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Big City Girl
By Charles Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1951 Charles Williams
All rights reserved.
Eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one, Joy counted, tilting her head over to one side and pulling the brush down through the shining cascade of her hair. Why? she thought. My God, why?
From where she was sitting in the stifling kitchen she could look out the door and across the sun-blasted, sandy yard of the clearing to the encircling pines. Jesus, she thought, how did I ever get into this mess? And what am I brushing my hair for? If I was as bald as the first row in a burlesque house it wouldn't make any difference here.
Ninety-two, ninety-three. Oh, that awful ape, laughing right in my face. I could scream! Or die. Or kill him.
She was sitting before a small mirror propped up against a sirup pitcher on the kitchen table. Her hair was naturally blonde and quite silken and long, sweeping down to her shoulders in a sort of golden torrent, and she spent a great deal of time working on it and looking at herself in the glass. The mirror was a pool from which she drank and restored her confidence, a refuge from a terror that had begun to take hold of her in recent months. She had been born thirty years ago in New Iberia, Louisiana, and was a soul-searching and self-pitying twenty-eight when the black depression and the fear were upon her, but the mirror or an admiring glance could restore her happy belief in twenty-five as her correct age, because she had retained a large measure of the striking beauty of her teens and early twenties.
She had been at the farm for nearly three weeks now, and the fear had become an even more frequent visitor in the night. It was panic that had brought her here in the first place, though the others had no way of knowing this. For the first time in her life she had been thoroughly terrified and had lost faith in herself.
In the three years she had been married to Sewell Neely she had never met any of his family, and she really thought—she had announced upon her arrival—she really thought, didn't they, that in this trying time they ought to all be together. It was terrible about poor Sewell, she had said to Cass, who was Sewell's father, still trying to drive out of her mind the way poor Sewell had laughed brutally in her face that last day when she had visited the jail and told him she didn't have any money left. She had been in one of her twenty-eight-year-old depressions any way, and when his heartless laughter had ripped away the last of her sagging faith in her looks she had gone to pieces in panic and fled, spending her last six dollars on a bus ticket to Riverview, where, she had some vague idea, the Neelys lived. She couldn't go anywhere else on six dollars.
Jessie Neely, who had been watching her with rapt attention, turned and looked out the window. Hot sunlight struck vertically into the clearing and she could see Mexico, the big hound, walking across the yard with his shadow sliding along over the sand directly under his belly like a black pool of ink. I guess I ought to see if the butter beans are about done and put in the corn bread, she thought. They'll be up from the field pretty soon and we ought to have dinner ready.
Jessie got up from the table and went over to the stove to look into the pot of beans. They were all right, she thought. She slid the corn bread into the oven and straightened up with the simple and unstudied grace of a child, her face slightly flushed with the heat and the ill-fitting cotton dress hiked up above her knees. Her legs were bare, as they always were, and quite tanned, with a faint tracery of vine scratches here and there that only contrasted with and accentuated their smoothness. She saw Joy looking at her, and smiled. Joy was so pretty, and she was awful nice to a fifteen-year-old girl who'd never been any of the places she had.
She began to set the table. Joy looked up at her, with her head tilted over as she pulled the brush downward in long strokes.
"Do you want me to move, honey?" she asked.
"No, you go ahead," Jessie said. "I'll put the plates down at this end."
"I don't want to get in the way. I wouldn't be a bother for anything." She bent forward to the glass, turning her head slightly. "Oh, honey, if you've got a minute, there's a ribbon in my suitcase, a blue one. Would you be a lamb and see if you can find it for me?"
"Of course," Jessie said. She put the plates down and went into the bedroom and came back in a minute with the ribbon. She watched Joy admiringly.
Joy worked the ribbon under her hair in back and tied it in a jaunty little bow just slightly off center on top of her head. She examined the result in the glass. There, she thought.
"My, that's pretty, Joy," the younger girl said.
She is a lamb, Joy thought idly. Though how she ever had two such ugly apes for brothers is more'n I'll ever know. Imagine that bastard laughing in my face like I was some old bag. But think of letting it scare me like that. Why'd I ever let it bother me? I can see right here I haven't changed a bit. I look just like I always did.
And as for that hard-eyed Mitch, always looking at me like he was looking at something on the other side of me and I was just standing in his way, I could show him. If it was worth the trouble.
The land fell away here in a series of long hillside fields going down toward the bottom. The fields were terraced to protect them from erosion, but it had been done too late to save much of the topsoil, and it was poor, very thin ground that was badly washed in places and worn out from too many years of cotton. Now, in late June, the cotton was less than knee-high and of a poor color because there was little to feed it. There had been too much rain and it was being strangled by grass.
Down below, where the fields flattened out into the bottom itself, the ground was black and quite rich and the cotton had a good healthy color, sweeping out like a dark green carpet toward the fence and the wall of trees where the heavy timber of the river bottom began. Though it could not be seen or distinguished from the cotton itself from up on the hillside where the men were working, there was far too much grass in the bottom field also, and it was badly in need of cultivation.
The morning had been clear and very hot, with an oppressive humidity from the rain of night before last, but now in the stillness of midday an ominous black ferment of thunderheads had begun to push up over the horizon in the west, out over the river bottom. One of the men who was working up on the hillside stopped his mule at the end of the row and turned to watch the bank of clouds while he bit off a chew of tobacco.
He was a colorless, leached-out man like a sand-hill farm, dressed in a sun-bleached chambray shirt that was soaked with sweat. His name was Cass Neely, and fifty years of living had run through him, taking away more than they had given, and the emptiness they had left behind was stamped on the slack, rather pudgy face and the slumped tiredness of his shoulders. His eyes were a faded blue and there was about them an odd compounding of hopeless futility and hangdog friendliness, like those of a dog that has been kicked but still hopes to be liked.
At one time he had owned all this land, but in the fourteen years since the death of his wife he had sold it off a parcel at a time until nothing remained of his original property except the house and the few acres of timbered ground running down toward the bottom, and now for the past six years he had been engaged in the grotesque joke of working his own former land on halves as a share-cropper. The bitter mockery of this had long since ceased to bother him very much, however, for he had sufficiently withdrawn year by year from the harshness of reality until he had come to live in a dreamy and forever hopeful world of his own. There was nothing vicious about him, and the money he had received over all this period of time from the piecemeal sale of his land and farming equipment had not been thrown away on liquor or gambling or any other active vice, but had disappeared down the bottomless rat holes of shiftlessness and bad management and a perennially wistful fondness for secondhand automobiles. And now the deteriorating carcasses of seven of the defunct cars squatted about the sandy yard around the house wherever they had wheezed their last, giving it the appearance of a junk yard.
He leaned against the plow handles now and waited for the other man. Mitch Neely was several rows up the hill, coming in the same direction and making his mule step along fast. Just like a hawg going to war, Cass thought. God didn't make the days long enough for him and he walks his mule to death, and I reckon he'd work his own daddy into the grave if I was crazy enough to try to keep up with him.
When Mitch came out to the end and turned his mule around, Cass left his plow and walked across the intervening rows. Mitch watched him with impatience. He was twenty-three, with a thin, bony face and deep-set, rather small eyes like chips of flint, and the face was burned dark by the sun except at the temples, where he had recently had a close haircut. There was a tall, very spare angularity about him, with long thin legs and no great width anywhere, but he had a kind of whip-like toughness and repressed fury of movement that spoke of more power than the lank frame would indicate.
"It ain't no use sweeping out these here middles, Mitch," Cass said querulously. "The ground's too wet, like I been telling you all the morning. We ain't doing nothing but just moving that there crap grass from one place to another. It'll take root again before we go to dinner."
Mitch kicked at a bunch of grass to shake the moist soil from its roots. "Some of it'll die if it don't rain again tonight," he said stubbornly. "And we got to do something. It sure as hell ain't going to commit suicide."
Cass waved toward the west. "Just going to rain some more. And it ain't more'n a few hours away."
Mitch glared in the direction of the thunderheads. "Well, can I stop it?"
"Ain't nobody can stop it but the Almighty," Cass said. "But just the same, ain't no sense tearing around the fields like a high-lifed shoat, plowing up grass that's just going to take holt again as soon as it rains."
"Well, I ain't going to tell the Almighty how to run His business," Mitch said bleakly. "But I'm going to keep turning this crap grass over till I wear it out, if I can't kill it no other way."
He turned back between the plow handles and slapped the mule with a line. The mule, expecting to be unhitched, was slow in starting, and Mitch swung the rein harder this time and cursed. They went off up the row with long, loose-legged strides.
Ain't no sense arguing with him, Cass thought. He's mule-headed enough to keep right on working if it was to come a regular gully-washer, and if it floated him and the mule away he'd still be plowing when they went down the river. I never seen a man cared less for the Almighty's will.
He went slowly back to his own mule and turned him around, sighing at the foolishness of it. Removing his hat, he ran a forefinger across his forehead to throw off the sweat, and looked at the sun to gauge the time. It was eleven-thirty, anyway. They ought to unhitch and start back to the house. Jessie would have dinner on the table by the time they got there—that is, if she didn't get to listening to Joy and forget about dinner altogether. He sighed again and shook his head. Sometimes a man just felt like giving up.
He was still standing there when Mitch returned. Mitch looked at him and then at the sun and whirled his mule about to unhitch. We might as well quit for dinner, he thought. He'll stand there till he takes root if we don't.
They uncoupled the trace chains and looped them over the hames. Cass climbed on the gray mule to ride back to the house, while Mitch walked ahead, leading his.
"If it rains this evening and we can't work, I might go over to the Jimersons' and see if they heard any more about Sewell over the radio," Cass said, raising his voice above the rattle of trace chains. He rode sidewise, with both legs hanging off the same side of the mule.
When Mitch made no reply, he went on, "It's kind of sad when a man's got to go to the neighbors to hear word about his own kin."
He's thinking about the radio again, Mitch thought. He's got that damned radio in his mind and nothing'll get it out. Next spring he'll be wanting to know if maybe Mr. Sam won't let us get one on credit at the store. Keeps on raining like this and the crap grass choking you to death, and there ain't going to be enough credit at the store to buy a can of Prince Albert, but maybe Mr. Sam'll let us buy a radio. Maybe Sam'll buy us all some blue serge pants and yellow shoes so we can go parading up the road while the crap grass gets so rank you could hunt bears in it.
Things wasn't bad enough before, but them long-nosed Jimerson boys got to come over every other day and tell him how there was some more about Sewell on the radio. God knows that what they was saying about Sewell wasn't nothing you'd think he'd want to listen to, but maybe he looks at it different. Maybe if they call you Mad Dog Neely and go on and on over the radio and write about you in the papers it's the same as if you was some big gun in the gov'ment and he ought to hear all about it so he can tell everybody around the courthouse on Saturday evening.
Well, it's all over now, and you wouldn't hear no more about Sewell if you had a dozen radios. Once they get you in there in the pen, there ain't no long-nosed bastards writing about you and talking about you on the radio. Not till maybe thirty years from now, when they might let you out if you behave yourself, or till someday they kill you if you don't.CHAPTER 2
IT WAS SWELTERING IN the kitchen, and outside the air was dead. Out over the bottom they could hear the rumble of thunder, like wagons rolling across a bridge. They were at the table, with Cass at the head and Mitch and Joy seated across from each other. Jessie was filling their plates from the pot of butter beans on the stove.
Cass held his knife and fork upright, one in each hand, and looked at Joy. "Didn't see none of them Jimerson boys this morning, I reckon?"
"No," she said. "They haven't been around."
Cass sighed. "Guess there's nothing new about Sewell, then. Sure wish we could hear something."
"He'll write us when he can, Papa," Jessie said. "I know he will."
Cass dismissed this with a wave of the fork. "Wasn't thinking about letters. Mail takes a long time. And he wouldn't write, nohow. Now, if we just had a radio, like the Jimersons..."
Joy had been watching Mitch, who was eating bent over his plate and seemingly paying no attention to any of them, but now she brightened and smiled at Cass.
"You know, I was thinking the very same thing, just this morning. I mean, how nice it'd be if we had a radio. If you had a radio, that is. I'm just a kind of visitor and I don't really count. But a radio is so much fun. I just wouldn't be without one, ever since that first one I had. The one they gave me in the beauty contest. I told you about that, didn't I? About winning the beauty contest in New Iberia when I was just sixteen, and they gave me all those prizes and a radio was one of them. I sold some of the prizes, but I kept the radio because it was the cutest thing. Of course, I was a lot prettier then." She paused and laughed deprecatingly. "I'd hate to have to enter one now."
Mitch did not even look up. For a woman whose husband is going to the pen for life, she's sure got a hell of a lot to worry about, he thought.
Cass was thinking about the radio and was not to be distracted by trifling side issues like beauty contests. He said nothing.
Well, she thought. Well! Of all the stupid.
"Joy, you could win any beauty contest in the world," Jessie said loyally behind her at the stove. "Couldn't she, Papa?"
"Oh, sure," Cass said vaguely. "Ain't no doubt about it." Come to think of it, she did say she won a radio that way. Maybe they could enter her in a contest now and win another one. Didn't recollect hearing about any coming up any time soon, though.
"Couldn't she, Mitch?" Jessie pressed warmly. Joy was their guest and she was the prettiest thing, and the way she was all broken up about poor Sewell, the least they could do was to try to cheer her up.
Mitch glanced up briefly, stone-eyed. "How the hell do I know?" he asked of no one in particular.
"Mitch!" Jessie said reproachfully.
Excerpted from Big City Girl by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1951 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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