THE name on the mailbox said C. S. Hendricks, but often as not a letter would come addressed to Bonehead Hendricks and the mailman would just laugh and put it in the box along with the ads mailed out to the humble Rural Box Holder.
Bonehead never seemed to mind his name; we all called him Bonehead. But he disliked being a Rural Box Holder. ‘Makes me mad,’ he told me once, waving a sheet of rough paper proclaiming the current bargains at the supermarket in town. ‘Makes me pure mad. If them fellers wants me to buy, why don’t they call me by name?’
‘You’d rather be a Bonehead than a Box Holder, eh?’
Bonehead looked at me out of small, pale-blue eyes. ‘They hain’t but one Bonehead in this county,’ he said, ‘and that’s me.’
He was right, too. We found how pathetically right he was one day last month, and ever since then I haven’t been able to use his name. Not that Bonehead ever said anything to me about it. But Snowball, the colored man who lives on our place, put his finger on it: ‘I reckon we cain’t call him Bonehead no mo’. Now that he done showed us what a Bonehead he really is.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that’s right, Snowball.’ And walking down the lane to our house I wondered why you can’t call a man by a name that fits him — not when it fits as snug as that. There’s such a thing as being too neat.
Bonehead’s troubles came down on him all at once, early in June. He was late in getting his tobacco land ploughed, and when all the farmers in these parts were waiting for a rain, so they could set the young plants, he was just fixing to board his land. That was just like him, too. Last year he set his tobacco nearly three weeks later than anyone else.
‘Bonehead’s savin’ hisself trouble,’ the folks said. ‘He jest waits till the ‘bacco is ready to top, then he sets it and tops it all to-oncet. Savin’ hisself trouble.’
Bonehead saved himself trouble all right. He also saved himself the trouble of harvesting a crop. ‘Hain’t enough there to keep me and my man chewin’ thu the winter,’ he told me last fall. And he wasn’t far from the truth.
For the past three years Bonehead had kept a man on the place to help him out — a man called Newt Parker. He was a small, wiry, idlesome fellow, with the face of a carrion crow and a way of cocking his head to one side when he spoke. Newt Parker never looked you straight in the eye. He kept looking off somewhere, just about the level of your left ear, till you got downright uncomfortable and started worrying your ear as though a sweat-bee were at it.
Sometimes he said he was from Texas, sometimes from Tennessee, and other times he said he was from the North. But it was norated about that he had done time. He’d been jail-hampered for quite a spell, folks said. Like most simple people and abused husbands, Bonehead never knew. Bonehead and his hired man seemed to get along, in a grudging kind of way. No one ever heard of any trouble between them.
Bonehead farmed a smallish piece of the poorest land in the county —rocky land, with fences made of barbed wire wrapped around spindly posts. We were forever helping round up Bonehead’s calf or Bonehead’s sow. And his only pasture was so full of wild larkspur that it looked like a calico print at the crossroads store.
Bonehead had a cow and the meanest pair of white mules on Tabcat Creek. Sixteen hands high they stood, and their heels were full of dynamite. He had a wife and two small daughters and a son not more than six years old. That was why Bonehead had to have Newt Parker to help him out. Two little girls, aged eight and nine, and a sturdy little boy with gray-green eyes can’t do much of the heavy work on a farm. And Bonehead’s wife never stirred much outside the yard.
I remember calling to see her last summer, just about the time the bean crop came in. ‘I think I’ll take a mess of beans to the Hendricks’,’ I said at noontime.
The family tried to talk me out of it. ‘Listen — everybody’s polluted with beans this year. . . . Go up and see slattern Sue if you must, but don’t go taking her beans.’
So I went up to see Sue with a basket of beans on my arm. As I walked up the treeless, dusty lane to her house, I could see her sitting on the front porch, fanning herself with a folded newspaper. She rose wearily to her feet when she caught sight of me and automatically smoothed her dress. She was fumbling with the safety pin that held it together at the neck when I called out to her.
‘Take chairs and set,’ said Sue.
I was apologetic about the beans. ‘Just brought you a few of these wax beans,’ I said. ‘You must have plenty of the green kind, but I thought you might like to try some of these.’
‘Glad to have ‘em, ‘cause we hain’t got no snaps at all this year.’ And Sue settled back in her chair and went to fanning herself with the newspaper.
Sue had taken on weight in the last few years. She had been pretty once, with dark wavy hair and gray-green eyes — and a waist like a wasp, she told me. Now she looked like a bag of meal propped up in a doorjamb — just sitting. Sitting and waiting; resigned, for the time, but the smouldering fire behind her eyes ready to burst into open flame.
‘Them flies is pesky,’ said Sue, making talk.
I heartily agreed, and our common aversion to flies enclosed us in a woman’s world of household tribulations.
‘How’s your garden?’ I asked.
‘’Tain’t no-count,’ Sue declared with finality. ‘The beetles got the bean crop.’
I didn’t ask if she ever used the spray I had given Bonehead.
‘Get any squashes this year?’
‘No’m, the borers done et ‘em up.’
Sue sighed. ‘No’m. And we like potatoes, too. But them stripe-back potato bugs done chewed the stalks right down even with the ground.’
It looked as though our conversation had come to a dead end. I inquired after the children. Doin’ jest fine, they were. Then I asked about Bonehead. . . .
‘ He’s jest tol’able — as good as you kin ‘spect, I reckon. But you knows as well as I does — Bonehead’s a no-good farmer. He’s jest a tinkerer. Fixin’ up that damn thing he calls a tractor. Took our old Ford to do it and bought some extry parts at a junk yard in town. . . . Jest means we hain’t got a car no more and cain’t go nowhere of a Sunday. . . . And hit won’t work. Jest sucks up gas, is all.’
I knew that Sue was right about the tractor. Jokes about Bonehead and his tractor had been the delight of the community for several weeks.
‘Won’t it run at all?’ I asked. ‘I thought I heard it the other day.’
‘Yes’m, hit’ll run.’ Sue sounded more amused than bitter. ‘But, as I always says, runnin’ don’t do no good ‘less you’s goin’ somewhere. That tractor’ll run twill it comes to the end of a row. Bonehead’s got it fixed so hit cain’t turn round. All he kin do is back it back. And thataway it goes — back an’ fill, back an’ fill. . , . Hain’t no sense to it, I says. And him with as sharp a pair o’ mules as ever kicked the waddin’ outa any man. . . . But that’s Bonehead fer you.’
Yes, that was Bonehead for you. And that was Sue.
Bonehead’s tobacco crop never made him anything that year. In the fall he sold one of his mules, the one called Sharp. He held on to Snag. And this year he ploughed with one mule. He was just starting to board his land when his troubles came down on him. Roy Allen, his little boy, was riding on the board, and the two little girls were playing in the furrows.
Newt Parker came out to the field where Bonehead was working — Newt Parker in a pair of clean overalls and a white shirt. He stood at the near end of the field, watching Bonehead. He waited for Bonehead to get within earshot. Then he said: ‘Don’t reckon I’ll work today. I hain’t been feelin’ so good.’
Bonehead didn’t say anything. He hawed Snag around and started down the next stretch, his mind going back to the breakfast table that morning: Sue, pale and broodsome, plopping the coffeepot on the table so roughly that the coffee spluttered from the spout, and Newt nowhere around.
‘Where’s Newt at?’ he had asked.
‘He’s your hired man. You look fer ‘im.’ She was watching the biscuits. She kept her back turned to Bonehead.
Later he saw Newt. He noticed that Newt was shaved and that he was wearing a clean white shirt. He was coming from the barn. He was carrying the milk buckets into the kitchen And Bonehead wondered at that because Sue always milked in the summertime. But he said nothing, and while Newt was in the house he walked over to the barn and hitched up Snag.
Now all these things came back to him.
Bonehead took Snag down the next stretch. He was thinking of Newt and his thoughts slowed his steps. When he came back to the near end of the field, Newt was still standing around.
‘I’m all down in the back,’ he whined.
This time Bonehead looked sharply at Newt and grunted.
Halfway down the field Roy Allen spoke. ‘I like this, Pappy.’
Bonehead looked over his shoulder at his son sitting cross-legged on the board. He was proud to have a little son who sat up so straight and sure.
‘Like what, son?’
‘I like ridin’ here with you and thinkin’ of that mess o’ greens Maw’s cookin’ fer dinner. I’s gittin’ hongry.’
‘My breakfast done give out on me two hours ago,’ Bonehead said, wetting his thin, sun-parched lips. ‘But you and me has got a power o’ work to do twill dinnertime.’
Bonehead was down at the far end of the field when he heard Sue calling the little girls.
‘That’s funny,’ he said, half to himself, half to Roy Allen. ‘’Tain’t near dinnertime.’
‘ I’s glad to be a boy,’ Roy Allen proudly declared. ‘I kin stay with my paw till he goes home fer his dinner.’
The little girls started for home, their bare feet brown against the brown earth. They ran across the field, and when they came to the hard stubble of the pasture beyond they stopped running and slowed down to a walk. Newt Parker shaded his eyes. He looked down at Bonehead and Snag and Roy Allen. Then he started toward the house, too.
At first he walked. Bonehead stopped halfway down the row and followed him with his eyes. ‘What the hell . . .’ he muttered to himself.
Then he heard Sue’s voice, shrill and angry. ‘Hurry up, Newt. They’s here!’
Bonehead could see Sue. She was standing on the front porch. She held a bundle in her arms, and she had put on the red-and-white print dress she wore to town. Newt Parker broke into a run.
Bonehead knew something was bad wrong. He dropped the reins and started to run. He left the mule without hitching it up, and he forgot about Roy Allen. Bonehead was like that. His mind could cover but one emergency at a time. Something had gone wrong at his house, and he must settle that first. First things first, he said to himself as he ran, and one at a time . . . they last longer.
He caught up with Newt a few feet from the house.
‘Stop right there!’ Newt shouted. And this time he looked Bonehead straight in the eye.
Bonehead went on running. Newt pulled an automatic 45 from his pocket. ‘I says, stop right in your tracks, or I’ll blow a hole the size of a punkin thu you.’
Bonehead stopped, his face hatechanged. This was his farm, wasn’t it? And his hired man. He paid the man a wage, and only last week he had gone to town with a handful of crumpled bills and a pocketful of change to make a payment on the mortgage. But here was his hired man pointing a gun at him, ordering him about, telling him when to stop. And there was nothing he, Bonehead, could do but obey him — stop and stand and look, hands hanging limp and moist at his sides.
Sue came out of the house, pushing the little girls ahead. Clarinda, the older, ran toward the car, but Jo-Jo stopped, pointing at Bonehead. ‘Hain’t Pappy goin’ with us?’
‘He hain’t goin’ nowhere!’ Sue snapped. ‘And you git in that car ‘fore I beat your ears down.’
When Sue and the little girls were in the car, Newt jumped in the back seat beside them. A man Bonehead did not know was driving, and a woman was sitting with him in the front seat. Newt leaned out the back window and kept his gun aimed at Bonehead while the driver backed the car around and started it down the lane to the road.
Bonehead saw the car float away in a cloud of dust. He saw it heave and lurch and grind its way in and out of the deep ruts. And he just stood, ground-bound. It was only when the car had turned on to the main highway that he remembered his rifle, standing in the corner by the front door.
All the words he had ever heard spoken about other men’s wives by the idlers who whittled the bench in front of Tip Pointer’s store came back to him with the sharp sting of a volley of buckshot. He could hear their laughter, he could see Tip’s son, his fat belly shaking with laughter, and Granpaw Pointer — the one they all called Sugardough — leaning out of his rocker by the door: ‘What’s that you’s sayin’? What’s that I hear?’ And the men calling back: ‘What’s that you doesn’t hear, Sugardough?’ And the laughter again. . . .
Sue — you all know Sue, Bonehead’s wife. Sue. Weed-muckie Sue. Easyplacket Sue. His neighbors must have known. They must have norated it up and down Tabcat Creek, how Newt, the hired man, was sweet-talkin’ Sue. They must have heard and looked at Bonehead and wondered if he knew. . . .
Bonehead was still staring down the lane when Roy Allen, panting and hot, ran up to him. He was staring down the lane, his eyes glued to the spot where the Model-A Ford had made its right turn and disappeared out of his sight behind a clump of locust trees. The dust had settled, and the hot stillness of the summer noon muffled the cackling of the hens.
‘Pappy, Pappy, what’s happened hereabouts?’
Bonehead didn’t move. Roy Allen looked up at Bonehead’s small pale-blue eyes, shame-narrowed down to watery slits, and when those eyes kept staring straight ahead he dared not ask the question again. He walked over to the porch. He sat down on the top step, leaned his head against the post, and cried quietly. Bonehead’s eyes dropped to the ground. He stared at his battered brogans. One had a shoelace, one was tied with string. Bonehead vaguely remembered that he had intended getting some shoelaces in town. How did he come to forget? . . . He walked over to the porch and slumped down beside Roy Allen.
‘Your maw’s gone,’ he finally said.
Roy Allen went on sobbing.
‘Your sisters is gone, too. They all went with Newt Parker.’
Roy Allen turned his tear-smudged face to Bonehead. ‘Did little Jo-Jo wear my shoes?’
Bonehead shook his head wearily from side to side. ‘I recollec’ that both my daughters was wearin’ shoes — both of ‘em.’
They sat in silence a long while. Roy Allen had stopped crying. Every now and then he would take a deep sniff and wipe his nose on his shirt sleeve, turning the matter of the shoes over in his mind. Now that Jo-Jo was gone, and the pair of shoes they shared was gone with her, he might stand a fair chance of getting a pair of his own. But, with the instinctive wisdom of the very young, he knew this was not the time to speak of new shoes. He went in the house to look up some victuals.
When he returned he was crying.
‘Pappy, the stove is plumb cold. And they hain’t no greens cooked with sidemeat like I thought. There hain’t nothin’ cooked at-all, at-all.’
Bonehead put his arm around Roy Allen. ‘Don’t you worry, son. Your ole paw’ll feed you. He’ll feed you good. He’ll give you all the things you likes best.’
‘I like bananas.’ Then, after a pause, ‘ But I doesn’t want bananas. I want my maw. I want my maw fer to cook greens with side-meat. ... I want my maw and I want my shoes.’ And Roy Allen was sobbing.
Bonehead stood up and stretched his arms and yawned. All at once he felt very tired — too tired to care.
‘Son, your paw’ll do what he kin fer you,’ he said wearily. ‘I reckon he kin get some bananas, but he cain’t bring back your maw and your shoes. They’s gone.’
Now Bonehead’s folks lived some miles away, and they lived by the side of the river. Bonehead’s parents were old, but they were better off than Bonehead. They had a nice little cabin, and Old Man Hendricks was a shaker in the stone quarry. Maw Hendricks made her own sunbonnets and raised a little garden, and Paw Hendricks didn’t do much, of a Saturday night, but drink a couple of beers. Sunday morning they bought a gallon of gas and went to church in Pleasant Hill.
‘We’s goin’ to see your granmaw and your granpaw,’ Bonehead said.
But Roy Allen was sobbing loudly now. He was tired and hot and hungry, and through his sobs he kept saying: ‘I want my maw. . . . I want my maw fer to cook greens.’
They had a long drink from the spring, and Roy Allen had a glass of milk and some biscuit while Bonehead snooped around the house for a snort of liquor. The liquor was gone.
It’s six miles from Bonehead’s farm to the river, and they walked all the way, Roy Allen trudging along by Bonehead’s side. Three times the boy stopped and said, ‘I’s tired,’ and each time Bonehead carried him on his back till his breath came short and his blue denim shirt was dark with sweat. ‘I kin walk now,’ Roy Allen would say. He had given up crying. He was a man now, walking down the road with his father. There was no time to cry.
Bonehead sat on the porch with his mother while Roy Allen chased the chickens and crawled under the cabin to scare out the old white sow and her litter of pink pigs. Roy Allen could hear the grown folks talking in whispers. Every now and then he heard his name spoken. But he never heard his mother’s name — only the words ‘she’ and ‘her.’ And then he knew they were talking about his mother and he would stop in his play.
Finally Bonehead called to him. Roy Allen stood at the foot of the steps, looking up at his father.
‘ Son — your granmaw wants you to visit with her a spell.’
‘Is you stayin’ too?’
‘Naw, son, I hain’t a-stayin’. I’s got to git back. I’s got to milk that cow and feed that mule — if I kin ketch ‘im. And tomorrow I’s got to finish boardin’ down my land, so I kin set my plants and you and me has a crop to sell, come fall.’
‘Then I’s goin’ with ye,’ Roy Allen said.
Bonehead looked into Roy Allen’s determined face. He started for the gate.
‘Son — I hain’t goin’ yit,’ he pleaded, his hand on the gate latch. ‘I’s comin’ back fer supper. You wait right here while I fotch your granpaw.’
Roy Allen stayed with his grandmother. He let her wash his face and comb his hair. Then he sat on the porch and waited for Bonehead.
Old Man Hendricks came home at edge of dark. He was carrying a bunch of bananas under his arm — a smallish bunch of small brown bananas.
‘They’s fer you, Roy Allen,’ he said. ‘All fer you. Your paw sent ‘em.’
Roy Allen took the bananas in his sturdy brown hands. He looked at them a long while. Then he looked at his grandfather, and the old man looked away and coughed a deep husky cough.
‘Don’t you think hard of your paw, young feller,’ he said sternly as he slowly ascended the porch steps.
It was dark and cool when Granmaw Hendricks put Roy Allen in the trundle bed. He had sat in her lap after supper and sobbed and called for his maw and paw, and she had rocked him in her ample lap, saying over and over, ‘I knows just how you feel. Granmaw knows.’
The katydids sang their endless song, and soon Roy Allen was picking up the words of their singing. Katydid, katydid, katydid. . . .
‘Katy did what, Granmaw?’
‘You listen, and you’ll soon find out.’
Roy Allen listened and mumbled the words of the song. Katydid, katydid, katydid, katydidn’t. . . .
‘Katy didn’t, Granmaw.’
‘That’s right, boy. I reckon she didn’t.’
Katydid, katydid, katydidn’t, katydid. . . .
Roy Allen woke in the trundle bed. The big bed beside him was empty, and he could smell biscuits and coffee.
There were two bananas left from the night before. Roy Allen ate one and gave the other to his granmaw.
‘I never gets bananas at home,’ he said. ‘Or almost never.’
Instinctively he knew that his home needed defending. It would never do to let Granmaw know how bad things really were. ‘But we have greens. Does ye ever cook greens, Granmaw? Greens with side-meat?’
Bonehead must have walked back to his farm that night. The next morning I could see him from the high knoll of our sheep pasture. He was gee-hawing Snag around, and the board on which Roy Allen had sat, cross-legged and sturdy, was piled with field rock. The following week Bonehead set his tobacco — more than two weeks late.
But I haven’t been able to call him Bonehead any more. Maybe Snowball is right. Maybe the name fits too well. And maybe it doesn’t. I even tried calling him Mr. Hendricks, but he looked so shocked that I had to give it up. I don’t call him anything now. He seems to like it better that way.