Sorghum

By MARY POPHAM

FICTION FINALIST

 

Heat waves danced up and down off the blacktop in front of our family’s general store. It was the drought of 1952 and stink bugs was dying on the plank porch, the farmers who lived around Good Hope had to dig more wells to water their fields, and young people started moving to the city to get a job.

My Daddy owned Price’s Star Grocery and I learned the trade after Mama died. Daddy would talk me up to a customer, “Rosalee will get it for you,” and at 10 years old, I’d climb up on a keg and reach the crackers or the fuses or a twist of tobacco. Before long I could ring up sales, keep the accounts, and buy from the drummers that came through.

I turned 16 during the middle of July that hot summer. Strange to think how quick it happened, for I fell in overpowering love with a boy the first minute I saw him. Not hard to figure considering I got my ideas of male and female dealings from Modern Romance and True Story magazines that found their way alongside my biology and English textbooks.

I looked up when I heard the hiss of the Greyhound air brakes out front and saw him step off the bus. His hair looked dark brown—not mousy like mine—until he stepped out of the shadows. Then the late afternoon sun turned his hair into a dark red fireball, the color of sorghum molasses poured out of a jar onto hot buttered biscuits. I watched him turn to the bus driver and wave a sweeping semi-circle with his free hand. Under his other arm he carried a torn, cardboard box like he didn’t care if anything spilled out or not. He wore his jeans low and strolled toward the store in scuffed-up boots, with confident, long steps.

I usually stocked the shelves right after the drummers left, but this evening I was late. It was already six o’clock, and I stood on a nail keg putting up little milk-glass jars of Musterole head rub. Mama had believed in it, because it read on the label that it took the place of an old-time mustard plaster. “Just rub it on and the pain is gone.” She used to sit by the front window of the little house Daddy built for us next to the store and rub circles on each side of her pretty forehead, saying, “There goes the six a clock bus!” In her world, the bus was never early, never late.

The boy looked into the store window and smiled at me where I stood still as a stone. I put my arms down quick so he wouldn’t see sweat in the armpits of my dress. I watched him read the words on the outside door handle, “Walk In.” His stomach looked hard and lean, his legs thick. He opened the screen door.

It was after suppertime and three men sat in the middle of the store under the circle fan listening to the radio play Hank Williams and just passing the time before going home. Sometimes I’d spy one of them slip a paper sack hiding a bottle to another one, but I made like I didn’t see. Frank Aubrey didn’t drink, but kept watching me. He made me think Mama had been right—that I was the image of her and my form was filling in full. I guess Frank hoped I’d change my mind and go with him to the drive-in picture show, but I never had said yes.

I scoured the men’s faces—closed mouths and hard eyes questioning a stranger walking into their spot with such a presuming air. The young man set down his box of clothes and wiped his face on his sleeve. “Sure is hot, ain’t it?” he said.

Shorty Monahan kept his eyes on the dirty, yellow strands of grass string he was braiding. He liked using old hay baler twine to make a lead rope for his horse or for hanging baskets of vines from the porch. “Yep,” he said, not looking up. “The weatherman says no rain in sight.”

“Where could a fella get some good eats?”

My heart danced. He wasn’t afraid of them!

“I reckon you’re standing in the right place,” Daddy said, and Old Man Kelly laughed, looking around at Shorty. Frank sulked.

Daddy said, “We can fix you a sandwich and a soft drink.”

“Well I sure do thank ye,” said the boy. “I could eat the back end out of a wild cat.” He looked directly at me as if he knew I’d be the one to fix his food. His smile showed one front tooth slightly overlapping the other, which made him look kinda rough, kinda like a little boy.

I peeled the rind off the baloney roll and sliced the pieces thin, drawing the cutter back slow to keep it from tearing the meat or making jagged edges. I reached deep into the light bread sack to get fresh pieces.

I listened to him talk to the men, wishing I didn’t look so wrung out. In the mirror behind the tooth powders, I could see myself with my hair hanging straight down around my damp face, the curl steamed out long before. My apron was dirty from rubbing against dusty shelves and probably had dried blood on it after I had cut chunks of beef for Miz Effie’s stew meat that morning.

Old Man Kelly rubbed his chin. “Where’d you say you was from?”

Everybody listened.

“I was borned in Tennessee?” the young man said, letting the weight of the word fall on the first syllable and ending with a questioning sound. “Been living with my brother, but he got married and I’m wandering around looking for a place to light.” He nudged his cardboard box with his boot. “Got ever thing I own with me.”

I walked around the counter and handed him the sandwich on a paper plate. I wasn’t sure he was answering Old Man Kelly, because he was looking at me when he said, “Name’s Jim Lanfield.”

Daddy moved a roll of brown wrapping paper and empty boxes off the big, white soft drink chest, opened it up, and leaned down into it. His voice was smothered. “What’ll you have to drink, Son?”

“I’d kind of like the taste of a ice cold beer, but I guess I’d settle for a Orange Crush.” He winked at me while the men laughed.

All but Frank, that is. He smacked down a quarter near where I stood by the cash register to pay for his Coke and crackers with cheese. Didn’t say bye nor nothing, just pulled his hat down close to his eyes, turned, and stalked out.

Shorty grinned real big at Jim and gave him a nickname. “Yessir, you’ve got hair the very color of sorghum molasses.”

Sorghum would do all right in Good Hope, and I was proud, for I had fallen hard for him.

 ***

Sorghum started cutting trees for Shorty’s sawmill, right outside town. Ever day around 11:30, except for Sundays, Shorty’s pickup with its rickety bed clattered over the gravel road that led from the mill to the store and brought in the workers to eat their dinners. Daddy and I already knew what they’d call for. Sometimes ham, sometimes baloney sandwiches, a bowl of bean soup, and a sour pickle. I made the soup ever day, started by soaking the dried beans overnight and cooking them down with fatback from early morning. Sometimes I baked a yellow cake, but that was for free.

Frank liked yellow cake, but I didn’t ever make it special for him. He got more and more sullen and never acted like he was in a good mood. At quitting time, he stopped hanging out around the store with the rest of the men and broke off asking me to go the show. You’d a thought it might of made him happy when he went in partners with Shorty at the sawmill, him being smart and knowing how to manage and all.

The workers ate fast. They were real hungry after hauling lumber from the drying sheds and feeding it through the blades at the sawmill. Most drank Coca-Colas, but some liked sweet drinks like root beer, or Grapette in clear glass bottles that showed off its purple color.

Otey and Orvin, the Harrison brothers, came in about dinnertime, too. They didn’t really work at the sawmill, but they hung around wherever the men was. It wasn’t talked about, at least not in my company, but I knew what they sold, how they made their money. They drove a stripped-down Ford coupe and talked about its horsepower and how fast it could go, so it didn’t take much for me to know they was selling moonshine. Especially since their daddy had the still in the woods way back behind their house. But they wasn’t nobody in Good Hope who would rat on them. They was precious few ways to make a living in our small place alongside the main road. Especially when summer brought a bad drought and farmers was losing their crops.

The Harrisons had a big family. Besides Otey and Orvin, their Mama and Daddy had at least eight more living in a small shack off the road. When you passed by, you’d see kids outside— older ones in their 20s and some young babies and none of them looking too smart. Otey’s head was oblong-shaped and he didn’t talk. If somebody asked him a question, he always looked to Orvin to answer. Orvin had brown eyes that turned down and he couldn’t talk plain. He also had a funny way of shuffling on his toes that made him look like he was going to pitch forward at any step. He had a big swelled-out bump on his forehead where somebody had hit him with a two-by-four when he was little, so his nickname was “Knot.” I didn’t call him that. I thought it might hurt his feelings, not just about his looks, but also thinking how bad it felt when it happened.

***

There were afternoons when Sorghum wouldn’t go back to the sawmill after eating. “I’ll catch up with you all later,” he told Shorty one day. He had been in Good Hope about two weeks and had started to linger more and more in the store with me. He sat there peeling the wrappers off yellow Kits and chewing them while he told me tall tales. I knew the things he said wasn’t true—no boy 20 years of age could have done all he said. Frank was 20 and I never heard him tell the kind of things Sorghum bragged on.

Sorghum told me he used to drive his uncle’s semi-truck cross-country. “I had a thing going on with two waitresses in a diner in Nevada,” he said. “I went out with whichever one was getting off work whenever I come through.”

I didn’t really want to hear about him and other women, but it kept him there talking to me.

“One time, while I was waiting for Janie to sign out, her husband comes in.”

My heart fell when I heard Sorghum had gone out with a married woman. I made up my mind I was not going to like him any more. But I didn’t tell him off, just went on dusting the shelves where we kept the wash powders and the Ivory Soap, ninety-nine and forty-four one hundreds percent pure, with the writing, “The soap that floats.” I just kept on listening to whatever he had to say. The radio was playing just the right song, “The Wild Side of Life.” I wondered if his brother knew that the Jim Lanfield back in Tennessee was Sorghum here in the middle of Kentucky.

With his feet propped up on a chair, Sorghum sat there lazing about and grinning like he owned the store. I could see he was reliving the whole thing with Janie and her husband. “He had on embroidered cowboy boots, and wore a black hat and had this coiled bullwhip hanging on his belt, so Janie and me started calling him ‘Lash Larue,’ after the western motion picture star.”

Daddy was gone to pick up eggs from Miz Effie’s farm, but I knew he wouldn’t like it when Sorghum wasn’t going back to the sawmill like he should of. If a man sat around and didn’t work, he wasn’t favored very high in Good Hope. And as Sorghum kept talking, I also knew Daddy would not let me keep company with a boy with so little morals. For another girl in the story was a preacher’s daughter back home.

Sorghum started laughing and couldn’t hardly talk. “I was driving across desert and while my brakes was cooling I wrote letters to the both of them.” He threw back his head and hee-hawed. “And I put a nice letter to the preacher’s daughter, describing the scenery with the cactus and the jack rabbits, in the envelope with Janie’s address. And the letter talking about Lash Larue in an envelope to my sweet little doll in Tennessee!” And Sorghum bent over double laughing.

I wasn’t laughing—not that Sorghum noticed. And it didn’t make me think any less of him, just less of myself for still wanting him.

That afternoon, Knot came into the store, shuffling half on his tiptoes. Usually, it was his Daddy, Mr. Harrison, would order 50-pound bags of sugar or a big sack of malt for his moonshine makings, but sometimes he would send Otey or Knot to pick it up.

I guess when Knot saw Sorghum uncrating the canned goods for me—pork ’n’ beans, and peas, and kraut—he stood just inside the door, not walking up to the main counter where I stood. Knot didn’t ask me for the usual big sack of sugar, and I watched his face as he went to the candy bins. He put both hands on the glass tops and stared at the orange and green gumdrops, then moved down, dragging his hands as a frame for his view of the chocolate drops.

It disturbed me to think he was stalling in his purchase just because Sorghum was there. Knot looked up at me, then at Sorghum, then back at the candy case. “Gimme a nickel’s wut,” he said, pointing to the orange, yellow, and white candy corn. He stretched his body backward to reach into the bottom of his overalls pocket and counted out five pennies, one at a time. On his way to the door, he turned to look at me, his face a question mark. Then he shook his head and left.

“Well, whadda you make of that?” Sorghum grinned.

Although I knew good and well why Knot didn’t ask for the sugar, I lied and shrugged.

“Them Harrisons is a quare-turned bunch, ain’t they?” he said.

I felt a sudden loyalty I didn’t understand, for I myself had laughed at the family, and looked down on them as poor ignorant people with dirty hair and runny noses. They didn’t even have a radio, much less a clean toilet, but they were good-hearted and generous. Otey and Knot were the ones who’d built the fires ever morning at the grade school before the teacher got there, even though their report cards were the worst. They were first to help push a car out of a ditch or to find a cow that had wandered off. They never bullied any smaller kids and didn’t fight one another.

Sorghum shook his beautiful head of dark red hair. “Now why do you suppose Knot came in looking and then left? Just because I was here?” He watched for my answer.

I pretended not to know what Sorghum was talking about. What did he know about the Harrison’s moonshine? I turned around with a soapy rag to wipe the counter where I’d made sandwiches.

Slapping his thigh, he said, “Do you reckon he thinks I’d turn him over to the revenuers?”

I shivered, kept my eyes down.

Sorghum came around the counter and put his hand on my shoulder. I wanted to turn to him, to see in his face that he was joking. But I was afraid I would not see that. He slid his hand down to my arm and slowly turned me toward him. “Well, looky,” he said. “I know they make illegal hootch out there behind their place. Don’t you think I get around?”

The lump in my throat made it hard to talk but I forced a teasing kind of answer. “Oh, I know you get around all right. Ain’t I done listened to all your bragging about your women?”

Sorghum smiled and looked at my lips and I knew he was going to kiss me. I wanted him to do just that, but it didn’t feel right. Besides, I worried that Daddy might walk in the front screen door.

I let Sorghum put both arms around me and he held me tight. I shut my eyes. His lips felt gentle, but he kissed whole-hearted, and I had the feeling that if I tried to pull away, he wouldn’t let me.

I stepped back a half step and stumbled against a shipment of Martha White self-rising flour. Sorghum caught me and kept me from falling, and then picked up the heavy flour sack. “Goodness, Gracious, it’s Good!” he said, and busted out laughing.

***

 None of the mill hands come in to sit around and talk that night, though I saw Frank and Shorty standing outside the store with Sorghum. My first thought was they saw him and me kissing, and I hoped Frank had got his eyes full.

They stood in the gravel in a tight circle and there was heat in their voices. Frank got close into Sorghum’s face, and I thought there’d be a fight, but Sorghum just backed up a couple of steps and then walked away.

 ***

The next day Sorghum didn’t show up at the sawmill and didn’t come back to the store. I felt my heart break ever 10 minutes. The Greyhound bus passed, I looked up; the screen door opened, I looked up; I’d hear a young man laugh, I looked up. I didn’t know what had happened, just that Sorghum was gone. The way I felt about him was mysterious, something awful and wonderful and so different, it didn’t even seem real.

I never asked Daddy about him for fear he’d say “Good riddance!” I couldn’t ask any of the men for the teasing I’d get, maybe even scorn. For there’d been no promises, only that I knew he liked me in a special way, just like I did him.

It was Shorty that finally told me. It wasn’t a brother who Jim Lanfield—that we called Sorghum—had left in Tennessee, it was a wife. It all come out when Shorty got a telephone installed at his house. He just happened to be in his living room when the phone rang and a woman said she was Mrs. Jim Lanfield.

I wish I could say I got over my little heartache soon, but the truth is that a 16-year-old never has a little heartache and never forgets such a love and its changes. As weeks went by, I healed up from the rawness of emotion hanging over the place, and I began to settle back into regular life between the store and planning for high school. I finally passed out of the cycle that blew me to the stars and back, and when I did it brought me ease.

I know just about when my heart began to beat normal. It was the end of summer but still hot, and Frank was standing outside the store, leaning against our screen door. He was looking up at the sky and I wondered if he thought it felt like rain. I kept thinking he would come inside and sit down, but he didn’t and he didn’t. And finally I walked over to the door and held it open. “Well,” I said, “are you coming in?” I put my hand on my hip. “Or what?”

And he stood up straight, pulled his hat down to his eyebrows and pushed his body real close to me in the doorway. With his face up in mine, he grinned a little and said, “Or what?”

 

Mary Popham’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared in The Courier-Journal, ForeWord Reviews, Appalachian Heritage, and The Louisville Review. She has produced short plays and published short stories in anthologies, holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is an active member in two writers groups. Her essay appears in This I Believe: Kentucky, and her novel Back Home in Landing Run was published by MotesBooks in 2013. She is currently writing a collection of short fiction. Her blog address is: marypopham.wordpress.com.


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