Image credit: Thomas Gillaspy *
Addie Ames picked up the blanket that had fallen around the feet of the old woman and refolded it, and draped it over her lap. “Mother Pearl,” she said, resting a hand on her shoulder, “you’re not helping things.”
“It’s the chickens,” the old woman insisted. “Always in a racket. That white banty worst of all.” Her words ran together like spilled cream. Around the both of them, men moved like shadows, young, old, big men, boys just waist high.
Addie leaned into her ear. “Hush you.”
From the night they’d been introduced under the racket of an angry hailstorm on a rusted tin roof, Addie knew the woman looked at her son’s new prospect with great disappointment. Addie had a history somewhere in her blood that showed on every bit of her flesh, a dash of milk spilled into a pot of coffee.
“You look a little redbone to me,” she’d said, her eyes rolling up at Addie like white stones against a mahogany bed.
Thomas squeezed Addie’s arm then, and Addie said simply, “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mizz Ames.” She reached out a trembling hand and then the hail picked up, consuming the moment with what seemed like an unending, unnerving cacophony.
It was in that same room on a thick July afternoon in 1928 that they married, and over the following decade Addie grew strong from shouldering it all, Pearl’s disapproving side-eyed glances and the whispers of final words spoken into her dark, leathered hand. For the sake of harmony and a husband who expected it of her, she had pretended none of it existed. But Pearl was old now, and had a mind that couldn’t be counted on to work the way it was supposed to anymore. And this night was very different from any other.
Thomas scuttled around the place, securing every blind and lock, the smell of his sweat filling each room he passed through. Addie rushed after him, whispering his name over and over because she didn’t know what else she should do. The boys stood stiff like soldiers at the top of the stairway, rifles angled toward the ceiling.
“I can’t see a thing! Someone switch on a light in here!” Mother Pearl was yelling now, and Addie had just enough time to take in her breath before Thomas stopped in his tracks and turned around.
“Goddamn it Addie,” he snapped. “Go and shut that woman up.” He would not curse his mother directly, but his wife would always suffice. “Otherwise the first bullet through this wall’s gonna go right into that chair.”
A slice of orange shone through the edge of the window, a bitter warning of the setting sun. Mother Pearl was in the back of the house now, in the pantry between the potatoes and the flour.
“Mama, you stay put and you stay quiet,” Thomas had ordered. His hands had gripped his mother’s knees as if he might lift her from her chair in one swoop. “You hear me?”
“I hear, Tommy, I hear.”
There were five of them now gathered in the upstairs bedroom: Thomas, Addie, their two boys Amos and Tom Jr., and old Ben. Hands rested against walls of crinkled, peeling paper, and the dim light streaming in from the windowsill lit a jumble of scuffed boots and shoes over a shiny wood floor.
“You still got a steady hand, Ben?” Thomas asked, resting his hand over his stepfather’s. “You think you can still hit a target?”
“Sure as hell.” There was a tremor in his voice, but that had been a part of him for some time now.
Tom Jr. spoke up. “Am I gonna have to shoot a man, Papa?” he asked. He was not yet twelve, so the rifle laid across his arms like a fallen tree. The boy’s words came in chunks, halting, and weighed down by his own laboured breathing. “Do I shoot him like a deer, up by his head?”
“Good lord, Tommy, don’t talk like that.” Addie put a hand over her son’s mouth. “Sweet Jesus, help us all. Help us all.” Off in the distance, from the other side of the ash grove, a dog barked. The sound came again and again, an unintentional gift of warning that the men had left the road and were coming through the forest.
“You stay to the right of the windows and you keep your guns down,” Thomas said. He spoke in a low whisper, even though the men were still a good 200 yards off. “You’re gonna hear some yelling and then you’re likely gonna hear a shot.”
“Will it be loud, Papa?” Amos had just turned nine the month before, and he’d handled a gun more times than most boys his age. Mostly rabbits, a few coons that had dared to come too close to the hen house. But he’d never gotten used to the noise and always talked of the ringing in his ears when it was done.
“You’ll hear the shot,” Thomas continued, “and if things go the way I hope they will, that’ll be it.”
“And if not?” Old Ben asked, even though the answer was plain.
There was a pause in the room then. Addie listened to her husband’s breathing next to her, deep and rhythmic.
“If there’s a second report,” Thomas said, “then you start shooting till you ain’t got a single bullet left on you.”
“Didn’t I tell you this would happen?” As quick as the words had left her mouth, Addie regretted not keeping hold of her tongue. Some women would have said it long ago, over and over, never giving a second thought to the consequences of their words. Some women would have done the same as Addie, plucked out the thorn that had been in her skin for so long. Those same women might have held up a hand then, to shield themselves from the one that would come to strike in return. But it wasn’t Thomas’s anger that Addie feared. It was the destruction of his spirit, his crumbling pride and confidence that would be her doing.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said calmly. “Then or now, what’s right is right.”
There was a sharp cry from downstairs. The noise rolled up the stairs and settled heavy into the room. A collective sigh rose in the air, and Addie felt her own shoulders weigh down like lead.
The street that ran along the front of Kat’s Mercantile had been a patchwork of potholes on that day. They were boot-deep, still full of water from the rainstorm the night before. Thomas and Addie parked the pickup at the end of the block and darted from shop to shop, moving among puddles like dancers in a waltz, his rough, calloused hand guiding her elbow with a grace that made her stomach lift.
Fifteen cents a dozen. The slate had been washed fresh that morning, the writing bold and white like aspen twigs. “Oh, Thomas look,” Addie had said. “Fifteen cents.” She held her fingers to her breast and counted off, whispering numbers in rapid fire. “Maybe the rain this week will give those hens the kick they need,” she whispered hopefully. “Get them laying again.” She took out a pad and pencil, and made a note.
The rest of the afternoon, Thomas spent and Addie earned, just like that. She added up the money they would get the following week from the eggs, butter and wool they would bring in, and Thomas counted off the items he would put on order—axle grease, kerosene, shells for his rifles, a new tube for the radio. Sell and buy.
It was between the mercantile and the feed store that they got separated and it was outside The Bluebird Tavern that Cyrus Tallow’s boy Sam stumbled into Addie’s path.
“Well now, look who brought the sunshine with her this morning.” Sam Tallow had a face younger than his years, as if he was barely old enough to even set foot in The Bluebird, much less take a drink. He steadied himself with one hand against the door, and raked his tangled yellow hair with the other. “It’s been a long time, Addie Ames. Too long.” He sucked in a spot of air through pursed lips, then let it out in a low whistle. “I might say that you’re looking sweet enough to eat.”
“Mister Tallow.” Addie spoke simply, as though his words had dissolved in the space between them. She tipped her head slightly, and continued on her way.
“So formal.” Sam put a hand in front of her, and scanned the area around them. “Must be the man is around, you walking right past me like you don’t even know me.”
“Have a nice day, Mister Tallow.” Addie’s jaw was set hard, and she let her shoulder brush boldly against his chest as she turned. She stepped from the sidewalk into the dirt, but Sam was quick, in spite of the liquor. There was a tangle of feet, and the hem of her cotton dress found itself in the tight grip of his hand. She was spun off balance, her body tumbling into his as the two of them fell backward, right into the last night’s rainwater.
“Jesus, Addie,” Sam laughed from beneath her. “Look what you did!”
“What I did?” She lifted herself from the ground and fanned the skirt of her dress outward. It was ruined, soiled beyond repair. As she stood there, Sam Tallow writhing at her feet, she imagined taking her heeled boot and mashing it into his sneering face. More than anything, she wanted to do just that, but she held her temper. As people poured from the doorways and filled the sidewalks, and passing cars slowed down to leer at them, faces laughing from behind windows, but most simply staring in anticipation, Addie held calm. The last thing she needed to do was risk her entire family over a silly cotton dress.
“Why don’t you take that thing off and I’ll bring it home with me,” Sam slurred. “I’ll have my girl clean it and drive it on out to your little shack.”
“It’s fine.” She stepped away from him, but his hand took hold of her ankle.
“Come on, now,” he mumbled. His boyish face wore a beard of mud from ear to chin. “I’ll take you in my car myself. You can soak in my mama’s tub.” He grinned, and tugged at her ankle. “I promise I won’t peek in at you.”
By the time Thomas came out of the feed store and saw his wife, damaged as she was, there really wasn’t anything that could have been done. It was the blood along the edge of her mouth that blinded him to any reason and consequence. It wasn’t but a few drops, but the red carried itself directly to Thomas and burned itself right into his stomach.
Addie met him halfway, pushed him back with her muddy hands. “It’s not worth it,” she begged. “It’s an old dress. He’s drunk, Thomas. Don’t make a bad thing terrible.”
But the blood took his ears from him, and he pushed her aside.
A single blow to the jaw was all it took. It was all it took to send the Tallow boy to the ground, and it was all it took to seal Thomas’s fate from that moment forward. Everything he had worked toward, everything he had earned, for himself and his family, was no more.
“Get on home, Thomas Ames,” came a voice from out front of the feed store. “Bad enough you hit a white boy, but you had to make it a Tallow.”
The two of them said not more than a few words on the long drive back to the farm. It was just after they crossed over Fire Creek Bridge that Thomas let loose.
“I’m fed up, Addie. Fed up with the whole damned thing.”
“But nothing,” he spat. “Bunch of drunks and grifters, that’s what they are. Can’t farm for nothing. Anything that comes out of their land is from someone else’s work.” He gripped the steering wheel so hard Addie could see the knuckles through the skin. “Everyone here tiptoes around ‘em like they’re coiled snakes.”
Addie said nothing at first, letting the creaking of the truck fill the seconds until she could get her words together. “If you turn around right now,” she said carefully, “just go straight to the Tallow place and talk to the old man himself before—“
“The hell I will.” Thomas gunned the engine, and the truck fell into the swoop of the gully before lurching up the hill toward the turnoff to their farm. Addie’s stomach sank with the dip, and stayed there.
“You know what this means, then?” she said with a shrug of her shoulders. “They’ll be there by sundown.”
“Let them come.”
“There’s rats in here,” Mother Pearl mumbled, taking hold of Addie’s hand. “Shine a light. They’re coming into the pantry.”
“It’s the boys upstairs, Mother.” The shuffle of footsteps over their heads was frantic, back and forth, the occasional murmur dulled by floorboards and ceiling. Addie leaned in close to Mother Pearl, put her lips to her ear and sang softly.
I got peace like a river, I got peace like a river
I got peace like a river in my soul…
She let the words fall gently away, and the two of them hummed together for a time until Mother Pearl let go of Addie’s hand.
“You go on up there,” the old woman said calmly. “I’ll be good now. The rats are gone back to the barn.”
“Everything all right here?” It was old Ben, a silhouette of broad shoulders and downy hair in the pantry doorway. “You all right, Pearlie?”
“I’m fine, just spooked. Can’t be surprised, sticking me in this closet.” She was back to her usual self, now. Hands still and warm, her voice full of vinegar. “Go on now, both of you.”
“I’ll stay here Mother,” Addie said. “In case one of those rats decides to poke his nose back in here.” Outside, the dogs had quieted their barking, and the faint twittering of the hens had reclaimed the dusk.
“Alright then.” Ben leaned into the pantry and fumbled his hand among the potatoes to get his balance. “You be sweet to Miss Addie,” he whispered to his wife. “Like I know you can be.” He kissed her on the cheek, and she reached up and touched his lips with her fingertips. They remained like this for the longest time, until a voice from upstairs turned Ben away, and Mother Pearl let him go with wave of her hand, and a weary sigh.
There was more shuffling above them, but if Mother Pearl noticed, she said nothing. Addie let her head fall back, and she drew in a deep breath. The air was thick and heavy with the smell of onions and dirt, and of Mother Pearl’s lavender soap. She listened hungrily for the deep roll of her husband’s voice, and for the light melody of her precious boys.
“I never cared for you much,” Mother Pearl said suddenly. Her voice was clear and articulate and Addie pulled back with a start. It wasn’t the sentiment, but the bluntness.
“I know that, Mother Pearl.”
“It ain’t your fault though,” she went on. “I know you’re good people. A woman can’t help if she’s too pretty no more than if she’s ugly as sin. You carry the load that God gave you.”
“You thought I was pretty?” Addie strained her eyes, to try and make out the old woman’s face in the dim space.
“Oh yes. Too pretty. Too pretty for my boy.” She laughed softly. “When I saw you that first day in my kitchen—remember that day?”
“It was a hell of a storm. Nearly took the roof off of the house.”
“I saw you there, and the first thing I thought was ‘Lord this girl’s gonna be trouble.’ ”
Addie squatted down next to her, rested her hand on the old woman’s arm and asked, “And why’s that, Mother?”
“A pretty woman draws the boys like flies and the girls like hornets,” she said. “Like that banty hen. Mean as all get out, stirring up the hen house so no chicken will lay. And that damned rooster won’t shut the hell up. It’s a pretty thing, but it brings out the ugly in everyone.”
“Including you, right?”
“I reckon so.”
“Sam Tallow!” Thomas’s cry slammed the house like a thunderbolt. “I know you’re out there, you son of a bitch. This is between us and us only. Step off my property and leave my family out of this.”
“Little late for that now, isn’t it?” Sam’s voice was tinny and desperate, like a boy standing up to his old man for the first time in his life.
“I know I got you wrong, though,” Mother Pearl said, her hand brushing her daughter-in-law’s sleeve.” My Tommy, he loves you so much he’d lay down his life. That’s something.”
The crack of a rifle shot broke the moment in half, and the two women sat in stone silence. Mother Pearl found Miss Addie’s wrist and she held on, gripped it tightly as if she might slide from the chair at any second.
The return shot came like an echo, and in the time that it took Addie to take in her next breath, a barrage of gunfire exploded in the air. Mother Pearl was yelling something, and even when Addie pulled her close, she couldn’t make out what she was saying.
Addie let her head drop to the old woman’s lap, let her lungs take in the heady scent of lavender and wool. The shots came in sets of three. Three here, three there. There would be a lull, then another set until at last the night fell silent.
The women allowed themselves a moment of stillness in the wake of such horror. Addie felt the violent pounding of her heart against her mother-in-law’s knees, and she listened to her own breathing grow ever shallower.
There was the dull sound of movement from upstairs, and the volley of voices from one person to another.
“You boys all right?”
“There’s glass all over the floor.”
From off the kitchen, across the yard, the hens were in a commotion.
“That damned banty,” Mother Pearl hissed.
Addie took in a deep breath and let it go, her body shaking in fits as she began to cry.
“There now,” Mother Pearl whispered. “It’s all over, dear.” She combed her fingers through Addie’s soft mane of hair, letting it fall loosely in her lap, the combed it once again. “It’s just a racket, nothing worse than a big hailstorm,” she cooed. “Remember that? It was nothing to cry about then, and it’s nothing now.” She bent over in her chair, as far over as her old body would let her, and she smoothed the hair from Addie’s face.
I got peace like a river, I got peace like a river…
She sang so softly, like a brand-new mother shepherding her baby to sleep against her bosom.
I got peace like a river in my soul…
WARREN READ is the author of a memoir, “The Lyncher in Me” (2008, Borealis Books) and his fiction has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review, Sliver of Stone, Inklette, and Switchback Magazines. In addition, he has had two short plays directed for the stage by Tony winner Dinah Manoff. In 2015 he received his MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
THOMAS GILLASPY is a northern California photographer with an interest in urban minimalism. His photography has been featured in a number of magazines including the literary journals: Compose, DMQ Review and Citron Review. Further information about his work is available at his website.