Chapter 6: Tobacco
This is ridiculous, Ginny thought as she swayed idly to and fro on the rope swing by the creek where her brother was fishing. She was clad in her yellow Sunday dress with the little pink flowers on it, minus her shoes, which she'd left in the truck. Kody had driven out the mountain road and pulled off to a creek he liked to fish; this was how they were to spend the time they weren't spending in church. Hiding.
When it was time for church to be over, they would return home and go to Jack's house for dinner, still in their Sunday clothes. Kody had insisted that the truck needed to be gone during church hours and they needed to be in church clothes "in case" Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill dropped by their house. Meanwhile, Ginny was just struggling to not get her dress dirty and blow their cover. She wondered what would happen when Mama returned and the first time she went back to church some well-meaning parishioner greeted her with, "Welcome back! We missed y'all." She supposed- hoped- Kody had it all figured out.
The sky was beginning to fill with gray clouds and the breeze seemed to be picking up. "Looks like rain," she observed.
"Maybe," he replied, his focus on the fishing line. She knew he had no intention of bringing home anything he caught this day because though he could clean fish, neither of them could cook them. They had survived the remainder of the week on bologna sandwiches and were looking forward to Aunt Betty's cooking later today.
Ginny's soft, pendulating motion was the most serene she was capable of being. She could not find it in herself to sit still long enough to enjoy an activity that revolved around patiently waiting for a subtle tug on a string and she wondered how anyone could. Her brother certainly could, it seemed, and looked to be rather enjoying it.
She noticed the leaves on the trees turning up in the wind, and the tree tops swaying in the distance. It wasn't about to rain; it was about to storm.
She swung quietly for a few more minutes before she decided to take advantage of the calm, content mood Kody appeared to be in today.
"You really oughtta come play ball with us sometime, ya know," she said.
"Thought I'd already agreed to it," he replied, his eyes still on the fishing line. "Least that's what Jack tells me anyway."
He turned his head now to look at her, a sarcastic grin spreading across his face. "Thought you were slick, didn't you?"
She shifted her weight to slow the rope swing, the realization that her scheme had failed a punch in the gut. She searched for a worthy come-back but none came to her; she would have to accept defeat. Kody was stubborn and she knew that this most recent "No" would stick, if for no reason other than spite. And no Kody would mean no Jack, either; they usually came as a package deal. Tommy would have to find some other people to fill the holes on the team himself because she could provide no further assistance in the search.
The wind was getting louder and stronger and thunder rolled off in the distance.
"Should church be out yet?" she asked, thinking only of the mud that was sure to splash up on her dress when the rain started.
Kody looked up at the sky, then pulled a pocket watch out and inspected it.
"Getting there." He pushed himself off the ground, reeled in his line, and dusted off his pants.
"May as well head home," he said, walking toward the truck. The thunder rolled again, this time louder, closer. Ginny leaped from the swing and raced to the passenger side, sliding in just in time to beat the first fat drops that fell from the sky.
The storm blew through as quickly as it had moved in, leaving the ground moist and the air hot and sticky. Ginny was for once grateful to be inside an hour later as she sat at her aunt's kitchen table breaking pole beans while Aunt Betty peeled potatoes. She had resolved to watch every detail of her aunt's kitchen activities today because, frankly, she wasn't entirely sure how many more bologna sandwiches she could take.
Uncle Bill was on the porch smoking his pipe and the sweet smell of the pipe tobacco smoke wafted in the open kitchen window. Aunt Betty wrinkled her nose.
"I wish he'd quit with that thang!" she griped. "Smelling up the whole dang house." She began peeling more furiously.
"Makes his breath stank and it's a'turning his teeth yeller, too," she went on. "Me and your mama was talking about it just last week. She said she best not ever catch you or Kody smoking no tobacca or she'd wear your tails out. I told Jack the same thang. I said, 'I don't care how big you get, I'm still your mama and so long as you live under this roof, you won't be smoking none of that nasty tobacca 'less you want me to beat you black and blue'."
Ginny just nodded in reply. Aunt Betty wasn't usually so passionate about, well, anything. She and Uncle Bill had a laid-back, light-hearted way about them that typically put everyone around them at ease and she usually let Jack get away with murder, but Ginny could tell she was pretty serious about this whole smoking business. She decided she would never smoke, or at least, never get caught smoking.
Aunt Betty moved on to cutting up the potatoes and putting them in a pot to boil, then dipped chicken pieces in buttermilk and dredged them in seasoned flour. She heated oil in a skillet and dropped a few pieces of chicken in at a time, then put the beans in a pot to boil. The way she moved around the kitchen was almost like a dance, certainly an art of some form. Like Mama, all her recipes were stored in her mind; neither woman even owned a measuring cup.
"Oh! Ginny, would you throw together some cornbread?" she asked as she tended the crackling chicken.
Ginny had worried this might happen if she hung around the kitchen too long. But she felt like she knew the basics of cornbread; she'd just ask Aunt Betty's advice when she got stumped. She dumped what looked like should be enough corn meal in a bowl then cracked an egg into it. The one egg looked lonely in the big bowl of corn meal so she asked, "Aunt Betty, do you use one egg or two in your cornbread?"
"Oh, honey, I always use two," she answered, dumping the water off the potatoes.
She cracked another egg then poured some buttermilk into the bowl and started mixing. It looked a little dry but she was afraid to add more buttermilk with two eggs in the mixture. After all, it was cornbread not cake. She greased a cast iron skillet, poured in the mixture, stuck it in the oven, then watched Aunt Betty effortlessly whip up a bowl of mashed potatoes. Aunt Betty set the mashed potatoes on the table then bustled back over to the stove to remove the last few pieces of chicken from the skillet.
"Go see if you can find them boys and tell 'em dinner's ready," she instructed.
Ginny went out the back door and looked around both sides of the old, white, clapboard farmhouse, but there was no sign of Jack or Kody so she headed toward the barn. When she reached the weathered, wooden structure she stepped inside, looked around and climbed up in the loft, but they weren' t there either. As she descended the ladder from the loft, over the smell of the hay, she faintly caught a whiff of what she thought was the sweet fragrance of Uncle Bill's pipe smoke. Aunt Betty must have sent him out in search of the boys, too. The smell got stronger as she neared the door and when she was back outside she was sure Uncle Bill was nearby. She followed the smell around the side of the barn and called out, "Uncle Bill?"
As she turned the corner to the back of the barn, she halted, surprised because she hadn't stumbled upon her uncle at all, but instead Jack and Kody, frantically trying to stomp out a couple of rolled up cigarettes. They looked more surprised than her, anxious even. Some wicked little part of her relished the frightened looks in their eyes; she had never held such power over them as she did in this moment, never made them feel so small. More than anything, the sting of defeat she had felt earlier in the day was suddenly soothed. They knew her silence wouldn't come without a price.
They all stood tense and silent until Ginny cleared her throat and announced, "Dinner's ready." She looked the boys over disapprovingly and sniffed the air. "But y'all might wanna take your time. Air out. She'll smell it on ya."
She smirked as she turned to saunter back to the house, amazed at how quickly and effortlessly the tables had turned in her favor.
A few minutes later, they were all squeezed in around the table, Jack leading them in grace:
"Dear Lord, thank you for the food on this table. We are so grateful to get to eat it so we don't starve to death. And thank you for the family here with us, because I sure couldn't eat all this by myself. Amen."
They began filling their plates with food and Aunt Betty made small talk about the morning's church sermon. Jack and Kody looked uneasy; if they were found out, not only would they be in hot water with their mothers, they would also have to answer to Uncle Bill for thieving from his tobacco arsenal. Their fears, however, were unfounded. Ginny had no intention of revealing their transgression as yet, and it would have been impossible for Aunt Betty to differentiate the smoke smell on them from the intense stench of tobacco emanating from Uncle Bill.
"How was y'all's service?" Aunt Betty asked.
Kody hadn't been listening to a word of what she was saying, his mind only on the possible punishments awaiting him.
"It was really good," Ginny lied, knowing Aunt Betty wouldn't require any details.
Uncle Bill bit into a piece of cornbread with a loud CRUNCH. His eyes widened and he stared at the cornbread for a moment, then looked across the table to Jack's equally animated face. Jack tapped his own piece of cornbread against his plate and it thudded like lead. He raised an eyebrow and looked at Aunt Betty, who was trying not to laugh.
"It looks like cornbread," Uncle Bill observed, "but it's crunchy like bacon."
"Bacon ain't hard as a brick," Jack reminded him.
Kody looked accusingly at Ginny, who was looking down at her plate, pushing the beans around with her fork. Aunt Betty regained her composure and said, "Oh! I forgot to heat the pan before I poured the batter in. It'll do that every time."
Uncle Bill shook his head. "Oh well," he sighed. "Least the chicken's crunchy and the taters is creamy."
They discovered that if the cornbread was slathered in enough butter it didn't hurt their teeth as bad, and conversation continued as it did any other Sunday. Ginny helped Aunt Betty clean the kitchen afterward and then they joined Uncle Bill and the boys in the living room for a gospel music radio program. Uncle Bill and Aunt Betty were obviously uninterested in the program that followed and went out to sit in the rockers on the porch. When they were out of earshot, Ginny informed the boys that they could expect to be at the ball field from just after dawn until dusk.
"I work tomorrow," Kody said flatly.
"Then when you don't work," Ginny replied. She looked at Jack expectantly.
He looked at the floor. "I'll be there. Soon as my chores're done."
Ginny grinned. "Fantastic."
That night, just as Ginny was about to doze off, Kody started randomly snickering.
"Wow" he said.
"Wow what?" she groaned
"You weren't lying. You really can't cook!"
She leaned down over the top bunk and hit him in the face with her pillow. He continued laughing.
"Bet you won't be laughing tomorrow when you're eating that baloney sandwich for supper again," she snapped.