The Best of Clapboard House Anthology Volume 12 "Bunk Beds But Not Chairs"
Bunk Beds But No Chairs
We bought the bunk beds for my girls and piled them into the trailer’s back bedroom. The room was small, only a little space to stand between the beds. I think Vern—my new husband and not the girls’ daddy—wanted my girls in the back bedroom because it was the farthest from our room. Actually, the back bedroom was the farthest from all the other rooms in the trailer. The kitchen and living room were on our end, and Earl’s room—he’s my son with Vern—was next to the bathroom in the narrow hallway. I’d wanted to put Belle—my youngest daughter—in the same room with Earl, that way only the three oldest girls would have to live in such close quarters. I figured three to a room would be better than four, but Vern wouldn’t hear of it.
“It ain’t right, a boy and a girl together in the same room.”
“Earl is six and Belle’s ten,” I said. “What do you think they’re gonna do?”
“If they were brother and sister, it’d be okay.”
“They are brother and sister. They’ve got the same Mama.”
“But different fathers and different last names. Earl is a Lomax, not a Fontenot. You’re not a Fontenot anymore either. And you better not forget it.”
“How can I? That’s all you’ve been throwing up at me since I told you I was going to get the girls.”
“I will not take away from my son to give to those Coonass girls.”
“They’re my girls,” I said. “And in case you forgot, you married a Coonass.”
“I’ll provide for those girls, but I will not, I repeat, will not take from my son in order to do so.”
“Them sharing a room, how is that taking from Earl?”
“It’s taking away part of his room,” Vern said. “He’s used to having the room all to himself and he shouldn’t have to give half of it up just because their daddy did himself in.”
“This ain’t no way to teach them to be a family.”
“They ain’t family,” Vern said. “Earl is our child and he and I are your family now. Those girls are your kids from your previous family. The two may live together, but they won’t become one.”
I didn’t like Vern’s attitude towards my girls, but he was all they or I had. I was thirty-four years old, an eighth-grade dropout who married at fifteen and had no way of supporting four girls plus one boy on my own. I was born in 1943, the sixth child of twelve, and my daddy couldn’t afford to feed all of us with his job cutting timber for the sawmill, so all us kids, once we were twelve years old or so, got a job. Since I was a girl, I was hired out as a maid to families in town. The wife of the last family I worked for and lived with was a stingy schoolteacher. And this lady, though she may have been smart in books, couldn’t cook and it would have killed her to put a dirty piece of clothing in the hamper. When she came in from school, she just threw off her clothes in her bedroom, and it was my job to me to pick them up. The same was true of her two little hateful boys. Those boys, one was cross-eyed and the other freckle faced, were the meanest things on God’s earth. When Clarence, my first husband and the girls’ daddy, proposed to me, I leapt at the chance to stop cleaning the schoolteacher’s clothes and house and fighting with her two brats.
In the beginning of our marriage, Clarence didn’t drink too much and he worked hard, talked about getting his own farm, his own house, and not being a sharecropper his whole life. He was even happier once the children started coming. He was as proud as a Rhode Island Red rooster when the eldest Katie was born. Clarence would sing to her in Cajun French in the evenings when we’d sit on the front porch; I’d shell peas or sew clothes and he would have maybe a beer, sometimes two. My daddy didn’t drink or allow alcohol in the house, so I wasn’t used to seeing anyone drink. But one or two beers made Clarence happy, made his songs come out louder, which made Katie giggle.
The rice crop was good then. The price of rice was never high, but at that time it remained constant, and with farming, that is really all you can ask for. The following year I had Jill, and though I didn’t want to admit it then, I noticed Clarence was a little disappointed when we had another daughter. He wanted a son, a Clarence Junior, and I wished I could have given him one. That didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to have another daughter. I loved Jill just as much as I did Katie. I didn’t even mind the extra work. I developed a routine: at night when the babies and Clarence were asleep, I’d clean the house and mend their clothes; during the daytime I washed clothes and tended my garden. I grew nearly all of our vegetables and fruits, fed the chickens, pigs, and milked our one cow, an old gentle Jersey. That was my routine, my life, and I became good at it.