A tar blister, black and shiny, bloomed from the wooden crevice of a joint in the short bridge, close to Aran’s right foot. The glister of sun on the tar caught his eye. Aran shifted his sneaker away. His grandmother would not want the tar in the house.
The bridge, lengths of wood as thick as railroad ties and darkened with creosote, joined the rusted bones of an iron trestle that crossed the wider gully of the creek more than the creek itself–spanning the red gouge and the dark run of clear water, and a lush verge of vine and brush between a corn field and a pasture.
He whispered, “Aw, shoot!” his voice muffled by the dense quiet and his breath smothered by the sun. Everything had changed. Nothing ever stayed the same long enough.
Elbows planted on top of the warmed metal of the side rail, Aran stood in partial collapse at the middle of the bridge, his palms clasped to each cheek as he stared down into the gully and studied the ruin of his plan. A single large rock, black at the center like an eye, stared back at him from the sand.
The last time he had been here, a year and a half before, it was winter and the sand in the bed of the creek had been broadly spread in a swath of reds and yellows and oranges above and behind a natural basket of rocks and several boulders where the water swirled through a narrowing gap. Behind the boulders, the creek had meandered from side to side over a narrowing plain sunken between embankments of raw earth so red it appeared artificial. Now the weeds and briar and honeysuckle had taken the sides in, enveloping the banks and overhanging the water in most places, leaving few breaches for him to approach.
His Grandfather had told him, “Right there on that big rock is where your mama used to swim with Jesse and Susie and Dinah too. It was deeper in those days. There was a wood lot to the far side and not so much sand. Your aunt Susie would never keep her clothes on when there was water near.”
The old man laughed with the memory.
Aran had pictured his mother sitting on the big rock at the middle of the flow and directing her sisters in the same way she had always directed him.
He had been here most of the summers of his life, but only that one winter during the second grade. It was a year his father had changed jobs again and they had been forced to move from their small house in Westbury, Long Island. For a time, with no other home in New York, his mother had taken them south to stay with her parents on their little farm near Spartanburg. It was a dark year, remembered in grays and browns in his mind except for this one place.
The following summer they did not come. The old car had not been up to the trip, he was told.
But that one winter he had spent here, while he was in the second grade, he had made his plan over and again for the warmer weather, each time he had passed this way from school. It was the longer way from school, but the way to avoid other things, like the Perry boys. He was still a ‘Yankee boy,’ after all. But then, by the time warmer weather did arrive, his father had found another job and rented a new apartment for them back in New York. In the months since then, Aran had continued to dream of this place and what he would do when he got the chance.
Only the night before they had finally arrived at his Grandparent’s farm for the summer once again. It was too late for supper then, but not for blackberry pie and ice cream. Blackberries were thick this year and he had promised to help his grandmother pick more, but that could be tomorrow. And for now, a Sunday dinner of fried chicken and gravy and biscuits, all of it cooked the day before so that his Grandmother could stay at church until noon, filled his stomach–and he had taken two more biscuits in a small sack and stuffed them into his pocket for a snack.
A car passed over the heavy boards close behind him, causing scraps of the cooler morning air that lingered beneath the bridge to lap at his bare legs, teasing him.
What would he do? Disappointment locked his brain.
After dinner, his grandma had ordered him, “You stay out of the house, now,” as he had snatched the extra biscuits.
He had no other idea.
The sun ran like hot liquid in his short-cut hair as the air continued to thicken around him. He studied the situation with a sense of urgency not visible in the stillness of the place below. The creek ran silent and undisturbed there in its dark channel.
Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and there would be fireworks and other things to do. With the mills closed, his relatives would come. There would be cousins to play with. His grandfather had already asked Aran to go out with him in the truck on Tuesday. It would be his first chance at that. He would be his grandpa’s helper then for the rest of the summer, scrambling about at the back of the truck between the high wood gates and in beneath the canvas tarp to get this or that for the customers. More than anything, he had always wanted to do that. He had been too young for the job before and he had looked forward to it even more than coming here to the creek to play. And he might not have time to come here again for days.
Aran’s eyes wandered back to his own shadow against the orange sand just below. Dragonflies—what his cousins called ‘snake doctors’–floated on the still air, testing the edges of Aran’s shadow on jeweled wings. The drone of insects in the undergrowth blended into the silence. The corn stood at attention, soldier like, without a word of rustling in the leaves, watching him. Waiting for orders. No small breezes pushed at the upper reaches of the scraggle of trees on the pasture side.
“Shoot!” he said again, just to hear his own voice.
At one side, the weedy interlopers closing on both banks of the creek had been cut down a bit from the edge of the pasture to make them less tempting to the white-faced Herefords. Aran could see the shapes of the cattle laying in the shade of larger trees higher on the rise toward the railroad tracks. His original scheme had included less of that side because of the cattle. But they were kept back there from the gully by an electric fence. The weeds beneath that rise were not as intimidating.
There was no good in waiting.
First, he needed a stick. The longer the better. He settled on a discarded length of splintered post from several left near where they been replaced in the cattle fence. With this he climbed down toward the creek on the pasture side and began to batter the weeds. Some of these, sumac and sassafras, were nearly as tall as himself. The raw smell of shattered stems flavored the air. The quieting of the insects made the sounds of his attack all the more fierce. Within minutes sweat had fastened his shirt to his body. He took his shirt off. Chaff from the weeds and taller grass attached to his pale skin. By the time he broke through to the dry sand bed at the edge of the creek he was ready for his first swim.
He pulled his sneakers off without untying them and waded in. The cold of the water straightened his back, but didn’t halt his plunge.
It was more of a wallow. The creek was not yet deep enough. There was no breadth for even a shallow dive. But then, this was the whole point of his plan.
After a moment he sat again in the sun at the edge of the sandy bank, with his legs wide in the flow of a gentle current, and reconsidered.
A car passed on the bridge, clapping the boards together enough to stir the cooler air beneath and an invisible edge of this touched him before dissolving, like a ghost. As he imagined a ghost would be. Aran shivered in the heat and stared into the shadows there. Waspy mud daubers had decorated the underside of the metal trusses in crusty nests.
The sun braised his head and back. Hot again, he shifted his place to a shadow from the bridge and restudied his project once more. He would need to wade into the cluster of rocks at the center and lift them up toward the boulders. This thought of wading suddenly jerked his mind into awareness and he rammed his hand into his pocket. The paper sack was limp and wet and tore as he removed it. He peeled back a portion and exposed his waterlogged biscuits. The loss felt tragic. He loved his grandmother’s biscuits. His frustration welled from his throat into a loud “Yow…”
The shadow from the bridge suddenly moved and Aran looked up. Even in the blinding glare he could see a smile of white teeth.
The black boy there quickly closed his lips over his smile, but this raised both eyebrows with the effort to conceal his amusement.
Aran said “Hey.”
The other boy lifted one hand from the rail in the gesture of a partial wave but said nothing.
They stared at each other for perhaps half a minute Aran wondering at the other boy’s silence, and then at where he might have come from, and then at whether he was terribly hot up there in the sun. The boy had no shirt. Aran was sure he wore no shoes, though this was not immediately visible from below. Knobby knees, reddened by a blush of dirt, peeked from beneath khaki shorts.
Aran said, “Watch out for the tar. It won’t come off.”
The boy looked directly down and shifted his body. Aran saw one bare foot lift gingerly. Still the other boy said nothing.
Aran said, “It’s cooler down here. By a little, anyhow.”
The boy said, “I know it,” and nothing more.
Finally, with nothing else to say, Aran turned back resetting his plan. He could use some help, but there was no asking if the boy had no interest.
Slowly he began to move the rocks most easily handled, one after the other. At his lower angle, the natural gathering of these at the middle was barely visible through the glare off the surface of the water and he was forced to feel the way with his hands, making the grasp of each piece a small adventure. Crawfish scooted at his feet. Snake doctors and mud daubers visited when both his hands were occupied, making him flinch.
In past summers he had spent many hours with his grandfather fishing for crappies and catfish in the larger waters at Boyd’s Old Mill where the jungle spread wide between the old road and the dam. He had peppered his grandfather then with questions, out of fear of snakes and scorpions. But Aran knew of no real dangers lurking beneath the surface here. Not even a big catfish. And he believed that water moccasins were unlikely in such a small creek, perhaps because he had heard it said or because his own mother had once swum here. The minnows and other fish were too small. Frogs were the largest beasts he might see. Still, pulling at the edges of the stone beneath the water was a mysterious sort of blind exploration with his fingers as his eyes probed the leafy edges of the creek.
When one rock slipped from his grasp as he raised it, splashing back at him, Aran looked up for a smile but the black boy was gone.
In an hour, with breaks for reconsiderations and imaginings of what it would be like when he was done, he had a solid curve of rocks from one side of a narrowing gap between the banks. Perhaps six feet. Nine of his own feet as he carefully stepped the distance off placing one foot before the other beneath the shallowed spread of water. He had the mental image of it, with the arced strength of the Hoover Dam, just the way it appeared in a volume of The Book Of Knowledge. Creation of this bow required the shifting of much more sand and many more rocks than a straight line would have taken, but he already felt a greater satisfaction in looking at the better design of his accomplishment. Even so, his work had hardly affected the flow of water.
It was while admiring his marvelous creation of rocks, and imagining what it soon would be, that he glanced up toward the pasture. In the shade of the one small tree at the edge there, he saw the black boy again, sitting. The boy dipped his head in a nod. He was now gripping the rolled end of a small paper sack in one hand.
Aran squinted in the sun. There was no way to know what was in the sack.
Aran spoke. “Still cooler down here.”
Teeth flashed briefly. The boy gave another nod, but sat a moment longer as if snagged by some uncertainty, before rising to move down the slope through the opening Aran had made. He stopped at the bottom to eye Aran across the swath of dry sand. His head tilted to one side, clearly unsure of what he might do next.
They were nearly both the same height. Both were thin all the way to the boney angles of their elbows and knees. With their bodies bare except for their shorts, the difference in their skin color seemed at once both exaggerated and less important. The other boy was more black than brown, and his hair was cut short to his scalp. Aran’s white skin was burned more red than tan by his few chances in the sun since school had ended two weeks before.
Aran stuck a hand out, his arm awkwardly stiff. “My name is Aran.”
The other boy said, “Taylor,” and shook Aran’s hand twice in a definitive manner before pulling the hand away again and spreading his fingers at his side apprehensively. Aran felt the formality of the introduction. This was not a common event. He would often play with kids for hours without ever knowing their names. But this was somehow different. He wasn’t sure why.
Taylor ran his eyes over the area around them in an overstated survey of the situation. Aran looked the territory over again himself for the hundredth time.
Taylor said, “What ’cho workin’ at?”
Aran shrugged. “Makin’ a dam.”
“Gonna make a swimmin’ hole.”
Taylor frowned. “Why’in ‘cha jus’ go to that pool over at Arcadia?”
Aran shrugged. “Cause.”
Aran raised his shoulders even higher at the question in another shrug. The real answer was not so easy to tell. He said what came to mind.
“My gran’pa says my momma used to swim over here when she was a girl.”
Taylor tilted his head to the side once more with a short consideration of this. He said, “Who’s your gran’pa?”
“Your gran’pa ol’ Joe?”
“I know him.”
Aran was about to say that everyone knew Joe Burke, but held it back as an unnecessary statement of the obvious. Joe Burke peddled fresh produce from the back of his truck all over that side of Spartanburg, from Una to Lyman. Instead, Aran turned to his handiwork.
“I’m gonna build a Hoover dam,” and pointed at the simple arc of stones beneath the water.
“What’s a ‘Hoover’ dam?”
“Like that,” Aran held the tips of his finger together with his palms curved in a demonstration. “It’s bowed. It’s stronger that way.”
Taylor studied the placement of the stones. When his eyes slipped further over to the wad of damp refuse Aran had thrown by the cut path, Taylor held up his own sack.
This was a questionable surprise. Aran’s grandmother made the best biscuits on the face of the earth, as everyone knew that knew anything. But Aran had started being hungry again as soon has he had discovered his earlier mistake.
There was really no question about it. “Sure.”
Aran could see several biscuits in the sack Taylor held open, and took one. He put it to the test beneath his nose first. The sour smell of the buttermilk pried his mouth open without a hesitation. The biscuit was sweet.
Neither of them had yet moved from the same spot facing each other. Taylor took a biscuit and put half in his mouth at once.
With his mouth still full, Aran he mumbled, “This is like my gran’ma’s.”
Taylor said, “Then your gran’ma mus make’em like my momma.”
Aran decided not to correct the backward priority. He was happy enough with the result. He pointed down at his task. “You wanna help me make a dam?”
Taylor smiled, his eyes flaring with another recognition. “My daddy says that. He say, ‘You wanna make a damn,’ when he say what I oughta do…But he mean the other thing.”
It seemed an odd comment, as if part of some larger thought still fresh on the boy’s mind.
Aran asked, “What’s your daddy do?”
Taylor widened his eyes at the question but he didn’t answer. This flare of the eyes seemed to be a habit. Like Aran’s cousin Danny who shook his head when he meant to say yes. With Taylor the expression seemed to signal that he was unsure of something as much as surprised.
Aran finished his biscuit and bent down on his knees in the sand to cup a drink of water with his hands. As he did this he asked, “Where do you live?”
Taylor half turned his head in the direction. “Over to Una,” paused, and then asked, Where you from?”
Aran answered, “New York,” as he stood up again. He half expected to hear the word ‘Yankee’ tossed back.
Instead, Taylor’s eyes flared. “My daddy’s in New York.” This was said with a drop in his voice, as if it was an unhappy thought. But that was something they had in common. Something unexpected. Aran’s father was still in New York as well. And though Taylor did not look happy to be separated from his father, Aran was certainly happier to be here instead.
He said only, “So’s mine.”
The coincidence of fact hung in the air for a moment before either of them moved again. Aran waded into the creek then, bent low to the water to grasp another rock, and lifted it up to show. “None of’em’s as big as they look from up on the bridge. But they’ll do.” He carried it the short distance to the others he had dropped in place and let it fall to achieve the greatest amount of splash back. This brought another flash of teeth from Taylor.
“Whyn’t you just throw’em.”
“I can one. But the next one gets heavier. They’re lighter under the water but they’re heavy to lift up.”
As if challenged, Taylor waded in, explored the bottom with his hands, and coming up with the largest rock he could find, lifted it high over his head, hefted it once extra as if to start a throw, and then fell over backwards. The splash covered Aran.
This started a water fight that lasted until they were exhausted. The noise of their laughter made the cattle stand up in the field. Finally winded, they sat in the sun again and ate two more biscuits, each bending low for a drink more than once.
Aran commented as he knelt at the edge, “It’s good water. I believe it’s better than my grandpa’s well.”
Taylor nodded. “My momma gets us water from that spring up yonder. Same water. She go up the other road an bring her a milk bucket. I help. I pull the wagon.”
Aran asked, “You ever swim here before?”
Taylor shrugged. “No…I come sometime. I sit on that rock there,” he nodded toward the larger boulder in the midst of the creek. “Watch out for frogs. There be a turtle in here too. Brown as mud. He hidin’ away now, but he be here.”
Unprompted, the serious work began. They carried the rocks individually, one after the other before Taylor had the idea to cut the distance in half, with each of them taking just one end of the work. Taylor put his face in the water to see the bigger rocks and then grabbed them up and took a step or two and handed them off to Aran who placed them as carefully as he could manage in the slowly rising wall.
Taylor suddenly asked, “You live in a house or ‘partment?”
“Apartment. We used to live in a house. Before.”
“My daddy live in a ‘partment too.”
“That’s near where I live. I live in Queens.”
“His name is Isaac.”
Taylor stopped to look for some sign of recognition from Aran.
Aran shrugged. “I don’t know anybody named Isaac.” A few rocks later he asked, “You live in a house?”
“Trailer. ‘hind my uncle Elton’s house.”
“What’s your Uncle Elton do?”
“He work at the Beacon Barbecue. He be one of the fella’s who bring the food to the cars. My daddy did that before he went to New York.”
Aran had eaten at the Beacon Drive-in a hundred times. He might have even seen Taylor’s uncle. Or perhaps his father.
He said, “I like barbeque.”
Taylor looked at him incredulously. “Everyone like barbeque.”
Aran nodded his agreement.
Taylor asked, “What your daddy do.”
“He’s a salesman. He sell’s stuff.”
“What kin’a stuff?”
“I don’t know. He’s changed his job since he told me last time.”
In another hour they had made enough difference to flood the sand bar where they had been sitting. Aran carried his shirt and sneakers and the spoiled wad of his own biscuits up and snagged them on the small tree by the pasture fence. Several of the white-faced Herefords had wandered down to the little shade there and stood silently watching with interest. Looking from the top of the bank above, the spread of water had already created a wide pool, shallow as it was on the sandy side, and the air was now disturbed by the faint gurgle of the water over their rising impediment. It was a happy sight. Like a smile of rocks, he thought.
Taylor looked up from where he stood at the middle, straightened to his full height and with one arm out to his side as if presenting the fact, loudly proposing a name, “Aran Dam,” in his deepest voice.
Aran clambered back down, making his correction on the way. “The Aran-Taylor dam, I think.” He liked that. It had a very official sound to it.
They switched places in the work line then, with Aran pulling rocks out of the creek-bed, his face down into the water just like Taylor had done it. Between times he sat in the depths and floated on his back. Taylor only watched.
Aran said, “Come on and try it.”
Taylor shook his head. “Cain’t. Cain’t swim.”
This put another halt in their progress.
Aran stood, waist deep. “No foolin’?”
“I’m no fool. I just never did learn how.”
Aran was confused. What should he make of this? Why was Taylor building a swimming hole if he couldn’t swim? Was it because he wanted to learn?
“They have lessons over at the pool in Arcadia. That’s where I learned. I learned to swim two years ago when I was only six years old.”
Taylor said, “That’s good.”
Aran said, “They have instructors. You could learn there yourself.”
Taylor reached his hands forward and wiggled his fingers for another rock. “I don’t reckon so.”
Aran pulled another rock up from the bottom and handed it off. “It only costs a quarter each time.”
Taylor sniffed, already wiggling his fingers again. He repeated his words, “I don’t reckon so.”
Aran frowned and handed off the next.
“I’m sure…I’m sure of it.”
Taylor shook his head. He said, “No. Not for colored folks, it don’t,” as he dropped the rock into place with a definitive splash.
This made Aran stand still again. He felt dumbstruck by his own stupidity. He had never seen any Negroes people at the pool in previous summers, yet he had never even wondered at the fact, much less asked why. He felt embarrassed.
Taylor stood with his head to the side again, hands hanging with fingers spread anxiously.
Aran said, “I’m sorry.”
Taylor shrugged. “It don’t matter.” His eyes went up to the sky. “We ought’a hurry. I haf’ ta be gone soon. I haf’ my chores.”
“Chickens. Chickens sit on Sunday same’s any.”
Aran pulled another rock from the bottom and handed it off. “I’ll be goin’ out with my gran’pa on Tuesday. I’ll be his helper. Maybe he’ll head up by Una.”
“I be up ta Packer’s Tuesday. Peaches’ ripe. I be wif momma pickin’ peaches.”
Aran felt like he was still fighting the previous revelation in his mind. He said, “Gran’pa might want a few bushels of peaches for the truck. Maybe I’ll see you at Packer’s”
Aran looked over the incomplete project. “Can you come here next Sunday?”
Taylor’s head went to the side. “I reckon.”
After several more rocks were set in place, Taylor waved and turned to climb the bank with his empty sack in one hand, stopping only to wave again when he reached the top.
Aran spoke up, “I can show you how. I can show you how to swim. I’m a good swimmer.”
Taylor did not answer, but waved a last time and disappeared in the direction of Una.
The next Sunday, Aran brought a shovel. Taylor was not there when Aran arrived at the bridge.
Immediately wading into the shallow pool, Aran removed a dozen rocks at the center of the dam and set them to one side to let the water run through until the sand bank was exposed again.
As he waited, he whistled. The sound of his whistle echoed beneath the bridge and caused him to look through the dark at the underside. There, through the opening, he could see almost level across the surface of a broad flat pasture beyond. Framed that way, it was like a picture in a museum, but for a shiver of heat at the green edge of the grass, almost as if the image were electrified by the fence. The steady fuss of insects gave an added electric buzz to his thought.
A pickup truck passed on the bridge above. From his place on the sand he could only see the top of the cab and the side gate. It was not his grandfather’s truck in any case. He did not want his grandfather to see this until they were done.
He shoveled the sand, tossing it back further from the dam to widen the pool. His hand was sore where it had gripped the shovel and reminded him of the wire handles on the peach baskets. The holes he made in the sand quickly filled with water. When the metal of the shovel struck a rock he pried it up and threw it on the dam. The repetition of this process engrossed him.
Aran had arrived at the creek earlier this time, having contrived to finish his Sunday dinner before anyone else. He had borrowed the shovel from the collection of tools in the small shed at one side of the chicken yard, and exited his grandparent’s farm through the back cornfield to avoid being seen or, more importantly, being questioned.
This was the same way he had once come home from school most days in the second grade, to avoid the direct route down the road that passed in front of his grandparent’s house. That way passed by the Crawleys and their old dog Pepper, who was blind and bit just about everyone except Mrs. Crawley. And that was the way passed the trailer where the Perry boys lived. Aran was always going to be a ‘Yankee’ boy. That was a fact. And he had no interest in being seen there by those red-headed Perry boys.
But in summer, the unplowed fields beyond the backside of his grandparent’s farm were tall with wild raspberry vines and burrs. Those wild fields were what remained of a neighbors land abandoned when the house there had been burned down many years before. ‘Johnson’ land, it was called. The stories of that place had all happened long before Aran was even born, during the Depression, and the remains appeared to be that much more ancient because of the kudzu vine that enveloped the ruin there in a thick undulating blanket of leaves.
Aran used the shovel to scythe a narrow way clear to the dirt ruts of the back road, close to where the burned farmhouse once stood. The brick supports, and a chimney, were entwined in the mottled green of kudzu, tilting at the sky. He knew they were brick because in the winter they were more exposed, and because the fact of just how substantial this ruined house had been figured into several of his grandfather’s stories.
Aran was already sweating as he cleared the way and moved too quickly with anticipation as he approached the back road, snagging his bare shins on thorns in several places in his hurry. In his belt he had stuffed the top fold of another paper sack with some of his grandmother’s biscuits as well as half a dozen ripe figs he had quickly plucked from the sagging tree by the shed.
Finally at the creek, the scratches from the thorns burned with his own sweat as he shoveled the sand back at the swimming hole, making him wade into the deeper channel repeatedly for relief.
His mind continued to wander over incidents of the past week. They had indeed gone to Packer’s for peaches on Tuesday. His grandfather did not need to be asked, announcing his intention at breakfast on Tuesday morning. But Aran had not seen Taylor there. The orchard was large, stretching a quarter mile along the Old Greenville Road, and it was busy with the pickers. Taylor could have been almost anywhere out of sight and Aran quickly gave up looking.
There were several clusters of activity along the road where trucks waited to be filled and sorting tables were busiest. The peaches were carefully dumped from smaller baskets held on wide straps slung from the neck of each picker. The dumped peaches spread into shallow wooden troughs covered with strips of black rubber cut from the inner tubes of tires. A line of women re-sorted the peaches there into bushels not by size but by the ripeness apparent in their color.
Aran’s grandfather had pulled into a side road at a point he had already chosen for some unstated reason, and bought a dozen bushels for their smaller truck right at the sorting table, paying cash to a tall white man in overalls who wore a soiled Washington Senators baseball cap that barely fit down on top of his wide head. This man continuously squinted so tightly against the sun that Aran could not believe he could actually see the money to count between the folds of flesh.
Nearby, several black men picked up the thin wood and wire bushel baskets which had been sorted, already packed and covered, and lifted them high into a trailer truck for someone else. The most of the pickers and all of the sorters were black women who wore broad yellow straw hats and billowy shirts. The yellow straw hats bobbed in the bright sun as they moved.
Aran helped his grandfather carry each of the bushels he had chosen to the truck. Holding on to the thin wire handle at one side with both his hands, he had to walk forward sideways, the bones in his knees banging as he hurried, clinching his teeth as the thin wire dug into the soft flesh of his palms. His grandfather carried the other side with seemingly little effort and then climbed into the bed of the truck with a single grab at a wood slat in the side gate, stepping up with his good leg onto the furthest lip of the bumper, before he swung himself high. Once there, he positioned the baskets to achieve the most of the limited space. The old man was small and always scrawny and his withered right leg gave him a two-inch limp, but even at his age he handled the baskets the same as any of the younger men who loaded the big trailers. Aran had practiced that swing up from the bumper a dozen times and had the scuffs on his shins from the tailgate to prove it.
Between each carry Aran waited for his grandfather by looking at the faces of the individual women at the sorting tables, watching their eyes scan the flow of peaches, their features darkened further by their hats, and wondered if one of the women might be Taylor’s mother–but he had no intention of asking out loud.
In the creek, the pooling of the water in his shovel holes dissolved the sand beneath his bare feet, exposing more rocks which he pried out of the sand with the shovel blade, one by one. His project seemed to be increasing in size rather than getting finished. He rested often between shovelfuls, not to judge his efforts now, but to consider the events of the week.
That week, as they had drifted the back roads in the green Chevrolet pickup truck, from one cluster of small houses to the next with his grandfather calling out from the open window in his sing-song high voice, Aran had learned when to move and when to stay put.
“Rosen ears. Peaches. Strawberries. Muskmelons. Maters. Pole beans. Turnips.”
At this time of the year, all but the peaches were grown on his grandparent’s five acres. When that crop was thinned, maybe next week or the week after he was told, they would go to Greenville early one morning, to the Farmer’s market, for watermelons and okra and lima beans what else they had too little of.
Almost anyone they saw along the crooked roads waved familiarly. The sight of a hand rising up without a wave seemed to be the sign. The truck, never moving very fast, slowed to a halt at the side nearest the path to a house, or the nearest shade tree, as his grandfather stood on the clutch and shifted the knob on the long gear stick. Once halted, more people usually came out of the dark from porches and for a few minutes there would be a flurry of activity. The plain metal scale squeaked on the chain as it was loaded by the handful and then unloaded into paper sacks. Aran moved around the nest of baskets inside the bed of the truck and on the raised shelf suspended between the side gates, pulling out what was pointed at, balancing a foot here or there in the slates in the wooden side gate, or holding to a cross bar, but always watching the faces.
His grandfather would often start by pulling the green beans from a basket and hand them out individually.
“Taste that. Sweet as sugar.”
He’d pulled the husk down from the browned top of a ‘rosen’ ear. It was just a fat ear of corn–a ‘roasting ear’ it was explained to him and called that because in times past corn was cooked in the fire with the leaves still on. Aran had already discovered this was a term unknown to anyone in New York.
“Look at it,” his grandfather would say. “Full yella.”
Or he would pluck a strawberry from a pint batch and drop it into an open palm. “Picked on the Fourth of July. Red’d by the sun. Not nearly soft yet. Jus’ honey an’ tart.”
This was in fact the same food they ate themselves each day and Aran new exactly what his grandfather was telling them.
They had unloaded most of the peaches into the shade of the pecan tree in the side yard on Tuesday morning to make room in the truck for other produce. Aran helped reload until he was tired enough to drop flat in the cooler grass of the yard and wish he was back at his dam in the creek
While Aran and his grandfather wandered the roads, his grandmother would have both stoves hot and the kitchen steamy as she cut and canned as many of the peaches and as she could. The smell of this lingered into the evenings about the house.
It had been a busy week.
Tossing one more rock, Aran scanned the rail of bridge above him repeatedly with his eyes, hoping to catch sight of Taylor. He was getting hungry again. He imagined he could smell both the biscuits and the figs in the closed paper sack at the bottom of the path.
A cow pulled at the longer grass close to the electric fence, careful to avoid the sting. Aran rested again and watched this with the cold water bathing the scratches on his shins.
Each night he sat on the porch with his grandfather and listened to stories about one person or another and thought about the faces he had seen. The stories usually involved some character from the past. Sometimes they were only anecdotes about relatives Aran knew vaguely about. But some stories were about the people they had met that day.
Just the evening before his grandfather had leaned forward in the chair with his forearms resting on his knees.
“You saw Miss Presley. She had that leg amputated the year past. Die-beedis. She use’ta work over at the mill in Saxon. I knew her husban’. He was no account. Liked ta gamble. Ran off to Columbia and got his self kilt playin’ a game of cards with scoundrels.”
This forthright statement was of a kind usually punctuated with a spit of dark tobacco juice into the front hedge. This appeared to be a cautionary tale–perhaps a warning against playing cards with the wrong people, or perhaps against playing cards at all. His grandmother was a strict Free Will Baptist and did not hold with playing cards or gambling in any way. But then his grandfather was a gossip of an odd sort. He seemed to fixate more on the hazards of their lives, not the relationships of people, especially avoiding stories of women with men. Never relating anything ‘off color.’
His grandmother would not speak a word about anyone else except to affirm their better natures or good intentions, or when necessary, to offer a condolence for a loss. When she was angry she called his grandfather ‘old man’ if she called him anything at all.
Aran leaned forward on the shovel handle to dig deep. He could not use his bare foot on the back of the rusted metal blade. When metal struck rock he pried the shape up through the sand and tossed it to the growing dam. Tossing it was a confirmation of what he sensed to be his growing strength. He was sure this was a part of the better balance he felt as he moved about the back of the truck.
When they were off ‘peddling produce’ and someone was infirm or bought more from his grandfather than they could easily carry, Aran was sent back with them to the house, arms full.
He often gaped at what he saw there in those houses. He tried not to be rude and never spoke of it, but it was funny the way people would live.
That week he had stood impatiently at Mrs. Presley’s door to allow her to make her way on two crutches and one leg from the side of the truck. Aran had gone ahead to find the shade of her porch holding a muskmelon and two onions, a sack of yellow squash and a sack of tomatoes that grew heavier in his arms as he waited there. Her crutches dug deeply at the gravel on the path and she stopped at every step to take a loud sigh of breath and then spoke to him each time.
“From New York your gran’pa says. I was in New York one time. With my momma…My Daddy’d done joined the Navy. That was the First War, you understand. He was in the Navy right there. Worked at a shipyard in Brooklyn…We took the train all the way from Spartanburg to visit. Didn’t drive. Not like they do now. My daddy didn’t have a car at that time anyhow…I remember that trip like it was yesterday. Did you know they had dinner on that train? With tablecloths and flowers at each place and silver that shined like gold in that yeller light…I saw it. We didn’t eat any of that, you understand. We brung ‘ars along in a basket. But I saw it…D’you take the train? D’you see all that?”
“No ma’am. My mother drives.”
“Your momma drives? All that way? All the way from New York?”
“By herself? My! That would mean your folks have a car. What kind of car would that be?”
“Yes ma’am. An Oldsmobile.”
She shook her head at the news as if it were a sad thing to know. “I know Chad Paget. I knew his mother before. He has the Chevrolet dealership, you should know.”
She arrived at the porch puffing breath like a small steam engine through bellowing cheeks, mounted the steps one at a time, and stopped next to Aran to consider the contents of his arms.
“I should have bought me some of those green and red peppers. I like those in my rice. When you put that there load down, would you go back and fetch me some peppers?”
Mrs. Presley pulled the screen door open and revealed a front room tight with furniture and collected things. The flowered wallpaper was mostly hidden by pictures cut from magazines and tacked up without frames. Not religious pictures, as Aran often saw, or the faded sepia tone portraits of unhappy relatives, but colorful advertisements of stoves and clothes washers, refrigerators and television sets. Above this, out of his reach, the walls were decorated with whole dried plants strung upside down on white string from nail to nail. An assortment of chairs pressed close to a coal stove to one side and a long table at the other was piled with an array of jars each filled with the crushed remains of some of dried plants as well.
She followed his eyes.
“Herbs. I sell herbs. Sosh’ Security isn’t enough, you understand…Does your mother work?”
He nodded. He didn’t think he should say anything about his mother. It might take time and his grandfather was waiting. Besides, the smells in the house were a suffocating mix of cooked food, herbs, and raw sweat.
Mrs. Presley used the loose flesh of her bare arm to brush back the jars on the table, making space there, and Aran set down the things he carried.
Mrs. Presley leaned close. Aran saw that she had freckles amidst the hairs on her upper lip.
“What kind of vacuum cleaner does your mother use? I’m sure she needs one. Every woman does. I recommend the Electrolux.” She pointed at an advertisement just below a dried sunflower head which had lost many of its seeds on the floor below. She added, “Harold Bennett—just across from Belk’s, you know–he will sell her an Electrolux at the very best price if you use my name.”
Aran backed away.
“Gran’pa is waiting on me.”
She frowned at his lack of responsiveness.
“Your gran’pa doesn’t know how to wait. He’s out there sellin’ his maters. I can hear that. But you go on. He might need you. And here, take this quarter and fetch me some peppers.”
The quarter she dropped in his hand was slippery.
A frog burped twice from thick growth further up the creek. Aran pushed his shovel deep and filled it with a solid clot of sand. It occurred to him only then as he raised it up that instead of tossing this back from his swimming hole he should toss it right on the dam to fill the cracks. The new idea inspired him with a renewed energy.
The fact was that Aran’s mother had gone off again. She had left to visit one of his aunts that morning. He could guess which one. None of the others had any money to speak of. He had heard his mother talking on the phone late the night before, as he lay in bed. She was trying to borrow money. It was a fact that they had almost run out of gas the previous Saturday as they were approaching Spartanburg. The needle was on the red when they pulled up at his grandparent’s house. She certainly had no money for a vacuum cleaner.
Aran’s stomach growled. A voiced spoke back.
“I believe you need some peanut. And I haf’ just that thing.”
Taylor had showed up at last, not much later in fact than he had appeared the previous Sunday. He explained that he had been in Church until noon, and then had to walk his grandmother home and get her what she needed before he could play. In his excitement he said all of this with more words than he had spoken to Aran the entire time the Sunday before.
They ate the figs and peanuts first as Aran explained his efforts with the shovel and the idea of throwing the sand onto the dam.
Taylor slapped a knee with a laugh, “Maybe we ought’a fin’ us a few more fellas to help. The way this plan keep growin’ it almos’ seem like work.”
Aran protested. “No! Just us. That’s all we need.” And then realizing he sounded a bit too adamant, he added, “We’ll have you swimmin’ before you leave today.”
Taylor’s face grew suddenly serious.
“My mamma say, even my daddy cain’t swim.”
Aran shrugged this off as a minor detail. “Then you could teach him, once I teach you.” But he knew as he spoke the words that this was not a small matter at all.
Taylor took a turn with the shovel as Aran realigned rocks. The cool water beneath him begged at his legs.
He finally announced it “Done!” after they had moved a larger rock into place together, and Taylor raised his face to the sky in a silent hallelujah, and they filled the gap Aran had made earlier.
They sat then at the sand bank and watched the water rise again, eating the rest black skinned, honey centered figs with their biscuits.
Taylor studied the hazy blue of sky. “Gram’mamma say it’s gonna go pitch dark later. She say I oughta be home soon to put the chickens up before the wind.”
“There’ll be a storm?”
“All right then…Can you float?”
“I can sink pretty good.”
“Then, we oughta start your lesson now. Come on.”
Taylor staid back and watched as Aran plunged headfirst into the water by himself. The pool was just deeper than the swing of his arms downward and he reached the rocks without a second stroke.
Taylor said, “Maybe I oughta start that next week.”
Aran stood at the deepest point with the water to his belly button. “Come on. You want to float first. If you can float you can swim.”
Taylor shook his head. “You float, and show me.”
Aran lay back into the flow and played dead man long enough to make the example.
When he stood again, he shrugged to make the effort seem simple. “Hold your breath, the first time. And I’ll stand right here for if you sink. But if you hold your breath, you won’t do that. And then once you get your balance on your back and you’re floating, you can start to breath a little.”
The lesson began with Taylor silent and solemnly accepting his fate.
“My Aunt Sel looked about like this when she was baptized.”
Taylor laid back, his cheeks full of air, and reluctantly let his feet leave the sand below, and a minute later, stood, gasping first in an exaggerated fashion, and when he saw he was not fooling Aran at all with his theatrics, he laughed and tried again. And then again. On the third try he started laughing while still laying back in the water and took some of the water into his mouth and spit that out with a dramatic cough. On his last try he opened his eyes for the first time while laying back into the water, and smiled.
Then he frowned. “That cloud right there is a start of that storm.”
Aran looked up at a billow of gray. A cooler wind already moved against the topmost leaves of the trees by the pasture.
It felt like the swim was over almost as soon as it began, they walked up the slope to the bridge together without speaking before turning in opposite directions. Aran slung the shovel over his shoulder in workman-like fashion and nodded.
“See you next Sunday.”
Taylor waved back and flashed his smile.
But the next Sunday, Taylor did not come.
Worse, when Aran reached the bridge and looked down at their great building project, everything they had done was ruined. The storm had come as predicted. It had thundered through the evening and into the night, spilling the rain first in a heavy pour straight down from the sky, drumming of the tin of the roof at his grandfather’s house in a growl, and then with a gathering pulse of wind it became a wail and cry amongst the branches and leaves of the pecan trees. By the time the rain had ended, the patter of the dripping and the smaller tympanies of water from the gutters into the rain buckets had put him into a deep sleep.
The rainwater had overcome their dam, eating away at the bank at one side. The pool was gone and replaced by a narrow band of dark water through the orange sand. Looking down from the bridge, the bow of exposed rocks now looked like a frown, with the largest rock a short distance above the others perched in the dry face of the creek bed and staring back at him like one large eye. A piece of fence post caught at one side completed the image of a squint for the other eye. Like a big joke, he thought.
The frustration of it made his shoulders slump.
Aran waited for a time in the shade of the small tree by the electric fence, poking grass stems into the ant holes to see them scurry until he became drowsy with the heat and the bright play of sunlight on the top leaves of the corn field across the creek, before he left. He had no heart to start the project again by himself.
But he would not go back to the pool in Arcadia. Not ever again. Not since he had fought with the Perry boys there on the grass outside the pool jest before he started second grade. Everyone at the pool had come over to the chain-link fence and watched as they taunted him. He was a ‘Yankee’ boy to them. Others had called him that from inside the fence. Even the life-guard had watched from her high perch. Whatever that meant to them, it was what he was, no matter, and he would not be knocked down again by Ned Perry where everyone could see. Not if he could help it.
On Wednesday, they drove over to Una. His grandfather let the truck drift on a crooked road, with the cab humming in the low gear.
The houses, mostly gray boards and red shingles, doors and windows open to the need for any movement of the air, each stood low as if battered down by the sun itself. Many houses were at the back of a yard of uncertain size, in a landscape of hardened red dirt and weed, bordered only at the front by the rain gully that followed the road. A portion of some yards were marked with white string and laid out in short rows of beans and squash, and prickly with stakes to hold up a clump of tomato vine, a knot of beans, or a leaning sunflower.
Most of the adults were off at the orchards, but there were many younger children, and Aran’s grandfather fussed at the need to be careful as they clustered by the edge of the narrow road to watch as they went by. Older women, probably all grandmothers, with hair silvered beneath the color of a scarf or a wide brimmed hat, patted their aprons for any loose change. Dogs followed behind.
His grandfather chanted, “Rosen ears, ‘maters, sweet corn, pole beans, muskmelon, honeydew.”
A hand went up from the shade of a porch. His grandfather shifted to neutral and coasted to the shade of a Chinaberry tree. The women came out from the houses then as if called to a meeting, following paths between yards and into the road to gather at the back of the truck.
The old man began his pitch, “These here strawberries won’t keep. They was candy sweet this year–let the young’uns eat’em soon as y’can,” as he handed out one chunky red piece to each to the children clustering behind him and their grandmothers picked over the selection in the baskets or studied the appearance of the other items just out of reach beneath Aran’s dangling legs.
Between times, lifting out a new peck of yellow squash to replace the one quickly emptied by the tailgate or pulling the largest of the muskmelons from the back of the truck bed as directed by a pointing finger, Aran looked out from the top of the gate in the hope of seeing Taylor. There was time to look because his grandfather chatted with each of the women as he filled the paper sacks with beans or tomatoes.
One girl, taller than the other kids and perhaps reluctant to be counted with them, stood by the side of the truck watching for her chance to reach in for one of the strawberries. Aran leaned over from the gate above.
“Do you know Taylor?”
She shook her head and moved away.
At the next stop, Aran determined to ask one of the older women, and picked the opportunity as he carried three muskmelons up to a porch.
This woman was gaunt faced, the brown of her skin grayed in a gauze of wrinkles, her eyes watery behind rimless glasses. She wore a blue baseball cap emblazoned with the Esso gas symbol which she had cut open at the back for her tightly knit braids. Her apron was stained with cooking and reminded Aran of what his own grandmother had been wearing that very morning when they left. The woman shook her head, reared back as if confronted, and frowned at the question. “Taylor who?”
He had no idea what Taylor’s last name was, but he did remember something else.
He said, “Taylor with an Uncle Elton and an Aunt Sel. Do you know his Uncle Elton?”
“That Taylor! That boy’s gone. His Daddy came from New York for the funeral and took all of them off with him.”
Aran organized the answer in his brain, staring back at his grandfather’s green truck and the thinning crowd.
He asked, “Did someone die?”
“Miss Jackson. Taylor’s Gran’momma died the night of that storm we had. Now Sel has that nice brick house all to herself and Elton, and she is not happy about that one bit. I tell you that! Isaac came and took Eta and that little Wilma and Taylor too. Now Sel is prob’ly going to have her brother Red come back from Atlanta. That’s what I hear. Of Course Red and Elton don’t get along, so that will be a problem. I used to know Red before he moved off. He works in a garage down in Atlanta now, but he’ll come.”
“Yes ma’am. I better go help my Grandpa.”
“If I hear from Taylor I will remember you.”
Aran had told no one else about building the dam with Taylor. Now this secret seemed to be for good.
The bowed line of rocks frowned at him each time he passed that way for the rest of the summer. The one rock eye looked back at him, forlorn, like a Cyclops–especially after the squinty eye of the broken fence post washed away in the next rain.