A cloud of dust followed the team and wagon into the yard of the grain elevator, and I set my broom against a wall and watched the farmer maneuver the wagon up the ramp into the scale shed.
Herman Pearson was a wiry man with a face like a ferret, thin-nosed, small-chinned, with a sparse crop of graying hair. But under his bushy brows, his eyes were merry, bright with humour and kindliness.
I watched him expertly handle the team, lining them out over the scale, which was a real feat, considering that Herman had only one arm.
“I left it in France,” he’d say, patting his shoulder indulgently, as if the errant arm had had better things to do in a foreign country beyond the sea.
The wheels of the wagon settled into the cradle on the scale deck, and Herman jumped down, landing lightly. He unhitched the team, leading the horses forward.
“Let ‘er go,” he hollered, and the elevator agent activated the mechanism that would tip the wagon up and empty the grain. The golden flood cascaded through the grate, dust billowing in powdery clouds.
I stood by Herman, to see better, and it was then I noticed Herman’s crisply ironed shirt, the collar turned down neatly. The bright cotton was sprinkled liberally with dancing green teapots and smiling pineapples.
Herman caught me looking at the shirt and he grinned.
“Like it, do you? The missus sewed it. Made herself an apron to match and dresses for the girls. Lovely, eh?”
Doubt must have shown on my face, because Herman gave a hearty chuckle. “Not so sure? Yer thinkin’ a growed man shouldn’t be wearin’ duds made outta flour sacks?”
It wasn’t that exactly, for my own shirt was made from a flour sack, a tan and blue plaid, faded and well patched, used for working at the elevator or in the field. It was the jolly green teapots cavorting with the pineapples that made me smirk, disrespectfully, I fear. Not even the sight of the empty sleeve, pinned up, was going to quench the snicker I could feel welling up, relentless as the grain pouring from the wagon.
“Let me tell you somethin’, son. When I was in France, during the Great War, I seen things that would curl yer toes. My pal, Tommy Diggs, breathed in the mustard gas. Thought he was gonna cough out his insides, but no, he were spared that, gettin’ hisself shot instead, dying in the trench covered with mud, blood, and things you’d rather not hear about.”
I felt bad for Tommy Diggs, suffering from the gas, and then getting shot after all, but that was the way of war, with so many not coming home.
The horses stood patiently, heads down, glistening hides occasionally twitching, and tails flicking at flies. I wondered if Herman’s arm, holding the lines, was getting tired. A fine trail of sweat trickled down his neck into the collar of the shirt.
“The missus and me’d only been married one day before I took the train to Halifax, then sailed across the Atlantic. After the tortures I seen in them trenches, I knowed life would be mighty good if I were lucky enough to come back.”
I didn’t see what the war had to do with the cheerful green teapots on Herman’s shirt, but I knew if we stood long enough in the hazy heat, he’d tell me.
“Then I took a chunk of shrapnel in my arm. I says, Herman, it’s just an arm and I got another one. Jus’ think of poor ol’ Tommy, rottin’ in the muck. Yes, sir, I were lucky.”
“If the missus wants ter make me shirts with teapots, that’s fine. If she were to make somethin’ with waltzing purple giraffes, I’d be proud to wear it. Fact be knowed, I picked out these flour sacks myself, thinkin’ the missus’d make towels.”
Laughing gleefully at his own observation, he re-hitched the team to the emptied wagon, whorls of choking dust swirling around the horses’ hooves.
“So long, son.” Herman nodded farewell as he clattered off the scale deck, his one hand holding the lines.
I’ll admit, I was covetous of the unabashed way he confidently wore the shirt with the green teapots. A cheap sacking shirt made and worn with love, as if it were the finest linen.
Covetous and envious.
I was quite green, actually. Green as the teapots.
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