Authors: John J. Asher
Tags: #Family, #Saga, #(v5), #Romance
John J Asher
Copyright © 2013 John J Asher
All rights reserved. Thank you for respecting the rights of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any event, or actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Brazos River Press
HE CROPS DIED
in the fields and the men hauled water for the cattle and with flamethrowers singed the stickers off prickly pears to feed them, saying: “We sure could use a rain,” which was what they always said, and it hadn’t rained yet, at least not to amount to anything that Harley could remember, not in the twelve years since he was born in a little house over by the cotton gin that by now had been torn down—both the house and gin—so there was only the field. The houses they lived in were always old and his family was always moving, one to another.
He sat now on the back step of a house they had been in two years, making drawings of a horny toad he had caught up in a John Ruskin cigar box. A windmill and a lone chinaberry tree stood motionless between the back of the house and the field. Out along the fencerow, cowsheds and farm machinery wrinkled in the heat, shimmying as if in time to the gritty music of a jillion locusts. Beyond the barbed-wire fence, a long field of drought-withered sorghum lay flat to the horizon, where it dissolved into a mirage. He had tried to draw the mirage, a trembling lake between earth and sky. He wondered if in a land of drought, a mirage might be a punishment.
The horny toad was the size of his hand, dark brown spots ringed with white on its spiky back, a double row of spines around either side. Thornlike horns jutted back from its blunt head, its eyes like little seeds splitting their husks. From time to time the toad scrabbled around in the box. Then it would go suddenly still, open its wide lipless mouth, throat swelling. Harley moved back when the toad puffed up like that. People said that if a horny toad spit blood in your eye you’d go blind.
He stood and shaded his eyes against the glare, seeing in the distance the Delaneys’ pickup, a brand-new 1954 Ford, trailing a boil of dust out of the mirage. He couldn’t help but grin, thinking Darlene might be in the cab. Darlene was eleven and he was in love with her—had been since two years before, when on the backside of the Delaney’s cotton field they had dropped their pants to check out each other’s privates. At the time he wasn’t quite clear on what it meant, only that the image was stuck permanently in his mind.
He shut the lid on the horny toad, then placed the box, the pencil and the razor blade for sharpening on sheets of butcher paper and left everything on the back step. He went around the house between the clothesline and the butane tank to the unfenced front yard as Mrs. Delaney brought the pickup to a stop, waiting while the dust drifted past and settled. Darlene sat in the passenger seat. She glanced at him out the side window, tossed her head, looked away.
Mrs. Delaney got out, fanning herself with a
Ladies’ Home Journal.
Darlene followed, looking off into the distance—Darlene, with her high cheekbones and big dark eyes, her mouth puckered and turned down at the corners.
“Hey,” he said, grinning.
Mrs. Delaney smiled in turn. “Well, hey, yourself, Harley Jay.” She had on her town dress, hair rolled tight behind her ears.
Darlene wore jeans and a T-shirt, dark hair plaited in a single rope down her back. She looked past him to the front door where his mother had appeared, a thin, muscular woman in a plain housedress, holding the screen door open.
“Well, if this ain’t a nice surprise,” his mother said. “Y’all come on in.”
Mrs. Delaney tucked the magazine under her arm. Harley followed her and Darlene up the one wooden step into the living room.
“I declare,” said Mrs. Delaney, “ain’t this heat something? Our old house is so hot you could bake bread in it. I told Russell, ‘Russell,’ I said, ‘we gotta get us one a them wet-drip fans.’ But he’s afraid it’ll aggravate his arthritis.” She gave his mother a sly grin. “I told him he could sleep in the living room. Well, he didn’t take much to that, I can tell you.”
“August is gone off to Fort Worth right now with the last of our stockers. He says he can’t feed ’em right, he’s not gonna feed ’em no prickly pears.”
“Well, Russell ain’t keen on it neither, but he’s determined to hang on as long as he can.”
Harley’s mother unplugged the iron and moved the board and a basket of clothes out of the way. “Y’all sit over here in front of this fan. It don’t put out much, but every little bit helps.”
Mrs. Delaney looked about. “Where are those little girls today?”
“Vacation Bible school. Arlene’s gonna drop ’em off later.”
Harley was glad his six-year-old twin sisters, Anna Mae and Annie Leigh, weren’t home. Now he had Darlene all to himself.
Darlene settled on the couch by her mother. Harley’s mom sat across in the matching chair. Her hands with their thick veins and blunt nails smoothed the crocheted doilies over the chair’s arms. Aside from the straight-backed chair Harley sat on, there were a couple of end tables with plastic-shaded lamps and a coffee table with a glass candy bowl that was always empty. The linoleum on the floor was worn through to the tar with scrubbing, the pine-plank flooring around the edges bleached white. A framed picture of
Jesus at the
hung on the wall above the sofa. If you moved to one side, the picture shimmied and turned into a picture of
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
His mom got up and started for the kitchen. “I’ll fix us some iced tea.”
“Vera, thanks, but I can’t stay. I gotta get on inta town for jury duty. Russell, he’s over in the field trying to pull the flywheel off that old John Deere, and Burl is off dove hunting with some boys. I didn’t want to leave Darlene by herself, so I was wondering if you might keep her for me till I get back.”
“Why, of course. You know that. You sure you don’t have time for a glass of tea?”
Mrs. Delaney looked at her watch. “I better be getting on up yonder. You know how they are about being on time.”
“Well, don’t you worry about Darlene. She and Harley, they get along real good. The girls, they’ll be home soon, too.”
“Darlene,” Mrs. Delaney said, “don’t you be no trouble now.”
HARLEY SAT WITH
Darlene at the table in the eat-in kitchen, the two of them drinking iced tea, eating peanut butter cookies, hardly looking at each other while his mother ironed clothes in the living room before the fan.
Harley finished and put his glass in the dishpan. “We’re going outside,” he called to his mom.
“It’s awfully hot out there.”
Harley went out and held the screen door for Darlene, but she ignored him and went back into the living room with his mother. He let the door slam, then picked up the cigar box with the horny toad from the step and went out and sat on an upended bucket in the shade of the chinaberry tree alongside the windmill, one eye on the back door.
Darlene pushed it open and sauntered out toward him, head cocked aside, one hand on her hip. “Whatcha got in that box?”
“A horny toad. I been drawing ’im. You wanna see?”
She made a face. “Yuck. Why would you draw a ugly thing like that?”
“’Cause. It’s interesting.”
“No real artist would draw a dumb thing like that.”
“Real artists draw any damn thing they want to,” he said, feeling a little thrill, cursing in front of Darlene, talking back. For good measure, he flipped the lid up and pushed the box at her, the horny toad trying to scratch out over the rim.
Darlene stumbled backward. “Harley Jay Buchanan! You dumb shitass!”
He laughed. “What, you scared of him?”
She flashed him a defiant look and at the same time her hand whipped out and snatched the horny toad from the box. She held it at arm’s length, its bowed legs clawing the air between her white knuckles.
Harley took a step back. “You crazy? That toad’ll spit blood in your eye and make you blind!”
Her mouth twisted down at the corners. “You dumb sissy coward,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Gimme back that damn toad!”
“Try and get it!” She yanked the toad in close and swung around, her back to him.
He plowed into her, locked his arms around her, and they slammed to the ground with a thumping grunt. Darlene rolled away and hunched her shoulders against him, cupping the toad in both hands between her thighs. He got one arm around her neck, then reached up between her legs from behind and tried to pry her hands loose. She jerked up stiff and he realized he was touching her privates. The image of her in the cotton field, her pants dropped, popped into his mind.
In the same moment, she turned and slapped the toad against his face. A hairline of red shot from the toad and spotted the end of his nose. Darlene stared, then wriggle-scooted back in desperation, frantically flinging that toad out into the broom weeds.
Harley stared cross-eyed at the little red splotch on his nose.
“You gonna be blind…” Darlene whispered, big eyed, pale.
Carefully, he took off his shirt and wiped the spot from his nose. “See,” he said, voice quavering, “it ain’t nothin’ about a poison toad to be scared of, not if you’re as fast as I am and can get your eyes out of the way in time.”
Darlene collected herself, crossed her arms, defiant. “You done ruint my brother’s shirt.”
He stared at the short-sleeved seersucker shirt wadded in his hand. “What…?”
“That’s Burl’s shirt.”
As much as he liked Darlene, he disliked her older brother, Burl. Burl picked on the little kids, and once he shoved Delmer Fry down in a ditch on the edge of the school ground and Delmer couldn’t get out. Delmer was retarded and spent all his lunch money on bubble gum.
“Mama give it to you ’cause Burl outgrowed it. Now you done ruint it with toad blood.”
Harley stared at the shirt, then slammed it in the dirt and stomped it. He snatched it up and tried to rip it in half, jerked it first one way, then another, but it refused to tear and he slammed it down and stomped it again. He stormed over the ground, searching among the broom weeds. “Where’s that dang toad!”
They saw it at the same time. Darlene tried to step on it, but he shoved her with his hip, snatched it up and held it over his head.
“See?” he said, breathless. “I ain’t scared a nothin’.”
“Oh, yeah? Then why don’t you stick him in your face if you’re so brave.”
He took a breath and lowered the toad, face-to-face with its spiked head, its tiny eyes. The toad swelled and paddled the air with its scaly legs. Harley went weak, heart thumping in his chest—if he was blind he could never be an artist.
In the same instant, Darlene grabbed his wrist with both hands and dropped her weight on it. “Gimme that toad!” She yanked his hand down level with her own face and held tight, squinting against the toad’s open mouth, its neck swelling, heaving. “Admit it. I’m braver than you,” she said, so low and raspy he barely heard.