Fiction Fiction 2008

Stand By Me

What Jarrat had in his life were sorrow, stubbornness, silence, and work. So when his sons needed him most, their daddy didn’t have much to offer.
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We got them grown up to where they weren’t needy little boys anymore. They were still boys. They were going to be boys a while yet, but they were feeling their strength. They were beginning to find in their selves what before they had needed from us. Tom was maybe a little slower at it than he might have been, Nathan a little faster; Nathan was coming behind and was in a hurry.

It was a wonderful thing to watch that Tom grow up. For a while there, after he was getting to be really useful, he was still an awkward, kind of weedy, mind-wandery boy who still needed some watching. To him, young as he was, it must have seemed he stayed that way a long time. But before long, as it seemed to me, he had gathered his forces together, body and mind. He got to be some account on his own. He could see what needed to be done and go ahead and do it. He got graceful, and he was a good-looking boy, too.

And then, the year he was 16, a little edge crept up between him and his daddy. It wasn’t very much in the open at first, wasn’t admitted really, but there it was. I thought, Uh-oh, for I hated to see it, and I knew there wasn’t much to be done about it. Tom was feeling his strength, he was coming into his own, and Jarrat that year was 47 years old. When he looked at Tom he got the message—from where he was, the only way was down—and he didn’t like it.

Well, one afternoon when we were well along in the tobacco cutting, Tom took it in his head he was going to try the old man. Jarrat was cutting in the lead, as he was used to doing, and Tom got into the next row and lit out after him. He stayed with him, too, for a while. He put the pressure on. He made his dad quiet down and lay into his work.

But Tom had misestimated. The job was still above his breakfast. Jarrat wasn’t young anymore, but he was hard and long-practiced. He kept his head and rattled Tom, and he beat him clean. And then he couldn’t stop himself from drawing the fact to Tom’s attention.

Tom went for him then, making fight. They were off a little way from the rest of us, and both of them were thoroughly mad. Before we could get there and get them apart, Jarrat had just purely whipped the hell out of Tom. He ought to’ve quit before he did, but once he was mad he didn’t have it in him to give an inch. It was awful. Ten minutes after it was over, even Jarrat knew it was awful, but then it was too late.

It was a day, one of several, I’m glad I won’t have to live again. Tom was too much a boy yet to get in front where he wanted to be but too much a man to stay and be licked. He had to get out from under his daddy’s feet and onto his own. And so he made a bundle of his clothes and went away. Afterwards, because the old ones were so grieved, me too, Nathan too, the house was like a house where somebody had died.

Because he didn’t need much and asked little, Tom found a place right away with an old couple by the name of Whitlow over on the other side of the county, far enough away to make him separate from us. I knew he would do all right, and he did. He knew how to work; and the use of his head, that was already coming to him, came fast once he got out on his own. He began to make a name for himself: a good boy, a good hand.

When we had found out where he was, Nathan and I would catch a ride on a rainy day or a Sunday and go over to see him, or we’d see him occasionally in town. After he got his feet under him and was feeling sure of himself, he would come over on a Sunday afternoon now and again to see his grandma and grandpa. In all our minds, he had come into a life of his own that wasn’t any longer part of ours. To the old ones, who had given up their ownership of him by then, and their right to expect things from him, every one of those visits was a lovely gift, and they made over him and honored him as a guest.

He stayed at the Whitlows’ through the crop year of 1940. Mr. Whitlow died that summer. After the place was sold and Mrs. Whitlow settled in town, Tom struck a deal with Ernest Russet from up about Sycamore. Ernest and Naomi Russet were good people, we had known them a long time, and they had a good farm. Going there was a step up in the world for Tom. He soon found favor with the Russets, which not everybody could have done, and before long, having no children of their own, they’d made practically a son of him.

After Tom had been with them a while, the Russets invited us to come for Sunday dinner. Jarrat wouldn’t go, of course, but Nathan and I did. The Russets’ preacher, Brother Milby, and his wife were there too, a spunky couple. I took a great liking to Mrs. Milby. It was a good dinner and we had a good time. Ernest Russet was the right man for Tom, no mistake about that. He was a fine farmer. The right young man could learn plenty from him.

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Wendell Berry is a farmer, an activist, and the author of numerous essays, poems, novels, and short stories. He has received the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award, among other honors. He lives in Kentucky.

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