BUNK BEDS BUT NOT CHAIRS by Hardy Jones
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 Bell – 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 Bell’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.
Clarence’s routine revolved around the rice fields, planting, flooding, making sure levees didn’t break, and repairing them when they did. After eating breakfast, he’d leave early in the morning for the fields, sometimes he came in for lunch, and during the harvest I took lunch to him. But Clarence got to where he never ate dinner with the babies and me. Instead, he’d come in, take a shower, then take the truck, the only vehicle we had, and go into town, which was a twenty-minute drive. He’d leave me stranded on the farm, which was hid back in the marsh, surrounded by swamp on three sides, with the babies and no way of taking them into town if something happened. And we didn’t have a phone either so in case of an emergency, I couldn’t call anyone. And I couldn’t call anyone and talk just to hear another person’s voice.
That’s when Clarence’s drinking worsened. He’d come home late, usually around midnight, when I was up scrubbing the wood floors or making and mending clothes, and he’d be drunk. But not a happy drunk. That was when his routine, his life, began to wear him down. He no longer talked of buying his own house, his own land; he became content to be a sharecropper, to live in debt, to live in another’s house, to farm another’s land. His farming worsened too. The crop’s yield dropped from year to year, not much, but a steady decline. By the time Mandy came along, we owed so much to Mr. Meyers the landowner that I knew we’d be stuck in Petite Pecan, Louisiana for the rest of our lives.
Mandy being another girl didn’t make Clarence happy. I’d prayed, after I found out I was pregnant again, for a boy. To go to church and the grocery store was the only time Clarence let me take the truck, and when I took the kids to Mass I stayed an extra five minutes and lit a candle and offered it to Our Mother the Virgin; I figured if anyone knew how important the birth of a son could be, it’d be her. And although Mandy was as tough as a boy, no son came.
Two months after Mandy’s birth, Clarence was working on the tractor and it fell on his leg, crushing it. That was when the doctor prescribed him Valium, and Clarence loved those pills, made sure the bottle was filled every month.
Until then, Clarence had hit me a few times, but after he hurt himself, the violence became regular – as if by hitting me, he could end the frustration of his life. But my life was no better; only I couldn’t drive into town and drink my miseries away. The farm became worse, high yields were rare and debt the norm. If it hadn’t been for my garden and my making clothes for all of us, we would have gone hungry and naked. Clarence’s drinking also worsened and I was glad that for the next two years I did not become pregnant. After having three girls in four years, I didn’t know when the children would stop. But with Clarence’s bad leg and drinking and Valium use, sex was more difficult for him. He wouldn’t admit it, but many nights he drank himself into not performing. He’d want to, and he’d curse me when he couldn’t get a hard-on, saying it was my fault because I no longer turned him on, and slaps and punches followed. But as time went by he started hitting me anytime he drank or felt unhappy.
Some nights he’d come home drunk with a hard-on and wake me up roughly prying my legs apart; no kisses, no caresses, just ram it in me. “You like that old Jersey heifer in the barn,” he said, “all you good for is breeding and making milk.”
One night he came in drunk and wanted to take me, but I heard the screen door slam when he entered, so I jumped out of bed and grabbed a glass milk jug, which I’d placed near the bed just for his arrival. “Get your ass in bed and please your husband.”
My refusing Clarence only angered him and he came at me, drunk and wobbly. I darted to my right, his foot caught on the leg of the bed, he fell across it, and his head lay perfectly in front of me. I lifted the milk jug and with all my might I cracked him across the head. Glass shattered and flew all around the bedroom and blood – not too much, I was surprised – trickled from his head, staining his black hair. Between being drunk and the blow to the head, he was out. At first I thought I had killed him, and I was torn: part of me was excited if he were dead. But another part of me thought: What have I done? I’m no better than he is. I held my hand under his nose and felt warm breath. It would take more than a milk jug to kill Clarence Fontenot. But I wasn’t going to miss out on my chance to give him some payback. I ran to the kitchen and got the broom and commenced to beat him like he had me so many times before.
When I finished, I took the broom and swept up the glass. The next morning he didn’t remember the milk jug, didn’t remember the broom beating; he thought he’d gotten into a fight at the bar, and I let him believe that.
My triumphant night was short-lived. A few months later, he came in one night but he wasn’t staggering drunk. He had his balance and his strength and his temper. When I heard him come in the house, I ran out of our bedroom. That room was small and I didn’t want him to be able to corner me in there. He entered the house through the kitchen and I was in the living room, the largest room in the house, bouncing on the balls of my feet, ready to dodge and run at his first movement towards me. The wood floor creaked under his weight, and he came at me with the devil in his eyes. Though I had had three children, I was still rail thin and quick; I started to my left to fake him, then I ran to my right and down the hallway toward the bedrooms. My plan was to cut through the connecting door that lead to the kitchen, but Clarence thought the same thing, and when I turned into the kitchen, he wrestled me to the floor. His hot sour breath was above me and the cold wood floor below me. I scratched his face and kicked and screamed, but it was no use.
That night on the kitchen floor I became pregnant with Bell.
I didn’t have any physical indications, I just knew inside me. And, though I hate to admit it, I thought about getting rid of the child. What made me keep the baby was the thought that if I could only have a boy for him, things would be better. Or so I was naïve enough to believe early in my pregnancy.
I didn’t tell Clarence I was pregnant; I let him discover it on his own, and it took five months. By then my belly, though it was small and hung low, was obvious, even to his beer and pill clouded mind.
“Just like a heifer,” he said, once he figured it out. “All you do is get pregnant and have more girls.”
“I don’t get pregnant by myself you know. If you’d wear condoms…”
“Birth control ain’t natural! It’s against the Church.”
“When do you follow the Church? I’m the one brings the girls to Mass, not you. And when did the Church say a husband could beat and rape his wife?”
“I don’t beat you.”
“These bruises appear on me by acts of God?”
“I’m not beating you,” he said, “I’m keeping you in line. You don’t respect your husband.”
“You’re right. I don’t.”
He leapt at me, his fist balled ready to punch. But he stopped short, frozen, and for a second, I thought he saw himself as I saw him.
Clarence didn’t hit me that time or for the next few weeks and I thought maybe he’d changed, maybe in that moment he realized how badly he was treating me. But that was wishful thinking.
When I was eight months pregnant I felt run down all the time. I slept more, and when I slept I was dead to the world. That was why I didn’t hear Clarence come in the house. I didn’t know he was there till he shook the bed, and when I looked up he was kneeling over me and had my hands pinned to the bed.
“You ain’t having another damn daughter,” he said.
“Get off me!”
“I’ll get off you when I’m ready! You’re mine, remember?”
I thought he was going to spread my legs, but instead he balled up his fist, raised it above his head, and said: “You ain’t having this baby.”
After his punch, I screamed louder than I ever had before. I rocked my body, trying to throw him off, but my belly was too big and I had no force behind my movements. Before he could punch me again, Katie and Jill ran into our room. And Jill, always she had a shrill voice, let loose a yell that dwarfed mine. He yelled at the girls to go back to their room, but they only stood in our bedroom’s doorway crying and screaming. Clarence realized they weren’t going to quiet down or leave, so he got off me and took them back to their bedroom. I’m not sure who fell asleep first: Clarence or the girls. Either way, he didn’t come back to our room that night. Bell, thank God, was born healthy and was four months old before he hit me again. If she had been born with some type of deformity, I’d made up my mind to kill him. But I think God punished Clarence by making Bell completely in my image: tall slender frame with long legs, brown hair and eyes. I just pray she doesn’t inherit his personality.
Vern yelled and cursed but he had yet to hit me. I told myself the first time he did I’m divorcing him and taking Earl and my girls and half of Vern’s retirement. I didn’t need another man to beat on me again, and I won’t simply run away like I did from Clarence. Vern didn’t like it when I told him Clarence had killed himself and my girls were coming to stay with us, but when the time came, we bought the bunk beds. I have to give Vern credit, he didn’t spare the cost; the beds were new and quality, too.
Only problem: we didn’t buy any extra chairs for the kitchen table.
Hardy Jones’ nonfiction and fiction have appeared or is forthcoming in Miranda Literary Review, Sugar Mule, The Furnace Review, Louisiana's Living Traditions, Diamond Sky Dancer, Dark Sky Review, The Iconoclast, The Jabberwock Review, The Delta Review, and Chips'n'Cheese. In 2001 his memoir People of the Good God won a grant, and in 2002 his novel Every Bitter Thing was exhibited at the Louisiana Book Festival. He teachs English at Auburn University.