The next morning, Dennis staggered bleary-eyed into the living room, barked his shin on the cable-spool coffee table,
His head was full of roiling black thunder, and felt like it was
going to split apart at any moment.
The purple wifebeater La’Tisha had
told him to put on wasn’t helping.
Outside, cicadas were starting to buzz
in the trees, and the air was muggy.
He glared at Ferris, who was watching “Cannonball
Run” on the rabbity-eared TV for the four thousandth time.
“You do the chores yet?”
“Milked the cows, slopped the pigs, fed and watered the horses, mended the fence rail in the front
paddock, chopped an’ stacked firewood, took the tractor crankcase apart and put it in a kerosene bath to soak.”
“Then get off yo’ ass and fix me some breakfast,” Denny said.
“Sho’ nuff, Pappy,” said Ferris, leaping up off the couch and shambling into the kitchen.
That irritated Denny. Burris would’ve said “Fetch
it yo’self” without ever taking his eyes off the TV, but Ferris was like an underfed pup-dog. The more you kicked him, the more he rolled over and begged.
Den stared at his wedding photo, which was hanging in pride of place behind the busted sofa. (Thank God
he’d remembered to remove the toothpick from his mouth when it was taken.) The
boys’ mama, Fiona Dooley, had been one of the prettiest women in the whole county.
A bona-fide hot patootie. One of the river folk. Den had met her at the
4-H booth at the county fair when they were fifteen. Boy howdy, she made a mean
gooseberry-rhubarb pie. The blue ribbons were still tacked to the wall in
Burris, their high school “accident”, had turned out real well, despite being born on a pool
table. He was Den’s boy all the way – big and strong, loved to fight
and drink and cat around, good with machinery and livestock. In high school,
he captained the football team and even dated Miss Junior Alfalfa Queen briefly. A
man could be real proud of a boy like that.
Then there was Ferris. Den wished he and Fiona had quit while
they were ahead. Ferris was like having one of them space aliens around the house,
the kind you always read about in the supermarket tabloids. Slender and quiet,
with an unnerving blue gaze. Always wasting time reading books that didn’t even have pictures. Den had peeked into one once, to see if they were dirty books, which would have at least meant his son
was halfway normal. Instead Den discovered something worse: they were full of
uppity notions and eggheaded, 10-dollar words. After a lot of yelling, a sound
thrashing, and a week-long hunger strike by Ferris, the books eventually ended up in the outhouse.
At least real space aliens go away after they done with you, Den thought. An’ sometimes
they gives you winnin’ lottery numbers, or a two-headed chicken, in payment for all yer troubles. From the kitchen, something sizzled on the griddle. Hominy
again, from the smell of it. Den stood in the doorway and scowled. Ferris was wearing an apron, for God’s sake.
“Cain’t you fix something other than grits?” he
growled. “I’m sick of ‘em.”
“That’s all we got, Pappy. Sorry.”
“Stick your sorries in a sack. Why ain’t we got
“Th’ hens are broody.”
“They wasn’t broody t’other day, when Burris was fetchin’ the eggs.”
Ferris shrugged. “Well, now they is.”
“You been doin’ somethin’ to ‘em?”
“Like what?” Ferris scraped the pan vigorously
with a spatula. “Think I’ve been sneakin’ into the coop an’
throwin’ down rotten feed corn? Doin’ a voodoo dance to hex ‘em? I got to do without eggs too, you know.”
“Don’t you sass me, boy. You may be growed, but
you ain’t too big to go over my knee.”
“Then what you think I been doin’?”
“How the hell should I know? All I know’s this
place always fall apart when Burris ain’t here.”
Ferris put down his spatula and turned around, arms folded. “What
you sayin’, Pappy?”
“I’m sayin’ it’s time you does your fair share of work ‘round here. I’m getting’ sick of trippin’ over you in the livin’ room. We still got fifty acres to clear, and you layin’ around watchin’ junk
“It’s 7 o’clock AM of the mornin’. A
body can’t rest on the couch for five minutes after finishin’ the chores?”
“Shut your piehole, boy.” Den’s skull was
pounding with pain. Inside, the thunder clouds were boiling. Voices whispered within his head. “We ain’t runnin’
this farm for fun an’ games. First the hens stop layin’. Next the cows’ll go dry. Then the crops’ll fail,
and we won’t eat this winter. And you’ll be sittin’ there in
that frilly apron, tellin’ me it don’t mean no never mind.”
“What you want me to do? I already bust my hump ever’
day from sunup to sundown.” Ferris banged the pan down into the sink. The grits were smoking and black. He
started to scrape them into the compost barrel.
“What you doin’? Now you’re wastin’
perfectly good grits?”
“They ain’t either.”
“They’re BURNT,” said Ferris through clenched teeth.
“They ain’t edible. You done distracted me, and they overcooked.”
Den saw red. An ungrateful lazy screw-up kid was one thing, but wasting food and calling your father
a liar was another. He grabbed Ferris in a headlock. The hot pan clattered to the floor, strewing grits everywhere.
As Ferris struggled to get free, his feet slipped on the grits, and he fell to the floor with a crash, bringing Den down on
top of him. This infuriated Den even more, and he pinned Ferris face-down against the linoleum. La’Tisha
had told him to wear purple, had told him to subdue his rival, had showed him what would come to pass if he failed.
Modernity was coming to Gondor Holler, bringing a topsy-turvy new order in which sons refused to obey their fathers, and coffee
cost four dollars a cup. It had to be stopped.
“Don’t you backtalk me, boy,” Den growled. “If I say the grits ain’t
burnt, they ain’t burnt.”
With his face pressed against the floor, Ferris thought that the grits certainly smelled burnt to him,
but he wisely kept his mouth shut and waited for his father’s fit of madness to pass. At last Den relented and
“Clean this mess up,” said Den. “Then get out of the house. Out of my sight.
I want you out cuttin’ that north pasture. An’ don’ come back till it’s completely cleared.”
Ferris surveyed the dark, tangled undergrowth and sighed heavily.
The north pasture was infested with poison ivy, chiggers, snakes, nettles, and ticks.
A person would have to be suicidal to attempt to clear it out. His nose
and cheeks were still throbbing and scarlet from being rubbed against scorched hominy and sandy linoleum. Grits clung to his neck. His father’s order to clear
out every last weed and vine and stump from this accursed, swampy piece of land would mean weeks of camping out, sleeping
on the ground, getting bit by mosquitoes, living on whatever meager possum and skunk he could manage to get with his slingshot. He’d never had to clear brush without Burris.
Some of those big persimmon trees looked like a two-man job.
At least there was a waterfall nearby. He could get fresh
water from the stream and bathe out here. It would be a relief to get away from
his father for awhile. Ferris always dreaded being alone with him. Lately, he’d been acting crazy.
The sound of an engine startled him out of his reverie. Behind
him, Ferris’ cousin Elmer Rowan burst out of the trees on a four-wheeled ATV, did a couple of donuts, ran over some
shrubs, and let out a holler. Ferris flagged him down.
“Ferris! What you doin’ out here, my man?” Elmer took off his mesh baseball cap, which had a golden horse motif on the front
and two empty beer holsters on each side, and wiped sweat off his broad forehead. His
hair hung down his back in a long blond ponytail.
“Pappy threw me out of the house,” said Ferris. “Said
I cain’t come back till I clear this pasture.”
Elmer whistled. “That’s a mighty tough job. You get bit by a coral snake out here, you ain’t comin’ back at all.”
“I ain’t worried about no coral snakes. I’m
worried about how long it’s gonna take me to grub up this entire field. Gotta
be at least ten acres, what you think?”
“Reckon so. Geez.”
Elmer scratched his head. “You got you a place to sleep?”
“Yeah, we got an ol’ tin shed down yonder.”
“Well. Good luck with it.” Elmer started to rev his engine.
“Listen, Elmer…” Ferris grabbed the handlebars
to stop him from leaving. “You got a whole bunch of brothers and men cousins
livin’ over at your place, all of ‘em unemployed. Think y’all
could help me out here?”
“Help you out?….Now just a minute…y’all didn’t come to our aid last fall
when it was apple harvestin’ time. Mr. Dennis claimed all three of you
was laid up with the grippe. We lost half our orchard to that hurricane. So why should we help y’all out now?”
“Because y’all are kin… because we need to reclaim this partic’lar plot of land
for farmin’ and get it profitable….and because if you don’t, y’all are goin’ to have a lovely
view of a parkin’ lot six months from now. ” Ferris explained to Elmer about the letter, and the meeting that Burris had gone to.
“You don’t say.” Elmer’s eyes widened. “Lemme see what I can do.”
“I want to go too!” Elmer’s sister Winnie
stood in the doorway, brandishing a big pair of pruning shears. The Rowans were
gathering in the yard, ready to march on the north pasture. There was much clamor
and confusion. Theodore “Teddy” Rowan, the patriarch, was busy taking
a headcount, handing out calamine lotion and moleskin patches, and making sure all ATVs had riders over the age of seven.
“Outta the way, Winnie,” said Elmer, coming through the living room with their cousin Hammer,
a burly man with a shaved head and a dragon tattoo. “Clearing brush is strickly men’s business. Wimmen belong barefoot in the kitchen, baking us brownies.”
Winnie’s eyes blazed. “I can wield a chainsaw
as well as any man.”
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it,” said Hammer. “If we all get poison ivy ‘n’ itch to death, you can be mistress of the house and take
care of the yard.”
“Fine. What other duties you want me to do?”
“Tape ‘Hee-Haw’ and ‘Fear Factor’ for me, will ya?” said Elmer.