“Hmm,” says Tommy Tucker. “Hmm.”
He rocks back and rests his chair on the front of his clapboard house. He takes off the felt hat he has worn since he was a young man to reveal a bright line along the back of his neck and across his forehead. Above the line his skin looks like a plucked chicken, below the line it is reddish brown. Yesterday’s hours spent weeding the purple hulls burned him a little even though his skin has been baked by decades in the fields. He picked his first weed when Grover Cleveland was president. Now, someone named Kennedy is in office – at least that is what Tommy has heard. He never watches the news or reads papers. His only “media” entertainment is Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights. Presidents have never held much sway in the piney woods of Salinas county.
Tommy fans his face with hat. July already is hot enough to make a preacher cuss. No matter. Today it is the tomatoes’ turn. Time to get at the suckers and pinch them off before they sap all the strength from the blossoms. He puts his hat back on, stands and reaches high into the air. He bends over once or twice and carefully steps down off the porch. He winces as the bones of his ankles and knees grind against each other. In the house, he can hear Amy rustling around to get his breakfast; then he remembers Amy is buried in the graveyard near the big oak. He smiles. He has outlasted her. He will not have to listen to her complain this morning after all. Amy had always threatened to bury him, but his was the spade that put the first shovel full of dirt on her coffin last year. Tommy always dreamed of being able to fish all day once Amy was gone, but now that she is dead he cannot break the habit of taking care of the farm before allowing himself the pleasure of taking his pole down to the pond.
“Hmm,” says Tommy. “Hmm.”
Car tires crunch the gravel. Tommy walks to the road and waits as Pastor Jenkins pulls up in his new car. Tommy sees a leather and walnut interior as the pastor leaps from the car. He grabs Tommy’s hand with both of his. He flashes teeth whiter than stars in the night.
“How ya doin’ Tommy? It’s so good to see you. You been doin’ all right?”
Tommy pulls his hand from the pastor’s clasp. “I been fine I ‘spect.”
“Well, me and the missus been a little worried. We haven’t seen you up to the church for quite a spell.”
Tommy smiles, looks toward the graveyard oak, and then meets the preacher’s gaze head on. “Guess I been busy workin’.”
“I ‘spect that’s true. Things must be a lot harder with Amy gone. Workin’ all this land with just one pair of hands.” The smile hardens a bit and the preacher’s eyes take on a predatory tinge.
“Yessir. You might could say that.”
“Well you know old man Wheeler, who lives over by Hathaway?”
“Wellsir, he worked out a deal with Deacon Jeffries over at the bank. He don’t have to work a lick anymore. Lives in the lap of luxury over at the home.”
The pastor pauses, but Tommy says nothing. Playing with the coins in his pocket the pastor continues.
“You know Mr. Wheeler, just sits around all day now – a gabbin’ with the ladies, playing cards and what not. His meals is cooked for him and everything.”
Tommy scuffs the dirt with his boot. “Is that a fact?”
“Yessir that’s a fact. And when he dies, as we all must do – praise Jesus…when he dies well, his land will help us continue our mission up to the church. He will be helpin’ bring thousands to the lord, ain’t that somethin’?”
Tommy bends his head and shakes it slowly.
A thin lipped gash replaces the preacher’s smile. “Well that’s just fine ain’t it? That’s the way it always is with you Tommy. No wonder Amy died before you. She wore herself out on that selfish stone heart of your’n. Wore herself plumb out.”
Tommy’s head jerks up. His eyes could cut steel.
“That’s what some folks say I guess.”
The pastor laughs. “Is that all you got to say? What’s the matter Tommy? Why don’t you ever talk? In all the years I known you, I don’t think I ever heard you say more than five or six words at a time.”
Tommy closes his eyes. He opens them to reveal a look calm as a cow chewing her cud. “Some people say enough for everybody else I guess.”
The pastor’s gash turns downward. “Is that so? You think you are so smart don’t you Mr. Tucker? Well you just better think about the here ever after my friend. You want to meet up with Amy in heaven don’t you? You don’t want to burn in a lake of hell fire do you?”
Tommy spits into the dust near the pastors feet.
The pastor’s face turns red. “Well, I never!” He shook a finger at Tommy. “You should thank your lucky stars that I am a Christian man, else I would come over there and knock a knot on you! You bet I would! What you got to say about that?”
Tommy puts his hands in his pocket and rocks back and forth on his heels.
Pastor Jenkins gets redder. “Well, just about what I would expect from you Tommy. You have never really repented your sins have you? It’s only my Christian charity that tells me to ask you one more time to come to church on Sunday. You truly are in danger of hells fire. You mark my word. Hells fire my friend. Hells fire and eternal damnation.”
The pastor snorts and gets back into his car. Tommy sees another flash of leather and walnut before the pastor’s car races back up toward the highway.
“Hmm,” says Tommy. “Hmm.”
Tommy Tucker walks to the shed and gets the hoe. It is Amy’s hoe. The blade has been worn down to just a sliver of metal from years of weeding tomatoes and iris. It is perfect for weeding – tiny, thin, razor sharp it digs and cuts out the weeds with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Tommy alternates pulling suckers with weeding – going down one side of a row pulling suckers, then back up the other side hoeing the weeds – a pattern he and Amy perfected years ago when they planted their first truck garden of tomatoes. These are not those days. Back then Tommy could pull suckers and hoe weeds from nine or ten fifty-yard rows without stopping. Now, he stops to rest at the end of each row. Holding himself up by the hoe, Tommy Tucker looks at the rows ahead of him and wonders if perhaps the pastor is right. Maybe it is time for him to get rid of this place and go to the home. Tommy knew the pastor was right about at least one thing; Tommy would never go to heaven. He had given up on that a long time ago.
And there was no point in saving the land for future generations. Tommy was the last Tucker. He and Amy never had children. Well, there had been the little girl; a tiny blue thing that died before they could get her to the hospital. They named her Ruth. Amy is buried next to her. Tommy’s resting place is on the other side. Ruth will always be between them in death just like she had been between them in life, the memory of her death a cancer that had killed the love that once bloomed between Amy and Tommy Tucker. Amy had never forgiven him for not taking her to a specialist. Doc Walker said there would be complications. There were complications. Ruth died and Amy was never able to have any more children. He had never forgiven himself. He drank for a while, especially when Amy’s anger turned into shouts and screams. But eventually, he gave up the drink and Amy gave up most of the screaming. They settled into a routine of purple hulls, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, greenbeens, collards, watermelons – anything the rich folk wanted to buy from their little roadside stand. Both of them worked like demons. Amy kept track of every penny – letting Tommy know in no uncertain terms when she felt he was wasting money on some foolishness like fishing or hunting. Tommy hated her scolding about money even more than he hated her blaming him for Ruth’s death. Together, they turned the little 40 acre plot of Amy’s dowry into over 800 acres of rich bottom land. The same bottom land that Pastor Jenkin’s has his eye on.
Most of the land has gone to pine and brush now. Tommy only farmed the five or so acres next to the house. At the moment he wishes that it was only an acre, or maybe only half an acre. His shirt is soaked before he finishes the few rows and the sweat drips from his chin. He stops and takes a swig from the Mason jar he has propped up against the tree. Water from his well always tastes sweeter to him. He takes his sandwich from the lard bucket he has used as a lunch pail since before he was a child. He takes a bite and smiles at the taste of mustard and fried deer meat. He will hunt again soon.
He flexes his arm to get a kink out. Best get back to work before his legs knot up. They kept him awake all night. He stands. He places his hand against the tree to steady himself as blood rushes to his head. He rests for a moment until his head clears. Machine-like he returns to the weeds and tomatoes.
He is only halfway down the first row when he sees a figure approaching. It is a woman. Her hair is done up in a bun. She wears a yellow dress with frills and ribbons. She has a parasol over one shoulder and is carrying a package in her left arm. He glimpses hooked boots beneath the flourish of petticoats. Is someone making a movie? Maybe an actress has wandered off the set. He shakes his head. The figure continues toward him. He sees that she carries an infant.
“Hey,” says Tommy Tucker. “Hey.”
“Hey, Tommy,” says Amy.
Tommy sits down in the dirt.
“Yes it’s me Tommy.” She pulls back the covering on the infant. It is Ruth. Her skin glows pink.
Feeling on fire, Tommy pulls off his hat and fans himself.
“But how? Why?”
Amy laughs. “Don’t worry about how or why sweetie. Just look at what is.”
She extends her hand and lifts Tommy as if he were just a sack of clothes.
“But you aren’t real!”
“Says who? You? And who died and made you king, silly man?”
Amy motions Tommy to follow her back along the row from where she came. He sees that she is heading for the old oak graveyard.
“Yes darling. Here take my hand.” Amy smiles as Tommy watches the wrinkles and liver spots disappear from his arm. Ruth smiles up at him.
Tommy Tucker cries. Head hanging he follows Amy toward his grave. Just before they arrive he feels himself swept up into the air. He looks back to see the body of an old man lying in a field of tomatoes.
Tommy is relieved to see that he is following Amy and Ruth into a bright white light rather than being cast down below. He weeps. He will spend eternity with his beloved family.
Amy turns to him. “Now about that heifer of mine you sold to Mr. Wheeler when I was away visiting Momma…”
“Hmm,” says Tommy Tucker. “Hmm.”