Texas Gypsies – a story by Donna Walker-Nixon

Texas Gypsies

Postcutters picked up any roots they might have and moved like Gypsies from one small Central Texas community to whatever came next. BigDaddy, LittleMama, and eight children followed country roads that wilted into the next community BigDaddy wanted to live. They settled into a three-room shack when BigDaddy announced, “This’ll have to do for now,” which meant they’d stay three months or maybe a year until he decided to move on, not enough time for any of the children to pass first grade in more than three years. BigDaddy often hired the family out to chop cedars to the root while he sat in the shade and fanned himself with a dirty old newspaper.

Brother passed first grade in three years, and BigDaddy declared him the smart cookie in the family. He found a full-time job hauling and unloading pipe. “It pays real good,” he said.

BigDaddy claimed to have a 6th Sense. “I just don’t know. When it snows in April, ill will surely follow.” His voice echoed all the misery he ever suffered at the hand of man.

Globes of snow wafted toward the middle ground, but the white-gray crystals melted when they touched the soil. Brother slogged through puddles of sludge. Because they couldn’t afford an ice-box, when he got to the creek, he pulled out a jug of blinky milk, which curdled in his mouth. His work shoe separated at his toes. Most times he stapled the top to the bottom with the secretary’s stapler, but now he had stapled his shoes so many times they pinched his toes. He needed new shoes, but postcutters could not afford them.

***

At the school Easter egg hunt, in my quest for eggs, I transfigured into a cowgirl who bucks her Roy Rogers brown and white plastic rocking horse, while chanting, “Faster, Trigger, faster.”

The bus driver took us back to the two-room country school. The bus rocked from side to side. Nausea, like a calf with scours, scraped my stomach and all my flesh while I counted eggs and tried to count my blessings, one by one. I sat by Sherry, the oldest daughter of the postcutter kids who called her Sister. She was two years older than me and in 4th grade. I pried open the cellophane wrapper of a candy egg and chiseled with my teeth at the rock hard candy with pink yellow, or green hard crusts and the sickening sweet white hard mush inside.

Once we got back to school, Mr. Franks frowned. Even then, I could see black nubs in his gums where he once had teeth. He told the postcutter kids to remain on the bus. I sat next to Sherry who muttered, “What have we done now?”

***

Sister viewed a slow action movie playing over and over and over Brother moving slightly from one scene of his abbreviated work day to the next. Talcum-powder snow nipped his nose and became a quagmire of mud when it hit the ground. He slid across the unpaved parking lot as he walked toward the truck BossMan said they’d take to deliver pipe. BossMan told him and two other boys to sit on the tailgate and steady the load in case it slipped. They headed up a gravel road and across a sagging bridge. BossMan gave Brother the job of sitting in the middle of the tailgate. Brother didn’t mind, said he liked inhaling asphalt and gas since they smelled better than the shack they claimed as home for now.

They’d driven this route before, only a mile, maybe two. BossMan failed to secure the pipes. Brother had joked with Sister, “There ain’t a corner he don’t cut, but BossMan’s got power seeing as he’s a County Commissioner. Wish we had his money. I’d buy DoryAnn an engagement ring fit for a queen.”

The pipes—like fate—shifted. An eighty-six-year-old man who was blind in one eye pulled out from a caliche road into the path of the truck. BossMan put on his brakes, but there was no stopping the middle pipe from shifting downward at an angle in a collision course with the back of Brother’s skull. The pipe sounded like wind chimes celebrating an angel’s voice as she provides sustenance to make it through a dark, weary night.

“We just can’t read the mind of God.” Mr. Franks sucked air through his yellow nubs. His attempt to explain in soothing words what happened to Brother failed. No words could replace the fact that at 11:13 A. M., Sister shivered and then could not shake from her mind Kodak moments of Brother who did not know the pipe lunged toward him. But Sherri viewed every detail as it happened, and Jesus God, she did not want to carry forward that movie scene in her mind until the day she died.

***

Mother brought food. Every woman in the community cobbled together what they thought the family might eat—fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pineapple upside down cake. When they got to the Collins’ shack, one woman asked to put her tomato aspic in the ice-box. “It ruins easily if the Jell-o is not placed in a cool spot.”

“There’s the creek bed. That’s where we place our milk. The rest we eat before it ruins.”

“I see,” the woman said, and scraped her fancy food into a cheap bowl on the table with the fried chicken and the green bean casserole.

Mrs. Collins saw my baby sister Grace hanging onto Mother’s arm and said the child could have some food if she wanted it. “Kids like sweets.” She pointed at a plate only partially clean and a smeared fork.

Grace shook her head no, and Mother sighed in relief. For all the food the women in the community took, time would pass into other elements while we grimly consumed years we stole from God’s other creatures. Mr. Franks had his buddy at Lester’s Used-But-Every-Bit-Still-Working Appliances donate an ice-box to the family, and folks smugly observed, “Mr. Franks knows how to get things done.”

Sherry told me, “We had one at the old place, but it was too heavy to take with us. We start from scratch everywhere we go.”

We drove in a winding caravan of cars, mostly used ones our parents bought somewhere, somehow. We didn’t take time to know those things—just that each family owned a car; the moderately well off had two. We had two because when Uncle Ray died, Mother inherited his DeLuxe Chevrolet that reeked of Camel cigarettes. We might have ridden with her to Chalk Mountain cemetery, or maybe we rode the bus. Details escape me as I try to reinvent that day. It was the Friday before Easter, and we stood on slopes of grass and mud, where the snow had melted and left behind ridges of pecan tree fronds that stained our white Easter shoes.

The funeral home assistant director said he didn’t see the need to bring chairs for people to sit in since he could barely make the coffin stand up when he tried to place it on the uneven, rocky burial site. The married sisters tried to soothe their whimpering babies. They groaned in rhythm to a song I never heard before: precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul. No mention of God, nor Jesus, nor even the Holy Spirit—and in the Church of Christ one of the Trinity had to be celebrated. They moaned and almost fell, consumed in their own way by the rocks and spittled soil.

In the coffin, the once red, blue, and white toboggan had been dyed an insoluble maroon. One mother commented, “We tried to convince the family a closed coffin would be most appropriate, but the father would not have it. He wanted to see his son one last time. These postcutters.”

“It’s hard to let go of those we love,” Mother said.

Like a mother who’s lost her fragile body to birthing fifteen babies, Sherry’s father moved his hand and upper body across Brother’s falsely ruddy cheeks, almost stumbling into the coffin before his daughters caught him.

“Look!! They can’t let go,” someone echoed, but I couldn’t pinpoint who said what in the next few minutes. “Even the married sisters are climbing into the coffin.” I couldn’t see well enough to know whether they were or not.

The mother who brought tomato aspic stood next to me. She scraped her teeth together and smeared her lipstick over red, red lips. She pronounced her judgment, “Postcutters!!!”

***
The sisters who lived in Williamson County held their babies tight to their breasts, whispering words as they comforted the babies and the children who scampered at their feet and played tag around the hem of the coffin lining. To complete their gestures, the married sisters touched the blood saturated toboggan as if their moot actions could bring Brother back into their world. Not able to yet let go of their brother, like creatures who consume the blood and brains of the dead, they fought off each other and appeared to climb into the casket. Blood from the toboggan mingled with the orange pancake makeup. Their hands covered with the mixture of blood and makeup, they seemed to think this was their eternity, a place where Brother pulled blinky milk from the creek bed each morning.

BigDaddy wailed into the pallid earth. With fear and dread of what would happen next, LittleMama reached out to steady the man who had impregnated her fifteen times.

In the rancid shack after he last touched the blood soaked toboggan, he cried out his pain: “Why Brother? BossMan must’ve known the pipes would shift!” BigDaddy reached under his straw mattress and got the gun he never shot. He swore to kill BossMan as his hand gyrated, and he dropped the weapon on the creaky wooden floor. One of the older sisters picked up the gun while another reached under the straw and took the bullets. And again he cursed his foul luck, “It’s always us!! Brother deserved better than he got.”

The sisters wanted more than life to shore up precious memories. They tried to believe in unseen angels who would restore the bittersweet moments of their pasts. To them, though, there were too many home scenes of their separate childhoods to produce fond memories. Too soon, their babies would grow up, never know Brother existed, and harbor only piecemeal images of BigDaddy.

For now, BigDaddy slept fitfully. But at least he slept, and that was enough.

.

Donna Walker-Nixon was a full professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where she received the distinction of receiving the Mary Stevens Piper award for excellence in teaching. She currently serves as an adjunct lecturer at Baylor. She lists her five primary professional achievements as 1) founding Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997, 2) co-editing the Her Texas series with her friend and mentor James Ward Lee, 3) co-founding The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas 4) publishing her novel Canaan’s Oothoon, and 5) serving as lead editor Her Texas, which has boosted Donna’s faith that the voices of women writers and artists truly mean something to both men and women.

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed the story! In a small way it touched on my Church of Christ Arkansas family! My Mother had ten babies; two died before age two! My Dad was a “sharecropper!” And we grew up in a small “shack” like house! And my Mother made our clothes from printed flour sacks! In spite of it all, all but one became very successful!

    Like

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