Cotton-Eyed Joe

Fiction
Charles D. Phillips


I spent week after week clearing my land in west Texas. Hour piled on hour in an avalanche of brain-stunning heat, gnarled cedars, thorny mesquites, chainsaws, pickaxes, and long-handled shovels. My four-wheel-drive pickup never left first gear. Its engine growled, and then it howled with all its wheels spinning as we fought for possession of stumps welded to the dry ground.

Sunburned shoulders, crackling knees, and tortured muscles incessantly reminded me this was work for younger men or for men with bodies stripped and then rebuilt strand on hard strand by years of killing heat and unending labor. The once-sharp lines of my own body were now blurred. Decades of wielding little more than a keyboard and wrestling with nothing more substantial than recalcitrant software had taken their toll.

Cutting, then digging, then cutting again. A layer of caliche dust coated my naked upper body. My belly became a pale canvas with pink undertones. This canvas was punctuated with streaks of pink or red, where streamlets of sweat vanquished, for at least a moment, the clinging dust. Those salty streaks set ablaze dozens of shallow scratches bestowed by determined cedar branches or mesquite thorns.

Finally, I looped thick chain around the last stump. I hooked it ’round the Ford’s hitch, and I tore that last piece of scrub cedar free from the stingy dirt. It was time for kerosene, soaked rags, and a lighter. I spun burning rags through the hot air. They landed in the ragged pile of stumps, limbs, and roots that resembled an enormous nest of injured spiders. As the pile burned, waves of heat blistered and distorted the air.

I closed my eyes as hot wind whipped wood smoke across my face. Olfactory cells are the brain’s outriders, probing the environment for faint hints of threats or pleasure. They encounter scents and send back their messages. The cells where memories of that scent sleep then begin to flicker to life.

For a moment, I was back in Ohio. Stone chimneys were emptying into slate skies. I could almost hear my lugged boots squeak on snow too dry to pack. Beyond the bare trees, a dark river moved swiftly beneath its icy skin. I removed my sweaty gloves and leaned against my shovel, while my breath steamed for a moment in wintry air.

Then, I was standing again on the land my great-grandfather cleared. I was back in the place where my father’s father and his family fed chickens, stole their eggs, and fattened penned hogs. Toward the end of autumn, they’d string the hogs up by their hind legs, slit their throats, bleed and butcher them. They’d hang the meat in the smokehouse to cure over smoldering fires, until it was ready to feed them through the coming winter.

Here, my father chased frantic chickens when the preacher was expected for a meal. That preacher, according to Daddy, always brought his worn Bible and a blessing that lasted so long you feared the iced tea would grow warm while the fried chicken got cold. He also brought an appetite as large as his prayers were long.

This land hibernated, waiting for an aging great-grandson to reappear. As the land awaited my return, it knew the hardened hands of sharecroppers and renters. It repaid their toil with drought, boll weevils, small shares, and large debts. Usually, the battle ended one night with the ‘cropper filling his rusted pickup with ragged children and busted furniture. He would roll the pickup downhill to the main road before starting its faltering engine and turning on its lights. He and his family would then follow those two cones of light through the darkness toward another shotgun shack on another hardscrabble plot waiting to bruise him and his just as badly.

After the land was cleared of brush, I spent the next months building my cabin. I felt at times as if I was building one of those European cathedrals that demanded decades for completion. The cabin rose through a combination of sweat and determination that offset a lack of experience. I learned again the enduring truth in those wise words—measure once, cut twice; measure twice, cut once.

In the cleared fields, I burned back the remaining coastal Bermuda grass three times. After I’d eradicated all vestiges of this land’s twisted past, I planted the native buffalo grass it sustained for centuries before my family forced it to become something it was never meant to be. White-tailed deer and feral hogs cropped that hardy grass and drank from my year-round creek and from its natural pools. Those pools were dug inch on inch by drop after drop of water eating away for decades at exposed limestone.

I waited for the wild turkeys to return, hoping my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners would evolve into something more than locally-cured ham, cornbread dressing, snap beans, and heirloom tomatoes. I spent most of my evenings on the porch of my cabin watching the varied colors of the sun as it set day after day just beyond the trees.

I played my harmonicas a good bit, still do. I played old hymns like “Just As I am,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling.” Every time I play “Jesus is Calling” I see Daddy sitting next to me sweating, while the heat of the day lingered on into the evening and throughout that revival tent. Momma is fanning my little sister and herself with our copy of the evening’s program, while a red-faced preacher from some faraway place like Dallas is standing there in his long-sleeved shirt and bowtie begging us to come forward and give ourselves to Jesus. I went up once. I thought that was what a good boy did, and my family would be proud. The look that Daddy gave me when I came back to sit beside him made that my one and only time.

Those hymns were the music Daddy played on his harmonica some evenings for Momma and us kids on the porch. He usually played when he had come back from old man Krueger’s place on Comanche Hill with a Mason jar full of honey for Momma to cook with and some cone for us kids. To everyone in the county Krueger was simply “The Bee Man.”

He would also come back with a Mason jar filled with the shine the old man’s boys cooked in a hollow farther up the hill. I heard that the older one, Parson, would watch the cooker. The younger son, Joe Walter, would sit with a 12-gauge across his lap, smoke his hand-rolls, slowly sip shine, and keep an eye on the trail coming up toward their still. Prohibition was over in the US, but not in our part of Texas. These counties had too many Watchtower-toting Jehovah’s Witnesses, snake-handlin’ Pentecostals, foot-washing Baptists, and tight-collared Scots-Irish Campbellites to go “wet.”

I knew Daddy as a man who met both pleasure and pain with the same unchanging expression and demeanor. My Momma would say, “Everette, your sister, Golda Mae, is getting married to the Jones boy. Lord, me and the whole county thought she’d never find a husband,” Daddy would say, “Okay, guess we need to find ’em some kinda present.” Momma would say, “Everette, Junior just run over our sow with the tractor and kilt it.” Daddy would say, “Okay, guess I need to get my butcherin’ knives and my whuppin’ belt.”

Daddy was a farmer and the son of a farmer. He had a family, and he had to keep moving through drought, storms, boll weevils, grasshoppers, busted tractors, and broken down trucks. The old maps didn’t call this part of west Texas the southern tip of the Great American Desert for no reason. Despair was always just a step away from anyone trying to support a family by farming this land. My Daddy fought off that despair by ratcheting down his emotions so that his entire emotional range could be measured by the distance from “Okay” to “Okay.”

When he played his harmonica alone in the barn after he’d visited The Bee Man’s boys was the only time Daddy’s heart seemed to break through its bindings. On those nights, my brother and I would sneak out our bedroom window. We’d run across the yard from piece of junk to bale of hay, like those soldier heroes we saw at the movies in town, until we reached the barn. Then, we’d listen through cracks and holes in the barn walls to Daddy play blues harp and sing.

He talked so little, it amazed us both that he had a fine singing voice he could fill with emotion. Later, I learned that when Daddy was younger he played harp in the juke joints, barrelhouses, and blind pigs that dotted this county and the counties around it. Daddy must’ve been a skinny, teenage white boy tolerated because of his smokin’ harp. He would’ve had to play his wailing cross harp with the same men who worked for Granddaddy and the same women who washed him and Granddaddy’s underwear.

In our barn, Daddy sang and played his old songs. Some I’ve found and now play myself. He did Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Abilene” and “Midnight Special,” a song Lead Belly convinced some visiting white boys was his own when they recorded him in Angola Prison. He did a couple of Memphis Minnie tunes. He did “Selling My Pork Chops,” which my brother and I thought was really about pork chops. The pleasure and humor in his voice as he sang “Pork Chops” was something I’d never heard before.

He also did “You Ain’t Done Nothin’ To Me.” The deep emotion in his voice when he sang Minnie’s line, “You may cock your pistol in my face, but you ain’t done nothin’ to me” filled that barn. For me, that song was his personal anthem. To this day, I am not sure exactly what it meant to him. Every time I pick up a harp, I wish I could ask him. Other songs I don’t remember at all or have never heard again.

I remember being amazed at discovering a part of my father completely hidden from the rest of the world and that I barely understood. What I learned best from him, because it was what I saw the most, was the necessity of building a wall around myself. It took me thirty years, assisted by the love and patience of an extraordinary woman, to find the part of myself that matched the part of Daddy I saw in his barn and to celebrate it in a way he never could. He reserved it for those nights in his barn with a Mason jar, his harps, and an audience that he thought consisted only of a mule, a couple of milk cows, and his blue tick hound.

In my cabin, I typed my stories about the Texas of my past on an old, black Underwood typewriter. I found that I couldn’t write about this place, my people, or those times, while I stared at liquid crystal poured into a slender matrix where it waited to be activated by jolts of energy from indifferent electrodes manufactured in South Asia.

My stories were about men whose burnt skin formed steely barriers. When the mule died, my great-grandfather harnessed up and pulled the plow through his hard fields. His children ran ahead of him pitching rocks out of his way, while his wife grasped the plow’s handles, pushing and pulling to keep the blade deep and the furrow straight. At night, Great-Grandmomma applied poultices where the harness had worn bloody grooves in her husband’s shoulders.

When a baby died, my grandfather built the coffin himself, while the midwife washed the small, pale body and sent one of the neighbor’s older boys for the preacher. Daddy told me that for the next few weeks, my grandfather worked from before dawn until after dusk, ate a cold meal while standing next to the sink, and fell into bed to sleep. Then, unannounced, one day Granddaddy went to town, returning with penny candy for the children and a bolt of cloth for his wife. That evening the family ate together, and something like life returned to their home.

I wrote that these men were never defeated by this hard land. I wrote about how these men bent the land to their will to feed and shelter their families and about how it bent them. They loved their wives while never giving themselves up to the thrill of simple romance or to thudding lust. They knew for certain that part of themselves must remain forever beyond the reach of the world around them, if they and theirs were to survive. I wrote that they died assured they had in some way made the world they left a better place than the world they entered. I don’t know if what I wrote was true for them, but I knew I hoped it would be true for me.

On some days, after writing, I continued ripping out the remains of rotting posts and rusted barbed wire from cross-fencing meant to protect crops of cotton and corn that grew well for many years, then grew poorly, and then didn’t grow at all. Other days I put in my vegetable garden. I sometimes cooled off by showering in the cool, hard water from my shallow well and then drinking the sweet water from barrels placed beneath the gutters of my cabin’s new tin roof.

My wife, Rachel, loved the sound of rain on a tin roof. It reminded her of days in a tin-roofed mountain cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee where her family spent what she remembered as the glorious summers of her childhood. We returned there with our children, and that sound entered their memories as well. By that time, though, walking across the cabin’s kitchen floor was like walking on the deck of a boat in rough seas, and the roof sprang the occasional, if not regular, leak. But, the roaring creek behind the cabin was still there to be dammed-up simply for the sake of building something together as a family. The occasional trout still hung in the shallows near the rocks. They could be brought out into view by pitching chunks of white bread into the clear stream. Black bears still occasionally “came-a-calling” in search of an impromptu dinner.

After Rachel’s death, someone said to me, that since I had enjoyed my marriage, I would certainly marry again. Why would that be? Did I need someone on the other side of my bed? Did I need the ease found in the constancy of the same face across the table or next to me in the car?

If those things had been the glue of my marriage, then I might have remarried. But, I loved my Rachel, not marriage. I balanced my bed with the memory of her skin against mine and of the weight of her breast in my hand. I chose each morning which of her faces I would see that day. Would it be the young Rachel filled with joy and tenderness or the older Rachel whose lined face was filled with joy, tenderness, and wisdom?

Rachel remained with me each day in memories that sparkled like crystals revolving in bright sunlight. After she died, I could not remain where we’d been. I couldn’t return to the life and places we shared. My memories of our life would’ve smothered me as surely as a pillow pressed hard and tight against my face while I slept. Even thinking of remaining amidst the hollowed out remnants of our shared life made it difficult for me to breathe.

So, I glanced back over my shoulder. Some places and moments in my past shined like new dimes. Others might as well have been black holes in the swirling arm of the Milky Way. Memories of only one place made my heartbeat slow, the tightening bands around my chest loosen, and my breath come from deep inside me. To this day, I am not sure why it was this place, but I came back, bringing with me every piece of my past, both near and far. I planted it all here in west Texas to see what would grow as I tried to weave my past to my future until my life again became all-of-a-piece.

Here on this land I again began to watch the sky as I had when I was a farm child. I scanned it with the intensity of a condemned man looking through a jailhouse window, searching the horizon for the outline of a rider bringing his reprieve or swinging a rope. I learned again what it felt like to shed my clothes and wade into the creek to wash away the worst of the sweat and grime of a hard day’s work and let evaporating water cool my hot skin.

When the first good rain came, I uncovered my head, and sheets of water poured over me. It christened me as surely as holy water sprinkled from a priest’s fingers. “Do you renounce death and its false promises? I renounce it. Do you accept your loss? I accept my loss. Do you choose to return to life? I hope to shine like a light so that I can offer others comfort, warmth, and joy.”

I lingered for a few more moments, face upturned, and eyes closed to the pouring rain. Then, still in my wet clothes—heavy boots, long-sleeved flannel shirt, and denim overalls—I slapped my stained fedora against my muddy ankles and danced a slow “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as that rain fell on the rows of beans and squash in my newly-planted garden. As I danced, I sang my personal version of part of that old tune’s refrain:

Oh, where did I come from?

Where did I go?

Where am I headed for,

Cotton-Eyed Joe?
pencil

Charles D. Phillips is a public health professional who lives and teaches in College Station, Texas. His flash fiction has appeared in Flashshot, flashquake, HeavyGlow, Long Story Short, The Angler, Static Movement, Toasted Cheese, and The Vestal Review. His historical, western short stories have appeared in The Copperfield Review and Rope and Wire. Smokebox will publish his short story, “Bourbon and the Blues” in the summer of 2009. His non-fiction essays have appeared in Bent Magazine, Events Weekly, and Touchstone Magazine. Clockwise Cat will reprint his essay, “Love, True Love” in the summer of 2009. His work has been nominated for StorySouth‘s 2009 Million Writers Award, the Pushcart Prize, 2009 and for inclusion in the Best of the Web, 2009. E-mail: chasphil3[at]verizon.net

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