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November 30, 1999

All Not Hidden

Filed under: Uncategorized — donwood49 @ 12:00 am

Dawn Wood

Copyright Jan 10, 2001

All Not Hidden

Dad and me were hanging gunnysacks on posts. They were filled with pecans ready for drying, and my throat itched with the sour smell of burlap. Already the sun was high and I was sweating as I secured the last of the bags. Dad poked me.

“Kern, remember to shift them.” He hit the bags lightly, and the pecans rearranged with the sound of rattlesnakes. “You forgot last time, girl,”

He smirked and started homeward. I trudged behind, wiping my hands on Joby’s worn overalls, staring down at the dust rising over my cracked sneakers. They had been Joby’s too, and I wore two pairs of socks with them. We live on Beer Can Hill. Maybe you heard the song, but it’s not the same place, just a row of burdened shacks. Cottonwood and pecan trees were scattered over the landscape. The houses either sagged into each other to the point of falling down, or squatted randomly off by themselves. Rusty tricycles and dirt-gray junk littered people’s yards. At night, dust seeped into the houses, layering everything with grit. It was a desolate, uninviting place, but we were children and didn’t think it was. I like to think my mother found some comfort there, a place of her own. Maybe she did. Mom named me after the wild river that flooded our house yearly.

When we came in, Mom was stirring a pot of coffee over the stove, and Millie, who’s two years older than me, sixteen, was trying her best to look beautiful. It was no secret she was the favorite of us. With carmel-colored hair and a slight build, she looked odd next to me, brown and rough boned as a calf. Joby was sweeping at the dust. He was a year younger than me, with dark darting eyes and a mischievous grin. By the time he was born, there was no patience left for me. When Millie was ten, I was still struggling to know my letters, and my folks had given up on me being any use at all.

Mom glanced at me absently, “Kernie, take the baby. You’re a half hour late.” She stopped juggling the baby on her hip, holding him out to me like a peace offering. She looked too tired for me to protest. “Find anything good?”

Most mornings, Joby thumps me awake at four o’clock, and we hunt down bargains. It takes a bit of walking, because we raid people’s junk piles, and you’re liable to get shot doing that. We found cans, inner tubes, a wooden crate, and a small engine Joby said he was going to fix.

“Sure did,” Joby said. The baby howled, and I stuffed bread in his mouth and rocked him. Millie stared down the table. It was a salvaged cable spool from the oil fields, rough and splintery. When we brought it to the house, we had climbed atop it, and rolled up and down the bank. Mom rubbed oil into it until the knicks and cuts on it shone, but it was still too small. Someone always had to balance their plate on their knees at mealtimes.

Millie said, “Mom, I can have a car, right? You’re saving for it?”

My mother nodded and set breakfast on the table.

Joby said carefully, “But you said if we got enough money Kernie could go to school again.”

“Oh, honey,” There was a half-smile. “Millie’s a young lady now. She needs to look presentable. Besides, you don’t mind, do you, Kern?”

I shook my head, and Joby stomped out, hands jammed in his pockets. I followed him, carrying the baby. He was down by the river. A boy drowned there last year, caught in the undertow. I sat down beside him, the baby next to me. “Don’t know why you’re upset. It’d be a waste of money.”

He pitched a rock in the water. “‘She don’t read’. That’s all they say about you. It’s always, ‘Mind the baby while we go to work.’ One of the old ladies round here could do that. Then they say, “Kernie ain’t workin’ today.’” He made a noise in his throat.

I turned my hands over. The palms were torn from shelling pecans, fingernails stained from the dye. Tough as leather. “I’ll work harder. Honest. Next year they’ll let me go.”

Joby’s eyes flashed, riled. He threw a rock hard, and snapped, “They want an education for all of us— just not you.” He jumped when he saw some of the Hill’s little ones behind us. Joby swallowed. “What do you want?”

“Hide and seek,” they chorused.

“All right,” he said. “See if you can beat Kernie.” They scattered. I was the best hider. I had the ability to blend into my surroundings. I hid under the cottonwood tree’s shelter, the baby cradled against me. Joby shouted, “Barley, wheat, oats and rye. All not hidden, holler aye!”

He found me of course. He always did. We could hear Dad shouting for us, and we raced each other back. Dad yanked Joby by the arm. “Come on. It’s bad enough you stop to play games. Your mother went ahead to work. I’ll lose money if I’m late..” Dad did piecework in the drying sheds at a nearby farm. His hands were fast sorting apricots.

“Kernie…” Joby began, but Dad snapped, “Kernie don’t have the sense God gave a goat. Get in.” He pushed Joby toward the car and tossed his backpack after him, then roared off.

Back in the house with the baby, I got out Joby’s old books, staring at the pages. The words swam in front of me. My stomach rumbled, but I didn’t bother seeing if there was anything to eat. We needed whatever was left for dinner. I looked at the pictures instead. They were nothing like the barren dirt-covered land where we lived. I had been out to the crop fields with Joby, and the color there shocked your eyes, right next to gray dirt. Everything else was colorless. After awhile, I fed the baby and found Joby’s engine. I got a spare toothbrush and began slowly rubbing away the grime and rust. I had all the time in the world.

Sometimes at night when I couldn’t sleep, I’d work on the engine. It’s metal had been cleaned, and it gleamed at me as though it were a puzzle I needed to master. I brought out our battered encyclopedia, following the words underneath pictures. Piston. Crankshaft. Flywheel. The words were magical. With a screwdriver, I discovered them, just like the book said. I oiled and cleared away cobwebs. When I was finished, I buried the engine under burlap sacks. I don’t know why, except it was the only thing I could call mine. The few things I owned never belonged to me, and I had little attachment to them. We had moved so often from job to job, that everything was either lost along the way or seized in evictions. “It’s better this way,” Mom would say, when we yearned for something we had once had. “You’re free as a bird and nothing can touch you. Don’t you see how it’s better?” But I wondered if she was telling the truth, if she believed the words herself. Was it good to have no place that was home? Did that make you free?

During the week, I found my work wasn’t boring anymore. The engine had given me something stable. I found time every day to work on it, between caring for the baby, doing the house chores, and shelling the dried pecans. I was cracking a gunnysack full, when I decided to do something I hadn’t done before.

I took the baby with me to the library. I had gone before, of course, but always at Joby’s heels, and never for myself. There were books with pictures about engines. I followed them at home, the engine in front of me, until I found that I could read the books without pictures as well. One night the flywheel turned. My breathing caught for a minute, and I turned it off, burying it hurriedly, in case someone woke up. I never told Joby. He had forgotten it entirely.

“Kernie, could you go to the store for me?” Mom dished up stew, and handed the shopping list to me, distracted. “Oh, here. We need flour, eggs and milk. Can you get that?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I stuffed the list deep in my pocket, and ran along the road until I reached where the river bank ended, and the town stretched out before me. I was giddy with knowledge. I could read the list any time I wanted. The store was cold, like a cellar, and a bell over the door rang when I entered. There was a woman behind the cash register who watched me as I picked out my purchases. She had the shriveled brown face people get here, and a thick smoker’s cough. As she rang me up, she said, “You’re the McCuller’s girl, aren’t you? Got them eyes…you don’t look like yer sister though. You’re the one that’s dumb. ‘Course, might expect that from those redneck folks down by the ditches.” She glared at me. “You didn’t swipe anything, did you?”

I shook my head. A wordless rage was filling me from what she said. My family was mine. She had no right. But I only slid the book I wanted over the counter, and she rang that up, too. I could feel her eyes watching me until the bell clanged behind me.

When I got home, Mom said, “What did you get?” and I said, “A book,” before I could stop myself. Millie laughed. I was startled when my mother handed the baby to her and snapped at me. “Did you get that with grocery money?”

“Just a little,” I mumbled.

“A little is what we have. For God’s sake, have some sense, Kern. Those people down at the shed spend that way, and look where it gets them. We need every cent your father brings into the house, and all you kids can scrounge— “

She didn’t move when I stalked past her, with her shouting after me. I’d had about all I could take. The woman at the store had hated our people for the money we didn’t have, and my mother hated the people at Dad’s work for the money they had to waste. I didn’t hate anybody. The book I bought was on mechanics, where everything was calm and routine, and what you did with your hands was valuable. I waited until I could gather my strength to face the family again.

Two months later Millie found the engine. She had just gotten in from school, and she dumped her backpacks by the door. The metal clanged, even muffled by burlap. She uncovered it and recoiled, wiping grease off her hands. “It’s so ugly. It’s disgusting.” Joby looked surprised when he saw his “bargain”, but it was me who hit her.

Dad jumped up and shook me. Millie sat straddle-legged, tears ruining her makeup. “I only wanted to look at it.”

“Well, that’s it,” Dad said. He let me go. I backed away, shaking, my hands knotted up. He turned to Joby. “Take that outside. Let the garbage man have it.” He glared at me. “I don’t know what got into you. Your sister’s getting her car tonight. When we’ve saved up enough for you, you can go to that special school, but until then, you’re needed here. Best you remember that,”

Joby paused by the door, the engine in his hands. I sputtered, “You– you bought a car for Millie?”

Mom sighed. “ It’s not new. Millie’s fit for better things..” Her brown hands fluttered nervously, knuckles thickened by work.

“I want to go to technical school,” I blurted. Nobody said anything. Joby slid out the front door, and I ran to my room. I snatched up a burlap sack from the corner. It was the pecan sack I used with Dad when we harvested, and it had thick canvas straps. I layered it with shelled pecans, and everything I considered mine. I knew then I would never go to school, not here. If I was lucky I’d work in the drying sheds, growing up with a brood of babies of my own. I’d live in a house like this, where the river and dust made life miserable, with no money. It wasn’t the life I wanted. I heard the baby howl as I slipped out the window, and someone hushed him. There was no sign of Joby. I shouldered my sack, tied at the top with a shoelace. It was blistering outside. A tree frog sang somewhere, the grass tall enough to hide him. The weeds were dry, up to my ankles as I walked, headed for the cottonwood trees by the river. The sack twisted and beat against my back as I climbed one cottonwood, feet slipping in Joby’s old shoes. It was cooler up in the tree, and I was camouflaged by cottonwood blossoms. I don’t know how long I stayed up there, twisting the ends of my hair and thinking of nothing. When I finally realized what time it was, Joby was calling for me. I stared down at him. “Throw it away?”

“Nope.” He held out an envelope. “Sold it. Money’s yours, if you want it.”

I slid down the tree trunk, and jumped the last two feet. “I ain’t goin’ back.”

“You see me forcin’ you?” He leaned up against the tree. “The way I see it, I might as well go with you. Find us somebody who’d put us in school, or a job. You know how to pick pecans. And fix engines.” He looked down at his feet. “But now, look, Kern, you’ve gotta think about these things. Where are you gonna sleep? How are you gonna protect yourself?”

“I’ll find a way,” I said. I looked at him hard. “You’re makin’ a fool out of me, ain’t you? I’m tired of being sensible, Joby. I ain’t gonna be sensible anymore.”

He clenched the money in his hand, then handed the envelope over wordlessly. I snatched it from him and stuffed it deep in the pocket of my overalls. My fingers fumbled for the straps of my sack, but I was clumsy now, and slow to find them. Joby said beside me, “I’m not askin’ you to go back because I think it’s best or anything, Kernie. I want you to go back because we have a better chance of leaving later.”

He watched me standing there with my nose running. Finally, I threw the sack at him, and we started toward home. When I came in the kitchen, Mom jumped up, and Dad said, “Where were you?”

“Nowhere.” I was sweating. I reached in my pocket and peeled off the money that I had spent for the book and slapped on the table. My family stared at it. “There’s your damn money,” I said.

“Now wait just a minute,” Dad said. His eyes were gleaming. “Where did you get that?”

“Never mind where.” I told him. “It’s mine. I’ll do what I want with it.”

“Like hell,” he said. He nodded toward Joby. “You had a hand in this, didn’t you, buddy? Was it her plan or yours, because don’t you think for a minute you can pull anything over on me. Kernie didn’t earn that money, did she?”

Joby froze where he was standing by the door. His eyes got larger, and he swallowed. “Yes sir,” he said. “She earned every penny. Don’t say she’s stupid anymore.”

Dad shouted. Millie whined. The baby howled. While they were arguing about it, I went to my bed and laid down. That night I would hide the rest of the money, but now I put my hands behind my head and dreamed. Someday, Joby and me, we’d walk out of here carrying pecan sacks, or new suitcases, or better still, a car of our own. I’d go to school. Nearby I could hear the neighborhood kids start up another game of hide and seek: “Barley, wheat, oats…” but in my dreams, by the time we were halfway down the road, we couldn’t hear anyone holler aye.

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