by Fred Miller
His frame was square, his head a lump of coal, and his arms hung like sausages from his shoulders. No one knew where he’d come from or where he stayed. He’d just show up mornings in tattered trousers and a faded shirt and wait at the widow’s back door with a hoe in hand.
“H’lo, Willie,” I’d say.
His jaw would rise and he’d nod, his droopy eyes taking no notice of my presence. He’d stand there, sometimes for a while, his back straight, his head bowed, and his hands steadfast on the tool at his side.
By and by a door would open and from the shadows she’d issue instructions to him in a gravely whisper, his slick head bobbing after each command, followed by “yes ’am, yes ’am,” in subdued slurs.
On his hands and knees he’d start in the flower beds, his arms tossing weeds onto the summer grasses behind his scrawny bottom. And with the precision of an hour hand he’d inch around the house, his glistening biceps in constant motion.
In the shade nearby I’d watch and listen to his grunts and sighs and from time to time a soft, plaintive spiritual would fill the deep green summer air. My father first told me about this music, regaling me with his childhood adventures of crouching outside churches along lonely country roads listening to these people open their hearts in song.
Once I hovered behind Willie and watched each arm in a steady cadence scooping weeds and debris here and there. Under the sun his muscles shone in a deep lapis hue and carried the briny scent of a working man. I doubt he knew I was there ’til I squeaked. A small snake had raced from the undergrowth and hesitated by my feet, his head high, his tongue testing the ambient air. My eyes widened, my mouth in silent tribute to “The Scream.”
Willie’s long arm whipped around, his massive hand landing on the neck of the viper. His eyes fixed on his prey, he stood and shuffled toward the back of the yard and tossed the intruder into the woods. He’d not killed it, that wasn’t his way. A gentle giant, a lummox I’d heard someone say. He was back to his assignments, his eyes on the tasks at hand. A voice called out and off I ran for a summer lunch of hot soup and crackers and Paul Harvey news. “Bye, Willie,” brought silence in return.
The heat of the day found me close to a toy box or the mandated nap where I’d lie in wait for the turn of the oscillating fan and listen through the window to his songs in rhythm with the hoe or the rake.
Late afternoons would sometimes find a nickel in my hand and off I’d skip in the shimmering heat to the A-1 Mart, a neighborhood sanctuary that provided sweets and rare aromas that’d waft about the cool recesses of the place. With moist coin gripped tight, I’d conjure up visions of ice cream, and orange sodas and other delectable treats.
And it was here in a dim corner of the small grocery that I’d come face to face with my first furtive theft. The ice cream box sat at the back of the narrow store, the drink cooler by the register at the front. Soon I discovered that if the grocer were distracted by a customer up front, I could quickly devour an ice cream bar at the back and saunter up to the front, lift a bottle from the cooler, and pay for this item with my nickel. Who’d know?
The cashier would smile, sometimes patting my head, and I’d smile back and ease out the door with my orange drink. Little did I know then the weight transgressions could bear on the soul.
Pinks and lavenders in the west would signal the end of Willie’s day though some days I’d seen him spurred to toil into dusk by the widow’s insistence that all tasks could be done. Late afternoon light would dissolve behind a luminous canopy hiding a mob of cicadas whose shrill voices could cancel out competing expressions of life.
Again I’d see him at the foot of the back steps, no knock, no whistle, no signal he’d concluded the list at hand. Like a sentinel in sepia light, he’d stand soaked from head to toe, his hoe fast at his side. Finally she’d come and an arm, unkissed by the midday sun, would reach out through the door and a fist would open, dropping two, maybe three coins into Willie’s calloused hand. He’d nod, his melancholy eyes assessing the day’s reward, and shamble off into the dying light.
At night I’d lie awake listening to WWL out of New Orleans, a mystic destination I’d hoped some day to see. In detail the announcers would describe the crowd at a famous ballroom where big band music would play and stream into my bedroom and imagination. I could see whirling dancers, patent slippers, silks and lace, and wailing saxes that played Caravan and A Little Strand of Pearls and Harbor Lights, people laughing and frolicking in an era all but forgotten.
And I’d wonder about Willie. What would he be doing? Singing in a congregation down in the river bottoms or carousing with a crowd in a local juke joint? I wondered.
One August day I watched him from dawn ’til dusk, his labors interrupted once when he sat under an old oak tree and sipped sweet tea from a Mason jar and ate cornbread provided by the widow.
Behind a mower that raised dust high in the humid heat, he’d grunt and groan, his nostrils flared. And with streams of sweat across his cheeks and neck, he’d march back and forth like a mechanical duck in a carnival shooting gallery.
The fading day found him on his knees oiling the ancient machine and wheeling it back to the widow’s shed, his breathing labored. Again he’d stand by the back steps, his head low, his hands firm on his hoe.
When the door eased open, a stern face peered out and an arm thrust an old paper sack down into Willie’s hands.
“Don’t have any money today, Willie. Thought you could use some of these clothes my son has outgrown,” she said.
Behind a slamming door the voice retreated while Willie looked down at the sack. His jaw flexed. “Yes ’am,” he said to the empty stairs.
Never saw Willie after that, the widow asking if I knew where he was.
“No ‘am,” I said.
“Can’t trust ’em, you know, shiftless people,” she said.
“Yes, ’am,” I said and turned toward home to wash for dinner.
Fred Miller is a California writer who is working on his second novel, his first now under review for publication. His published works can be found on his blog here.