The first paragraph came to me in a dream last night. It seemed like the beginning of a new story. I wonder what Charles Oliver wants?
The latch on the wrought-iron gate closed with a clang behind him. Charles Oliver came in uninvited. I was barefoot in the garden picking basil for dinner and had closed my eyes to breathe in the scent just a meditative moment before. His entrance having jolted me, I met his eyes on his way up the brick path to my house.
“Staying for dinner, Mr. Oliver?” I asked, sitting down on the painted wooden steps of my front porch to wipe the dirt from my feet.
“If you’ll have me, I reckon so.”
The stove hadn’t been lit for days or maybe weeks. I had, instead, been grazing on food that could be pulled from the earth and eaten with little more than a wash in my deep porcelain sink. Survival of summer in the Mississippi Delta required ingenuity, especially when the only mechanism for moving the hot air around the old farmhouse was the attic fan and open windows. But I didn’t mind. Food straight from the ground seemed closer to the way God intended it. My little plot of heaven was small enough that I alone could tend it and it returned the favor by providing enough food to feed my body and my soul.
Mr. Oliver sat himself down at my old pine table and traced a finger over the indented words left by children practicing their numbers and letters. Not my children, of course. The one marriage I had ended after only a couple of months when Mr. Jenkins fell under the plough, drunk on corn whiskey. Henry, the old mule, didn’t even look back when he pulled the blades bumpity-bump over Jenkins’s body. No, the children who had studied at this pine table were mostly me and my little sister, Amylee between harvesting and planting seasons when we were allowed to go to school. My older brother, Skaggs (God rest his soul) probably made a few here and there, before he was old enough to work. Mama and Daddy never learned to read and write, so I imagine they only accounted for the X’s that were left in the pine when they re-signed the share-cropping contract with Mr. B each year.
The thirty-five acres my family farmed was now mine, Skaggs having died in Viet Nam and Amylee having moved to Nashville when she got a job teaching history at Vanderbilt. For a few years after Mr. Jenkins died, I kept the land in cotton but after a while, it all got to be too much for one person to handle and I let it go fallow. Except for a few black walnut trees and a dogwood here and there, goldenrod and Joe-pye weeds have grown tall enough to keep the neighbors out of my business and provide a wild turkey here and there.
That night when Mr. Oliver sat down at my table, I set it with sliced tomatoes and onion, cottage cheese and three cold fried chicken quarters I’d brought home from the church potluck the Sunday before. “Take these home with you, Sister Bess,” the organ player had said as she wrapped the chicken in aluminum foil and stuffed them into the plastic bag I’d brought the bean salad in. “It’ll save you from havin’ to light the stove this week.” But here it was Tuesday and company had come so it only seemed right to serve the chicken and worry about tomorrow when it came. After one piece of chicken and some sliced tomatoes, Mr. Oliver excused himself from the table, washed his plate.
“I’d like to sit a spell on the porch, if you don’t mind. When it’s time to go, I can see myself off,” he said. “No need to stay up on my account.”
“Of course. Whatever you need,” I nodded to him, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until I heard the gate close behind him. But by the time I’d cleaned the kitchen and did my nightly Bible study, Mr. Oliver had let himself out the same way he came in.