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As his world fills with confusing strife, 13-year-old Lee Hartwell struggles to avoid the perils of ...
As his world fills with confusing strife, 13-year-old Lee Hartwell struggles to avoid the perils of first love, break the silence between his family and the brother they refuse to understand, and make his way in a time of unrelenting change. Through it all, his father counsels and confides, easing the path of maturity with a strength of conviction that takes a lifetime to learn.
The sky and the land were gray-cold and went together in the distance. The field rows were tipped with frost and slaves worked in the seed beds and put the tobacco in the cold, black dirt. They worked on their knees, covering the mounds with manure, then broke branches over the ground against the forst. The planter watched from his horse and could see their breath go into the ground. It was twelve days after Christmas and the best time for planting.
The summer my brother came home from the war was so hot they had to repave the soft tar of Hermitage Street twice. I remember watching the crews, their white t-shirts glowing in the July night with the gravel smoke dancing white under a low moon. It was the last war summer and we had received a telegram saying Lucas had been wounded. First we thought he had been shot in the leg, then it became the foot.
And even then I didn't believe he was coming home. The war was a twelve-year-old's imagination and men disappeared magically the way they appeared. The war had been carried on in newspapers and through the radio, but Richmond was still a Southern town that when not called upon to act as a city, fell back asleep on the rolling hills of Virginia. But, Lucas brought the war home and that was the beginning of everything.
My family had sailed from England 200 years before to escape the confines of that island along with the other adventurers, entrepreneurs, missionaries, and criminals. I think after the voyage we must have had enough adventure, because we settled along the James River and didn't bother moving till we were forced to. We were tobacco growers and enjoyed the spoils of the slave economy so much we donated a sergeant to an artillery unit in the Revolution, then produced a commodore for the Confederate Navy. Reconstruction came and the land went for taxes.
The family migrated to Richmond and there were rumors of a saloon, followed by a blacksmiths, a wholesale grocery, and then it gets cloudy till my father, Burke Hartwell, legitimized the whole migration by-taking up law.
Richmond was a busy city in 1945, The war years vitalized the town along with the rest of the country, but the radio was still something of a marvel, people traveled mostly by train, and doors were still left unlocked.
There were no strangers in 1945. Nobody moved from our neighborhood. People called each other by their first names and walked between houses, staying for lunch, then dinner, and not going home till the heat of the day had long passed into the night. Nothing had really changed for us. The war produced rubber drives, tin drives, bond drives, and lots of impassioned speeches, but the day-to-day slowed time of Richmond remained unchanged.
But here was Lucas. He looked thinner, less color, and walked with a cane.
"Hey Lucas!" I yelled, running toward him as he bumped down the sidewalk.
He smiled darkly, his eyes crinkling.
"How you been, boy?"
I ran up and hugged him with the rough Army material scraping my cheek. He leaned on his cane.
"Brought something for you."
He reached into his belt and pulled out a soft green Army hat with a bar on the front.
"I can have this?"
"I don't need it anymore."
I took the narrow V-shaped hat and it promptly slid down on my forehead and stayed just above my eyes. It smelled like burlap in a trunk.
"Now you're in the army, Lee," Lucas nodded, keeping his one foot just above the ground.
Jimmy and Clay ran up behind me.
"You two sure are a lot taller than I remember."
Jimmy stared at his foot and pointed.
"That where you got shot?"
Lucas looked down, nodding slowly.
"Yep, right in the arch."
Jimmy's dark eyes grew.
"We'll catch up later, Lee,"' he said, beginning to hobble off, "- better go see Daddy and Mother"
"Got lots of new books for you, Lucas" I hollered after him.
"Good," he called back. "Think I'm going to be doing a lot of reading."
I stared at the foot he favored as he went down the sidewalk.
"You coming or not?"
Jimmy's face bunched up under his dark crew-cut. I pulled the hat down on my head and ran back across the close-clipped grass to the side yard. Our house was a white clapboard, three-story structure with a horseshoe driveway that pushed the house back from the road. Six white columns marched across the front porch in six even spaces, the front lawn running a half acre to the road with the backyard rolling out a full two acres to a line of trees. We called it Buckeye and to this day I'm not exactly sure where the name came from except that somewhere on my mother's side of the family there was a summer place rumored to be called by that name.
Clay and Jimmy ran into the backyard between white sheets heavy with moisture.
"Get away from there! I don't want them sheets coming down, Lee!"
Addie's face shined in the gloom, She stood in the back doorway with her hands on her hips, her gray uniform melting into the the shadows until only the white sleeves were visible.
"You all go on and play in the woods - don't have no time to fool with you!"
I ran from Addie's voice, passing between the clean sheets, breathing a faint perfume of soap. Jimmy and Clay huddled between the two lines.
"She is," I grunted.
Jimmy straightened up, peering over the line. He ducked back down.
"Let's go to the tree house."
Clay pushed his glasses up on his nose, his hair less blond against the sheets.
"Think Addie thought I was you, Lee."
"She knew it was me," I said, walking toward the woods.
Clay shook his head.
"Seemed mad as hell!"
"'Cause of y'all -"
"She wasn't that mad," Jimmy said, walking ahead with a weed dangling from his mouth.
"You won't catch hell at dinner."
The crickets breathed around us and dragonflies swerved and darted around the honeysuckle bordering the yard. I wiped my forehead, minding the poison ivy along the edge of the grass, slipping between bushes onto the dirt path snaking into the woods. We followed the brown line to a large oak with boards climbing to a leaning box of plywood in the cradle of the tree.
I climbed the boards with the bark running close to my face and the, tree ants disappearing into holes, grabbing the rough angled boards hand over hand till I pushed up against a piece of plywood and was inside the sawdust-smelling box. Clay and Jimmy pulled themselves up and we placed the piece of plywood back over the opening. I reached into a knothole and pulled out a dirty, crumpled pack of Wing cigarettes.
The slanting sun filtered through the hanging smoke and greenery in the stow pulse of another day where smoking in the tree house had become a ritual of the summer. Jimmy lived down the street and Clay was across from Buckeye, our universe bounded behind by the woods that camouflaged all our activities - smoking being the main one.
I matched Jimmy puff his cigarette red.
"Course I am."
Jimmy took a deep pull on the cigarette, his eyes watering and his face becoming darker before giving forth the smoke, cigarette, and spit, then beating the dusty floor of the tree house for air. I turned and watched the smoke glide out, the drone of cicadas winding up and then slowly back down.
"Want to go on down to the graveyard?"
Clay stared into the cavernous woods, the light nestled in the tree-tops reflecting on his glasses.
"Don't know, Lee, getting dark -"
Ah, come on. . . ." Jimmy croaked, looking for lost dignity. "You ain't chicken, are you?"
Jimmy stood up and shook his head.
Let's go, Lee."
I'll go too," Clay cursed, standing up. Maybe old man Hillman will be there."
Clay stared at him.
"Why would he be there?"
The Hillmam owned the property that bordered ours and no one was sure where their property began and Buckeye ended, but the line was deep in the woods so no one really cared either. The Hillmans were the wealthiest family in Richmond and probably all of Virginia. The Hillman steel mills had become bigger during the war years and blackened the skyline of Richmond with smoke during the day and roared through the night. Long ago we had discovered the Hillman burial ground lay in what we considered our woods."
The path shrunk to a line of horizon light on the forest floor. We loved into the dense part of the woods and it became darker. Leaves brushed us with the early damp of nightfall. Greedy vines and plants snaked up trees in the low parts of the woods. A crow flapped out from a tree, dark and majestic. I saw the sharp points of iron jutting against the leaves as the small cemetery took form from the forest. Vines bad woven around the black iron so thickly the gravestones were hidden.
I came to the entrance and paused. The gate was already open. I peered through to the mossy blue headstones and didn't move. Jimmy bumped me from behind.
"Hey, what -"
We pressed against the vines on the fence.
"She's beautiful!" Clay whispered next to me, clinging to the iron rods.
The apparition moved past us, her hair and dress shimmering in the gloom. The mossy dinginess of the stones took fire as she knelt and placed a cluster of red and yellow flowers in front of a headstone. She removed wet leaves from the top of the white marble.
"Who's she?" Jimmy whispered.
"- think shes Mr. Hillman's daughter."
A voice floated through the wet air and was lost, then came clear as she knelt in front of the grave.
"I brought you chrysanthemums, Mother - you can look at them whenever you want now."
Her voice went away with a rustling in the trees, then came back with the stillness. She seemed to crumple, her head down in her hand, then her crying was flowing across the dead air like current.
"Her mother must have died," Clay whispered.
"Last summer, ya dope," Jimmy whispered back. "Our yardman Roy says she was murdered!"
"How Roy know that?"
"She was sick," I said, remembering Mrs. Hillman's sudden death the summer before.
I shifted my position, stepping on Clay's foot. He yelped and the small head turned suddenly to us. I didn't move, smelling earth and chlorophyll in the damp ivy. Her eyes flickered, heaven glistening on her cheeks, then she turned back to the grave and picked up a red flower. She kissed it with a small sound, then placed it on the grave. We pressed ourselves low in the grass and vines as her footsteps faded into the forest.
"Damn! Was that something!" Jimmy exclaimed, a queer expression on his face.
Clay rolled over on the ground and looked up at the sky.
"She kissed that flower!"
I'm going to get it," Jimmy declared, going toward the gate.
I jumped in front of him.
"Why? We came down to go to the grave -"
"We shouldn't go in there."
Jimmy snorted loudly.
I looked around at the gloom descending.
"It's getting too dark - I'm going back to the tree house."
"Me too," Clay said quickly, moving for the path.
"You guys going to wait?"
"Nope," I shouted back.
"You guys . . . Ah, shit!"
I heard his heavy footsteps behind.
"How'd your brother get shot in the foot"
I leaned back against the plywood wall of the tree house, sucking on my damp Wing, watching the ember devour paper. I glanced at Clay and shrugged, talking through a mouthful of smoke.
"Don't know - guess some German shot him."
"My daddy says he's lucky to come home. Most of the time they have to go back to war."
I glanced lazily at Jimmy, knowing he only had sisters and felt compelled to assert his knowledge of men and war.
"It's 'cause he'd always limp that he came back," I said.
Clay's eyebrows disappeared into his hair.
"I wonder if he'll get a Silver Star like Scotty's?"
Jimmy glanced at me, rolling, his eyes. Scotty was Clay's older brother who had been killed the year before. Lucas and Scotty joined the service at the same time and were together on the day he was killed. After that, Lucas quit writing letters, then came the telegram saying he had been wounded. A few months later, Clay brought Scotty back form the dead.
"Don't think he'll get a Silver Star, maybe a Purple Heart."
"Purple Heart is good," Clay nodded.
"I think so," I said, flicking ash on my shorts, rubbing it off and trying to determine if the seeing eyes of an adult could detect the gray streak.
Jimmy yawned and held his cigarette in front of him.
"Timmy Boster's dad says guys who don't want to fight shoot themselves in the foot." He paused, looking at me. "They they get to come home."
I looked up from my shorts and stared at him.
"Shoot themselves on purpose?"
I tried to imagine placing a gun to my own foot and pulling the trigger, then I saw Lucas doing it and jumped to my feet. I yanked Jimmy up by his dirty shirt.
"Saying Lucas shot himself?"
He opened his eyes wide.
"No, but Timmy's dad said some guys shoot themselves in the foot. . . ."
Jimmy's mouth puckered like it was full of water.
"- and Lucas was wounded in the foot and maybe be wanted to come home"
I let go of his shirt and slammed my fist into his fat stomach. I stood over him as he coughed on the dusty wooden floor
"You're kicked out, Jimmy Mason!"
I threw the board from the entrance and climbed down the tree, marching indignantly out of the woods into the sun of the backyard. I stomped across the yard, considering going back to punch him again, cutting through the garden.
Two black wrinkled eyes beneath a straw hat were level with mine. Nelson stood on his knees between the rows of corn and tomatoes.
"Where you going in such a hurry? You just about run over me!"
"Getting away from my friends!"
I looked back at the woods.
"Gittin' away from your friends?"
"Away from one of them at least," I grumbled, plopping down in the grass.
Nelson pulled off his hat and mopped his head with the rag he kept in his pocket. His white t-shirt clung to his back and chest between his suspenders.
"Why you doing that?"
"'Cause he's not a friend . . . friends don't call other friends' brothers cowards."
Nelson turned and leaned back on his legs.
"Who callin' your brother a coward?"
Nelson pushed his lips out and moved his head.
"Lucas just got wounded."
I kicked a weed back into a pile of dead vines and watched a grasshopper pop across the cut grass.
"I know - that's why I punched him," I said, trying to touch the grasshopper with a blade of grass.
Nelson leaned back down and his chewed, floppy straw hat moved from side to side.
"Don't know nobody call him that."
Nelson stood and moved down the row of brown corn stalks to the tomato vines on the white lattices. He touched different tomatoes, squeezing some, taking the bad ones off the vine. I laid back in the grass, watching cotton tinged with gold move slowly over Buckeye. I sat up and stared at Nelson.
"You ever heard of anyone shooting themselves so they the time to go to war?"
He stopped at a vine and bent over.
"No sir - can't say I has."
I picked up a fat blade of grass and put it between my thumbs, blowing hard. The blade squeaked loudly.
"Lee, you know that hurts these old ears."
I dropped the grass and looked at him again.
"You ever heard of someone shooting themselves so they can come home?"
"No, can't say I has." Nelson was down on his knees in the corn again. "Jimmy say that?"
"Yes he did, the son of a bitch!"
I enjoyed the way I could cuss around Nelson.
"Don't sound right to me." He opened a stalk and broke off a while husk-covered piece of corn. "You want some of this corn, Lee?"
Nelson walked over, pulling off the husk and silk. He broke it in half and handed me a piece. I bit into the corn and tasted the tough, sweet kernels.
Nelson sat down next to me.
"Corn ought to be just right come fall."
"Tastes good now."
Nelson shook his head slowly, his eyes on the tawny stalks.
"No sir, not till the fall."
Excerpted from Tobacco Sticks by William Elliott Hazelgrove Copyright © 1997 by William Elliott Hazelgrove. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 3, 2013