Sue Weaver Dunlap
Step-Mama’s Butcher Knife
Weaver kids, all hungry all the time, especially since their daddy was blacklisted for leading the wildcat textile strike in Knoxville in 1934. They went to bed hungry every night, and it was the second son, Kyle, who fretted the most about it. Shortly after their mama died in 1937 in childbirth, Kyle and his brother and sisters were taken away to live in an orphanage, even though their daddy was still living. Kyle never could sleep much, awake listening to the hunger whines of his baby sisters against the low whistles of the trains as they slowed coming and going through town, the coal suet drifting through the open windows. Most nights, he would sneak down the back stairs into the kitchen, longing to open the door and run into the black, through the alleys down to the station, maybe catch a train to his Grandpa Goode’s place, anywhere away from tending his brother and sisters. Instead, their stomachs hollered for comfort, and he searched the cabinets for brown sugar and a clean rag. Kyle was good at making a sweet sugar teat. He then slipped into where his sisters fretted, stood over their cribs, and rubbed their gums until they slept.
Kyle learned early, even before his mama Etha died, how to scavenge for food, stitch their clothes, and catch Daddy’s hand when he was drunk and mean. Yes, they all knew hunger when they came to live in this shotgun house on Avenue A with a massive wood stove looming against the back wall and a solid pine table in the center, benches on either side, when Daddy brought them a step-mama in 1938.
Kyle sat beside our brother Clarence and stared at his new step-mama Lizzie slicing potatoes into the oversized iron pan, her small frame in sharp contrast to her large hands working the butcher knife. Grease sizzled in the pan, and the smell of onion covered their hair, as they all worked on homework and waited, the girls across from him, their backs to the front door.
Daddy was late tonight. Maybe work that day. Maybe some pork chops to add to a meager supper. Maybe not. Maybe work that day. Maybe drunk. His step-mama stoked more wood into the stove, her heat-flamed face firmly set. Not a single head moved when the front door slammed, and Daddy hollered, “Lizzie, what’s for supper.” She turned around, one hand propped on her hip, the other clutching the butcher knife. Kyle looked up just as the knife cut the air between him and Clarence and past his sisters. It dug into the wall inches from Daddy’s ear, echoing across our supper. Their step-mama fainted, the thud of her slight body catching the last twang of the butcher knife reverberating in the wall.
Sue Weaver Dunlap grew up in rural Knox County, Tennessee. She now lives deep in the Southern Appalachian Mountains near Walland, Tennessee, where she and her husband live on and work a mountain cattle farm. Here, among wildlife, pets, and Angus cattle, she writes poetry, fiction, and memoir. Her poems have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Appalachian Journal, Anthology of Appalachian Writers and Southern Poetry Anthology, among other anthologies and journals. Her chapbook The Story Tender was released by Finishing Line Press in 2014, and her full collection of poetry entitled Knead is forthcoming from Main Street Rag in 2016.