Mule Killers (from Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing)
My father was eighteen when the mule killers finally made it to his father's farm. He tells me that all across the state that year, big trucks loaded with mules rumbled steadily to the slaughterhouses. They drove over the roads that mules themselves had cut, the gravel and macadam that mules themselves had laid. Once or twice a day, he says, you would hear a high-pitched bray come from one of the trucks, a rattling as it went by, then silence, and you would look up from your work for a moment to listen to that silence. The mules when they were trucked away were sleek and fat on oats, work-shod and in their prime. The best color is fat, my grandfather used to say, when asked. But that year, my father tells me, that one heartbreaking year, the best color was dead. Pride and Jake and Willy Boy, Champ and Pete were dead, Kate and Sue and Orphan Lad, Orphan Lad was dead.
* * * *
In the spring of that year, in the afternoon of a rain-brightened day, my father's father goes to Nashville and buys two International Harvester tractors for eighteen hundred dollars, cash. "We've got no choice nowadays," he tells the IHC man, counting out the bills and shaking his head. He has made every excuse not to buy a mule killer, but finally the farm's financial situation has made the decision for him. Big trucks deliver the tractors and unload them in the muddy yard in front of the barn, where for a day they hunch and sulk like children. My grandfather's tobacco fields stretch out behind them, shimmering in the spring heat. Beyond the slope of green, the Cumberland River is just visible through a fringe of trees, swollen and dark with rain.
The next morning, after chores, my grandfather calls in the hands to explain the basics of the new machines, just the way the man in Nashville has done for him. He stands next to one of the tractors for a long time, talking about the mechanics of it, one hand resting on its flank. Then with all the confidence he can muster he climbs up to start it. He tries three times before the tractor shivers violently, bucks forward, and busts the top rail of a fence. "This one ain't entirely broke yet," my grandfather jokes, struggling to back it up.
"Reckon you'll break it before it breaks you?" someone calls out, and only half of the men laugh. Most of them are used to sleeping all down the length of a tobacco row until the mules stop, waking just long enough to swing the team and start on back up the next. They all know when it's lunchtime because the mules bray, in unison, every day at five to twelve.
My father stands with the men who are laughing, laughing with them and scuffing up dust with his boot, though he is nervous about the tractors. His light eyes are squinted in the sun, and he slouches - he has his father's height, and he carries it apologetically. He is trying hard to keep certain things stuffed deep inside his chest: things like fear, sadness, and uncertainty. He expects to outgrow all of these things very soon, and in the meantime, he works hard to keep them hidden. Lately, he has become secretive about the things he loves. His love is fierce and full, but edged in guilt. He loves Orphan Lad: Orphan's sharp shoulders and soft ears, the mealy tuck of his lower lip. Music. Books and the smell of books, sun-warmed stones, and Eula Parker, who has hair thick and dark as soil. He has loved her since he was ten and once sat next to her at church; during the sermon she pinched him so hard his arm was red until Tuesday, and he had secretly kissed that red butterfly bruise. But Orphan will soon be gone, and none of the hands read books, and he laughs at the tractors just as he would laugh if one of these men made a rude comment about Eula Parker, because the most important thing, he believes, is not to let on that he loves anything at all.
Late that night, some of the hands sit on the porch to dip snuff and drink bitter cups of coffee. My father sits with them, silent on the steps. When he is with people he often finds pockets in the noise that he can crawl into and fill with his own thoughts, soft, familiar thoughts with worn, rounded corners. At this particular moment he is turning an old thought of Eula Parker over and over in his mind: he is going to marry her. If he goes so far as to conjure dark-haired children for them, I don't know, but he does build a house where they sit together on a porch, a vast and fertile farm on the other side of the river, and on this night, a shed full of bright chrome tractors, twice as big as the ones that rest still warm and ticking in his father's mule barn. He plants a flower garden for her at the foot of the porch; he buys a big Victrola for the dining room and a smaller, portable one for picnics. Guiltily he touches just the edges of one of these picnics: Eula's hair loose and wild, a warm blanket by a creek, cold chicken and hard-boiled eggs, drowsiness, possibility.
In a moment his pocket of quiet is turned inside out; the hands roar with laughter at the punch line of a joke and the screen door clatters as my grandfather comes out to the porch. "You all ever gonna sleep?" he asks them, and smiles. He is an old man, nearing seventy, and the thin length of his body has rounded to a stoop, like a sapling loaded with snow. But his eyes are still the eyes of a young man, even after years in the sun, and they are bright as he smiles and jokes. My father stands up and leans against a post, crossing his arms. His father winks at him, then waves his hand at the men and steps back into the house, shaking his head and chuckling.
* * * *
My grandfather understood mule power. He celebrated it. He reveled in it. He always said that what makes a mule a better worker than the horse or the donkey is that he inherited the best from both of them: strong hindquarters from his dam and strong shoulders from his sire. He said, The gospel according to mule is push and pull. When his wife died young of a fever, it was not a horse but Orphan Lad who pulled her coffin slowly to the burying grounds, a thing the prouder men of the county later felt moved to comment on in the back room of the feed store. My grandfather was a man who never wore a hat, even to town. Uncover thy head before the Lord, he said, and the Lord he believed to be everywhere: in the trees, in the water of the creek, under Calumet cans rusting in the dirt.
Eula Parker is a slippery and mysterious girl, and my father's poor heart is constantly bewildered by her fickle ways. Like the day he walked her home from church and she allowed him to hold her cool hand, but would not let him see her all the way to the front door. Or the times when she catches him looking at her, and drops her eyes and laughs - at what, he cannot guess. With a kit he burns her name into a scrap of oak board and works up the courage to leave it at the door of her parents' house in town; when he walks by the next day and it is still there, he steals it back and takes it home to hide it shamefully beneath his bed. At church she always sits with the same girl, fifth pew back on the left, and he positions himself where he can see her: her hair swept up off her neck, thick purple-black and shining, the other girl's hanging limply down, onion-paper pale. Afterward, when people gather in the yard, the other girl always smiles at him, but he never notices; he is watching to see if Eula smiles, because sometimes she does and sometimes she doesn't. His love fattens on this until it is round and full, bursting from every seam.
At night, when he is sure his father is sleeping, he sticks the phonograph needle in a rubber eraser and holds the eraser in his front teeth. Carefully, with his nose inches from the record, he sets the needle down. With a hiss and crackle, the music reverberates through the hollows of his mouth and throat without making a sound in the room. Ignoring the cramp in his neck, this is how he listens to his favorite records night after night. Wild with thoughts of Eula with her hair like oil. Her snake-charming eyes. Her long, fine hands. How she teases him. He dreams he finds pieces of his heart in the boot scraper at her door.
On a warm and steamy afternoon my father makes a trip to town. He walks along the side of the road and passing cars do not give him any room. Several times he has to jump into the tick-heavy weeds that grow at the road's edge. At the river, a truck loaded with mules from a farm to the north passes him and bottoms out on the bridge. He keeps his head to the side until it is out of sight. Soon the truck will come for the last of his father's herd. Oh, Orphan. On the coldest mornings of his boyhood, his father had let him ride Orphan to school, bareback with two leads clipped to the halter. When they got to the schoolhouse he'd jump down and slap the mule's wide, wonderful haunch, and the big animal would turn without hesitation and walk directly home to be harnessed and hitched for the day's work.
Town is still and hot. The street is empty, buildings quiet, second-story shutters closed like eyes. He buys a tin of phonograph needles at the furniture store and lingers to look at the portable record players, nestled neat and tidy in their black cases. When he finally steps out of the store, head bowed in thought, he nearly runs into Eula and another girl, who stand bent close in serious conversation.
When they look up and see that it is him, they both politely say hello. Eula looks up at the store awning behind him. The other girl, the girl with the onion-pale hair, she looks down at the toe of her boot. He hears himself ask, "Want to go for a soda?" His voice is like a round stone that drops right there on the sidewalk. Eula's face closes like a door. But the other girl. The other girl, she guesses so.
He takes her to the only drugstore in town and they sit at the counter and order two sodas. She doesn't speak. They watch the clerk stocking packages on the high shelves along the wall, sliding his wooden ladder along the track in the ceiling with a satisfying, heavy sound. She seals her straw with her finger and swizzles it around the glass. She crosses her right ankle over her left, then her left ankle over her right, then hooks her heels onto the bottom of the stool. My father compliments her on her dress. The clerk drops a bag of flour and curses, then apologizes to the girl. There are hollow fly carcasses wedged into the dusty seam of the counter and the warped wood floor. Even with two ceiling fans running, the air is hot and close.
This must have been the middle of August; though my father doesn't tell me this, it is easy enough to count backwards and figure for myself. The walls of the store are painted a deep green and the paint has bubbled in some places. My father's mind fails him as he searches for something to say. He watches her twist a strand of hair around her finger, but she feels his eyes on her and abruptly stops, folding her hands in her lap.
"So, you and Eula, y'all sit together at church," he says, forgetting to make it a question.
Puzzled, the girl nods her head. She has not yet said a word. Perhaps she is having trouble believing that she is sitting here at this counter, having a soda with a boy. Or she is worrying that her hair is too pale and limp, or her wrists too big, or her dress too common. She has never believed she would find herself in this situation, and so has never rehearsed.
"I've always thought this time of year is the saddest," she finally says, looking up at my father. He lays his hand on the counter and spreads out his fingers. His chin tilts forward as if he is about to speak. Then the sleigh bells on the door jingle, shiver when it slams shut. It is Eula. She doesn't look at them. She brushes her sweat-damp hair back with two fingers and asks the clerk for something - what? - my father's ears are suddenly filled - she is asking the clerk for a tin of aspirin, peering up at the shelves behind him and blinking those eyes. The clerk stares too long before turning to his ladder. My father considers socking him one in that plug-ugly face. Eula raps her fingers along the edge of the counter and hums tunelessly, and still she won't look their way.
At this moment, my father feels his heart dissolve into a sticky bright liquid. Jealousy has seized her, she has followed them here - he is certain. Finally, a staggering proclamation of her love. His heart has begun to trickle down into the soles of his feet when the girl somehow catches Eula's eye and ripples her fingers at her.
Then Eula unfolds her long body towards them, and smiles. An enormous, beautiful, open-faced smile: a smile with no jealousy hidden behind it at all. She takes her change and paper sack from the clerk and turns, one hand stretched out towards the door. She is simply going to leave. She is going to walk out the door and leave them here to their sodas and silence. At this point my father, frantic, takes hold of the girl on the stool next to him, leans her in Eula's direction, and kisses her recklessly, right on the mouth.
My father tells me this story in the garden, bent over and searching through the knee-high weeds for long, thick stalks of asparagus, clipping them with his pocket knife and handing them to me. Here he stops and straightens and squints east, and I know his back is starting to bother him. Why he never told me the story when I was a boy, I don't know; I am twice as old now as he was, the year of the mule killers. But still he skips the part of the story where I come in.
It doesn't matter; I can imagine it. Before the door has even closed after Eula, something has changed in my father, and as he slides from his stool he firmly takes the girl's hand. He leads her out of the drugstore, glancing back once more at the pock-faced clerk, who is carefully smoothing Eula's dollar bill into the cash register drawer. Slowly they make their way somewhere: back to the farm, most likely, where his father is sitting with the hands at supper. He takes her to the hayloft, a back field, the mule barn, the spring house: anyplace that was dark and quiet for long enough that my father could desperately try to summon Eula's face, or else hope to forever blot it from his mind. Long enough that I, like a flashbulb, could snap into existence.
"Mercy, mercy, mercy," my grandfather said, that day they finally took Orphan. "He'll be all right." He pinched the bridge of his nose and looked away when they tried to load Orphan onto the truck. The mule's big ears swung forward, his narrow withers locked, and he would not budge when he got to the loading ramp. It took four men to finally get him up, and they saw his white eye swiveling madly when they looked in through the slats. "Not stubborn, just smart," my grandfather said to the ground, then again pinched his nose and leaned against the truck as two more mules were loaded up. His herd was so big that this was the last of three trips. He had intended to send Orphan with the first load, but had put it off and put it off.
"Ain't it some kind of thanks," my grandfather said as he latched up the back of the truck, the mules inside jostling to get their footing, and Orphan's long ear had swiveled back at the sound of his voice. The best of them brought three or four cents a pound as dog meat; some of them would merely be heaved six deep into a trench that would be filled in with dirt by men on tractors. The hollow report of hooves on the truck bed echoed even after the truck had pulled onto the road and turned out of sight. The exact same sound could be heard all through the county, all across the hills of Tennessee and up through Kentucky, across Missouri and Kansas, and all the way out West, even, you could hear it. The mules' job, it was finished.
When the back of the truck is finally shut, my father is high above, hiding in the hayloft. At church the pale-haired girl had pulled him into the center aisle just before the service and told him her news, the news of me. All through the sermon his mind had flipped like a fish, and he had stared hard at the back of Eula's neck, trying to still that fish. In the hayloft he thinks of this moment as he listens to the shouts of the truck driver and the engine backfiring once before the mules are pulled away, but he doesn't come to the edge, he doesn't look down for one last glimpse of Orphan Lad.
Late that night my father creeps to the Victrola in the living room and carefully opens the top of the cabinet. He slides a record onto the turntable and turns the crank, then sets his eraser and needle between his teeth and presses it to the first groove. A fiddle plays, is joined by a guitar, and then a high lonesome voice starts in about heartbreak. Every time he listens to his records like this, the first notes take him by surprise. When the music starts to fill his head, he can't believe it is coming from the record on the turntable and not from a place within himself. He closes his eyes and imagines Eula Parker is in the room, dancing behind him in a dark red dress. He moves his face across the record, following the groove with the needle, and spit collects in the pockets of his cheeks. Eula, Eula, Eula. He lets her name roll around in his head until it is unclear, too, whether this sound is coming from the record on the turntable, or from the deepest hollows of his heart.
Three weeks after the last load of mules goes, a tractor overturns on a hill down by the river and nearly kills one of the hands. It is not an unexpected tragedy. My grandfather is the only one with the man, and he pulls him out from underneath the seat and searches through the grass for three scattered fingers while the engine continues to choke and whir. He drives the man to the hospital in Nashville and doesn't return until late that night. His trip home is held up by an accident at the bridge that takes nearly an hour to be cleared away. When he finally arrives back, his son is waiting on the porch to tell him about the pale-haired girl.
My father has rehearsed what he will say dozens of times to the fence posts and icebox, but when he sees his father's brown, blood-caked forearms and hands, he is startled enough to forget what it was. Weary and white in the face, my grandfather sits down next to him on the top step and touches his shoulder.
"Son," he says, "you're gonna see a future I can't even stretch my mind around. Not any of it. I can't even begin to imagine."
If my father had understood what his father was trying to tell him, maybe he would have waited until the morning to say what he now says. Maybe he would never had said anything, packed up a small bag, and left town for good. Abandoned love and any expectation of it. Instead he confesses to my grandfather, all in a rush, the same way he might have admitted that he had broken the new mower, or left the front gate open all night.
My grandfather stares hard at my father's knee and is quiet a long time.
"You done her wrong," he says. Repeats it. "You got no choice but to take care of it. You done her wrong."
In those days this was my grandfather's interpretation of the world: A thing was either right or it was wrong. Or so it seemed to my father, and he was getting tired of it.
"No, sir," he says, lips tight. "That's not what I intend. I'm in love with someone else." He takes a breath. "I'm gonna marry Eula Parker." Even as he speaks her name he is startled by this statement, like it is a giant carp he has yanked from the depths of the river. It lies on the step before both of them, gasping.
My grandfather looks at him with sadness rimming his eyes and says quietly, "You should've thought of that before."
"But you see," my father says, as if explaining to a child, "I love her."
My grandfather grips his knees with his big hands and sighs. He reaches out for his son's arm, but my father brushes him away, stands up, and walks heavily across the porch. When he goes into the house, he lets the screen door slam behind him, and it bangs twice in the casement before clicking shut.
Late that night, after washing the dishes of a silent dinner, my father sits on the porch sharpening his pocket knife. He taps his bare feet against the hollow stairs and even whistles through his teeth. His father's words have still not completely closed in around him. Though an uneasiness is slowly creeping up, he is still certain that the future is bright chrome and glorious, full of possibility. Behind him, a string of the banjo gently twangs as it goes flat in the cooling air. It is the first night of the year that smells of autumn and my father takes a few deep breaths as he leans against the porch railing and looks out into the yard. This is when he sees something out under the old elm, a long, twisted shape leaning unsteadily against the thick trunk of the tree.
He steps off the porch onto the cool grass of the yard, thinking first he sees a ghost. As he gets closer to the shape, he believes it next to be a fallen limb, or one of the hands, drunk on moonshine - then, nothing but a forgotten ladder, then - with rising heart - Eula come to call for him in her darkest dress. But when he is just a few yards away from the tree, he sees it is his father, his back to the house, arms at his sides. He is speaking quietly, and my father knows by the quality of his voice that he is praying. He has found him like this before, in the hayfield at dusk or by the creek in the morning, eyes closed, mumbling simple private incantations. My father is about to step quietly back to the porch when his father reaches a trembling hand to the tree to steady himself, then lets his shoulders collapse. He blows his nose in his hand and my father hears him swallow back thick, jumbled sobs. When he hears this, when he realizes his father is crying, he turns and rushes blindly back to the house, waves of heat rising from beneath his ribs like startled birds from a tree.
Once behind the closed door of his room, my father makes himself small as possible on the edge of his unmade bed. Staring hard at the baseboard, he tries to slow his tumbling heart. He has never seen his father cry, not even when his mother died. Now, having witnessed it, he feels like he has pulled the rug of manhood out from under the old man's feet. He convinces himself that it must be the lost mules his father was praying for, or for the mangled man who lies unconscious in the hospital bed in Nashville, and that this is what drove him to tears. It is only much later, picking asparagus in the ghost of a garden, that he will admit who his father had really been crying for: for his son, and for his son.
These days, my father remembers little from the time before the tractors. The growl of their engines in his mind has long since drowned out the quieter noises: the constant stamping and shifting of mule weight in the barn, the smooth sound of oats being poured into a steel bucket. He remembers the steam that rose from the animals after work. Pooled heaps of soft leather harness waiting to be mended on the breakfast table. At the threshold of the barn door, a velvet-eared dog that was always snapping its teeth at flies. Orphan standing dark and noble in the snow, a sled hooked to his harness. Eula Parker in a dark blue hat laughing and saying his name, hurrying after him and calling out "Wait, wait," one warm Sunday as he left church for home.
He remembers too his mother's cooking spices lined up in the cupboard where they had been since her death, faded inside their tins, without scent or taste. When he knew he was alone in the house, it gave him some sad comfort to take them out one by one and open them, the contents of each as dusty and gray as the next. He has just one memory of her, just an image: the curve of her spine and the fall of her hair when she had once leaned over to sniff the sheets on his bed, the morning after he'd wet it. This is all he has of her: one moment, just one, tangled in those little threads of shame.
In the same way I only have one memory of my grandfather, one watery picture from when I was very young. When my mother and father would rock me on the porch at night, my grandfather sat with them in a straight-backed chair, playing the banjo. He would tie a little tissue paper doll to his right wrist, and it danced and jumped like a tiny white ghost. I remember sitting on my mother's lap one night, and in the darkness the only things I could see were the tissue doll, the white moon of the banjo face, my mother's pale hair. I remember watching that doll bobbing along with my grandfather's strumming and, from time to time, the white flash of his teeth when he smiled. And I can hear him sing just a piece of one of the old songs: I know'd it, indeed I know'd it, yes, I know'd it, my bones are gonna rise again.
This is the story that my father tells me as he bends like a wire wicket in the garden, or, I should say, what once was my mother's garden. He parts the tangle of weeds to find the asparagus, then snaps off the tough spears with his knife, straightening slowly from time to time to stretch his stiff and rounded back. The garden is like a straight-edged wilderness in the middle of the closely mowed lawn, a blasted plot of weeds and thorns and thistle. Nothing has grown here since my mother died and no one wanted to tend it. Nothing except the asparagus, which comes up year after year.
From Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2009 by Lydia Peelle. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.