Feeling the Burn

I’ve always been fascinated by how childhood’s seemingly minor thresholds turn out to be major upheavals in how a child sees and understands the world, and it has been a common theme in my writing.  Our growth from innocence to experience exacts a high cost, and it’s what we pay, willing or not, to become adults. Last Saturday, March 19, marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my father, Frank Shell. I took one of the stories my dad told me about a lesson learned in his childhood and loosely transformed it into a work of fiction with several lessons. “Feeling the Burn” was originally published in Louisiana Literature*.  I’d like readers’ responses on what was learned that hot summer day.

 

Feeling the Burn

 

“I was hoping we’d get a soda this afternoon.” Fate Taylor kicked a rock repeatedly along the dirt road, weaving side to side to follow its path.

“Now how would that happen?” Terrell, Fate’s older brother by thirteen months, sidestepped Fate’s rock.

“Tell me again how it tastes.” Fate’s bare feet, calloused to convey him through an Ozark summer, were unhampered by the small stones, though he avoided the larger pointed rocks.

Terrell shrugged and chewed his biscuit as they ambled toward the game. “It burns your throat. But the burn feels good.” He added the last with a rise in inflection, conveying he understood it didn’t make sense. Fate watched Terrell’s lips repeat the description he had heard many times. He ran his tongue over his lips again. The heat absorbed the moisture entirely. Terrell kicked Fate’s rock. “But you ain’t gonna get that burn today.”

“Maybe I will,” Fate stuck out his chin in defiance as he looked at his brother.

Both boys had finished the second grade two days earlier, and summer stretched before them like a luscious treat to swallow whole. The next day their father Leland made them chop and stack a hickory hit by lightning for firewood. Cutting into that rock-hard wood burned their shoulder, arm and back muscles. All four Taylor boys crawled into bed at night with nothing left in their bodies that could possibly make provision for their family. They rammed cedar fence posts in the ground, hoed the tomatoes and pole beans, and cleared the meadow of sassafras striplings.

But this afternoon, the local boys of Simms Creek would take on the county seat team of Winnsboro at a baseball game, and Terrell and Fate’s mother Mattie had said they could attend, provided they finished their chores and Leland agreed. That morning Terrell milked while Fate gathered the eggs. They carried their burdens to the cool of the spring house. They wiped sweaty hands on their overall legs, and strained the steaming milk through a white cloth into frosted Mason jars which they lidded carefully and lowered into the spring.

“Think if we sold some of the eggs and got a soda Ma’s miss them?” Fate asked

Terrell frowned as he examined then tossed an egg Fate had cracked. “You blew your chance last year.”

One Saturday late last November, Mattie had their oldest brother Willis harness Jep the mule and drive the family to Greeson’s store in the cart. She sold the pecans that her boys had gathered that morning. She handed each boy a nickel in front of the store. Terrell had purchased a Coca-Cola, bolted it in a few gulps, and then belched with pride and surprise as the burning sensation in his throat ripened. Fate also bought a Coke, but did not drink it immediately. He seated himself on the left end of the store porch and placed the bottle beside him. Terrell tossed a baseball in the air and caught it.

“Hey, think fast!” Terrell fired the ball toward Fate. The ball glanced off Fate’s fingers, knocked over the bottle, and broke it. The dry gray boards quickly soaked up the liquid. Fate rubbed his knuckles, blinked, and glared at his brother.

“Why didn’t you catch it?” Terrell mocked. That night, he described the curious sensation of drinking the cola to his mother. “Burned a nickel is what you done,” Leland said, as he sat at the table and whittled a sling shot for Terrell. Mattie tapped her pointer finger against her lips from behind Leland, and raised her eyebrows at her boys.

I won’t lose it next time, Fate whispered.

The next month Fate, at home in bed with the whopping cough, missed the monthly trip to the store. After that, Leland had accompanied his family to keep an eye on Hank Greeson, who had demanded Leland pay with his best mule a debt he owed at the sawmill a couple of years ago. Even Mattie couldn’t prevail upon him to spare the boys a nickel in Greeson’s store. Leland groused, “I ain’t doing nothing to help that man. I’d like to—“ Mattie gently shushed her husband and gestured with her head at the boys.

But today, Fate’s desire made feeling the burn somehow seem possible. After five sprints to the creek and five trawls to the yard. A bucket in each hand, the brothers had filled Mattie’s wash pots. She whisked a bark-brown strand of hair behind her ear, and checked an impulse to hug her strapping seven- and eight-year-old boys. Terrell, with his wavy black bangs tumbling into his blue gray eyes, especially resembled her older brother Jessie, who had died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Fate’s bluish eyes replicated her father’s to the extent that, when Fate sat and read Dizzy and Daffy Deans’ stats from some newspaper he’d found, her father’s earnest countenance washed over his, and affection poured out of her eyes. She would turn aside quickly so that the boys would not have to make fun of her to cover their confusion at her tears.

“Go check with your pa.” She handed them the ham biscuits she’d wrapped in a handkerchief. They tucked the biscuits in their pockets and headed toward the barn. They found their father seated on a bench along the side, absorbed in his work on the reins of a bridle. The top buttons of Leland’s overalls were left undone so that his gut would fit in the 48 longs. He had shod his own farm animals for as long as the boys could remember. He could clench the back leg of a nervous horse and subdue the beast. His weathered fingertips were so calloused that it seemed impossible that he could actually feel with them.

“Damn city boy, coming in here from…” Leland grumbled. No one knew exactly where Hank Greeson had come from. The youngest Hutchison girl brought him home with her when she visited a cousin in St. Louis. Greeson’s business manner prompted old man Hutchison to bypass his older sons-in-law and install Greeson as manager of the family sawmill. His neatly groomed sideburns, waxed mustache and soft hands rankled the community farmers, but not as much as his smooth talking did. After the peach harvest last year, Greeson opened a dry goods store. Its convenience for the isolated hill folk around Simms Creed compelled most locals to swallow their distrust of him. But not Leland.

At first the man did not look up from his retooling. He fingered the tattered leather that had practically worn through. “Damn high-falutin’,” he muttered.

Terrell and Fate lowered their heads. The only religion their father could stomach was an occasional camp meeting, but Leland forbade profanity. Terrell had blurted that same word in front of Mattie one evening, with Leland nearby. Fate ran out of the house as soon as the whipping began, but he would get a dull ache in his stomach whenever he recalled the sound of Terrell whimpering in his bed that night.

Leland shook the bridle and the hardware jingled. “I knowed when I bought this damn bridle, that fancy leatherwork wouldn’t hold to.” His dep bass rose and fell in sarcasm.  “Needed a plain heavy strap, Greeson said this was all he had. Said it’d do. I knowed then it wouldn’t.” He slapped his thigh, which made the boys jump.

They stood at attention. A pair of mockingbirds swooped over the barn cat, who skulked through the apple orchard a little too close to the nest. Fate stared at them. Terrell studied a barn plank.

“I—damn that—teach him about fooling with a Taylor.”

Fate watched the cat watch the nest, despite the parent birds’ jeering. She snapped her tail back and forth as she waited for a moment to pounce on the baby birds, their open beaks swaying. Terrell stood unmoved, his blank eyes widened, as if they could speak instead of his mouth. Leland flung down the strap, spit to the side, and looped up to see his sons.

“You boys running off to the game.” The man had worked too deep into too many
Saturday sunsets as an eight-year-old himself to take any pleasure in his youngest sons rollicking like mavericks on a day perfect for thinning the corn.

“Y’sir,” Terrell barked.

Leland looked at his sons for a moment. They stood in front of him, ball caps in hand, respectfully of course, practically trembling. Leland’s love for his wife was permanent as a cowlick, though hidden much more effectively. And Mattie wanted her sons to enjoy the game He sighed and nodded. The boys turned, their muscles crouched for gathering speed. Leland reached for the strap and scowled. “Don’t you boys have nothing to do with Hank Greeson. Nothing.”

The brothers tossed “Y’sir” over their shoulders and kicked up dust. The youngest scudded away more quickly than his brother.

“La-FAY-ette TAY-lor,” Leland roared. “You hear me?”

Fate came to a standstill thirty yards away and turned to his father. “Yes, sir!”

The father stared hard at the son, who did not move. “Go on, then,” Leland grunted. Fate flew.

The boys reveled along the lane under a sky so clear that it looked as if a single drop of blue had been added to a pail of white paint. The air hung heavy with the scent of honeysuckle, and bees buzzed lazily in search of it. The road was already waving in the distance. They had neglected to draw from one of the buckets on their many sallies delivering the wash water, and now they licked their lips often.

“Don’t see how a burn can feel good,” Fate mused. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, smooth and soft inside. His three older brothers had all worn these overalls. The knees were patched, and the bottom had thinned to white, but the hardware was still good. He munched the biscuit, rubbed his hands on his thighs.

They cut through a peach orchard to run by Uncle Breck’s house. They took turns and sipped from the common dipper out of the well. Aunt Alta waved to them from the yard, behind her own tub and pile of overalls. Fate licked his lips again.  “I got to get a soda.”

They plowed through blackberry briars beside Uncle Brecks’s meadow, then bull nettles in the widow Claypool’s pasture. A hop over Piney Creek, and skip through a stand of chinquapins, and then reached the fence that ran along the gravel road toward the playing meadow and , a half mile deeper in the woods, Dodd Hole, the spring-fed swimming spot. School mates and older boys, some of whom steered family wagons or sat astride mules, shared the road with them.

At the field, a few faded quilts had been scattered on the ground, not too close to the action. The Winnsboro players stepped off the baselines and set out flour bags filled with dirt for bases. Several boys danced around Hank Greeson’s automobile, parked beside a grove of sycamores, away from the wagon teams. He had brought it back from St. Louis two weeks ago, the first in the county. The boys gawked at the soft-looking black tires and matte black body, and dared each other to touch the steering wheel. Community folk arrived in their wagons. Children spilled over the boards and mothers removed picnic hampers. Fathers looped the reins to nearby trees, slipped in a chaw, and spat with authority.

Hank Greeson strolled around his automobile. “You’re welcome to stop by my store, on the left up a ways. You know we even got ice now,” he winked at a Winnsboro girl. He smiled down at the Simms Creek folk, each of whom mumbled, “Afternoon Mr. Greeson,” without looking him in the eye. The Taylor boys hovered behind a pine bench used by the Simms Creek players, not too close.

The leadoff hitter fouled the first two pitches. When the first soared beyond third base, a band of local boys shot out after the ball. One of them delivered it to Hank Greeson, who playfully rubbed his head, like one does a dog. Fate looked at his brother, but Terrell stiffened. He shook his head slightly. When the second fouled rolled to the right of right field, Fate started to run, which a head start over the other boys. Terrell grabbed his arm as he passed, and clutched a handful of fabric. “Are you crazy?”

“I was hoping for a chance like this,” Fate countered.

“It’s not worth it.” Terrell held on to his brother’s sleeve.

Fate pulled his arm away and streamed up the right field line. But one of his schoolmates beat him to the ball, and proudly returned it to Greeson. “Thanks, son,“ Greeson took the ball. “Come by after the game and claim your soda pop.”

Fate looked at Terrell, who still shook his head. Fate stayed along the right field line, clapped his hands together and chattered, begging the batter to hit one his way. His farm work-hewn legs churned as if a split second would make a difference. He braved rattlers and ticks to run down the homers that rolled into the woods beyond the clearing. He didn’t notice that after the fifth boy approached Greeson with a returned ball, the man wasn’t saying anything about a free soda anymore. Terrell sauntered behind the home plate bag. He happened to catch bare-handed a pop-up heading toward a cluster of teenaged girls, who giggled. Their attention softened him somewhat. He grinned, shrugged, and turned around to find Greeson. In the seventh inning, Fate finally arrived at a right field foul before anybody else. He thought his heart would burst with excitement. He rotted the ball back to Greeson, who stood behind the crowd. Fate rubbed his lips together, and they stuck. He waited for Greeson to offer him a free soda, but Greeson just took the ball, nodded in the boy’s general direction, and continued his discussion with a Winnsboro man about a litter of bird dogs.

After eight and a half innings, Simms Creek led by two. The Winnsboro players silently gathered their bats and gloves while the home boys whooped and cheered.

“Now be sure and stop over to my store,” Greeson gloated over the dissipating Winnsboro crowd as he walked toward his automobile.

“Ain’t you heading to the Hole?” A classmate called to Terrell and Fate.

“Want to sit in back with the others?” A neighbor called them from his wagon. But the boys were already soaring up the road toward the store. Greeson passed them, dust spiraling behind the car, caking them with a layer of grime.

They reached the store after most of the crowd. Mule teams rested, their heads bent low, their great nostrils conjuring clouds of dust as they exhaled. The boys held their tender sides, which burned with the final burst of energy they used to run the mile and a half to the mercantile. They were blindly thirsty, their thin cotton shirts wadded under their overalls. They peeked through the door to the short, narrow aisles jammed by Winnsboro citizens purchasing stick candy, tobacco, and strawberries.

At the door, the boys hung back. Fate retreated to the spot where his soda had leached into the boards. Sweat coursed from his forehead into his eyes, which made him blink rapidly. Inside, Greeson addressed a local farmer’s wife who brought in a basket of eggs: “Now Miz Davis, that’ll go on your credit for last week, but it don’t get you nothing today till Hap delivers that rick of red oak.”

Greeson’s voice grew higher-pitched as he swaggered toward the front of the store. Fate looked at Terrell with raised eyebrows. The boys, ratty ball caps in hand, crept near the door. It swung open as a Winnsboro girl with auburn ringlets and a wide brimmed straw hat exited. She held a glass soda bottle. Her starched white cotton dress seemed fresh in spite of the swelter. A sweet scent like their Aunt Alta’s roses emanated from her. She dipped her eyes and kept walking. The boys fell back two steps, dazzled. Greeson patted the shoulder of a man behind her and said “We’ll have watermelons next month. Juiciest in the state.” Fate attempted to speak, but his parched throat offered no sound. As the Winnsboro stranger made his way out, Terrell and Fate slunk over to allow him to pass, and he nodded to them. In that moment of movement, Greeson shut the door, strode to the register, and rang up the next sale.

Terrell and Fate waited for someone on the inside to allow them passage. But as customers left, they ignored the dirty boys who lurked on the porch. After an hour or so, the store emptied. Greeson bolted the front door and proceeded to count the day’s profits at the register.

Fate peered in the screen door. He knocked lightly, but Greeson didn’t look up. Greeson slipped out the back and drove away. The dust choked the boys’ throats, and they heaved and coughed. Dodd Hole was the opposite direction from home, and most of their buddies would be gone. They did not need company now, anyway. Fate had lost his handkerchief somewhere in the woods. They heat and toil of the day caught up with them, and they began to scratch the chiggers they had not noticed earlier.

The boys slumped off the porch and walked around to the back, where they coaxed water from a pump to wash their faces and to suck the tepid brownish liquid out of their cupped hands. Terrell headed for home with Fate a few steps behind, their heads down. They had walked four hundred yards when Fate looked up to see Greeson beside his automobile. He leaned against the driver’s side of the car, arms crossed in front, and watched the boys approach. They didn’t hurry.

“Afternoon boys,” he said. “Why didn’t you come get your sodas?”

Fate started to speak but a glare from Terrell silenced him. Terrell continued to walk along the road as if Greeson weren’t there. Greeson continued. “I’m having a bit of trouble. What say you get your pa to bring his mule and tow my automobile?”

Fate followed Terrell’s lead of ignoring the man, but he managed furtive glances at Greeson with each step. Fate’s eyes strained to the left, watching Greeson, as they passed on the passenger’s side. Greeson turned around to continue talking to them.

“Course I’ll pay your pa a dollar or two.”

Fate looked to see what Terrell would do. Terrell kept walking, staring at the ground. Fate looked down, too.

“We’ll make time to go back and get the sodas.”

Fate’s head jerked to stare at Terrell, who frowned, slightly shook his head, and walked faster.

“You, little fellow, get your pa. Ever tasted a soda?”

“He said he’d pay him,” Fate hissed to his brother’s back ahead of him. Terrell shoved his hands in his overall pockets. Fate’s eyes were full of tears. His thirst had returned and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. But he didn’t know the extent of his trouble until he looked up ahead to see his father on Jep, heading to Greeson’s store, the shoddy rein and bridle draped across the saddle horn. Fate took off running toward his father. When he reached the man, he flung his arms around Jep. The mule’s steaming black-brown coat shed onto Fate’s cheek and sleeves. Fate shuddered and almost collapsed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Greeson’s automobile’s stopped on the side of the road. He said he’d pay you to tow it.”

“What you tell him?

“We kept walking. Terrell wouldn’t say nothing.”

“Good.”

Fate gulped. He thought of the girl in white holding the soda bottle. Jep twitched his tail and Leland squinted up the road to Terrell and farther on, Greeson, who watched the boys and his father.

Fate looked back toward Terrell. “There’s something else.”

Leland rested the reins on his thigh. Fate lowered his voice. “Mr.—they—he—gives kids a soda if they chase down the foul balls. And we done it. But he didn’t give us the soda.”

“Who?”

“Greeson.” Fate’s voice came out a hoarse whisper.

Leland’s face contorted. With the suddenness of a horse leaping over a fallen tree, the enormous man dismounted the mule. He snatched Fate’s arm, and still holding the bridle, blistered his son’s backside with a torrent that whipped him around like a wet dishrag. Fate clenched his teeth to keep from crying, but the day’s disappointment, coupled with the knowledge that his confession would earn Terrell a whipping too, and that he’d pay for that later, overcame him. He sobbed until his shoulders shook. Tears and mucus mixed with seat and dirt, and formed little roads on his cheeks, lips, and chin. Fate wiped his nose on his sleeve and then his sleeve on his leg. Very softly he said, “Pa. I just wanted to feel the burn.”

Leland shifted the bridle to his left hand and turned his right one palm up. An apple-seed-sized gouge bubbled blood, from where the tongue of a buckle had gored his thumb during the thrashing. He narrowed his eyes and looked up the road toward Terrell, who had slowed down. Leland returned his gaze to his youngest son. Fate stood there sobbing with dirt-caked toes, black beds in his neck, black crescents under his fingernails. Greeson’s pale, think hands could not chop firewood as well as Terrell or Fate, but Greeson could cipher. And he had out-ciphered Leland and his boys.

Leland gritted his teeth. His bull arms quivered. He grabbed Jep’s reins, mounted, and nudged the mule in the right direction. “Come on, then.”

 

 

*Louisiana Literature, A Review of Literature and the Humanities, is published bi-annually by Southern Louisiana University. http://www.louisianaliterature.org/

This story appeared in vol. 23/1 in Spring/Summer 2006, p. 116.  http://www.newpages.com/item/6203-louisiana-literature-volume-23-number-1

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