Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Partners

Part 1


Bill Fleet


Mamma and Betty tossed and sweated and cried and cursed and bled and strained on the very same day in 1917, each one struggling to bear her first child, a son.

Mike tapped on our back door. "Mr. Robert, Betty's time is here. Can you ride me to town for the doctor?"

"Can't do it. Mamma's time has come too. Take a mule. You know the stock. Take one that rides easy. Hitch up Buddy for me before you leave."

Daddy drove five miles to Macon for the doctor; Mike Langston rode our best mule three miles for the midwife. There were advantages to being our hostler.

We were born almost at the same time on our remote Mississippi Delta farm. I am white. JT is black.

Mamma was right poorly after I was born, too sickly to make much milk. Betty had enough milk for the both of us, and so she fed Mamma and Daddy and Mike and me and JT, too. Betty was our cook.

JT spent more time at my house than his. Betty kept him in our kitchen or on our back porch while she worked, even after he was weaned. When he began to crawl, she tied him on the porch with an old plow line so he couldn't fall off. His leash drew him up sharp when he got too near the edge. He never saw any other part of our house.

Betty's day began early. She cooked eggs and sausage and grits and biscuits and made coffee for breakfast. We always had meat, vegetables, cornbread, dessert, and tea for dinner. If we had a chicken, Betty killed and dressed it right after she finished the breakfast dishes.

I ate dinner with Mamma and Daddy at our dining room table at noon. Mamma told Betty what to cook; Betty cooked it, served it, and cleaned up after we had finished. Monday dinners were mostly Sunday leftovers. Monday was washday and Betty spent all morning at the scrubboard.

JT and Betty ate their dinner out of tin pie plates on our back porch steps. JT never ate in our house; sometimes I ate in his, but Mamma didn't ever know.

Betty and JT usually left in mid-afternoon after she had set out leftovers for supper. Betty brought food to Mike. He liked cornbread, greens, and fatback but ate whatever Betty brought. Mamma knew Betty fed Mike from our leftovers but never said a word. I heard Mamma tell Daddy, "Betty steals less than most Darkeys do. She's a good cook and she's clean. We won't do better."

By the time JT and I were four we played together in our back yard every day.

"What we doin' today, Mr. Will?"

"Let's play farming. I'll be boss; you be fieldhand." We made roads and fields and barns in the bare dirt under the back porch and used scrap wood blocks for wagons and sticks for mules. When we tired of farming, we chased Mamma's chickens. It was fun to see them try to fly. We chased each other around the house, just for the fun of running.

Once, when JT chased me, I ran around the house and through the front door. JT followed. He did that only once. Betty scolded JT. "Don't you ever, ever go through that front door again." Then she swatted his bottom with a wooden spoon just to drive home her point.
Mamma had seen JT in our front room. She marched into the kitchen, drew her head back, crossed her arms, stared at Betty, and sniffed. She wanted to remind Betty of just who we were and who they were. No words were needed.

I had to start school when I was six. I rode my pony three miles to our one-room White school every day. JT walked the other way to the Colored school when he was seven. I thought the Colored school was better--JT only had to go four months a year. Blacks needed to be in the fields during the growing season.

JT and I played outside after school most every day. When we stubbed a toe or stepped on a honeybee, Betty always made it better. Sometimes she put a hex on a really bad bee sting. Hexes always worked on bee stings.

Summers were best for us nine-year-old boys. Mamma and Daddy complained about the heat. JT and I never felt it, but we did sweat a lot. We fished in the bayou and shot my little air rifle and picked blackberries and threw green Chinaberries at each other and spent many a hot afternoon lying in the shade of our big oak tree, drinking sweet lemonade we had stolen from the kitchen. When Betty caught us, she would swing her broom and yell, "You boys stay out o' that lemonade! I made it for Mr. Will's mamma and daddy. Next time I catch you in it, I'm telling yo' mamma on you, Mr. Will Jones!"

She never did.

We were still too young for heavy fieldwork but old enough for chores. I picked beans and peas and pulled weeds in our garden, fed our chickens and gathered eggs.

JT helped in the barn, fed hay to the mules and cows in wintertime and oats in summertime, helped with the milking, brought in coal for the fires, pulled weeds from flowerbeds, and swept the back porch. We both were old enough to pick a little cotton, to bring in water from the well, to fish and hunt a little, and to laze away a hot afternoon under the big oak tree.

I heard Mamma and Daddy talk. Mamma fussed, "Will and JT spend way too much time together. I swan, Will is more Black than White. Daddy, do something about Will." Daddy knew. JT and I needed each other, just like Mamma needed Betty and just like he needed Mike. Daddy made soothing noises, "Now Mamma, Will is young. Boys change."

But nothing would ever change for JT and me. I knew that.

***

Bill Fleet grew up in rural Mississippi. He earned BA and MD degrees from Vanderbilt University. He was a faculty member in the Vanderbilt Department of Pediatrics for nine years before entering private practice in the Nashville area. He began creative writing shortly after retiring in 1998 and published his first book in 2000.

© Bill Fleet

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012