WESTERN DREAMS

 

By Lisa Johnson

 

There comes to mind a time, when I was maybe nine, about 1949. I still lived in the South with Mother, Daddy and little sister. We lived in an old white framed farm house, modest but comfortable.  Our house consisted of six large, high ceilinged rooms and two porches: a long front porch in front with a swing, protected by trailing wisteria vines, and a shorter screened-in porch in back, that was later converted into an indoor toilet with sink and tub. Out back, beyond the smoke house, stood a big grey barn where Daddy milked the cows. Our property covered around 110 acres, most of the back lands thick with oaks and cedars. At Christmas, Daddy took us there to search out the best shaped cedar to cut and haul back to the house. Nearer to the house, fields were planted in cotton. At the edge of the cotton fields, stood a shack we referred to as a cabin. This cabin housed the sharecroppers: a man Silas, his wife Janie and their three children. The middle child, a girl my age named Phaedra, became my friend. However, we did not attend the same school as this was years before the South desegregated their schools.

During the spring and summer months, Phaedra and I played together nearly every day that she was not helping to hoe or pick the cotton. Occasionally I played at picking as well, my canvas bag strapped over my shoulder, dragging between the rows. But I learned quickly that picking cotton was in no way play. In addition to the merciless sun and the canvas strap biting into me, the sharp claws holding the cotton gashed the flesh of my fingers. Bleeding, near tears, I found an excuse to escape, while the sharecroppers and my father dragged on down the row, picking cotton like they were picking tomatoes, as though they felt no pain. I usually reappeared around sundown to find the day’s pickings piled in a wagon. Phaedra and I, her little brother and my little sister jumped into the heaped white stuff as if diving into a pool until somebody yelled, “Ya’ll get out’ta that cotton.” So then the four of us would run off to play hide and seek until dark and the lightning bugs blinked on and off. It felt like a magical time.

The best of my times with Phaedra involved make believe, pretending we were characters I’d seen on Saturday at the double matinee at the Ritz movie theater in town when Mother took my sister and me to work with her. I was in love with Westerns, especially Roy and Dale, Tim Holt and Lash La Rue. Phaedra had not seen any of these so I elaborated on their stories, describing the scenery: the deserts, the mountains. I plotted my own scenarios that Phaedra and I acted out. She seemed content to let me create, direct and star in our little productions. An example of our play went like this: With stick horses and stick guns in our waist bands, we trotted around the area of the cabin searching for eggs their hens had laid hither and yonder because their hens had no henhouse like ours in which to lay or sleep. The eggs, we claimed, were gold the bank robbers had hidden.

Sometimes we wandered back to my house, playing on the back steps or in the smokehouse.  If we got hungry, I would go inside and get us something to eat: thick sliced tomatoes from our garden on store bought white bread with loads of mayonnaise. I never invited Phaedra inside the house, although her mama, Janie, came once a week to clean house and iron our clothes. For this, Janie probably earned a few dollars a week. My own mother managed and waitressed in a café in town next to the garment plant, to help make “ends meet”.  My mother returned to the farm at the end of the day, paused wearily, removed her work clothes and prepared her family’s supper. There were still things for her to do after supper; she took great pride in her house. She’d grown up poor in a family of ten kids, with little comfort or privacy.  Mother always seemed to be trying to improve her life; one spring she wallpapered the living room in a light floral design, then had the old furniture reupholstered. She purchased a used but good piano and found a local lady to give me lessons. I liked the idea of playing the piano, the idea of music flowing smoothly through the house, as did my mother, which is probably the reason she put up with my pretense of practicing.

As I said, our home was modest but comfortable. But our home was a mansion compared to Phaedra’s.  I entered the cabin only once. It was a cool, autumn morning, a Saturday, during hog butchering. Janie, with Silas and a couple of local men, were helping Daddy with this gruesome task, for which they would be paid in pig parts: sausage, bacon, chittlings.  To remove me from the scene and get me out of the workers’ way, Janie suggested I go visit Phaedra who was not feeling well. At first, I was pleased to have an assignment. I picked some stray summer’s end flowers, stuck them in a Mason canning jar, took a Grapette from the refrigerator and headed toward the cabin. When I reached the door, I had an attack of jitters. In all the months we’d played together, I’d never entered but just knocked on the door, calling out that I was outside waiting for her. Now I knocked and knocked and called out, but no response. I opened the door and peered in. I called again. Phaedra responded, ”Lily, I’m back here.” Back here meant the room where the family slept; there were only two rooms. The front room was dim after the bright outdoors. The last embers in the fireplace and a low flame from a kerosene lamp on a wooden table were the only light. I glanced around. The walls were plastered with newspapers and pages from old magazines. Still, here and there light and cold pierced through various cracks. There was no electricity or running water. The odors of kerosene, wood fire, food fried in lard, mixed with a sour body odor. I felt queasy. I set the flowers and Grapette on the table. I didn’t open the door to the bedroom to see Phaedra. I had seen all I could stand. I yelled at Phaedra that I’d left something for her on the table. I practically ran home, to the order and loveliness of my home, to the scent of lemony furniture polish.

After that I didn’t see much of Phaedra, I went out of my way to avoid her. School had started again so our days were mostly filled. At Christmas, Mother bought gifts for Janie’s kids and asked me to deliver them. I told her I didn’t want to and she didn’t question me. She left the gifts in the house for Janie to pick up when she came to clean and iron.  By the time spring rolled around, the sharecropper family had left. Daddy said there was hardly enough income from the crops to support one family, to say nothing of two. For some time I didn’t know where they went and didn’t ask. Daddy took on a second job, plowing and gravelling the county roads. As for me, I was expected to take up some of the gap that Janie had left. But between my day dreaming and my impatience, my ironing produced mostly wrinkles and scorched spots. I had not truly appreciated Janie until I stood over a hot iron.

Years later, while on Christmas break from school (I was a high school senior), sorting through a pile of holiday cards, on one I spotted Janie’s name and an address in Oakland, California. When I ripped the card open, a note and a photograph fell out. In reading the note, I realized Janie and my mother had stayed in touch. The photo, Janie said, was herself, her youngest son and Phaedra with her own little baby boy. They were standing in front of a tall, dull brown apartment building where they lived. They had moved to the West, the West that I still fantasized about, though my daydreaming had matured beyond cowboys and outlaws to movie stars and their romances. I was intrigued now with the glitter and the glamour of Hollywood. A sharp feeling of jealousy flashed through me, to think that Phaedra made it to the West before I did. I had no knowledge then that Oakland was quite a distance from the glory of Hollywood. Nor did it occur to me that the brown apartment building was public housing, a tenement. As I looked at the photo, I reminisced over the many fun adventures Phaedra and I had shared.

With renewed respect for Phaedra, I sat down and scribbled a note to her, of how great it was to hear from her, ignoring the fact that it actually was our mothers who corresponded. I didn’t mention the obvious things that puzzled me:  That she had a baby? I didn’t want to think of Phaedra, so young, with a baby. I didn’t ask if she was still going to school or if the school was integrated; that seemed a touchy subject, as did the subject of housing.  Any mention of housing brought to mind that pathetic cabin that had stood next to the now abandoned cotton fields, leaning more each year, until Daddy finally tore it down. But I wrote, as if in a stream of consciousness, how I envied her living in California, how boring it was here on the old farm. Tell me your impressions, I pleaded. Tell me all about the West.   

 


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