TV’s Ozzie and Harriet never visited the South. A lot of black kids became adults as soon as they were old enough to guide a mule. Choices were a luxury. Ruth had been raised by her grandmother, Nadine Winters, and her Uncle Chuck, the younger brother of a father who’d come only once. But with only twelve year’s separation, Chuck had also been a brother. And a friend.
This was our South back then. Things weren’t the same as up north. But they weren’t that different. There was crucifixion for skin color and depth of tenderness for the same. The Winters made more than their due. They made something together, sculpted a life out of the misery.
As I came to know Nadine and Ruth and Charles, and watched them navigate their lives as best they could, “like watching the flying of a fly ball,” as Nadine would say, “just hoping to get under it,” I began to love them not only as people but as symbols of something larger, something between family and survival, something that earned itself and the right to live on the earth.
When I look back now at the few years I lived among them, it seems that the earth didn’t deserve what they had. But it was the earth that swallowed them in the way it expands and contracts, as worlds will do. The last of the Winters lineage were living in a parallel way, but celebrating life in the most primal form — by breathing. In their early days as a family, Nadine would recall, it seemed they found a joy simply to move air inside themselves and then let it out again. A day that wasn’t a bad one was a great one. For Chuck, though, I think there were more bad ones.
Charles Samuel Winters never liked the name Chuck. But once it took to him, he was the kind of kid — then the kind of man — who was too discerning to correct everyone. Let them call him what they liked. He would’ve rather grown up into a Sam, or even a Charlie. But somewhere along the way, he became Chuck and that was just the way it was going to be. Even if his stomach twisted just a little every time he heard the name that was not him; every time the old Negroes noticed his distaste and regaled stories of how the Indians let their children pick their own names after they had an inkling of who they were relative to the animistic view and what path their lives might take.
Charles “Chuck” Winters hadn’t found his peace yet, let alone his spirit-animal; his life was more about being pointed in a direction and told to move. Sometimes he did because the options weren’t good. And other times he didn’t because they were. Lines in the dirt, fences in his head, times to do as he was told and much later with others, to do the telling; his young life seemed an extended negotiation. And always, it seemed, just below the surface was something waiting. He’d know that time, he’d say to me when we were alone. “I’ll know because I’m always looking,” he’d say with those dark and darting eyes, a bird of prey, a pendulum on a grandfather clock marking time. Chuck wasn’t a hunter but he gathered things and most of them were for protection of what family he had left.
His own daddy had worked the land for the white boss until he got the fever and couldn’t handle the fields. The boss was a decent man who paid him a wage, small though it was. His great grandfather had also worked for a white boss but had no choice, the scars on his back carving out that truth. His grandfather had been shot through the head by a Confederate soldier. He hadn’t suffered. The men in the Winters’ family seemed to be faring better with each generation. Still, Uncle Chuck had a volcano core, unpredictable and angry.
Ruth’s mother was called Louella. She hadn’t wanted the child, had been sixteen. The father was momentary, the ancient lustful want of nameless men who deposit their seed and disappear into the forever-night. It couldn’t be called a mistake — nobody really excused it. Just temporary pleasure, forever result.
Louella’s mother was Nadine and had convinced her to carry it full term. And when it came out, the grandmother Nadine took to raising it, called the baby Ruth, after The Babe since Nadine loved all things baseball. Nadine, who taught herself to read at nine years-old and then never walked by a piece of text, glossy or news print, had never been out of Alabama but deconstructed the white man’s newspapers like a public scholar, often making excuses to hitch a ride into Mobile just to lurk innocently at the news stand or on her birthday, spend the whole day at the Central Library. She devoured George Ruth and the New York Yankees and was skeptical of anything that had to be plugged in, including, after her daughter’s teen pregnancy, female sexuality in general. Nadine Winters might’ve been the only rural black women in the mid nineteenth century South who’d not only read Freud but understood him.
Besides Louella, Nadine had born only one other child by her husband, Willis, a farrier by trade. The son had been given the name Charles, for no particular reason, as you recall, and then was reduced to Chuck in the wake of his past. I called him Charlie on the account of it made us think of each other differently. At first, he didn’t know what to think of me. But we shared the scars of the South and were bound to each other in ways that each had no idea how the present would shape the past. We both loved Ruth to the point of future pain.
Nadine used to say that Charlie had been a good kid at first, tall and straight, with a rebel soul held in check by the threads of his family ties, bonds that made him proud and angry in the same breath. And then the father, Willis, went and died of the fever and nothing could ever be the same after that. The past had elapsed like small waves on the shore but the ripples that passed through seemed to hit a wall and bounce, sometimes doubling in size, other times canceling each other out. But they were always there, moving around.
Nadine was both a mother and a grandmother and a widower and was missing a child before her fortieth birthday. It wasn’t a mistake.
“This is life,” she’d say matter-of-factly. “Ya come on to terms with it or ya don’t.”
By the time I’d met and courted Ruth, Nadine had grown that shell around her skin. But there were still openings to her heart though it took a tire iron. One day I’d told her that if she and Louella and Charlie would let me marry Ruth, I was going to take them to New York City and see the Yankee Stadium.
“Oh, young Johnny Cobb,” she’d chuckle, “You save up your money and make my granddaughter happy. I don’t need to see no New York City. The Babe and the Iron Man Gehrig will be gone by then. Mantle’s a good kid but there’s a lot of pressure on him. Reckon the Mick don’t have the mettle- probably die like the black men in these parts—from the pressure that brings the drink that kills the liver that kills the man.” And then she’d busy herself in her little kitchen with the new propane gas oven she’d bought with money earned mending clothes, always finishing just this way, “besides, I wouldn’t want to be away if’n my other baby, Louella, come home.”
Louella had been gone fifteen years by the time I started courting Ruth, making her over thirty years old if she was alive. Nadine said that Louella had followed the heroin of a traveling blues musician. Never a word, the ghost daughter swallowed by the night horse. Charlie’d said she gone chasing things away, not following. And in a quiet moment out on the partly-screened porch one hot July night when Ruth and Nadine were busy in the kitchen, I asked Charlie if he’d ever consider going after Louella.
“I did,” he considered me long and hard as if the question was more an investigation of him than his sister. “Found myself staring down a whole bunch of barrels. Some filled with whisky and other loaded with bullets. Not scared of the effects of booze but the bullets are a different story.” And then after considering the weight of his comments added, “decided to save my response for another day.”
That day in August of ’46 when Ruth brought me home to meet her grandma and her uncle was one of those days when, even if you were to suffer from amnesia later in your life, you’d likely remember the details not because of their significance at the time but how you would set them carefully in your memory from then on, like family heirlooms to be brought and mused about when you thought being melancholic would do you some good.
The house was set back down a winging dirt road and was built of pine siding with the period cedar trim. It was small but clean, neat, and stood out from the other houses in the area for its tidy yard of gravel and seasonal flowers. The roof was tin and windows framed in a deep shade of red. There was a mid 40s Buick in the driveway but it seemed in need of attention.
“So, you’re the young thing that Ruth’s been swooning over all week long now,” Nadine offered as I walked in with my hat in hand, looking me in the eye before returning to her chores. “But you ain’t that young. Are you?”
“I’m twenty-two, Maam, but that ‘ol yellow orb has aged me a bit.”
Ruth dropped a plate she was wiping dry and the crash split the air in the small kitchen. They all looked at the broken dish, said nothing, and then laughed and bent down to help.
“It’s not the sun that does the aging, Mr. Cobb. It ain’t even the work done out under it that can take the years away.”
“Miss Nadine” I said, “You’re taking about having to be under the man’s thumb, aren’t you?”
Ruth said she was gonna’ go on out and get just a few more berries and excused herself. When we heard the little tune she’d been humming reach the garden, I spoke.
“Well, I agree with you Mrs. Winters, but lately I’ve been watching the way Ruth holds her head at certain angles, letting a few rays in when it suits her and then cocking her head in a new direction to fend them off when it doesn’t. I don’t see her under any man’s thumb.”
“What do you take of that, Mr. Cobb?” Nadine turned and faced me full up. She seemed to grow several inches in that moment.
“Well, I know she’s going to be as pretty as you when she ages up in the world,” and added for effect, “if she ain’t already.”
“Look, Mr. Johnny Cobb,” Nadine put her thick hands on my shoulders and looked up in my eyes, momentarily paralyzing me. “I appreciate your politeness but what I’d value even more is your honesty. Flattery is nice but it don’t sink in like it used to when Willis was around.”
Nadine had been setting out the dinner dishes and held an iron skillet in her large hands that were an extension of those biscuit-making arms. A long strand of thick black hair had falling out of her bun and she made no effort to replace it. She stopped, took a deep breath and looked at me with eyes hoping for something. Outside, I could hear Ruth and her uncle laughing as they chatted in the garden.
“Ruth is wise, Mrs. Winters, well beyond her eighteen years. She doesn’t talk about her ma or pa with me. Reckon she looks at you and Charlie as kin enough. She has a way of protecting her insides from getting hurt but encouraging others to put their own protection away.” I took a sip of my water and looked out the small kitchen window. “I’ve learned from being around her these past weeks. Your granddaughter owns a collected view of what is and what is not.”
“You speak’n in circles, Johnny Cobb,” Nadine spoke with interest overriding a paper-thin cynicism, “but you come right to the point.”
“Yes Mam. My own family is beholden to the soil, as many of our color is in one form or another. But the earth can only teach you so much. Ruth understands human folk. It’s almost like she can…”
“Grandma, what are you doing to this man?” Ruth walked in the back door with a reed basket of berries, her face showing her disappointment. “He came over for a Sunday supper. I hope you weren’t getting into him about politics and such now.”
“No, Ruthie,” Nadine pinched Ruth’s cheek and pointed to her lower lip. “I could ride into town on that thing. I was checking up your man here. Put the lip away and help me with these here collard greens.”
“Ah, Grandma. Do you have to talk the heavy stuff now?” Ruthie shot me a concerned glance and then looked at Nadine. “Eventually we’ll get onto an argument and the night won’t ever be the same. In any case, if’n you were gonna’ get into the war thing again Johnny was too young to enlist, weren’t you?” Ruthie’s eyes morphed into a kind of fiery ice that you might also use to cool your brow on a hot August night and I couldn’t break away from them. I remember thinking that every man deserves the love of a woman like this, if only for a few hours in his life. If you could bottle a look such as that, it would weigh more than the world it would make better when opened.
But something always gets in the way, don’t it? Free will or free won’t—it’s always something.
“Well, truth be known,” my voice moving towards the women as they clipped greens on the wooden counter, face still fixed on Ruth. “I was sixteen in ’41 and they might’ve taken me if I’d applied but I got to thinking about having to aim a rifle at another person and I couldn’t picture myself pulling the trigger at them without standing up and saying, ‘Okay, your turn.’
“I know what they did to the Jews and all, but America did kinda the same thing here to the Indians. I spose’ it’s the glass houses and all. Heck, Miss Winters, soldiers are just boys dressed up in the same clothes, listening to men who can’t get along as well as the boys do on their own. That’s how I figure it, anyway.”
I could see the sides of Nadine’s mouth curl up like the edges of flowers at night as she stood at the sink and washed the greens.
“What about when you got on to eighteen and such?” It was Uncle Chuck who’d come in from outside, pulled up a chair and sat at the table looking at a week-old newspaper. His jeans were clean, cuffed in the usual way, and his tee shirt pressed around the arms as if someone had ironed purposeful creases in it.
I’d only spoken to Ruth’s Uncle a few times before that day and he’d been cordial enough. But there was no denying that I was on trial, on judgment for loving Ruth. Nobody would ever be good enough for his niece and it was all I could do just to be myself and hope that was close enough. I’d of thought the same way and respected him for it.
“I wondered about why I never heard from the government and as the war in Europe wound down, I thought I’d be clear. But when it kept going in the South Pacific I finally got a letter requesting that I show up at the draft board up in Atlanta and take a physical.”
Chuck turned his attention away from the paper and seemed to regard me in an entirely different light.
“So what’d you do?” he asked.
“I went on up there, Charlie, and took that test,” not meaning to add the silent drama that crept in as I paused to have a sip of the beer he’d just handed me.
“Lemme’ guess,” Chuck stood up from the table and walked over to his mother, Nadine at the sink, who’d moved on to cutting okra into small pieces, and put his hands softly on her shoulders. She made a throat-clearing notice that was more signal that phlegm. “The white government noticed that you already had a nice tan and decided they didn’t need any more Negroes crawling around the jungles of Guam or the Philippines?”
“Charles Samuel Winter,” Nadine spun around quickly but kept enough light in her voice to sound casual. I caught the weight though, it wasn’t hard. “Don’t you start in on that. Mr. Cobb is here to have a nice dinner with us, like Ruthie said.”
“You started it ma. I know you.”
“That’s okay, Mrs. Winters,” the beer easing the words. “I have those same feelings at times, about living in America the Beautiful, so long as you’re white. But the war, Jesus, that was a difficult thing.”
I asked Charlie if he went over and he said no because he was the last remaining Winters child and was needed to work the fields. Then he added it would’ve been different if’n he’d felt the country was in front of, as well as behind him. Bullets are color blind, he said, and finished by saying that as far as he was concerned, the Civil War was still being fought in parts of Alabama. No reason to go fight another war when you still had one right here.
Nadine chirped in and said that they didn’t know that for sure, you know, about being the last of the Winters name.
“Ma, you’re the one who kindled that idea in me. What are you talking about?”
“We don’t know for sure. Louella could come prancing in here at any moment with a passel of boys carrying our name.”
An icy silence moved in and settled upon the kitchen air. Outside the crickets seemed to be laughing and the frogs down near the shallow creek that skirted the old field house took advantage of the retreat in human voice.
Charlie broke it as he went to the fridge and pulled out two more beers.
“Well…whatja do after the physical, Mr. Johnny Cobb?”
“I failed it,” the words rolling off easily and I watched the expressions change the way they do when questions of a man’s abilities are held up for consideration. Then I told them a true story waked in my own past. It started slowly enough but like a bass run, built power with movement.
“When I was four years old, my daddy moved into the city to try and find work. The Crash in ’29 had only taken a few months to spread like a rabid disease and affect the sharecroppers. We were getting by on what we could grow but needed money for new seed and supplies to keep the tractors running and the plants growing. He said he’d send money and come back on the full moon to help us during harvests. But something happened and the money stopped showing, which I understood. And something else happened and he stopped showing, which none of us ever did get an answer to. It was like Birmingham had just swallowed up this kindly, hard-working black man with a wife and three young boys trying to work a poor but rich-soiled ninety plus acres outside of Mobile.”
Ruth, who’d caught bits of my past in the few months we’d been dating, had joined Charles and me at the small kitchen table. But Nadine seemed suspended in her tiny kitchen as if she’d become a painting, a bowl of lettuce in one hand, the other set on the counter as if to steady herself while she listened.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this answer to grow into a personal account of my history, a memoir the librarians call it. I guess I was taking the long route to get to Charlie’s question.”
“Whatever kind of memory your ‘memwa’ is, you just go on telling it, Johnny.” Ruth looked from her grandma to her uncle and they nodded at her and then back at me saying yeah, Mr. Cobb, you go tell it.
“Well, the shortened version is that our daddy disappeared and the cops never found out and ma, she died a year later of heartache. As much as my brothers and I tried to replace our pa, heartache is more deadly than heart attack, the way I figure it.
“But right around ’34, when I was nearly ten and my older brothers Earl and Ramsey had trained me well on the John Deere, we had a drought year and we lost more’n half our crops. My daddy’s brother — we called him Jacko because he was afraid of the dark and never went outside after sundown without an oil lantern — he’d been helping out but the moonshine he’d grown too dependant upon was getting the best of him. Old Jacko was like the village idiot boy, utterly without meanness or envy or desire to make his place in the world better. He was a tender man and had been taken advantage of all his life by those who built their own egos on the backs of those who had a hard time keeping up with life, let alone trying to improve it.
“He tried to apologize to Earl, the oldest at sixteen, but Ramsey, the fighter in the family and just ten months younger than Earl, had told Uncle Jacko that he’d have to choose between us and the land–which were inseparable–and the bottle, which always caused a distance. Ramsey said that Jacko ate more than he pulled out in weeds and work. But I told Ramsey he was daddy’s brother and he best leave him alone or when daddy got back he’d have his hide. It didn’t end at that but I’m getting’ further and further from my answer.”
I kept my story moving, pulsing between the way it came back into our present, folded into my story-telling and how it ended up as something for Ruth’s family to chew on. I told about how things were between the drought and the drink, how things were bad for us Cobbs; how we started to quarrel amongst ourselves and that struggle for meaning in each of us that had never been there with our Pa reminding us every morning of our youth when he’d wake us up before the sun and say, “Would you look at this my boys? All this good and great land, and all we have it to do is work our asses to the white bone and keep paying the white boss a few more years and it’s ours to keep and live on and live off of and enjoy until the good Lord comes down and plucks me right offa’ my tractor. Then you’all can keep on living here…you so desire.”
“Them’s were hard times, Mr. Cobb. We hear to testify to that.” Nadine felt the story going on and didn’t want to get in its way, but she was the matriarch and this, in fact, was a Sunday supper, so she excused herself and got up to pull a meatloaf from the oven while Ruth set the table. Both did so in regarded silence while Uncle Chuck peeled the label from his beer, put out his hands as if to say, okay, then what?
“It was the most amazing thing.” I kind of looked into the brown glass of my beer bottle, hadn’t spoken of this in many years, and never to more than an audience of one. I told Chuck that when things got real grim and the bank was threatening to take back all our land over the small payments to the government that’d become late. Then I spoke in a slightly different tone, of this old Indian, a Natchez elder as it turned out, who’d walked down our long driveway with a bridled mule in one hand and a hickory walking stick in the other.
“It was about sundown and I was making dinner while Earl and Ramsey were still out in the barn trying to gerry-rig a new exhaust for the John Deere out of some Folgers’ cans. Jacko was looking out the window, sneaking sips from his flask and complaining about the lack of lamp oil that kept him a prisoner in this little plywood shack.”
I stopped for a minute as if I was making sure I got it right.
“This Indian just stood straight and tall, looking west over our fields, like he was deciding something. My brothers had the tractor running now in the near-darkened barn and hadn’t seen him come up the path. I walked out in my overalls and bare feet, a cooking rag slung over my shoulder. The strange thing, Charlie, is that I was a nine-year-old kid and I’d heard all the stories about the Indians in the Old West, but I wasn’t in the least bit afraid. He stood there, wearing thin denim pants, leather mocs and some kind of necklace with claws under a big wollen frock coat. His face was dark like a Mexican with lines so deep you could fall in and never find your way out. But his hair…I’d never seen hair like that before — long and silvery white to his waist in one pony tail tied back with a piece of leather hide.
“‘Can I hep ya,’ I asked him, looking for any sign of weapons but not finding any save for a big Jim Bowie knife sheathed to his calf.
“‘Good soil here. Good for crops. Flat, well tended. His English was short and broken. But each word carried weight and meaning.
“‘Yassir,’ I told him, ‘we’re sharecropping it and gonna’ get the homestead out of it if’n we keep paying the taxes. You lost or something. We don’t get many visitors.”
“Looking for work,” he said, finally moving his eyes onto me and off of the dark horizon. “Name’s Jimmy Grayfalls, Natchez Nation. Work hard, trade for food and a place no sun or rain will find my bed.”
“Well, my brother Earl makes most of the big decisions ‘round here and we ain’t had much rain this past year. Things is looking pretty bleak. We got enough to eat but not a lot extra for strangers.”
“Jimmy no stranger after hard work. Rains coming three days. You and the Earl need help planting. Good trade, just for food and roof over bed.”
“But, aren’t you kinda’…old to work the fields Mr. Gray…wall?”
“You have a name, little man with nice farm?”
“Sure. It’s Johnny. We’re all Cobbs here.”
“Jimmy thinks it’s too hot and dry to grow corn this far south this year.”
Earl, who’d been listening from the edge of the barn as he wiped his greasy hands, started laughing. I jumped back, suddenly frightened in the new dark.
The Natchez turned his head slowly.
“You must be the brother, Earl. I like to trade work. Small Johnny and I talking of plan. He say you decide.”
“‘Yep, little Johnny is correct,” Earl moved toward us. “His daddy woulda’ been right proud of him. I sure hope he ain’t burning the supper.”
“And that’s the way it started.” I was trying to wrap it up. “Earl said Jimmy could stay a few days, it rained after three, just like he said, and he lived with us until about three years ago when Ramsey, who’d never really liked having Jimmy around, yelled at him for dropping a bushel of ripe tomatoes. Next morning he was gone. Eight years and he’d only lost half a step in his work. Earl used to say he’d out-live us all. Only thing left was a little note he’d left on my dresser written in Natchez. It said he’d see me in the next life. It had been a good trade.”
Nadine and Ruth had set out the food and after Nadine said the blessing, the bowls of fried okra, collard greens, boiled potatoes and meatloaf in gravy were passed around in silence.
I could see Uncle Chuck thinking hard about it and trying to make a connection that wasn’t there yet. He’d nod his head, take a bite, smile, sneak a glance at me, like he was prodding, then go back to his food.
Finally, Nadine spoke up and said Jesus, Johnny, finish the damn story.
“Oh yeah,” I was goofing with Charlie and suddenly he figured it out and said he knew how I failed the physical but to go ahead and tell the girls as long as I had invested the whole night into it.
“Well, the short version is…” I started in again.
“Christ, young man, you’all have to move in if’n I ever want the longer version,” Nadine smiled and brown okra stuck to the spaces between her teeth.
“Sorry ma’am, I got carried away thinking about those days and Grayfalls and wonderin’ where all the time went. But it’s a simple story, really. Jimmy Grayfalls used to teach me how to control my breathing and my heart rate. He used to like to hunt and even though I had no stomach nor spirit for killing any creatures, I used to like to watch his movements through what forest Alabama has. I liked the way he slowed down time to a pace that allowed him to fall behind the present in which the animal lived; the way he thought as the animal would and for that moment, became them.
“And after he’d taken its life, thanked his Great Spirit and the animal itself for the offering, he would still respect it in death more than most people do in life. He used all of what he killed and my brothers and I were grateful for the rabbit and squirrel and venison he put on the table.
“That’s when I learned it; the ability to alter your breathing and your heartbeat and the thing the U.S. Army was most concerned about — your blood pressure.”
Charlie was laughing now, not in disbelief but in admiration. Nadine bowed her head and shook it like a pendulum with her heavy smile leading. And Ruthie was still waiting for the final details
“You’re serious, aren’t you, Cobb? Cuz’ that’s too good to make up.” Charlie was incredulous. “You got out of having to go to war because an old Indian had taught you how to raise and lower your blood pressure at will.”
“Well, he didn’t really set out to teach me that. It was just a by-product of watching his artful simpleness, the way the old guy moved among the elements, like he was the river in the water instead of the rock it split.
“When I asked him about it, he said that trees breathe all the time but the white man can’t measure it because they can’t see it with white man’s eyes. I learned how to be a tree and lower my blood pressure to nothing and then how to be the fire that could burn it and send my pulse into the sun’s temperatures. When they gave me that physical for the Army in Atlanta, I wasn’t there; I was walking the forests with Jimmy Grayfalls, moving my breath through the trees as they slept and burnt and grew back in time. And when it was all done, the man with the clipboard said he was awfully sorry, I had a serious heart condition and the U.S. Army couldn’t use me. He really was sorry about it all.”
When I was done with the story we ate berries for dessert and Ruthie said she was proud of what I done; Uncle Chuck said I’ll be damned and Nadine said she thought a young Roger Maris might be good enough to play in the Negro Leagues.
When Charlie got up to clear the table and clean the dishes he slapped me on the back and said he’d be god-damned again, laughing as he said it.
It had been a good evening, one that was worth the pain of remembering.