The House Behind the Levee
By Loretta Casteen
Shelly shoved on the screen door. When it sprang back against her hands, she gave it another mighty push, the mightiest her skinny arms could manage. She jumped over the threshold, out of the way of the door’s backswing. Her bare feet thudded on the rough, raw wood of the front porch. The screen door slammed shut behind her.
Pausing a moment, listening, almost hoping, she finally shrugged. These days Momma would not say anything about a slamming door. Momma was not saying much of anything at all. Shelly took two skips across the porch.
She hopped down the cracked concrete steps to the yard. She avoided those cracks, oh yes. Momma did not need any more problems than she already had.
It was morning, but Shelly couldn’t tell time yet. It was early enough to get outside to play before it got too hot. Sam, her brother, knew this too. He sat near the top of the levee playing with his cars in a long pile of red dirt beside the driveway.
Bryant Keller, who drove a road grader for the county, topped the levee yesterday evening in his big, growling machine. Shelly and Sam watched from the front porch as he scraped smooth the gouged, rutted driveway. Slick as a whistle, two neat rows of dirt slid off either side of the grader’s huge yellow blade.
Bryant Keller—even his name had sharp edges—lifted the blade before he turned around in the yard. He waved at them, and then roared back up the drive. He disappeared over the hump of the levee.
Bryant Keller was only supposed to grade the public roads, but he smoothed out a driveway or two when he felt like it—a free service to the farmers and their families in the river bottoms. Shelly heard her Daddy say this many times. And Daddy only always told the truth.
Daddy also told the truth about why their house sat on the wrong side of the levee. Usually, a levee stood between a house and the river. Shelly learned what the levee was for in a geography lesson.
“A house and land behind a levee is cheap, Sugar,” he said, when she asked about it. “That’s why I was able to get it.” He laughed, dry and low as he patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. That old Red River back there,” he waved vaguely at the trees and brush that lay beyond the butane tank at the edge of the back yard, “never floods. Not in a hundred years will it come up this far.”
Now as Shelly padded up the slope of the drive, she heard Bluebell moo mournfully from the barn. Jake was late with the milking again. Shelly figured Jake would get around to Bluebell eventually. It wasn’t as if she could rouse him with a splash of water in the face or threaten to put a boot up his butt the way Daddy could. She valued her hide more than that.
Shelly watched Sam for a bit as he pushed each small, metal car in turn along the shallow road he had scooped out.
“What’re you doing?” she asked, scratching a mosquito bite on her neck.
“Playing.” Sam continued his methodical game. If Sam’s cars were racing on the figure eight, Shelly couldn’t tell which one was winning.
“Oh.” Shelly considered joining Sam in the dirt, but she wore her pretty, pretty princess nightgown, which she loved. Yellow sateen, Momma sewed it from the material left over from Margaret’s Senior Banquet dress. Shelly’s older sister, Margret, was gone now too. Margaret married her high school sweetheart two days after high school graduation. She moved with him to a place far away called Phoenix, Arizona.
Shelly brushed the front of her nightgown with her palm, relishing the slippery, smoothness of it. Momma had come close to cussing sewing that dress for Margaret.
“The durn feed dogs are worn out on this machine and won’t grab the material.” Momma fumed as she tried gently pulling the slick fabric through the sewing mechanism as she pushed the “go pedal” with her foot. “And this da…dang material keeps wanting to walk off on me.”
Shelly was surprised and pleased when Momma sat down to make her a nightgown with the remnants of the material that made her so mad. “Ain’t no use of wasting it,” Momma said. Wasting anything when everything was hard to come by was disrespectful and a sin to boot. Momma said that a lot. Momma used to say a lot of things.
Shelly glanced back at the house, wondering if Momma was up yet. Momma never used to stay in bed as much as she did now. But Shelly knew sadness was a heavy thing. And pulling it around with you all the time made you tired. It was the sadness that had slowed Momma’s feet and stilled her usually busy hands. Maybe that’s why Momma stopped talking. Sadness weighted her tongue, and sealed her lips. The sadness was too thick for Momma’s light and lilting voice to cut through. Shelly understood.
She looked back down at Sam. His scalp showed pink beneath his flat-top as he leaned over his toys. “You want to go work on the treehouse?” she asked.
The treehouse, perched aslant and wobbly in the sycamore tree in the backyard, had been a work in progress since Jake and Margaret were little.
Sam did not look up from his cars. “No. I’m waiting for Daddy.”
Shelly walked a few more feet up the slope to the top of the levee. It ran straight, more or less, north and south. Shelly knew there were bends and wide-angle turns along its length. She and Momma spent two afternoons last summer walking along the top, picking black berries growing wild up and down the sides. On those afternoon treks, in some places atop the levee Shelly could see the river, a dark winding ribbon in the distances. She could not see the river from her vantage point now. Just like Daddy said, it was too far away.
Below her, County Road 241, yellow-dashed dividing line flaked and faded and the blacktop gouged with potholes, vaguely mimicked the long shape of the levee. The road and the levee snaked along together for miles cutting between cotton and soybean fields, patches of pinewood, cow pastures and modest, mostly wood-frame houses. From where Shelly stood their nearest neighbor was Mrs. Monsett and she lived a long way down the road. There was no traffic, not for miles.
Shelly took three giant steps back to Sam. She watched him a minute, then took a deep breath.
“Daddy ain’t coming back, Sam.”
“He is.” Sam did not look up.
Shelly shook her head. “He ain’t.”
Sam didn’t know. He had been over at Papaw and Mamaw’s house that day. Sam was Papaw’s “pet” Momma said. Shelly knew that meant Papaw liked Sam the best of all of the kids. So Sam had not been home the day Daddy left.
At first Shelly had not realized what was happening. She lay on the floor watching Saturday morning cartoons on the small black and white television that sat atop the broken console set. Daddy had adjusted the antenna the night before so he could watch Gomer Pyle. The picture that morning was still nice and clear.
Daddy went in and out a couple of times, letting the screen door slam behind him. It wasn’t until Momma trailed out of the bedroom behind Daddy, that Shelly really noticed her parents.
“But what am I supposed to do?” Momma said, in a funny way. Her voice cracking and wobbling in a way Shelly never heard before.
It was Momma’s tone, almost a whine (and whining was something strictly forbidden to anyone in the family) that made Shelly turn. She sat up and spun around.
Shelly’s Momma and Daddy faced each other near the front door. Daddy held a cardboard box in both hands, his black Bible tucked between his upper arm and his ribs. His mouth a straight line. Momma’s lips were parted, her mouth almost hanging open. She seemed to be breathing hard. Her hands rubbing and twisting one over the other just below her breasts.
“What’s wrong Momma?”
The grown-ups turned to her. Shelly smiled up at Momma. The cartoon reflected weak and blueish in Momma’s cat-eye glasses. The black frames sported three tiny rhinestones along the edge of each tip-tilted corner. Scooby Doo and the gang raced after the monster across the lenses.
“You just turn around and watch your show, Sugar.” Daddy said. His voice was mild, but there was no disobeying.
Shelly spun on her bottom again to face the television, but she was not watching any more. There was a kind of electric current in the air, raising the hair at her nape and goose-pimples along her arms.
Momma mumbled something Shelly could not hear.
“The crop ain’t coming in, Faye. What ain’t dead already is dying. I got to go. When my Daddy brings Sam home, tell him I left. He’ll get you anything y’all need.”
Momma mumbled again.
“I got nothing to say to him. He wouldn’t hear it anyway.” Daddy said, his voice hard. “You tell him.”
When Shelly heard the door to Daddy’s pick-up slam, she turned around. Momma stood behind the screen staring out into the yard, her hands braced against each side of the door frame.
Shelly crept to the door. Staying low, she peered between Momma’s leg and the door. Daddy sat in his pickup. It was a white Ford, but red clay mud coated the sides and splotched the windshield.
Shelly knew that russet mud. It was slimy and slick, thick and sticky. The red clay was good for the cotton and soybeans Daddy and Papaw grew. But there had been too much rain.
“Too much rain.” Shelly heard it repeated everywhere she went that Spring: School, church, Spruell’s General Store (Where Daddy sometimes bought her and Sam a Yoohoo to share if they were good). Too much rain was just as bad as not enough of it. The crops drowned or rotted or grew moldy or diseased.
And too much rain created that awful, red mud. Walking in it was almost impossible. It held you back and slowed you down, tripped you up or stopped you cold. Except for Daddy. He knew how to push and pull and break free from the sticky trap the red clay set for him.
Earlier in the year, when she and Sam tried to make it up over the levee to the school bus stop, Daddy had to rescue them out of the yard. They were both stuck, ankle deep in the brick colored muck. Daddy slogged out to them laughing. The mud sucked the rubber boots from their feet as Daddy swooped them up, one kid under each strong arm. He hauled them back to the porch.
“School’s called today on account of mud.” Daddy said with a grin, using a finger to push his straw cowboy hat back. “As slicky as the driveway is, that levee might as well be a mountain.” Daddy’s smile disappeared. He made a shooing motion with his hand. Sam and Shelly scrambled into the house in their sock feet before Daddy changed his mind and decided to haul them over the levee on his back or in the pick-up.
Two weeks later, as Shelly and Momma watched from the house, Daddy sat with his hands on the steering wheel in his mud-covered truck. Shelly stood up. She slipped between Momma and the screen door. Daddy could have seen them both if he had only looked up. He stared at his hands. He banged his palm on the steering wheel. Once. Twice. Momma squeezed Shelly’s shoulder. When Daddy slammed both palms on the wheel, the old truck’s horn gave a half-hearted blatt. Daddy started the engine. Momma squeezed Shelly’s shoulder too tight.
“Momma!” Shelly protested, pushing at Momma’s hand with her own. Momma let go.
Daddy’s truck made a slow, wide turn in the yard. He revved the engine, pointing the nose of the truck at the soggy drive. As Daddy charged the levee, globs of mud and water the color of old pennies spewed out from beneath the tires. The truck slid and fishtailed, as the tires fought and dug in for purchase in the slick.
In a moment, he was up, over and gone. He left behind deep, jagged ruts in the drive. The ruts that Bryant Keller’s road grader would smooth away in the summer. Like Daddy was never there. Like his leaving never happened.
But it did happen and Sam did not know how final and real it felt. Shelly squatted down beside him. She grabbed his arm.
“Sam,” she said, when his blue eyes met hers, “He ain’t coming back.” Shelly needed him to hear her. She needed him to know.
Without warning, Sam’s hand, fisted around a metal Hot Wheels car, shot out. He punched Shelly in the shoulder. The punch didn’t hurt much, but it was enough to tip her over onto her bottom.
“He. Is.” Sam said, almost growling through gritted teeth. “He is.”
Shelly got up. She dusted as much dry. red dirt as possible from her pretty, yellow nightgown.
Shelly opened her mouth, but Sam frowned as he raised his fist again.
He hadn’t hit her too hard the first time. She knew the next punch would hurt a lot more. Shelly closed her mouth and backed away.
She trudged back to the house, rubbing the aching spot on her shoulder.
“He ain’t,” she whispered.