I never told Bayno when Mama was going to make fried chicken. If I didn’t say anything, then all the cracklings in the pan would be mine. When the chicken was brown and crisp, I would take the spatula and press it against the bottom of the skillet and scrape the cracklings out of the grease, and when they were cool enough, I’d pour them into my mouth.
That summer was different from other summers even though the garden was the same. All its blooming and growing meant a good harvest along with back breaking work. Sometimes I’d stand in the middle of a row with both hands pressed into my back, my hands making a V and I would bend backwards and listen to all the bones popping and feel the muscles stretch so much they hurt. But with the sun beating down, I’d set my jaw and finish the row no matter if I was weeding, hoeing, or picking.
One day I thought about how many times I’d gone over those rows. Probably I’d been at each row at least 7 or 8 times. I multiplied that in my head, and then doubled it for the extra rows outside the fence and added some for when I’d be picking off bugs, and figured I’d been up and down those rows near to a thousand times already that summer.
But that was the first summer I’d spent without father coming home after work. It was easy to remember how it started. We had got up for school, and a man in a tractor came and plowed back the snow as Mama peered out the window, and when the driveway was clear we put on our coats and went to wait for the bus. When we came home father was already there, waiting for us outside the house. He told us to get in the backseat of the car while he got in front, gripping tight to the wheel as though he had somewhere to go, and I watched his face in the mirror as he told us he loved us, but he couldn’t stay where we lived, in the new house he’d built. And then he told us to get out of the backseat and go in the house by our mother, and we did.
The way we’d lived life had been thrown off schedule what with nothing to mark time the way scheduled work did. Father had always come home from the factory at 4:30 and we’d eat supper at 5 o’clock. I liked how every Tuesday we’d had tuna fish casserole, and every Wednesday, Mama had served pizza along with a shot of Black Label beer for everyone. I longed for a family that sat down to eat meals at 5 o’clock, eat them off Mama’s pretty Melmac plates, when Mama was happy and father was happy and brother smiled all the time and there was enough good food to eat. Mama would scold Bayno for eating her mashed potatoes with her fingers. I had realized that summer it was only just pretend and if anything was real at all, it was the pretty Melmac plates.
But that was all done now because father had taken all the money. We ate whatever was in season, what we could grow in the garden, along with eggs from the chickens. Lots of eggs. Lord knows how many times Mama gave thanks for those chickens. Only the old ones went into the fry pan, the oldest in the stew pot. And we had popcorn. It had been awhile since we’d had any bread, but we had popcorn, which last fall we had shelled by hand until our fingers bled.
Sometimes Mr. Kirby would bring a snapping turtle. He would nail it to the light pole by the thick part of its tail and brother would wave a stick in front of it until the turtle tried to grab it with that pointy hook tooth at the top of its mouth. And then Mama would lop off its head with an old machete she had just for that purpose. The turtle would dangle headless with its legs all jerking and moving while the blood drained out and pooled on the ground, sometimes still jerking at the end of the day even if Mama had cut its head off in the morning. Once I looked in the pan after Mama had cut it all up into cook-size pieces and some of the pieces were still moving.
Summer was near to end when Mr. Kirby came with another turtle, unusual for the time of year, as most of them came in the Spring. I stood next to Mama, standing with her back to the pole. I could never watch Mama swing. I stared at the grass waiting for the sound that would let me know it was over, and
“Aren’t you going to…”
“That turtle’s a she, and she’s crying. A tear just rolled down her cheek.”
I looked at Mama shaking, and then I looked at the turtle, and those sad eyes connected with mine. Sure enough, there rolled another tear, plopping in the sand below. I felt like something had reached all the way in from some deep dark far-away place and took hold of my heart and squeezed it dry. Mama took a breath. She pulled the nail out of the pole and hanging on to the tail of the turtle she walked across the road with it swinging upside down, swinging far out from her body so it couldn’t snap at her. With her strong arms she set the turtle down, pointed it toward the water and walked away without looking back. Mama came past me. “Go on and get your pole.”
I knew what that meant. If a fish decided to bite your hook and take your bait, well that was a whole lot different than lopping something’s head off when it didn’t want its head lopped off. Sometimes there was only so much a good woman could do.
This post was submitted by Julie Eger.