Sleeping on Peanuts
Janelle Meraz Hooper
Not all of us were born with a silver spoon in our mouths…
Oklahoma, 1950…The old converted green garden shed at the back of Hal’s lot looked like most of the others in the neighborhood except that his was the only one that had a big picture window on the front. Inside, the unfinished walls exposed two by four framing. The floor was cement. A fine coating of sawdust from the artisan’s fiddle-making settled on the glass and sparkled in the sun. Dust motes suspended in the air moved softly with the air currents; they seemed to dance to the country music from Hal’s old radio with a vintage wood casing. Other than a little sawdust on the window and work bench, the inside of the workspace was clean and uncluttered.
Hal’s masterpieces started out as fine spruce and maple woods that had been aged for ten years. Fiddles in various stages of completion were hung, clothesline fashion, across the width of the glass window. Each section of the instruments was carved and sanded on a workbench underneath the window and assembled with the love and care of a master.
The rest of the shop was equally as simple as the workbench. There were a few tools on a shelf, a stool, and a big burlap sack of green peanuts sat on the floor in the corner of the room. Hal kept the peanuts for the grandchildren and their friends to snack on during their regular visits to his shop. On their way out to feed the ducks in the pond, they filled their pockets with the goober peas to eat on their way.
On school days, Hal filled his coffee cup and walked across the yard to his little workshop by six o’clock each morning in case the troubled teenager in the neighborhood spent the night in his shed. This morning was like too many others. The fiddle-maker found the boy sound asleep, curled up on top of the peanut sack, covered with an old afghan.
Hal gently shook the young man to wake him. “Time to get up, Tom,” he said softly. Take Whistle and go on up to the house and get a hot waffle, clean up, and do your homework. When you’re ready, I’ll drop you off at school.”
“Thanks, Mr. Phillips.”
Tom turned to go out the door, carrying the cat over his shoulder. Hal noticed Tom’s face and said, “Looks like you might be getting a shiner on that eye. Ask Mrs. P. if she has some ice to put on it. Might help some.”
Tom nodded. He knew Mrs. P would also have a clean change of clothes for him to put on after his shower. His alcoholic father kept his own family in such an uproar no one even noticed Tom seldom dressed at home. They didn’t even notice he didn’t sleep there many nights. He didn’t know why his father was always so angry with him but he was grateful that his anger never spilled onto his little sisters. Clueless in their little beds, they slept soundly through their dad’s drunken rages. He never knew where his mother was during those nights. He only knew she wasn’t there protecting him. He guessed she was cowering in his sisters’ room.
Taking refuge with the Phillips wasn’t the best solution to Tom’s problem but it was his choice to avoid a legal confrontation that could end up separating him from his lifelong friends and insert him into a strange family where he might not fit in. Worse, he might have to change schools.
Most nights, Tom slept on the Phillip’s couch. But if his father became abusive late at night he didn’t wake them; he went to the shed and crawled on top of the peanuts to sleep next to Whistle. The night’s sleep he sometimes got on top of the bag of peanuts wasn’t fancy, but it was safe. No one in his family seemed to care or wonder where he went.
Just a few more months. Then he’d graduate and be on his way. He didn’t know exactly where yet, but he and Mr. P had been talking about it in the afternoons after school. His grades were good and Mr. P. had promised to help him get started. The only thing they’d decided for sure was that—as long as his father was around—he needed to go far, far away from his hometown. Wherever he went, it would be better than where he was now. And once he left home for good, he’d never go back. But for now he wouldn’t think about it…he had homework to do…and he and Whistle had waffles waiting for them in Mrs. Phillip’s kitchen…
Several years later, Tom, his school’s valedictorian, would stand in front of his college graduation class and explain how he was standing where he was because of a fiddle, a cat named Whistle, and a burlap sack full of green peanuts. Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were in the front row.
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Note: All of the characters in this story are fictional. The fiddles and green peanuts (goober peas) were real. I grew up near peanut farms and many of us had a taste for green peanuts. I admit it’s a developed taste, but they are healthy: no oil, no salt! (Please be aware that some people are allergic to peanuts in any form.) JMH