Archive for July, 2009

Skeet’s Bride, Part 2

July 4, 2009

Loretta waited by the front door, scanning the street for the approach of the red Ford pickup. She had pondered long about what to wear. She didn’t think Francis and his brothers were churchgoers, so it seemed a little out-of-place to wear something really dressy. On the other hand, since they apparently maintained the custom of Sunday as a day of rest, they might expect proper attire as a gesture of respect. After agonizing over her options most of a sleepless night, she chose a middle course: a nice skirt and her best white cotton blouse, with her favorite pink sweater thrown over her shoulders for a casual accent.

ford

Then there was the difficulty of what to call him. She imagined his brothers called him “Skeet,” and she wasn’t sure what their reaction would be to hearing her refer to him as “Francis.” She had visions of the ridicule they might heap on him, the not-so-sly glances they might aim at him and at her. “Francis” just didn’t seem to fit, somehow, even if it was the name he preferred her to use. She made up her mind to ask him about it when he arrived—if she could remember.

Finally, the red pickup hove into view. Though she longed to dash down the steps and wait for him by the side of the street, Loretta made herself stay in the house and wait for Skeet to knock at the door like a gentleman. “He’s here, Aunt Darlene,” she called over her shoulder, just as Skeet rapped at the door.

***

It was a gray day, but the clouds weren’t ominous, as they might have been before a summer thunderstorm. Rather, they formed a sort of indistinct, gray dome over the day; gave it a kind of all-around, diffused light, rather than the direct, straight-line glare that came on a clearer day. The blacktop road wound up the flank of Crowley’s Ridge, then dipped down into the hollow on the other side. Skeet turned in to a red gravel driveway beside a battered gray mailbox teetering precariously atop a weather-beaten post, the family name slapdashed in black paint on the mailbox’s side. The driveway angled up the side of a hill toward the large, two-story frame farmhouse where the brothers lived.

He stopped the truck, got out, and went around to open her door, as he always did. Today she was too nervous to wonder, as she usually did, where a forty-year-old, bachelor hog farmer had learned such manners. He held her elbow as they went up the steps onto the large front porch. Their footsteps seemed to echo through the empty space beneath the wide planks as they approached the screened front door. The wooden door on the other side of the screen was closed. Skeet twisted the doorknob, but it was locked. Muttering under his breath, he knocked loudly.

After what seemed a long time, they heard footsteps approaching the door from inside the house. The knob jiggled as someone unlocked the door, then it came open with protesting squeaks of the door against its frame. Standing in the doorway was a shorter, stockier, older version of Skeet—Francis, she corrected herself. Their greeter looked dourly first at her companion, then at her, then back again at him. “What’s the matter?  Kitchen door not good enough for company?”

house2

Instead of answering, Francis turned to her. “This here’s Homer, my older brother,” he said, jerking a thumb toward the man in the doorway. “Reckon Deke’s inside, somewhere.” He stood aside, motioning her toward the entrance. For a moment, it looked to her as if Homer intended to block her way into the house, but he stood aside, even nodded gruffly to her as she approached. She gave him her best imitation of a sincere, easygoing smile, and stepped cautiously in. “Loretta,” he heard Francis say to Homer as they followed.

Just inside the entry, a dark, pine-paneled stairway rose to a landing, then turned at a right angle and ascended into the dark upper reaches of the old house. To the right of the entry opened the parlor, which they entered. Francis escorted her to the only upholstered chair in the room, an overstuffed armchair with glimpses of horsehair  showing at some of the seams in the faded, brown-and-green tapestry covering. She sat down, and Francis sat beside her on a straight-backed, cane-bottomed chair. Homer sat across the room in an old-looking mission rocker, beside a smoke-stained brick fireplace.

The older brother had on new-looking blue denim bib overalls and a white dress shirt, buttoned to the neck. His thinning hair was straight and steely gray—the same color as his eyes—and parted razor-straight down the middle of his skull. He wore scarred black brogans and his hands, though appearing freshly scrubbed, bore countless nicks and scratches with the dirt of his vocation rubbed indelibly into them. He looked everywhere in the room but at her, rocking slowly with his hands on his knees.

She cleared her throat, and to her the sound was as loud as Gabriel’s trumpet. “Your house is certainly nice,” she said. “Lots of room.”

Homer grunted. “Too hard to heat in the winter. Damned ol’ place is fallin’ down.”

She thought Francis stiffened beside her when Homer used the swear word, but she forced herself to keep a pleasant expression. “Well, I hadn’t thought of that,” she said, “but I guess you’re right.”

Homer stared straight ahead.

“You brothers certainly keep a clean house, though,” she tried again, looking around brightly. “Not a speck of dust anywhere, that I can see.”

“Just ‘cause there ain’t no woman here don’t mean we have to live like the pigs.” Homer said.

Loretta felt her cheeks burning, but she nodded and smiled anyway. She tried to think of an agreeable reply, but nothing came to her. She felt herself slumping down in the armchair and the strange thought crossed her mind that perhaps she could just disappear into the deep, faded cushions, to pop back out when this ordeal was over.

Footsteps clomped down the hall and another man came into the room. Despite knowing that Francis had a twin brother, Loretta was still startled to see a middle-aged carbon copy standing before her, smiling bashfully and sweeping a seed company cap off his head. Somehow, she wasn’t ready for men the age of Francis and his brother to still look so much alike—as if the years should have weathered them differently, made their appearances more distinct from each other. And as she studied Deke’s face, she did begin to notice subtle variations; something about the way he held his eyes, the way his face moved when he talked. He nodded at her, as if agreeing with himself about something. At least one of Francis’s brothers liked her.

“Dinner’s ready,” Deke said in a soft voice, “ya’ll better come on in.”

table

“That’s Deke,” Francis mumbled to her as the four of them trooped down the hall to the kitchen and surrounded the sturdy oak pedestal table. The food was plain—ham, mashed potatoes, purple-hulled peas stewed with hamhock, corn on the cob, and cornbread—and the bowls in which it resided and the plates at each place setting were chipped and mismatched. Again, though, Loretta noticed that the kitchen, though lacking any hint of adornment, was very clean.

Francis was to her right, Deke to her left, and Homer across the table from her. Without ceremony, the two other brothers slung themselves into their seats and reached for the steaming bowls of food, then suddenly froze, staring as Francis shuffled awkwardly behind her and held her chair. As they continued to gawk, he gently scooted the chair beneath her before seating himself. Loretta ducked her head, abashed, but from the corners of her eyes she watched as Deke and Homer tried to digest their brother’s unexpected outbreak of etiquette.

***

Homer ate with his head down, saying nothing and looking at no one. Every so often the woman across from him would make some useless remark, but he saw no need to answer. He heard Skeet’s mumbled replies and he knew Deke probably had that stupid grin plastered across his face, but Homer refused to allow himself to be drawn any further into this foolish dress-up party than he already had been.

The woman had finished her tea and the pitcher sat on the table between Skeet and him. “Francis, could you please pass me some tea?” she asked.

Homer’s face jerked up to stare at her, and his mouth dropped open. “Francis?” His disbelieving eyes swung toward his younger brother. “Did she call you ‘Francis?’”

Skeet’s chin jutted defensively as he handed her the tea pitcher. “I like to hear somebody use my real name. Ain’t no crime in that.”

Homer made a derisive sound and shook his head. “Damn fool.”

***

Embarrassment stung Loretta’s eyes, made the top of her head feel hot. She’d been afraid of something like this and was mortified to realize she had forgotten to ask Francis what she should do about his name. Beside her, he picked up his fork and started to stab a piece of ham, but from the corner of her eye she saw him lower the fork. He sat very still now, sat so still for so long that despite her mortification she risked raising her eyes enough to look at him.

drink

He was staring at the top of Homer’s head, bowed busily over his plate. Francis glared at his older brother and his jaw clenched and unclenched, the muscles in his cheek rippling like a boxer flexing his biceps for the crowd before a match. Homer must have felt his younger brother’s gaze, for he looked up in mid-chew. His eyes flickered back and forth between Loretta and Francis. “What?”

“She ain’t like that Naylor woman, Homer,” Skeet said in a low, dangerous voice. “Loretta ain’t gonna do me like that woman done you. She ain’t that kind. You got no call to treat her like this.”

Deke ducked his head and scraped the last of the mashed potatoes off his plate and shoveled them into his mouth. Francis stared, unmoving and unblinking.

Homer’s jaw sagged and his cheeks bloomed pink. Then he gritted his teeth and his lips clenched close and white as he raised a hand and aimed the first two fingers of his right hand like a double-barreled pistol at his brother’s face.

“Well—let—me—tell—you—something,” he sputtered, jabbing the air with each word, “you—just—better—watch—your—mouth—with—me.”

Deke sat very still with his head down and his hands clasped in his lap, a look of resignation and embarrassment on his face. Loretta wished hard to simply disappear.

“You keep your nose out of my past,” Homer went on, “‘cause it’s got nothin’ to do with her.” He jabbed in Loretta’s direction. “If you want to chase some damn fool woman around on the weekends, that’s none of my lookout. I don’t give a hoot in hell if the whole town’s laughin’ at you behind your back, runnin’ around with some floozy that got herself knocked up and come up here to live it down—”

Skeet’s chair fell backwards as he vaulted to his feet. He took two large, quick steps around the table and his hand shot to Homer’s shirt front, grabbing it like the loose skin on a dog’s back. Homer seized his brother’s wrist and struggled backward to his feet, knocking his own chair over in the process. “Let go a me, you damn fool!” he said between clenched teeth. Slowly, Skeet released his older brother, slowly he stepped back a pace and allowed his arms to drop to his sides, his fists to unclench.

“You got no call to talk about her like that,” Skeet pronounced in a solemn voice. His tone was odd; less like anger and more like regret. “No call.”

Loretta’s throat suddenly felt like she’d just swallowed a peach seed sideways. She had to get out of here, right now. She scooted her chair back from the table and ran in quick steps out of the kitchen and down the hall toward the front door.

chair

“No call,” she heard Francis say one more time, just as she reached for the rusty doorknob.

Francis caught up with her on the front porch, managed to get enough in front of her to open the pickup door. She yanked it out of his hand as she slammed it. As he started around to the driver’s side, Homer stomped out onto the porch. “Go on! Get the hell outta here and never come back, for all I care!” he yelled, stabbing the air with the first two fingers of his right hand. “You’ll get no good from the likes a her, I’ll promise you that!” He stared angrily after the truck as it swung around and fishtailed in its hurry to get down the driveway.

 

(To be continued…)

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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