Charity Williams picked up the ear-piece on her brand new phone when it rang and said “Hello?”
“Hello, Ma. Can you hear me? It’s Joe.”
“Joe, what a surprise! Yes, I can hear you. Hold on, let me use my good ear. Okay, so go ahead. It’s good to hear your voice. It sounds a little funny, but I know it’s you.” She shouted to the side, “Harley, it’s your brother Joe calling long distance from wherever he is.” Back to Joe, “Lordy, I’ve been worried about you.”
Joe pulled the receiver away from his ear. “Ma! don’t shout into the telephone. Cover it with your hand when you do that.”
She would have a list of worries to tell him about. “How are you, Ma? How’s everybody? I’m in North Carolina now. We’re building a school way up in the mountains in a place called Bee Log. I’ve come into town in the truck for supplies, and I’m calling from the boarding house where we stay over.”
“We’re good, Janey is here and Harley too. Your daddy went over to your uncle Frank’s for the funeral. He’ll be back before dark, I’m sure. This new telephone is a wonder. It sounds like you are right here talking through a hole in the wall. We’ve made two calls already this month. This is the first one that’s long distance. It’ll not cost too much, will it?”
“What happened to Uncle Frank? I haven’t heard.”
She hesitated for a moment before answering. “Your daddy’s upset. Frank was asking about you the other day, about the work you’re doing. I didn’t know what to tell him.”
“I told you, Ma. I work for the WPA. The Works Progress Administration. We build roads and bridges and schools and stuff.”
“The WPA? Oh, it’s that government work.”
“Yeah, Ma. It’s a government thing. It’s part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. He’s trying to help people like us get jobs and money and dignity.”
“What’s dignified about working for the government, Joe? That’s not dignified. That’s charity. I thought I raised you better.”
“I knew you’d say that Ma. It’s not charity, it’s honest work. We’re doing something good for the country. We’re making things better.
“Better for who, Joe? Better for who? Not for us. Not for your daddy or Uncle Frank. They worked hard all their lives and what do they get?”
“Don’t say that Ma. Don’t say that. Uncle Frank was a good man. He did his best. He used to say, ‘When the times are tough going, the tough get going.’ “
“He did his best and he got nothing, Joe. Nothing but misery and pain.”
Joe laughed, remembering his uncle’s spirit and fierce independence of mind. He always had a reserve of humor. In spite of his bad teeth. “Ma, please stop it. Please don’t talk like that.”
“It’s the truth, Joe. It’s the truth and you know it. You should come home, Joe. You should come home and be with your family.”
“Ma, what happened to Uncle Frank?”
“You’re out in the world where I can’t see you. Of course I’m worried about who you’re with. Are you taking care of yourself?
“Oh, Frank was out harnessing the mule and singing like he does at the top of his lungs. Janey says he grabbed the mule’s ear and sang into it, ‘Figaro, Figaro, Figaro’. A little too loud, I guess.”
“Figaro, the mule. Yeah, Ma. I’ve seen him do that. Did the mule finally kick him?
“Well, nipped at him, but Frank swatted him on the nose, so the mule turned and kicked him. Just a little, nearly broke his leg though. Didn’t shut him up, just changed his tune. Swole his leg up. He was gimpin’ around pretty good for a while there. You should come home, Joe. We need you here.”
Joe thought about how the farm seemed so big when he was small. Now he was getting to see how tiny the farm was in relation to how huge and amazing the world really was. “No, Ma. No, I’m staying here. I’m doing something important here. Something meaningful. You got the money I sent home, didn’t you? That’ll help you keep the farm going.” He listened for her response, her predictable reaction he had heard many times before.
“Meaningful? What’s meaningful about working for the government?”
He raised his hand, palm up as if she could see it. “It’s meaningful to me, Ma. You should see this place. The people here are really happy to get a new school building. They couldn’t have done it on their own. It’s a little school way out in the mountains, and it’ll be nice. We’re building it out of local rock and timbers, and it should last a very long time. They tore down the old one. It was a single room wood frame building like the one I went to school in, but it was in pretty bad shape.
“The mountains here are much bigger than the hills in Ohio, but I think I could walk to the top in a day. Sometimes I explore with Randy, a neighbor who lives next to the camp. On Sundays, Randy is always ready to go.
“Mostly, the crew is great. We have fellows from New York, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and even Wyoming. You should hear them talk. The New Yorkers mimic the Alabama men, and the Alabama men mimic the New Yorkers. They get going over a card game and it’s hysterical. I can’t tell you how funny they can be. Ma, what happened to Uncle Frank?”
“Oh, he had a time of it,” she said. “The cow kicked him too. He was milking like he always does, and you know how he likes to squirt milk over to the cat? Well, they got new kittens there in the barn, and he squirted them in their little faces. They were so funny Harley leaned over the hayloft to see what Frank was laughing about and spilled hay onto Frank’s head. Frank was laughing so hard he was already halfway off the stool, and then he slid all the way off while he was still holding the teats. The cow kicked him then, right in the arm. Nearly broke it too. You be careful, there in North Carolina. Those crews can be rough. I worry that you could get tangled up with the wrong crowd.”
Joe made a face she couldn’t see. Dangerous like a working farm? “Don’t worry, Ma. It’s not so bad here. Mostly we get along just swell. The bosses are just like us, down on their luck with the whole country being depressed and all. They’re just happy to be employed; they’re not a bunch of mean hard drivers. We get the work done and come back to camp tired. Anybody who makes trouble gets fired. Drunks and thieves are sent packing. They run a clean ship here.” He flexed his right hand and brought it down slowly, the one with ordinary scrapes from working with wood. And a splinter. And bruised knuckles from sorting out a worker who got himself fired.
“They say there’s a huge mansion down the street, here in Asheville. It’s owned by some New Yorkers named Vanderbilt. I don’t think they’ll let me see it, but there are pictures of it. There’s some real impressive carpentry in this town. They say if I stick with it, I can make a good living as a carpenter.
“We could use a new barn here,” Charity said.
Joe looked around for a chair. “That’s not what I’m talking about. There’s some really skilled work in the banks and shops. Some of the houses are amazing, not just the Vanderbilt house. I’m talking about real carpenters. Nobody’s hiring right now because there’s no money. Times are tough, you know, but it’ll get better one day. When everybody is back to work, I’ll be there with tools, maybe even a truck. Wouldn’t that be the bee’s knees?”
He continued, “You should see the locals, how happy they are to get the new school. Most of them live off the land and are dirt poor. There’s another program they’re setting up with crop price supports that should help. They grow a kind of tobacco here that requires a lot of hand labor in small plots. They call it Burley tobacco, for smoking in pipes. They’ll have an ‘allotment system’ to control the amount grown. That way they can control the selling price. You should see how they plant on the hillsides. There’s hardly any land flat enough to plant that’s over an acre.”
He told her about the camp, how it was set up near the school, and the neighbors. “The people here have their own accent that can be really thick. They say things like ‘get shet of’ instead of ‘get rid of.’ They say ‘might could’ if you ask for anything, even a drink of water. And the state government in Raleigh is ‘down east.’ They don’t like government people at all. They were suspicious of us when we started here. That’s gotten some better, but we were warned not to wander around in the woods away from camp. I think some of them make liquor from corn, but they do it back away where nobody goes. We’re careful to ask permission when we walk on anybody’s land. We stick to the main roads, and when we come to somebody’s house, we stop and announce ourselves from a gate, if they have one. Of course, we don’t ever carry guns like they do, because we don’t want to look threatening.”
He didn’t mention his feet were sore. He already knew hers were too. He’d heard her say so a thousand times. “I’ve made some great friends here. Robert is from Illinois and has three sisters. When he goes home, he wants to take me with him and introduce them. I told him I’d take all three. Robert wants to be a machinist and make cars. He volunteers whenever there’s plumbing or mechanical work to be done. I’m doing mostly carpentry and a little rockwork here. I’m learning all about rafters, lintels, corbels, mullions, escutcheons, and a thousand details that go into buildings.
“Someone said if I was a carpenter I could tell him the difference between a stringer and a carriage for building a stair. I didn’t know, but several guys piped in with opinions. It turned into an argument. I still don’t know the difference, but I know not to bring it up again. Ma, tell me what happened to Uncle Frank.”
Charity Williams could get a little shrill when liquor was mentioned. “You stay away from that likker, now. It’s dangerous and tempting to a man. Your uncle Frank had a time with likker when he was younger, and he regretted it. Said he wouldn’t touch it again to his dying day.
“Well, you know, there he was with a nearly broke leg and an arm just as bad. He was trying to get into his overalls in the morning and caught his foot in the leg of the pants and lost his balance. He fell over and hit his head on the iron bedstead. Landed on his bad arm too. Poor fellow just lay there on the floor till they found him.”
“He died getting dressed? You’re kidding me?”
“Oh, he’s not dead. He was lying on the floor laughing. It’s his dog Gitter that died. They went out berry-picking by the creek and Frank stepped on a Copperhead. Well, Gitter went after that snake before it could bite Frank and got bit hisself. You know how he loved that dog. They’re having a big funeral for it. Frank told your daddy to bring his black coat and bible so he could be the preacher. I didn’t want to go. There’s too much work here at home for such foolishness.”
“Ma, are you laughing at me? I thought Uncle Frank had died.”
“Lordy this telephone call is costing you some money. Hadn’t you better hang up?”
The owner of the inn was fretting too, since long distance calls were charged by the minute. Joe waved him off, nodding that he would be done soon. “Jerry from Atlanta told me he calls home every month whenever he can get to a telephone. There’s one here in the building where I’m staying for the night in Asheville. It’s a boarding house and travelers’ inn at 100 Biltmore Avenue, next door to the Coca Cola building. I told Jerry you just got a new telephone put in. He says they’re all over the country already, and what kind of place do you live in that you just now got a phone? I told him it’s a farm way out in the country, just like Bee Log. He said, ‘How do you stay in touch?’ I said, ‘I usually write letters.’”
“Well, write me a letter. I love you boy. You come home when you can, alright?”
Joe nodded. “OK, will do. We’re heading back to camp tomorrow after we finish loading up. We’re picking up another worker too. I love you too, Ma. Tell Pa I called.”