When we arrived back home, Jim’s mom and Sandie had already completed the switch of bedrooms so that Jim and I could have what had been his parents’ bedroom, the only room in the house with a large closet. Even with that benefit, I had to leave my out-of-season clothes and many other personal items (with permission) at my parents. On the drive back from White Sulphur Springs, I had expressed again my uneasiness at displacing my mother-in-law from the very room she had shared for years with her husband. But Jim reassured me that changing rooms was practically a Russell tradition since the house had been constantly occupied since 1867 with many children being born and reared there resulting in the need for many rearrangements. For example, he explained, Sandie’s room was once occupied by their father and his brother Richard when they were boys. And Jim’s bedroom had at that same time belonged to his Uncle Ed. Moreover, when I had asked Jim’s mom before the wedding if she were truly going to be all right with the change, she stated firmly, “Jim is the head of this household and has been for several years now. He deserves that room. And you as his bride will deserve it too, just as I once did when I moved here from Virginia to become his dad’s wife.”
So there, in that room with its north and west-facing windows, its plain plank wood floor covered with an aging brown and tan oval braided rug, in a lumpy (also way too squeaky) double bed, and despite my vague sense of intrusion—Jim and I began married life.
My Marietta strategy worked well for us, although I could tell that Jim was never completely happy with it, given his loyalty to West Virginia. Once we began commuting to Marietta, our Ford sedan required new tires rather quickly and during our senior year also required an expensive transmission repair. But we survived, obtained our degrees, and managed to keep the farm going and our savings growing little by little each month. In fact, the farm’s output actually increased a small amount each year, both in production and in revenues, as food prices continued to climb.
I obtained considerable practice for my accounting classes by starting to track in detail the farm’s production and financial performance by crop as well as by grand totals, so that we would know with considerable accuracy which crops and which varieties of those crops were producing income for us and which were not. This information quickly made a difference in what we chose to plant, when we planted it, and in what quantities. In fact, by the time we graduated we had over $8,000 in savings waiting to be invested in the right land or farm equipment. Of course, we owed a lot of this success to Javier’s assistance as he continued to divide his worktime between our farm in the day and El Caballito at night.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of relief that settled over us the first summer after our college graduation. For the first time since we were small children we would NOT be returning to school—no more homework, no exams, no trig problems to post and explain (though I did owe Mr. Ames a lot!). Instead, we now had the real thing. I quit my part-time job and worked now at summing real revenues, ours. Paid real bills, also ours (ouch!). Balanced real books that accurately reflected the farm’s financial performance. And I was happy doing all of it.
As for Jim, who now had three women to look after him—well, he now lived like a medieval lord, wanting for nothing, at least nothing that was within our meager economic means. Lucie, for that is what Lucinda Stephenson Russell, my mother-in-law, now insisted that I call her after I moved into her home—Lucie still did most of the cooking, since she had no equal in the county in that department. Sandie still took care of the barn chores but did so with my assistance. And I took care of Jim, completely. We three women divided the other daily chores, such as the housecleaning and laundry.
As we adjusted to one another in the small farmhouse, certain things were inevitably changing. Sandie was now a senior in high school and was dating a neighbor boy, Freddy Cunningham, who had been her childhood tormenter at Locust Hill Elementary. But as they grew up and Sandie developed a figure and grew her hair in a long, graceful flow down to the middle of her back, Freddy came to see her differently and pursue her fervently. For her part, Sandie was coy with him. One week they were pals; the next strangers. Then for a while they were more than pals; then strangers again. The more diffident Sandie was with Freddy, the more he wanted her. His almost weekly gifts of flowers, candies, jewelry, and such became her new 4-H ribbons. Understandably, then, Sandie had more things on her mind those days than the daily welfare of the stubborn guineas and breeding a replacement for the recently deceased Wiz, whom she had refused to slaughter but instead buried with the dignity due a prize-winning rooster.
The other thing that became clear to me was the effect that Sandie’s growing up was having on her mom, who was now growing closer and dearer to me. Lucie not only knew mentally that Sandie would soon be leaving the house—that part was no problem—she felt it emotionally—and that part was. She seemed to have a great fear of being left alone, which was already happening occasionally now when Sandie was out on Saturday nights with Freddy and Jim and I also went somewhere, usually to El Caballito or sometimes to the Rayon Room or to a movie. We usually invited her to go with us, and occasionally she did. But much more often she would just sigh rather sadly and pretend that she had to catch up on some sewing or reading. I noticed too that she kept a rosary close by her nearly all the time now. I think if Jim and I had moved away after marrying, in addition to the death of her husband and the pending loss of Sandie, she would have become a completely broken woman. Now she clung to the two of us even as she felt Sandie slipping away but was also careful not to tread obtrusively on the tender ground of our new marriage.
After moving to Locust Hill, I did make a point to visit my parents once a week, usually to have dinner with them on Fridays. Jim came too, as often as the farm work allowed. My parents still seemed to anticipate that some great disaster would befall Jim and me, but at least they were now both cordial to Jim when he came along. Dad would occasionally joke about how nice it would be to have grandchildren. Mom would glower at him then, and he would quickly change the subject, usually to something about farming or his own work. His factory recently had laid off twenty-five more workers, and he was quite concerned about possibly being included the next time, for he felt there would surely be a next time. I could see deepening lines in his face, something I would probably have missed if I still saw him every day as I did before moving to Locust Hill. In fact, both my parents began to look much older to me and didn’t seem to be adjusting well to an empty nest, despite the anguish I had caused them in the last years that I was there.
But there were worries on our side too. Jim was concerned that we were still way too dependent on Uncle Ed and the local grocers’ cooperative, which he feared was losing its competition with the regional grocery chains faster than he had originally thought it would. And so was I, every time I totaled up our monthly financial performance. In fact, Kloss stores, one of the largest grocery chains in the country, had just opened a new store on the South Side, an event that would surely doom at least two of the local co-op grocers in that neighborhood. Would we be able to make the switch from strictly local to regional or even national customers before what appeared to be the inevitable collapse of the local ones? Indeed, these were quantifiable concerns: revenues were falling, and profits were growing thin. Also at least some of our costs were rising and these were not always offset by increases in wholesale food prices. But most of the time we just kept our heads down and worked through our problems, grabbing at savings wherever we could.
Sometimes, especially on Sunday afternoons, Jim and I would take some time for ourselves and walk down the hill behind the farmhouse to Lost Creek and sit again on the log bench, still in the same spot where it had been when he had proposed to me, though now beset here and there by pale green lichens. There in the deep shade we’d refresh ourselves with ice water from a jug and just stare at the creek’s pool before us, now diminished in size by the hot, dry weather but clear to its bottom at this time of year. In the pool we could see pebbles—brown and amber and white—like jewels strewn along the sandy creek bed. Fat brown creek chubs would occasionally stir the pool’s waters, making their way up and down the creek along with sunfish, bluegill, and crappies. Occasionally, a school of minnows would swim by as well. The tree branches, bent low by the weight of their summer leaves, would brush our heads if a breeze stirred them but otherwise they formed a welcomed green canopy through which the hot sunlight struggled to touch the ground.
In the evenings we mostly sat on the front porch to rest and talk—Jim and I in the porch swing, moving slowly back and forth; Lucie resting in her old wooden rocker, also moving slowly back and forth and creaking softly on the porch’s plank floor; and Sandie, when she wasn’t on the phone torturing Freddy, sitting in a rusted metal lawn chair with a green vinyl seat cushion patched here and there with friction tape, jiggling the remaining energy of the day from her sunburned legs. The collies would usually come over from the barn to join us and lie together on the porch as well.
There we would all watch the sun set behind the wooded hills that gradually slope toward the Ohio River. Jim would offer a weather forecast for the coming day, more often than not as accurate one. Immediately below us were our farm’s alfalfa and corn fields, planted this year where Uncle Ed could also watch them. These fields were bounded by a wooden rail fence inside of which we were gradually planting blueberries bushes, as we could afford to purchase them. Below all this and across Ridge Road was Uncle Ed and Aunt Evelyn’s dairy farm with lights glowing in its farmhouse windows and a utility light casting a yellow circle on the ground beside the barn door. And below their farm, stretching along Shawnee Highway, was the Cunningham farm, where Freddy was no doubt pining for Sandie while puzzling over his trigonometry homework. The two of them now had their challenge of posting proofs for Mr. Ames.
When darkness would finally come, Lucie and Sandie would say good night and go off to bed. The collies would take that departure as a signal for them to head back to the barn, but Jim and I would linger on in the swing a bit longer—kissing, holding hands, and talking in a whisper. I was still amazed at how dark the nights could be in the country, free from light pollution, compared to the city. There were so many stars and they were so intensely bright. It seemed as though in Locust Hill another universe prevailed! Everything was so still, and the air smelled so good. Only an occasional farm truck rattling along Ridge Road would disturb the quiet with the noise of humankind, while down over the hill behind the farmhouse, we could hear the soft hooting of great horned owls and from the barn occasional clucks and squawks and whistles from Sandie’s flocks. In the night sky the barn owl would work its way, ghost-like, from tree to tree, scanning the darkened fields for mice and rabbits invisible to us. But everything else was peaceful and blissfully still. Finally, Jim would say, “Cassie, I think it’s time for us to turn in too. Lots of work for both of us tomorrow.” I’d raise my head from his shoulder, and then he’d stand up, take me by the hand, and lead me to our bedroom and that squeaky, squeaky bed.
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)