AS FROM A TALENTED ANIMAL
Carley Eason Evans
copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved
14 – Marked Tree Arkansas
We started out in Rapid City, South Dakota but when my brother and I were six years old, our father moved us back to his hometown, Marked Tree, Arkansas. His parents owned a small town restaurant on Marked Tree’s main drag. Money problems drove their son back to them. We stayed in a back building off the main house, and my mother hated it and probably her husband for landing us there. At least we had some privacy which my mother apparently failed to notice and appreciate. On the other hand, my brother and I loved the cotton fields behind our grandparents’ house — and the three huge pecan trees in their back yard. Our grandmother grew watermelons, green beans and corn right behind her house in a tiny garden. She also kept chickens and squirrels. I don’t remember if we ate squirrel; I know we had chicken on Sundays after church.
My church-going began and ended in Marked Tree. My grandmother would rouse us from bed early Sunday mornings, make us gussy-up and go off to the Baptist church with her. We had to attend Sunday school and then the big people service as well. She wouldn’t put up with fidgeting or fighting or whispering in the pew. She insisted — with her iron grip — that we listen to the preacher and stand up to sing the hymns and close our eyes and move our lips during the prayers. “Just look like you are listening, Richard,” she told me and then she’d pat Michael on top of the head because Michael was listening. I hated church. I hated the perfumed women all around me in their idiotic hats and clutch purses and high-heeled shoes. The men smelled — well, not much better — with after shave lotion and colognes of their own. The preacher droned on and on, sometimes for a half-hour! The hymns were impossible to follow and the prayers — to me at six years of age — the prayers were mumbled petitions to a man in the sky who never seemed to hear.
But after church my grandmother would lay out a spread on her large dining room table that included fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, corn, biscuits, turnips and apple pie! My mouth would water so much I had to suck my spit back into my mouth before I sat down next to Michael.
Michael always volunteered to say grace, every Sunday noon. He waved his arm when our grandfather asked, “Who wants to say grace?”
“Oh, me, grandpa! Me.”
“Do us the honor, Michael,” said our grandfather.
And Michael obliged with “now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” and looked at me with a wry smile.
Our grandmother protested, “That’s not grace, Michael.”
Michael laughed, winked at her, and said the correct blessing of our meal. Then we all dug in, cleaning our plates, asking for seconds, even thirds. Only then did our grandmother dish out the apple pie served with a dollop of ice cream. After dessert, Michael and I cleaned off the table and I washed the dishes while he swept the dining room and kitchen floors with a broom too long for him. I remember laughter in that kitchen.
On Mondays we attended first grade at the Marked Tree public elementary school. After school, our grandparents expected us to help at the restaurant. Although we were young, I washed dishes for them while Michael swept the floors, again with a broom too long and too heavy for him. I stood on a small metal stool to reach into the deep porcelain sink to wash the pots and pans, glasses and plates, and silverware. The only items my grandfather kept from me were the knives —the butter knives, the sharp steak knives and the carving knives. He washed them separately.
The first time I saw one of the long carving knives, I remember wanting to touch it but my grandfather said, “No, Richard, it’s too dangerous. Never touch these knives. These are my knives. You are to leave them alone. Do you understand?”
I understood. But I wanted to touch that one knife — the longest, sharpest looking knife that grandfather owned. His insistence that I stay away from his knives made me want to see and touch them even more. I watched for opportunities to see them in action. Grandmother baked a big turkey — Grandfather carved it. Grandmother grilled rib-eye steaks — customers sliced into them with sharp serrated steak knives.
One afternoon at the restaurant, I saw grandfather take out a big cleaver and chop the head off a dead chicken. I almost screamed with excitement. He saw me watching, and I went back to washing a plate, pretending I hadn’t seen the cleaver. My grandmother called out for her husband; she needed him. He put the cleaver down on the large cutting board next to the head of the chicken. He wiped his hands on his butcher’s apron and walked out of the prep-area. I took my own hands out of the sudsy hot water in the deep sink, dried them on my little apron, climbed off the stool, dragged it over to the high cutting table. I climbed up, reached out to touch the bloody edge of the cleaver. I touched the black wooden handle, then laid my head down next to the blade. I looked along the edge and sighed. The knife had to be the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my whole — albeit young — life.