Robby never listened to nobody. We walked to school and back every day and he didn’t listen to me, his big sister, nor heed what Momma or Daddy told him do. He always had a better idea.
He couldn’t resist showing me up with his rock-skipping skills. “Bet I can make it skip seven times, Jemima!” he started bragging as we neared the water. He knew I could only do it a measly two times, on a good day that is. He put down his bundle of books and after-school field clothes and looked for the perfect, smooth stone.
“Whatever,” I rolled my eyes and looked impatiently on. Sure enough, it skipped seven times.
“Look at that dam the beaver’s makin’ down stream. I want to check it out. I bet that’s the beaver that ate Momma’s cherry tree clean off.”
“Dang it, Robby! You’re gonna make us late again and Teacher is going to tell Momma and I’ll get in trouble!” I felt a deep responsibility to watch out for nine-year-old Robby, but he made my life difficult.
Well, we made it to Sweet Home School just in the nick of time. It was a one-room school-house in the little town of Van Lear, TN. Since more families had moved in lately, it was rumored that they might build another room on to the school. We might even get another teacher next year.
I looked down at my dusty, bare feet at the schoolhouse door. Every kid came without shoes that I knew of except the Hendersons that is, who had shoes for school and church. I didn’t care. I hated shoes. They made my feet sweat and rubbed my heels. Besides, they would get stained a bright green if I wore them in our tobacco field after school anyway. It was September, and even though school had started again, we were both expected to work in it every day before supper.
We were half-way to school one morning when I broke out of my daydream, noticing that Robby was no longer trailing behind me.
“Dang it, Robby! Where are you?” I yelled.
“Up here!” came a yell from a maple a piece back toward home.
“Get down! Momma says you’re always in trees. You’re gonna get full of chiggers, too.” That seemed to work and he started climbing down as I came nearer.
“Where did you put your books and clothes?”
“Over there. He nodded with his head.”
“Robby, I don’t see your work clothes!”
“Didn’t bring ’em.”
“What! You’re so going to get in trouble. You’re going to get your good clothes all dirty and green. Then Momma’s going to fuss at me,” I looked at him angrily.
“Aw, I’m tired of carryin’ ’em.”
“You got to carry your books, so what’s the big deal carryin’ a shirt and pants too?”
“I don’t need ’em. You’ll see. I promise: I won’t get my clothes dirty.”
I wasn’t so sure. I huffed my disapproval and started walking faster toward school. I figured I was doomed, but he was right so many times when he said he could do something. I held out a little hope.
It was so hot that afternoon as we walked slowly toward home and to the field of tobacco next door. We were tenant farmers now, since we lost our farm last year. What we now rented wasn’t nearly as beautiful as the home place where I was born. We had to carry water farther for the tobacco plants from the creek for these fields. Summer rains had been scarce this year. I felt as wilted as the plants under the scorching rays and the clay earth was like cement under my feet. At least the weeds weren’t thriving.
But the caterpillars, big hornworms, were monsters. Big, ugly green beasts that could devour a leaf in a singe day. After watering one section, we had to fill a couple buckets with a bit of kerosene from the can behind the barn. Then, one by one, pull them off, checking underneath the leaves too. It was all I could do not to gag as I quickly grabbed their swollen bodies and tossed them into the bucket. If we saw any stray leaf shoots growing off the plants as we worked, we broke them off too. When finished, we were a green, sweaty, dirty mess of a kid.
“Robby, now how are you going to keep your school clothes clean?” I looked doubtfully at him. He nimbly dodged the plants as we watered them. Maybe he really can do this, I thought to myself with growing admiration. I had changed mine behind a tree.
Then the bug-picking began and I lost sight of Robby in the 4 ft tall plants. I had to transport myself mentally to forget as best I could what I was actually doing. Periodically I hollered out for him and he answered me. Once, I heard a car on the gravel road near the field slow down and someone laughing and shouting out a window, “What in……Hey boy, you hot out there or somethin’?” Good thing he hasn’t run off to climb a tree, I thought. I was so relieved to hear Momma ringing the dinner bell for us to come in.
“Robby, d’ya hear that?” I yelled.
“Yeah. Uh, you go on,” he said so quietly, I almost couldn’t hear him.
“What’s wrong? You didn’t get your clothes all dirty did you?”
“Uh, no………they’re clean.”
“Well, then, come on!”
“I need a minute.”
“Nothin’. Tell Momma I’ll be there in a minute.”
It wasn’t far at all to the house, after rounding the barn. I went on and cleaned up at the water spigot near the back door by the kitchen.
Momma and Daddy had just sat down at the table when I came in. I explained that Robby would be coming soon. We waited.
“I’m going to say grace. That boy will have to eat his food cold,” Daddy said and then proceeded to say his usually lengthy grace. I just barely heard the door close. and the chair scoot on the floor.
“Amen.” We all opened our eyes.
“Good Lord in Heaven!” said Daddy with his eyes riveted on Robby. I stared in stunned silence with my mouth open. Momma put her hand to hers.
Robby’s face and arms were encased in red clay mud. Two eyes peered out with a surprised, innocent expression.
“I just got so hot workin’ outside. The mud felt cool. Pigs cool off that way, cows too. It really works!” he said triumphantly.
“You go outside this minute and clean that off. And don’t get any mud on those clean clothes neither,” Momma directed him.
He was gone a long time. As we were finishing up, the door eased open and a sheepish face appeared.
It was green. So were his arms. Apparently, so was his entire body.
Yep, I got fussed at, but not nearly as much as Robby. That boy had taken off all his clothes to avoid getting them dirty in the field. The tobacco leaf juice and the hornworms had succeed in coating his naked body in a green stain from head to toe. Realizing that, he had tried to disguise himself with mud.
In spite of the alternating scrubbing and spanking, scrubbing and spanking of his life he got that night, he stayed green for an entire week. He never left his work clothes at home again, but he still doesn’t listen to me.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people in my family is probably not a coincidence, but nevertheless meant in love and good humor.