Fit to be Tied
by James William Gardner
From where he stood beside his Aunt Delph’s dining room window, Darryl Emory could see the big pasture and beyond that the barn. There it was, alone against the sky like some great, dark cathedral; silent and deserted in the fading light.
It was nearly suppertime. The women were all in the kitchen getting everything ready and the men were in the front room standing around the woodstove. Everybody was talking and laughing and Loretta’s children were chasing each other around, crawling under the table and slamming the bedroom doors even though they’d been told to stop.
The whole family was there. It was Johnny Ray’s fortieth birthday and Loretta and Aunt Delph had decided to invite everybody over. Darryl Emory and Johnny Ray were the same age. They’d grown up together; fished and hunted and explored the big woods over on the other side of Chestnut Creek together with their shirts off pretending to be Cherokee braves. Once, they took Uncle Willis’ old Boy Scout knife and cut their thumbs so that they bled and pressed them together and swore they’d be blood brothers for life. He thought it was funny how some things you forget and other things stay as crisp and clear as if they just happened.
He could smell Uncle Taze’s pipe from the other room. Uncle Taze was Granny Lou’s brother. He was ninety-three.
As it grew dark he could see the reflections of the women working in kitchen on the window glass. He turned around to watch. Aunt Pauline was slicing the ham and Loretta was uncovering the casserole dishes that were lined up along the counter.
“I aimed to have Johnny Ray fix smoked pork, but at the last minute I just decided to have ham. It’s way yonder less time and trouble then doing those shoulders.”
“I’d just as soon have a good ham as I would barbecue anyway,” said his Aunt Delph. “The older I get the more that smoke bothers my stomach and gives me the heartburn.”
“Loretta, save all that foil so we can wrap up what’s left over.”
“Lord Pauline, you reckon you made enough potato salad?” Loretta said.
“Well, it always seems like we run out so this time I just made double.”
“You alright over there, Darryl, Honey?” asked Granny Lou. “Why don’t you come in here and talk to us instead of standing over there in the corner.”
“I ain’t got too much to say,” he answered.
“You feel alright?”
“I reckon so,” he said.
It was a lie. He didn’t feel all right at all. He didn’t want to be there and tried not to come, but his Daddy made him.
“You get you a bath and shave and get dressed. I ain’t going over there without you,” he’d said. “Besides, it’s your cousin Johnny Ray’s birthday and he’ll be expecting you and I don’t relish the idea of having to try and explain to everybody why you didn’t come.”
If there was one thing about his Daddy it was that he was good at keeping a thing to himself. He wasn’t about to let on that there was anything wrong. Hell, he wouldn’t even admit it. Darryl Emory figured that it was more pride then anything else. But, he knew and his Daddy knew too that it weren’t no secret.
Aunt Pauline had done made sure of that. Once, he’d overheard her talking to her sister, Delph.
“You know poor Darryl ain’t right. I used to just think that he weren’t too bright, but I believe it’s more then that. I believe that he’s got mental problems,” she said. “I believe the older he gets the worse it gets.”
“What kind of mental problems?” asked his Aunt Delph.
“Ain’t you ever looked in his eyes? Look in his eyes sometime.”
“Wilson ain’t never said nothing,” she said.
“You know good and well that Wilson won’t say a word.”
Darryl Emory couldn’t believe his ears. There was his dear Aunt Pauline calling him crazy and not only that, but spreading it around. He could tell she’d done told everybody in the damn family. They all acted peculiar around him. It was like they tried to pretend he wasn’t there and when they did speak to him it wasn’t like before. Everything was awkward and he hated to be around them.
Lord, he used to think that the sun rose and set in his Aunt Pauline. He loved the way she smiled at him and how she always smelled like Ivory soap. He used to love spending the night over there and taking a bath in her big white tub with the feet. Like so many things, his feelings about all of that had changed or faded away all together. It felt like his life was being disassembled and everything that had held meaning was being destroyed piece by piece.
His relationship with his Daddy was the same way. There was hardly anything left. Mainly, he just tried to avoid him as much as possible and if they happened by accident to look each other in the eyes all that he could see was disgust. If his Daddy spoke to him at all the words were tinctured with animosity and resentment. He blamed him for everything.
At first, Darryl Emory made an effort to defend himself by going out of his way not to say or do anything that might confirm their suspicions. But, he stopped all that. If they thought that he was out of his head then they could just think it. He didn’t give a shit anymore.
“You reckon that’s enough ham?” asked Aunt Pauline.
“If it ain’t we can always slice more,” said Loretta. “The bread is ready to come out,” she said. “Delph, go and call everybody.”
“Y’all come on!” she shouted. “Willis, have them youngons to wash their hands before they come to the table!”
Loretta pulled the biscuits and corn bread out of the oven and sat them on the counter to cool. Darryl Emory went to wash his hands because just as sure as he didn’t Aunt Pauline or somebody would ask if he did. They’d never think to ask Johnny Ray or Roland if they’d washed their God damn hands, but they’d ask him like he didn’t have good sense.
In a few minutes everybody was gathered together in the kitchen and Granny Lou asked Uncle Taze to say the blessing. One thing about him was that he knew how to say a blessing. He spoke to the Lord in old English just like the King James Bible calling the Lord Thee and Thou out of respect.
“Pauline, make those children be still and hush!”
Uncle Taze stepped out into the middle of the room and said for everybody to bow their heads. Darryl Emory didn’t bow his head or close his eyes either. He wasn’t in any mood to pray. All he wanted to do was to get something to eat and get out onto the porch where he could be alone. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time he did pray.
Uncle Taze finished the blessing and everyone said, Amen.
“Alright, y’all come on and help yourselves. There’s more then a plenty. Delph, let the children go first. Help them to fix their plates and have them sit over at the folding table. Y’all grab you a plate and silverware here on the end and come on.”
“Wanda Jean, don’t you want some carrot salad?”
“No thank you,” said the girl.
“It’s mighty good. You better try you just a smidgen. You don’t know if you like something until you try it.”
The child shook her head adamantly.
“Darling, you don’t know what’s good.”
“Pauline, don’t make the girl eat it if she don’t want too.”
“Darryl, come on over here and get in line,” said his Uncle Willis.
“I’ll fix me a plate directly,” he replied. He turned back to look out the window but it was completely dark outside and all he could see was the reflection of everyone in the kitchen. He could see his Daddy standing there watching him thinking that he couldn’t see because his back was to him.
“Loretta, do you reckon you’ve got enough chairs?”
“I believe so. If I don’t then we’ll just have to take turns,” she laughed.
Finally, Darryl Emory walked over and stood behind his Uncle Willis at the end of the line.
“How’ve you been getting along, boy?” he asked. “You find you a job yet?”
“No Sir,” he said as he picked up a clear plastic knife and fork and stuck them in the bib pocket of his overalls.
“Well, it ain’t easy these days. Lord, I know. I was out of work for nearly a year when the plant closed. Of course, I was on unemployment, but still it weren’t easy.”
“He ain’t got no job,” said his Daddy. “He ain’t looked.”
“Well,” said his Uncle, not knowing anything else to say. After that, nobody said anything. Darryl Emory filled his plate and Granny Lou handed him a plastic cup of iced tea.
“You sure you’re alright, Honey?” she said.
“Yes Ma’am,” he said. He took his plate and walked toward the door. He could feel them watching him to see what he’d do.
“Hey Darryl!” shouted Johnny Ray. “Come on over and sit here with me and Loretta. There’s an empty place right next to Aunt Delph.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I think I’ll go eat out on the porch. It’s kind of warm in here for me.” That was the best excuse he could come up with, but Johnny Ray didn’t say anything else so he opened the door and walked out under the porch light.
It felt good to get out of there. He knew that nobody would say anything about him eating out there alone because none of them wanted to talk about him in front of his Daddy.
He didn’t really want to eat anymore, but he sat down in a rocking chair and balanced the plate of food on his knees and ate anyway. It was quiet except for Johnny Ray’s coon dogs out in the pen. He could just barely hear the muffled talking inside the house. He could see Granny Lou’s trailer next door with the outside light on so she could see to walk back after supper.
God, he wished that things weren’t like they were. He wished that he could feel the way he used to about things. He wished he cared, but it was like everything was just washing out; eroding right from under him.
Even the land he was sitting on, land that had been in his family since the 1850s, meant nothing anymore. The home place was falling down and so was the big barn. Uncle Willis’ son, his cousin Wesley, had sold his piece of the farm and moved to Atlanta and the man that bought it built a concrete damn on Chestnut Creek and flooded out his Great Granddaddy’s prized bottom to make a God damn fish pond.
That was the best land left. Anything would grow there. Lord knows how long it must have taken to clear it off. Now it was underwater.
He could remember when his Granddaddy used to talk about the farm and how very important it was. They used to walk through the tobacco together chewing Juicy Fruit gum.
“There ain’t nothing like having land. It gives a man a sense of being; of belonging to something. Always keep it. Don’t never sell it to nobody because once it’s gone you’ll never get it back.”
His Daddy and his Uncle Willis were talking about tearing down the barn and selling the lumber because it was all oak hewn right there on the farm and was worth good money. Then too, Uncle Willis had the idea of planting all the big pasture in Loblollies. At one time both the ideas would have burned him up, but not any more.
Maybe he was losing his mind, he thought. This might just be what it feels like.
A native of southwest Virginia, James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary American South. His work explores aspects of Southern culture and society often overlooked: the downtrodden, the impoverished and those marginalized by society. His work has been published in The Mulberry Fork Review, The Fredericksburg Literary Review, Scholars & Rogues Literary Journal, Constellations Print Anthology, Zouch Magazine, Fresh Literary Magazine Annual and Potluck Magazine.