Checkin’ on Business
His voice thundered through the pine thicket. I could hear his large frame getting closer and closer.
“Yoa mamma’s gonna be worried ‘bout you! Boy... you’d better ansa me!”
He made a zigzag-type motion through the underbrush with each stride as he attempted to locate me while, at the same time, trying to avoid the briars and stickers of various types that were indigenous to the Georgia backwoods. I sat quietly...as quietly as I could. The mere sound of each breath that heaved from my chest frightened me as I struggled to defend my position. I could hear him come closer, and then fade away as he circled my general area. I prayed for help. His bellowing voice continued to call my name and to my dismay, sounded worried. This continued until the evening sun fell to just above the tree line, and then his beckoning ceased. I pondered waiting until dark to find my way home. If I was able to avoid him and make it home, his aggression would, at the very least, be delayed. However, if I waited much longer it would be dark. Home was nearly one and a half miles away, and I had left my flashlight there on Thursday morning. I sat motionless for another twenty minutes after Locke fell silent. It was now or never. I stood very slowly and began to ease out of the thicket that had protected me. The immediate danger of having to pass through Locke’s camp site worried me. I knew the site backwards and forwards. I wasn’t concerned about the numerous traps and snares that Locke had set, but I wondered if he was waiting for me there. Locke took great pride in two things. First was his ability to please Granny, and second was his campsite. It was his home away from home where he was king. He did not feel like the man of the house at Granny’s, and she reminded him of that fact often.
The campsite was laid out in a strategically defensive fashion, modeling that of an early American pioneer fortress complete with an elevated lookout area. Locke utilized various methods of camouflage and decoy to protect certain areas of the camp while other areas stood wide open. Numerous crates and thirty-five-gallon barrels sat around in an orderly but dispersed fashion. There were two small sheds for dry goods and a round cleared area in the middle for sleeping and cooking. I edged closer to the campsite and it appeared vacant. I listened cautiously but could only hear the sound of the late-summer-evening katydids with their uniquely distinct hum that was very similar to placing a conch shell to your ear, and then pulling it away, and then moving it back to your ear again in a timed repetitive motion. They could be quite loud and made it difficult to discern Locke’s whereabouts. I waited another five minutes before entering his domain then continued in near silence through the center of the camp, past the smallest dry-goods shed, and exited between two rows of drums.
I started for home along the worn trail at the edge of the camp that had been carved out over many years of use. We had been in the backwood since Thursday morning, and today was Sunday. Family business was conducted on a strict, routine schedule and we never deviated from Granny’s direction. Business was always on the first and third weekend of each month, beginning on Thursday morning and ending on Sunday evening. Granny, being the matriarch of our clan, made and enforced all the rules. She often explained why it was this way with her explanation being more like another rule than a real explanation. She said, since Granpa was no longer around, the responsibility fell to her to maintain order within the family. It was, after all, her God-given right to set the boundaries in order to achieve honor. Granny always said that there was no such thing as honorable breeding, only honorable actions. This was her way of telling herself that she was just as good as the next, and she was only doing right by her kin.
I had made good time toward home. From my calculation, I was about halfway there, just passing the small pond where we obtained catfish on a weekly basis. As I moved along the path, I began to feel safe knowing that Locke dare not upset Granny by being late to Sunday supper and with that time closing in, I knew I would be spared on this occasion. I continued homeward, cautiously but expeditiously, and silently gave thanks for being protected. I could now see the rows of firewood in the distance that stood just south of our homestead, and again, I knew that I would make it. As I rounded the cord wood I could see our house and smell the Sunday supper. There was no one on the porch which was unusual since today was payday, and I heard no sounds from inside.
I continued toward the house, rounding the chicken coop where I found Locke chopping wood on the oversized, tree-stump chopping block. His faded bib overalls were stained on the chest from various unsavory habits and they were unhitched on one side with the strap dangling wildly behind him. Chopping wood on Sunday was his attempt to remain in Granny’s favor after unavoidably being late to Sunday supper. His bare feet were calloused and muddy and there were three toes missing from the left foot. This shortcoming did not slow his pace with his chores. His red hair had an orangish iridescent glow in the setting sun. He lunged forward and grabbed me by the arm just as Granny appeared on the front porch.
“Why you boys so late this time?”
“We were just checkin’ on business,” Locke explained as he quickly released me as if he had not touched me to begin with.
His answer was the same every time. As was Granny Ridge’s reply.
“Well, just don’t let it happen again.”
In my younger years I had wondered why Granny Ridge had always accepted Locke’s explanation at face value. It was obvious from our appearance that we weren’t just checking on business and that there was more to it. As I grew older, I had come to the conclusion that Granny Ridge did not want to know what we were doing but felt obligated to ask. Granny was a stern woman with grayish-black, coarse hair which had the same appearance as burnt pine straw. She had a perplexing personality made up of what seemed to be a solid core with no hints of compassion or feeling. She was the eldest surviving member of the Ridge clan and took it upon herself to exercise her authority each day for the sake of the family. This position was an inherited one since Granpa passed, and she seemed to handle it as well as any man. Her keen business sense had kept a roof over our heads and food on our table for many years without any help from neighbors or townsfolk. Help had been offered on numerous occasions from various people but was invariably declined by Granny.
“You boys come inside and take your place.”
That was Granny’s way of telling us that supper was on the table, and we should not keep her waiting.
Locke and I both went around back to wash up. Granny would tolerate some tardiness, but to come to the table unwashed was a sin. I reached for the hose and turned on the water. Locke grabbed the hose from my hand and pushed me in the chest with his open flat palm.
“Boy, you know I go first.”
He proceeded to wash the mud from his feet, arms and hands with his face being last. He seemed to ignore me during this process. As he drank from the hose after washing he said, “Don’t you go forgittin’ what happened out there.”
I didn’t reply. I watched silently as Locke finished with the hose and threw it to the ground without turning it off. I took my turn washing and then went inside.
The house was small and rundown on the outside but neat and in impeccable order on the inside. This was Granny’s way, and she often said that books and houses were to be judged in the same manner. Some of Granny’s ways seemed to be of good nature, but you could never really tell. I tried to please her as much as possible but always fell short of her expectations.
I took my place at the table to Granny’s left and Locke took his place on her right. Seated next to me was Mamma then Benjamin. Next to Locke was Morgan Jr. We began our Sunday supper about twenty minutes late.
No one said a word until spoken to at supper by Granny. This was another rule that she enforced in a strict manner, usually with a simple reprimand, but if it happened more than once you were excused from the table to the front porch. I often used this rule to my benefit. It was the only time, up until now, that I had actually outsmarted Granny.
“What you got for me Locke, honey?” said Granny.
Twice a month, like clockwork, Sunday supper began with these exact words. Locke, without reply, would remove from his zippered, bib pocket a small, dirty, burlap bag folded in half twice and place it in front of Granny. Without a word she would take the bag, stand up, walk to the fireplace and place it into a covered vase upon the mantel. This process never changed and was always predictable and uniform. Granny would again take her place at the head of the table while cutting her eyes back and forth between me and Locke.
We sat in silence for at least another ten minutes after Granny made her ritual trip to the mantel. This seemed like an eternity, and I was tempted to speak first so that I might be banished to the front porch. This was always a risky venture. Yes, I would get some time alone away from the shallow, meaningless talk at the supper table, but would something be said that I may need to know? Locke used my absence from the table against me, so it was a gamble. I decided to keep quiet and hope for the best. Granny finally broke the silence.
“Locke, how much more do you need for your dog”?
“‘Bout fourteen more dollars,” Locke replied.
“You ought to be able to earn that much before cold weather.”
“I aim too.”
“That’s my Locke,” Granny said. “You boys could learn a thing or two from Locke. He set his mind to it, and he knows what he wants. And, he’s not afraid of hard work to get it”.
Granny always suggested that we learn things from Locke. This was her way of making Locke feel important so that he would stay on and keep up the family business. The rest of supper was unremarkable, and everyone remained silent as per Granny’s wishes.
Another of Granny’s rules regarding supper etiquette revolved around seconds and being excused. Each person must clean his or her plate at least once. Afterwards, you were to remain seated in silence. Once Granny acknowledged your compliance she would either ask you if you wanted seconds or excuse you from the table. This was strictly her choice and to this day I have never determined the reasons behind her offerings or her dismissals. Locke, however, was always offered seconds. I only remember one occasion when things did not happen this way.
Benjamin was the first to clean his plate and, as mandated, he remained silent until excused. He stood without a word and went to the front porch. Benjamin was a small boy with blonde hair and blue eyes. His appetite was weak, which was reflected in his small stature, and when Granny did offer seconds he always declined.
Locke was next to finish his first helping.
“You want some more Locke, honey?”
Locke accepted Granny’s offering, helped himself, and continued to eat without saying a word while, at the same time, making a great deal of noise. I watched this spectacle in silence. My plate actually had been cleaned prior to Locke’s, but Granny didn’t notice. Finally, Granny excused me from the table, and I joined Benjamin on the front porch. The front porch was just far enough away from the table to afford some privacy while lending a strategic position for spying on the others.
Benjamin sat in Granny’s wicker rocker near the screened, front door. This too was against the rules, but this one we never obeyed because Granny never knew. Benjamin always offered the chair to me as he was a kind, gentle and caring boy. I accepted on occasion but did not on this particular day. I sat on the top step with my feet on the second while gathering my thoughts as I knew Benjamin would soon inquire.
“How was it this time?” Benjamin said with excitement.
Benjamin yearned to be in the family business and he looked up to me and Locke for this reason. I often told Benjamin about many different, fictitious adventures and kept from him the truth of the matter. I felt Benjamin was too young to know that actual truth and thought it may destroy his spirit if he did know. Therefore, I continued the routine of making the bi-monthly family business trip, and then telling Benjamin tall tales on the eve of my return.
I could now hear Mama in the kitchen cleaning up the evening supper table. The clanking of dishes and various tablewares told me that evening chores would begin soon. As usual, Benjamin took this cue and moved from Granny’s rocker to the banister on the east end of the porch. I had finished telling my tale by this time and, once again, Benjamin seemed satisfied. He reverted back to his normal silence and would speak no more on this particular evening. When sounds from the kitchen faded, Granny appeared on the front porch to assert her final authority for the week.
“You boys get started.”
And without a word, me and Benjamin stood and went about our Sunday evening chores. Benjamin headed toward the chicken coop and I toward the vegetable garden with a bushel basket in hand. I was required to harvest enough vegetables on this evening to last for one week. This was not hard to accomplish simply because Granny preferred to under harvest. She often said that waste was a sin, and it was better to do without than to have more than enough. When I had asked her about the vegetables rotting on the vine because they were over ripe she told me that wasting in the field was an act of God, and God usually got what he wanted. She also said that we did not have the same sovereignty as God and, therefore, must not be wasteful.
I filled the basket about half full and headed back to the house. Locke was already outside doing nothing useful. I could hear him talking to Benjamin through the chicken wire, but I could not make out what he was saying. As I got closer, Locke said, “Little Benjamin’s gonna help me in the barn.”
“Help you what?” I replied.
“Whatever needs done,” he said in his Georgia accent.
As Benjamin exited the chicken coop I handed him the bushel basket of vegetables and told him to take them to Mama. Benjamin would do anything I said if it involved Mama because he was her baby, and she adored him. He did as I suggested without question, and I took his place as helper to Locke.
I headed toward the barn keeping three paces behind Locke, and he never looked back to see if I was following. He knew that I would.
The barn was a standard, double-door barn with a loft. It was large enough for three horses or cows, of which we had none. Granny had sold all the livestock during the hard times, and we were now customers of Mr. Cabe, the local milkman. We used the barn now for storage, but its main use was as sleeping quarters for Locke. Locke preferred the more rustic living spaces, and I too preferred this arrangement.
“What is it you need done?” I asked Locke after we were inside the barn.
“I just wanted to talk to yo’ brotha,” Locke replied.
“I thought I would explain the business to him.”
“I’m the one being trained to take up the business, not Benjamin,” I replied.
“You can neva start too young,” Locke said.
I knew Granny would not approve of this as it was in direct conflict with her wishes on how business should be conducted. I also knew that Locke would not risk disappointing Granny and decided that he was up to no good. I changed the subject so as to avoid any further conflict.
“When you gonna get your dog?” I asked.
“In two mo’ weeks,” Locke replied.
“What about the next business trip?” I asked
“I will be there fo’ it. We’ll go out Thursda’ mornin’ as usual, and I will leave after the goods arrive to go pick up the dog.”
“Where you gonna get the rest of the money?”
“Granny done gave it to me,” Locke replied. He called her Granny when, in fact, she was really his mother. I think this was because he was the youngest of Granny’s sons. Due to his age, Locke seemed more like her grandchild rather than her child.
“You think you can handle the rest of the business, or are you just like yo’ daddy?”
I knew it was trouble each time Locke began to talk about my dad. My dad was Samuel O’Malley. He had married Mama in 1939 and went to fight in World War II in 1943. I was born in February 1944 and never met my dad. He was killed in June of that same year on a beachhead in France.
“You know yo’ daddy and Morgan are no wheres near alike,” Locke said.
Locke was referring to Morgan Jr.’s father who was also killed in World War II. Coincidentally, it occurred on the same day as my father’s death, but somewhere in the Pacific.
“Morgan was a hero. Yo’ daddy just couldn’t cut it.”
Locke sought out every opportunity to reduce my self-esteem, and this method was one of his favorites. I thought of my dad and what it must have been like for him so far from home and fighting against the Axis powers. I thought of the ongoing Korean conflict and wished that I was old enough to go and fight for my country just like my father had done. I turned to leave without further comment. Upon exiting the barn I was met by Morgan Jr., blanket in hand.
“Granny said I should give this to Locke,” he said.
I took the blanket from him and spun around and re-entered the barn. Locke was already lying down on the ground near the wall opposite the livestock stalls. He had fashioned a sleeping area of hay with burlap bags for pillows. He grabbed the blanket from me without saying another word. I left the barn again and went back inside the house.
Morgan Jr. was already back inside, and he and Benjamin were both getting ready for bed. I could hear Mama and Granny talking softly in the back room, but I could not make out what they were saying. Eavesdropping was never tolerated by Granny and, if caught, would yield Granny’s most severe punishment. For this reason, I did not attempt it and headed straight up to bed.
Our house was small with two bedrooms and a loft. Granny occupied one of the bedrooms. The other was taken by Mama and Benjamin. Morgan Jr. and I shared the loft area where we slept on pallets made from hand-sewn quilts and down pillows. The loft area was accessible by a stationary ladder made of two-by-fours nailed at the top to the loft and at the bottom to the floor. This naturally made the loft area a safe haven because Granny’s rheumatism made the loft inaccessible to her, and Locke’s access was prevented due to his massive size.
As I entered the loft, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary and proceeded to my designated area near the window. The sun was already well set, and the moon shone brightly through the window yielding a soft glowing light. Due to my position within the family hierarchy, as it related to the family business, I had never learned to read. Illiteracy had not stopped me from collecting various books, however; they were aligned neatly underneath the window on the homemade bookshelf that I had crafted from the spare lumber from building the dry-goods sheds in the backwoods last summer. I also had several comic books that I looked at on a routine basis. I could once again hear Granny and Mama conversing in the backroom and wondered about their subject. I picked up my favorite of the comics as I lay on the homemade pallet and turned pages quietly. Without warning, Morgan Jr.’s head appeared at the top of the ladder. He struggled to make the final ascent and finally succeeded without my help. He took his spot across the room from me without a sound and was soon fast asleep. I continued to turn pages but quickly lost interest and returned the comic to its place upon the unfinished, wooden shelf. The moon, still bright in the sky, made it difficult to sleep, and I dreamed about faraway places. I thought of my dad and his sacrifice. I wondered why I had been given this lot in life and prayed for reasons and answers; there must be someone who could explain it to me. I heard Granny’s door open and Mama exit into the kitchen. Granny’s door closed, and all I could hear was silence.