A Sum of All Fears
The Texas Story Project.
Harsh critics believe Little Johnny Keats succumbed to the darts lobbed at him well before he coughed blood into a dingy handkerchief, fearing he’d die before his pen could glean his teeming brain—the heart and soul of a poet dwindling down to fairy dust. With his poetry, he transcended the tidy labels to find a chaotic world that exceeds human limitations and permanently disfigures the human body.
Worlds apart, in 1885, a hymn addressed the same issue.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
But exactly what did Georgie fear?
Her sharecropper father grew tobacco and had little vision outside producing more and more children to work the land. She and her siblings huddled like unborn kittens in their mother’s womb as they slept wherever they could discover a place to claim their own for the night. She feared losing her soul to her sharecropper father, so she set out to find work far, far away from the less-than-fertile loam of Mississippi.
She found employment as a ranch cook for Eaman Land & Cattle Co. With quick movements, she diced the beef’s marrow gut into quarter of an inch pieces. She added the brain and the finely chopped kidney, all the internal organs she could reap. Someone told her that in Europe entrails were delicacies and had dandified names like foie gras, but she didn’t live there. The entrails disgusted her, but coarse cowboys who worked cattle for yearned for their dinner. Clifford Allard, one cowboy in particular who she might want to call coarse, at least tried to help her in lifting heavy cast iron kettles.
The un-weaned calf’s offal splattered when Clifford placed the kettle on the open flame. She fanned the fire and swooned, barely maintaining her balance when a spiraling spark escaped and kissed her sunbonnet’s ties, which flamed, branding her with a permanent wattled lump of flesh on her throat. “Sorry, Miss Georgie.” He admitted he only had himself to blame. Thus, their courtship began.
After the accident, words puddled in her throat as she coughed unable to sing the words to the last stanza of her favorite hymn, to the point that she could not answer the question posed in the song: “What have I to dread, what have I to fear?”
She tried but failed to metaphorically lean on God’s everlasting arms that didn’t ease her anger and fear when she twisted her wattled skin between her fingers and married Clifford.
In the Panhandle of Texas, news came sporadically about the winds of war, fulfilling the biblical prophecy that in the last days there would be wars and rumors of wars. Men and women—even children in elementary school—whispered about the Zimmerman telegraph. “We can’t stand by and let this happen,” Clifford’s father proclaimed. Ominously, a war that seemed vague and far away now twisted into their omnipresent reality when some German wrote to some Mexican about reclaiming Texas and vast portions of the Southwest if the U.S. entered the war and supported the Allies.
Georgie and Clifford lived in a two-room cabin, that’s what she called it. But she envisioned adding rooms. She fumed when Clifford got drafted and sent to San Antonio to train in the primitive art of war. She swore to herself she would hang on to the only true home she had ever lived in.
Silverton, Texas, was just barely platted in 1910, when Clifford’s father gathered up the children and traveled by covered wagon to the town where new energy seemed to emerge daily. With war, Georgie’s life would not play out the way she planned. Eventually, they would reclaim the two room shack, but then Clifford got called to San Antonio to play war games. A man of few if any words, Clifford wrote to Georgie and the whole family in the same short letter. “Issued uniforms and broomsticks.” Months later, “Bayonets replaced broomsticks, we are ready to fight Germans.”
After Clifford’s father read the words to the family, his mother Mary dabbled at her eyes until the sockets turned to black leathered circles. “We ain’t prepared for this war. I’m proud he’s serving our country, just like all the other mothers in Briscoe County, but what do broomsticks have to do with winning a war?”
You’d a thought she was Clifford’s helpmate, and Georgie claimed that role for herself alone. No one could suffer the way she suffered, and for half a month she washed dishes and dusted Mother Mary’s house but said not a word to her mother-in-law, who smiled in her condescending way and asked what was wrong every day until Georgie started talking to her again, just as if she were continuing the conversation they had started two weeks ago. “I read they’re training our boys how to use bayonets, and that’s no better than broomsticks.” Mother Mary agreed.
A week later, Georgie got a telegram saying Clifford had contracted the flu and she might want to travel by train from Plainview to San Antonio to be by her man’s side when he got better. She didn’t want to make the arduous journey, but then again cleaning someone else’s house didn’t please her either.
Her in-laws paid for her ticket and took her to the train station in Plainview to see her off. “Tell Clifford we love him and want him right here at home where he belongs,” Mother Mary said.
Georgie nodded her head, pulled up her skirt, and boarded the train to freedom. Like women were fighting for the right to vote, she fought for her freedom from the reign of Clifford’s mother. She knew life would not be easy, and she feared she might contract this flu that spread across the globe.
Once she got to San Antonio, since Clifford suffered in the base hospital and could not yet see her, she found a job where she repaired tents. They had machinery to raise a tent and revolve it. Some of the tents were scarcely damaged, and some had scores of rips, tears, and holes. Women cut pieces of canvas to fit over the holes for patches and pinned them in place. Men removed the tents and sent them to the machine room where the patches were sewed in place. Another tent would be put in place to be repaired. Men put up the tents, took them down, and carried them to the sewing room. Women sewed on patches.
Her day-in and day-out routine might have bored her, but it didn’t. She rode back and forth to the army base each day on a ten cent bus. The woman who owned the boarding house fixed Georgie a paper sack lunch. She made a little more than enough to pay her room and board.
She endured the joggling bus that caused her to heave with pains that could not be numbed, but that mattered little since confines imposed on her by Clifford’s doting mother and the sameness of the Panhandle landscapes had faded far, far into her distant memory—or at least for the present they had been banished. She envisioned one-horse carts and floats for the Battle of the Flowers. Yet the city was evolving into a modern metropolis in her waking dream.
She longed to grow with the city as the state harkened the path to modernity. As a ranch cook, she knew only rough cowboy foods. She now craved the “hamburger sandwich,” a new cuisine that all the good cafés served, and hot tamales where the shucks served as napkins. Dirk, her landlady’s son, wore colorful suits with yellow ties. He taught her the intricacies of carpas, vaudeville performances. When they planned to see a new show, she dreamed in her mind the action of the entertainment to the point that her supervisor strongly reprimanded her, “These tents will return to the battlefields.” On those evenings, they ate raw oysters, not the Rocky Mountain oysters that coarse cowboys wolfed down. Dirk instructed her to start with the large end when she used her fork to separate the delicacy from the shell. “Chew the nugget once or twice to experience the real pleasure of this wonderful delicacy.”
When Clifford recovered, she wanted to share this new world with him, but he despised the army and San Antonio, not that he used that powerful word. But she could tell from the way he tugged at his shirt that he longed to return to their desolate lives in Silverton, over ninety miles from Lubbock the only place she could catch a glimpse of a greater world.
Georgie feared this child she carried in her womb would be destined for destruction. Her stomach and arms pulsed out of control with a fear that consumed her every waking hour. On her way to the bus stop, Georgie sometimes passed children skipping rope and chanting
I had a little bird.
Its name was Enza
I opened the window,
She almost cried when she heard their little voices, and over a short weekend, the strawberry blond girl who might have passed for her own child was gone. “What happened to your friend?” Georgie asked.
The raw-boned girl with peach-pit frizzy hair answered, “You mean Charlsie? She died.” And they went on with their chant, just like the soldiers played at war games with black broomsticks.
Georgie recalled what the Bible said about the Rapture. Two women will be grinding at a mill. One will be taken, and one will be left. She did not want to be the one remaining earthbound, so she dreamed of growing wings and flying upward with little Charlsie in her cradling arms of protection.
Through her pregnancy, Clifford waited to be sent to the front to fight in a war that would never end all wars. Her own baby Charlsie was born one week before the Armistice, which symbolically took effect at eleven on the morning on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Georgie now clutched her sickly baby to her breast as they traveled by train to the dreary Panhandle.
Clifford’s mother made sure all the family members recognized Charlsie as the first great-grandchild of Welcome Ignatius Langdon and Margaret Jane Ross Langdon. Georgie felt stunted from the family circle every time Mary, Clifford’s mother, clutched the child and stole from Georgie love’s limelight that only a mother should feel for a child.
When Charlsie was two, people in town called her a Little Leprechaun. Mary laughed when she heard the name, but Georgie fumed, especially when Clifford’s fat double cousin Virtie snuggled with the baby and echoed that name when she played with the baby like she was a porcelain doll. At lease a foot shorter than the other children in first grade, by the end of the year she scarce knew her alphabet and sometimes got letters confused when she tried to read what the other children in her grade had already digested. “Stupid Leprechaun,” Georgie sometimes snarled while Clifford repeated slowly the words his daughter mangled. Georgie mumbled, “I didn’t mean it. You’re not stupid. You’re your own unique self, my beloved daughter.” But the scene repeated itself like words from the chorus of a song.
When Charlsie moved to Fort Worth to work in the bomber factory during World War II, people said, “She’ll do anything to get away from Georgie.” Rumor trickled down that this observation came mostly from Fat Virtie and her whiny mother Aunt Lue. Charlsie lived in government housing at the Liberator Village. “Oh, how fitting,” these doting relatives must have said. “She’s finally liberated herself from Georgie’s viper raiser tongue. She prefers to live in a ricky-ticky house than with her own mother.”
Georgie’s greatest fear surfaced to become the burden of her reality when Charlsie died shortly after the end of the war. “Poor little thing. She never was quite normal.” Their tongues must have clicked. “Poor Clifford. He don’t deserve this.” Georgie knew they compared him to a modern day Job as the years began to dwindle and then entangle themselves into a lump of cast off offal.
After the First World War, she and Clifford had reclaimed the two-room house, and with each passing year, she added first one room, then others as she renovated her own ricky-ticky house with its maze of additions where unsuspecting guests tripped on up-and-down slides and floor nails when they moved from one room to another. With her colorful gardens, she recreated the tapestries of colors she absorbed into her mind’s memory during the Battle of the Flowers in San Antonio.
With Virtie and one of Clifford’s more distant cousins, Georgie immersed herself in updating the 1942 Allard genealogy, published four years before Charlsie was taken into the Lord’s everlasting arms. To foster culture in an uncultured landscape, she opened Georgie’s Sonshine Books in the first and most uneven addition. In order to instruct Virtie’s four grandchildren about how to conduct themselves in public, one Christmas she mailed the girls a copy of the essential Manners for Moppets. One of Clifford’s employee’s wife found herself unable to attend Wednesday night services at Silverton Baptist Church, and Georgie informed the woman she was going to hell and they could no longer remain friends.
She realized Virtie hoped Clifford would survive her so he could experience happiness in his life. But he died, and she survived bound to a walker with neon tennis balls that kept her steady as she moved from one room to the next. Beyond the failed sunshine of this life, she prayed her life would not be written in water or sand, but in a bright and growing path with her Lord hovering near as she flew up to greet Him, united to a Force she never quite comprehended in her life of sorrow and fear.
Donna Walker-Nixon served as a full professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where she founded Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997. She co-edited the Her Texas series with her friend and mentor James Ward Lee, and she co-founded The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas. In 2010, her novel Canaan's Oothoon was published. As lead editor of the anthology Her Texas: Story, Image, Poem & Song, she has discovered that the voices of women writers and artists truly mean something to both men and women. This story was also published by Amethyst in January 2018.
Posted December 23, 2017
TAGGED WITH: Tales of Bygone Days