I heard his bellowing a full mile away. Someone had taken the knife to Bull. But that was supposed to wait until frost. Why would he get one of the fellows to do it today, I wondered. Well, the Old Man was getting a little dotty and who knows why he had decided that today was the day he’d kill Bull?
I let it go. Too late to do anything about it, and I wasn’t sure it mattered. What did matter to me was how much the Old Man seemed to be losing it. His depression had only gotten worse in the last few years. We—my wife and I—had taken him three times in the last two years, once to Florence, twice to Charleston, to see the doctors. They keep putting him on different medications. Last week she caught him pouring a whole bottle of the stuff down the toilet. What a waste. But what can you do? No wonder he’s off his rocker today, I thought.
Late summer in Marion County is always hot. The tobacco market has come and gone. The fields are parched, the stubble of stalks sticking up like half-dead soldiers dragging home from battle. Straw crunched under my feet as I walked our land. I’d marked off the two hundred and thirty-two acres so many times I knew every inch of it, and what it looked like when the gum trees and pine around the edges bowed down with ice in February and what it smelt like when wildflowers turned fields purple before spring plowing. I loved the place.
I didn’t think I’d ever say that. I had just finished my third year at Clemson when Buddy announced on Christmas Day that he’d be leaving. The scumbag. Buddy never amounted to anything, but he sure knew the way to rip a family apart. The Old Man didn’t say a word. Went over to the safe behind the portrait over the buffet, pulled out a wad of cash, sat down and wrote a note, left Buddy and me sitting at the table, with Aunt Jewel wiping her eyes. Ten minutes later he was back. “Wait till Monday morning,” he said to Buddy. "Monk Clarke says he’ll meet us at the bank with papers ready to sign.”
I never asked, “What about me?” I already knew somehow that this would mean the end of the med school dream. Somebody would have to look after the farm, and it might as well be me. Buddy never would have done it anyway. He knew nothing, cared for nothing, wanted everything.
You don’t know what it’s like to see a heart break. Buddy had been the Old Man’s favorite and everybody knew it. Buddy favored him, complexion, eyes, shape of mouth. Buddy could never do any wrong, or nothing anyway that was wrong enough to rile the Old Man sufficiently to put him in his place. Buddy went out for football, got into a fight after too many beers, got kicked off the team for cussing the coach out. The Old Man tried to reason with him. Flunked three courses his junior year. The Old Man got him tutored. Got Penny Andrews pregnant. The Old Man shook his head, paid for Penny’s baby, got the preacher to pray with Buddy. Buddy was going to straighten up, fly right. Then he wrecked the Old Man’s car.
I got nearer the house and heard sounds I’d never heard coming from our place. Neighbors were there, pick-ups parked all over everywhere, people piling into the house like it was Homecoming at the Baptist Church, carrying their cakes, pies, fried chicken and pimento cheese sandwiches. The Dream Ranch Boys Band was striking up a tune, and Carl Edwards had turned up to be the caller at a square dance. The pack house had been turned into a dance hall and nobody had so much as asked my opinion.
Well, it is the Old Man’s birthday, I thought, and figured that Donna had arranged a surprise party. “But why wouldn’t she have told me?” I wondered. Didn’t make sense. Celia, the cook, was opening the back door carrying a big pot of something. I called her over to ask what was going on. She beamed, “Buddy home!” My heart grew sick. I looked up and saw the eyes I knew so well, my father’s eyes in a drawn and alcoholic skull, staring across the yard at me from the dining room window. He smiled, the cur.
To Celia I said, “Well you just tell the Old Man that he can have his party. Was that Bull I heard bellowing and screeching? You tell him he can just do without me.” I don’t think she heard me over all the racket people were making. Aunt Jewel came flying out, screen door banging behind her. “Buddy’s back!” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. Her hands went slack when she reached out to hug me. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Didn’t you hear me? Buddy’s…”
“Back,” I said. “Buddy can go to hell, which is where he’s likely been for twenty years."
Aunt Jewel gave me one of her oh-how-could-you-worry-your-father-so looks, reached into her apron pocket and said, “Read this.” I unfolded the note. “I don’t amount to anything,” it read, “so just hire me to work on the farm. I don’t even want my old room back or anything.” I shoved it back into her pocket. Bull. Buddy’s bull. I never liked it and I still didn’t.
The air thickened with the smoke of barbeque. I looked towards the Sutton field. I started walking. Blue the dog trotted past me. I felt a hand on my shoulder. The Old Man said, “Son, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t believe you.”
“What can’t you believe?”
“I gave up my whole life for you. Not one day in twenty-two years have you ever had to ask where I was, what I was doing. Donna and I have taken care of you. I have run the place, paid the bills, worked the land, harvested the crops, raised the cattle and hogs. And Donna. She’s tended to you like her own father. And the kids. You think—"
He pulled my arm. I told him to let go. “Son,” he said, “all that is mine is
“I don’t need to hear that. What I need to hear is how you figure what fair is. Fair-haired Buddy totals your car, ruins a girl’s life, demands—demands—that you give him his inheritance as if you were to him as good as dead two decades ago—and then runs off to God-knows-where spilling his seed and sowing his oats all over the country and then comes home and isn’t here a half hour before you’ve called the whole damn county to come in and wine and dine him, the sorry son-of-a–
He just looked down at the ground, idly kicking at a clump of crabgrass. “Son,…”
“Don’t ‘Son’ me,” I said. “Bull. You killed Bull. What on earth are you thinking? For me you never killed—"
He wanted to know if I knew what it was like, if I’d ever thought what it would be like if Jack or Nan ran away, left home, no word, no trace, no phone calls or letters—what it would be like to lie awake at nights wondering what continent they were on, if they were still alive, jumping to answer the phone when it rang, hoping that it would be him, scared that it might be bad news, combing the papers to see if any sign of him turned up, foot-dragging to the barber shop, hating to go and listen to guys talk about their sons’ streaks of luck at this and that, casting an eye towards the pool hall when you pass, on the off chance he might turn up there where the dissipated play. He wanted to know if I knew what it was like to pray for a child not knowing if he was dead or alive.
He asked me if I would come in and welcome Buddy home, or at least be civil. I’ve never felt so much like a child.
“Your brother,” he began again.
“No brother of mine, son-of-a––son of yours.”
“He was as good as dead. You ought to see his eyes. The light has gone from his eyes. But he is alive. And so are you. And so am I.”
“He was lost and is found.”
“Yes,” I said. “Lost.”
I don’t know how long he stood there before he turned to go back to the house. I glanced and others were looking our way, coming outside the pack house to see what was going on, I reckon. Could no one understand what it feels like to be embarrassed by a no-good brother and a senile Old Man?
I honestly didn’t know what to do or where to go, or whether to keep walking into the fields, or swallow hard and make an appearance at the party. I just didn’t know. I just didn’t know. I had never felt so lost in my life.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010