"Lice! Farley Marie Sebastian, you have lice again! If you don't stop goin' to those wetback camps and coming home with lice and ringworms, I don't know what I'm gonna do with you."
Ruth scooted Farley out of the shade and into the bright sunlight, now both of them were propped uncomfortably on the weathered steps of the small frame house. With an aggressive jerk she tilted her daughter's head downward in order to inspect the nape of her neck, she parted off sections of her thick, black hair and dug vigorously at her scalp.
"Ouch, that hurts, don't scratch so hard!"
"You're gonna think hurt! I've a good mind to shave that mop off slick, then maybe I 'd get all the nits and find the ringworms I've missed."
"Oh Mama, you wouldn't do that would you?" Farley whined, as she winced in pain. "If you cut all my hair off, I might be like Samson in the Bible. I might lose my strength and get sick or sumthin'." She automatically quoted scripture whenever she got in trouble, hoping for divine intervention. Grandpa Sebastian's constant preaching and Bible thumping had taught her that.
"Guess you know we'll have to disinfect the bedding again," Ruth moaned. "That's a lot of work and you're gonna do it this time." Forgetting her daughter's hair for the moment, she pulled up Farley's blouse and twisted her around to get a better look at her small, brown rib cage. "Let me see if that ringworm is 'bout healed. If it's not one thing to doctor on you, it's another," After a quick inspection Ruth rolled her eyes upward. "Now git in that bathtub and wash that filthy hair. I'll be in there in a minute to douse you with citronella."
Citronella burned scalps and eyes and the awful smell was always dreaded. Thank goodness it was July and school was out, because if you went to school reeking of citronella, everyone knew you had lice. It was common knowledge the first-graders had more lice than the older kids and Farley would be in the sixth grade when school started, she was far too mature for such humiliation.
All the border schools had regular lice inspections, and regardless if half the room was dismissed for the same problem, and they often were, it was still degrading to be a white kid sent home with lice. Everyone knew it was the dirty Mexicans who infected the schools with the crawling, biting parasites. To avoid the tell-tell scratching Farley devised a method of slapping at her head where it itched, but Ruth always knew anyway.
With spirit still intact, Farley shook her head to rearrange her tousled hair then headed in the direction of the newly added bathroom. A section of the back porch had recently been converted into a bathroom. The walls were thin plywood panels, and a muslin curtain served as the door. The only light was a naked forty-watt bulb with a pull-chain, which hung from an extension cord secured to an exposed beam by two bent nails. She never really liked baths, but this fancy new bathroom with the enameled tub was pure luxury compared to the old galvanized washtub placed in the kitchen floor.
Farley hung her head under the faucet and commenced to wet her long, thick hair. She scratched and dug at her scalp vigorously as the water aggravated the lice into movement. Her head itched all over now as if covered with a bonnet of stinging nettle.
"Mama! Mama! I'm ready," she yelled, and under her breath mumbled, "I'm ready for the stinky ol' citronella." She knew Ruth was in no mood for any lip.
* * *
Like the cobbler's kids going barefooted, Dalton Sebastian, carpenter, cabinetmaker and builder of fine and wonderful things, and his family lived in a dilapidated rent house with a small concrete block garage. The garage had been fabricated into a crowded shop where he and his mortgaged tools and machinery managed to work. It was a struggle to merely get by and sometimes they didn't.
For as long as Farley could remember every conversation in the Sebastian household was dominated with worrisome fretting about money, the lack of it, and/or the need of it to furnish life's necessities. Hence, with all the income problems, she was determined to earn extra money and was industrious enough to make a stab at anything. Houses were few and far between in the rural farming area; however, Farley walked or rode her bike to all the dwellings within pedaling distance, and offered to clean house or work in the yard. Lazy she wasn't. At age eleven a town job would have been hard to find, besides the old worn out '41 Ford, which Dalton worked on endlessly, was all the transportation they had. In spite of the obstacles she weighed every possibility.
Tess, or "Her Majesty", as Farley called her sister, was four years older and miserable with the family living conditions and was acutely aware of what the Sebastians didn't have. She had a job in town selling tickets at the movie-theater contributing to the bottomless family deficit. Of course, getting Tess to and from work was a constant struggle and required creative manipulation on her part. Her 'well-off' friends, Sue and Debra, each had a car and she regularly conned them into rides. Since Ruth didn't know how to drive Tess was forced to inflict her problem on Dalton, or a passing aunt or uncle from time to time.
Tess' employment at the 'movie-house' was a source of distress for Farley; and of course, for Grandpa Sebastian, movies were wantonly sinful. Tess ignored the warnings of the certain damnation visited on moviegoers, and made no bones about her motion picture addiction. Her beloved silver screen was the escape-hatch from her reality. Movie sagas furnished the fodder necessary to sustain her fantasy world. The family and even her friends considered her moody.
Farley was content with country living and rural work. Many a day, armed only with determination, she headed out to old man Franks' field behind the house to pick cotton. She was willing to tolerate the sultry combination of heat and humidity, so prevalent in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in order to work the fields. However, common labor in pressure-cooker conditions was unacceptable to Tess.
The field owner, who was always a white man, furnished the sacks; the Mexicans called him 'El Patron', each field also had a Jefe, or crew boss. El Jefe was usually a Mexican who knew how to write. He was in charge of sack distribution and the weighing and recording of pounds picked. Hopefully, she would not be given a sack infested with lice nits or ringworms, with the wide strap over the left shoulder and the opening under your right armpit, you and your sack were up-close-and-personal with any contamination it bore. At first she picked rapidly, but as the day grew hotter and the sack heavier her paced slowed down considerably.
The cotton fields teemed with bent-over, pitifully dressed, sweaty pickers, all of them Wetbacks from Mexico. Farley, small and thin for her age, was brown as a coffee bean and blended right in with the Mexican kids scattered up and down the rows. Between hanging out on the banks of the irrigation canal and fishing in the Gulf with her daddy, clad only in a swimsuit, she was beyond tan, she was plum black. At least that's what Dalton's sister, Aunt Agnes, Farley's greatest critic, always told her. Her young niece's coloring perplexed Agnes for some reason. Farley never quite understood why it was such a big deal to her Aunt that the entire family was fair, and blonde except her, nor did she grasp the slur, 'there must have been a Meskin in the wood-pile'.
Picking cotton was a less than a perfect way to make money, it was backbreaking work, even for a young back. By midday conditions were about as miserable as it gets, for starters gnats, and other biting things, swarmed the perspiring, smelly pickers. About then Farley was sure her sack weighed at least a hundred pounds and never failed to be disappointed when she dragged her burden to the scales. With a smirk El Jefe would dutifully jotted down her measly twenty or so pounds. Pickers were paid by the pound, a dollar seventy-five, to two dollars per hundredweight. The pay fluctuated depending on the threat of rain. Before her mother graduated to a packing-shed job, she was known to be a fast picker. She often picked over a hundred pounds a day, and a two-dollar day was considered really good.
Everything about picking cotton was distasteful; the swarming gnats transmitted 'sore-eyes', a crusty eye infection, from person to person. The water-can, located at the cotton trailer by the scales, had one dipper carelessly submerged in not so cool water. The community-drinking situation offered equal opportunity for everyone to pass on, or get, whatever contagious malady any of them had. Ruth never failed to warn Farley about the nasty dipper, but she used it anyway. Aunt Agnes told horror stories about infantile paralysis, or polio as most people called it, and tuberculosis, declaring that Farley would surely bring some affliction into the entire family. Fortunately, they didn't see Aunt Agnes very often.
If "El Jefe" wasn't looking Farley and the dirty camp waifs tumbled around in the big, wooden, cotton trailer loaded with freshly picked cotton. Farley caught every transmittable infection they had, and only by the grace of God did not contract something as horrible as polio. Ruth was constantly treating her for ringworms, sore-eyes and lice. 'Charming child, Tess would say, in a snide tone in reference to her sister's lifestyle.
* * *
There had to be a better way to make money. Farley came up with the idea that she could collect old clothes and wares and sell them to the Wets hidden in the orchard camps. To procure her inventory she devised a word of mouth plan, to contact friends and relatives, about needing old clothes, shoes, and other used items. When she shared her idea with her mother, Ruth was less than enthusiastic. Farley planned to call her venture El Tienda de Ropa, translated it would be The Store of Clothes, actually it was tienda de ropa usada, meaning store of used clothes. As Farley lapsed in and out of Spanish Ruth declared that she looked and sounded just like the Meskins, but other than that she paid little or no attention to her daughter's brainstorm.
Laundry day Ruth was held captive to the rub-board and washtubs, the perfect time for Farley to approach her mother with this great idea again, and see if the Sebastians had anything they didn't need. Farley watched Ruth as she pressed her waist against the cabinet and rubbed away at the dirty clothes. The common housedress did not hide her mother's well-shaped body, which spited the six pregnancies it had endured. Farley thought her mother to be really pretty, except for her corrugated brow and solemn, almost sour, look. Her vinegar countenance was not at all softened by her blonde hair, pulled back at the nape of her neck and fastened with a clip. Ruth's blue eyes were intense and melancholy. Farley sometimes wondered, but didn't dare ask, if perhaps her mother had a happier face before losing four babies. She also speculated what it would have been like to have two brothers and two more sisters. Money was so scarce; Farley felt it might have been even harder on her mother if all of the babies had lived, cruel as that thought was. The only information she had about her dead brothers and sisters was what she had gathered from Maw Sebastian, or overheard when the adults spoke of it.
Through the rasp of shirt buttons scraping the rippled tin of the rub-board, Farley began her pitch. Ruth did listen once more to Farley's "tienda de ropa" idea, but still with only mild interest. Farley explained that they could ask Sue and Debra, Aunt Agnes and Uncle Dan and perhaps even her daddy might have some old pants or shoes he had worn out. Farley knew better than to ask Ruth if she had something she didn't need. Ruth neither encouraged nor discouraged her enthusiastic daughter.
* * *
Just in case her tienda de ropa deal fell through, Farley continued to pick cotton in the fields day after day tallying up the pounds, awaiting the big payday. However, all the while she did as she had proclaimed, and spread the word about her needs. Within a week, she had a collection of old clothes, which she checked for tears, missing buttons or stains, assessing their value. She made little paper tags, and with a needle and thread tacked a price tag to each garment.
* * *
Somehow the entire family managed to supper together, this was unusual because of work schedules. Ruth was working the night shift at the packing shed, and Tess had early afternoon at the theatre. Ruth regularly brought home an abundance of free vegetables, culls from work. Farley was famished and fried pork chops were her favorite. There was plenty of cornbread, vegetables and gravy but only three pork chops for four people. Ruth claimed; that she didn't want any pork, it was too rich. Life in the Sebastian family brimmed with little unnoticed sacrifices Ruth made on a regular basis.
"Daddy, I've got enough clothes to start my tienda de ropa. Will you cut me a board so I can paint a sign to put in the yard?" Talking around a mouth full of food she added, " Also, do ya think you could rig me a board with a rope on it so I can use it to put a box on, that way I could drag it to los campos? You know, sort of a portable store?"
"Oh Mama, for God's sake can't y'all do something about Farley and her collectin' old clothes like a rag merchant? It's down right embarrassin'. Please don't let her put a sign in the yard, we'll look like white trash!" Tess was genuinely distressed.
"Shut-up Tess, you'll see when I make lots of money, you'll see. You're just jealous you didn't think of it first."
Tess hated it when Farley used her baby sister whine to make a point.
"Girls, quit squabbling. Farley don't tell your sister to shut-up, it isn't Christian, and Tess, you watch your manners about your sister," Ruth said, lowly but firmly.
Demonstrating her displeasure, Tess pushed her plate back, leaving a plate full of food and a good bit of meat on the pork chop bone. Without permission, to leave the table, she stomped off towards the bedroom.
Dalton slapped the table with the palm of his hand, "Sister, don't drag off poutin', ya hear. And we are not white trash, your highness, just git off your high horse!" He barked.
It was both basic and primal to bring ample substance into his cave, and Dalton hated the implication that he wasn't adequately providing. He had truly mastered the art of masking his insecurities by responding with what sounded like anger, and none of them wished to stir his anger. Christian or not, if Dalton Sebastian lost control of his ugly temper it was not pleasant. He was as stout as a mule and if he unleashed his anger it was something to behold. Or as Uncle Buz always put it, 'If Dalton got mad enough he could tear up a steel ball, or an iron jackass.' It mattered not that he stood no more than five-feet-ten, and weighed a lean hundred and sixty pounds; he was solid, wiry muscle. His shoulders were so broad and his hips so small the measurements seemed out of proportion. Invariably when buying his work shirts and khaki pants, the clerks questioned Ruth whether the clothing could be for the same man with such a vast difference in the shirt and pant size. Dalton's countenance was stern like his father's and he could cut steel with just the right glance from his gray-blue eyes. When he clamped his jaws tightly the slight cleft in his chin became more evident. Oddly, no one else in his family had the chin dimple, nor did either of his girls. His appearance had been compared to a young actor named Kirk Douglas. The comparison meant nothing to Dalton since he rarely went to movies. He often sang or whistled while he worked and everyone claimed his melodious voice rivaled, and even sounded much like, Bing Crosby's. He did know about Crosby, and loved the singer's music. Dalton had a great sense of humor, and could tell a joke better than Red Skelton, that is if he wasn't on his preaching soapbox. It was Tess who had brought the movie and entertainment mentality and comparisons into the Sebastian family, and concocted that her father resembled Douglas, sang like Crosby, and could be funny like Skelton. Dalton thought it all foolishness.
Predictably, a reprimand followed the table scene. Dalton lapsed into one of his familiar sermons, sounding a great deal like his father, declaring that only the good Lord knew what was best for folks. He never failed to reiterate, that Sis just didn't understand these hard times. Like a tent-evangelist his voice changed according to the point he was making. The Lord would provide if they were good Christians and He, meaning the Lord, would take care of them if they lived like the children of God. Dalton recited scripture often, and redundantly quoted the one about it being 'harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle'. Tess invariably cringed at that particular bit of scripture; and had rather hear fingernails scratched across a chalkboard. Farley, on the other hand, never questioned scripture.