I couldn’t cook, but I could sew. It would have been better the other way around. Luelle Morrisey had a face like a mud hen’s backside, but everybody in Mercer County knew she could make a good meal at the end of winter, when nothing was left in the root cellar but tired apples and onions gone soft. Folks talked about Luelle’s knack for food, and at church socials her pies were bid up past three dollars. “A good cook is good value,” grinned Ordell Rightsbaugh, one of three ranchers courting her. By the time I was nine years old, I could sew a straight seam, and at fifteen I could make a hem stitch that no one could see, but nobody assigned value to what he couldn’t see.
I didn’t have the right mind for putting meals on the table. Staring into the crusty frying pan and waiting for onions to color, I got bored. Hot and itchy, I would stroll out to lean on the garden fence and look at the dim horizon as if it might have changed in the last ten minutes. The long dirt, gray-brown, folded into the flat sky, gray-white, and behind me the onions burned. At night Pa poked his fork at my stew, lumps of flour floating next to the shingles of black onion. “If we auctioned you, you wouldn’t bring in as much as a mule,” he said.
“More than chickens, though,” I said.
“How many chickens?”
“A dozen, easy. I am good value,” I said.
“For somebody who already ate,” he said.
Meals would have gone better if he’d just let Mama or one of my sisters cook, but Tuesdays were my cooking days. He thought I’d learn. My family and the hands learned to avoid dinner on Tuesdays. Me, I was skinny as a whip, and could get through the daylight hours on an apple.
No matter what Pa would admit, I had my value. I could weigh a spool of thread in my hand and tell if it was rotten at the center. I could stitch a buttonhole in brand-new denim, and I could mend a tear so that it blended right into the cloth around it. There were other things: I was good with people, unlike my shy sisters. When Ernold Brown, who had already put two wives in the ground, twitched and snuffled his way up to Nussine Potter after church service, I hiked all the way to his place to give him a nosegay of coneflowers to bring to Nussine. He gave me a nickel, the first coin I didn’t have to drop in the collection plate, and I had sense enough not to tell Pa about it.
I was smart about Pa, too, and I could judge when he had drunk one glass of whiskey too many and was itching to hit something. I could tell a beating was coming the same way that a person can smell rain. “That’s bad-looking leather,” he’d say, looking at a patched harness. “Cheap. Everything about it looks cheap.” Then he’d raise his head and say, “It’s not one thing worth a tinker’s damn on this place.” Or in this county, or in this state. The fury would sweep over him like storm clouds. Folks knew him as a joke teller, but he wasn’t amiable, and his jokes could turn rough in a hurry.
Even Mama, so dim she never seemed to recognize anything, said Pa and I were cut from the same pie. Like him, I was restless all the time, ants under my skin, and a day spent plowing would leave me fretful with wanting something I couldn’t put a name to. When I trudged out to the barn, my eyes cut over our paltry hundred-sixty acres of wheat the same way his did. Everyone around us was buying up acreage–soon ours would be the smallest farm in the county. It didn’t need to be so. Pa could have borrowed money to expand. For pity’s sake, the bank was loaning money to the Pecks, who hadn’t met a payment in five years. The manager would have loaned to us. But Pa looked out to the west toward land nobody owned. He didn’t want more of what he already had.
He was squinting at the fence line when I came up to him one afternoon. He had put his hat aside somewhere, and the back of his shirt bunched up out of his trousers. The man was careless, shedding things wherever he went–shoes and papers and tobacco. Mama spent her life picking up his litter. Myself, I would have let it lie.
“Feller dies and goes to the seat of judgment,” he said, eyes trained on the blurred horizon. He didn’t even look back to make sure it was me he was talking to. “Jesus says, ‘You’ve got yourself a bad record. You’ve cheated, stolen, lied. You’re going to have to go to hell.’
“Feller falls down at the feet of the Lord. He cries and begs for mercy. ‘It’s true that I didn’t lead a good life, but I wasn’t all evil. I cared for my mama and gave to the poor. I gave money to your church.’
“The Lord softens. ‘All right,’ he says. ‘I’ll take mercy on you. You can start again, homesteading in Kansas.’
“Feller stops crying, and looks up at the face of the Lord. ‘Is that spot in hell still open?'”
“Dare you to tell it to the preacher,” I said.
“Not everybody wants to hear the truth,” he said.
“Preacher says only the Gospel is the truth.”
“This is a different gospel,” Pa said. “For those who have ears.”
“Dare you to tell it to the visiting preacher. He’s coming to dinner. Mama sent me out to fetch you.”
“You’re not cooking, are you?”
“It’s Thursday,” I said. My sister Mae’s turn.
“Lucky for him.”
“Mama wants you to wear your Sunday shirt.”
“Bad as going to church,” he said. “If I have to wear my Sunday shirt in my own house, maybe I will tell him my joke.”
He didn’t get a chance, though. Reverend Farley had jokes of his own: the one about the lamb and the peacock, the one about the squirrel who went to Bible camp, the one about the three ministers who went to heaven. While Mae’s good pot roast hardened in front of him, he planted an elbow on either side of the plate and said, “Man finds himself at the pearly gates. The Lord says, ‘Son, it’s your day of reckoning. You lived a bad life. You smoked, you drank, you didn’t do right in business. There’s only one place for you to go.'”
“We know this one,” Pa said.
Reverend Farley didn’t even pause. “The man says, ‘Remember when I saved that widow? Remember when I ran into the burning house and snatched up the baby? Doesn’t that count for something?’
“The Lord nods. ‘You’re right. Those things count for something. You can go to Wichita.’
“The man says, ‘Remember that hundred dollars I stole?'”
Into the pause around the table, Pa said, “We tell it different.”