Stripping the Splintered Stocks

by John Heckman Wright

1. Budding
In spring we drop spindly tobacco plants into the setter's fingers. Parallel rows of green unfurl behind the tractor. When a tobacco plant is set, it is put into the ground with fertilizer and water, covered with soil, and its stems shrivel until all but the tiny center, called the "bud," dies. Then, the bud sprouts.

I am four years old, awake past bedtime, and waiting for dad to come home. I hear his coal truck turn into the driveway and run to meet him at the door. After washing the soot from his face and hands and talking with my mother for a while, he changes clothes, grabs his keys, and signals "Come on son," but I have already pulled on my shoes and am on my way to the pickup.

Peanut's store is a mile up the road from our house. Inside, I take a Nehi peach pop from the cooler and a yellow bag of M&M's from the shelf then wonder through the empty aisles as dad and Peanut talk across the counter. When dad tries to pay Peanut pushes his money back to him. "I can't make a man pay on his birthday" he says with a wink.

On the way home dad drives slow, steering the truck around curves as I count circles of colored candies in my hand. The peach fizz fuses with the melting chocolate in my mouth as Randy Travis sings about digging up bones on the radio. The sky outside is pure deep indigo.

* * *

At seven, my family moved to a farm on the east side of the county. For generations my father's family has made a living from the land, so owning his own farm was the only dream my father ever imagined for his family.

The old farmhouse we moved into was different than the home I had always known, with its blue-gray shingles the years had worn hard and its pine floors needed varnish. The day we moved in I laid on my back and watched a granddaddy-long-legs prance along the edge of the front porch.

The openness of the farmland was most new to me. Rolling pastures and sloping hills surrounded each side of the house, a creek where deer drank ran through the meadow, and countless hidden coves nestled in the wilderness waiting to be explored.

When we first moved to the farm, dad and I would walk for hours through underbrush and briar thickets. My father's stories of Daniel Boone formed the mythology of that time. Daniel Boone, who built his homes deep in the woods, and he knew it was time to move when he could see a neighbors' chimney-smoke. In the remnants of those same woods, with no signs of neighbors for miles, it was easy to believe that my father and I were still living in Boone's time, seeing the hills of Kentucky for the first time before those places had names or maps.

* * *

By the end of our first year on the farm, my mother began to cry at night and my father began to stumble home late with whiskey on his breath. I began to worry more about my mother, and to loathe the days my father forced me to spend in tobacco fields, where the sweat bees stung and there was no shade from the beating sun. I began to create elaborate fantasies about the city, and to tell stories about how I would move there someday. My father would shake his head and say "You can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the county out of the boy."

* * *

As I rush through the screen door, I hear my mother crying. She wipes her face and turns away, so I walk back outside and sit on the bank until my sister joins me later and wraps her arm around my shoulders.

We hear dad's truck turn into the driveway, and then we hear his door slam. I watched ants march across the dirt as my sister squeezes me harder. I stop crying.

We are sitting too far away to hear everything my parents yell at one another, but we know the routine well enough to imagine what we cannot hear. After dad storms out of the house and speeds away in his dusty Ford, my sister wipes her face and walks back to the house to console our mother. In the dirt I draw a picture of a man, woman, girl, and boy. Then, I wipe the ground with my sneaker and draw another picture, a boy alone on top of an empty world.

2. Hoeing
Dad stands at the far end of a freshly plowed field; rows of tobacco encase him in a grid. His hoe turns the rich soil around the plants as each green stem sways in his mercy. Nothing can distract him from his work. A moment's carelessness, a single swing of the hoe too far left or right, will cause the hoe to hit a bud and kill a plant. The survival of his crop hinges on his delicate attention to each chop.

Walking down a steep cliff Dad stops and says "For such a runt you sure make a lot of noise. You have to roll your foot. Put the pressure down with your heel and then roll."

I roll my foot in imitation but the sole lands against a twig that pops.

"And you have to avoid those. Now, come on. Try to be quiet."

It is Indian Summer and the Appalachia foliage is crimson and gold. Dad stops, holds his palm up, raises a finger to some trees in the distance. I squint but see nothing. My ears find the squirrel before my eyes, branches shifting without wind.

Dad cocks his rifle and hunches into it, his face wrinkling as he squints to focus. I hold my palms over my ears and clench my teeth as I watch the squirrel pause on a distant branch. Dad waits for the right moment before firing a shot that drops the squirrel through a cascade of leaves.

"Got the bastard," Dad exclaims as he lowers his rifle and I wait for my ears to quite ringing from the shot. We approached the squirrel which is squirming desperately on the ground, a bullet hole having ripped through the neck muscles, nearly separating its head from its limp gray body.

Dad points, says "Go ahead, finish it."

The gun barrel is cold under my armpit, but I pumped it and point it at the squirrel's head. My hands shake and I have trouble centering the bead.

"It's in pain, you have to finish it."

I focus and squeeze the trigger, forgetting the safety catch. My father rolls his eyes as I push the safety catch and try to center the bead again. Sweat slips into my eyes as I pull the trigger and a pellet ricochets off the ground a foot from the squirrel's head. The squirrel flinches again. Dad grabs my gun, pumps it quickly, then shoulders, aims, and fires a single shot.

The squirrel is dead; I wipe my face.

Dad grabbed the squirrel by its tail and shoves it into the camouflage carrying bag.

"Here." He extends the bag to me.

"No! I don't want it."

"You're going to carry it." He shouts. "And stop crying!"

I slip the bag over my shoulder. By the time we cross the last ridge and see the truck in a clearing ahead, four more squirrels line the bag. I feel them squirm on my back, their paws claw against my skin. I follow dad, crunching every twig I can find, hoping to scare the rest of the squirrels away. Stalking through the autumn leaves, I am as heavy as the squirrel's weight across my shoulders. I try to keep pace with him, but the distance between us widens. By the time he reaches the truck I am far behind, walking with my eyes on the ground and trying not to think about the pack of little deaths strapped to my back.

* * *

By the mid 1980's the coal boom that swept through Eastern Kentucky in spurts from the turn of the century to the 1970's had all but dried up, and Dad lost his job when the trucking company he had worked for since hw was a teenager went bankrupt. The coal companies closed mines and left the strip-mined land. Men like Dad, who had believed their futures were secured by the land's endless supply of coal, were left without a way to support their families.

Dad threw himself into the farm, and to earn extra income he began logging. When I helped, pine rosin would mat my skin in a thick dark layer that made every bit of bark, dirt, and pine needle cling to me. In his t-shirts, ripped jeans, and cloth bandana, my father never looked more desperate to me than he did that summer. I was filled with pity, but ashamed to be seen with him.

* * *

At ten Mom walks to the back door, separates the blinds and looks across the empty driveway. Dad is still not home, and supper is cold. An hour later, we hear his truck outside and mom unlocks the backdoor and begins putting dishes away.

"John Henry! Watch what you're doing! I just mopped that floor." My mother begin as soon as he steps inside.

"Ah shit!" Dad yells, picking up his boots and throwing them outside. Mom bangs pots as she warms his meal.

Dad is tired and dirty, and expecting a warm dinner. But it is milk and bread again, the same as the night before. He crumbles the bread into his bowl, pours cold milk over it, adds three dashes of salt and one of pepper. I sit in the adjacent room and stare at the flickering television. Over my shoulder, Dad sits alone at the table over a cold bowl of milk and bread.

3. Cutting
The swoop of dad's blade cuts each tobacco stock. He holds the stocks over the spear and thrust them down onto the tobacco sticks. The fibrous stalks tear as they spread onto the sticks. A rhythm develops: prick of the spear then the swoosh and the splitting. He works forward in silence. There is an imminent safety among the plant. They will never stop needing him.

* * *

The first night my father hit me, the bathroom mirror was cold to my neck as my father pressed me against it. He held me there with one hand and drew the other back into a fist. He is ready to land another blow when my mother bursts through the door and anchors herself onto his crooked arm. His eyes flare and I glare into them, unable to see how I came from this man.

He drops me and my back slides down against the mirror. My mother lays against the doorframe; I run past her into my room, lock the door, and cower in the corner with my father's red stain across my face.

Hours pass and I hear my father return. I lay in bed paralyzed, thinking that if he doesn't hear me he will not come to finish what he started. I listen to him piss then brush his teeth, turn off the light, and walk down the hall. Alone in my room I laid under the sheets wanting to be held and comforted.

Years later, I carried that desire out into the world. At night, holding men too tight, I lay down by their bodies in willing surrender. But a calm among men is never stable, and even harder to trust once you have seen the violence which lingers at their edges.

* * *

Ancient waters surround me as I flip through the yellowed pages of a family photo album. With each page, arms and legs and breasts are in the tide of memory. I come across a photograph of my father and I at Myrtle Beach on a day I still remember.

On that day my father launched me feet, face, and belly flat into the air. Water burned my skin, flooded my eyes.

As I look closer, I realize I had been too young in the photograph to have such vivid memories of

that day and I recognize my memory for the forgery that it is. Photo album in hand, I try to retrace the root of the memory. Years after the photograph was taken, I would have encountered the same photo album and created a story about a time when my father's touch held a tenderness I longed for. I would have retold the story to myself until the retelling became a memory.

In the picture I am smiling.

I turn the page, the child in the photograph a stranger to me, an ocean I swim against. His feelings are less than memory, a fiction I'd created. My father's hands under my belly, my mouth touching the salty sea, my mind and body open to the cool of the water.

* * *

When I call home my father answers. At 5'10", he is barely larger than me, but in my mind he towers. I long to feel like a part of my family again, but to do that I cannot be who I am. We say hello; he asks about my car; I ask about his crops; we exchange observations about the weather. Then, one of us fakes an excuse to go and he hands the phone to my mother.

* * *

Three weeks before my twenty-first birthday I am sitting on the front porch with my mother and father, talking about random things: family, old stories, grandparents living and deceased. My car is already packed with everything I will ever want from home, just in case this is the last time I will ever be here. Packing my car had been my own quiet and somber way of saying goodbye. All through the day my mother had asked "What do you want that for?" as I packed another forgotten knickknack to my car, and every time I had replied "Just because."

When we went inside, I came out to my parents.

Instead of rage, tears. I thought I had prepared myself for countless possible scenario, but I had not planned for tears.

"I'll pray for you," was my father's only response after I had found the courage to reveal myself for over an hour, like Salome removing the last of the seven veils. We hugged, the only hug he has ever given me like that. "You don't have to live like this," he said, squeezing me.

Southern Evangelicals believe the waters of redemption wash away the past. Their faith allows them to step into the glistening pool and be absolved. The Lord knocks on the heart's door and the one who is saved allows Him to enter. The summer before that evening, my father had stepped into baptismal waters; in his ear he had heard the rapping--more subtle than a pulse--and he had cracked the door. Away went years of cruelty and coldness, away went a lifetime of his demeaning and dismissals, away went the red stain he left on my face years ago. I don't know what replaced those things. I never had the chance to know him well enough to ask that question.

Yet, there stood my father, crying for the first time I could remember since his own mother's death. There he stood, and I had to believe it was from love that he offered his prayer, but my own worth as a man would not let his offer to stand without rebuttal. I was not a sinner to be shamed.

"I don't need you to pray for me about this."

My father trembled. Maybe he wanted to break through but didn't know how. We had spent a lifetime constructing barricades between us, and there was little room left in these constructions for communication. Rather than struggle with the truth of who I am, my father accepted me that night as the shamed phone call that comes during supper.

4. Stripping
Each leaf has aged, cured and browned, and is now ready to be torn from the stalk. To strip burley, we run our hands along the splintered stalks to unjoint the stems. The stems are clean, smooth, and dark brown.

* * *

It isn't too far from Lexington, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio. I-71 shoots straight through the buckeye state as the landscape flattens, rolls, and flattens again. Two hours into the trip--just north of Cincinnati--my legs tingle numb, and I am drawn to remember how my father had driven three hours to work before sunrise, following the black back of the road as the day broke through the bug-gutted windshield of his old Ford pickup. He drove against the lull of the night, the pull of the hills, and the call of sleep as I grew tall without him. When he came home at night, coal dust still clung to his hair, face, and clothes. I only saw him on the weekends; we never talked. He was there, but never with me as I helped him hoe or strip tobacco.

I didn't understand the weight my father carried, couldn't imagine how it must have felt to be on the road for 18 hours a day, five days a week, never considered those things until hurling through Ohio many years later, under a sun setting down over a vast horizon of grain.

Driving, I thought of him after so much time, hate, and indifference had passed. I couldn't pretend to I know him, or that I ever would, but I thought of him that evening with unexpected emotion. I was part of his legacy, whether or not I chose to be. That evening, I was finally able to see the sacrifices he had made to keep our family together. I was humbled, and maybe that was the most I could hope for.

We walk across the snow carrying bundles of stripped stalks bound by rope. The load my father lifts to his shoulder is more than I can carry. I follow his muddy trail across the virgin white. Pockets of our breath billow out to mingle with the smell of burley. My father's back buckles as he heaves his bundle over the fence, and the stalks make a thud against the frozen earth that casts dust into clouds around him. I stumble over a rock in the snow and try to stand before he turns in the twilight. Bending to gather my fallen load, I cradle the crisscrossed stalks in my arms and rise back into his shadow.