Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Jindy never told Francie when Mama was going to make fried chicken. If she didn’t say anything, then all the cracklings in the pan would be hers. When the chicken was brown and crisp, she would take the spatula and press it against the bottom of the skillet and scrape the cracklings out of the grease, and when they were cool enough, she’d pour them into her mouth.
That summer was different from other summers even though the garden was the same. All its blooming and growing meant a good harvest along with back breaking work. Sometimes Jindy’d stand in the middle of a row with both hands pressed into her back, her hands making a V and she would bend backwards and listen to all the bones popping and feel the muscles stretch so much they hurt. But with the sun beating down, she’d set her jaw and finish the row no matter if she was weeding, hoeing, or picking. One day she thought about how many times she’d gone over those rows. Probably she’d been at each row at least 7 or 8 times. She multiplied that in her head, and then doubled it for the extra rows outside the fence and added some for when she’d be picking off bugs, and figured she’d been up and down those rows near to a thousand times already that summer.
But that was the first summer she’d spent without father coming home after work. It was easy to remember how it started. They had got up for school, and a man in a tractor came and plowed back the snow as Mama peered out the window, and when the driveway was clear they put on their coats and went to wait for the bus, and when they came home their father was already there, waiting for them outside the house. He told them to get in the backseat of the car while he got in front, gripping tight to the wheel as though he had somewhere to go, and Jindy watched his face in the mirror as he told them he loved them, but he couldn’t stay where they lived, in the new house he’d built. And then he told them to get out of the backseat and go in the house by their mother, and they did.
The way they’d lived life had been thrown off schedule what with nothing to mark time the way scheduled work did. Father had always come home from the factory at 4:30 and they’d eat supper at 5 o’clock. She liked how every Tuesday they’d had tuna fish casserole, and every Wednesday, Mama had served pizza along with a shot of Black Label beer for everyone. Jindy longed for a family that sat down to eat meals at 5 o’clock, eat them off Mama’s pretty Melmac plates, when Mama was happy and father was happy and Daryl smiled all the time and there was enough good food to eat. Mama would scold Francie for eating her mashed potatoes with her fingers. Jindy had realized that summer it was only just pretend and if anything was real at all, it was the pretty Melmac plates.
But that was all done now because father had taken all the money. They ate whatever was in season, what they could grow in the garden, along with eggs from the chickens. Lots of eggs. Lord knows how many times Mama gave thanks for those chickens. Only the old ones went into the fry pan, the oldest in the stew pot. And they had popcorn. It had been awhile since they’d had any bread, but they had popcorn, which last fall they had shelled by hand until their fingers bled.
Sometimes Mr. Kirby would bring a snapping turtle. He would nail it to the light pole by the thick part of its tail and Daryl would wave a stick in front of it until the turtle tried to grab it with that pointy hook tooth at the top of its mouth. And then Mama would lop off its head with an old machete she had just for that purpose. The turtle would dangle headless with its legs all jerking and moving while the blood drained out and pooled on the ground, sometimes still jerking at the end of the day even if Mama had cut its head off in the morning. Once Jindy looked in the pan after Mama had cut it all up into cook-size pieces and some of the pieces were still moving.
Summer was near to end when Mr. Kirby came with another turtle, unusual for the time of year, as most of them came in the Spring. Jindy stood next to Mama, standing with her back to the pole. She could never watch Mama swing. She stared at the grass waiting for the sound that would let her know it was over, and Mama would hand her the machete and she would go wash off the blood in the driveway, pulling the garden hose as far from the house as it would go. After a time she looked up. Mama was standing with her arms hanging down. She handed Jindy the machete.
“Aren’t you going to…”
“That turtle’s a she, and she’s crying. A tear just rolled down her cheek.”
Jindy looked at her Mama shaking, and then she looked at the turtle, and those sad eyes connected with hers. Sure enough, there rolled another tear, plopping in the sand below. Jindy felt like something had reached all the way in from some deep dark far-away place and took hold of her heart and squeezed it dry. Mama took a breath. She pulled the nail out of the pole and hanging on to the tail of the turtle she walked across the road with it swinging upside down, swinging far out from her body so it couldn’t snap at her. With her strong arms she set the turtle down, pointed it toward the water and walked away without looking back. Mama came past Jindy. “Go on and get your pole.”
Jindy knew what that meant. If a fish decided to bite your hook and take your bait, well that was a whole lot different than lopping something’s head off when it didn’t want its head lopped off. Sometimes there was only so much a good woman could do.