Nowhere Is Always Somewhere
  Six Stories by Robert Earle
  1  Under the Bridge
2  The Mustard Pot
3  Nowhere Is Always Somewhere
4  Monsters, Monsters Everywhere
5  What Maggie Knew
6  The Last Summer
  About the Author  |  |  September 2017 Fiction Issue

The Last Summer

The field across the road from the gas station had been a pasture before the farm went bust. Now cedars grew here and there because waxwings dropped cedar seeds across it. Her father knew this was how the cedars got there—he had grown up on a farm— but he had no real interest in such things. He just told her when she asked about the lone trees interrupting the tall grasses no cattle had grazed since the county took over.

In the time she had to spend at the gas station while her mother ordered supplies or worked on accounts, she would go over to the field and head for one of those trees. She crawled under its skirts and smelled the fragrant wood and lay hidden behind the curtain of grasses where no one could find her, listening to the waxwings harvesting berries and the crickets chirruping from their own grassy hiding places where the soil stayed damp no matter how hot the Carolina summer became and there was good rot and decay to feed on.

Sometimes she moved from tree to tree and worked her way to the abandoned farmhouse with its buckled porch, broken windows, caved-in roof and original log cabin transformed into a summer kitchen, all its chinking gone. She did not want to get into the house, preferring to examine it from a distance. She felt no claim on it except for the harsh, beaten way it disturbed her. There were rusty tin roofs on some of the outbuildings and a cedar shake roof on a bee house, another reason to leave it all alone. Some bees might still be there even though the people had left when the federal highway sliced across their land and cut their cattle off from the pond on the other side. That’s when the deal was made to shut the farm down, give it to the county, and allow the black farmer to come by every August. First he would mow the field with his rotary rig behind his old, blue Ford tractor. Then he would pull his rackety orange bailing machine across it and haul the bales away in his slat-sided pickup truck.

A few days before the black farmer started, he would bring his equipment over to have her father tighten things up. The black farmer was a big, supple, gleaming man who wore a pair of faded blue overalls, a white T-shirt, a leather hat cracked and chapped by rain and his sweat, and a pair of cracked yellowish boots. He liked to talk and tell her father things and complain about tools he didn’t have that would enable him to change out bushings and tie rods himself. He didn’t have the tools because he was poor, he said. On top of that he wasn’t mechanical. He was better with animals. In fact, he said he only reaped the field for the county’s sake and maybe this summer would be the last summer he would do it. Why mess with that tough, weedy stuff across the road when he could buy sweeter hay for his livestock if he waited until prices went down later in the fall? That’s what he asked himself. But it was never the last summer. The next summer he always was back, saying the same things, and her father let him talk, not looking at him the way he didn’t look at anyone who was talking to him.

When she was ten, she began moving beyond from the cedars in the field and the abandoned farmstead and going into the state forest leading down the flank of the Green River Valley to Greentail Falls. Coming out of the high sun, she practically drank the rich cool air of those woods, massive in the way they enclosed her within arcades of shade.

She kept track of her progress by noting the look of this tree, then that tree, oak, sycamore, ironwood, poplar. As she got bolder, she wandered deeper toward what became her destination, Greentail Falls, which pitched over a granite outcrop and retained from the Indians to now an emerald snake of algae right in the middle that wavered beneath the water, turning it green like a tail before it broke into the white cascade of free fall and hit the swimming hole worn into the bedrock below. What she liked was how the water kept flowing and falling while the algae kept adding its touch and holding on. Everything stayed in its pretty place. She wished her life were like that, and she had not been swept downstream of happiness.

Her side was where no one came, twice as high as the other side, which had a natural set of steps and perches descending to the water. She could lie on a big bald rock and study the activity below unseen. Greentail Falls was an attraction but even more so that hollowed catch basin where teenagers would swim and if they dared, skinny dip, boys and girls, too.

She thought the girls were prettier when they were naked because the parts of a girl’s body had a waterfall-like flow that followed from her throat to her breasts to her waist to her crotch and onto her thighs. The boys’ peters stiffened—she had seen her brother Ted’s peter stiffened—and ruptured the flow. It was almost like the whole of a girl was a girl, all of her, and all of a boy, the whole of him, was his boner, and they all had boners, every one she ever saw climbing up onto the rocks without his trunks on, crouching as he moved to keep his boner tucked away from anyone who might grab at it or try to slap it and make it bounce sideways or up and down.

She saw Ted and his girlfriend Dixie naked down there. She wasn’t interested in him. She was more interested in Dixie. Dixie was fifteen and had too much hair already to see the cleft between her legs, and Ted said she was the first girl in her class who could put a pencil under her breasts and have it stay there. Everything he did made Dixie give him a schoolteacher’s naughty-naughty look. But she kept putting herself in places where Ted could pretend he accidentally had wandered and bumped into her. Then she gave him that look and pushed him away. Then he dove under the water to butt his head between her legs. Then she shrieked and kicked. Or she got out of the water very slowly so he could sneak up behind her and put his hands on her hips and pull her back in, and she would struggle, relax her head back against his cheek, and then struggle again. It was fight and not fight. Tease and be serious. When Dixie managed to get out, she would take a lot of time standing there in full view, patting herself dry with a towel.

She thought of Miss Hester in the Sunday school girls’ room patting her dry after she peed and herself patting Miss Hester dry. No one could see her up on the rock so she reached down there. Sometimes she’d stop and look at the boys and girls and lose track, fascinated by them, but then she’d feel the twitch and go back until she felt the hot jerks that made her roll over and put her hands over her eyes. She knew she was bad, but not why she was so bad no one invited her over to play anymore and she had to go to the gas station with her mother and then end up on the rock overlooking the falls, not part of anything.

There were other ways back to the gas station. She found a rutty old cart path that would do it, but if her parents saw her returning from another direction, they would know where she had been—and wasn’t allowed to go on penalty of being switched—so she always retraced her steps to come out in the field, the grasses almost to her armpits by early August, exactly where she had entered it in the first place. Here is the lost child, her mother would say, and she is a mess. And her father, whether he was working or not, would not even look at her, scratched by nettles and covered with burrs, her socks slid down so that the tops were under her heels.

When she was eleven, she saw the black farmer harvesting the field and went across the road to watch closer. She liked the sweet, clean smell the cut grass released. And she liked the way the black farmer pulled his rotary rig around the cedars, leaving them fringed with a collar that preserved her ability to slip under the lower limbs and not be seen. But she had lost interest in doing that. She was more interested in the beautifully shorn field and its naked swelling body, piedmont terrain stretched out tawny, butchered grasses glinting in the sunlight.

After that he detached the rotary rig and connected the bailing machine and ran the same routes back and forth across the field, the baling machine’s picking tines gathering the grasses into the compacting box that fed the shoot that spewed bale after bale out the rear end onto the field.

The black farmer had a silver thermos sticking up between his legs and sometimes would steer his tractor with his knees so he could unscrew its cap for a swig of water, but that didn’t interrupt his slow progress, working his way around the cedars and gradually toward the windbreak of poplars that concealed the abandoned farmhouse in the distance.

The only thing that interrupted his work was baling wire snagging. When that happened, one bale got stuck and was rammed by the next and the next, and the choking splutter of the tractor’s motor ceased, and the farmer climbed down off his springy metal seat and clomped back to snip wires with a big pair of cutters and work the jammed bales loose. To do that he had to get up on the drive shaft and put his head and chest all the way into the shoot. All she could see was his butt and legs and his caked yellow boots.

One time when she was twelve, she heard her father laughing because the wire had snagged and the black farmer was having a time fixing things. Her father had many similar problems and enjoyed telling about things like a transmission falling through his hands, slippery as a muskrat, and landing on his steel toe work shoes. Misery was the only thing that made him merry.

“Look at the nigger now,” he called to her mother in the little office.

Her mother said that she wished he would stop calling the man that.

“Don’t matter. Can’t hear me in that shoot. Hey, nigger,” he yelled to prove it, “have a problem out there?”

She walked out into the field so that she would not hear her father, either, and got right up to the black farmer.

“Can I help?” she called.

The black farmer did not answer. He shimmied deeper into the shoot to the point where his hand came out the other end, pushing the last stuck bale off the rolling track.

When he got himself out, his face was covered with flecks of grass. He had it in his nose, ears, and mouth. His hair was covered with it. He had to snort and poke and swipe to get himself clean. It was in his eyes, too. He had to rub them before he could see her properly.

“I asked if I could help.”

He said he didn’t think so, not doing that.

“I’d fit better than you if it happened again.”

He smiled and said gently, “No, that work is not for you.”

He was still shaking and shivering himself like a horse trying to flick off flies. The grass bits had gotten down his overalls bib past his waist. He gave a few kicks to force it loose and out his cuffs. She didn’t see anything come out, though.

“What if I helped you load your truck? You’re almost ready for that.”

“Now how do you know that’s next?” he asked.

“‘Cause I’ve seen you before. First you mow, then you bail, then you load the pickup and go back and forth to your farm. And you have to do everything before it rains.”

“Yes, that is how it goes,” he said, laughing, “But let’s see what kind of hands you got.”

She held out her hands, which had calluses from things she did in the garden with her mother at home and trees she swiped as she passed them in the woods and rocks she grabbed scrabbling to get to her rock above the falls.

“Well, they might could grab a bale. What about your muscles? Let’s see your muscles.”

He meant her biceps, the muscle of all muscles. She cocked her arm and tightened it. He pinched it between his crusty thumb and forefinger. There was soft skin, she was built that way, a little plump, but there was muscle, too.

“You definitely is strong, but I don’t know what your father would say.”

“We could ask him.”

“Maybe so if I didn’t wear out his patience with all my problems year after year.” He looked up at the cumulus-piled sky as if for rain, but there was no rain up there. “Anyways I’m not ready for loading. Let me get on with this baling, honey.”

She stepped away and watched him return to baling. She didn’t want to go off in the woods or return to the gas station. The black farmer saw her there and shooed her away, but she wouldn’t go away. She was intent on not missing her chance.

When the black farmer was finished baling, he walked across the road to the garage. She followed a few paces behind. He said to her father, “She’s telling me she’s wanting to help me now, but any bale she picks up is going to knock her right back down.”

Her father laughed and kept fiddling with what he was fiddling with. He didn’t look over at her sitting on the fifty gallon drum she used for a stool. “On her bottom all right. You need a worker, I have a boy that could do it.”

The farmer asked where the boy was.

 Her father said he was at the Neats factory, rolling cigarettes. “After that he could come over and help load your truck.”

She said, “I could get up on the truck and he could load and I could stack.”

Her father said, “Hah.”

The black farmer said he didn’t want anyone hurt.

Her father said she was so stubborn that if she got hurt, she wouldn’t say so.

The black farmer said, “Well, it’s not going to rain, and I am loading tomorrow. I just thought I’d say.”

“Said,” her father said.

It seemed like nothing was going to happen. That night at supper she brought it up again. She said she didn’t care if the black farmer couldn’t pay her, she just liked what he was doing.

Her father said, “What do you mean like what he is doing? He rides that old Ford like it’s a Cadillac and tells me next summer it’s going into a museum because he can buy better hay come fall. Like hell he can.”

Her mother cautioned about such language.

Her father finished a piece of ham he was chewing and said to Ted, “If he wants help, he can pay, and you can get out there with him when you’re back from your shift. He’ll be good and tired by then.”

Ted said, “What a minute, what have I got to do with this?”

Her father said, “Because that’s boy’s work, not girl’s work.”

Ted said, “I’m more man than boy.”

Her father said, “If I live to see it you will be, which I most probably will not. I will die in that garage and you will sell it and sell this house and end up in town where the niggers don’t work, they steal.”

Her father hated town as much as he hated black people. He had worked in the Neats factory, too. He said tobacco fumes turned a man’s guts to mud so don’t ever smoke around him or he’d throw you a punch. He and Ted exchanged stink-eye looks which he dismissed by taking another bite of the piece of ham on his plate and rearranging his mashed potatoes so the melted pat of butter ran everywhere.

But Ted kept going now that he had a chance to say what he would like to say. “Put me out in a field under a nigger? What are you thinking? She would be the one fit for that.” He meant her.

Her father said oh, sure, first with a woman in a church basement, then a coon in a field, what next.

“And which one of us is no Christian and won’t go to church no more even with that woman burnt down dead?” Ted asked.

“No, I won’t go into that church,” she said.

“Stop this now! I do not want it discussed,” her mother said. “Enough evil already has been done.”

Her father gave her mother a look that crumpled her up like a paper napkin that couldn’t be used anymore. Then he said to her, “What is it you’re after?”

She said, “I’m not after anything. Leave me alone.”

“Seems to me like you don’t want to be alone. Rather be out in the field with that nigger.”

“I just thought it would be something to do.”

“What do you know about niggers?”

“I don’t know anything, and I don’t call them that. You do.”

“Well, why wouldn’t I?”

“It’s not nice.”

“I’m not nice?”

She would not say he was because he wasn’t.

“Little girl, I said to you, I am not nice?”

“Calling them that is not nice.”

Ted got in it again. “We will call them whatever we want to call them.”

“They’re people.”

Ted started to say something, but her father cut him off. He said to her, “All right, tomorrow you go out there with him and see.”


“Why not? You’re no good in the garage.”

“You never asked me to work in the garage. I pump gas, don’t I?”

“Let’s see how long you last in that sun with that nigger farmer.”

Ted said to her father, “You must be crazy. It’s bad enough what people think about her.”

She said, “You said I would be the one fit for it.”

“Not so you’d prove me right.”

“Take yourself over there and find out,” her father said, ignoring Ted. “But look at you and listen now. Whatever you can do, that’s it. No next summer, understand? And I don’t want him back next summer, neither. Says it’s the last summer every summer. This summer will be the last summer or I’ll talk to the county.”

She said, “What do you mean look at me?”

“I mean just what I said. Do it with your own eyes and leave mine alone.”

Her mother said, “She will get hurt.”

“The little fool,” Ted said.

Her father gave Ted a backhand swipe across the face. Ted almost tipped off his chair. Later, with nothing settled and everyone scattered, her mother found and spoke to each of them, her last. Her mother sat on the bed in which she had peed on them both in the middle of that night when there was all the trouble about Miss Hester. Since then she had to pick up her own things and change her own sheets. Her father forbade her mother giving her any help because it was time she grew up. That was when she was eight.

Her mother said, “Listen to me. You cannot make us hear any more gossip.”

She said, “I don’t hear any gossip.”

“Because no one will talk to you.”

“If they need help with their schoolwork, they will.”

“This is not school time, and you do not belong in a field with a black man.”

“If he says I can, you can’t say I can’t.”

“I don’t know why he would allow this, but you better keep your distance and prove your pride. That’s all I ever wanted from you. Prove your pride.”

She never knew what to say to this. In that very Sunday school she had learned pride went before a fall, but she did not want to be better than anyone. It wasn’t pride. It was just wanting to get out on the mown, baled field and do something not under the cedars.

The next morning she got into the truck between her mother and father. She had to stay closer to her mother so her father could work the gear shift. He’d swipe her with his elbow to knock her out of the way if she didn’t. When they arrived, the black farmer already was out in the field. He’d pull his slat-sided pickup truck forward and walk around collecting bales that he would toss into the back and then he would climb up, arrange them, climb down, start his truck and move it forward.

She walked over to him without saying goodbye to her parents.

“Can I help?”

The black farmer tipped his leather hat back as if that would make him see better. It seemed to her that his glance caught on her like a burr and then picked itself off. She did have breasts, but they wouldn’t hold any pencil.

“I would welcome help if your father said it was all right and I could pay for it, but you know I can’t do that, Missy.”

“My name is Sheila.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

“What’s yours?”

“You know it’s Clarence, don’t you?”

“I thought it was. My father says it’s all right, and I don’t need to be paid. I just want to help.”

Now his eyes caught on the gas station across the road. “You ought to work for your father, not me.”

“He doesn’t want my help. He likes to work alone.”

Clarence said, “Alone’s the way I been working since after my Pops passed. Your brother coming along? I knows I would have to pay him.”

“No, just me.”

Clarence pulled down his leather hat and plucked his thumbs in under his overalls’ bib. It was hot already. She saw the sweat on his neck, silver on black instead of silver on the green of the falls.

She said, “I could be in the back of the truck and save you that. Stack and all.”

“Well, then, all right. We’ll see. Let me creep up a bit.”

She got in the cargo area so she could be there when the truck was moving and leaned back on the bales already loaded to steady herself. She could see the field spread around her like the ocean with the cedars as buoys and the state woods like the coastline.

The work was hard. She had to get the fingers of both hands in under the wire to grab a bale and then brace her legs when she turned and swung it into place. The last row up, four bales high, gave her the most trouble, pushing a bale into place which did not push easily, always catching on the bale below it. She had to stand on tip-toe or use a loose bale to stand on. But she got it done.

When they had finished a load, he said he would drive it back to his farm and return for more.

She offered to ride with him and help unload.

He said no thank you.

She asked why not.

He said it would be no trouble unloading.

She said she’d like the ride to cool off.

He chuckled and shifted his stance and scratched his chin. “No, you just go on over to the garage and cool off there.”

She didn’t see why. She’d like going somewhere and seeing his farm. “The garage is even hotter than here. There’s no breeze over there.”

Like that he stopped being whoever he had been so far and became someone else. His voice got lower and quicker. “Missy, I am not taking you off in no truck with everybody knows what your father will do.” He was looking at her in a way that made her cross her arms over her chest, soaked with sweat.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want him burning down my house is what I mean.”

“He wouldn’t burn down your house.”

“Burned one before, burn one again.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about I already came out black when I was born. I don’t need nobody crisping me up all over again like that woman he burned in her house that diddled with you.”

She now was like two people herself. One that heard what he was saying and thought about what it could mean and one who heard what he was saying and didn’t think about it because it had nothing to do with her. “My father never burned anybody black as a crisp in her house. It burned on its own.”

“Fine, okay. You go over to your parents and believe whatever they say.”

“I’ll meet you when you come back.”

“No, thank you, I will finish on my own.”

“But we’re not through.”

“Yes, we’re through.”

“When you get back, I’ll help you.”

“Then I won’t come back. This is the last summer I’m doing this field right here and now.” He put his hand on top of his hat and pushed it down tighter on his head. “Get out of my way now. None of my business talking to you neither. Just please, we is done.”

He got in his pickup, cranked it, and rumbled off the field.

Her father was standing in the open garage bay staring at her. She couldn’t see her mother standing behind the counter in the little office, but she knew her mother was staring at her, too.

She felt weak and shivery. She thought about crawling under the limbs of one of the cedars where she could be cool and rest. She hadn’t been tired from the work, but now she felt very tired and very upset.

She walked across the road.

Her father said, “Look at you,” as she approached.

She looked down and saw her nipples tight. She crossed her arms over her chest again in embarrassment.

“I’m thirsty. I need a drink.”

Her father said, “Take a drink out of the hose.” He pointed to the thick green hose he used to fill radiators.

“I don’t want water. I want a soda.”

“Soda is for selling. Water is free.” He took a step and picked up the hose as if to hand it to her by the nozzle. “What were you talking about, that nigger farmer and you?”

“I don’t know.”

“He say things he shouldn’t be saying to you?”

“He was saying he doesn’t want any more help.”

“Bales still out there.”

“I know.”

“You do something wrong?”

“No, I didn’t do anything wrong. I think you made him nervous.”

“About what?”

“He said he didn’t want me to ride to his farm and help him unload because he didn’t want his house burned down.”

“He did?”

“He said everyone knows what you will do. What do they know?”

“They don’t know nothing.”

“That’s what I said. I said you never burned anyone black as a crisp.”

Her father said, “I see that man again he won’t be black long. I’ll skin him pink.”

“He’s not coming back. He said he wasn’t.”

Her mother was in the doorway between the garage and the office. “You both hush,” she said. “He wanted no trouble and neither do we. Done is done.”

She looked at her mother, her face sealed up tight.

“What is done?”

“Your mother said hush,” her father said.

“Tell me what you’re talking about.”

“We’re not talking about nothing.”

“Did you burn down Miss Hester’s house with her in it?”

“What did you say?”

Her father was looking at her like he never looked at anyone, and she could see in his eyes what he had done. “Oh, just forget it. I don’t understand any of this. I want a soda. Why can’t I have a soda?”

“Please, let her have a soda,” her mother said.

“No, she’s not having any soda. Here, you drink this,” her father said and began squirting her with the hose.

She ran out of the garage into the sunlight, yelling for him to stop, but he stretched the hose as far as it would go and drilled her with the gush from the brass nozzle. The water hit her in the face and arms and chest, and she fell, and he kept doing it like he was trying to drive her right into the ground.

  © Robert Earle, 2017


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