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Four Brothers

July 18, 2006

            There were three of them left.  Conrad, the oldest, had been driving the cockshut tractor and pulling a wagon when the Chevy on its way to the Dupont factory hit him broadside.  Both Conrad and the Dupont man died more or less instantly. Both of them were dead anyway by the time the Ambulance made there from Rabbit Hill.  That would have been around 1959, when Conrad was clearing timber on the tract he’d bought from the insurance company out of
South Carolina.  The place they call the Hallsey field because it was originally part of the Hallsey estate before the thirties.

            The next oldest was Pardue, and he took over the farming pretty much after Conrad.  Pardue had lost half his hearing as a child and remembered getting beatings from the teachers at Rabbit Hill for wearing feed sacks as his school clothes.  Nobody who knew Pardue believed the story.  If Pardue got a beating, they said, it was from plain meanness.

            Ike got married young and took his own job at the Dupont plant and like to tell that his wife Lucille had called the police in Rabbit Hill on him so many times that they would flag him down from the sidewalk as he drove by in the afternoon and give him a sobriety test just on general principle.

            Ricky, the redhead, moved back and forth from
Florida most of his young adulthood, where he would work at something or other until he had enough cash saved up to justify coming back home.  Ricky had been good enough at baseball in high school to draw the attention of some college scouts, but he blew out his knee playing football his senior year and after that they paid him no attention at all.

            Conrad had a wife who was from
Charlotte and after he died she moved back there to be with her own people, and she took her son Oscar with her.  Oscar was slow of speech and moved with a deliberateness that made the brothers laugh when he was small.  She brought Oscar down for summers, left him there with the brothers and Mama Grace and the girls to help barn the tobacco and clean the small grain.

            The summer after Oscar quit the high school in
Charlotte he got a job at a sock factory there and didn’t come down to help with the farming.  The brothers didn’t see him that summer until the Fourth of July, when he and his mother came back for the family picnic.  He and the brothers sat on the edge of the old front porch holding paper plates sagging with fried chicken and ham and potato salad and beans, red plastic cups of sweet tea stashed just outside the paths of family feet. 

            “What’s this job you’re up to?”  Pardue said.  This would be 1974.  Pardue had a boy and a girl by then.  The boy was a teenager himself.

            Oscar shrugged and jabbed his fork into a yellow mash of potato salad.  “Not much to it,” he said, staring in that way Oscar had toward some indistinct point at the edge of the yard where it met the pasture.  “Looking after machines, mostly.”

            “We sure do miss you around here this time of year.”  Ricky had been topping and suckering the old bottom field that morning.  The bottom field was nothing but a low clear bay surrounded completely by pine trees.  The air never moved in the bottom field, and the fog hung there long after the sun should have burned it away.

            “You got to start somewhere,” Ike said.  Ike hid a fifth of brown liquor under the seat of his truck parked in the shade of the big pecan tree, and every once in a while he and Ricky would sidle off to the shade and have a snort.  And then sometimes Ike went alone.  “Stick with it and work smart.”

            “I do what they tell me,” Oscar said. “More or less.”

            “And you moved out of your mama’s place?”  Pardue set down his plate and stood up to light a cigarette.

            “Living on your own.”  Ricky leaned over and elbowed Oscar hard enough to knock his cup out of his hands.  “Meeting any girls?”

            Oscar watched his spilled tea soak into the pine needles under the azalea bush at his feet.  “Not really,” he said.  “Not none to talk about.”

            “Where did you move into?” Pardue asked.  “You in some apartment?”

            “I got a room,” Oscar said.  “I share a bathroom with the other boarders, but I got my own hot plate under the bed for cooking noodles and whatnot.”

            The brothers looked out on Mama Grace’s wide front yard, bordered by the electric fence that marked the beginnings of the pasture, the long rows of okra and tomatoes and what was left of the cornstalks after they broke the corn and chopped the stalks for the cows.  Each of them in their own way thanked the Lord for not making them live somewhere where they had to share a toilet with a stranger.

            Oscar shrugged his shoulders at no question in particular, chewing on a mouthful of corn on the cob.  “I sure do wish sometimes,” he said, mushmouthed, “that I was back here living instead of up there.”

            “If this is where you want to be,” Ike said, choking on his own words, “let’s go get you and bring you down here.”  Sometimes sad stories and Merle Haggard songs made the feelings well up in Ike so strong that he cried out in the open. 

            “What you got?” Pardue said.  “A bed and a pot to piss in?”

            Oscar shook his head slowly.  “I ain’t got no pot to piss in,” he said seriously.  “Just my hot plate.”

            Ricky spit out a yellow wad of potato salad back onto his plate from laughing.  “We can fit it all on the short truck, I bet.”

            Ike tossed a chicken leg out in the yard for the dogs. “Goddammit,” he said.  “Let’s us go get that hot plate right now.”

            Pardue walked back into the house to tell his wife where he was going.  Ricky slid off the porch and went to the barn to check the oil in the short truck, and Ike stalked across the yard to the welcoming shade of the pecan tree.  It was a four-hour drive to
Charlotte in holiday traffic, and on the way back it would be dark.  Oscar stayed on the edge of the porch, eating a thick pink slice of cured ham and grinning to beat the devil.

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