1st Place Winner in Fiction: “His Brother’s Pants”

Posted on: August 13, 2012
1 comment so far

 
 
By Beth Iliff
 
 

The twelve-year-old boy struggled into his jacket as he jumped down the stairs of the old school bus-turned-camper. He rubbed the sleep out of his blue eyes. Then he looked around the dusty farm camp in amazement.
 
 

“Holy cow! Jerry! Jimmy! Ya gotta come see this,” he called to his two little brothers. “Last night there were only two tents and now there’s gotta be fifty!”
 
 
He heard his brothers thumping and giggling in the bus as they got dressed. With one hand, Ma handed him some steaming flapjacks on a tin plate. Her other arm cradled his baby sister. “Slow down, Gene,” she cautioned as he gobbled the food. “There’s plenty more where that came from.” She bent over the campfire and flipped another batch.
 
 
“Hey, Tom! Have ya met any of the neighbors yet?” Gene asked his older brother.
 
 
Tom was washing up some dishes on the other side of the campfire. “Naw. I saw Catherine talk to the folks in that old car.” He pointed to a dirty model “A” sedan parked near the bus. A tired-looking man and woman struggled to
a fire next to the car. Catherine, their big sister, headed through the pale dawn light toward an ancient hand pump in the center of the camp, swinging a blue enamel coffee pot.
 
 
Pop came around the side of the bus carrying an armload of wood and dumped it near the fire. “Thought you little guys were gonna sleep all day,” he teased. He tousled Gene’s dark hair and grinned at him. The little boys tumbled down the steps of the bus and wrapped themselves around Pop’s legs. Catherine returned with water for coffee and the whole family huddled around the campfire and finished breakfast. Gene was washing up his plate when he first saw the boy. He had blond hair and freckles and was peering out of the muddy back window of the model “A.”
 
 
Gene waved and the face disappeared. The boy reappeared beside the car just moments later. He had bare feet and bare shoulders, and was dressed in just a pair of overalls. Gene stuck his hands in his pockets and wandered over. “Hey. I’m Gene. We’re in that bus over there. Where ya from?”
 
 
The boy ducked his head shyly and replied, “Shane’s my name. We come from Oklahoma. Lost our farm to the Dustbowl and been headed out here to California ever since. My pa hopes to settle us in the Napa Valley with a real job.” He looked back at the fire where his parents were brewing coffee.
 
 

Gene told Shane, “My sister got married and moved to the Bay Area. That’s where we’re goin’. No jobs left back home in New Mexico, that’s for sure.”
 
 
The boys talked a while longer but parted quickly when Shane’s pa called for him. Gene thought he saw movement in the backseat of the car as he turned to go, but he couldn’t be sure.
 
 
The golden sun was just coming up over the hills when Gene’s family trudged out into the mile-long pea field. Ma had the baby strapped to her back and Pop and Tom carried the baskets. Ma and the four older children bent over the glistening pea plants.
 
 
Quick hands flew to fill the large baskets. Pop stayed busy hauling the full baskets to the farmhand at the edge of the field. He got thirty cents for each forty-pound basket of peas. The hot sun traveled in an arc across the sky and began to set before they quit working.
 
 
“I’m all tuckered out,” Gene moaned a few days later. He lounged in the sparse grass by the campfire after a supper of beans and cornbread. He and his family had dug potatoes in New Mexico and picked cotton in Arizona. It was hard work for all of them. The family rarely stayed awake past sunset.
 
 
Gene got up from the fire and yawned. He walked around the front of the bus and looked toward Shane’s camp. In the light from their fire, he thought he could make out four people – two adults and two children. But Shane hadn’t mentioned a brother or a sister. Gene wondered about it as he climbed the steps and crawled into his bunk in the bus.
 
 
The weeks in the pea camp went quickly. Soon, all of the peas had been picked and the camp stated to shrink. “Think we ought to move on?” Pop asked Ma the next morning. “I heard there’ll be cucumbers ready to pick just north of here.” Ma agreed and they decided to leave early the next morning.
 
 
Gene found himself with an unexpected day off. Pa and Tom tinkered with the bus engine in preparation for the next leg of their journey. Ma and Catherine took advantage of the chance to wash some clothes and bedding. Once he’d helped haul the wash water, Gene was free. He turned toward his friend’s camp. The two boys had managed a few short visits, but some days Gene didn’t even see Shane. Gene thought this was kind of strange since they were camped right next to each other. One time he was sure he saw a smaller boy with freckles and blond hair climb out of the old car.
 
 
Gene grinned when he saw Shane’s pa with his head under the hood of their car. His ma was washing dishes near the fire and packing them into a wooden box. Shane was kicking a rock around in the dust.
 
 
“Looks like you’re getting’ ready to pull out same as us,” Gene remarked. Shane looked startled, then smiled. “Yeah. No more peas means no more money. We’re gonna leave this morning.”
 
 
Suddenly, a loud sneeze came from the back of the car. It was Gene’s turn to look startled. Shane grabbed his friend’s arm and put his finger to his lips. “Follow me,” he whispered and they headed down the road to the shade under a large tree.
 
 
Once they were seated in the grass, Gene asked quietly. “Who’s hiding in your car?” Shane ran his hand through his coarse blond hair and began his story. “When we left Oklahoma, there were five of us – my folks, me, a baby sister, and my brother. That’s my brother in the car. The baby got sick someplace in Texas. My brother and I had an idea. Maybe if we sold something we could buy some medicine to help the baby. We don’t have much. Just the car and a few things to cook with. All we could think of selling was our clothes. I snuck into town one morning and managed to sell my brother’s pants and
both our shirts. We took the money to Pa and he cried. He went to town and got some medicine but the baby died anyway. Ever since then, we share my overalls. My brother wears ‘em one day and I wear ‘em the next. We hide out in the car wrapped in a blanket till dark.”
 
 
Gene shook his head in wonder. The boys sat in silence for a few minutes. Shane’s ma called to him and he jumped up.
 
 
“We’ll be leaving soon.” He stuck out his hand and helped Gene up. “Thanks for being my friend!” Shane called over his shoulder as he ran to help his ma load the heavy box of dishes.
 
 
Gene walked slowly back to the bus. His hands were in his pockets and his brow wrinkled in thought.
 
 

“What are you thinking so hard about?” Ma asked him. She wrung out the last of the wash and listened to the story Gene told her. “Bless their hearts!” Ma said and got up to rummage in a box under the bus. She held up an old pair of overalls that had belonged to Tom. “Was gonna save these for you,” she smiled at Gene. “But I think we both know someone who needs them more.”
 
 
She handed them to Gene and he turned to see Shane and his folks getting into the car. He jogged up beside the car and handed the overalls through the window. The car pulled away and Gene stood in the dust. Two faces grinned from the muddy back window and grew smaller and smaller, then disappeared down the road.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A SELECTION FROM OUR JUDGES’ CRITIQUE
 
This story reminded me a lot of Grapes of Wrath, one of my favorite books. I loved the flavor of the time that was infused into the plot so seamlessly. I could feel the heat of the sun and see the run-down nature of the varius homes and personalites. being described. The dialect was done beautifully, which is a very difficult thing to do.

I was surprised and pleased with the story of the second boy with no pants. We had been given subtle clues about the other person in the backseat, so it was completely fair when the denouement was announced. But there were never enough clues to paint the whole picture.

In all, it was a great tribute to a time that many of us have heard and read about, but never lived. It managed to also be a great story about resilience. It deserved a place of honor. I’m glad it received one.
 
 
This story actually evoked tears! And then at the end I found myself grinning ear to ear. What a wonderfully creative and well-crafted story. I would love to know where this idea came from, it was so original and heart-warming. I was there in that dusty field from the beginning, rubbing the sleep out of my blue eyes. The dialogue was spot-on. My favorite line was the simplest, when Shane said, “Thank you for being my friend,” before he left Gene and took off back to his camp. Throughout the entire story, I felt like I was right there, feeling emotions, curiosity, concern, and love. The author had such a way of evoking emotion, and making it real. A very gifted writer indeed, and VERY worthy of first place!
 
 
 

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One Response to “1st Place Winner in Fiction: “His Brother’s Pants””

  1. Kirby Iliff Says:

    Way to go, Ma!!! Always knew that was a great story, glad to see everyone else thought so, too! Better get crackin’ on the next one!

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