Wednesday, April 28, 2010

They Had the Appearance of a Man (1)

Christian County, Kentucky, August 1955, 5pm.

The day had gone well: in the morning Jeremiah’s relatives had met him at the train station, and after some shopping, they had escaped the sweltering afternoon heat by ducking in to see a picture at the Alhambra theatre. Maisie had bought the tickets. They were five that day: Jeremiah, his cousin Billy-Glen, his wife Isabel and their little boy Bucky, and old Maisie.

Jeremiah noticed that Maisie hadn’t thought much of the picture.

‘Flying saucers and creatures from outer space-Jesus certainly never mentioned anything about them,’ he had heard her say to Bucky afterwards. ‘Folk from California dream up such things, but they’re a long way from Kentucky. All that sea air must make them soft-headed.’ Bucky had seemed to enjoy the picture, nonetheless.

Now the fields and scattered woodlands of Christian County were spread out before them as they trundled towards home in Billy-Glen’s battered Ford pick-up. The light was fading and the trees on the horizon were just starting to glow with a gold sheen.

Jeremiah was from one of the larger cities in New Jersey; at thirty-two, he was a little younger than his cousin, and had been removed from their branch of the family for many years. His natural home was one where chasms and canyons only existed between skyscrapers, where birds struggled to sing above the sounds of traffic at dawn. The silence here impressed him. His heart lifted, even as the heat smothered him like a closed fist. He tried to alleviate the stuffiness of the truck by opening the window, but the scorching breath that passed for wind in late-summer Kentucky quickly caused him to close it again.

‘Damn, Maisie. This is the life,’ he said, shielding his eyes from the sun. ‘Folk in Christian County don’t know what they have goin’ for themselves. When you were queuing for tickets this afternoon, I stood around in front of the post office. Just waitin’. And good God, every one of the customers who came in during that time knew the stewardess by name. And she knew them too, like as not.’

Maisie smiled. ‘Ain’t nobody in Christian County who doesn’t know everybody else, Jeremiah. And everybody else’s business, too- ‘specially in the case of Irene from the post office.’ She laughed, and then her face tightened. ‘And I’ll thank you not to use the Lord’s name in vain, dear.’

Jeremiah’s spirits fell slightly; he was certainly on a different plane to his rustic relatives. He made a mental note to watch his words more carefully in future. Before he had time to ponder this matter any further, Billy-Glen halted the truck with a jolt.

‘Cattle-gate!’ he yelled. ‘Whose turn is it?’

Seeing an opportunity to prove that he was no soft city-boy, Jeremiah jumped out of the truck before any of the others had an occasion to volunteer. He approached the gate; it was no more than a bunch of logs tied together with barbed wire, but he could see no obvious way to untangle the mess. Fumbling with the latch, he yelled as a blunt blade of wire sank into his skin.

Isabel leapt from the cab and brushed Jeremiah aside. She lifted one of the smaller logs, tracing it around a vertical stump to release the gate.

‘Isabel! Who is that with you?’ An elderly farmer, his face browned and leathery, approached from the field beyond the gate.

‘Nice to see you, Thomas,’ said Isabel. ‘This here’s my relative, Jeremiah.’

The big farmer practically crushed every bone in Jeremiah’s hand with his shake, but his smile was warm and genuine. “Pleased to welcome you to Christian County, friend,’ he said. Then, addressing Maisie in the truck’s cabin, he hollered ‘Hey May! Any news?’

Maisie’s head appeared from the window. ‘Well, Tom, next week’s the county fair. Are your strawberries gonna beat mine this year?’

‘It’s never happened yet.’

‘Then there ain’t no news around here. I’ll see you and your clan this week at church?’

‘As always, Maisie.’

‘Then all’s right with the world. Come on you two, get in the truck. It’s another ways ‘till we get to the farm. So long, Tom.’

As he climbed back inside, it struck Jeremiah that Maisie probably did meet Tom’s clan every week at church. He had a vision of them: two children, clean and polite and wholesome. He’d be willing to bet that Maisie’s strawberries beat Tom’s every year at the county fair, too.

Maisie seemed to know what he was thinking. ‘This family’s been my responsibility for nearly forty years, Jeremiah,’ she said. ‘I see to it that the little ones- little Bucky here, that is- get to grow up in a world where people know what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t see why we need any change, when we’ve already got God and the Ten Commandments to live by. So, as far as I’m concerned, no news is good news.’

The truck rumbled on. Cornfields, bleached brown and gold by the merciless sun, gave way to a thick forest of oak where each tree seemed to grasp for its neighbour across the road. The road itself soon became little more than a dirt-track. Jeremiah was trying to work out how long it had been since they had passed another vehicle (certainly an hour at least) when the farmhouse came into view.


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