Fiction by Amy Mrotek
He was not the smirk of the sun, he was the outline of wheat stalks pressed against a cotton-white sky, shaking in the bored wind. He was fingers poked into cracked clay, calloused, desperate, digging and muttering curses on old lands and lazy gods.
He was ripped overalls, tattered curtains, smudges on screen doors from the beats of summer heat. He was the rust on the tractor hood that made the machine worth its salt. He was the groan of the wheelbarrow burdened by weight, the stench of sweat, tobacco chew.
In the mornings he was grit and gear, greasing the tractor levers, tightening hitches. In the evenings he was tanned with toil, his brow slick, staring at the pot of water boiling over the stovetop, goading the bubbles with silent might. A few times that summer I witnessed him leap from his chair, fast enough to give a cricket the shakes, take the kitchen in three strides and grab hold of that pot. In one fell swoop, he was out the door, flinging the water in a wild arc across the red dirt. The butt of his pipe would glow through the ajar door, his back a dark splotch against a darker sky. A yell fled his lips, a barbaric roar meant for the stars and the seeds, the fury of which was so loud, so rooted, I couldn’t even muster a shiver.
Afterward, he’d fling the pot to the side like a rag. He’d brush off his hands, spit in the fresh mud, and slump to bed.
It hadn’t rained enough that year. I didn’t need a headline in the paper to tell me that – or Uncle’s murmurs, shrouded under hot breath in the haze while hoeing weeds in long lines across the plot.
“Damn the dust,” he’d grumble between digs. “It’s the wheat we came from, and to the wheat I’ll go back if it’s the last damn thing I do.”
Yet it was dust that colored that summer, dust that coughed out my nostrils and tickled my throat. Dust that powdered our porch, wafted into the house when we opened the front door too quickly. Dust in all piles and sizes, smoke-gray and soft in the morning light, cool to the touch. Dust amber hued at night as I latched up the barn, watching the sun make its last call through a ceiling we couldn’t afford to patch. Dust in afternoon heat, urged by the flaying rays from all directions, not just above. On good days it just came from above.
Uncle drank coffee in the morning, water through the day. Jar after jar of it, and it was my job to pump the well regularly, keeping the pails full. That was another sign creeping its way up my skin, telling the scorched tale of the season; the well was starting to dry. A morning run used to take less than five pulls to bring forth the cold, rushing spews. I was lucky now if I got drips in ten.
When I broke the news to Uncle, he squinted out the kitchen window, tinted with age, a furled lip sinking the lines of his cheeks into small, simmering somethings. It was mid-July. A voice on the radio crackled through, spouting a month of record-breaking temperatures. We’d just finished supper – gruel, sides of boiled potatoes and cabbage.
After a hard minute, he finally spoke. “Looks like you’re just gonna’ have to pump harder, boy.”
Each passing day was an insult, the certainty of the dryness a challenge he transferred onto tilling the land no matter the price. Wheat was his pride, his sin. It always had been.
If I stop and think, I should have seen the first signs, the splintering cracks. They were everywhere, the veins of the land wrinkled in them. No farm in a hundred miles had seen a surplus crop in years – hell, even a whisper of one. Families had packed and moved in droves, following the moon’s maneuvers as a last-chance map. They fled like prayers, their wheels kicking up only more dust.
But Uncle stayed. The ground had its reasons.
If I was a man to complain, I suppose I’d start the eve my ma passed. Though in fairness, scratching that scab never quite made the blood run. She died pushing me out her belly, and my old man made sure I knew it. Between belt buckles and bottles to the day he plopped me on my uncle’s porch, driving off like they all eventually do, he made sure I knew it.
I wore my shirt untucked from that day on, never rolled up my jeans. I liked the feel of dirt beneath my fingernails, the sound of rusty floorboards creaking under my weight. Uncle’s farm was a refuge built in sweat and spades. To my father I was pain. To Uncle I was hands, feet.. Purpose.
I pieced this together much later, mind you. On that day, during that summer, Uncle had no whisper of what my father would do, hadn’t given a splinter of consent. The look in his eyes when he trudged back from the fields and saw a scrawny boy perched on his porch swore in ways words never could, somersaults and storms flashing in blinks.
“This ain’t no orphanage,” he spoke later that night. He had laid bread, spam, and a few slivers of crusted cheese on a dirty plate and told me to eat up. “You want to stay, you gotta’ earn your keep. That sandwich didn’t make itself, ya’ know. That wheat out there don’t grow just ‘cause I ask it to.”
I nodded. Outside, the wind forked and flew through the parted window. Darkness was already staining the sky, though the air had hardly cooled. I was confused. My fingers wouldn’t stop twitching, a bad habit born that day and still alive today.
“Well alrighty then.” His cheeks quivered for a moment, looking down only to loop back to me. “You start in the fields tomorrow.”
That first week tilled by in drones. I awoke at half past four, so early even the sparrows weren’t singing, just enough time to slip on jeans before Uncle pounded on the door, a broomstick in hand.
“You know how to use one of these, boy?” He stuck the broom out so close it touched my nose.
“Go on and sweep that porch you seemed so fond of yesterday. The pigs need their morning swill, too. And the chickens. I don’t got time to explain all the tickins’ to ya, so make yourself useful. Don’t let me see you until I call for lunch.”
I couldn’t tell you how many blisters broke across my hands, how my calves burned from removing bag after bag of sod from the fields. I think part of my pain amused him. He’d watch like a god as the sweat drenched my skin to a pulp, not outright laughing but letting the humor pleat his lips. Sometimes he’d stop me, grunt orders for another task. The day would blur ever on, dull to dusk and then sleep.
On Sundays he took a bath, combed his hair. We’d walk three miles to church with only our strides breaking the silence, Uncle gnawing his way down a lone toothpick, me trying to keep pace.
He was kin after all, sure, yet a stranger draped in a surname. I had been cast off like a weed, dropped on his porch on an orange afternoon where the clouds and dust hung so low you couldn’t pick one from the other. It wasn’t my place to poke holes in his time, to ask questions. Our weekly walks were my penance, the only thank you I thought he may understand.
I will never forget that first Sunday walk, however. I put on my best shirt, a used but clean button down pressed in all the right corners. Uncle gave me slacks and leather boots, hand-me-downs he was too cheap to discard, and told me to scrub myself until raw.
We arrived at the steps of the church just as the bell began to chime. It was a noise I found myself welcoming, bliss against the week’s hymn of wheel groans, clanking metal, the thud of shovel meeting earth.
As I began to walk up the stairs, a hand grabbed my arm. I jerked back.
“Not today,” Uncle whispered. He was staring ahead, not at the church’s whitewashed siding but past it – far, far past it – the strangest sense of unease shadowing his gaze. It was the most troubled look I’d ever seen in a man.
With the violent grace of thunder, he flicked the dead splinter of his toothpick onto the grass, turned around, and walked back the way we came. He didn’t wait to feel my shadow press behind, didn’t stop to see if I followed.
So began our Sunday ceremony.
I found his fists the most disastrously appealing sight, a fixture of knob and bone bound in taut skin. The bulk of his wrists jutted out at odd angles. I’d play a game of connect-the-dots to make his elbow flow to tip, his nose curve right, his brow not feel so hard and cutting. But when he picked up those fists and went into motion, when he moved his hands in any manner, the shroud broke. I felt my eyes on an anvil, his fists pounding bits of me into clay like he pounded hammers to mend acres of fence.
It took three more rounds of our Sunday dance before I stroked up the courage to ask. Scraping the last bite of beans, I cleared my throat.
“I’m not so keen about going to church tomorrow.”
His attention perked. He set down his fork, eyes narrowing. “What do you mean you ain’t keen about it? There ain’t no other day to go.”
“I don’t think I want to go at all. That’s what I mean. No matter what day.”
He grew silent, his hands starting to roll into those fists I couldn’t tear myself from. Fear began to build in my throat. I tried to readjust.
“Well, you see, um, I ain’t been baptized.”
“Your daddy never took you when you were a baby?”
“My ole’ man wasn’t much for religion. And I reckon he wasn’t fond of me being free of sin or whatnot, whatever they say the water does.”
“Why? Because you killed your ma?”
Something prickly crawled up the base of my neck. I let go of my fork and brought my hands down to my knees beneath the table, drumming my fingers, trying to hide the sudden onslaught of twitches his words had released.
“I s’pose that would do it.”
Uncle was quiet for another beat. His left fist remained clenched, though the right one had relaxed into smooth plane lying flat on the table.
“Wanna know somethin’ I ain’t never told anyone?” he asked after a moment. I slowly nodded.
“I wasn’t baptized, neither. And I sure as hell don’t have no interest in it. Never have, never will.”
“Then why do you go to church?” I said. “Why do you get all cleaned up every week, walk all that way in the heat? You don’t even go inside. What’s the point?”
My uncle suddenly erupted in laughter – the first time I’d ever heard. The sound was twin to his roars, something I’d caught enough to mimic in my sleep. Furious, booming, smoke in a searing flash of mirth. Each laugh rolled off the other like chains, broke and dangling in the air. His eyes were sealed the whole time.
“They think he did all this, Adam! Let me tell you. They think he did all this for good.” He choked between fits. “Those people out there, they think it’s all so right and decent, their Bibles clamped under their pretty little hands, not a bead of sweat rollin’ down their cheek. Day after day, you see, they go there and thank some sky man for givin’ them this. All this!” He waved his arms, pointing outside to the dying fields, the dark, the dust. His eyes were open now, scorching.
“They expect me to shuffle right in there with ‘em, don’t they? But I won’t allow the satisfaction. I won’t give that to them, I won’t give that to him. I ain’t his. This – all this – it ain’t his. He didn’t sow the land, he didn’t give me no bread. There’s no one to thank but my damn self.”
His cheeks were swollen and red, long past the point of rosy laughter. A fly dashed past, landed on the table right in front of my plate. Before I could move, Uncle Stan raised his fist and brought it down on the fly – strong, swift, so hard my plate cracked at the edge.
“That…that right there is why I go to church.”
He rose. I sat frozen, watching the smudge of the fly wilt and fade into the purple bruises of the night.
I didn’t get out of bed the next day, and Uncle didn’t knock on my door. Instead, I stayed under my blankets, greeted the sighs of morning through the sheets. There is a point right as the moon slips behind the silk curtains of dawn that the light hits the farm just so, scattering bits of sun-stuff onto the fields, bathing earth in silver and gold.
It was dust I saw in Uncle’s eyes after that conversation. I thought I could live with him, thought we could find something amidst the toil, something to bind our bones. But he was already gone.
I stayed until I was sixteen, not a day more. Then I did what they all do: I left. Packed what little I called mine, strung my shoelaces as tight as they’d twist. There was scarcely a hum in my head as I stepped onto the road, as dirty as the day we’d met.
And it’s funny. I sure felt I didn’t owe anyone recognition, no bowed head or long hug. Not even Uncle Stan. But I’d be lying to the stars and back if I didn’t admit the pounding in my heart, the knot in my gut that with every step tugged a rung deeper.
Nothing makes you cry quite like the weight of moving on, blind footed, down through dust, tearing roots. No one ever tells you what it’s like to do the leaving.
Amy Mrotek has too-pale skin that she attempts to protect by staying indoors re-watching Freaks and Geeks. Nothing would make her happier than perfecting veggie curry or hanging out with a squad of fat corgis. Perhaps together.