A green light to greatness.®

Promises to keep

By Billy Smith


I visit Mrs. Robertson and her twins on most days when I saddle my skunk-tailed mare and patrol the outskirts of my rural Wise County, Texas landscape. They are always in their gated community a few strides from where I call home, permanent fixtures to a simpler but more savage time.

My horse is a refining force to this visit. She’s a fine form of motion and a perfect conveyance for this meeting.  Her footfall better marks time with the cadence of lives of this weathered neighborhood.  On this stop, she paws the ground; I dismount in preparation for a visit as if I were a distant invited guest, arriving after a long ride in the broiling Texas sun.  I learn a little something each time, after which I’m confronted by more questions than answers. The Robertson-three and their kin have lived at the end of the dirt road that fronts my house since 1884.  Their place is just off of Pioneer Road in the tiny community of Bethel. My wife and I live on nearby Zion Road; it’s a chalky dirt path with a half-dozen houses dotting the prairie grassland.

A womb of Boxelders and Cedar Elms protect the Robertsons, the closest thing to woods in my neighborhood from where horses, alpacas, cows, and dogs share the horizon with a mess of other critters.  To a native Plains Texan, critters are those creatures worthy of extermination should food become scarce or should they pose a nuisance. Critters are skunks, armadillos, bunnies, jackrabbits and the occasional opossum.  While I keep the requisite .22-caliber rifle near my bed to greet the occasional interloper, the Robertsons have long since lost the need for such protection.

They surprised me at first; from horseback, they aren’t easily spotted. The clank of the mare’s iron shoes against the stone outcrops near the Robertson’s place announced my arrival.  Once sighted, I struggle to understand how the three could mark lives so tucked away out here in the northern shards of Texas.  It’s a grim sort of community with a handful of other residents who keep to themselves, long since surrendering their elements to their surroundings, unkempt and caressed by the aggressive prairie grass.

But the Robertsons have maintained a prominence in the Bethel community, established by the drovers and dirt turners of a distant era. In this spasm of space the heave of my horse’s breath enshrouds this cutout of the past. If only for a splash of red pines leaning in the breeze, this would be a Frost poem that transports me to a distant childhood, far from anything that would have inspired a poet’s pen.  My mind wanders to the Texas Plains where I penciled my first crude poems. It’s one of those places where the young either weave their own tapestries with ocher-dyed thoughts of a different future or wonder what sins they or their kin had committed to find themselves in this forever-horizon.  It’s a place where promises echo forever in a barren landscape where trees are green exclamation points against the rusty earth. For me today’s ride is a time travel, a stroll through a past place that I can feel and sense but never fully know.  Today’s rhythm carries its own staccato schema of tortures and joys, less obvious than those of a century ago, but tortures and joys all the same. I keep one boot-covered foot jabbed into a time where slower was better and safer and where absorption acts as headmaster: Learn or die.

Mrs. Robertson and the twins take me to that place each time my mare and I saunter to their resting place, where they greet me as if we are old friends, all of us saddled up and covering ground as the native stems stroke the pasterns of our horses. Like left-behinds, Mrs. Robertson and her twins are reserved; they don’t give up much about themselves and yet they seem so much like my own kin, souls like my grandparents (Walter James and Lula Mae Smith; we called them Poe and Moe). Nearly a century ago they were courageous enough to move west and just silly minded enough to think the west, like the grass, might embrace them. The up and back of the mare’s slow walk mystically rock me to a worn spot at the foot of Poe’s form-fitting barcalounger where I spent hours nearly a half century ago probing his past as only permitted a grandchild. From his cragged and weathered lips bubbled stories he never uttered to adults, moments shared between far-flung generations. With a smoldering Winston dangling from the same work-worn lips we traveled together to the water’s edge. He growled out the particulars and my imagination filled in the hollow places and I drifted into his tortured youth:

Leonard Bascom Smith’s reflection was especially pallid in the green murkiness of the Ouachita River near Smackover, Arkansas. Walter had seen his father’s foul reflection many times. A nearly empty Ball jar of Leonard’s own home-brewed demon left Walter little hope that he would escape another thrashing. He just kept staring at Leonard’s disjointed image in the thick, rubbery algae that coated the river’s surface like a smothering blanket. Maybe, he thought, this was one loathsome moment in a dream waiting to evaporate in the Arkansas steam. To a frightened 10-year-old, the courses of escape linger in the mind. But reality is like one of Leonard’s mechanical left crosses--punch with the left, save the “alkeehall” with the right--the same motion every time.

Walter saw Leonard’s scabby paw swing back across his sinewy chest and right bicep. Right before it struck across Walter’s left ear, he clamped his eyes shut. He awoke balled up in his mother’s arms.
Mary Mae was her name, a slight mountain woman, probably of Irish extraction but born into a world where pedigree was inconsequential. In these moments, she was a faint, soft image caressing Walter’s unkempt hair and guiding his head to rest on her lap of homemade, flour-sack dress. She stroked him across his smudged cheek and told him to be a good boy.

“You always be my boy, even when this new baby came.”

Mary Mae always soothed Walter during the beating times. Walter knew that the fragile Mary Mae could never stop them. She could only clean up the mess, both while she lived and for many years after her passing.

“Yah daddy don’t mean it. He just wont you to be a good boy directly.”

Leonard hadn’t always been a ghastly figure in Walter’s life. He had chiseled into Walter the gifts of huntin’, fishin’, and trackin’. If you could do all three by the time you’re 10, the Ouachita was a playground, an adventure populated with squirrel hunts, catfish battles and occasional brushes with wilder prey like bobcats and peccaries. Walter trekked the marshes of Southern Arkansas like the trails were written into his genetic code. His imagination salted the muddy river banks with wild adventures of valor and triumph.  Nimble gray squirrels became ruthless mountain men from down the river, hell-bent on taking Walter’s Savage .22 rifle. Sometimes tussles with feisty four-pound catfish became struggles for survival with giant crocodiles that neighbors claimed lived at the bottom of the crick but no one had actually seen. Fantasy wasn’t an escape for Walter; it was a 10-year-old boy’s passion, his life’s overture. It was a nurturing mother. And Mary Mae was the prelude and postlude to this backwoods symphony that swayed from joyful to terrifying on cue.

The woods never really replaced Mary Mae after she died giving birth to Walter’s little sister, Mary. Walter wouldn’t accept such realities for some days yet. The bogs and rich, black, sticky mud kept his mind busy from the sting of a pained father. All the while Mary Mae urged him to “be a good boy,” in the furtive places of his memory. Her passing from the vulgarities of early 20th century Arkansas childbearing meant nothing to Walter’s imagination. She was always there—tender and sweet and always at the ready.

Shattering the kindness of his moment with Mary Mae’s specter, Leonard’s knotted knuckles smack across the same cheek that she had just caressed, sending him face first into the tarry mud along the Ouachita.

“You a no ‘count. Simple as that. Reckon it’s time you git.”

He chugged back the last swig of liquid salve as Walter scrambled to his backside and searched for Mary Mae along the river bank. She’d slipped away. She sometimes did that. She never liked a tussle with Leonard, even when she was alive. Sometimes he turned on her as well. She knew she couldn’t care for Walter with a knotty welt across her cheek so she never intervened in Leonard’s cruel discipline. She was better at tending to the telltale remnants of Walter’s encounters with Leonard. Right now Walter needed to do what Leonard had told him, “Git.”

Ouchita River boys don’t pack much. Courage gets replaced with resourcefulness or hopelessness. You get to choose.  Walter hadn’t yet decided between the two kin. The choices weighed on him at 10 the way they usually lean against much older stock: You don’t know no better. Maybe at 13 or 16, but not at 10. He just scrounged around in the black mud and memories of Mary Mae. Didn’t understand why she’d leave him with that little helpless ball that Leonard called his sister. Sisters play; they don’t cry.

He slipped back to the day that Mary Mae left him with his newborn sister. She screamed mightily through the thin-framed walls of their shotgun shack just before Walter made his almost daily run to the river. Everyone within earshot knew when mountain women were in labor. Their screams shattered the silence of the woods. Walter was still too young to understand why screaming was a necessity to having babies. He just knew that when Mary Mae’s wailing stopped, Leonard’s began. Leonard scrambled from Mary Mae’s bedroom with the bundle in hand. Tar-ball tears streamed down Leonard’s spindly growth as he made a run to the nearby still and caught a glimpse of Walter along the trail.

After pulling a draw from the still’s copper tubing into his Ball jar Leonard sucked down a couple of swigs. He ignored the squealing bundle in his left hand and scoured the woods and Walter’s hiding place.  He spotted Walter at the end of a final draw. Leonard ignored the poison ivy undergrowth, working his way to Walter and mustering a puissant swing, nicking his cheek with a ragged finger nail. A trickle of blood oozed below his left eye. He’d come to know that blood and pain are separable twins. Leonard Bascom had knocked the “dog water” out of him before. That’s what Leonard called his beatings. Walter was never sure what dog water was; he figured it to be blood. It was the only thing come out of him when Leonard would go to drinking. This time there was no pain. The dog water that meandered down Walter’s grimy cheek was just a cue to scram.

When Mary Mae was alive, Walter ran to her.  She’d scoop him up and hold him close to her dress. It was soft and still smelled of wheat flour. Mary Mae always smelled of sweet bread. She kept the smell even in Walter’s imagination now. Around her, he’d sniff deeply like he was gobbling up a fresh loaf. She’d wipe the dog water away and rock him while Leonard would rail about how weak a boy Walter would become if Mary Mae kept coddling him.

“Boy’s gotta take his medicine.”

Leonard’s medicine was strong and fierce, a bloated mass of anger and corn mash. He clung to the notion that the entire world had turned against him and all of his tirades were suitable, given that God had reckoned to toy with him like a mouse in a shoe box. Leonard needed his own mouse.

To linger while Leonard drained his bell jar always meant that more dog water was on the way. It is time to go. Walter broke to a dead run down to the river’s edge. It’s where he went when things weren’t right at home. He’d found a little burrow beneath a massive slab of sandstone. Warm and inviting. He curled up in the musty corner and drifted to sleep. He slipped into unconsciousness and the arms of Mary Mae once more. Warm. Tender and sweet. Leonard Bascom had laid heavier fists on Walter but this one stung some place other than his clay-smudged face. It made a ripple where little boys don’t usually feel.

Guess dads just do that when they’ve drunk enough home brew. Leonard harbored an extra measure when the cocktail included a dose of love lost. But lost where? It had been 14 days since Walter had heard Mary Mae wail away in his tiny bedroom. It’s where Walter slept when he wasn’t down by the river.  For the last two weeks, she’d come faithfully in his dreams as the sun fell and Walter drifted off near the water’s edge.

Poe’s lower lip quivered a bit as he took the final drag on his cigarette.  He was as close to tears as I’d ever witnessed, but a hardened Smackover boy is largely immune to these sorts of emotional outbreaks.  If he walked one more step on the banks of the Smackover, a gusher might ensue.  So it was time to stop. Poe was the sort who didn’t wince at the opportunity to fight for money in the back alleys of Hot Springs, but couldn’t bear the embarrassment of breaking down in front of a toe-headed grandson.

But Poe found a way to weep, at least once. Moe, whose recollections equaled Poe’s in vim and passion, knew there was rivers of tears that never stopped flowing.

I have never known anyone quite like Moe. I don’t ever expect to. My father’s mother was formed in the black loam of southern Arkansas and watched her father’s mule train exact revenge for their lives of servitude by stopping part way across a Hot Springs train track.

“I reckon I never heard anything like it. It uz one of the saddest days of my life,” she’d say, just before she dragged the tar black skillet over the oven fire to fry something. Sadness triggers action, busyness.
She fried every day as though lard was ambrosia, replenished by a daily offering. To what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was an offering to mere labor. The sizzle of a hot iron skillet was evidence of work. It was evidence of productivity. If women’s work is in the kitchen, folks ought to hear it and smell it before they taste it. Folks needed to know that someone is working while they were socializing. Perhaps blackening a cheap piece of round steak or scalding one side of overripe potatoes jettisoned what might be lurking bad in them. Poor white folk live happy but tucked away in their psyches is the notion that bad can always get worse. It had sure enough been worse for Moe and Poe.

By the time I stepped foot in her world, things had gotten much better.  She’d lived through the brooding days of The Great Depression (“Isn’t nothing great about it,” she often spouted) and stood side-by-side with her Irish-Choctaw mother who fed scads of relatives, friends and the occasional passerby; all provisions were at the mercy of strangers. Hunger always trumped familiarity.

“We never had no money. But we always had food,” she’d say, contemplating how such a state could exist — food and no money.

Subsistence is an art form in southern Arkansas. Staying alive is as simple as planting turnips, Polk salad, or enough sweet corn to deliver a mess. Even after a half century of living, I don’t know what a mess is. Not sure if you can even plant a mess. I know you can harvest a mess. A mess is some but it isn’t a lot.

Moe could toil in a garden for hours. Her favorite garden plant was Sheepshire. It’s pretty and edible. As a boy, I devoured it. It was sweet at the leaves and sour at the stem. I suspect in Moe’s world something that is pretty and edible was the perfect foliage.

As a peach-faced adult, she baked in the scalding sun and relentless wind and sands of far West Texas, a move she and Poe had made in the late 1920s. They became refugees to the booming oil industry. They poked around from one West Texas sand hole to another trying to make other folks rich and keep themselves from starving. The sour smell of crude oil wafted through her listless canvas tent as Poe pounded out a living on the oil rig floors. It was conflicted work. The objective was to hit a gusher that would coat the drilling floor hands with thick black crude oil. Sometimes the gushers were fierce enough to kill, maim or send a deck hand hacking up clods of black discharge. It could be worse. Tapping into a pocket of noxious hydrogen sulfide gas could leave the children of these tent villages fatherless in an instant. The cowardly needn’t apply.

Moe was neither coward nor superhero. But her linage was hard to mistake. Her drawl testified to her countryness. She was completely country. Shoes were a luxury. Makeup was saved for Sunday. She sucked life out of most words, adding more syllables than a northeasterner’s patience could endure. She was what most city dwellers probably conjured in their minds when they think of countryness. They probably think of Moe – the progressive northeasterners who hatched the plans to aid folks like Moe’s family during The Great Depression that wasn’t so great. At the same time such niceties helped to assuage their own guilt by heaping government opportunities on the poor and the white. They pitied them. Moe pitied them back.

“Can’t none of them cook for anything. Can’t skin a squirrel. Can’t shoot a rabbit. Can’t make decent cornbread,” she would rattle. She’d met many of them, the WPA bureaucrats who traipsed through impoverished south and southwest conjuring up work that she knew would create government dependency, and molding her own simple form of political philosophy. “I hate Democrats,” she would say while I listened from my countertop perch, “almost as much as I hate Republicans. The Republicans starved us and the Democrats treat us like we’re helpless.”

Moe would concede days of helplessness, but they were few and she was never helpless in the kitchen. Cornbread was the litmus test for measuring country culinary arts. Sweet, coarse and moist. It came straight out of the lard-filled skillet, poured in at peak temperature, like molten lava, spewing, hissing and spitting. The outside was dark and crunchy. The top was golden and steamy. A dollop of butter completed the ensemble. City folk just didn’t have it in ’em.

She lost a child in one of those oil-soaked tents. Burned up in a fire.

“That was the worst day,” she recollected and then scurried off to take care of some meaningless household chore, lost for a moment in the unutterable. She declared it as trumping all other bad days, even the cataclysm of her own father’s death. The worst day never got completely told. But that baby was woven into the tapestry of every lonesome day of her life. “That was the worst day,” is all she could get out. Then she got busy. Busy cooking. Busy cleaning. Busy talking about something meaningless or at least less excruciating. Isn’t right to cast your burdens off on someone else. Isn’t right for someone to see you cry. Isn’t right to lose a baby. Isn’t right to lose a baby to fire. It’s the worst day.

She died at 90. The last day we talked, she said his name. “Poor little James Walter.” A tear meandered through the crevices of her sandblasted, rugose skin. It seemed to fill in the empty places left vacant after 70 years of mourning. Seventy years was a long time to pine. It ought to make a person cranky, a bitter mess. Make ’em hate living. Make ’em wish they’d never been born if being born meant hurting so bad for longer than is fair. But Moe wasn’t cranky. Even when the “worst day” came to mind it stung and satisfied all at the same time. Like chomping into a freshly-pulled turnip from her vegetable garden. It stings then satisfies.

Moe was an uncomplicated complexity. Things were black and white. There was no excuse for poor behavior and poor behavior was anything that hurt people. An unkind word was wrong. Reminding someone of too much of the past was wrong.

“Let that go,” she’d say. “Ain’t worth the worry.”

But then sometimes the truth needed telling. Some folks reached such a state of deprivation that something stronger than denial was demanded. And like any good southern woman, she always engaged the appropriate methodology for insult. The preface to her rage, or “honesty” as she would call it, was the same three-word phase: “Bless your heart.”

Seemed by starting any insult and ending any scalding lecture with, “bless your heart,” was tantamount to an unalterable King’s X. “Bless your heart, son,” she voiced my way once in a mouthy teen-age moment. I had a feeling of what was next.

“But if I ever hear you talk to your mother the way you just did, I might be inclined to beat the dog water out of you. Bless your heart son, you’re better than that.”

There it was laid out to me in stark objectivity for what I believed was at worst a minor transgression of correcting my mother’s grammar. Did Moe know that theirselves isn’t a word? “Bless your heart. If your momma tells you the grass is purple, it’s purple.” And that always lit me up inside. Truth is truth, I thought. If theirselves isn’t a word, it shouldn’t be spoken. Bless her heart.

I suppose Moe understood the rhythms and affectations of life. She understood sacrifice, the pain of birth, the loneliness of caring for needy children. She understood the pain of the “worst day.” Theirselves just didn’t fit into her equation of egregious wrongdoing. Didn’t rate among the great notches of pain chiseled into her life’s sculpture. Neither did purple grass. But dog water did.

She never beat the dog water out of me. She threatened to often. For some reason, I never called her bluff. Something told me she could and probably had beaten the dog water out of someone. Probably a lot of someones in her years. I didn’t want to get added to the list. Besides, I was baffled by what harshness could be bottled in her threats and the opaqueness of dog water. Didn’t even know if it was one word or two. When Poe made the threat it was a one-word utterance all garbled together--doggawater. Moe used two distinct words, clearly enunciated. Poignant. Certain. I was certain that I needed dog water to survive. I assumed that losing dog water was a painful, ghastly experience. Things that hurt weren’t worth doing, I thought.  Maybe dog water was a poison that needed expelling. Then your heart could be blessed.

She came about her peculiarities naturally, a product of the Depression and everything that went with it. Those early years formed Moe’s patina, the hardened crust that protected her and revealed her identity. And that baby, resident so vividly in her fading memory, formed the basin of her soft and tender place, far away from the shoals of the Ouachita River.

Lost in my own recollections, I hardly realized I had been stroking the skunky mane of paint mare, all the while staring at the headstones of Mrs. Robertson and her twins. Lost for a while wondering if two babies made Mrs. Robertson’s grief more unbearable than Moe’s loss of one. One baby causes a brooding demise. Two must have been a swift and treacherous falling off, a crippling spiral that sent Mrs. Robertson to her children within a few weeks of their own passing.

I’ve never found signs of Mr. Robertson.  Perhaps his grief ate away at him for eerie years much like James Walter’s fiery loss nibbled at Moe, a slow anguished drip.  Or perhaps the loss of an entire family is cause to give up all together and perhaps he faded away in prairie’s loam.

With every visit to the Robertsons I wonder what places were never traveled and what promises were never kept and verses never written.

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By Billy Smith
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