by Sean Taylor
The breeze that blew the dust around seemed to whisper rumors that a storm was on its way. I'd only swept off about half of the porch, and I wasn't even close to being finished yet; after the porch came the back storage room. Since I was just a few feet away the from the open doorway, I could hear Pa whistling, but the wall hid him from me. He'd done a lot of counting in there all week.
Big Bull stood silently on the porch, and watched intently as I worked. His stare never left. Never turned. Never stopped. It was as eternal as the thin flat frown the woodworker had given him. He had skin like rust mixed with mud, and his outfit was a rainbow montage of feathers and animal skins. The man who made him was an Indian too.
Three years ago, Pa had finally bought that store he'd always dreamed of owning. Nettle's General Store was to Pa the culmination of years of hopes, and the end of the elusive vision that never materialized, yet had continued to tease him me mercilessly. Most of his time, free or otherwise, was spent in that store. Neither my mother, sister, nor I saw much of him after that, except sometimes for supper. Meticulously he'd walk each aisle of the small store and stoop to check every bin of merchandise, neglecting nothing at all. Every yarn or straw doll, knitted scarf, Mr. Goodbar, everything was accounted for and inventoried.
Dust flew and danced around me in the breeze while I swept. Every few minutes, whenever his counting brought him to where he could see me out front, Pa would yell out to me to get on with it, or to tell me that I missed a spot. He wasn't a big man, but he had a big voice. Most of the time he just kept to himself, staying busy with his inventory list.
"Hey, Pa! You need any help counting them yarn dolls?" I yelled, hoping my words would sneak around the doorway to get his attention. "Miss Barnes says my adding's about the best in the whole class." I gave him a few seconds to show. "Hey, Pa! "
"What you yelling about now, Midge?" Midge was the nickname given to me by most of the other kids at the schoolhouse. Short for midget, it never let me forget that I was less, at least in stature, than my peers. It was the only name by which most folks in town knew me. "Say, you ain't done with this porch yet? Dang, son. . .Quit fooling around with that Indian, and finish the porch."
The wind played tag with the dust, and kept me sweeping twice as much as I should've just to get done. When I did finish, I gave my broom to Big Bull, leaning it beside his spear. He was surely a sight, that proud warrior, carrying a war spear firm and ready to fight, and there propped up was against him a ramshackle excuse for a broom. If only a real heart beat underneath that chest of oak, it would've burst wide open of humiliation.
"So. . .Who are we gonna get after today, Big Bull? Billy the Kid?"
Indian eyes gazed straight ahead, seeming to point visibly at a victim for the day. Up main street, like the naked emperor in that Hans Christian Anderson story, walked Kyle Lovett.
"Good idea. . ." I told Big Bull, "Good idea. . ."
* * * * *
"Hey Mee-uhge," Kyle teased, dragging the nickname into two syllables, "You and your Indian chased any rustlers out of town today?"
Kyle stopped in the middle of the street to make sure I didn't ignore the remark. He looked different than usual. Clean. Dressed in his Sunday suit. Even his brown, mangled hair was combed. He didn't look like the same Kyle who had bloodied my nose two years ago.
I knew it was stupid to provoke him again, but I couldn't help it. Besides, Big Bull was with me. "Kyle? Hey, Kyle? What you all dressed up for? Today ain't Sunday, and there ain't a funeral in town or nothing."
"Look here, Midge," he shook a fist at me, "What I wear is my own business, not yours, runt."
That was the Kyle I was used to, no matter how he looked. That was the bully who had been responsible for getting me and Big Bull together in the first place. When he had pounded my nose, Pa had been busy in the back of the store, and my mother had been up visiting my aunt and uncle in Missouri, so where else had I to go but to the Indian? He didn't tell me to hush up my racket, or that I was too big to cry. He had just listened and let me wet his feet and legs with my tears and the blood from my nose. By the time I'd finished, the swelling had gone down, and most of the bruises weren't sore anymore. Pa had sure been mad though; the blood wouldn't wash out, so my shirt had been pretty much ruined, and it was a gift from my cousins.
"I just wanted to know. Didn't mean to make nothing of it."
"Well, it ain't none of your business anyhow. . .but if go telling everybody, I'll get you like last time." Satisfied, he spun around, facing away from the big Windham house at the edge of Chattville, and strutted off like the only rooster in a house full of hens.
* * * * *
Sometimes Big Bull and I would pass the afternoon hoping for a new General Motors' car to drive by. Most people who owned a car had an older Model T from ten or twelve years ago. The Windhams owned the only General Motors' vehicle in town, but they only got it out when they went out to another town. Mostly everybody walked since Chattville was so small.
Before Kyle's dust could get a chance to settle, Molly Windham came skipping up the street, her red hair pulled off to the sides of her head in pigtails, each one bouncing without rhythm, beating softly on her neck.
"That you, Midge?"
Molly was fourteen, three and a half years older than I was, but it didn't matter much. Especially standing there in her green party dress, made up like she was grown, not just a girl.
She bounced right up to the porch, grinning like the cat from Wonderland.
"Midge. . ."
"I just got the best news in the world." Her lips were painted with bright red; they were two roses, growing on her face. "And I'm so excited I feel like kissing somebody."
And she did. Molly Windham leaned over and stuck her two roses right on my forehead, and puckered like a fish.
I thought the stars had fallen from heaven, and were dancing around me.
While the stars danced, Molly twirled off the porch, and straight over to the dress-maker's shop. She jangled the bell beside his door a few times, spinning and jangling, jangling and spinning, until Sam Miller finally came out and yelled something I couldn't make out before pulling her inside. The echo from the bell drifted toward me and Big Bull.
"Did you see that!?"
The Indian didn't answer, but I knew he was listening, and that he hadn't missed any of it.
"Pa. . .Pa. . .Guess what!"
* * * * *
"You done with that porch yet?" Pa had come out to the screen door, tapping his pencil hard against that list of his. "There's plenty more sweeping to be done inside."
"Pa. . ."
He slipped his pencil into the front pocket of his work apron, and pulled his watch and chain from out of his pocket. As he flipped it open, he nodded, "Now, don't 'Pa' me. You know it takes a lot of work to keep this place going. That means all of us."
"But Lucy doesn't have to."
"Your sister's busy enough taking care of your mother. She don't have the time."
"But. . ."
Pa was starting to get mad. His eyes narrowed like an Oriental man, and his ears began to turn a little red under where his hair was cut. "No excuses. First the back room, where the feed is. After that, we'll see about letting you play some more with that Indian."
He held the screen door open until I got the broom and drudged inside, dragging it with me. His eyes didn't leave me until the door to the back room slammed shut behind me. I know. I peeked back out as he turned.
* * * * *
My wooden friend waited patiently while I swept out the back room. He hadn't changed a single expression while I'd been gone. Just like always. He was there waiting.
"How much do you think flowers cost, Big Bull?"
I kept watching for Molly to leave Sam Miller's shop. After a while nobody went in or came out anymore, but there was still no sign of Molly.
"Special flowers, I mean. Something better than I could pick out of somebody's yard."
Directly, Sam left the shop too, and locked the door behind him. He left two empty buckets outside the shop's door like he always did, just in case anybody needed to borrow one late in the day. His brown suit pulled tight over his round frame making him look like a sausage with a lump in the middle.
"What kind of flowers do girls like now, anyway? They're always so hard to please. That's what Pa says. He ought to know. . .he's known my mother a long time and all."
Sam had to walk down by the store to get to his house, and as he waddled by, I waved to him and said hello.
"Well, if it ain't little Midge. Say, you got you a girl for the dance next month? Surely your Pa and. . ." He made a face like he'd swallowed a horse. "Surely he's gonna let you and your sister get out to it."
"We ain't so good at dancing, Mr. Miller."
"I ain't so good myself. . ." he said, and he was right. Round men who bounce when they walk looked twice as silly dancing. Even though he waltzed like a bag of potatoes, he always went. The girls said he made the best dancing gowns in the state. "But I wouldn't miss seeing all the pretty girls in their new dresses I've made for them. Just today Molly Windham ordered one of the most difficult gowns I've ever had to put together. Old Man Windham said not to worry about how much it costs. It's a dress-maker's dream, Midge."
"What color is it, Mr. Miller?"
"Color? It ain't just any color, Midge. I've gotta order the cloth clean out of St. Louis."
"They got different colors in St. Louis than here in Chattville?"
"No. Now don't fool with an old man's funny bone. It's red, except it's the same color red as Molly's hair, lighter in spots, and shiny when the sun hits it right." Sam pulled on a gold chain that disappeared into the fold-over of flesh and suit where his pocket should have been. Out flopped a gold pocketwatch. He opened it. "Mrs. Miller will be wondering were I am soon. Hope you get to go."
I waved goodbye, and then when he was gone. "Roses. Red roses. The reddest we can find."
I knew Big Bull approved.
* * * * *
Pa said no when I asked him about the flowers. I told him I'd work harder, and even stay away from the gumballs, but he still said no. That he was spending too much on the store already, and with my mother's fever still not breaking, even though it had been two weeks. . .
* * * * *
The wind was picking up, turning a calm kiss-like breeze into a cold slap. Some papers announcing the dance floated across town in short hops, then flew on, bullet-like, when the stronger drafts got a hold of them.
The porch was warm underneath my weight, but when I touched it in a new place the wood was cold. The moisture on my hands would chill and then thaw in a fluid motion. I looked back at Big Bull.
"Sure was nice of old Joe to let me work for the flowers."
I held the two flowers, roses, red as Molly's fiery hair and the lips that had kissed me. They had cost me every cent I had plus a promise to work down at Old Joe's flower shop once a week when I wasn't helping Pa at the store. It was a high price, but worth it to see the look I knew would be on Molly's face when I asked her to the dance.
It had seemed like hours until dusk came. Now that it was here, I could hardly wait. But the timing had to be perfect. I had to show up right after the dishes were put away. If I arrived early, the surprise would get lost in the clean-up shuffle; if I was too late, the effect would be interrupted by the family time around the radio listening to Amos and Andy.
"Wish me luck," I said, and dashed from the porch.
Roses firmly in hand, I hurried down to the house at the edge of Chattville where Molly and her father lived (Her mother had died of tuberculosis when Molly was a baby). I could think only of my dream, my vision, waiting for me there in her red party dress, the fringes dancing in the evening breeze. My heart seemed not only to beat, but to pound with a steady, driving, big jazz rhythm like Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong was directing its music. Time hardly passed at all, it seemed before I was there, suddenly staring at the heavy oak door.
Mr. Windham answered the door quickly after my small closed hand gathered the resolve to knock. His herringbone suit hung comfortably loose off of his tall thin frame. When he recognized me, his small mustache twitched and his eyes focused down onto mine.
"Why Midge, what a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?"
"Is Molly in, sir? I'd sure like to see her. I've got something for her."
"Sure she is. Right in the den with. . ."
Kyle Lovett. Mr. Windham didn't have to say it. I knew it the minute I walked in. He was sitting on the couch with Molly, holding her hand. How could she!? Didn't she know what he was like? Kyle Lovett.
The roses were trampled underfoot as I choked on the anger rising in my throat, and ran away to Pa, dragging a cracked and tender heart behind me.
* * * * *
"Pa! Pa!" I pounded at the door with my small fists, knowing he would be locked away in the back office, listening to the clickety-clacks of the adding machine.
The sky had blackened while I had left Molly's, and had given its first few drops to warn me that a big storm was coming. Rumbles sounded in the distance, but grew a little louder each time. If I'd had sense enough, I'd have let the winds blow me straight up the street to my house, safe from the weather.
"Pa! Please let me in. There's a storm coming, Pa. Pa!"
As if it had waited for my announcement, the thunder and rain let loose on the earth like God was trying to punish us the way the Pastor down at the Missionary Church had said. The rain began to pelt down, soaking the dirt of the road, and beating it into a shallow layer of mud almost instantly. The papers that had been blown all over town were drenched and wrenched apart by the combined power of the wind and water.
Across the street was the wall of clay we all climbed on in the summer. At least we tried to climb it. It went about sixteen feet straight up, smooth as a polished stone. The only way to make it to the top was to take two pocket knives, and edge your way up, one jab at a time. Only the oldest and strongest boys ever made it all the way. The rest of us could hardly even stick the knives in the wall, since the clay was so hard and set.
Only, the storm washed it down to sixteen feet of mush pretty quickly. Anyone who tried to climb it now would probably drown in the river of wet clay eroding down the face of the wall.
The wind lifted Sam Miller's two buckets, and sent one through the candy store window, and the other into the outside wall, where it dented and fell, waiting for another flight.
Although the porch kept me safe from most of the wind, it offered me no protection from the worst of the storm. The rain invaded in solid bullets of water, spreading out and joining together to make lakes and reservoirs that ran down between the cracks, only to be replaced by the new puddles that continued to build.
"Pa!" I yelled, but the thunder swallowed my cries. Big Bull stood firm. Since he was so heavy, the wind couldn't shake him, not even a quiver. The rain soaked into the wood, but that only made him heavier, more secure. It also darkened the colors, and brought him closer to life.
Through the curtain of water, I saw every cut, every strain of artistry on Big Bull's frame. In each carefully carved inch of his face, pain rested. His eyes were deep- set and sunken a little in sorrow, but somehow friendly in their darkness. The mouth was closed in an eternal silence, and the wrinkled carvings surrounding the flattened frown revealed a subdued bitterness that flamed, no doubt, beneath the painted exterior. Though he held only a single spear, his muscles were tensed and rigid, ready to answer the call to fight, eager. Big Bull captured well not only the hurt and anger of his people, but their strength as well.
So I hid from the storm.
The Indian's figure kept me dry for the most part. Patches of rain managed every now and then to sneak around his legs and hit me, but I was separated from the worst part of the weather.
In time, the fury of the storm faded away. Its terrible threats and banshee screams died into quiet darkness. The sun had abandoned its post during the attack, leaving Chattville lighted only by the incandescent glow of random windows. Sleep, like a desire for death, found me, and I curled around Big Bull's wooden feet.
* * * * *
"Midge. . .Midge. . .Get up. You'll catch a death of cold out here."
The blackness lifted from behind my mind and eyes, and I saw Pa trying to help me up.
"Pa. . ."
"Yeah, it's me. What were you doing out here in the middle of that storm anyway? I thought you were home with your mother and sister."
I didn't answer. Instead, I reached for the handle of Big Bull's spear, and used it to pull my worn-out body to a sluggish stance. Pa immediately reached out to keep me from falling again to the porch, but the spear supported me well enough.
"Let's get you inside. I've got some hot cider going if you want some. It'll sure help warm up your inards."
I felt Pa's overcoat as it was put around me to keep me from shivering. I expected it to engulf me, but it barely spread across my shoulders. He was a much smaller man than I had imagined.
©1992 Sean Taylor