AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
A novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
BRUCE AND CRAZY JANE
The incident with Bob Smith occupied the next few days. After the event nobody said any more about it, but it lay just beneath the surface. Jake wasn’t sure quite how to relate to his little brother who had held his own with the local bully. Charlotte showed disgust at her animal brother. Gwen was my nurse. Daddy didn’t mention it, but I saw an odd look in my mama’s eyes the next morning, and I was sure daddy had told her that I had held my own against a bigger, older boy. I suppose daddy might have been conflicted by the whole thing. He took seriously the Christian mandates so, on the one hand, he would have felt that a Christian should turn the other cheek, but on the other he would have been proud that his son had acquitted himself well.“Let me look at your face,” mama said after breakfast.
She stood me beside the kitchen sink, in the light. Gwen was beside her, watching as mom touched and pressed my face and nose.
“I don’t think it’s broken.”
She gave it another little wiggle. I gritted my teeth. She released my nose and stood there, a sad look in her eyes.
“Billy, Billy,” she said.
The hollowness in her tone touched me.
“I’m sorry mama,” I said.
She shook her head. “Why must you always be getting into fights? I just don’t understand.”
“He wouldn’t let me walk away, mama. I wanted to. He wouldn’t let me.”
“It seems that nobody ever lets you walk away, Billy.”
She shook her head and walked to the other side of the room. Gwen came up and leaned in close to me. I instinctively pulled back from my sister but my back was against the sink.
“Give her a hug,” she whispered.
She pulled back and cut her eyes toward mom. I held her eyes and she nodded. I went to mama. She didn’t want to look at me. She resisted when I tried to hug her and that hurt. I didn’t force it.
“I’m sorry, mama. I don’t mean to be a disappointment.”
She shook her head. “I just don’t understand you, Billy.”
I started to turn away. Gwen was right beside us and took my upper arm.
“Give him a hug, mama. He’s your son and even if you don’t understand him, you can accept his apology and let him know you love him anyhow.”
Mama held Gwen’s eyes for a long moment, and I read for the first time the level of respect she had for her daughter. She reached out and brought my head to her shoulder.
“I love you, mama.”
She patted my shoulder then released me.
A few days later we started back to school. Some of the boys made fun of my black eyes but they dropped it when they learned that I’d fought Bob Smith to a draw. Gwen told it, not me.In September I turned thirteen and got two presents. I expected one: the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Thirteen is the traditional age when adulthood begins, so it was the age when children were expected to join the church and, to prepare for that, we were given a Shorter Catechism to memorize. Put together in the 1640s by English and Scottish divines, the doctrines and beliefs of Reformed Christianity were presented in 107 questions and answers. I still remember the first.
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
I wonder if my generation wasn’t the last, or next to last, to have a general sense among the lay people of what it meant to adhere to one Christian denomination as opposed to any other. The distinctions were fading at that time and would soon disappear as the great American Religion took all the others into its deadly embrace. It would soon be socially and politically incorrect to say that one denomination had a more correct understanding of Christianity than any other. It would soon be American canon that all religions were equal amongst themselves and equally inferior to the American Religion. The American Religion took God out of the center and put man there. Man’s chief end is to be the center of the party and if you play your cards right, God will cater the event.
Hell, I don’t know why I’m going on about that. Nobody gives a shit, not really, which is why it happened in the first place.
Anyway, I expected the Shorter Catechism, but the second gift was a complete surprise: a new bicycle. We didn’t celebrate birthdays. Some people do; some don’t. We didn’t, so it was doubly a surprise to get that bike.
“We were going to give it to you for Christmas,” mama said, “but we decided not to wait. And don’t you kids think we’re playing favorites. We’ll be remembering your birthdays, too, over the next year. I got a nice raise when they made me principal, and your daddy had a particularly good year, and we just wanted to share it.”
It must have been a very good year because a week later daddy bought a new car: a black Ford Custom. We’d gone everywhere, even to church, in the pickup. Charlotte, of course, always sat in the cab with dad and mom while Jake, Gwen and I rode in the back. It was cool to have a new car.
But I hadn’t forgotten Crazy Jane. Somehow the thing with Bob Smith had convinced me that I wasn’t a coward, which firmed up my resolve to sneak over to her house. I pulled out the farmers’ almanac. The next full moon would be on a Friday night in ten more days.
Ten days can play hell with a resolution. When the night of the full moon finally arrived, I went to bed unsure that I would carry out the plan. I lay there and listened as the house grew quiet. I heard mom’s light snore and dad’s heavier snore, and I knew that everyone was asleep. I tossed my sheet off and got quietly up, dressing silently by the moonlight. My window screen had been loose for two weeks in anticipation, but it squeaked slightly when I pushed it out. I should have oiled the hinge. Why didn’t I think of that? What else had I not thought of? I walked softly across the porch roof and shimmied down to the ground. I was shaking. If my dad found out that I had sneaked out at night, he’d kill me. If he found out that I had sneaked over to Crazy Jane’s house, he’d kill me twice.
It was decision time and, as usual, I followed my impulse.
I jogged across the yard to the copse of trees around the creek. I hid behind a tree as a truck went down the highway then eased past the back of Cyrus McGilroy’s house. What if he was awake? No light was on. I eased through the trees along the lake shore. It was so dark in the trees; I hadn’t thought about the overhanging trees. I walked as quickly as possible looking down at the ground so as not to trip. When I looked up I saw a dim light ahead. It scared me at first. Maybe it’s a specter, a woods phantom or something. I didn’t believe in those sorts of things. At least, I didn’t believe in them in the daylight. But it wasn’t a specter; it was a little lamp shining through a window of Crazy Jane’s house.
I eased up the incline, trying to walk silently, but twigs crackle much more loudly in the dark. Branches and limbs come alive in the dark and they don’t like people disturbing their slumber. They reach out and grab and scratch and get in your way.
Finally I was at the edge of the trees, the edge of her yard. The light still shone in the window. I eased into the open, stood for an indecisive moment, then sprinted across the yard, stumbling on a small pile of boards that were concealed by high grass. It made a little racket. I got up quickly. A shadow passed by the lamp. I hesitated then hurried forward. I almost tripped over a stump about three feet from the house, but I saw it at the last second. I was panting when I got to the side of the house where I knelt beneath the window sill. It took considerable effort to still my breathing and my racing heart. What the hell was I doing? Well, I was here now. The worst was over. I’d take one quick peek inside, just so I could tell the twins that I had, then hightail it out of there. I crouched facing the wall, gathering my nerve and my will along with my courage. I slowly lifted my head and peered in.
“I know you.”
The voice, soft and reasonable, came from behind me. I turned and slid down the side of the house like a ragdoll. Sitting on the stump, not two feet from me, was a dark figure. There was something in her hand that reflected the moonlight, something long and metallic. I felt my rectal muscles tighten.
“You the boy live across the lake. You came with your pappy to build my hen house. You that McCaskill boy, ain’t you?”
Her tone was flat and emotionless. I couldn’t find my voice.
“Didn’t your mammy teach you to speak when somebody speak to you?”
There was more than a hint of impatience and irritation. I nodded.
“What your name?”
“Bi…Billy. Billy McCaskill.”
“What you doing peeping in my winder in the dead o’ night, Billy McCaskill?”
She waited. The glinting moonlight played across the thing in her hand and I realized that she was moving it slowly back and forth.
“Please don’t hurt me.”
“You come to hurt me?”
She chuckled dryly.
“Your mammy whup you good, she hear you saying ‘ma’am’ to a colored. What you doing here?”
She waited for a moment. The thing in her hand stopped moving.
“Stand up,” she said sadly. “Come on. Stand up like a man.”
Her tone was ominous.
“I know you just a boy, but you gotta be a man sometime.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“I’m getting plum put out with you, Billy McCaskill.”
“Please don’t kill me.”
She laughed a short, dry chuckle.
“Maybe I pay your pappy a little visit. I ‘spect he kill you, traipsing around in the dead o’ night, peeping in on a single lady. I ‘spect he kill you for peeping in Crazy Jane’s winder. He would, wouldn’t he?”
I nodded rapidly.
“Well, maybe I pay your pappy a little visit and maybe I won’t.”
“What do you want?”
“Now, go on in the house. Don’t you go running off, or I be soon at your door.”
“Please, Miss Jane.”
“Go on, now. I had ‘bout enough of your whining.”
She directed me to the back and up onto a little porch. When she opened the door for me, I went into the kitchen where the little kerosene lamp burned softly.
The walls were unpainted and unadorned, but the room was clean and neat, tidy. It had a soft, pleasant scent of food and flowers. Two little mason jars of flowers sat, one on the table and the other on the counter. Her hand on my shoulder urged me to the table.
“Sit,” she invited flatly.
She put the knife on the counter and turned up the wick of the lamp then lit another in another part of the room.
“You ain’t never said what you was doing outside my winder in the dead o’ night,” she said over her shoulder.
She turned her face to me for my reply.
“Sit,” she said again.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
She turned her body toward me. “What you sorry about? You ain’t never told me what you was doing.”
“You come to peep in at Crazy Jane, didn’t you?” she said flatly.
My head bowed.
“Boy ought not be peeping in winders at women, don’t you know that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said dejectedly.
“What kinda boy do a thing like that?”
I felt my face flush. She watched me for a moment then went to the counter and opened a bread box, taking something out. She came up to me, reached over my shoulder and put a chipped plate on the table. On the plate were three squares of cornbread.
“Ain’t got nothing sweet ner fancy.”
I just looked at it.
“It ain’t poison.”
I nodded, took the smallest square and nibbled a small bite. It was good. She went out onto the back stoop. I heard the squeak of the pump handle and, a moment later, she returned with a pint Mason jar of water.
“If I’d a knowed I was having company, I’d a fixed something proper, cookies maybe.”
“What’re you going to do to me?”
She hesitated then moved to the chair on the opposite side of the table and sat. She moved fluidly and unhurriedly. I ventured a glimpse at her. She wore a thin, faded gown that had non-matching patches here and there and the little shoulder straps had been torn and sewn back together. Her skin was as black as coal. Her black eyes glinted in the lamp’s light like two black diamonds. Her face was quite pretty, for a colored, but it was sad. Her expression was so sad that it made me sad. She only looked at the tabletop.
“Ain’t never got rid of that there chair,” she said, nodding at the chair I occupied. “Ain’t got no use for it; ain’t nobody never here ‘cept me, but I ain’t never got rid of it.”
She chanced a glance at me. Her eyes were deep and soft, but there was an intensity that frightened me.
“You know how long it be since Jane had a actual body to talk to?”
“Jane just talk to herself, talk to her table, talk to her plants. She talk to most anything she see. She wish they talk back to her, but she know if they ever do, she be crazy for certain. But Jane gotta talk so she don’t hear the crazy talk.”
She sank into a melancholy isolation. Sadness seeped into me.
“Are you crazy?” I asked softly.
She brought herself back, considered my question and shrugged.
“Most folk say so. I guess they right.”
“You don’t seem crazy,” I ventured.
She considered me mildly for a moment then the hint of a smile came to her lips.
“You being nice to me so I won’t go see your pappy, ain’t you?”
“No, ma’am, I…Yes, ma’am.”
She laughed. “Well, least you honest.”
I didn’t know what to say. I nibbled on the cornbread.
“But you really don’t seem crazy, just sad.”
A soft, sad expression took her face. She looked at the table but she watched me as I nibbled on the cornbread.
“I seen you, the day y’all built my coop; I seen you looking at me. I been seeing you down at the lake looking and pretending not to.”
I blushed and looked down.
“You was looking, wasn’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said not looking up.
“I wondered why you be studying me so hard. You was thinking then ‘bout sneaking over here, wasn’t you?”
I nodded. She was quiet, thoughtful. I didn’t like being on the defensive, didn’t like her having the upper hand.
“I saw you dancing one day,” I said.
An honest smile took her face.
“Dancing make me feel good,” she said softly. Her head went back. “When I dance, I don’t hear nothing but the music.”
She enjoyed her private moment then brought her eyes to me and looked at me thoughtfully.
“You dance with me, Billy McCaskill? You dance one time with a crazy colored gal?”
“If you dance with me just one time, it be ever so nice.”
“I…I don’t know how to dance.”
She was up and had my wrist in her hand.
“Shush, boy. Everybody know how to dance. It in the soul. You got a soul don’t you?”
“I know. You white an’ I black. It ain’t rubbing off.”
I was on my feet. She put my right hand on her waist and took my left hand in her hand. It was strong and a little rough.
She stopped and looked at me first with questioning then with disappointment. She sighed deeply and nodded, letting go of my hand.
“You go on home now, boy. I ain’t gonna go see your pappy, but don’t you be coming ‘round pestering me and peeping in my winder no more.”
She leaned one hand on the table. She looked so sad. I turned and took two steps and looked back over my shoulder. She looked so small and helpless. Damn. I went back to her.
“You’ll have to teach me,” I said.
Her smile was soft and lonely. She shook her head.
“You best be going, Billy McCaskill.”
I lifted her arm and put her hand on my shoulder. I was touching a colored person. My hands were trembling. She looked at me but didn’t stop me. I took her other hand in mine and put my hand on her waist.
“I don’t know what to do now,” I said.
She considered me for a moment and made a decision.
“Listen to the music,” she said.
“The music in your soul.”
She began to move. I tried to follow.
“Don’t need to be taking no big steps. Ouch. That okay. Ouch. Stop. Wait. Go slow. Everything better when you go slow. Go slow.”
She began a slow rhythmic swaying. Head slightly back, a smile on her face, she swayed side to side. I tried, but I was out of sync.
“Stop,” she said softly. “Stop. Now don’t you be scared. I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
She drew our hands in close then eased up slowly until her body was against mine. It was terrifying, and electric. She watched my eyes as she came up close. She saw the terror in my eyes, and her eyes told me not to fear. She nestled up against me and put her temple against my cheek.
“My daddy would kill me,” I whispered.
“Listen to the music in your soul,” she whispered in my ear.
She began to sway gently. I was only a couple of inches taller than her, and I became much aware of the feel of her body against mine. Her breasts were pressed snugly against my chest. Her stomach and lower body were firmly against mine. She adjusted herself slightly so that our knees were between each other. I would have gotten an erection if I hadn’t been so afraid. I tried to match her sway. She adjusted and adjusted again to match her movements with mine. Then we were moving together slowly, swaying back and forth. My terror began to be overwhelmed by the sensations I was feeling, and I started to get an erection. I pulled my body away. We still held each other.
“I, uh, I need to leave,” I said in a hoarse whisper.
She looked into my eyes and smiled, soft understanding in her eyes; she’d felt the beginnings of my erection against her, but there was no condemnation in her eyes. We released each other and I turned to leave. She followed me to the door.
“Don’t know what I wouldn’t give to have just one friend,” she said softly, hesitantly from behind me, “just one. Somebody to sit in that lonely chair and talk, now an’ again, that’s all. I wouldn’t ask no more.”
I turned. She looked down to hide the need her eyes revealed.
“Boy shouldn’t oughta disobey his folks.”
“You go on home now, Billy McCaskill.” She put a soft hand on my shoulder and turned me. “You was my friend and helped me hear the music for a little spell. A soul gotta content herself with the little mercies. You go on now.”