Artwork © Eric N. Peterson
Bub was a buck-tooth cowboy who taught me how to chop wood when I was six years old. He must have been sixteen and he was trying really hard to look the part. He wore a black leather belt with a brass bald eagle buckle plus cowboy boots with spurs and a hat to match. His jeans were blue and tight with a cursive, “W” on the back pocket. He wore a black-ribbed tank top under a beige shirt with shiny pearl snaps. A chain attached his belt to his wallet in his back pocket and dangled in symphony with the spurs on his boots. Each step he took made a powerful tintinnabulation like he was a prancing Clydesdale.
This was the first cowboy I ever saw in color, let alone outside of a television set. I’m certain my jaw dropped open and my eyes widened at the sight of his body which was lean and toned. He swung an axe and threw bales of hay around on his uncle’s ranch all day. His biceps formed pointed mountain peaks when he flexed which reminded me of Popeye after he ate a can of spinach and rescued his precious Olive Oyl from an oncoming train.
I took in every feature of his look including his face packed with puss-filled acne and his practically-matted, filthy-blonde hair with a trickle of black sweat streaming down his grimy cheek. He had soot in all the creases of his neck and inside of his elbows. His Adam’s apple poked out like a nose from his narrow neck. His voice, still adjusting to its lower post-puberty pitch.
I studied how he walked bow-legged with his arms cocked back like rooster wings or how he stood with his arms overlapped in front of his puffed-out chiseled chest and tapped his foot. The bottoms of his jeans were folded because he didn’t stand much taller than five foot six.
Later, when no one was watching, I practiced how he sucked snot back and hawked a clam like he was blowing a kiss. I copied the way he chugged Mt. Dew from a two-liter bottle and let out a long, barrel-belch. A feeling of liberation overwhelmed me until gram over-heard and scolded, “It’s un-lady-like to spit and burp.” She refused to see, I didn’t care one bit about being a lady.
When Bub swung the axe, the wood split in half with one chop. I’m embarrassed to think of my expression when I noticed how his jeans bulged a little under his belt buckle and I couldn’t stop staring. I probably thought I was falling in love but deep down, even if I didn’t know at the time, I wanted a body like his; strong, masculine and free.
We became fast buds. He came over daily until the full cord was chopped. He told dad jokes or stories about chasing cows. I watched him chop and stack firewood in a long neat pile along the wall of the shed. There’s no forgetting his busted, black and jagged, buck-toothed smile or how his blue eyes closed like an iris of a camera when he laughed.
He wasn’t traditionally handsome but he embodied a version of masculinity I had not yet seen in the flesh. One that gets noticed for its blood and sweat but never for its tears. This one doesn’t take advantage of little girls when no one’s watching.
I begged him to let me swing the axe but he kept insisting I would chop my leg off and my grandfather would kill him. He was hard to break but eventually he caved when I convinced him, rightfully, it wasn’t fair girls weren’t allowed to do things boys did. “I can do it. Let me show you,” I insisted!
Ultimately, he submitted and showed me how to safely split with one chop. He demonstrated the proper stance and how to hit the log towards the front edge against the grain of the tree rings.
“CRACK,” the wood replied as it split in half after a couple of tries.
By the time Gramp came out, Bub was so impressed with my quick learning abilities, he decided to admit what he had done.
“Bud, wait. Just watch. Trust me, I wouldn’t do anything to hurt your little girl but you gotta see this. Go ahead, girl, chop it like you just did for gramps to see,” Bub exclaimed with pride.
I loved how Bub believed in me. I hated how Gramp didn’t. I wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted them both to see I was not a little girl! Even if I was, so what? I could still cut wood. It’s not rocket science.
I kept my eye on the eye of the tree rings and swung with force enough to allow gravity to pitch in. “CRACK!” The sound ricocheted off the shed and echoed into the pine forest as the wood split and fell to either side of the chopping block. Gramp couldn’t believe his eyes. He didn’t know what to think.
“Are ya sure yer a girl,” he said in a demeaning tone. Bub leaned his knee to the dirt and bent over laughing. A not-so-subtle reminder. I was not playing my role. My burst of pride was crushed. My grandparents were strict about what they believed roles were for boys and girls and this was not a girl task.
“You better not say anything to your grandmother or she’ll have a conniption and don’t you dare do that again without me watching, you hear me” Gramp demanded?! “Jesus H., Bub. You bettah git outta here before I kill yah.”
t love smith (they/them) performs love poems for the residents of preservation lands and tree stands deep inside the north Atlantic woods. They write to free the child within who never had a voice. They’re poetic-prose has been published in a few local anthologies and they are currently working on their first full-length memoir.
Eric N. Peterson is from Atlanta, Ga. He’s been drawing cartoons all his life. He leans towards the absurd, imaginative, and the surreal, as that’s where all the flavor is.
This is outstanding! Thank you for sharing this piece!