The air was still, like it gets in July when the whole of eastern North Carolina becomes a furnace. No breeze, no movement, nothing to keep the gnats off, the sun straight overhead, beating down. I felt as though the fiery ball was drawing the moisture out of me, pulling it up into the clouds. Funny to think my sweat might be tomorrow's rain. What ain't funny is working in a tobacco field when it is 90-some degrees, with no shade and the water jar's run slap out.
Before the war, pulling off the bottom leaves, or sand lugs, was a three-man job. Me and Daddy and Julian would go out in the morning, before it got light, and we'd have the whole eight acres done by dinner. Sometimes, Granddaddy even helped if his gout held off long enough. By God, that man's feet would swell.
I stopped and took the old blue rag out of my Red Camel overalls and wiped my sweat. The water was running off me good. I heard the clanging from the old bell on top of the fence post in the backyard. Dinnertime. I used to take off running when Mama rang that bell. Mama only made six biscuits for lunch, and if Jesse or Daddy started eating before I did, I wouldn't get but one. I didn't have to run now, but I knew that sopping those biscuits in molasses, with some butter mixed in, and a little of the fatback left from breakfast, would last me right up until supper.
I got to the backyard and finally within the reach of the old oak and magnolia trees. It was a good ten degrees cooler under those outstretched branches, the ones that had shaded my Daddy, Granddaddy, Great-Grandaddy and a whole bunch of Coopers before that. I skipped a step, and jumped onto the porch and shoved the screen door open.
I went straight for the kitchen and grabbed a biscuit right off the pan. There was a time would Mama would have smacked me with a wooden spoon. But ever since Jesse didn’t come home, Mama didn't care.
• • •
I ate my biscuits and went out on the porch. Mama never would let me go back to the fields right away. She always said you had to let the food settle or else you'd get cramps or the monkey on your back.
I sat down on the corner of the porch next to our old hound dog, Tick. Daddy had brought Tick home one day and Mama had a fit because that old dog was covered in brown deer ticks from head to tail. She told me and Jesse that if we wanted to keep that dog, we better get to picking them ticks off, and put that dog in the washtub. We were so excited, we raced to fill it with water and fought over the bar of soap and who would get to scrub the dog. The dog was less enthused. We picked and scrubbed, and the chickens feasted on those ticks, catching them right out of the air before they could hit the ground. As we made headway, we discovered that the brown dog was actually blue. We laughed and argued about what to name him. I wanted to name him Spot; Jesse said that was stupid, because he didn't have no spots. He wanted to name him Blue. When the dog was clean, we went running to Daddy to settle the argument, each of us expecting him to take our side against the other. Daddy didn't even look up from his paper. “Dog’s name is Tick,” he said.
I swung my legs off the edge of the porch and stretched out, putting my head right behind Tick's shoulder and crossing my hands across my chest. As I settled down, there across the endless green of the field, for just a second, I saw my big brother walk through the rows, waving at me. I was glad to see him coming, I'd have some help, somebody to talk to, and I'd be done in plenty of time to finish my chores and listen to the Red Sox game on the radio before bedtime.
I was interrupted when I felt Daddy's old brown boot nudge me in the ribcage. “You gon’ daydream or go finish that tobacco?”
• • •
That year, the tobacco filled out early. We already had a lot of good-looking leaves, but the season would be made or lost on rain at the right time. If the rain came, it would be a great year. I'd get some new shoes before Christmas, and Mama might get enough money for Daddy to put a bathroom in the house, so we could get rid of the privy.
• • •
I won't ever forget the day Jesse didn’t come home from Germany.
It was just starting to get cold, early December, and while we were still in school, my mind was already out for Christmas. Ever since Thanksgiving, all I could think of was Christmas even though there was a war going on and Jesse was right in the middle of it. Daddy listened to the news on the RCA every night, mostly WPTF out of Raleigh, but also WEED in Rocky Mount sometimes. Jesse sent a letter saying he didn’t think the Germans could last much longer.
I was already thinking about tasting those oranges and the bags of candy, just like they had at Gulley's in downtown Nashville, next to the movie theater. It had been a good crop year and I hoped that I would finally get a hunting rifle of my own. They also had those right there in Gulley's, and Daddy knew I wanted one. All day at school, I was thinking about that rifle and how I’d rub it down with oil, and polish that walnut stock. I was still thinking about all that when I got home.
We heard a car. There were never many cars down our road, so it was an unusual sound, one that you could hear in the house and all around the yard. Mama had just been out to the pack house to get some potatoes to fix for supper. Daddy was replacing some boards on the barn.
A dark green sedan with a white star on the door pulled up in front of the steps, Mama was already on the porch when I heard her say, “No ...” and she started crying. Daddy came running. By the time I got to the door, a man in uniform was already getting back in the car. Daddy was holding a piece of paper and I had never seen that look on his face. He dropped the paper and put his arms around Mama. I picked it up. It said, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, It is with profound regret that I want to inform you ...” I read the rest of it, and I could not hear anything else, or see anything else, even though I know my Mama cried all night. I didn't care about oranges, or rifles or toys or candy or Christmas trees. I didn't care about none of that.
• • •
By the end of the summer, we emptied the first and kept going until the fields were full of completely stripped stalks, and the pack house was full of beautiful, dry, golden leaf. Soon enough it would be on a factory floor in Durham or Winston or Richmond, rolled and packaged into Lucky Strikes or Raleighs or Chesterfields and the field was full of lonely green stobs sticking out of the ground, waiting for me to come plow them under with the mules.
The day I went out to cut those stalks, it got real cloudy. It was just me and the mules, and when I looked out over all those fields, I saw rows and rows of soldiers, wearing their GI green, like Jesse wore, standing ready to go into battle. Or maybe they were more like grave markers, a field full of grave markers, stretching all the way back to the woods, laid out in perfect rows, like Arlington or that cemetery at Normandy they set up right after D-Day.
They talked about burying Jesse in France, but Mama and Daddy would have none of it. Some of Mama's family had plots in town, about 20 minutes away on the Ford, the dark place up on the hill near the railroad tracks, and that is where we put Jesse, although it took a long time to get him home. Even though I was a grown man by the time we finally laid my brother to rest, I cried like a baby.
Michael K. Brantley is the author of two nonfiction books. Galvanized: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Reluctant Carolina Confederate (University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, forthcoming 2020) and Memory Cards: Portraits from a Rural Journey (Black Rose, 2015), a memoir about growing up in eastern North Carolina. He has worked as a reporter, editor, freelance writer, and photographer over the course of his career. Michael has an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte (2014), an MA in English from East Carolina University (2012), and a BS in Communications from Barton College (1991). He will begin working at his alma mater, Barton College, in the fall of 2019 as an Assistant Professor of Communications.