Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised Roll Tide. I learned to cook with three spices: salt, pepper, and bacon fat. I was a young adult before I ever heard of barbecued beef. Barbecue sauce was white. In the summers of my childhood, I only wore shoes for church and could walk barefoot across an asphalt parking lot. I’ve suffocated many fireflies in sealed jars and dyed many Queen Anne’s lace flowers with food coloring. I went to see Gone with the Wind every time it played at the Princess Theater, even one time when I was too sick to go to school. As an adult, when I had time for just one adventure in Atlanta after a conference, I went to the Margaret Mitchel Museum. My adulthood has been spent in Texas, most of it on an old homesite where I garden and enjoy wildlife and wildflowers and still benefit from my childhood skill of holding my body horizontal to swing through barbed wire fencing.
Hundred Dollar Shoes
“What you barking at, Lady?” Charlene looked out the front window. “Dammit, why can’t that boy mind his own business?” She stepped out onto the front porch, holding her hand up above her eyes to screen out the late afternoon sun. It came in bad about this time of day ever since they lost that big branch on the oak out front during that last ice storm.
Wylie Rogers stood behind the open door of his red pickup truck, keeping plenty of social distance as advised. “Morning Miz Miller. Anita and I was worried about you and Mr. Miller. She tried calling but didn’t get no answer so sent me over to check on you. Everything okay?” He looked around as if expecting to see things that weren’t okay.
Charlene’s eyes followed his out to the pasture where a lone buzzard perched on a fence post. “We’re all just fine. Keeping to ourselves, like they’re telling us to do, ‘specially us old folks.” She gave a little chuckle.
“Mr. Miller around?” Again, Wylie scanned the pastures.
“Oh, he’s out there somewhere.” Charlene nodded towards the pasture. “May’ve gone to check on a couple cows’re bagged up.”
“I never known him to have calves this late.”
“Well, them things happen, you know?”
“Yes ma’am. I do. Them bulls don’t mind fences.” He laughed. “Well, tell him I came by. And if’n y’all need anything, give us a call.” He paused at the door of his truck. “You got groceries and such?”
“Oh my lands yes. My daughter-in-law’s been ordering me everything I need, and then some. I sit out there in the parking lot and they bring it all out to me like I’m some sort of queen or something. Course, they always give me avocadoes that’re too ripe.”
“I’m serious, if you need anything.” A second buzzard circled in the pasture.
“Like I said, we’re doing just fine.”
“Okay. I’ll tell Anita.”
“Tell her we’re just fine.”
“Yes ma’am.” He nodded towards the front porch. “See Mr. Miller finally got around to fixing that swing. If he’d called me, I’d’ve come helped him.”
Charlene looked towards the swing. One of the ceiling hooks pulled out when Gene sat on it seven years ago. She’d bought new hooks and they sat on the hall table ever since until she finally got up on the ladder last week and drilled some new holes then used a car jack and cinder blocks to lift the swing up so she could hook up the chains. It took her almost a full day but it was worth it. Now she could sit out there in the morning and drink her coffee and watch the birds and deer.
“Oh, before I forget, this was down at the gate.” He lifted a small package out of the truck bed. “Ain’t heavy. I’ll just leave it over here.”
“Thank you, Wylie.”
As he drove away, he called back to her, “Your flowers sure do look nice.”
“Don’t they?” When she and Eugene first bought the place forty-eight years ago, it was rock and cactus and weeds and salt willows and sticker grass. She prided herself how she had transformed barren, scorched patches into lush, shaded retreats. Eugene wouldn’t let her spend money on plants that didn’t produce food, so she had gathered seeds and rooted cuttings. She proudly planted her little babies and lovingly surrounded them with protective rocks. Then Eugene complained to her about having to move all those rocks she left in the yard so he could mow. If she had not been pregnant, she would have left him that day. She had to battle Eugene every spring not to mow until after the wildflowers had seeded.
About ten every morning, she’d drive the lawn tractor down to check the mail and pick up any packages left there. She’d put her bounty in the little wagon behind the tractor and haul everything home. It had been like Christmas lately with so many packages coming, sometimes several in one day. The more she ordered, the more catalogs that came. And the people she talked to when she called in orders were always so nice and friendly and willing to help her place her order. They didn’t treat her like she was old. Not that anyone could see all her new things but her. She had set her dining room table with her new flowered dishes, just so she could look at them. Eugene did not like flowered dishes.
She knew the box Wylie brought up was those shoes she had ordered that were supposed to be good for bad feet, and lord knows her feet had been hurting her for years. They cost her almost a hundred dollars. She had never had a pair of hundred dollar shoes. Eugene had a pair of two hundred dollar boots. The shoes were a brownish copper color. They were called fisherman sandals. They had a velcro strap across the back and little triangle-shaped openings. They were the softest things she’d ever had on her feet, like walking on clouds. They fit well with socks. Socks would keep her from sweating them up. She didn’t want to sweat up hundred dollar shoes.
She opened a beer. She liked a cold beer in the afternoon heat. She could hold the cold can up to her face between sips. She had never been a beer drinker before but Eugene liked his beer. Melanie, her daughter-in-law, ordered it for him every week, so she might as well drink it.
Her cell phone rang in her apron pocket. She knew from the ringtone it was Ronnie. He had set her phone up so she would know who was calling. Some were kind of funny, like the preacher’s ringtone—The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Eugene’s ringtone was Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, and Ronnie’s was some annoying song about your son is calling.
“Hello.” Charlene tried not to sound annoyed.
“Hey Momma. It’ s Ronnie.”
“Hi honey. I know it’s you.” She was glad she had had only one sip of beer. She didn’t want Ronnie to know she had started drinking beer even though Melanie had offered to order her some wine.
“Just calling to check on you. How’s Daddy? He around?”
“No. He’s out in the pasture, doing something or ‘nother.” She sat down on the sofa in front of the roaring air-conditioner unit.
“Is it hot there? It’s got to be hot there. He shouldn’t be out in that heat at his age.”
“Well you try telling him.”
“I would if he was ever around. Can’t you call me when he’s in the house sometime and put him on the phone?”
“You know your father. He hates talking on the telephone, especially now when it’s not even a real phone.”
“Well, you know we’re worried about you. I’d like to get back there but it’s just not safe to travel right now. It’d be really bad if I caught the COVID on a plane or whatever and then gave it to you.”
“You keep saying that.”
“How are the kids?” Charlene sought a change of topic.
“Oh lord. They’re teenagers. They want to be out with their friends, not cooped up with their parents. We’re all climbing the walls.”
“Well, it’s nice you have some time with them before they’re gone.” She thought about the time she and Ronnie spent together when he was little, while Eugene was on the road. It was hard work running the farm, but she hadn’t minded. It was peaceful, just Ronnie and her.
“Yeah. I guess so. Momma, Melanie wanted me to ask you about some of the expenses on your credit card. She said there’s a lot of new charges, some new places.”
Charlene responded, “I bought a few things. Some clothes. And a new pair of shoes. Is it a crime to want a few nice things after all these years doing without?”
“Okay. It’s your money. Just checking. But she said it was almost a thousand dollars.”
“Well, I won’t buy anything else, ever. Will that make you happy? I reckon I don’t deserve to have anything new.”
“I’m sorry Momma. I didn’t mean to upset you. We were just surprised Daddy’d let you spend that much.”
“I didn’t ask him.”
“Well good for you.” He chuckled. “I told her you deserved to spend some money on yourself. It’ll be good for you to have some new clothes, you know, later.”
Charlene paused before responding, “I have to go now honey. I got something in the oven. Love you. Bye bye.”
Charlene did not have anything in the oven. She knew what her son meant by later. Later was them living in some old folks’ home. The one good thing about this whole COVID 19 mess was that it had bought her some time. When Ronnie was home at Christmas, he showed them brochures for a senior living community near him. She knew what happened to people when they moved into senior living communities. They just up and died, like some of her friends. It wasn’t that she was afraid of dying. She’d just put too much of herself in this place to leave it now. She could sit outside in the cool of the morning, sip her coffee and hear the birds singing in the trees she planted and the bees humming on the flowers she planted. She had created this world. She didn’t want to leave it. Now, with old people dropping like flies in old folks’ homes from this epidemic, Ronnie had agreed that maybe they were safer on the farm.
Ronnie had warned her that if something happened to Eugene, she could not stay on the farm alone. Not only would the farm be too much for her to handle by herself, the social security and pension checks would be cut if he died. She would have to sell the farm to have money to live on. He had laughed and said, “If Daddy dies, you better prop him up and pretend he didn’t.” His words had raced through her brain that day six weeks back when Eugene was lying there in her wildflower meadow, his eyes as blue as the skies he stared up at.
She had tried to roll him into the wagon behind the lawn tractor, but he kept falling off, so she took the tarp off his fishing boat and rolled him on top of that. Then she folded it over him and ran a rope through the metal-ringed grommets. She slowly dragged this Eugene taco behind the lawn tractor out into the pasture where the buzzards were already circling as she removed his clothes. She put the tarp back on his boat and burned his clothes with the trash. She had kept Lady penned up ever since so she wouldn’t run out into the pasture and bring back remnants of Eugene, now scattered by critters throughout the blue sage and Indian blankets.
She didn’t cook much these days, but tonight she had a craving for beans and cornbread. She hadn’t made cornbread in months. She found a can of pinto beans way in the back pf the cabinet. They were the good kind with bacon in them. Melanie ordered vegetarian beans. She took her heavy, blackened skillet out of the cabinet. With her thumb and forefinger, she carefully picked a short straight white hair off the skillet. She held the hair over the feed sack that served as a trash bag. He should never have tried to mow down her Indian Blankets before they seeded. She watched the hair float into the depths of the bag.