I marked the day off the calendar penciling a large X through the number. It was April, but outside, it looked like a gray November. The wind had been blowing for twenty-nine days in a row and gritty sand lined every orifice of my body making it hard to keep on living.
Thurman was undressing right in the middle of the floor. When he took off his big blue fur lined mackintosh, he shook it ,and it formed a substantial pile of dust in the middle of the Guinnie's carpet. He got down to his dirty red long johns and went and sat by the fire.
" Shouldn't oughta shake out your coat on that carpet. Guinnie's liable to get mad," I told him.
He looked back the small pile, " Well, junior, I don't reckon she oughta get mad at me. I didn't create this here dust storm." He smiled grimly and continued, "Sides, I didn't intend to bring it in. It just kinda jumped all over me."
" Iffn it was gold, we'd all be eatin lobster in Kansas City."
"Well it ain't fuckin gold, it ain't even silver, and I don't believe we should be settin our hearts on eatin lobster anytime real soon."
" Hell, I'd give a dollar for a drink of clean water. This damned sand is about to drive me crazy."
"You and me both, bud," his eyes normally bright blue looked dark gray in the dimness of the cabin. They glinted like polished steel.
I surveyed the cabin. We had boarded up all of the windows trying to keep the dust out. Our only light came from a single kerosine lamp standing in the middle of the kitchen table my great-grandpa had made right after the War of Northern Aggression. It was made out of solid dark oak, and my dad used to say that it would still be in one piece after the Tribulations.
Thurman was slumped over in Pa's rocking chair. I was sitting on green velvet parlor sofa that grandpa had given ma for a wedding present. It was almost completely worn-out, dingy and threadbare, but we didn't have no money to replace it. Guinnie, my wife, was in the bedroom sleeping. She was sick and feverish and had been for about a week.
I remembered the first day I brought her out to the ranch. It was in April just like now, but it was pretty spring day back then, and the flowers Mom had planted were blooming and the stand of aspens behind the cabin stood tall as sentries.
Back then her eyes were blue and bright and her cheeks were like pink roses. I couldn't take my eyes off her. My heart turned into pudding when she smiled at me and whispered, " I like it, Johnny, it's so pretty here. I can't wait till we're married." Guinnie always called me Johnnie. She was the only who did. Everyone else called me Billy John, Billy, or Junior. I was named after my father, William Jonathan Jackson. My father's friends called him BJ for short.
That was little better than fifteen year ago. back before the light faded from her eyes and her pretty dark hair turned gray. I reckon if I ever met up with St. Peter at the gates of Heaven, it'll be Guinnie that he asks me about even more than the twelve dollar mule I stole from Old Man Jewell.
St. Peter will look at me and say, " What kind of damned fool takes a girl as pretty as that and up and kills her?"
I'll have no answer either, just memories like the one of her bringing in the corn crop with sunburned cheeks and roughened hands. Or, the one of her that day she helped me dig out a new outhouse, up to her knees and elbows in thick black clay. Guinnie was born to play the piano, to sing, and to crochet. It was me who turned her into a farm hand. Well, me and life that is.
But St. Peter didn't have to mention anything about punishment. I carried that shit around with me like a hunnerd pound millstone. I always wanted to tell her to go in the house and put some liniment oil on her hands and to rest, but the work was too much for me and Thurman to do alone. I couldn't spare her much as it pained me to have her help.
She never complained though and never once got down about it. It was her who kept me going. We used to lie in bed talking at night, and she would rattle on and on about the house we were going to build down by the creek, the flowers she was going to plant, and the things we were going to buy some day. Some day.
What hope I had I had because of her. It was her sunny disposition that kept me from complete despair. It was the Sundays that I liked best. She'd put on her good dress and bonnet and do her hair up pretty. She always sang her heart out during the hymns and held my hand on the ride home.
Things didn't go bad until Thurman talked me into stealing that damned mule. He'd say, "God damn it, Billy John. We need that fucking mule. Think about how much more work we could do with it."
"But it ain't ours. It belongs to Jewell," I'd answer.
"That old blind bastard, don't rightly know how many mules he got. He's purt near out his mind already. Pinkie's running the farm for him, and he owes me money. He say he won't say nuthin bout it if one of them mules happened to disappear."
I put up a good fight agin the idea, but one day Guinnie had to work all day helping Thurman and I gettin rocks out the field. At night, she pretended she had to go out to the outhouse, but I heard her moaning and cryin out behind the house where she thought I wouldn't hear her. The next night, I helped Thurman steal the mule.
Things didn't go bad all at once, they just started happening kind of slow and built up gradually. The pump handle broke. A panther got one of our hogs. A heavy rain washed away a part of our corn field.
But it was Stewie dying that was the worse. Guinnie died a lot herself that day. He was outside playing while she was hanging clothes on the line. He yelled at her, "Lookit, Mama! I'm gonna to catch Trixie." Trixie was our black and white collie. While he was running after the dog, Stewie stepped in a hole and fell, striking his head on a large rock.
We buried him out back on the hill where all my ancestors lie. The graveyard had a small white fence around it and a rusted iron gateway where you entered. Preacher Samuel F. Gatewood did the talkin, and he also supplied the moonshine that my uncles and cousins drank afterwards.
When they all left, it was only Guinnie and me who stayed behind, and I couldn't get her to leave.
" Guinnie, we gotta go, babe. It's gettin cold."
" Do what you want. Imma stay right here."
A half hour later, I added, "God don't want it to be like this."
She blasphemed, "Forget God. He killed my baby boy."
I know that no one will believe me when I say it, but right then, immediately after she uttered those words the darkening sky was rent by the largest flash of lightning that I ever saw. Then the wind started blowing hard and it's been blowing hard ever since.
She struggled with me, but I picked her up and carried her home, back to cabin slung over my shoulder. She made like she was gonna run out the door, but I grabbed her and held her till she quit sobbing.
Thurman broke the silence in the cabin. "You ever thought bout leavin this place?"
" And go where?"
" They say there's work out in Californie. Lots of it." He was serious. I could see it in his eyes. It was the first he ever mentioned it to me, but I could tell he'd been thinkin on it for a while.
"They say a lot of things, Thurman. Ben Grooms been there and back. He said it's a big bologna sandwich, and that they got more Okies lookin for work out there than they got here."
"Don't know about that. Ray Talley wrote me a while back and said there's plenty of work there for people who ain't afraid to get their hands dirty. Him and Reyna live in a small town west of Tulare and work for a big farm outfit pickin cotton and such. Tulare is where uncle Bill and his boys are."
There was such an earnestness in his voice that I almost couldn't stand it. It was plea, a deeply felt asking of things. He was putting it on me to see if this life was worth the struggle it took to survive. Our eyes locked for a moment then we both quickly looked away. The light was too dim and the air too gritty for our thoughts to linger too long at those crossroads contemplating the bargains with the devil that would have to be made.
Our eyes locked again and this time I guided his towards the door to the room where Guinnie slept in an all too merciful slumber.
" She ain't never gonna leave that boy," I muttered into the muffled wind.