winter 2020 Kenyon Review submission
“C’mon, sugar.” My Papaw is holding the front door open for me. He gently takes my five year old hand into his sun damaged, calloused hand. We say goodbye to Mama, who hands me her cup, with the tiniest bit of coffee left in the bottom, an extinguished cigarette butt bobbing around in it. “Be good for Mamaw and Papaw, now, you hear me? I’ll see you tomorrow morning, just like always.” Papaw leads me through the house and toward the backdoor.
I am barefoot, wearing a yellow sundress. In the kitchen, my Mamaw stops us and takes the lipstick stained mug from me. Right before we get to the backdoor, she hollers after us, “Now look, I just brushed her hair! Don’t let it get all tangled!” This is no small feat. Mamaw and Mama say that with hair like mine – thick, black, all the way down to my waist – I don’t need a coat for winter. “Hush, Ruby. You should’ve done fixed it. She’s gonna drive the tractor with me. Ain’t you, baby?” He looks down at me. “Yessir!”
Once we are outside, he picks me up and swings me onto his shoulders. We make our way across the backyard. Immediately I have to duck under the clothesline as we dodge the laundry that’s hanging. Once clear of those obstacles, I pluck a ripe fig off its branch as we pass by the fig trees. Just ahead is Papaw’s workshed, where he stops in and grabs the keys hanging above an array of dusty, rusty tools. He reaches up and hands them to me, saying, “Now hold on tight to them keys. We’re about to go by the pond, and you don’t wanna drop them in there, now do you?” On the other side of the shed, about 30 yards away, is the pond where he fishes, and beyond the pond is “the woods,” the pine forest where he hunts for deer and wild boar.
Just between the pond and the woods is a clearing with a stand alone aluminum awning, under which is a tractor. In one fell swoop he takes me from his shoulders and whirls me onto the seat. Papaw is small himself, not taller than 5’8” and rail thin his entire life. He will never weigh more than 130 pounds, despite the fried southern suppers Mamaw cooks for him; despite finishing a six pack of beer after supper every night; despite having bacon, biscuits, and fried eggs for breakfast every morning; despite coming home daily at noon from his paper mill job in the neighboring town – Bastrop, Louisiana – to a dinner (not lunch, mind you, dinner) of leftovers from supper the night before, with a glass of buttermilk that he crumbles his cornbread into.
Papaw hoists himself up onto the tractor by grabbing the bottom of the steering wheel with one hand, and a metal handle that juts out from the seat with the other. Standing on the platform that encases the 3 foot long gear shift, he picks me up by wrapping his forearm around my waist and sets me on his lap just as his rear end lands in the seat. He looks at me, his arm still holding me to him, and says, “You ready, sugar booger? You got them keys for me?”
I hold them out. Papaw points to the largest one, and then at the ignition. “Take that big one, and put it in there.” I try a few times. I am afraid of breaking something or doing it wrong, so I’m just not putting enough force into it. “Shove it in there like you’re mad at somebody, like when you was fussing at your brother the other day.” I do it. I get it all the way in. I look at Papaw and we both grin. He takes the liberty of turning the ignition over, then puts my hand on the knob of the gear shift, and rests his hand on top of mine. We shift, and the tractor lurches forward, as if it is surprised to be moving at all. My spindly, baby soft arm marionettes beneath his, doing the exact same movements in miniature.
We roll onto a barren section of the garden, which lies between a dozen rows of corn and a half dozen rows of peanuts, on the other side of which are tomatoes, okra, and butter beans. The garden runs the length of the front yard, the house, the backyard, the fig trees, and the shed, ending just short of the pond. I feel every jolt and bump, and although I’m nervous, I know I’m safe. I am an easily frightened child, often called “dainty” and “sensitive” by grownups. Papaw isn’t one of them, though. When he hears Mama and Mamaw say that, he says, “No she aint. She’s my strong little Mandy.”
“Look at you! A little farmer, just like your papaw. You’re doing good. How about you do some steering?” The steering wheel is so wide that in order to hold it with both hands, I have to outstretch my arms as far as I can, the way a child does when she says, “I love you THIS much!” “Alright now, I want you to go left, toward the corn.” I turn the steering wheel with the strength of my entire body, and I squeal with delight as the tractor swings in the direction I am taking it. Of course, Papaw has his hand on the very bottom of the wheel, controlling every move.
My hair is getting in my eyes, flying in front of us and all around us when the wind picks up. “We gotta do something about this hair of yours so we can finish up and go in for supper, before Mamaw calls us in.” Papaw shifts the tractor into neutral, picks up his left foot, sets it against the steering wheel, and unlaces his work boot. He has me stand on the seat and face away from him. He uses his boot lace to gather all my hair into one hand and corral into submission. “Well how about that? You’re a farmer, and I’m a beautician!” he says, laughing. He turns me around to face him, and I catch my reflection in his glasses.
Just as Papaw shifts the tractor into first gear, we hear Mamaw yelling from the backdoor, “Supper’s ready and it’s getting cold! Get that baby in here, Bobby!” Papaw looks down at me and smiles. He starts the tractor back up, then shouts back, with a hand cupped over one ear, “WHAT’S THAT, RUBY? I CAN’T HEAR YOU,” as we roll past the corn.