Leroy and Ashley had come to stay on his parents’ farm in South Carolina after Leroy got laid off at the steel mill and they couldn’t pay their rent up north. Ashley had been worried at first that her in-laws would not like having her around, but they didn’t seem to mind that their son had married a white girl, and things were working out fine. Brad, a friend from up north, had come to visit. He was on his way to Florida for the winter.
The three of them were over at a neighbor’s farm. The neighbor had told Ashley’s father-in-law he could come and carry away a fallen pine tree if he wanted it for firewood. Her father-in-law hated to take favors from white men but Leroy said they needed the wood, the only heating in the house was the wood burning stove, and the nights were clear and cold now November had come. They were cutting up the tree, Leroy operated the chainsaw and Brad and Ashley loaded the sawn up pieces onto the truck. The chainsaw was too heavy for Ashley. She was a hard worker though, she got stuck in on whatever had to be done around the farm, stacking wood, building chicken houses, putting up fences. Only the day before her mother-in-law had said she worked like a little man. Ashley heaved another log onto the pile, her fingers sticky with pine resin.
‘You okay, honey?’ Leroy asked. ‘Don’t strain yourself.’
Sometimes her husband made a fuss if he thought she was working too hard and she didn’t want him to start so she picked up the smallest log she could see. She threw this small log up onto the bed of the pick-up, the truck was almost full now. A car drove into the yard. The bumper sticker on the back of the car had a Confederate flag with the slogan ‘American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God’. Ashley’s heart sank. In her experience the kind of southerner with a bumper sticker like that was usually the worst kind of redneck. However, he had offered wood to her father-in-law so he couldn’t be all bad. The man parked the car in the yard and looked from one to another at the three of them. He was old enough to be her father. She saw his eyes flick over her and on to Brad and on to Leroy and back to her again, as if he was assessing the relationship between the three of them. Then he got out of his big shiny car and walked around the front of the car and crossed the yard and stood beside them, with his thumbs hooked in his belt loops, a wad of chewing tobacco bulging in his cheek, not saying anything at first but just looking at the pile of logs in the pick up. His expression gave nothing of his thoughts away; it was closed like a poker player’s. ‘You Bill’s boy?’ he asked Leroy in a deep Southern drawl. Ashley flinched at the boy and chewed the inside of her lip.
‘Yes,’ said Leroy. ‘Pop says to thank you for the wood. It’ll keep the house warm this winter. And he says if you want some more of that corn syrup he’ll drop you over a bottle of it the next time he’s passing.’ He used the tone of voice she knew he reserved for white men who were strangers to him, polite but wary.
‘’Preciate that,’ said the man, taking his thumbs out of his belt loops and turning his head to the side to spit a jet of brown saliva onto the ground beside the truck. ‘Ya’ll are welcome to the wood. I reckon you ‘bout got a full load there. You don’t want them falling off the sides when you’re on the road.’ He adjusted the position of the tobacco in his cheek. ‘Happen to a neighbor of mine. He got taken to court over a log fell off and hit a car following on behind. Lucky for him wasn’t nobody hurt but he had to pay for the damage to the car.’
Leroy looked up at the load of logs on the truck. ‘Can’t have that,’ he said. ‘I’ll drive back to the farm and unload. Brad, how about if you stay here, you could cut some more logs for when I get back.’ He handed over the chainsaw. ‘Ashley, why don’t you stay too? Have a rest.’
She didn’t want to stay but she knew Leroy didn’t want her unloading the logs. ‘Okay. I’ll stay.’
Leroy climbed into the cab and started the engine. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ he said to the man. ‘Brad will cut logs while I’m gone.’
‘Fine with me,’ said the man.
‘Yep. See you soon,’ said Brad.
‘Bye,’ said Ashley. She sat down on a log and began to pick at a splinter in her thumb with her fingernail. Leroy backed the truck around and drove slowly down the rutted driveway and turned onto the main road. The sound of the truck faded away.
Brad said, ‘This chainsaw looks dull. I’ll sharpen it before I get back to cutting. It’ll only take five minutes.’
‘Good idea.’ She could see the splinter, a dark spot in the flesh on the tip of her thumb, it hurt when she pressed on it. A drop of blood welled up when she squeezed, but the splinter did not come out. ‘I should have asked Leroy to bring me some gloves,’ she said.
‘Here,’ said the man, taking a pair of gloves out of the pocket of his jacket. ‘I got these you can borrow.’
‘Thank you,’ said Ashley, taking the gloves from him and trying them on, they were too big but they would protect her hands. ‘These are great,’ she said, and she stood up and smiled at the man.
The sun was warm on her back. Brad sharpened the chainsaw with a metal file, it made a rasping sound as he moved it back and forth across the teeth of the chain. Then he started the saw up and began to cut through one of the branches on the fallen tree. The branch broke under its own weight before he had cut all the way through and he had to jerk the saw out of the way. ‘Damn it!’ he said. He put the saw down on the ground and held up his left hand. Blood trickled from a cut in the fleshy pad at the base of his thumb.
‘Keep your hand up,’ said the man. ‘I got a first aid kit in my trunk.’ He went to his car and opened the trunk and rummaged around inside while Ashley held Brad’s hand up and inspected the wound. It was not deep.
‘Press here,’ she said to Brad, ‘to stop the bleeding.’
When the man brought the first aid kit she opened it and found iodine, bandages, antiseptic swabs. Brad kept his good hand pressed around the cut, he had his head turned away and she remembered blood made him feel faint, some story about falling off his bicycle when he was a small boy and splitting his lip open on a metal grille. ‘Let me see,’ she said. She dabbed at the wound with a swab and felt him flinch. He had turned pale. He sat down on a log and closed his eyes, held his hand up in the air, bright blood trickled from the wound down toward his wrist. The man looked at Ashley, eyebrows raised. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked Brad. ‘You’ve gone real pale.’ Brad did not answer. She wished Brad would open his eyes and speak so she wouldn’t have to answer for him. She didn’t like this man, nothing she could put her finger on but it was there. ‘He’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘I’ll put a bandage on it. That’ll stop the bleeding. I don’t think he’ll need stitches.’
‘That’s right,’ said Brad, eyes still closed. ‘I’m okay.’
She poured iodine on the cut, covered it over with a sterile pad, wrapped a bandage tightly around it, and taped the edges.
‘Ya’ll want to come in the house for a sit down and a glass of iced tea?’ said the man. He spat his chewing tobacco onto the ground.
Ashley half hoped Brad would say no.
‘That’d be great,’ said Brad.
They followed the man into the house. He led them to a big sunny kitchen and sat them at the breakfast bar. The kitchen was sparkling clean with lots of oak cabinets and a row of well polished copper pots hanging over the cooker, they were so shiny Ashley couldn’t imagine them ever being used. The man opened one of the cabinets and took out three tall glasses. He filled the glasses with ice from the dispenser and took a pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator and poured them each a full glass. The ice crackled.
‘My wife made this. Best iced tea in the whole of Calhoun County. She’s gone over to Columbia today to visit our son and his wife.’ He handed a glass to Ashley and one to Brad. His fingers were red and plump, the nails short and clean. ‘You remind me some of my daughter-in-law,’ he said to Ashley. ‘She got your coloring and near ‘bout your height.’ He took a big swallow of his iced tea and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Say, we haven’t been introduced. Name’s Chuck.’
‘I’m Ashley and this is Brad.’
‘Y’all are from up North?’
‘Yes,’ said Ashley. ‘We’re visiting. It’s lovely here in the country, so quiet and peaceful. And it’s very kind of you to invite us in for iced tea.’ Nervousness made her talkative. ‘People are so friendly down here, not like where we live. We hardly know our neighbors.’ She prayed he would not ask what had brought her visiting South Carolina and why she was over at his farm cutting wood for Leroy’s father and hated herself for thinking these things.
‘We pride ourselves on our Southern hospitality,’ said Chuck.
‘We’ve noticed that. Even though we haven’t been here very long.’
She wished Brad would step in and say something. She took another sip of her iced tea and put her glass down on the countertop. The clear amber liquid glowed in the sunlight slanting through the kitchen window. The tea was so sweet she did not know how she would be able to drink it all, beads of condensation rolled down the side of the glass and spread across the counter top.
‘This is a fine farm,’ said Brad. ‘How long have you lived here?’
Ashley looked at him gratefully. The color had come back to his cheeks.
‘All my life,’ said Chuck proudly. ‘This land belonged to my daddy and to his daddy ‘fore that, all the way back to the Civil War.’ As he said this he reached into his pocket and drew out a packet of chewing tobacco. He wadded a fresh lump between his fingers, tucked it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. ‘The War of Northern Aggression is what my granddaddy called it. Not that popular of a topic round these parts.’
Ashley decided to ignore his last remarks. ‘That’s a long time,’ she said. ‘To call a place home, I mean.’ She stood up. She felt more uneasy than ever about being in this man’s kitchen. She was glad Leroy was not there, although perhaps they would not even have been invited in if he was. Then she told herself not to be silly and to stop imagining things. Still, she wanted to get back outside. ‘We mustn’t take up any more of your time,’ she said.
‘What’s your hurry? Why, you haven’t even finished your iced tea.’
Ashley picked up her glass and began to drink.
‘Well now,’ said Chuck, leaning in close to Brad. The wad of tobacco bulged in his cheek like a growth. ‘And how long have you all been married?’
Some of Ashley’s iced tea almost went down the wrong way and she stifled a cough.
‘What?’ said Brad.
‘You and the little lady here, I see the ring on her finger. How long have you all been hitched up?’
‘We’re not married,’ said Brad.
‘Ya’ll aren’t married?’
‘No. We’re just friends. She’s married to Leroy.’
Ashley wanted to jump off her stool and grab Brad by the arm, tear off his bandage and gag him with it.
‘Leroy. You met him already. He’s gone to drop off the load of wood.’
There was a silence while Chuck worked things out. He looked first at Ashley and then at Brad and then back at Ashley. She could see in his eyes the struggle to come to terms with this information, and a sort of puzzlement as though he had been presented with an impossible problem to solve and one which would not even fit into the world as he knew it. It was clear that this had never been the result of his assessment of the relationship between the three of them.
‘He’s your husband?’ he asked at last.
‘Yes,’ said Ashley.
And then the expression in Chuck’s eyes changed completely and he looked at her as if she was a filthy creature, a diseased animal, and she knew that he hated her as completely and as finally as anyone could hate another person and looking into his eyes she felt afraid. ‘Right,’ she said, and put down her half empty glass of iced tea, and hoped her eyes did not show the fear she felt. She kept her back straight as she walked to the door. Even though she knew there was no immediate danger – surely this man would not try anything while Brad was there – this did not stop her heart from beating painfully hard inside her chest, and her legs were shaking. It seemed to take her forever to get to the door. She had crossed the yard and reached the pine tree before Brad caught up with her.
‘What’s wrong? Why did you run out of there like that?’
She turned to face him and hoped he would not say she was imagining things. ‘Didn’t you see the way he looked at me?’ she asked. ‘He hates me because I’m married to a black man.’
The saw was lying on the ground where Brad had left it. Beside it were several small piles of sawdust and the cut off branch of the pine tree, now oozing sap from its centre, and the file Brad had used to sharpen the saw, and beside it the gloves Chuck had lent to Ashley. Logs were scattered around. Across the yard, on the hood of the car, a tortoiseshell cat lay sunning itself, lazily licking its front paws.
Brad stared at her. She couldn’t decide if he believed her or if he thought she was crazy. ‘Leroy will be back soon,’ he said, after a while. ‘Are you going to tell him what happened?’
‘I don’t know,’ she heard herself say. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to tell him.’
Then Brad turned away, picked up the saw, and pulled the start cord, the saw roared into life. He bent and went back to the work of cutting the sawn off branch into short lengths. The buzz of the saw rose and fell as he went on cutting. Ashley sat down on a log and put her head in her hands, and felt sick. The sun shone down on her back as it had before, but now it felt dangerous instead of welcoming. She pictured Chuck, the look of hatred on his face. Bile rose in her throat. She thought of Leroy. Then she heard the truck turn in from the road and she took a deep breath and pushed away the sick feeling, stood up, shook back her hair, picked up the gloves Chuck had lent her and put them on, ready to finish the job.