Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Biggity - a short story for adults, based on a true event

Biggity  - DRAFT i.e., revision #3

The 1939 community 20 miles outside Nome, Missouri was a rugged place for a family of nine.  Eli strong-armed the 80 acres into production. Cora and the kids did their fair share.  Toddlers could help pick up potatoes—or rocks from a new field, and a seven-year old could milk a cow or butcher a chicken. 
By banker’s standards, they were poor.  Even so, they were better off than many because the kids had clothes for school and church— threadbare and patched, but clean.  “You don’t have to be rich to be clean,” Cora would say as she built up a weekly outdoor fire to boil clothes, scrub with lye soap, and  then rinse in a cold water tin washtub summer or winter, hands burned red from exposure.    
When Grace, the youngest, asked for a brush for the scraggly little dog that appeared in their yard a couple mornings back, Cora, who rarely raised her voice, sputtered, “A brush for that dog?  Don’t be foolish, girl.  Go along now and gather some lettuce from the garden so we can have a mess of wilted greens for supper tonight.” 
“But, Momma.  His tangly coat bothers him.  I want to help him.  He likes it when I tend to him.”
Cora sighed.  “I’m sorry, Grace, but I don’t have a brush for a dog.  And I need your help.”  She softened her voice and smiled.  “Go get the lettuce now.”
“Yes, Momma.”
Cora scrubbed harder on last night’s potato soup pot.  It’s a throwaway dog.  Likely dumped by someone from town.  Too small for a farm dog and no sense about herding cows. Cute little thing, though.  She gave the pot a vicious swipe. The idea that someone would think that a 1939 farm family would have food to spare for a useless dog!  
Nine-year-old Grace pushed the scraggly dog in an old baby buggy.  The screechy buggy wheels—rubber long gone, went by the kitchen window.
 “Come along Biggity.  You can watch while I pick Momma’s lettuce.”
She’s talkin’ to the ragamuffin dog sittin’ in that old baby buggy as if the world were an easy place. 
Cora suspected Grace gave the dog part of her breakfast biscuit— she, pencil-thin from whooping cough the past winter.  They didn’t need this dog.  Old Jack helped with the cattle so earned his living.  Not this—thing, this burdensome dog.  Cora gritted her teeth, not feeling good about what was bound to happen. 
Eli’s not likin’ how Grace is babying that dog.  But it’s cute, her pushin’ that little thing in the buggy. I might get a picture of her and the dog when her grandmother comes by Sunday next.
The older kids were now coming to the pump in the yard and washing up from morning farm chores. Cora smiled.  Seven kids, stair steps— each different, yet similar when they smiled with their eyes.  She called out the window, “Time for school.”
The kids giggled and jostled into the house, grabbed lunch pails and headed out.  They had to pass her inspection, and she spit-bathed a spot or two on one or the other boys’ cheeks.
“Mind your teacher!”
“Yes, ma’am.”  Lincoln bellowed over the others’ mumbled assents with a crooked smile and a black-Irish glint in his navy blue eyes.
Cora now cried silently in her tiny lean-to kitchen, as she washed breakfast dishes, hurting for her children who did not understand this life that required so many sacrifices.  She used her dry forearm to brush two loose curls out of her face and back toward the braided coronet of grey-specked coal black hair. Outside her window she could see the kids walking through the south field to the stile. They would have two more fields to cross before gaining their one-room school.  Howard was dragging his heels, last in line today.  He’d begged for an extra biscuit that morning to give to a boy who brought no lunch to school and was so thin and tired he couldn’t play ball at recess. Cora figured that Howard shared his own biscuit and fried egg sandwich with his friend, even though she told him not to.  
“Landsake, Howard,” she had said that morning.  “I can barely make enough biscuits for my own kids.  I’m sorry, but there isn’t enough for someone else’s kids!” 
Howard had picked up his tin lunch pail, an empty lard bucket, head hanging and shoulders slumped.  He’d said no more.
I probably sounded cross. He’s tryin’ to be charitable. Doesn’t understand The Great Depression. The times.  
So now Cora cried silently, kids out of sight as she washed breakfast dishes in one tin dishpan and rinse-scalded in another with water from the kettle kept perpetually hot on the wood cook stove.  She thought of the look on Grace’s face as she told the scruffy little stray that she had to go to school but would see him later that day.  Biggity.  How’d she come up with that? Talking as if it could understand.  That child is gonna have to learn to be tougher-natured or life will be a constant sorrow. 
Cora took the dishwater out to the potato patch, rinsed the pan at the well and put it aside to air dry.  She picked up a hoe and chopped weeds as she sang, “Bea-u-ti-fyl I-i-isle of Some-mm-where.”
As Cora got the kids off to school, Eli finished barn chores.  He checked that the kids had thoroughly washed the milk separator.  Satisfied, he picked up his single-shot .22 rifle and put one shell in his shirt pocket.  The single-shot rifle was all he ever needed whether hunting squirrel or shooting a rabid skunk.  There was no money for wasted bullets and he’d gotten a slap from his Dad when he missed.  He did the same with his own boys. But today, he would have to sacrifice a bullet to settle a problem.  He loved Grace dearly, their last and sweetest child.  Everyone loved Grace.  But she was too thin.  Couldn’t be sharing her food with the mutt that she babied as though it were a human child.
Eli got a piece of rope and made a leash.  He caught the stray dog that Grace called “Biggity” and led him into the woods north of the house, opposite the kids’ school path.
After hoeing the garden, Cora turned toward the chicken brooder house for her next chore.  She saw Eli leading the scruffy little dog into the woods and clamped her jaw.  “Well, it’s over. Grace will cry, but not for long. She’ll survive this and more.”
Cora couldn’t bear the thought of losing another person and she’d feared for Grace’s life more than once during the whoopin’ cough episode.  She had already lost twin daughters, stillborn at birth and her first-born son at age six years, her sweet-natured, smart little Lyle.  Lyle died of typhoid, two weeks after his daddy, her first husband, died of the same.  They’d been sloppy with washing the cream separator while Grace stayed with her sister, Hannah during her first birthin.’ 
Cora flinched when she heard the rifle shot, then went inside the brooder house to sounds of baby chicks’ “peep, peep, cheep, peep, cheep.”
“T’mere, babies, dinky dink.”  Cora put fresh water and corn meal out for the babes and picked one up to let it cozy in her cupped hands next to her ear.  The peep-cheeping grew softer and the baby nuzzled her hair.  She held herself quiet for several precious moments, then put it down and talked more baby talk to the chicks.  Aware of time passing and chores undone, she went to the hen house and threw corn into their pen. “Heeeere chick chick.  Chiiiick chick chick!”  The hens jostled for position, elbowing each other for the best corn bites, and Cora watched to see that none got injured in the melee.  She scattered the corn tosses so that the spread of golden kernels eased the crowd to the fringes and lessened the competition.  Satisfied, Cora returned to the yard and the smoke house with its basement store of canned goods.  She made herself focus on dinner and supper plans.  I’ll fry Eli some salt pork and - and boil the last of the potatoes.  Supper’ll be cornbread, milk and some fatback. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have new potatoes…
When the kids came home from school that afternoon, Cora took Grace aside and tried to explain they couldn’t afford to feed a dog that didn’t know how to hunt its own food.  She saw Grace’s chin start trembling and when she dug fists into her eyes, Cora admonished, “And don’t you take to cryin.’  Your dad feels bad enough, doin’ what had to be done.  Doin’ what those town people was too cowardly to do when they dumped that dog on us.  Now, go get your slate and practice your numbers.”
At bedtime, Grace was nowhere to be found.  Cora panicked, wringing her hands and muttering “Oh law, oh law.”  Eli frowned and started toward the door. Howard intervened.
“Let me take a lantern, Ma.  Pa.  I think I know where she is.”
Howard found Grace sitting by the body of Biggity.  She was sobbing and saying the Lord’s prayer.  When she saw her older brother, she wiped her nose on her sleeve, quietly got up and took the hand he offered.  They walked hand-in-hand back to the house and to bed.  


Anonymous said...

Joyce, a harshly realistic story about a harsh time. Biggity brings back many memories from childhood. Especially for those who have lived through similar times in their lives.The soft innocense coupled with the starkness of reality is very powerful.

JC Ragland said...

and thanks to pfriend pFred who said on Joyce's fb page, "good story!"

Kate said...

Joyce - I remember reading this! Of course it would attract a good agent....and I'll bet any of your homespun stories will be just as strong. Keep 'em coming.