The two letters arrived on the same day. One of them was long past due, the other not expected at all. I knew the one past due would be from Daddy. It’s the other letter that sticks in my mind, the one that won’t let that day be forgot. Some days are like that, a splinter you poke at with a blackened needle till your nerves can’t take it no more, and when all’s said and done, you find you still hadn’t rid yourself of the fool thing. Those letters kicked off a summer of just such days. Thorny. Days tainted with temptation and transgression, desertion and death. All these years later, I remember them all, every last one. I know well enough that sometimes a splinter’s just got to work itself out, but as the decades are stacking up on me, I feel compelled to hurry it along.
Like I said, it started with those letters. It was April 1942 and Daddy had gotten work refitting ships for the war effort, eating and sleeping right on the boat he worked on. He left Oklahoma for the California coast in late February, so I was certain one of the letters was from him. For weeks, my mother had spent her mornings on the front porch of Uncle Deacon’s farm, watching for the mail to come.
Daddy had left before to find work—the oil fields in Texas, the cotton fields in Arkansas, the bayous in Louisiana—but Mama always stayed behind, working odd jobs to help feed and clothe us five kids. So his absence wasn’t out of the ordinary. What was out of the ordinary was Mama had lost her job at Massey’s Mattress Factory in January, hurt so bad she couldn’t work and that made Daddy’s letters doubly important. When he said his goodbyes at the Greyhound Bus Station in McAlester, he wouldn’t even venture a guess on how long he’d be gone this time. He just told Mama he’d send money first chance he got.
Then that other letter showed up.
I watched from a front window as Mama left the mailbox, an unopened letter in each hand. She rubbed the fattest one between her fingers, taking its measure. Daddy was never a hand for writing. More times than not he’d just wrap up folding money in a scrap of paper and send it on, not writing down a word. I was pleased to see a look of relief pass over Mama’s face, but when she didn’t open that second letter, just stared at it like she was in some kind of trance, I walked to the screen door.
“Who’s it from Mama?” I called to her. “That other letter?” She looked at me as though waking from a dream.
“What? Oh, Jane. You finished those dishes, gathered those clothes off the line?” We were doing housework and odd jobs to work off our board and keep since Daddy left.
“Well, no ma’am, but is it from Uncle Sam? You want me to open it?” After Pearl Harbor, most of the bad news came in the form of a telegram or letter from the government.
“Course not.” She looked at the letter again. “It’s from family, just some I hadn’t heard from in a good while. I’ll open it directly, get on back to your chores now.”
I left Mama staring at her letter and made my way back to the kitchen. I tried to concentrate on the library book I’d propped on the windowsill above the sink but couldn’t pull myself back into its pages. I had tired of predictable stories, nothing more than a kaleidoscope of images that tease the mind and dull the vision like a cataract clouds the eye.
The radio on the sideboard, left playing most all day since the war had heated up, crackled like a cicada in late summer. Over the buzzing, I heard my little brother in the backyard counting down a game of hide and seek and watched my baby sisters running through the lilacs. Behind them, groves of pine and oak and pink-blooming redbuds spread across the hills, cutting straight lines around patches of newly broken ground, curvy lines along creek bottoms. A meadowlark called out to another one and it took up the song and then another and another, reminding me of the church chorus on a Sunday morning. The scene was as familiar to me as the lifeline on the palm of my hand, which given its length promised to be a long one and given its unwavering nature foretold it would be boringly uneventful.
Then through it all, I heard Mama having words with Daddy’s little brother, an uncommon event as she was not one to make a stir about anything. “That’s just the way it is,” she’d said the thousand-and-one times I’d questioned her on the way of things in the thirteen years I’d walked God’s green earth.
I’d always sourced Mama’s nature to her Indian blood and to being raised a Freewill Baptist, about which I knew very little as Mama raised us kids up in Daddy’s church. His people were Primitive Baptists. I supposed Freewills to be on a par with the Methodists, whose church I didn’t know much about either, but talk was the Methodists were restrained people. Given Mama’s temperament, I determined the Freewills had to be more restrained than the Primitives. Daddy’s people believed in the laying on of hands and the shouting of prayers heavenward with a heat that rivaled an Oklahoma August but turned cold as January sleet when it came to people speaking their mind. The Guthries were by-the-book Primitives, the hardcore kind, which meant it didn’t pay to be outspoken. Mama was forever cautioning me to keep my lips buttoned. To hear her arguing with Uncle Deacon out in the open like that definitely ran counter to her grain.
Curiosity getting the best of me, I made my way back to the front door where I could hear better. “Now don’t you go off half-cocked, Violet,” I heard Deacon say. “Will needs a say in this.”
“I tell you, I got to go,” Mama said in reply. “It’s a sign.”
I don’t know which began to race faster, my heart or my mind. Go where? I wondered. Did she say sign?
Because Mama wasn’t given to talking about herself, what little I knew of her I learned from others—and from what common sense told me. She was left motherless as a baby girl and grew up catch-as-catch-can, living with her Choctaw granny till the old woman died, then boarding with whichever relative would take her in. She married young, the difference in age between her and my older sister was testimony to that, and had five children of which I was the second oldest. I figured I knew her about as well as anyone did, and in all my born days I’d never heard her express a belief in signs.
“Go where Mama?” I pushed through the screen door. “Did you say sign?” They sat on the front porch, Mama in the creaking porch swing, Uncle Deacon in a cane-bottom chair staring at a dozen bald-faced shorthorns penned up across the road.
In the best of times, it was hard to make a living off the ground in that part of the country. The Ozark and Ouachita mountains spilled across the Arkansas border to the east where hardwoods, pines, and thickets thrived on the rocky hillsides, but little else. On what ground was tillable, the dirt ranged from a sandy loam to the north where the Canadian River ran, to red clay in the south where the Red River drained away to the Gulf. Torrents carried away topsoil in the spring and dried to a trickle in the blistering hot summers. The big farmers, who had resorted to using equipment rather than farmhands, bought up all the good bottomlands, which meant the small farmers were left the dregs. They had to wrest the land from nature and battle to keep it from being reclaimed to their dying day.
Like many farmers since the dry years, Deacon had given up trying to get cotton and peanuts to grow in the worn-out dirt. He let his fields revert to deep-rooted grasses and sold off feeder calves to get money to live on. He was a lean and ruddy man, typical of all the Guthries, who were Scotch-Irish by blood. His shirt smelled of sweat, his boots the sharp, heady odor of the feedlot. He did not own the land he lived on but rented it from others who had fared better than he. Still, he preferred to put down roots—as much as you can put down roots in rented ground. My father, on the other hand, preferred to ramble. While the two Guthrie brothers shared a guiding belief, they were as different as daylight and dark when it came to staying put.
“Jane Guthrie,” Mama said, turning to face me. “You get back to those dishes. Bertie and Ruth will be back any minute now.”
I glanced down the road, watching for heads to bob into view. Aunt Bertie was as devout a Christian lady as they came. She walked the two miles to the Church of Christ Primitive Baptist Church every other day for one thing or another—prayer meeting, Bible Study, Ladies’ Aid—and enlisted one of us kids to help tote various-and-sundry things. Today was my oldest sister’s day to tote for Aunt Bertie, scraps for making quilts. Baby quilts.
Just that morning at breakfast Aunt Bertie had taken one of her bents, rattling off the names of three girls, all Methodists, rumored to be carrying goodbye babies. Big into numbers, the Baptists and Methodists competed on just about everything: who had the biggest attendance on Sunday mornings, who had the most boys join up to fight, who donated the most to the war effort. They’d post new numbers on the signboard in front of the church daily, right along with that week’s scripture and verse. But plainly, Aunt Bertie wanted the Methodists to be the winner in this newest category.
“Morning sickness I hear tell,” Aunt Bertie had said. “Sure sign if ever there was one.”
We were all seated around the kitchen table, except Uncle Deacon, of course, who tended his livestock ahead of all else. I took to watching Aunt Bertie, standing there holding a long-handled spoon like it was a blackboard pointer, wondering where she was leading us. Wondering if I was going to be the object lesson that day. On top of everything else, Aunt Bertie taught Bible school and saw any gathering of two or more an opportunity for a lesson. But she turned to look at my sister Ruth instead.
“Boys taking off for the war, talking girls into doing things they ought not to.”
Ruth had been real quiet, as was her nature, but she jumped into the middle of it right then. “I am not expecting, Aunt Bertie,” she said and followed up with a pleading look at Mama.
But Mama went to drowning, just like I knew she would. A fish thrown on the bank, gulping and swallowing as if air was a poison to its body. She got that way every time we had to board with someone. Being beholden to others, even relatives, is a death without the dying, and my mother had known nothing else her entire life. Sure enough, she just said, “Eat your breakfast, Ruth.” Then she’d gotten up from the table and gone out to the porch to watch for the mailman. And Ruth got designated the one to tote for Aunt Bertie that day.
Seeing no one coming down the road, I turned to Mama again. “I finished the dishes and the clothes aren’t dry yet. Go where? What kind of sign?”
“I . . . I can’t explain it,” she said, sounding none too sure of herself. “It’s . . . it’s like a calling.”
“Sounds like the work of the devil, you ask me.” The lines at the corners of Deacon’s mouth were as brown stained as the spit can that sat next to his chair. He picked up the can right then and ejected a gob of spittle, the ping punctuating his words.
“Or a sign from God,” I spit back, tired of him bellowing like a bull.
Giving me a look, Mama said, “Now you know Jane didn’t mean nothin’ by that, Deacon. Jane’s just being Jane. Like I was saying, I can’t explain it. I just have to go.”
“You’re not going nowhere,” he said.
Deacon hooked his thumbs around the straps of his overalls as I’d seen the big boys at school do when they were putting on the dog. I tried to swallow the laugh in my throat, knowing for certain he would write me up if as much as a snicker passed my lips. The thought of a public chastisement in front of the congregation usually sobered me right up, but I laughed in spite of myself. Fortunately, my uncle was intent on Mama, not me.
“Look at that hand, Violet,” he went on. “You can’t work here. What makes you think you can work there? That cousin of yours even know you hurt yourself?”
Mama took a long look at her hand. “Well, I’m on the mend and . . .” She paused to rub her forehead. “It’s not just the work—though that would be a Godsend right now. It’s something else, something to do with Claude . . . or maybe someone close to him.” She rubbed her head again. “Oh, I don’t know, it’s just not clear.”
“Claude— That other letter’s from your cousin Claude?” I’d heard tell of Claude, how he and others in Mama’s family had migrated to California and taken up fruit farming some years before. “What’s it say, Mama? That letter?”
Ignoring me, Deacon said, “You better think twice about this, Violet. I wouldn’t put much stock in anything Claude Walker had a hand in.”
Why not? I wanted to ask. But I didn’t. When Daddy left us on his doorstep, Deacon had made it clear he didn’t particularly relish having six more in his flock, but right then he was taking his duty more serious than I’d ever seen.
Instead, I watched Mama, swinging back and forth, back and forth, wondering what she was thinking. She looked as worn out as her faded dress and down-at-the-heel shoes. Her dark hair, folded into rolls on the side and tucked tight with bobby pins, was starting to fade some. Her twisted left hand lay in her lap, the result of a sewing machine accident at the mattress factory where she worked up till January. The big needle meant for mattress ticking had left puncture marks on her hand that looked like bird tracks. In time, she used her feet to stop the swing from gliding and sat still, appearing to study her shoes or maybe the weathered planks on the porch.
“Don’t know why I couldn’t pack fruit,” she said finally. “Nothing wrong with my right hand.”
Fruit? When the full impact of Mama’s words hit me, I could not hold my tongue.
“California— We’re going to California?”
I realized my mistake right away. My questions caused Mama to doubt herself. To flounder. Though I couldn’t speak firsthand for other creatures, I figured all drowning things, finned or footed, looked the same when they were struggling to breathe outside their natural habitat. Like Mama did just then. I figured Deacon saw it too, for he seized the moment.
“Have you gone plumb loco, Violet? You got to think of these children. They’re still in school—”
“No, we’re not,” I said quickly. “Well, all but Billy Lee. He’ll start again next fall but I graduated eighth-grade last week. Ruth too. And the little girls . . . Well, they’re still babies.”
Ruth was a year and a half older than me and Mama had held her back a year and started me to school early so we could be together, which is why we finished at the same time. Ruth didn’t have any problems with the arrangement, but I did. Because I was the youngest girl in class, the girls left me out of fun things and the boys treated me as if I was their little sister. Still, things have a way of working out. With nothing else to do but study, I finished at the top of the class. I got excited when my teacher talked to Mama and Daddy about sending me into McAlester to complete the full twelve grades, wondering what I would make of myself if I could choose. But Daddy wouldn’t hear of it, saying I had all the learning I needed to get along in this world. Truth be told, right then I was just as glad he wouldn’t allow it. Four more years of being left out of things didn’t appeal to me. California did.
I faced Mama again. “If we can’t all go, can I go with you? Ruth can stay here and take care of the little ones till we get back. I doubt she’d want to go anyway, Billy Lee neither—”
“Heaven’s sake, Jane—would you hush up and let me think?”
Mama cupped her face in her hands and I forced quietness on myself. An eternity seemed to pass before she loosened those hands.
“No,” she said, looking straight ahead as though she was talking to someone standing in front of her. “No, all you kids will go with me. The more hands, the more money we can make.”
Deacon got up so quick his chair fell from under him. “And just how do you figure on getting there, missy?”
She held up the fatter of the two envelopes. “Mister Will sent money. It came today.”
Daddy was a good bit older than Mama, a grown man when she was still a girl, and she never broke the habit of calling him Mister Will as she had when she was young. In years, she was about the same age as Deacon, and I knew from experience that the straight set of her mouth right then was a sign her patience was wearing thin. But that didn’t stop Deacon. He started pacing and his mouth kept stride with his feet.
“Fool woman! Will sent money to pay for food and clothes for these here children—not traipse off to California. You got a decent place to live till he gets back and Bertie planted a bigger garden so’s to help feed everyone. Besides which, Ruth’s got a job lined up in McAlester—and she’s gettin’ married soon as Alfred gets back from the war.”
“If he gets back,” Mama said quietly. “Sometimes things happen.”
Alfred was my sister’s boyfriend. Ruth had gotten real mad at President Roosevelt in December when he declared war because she planned on getting married on her sixteenth birthday. Mr. Roosevelt’s decision to provide arms to Mr. Churchill had been all the talk on the radio and in the newsreels, how aiding the Allies would eliminate the fear we would be invaded or have to get involved. But it didn’t work out that way and Alfred ended up catching the train for boot camp just days after Daddy left for the coast. He couldn’t even tell Ruth where he’d be sent, just someplace “over there,” which referred to what Mister Roosevelt called the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
That word theaters didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me as in the theaters Mr. Roosevelt talked about, the stories were real, not made up. In the picture shows we’d gone to, people were always going somewhere but you knew it was just make-believe. These days, people left town on a Greyhound bus or the Santa Fe Chief and lots of them never made it back.
Mama pushed her feet against the porch planks, causing the swing to glide slow, and talked in between the creak of the chains that anchored it overhead. “That’s why Claude needs help. ‘cause of the war. Boys are leaving in droves, both of Claude’s are already gone. With the fruit harvest starting up, jobs are plentiful so help’s hard to come by.” She fingered the two letters again. “And we got the means to get there.”
She braked with both feet then and stood up, her eyes darting like moths to a chimney lamp. “But we have to leave pretty quick, Claude wants us there early May.” She turned to Deacon. “I need to use your telephone to call the train station. Train will be better than bus.”
“I can’t allow this—”
“I’m going. If you won’t take us, I’ll get Lon Henry to.”
Deacon stood there, tightlipped, hands on his hips, eyes on fire. “I don’t like this one bit—and I guarantee, Will’s not going to neither.”
“Maybe,” Mama said, her look distanced. “Then again, he might not care.”
“California . . . We’re going to California.” I stood there like a dunce, trying to grab hold of the idea. Mama already had the screen door open and one foot inside the house before I came to my senses.
“Jane,” she called over her shoulder. “You want to help me find the number for the train station in the book? And maybe you could make the reservations to Merced. I’ve never done this before.”
I complied with Mama’s wishes that day, making the call to set up a train reservation for the first of May. That day in May was not the day our journey began though. Our journey began in the space of time it took my mother to open that screen door.