A FUNNY-LOOKING CAULIFLOWER
By LeRoy Spruill

Locals from the village of Warren collided with August heat all their lives. It clung with an extra stubbornness to air thick and blurred with insects. The kind of weather that builds short tempers and angry voices. "Kind of weather," the sheriff said, "that helped bring on the killings at the Sadler farm."

Warren sits astride an intersection of a two-lane state highway and a worn out county road where they come together just six miles off I-75. "People on the interstate are going places," folks said, "but when somebody comes to our crossroads it's because they're lost or visiting kin."

That point of view changed following the deaths. Newspaper and television people had come from three states around, and stories were even printed in big cities up north. For weeks on end, curious folk eased into Warren, drank soft drinks and ate chips and candy at the BP station's general store, asked questions, and drove past the place where murder had happened, slowing to stare and point.

Locals rode by the farm, too, for the time being deciding not to visit. But since everyone in Warren knew everyone else, they talked a lot.

"Bound to happen," women said with blunt certainty. "Clarina Sadler's always been strange. Talking to herself in church. And fixing cold eyes on her husband and kids."

"Hear tell, she hates all men. All ages."

"Say there was more blood in that kitchen than you could rightly mop up."

"Satan's work, I tell you."

The men chewed toothpicks and stared wisely into the distance.

"Her husband Roland's always been an ole country boy generously in love with life, even if he does get a little noisy sometime."

"Never liked the way he patted Clarina's behind in public, though."

"You can say this without fussing--Roland worked his farm. Worked it hard and saw to it nobody ever did wrong or took what was his."

"Real proud of his five sons."

"Clarina's first one, little Nate, was born seven months after they was married."

"Sometimes that happens."

After the killings, when thick autumn heat departed and the coldest winter in memory had come, locals stopped talking to outsiders and quit following the newspaper stories. Why bother speculating anymore? They knew the whole story.

Almost, anyway, most agreed, because no one anywhere, not even the sheriff, was inside Clarina Sadler's head on that hot autumn day. She'd been working in the kitchen. . .

Clarina peered into pots simmering on the stove, a distant part of her mind aware of sounds from outside. An engine sputtered. Men's voices. A cow groaned and a dog barked. The noises shifted without meaning between thoughts knotting inside her head. It ain't right to be cooking full blown meals at noon for five boy young'uns, two farmhands, and a husband with nothing on his mind 'cept food and foraging around my parts. I'm glad something inside me broke so I can't have any more kids. I hate the sight of boy faces gawking at me like I was a pantry full of goodies. I've had enough. More'n enough. I want. . .hell, I don't know what I want.

Stringy veins and reddened skin made her hands and wrists look like rhubarb stalks. Gripping a broad blade knife, she began chopping a brown-stained cauliflower. Shadowy movement on the edge of Clarina's vision became Nate, her eight-year-old son standing close. Her first.

She ground her teeth together and pushed away filaments of thought about rightness and wrongness and about a man-God's punishing hands. Somewhere from deep inside, a hollow make-believe laugh sounded. Roland ain't even Nate's real daddy, but that don't matter anymore--Nate's the pregnancy that got me married. Now he's worse'n all the boys because he's had more time learning how to be a man.

She brushed at him with the knife. "Move away from me, boy."

He stayed where he was, watery eyes gliding up and down with the motion of her knife blade. Damn those green eyes. Pretty. though, when they work together and focus right. When they're not working together they sorta move around you like he was peeping inside to see the truth of himself.

Her hand moved faster until the cauliflower was chopped into tiny lumps. Quickly, she pulled another one close and glanced at Nate. Boy's got ugly freckles but no eyelashes at all. Chop--chop--chop. Damn his white skin and those smeary freckles. His face looks like this stained old cauliflower.

"Mama," Nate said.

She shut her eyes. "Haven't got time for you."

Outside, a dog barked hysterically. Clarina gazed into the barnyard and watched their Collie pursue a squirrel into the field. Even a dog has dreams, she thought. Where'd mine get to?

"Dip your dreams in honey," her mama had once said. "Make 'em nice and sweet."

"Sweet," Clarina murmured. Whenever she tried to see her dreams the way she did as a teenager, the images flickered and turned to brown chips streaked with slashes of black, like crumpled pecan husks.

Because of men.

The dreams flared for a moment. She saw her family, tenant farmers for owners who lived on the coast. Daddy a good man who died too young in a tractor accident. Mama not one to be a widow for too long. Only a couple of weeks passed before men started prowling around her.

"Damn," Clarina muttered. Blood spotted her cutting board and soaked into some of the cauliflower.

What's the matter, Mama?" her son asked.

"Cut my finger."

"Mama. . ."

"Just shut up, Nate." She ran cold water over tiny ribbon of blood, licked it, and put on a Band-aid. Hurrying, she rinsed the chopped cauliflower and washed the cutting board. She began chopping a new cauliflower as her thoughts clustered around images of blood.

And around herself at seventeen. . .the night she'd pedaled her bike to the gas station's general store and stood by the magazine rack scanning a Vanity Fair, making a Diet Pepsi stretch long as she could. Same night the goodlooking stranger drove up and started pumping gas into a deep burgundy van with smoky windows and glistening chrome. She'd stepped outside and talked with him. Liked his easy smile and shaggy hair touching his shirt collar.

Liked him enough to go for a ride in that van.

Clarina stopped chopping the cauliflower and shut her eyes tight the same way she'd done that night when the shaggy-haired man started his messing around. She'd squeezed her eyelids until there were purple and gold colors floating in the darkness back there.

"That way," she said aloud in the kitchen, "I couldn't see God staring down at me, and I couldn't see the sin shining in his green eyes that kept 1ooking everywhere except straight ahead."

"What'd you say, Mama?" Nate asked.

She glanced into her son's unfocused green eyes and gripped the knife. "Boy, you'd better get away from me while I'm working."

"Food ready yet?" her husband yelled from outside.

She stared at the simmering pots and rubbed her forehead. "Five-ten minutes."

For a moment, his voice warmed her, touching some forgotten place where they had shared a tenderness and sampled what love might be. Clarina searched for such a memory and found only charred pieces hidden beneath skinned knuckles and nighttime noises and hand-done laundry. Found only the sweaty night she first had sex with Roland, parked under the railroad trestle when she was almost two months past due.

Clarina searched for the ghost sounds of the last time she had laughed. She certainly hadn't laughed at her and Roland's wedding a week after that night under the trestle. Or at the party where he ate too much barbecue and later smeared sauce over her in places where sauce was never intended to be. Not when Mama left town with a John Deere salesman before the wedding cake got stale.

I think Roland loved me once, she thought. Maybe he still does, in his own way. But he's a man and I've got all I'm going to get. God, what men turn into.

Her body tensed. No, men don't turn into anything! They already are what they are. They're born that way. When they're boys, they spend all their time studying menfolk to learn how to work hard without getting much done. How to pee farthest, eat the most, drink more. Mostly, they learn what to do with that thing they've all got. If anybody wants to fix men, best way is to get at 'em when they're boys.

Her son's voice scattered the memories. "Funny-looking collyflar, Mama."

Chop-chop-chop. "You really think the cauliflower is funny-looking? Well, you ain't got the sense of a turkey standing open-mouthed in a rain storm." Chop-chop-chop. "Cauliflower looks funny because you didn't do what I told you to do in the garden. I said when they was coming to size you was to fold the leafs around the white pulp." Chop-chop-chop. "That's easy enough, ain't it? Fold the leafs around the white pulp."

"I guess so, Mama."

"You guess so. But you didn't do it." Her head pounding. Clarina held up a chunk of cauliflower and shook it. "See that, boy? It's yellowy and brown, not white. Sun got to it 'cause the leaf wasn't folded around the white pulp. Now it looks dead."

"Dead, Mama?"

"Somebody shoulda folded some leafs around you when you came to size." And her voice rose. "Get away from me. Do it right now! Get away!"

Green eyes swirled, receded, and turned hazel.

"What'd I do, Mama?"

"Not what you did--it's what you're gonna be."

"What's that, mama?"

"A man."

The knife trembling, she smelled sacks of seed in the barn and tasted the general store's beautiful cinnamon rolls when the bakery truck b rought them fresh. Now, her son's glistening green eyes looked at her and past her. Clarina screamed. "Damn you. boy. You've got splotchy eyes just like your real daddy."

"Nate's my son," Roland yelled from the kitchen's doorway.

Clarina glared sightlessly for a second, then she giggled. "I don't even know his real daddy's name." And, trapping sunlight, her knifeblade stabbed toward Nate.

"Clarina," Roland bellowed.

Later in the day. when the village knew, shock was harvested in Warren as if it were a bountiful crop. Clarina was a strange one, they said. Satan's work, yessir. Roland was always a mite boisterous.

Nobody wanted to be interviewed but dozens of longtime residents were quoted in the rush of stories that followed. Now, long afterwards, late at night when the air is still, you can hear Roland's voice booming out Clarina's name, the sound drifting across the fields from out there. Listen real close and you can hear the screams, some say.

But, then, people tend to exaggerate somewhat, although truer words were never uttered--no one was inside Clarina Sadler's head on that gruesomely hot autumn day. Or in her husband's head, either, because nobody ever understood why Roland killed his wife and their oldest son.


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