by Jim Bates
Try growing up with a father who hates you. Well, maybe hate is too strong a word, but he sure didn’t like me, that was a fact. From an early age the old man referred to me as The Pansy and it wasn’t a lot of fun. Kinda’ hurt, if I’m honest. But I couldn’t help it if I wasn’t as excited about being a steelworker as he wanted me to be.
“You’ll never amount to anything.” If I heard that statement once I heard it a thousand times growing up. “You’re a complete waste of breath,” he’d sometimes add, usually when he’d been drinking. And the old man liked to drink. He liked to drink a lot.
Mom died from cancer when I was ten. I loved her to the ends of the earth. She instilled in me a sense of right and wrong. She had a way with hyperbole, too, like when she told me before she died, “You are lucky to be alive, Harlan. Make the most of it.”
Strong words coming to a young boy who in less than a week would help bury his beloved mother in the family plot of our hardscrabble farm. It was an old, dilapidated place up the holler from the town of Peekskill, Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachians.
Dad was drunk at the service so it was up to me to corral my younger brother Jarvis and younger sisters Darlene and Josey.
“Mind your manners,” I told my siblings, hushing them with a finger to my lips like I knew Mom would have wanted me to do. “Pay attention.” We listened as Reverend Langtree preached the gospel and told us that Mom had gone to a better place. I had no argument with that, but, honestly, I really wasn’t paying much attention. I was just trying to hold it together and not break down and cry, figuring it would be another nail in my ‘pansy coffin’ as I thought of it; you know, in terms my father would understand.
Later that night, the more I thought about it the more I believed the reverend was right; living poor with a drunkard who often times beat her couldn’t have been a life anyone would choose. And I’m sure she didn’t, but, I’m also pretty sure in her mind she did the right thing by marrying Wyatt Helms. After all, she didn’t have much of a choice, being she was only fifteen and pregnant. He was twenty at the time. It was, as they say, a shotgun marriage doomed to failure.
So, I was born when Mom was sixteen and then my brother and two sisters soon followed. Dad continued working in the steel mill and Mom ran the worn-out farm they bought for back taxes from the bank. She also ran the household to the best of her ability on what little money dad brought home after the moonshine had been purchased. Even though we barely survived, the point of the matter was that we did. We thrived. Mom was industrious, not afraid of hard work and the farm flourished as much as it could.
“Harlan, you’re in charge of watching over Jarvis, Darlene and Josey,” she told me from about the time I could walk, let alone talk.
“No complaints, young man.” She’d swat me against the back of my head to make her point. Not hard, but hard enough. It was better than what Dad dished out. He’d use a fist. Maybe a belt. Sometimes both.
So, I grew up trying to stay on Mom’s good side. I collected the eggs, fed the chickens, taught my sibling how to work in the garden, and showed them the difference between a weed like waterleaf and good vegetable like rhubarb. They eventually figured it out. We ended having a really good garden.
After Mom died, I took over her duties of running things. I did the cooking and washing and cleaning. I watched the kids, too, but it wasn’t easy, especially as they got older. Our farmhouse was built on the slant of the hill leading further up the side of Pigtail Mountain and my siblings loved to get out and run and play. I didn’t blame them. I’d have liked to join them but someone had to make sure things didn’t go to ‘hell in a handcart’ as mom used to say. Our nearest neighbors, Dirk and Greta Johnson, were an old couple a quarter a mile further up from us and they pretty much left us alone. So, in a way, it was like we were living by ourselves.
I’d have liked to go to school, but didn’t. Dad wouldn’t let me. “You’ve got too much to do around here,” he’d point out whenever I asked him. “Besides,” he’d grin through his tobacco-stained teeth, “School’s for Pansies and I’m trying to make a man out of you.”
Oh really, Dad? I wanted to say. How’s that working for you? But I didn’t have the courage to tell him.
One thing, though, I did have a feisty spirit that I think I got from my mom. Sometimes I’d sneak into town to the library and take out a book, bring it back home, hide it under my mattress and read late at night when everyone else was asleep. I know the old man would have killed me if he found out. “Reading’s a complete waste of time,” he said whenever the subject came up, which was rare. “Now, go cut some firewood.”
One nice thing, though, was that my brother and sisters went to school. I’d walk them down to the bottom of the hill and get them on the bus and safely on their way. They didn’t go every day, but most days they did. It was good for them and good for me. It was easier to get my chores done without them under foot. Plus, I could do some reading. I liked that a lot.
Dad worked at the steel mill over the mountain on the other side of the valley, a forty-one mile round trip. Back then you could see smoke belching out of the blast furnaces for miles around. His mill made the steel they used in making the frames of automobiles. They added a stuff like niobium to make it really strong. Railroad tracks ran past the mill and everyday freight trains would stop to unload materials used to manufacture the steel. Other trains would stop to pick up the end product. It was noisy, filthy work; hard work that required dedicated concentration. Not the type of work for a man who was even slightly hungover, which my dad was pretty much every day.
So, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that day when, just before noon, the sheriff of our country, Abel Ransome, drove up into our yard, slammed on his brakes and skidded to a halt in the dirt. It was four years after Mom had died, and I was fourteen. I’d been inside making bread and stirring up a pot of beans when I’d heard his car pull up. I went outside and stood on the porch to meet him.
He got out of the car, hitched up his pants and strolled over to me. “How you doing, Harlan?” he asked, spitting out a stream of tobacco juice into the dust. He was a big man who never seemed to be without his mirrored sunglasses. He adjusted them, and then his flat brimmed grey Stetson hat stained with sweat while he stared at me. “Got a minute?”
My feeling was something was wrong. Big time. No one ever came to our place to visit. I wiped my hands on the towel I carrying and turned toward the house, “You want to come inside? Get out of the heat? I’ve got some lemonade.”
He took off his hat and wiped his sweaty forehead before putting it back on. He spat again. “Thanks, but I don’t have time.” He looked over my shoulder. “The house looks good, Harlan. Could use some paint though.”
Yeah, try get my dad to buy anything to fix up the house. I’ll show you the scars on my back from the times I asked.
I stepped off the porch and walked up to him. I didn’t need his lame ass excuse to chit-chat. “What’s up?” I asked.
He turned his mirrored sunglasses toward me and said, “Harlen, I’ve got some bad news for you.”
it my dad?”
He sighed and made a move to clasp me on the shoulder in a show of I don’t know what. Compassion? Sorry, I didn’t need it from him. I took a step back.
If he was put off by my attitude, it didn’t show, which later I appreciated. Instead, he said, “Yeah, it’s your dad, Harlan. Your old man’s been killed.”
Why was I not surprised?
That was ten years ago. We still live on the farm and it’s going pretty well. You’d be surprised how much more money we’ve got now that the old man doesn’t drink it all up. The mill gives us a little since he was killed on the job although one of the guys on his work crew, Jeb Strong, told me Dad had stumbled on his own accord and fallen into the path of the train that ran him over. Wouldn’t surprise me at all. And, yeah, everyone agreed that it was a good idea the funeral was closed casket.
Greta Johnson from up the hill was our saving grace. The day of the funeral she came to me and said, “Harlen, I know how hard you’ve worked to hold this family together. You should be proud of yourself.”
Do you know how many times someone had said something like that to me in my life up until then? Zero. It was nice to hear. It also brought a tear to my eye at the kindness of the old woman.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. “I really appreciate it.” Being polite, like I’d been raised.
“I stayed away before, because I was afraid of your father. But I’ve been praying for you and your family. I want to help out if I can,” she told me and pointed up the hill. “My husband doesn’t need much and I think it’s God good grace to have you and your siblings here so I can do what I can for you and your brother and sisters.”
I didn’t have to think long. Or hard. “That’d be great,” I told her.
I was a little worried that she’d get all churchy with us, which she did a little, but that was okay. The little girls liked going with her to the Baptist church in town on Wednesdays and Sundays so that was good, and she didn’t mind if Jarvis and I stayed home which was even better.
So, Mrs. Johnson and I ran the house. I even started going to school. Until I was sixteen away. Then I got a job working at the library and I still work there. It’s a good job. I’m around books, and I can take out whatever I want and read as much as I want.
The best thing, though, was the library was where I met Jeremy. He’s a little older than me and lives about ten miles away in the little town of Maple Creek. He’s a cook in the restaurant there. We’ve been seeing each other for about a year now. My brother and sisters really like him. He’s funny and a nice guy. Even Mrs. Johnson likes him.
“If he makes you happy and you make him happy, that’s the main thing,” she told me a year ago when I first introduced the two of them. And after he left, she said, “Well, he’s nice young man. I like him.”
So, life is good. Even though my parents are both dead, I’ve learned that life goes on. You make the most of things. Mom was a saint in her own way and didn’t deserve to die so young, and Dad was a mean drunk who did deserve to die, and in my mind, they balanced each other out.
As Mrs. Johnson says, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
And even though I don’t believe in religion quite like she does, I’ll tell you this: based on my experience, I think she’s right. Especially about the mysterious part.
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