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DISTANCE
Alligator Juniper 2006

Note: “Distance” is a chapter from Below the Heart.

1932: Distance

Enda Wheeler stands alone, smoking a cigarette. Her back burns from hoeing tobacco since God woke her up, and now it is suppertime. She accepts hard work as her lot in life, although every now and again she can’t help but dwell on it. She has been low-down tired ever since her pa gave her over to a husband who is a two-fisted drinker and a one-fisted worker. Scanning the woods-hemmed horizon for Big Man, she rubs the hard knot over her pelvis to calm the baby who is fretting inside her. Enda coughs, and her bladder leaks onto already damp panties. Seems she spends half her day looking for her husband, the other half in the tobacco fields, and another half trying to cook and keep house. Today the pondering has brought out her temper, as it is wont to do. A rock, the size of the head of the fetus, rests in her apron pocket. Enda caresses the rock through the nearly transparent calico. It won’t hurt Big Man much, just get his attention. Do not kill, she knows, is one of the Lord’s laws. Not ever being of a mind to break His law, still Enda daily prays to outlive the sumbitch and pickle his dick in a Mason jar, preserve it in his own moonshine. When there is nothing left of the cigarette, she presses it into the ground with the blade of the hoe.

Enda wants him in the worst way, and the worst way is the only way she has ever wanted him, if you don’t count not wanting him at all. She was married to him long ago, even before her monthly troubles commenced, and her breasts drew as much attention as those of any young boy’s. Today Enda’s breasts resemble her husband’s. She keeps hers covered, the way a God-fearing woman should, but Big Man walks around bare-assed naked under bib overalls, his woman titties shamefully on display to the Good Lord and everybody else. Physically, Enda and Big Man have become nearly identical. She is fifty, and he is sixty. White-haired and spectacled, they each look much older than the pages turned on seed calendars. Their round bellies crowd their hearts and sit on their privates. Black bristly hog hairs ring mud-colored areolas, sprout from great toes, and tangle in dusty gray-haired crotches.

Enda squats between two rows of foot-high tobacco and pees. The release of the urine makes her black jaw teeth ache. The unborn baby dislodges the mucous plug with its forehead, setting its birth day in motion. The plug falls into the stream of dark-colored urine that meanders over crumbly ground and puddles at the base of a tobacco plant. The urine stands a moment, then soaks into the broken earth all at once. As soon as Enda pulls up her panties, a king snake walks by, surefooted and arrogant. He greedily swallows the still-pulsing, moist cork of flesh.

Enda pats her dress pocket, underneath the apron, for the Lucky Strike cigarettes and matches. This morning, she had slipped the unopened pack from her daughter Sissy’s purse while Sissy snored in the bedroom at the top of the stairs. Sissy doesn’t spend any of her own money on smokes. Even though her new boyfriend, Buddy, buys them, Sissy does not give one up without a fight. And there will be a fight tonight, Enda sighs, because she knows that Sissy counts every last one. Rolled cigarettes are all Enda’s ever smoked; she only wanted to taste store-bought. God forgives her for taking the cigarettes because He knows that Enda’s own daughter is a selfish bitch.

Enda lights up, draws and puffs on another mass-produced stick. The cigarettes have been a disappointment. She takes a few more half-hearted pulls before she pinches the burn off the Lucky Strike with her thumb and index finger. She makes to drop it on the ground, but instead takes a bite of the cigarette and chews it, her jaws slow and deliberate. The cigarette does have some flavor, she reflects, but she isn’t of a mind to start eating cigarettes. She tosses it far into the field, wishing for her own tobacco and OCB papers.

A lone, leafy maple across the road is rooted in a spit of grass in the middle of a narrow tobacco plot owned by the Marvel family. The tree provides a respite from the heat of summer solstice in Kentucky for the five-year-old boy propped against its trunk, the bark rough and shingled. Enda sees James Theacts Marvel stir from his shaded nap as she walks out of her field and into the Marvel field. Her bare feet, misshapen by bunions and horns of hardened flesh, have adapted to their own sense of imbalance and give her a remarkable gait so that she is easily recognized, even at a distance. The five-year-old, called JT because his name is a mouthful, waves at her.

She expects to see him here more often than not, tired and hungry. The Marvels aren’t a loving people, and Enda knows JT can’t say words of love because he surely never hears them. But he can eat his fill at her supper table without his brothers’ elbows crowding him out, and his smile gives love. Enda’s gravy has sausage in it; it is not made out of argument and soured milk, like the gravy he eats at home. Enda helps the boy fork together dark berry jelly and fresh-churned butter for spreading on warm biscuits. She packs a biscuit in his pocket when he goes home.

JT and his brothers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, work the tobacco. The Marvels’ alley acreage runs through the Wheeler farm, and is managed with Miz Marvel’s prayers and Mister Marvel’s God-given gift to move bootleg whiskey under the nose of a revenue man. The Marvel house is up the road, just out of sight. Back the other way is the Wheeler farmhouse and tobacco barn, and half an hour’s walk from there is the town of Middle Ways. Middle Ways is where the dirt road ends or begins, depending on which way you are facing.

It is that time of day when the sun is nowhere to be seen but it is still daylight. Enda looks up into the sky, and it is like looking into the round mirror that hangs in her shadowy kitchen. She sees nothing there that she can recognize to name.

The boy watches her. Everyone has heard the tales of Enda giving chase to anyone crossing her path and her bad humor when she can’t find Big Man. They say that she once let fly a piece of hard coal as dark and small as the Devil’s heart back in the summer of ’22, at the Sheriff himself, when he and Big Man had meandered home from a two-day drunk. While Big Man had the good sense and experience to stay out of reach of her pitching range, Enda knocked the Sheriff’s right eye clean to the back of his throat, and he swallowed it.