excerpted from the novel Blood & Mud by Suzanne Turner
Billy was in the front yard of the little two-room house when Busey, who owned the land they lived on, pulled up in a blue pick-up truck. The thing gleamed against the yard’s brushed dirt.
Billy was not at all surprised to see Busey today, though he had never once driven up here before, nor ever even spoken to a Slattery that Billy could remember.
The truck parked in front of the house where Billy lived with his stepmother Meg and his two younger brothers, Meg’s and Rainey’s together, his brothers by spirit if not by blood. Rainey lived in the hills inland with Billy’s two older stepbrothers, where they worked when they could find it.
Billy was sweeping the packed dirt with a bundle of sticks he had wound together some time ago with feed sack twine. The good broom was only used indoors. The house was small but neat as a pin, whitewashed in the front, garden at the rear, well-tended animals — mule and nag and pigs and chickens — behind.
Busey lived over on the other side of the treeline from the levee and on the other side of acres and acres of rich Delta farmland with his wife Rhetta, a good churchwoman, and seven kids. The Lewises were good hard-working people, and fair, but they did not tolerate any nonsense.
Busey jumped down out of the truck, closed the door with a thump, hooked his fingers in his jean pockets and looked at Billy. Meg stood up from her chair on the front porch, washpan of partially snapped greenbeans in her hands, and looked hard at Busey. He tipped his hat to her a moment, then returned his gaze to Billy. Meg slipped into the house, screen door closing behind her. “I’m right in here you need me” she said, both men hearing the defiance in her seemingly soft polite words.
Busey looked at Billy for a moment, as a cat with a mouse, as if he didn’t yet know whether to play or let the mouse away.
“You know why I’m here?” Busey asked.
Billy nodded his head once. “Yessir,” he responded, firm, not afraid.
Busey paused before he delivered a speech he had given many times before to young men of the families he suffered to live on his land. A speech about staying away from his, Busey’s, daughters, and working hard, and staying out of trouble. Then maybe jobs or work could be found, but first they must stay away from Busey’s daughters.
But Busey paused, and then he made the mistake of really looking at the boy. He had expected someone wiry and intense, full of fight and opinions, ready to argue. But instead he saw something that he recognized. That boy — maybe fifteen, strong and fine — was standing there calm as the long summer day, not an ounce of fear in him, in his mended but clean clothes, in front of that poor but honest house.
The boy, Billy, suddenly reminded him of his, Busey’s, own mother, who was as dependable as God’s green earth. When he was Billy’s age, he and his mama and his brothers lived in a house a lot like Meg’s not at all far from where they stood. There was something about the way Billy stood there, completely calm and ready to face punishment that brought Estelle to mind, as if she stood in between them in her much-mended housedress and apron, waiting to see what Busey would do.
Words came out of Busey’s mouth he did not expect, pulled by that unbidden image of his mother.
“He come around here much, that wrecker?”
The boy did not betray a hint of knowledge. But the simple tilt of Billy’s head showed Busey, that old poker player, the wrecker had been here. He waited for Billy to step into the silence.
Billy did not speak for a few beats, longer than most can usually bear to wait. Suddenly a group of birds flew overhead, wheeling in from the river, heading over the trees toward Busey’s land. Then both men heard Meg shifting just inside the house, the squeak as the door opened a crack. “That man don’t come around here none! You already know that!” she said.
“I asked the boy” Busey said, looking back at Billy.
The boy decided something, then said slowly, thinking, “That wrecker with the crazy hair and the black teeth?”
He looked at Busey about a minute longer, up and down.
“‘Bout your height?”
“‘Bout your build?”
It wasn’t a challenge, but a recognition.
Billy finished, “She ain’t never seen him here. He come around once. But not since last year. I was the only one that seed him. Just that once.” The creek of the screen door closing again told them Meg had also heard.
Busey could tell as well as if he knew the boy all his life that he was telling the truth. He could also tell the boy had ended the conversation. He had ended the conversation a move beyond Busey that Busey felt but did not fully understand.
Billy ended the conversation standing on Busey’s own land in front of the house Busey owned the way Busey’s mama had stood once not far from here, rooted into the ground like a tree and not about to let anything bad happen to her or any of her kin.
Busey nodded again, round over. Moved to go to the truck, then remembered why he’d come. But when he went to deliver his speech he surprised himself again, offering for the first time in his life the carrot first rather than the switch: “you come on down to the horse barn tomorrow. I got some work for you.”
Then he opened the truck door, saw his rifle hanging there on the back gun rack, remembered again, and turned, quick as a snake.
“But you stay away from my daughters and their cousins. You don’t look at ’em, you don’t talk to ’em, you don’t think about ’em. We got a deal there you and I can be friends.”
Billy saw the gun over Busey’s shoulder, but he wasn’t afraid of him, the great Busey Lewis. They had settled something today deeper than both of them knew and it hadn’t even been hard to do it.
Almost exactly a year earlier he had sitting on the front porch, chores done, Meg off to town. His younger brothers were sam hell knows where, maybe off worrying little creatures with the dogs down on the river bank.
He was almost nodding off from the summer heat, hypnotized by the rise and fall of the cicada, when he heard the exaggerated crunching of dry twigs and branches off to his left. There was a man emerging from the woods on the treeline, hair and beard wild, clothes filthy, teeth blackened in a broad smile meant to show he meant no harm.
Billy started, rose, reached for the hoe standing next to him. He’d just finished in the vegetable garden Meg kept. It would put food on the table through summer and be canned to help through winter.
He swung the hoe, still muddy, to his shoulder, clumps of mud falling to the porch floor.
The man put his arms in the air, as if to show he was unarmed, still smiling that blackened smile, lifting his feet exaggeratedly to show he had purposely broken sticks and twigs to warn Billy of his approach.
The man radiated the calm of someone used to working with large animals as he pantomimed “down down” with his hands to indicate Billy could release the hoe. Despite himself, Billy was tempted to do so, but stood firm.
The man slowly, continued to advance, sure and fine, that grin fixed in place, somehow keeping the loose détente in place. When he got about twenty feet from the house he stopped, stood up straight, put his hands on his hips, oddly projecting, despite his filth and poverty, a King-like sense of possession.
“I just wanted to get a look at you,” the man said.
At this, Billy did let the hoe swing down from his shoulder to hold in both hands at the ready, felt the warmth and heft of the wood handle against his palms and fingers.
“You a wrecker?” Billy asked, strong and clear and without fear. “Ya’ll comin’ in early this year?”
The man barked out a laugh, fished through a filthy jeans pocket for a pack of filterless Winstons. Billy could see some muscle ripple under his t-shirt as he did so. Noted those massive hands covered with calluses. Someone used to a lifetime of hard work, a future projection, perhaps, of himself in thirty years or so.
“Naw,” the man said, “we’re not coming in early.” He examined Billy a moment, a boy on the cusp of becoming a man, lean and confident, clothes worn but well-kept, the boy holding his eye still and sure, hoe at the ready. “You know them fancy folk over the hill much?” the man asked.
“This their land you’re standing on,” Billy responded evenly. He paused, looked at the man a moment. “How can I help you, mister?”
The man stood there smoking for a while, neither of them speaking, wary as two dogs circling. Then he took the last drag from the Winston, stubbed it out on the bottom of his boot, tucked the butt in his pocket.
“I reckon Meg don’t want no cigarettes in her yard,” he said gesturing to the neatly swept dirt area in front of the house with his blackened hand. Billy didn’t betray any surprise at the mention of Meg’s name, just maintained a firm grip on the hoe handle.
“Tell your step mama I come by and she’s done a real fine job,” the man said, turning to head back to the woods.
“Who should I say?” Billy asked.
“Just tell her that. It’ll do,” said the man as he stepped back into the treeline, not on the path or the road, stepping into the woods as silent as an Indian, not a twig breaking nor a bird crying out.
After the man left Billy went and got his birding rifle, loaded it, and walked the line of the property, step-by-step. He circled the large brushed dirt yard, picked out a dandelion weed or a grass blade or some other volunteer as he passed them, throwing the plant into the woods and scraping over where they had been with his foot. He kept only a little sumac that had come up, roots and all, its five rubbery leaves bouncing with each step he took. They could be brewed into a tea to keep a cold off. Meg would be happy he found it.
Circling the property was a little like yelling at thieves once they’d already run off with your stuff. The man’s presence was still here, the cigarette smoke he imagined still hanging in the air, somehow tainting the place just with his ever having been there. But all you could do was all you could do, so he circled the place once, twice, three times, neatening up little things here and there as he saw them.
When his little brothers came up over the hill from their shenanigans, he put the puppies in the dog corral and the boys in the tub of hot water he had poured form the pump and heated for them. He got on some dinner, collards from the garden and grits, a little ham hock still left over in the mash. By the time Meg came walking up the hill, weighed down with her packages from her monthly trip to town, everything was neat as a pin, quiet, the boys settled in their bunk beds reading old newspaper comics, dinner ready for her.
The house was small, two rooms, set up on bricks. He and his younger two brothers slept in the bedroom, his older two also when they came down out of the hills where they mostly stayed with his stepfather. His brothers were Meg and Rainey’s full-blood sons, and, really, his true brothers if not by blood. You could never tell a difference between those Slattery scamps, the preacher always said. Well iffen you didn’t count by their red hair and his blonde, he’d said.
Maybe his brothers were a little wilder, he a bit quieter and to himself. But they were indulged by their father who could never bear a mistake Billy would make. It was a fine trade off, though, because Meg petted and adored him. In turn he did everything he could think of to make her happy.
He remembered Meg from his earliest years when she would come up to the other place he had lived with his real father, farther into the treeline, and leave baskets of food on the porch. Sometimes she would visit with his daddy, him already half gone early in the afternoon on moonshine, her always standing in the yard, never coming close.
He could tell from their playful banter they had known one another a long time. Daddy would ask after her older brothers, forgetting in his cups that they had run off into the world after the war never to be seen again. He would call her “little Meggy with the sweet blonde pigtails,” though she was a grown woman with no pigtails. When his dad got a little too insistent about Meg coming up on the porch she would melt away into the woods.
One day his daddy went off on a drunk and left him, as he sometimes did, legs tied under a horse so he would stay occupied. Usually this only lasted an hour or two or three, but this time it had stretched into the afternoon and the evening. He and the horse were both sorely tired of it by the time he heard soft footsteps crunching through the trees.
Whomever was coming up was both softer in weight and louder in sound than his daddy would ever be and there was Meg Slattery, with a washtub full of fresh vegetables from the garden, home-canned peppers and okra, jams she had made at her own hot stove and was sharing with them. He knew from memory there would be hoe cakes, fresh from when she left the house, and his stomach churned with a fierce and painful hunger. Perhaps he had last eaten lunch yesterday, he could not remember.
When she saw him on old Sally, she did not start for fear of startling the poor nag. She set down the washtub and come over to him slowly, loved on the horse a minute to be sure she was calm. A few eyerolls and snorts passed between the two women at the unending infernal doings of men. “He coulda at least tied Billy to the mule,” he heard Meg whisper to Sally, or maybe Sally to her. “A mule is at least smart enough to wander off and find some help.”
Then she untied his legs, carried him to the porch, rubbed off his cramps and fed him. She pumped water into the washtub, heated it up and bathed him. She waited with him at the house for three days and nights, shooing off the hunting dogs that lived with them inside, feeding them at the back door with cornmeal cooked with lard, cleaning cleaning cleaning, finding secret caches of food in the house and in the woods and in the growed-over garden for him and the animals. But his daddy Bryce never came home.
The fourth day, he heard Meg talking to another woman in the kitchen. “I think you Lewises have done just about enough!” he heard Meg say, shrilly, in a tone he’d never heard from her before. He pulled himself from the corn shuck mattress covered for the first time with a sheet he and Meg and washed and hung on the line to dry, walked into the room in the little pajamas she had sewed him out of an old feed sack.
When he came into the kitchen now gloriously sparkling clean with the early morning sun coming in through the window he and Meg had scrubbed and polished just yesterday, there was Rhetta Lewis from the big farm over the hill, big as life in his house, wearing her church clothes and holding a casserole dish.
“I have come for that child,” Rhetta said, in tones as final as if she had just closed the door to a tomb.
“You have never thought about that child a day in his life,” Meg retorted, face bright red with the effort of disagreeing, blonde wisps of hair hanging around her face from the steam coming from the water she was boiling on the stove to keep cleaning, keep endlessly cleaning.
Then she saw Billy in the doorway, standing proudly in his new feedsack pajamas. Meg’s face lit up, even as Rhetta’s fell. “Meg, really, feedsack?” Rhetta said. “And so thin? Why is he so thin?”
Meg came across the little living room floor, got down on the floor, covered his face with kisses, held him to her breast. “He is actually standing right here in front of you, Rhetta! Listening with ears big as pitchers! So I will say loud enough for him and God and everybody to hear — he is thin because ya’ll damn proud Lewises never saw fit to feed him.”
He had never seen women fight before. He had hardly seen women. It was fighting with words not fists, a knife fight rather than a cannon blast. He hugged Meg harder and wished for this shiny other lady to go away.
Meg parked Rhetta at the only kitchen chair, rolling her eyes as she handed the woman a clean dish rag to brush the chair off with first. She got him into a t-shirt they’d washed yesterday and overalls then sent him out into the yard to feed the chickens. He heard their fight escalate in the kitchen, Rhetta’s voice low with presumed authority,
Meg’s climbing up and down a soprano key like a cat on a stove. It ended with Rhetta, holding the casserole dish in her white gloves, leaving the house, getting into a car at the road along the treeline, and driving off.
When he got back into the kitchen, chores finished, Meg’s face was red and puffy, her eyes red, she was still wiping tears away with her apron. “You get your things together in this sack,” she said, handing him an old seed bag. “You put your clothes and things in here. I’m taking you to live with me.”
Then her eyes brightened, her usual joy returned to her face, “You’ll have two big brothers can teach you how to hunt! You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Billy would have done anything she said, she was the angel of his heart. He held her by the apron and led her throughout the house as he gathered the only things he owned — a pinecone, a fist-shaped rock, a few arrowheads, a copper penny. He held tight to the corner of her apron as though if he let go she might disappear and he would be in this house all alone again, as usual.