked a nearby farm and they gave him a dollar a day but it wasn’t enough to keep all twelve of us fed. After work, Daddy would go out and hunt and try and get something before it went dark. Deer, rabbit, squirrel, possum. Sometimes he’d ask me along. But most nights he wouldn’t come home til morning, empty handed, sometimes drunk. Then he’d be off again to work.”
“How come you didn’t starve?”
The old man blinked in the firelight, unfazed by the eight-year-old’s bluntness. “Well, on the days when there was nothing to eat, Mama would chop up some wild carrots that grew along the crick. She’d toss ‘em in a pot of boiling dandelions, steaming up a soup that’d be weak and bitter and didn’t satisfy worth a damn, but it kept us going.”
Jeffrey leaned forward, elbows on his knees, squeezing and twisting his knuckles, watching the flames. Colton sniffed dryly, eyes on his boots.
Pap rubbed his nose and coughed himself out of the memory. “It was tough, boys. I would do whatever it takes to never be so poor again.”
The three sat a while, chewing and listening to the wood pop and the hoot owl moan.
A tick before 10:30 p.m., Grandmaw’s head appeared in the front door again. This time the rectangle of light silhouetted large curlers in her hair, making her outline look otherworldly and alien. But there was nothing foreign about the sharp tone in her voice when she called out. “You get those boys to bed, Marshall Rhodes!”
“We’ll be in soon.” Pap answered.
The screen door shut with a smack.
Four ears were all that remained at the bottom of the bushel basket. Bellies full, fire warm, they lay down in the grass and watched the stars. Colt rested his head on Pap’s arm and the old man continued to fill their ears with story after story until the boys fell asleep.
They woke before daybreak, itchy and chilly, and trudged across the grass in the gray dawn.
“Don’t be loud now.” Pap whispered. “I’ll get the coffee going and we’ll see if Mama will make us some breakfast.”
He planted a hand on Colton’s boney shoulder.
“Yella roses, huh?”
“Yeah. She said they're her favorite.”
Pap pulled out his billfold and slid a ten dollar bill into Colt’s hand.
“After breakfast you and me are gonna fill in that hole before your daddy sees it. Then we’ll take a ride into town and get your girl some flowers.”