The Summer Slave

 

The rancid smell of chicken droppings, a blistering Missouri sun on a tin roof chicken coop and sweat stinging my eyes force me outside where maybe I can catch a faint breeze. My coat is covered with chicken feathers, dried dung and flecks of whitewash. My head throbs. I could drink a river dry. Where’s that well I saw earlier?

I have only myself to blame for my situation. Eager to impress my new host family. I made a rookie mistake and started work before the ground rules were agreed on. I know better. Today, June 19, 1951, marks my fourth year as a summer slave. I hope it’s my last.

Brother Seymour, from the Home, preaches to always know the rules before doing one chore. If I’d followed his advice, I’d have drinking water, know how my laundry is handled, have a clear work schedule, even know where the nearest swimming hole is.

Now, I need water. Fast.

Mrs. Keller rapped on my door at 6 o’clock, sharp this morning. "Up, Arthur, up.” Her face clouded over like a dirty mirror when she sees me standing under the maples, dressed, ready for the day. In the kitchen, I suck down Post Toasties in warm milk, while she recites my chores like a teacher taking roll in a class room.

My first assignment? Clean two chicken coops. I don’t ask questions, just grab a broom, shovel, paint brush, whitewash and hop to it. Now, gasping for air in knee-deep rye grass I’m hot and thirsty. The well is under tall maples through hip-high alligator weeds and broadleaf.

Is the water safe to drink? I turn the handle. Brown liquid spells out. If I could sing, I would. The well’s used often. I spin the handle again. Cool water splashes out. I rinse my face and hands, then drink straight from the spigot. Now maybe I’ll last till noon.

I pull my shirt from my coat pocket and dry my face. When I open my eyes, a brown-skinned girl with gobs of black hair stands beside me. “You the new orphan?”

Her voice hints of Carmine Maranda. I give her the once over. At the Home, guys would pay a nickel to watch her climb the stairs to the girl’s dorm. A dime, if she was in phys ed clothes.

White sandals. Brown feet. Slender toes. Red nail polish. Long, tan legs. Blue shorts. Yellow blouse tied below round breasts. Golden throat. Dark eyes. Thick black hair. More Cyd Charisse than Ava Gardner. Is this the little snip Mrs. Keller warned me about last night?

I answer her question. “Guilty. Want my autograph?”

She laughs. “Hi, I’m Fatima.” She is the snip.

 “Hi, Fatima. I’m Art.”

She hangs her bucket on the spigot. “Fill ‘er up, sir.”

Her bucket filled, she stretches her tan legs out on the well head. The sun turns parts of her hair gold. I rinse whitewash from my paint brush. My stomach rumbles. I’m breathing too fast.    

Fatima says, “What’s wrong, Orphan Boy? You're green around the gills.

My mouth fills with saliva. Don’t puke, Carr. Fatima tugs at my coat. “This is heavy as a tire. Get it off.”

It protects my jeans from chicken grime, since I don’t know how long before my laundry’s done. It all I wear over my jeans. At the Home, a bare chest in mixed company gets extra KP. I push Fatima away.

“Don’t be silly. I’ve seen scrawny chests before.” She yanks at the coat.

My face is on fire. Cold chills race up my spine. Trees twirl. I could maybe recite the first three letters of the alphabet, but my own name? Never. Cold water knocks me to hot grass.

A voice from a dark tunnel orders, “Get in the shade, Orphan Boy.”

I sprawl under a spirea bush. Fatima refills her bucket and sits. When it looks like I may live after all, she picks our conversation like nothing happened. “Think they’ll adopt you?”

Ah, the Big Question. It usually doesn't raise its ugly head so soon. I play it straight. “Nope. Most couples want babies, not teenagers. I'm just a slave a church member rents for twenty-five dollars a month, for the summer. The money’s supposed to go into my account for when I leave the Home, but somehow expenses always eat it up. My brother, Dwayne, got $47.67 for five summers. Not much to start a new life on. I’ll be seventeen in June. Graduate high school in January.” Where did all that word garbage come from?

Fatima nods. “That’s how it works, huh? I’ll be sixteen in October. Going to the Fair tomorrow?”

“I'd be a Commie rat if I didn’t, right?

She smiles. “I’m going with Tony Aguilera. He’s twenty-one. Drives a Studebaker. Works with Papi.”

“Cradle robber, huh? Anywhere to swim around here?”

She answers my last question. “Wild Horse River at Twin Rocks. Before Devil’s Fall.”

She hands me a cup of water. “Sip. Maybe Tony’ll win me a Kewpie Doll. Mom and I are going shopping later. Need a new skirt and blouse. Been to town yet?” 

“Yeah. Quite the metropolis. What’s the population? Minus three?”

“Sip. Not chug.” She grabs the cup.

“Not funny. Almost four thousand. You’ll go back to school this fall, huh? I’d be a sophomore, but Papi says school's a waste for girls. I applied at A & W. They’ll hire when school starts.”

I'm about to say a high school diploma is important for poor kids, when Mrs. Keller’s tall body blocks the sun. “Up, up, Arthur. Mr. Sunshine waits for no one.”

She claps her hands like Brother Seymour sending a play into a football game. “You have your water, Fatima. Leave. Arthur has work to do.” She waves her apron at Fatima, like she’s shooing flies.

“Get your shirt on, Arthur. You’re in the company of a lady. Mr. Keller will have a word with you when he comes home.”

Thick fingers fumble with small buttons. When I look up, Fatima has disappeared into the heat waves. 

* * *  

I arrived in Wheatland around sundown yesterday, after fourteen cramped hours on a Trailways bus. The Keller’s met me at the station and dragged me to a prayer service followed by a pot luck supper. The preacher introduced Mr. Keller as a war hero. He asked prayers for Mrs. Keller, so she can, “Impart Christian principles to the lost orphan she graciously took into her home, even if last year's boy was such a bitter disappointment. Christians overcome hardship with sacrifice.”

I know there’s no chance the Special Blessing of Adoption that Brother Seymour talks about will happen to me. “These fine country folks need workers. You orphans need homes. Anticipate a Special Blessing. Work hard for your host family. Pray for them. Emulate Christ in all you do. Your prayers will be answered.”

I fill my plate with tuna casserole, cole slaw, fried chicken and sliced tomatoes. Better grub that what the Home serves. I take my paper plate to a bench beside the gate leading to the cemetery. The local kids, most younger than me, stare at the orphan freak, snickering at whispered, private jokes. 

In the car, Jeff Tom says, “Daddy’s head mechanic at a garage in town. I'll tell you what work you have to do.”

This should have been my clue to get clear about what’s expected of me, but since he’s just a kid, I just nod. Now, my shirt buttoned to the collar, Mrs. Keller says, “Jeff Tom needs you in the hog pen.”

Like that's a wonderful place, and I’m especially chosen by the Lord of the Manor. I figure his chores can’t be as bad as white-washing chicken coops. Wrong.

Jeff Tom asks, “Whatcha talkin’ to that Mexican slut for?”  

“She saved my life.”

Jeff Tom looks at me like I said little green men from Mars are coming for Sunday dinner, shrugs and says, “Momma lets her get water twice a day. Her folks rent our trailer. Thirty dollars a month. They never pay on time.”

I saw the trailer on the weed-grown lot east of the house when we drove in last night. Maybe twenty feet long, five or six feet wide, rust holes along the side and four flat tires.

Jim Tom said, "Seven people live there. The parents. Two mean boys. A girl and her worthless husband. Momma says she’ll squirt out a kid soon. And Fatima.”

Mrs. Keller adds, “I’m warning you, Arthur. Fatima’s a snip. Stay away from her.”

I could say I’ve seen better places in a St. Louis slum but keep my mouth shut. Now, after a morning of hard labor, Jeff Tom hands me a broom. “Evander has a show tomorrow. Clean his cart."

Evander, I see, is a 200-pound Hampshire boar hog. He’s tied front leg and hind to the fence. Mr. Keller must have done that this morning before he left for his mechanic job.

"Get to work,” Jeff Tom says. I’d slap him, but he's playing Edward G. Robinson in the movies. I sweep out dust and cob webs, wash the trailer down and spread straw on the floor.

That finished, Jeff Tm says, “Now, scrub Evander.” He hands me a long-handled brush. I shrug and splash soapy water on the poor hog. Evander squeals and kicks but stops when the brush caresses his ears and back. It takes two buckets of clear water to rinse away the suds. 

“Now, file his hooves.”

Jeff Tom looks like a kid who just dropped his ice cream cone.

I don’t know how to file a hog’s hooves either. During the two summers I spent on the Stephens’ farm, I slopped hogs, and held legs while they were castrated, but a beauty treatment? Never.

Then, it occurs to me. Filing a hog’s hooves can’t be any harder than cutting an orphan boy's toe nails after his first hot bath. I've done that plenty.

I grab the blacksmith’s rasp from the fence post, straddle Evander, facing backwards, lift his right rear hoof and file. He lunges and jerks, but twenty minutes later, all four hooves are manicured.

I’m ready for a break, but Jeff Tom hands me a bottle of black shoe polish.

"Dab this on his hooves."

“You’re kidding.”

“It’ll make ’em shine.”



“What the hell?”

Shoe polish splatters my jeans and arms, but when I’m finished, Evander looks sharp. The thick black hair across his shoulders glows, the white bristles on his belly gleam, his skin is pink and, of course, his hooves shine black.

“Get him into the smokehouse,” Jeff Tom says.

I push, pull, yank and tug, until Evander’s inside. Jeff Tom pours slop into a trough and locks the door. Poor hog. He has no mud to roll in and get ugly as he’d like.