Rural Free Delivery

Louis Dumkowski hummed along with the nasal country song being played on the radio of the 18-wheeler in which he was riding.  He was somewhere north of Texarkana, Arkansas, having been picked up south of St. Louis, Missouri, by Buck Tergen, the driver, who was on his way to Carthage, Texas with a load of oil refinery supplies.

Such luck didn’t usually happen to Louis, so he was willing to ignore that the incessant country music playing on the radio was actually driving him a bit crazy, preferring jazz or, in a pinch, hip hop,  himself.  If it hadn’t been for the fact that he was getting tired of standing beside the highway with his thumb out trying to hitch rides, he would have turned down Tergen’s offer of a ride.  The twangy guitar and nasal whining about missing an ‘old country home,’ along with Tergen’s thumping on the steering wheel in time with the music was driving him crazy.  And, then, there was him humming along – he never did that to other music – which he could neither stop nor avoid.  But, it beat walking, so he endured it.

Buck Tergen didn’t talk much, which was just as well with Louis, as he had a horrible southern accent that Louis found difficult to follow.  For instance, when he stopped to pick Louis up, he said, “Wheer yall bound?”  This made no sense to Louis, so he just stood there with his mouth open, and his thumb pointing south.  “G’don in,” Buck had said.  “Um gonna Ca’thage.  Yall gonna thet fer?”  Now, Louis did recognize Carthage, the town just to the north of where his mother’s relatives lived, so he nodded and hopped into the cab next to Tergen.

Louis had a hard time understanding the thick accents he encountered as he traveled farther south, but he enjoyed the outgoing friendliness of the people.  Tergen, even went past the oil refinery in Carthage to which he was delivering supplies, and drove another ten miles south on U.S. Highway 59 into neighboring Shelby County to drop Louis off at the road leading to his relatives’ farm.  “Twudn’t no problem,” he said.  “Compny’s payin’ me fer mileage, so I makun extry few dollahs.  Yall take keer now, ya heah.”  And, after Louis jumped down from the cab, he tipped his John Deere cap, made a U-turn and in a squeal of tires drove off.

He’d never been in Texas before, but had met his cousins once when they came to Detroit to visit, back when he was about twelve or thirteen.  He wondered if they’d remember or recognize him; not that he’d changed all that much.  He hadn’t grown more than two or three inches since his thirteenth birthday.

Following Tergen’s directions, Louis set off down the Farm-to-Market road, a two-lane blacktop road jutting off Highway 59, looking for the sign for the “Lazy-W’ ranch, which he was told would be on the right about a quarter mile from the highway.

After about five minutes of walking, he spotted the sign, faded black letters on a cracked white board set on two poles over an opening in the barbed wire fence that had bordered the road.  A gravel track led up to the two-story house, a wood frame structure with a porch that ran across the entire front.  Louis walked up on the porch and knocked on the door.

A short, stocky black woman opened the door.  “Yes,” she said.  “What can I do for you?”

“Uh, I’m looking for the Woods family,” Louis said.  “I was told they lived here.”

“What you want the Woods for?”

“I’m Louis Dumkowski, a relative of theirs from Detroit,” he said.  “I’m just visiting them.”

The woman’s dark brown face wrinkled and her eyes narrowed as she regarded Louis, who was about the same height as she, and who didn’t look like any relative of the Woods family she’d ever seen.  “You just wait right here, Mr. Dumb Cow, and I’ll tell the missus you here.”

“It’s Dumkowski,” Louis said as she slammed the door in his face.  So much for southern hospitality, he thought.

A few minutes later the door was opened by a tall, angular woman with gray-streaked blond hair, and narrow pinched features who looked just like Louis’ mother.  “Well, I do declare,” she said.  “It is you, Louis.  Land sakes, you haven’t changed a bit.”  She grabbed Louis’ hand and pulled him into the house.  “I’m sorry Magnolia left you standing out on the porch like that, but she don’t let strangers in the house.”

“No problem, Aunt Pearl,” Louis said, removing his bag from his shoulder.  “Guess I can understand that, being from Detroit and all.”

“I reckon that’s a fact.  How’s Ruby and her husband?  What brought you all the way down here to east Texas?  How you been getting on?”

This was two questions more than Louis liked dealing with, as it made if\t difficult to form lies, but it was the same way his mother asked questions.  “Mom and dad are doing fine,” he said.  At least, he supposed they were.  He hadn’t seen them in months.  “Remember the last time you came to visit; you invited me to come down any time?”  That had been over ten years ago, and he hoped she did remember.  “I’m doing fine.”  Now, that wasn’t so bad, one lie out of three.

But, Aunt Pearl wasn’t finished.  The questions went on for half an hour; often questions that she answered herself.

“Have you had anything to eat?  Of course not; at least not anything decent, being on the road and all,” she said to Louis, and then yelled toward the kitchen.  “Magnolia, fix this boy some vittles.”

“I already ate, Aunt Pearl.”

“Well, okay, if you’re sure.  Forget the food Magnolia, fix him some ice tea.  You prefer yours without sugar, right?  I know you Yankees don’t like sugar in your ice tea.  Make it without sugar, Magnolia.”

“Tea would be fine, thanks.”

“How’s my sister, Ruby?  She still on a diet?  I know she was last time we were up there?  Would you like to rest a spell before Cleophus and the girls get home?  We usually have supper as soon as they get here.”

“Mom’s fine,” Louis said when she paused for breath.  “I don’t think she’s trying to lose weight any more.  Yeah, I think I could use a nap.”

“Well, let me show you where you’ll be sleeping.  We have a spare bedroom in this big old house.  How long you plan on staying?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.  Maybe just a few days.”  He figured a week would be enough time to come up with a plan to keep Vinnie from finishing what he started.  He hoped it would.

She took his arm and steered – actually pulled – him off and up the stairs, then down a long hallway to a room at the very end.

“This is the spare bedroom.  Magnolia keeps it made up real nice.  It ain’t big, but you don’t need a lot of space just for sleeping I always say.”  She ushered him into a tiny bedroom, containing a four poster bed, complete with flowered quilt, a night stand with an ancient looking lamp, a chair, and a chest of drawers.  A door opposite the foot of the bed, Louis assumed was the closet.  “You just holler if you need anything now.  Magnolia will bring your tea up in a minute.”

Then, like a puff of smoke, she was gone, leaving Louis standing in the middle of the room, completely befuddled – much as he often was after a conversation with his mother. He tossed his bag into the corner, sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked off his shoes.  I’ll just lay down here and rest my eyes for a few minutes, he thought, and immediately fell asleep.

Louis was dreaming of a particularly well endowed lap dancer who worked at the Top Hat on 38th Street, when a sudden whooping sound yanked him awake.  He was sprawled on his back, the tent at his crotch betraying the nature of his dream; and standing at the foot of the bed, gawking, pointing, and generally making noises like angry chickens, were two tall, big-haired blond girls – his cousins, Earlie Mae and Ginger Lee Woods, two and four years younger than Louis respectively.  He hadn’t seen them in over ten years, but nothing had changed.

“Gawd, will ya looka thet boner,” Earlie Mae said, pointing at Louis.  “He musta bin dreaming of some real honey, I tell you!”

“Ain’t thet the truth,” Ginger Lee chimed in.  “Ain’t seen one like thet ‘cept on Pa’s old blue tick hound.”

Louis quickly rolled over onto his stomach.  “Damn, would you two get outta here,” he said plaintively.  “Can’t a guy get no privacy ‘round this place?”

Earlie Mae snorted through her rather large nose, and tossed her permed and frosted blond hair.  “Sheeyat, Louis, you ain’t got nothin’ I ain’t seen before.  Hell, matter fact, pa’s old hound bigger than you.”

This greatly amused both girls and they collapsed into each other’s arms, giggling loudly.  Louis could feel his face heating up, and knew he was blushing as red as a lobster after it’s been in the pot too long.  “If you two don’t get outta here, I’m gonna call Aunt Pearl.”

They stopped giggling long enough to make faces at him; then began again.  Finally, Ginger, the youngest recovered her composure.  “Okay, you little runt.  We just come to tell you it’s time fer supper anyhow.  You been sleeping for three hours.  Pa don’t like it when folks come to the supper table late.”

They left, still giggling.

Louis was so embarrassed by the whole episode there was nothing left to be embarrassed about.  Damn!  They haven’t changed, he thought, still trying to sneak a peek at my business. He got off the bed, adjusted his pants to make sure everything was quiet and unobtrusive, put on his shoes and went down to the dining room.

All four Woods were already seated, Cleophus Earl Woods at the head of the table, a frown on his craggy, sun browned face; Pearl sat opposite him, nearest the kitchen; and the two girls at either side of her.  An extra setting was at Cleophus’ right.  Louis sat in the chair in front of the setting.

“We start supper rat et six ‘round here,” Cleophus said, glaring at Louis.  “Now, you jest got here, so I kin make an allowance this one time.”  The two girls giggled.  “Shet up you two ‘fore I take my belt to ya.”  The giggling stopped as if someone had thrown a switch.  “Ma, you kin put the vittles on now.”

Pearl got up and scurried out.

Cleophus Earl Woods was thin, but had the knotted hands and wiry muscles of someone who had spent his life tending cattle, cutting brush, and shooting bad guys.  Louis was never sure about the latter, but didn’t doubt he was capable of it.  When he was small, he’d been scared to death of his aunt’s husband.  Nothing had changed.  His mouth was dry, and he felt a tightness in his chest.

“Sorry, sir,” he said.  “Guess I was more tired than I thought.  I overslept.”

“Yeah, I reckon you had a long trip, and thet’d make a man pretty darn tared,” Earl said.  “No problem long’s you don’t make a habit of it.”

Louis nodded, but was saved from having to say anything by Pearl returning loaded down with two platters overflowing with fried chicken, cornbread, and black-eyed peas.  She placed them at Cleophus’ end of the table.  He immediately began piling food on his plate, passing it to Louis after the plate in front of him was overflowing.  Louis took one drumstick, a small piece of cornbread, and two spoons of peas and passed the plate to Ginger Lee who sat to his right.

“Surely y’all gonna eat more than that,” Pearl said.  “Magnolia spent most of the afternoon cooking up this meal, and she’s gonna be powerful upset if it ain’t all gone when she gits back here in the morning.”

“Thanks,” Louis said.  “I’m not really very hungry.”  In fact, he was famished, but the chicken leg was as big as his forearm, the small piece of cornbread twice the size of a deck of cards, and the peas had what looked like chunks of meat in them.  It was more than he usually ate, and less than a fourth of what Cleophus had taken – had taken being the operative phrase, because the farmer had begun shoveling food in as soon as he passed the plate, and was a good one-third through the pile of food before Louis had finished serving himself.

The rest of the meal was quiet, except for the sound of forks and knives scraping against plates, and the smacking of Cleophus Woods as he ate.  Everyone, Louis included, kept their eyes on their own food.

When Cleophus had finished his food, he pushed his plate forward and sat back in his chair.  After a few minutes, everyone else stopped eating; except Louis, who was still working on a drumstick.  When he finally noticed that he was the only one eating, and felt Cleophus’s gaze, he stopped and put the half finished chicken leg on the plate, next to a small pile of peas.

“I reckon we all oughta hit the hay early,” Cleophus said.  “Lotsa chores to do come daybreak.”

Louis looked at him quizzically.

“Everyone has to help out to keep the farm going,” Pearl said.  “Lots of work to be done around a place like this.”

“Me and Ginger Lee got jobs,” Earlie Mae added.  “I work at the Piggly Wiggly up in Carthage, and she clerks at the refinery.  Ma takes care of the house, and that jest leaves Pa to do all the outside chores.”

“So, I reckon you gotta pitch in,” Cleophus said.  “You ever do farm work before?”

Louis shook his head.  He’d never really done any kind of work, and had never even been near a farm before.  “This is the first time I been outside the city,” he said.

“Well, I recommend you turn in early, ‘cause we got a lot to do in the morning.”

“Me and the girls will clean the table,” Pearl said.  “Y’all go on and go to bed.”

Louis couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  It had barely turned dark outside and they were talking about going to sleep.  The expression on Cleophus’s face, however, said clearly that they weren’t joking.  Louis pushed his chair back and trundled upstairs.  After brushing his teeth and splashing some water on his face, he undressed and crawled under the covers, fully expecting to lie awake, tossing and turning all night.  He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

“Time to git up, boy,” a gravelly voice said from somewhere near Louis.  He felt a cold blast of air as the covers were yanked off him.  “Come on, git your lazy butt outta bed.”

When Louis opened his eyes, Cleophus was standing beside the bed holding the cover in his head.  He was dressed, and glared down at Louis.  Louis glanced at the window; it was just beginning to turn light outside.  “Jeez,” he said.  “It ain’t even daylight yet.”

“I don’t know how you city folks do it,” Cleophus said.  “But, I got cows need milking ‘fore it gits too late in the day, and you gonna help me, so come on and git outta bed.”  He tossed the cover over Louis’s feet.  “I got some breakfast fixed already.  Git your bones downstairs and git some grub.  We got lots of work to do.”  He turned on his heels and stomped out of the room.

Louis dressed and went downstairs to the dining room.  Cleophus was already half finished with a large stack of pancakes covered in syrup, ham, and a side plate with large biscuits covered with a lumpy gray mass.  Next to him was a pair of companion plates.  Louis sat down and stared at the plates.

“Better eat up, boy, you gonna need your energy this morning.”

Louis picked at the pancakes and ham, but passed on the biscuits and gravy (Cleophus told him what the gray mass was.  Jesus, these guys’ll eat anything, Louis thought, I don’t see why they ain’t fatter eating this shit.

Cleophus finished his meal and sat watching Louis pick at his food for a few minutes.  “Come on, boy,” he said.  “We gotta git moving.  Them heifers is waiting.”

Louis pushed his chair back and followed the older man outside.  They walked out through the kitchen, across the dirt-covered back yard to a large barn.  Inside, the smell hit Louis like a punch to the stomach.  He wrinkled his nose.  “You’ll git used to it,” Cleophus said.

He grabbed two stools and two metal buckets, handing a stool and bucket to Louis.  “We gotta milk the cows,” he said.  “Now, you jest watch and do what I do.”  He walked over to a row of stalls, each containing a large, smelly creature that Louis recognized as cows.  Passing the first stall which contained a huge, black creature, he walked to the next stall, sat down on the stool near the rear end, and grasped the little knobs sticking out of the pink sack under the cow.  He began squeezing and pulling, and a stream of grayish-white liquid squirted into the bucket that he’d placed under the knobs.

It looked relatively easy to Louis, so he walked over to the first stall, and sat down near the rear of the big black animal, looking around the legs to see what Cleophus was doing.  He noticed only one knob hanging from the animal’s belly, and the pink sack seemed to be oddly placed.  Oh well, he thought, just gotta grab and squeeze.  Can’t be too hard. Just as he was about to grasp the knob, Cleophus sprang from his stool, took three steps over and slapped his hand away.

“Damnation, boy, what the Sam Hell you think you doing?”

“Uh, I was just gonna milk it like you were doing,” Louis said.

“I’ll be damned, you one crazy city boy,” Cleophus said.  “You don’t even know a bull from a cow.  You grab that danged bull there and he’s liable to stomp a mud hole in your ass.”

Louis’s face flamed bright red.  Holy shit!  I almost jerked that sucker off! “Oh, sorry,” was all he could say.

“You ain’t as sorry as youda been if Ida let you go ahead and pull that bull’s pud,” Cleophus said.  “Hell, watching you gonna take more time then I got.  Go on back outside, and when I git done you can help me string some bob wire.”

Louis hadn’t the faintest idea what bob wire was, or why anyone would want to string it, but he was just as happy to get away from the eye-stinging smell of the methane the cows emitted constantly.

He waited outside, leaning against the barn, breathing in and out to clear his nose.  After about thirty minutes, Cleophus came out.  “Come on,” he said.  “We gotta string some new fence behind the barn.”  He walked over to a small shed and took out a bunch of tools, the only one of which Louis recognized was a hammer.

Cleophus took a large box out of the shed and handed it to Louis.  It was heavy, but Louis managed to waddle along behind the man with it.  Behind the barn, Louis saw a line of posts set in the ground about six feet apart, stretching from the corner of the barn to a grove a trees about two hundred yards away.  When Cleophus opened the box, Louis discovered that bob wire was barbed wire, like the wire people put on top of the fences around warehouses to keep people from sneaking over the fences to steal.  Over the next hour, Louis learned that he and barbed wire were not meant to inhabit the same space.  He was scratched on the face, hands and chest more times than he could count, and at one point, let go a strand of wire that Cleophus had asked him to keep tight, causing it to whipsaw across the older man’s face and chest.

Cleophus carefully disentangled he wire, wiped the droplets of blood from his cheeks and walked over to Louis.  He placed his hands on Louis’s shoulders.  “Look, boy,” he said.  “I know you tryin’ to help and all, but hell fire, with you helpin’ me, I’ll be working on this damn fence all week.  You jest plain ain’t cut out fer farm work.  Whyn’t you go on in the house and see if your aunt has something you kin do.”  With that, he turned away and resumed attaching the wire to the poles.

Dejectedly, Louis turned and headed for the house.  As he walked, he thought that coming to Texas hadn’t been such a good idea.  Maybe I’d be better off back in Detroit.  I can talk Vinnie outta offing me; I just gotta think of a good story. He was beginning to think that trying to dodge Vinnie and his shotgun would be preferable to dealing with smelly animals and barbed wire.

Pearl Woods was in the kitchen, putting food in two plates, when he walked in.  “Land sakes! What happened to you?”

“Got tangled up with some barbed wire,” Louis said.  He decided not to tell her what he almost did in the barn.  “Guess I ain’t cut out to be a farmer; at least uncle Cleophus thinks so.”

“Oh, you poor baby,” she said.  “You go on upstairs and clean up.  Did you eat anything?  I can fix you something.”

Louis shook his head, telling her he’d already eaten, and dashed upstairs.  In the bathroom, he noticed that he wasn’t as scratched as much as he’d thought; not much worse than the time he’d had a run in with the class tom boy and she’d taught him what a girl’s fingernails are for.  He washed the dried blood away, and changed into a clean shirt.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he came to a decision.  I’m going back home.  This place just plain sucks.  Hell, if I stay here, I’m likely to get myself killed anyway, so I might as well take my chances on streets I know.

He hadn’t unpacked, so getting his rucksack ready for the road only took a few minutes.  He toyed with the idea of saying goodbye to his aunt, but didn’t want to have to explain why he was leaving.  He figured she’d find out he was gone around lunch time, by which time if he was lucky, he’d have hitched a ride as far north as Texarkana, Arkansas.

Luckily, he was able to get downstairs, through the living room and out the door without her noticing.  He walked out to the road and to the highway, crossed the median to the northbound lanes, put his rucksack on the ground and waited for some generous motorist to come along.