Today’s guest fiction writer is Randal Barnett. I’ve known Randal for several years and had no idea he had a writer’s heart. His writing has a sweet southern tint to it that is very classic. Randal was born and raised in Decatur, Alabama, the son of two farm kids who grew up in the Depression Era. His family was blessed with a rich heritage of southern rural life and a well documented family history. He learned in Junior College that he had a hidden talent for writing when his review of Thurber’s “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in freshman English was chosen for submission to an English Teacher’s Journal. His interests are mostly in short stories about his upbringing and in the supernatural. Enjoy the following short story and leave a comment for him!!
William. That’s all I ever remember hearing him called. Not Bill, Will, Willy, or Billy. I don’t think I ever heard or knew of his last name. Just William. I can’t recall when I first became aware of him, but it was in my youth’s early dawn. He just was always there, sitting with the family, listening lots and talking little. I thought for many years that he was just another one of my numerous uncles. You see, farm families had lots of kids, not just out of love, which they certainly had one for another, but of necessity. Each one had chores before and after school and in the fall during lay by. No one could pay for help, families had to take care of their own. Only later did I realize that he was Granddaddy’s “farm hand”. In actuality, William was a ward of the state of Alabama.
Both my Mom and Dad were farm kids, deciding for themselves to leave that hard but simple life for small town jobs. I remember my Dad saying his happiest day was when he left the farm and Granddaddy. But often, love of family drew them back. At least for our short visits! I don’t believe Dad ever meant to put hand to plow and walk behind a stiff-jawed mule, ever again! Granddaddy was a hard man back then, but the whole family made do during the depression, so the toil was worthwhile. Don’t guess they ever knew they were poor.
William was what country folks called “slow”. What we would now, in our political correctness would call “moderately to severely mentally retarded”. His eyes were kind of sunk back and dark, like you sometimes see in those with mental problems. His hair was trimmed close to the sides of his head with just a curly, thick, brown mop of hair on top. His ears stuck out comically to the sides. He was middling of stature with shoulders that just seemed to start angling down from his neck. So thin, and gangly his clothes seemed to just hang off him. Always dressed with a long sleeve shirt and bib overalls, worn old brogans on his feet. Forever wearing an old weathered fedora Granddaddy gave him when he went out the door, as was the fashion of the day. Never did I ever meet a man with a face so worn and sculpted by the toils of the field. He worked right beside the others, never complaining, never stopping until Granny Clara rang the dinner bell. Big hands, hardened by callouses rested on his knees as he sat and passed time. He spoke slowly with a deep southern drawl. “How are you, William?”, someone would say. “Just fine, I reckon”, he’d reply as though he had to consider his answer. How old was he? 60? 70? 80? I just thought he had always been and always would be. Just there.
Granddaddy not only needed a farm hand but one that didn’t cost him. So somebody told him about William in the days before me. Not only did he get someone but he got paid for him! Many the state placed in homes gave more trouble than they were worth, some going violent, running off or even burning down the barn or causing trouble of sort or other. Though he was deceptively strong, William never would hurt a fly. What William’s life was before Granddaddy took him in, no one seemed to remember. Was he abandoned because he was “not right”, was he orphaned, did he remember his parents, brothers and sisters, other kin? I think how he might have been verbally or even physically abused in years before he came to “Mr. John’s” family. Only a few of the kids made fun of him, since he couldn’t read or write, but he never seemed to fret himself or become angry. Cousin Ann once called him “Dummy” and I made her take it back! He couldn’t help where life had taken him. He had few or no choices since he was born, I figured. I doubt he ever held a woman in his arms, nor did it occur to him, I guess. I never failed to hug his neck when we left for home. His usually stoic features would light up and he would smile his thin-lipped smile from ear to ear. “Be good” is always what he said.
The kids all filled the bedrooms, a small crowd to each bed, the last in sleeping at the foot. Privacy was scarce to find. The privy was down the well-worn path off the steps from the back porch. William slept in the parlor, on a cotton- filled batting mattress. Dawn would find him dressed, sitting at the edge of the porch, sizing up the weather and enjoying the sounds and sights of a new day coming on. He seemed to look forward to helping out with whatever came. Maybe it gave him purpose , though some never gave him credit for such a thought.
Late one moonlit, wintry night, the ground white with the frost, tragedy struck. The worse thing that could happen to a farm family, besides failed crops. Fire! Embers from the day’s fire popped out on to a quilt Granny Clara had left on her rocking chair. It took quick. The old planked house was a tinder box waiting to catch. William woke and smelled it first. From room to room he went waking all “Git up, git up, the house is afire, hurry, git up!!!! “ Ann was the only one to be overcome by the heat and the suffocating black smoke. William came out of the house holding her like a fragile china doll and set her gently on a blanket one of the kids brought with them wrapping it around her before he disappeared again. Finally all were accounted for and they watched the old home-place burn to the ground. Flames leapt from the gables with their gingerbread trim. The light bulbs hanging on their drop line fixtures popped like popcorn. Coal oil lamps exploded in geysers of fire. Years of memories and belongings turning to smoldering ashes. It must have burned plenty hot. I remember later marveling, seeing blobs of glass later in the ashes that were bottles and lamps melted in the intense heat. Ann roused presently, and wept “how did I get here”? “William” Granddaddy said, looking down at her. She looked around for her rescuer “Well where is he?” They all looked. He was nowhere to be found.
Granddaddy finally found him down in the barn, inside a horse stall, rocking back and forth crying for all he was worth. Voice filled with emotion , he gasped “ I tried Mr. John, I tried real hard. I tried real hard to put it out” In his charred and blistered hands was Granny Clara’s ruined quilt. His hair and face covered with soot. “Oh, I tried so hard, but it wouldn’t stop”. With upturned face he sobbed “ I still belong, don’t I? I tried so hard, Mr. John. We all got out, but I couldn’t stop it”.
Granddaddy knelt beside him, seeing a man, instead of just a weak-minded farm hand, maybe for the first time. “William you have always, and will always, have a home with us as long as you live”.
They rebuilt the farmhouse with brick, but it lacked the gables, front porch, window and door screens and all the things that made up “the old home-place”. It had indoor plumbing, but never had the character that made the other so welcoming. William died in his sleep one night in his own bed. I don’t remember him being sick, he just was no more. I remember how simple his life was, how his only need was to belong to a family he wasn’t born into. He never paid taxes or sought love’s heartaches or promises. Never worried about tomorrow, as long as he belonged, and never asked for more. Some days when I’m worn from the affairs and trials of this crazy world, I almost envy him his simple outlook on life. Family, after all is what can’t be taken away. Uncle William, I’ll always try to “be good”.