August in southwestern Oklahoma comes in like a steam bath and goes out like a sauna. Steam rises out of the soil in the early morning like ghosts materializing to be swept away by a wind so hot and dry that even shade provides little comfort to man or beast.
At sundown the wind dies and a dense stillness blankets the region, wringing the remaining drops of moisture from every pore and holding them against the earth to start the whole cycle again.
In August people go a little crazy. Minor arguments turn into brawls. Abusive incidents swell as many reach for another cool one and then another until they reach their boiling point. Even the ones who swill sweet tea lean to short temperedness. Unable to punch the weatherman, the boss or God, they settle for whoever’s handy.
Farm accidents, home accidents, and car accidents increase with every degree on the thermometer. Old timers dread August, because the month brings heartbreak. It was only the fifth, but August had claimed its first victim.
Pete and Dewayne discussed the accident on their way from the field to the house, and then fell silent as they poured their tea and settled on the front porch.
The two men chose spots that shielded them from the afternoon sun and provided at least a whisper of a breeze. Their two hound dogs stretched out near them. Darcy languished between the two men while Max lay draped on the first step of the porch. Pete swirled a mason jar of sweet iced tea watching the ice evaporate, taking a swig every so often but mostly content with pondering the movement of the liquid. His bare feet perched on the porch railing and he tilted backward in the chrome vinyl covered kitchen chair, he’d dragged onto the porch with his tea. His boots caked with red clay rested just outside the door, socks soaked with the sweat of a day in the fields draped atop them to dry.
Dewayne, the younger of the two men and the larger, sprawled on a similar chair, legs splayed, and the waist of his jeans resting below the swell of his belly which was bare. The tail of his t-shirt had been tugged up so that the edge rested even with his arm pits.
Dewayne was a man of ill defined itches prompted more by his need to scratch than by any irritation. With both hands he scratched the expanse of flesh, while picking with one pinky finger or the other into the pit of his navel. Periodically he’d examine the contents of his belly button, flick bits of dirt away and return to his main task, scratching.
No words passed between the two men. By all appearance they seemed content, one to swirl his tea and the other to rub his belly. Pretty soon they’d need to get cleaned up for dinner, but for now just sitting barefoot in the shade met their requirements for rehydration and rest. Neither Pete nor Dewayne expected any visitors. The farm butted up against the town limits and the house set close to the state highway, but the folks that did drop by would not be inclined to do so on an afternoon as hot as this one. Nevertheless expected or not company came.
The dogs alerted first to the girl’s approach. Max, the hound on the porch step, lifted his head to bark, but his attempt sounded like a cross between a yawn and an abbreviated yodel. Darcy lifted the lid of one eye, puffed a big sigh, spotted the visitor before she shifted her position and settled down.
Pete removed his feet from the railing, scooted the chair down onto all four legs and stretched with one eye closed and the other focused on the approaching figure. Dewayne tugged his dirt encrusted t-shirt down to where only half of his bulging mid-section remained exposed. Otherwise he remained settled except for a shift in his scratching spot. He moved that activity to a tuff of curly hair that peeked through at the neck of his t-shirt. With a tilt of his head he, too, could observe as the girl moved steadily toward the porch.
Even with the sun to her back and her face fully in shadow, both men recognized her familiar sway and stride. Neither moved nor spoke. However, as the child drew closer the dogs roused, first banging their heavy tails on the clapboards of porch and steps. They lifted their heads and their bodies followed. With Max leading, the two hounds shuffled down the steps across the patches of dirt and grass that served as yard for the farm house.
The hounds revived by the prospect of attention, loped toward the familiar figure. She didn’t disappoint them, leaning forward without breaking her stride, rubbing first Max then Darcy between the ears. Reaching the bottom step to the porch, she shaded her eyes and stared up at the two men, who nodded and grinned.
“How you doing, Jessie? What you packing?” Pete asked leaning forward with his arms on the porch rail, pointing to the bundle she carried in her arms like a baby.
Jessie glanced down at the parcel and then back at the two men. When she spoke, her voice quivered.
“It’s a tree. Is Miss Nancy home?”
Dewayne moved to get a better look at Jessie and the package, shifting his scratching from his chest hairs to the back of his scalp.
“You say there’s a tree in that wrapping? Must be a miniature.”
Pete shook his head at Dewayne and regarded the girl who had fallen silent her eyes first on the package and then on a tuft of grass at the toe of her penny loafers.
“Don’t mind him, Jessie. He thinks trees come full grown. Nancy’s not here. She headed into town for,” he hesitated, “some groceries. Should be back real soon.”
He swirled his iceless tea and inquired, “You want a glass of iced tea while you wait on her? I’m going to get some more before I get cleaned up for supper.”
Jessie shook her head, still studying the ground at her feet. She mumbled something unintelligible.
“You’re going to have to speak up, Jessie.” Pete said.
She lifted her head and looked up at the two sets of eyes that stared down at her. She attempted a smile but it faltered.
“Could I just sit here and wait for Miss Nancy? I could just sit here on the steps, if it wouldn’t trouble you any?”
“Sure,” Pete said, “Come on up on the porch. Take my chair.”
Jessie shook her head again, sat down on the bottom step, and placed the tree between her knees. The hounds flanked her trying to edge as close as they could to vie for her attention as both attempted to use her lap as a pillow. She stroked both their heads automatically as she watched the road for Miss Nancy’s car.
Pete started toward the backdoor motioning to Dewayne to get up and follow. The younger man grumbled but he reached out for the railing using the leverage to wrench his massive frame into a vertical position. Once standing he tugged upward on the waistband of his jeans, accomplishing little in the process. Before heading into the house through the screen door Pete now held open, Dewayne looked back down at the child on the bottom step.
“Where’d you get a tree anyway?”
Initially, Jessie didn’t speak. Dewayne started to repeat the question, but then thinking, ‘What’s the use? Who cares where the tree came from anyhow?’ he batted his hand at the air dismissively and turned to move across the threshold. Before he got inside the door, as Pete slipped behind him to follow, Jessie spoke.
“I got it in Sunday school last Sunday. Miss Ellie gave all six of us one to plant.” A low sob punctuated her words. Pete and Dewayne halted, their eyes met as her words registered. Both stepped back onto the porch and edged toward the steps.
Jessie had buried her head in the curve of Darcy’s neck and though her crying was muffled by the dog’s coat, the heaving of her back revealed her sorrow. Neither man knew what to do when females cried and their experience lacked many first hand encounters, so they stood shifting from one foot to the other in the masculine equivalent of wringing the hands.
Dewayne pushed by the masculine instinct to do something even if it was wrong, asked, “So why haven’t you planted yours? Why are you still carting yours around?”
Jessie lifted her head out of the dog’s fur but did not turn at the two men. Instead, she adjusted the tree to a more secure position between her knees before swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Daddy won’t let me plant it at home. He says it would be a bad omen to plant a tree given to you by a dead person. He says it would bring all sorts of bad luck and we sure don’t need any more than we already got.” She paused, stroking the trunk of the tree which was hardly bigger than a grown man’s thumb before continuing, “Bad luck, not trees. He says if he didn’t have bad luck he’d have no luck at all, but that he doesn’t intend to offend God or the devil with a tree that was a present from a woman who was dead two hours after she gave it.”
“I think that’s a song, isn’t that a song? ‘If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”
Dewayne interjected, singing the line off key then with a snap of his fingers, “Ray Charles! That’s who sang it.” Pete jerked his head around in Dewayne’s direction with a look that probably had a half life greater than uranium. For his part Dewayne basked in the joy of having remembered the song and the artist lifting a shield of pride so dense Pete’s poison tipped expression merely bounced off.
Jessie turned to consider the two, unable to recall a tiny flicker of a smile before it lit her face. She knew Dewayne meant no harm. Even at ten she knew he was like a defective piece of equipment that needed a discontinued part, but still worked even though it was slow and awkward. His burst of song dried her tears and though the redness around her eyes and the streaks on her cheeks remained, her spirit rebounded slightly.
“So, what are you going to do with the little tree?” Pete asked keeping his eyes averted to a distant spot on the horizon.
“I was hoping; I mean, I hope Miss Nancy will help me plant it around here. Everyone knows how good she is with growing things.”
“That’s true,” Pete said drawing the words out as if pondering them. “She’ll be along in a little while. Will you be okay out here? Dewayne and I need to get cleaned up or she will skin us alive.”
“I’ll be just fine.” She returned to staring off down the road and petting the dogs.
Pete thumped Dewayne in the shoulder, pulling the backdoor open again, prodding his brother inside.
Nancy noticed the slight figure on the bottom step the moment she turned into the driveway. Pulling closer, she recognized Jessie Adams and a second later she spied the sapling the girl balanced between her knees.
A little knot formed in her throat as she recalled helping Ellie carry the tiny trees from her car to the fifth grade classroom, Sunday.
“Goodness, Ellie, what on earth do you have planned this morning?”
Ellie laughed, “Why I am going to help start a forest, a stand at least.”
“Well if you’re going to be planting trees, I would have thought you might pick something other than Poplars. They grow fast, but. . .”
“They are perfect for what I have in mind.”
“Is it a secret?” Nancy asked, her interest piqued, Ellie had that way about her.
“No, I chose them on purpose; Poplars are perfect for the children to plant,”
Ellie’s smile faded, her expression growing more serious as she paused before continuing, “because, well because every one of their families have been hurt by the closing of the Mar-Val plant. Rex and Macy’s moms both worked there; Richard’s dad was a foreman; Sandra’s dad manages the Piggly Wiggly—folks without steady income don’t buy as many groceries; Les’s dad has been asked to relocate his whole family to Mexico to start up the new plant down there; and, Jessie, well in some ways her family’s taken the hardest blow. Both her parents had good jobs there and they just bought their first home. I hear James especially is taking it hard, which just compounds the problem.”
“Hitting the bottle again, huh?”
Ellie shook her head and sighed, “I saw him coming out of the liquor store. I didn’t see him drinking, but I know he’s had a problem in the past. Anyway, that’s why I dug these little fledglings from that stand of Poplars along the creek at my house. I chose Poplars intentionally.”
Nancy had been ready to press her about her reason for choosing the poplars when the children started arriving for Sunday school and the commotion of their greetings and questions interrupted their conversation. Ellie bubbled with energy and excitement as her attention shifted from Nancy to focus on her students.
“Catch you later.” Nancy mouthed as she caught Ellie’s eye for the briefest of instants. Ellie waved and smiled then returned to the children.
Nancy regarded the child on the step and waved at Jessie, who returned her greeting. The child, the sapling and the hole in her heart burned. She knew the children in Ellie’s class and so many others were mourning her sudden death, but Nancy despite scolding herself resented sharing her grief with any one else. Her loss hadn’t settled yet. What on earth did she have to offer the child on the stoop?
Nancy inhaled deeply, blew the air out through pursed lips, before opening the car door and stepping from air conditioned comfort to the afternoon furnace.
On warm days Granny and I would walk through that grove, and she would point out the fledgling trees that sprung from the shallow but widely spread roots of the older trees. Not only were they temporary, she’d tell me, they were prolific and rapid growing trees. The adult trees in the stand were children and grandchildren of earlier family members. Poplars, she told me didn’t grow from seeds, but emerged as the spawn of a mature tree’s root stock. “A lot like humankind, we grow best when we stick together and when we come into this world we bring a lot of what’s happened before with us.” From Eleanor Brown’s Journal