Dirty Faces

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Chapter 22: The Foreman's House

Leslie kept popping back inside to check on supper. Supper was chicken and dumplins, and it was already established that he would be eating nowhere but here this evening. Kody stared down at his hands as he waited for her to return to the front porch. It still troubled him that he'd let someone get this close, but he figured there was no going back at this point.

He had already told her that he would be going to Cleveland this week and would be gone for an indeterminate amount of time, though he couldn't really tell how she took it. He didn't know if she would wait for him or not. And if she did wait on him, what exactly was it she would be waitingfor? What was he to her or she to him? He wasn't sure but he thought he knew, and the fact that he was thinking about it more only made him more uncomfortable.

Jack was always saying that Kody thought too much, that once in a while he should relax and just go with it, whatever 'it' was. Maybe poor, crazy Jack was onto something. Maybe he knew more than Kody gave him credit for. Maybe he should take his advice and see what happened. He shook his head. No, the last time he took Jack's advice and ate a piece of cake after work, he'd ended up stealing a whole cake out of Leslie's neighbor's kitchen window and serving it to the parishioners of Jack's church. And he was pretty sure he had reason to dread the next time he saw Ralph, since they had made off with the truck that day, too.

No. No more listening to Jack.

The hinges on the screen door squeaked and he felt Leslie's light footsteps crossing the porch. As she seated herself on the step above him, he heard the clinking of ice cubes in a glass and when he looked at her, she was holding out a green oatmeal glass filled with sweet tea.

"Thank you," he said, taking the glass from her hand, "but I don't recall saying I was thirsty."

"You don't have to," she informed him. "It's hotter than a whorehouse on nickel night out here."

He snorted. "Pardon?"

"Pretend you never heard that," she said with a mischievous smile.

He smiled back and sipped on his tea quietly while she sat equally silent until one of them felt the need to speak. That was one of the many nice things about Leslie. Now that they had gotten to know each other, she was just as content as he was to sit and just be in his presence, no need to fill gaps in the conversation, no need to shun silence. Just spending time with one another was sufficient. It was also one of the worst things about her, because in those tranquil silences, he couldn't not think. And being around her made him think about everything he shouldn't be thinking about.

She picked at the hem of her skirt and finally said, "You know, it just doesn't seem right, Mama not peeking through the curtains at us every few minutes."

"Shouldn't she be home by now?"

"Yeah. The officials' houses must have been pretty filthy. But Daddy'll be home in a few minutes. Once he gets washed up, we'll go ahead and eat. He won't want to wait for anybody."

Just then they heard a loud chugging noise coming from the end of the road. "Well, speak of the devil," Leslie mused.

A piecemeal old truck rattled and shook as it turned onto the street. It looked like it had begun its life as a 1920-something Buick, but now it probably had as many Ford and Dodge parts as originals. The front grill was somehow held in place by a rope and the back end sat significantly lower than the front. A cloud of black smoke trailed behind it as it rumbled toward them. Suddenly, a few houses down, the truck backfired, the unexpected blast causing Leslie to jump. After that, it moved no more.

Two coal-blackened men hopped out of the cab and pushed it the rest of the way down the street, leaving a trail of some kind of dark fluid in the street behind them and coming to a stop in front of the house next door.

"Well, she almost made it," said Mr. Pickett.

"Aw, shucks, Jim," Leslie's father said with a wave of his filthy, black hand. "Almost home's just as good as all the way in my book. Mighty obliged for the ride."

A plain- looking woman stepped out onto the porch of the house next door to welcome her husband home. She and Mr. Williams exchanged greetings, then she turned and waved to Leslie. Leslie smiled sweetly and waved back. "Evening, Missus Pickett."

Mr. Williams promised his neighbor he'd drag out what tools he had after supper and the two of them would get that truck fixed before time for work in the morning, then he made his way up his own porch steps and went inside.

Kody chewed on his lip as he watched Mr. Pickett angrily kick the back tire of the dilapidated old truck; he was pretty confident those two men would be walking to work the next day. Mrs. Picket came out to the street to usher her husband into the house and attempt to patch up his wounded pride.

"That dang cousin of yours pestered me all through Sunday school about getting him that cake recipe from that poor woman," said Leslie, her voice low.

Kody sighed. "Sorry about that. I'll talk to him."

A few minutes later Mr. Williams stuck his head out the screen door. "Where's your mama?"

"Not back from cleaning yet," Leslie replied.

"And J.D.?"

She shrugged.

"Well, reckon it'll just be the three of us for supper. You young 'uns get on in here."

When they were seated at the table with plates of chicken and dumplins and collard greens before them, Mr. Williams dug in without any thought of saying Grace. Convinced there was nothing more to wait on, Kody scooped up a forkful of steaming chicken and dumplins and blew on it before taking a bite.

Leslie raised her eyebrows. "Well? How are they?"

"Good. Really good."

They were better than good. He would never admit it in mixed company, but they were even better than Mama's. If the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, he was sold.

The screen door creaked open and banged shut and a moment later, Leslie's mother appeared in the kitchen. Her hair had long since fallen from the tightly pinned bun atop her head, and now wispy blond locks fell haphazardly around her face and neck. A permanent scowl was etched on her usually pleasant face.

"Hello, Kody," she said as she picked up a plate off the table. "Pleasure to have you with us this evening."

"Thank you, ma'am." He hoped her foul mood wasn't related to Leslie inviting him to supper without asking her parents.

Mrs. Williams walked over to the stove and began making herself a plate, banging the wood spoon against her plate with unnecessary force. Her husband cleared his throat, then asked with some hesitance, "Everything alright, Helen?"

"Fine."

She sat down at the table and bowed her head in silent prayer, then picked up her fork and glanced around the table. "Where's J.D.?"

Leslie was reluctant to answer, but the fiery glare her mother was giving her forced her to do so. "I last saw him this morning, Mama."

Mrs. Williams didn't say anything in reply, just started eating her supper.

If there was anything Kody knew about women, it was that their silence was deadly, and he couldn't help but have pity on J.D. That kid had picked the wrong day to come home late for supper.

After a few uncomfortable minutes, Mrs. Williams slammed her fork down. "Ya know what? Everything's not OK."

"What happened, sweetheart?" Mr. Williams asked in a soothing tone Kody had never before heard him use.

Her expression grew dark. "I'm used to the superintendent's fat wife lazing around and barking orders at me like a common servant, but I tell you what. All them officials' wives are getting just as bad."

"How d'ya mean?"

"Well, today I get there and the foreman's wife tells me they got company coming in this weekend so I'll need to clean the house up real good. So I just say, 'OK,' 'cause I always do a good job; that's no problem. But when I get inside, the house is a wreck, like nothing's been cleaned since I was there last week, not even the dishes."

She took a sip of tea before continuing. "So I don't say nothing, just go on about my cleaning. After all, that's what they pay me for. But then she starts pointing out every nit-picky little thing, like I ain't never cleaned a house before. And what's worse, those two girls of hers was bossing me around, too. It was humiliating."

Kody stared down at his plate but cut his eyes up to steal a look at Mrs. Williams; the scowl had gone away and now every muscle in her face seemed to be busy trying to fight back the tears glistening in her eyes.

Mr. Williams shook his head. "It all comes down to the type of folks they got running this place. Used to be, it was folks that was down in there doing the work that got to live in them nice houses, folks that earned their spot there and earned everybody else's respect. Hard working folks, "he pointed his fork at Kody, "like this boy's granddaddy. Best foreman I ever worked under."

Kody was sure he heard wrong and he knew it wasn't his place to interject, but it sounded like Mr. Williams had just said his grandfather had been the foreman. "My granddaddy?"

"Well, reckon he's your great-granddaddy. Was your mama's granddaddy."

Suddenly nothing tasted good at all, but wasting his food wouldn't be mannerly so he continued eating.

Mr. Williams continued. "Good folks like that wouldn't dream of having somebody else clean their house when they could do it theirselves. Now I ain't sayin' we can't use the money it brings in, but it ain't right to treat somebody providing you with a service that way." He shook his head. "That's just the type of folks they are, folks that think the world owes 'em something. And it's a shame that's the type they got running the show."

"What's more," Mrs. Williams added, "I was there two hours after I normally would've been and they ain't paying me a penny extra for it."

Leslie's parents discussed the possibility of her mother no longer cleaning houses, and though he truly agreed that it was unfortunate the way the foreman's wife and daughters had treated Mrs. Williams, Kody couldn't pay attention to the conversation anymore. All he could think about was what Mr. Williams had just unwittingly told him.

He cleaned his place and thanked the three of them for having him, then took his dishes to the sink and told them he needed to head home. Leslie asked to be excused and followed him out to the porch.

"Hey, are you alright?" she asked after pulling the front door to.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Why?"

"You just look like something's bothering you or you don't feel good or something. Are the dumplins not sitting well with you?"

He forced a laugh. "The dumplins were fantastic. I just think your folks need a little private time to sort things out and me being here isn't ---" he searched for the word he needed--- "conducive to that. Your mother seems pretty upset, and rightfully so. And I don't wanna be here when J.D. meets his fate."

"Yeah, he's got it coming. And Mama's so shook up I doubt we'll even go to church tonight." Leslie looked through the crack in the door to be sure no one was around, then gave him a peck on the cheek. "So you're right. You best be getting yourself on home."

He smiled then turned and stepped off the porch then started off walking toward the holler. His mind was racing, trying to put together pieces of a puzzle that had no picture to guide him. Those pieces were falling together but they weren't making any sense.

Mama would be home soon, he knew, and that would be a whole other dilemma. He could come right out and ask her but there was probably good reason that secrets had been kept, and he probably didn't want to know the truth, if he was even given the truth at all. If he didn't ask, the questions would continue eating at him, because he knew they wouldn't get out of his head no matter how bad he wanted them out.

He told himself that the queasiness was due to the sticky heat and the belly full of chicken and dumplins and sweet tea, but it got worse with each step toward home.


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