The Tomato Farm

Gnats clustered in noiseless aureoles about Jeannie’s father’s head as he dipped water from the barrel on the back of the flatbed truck and drank it in a tin cup.

His wife Florence came up to the truck for water too.  Her hair was wrapped in a white bandanna, a gorged knot in front with its ends stuck out like rabbit ears.  “How many crates we got?” she said.

“Thirty,” Jerome said.

Florence said, “I picked some green ones.  Clarabelle wants to fry some up.”

A drop of sweat rolled down the slight hump in her nose, grew full at the tip of its descent, and was lost in the clods of dirt in the field.

Jeannie looked up at her mother’s neck, bright red with small white dots, speckled by the sun.  A roll of whiter flesh folded out from under her mother’s blouse where the side panels were tied at the midriff in a knot like the one in the bandanna.

Florence said, “Morning glories choked off ten, eleven vines by the side fence.”

“Get the kids over there with hoes,” Jerome said.

“I’m sending this one in for a while.  Her head hurts from the sun.”

“Kids sure ain’t made like they used to,” Jerome said.   He sounded mad but then winked at Jeannie.  He also believed that too much washing made you weak and snuff kept cavities from forming in your teeth.

He wiped an arm upward over his face to douse the sweat and then walked back out in the field with long strides, his white painter’s overalls folding in sharp smiles behind the knees.  The smell was overwhelming in the closet where Jerome looped the straps of his overalls on a nail at night, almost as strong as the few crates of garlic kept in the hot garage until they could be brought to town.

Florence yelled to their son, who was out in the field still picking.  He was ten, to Jeannie’s eight.  When he came and Florence told him he could take a rest for a while, he and Jeannie charged across the few dried, unplanted furrows, their ankles twisting in their sockless shoes.  The piece of cardboard in Jeannie’s right shoe slipped from its position, letting in a puncture vine seed with its horny shell.  She had to stop and reposition the piece and try to hold it in place with her toes.  Then she was up and running, singing a song she liked from the radio:  “Shoo-fly pie and apple-pound dowdy/Makes your eyes light up and your tummy say ‘Howdy!” giggling from the heat and the relief and the senseless words.

In their room, Vernon got out his airplane-model kit.  Jeannie didn’t have anything to play with, and it was way too hot to stay besides.  Their room was just the wallpapered attic.  The ceiling sloped too much for an adult to stand up fully.

She went out to the front porch and lay down on the army cot.  Her head hurt pretty bad, so she tried to sleep.  She drifted off thinking of Shep, the German Shepherd that came with the farm when Jerome and Florence bought it last year, saw the dog catching clods of dirt tossed in the air, how he’d whirl in a dusty-brown leap, a happy smile on his rubbery mouth.

*

When Jerome arrived home from the Pacific where he served as a cook in the Merchant Marine, he sought something else to do for a living than to hang wallpaper in other people’s houses.  A man in a bar told him about a tomato farm that was up for sale outside the small town of Lodi, forty minutes from Sacramento.  Three-fifty an acre was just too good a deal to pass up.  The place came with a cow and a clutch of chickens, too.

The house had never been finished.  Each family that moved in added a room or framed one without completing it, knocking out a wall here, a doorway there, until it looked like the confused mouth of an old man.  Gaps in the floorboards admitted spiders and silverfish, but as time went by Jerome nailed tin can lids over the larger knotholes, and laid down throw rugs so you didn’t notice it wasn’t a perfect floor.

The kids discovered a triangular peephole at the top of the stairwell that led to their room.  They could peer into their parents’ bedroom and, on the other side of the stairs, into the kitchen.  One time they saw their Uncle Andrew at the table, crying.  Jerome had brought him from the jail at Stockton.  Andrew promised he wouldn’t get so drunk next time.  Jeannie thought her uncle looked like the drawing of Ichabod Crane in the book at school, gangly and axe-faced, with a prominent Adam’s apple.  His full name was Andrew Johnson Pelke.  Jerome and Andrew had another brother they didn’t get along with, named George Washington Pelke.  They had a cousin named Jude, short for Julius Caesar.

Sometimes Jeannie would creep out of bed and peer through the hole that looked into the kitchen, to see her mother yelling at her daddy.  Once she saw her hit him with her hand.  She was short, so she had to lunge at him.  He just stood there grinning, saying something she couldn’t hear.  A little while later, he slammed out the door.  Jeannie jumped back into bed then, hoping her mom wouldn’t come and wake them up and yell at them too.  She could, when she was drinking.

One night of a bad argument, Jeannie and Vernon gazed out at the stars from the small window in the attic-bedroom and planned their escape.  They talked of tying blankets on their scooters, loaded with a few things they’d need, and just running away.  Might have to steal a few things from stores, though.  Jeannie said no to that, but her brother was older so of course knew best.  He said sometimes you do what you have to do.

Jeannie did cry a lot when things got loud.  One time she was peeking through the hole to the bedroom during an argument and saw her mother ripping pictures out of the family album and then packing her clothes, throwing some on the floor out of the closet, blobs of shoulder-padded dresses and blouses on the floor.  When Jeannie went back to bed she was still sniffling, so much so that her brother had to threaten to tell their father she was a dirty German if she didn’t shut up.  Vernon had caught her scratching a swastika in the sheetrock on the back porch with the sharp end of her bobby-pin, so he could just go point it out to their parents.

Vernon told her she asked too many questions about stupid things, such as why their parents’ friend, Clarabelle, pulled up her sweater and took out a pudgy breast in front of a bunch of men who were sitting in the kitchen.  Their mother was out at the pump-house getting some fruit she put up in Mason jars.  There were a lot of other things Jeannie didn’t understand, like why all the girls in school wore dresses and not overalls, and how come you couldn’t eat cherries with milk.

Jeannie knew her brother was proud of her sometimes.  Like the day she got the snotty-nosed kid some kids at school called Fat Pat down in the dirt and rubbed his wrists till he said “I give” three times.  His mother said the other kids picked on him because he had no toes.  She couldn’t help it if it was so cold in Seattle when her Al was working in the shipyard they had no heat but from the fireplace.  The blanket in the bassinet caught fire from a spark and burned off his toes.  His mother just knew kids at school didn’t like him because he had no toes, and they should just be thankful they have toes and don’t have to walk like a goose.  She went through the whole story again one time when she was helping to fix a joint-family meal, and she cried in the potatoes as she was mashing, saying, “My poor Pat, my poor Pat.”  That wasn’t the reason Jeannie didn’t like her son, that thing about the no toes.  It was that he’d pinch her or poke her or even trip her when nobody saw.

*

When Jeannie awoke from her nap on the cot, she felt much better.  She looked for her brother and saw he was out in the field again.

Behind the house, her grandfather was irrigating the walnut trees.  Her mother’s father, he came to live with the family sometime in the last year, but to Jeannie it was as if he had always been there.  It just seemed there were always adults, and their world and the kids’ worlds barely met.  Her grandpa slept on the back porch.  It wasn’t screened in like the front porch; it had walls.  His French-Alsatian features were coarse, and his black hair streaked with white.  Jeannie kept out of his way while he was making water flow into the ditches.  She went to the part of the main ditch that was closest to the house and slapped the sides of it to make the mud specks fly.  Done with that, she wiped her hands on a patch of weeds and went to sit in the barn.

There she removed bits of crust from her overalls pocket left over from her peanut butter sandwich.  She turned a milk bucket over for something to sit on while waiting for the mice to creep out.  She hoped she wouldn’t get a bloody nose, the way she did the last time, sitting in the heat.  That time, she had put the bucket on an old square of plywood.  A shaft of light lit a portion a foot away from where her head was positioned, so she quickly noticed when the big red drops splatted beneath her.  She paused with interest in their tiny pinking-shear edges, before tilting her head back, closing the nostrils with her fingers, and making her way to the house where she could put a cold washrag to her nose, lean back, and tolerate the tinny taste of blood in her mouth.

This day in the barn, before too long a wait, two mice sneaked out from the shadows, their legs bent low for fast escape.  Just when they took a few nibbles of crust, Jeannie stamped her feet and yelled.  That was her mouse game.  The rodents ran in terror back to their nests.  But even before the bloody-nose day, she had begun to feel sorry for the mice, so it wasn’t so much fun.  She got up, put the bucket back, and vaguely knew she wouldn’t come there anymore to do that.

After dinner, the family sat around a table under a light bulb and sorted small rocks from piles of red beans scooped from a gunnysack brought by a neighbor.  The beans shone like the bugs that clung to the outside screen door, June bugs, is what her parents called them, but she didn’t like that name because that was her middle name:  Jeannie June Pelke.

*

One night in bed Jeannie and her brother heard their parents say that they would have to slaughter the calf.  Andrew would do it in the morning because he had to go into town later and look for a job.  Jeannie used to pretend she was the calf, following behind Vernon with her eyes closed the way the blind calf followed another cow through the brush, nuzzling its rump.  She, of course, was very careful not to touch her brother.

She and Vernon sat on the corral rail near the barn the next morning to watch the slaughter.  Uncle Andrew led the calf into the corral.  Its coloring was as dark as what it must be able to see.  Without the cow to guide it, the calf moved uneasily around the cramped corral.  Andrew was in the corral, had a rock ready, a big one, the size of one of his feet.  From about four feet away he threw it.  The rock struck the calf on the shoulder, and the calf bawled and ran around the corral, bumping into the posts and rails.

Stringy blonde hair blew in Jeannie’s eyes, which she did not bother to brush back as she watched her uncle pick up the rock again and throw it at the calf, the rock thudding against its side.  The calf ran wildly around the corral now, terror slobbering out of its mouth, its white, sightless eyes rolling to reveal bright pink cornea at the rim.  Jeannie fell out of the corral, scraping her ankles.  Straw and dust flew as the calf charged past her, bawling, “Mww-a-a.”

“Stop it!” she cried.  She yelled it over and over, but the torture did not end.  Running toward the sound of the green John Deere where her father was plowing a new plot east of the house, she yelled, “Daddy!  Daddy!” the veins standing out in her neck.  “Uncle Andrew’s killing the calf with a rock, Uncle Andrew’s killing the calf with a rock!”

Jerome shut off the tractor and stalked to the house.  He came out of the peeling doorframe with a .22 rifle, walked to the corral, aimed, and fired.  The calf dropped to its knees, then flopped over on its side.  Flies gathered in seconds.  Jeannie was still sniffling, but she stayed.

The calf was gutted and skinned, the two men working together soundlessly except for the sluicey sound of the knives.  When they were finished, they lifted the carcass into a wheelbarrow, and then Andrew dug a shallow hole using a fold-up army spade and the manure hoe.  He put the head in there and scraped dirt in, then covered the hide and entrails with a piece of plywood he got from the side of the barn while Jeannie’s father wheeled the meat to the house.

Later on, the kids uncovered the mess to see the progress of disintegration.  More than once they returned to the disinterred head to explore, with the cool objectivity of vivisectionists, the nasal and ear passages, using sticks.  Finally, they brought twine and used the army shovel to dig a different hole for the calf’s head near some bushes that looked pretty, with their slight sprays of flowers in early bloom.  Vernon snapped off two dead limbs from a laurel tree, tied them at right angles, and stuck the makeshift cross in the ground where the calf’s skull was interred.

Jeannie did not hold animosity toward her uncle for killing the calf.  He wasn’t as bright as her daddy, though she might not have put it in those words.

He saved her one time from her mother’s temper.  Her mother was drunk and mad about something, and threw hot rabbit out of the frying pan using a fork, hurling it toward Jeannie while she was setting the table.  The piece skidded across the table and splattered in greasy marbles all over the new wallpaper Jerome had put up.  Another piece was about to fly through the air, but Uncle Andrew came into the room and put his hand on her mother’s wrist.

Months after, whenever Jeannie’s eyes lit on the greasy spots, it made her stomach twist in sympathy for her dad.  And the fact that Uncle Andrew blocked another missile made Jeannie think she would be grateful to him even if he threw a hundred rocks at blind calves.  Add to it the time he took a butcher knife away from her mother when she was going to slap Jeannie with the flat of it for not finding her own coat.  It was a green coat, and it should have been in the shed out behind beside the house, but Jeannie could not, could not, find it.  Her mother said she was just being a smart aleck.  After her uncle saved her that second time, she figured he could pretty much do anything to her, even rub her behind, and she wouldn’t tell.  But he only did that once, and he went away one day and never came back, and soon he was only a name she had heard once, almost not even real.

*

One night while the kids were waiting in the car outside a bar in town, Vernon told Jeannie their grandpa was dead.

“He is not,” Jeannie said.

“Oh, yes, he is,” her brother said.

“Is not.  Stop that.”

“Mom told Auntie Alice out in the yard this morning.  Grandpa turned purple in the face and died.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You’ll see.”  His bare feet turned outward on the top of the car seat in front of him.  He was slouched down in the seat, curling his hair with one finger.  Vernon was sullen and continuously grumpy.  His black hair and brown eyes matched the nickname their mother gave him:  “Grandpa,” old and un-shining.

The kids had not known their father’s father.  Now, if what Vernon said were true, their mother’s father was gone as well.  He had existed in his own foreign world of artichoke plants at the side of the house, digging the ground carefully and watching the barbarous plants grow.  Under his bed he kept a box of yellowed letters and photos of himself and his short fat wife, who’d borne eleven children and died at fifty-six because she had cancer and didn’t want to live with a bag on her side.

From the car, Jeannie could see her mother through the windows of the tavern, a man laughing beside her.  The faceless head of another man bobbed like the mercury-headed bird with a feather above his eye that sat on the kitchen sill at home and dipped its head for water from a cup if you slightly tapped its head.  The bird sat next to a blue plastic statue of a girl with lettering underneath her pregnant belly that read, “Kilroy was here.”

Wavering colors from the jukebox spread over the hard-packed ground in front of the open doorway of the bar.  Jerome came out with two bottles of Nesbitt’s Orange.  The bottles were warm, but the kids drank them and argued about this and that, and finally went to sleep in the back seat with their feet in each other’s faces.

*

Still another day hot enough to bubble road tar, Vernon and Jeannie pushed scooters over tire impressions already laid in the road.  The kids were coming from Mr. Owens’ house.  He was selling his extra milk.  The Pelke’s cow had gone dry.

Alongside the road, in the fields filled with golden poppies, jackrabbits cowered rock-like until the kids came within unbearable proximity, and then the rabbits bounced over nodding poppy heads.  Kildeer repeated their own names, and red-winged blackbirds arrowed silently in the dry sky.  Bound with wire wrapped around the long steering posts of the scooters, the glass quart-jars of milk tinkled.

Jeannie panted to her brother, “You’re going too fast.  Wait up.”  He looked back and slowed.  “I want to ask you something,” she said.

“So ask.”

“Why do Mom and Dad drink beer so much, you think?”

“I don’t know,” Vernon said.

“It stinks.  Why would they drink it?”

“I tasted it.  It’s not so bad.”

“Ew-w!  How much?”

“Made me dizzy, but I liked it.”

“It makes Mom mean,” Jeannie said.  “Like when she made us eat those pig things when we went to visit the Ziesers.  I asked if I could not eat them, and she said no and pulled my hair.  I heard the pigs squealing, and I just couldn’t.  I sneaked them off my plate and gave them to their dog when Mommy wasn’t looking.”

“I hit her,” Vernon said.

Jeannie frowned.  He surged past her quickly on the scooter.  She pushed wildly to catch up to him and said, “You hit her, really?”

“Yeah.”

“When?” Jeannie said defiantly.

“She whipped me with the cat-o-ten-tails.  You weren’t here.  I punched her in the stomach.”  When their mother made the whip, she liked the sound of “ten tails” instead of the usual nine.  The whip was short, had knots on the rawhide strips, and hung on the wall in the kitchen.  Other homes with kids had some with just nine.

Jeannie thought about what her brother said, looked at him with awe, and said quietly, “You did not.”

“I did too.”

Jeannie’s mind raced.  Her face burned to think of the last time she got it.  She’d wet her pants.  The floor in her parents’ room was covered in Masonite.  Her baby brother’s crib was in there too.  She was told to find his undershirt, but she couldn’t.  When her mother hit her, the drops darkened the wood like the drops of blood from her nosebleed in the barn.  It shocked her to see what was happening, her pee then snaking in a line.

She didn’t know whether she believed Vernon or not, about him hitting their mom.  He might do it.  Her mother had laughed to Auntie Alice when she came to visit that she wrestled Vernon to show him who was boss, and won.  But that was at least a year ago.  Maybe he was big enough to take the whip away now.  Might be.  He was almost eleven.

They were coming up to the front porch now, where their mother sat turning a handle on an octagonal wooden butter churn.  She was eating yellow pear-tomatoes with the other hand and reading a crime magazine at the same time that was laid at her side on a crate set on its edge.  She read a lot and liked to work crossword puzzles.  That’s how she knew to correct her husband’s speech when he’d say things like “warsh yer hands” and “crankcase earl.”  She had gone to tenth grade, while Jerome had only been to the third.

Vernon unwrapped the milk from his scooter to bring it into the house, Jeannie bringing hers along behind.  Their mother said, “You’re back, huh?”

Vern said, “Yep.”

In the kitchen, Jeannie said, “I’ll bet you never hit her,” to his back.

“What?”

“Forget it.”

Though it was true that their mother never touched the kids except to hit them, and never praised them except to compare one’s worth over the other, on Jeannie’s last birthday a remarkable thing happened.  Her mother drove into town and stopped at the drugstore, leaving Jeannie in the car.  When she came out, she handed Jeannie a birthday card with a satin, perfumed heart on it.  Jeannie could hardly believe it.  Her mother went down the sidewalk to the grocery store, again leaving Jeannie in the car, and Jeannie sniffed and stroked the heart and felt a stirring of love for her mom.

That was the only time she felt like that, though.  When she was in first grade, Jeannie told her brother she wanted to be just like Miss Woods, her teacher.  The kids were watching for frogs in the irrigation ditch.  “Be like Miss Woods.  What do you know?”

“She has us bring things to show in front of the class.  I brought Mommy’s hankies.  The embroidered ones.  She didn’t even mind when I brought in that frog you killed with your slingshot.  I left it in the box, and put some grass in there.  It wasn’t bloody and all.”

“You moron.”

Jeannie was hurt.  She looked at him, trying to discern from his face or from what he might say next what he could mean by calling her that.  She pressed on:  “Anyway, Miss Woods, she wears dresses every day.  She marked an ‘O’ for Outstanding on my test.  I like her a lot.”

“Well, good for you,” he said, and pushed her over the side of the ditch.  But she straddled it, and it was just a little muddy anyhow, hardly any water in it.  “Yah-yah, yah-yah-yah,” she yelled, and ran away from him.

She wished she could marry her brother.  But she heard that people couldn’t do that.  He knew just about everything and the only reason he wouldn’t answer her questions is he didn’t want to show off too much.  He let her help him when he was building a tree house.  Once when they were in the tree house he gave her a cigarette he’d taken from a carton in their mother’s dresser drawer.  Jeannie didn’t inhale the smoke, just pretended.  She wondered what he was thinking about as he puffed on his and watched the smoke trail out of the tree house.  She tried to hurry up and burn down the cigarette she held, hoping her puffing didn’t sound too false.  At the finish of his, Vernon mashed the stub on a floorboard and with thumb and middle finger flicked the cigarette out the opening.  She did the same.  Then he said to her, “Pretty good, huh?”  His teeth leaned back slightly in his mouth just like their father’s.  She didn’t want to smoke again, but she felt she had a partner now in this world.

The evening had cooled down, and the kids were on the floor in the front room reading funny-books.  Their father was sitting in a chair reading one too, when Florence started yammering in the kitchen.  Jeannie turned her head that way.  Her father winked at her.  That conspiratorial movement of an eyelid filled her with warmth, like a mustard pack on her chest when she was sick.  She loved her father so much.  The only two times he whipped her with his belt Vernon got it too.  She cried but knew he wouldn’t do it unless she was really bad.  A thing that did bother her about her father was that one time, in their other house, he went away for a long time, leaving even though Jeannie had clung onto his legs and cried and begged him not to go.  But he came back, and everything was all right again.

Deep in sleep that night, the kids were awakened by their parents arguing again.  They’d been at the tavern.  The fight was about Clarabelle and their father being gone a long time when they went to the restrooms in the bar.  The kids got up and took turns looking through their spy-hole in the stairs.  Vernon went back to bed.  Jeannie stayed crouched on the stair, wiping her nose on her nightgown.

The fight got to the point that when her father said something low to her mother that Jeannie couldn’t hear, her mother jumped as if he’d slapped her.  She zipped over and began hitting him in the face and over the shoulders.  It looked kind of funny, little her to big him.

Then Jeannie saw, just as she was about to dash back to her pillow, saw her father raise his hand and hit her mother three times, hard, in the side.  Florence said “Oh,” and buckled at the knees.  Jerome picked her up and sat her on a chair.  Jeannie flew up the stairs then and went to her brother’s bed.  “Vernon,” she said.  “Vern-on!  Wake up.  Daddy hit Mommy!”

“So what?  Go to sleep.  Leave me alone.”

Jeannie was panicked.  “No, Vernon.  You don’t underst—”

“I’ll tell Dad you’re a dirty German,” he said.

“But…”

She could see his face clearly in the moonlight.  The look he gave her said he meant it.  She got into her bed and didn’t cry any more.

*

The next day a car pulled a bustle of dust up in the yard at daylight.  It was Clarabelle Jones and her husband, Leon.  Jeannie had gotten up to go to the bathroom downstairs.  It was early, much earlier than any grownups usually came.  She slipped into the living room to listen, when Leon knocked on the wooden screen.  It rebounded unevenly against the jamb.  Jerome came, hooking his straps to the bib of his overalls.  He let Leon and Clarabelle in, saying, “What happened, the town burn down?”

“Actually we….  Well, uh—” Leon said.  His wife interrupted.  “Oh Jerome,” she said, her mouth twitching in imminent hysteria.  Her hair was black as a crow’s, as she was part Indian.  Her eyes squinted so much when she smiled or cried it looked like she surely couldn’t see out at all, like the calf.

Leon took over again.  “We found Florence’s car in the blackberry bushes by Peterson’s ranch.  We was on our way for pancakes.”  He hesitated a minute to watch the expression on Jerome’s face, which remained immobile.  “We phoned the doc from Peterson’s, but she looked gone before he even got there.  She was out of the car, must’ve hit her head.”

“Oh, Jerome,” Clarabelle wailed.  “I’m so sorry.  You a widower now, with those darling kids and all.  I can’t believe it, I just can’t.”  She put her arms around him and cried as if the remorse were rightfully hers.  Jerome just stood there looking at Leon, arms stiff at his sides.

“The car’s pretty scratched up,” Leon said.  “It was on its roof, you see.  I’ll fix her up for you, though.  Don’t worry.  The least I can do.  You let us know can we do anything, all right?”  Leon moved away from the door, pulling his wife with him.  She had her hands folded in front of her stomach, her head tilted in an expression of piteous grief.  “I think a sheriff might be out,” Leon said, “later, you know.”

*

Clarabelle took care of the children the following few days.  Either there wasn’t a funeral, or Jeannie didn’t recall one in her later years.  Children wouldn’t have gone to it anyway, in her family.

The kids stayed in Clarabelle’s house a short while.  There weren’t any toys at all there.  They mostly stayed out in the yard, built little houses out of sticks, and poked into holes in the ground to see what might come out, and examined everything in the garage.  Clarabelle petted their heads and even spoke to them in baby talk.  They asked to go home a couple times every day.

Finally, she put them in the car.  In the back seat they found two comic books.  Clarabelle said they were for her grandkids.  Jeannie couldn’t imagine her grandkids.

At the farm they found Jerome stacking crates onto the flatbed from the shade of the garage, the garlic and onions in front of the tomatoes.  Jeannie and her brother went out back and sat under the walnut trees.  They watched Shep crack walnuts in his teeth and lay them in front of the paws of another smaller dog that couldn’t crack them, a dog that showed up from somewhere in the days they were gone.  Shep would then crack one for himself, lapping his slick tongue around the sides of his mouth and rolling his black eyes toward the children as if to say look what I did.

Jeannie’s brother said, “First you’re here and then you’re not here.  Like Grandpa.”

“Vernon, I got to tell you something.”

“What?”

“That night?”

“What night?”

“That night before our car went in the ditch?  Daddy hit Mommy.”

“You told me that, stupid.”

“But it went ‘thud’, ‘thud’, ‘thud’, like the rock hitting the calf.  You know, when Uncle Andrew—”

“Jeannie,” he said, shaking his head as if to convey his utter helplessness in ever getting things through her dumb noggin, “it doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter.  Can’t you understand that?  None of that stuff that went on before Mom died matters now.”

She glanced down, ashamed and also afraid, but spoke again.  “What I didn’t tell you was, Daddy had an ice-pick in his hand when he hit her.”  She stopped and waited, her muscles taut.  When her brother didn’t sock her or even say anything, just looked into her face as if she were nuts, she went on.  “Daddy had this ice-pick in his hand.  It went ‘thud’, ‘thud,’ ‘thud,’ and it looked like he was pulling red strings out of her side.  Then Mommy said, ‘ugh!’ and fell down.”

He made her say it again.  The whole thing.  His eyes were fierce as a snake’s, all slitty, or like Clarabelle’s.  Then he stood up.  Jeannie stood up too, getting ready to run.

“Listen, and you listen good,” Vernon said.  “Don’t be saying that.  Not to me or nobody else.  Do you hear me?”  He took her by her shoulders.  He was speaking quietly, like her father did most of the time—nice, not mad.  “If you ever say that again, you won’t have a brother no more.”

“How can I not have a brother?  You are my brother.”

“I’m saying, if you ever tell anyone that, anybody at all, I won’t be your brother.  You’ll be on your own.  Nobody will talk to you.”

“I won’t say it.  I promise.”

“I’ll tell Daddy you’re a German for sure, you ever say that again, to anybody.”

“Please don’t.  I won’t say what I saw, ever.”

“You didn’t see it.  You only think you did.”

“Okay, Vernon.  I guess I made it up.”

“That’s right.  Now let’s go help Dad.”

On the way, Jeannie said, “Vernon?  I want to ask you something else.”

He turned and glared at her, but she proceeded.

“How come Clarabelle has those real red cheeks?  Is that ’cause she’s Indian or ’cause of rouge?”

“I don’t know.  I guess so.”

“Do you wish you were an Indian?”

“Yeah.  No.  I don’t wish I was a Indian.  What a stoopnagle you are sometimes, Jeannie, what you come up with.”

“I just wonder what it feels like to be a Indian,” she said.

The loose sole of her left shoe slapped and slapped in rhythm as they walked side by side to their father’s truck.  “Like in the old days,” Jeannie said.

 

 

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