The Market Cart
By Jennifer Gambrel
Sway. Sway. Bump. Bubbles fall around us, popping on the buggy, the horse, me. They leave a slightly sticky spot behind. We are so happy, so in the moment, that it doesn’t matter. We wave goodbye to our family and friends as we leave the church behind. A bubble tickles my nose. The movement of the buggy is mesmerizing. It tickles my mind, and a memory unfolds.
Sway. Sway. Bump. Dust billows up from the gravel road, coating the tobacco leaves, the planks of the wagon, me. Everything is already brown anyway. The tobacco leaves, the planks of the wagon, me; from drying in the pole barn for eight weeks, from drying in the barnyard for ten years, from drying in the fall sun for two months. A young pup—all floppy ears, shiny eyes, thumping tail—follows right beside the wheel, right beside my swinging legs. Another dog lifts his head from where he lies in the grass as we trundle past. He’s seen this scene too many times to feel the need to rise and join. He eyes the pup as she trots along, tongue happily panting. She darts away to investigate a discarded pop bottle; a butterfly flits by and she pursues; she’s a bundle of twitch puppy energy. The older dog turns his head to follow her progress; he yawns and sneezes away a fly; his grizzled head drops back to the grass. I see his side swell and deflate with a large sigh as he drifts back to sleep.
We aren’t going far. I’d love to ride the wagon all the way to market, to the sale barn, but that’s miles away, out on the real road, and Mamaw would never go for that idea. I know not to even try. “You would fall off and break your head on the blacktop, and then what would I do?” So, I settle for getting to ride the short distance from barn to blacktop. My payment for this short-lived pleasure is walking back from blacktop to barn. The gravel road will double in length for this return trip.
Sway. Sway. Bump. We bounce over a rut and a large rock. My butt comes up off the wagon momentarily and then jars back down. My teeth click together. The rattle of the tongue joist draws the puppy away from the butterfly. She gives a small yip of surprise at the noise and puts her short little legs into fifth gear to play catchup; she overshoots the wagon and stops too suddenly, doing a somersault and coming up with tail wagging. I laugh, thinking of the sigh that would emerge from the napping dog behind us if he had witnessed this display.
My uncle turns in the tractor seat to make sure I am still with him and not in the ditch. I smile and wave. He lifts his cap at me and spits a stream of tobacco over the fender well. He gracefully arches the brown stream, wipes his mouth on the shoulder of his work shirt and turns back to the road. We both know full well that he wishes there were some rainwater brooding in these ruts we’re traversing; he would love to make a different brown stream spit up from the tractor wheels in a not-so-graceful arch and wet my untied tennis shoes.
It has been a dry year. I have heard that said over and over. Tarnation, ain’t it dry; surely it cain’t get any drier; think we’ll see any rain; dagnabit, it’s dry as sandpaper; look at the dust devils; lost half my crop; sure wish God would send us some rain. They were just words said over my head while I played with the new puppy or made my own mud and pressed it intoold tin pans, to be left to dry in the sun.
All it had really meant to me was that there weren’t any mud holes to traipse through, no mud to squish up between my toes, no warm summer rains to spin in or to swirl in the rain barrel. Lack of rain to a farmer means something very different than it means to a child.
Even to a country child who should have understood. The woman in the buggy continues to smile and watch the city unfold around her, as the country unfolds inside her.
The country child continues to swing her legs and watch the puppy run. There is a rule on a lot of farms—don’t name the animals because you don’t know how long they will hang around. I have been told not to name the new puppy. In theory, I understand the reasoning. In theory, I am a rule-follower. In my heart, I have already named her Sarsaparilla because she is brown and bubbly.
Sarsaparilla doesn’t know it’s dry. It’s her first summer and fall. She doesn’t know the dust devils aren’t supposed to be there, or that she shouldn’t have to search so hard for a place to get a drink of water. I have accumulated a few more summers and falls than she has, but a child’s world can be selectively assembled. Mine contains books and television, butterflies and puppies, dust and wagons. It does not contain worry and despair.
The wagon slows as my uncle reaches the end of the gravel drive. My uncles like to spoil me, and this one would love to give in and take me on with him. Let me ride the market cart all the way to the spot that gave the wagon its name. But neither of us is prepared to stand down Mamaw’s declaration. He obediently stops the tractor and I obediently slide off the wagon. He turns in his seat to make sure I have stepped clear of the wheels. I wave my goodbye. Saying anything would be futile over the sound of the idling motor. He grins and lifts his cap, spits another stream of brown, and pulls out onto the road.
I wish I could freeze this moment. Run to the tractor and climb up onto the fender. Give him a hug. He’d never hear the actual words, but when I pulled the brim of his cap down over his eyes, he’d know I love him. He’s gone now and these memories of him warm my soul.
I stand and listen for a few minutes. I picture the long straight stretch; know when he reaches the sharp curve by the change in motor sounds; listen as the sound grows further away. I call to Sarsaparilla since there is no one to hear me say her name. We head back up the gravel drive. I pick up a stick and drag it through the waist-high weeds beside the road. I don’t do it for long. The coating of dust that the tractor and other vehicles have thrown onto them come off in big puffs and swirl around me and Sarsaparilla. I sneeze and cough and hurl the stick into the field. Enough of that.
I was right. The road has grown in length. What had seemed a ridiculously short ride while swinging my legs and sitting on tobacco leaves, now seems to stretch into forever. Even Sarsaparilla seems tired. Her little puppy legs need a rest. As we pass the old dog (he has no name because the rules had been followed with him) he at least has the decency not to give us an I-told-you-so look. Without the sound of the tractor engine and the creaking of the tongue joist, he doesn’t even rouse from his dreams as we plod past.
Just as my child’s mind is sure I will expire from heat exhaustion and won’t Mamaw wish then that she had let me continue my wagon ride, the old white farmhouse appears around the bend. I kick my shoes off and go straight to the kitchen, fetch a recycled Cool Whip bowl, and fill it with water, while the puppy waits patiently on the porch. She drinks long and deep, wags her tail in appreciation, and drops like a stone onto her side on the cool concrete. I think she is asleep before she hits.
Back in the kitchen, I fill a cup with cold purple sugar-water from the refrigerator. I slurp it all down and refill my cup while looking out at the field. I take an extra big sip and try to arch a stream of it into the sink in imitation of my uncle. The sticky purple water falls onto the edge of the counter like the first drops of a spring soak and rolls down the cabinet. I grab a paper towel and wipe it up. Apparently spitting skills are not passed from generation to generation.
I am licking a sticky purple spot off my chin when Mamaw enters the kitchen from the back door. I give the counter one more quick swipe with the paper towel and toss the towel intothe garbage. Mamaw raises her eyebrows but says nothing. I sip my drink and hope my halo is on straight. Mamaw asks if the brief ride on the wagon was worth the walk back. I say yes, of course it was, never hinting at my near dust-and-heat-induced death. She smiles and something tells me she knows the truth, just as she always does.
“Mamaw, why was the wagon only halfway full of tobacco? Why do we even make tobacco? Isn’t smoking bad for you?”
“Well, child, we just didn’t have as much of if this time. It didn’t all grow. And we don’t make it. God does that.”
“Why does He make it if it’s bad for us?”
“Child, you sure are full of questions today!”
“Well, Mamaw, shouldn’t we make something that’s good for people?”
“Honey, we do. Remember all those onions you helped plant? And what about all these beans we grew? Get over here, girl, and help break these.”
I set my cup in the sink and go to the table. Stringing and breaking beans is not my favorite thing to do, but it isn’t my least favorite either. It’s a lot easier than plucking chickens or digging potatoes.
“But Mamaw, you don’t even smoke. So why do you make tobacco?”
“Girl, we don’t make it, we just grow it. Don’t try and claim God’s part. And we grow it because it grows good here and the money pays for things we need.”
I think about this answer for a minute as the heap of beans in the center of the table steadily grows. Snap. Snap. Plink. I finish the handful of beans I’ve gotten out of the bucket and watch Mamaw. Her hands fly through those beans: handful out of the bucket; break off the end; pull the string; break each bean into three or four sections; drop them in the bowl; drop the end and string in the garbage bucket; reach for the next. Her hands are much browner than mine. Almost as brown as the tobacco leaves on the brown wagon that’s still moving steadily closer to market out on the real road. Those hands have seen a lot more summers than mine have. They never completely lose the brown of one summer before the brown of the next layers over it.
I look at my hands. They look dark against my white dress, but they have never reached that level of brown that Mamaw’s always had. I wish again that those brown hands could have been there today to button dresses and smooth bows.
Snap. Snap. Plink. The last bean hits the bowl. The last end string goes into the garbage bucket. Mamaw heaves herself to her feet. She moves to the sink and swirls water into a large pot. I watch her shoulders rise and fall as she breathes in and then exhales a large sigh. “Heavens, it sure is dry out there,” she mumbles to herself as she stares out the window.
She lifts the pot onto the stove and turns on the burner. She turns and sees me watching her solemnly. She smiles and says, “While this water heats, what do you say we go out on the porch swing, and you can read me the next chapter of our book?”
My solemnity forgotten, I race to get the book from the shelf. I hear the swing begin to move. Sway. Sway. Bump. As I near the door, Mamaw says, “Well, Sarsaparilla, what do you think will happen in today’s chapter?”
Sway. Sway. Bump. A light rain begins to fall around us, landing on the buggy, the horse, me. It leaves a slightly damp spot behind. A raindrop tickles my nose. I hold out my lightly browned han
d to catch the drops. Happy tears mix with the rain on my face.
Jennifer Gambrel is a non-traditional English major at LMU. After years as a stay-at-home mom, she pressed a reset button and is excited about her new challenges. She has an enduring passion for (and maybe a slight obsession with) books and writing.