The rancid smell of chicken droppings, a blistering Missouri sun on a tin roof chicken coop and sweat stinging my eyes force me outside where maybe I can catch a faint breeze. My coat is covered with chicken feathers, dried dung and flecks of whitewash. My head throbs. I could drink a river dry. Where’s that well I saw earlier?
I have only myself to blame for my situation. Eager to impress my new host family. I made a rookie mistake and started work before the ground rules were agreed on. I know better. Today, June 19, 1951, marks my fourth year as a summer slave. I hope it’s my last.
Brother Seymour, from the Home, preaches to always know the rules before doing one chore. If I’d followed his advice, I’d have drinking water, know how my laundry is handled, have a clear work schedule, even know where the nearest swimming hole is.
Now, I need water. Fast.
Mrs. Keller rapped on my door at 6 o’clock, sharp this morning. "Up, Arthur, up.” Her face clouded over like a dirty mirror when she sees me standing under the maples, dressed, ready for the day. In the kitchen, I suck down Post Toasties in warm milk, while she recites my chores like a teacher taking roll in a classroom.
My first assignment? Clean two chicken coops. I don’t ask questions, just grab a broom, shovel, paint brush, whitewash and hop to it. Now, gasping for air in knee-deep rye grass I’m hot and thirsty. The well is under tall maples through hip-high alligator weeds and broadleaf.
Is the water safe to drink? I turn the handle. Brown liquid spells out. If I could sing, I would. The well’s used often. I spin the handle again. Cool water splashes out. I rinse my face and hands, then drink straight from the spigot. Now maybe I’ll last till noon.
I pull my shirt from my coat pocket and dry my face. When I open my eyes, a brown-skinned girl with gobs of black hair stands beside me. “You the new orphan?”
Her voice hints of Carmen Miranda. I give her the once over. At the Home, guys would pay a nickel to watch her climb the stairs to the girl’s dorm. A dime, if she was in phys ed clothes.
White sandals. Brown feet. Slender toes. Red nail polish. Long, tan legs. Blue shorts. Yellow blouse tied below round breasts. Golden throat. Dark eyes. Thick black hair. More Cyd Charisse than Ava Gardner. Is this the little snip Mrs. Keller warned me about last night?
I answer her question. “Guilty. Want my autograph?”
She laughs. “Hi, I’m Fatima.” She is the snip.
“Hi, Fatima. I’m Art.”
She hangs her bucket on the spigot. “Fill ‘er up, sir.”
Her bucket filled, she stretches her tan legs out on the wellhead. The sun turns parts of her hair gold. I rinse whitewash from my paint brush. My stomach rumbles. I’m breathing too fast.
Fatima says, “What’s wrong, Orphan Boy? You're green around the gills.
My mouth fills with saliva. Don’t puke, Carr. Fatima tugs at my coat. “This is heavy as a tire. Get it off.”
It protects my jeans from chicken grime, since I don’t know how long before my laundry’s done. It all I wear over my jeans. At the Home, a bare chest in mixed company gets extra KP. I push Fatima away.
“Don’t be silly. I’ve seen scrawny chests before.” She yanks at the coat.
My face is on fire. Cold chills race up my spine. Trees twirl. I could maybe recite the first three letters of the alphabet, but my own name? Never. Cold water knocks me to hot grass.
A voice from a dark tunnel orders, “Get in the shade, Orphan Boy.”
I sprawl under a spirea bush. Fatima refills her bucket and sits. When it looks like I may live after all, she picks our conversation like nothing happened. “Think they’ll adopt you?”
Ah, the Big Question. It usually doesn't raise its ugly head so soon. I play it straight. “Nope. Most couples want babies, not teenagers. I'm just a slave a church member rents for twenty-five dollars a month, for the summer. The money’s supposed to go into my account for when I leave the Home, but somehow expenses always eat it up. My brother, Dwayne, got $47.67 for five summers. Not much to start a new life on. I’ll be seventeen in June. Graduate high school in January.” Where did all that word garbage come from?
Fatima nods. “That’s how it works, huh? I’ll be sixteen in October. Going to the Fair tomorrow?”
“I'd be a Commie rat if I didn’t, right?
She smiles. “I’m going with Tony Aguilera. He’s twenty-one. Drives a Studebaker. Works with Papi.”
“Cradle robber, huh? Anywhere to swim around here?”
She answers my last question. “Wild Horse River at Twin Rocks. Before Devil’s Fall.”
She hands me a cup of water. “Sip. Maybe Tony’ll win me a Kewpie Doll. Mom and I are going shopping later. Need a new skirt and blouse. Been to town yet?”
“Yeah. Quite the metropolis. What’s the population? Minus three?”
“Sip. Not chug.” She grabs the cup.
“Not funny. Almost four thousand. You’ll go back to school this fall, huh? I’d be a sophomore, but Papi says school's a waste for girls. I applied at A & W. They’ll hire when school starts.”
I'm about to say a high school diploma is important for poor kids, when Mrs. Keller’s tall body blocks the sun. “Up, up, Arthur. Mr. Sunshine waits for no one.”
She claps her hands like Brother Seymour sending a play into a football game. “You have your water, Fatima. Leave. Arthur has work to do.” She waves her apron at Fatima, like she’s shooing flies.
“Get your shirt on, Arthur. You’re in the company of a lady. Mr. Keller will have a word with you when he comes home.”
Thick fingers fumble with small buttons. When I look up, Fatima has disappeared into the heat waves.
* * *
Rivers to Cross
We park under a big tree where a school once stood according to know-it all Wayne. He hands us rubber boots. “Put these on. Bridges may have been washed out.” Andy, my husband, pulls his on, points at me and laughs. “You look cute, Pretty Girl.”
The bridge over what Wayne calls the Blackwater sways, but is sturdy. Inky water swirls around large rocks, sending white mist into the air. Once across, we skirt a cornfield and follow a crooked path up a steep hill.
It seems like hours before we lay in the shade of tall trees and eat stale sandwiches bought last night in St. Louis. Back on our feet, we follow a hilly path to the Smoke River, with water running fast and gray. Wayne cuts a long pole with his axe. “We’ll have to wade. Grab on, Sam. You too, Andy.” We inch through cold water, then scramble up the far bank to a grassy spot.
“How much further,” I ask.
“An hour or so.”
“Why didn’t you tell me we’d climb hills and wade rivers?”
He shrugs. “Ya said ya wanted to see yer Daddy’s grave.”
It’s mostly downhill to the White River, laughing and gurgling in the sun. “If this is a river, I’m an ice cream cone,” I whisper to Andy. He smiles and splashes me with water. The bridge is out so we wade the rocky river bottom, water waist-high.
Wayne says, “Only a mile or so now.”
He better be right. My blisters have blisters. Quite a wild goose chase you’re on, Sam.
We weave through tall cedars to a pile of weed-covered logs and rotten lumber. Wayne whispers like he’s in church. “All that’s left of our cabin.”
I say to Andy, “It was sure small.”
“A mansion to those who lived here.”
Wayne sits on a big rock, wiping sweat with a white handkerchief. Don’t stroke out on me, Wayne, boy. You have to get us back to the car.
He says, “Sam, your descendants – great grandparents, grandma and grandpa farmed this land with their bare hands and a team of mules. This is where your Aunt Cecilia and your Daddy were raised. Me, too.”
He waves at the hills marching off toward St. Louis. Even Vietnam, I guess if you keep going, “Your Daddy’s buried on that ridge. Somewhere. I was drunk as Hogan’s goat when I finished his grave. Started drinkin’ when the letter came, sayin’ they were escortin’ his body home.”
He shakes his head. “I took off ‘fore the funeral. First time back in over 50 years.” He tosses a rock into the air and swings a small stick at it.
“God, how your daddy loved baseball. Great hitter. Good shortstop. Pros were interested, but he joined the Marines. Cecilia said they put his bat and glove on his grave.”
Hear that, Sam? Is that where your love of softball comes from? Like father, like daughter.
I feel weird. I’m fifty-three years old. As a kid, I hungered to meet my Daddy, or know his name even. “Stop naggin’”, Mom would say. “I told ya. Art Carr. A Marine. From Missouri. I think.” She was never good at details.
“You didn’t take even one carnival booth photo?”
“Hush,” she’d say, walking away.
I learned Arthur G. Carr’s home town, his enlistment date, next of kin, the date he was killed from the Marine Corps. Now, when I visit Mom in the Home, she reports their long conversations. “He loves his little girl,” she says. “She reminds me of you. Except her hair is wavy brown, not gray like yours.”
* * *
San Francisco. 1964. A handsome young Marine, off to war. A pretty girl, tasting life. Marijuana, by the kilo. Booze, by the bucketful. Two days of wild sex. He ships out with feeble, “I’ll write you’s,” and other lies. Nine months later, a baby. Me. About the time he was killed.
Now, on a green Ozark hillside, Wayne says, “Think I’d start lookin’ under that big oak.”
Once an asshole, always an asshole.
I came across Wayne’s name and number in a St. Louis phone book late one night. Bastard girls with ditsy, single Mom’s make desperate phone calls. I talked to him three times in high school, visited his small, cigarette-smelling apartment once.
When sober enough to respond, it was the same story. “Art Carr was my brother. Yes, he could be your daddy. No, he didn’t marry your momma. But who cares? Wish I could help more. I ain’t got a picture, or a pair of his socks to give you. He was killed in ‘Nam. About did me in, too.”
No contact for years, then two months ago, a phone call. “I’m sober and goin’ home to right the past. You’re welcome to come along. Visit your Daddy’s grave.”
He should have said hike hills, wade rivers, sweat under a hot June sun, with no cell phone service or internet. Now, he admits he was so drunk he doesn’t remember where he buried his own brother. You’re a dumb ass, Sam.
Andy leads me to the oak, tall as a San Francisco high rise. In its shade, something snags my boot. I kick. Metal zings. Andy sifts dirt and leaves, then hands me a piece of rusting tin. “Art Carr USMC 1939-1965 RIP.”
I’m flabbergasted. “Dad’s grave?”
Wayne places a warm hand on my shoulder. A small tree grows from a grassy mound. “A hickory,” Wayne says. He takes off his hat. “Art, here’s your daughter, Samantha. She’s a fine lady.” He wipes his eyes.
After a minute, “You had a Daddy all along, Sam. A fine Marine. Satisfied?”
I’m not that easy. For over a half century I yearned to know my Dad. A piece of rusting tin and a hickory tree isn’t enough. I’ve got a few rivers to cross before it is.