Buck by Jack Fay
Everything changed the day Daddy left us and went off with Tillie Dugan, the one that worked down at the Purina Feed Store. Grampa took us in right quick, and that’s when Mama’s bitterness began spilling out, never stoppin’ ‘til we put her in the ground back o’ the barn. Pretty soon Mary, sweet, sweet Mary, went away too. Topeka, some say, but I say Californy. That little sister of mine loved them movie stars. Her bedroom walls are filled with pitchers of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and on the stand next to her bed is a record player that still works. A white teddy bear with a red ribbon ‘round the neck is sittin’ on her pillow. Been there since the day she left, more‘n twenty years ago.
It’s Mary I come back for onc’t a year, always on the day she left. I shouldda knew she’d leave. No future around here for a girl not yet twenty. Broke my heart when she left. But she’ll be back. I know she will. She’ll come back and find me workin’ this field, just like I was workin’ it the day she went away. Right now I can see it happenin’, see her in the driveway gettin’ outta one of them big cars. Cute as a butter bean, she’ll be, and next to her will be a passel o’ kids. Behind her will be a man holdin’ his hat in front of him, not knowin’ what to say.
Buck Pickens went back to work kicking the blunted blade of an old spade into brick-hard ground. A faded blue bandanna tied loosely around his neck was drenched with sweat, his trucker’s shirt was soaked down the back and denim overalls were stuck to his legs. For a man pushing fifty, Buck was in fine shape. Wrestling furniture into and out of trucks for close to thirty years kept his stomach flat and his arms corded like heavy rope.
Buck was digging a furrow that didn’t need to be dug. There’d be no planting in the furrow and no harvesting from it. It was stretching to half the length of a football field when the sun began to slide behind oak trees at the far end of the field. Buck did not want to quit but it was time. He ran the back of his hand across his brow and snapped sweat to the ground at his feet. He slung the handle of the spade onto his shoulder and walked toward the barn and the house. A hulk of rusted metal that used to be a John Deere tilted sadly among weeds on one side of the barn. On the other side of the barn and forward of it was Buck’s childhood home, once a handsome house with four columns in front and marble floors throughout. But now it was a sagging structure desperately in need of help. Half of the roof of the front porch had fallen in, shutters were hanging crookedly from windows, and the siding was split and rotten. Like last year, and years before that, Buck promised he’d come back and patch things up.
He hung the spade on two nails driven into a supporting beam inside the barn. He slipped off rubber boots and replaced them with Acme ropers. After swinging the barn doors closed he tied them shut with baling wire. He washed his hands and face with rainwater from a trough.
His ten-year-old Ford 150 was waiting for him off the side of the dirt driveway. He had left plenty of room for a large car to park and for Mary and her children and her husband to greet him. But on this day the large car did not pull up. Next year, Buck prayed.
Ten yards behind the barn was a waist-high wrought iron fence that formed a square with one open end. Buck rolled his trucker shirt sleeves down to his wrists and pushed the buttons into place. He ran both hands across the sides and top of his head. The land sloped behind the barn, so as Buck walked to the iron fence he dug his boot heels into the ground. He stepped into the open end of the fence and stopped. He templed his hands against his chest and bowed his head. A small tombstone tilted back from the hard scrabble. He said to it, “I’m leavin’ now, Mama. I’ll be back next year.”
Buck took a step to the right. Tears filled his eyes and a choke rose in his throat. A second tombstone was at his feet. The name on it said, “Mary Pickens, Beloved Sister.”