| As Hot As It Was You Ought to Thank Me |
By Nanci Kincaid
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We had a yard cat. It was like a yard dog, only it was a cat that couldn't come in our house or any house, just roamed the sandspur yard, all hot day and all hot night, looking for a dark spot in the world that might be cool, like dark meant cool, but it never did, not even under the car, or under the chinaberry tree, or under the house by the dripping faucet, or under the cement steps that led up to the porch. Not even the nights with the icy-looking stars sprinkled overhead were cool, because cool was only a thing we dreamed, all of us, something we heard about once or read about someplace and decided to believe in. It was such a fine thing to believe. Better than heaven. Like standing in the open refrigerator door, feeling that one second of crisp air until the kitchen heat got it, until Mother yelled, "Close that door. You're letting all the cold out." That kind of believing.
But our yellow cat had never been in a house, never seen the light go on in the refrigerator and felt the good shock of a cold second, never finding a cool spot anyplace, because there wasn't one, not ever, just stalking the yard, looking for small things to eat - not mice, we didn't have any mice that I ever saw, just snakes mostly, small ones, poisonous or non-poisonous, it didn't matter, she would get one in her mouth, paw it to death, then drape it on the back porch steps for us to see, white-bellied sometimes, the kind of dead you can poke with a stick, the lifeless snake lying in wait, belly up, making our mother scream when she saw it.
If it was small enough our mother swept it up in a dustpan and threw it in the trash barrel out by the fence where our neighbor burned his trash every week or so. If it was bigger she let us bury it - my brothers, Sowell and Wade, and me - in a sandy patch beside the house that Mother insisted on calling a flower bed. Our mother didn't believe a dead snake was ever really dead. "I've seen many a snake come back to life," she warned. But Sowell and Wade made it their job to test for death authenticity. They put the limp snake through assorted life-or-death maneuvers - slinging it back and forth across the yard like a boomerang that had lost its arc, pinning it to the wire fence with a clothespin clamped on its tail, clearing a place in the sand like a clean slate and twisting the dead snake into alphabet shapes all the way to Z, dropping it in the bowl of cat water that sat beneath the spigot to see if it could float - before declaring it officially dead and fit to be wrapped in a paper napkin and buried beneath the morning glory vine that clung to the side of our wooden house.
Sometimes our cat sniffed us and clawed at our legs while we laid the snake carcasses to rest. Sometimes the burial was complete with a Popsicle stick cross and a memorized Bible verse, like maybe I would say, Make a joyful noise all ye people, come before the Lord with gladness, or something religious like that. Our yellow cat sat on my lap and let me pet her while Sowell and Wade dug a deep hole with kitchen spoons. It seemed right that our yellow cat, the killer of these snakes, should want to, should have to, watch them be buried. Amen, we said.
Snake killing was one of the many nasty cat habits that made Mother declare our yellow cat a yard cat. Another was clawing the back-door screen until it was in shreds. I thought this meant that our cat wanted inside the house with the rest of us, that she wanted to be a house cat. I imagined letting her sleep at the foot of my bed, listening to her purr, stroking her yellow fur until she fell asleep. But Mother said, "That cat is too wild, Berry. It would feel like an innocent prisoner locked away in a jail, a stray cat trying to live in a house, scratching everything to pieces. Houses are good places for people, honey, but they're like prisons to cats and dogs."
My daddy had been raised on a farm and it had made him hate animals. "If you'd butchered as many hogs, rung as many chicken necks, shoveled as much manure as I have, you wouldn't be an animal lover either," Daddy said. But it wasn't true. I would be. "You just be grateful I let you keep that cat for a yard cat," he said. "Don't start begging me to let the cat in the house, Berry. You hear me?"
Our cat didn't have a real name. We just called it our yellow cat. Where is our yellow cat? Here are some leftovers to feed our yellow cat. Like that. From out of nowhere our yellow cat had just wandered up to the yard one day looking starved half to death and sunbaked too. Her eyes were crusted over. It made me think of the hobos that came to our back door, who migrated through Pinetta just as sure as any flock of birds, called out to Mother through the screen door, "Sister, can you spare a bite to eat?"
Mother stopped her ironing and came to the door and looked at them the same way she had looked at our yellow cat that first day. She gave those hobos a tuna fish sandwich, or last night's meat loaf, or once a slice of Sowell's birthday cake and then usually the men, who looked like somebody had painted them with grime, like grime was the color of their hair and skin and clothes and even their eyes, and who were sun-hardened, turned nearly reptile-skinned the way the Florida sun did people who were not afraid of it, who lived out in it until they looked like something tough and overdone, maybe used to be tender, but not anymore, then those men said, "Grateful, sister." The sun had tattooed them all over, except their hair, which was sometimes turned golden on their heads, like angel hair, underneath the grime.
"You can wash your hands at that faucet." Mother pointed to the spigot on the side of the house. "Wade, go in the bathroom and get the man a bar of soap."
It was a pleasure to watch a grown man wash his hands and face with a slippery bar of soap out in the yard, sticking his whole baked head under the faucet, making it seem like steam was coming off him, getting his shirt dripping wet, wiping his clean hands dry on his dirty pants.
"You need to comb your hair," I said once. The man's hair was as long as mine. He made his fingers into comb teeth and raked his hand through his hair over and over again. "How's that, girlie?" he said. "Good," I told him.
The hobos sat on the back steps, like yard dogs, like yard cats themselves who could not come inside houses where clean people lived. They sat and ate the plates of food Mother gave them and drank the Kool-Aid from her Tupperware cups and Sowell sat beside them, and so did I, and Wade too. We watched the men eat, some slow to make it last, some fast like they were worried Mother would change her mind and come back outside and snatch their plates away. We drew with sticks in the sand, and ran our feet over the sand pictures to erase them, and asked the men questions. "What's your name?" we said.
They said Little Willie or Petey-boy or some other happysounding name that made us laugh, like little boys' nicknames stuck onto grown men, who seemed suddenly friendly when you knew how harmless their names were. "Where do you live?" we said.
"Nowhere," they might say. Or "Anywhere." Or once a man said he was from Georgia. "Live on the road," they all said. "But where do you sleep?" we asked.
"Wherever I can find a cool place," one hobo said. But we knew there were no cool places.
"I guess you must sleep in somebody's refrigerator then," Sowell said. "Only cool place around here." "Cherry Lake is cool," Wade said. "At night. At midnight." "He don't sleep in no lake," Sowell said.
"He doesn't sleep, Sowell," Mother said. "Doesn't." We hadn't known she was standing there, waiting to hand the man an orange. An orange. She embarrassed me doing that. Why would anybody give a Florida hobo an orange when he could just about get all the oranges he wanted for himself? Just pick them up off the ground or off a tree. I wished she'd had an apple for him. I think he would have liked that better. She set the orange down on the steps beside him and went back into the kitchen.
"I sleep under a car sometimes," the hobo said. "In a ditch on the side of the road. Lay out some palmetto leaves, make me a good spot. Heck, sometimes I sleep up in a tree."
"You don't sleep up in no tree," Sowell said. "You ever seen snow?" Wade asked. "Many a time," a hobo answered. "Seen it. Slept in it. Eat it. I done it all, son."
"What's snow like?" Wade sat close by the man like he was falling in love with him, like he'd been separated from him at birth by endless questions and now, at last, here came the answers.
"Cold," the hobo said. "That's all. Snow, it's right pretty one minute, nasty the next."
"You ate some?" "Sure I did." "What did it taste like then?" "Nothing," he said. "Don't have no taste."
"You got any kids?" I asked the man. His stringy hair was slicked back behind his ears in little greasy ropes. His beard looked like a fistful of Spanish moss stuck onto his chin. His teeth were yellow except where they were missing.
"None that claims me," the man said. "And none I claim." "Too bad," I said. "Is that a saying out of the Bible?" Wade asked. "None I claim?"
"You want more Kool-Aid?" Sowell said. "Give me your cup, mister. I'll get you some more."
We loved it when the hobos came, when out of the string of little white Pinetta houses they picked ours, with our T-shirts and underpants hanging on the clothesline, our tire swing hanging from the chinaberry tree, our rusty bikes slung to the ground up next to the house. It was like they could just look around at the six white shoebox houses, all of them just alike, and know we had the nicest mother living in ours, that she was sure to come up with something good for them to eat. It made us proud of her. And sort of surprised too. Like a vote of confidence.
We had neighbors, the Burdetts, with a store-bought swing set in their yard and other neighbors, the Ingrams, with the only television set for miles around, a scarecrow of an antenna stuck up on the side of their house saying so. The Ingrams were not rich, but now that they had a television set it seemed like they were and everybody was nice to them because we wanted to get invited over to their oven of a house to watch their fuzzy television and listen to the fake audience laugh at things to let us know they were supposed to be funny. It was like a signal - here's where you laugh - and so we did.
There were six children in the Ingram family. Five girls older than me and one boy, Jimmy, my age. Jimmy was known all around Pinetta as the boy who wore dresses. Even I did not wear dresses, except on Sundays. But Jimmy, with his buzz haircut and bare feet, wore a dress practically every day of his life, handme- down dresses from his sisters. He didn't seem to know it was unnatural.
"Why you wear them dresses?" Sowell asked him once. "Because" - Jimmy hardly dignified the question with any explanation - "I want to."
When we were little stay-at-home kids, too young for school, it didn't seem to matter that Jimmy wore dresses. I got used to it and didn't think it was a bit odd after a while. Jimmy was my main friend. We made forts in the weeds, played war with the water hose, caught roly-polies up under his house and set fire to anthills like we had received a divine calling. I knew firsthand that Jimmy was just as mean and normal as any other little boy - dress or no dress.
Besides, I don't think I ever wore a shirt until I started school. I am not proud of this fact, but in all our family photos I am standing in the yard in my underpants, bare chested as my brothers. Sometimes I have on some shorts and sandals, but that's usually all. My hair is white and cut short, giving my head the look of a misplaced snowball. These are mostly beforeglasses photos. I was always smiling then. So a girl who never wore a shirt shouldn't have been laughing at a boy who wore a dress. It was like we were too little to understand who we were or what we were supposed to be. Like nobody had bothered to tell us yet. I wish Mother hadn't let me go around bare chested like that, but when I said so, she said, "Berry, for goodness' sakes. As hot as it was you ought to thank me." She says that now.
"Wearing those dresses is going to confuse that child for the rest of his life," Mother told Daddy one night after supper. She had invited Jimmy to eat Spam sandwiches with us, after which we had all rushed outside to play swing the statue until it got too dark to see anymore and the bugs took over. Mother and Daddy sat on the bumper of our car, sipping their iced tea and counting out loud while the rest of us hid from whoever was it.
"Jimmy is a sweet boy," I heard Mother tell Daddy, "but he's in for a rough time if Mrs. Ingram sends him to first grade dressed up like a girl."
It was Daddy that finally - weeks later - went over to the Ingrams' and told Mrs. Ingram that when Jimmy started Pinetta School he was going to have to dress like a little boy. He said there were rules against boys wearing dresses to school. Mrs. Ingram said she understood that. She said she had no intention of sending the child to school in his sisters' old clothes. She didn't mention one thing about Daddy letting me run around half naked nearly every day. She didn't say, "There are rules about little girls starting school wearing nothing but their underpants." Mrs. Ingram was more sophisticated than that.
"You know children mess up their clothes roughhousing around outside," Mrs. Ingram said. "I didn't see no sense in buying Jimmy good clothes just so he could tear them up playing in the heat of the sun all day. I thought, well, just let him mess up something that's already messed up. What difference does it make then?"
She promised to buy Jimmy his own clothes when he started school and she did - navy blue shorts with elastic waistbands. I thought he looked foolish in them at first. He acted embarrassed too. He cried when we all laughed at him, his legs showing, looking as startled as a couple of people, like two legs who knew how foolish they looked hanging out of a pair of shorts, who knew they looked finer when they hung out of a too-big handme- down dress. Jimmy looked like a ridiculous stranger in those brand-spanking-new boy clothes.
"Oh, you are handsome, Jimmy," Mother told him, wiping his wet eyes with her skirt tail. "You are about the handsomest thing I have ever seen, all dressed up in those nice boy clothes. Isn't he handsome, Berry?" she said.
"Yes, ma'am." I nodded. After that nobody laughed at him and he seemed like he had made the transition just fine.
The Ingrams had a big car parked in their yard too. Jimmy and I liked to play like it was either a rocket or a wagon on a wagon train. There was no way for a stranger to know it wouldn't run, hadn't run for a few years, just sat there looking like you could get in it and go someplace, but you couldn't. You'd think a hobo would pick a house like that - the Ingrams' - where the people might hand out a plate of cold fried chicken or a piece of pie, but no, hobos picked our house. They picked us. Our house didn't even have a car in the yard during the day because Daddy drove it to work. He was principal at Pinetta School. Mother said people treated Daddy like he was half preacher and half policeman. She told us, "There are two things I never wanted to be, a preacher's wife and a policeman's wife."
Jimmy was always jealous when the hobos came to our back door. He tried to entice them to his house with promises of RC Cola or boiled peanuts. "You can sit in my daddy's car and eat," Jimmy said to a really old hobo who had a dirty white beard and was skinny as a paper clip.
"He looks like Santa Claus's evil twin," Sowell whispered to me. "Don't he?"
"Come on over to my house, mister," Jimmy pleaded. "My mama will give you some marshmallows."
"Can't do it, son," the hobo said. "Got a train to catch." "You don't neither," Jimmy said. "There ain't no train." "There is if you know where to look," the man said. "Got to know where to look."
We had never seen a train, but we knew about them. "Where?" Jimmy said. The man laughed. "They let you on a train?" Sowell asked.
"They don't have to let me," the hobo said. "You can jump on easy when the train slows to a crawl. I been clear to California and back on a train, saw the entire United States of America and I can tell you firsthand it is a fine, fine country - this US of A." We didn't believe he'd really done it, but we liked his patriotism.
After a hobo had eaten everything Mother could scrounge up, he politely yelled, "Thank you, sister." Mother did not allow a hobo to come in the house, but she might allow one to take a nap in our yard, under the chinaberry tree, ordering us not to worry him to death. Some hobos can sleep on a bed of nails. They can sleep in a smoldering fire or on the roof of a fastmoving car. They can even sleep through three kids who are dedicated to their not sleeping at all. By the time they ate a plate of our personal family food and answered our hundred questions and took a nap under our climbing tree, we were hanging on those hobos acting like they were our best friends and we just found out they had to move far away to another state and it was tearing our hearts out. Or like they were our uncles and we loved them and wished we could go with them because they knew a lot of good jokes and might take us bowling or to a drive-in movie. Especially Sowell acted this way. I swear it made him sad to see a hobo go on his way. He walked with him out to the mailbox, then just stood there and watched until the man evaporated in those waves of heat coming up off the gravel road.
"Wonder where he's going," Sowell said. "I wish I knew." "Could be to hell in a handbasket," I said. It was something I heard Daddy say once about a hitchhiker. Daddy did not believe in picking up any hitchhikers unless they were dressed in a military uniform, preferably the army.
"Could be going to Madison," Sowell said. Madison was the closest thing to a town anywhere near us. "That lucky dog."
So that's why we got to keep our cat, because Mother could not resist a hungry creature. It's like they chose her, so she chose them back. Even our yellow cat, which was mostly my cat because it preferred my company to anybody else's in the family. I never participated in the death authenticity that Sowell and Wade specialized in. I think the cat must have known that and respected me for it - that I was more scared of snakes than I was of death. I'm pretty sure about that. I liked to pick our yellow cat up and take it off someplace away from the rest of my family and away from our neighbors, who you could not really get away from because they just showed up wherever you were, even if you thought you were hiding someplace.
I liked to sit in the Ingrams' big car that wouldn't run and hold our cat in my lap and just think about things that I could not think about in the company of others. I laid down in the backseat. It was so hot it burned my skin at first, until I got used to it and started to sweat and sort of slid around like a slippery fish in a greased skillet. Our yellow cat finally couldn't stand it, not the heat, not my hands trying to hold on to her, trying to make her stay with me and love me the way I loved her, and she jumped out the car window and ran off. So I got out too and went home. My hair was wet to my head and I was so beet red it made Mother feel my forehead and say, "Berry, you look on fire. Have you got a temperature? Where've you been?"
"Nowhere," I always said, because that was the truth.
Excerpted from As Hot As It Was You Ought to Thank Me , by Nanci Kincaid . Copyright (c) 2005 by Nanci Kincaid . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top