Seth III - Sammy
Copyright© 2015 by Bill Offutt
Samuel Edward Williams was born on a sultry day in July 1897. His conception and her confinement came as a bit of a surprise to his 45-year-old mother, but his father seemed to accept his wife's pregnancy and his second son's arrival as part of the normal state of things. In fact, he barely took note of the event.
Caroline, his hardworking mother loved her "bundle of joy" as another fascinating part of her endlessly interesting life, and the baby prospered and grew rapidly under her sometimes casual and often absent-minded care, chasing the chickens and rabbits and running around bare-tailed except in the coldest months.
Sammy had a slim brother named Robert who was nearly eleven when he was born and a plump sister, Lucinda, who was eight and very helpful around the small farm when she was not day-dreaming. He also had two half-brothers and a half-sister who were much older and no longer at home, people he usually saw only at funerals and weddings and at Christmastime. They were the children of his mother's first husband, his father's older brother.
Through all of his childhood and years of schooling the youngster tried to get his friends, his teachers and his family to call him 'Sam.' He failed. For reasons unfathomable, people evidently thought the youngster looked like someone who should be known as Sammy, and with very few and usually derogatory exceptions, that was what he was called. He did not like it, felt it was somehow demeaning, but he learned to accept the diminutive. Sammy was like that, he took things as they came and made the best of them. Just like his mother, said most of his relatives, slides right off his back. Later, when he worked for him, his brother-in-law did call him Sam.
The youngest member of the Williams family was nearly six feet tall by the time he enjoyed his sixteenth birthday in the summer of 1913, by then a rawboned young man with freckled cheeks, bony wrists and utterly untamable hair. He had graduated from the academic program of the county high school in Rockville, one of the few who did, and had been talking with his older brother about taking courses at a business school in nearby Washington, D.C.
He was not sure what he wanted as a career, but he was pretty positive that it was not farming or store keeping. In appearance he favored his mother's side of the family and was, many of the old folks said, the spit and image of her lanky father who had recovered from business failure to enjoy a productive old age.
Sammy remembered attending his grandfather's funeral at the white Presbyterian meetinghouse on the hill, but he could not recall what the man looked like except from the tinted picture hanging on the parlor's smoke-stained wall. He had held it up beside his ear and looked in the cloudy hall mirror, but he could not see the resemblance between the bland and blurred visage and his own tanned and serious face. Like his father, Sammy tended to be taciturn, but he was a good listener and, everyone agreed, a hard worker who seldom left a task unfinished.
His often-irascible father, now well into his sixties, had hoped his younger son would take over the old farm where he had grown up and develop the small dairy herd in which he had recently invested. Seth Williams had given up on his son Robert who had tried a half-dozen career paths before becoming a government clerk under the reasonably-new Civil Service rules.
Sammy did his chores every day and did them diligently, punctually and thoroughly, but he had no interest in farming, dairy or any other kind. He did not exactly hate it, but he knew he did not want to spend his life milking cows and shoveling manure. His mother cared for the chickens and guinea hens as well as her neat vegetable and herb gardens, but all the fields, fruit trees and the other animals, including the small herd of goats and the remnants his father's well intentioned but disastrous experiment with rabbits, were in the young man's reluctant purview. The family was eating up the remaining rabbits as quickly as possible in stew after stew. Those that had gotten loose were breeding, as was their kind's wont, and despite the wandering dogs, they forced Sammy to build a chicken-wire fence for his mother's kitchen garden.
"Shoot," Sammy said as he sat with part of that evening's newspaper on his lap, the page bent to the 'help wanted' ads, "maybe I can get a job down in Bethesda at one of those stores or in the city, but who's going to take care of the farm. Paw's got all his clubs and meetings and such. You know; his family research, his fulminating letters to the editor, and his visits to his pals up at the courthouse plus that Thursday poker game and Saturday checkers at the store. Besides the orchard's about the only thing he really cares for, that and the dratted cows, and his aches and pains seem worse every day to hear him talk."
"No," his brother said, leaning back and lifting his chair off its front legs, "he's quite anxious to make a go of the dairy business. He thinks that's the coming thing. How much do you reckon he's invested?"
"Maw still keeps the books, Robert, you know that. I get two dollars and fifty cents a week; that's all I know about money. Lord, if I wanted to take somebody for a picture show or over to Glen Echo to ride the merry-go-round or the roller coaster, I'd have to save up for a month of Sundays."
His brother laughed and let his chair down. Leaning forward and lowering his voice, he said, "They'll manage if you get a job or go back to school. Maw can hire a hand if she needs to. Plenty of men, black and white, are out there looking for work these days. Maybe Jenny and her husband can come live here and tend the place."
"Michael McPherson, a dairy farmer, oh I don't think so." Seth laughed without mirth. "Michael McPherson skirt chaser, pool player and luckless gambler; that's more his style. I doubt he's ever milked a cow much less a goat." Sammy smiled at the idea and folded his broadsheet newspaper to the sports page.
Robert nodded and fingered his neat mustache. "Fear you're right. All the more reason to get him out of Gaithersburg and away from that foul bunch of so-called friends."
"They're all richer than he is, wastrels each and ever one; that's what Paw calls 'em, wastrels; the younger sons' club. What's the word: ne're-do-wells? One's even got a car, not a Ford either, a Marmon I think, and Michael, well, he borrows a horse and goes out riding cross-country with them and some floozies, spending more than he has. I'm sure they're deeply in debt."
"Who's in debt?" asked Caroline Williams as she came from the kitchen, wiping her reddened hands on her flower-printed apron.
"Nobody, Maw," Sammy said rather sheepishly. "We're just talking, you know, chewing the fat."
"Jenny and Michael," said Robert, brushing at his upper lip. "I'm worried about him, about both of them if come right down to it."
"Don't rock on that chair," Mrs. Williams sighed. "You're right, but don't bring it up around your father. You know Jenny is the apple of his eye, and if he knew how her husband treats her, oh my, I hate to think." She sighed again and rolled her eyes, such an accustomed gesture that her sons nearly laughed.
"I'm going to put on a collar tomorrow and go look for work, down in the city," Sammy said. "That all right with you?"
His mother nodded, worry creasing her usually smooth forehead. Her hair was gray streaked at her temples but mostly tarnished silver, pushed behind her ears and knotted on the back of her head. Her age had yet to bend her and, from a distance, she looked surprisingly young, still slim and supple despite the crows' feet and deep smile lines.
"I'll get most of the chores done early," Sammy said. "You needn't worry."
"I won't. You wash good, hear, and," she cocked her head. "Think he ought to shave?" she asked Robert with a small smile.
"Nope, put some cream on his face and the cat can lick off all those whiskers." Robert rubbed his bristled chin.
Sammy reddened as his mother laughed. His father had a white beard now and again when his wife did not nag him to shave regularly and his brother sported a fine, dark moustache that tended to droop at the corners of his tight-lipped mouth, but the best Sammy could do so far was to cultivate longer sideburns that ended in a point near his cheekbone.
"As for the McPhersons, you boys should know that your father insisted on Jenny having an allowance, the same as Sammy's in fact, ten dollars a month. You needn't tell anyone about that."
"Does her husband know?" Robert asked.
"I suppose," said Mrs. Williams. "He should, shouldn't he?"
"Then it's spent in cigar stands and billiard halls," Sammy said. "If not worse places."
"It's not your business," said the young men's mother, shaking her forefinger, her voice growing strident, "neither of you. We can afford it; it's that streetcar money your father invested."
Seth Williams emerged from the kitchen, a glass of water in his hand. "Hardly fit to bathe in," he said, mostly by reflex since he had said that many times before and it was expected of him. "What's this confab, y'all plotting something out here or is this a public meeting?"
"I was telling mother that I plan to go downtown tomorrow to see if I can find a job, clerking, bookkeeping, whatever." Sammy stood and offered his father his chair.
"Uh huh," growled Mr. Williams, waving his glass of water, "and the farm, the cows, the weeds, the apples, the goats? Have you looked to that prime crabapple tree lately, got some sort of a blight?"
"That tree's okay. It's a slack time, Paw," Sammy said, "I'll do my chores and be back in time for the second milking."
"You going down the same barren road as Bobby there?" asked the man, wiping at his yellowish mustache with a forefinger.
"Government job," said Sammy, "hadn't really considered that. Thought I'd visit the bigger stores downtown, the banks, perhaps some others if I have time. There are two general stores in Bethesda now, you know."
"Banks," cried his father loudly, "you stay away from those filthy crooks." He nearly splashed the water from his glass and put his free hand atop it.
Mrs. Williams took her husband's elbow and led him back to the small office where he kept his desk and what he thought was a secret stash of whisky along with whatever was left of his weekly caramel cake. His two sons suppressed their mirth until their parents had left the room. Then Robert smacked his narrow thigh and Sammy chuckled. "By damn," he said, "he'll never forgive them will he?"
"When was that crash?" Robert asked. "Before you were born I think, and he didn't lose much, but it sure did gall him. Ninety-three, that's when it was, and the bank failed."
"It must have been hard going for a while. They foreclosed on the store, right?"
"Yes, but they all survived. They've prospered. It was a good thing the streetcar right-of-way business was still in court or he would have lost that too."
"Still, it must have been rough as a cob. He gets red in the face every time you say bank." Sammy refolded his newspaper. "Well, him and Uncle Luke, they did have it rough. It wasn't easy back then."
Robert nodded. "You might file an application for a civil service job while you're in town; take that basic clerk test; can't hurt. I heard Printing and Engraving was hiring."
"I'll think about it. When are we going to see your sweet Gloria again? Haven't seen any sparks flying about?"
His brother looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Or is it her little sister you're interested in?"
"Who? Nancy? Lord, what is she, twelve?"
"She's just a year younger than you are, and you very well know it since she was a grade behind you in school. Didn't you ride the trolley out to Rockville with her all last winter?"
Sammy smiled and thought about the blue-eyed blonde with the funny pug nose, wonderful dimples, long legs and gold-rimmed glasses. "Well, she usually does smell good."
"The Fergusons, all of them, are coming to dinner this Sunday, my boy," said Robert, "and Miss Gloria Roberta Ferguson and I are going to have an announcement, if you must know, smarty-pants."
"Hot damn," said Sammy, clapping his hands, "a shotgun wedding. I'm not one bit surprised."
Robert grimaced and went back to reading his part of the newspaper, flapping the pages. "Very funny," he said, crossing his legs. "Very funny indeed."
Sammy looked across the room, bothered by his brother's reaction. He wondered if he had put his foot in it again. Could the girl really be pregnant? Robert had been courting her off and on for two years, quite strenuously in recent months. He leaned back, tossed his part of the newspaper toward his brother's feet and turned his mind to Nancy Ferguson who by that spring had been jiggling in a most interesting manner when she walked down the high school steps in her long, tight skirt and high-buttoned shoes.