Wagon Wheels

by Angelina Morris
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Betty was always my favorite kid. I know when you’re the Father to more than one (hell, twenty, thirty, who can keep track), you’re not supposed to have a favorite but Betty was something special. You might have laughed when you first saw her and I wouldn’t have took offense. The life we led on the road, tramping through fields, breathing in the dust, was not exactly conducive to cleanliness. Conducive. See, I know quite a few big words.

Somewhere around 1930 I lost my house to a fire that was deemed suspicious but never proven. Hell ya, it was suspicious, I torched the sucker. Lit it up like a firecracker rather than see it go to the county for a hunting lodge or something, anyway somewhere around there I started reading. First, I thought if I picked up a few carpentry books I could learn enough to build me a new cabin but the more I read the more my feet started itchin’ to move. So I built a wagon. Nothing fancy. Just big enough to wrap myself in at night and still have enough room to lift up my head and hear the wind.

Of course, at the time I had no intention of all those kids coming along, it’s funny how things work out. I got my first one a year later. By then I’d traveled all over this great state of Iowa. I talked to God a lot and that was okay, but even though I know he hears and answers in his own way and all that, I would have liked someone to argue with once in a while. One night in August it was so fearful hot I could see my sweat hanging in the air, like a dirty clothes line waving in the yard. All I wanted was a cool bath. I knocked on a farm door hoping they might oblige me and a little girl came out tugging at her braids. I could hear some kind of animal screaming in a back room. I wondered just what I had let myself in for. Then a boy about a year older came out and took my hand.

“My Mama needs help,” he said. “Daddy’s in town and she’s sick with the new baby!”

I followed him to a room and pushed open the door. The woman in the bed was twisting and shredding the sheets she must have worked so hard on.

“Lady,” I said, and she screamed again. “Lady, I ain’t gonna hurt ya,” I looked to the boy. “Get me some clean water.”

The boy brought back a basin and I washed my hands careful to get all the dirt out from under my nails.

“The fever will take em.” My old Granny used to say about stubborn Mothers who tried to birth alone with dirty hands. I was no doctor, but I was the oldest of thirteen so you could say I was no stranger in this land. I didn’t shoo out the children. There might be a day when they’d be glad they watched.

Now two people were screaming. Mama and baby. Her husband came home pumping my hand and calling me Doc. I scrubbed my hands again and started to leave but he stopped me.

“Wait! I want to give you something.”

So that was how I got my first kid, tied to the back of my cart, light matted hair, long nose. I heard her clopping away behind me and wondered just how long it had been since I had fresh goat milk. I named her Betty after that baby and a sweeter soul never lived. That night as I fell asleep, I felt some kind of peace inside me, the air smelled different then it had before, until I remembered I never did get that bath.

Two years later Betty got a friend, Buster. Then came Marilyn, John W, Sunshine, Herb, I was running out of names but I never sold one off. Sometimes we stopped long enough to watch the black men drawing on the busy Georgia sidewalks with a piece of chalk. I never saw anything like it. They’d sit for hours dodging hands, taking slaps, never letting their eyes come away from their work. Sometimes it would rain, and I’d give them all a cup of warm milk and we would sit watching the colors run together, mixing in a way we never could. I stated to draw for money, portraits and such, hell I had a family of thirty to support. None of us ever went hungry though.

I liked Georgia. It was clean, and the winter nights felt like spring. One night I camped behind the fancy new Honeymooners Hotel. I was almost asleep when I saw the ghost running full across the lawn, robe billowing. It headed right for the goat herd. The noise my kids made when she plowed into them must have woke the whole town. I went over and picked up a young lady wearing only a night gown, covered in goat hair and mud. She was crying.

“Hey, hey little missy, can’t be that bad dirt washes off.”

“Not if you’re married to it.” she sobbed.

I shooed away most of the goats but for Betty who had always had a listening ear and the girl petted her.

“My Mama called just after we got to sleep. My new husband got my cousin Deborah in trouble a few weeks before the wedding, they just found out. So I asked him about it and he said yes, he loves her.”

She stroked Betty with a shaking hand, “What’s her name?”

“Betty.”

“Pretty girl,” she said and Betty watched her gravely, “Do you ever feel like she would answer you if she could?”

“She does,” I said. “In her own way.”

“What am I going to do?”

I stood up. “I’ll tell you what. You are going back upstairs and take a shower, put on your best clothes and come with me.”

Her eyes lit up and I wondered at the man who could trade those blue eyes for anything.

“Go on the road! I’d love to! I could help you and take care of Betty…”

I put my hand on her arm, “Only as far as back home.”

“No! I can’t go back there! The shame…”

“No,” I said. “The shame would be going back with that man, his ring on your finger and forgiveness in your heart. You go on back to your folks and stand tall, there’s some kind of life waitin for you.”

I painted her, years later, the way she looked going back across that field to collect her things, stinking of goats, her chin up, bits of Betty’s hair clinging to her own.

She wrote to me every year, to the Goat Man, and by then everyone seemed to know where I had been and where I was going so the letters found me somehow. I read about the new husband, new babies, new grandbabies. She died a few years back, her granddaughter Betty wrote me, said she just walked out in the backyard one night, lay down and went to sleep for good under the stars. Who ever said God doesn’t play fair?

I read once in a library in Minnesota that humans once thought square wheels were the way to go. They’d move sure, but slowly, choppily, falling over each other to try to get to the right place.

That’s me now. A wagon with square wheels. I’ve had to leave some kids behind, good homes I made sure of that. Betty died a long time ago now, and for awhile I could still hear her clopping behind the cart, but not anymore.

My breath hangs in front of my face, a low cloud I can barely see through. The night is so cold but I’m snug here in my wagon. I don’t know how much longer I can pull it. The wheels are running square, running rough. Betty’s voice has come back, she reminds me of our days on the road, makes me laugh, makes me cry, but tonight she says she’s leaving for good. I can hear her clop up to the wagon and stick her nose through the opening into my hand. Her hair is as soft and silky as the day I got her. She walks away from me into the snow, walks ahead when all those years she had followed behind. I lift my head to see her go, to hear her last words.

Our eyes lock.

“Follow me.”

3 Responses to “Wagon Wheels”

  1. Helice says:

    I loved this story! Touching!

  2. Nice work: strong narrative voice and good descriptions

  3. Mariev Finnegan says:

    I am awed.

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