Friday, August 10, 2012

New Novel, ChapterTwo

            Last week I posted chapter one. Here’s chapter two and the disclaimer again.

            Disclaimer: In trying to portray the past, I find myself in a tug of war between trying to depict it accurately and hoping not to offend anyone. I’ve decided to aim for intellectual honesty, meaning I won’t try to sanitize but I won’t dwell on painful things. I won’t glamorize it or defend it, but I won’t pretend it wasn’t there. Whatever this work is, it is not a defense of bigotry in any of it forms. That said, let me add that if certain words, which were common in the past, are offensive to you, maybe you shouldn’t read any more.



A novel by Chris Sherrill

Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill




            We measure time. Time weighs us.

            In the spring of 1947, the Sheriff came and took Jane, the colored girl who lived across the lake. We heard they took her to the mental hospital in Columbia. There’d been all manner of screeching and hollering in the months before they took her away. After she was gone, the commotions from the little house stopped.

            Jake graduated high school that year. He’d already decided, with mom’s encouragement, to attend a church supported college that fall.

            In January or February of the following year, 1948, Jane’s mother died. Nobody knew if she died in January or February. They found her in February. It was the subject of conversation for a couple of months down at Demby’s General Store. Nobody was sure just what happened. Some said she fell and knocked herself unconscious and froze to death. Others said that the fall must have killed her because if it had just knocked her out she would have regained consciousness before she froze to death. I wondered how the facts might be discovered.

            We were at the supper table one night and the subject was being tossed around. Suddenly Gwen pitched her napkin onto the table.

            “Everyone is so wrapped up in whether that poor woman was dead before she froze or if she froze to death,” she said.

            Everyone quieted and looked at her.

            “Everyone is mad to know how she died, but no one cares that she died.”

            Charlotte broke the silence. “Good lord, Gwen. She’s just some colored lady.”

            Gwen eyed her sister severely. “She was a person.”

            Charlotte canted her head and arched a dismissive eyebrow. She wouldn’t get into a debate with her smarter sister.

            “She was someone’s daughter,” Gwen continued softly, “someone’s sister, someone’s mother. Did she not have anyone who cared about her?”

            No one could answer; no one could address Gwen’s sensitivities, and the subject died around our house.

            A year later, in the spring of 1949, Jane was released from the mental hospital and came back to live in that same little house. No one would go near that house because everyone knew that Jane was crazy. Well, it sat two hundred yards off the road and wasn’t on the way to anywhere else, and people generally didn’t go around the house of a single colored woman, but they especially stayed away from Crazy Jane’s house.

            I saw her from time to time across the lake, sitting on the bank, fishing. Occasionally she would jerk her arms oddly like she was batting away flies, or crook her head to the side like she was listening to something. Once in awhile I heard her talking to herself, though I couldn’t understand the words. I don’t think she ever looked across at me, and that suited me just fine.

            My first encounter with Jane was that same year, down at Demby’s store.

            I was in the kitchen when I heard mama fussing mildly from her bedroom.

            “Billy, run down to Demby’s for me. I need a spool of white thread so I can finish Charlotte’s dress.”

            “Okay, mama.”

            She came into the kitchen.

            “Take your brother with you,” she said.

            “Mama,” I whined.

            Bruce looked up at me with his big smile and sang out, “Biwee take Booce.”

            “Your brother doesn’t get out enough. It’s a beautiful day and it’d be good for him.”

            “Mama, I don’t want to take him. He always does something to embarrass me.”

            She looked at me severely, hands on hips.

            “Bruce is your brother. I can’t believe you’d be ashamed of your own brother.”

            Guilt works. It works at every age. Sometimes it backfires.

            “Y’all don’t never take him anywhere.”

            Her flat hand came out quicker than a striking snake and caught me full on the cheek and ear, snapping my head to the side. I’d been switched many a time by my mama but never struck with her hand. There’s a totally different tone in being struck with the hand. I struggled to hold back the tears. When my face came back to her I could see her trying to regain her composure. Her hand came out tentatively toward my cheek. My head canted instinctively away. Her hand stopped and hung motionless in the air. She spun suddenly and started away.

            “Take your brother with you. I won’t hear any more arguments.”

            It took twice as long to walk the three-quarters of a mile because Bruce’s attention kept being grabbed by random sprigs of grass, flowers, rocks, bottles and cigarette butts.

            “Look, Biwee, look,” he called out over and over, stopping to pick up whatever worthless thing he’d noticed.

            “It’s nothing, Bruce. It’s trash.”

            “Look, Biwee.”

            “Damn, Bruce, stopping picking up all that crap.”

            His hand went to his mouth. “Biwee say bad word.”

            “No I didn’t. I said ‘ham’. Not that other word.”

            A cigarette butt grabbed his attention. “Look, Biwee.”

            I was plumb put out by the time we got to the store. Bruce noticed something on the counter and stopped. Silas Demby raised his hand from the back of the store where he was helping someone choose work boots. I raised mine in reply. Bruce did know not to pick up things so I left him and went down a back aisle to find the thread. I just hoped none of my friends came in and saw me with my retarded brother.

            Crazy Jane was ten feet from me on the same aisle. I thought about going to another part of the store until she moved, but she didn’t look at me and I needed to get that threat so I could get Bruce home. I had no idea there’d be more than one type of white thread. I was puzzling over which mom might want when I heard some boys come in. There were at least three and I could tell by their chatter that they were older boys, Jake’s age or so. They took soft drinks out of the cooler and went to the counter.

            “Outta the way, retard,” one boy said.

            I heard some quick scraping and shuffling of shoes, like someone had been shoved and was regaining his feet.

            “What’s a damned retard doing in here anyway?” another asked.

            “Ohhh,” sang Bruce, “you say bad word.”

            “Shut up, retard.”

            My ears were burning. I couldn’t lift my eyes from that little rack of thread.

            I think there’s more animal in us than we feel comfortable admitting. Many animals will kill the weak and mal-formed members of their own kind. I think there is a residue of that in humans, a deep residue that admits that the weak must die. That’s why we look away sometimes.

            The boys kept making fun of Bruce, mocking his words and laughing at him.

            Sometimes it’s cowardice that makes us look away.

            It’s being human that denies the animal residue and pushes it down. I pulled my eyes from the spools of thread and realized that Crazy Jane was right beside me.

            “He your brother,” she said softly.

            I glanced into her face. Her eyes were hard. How did she know me, or Bruce? I didn’t have time to ponder.

            “He your brother,” she repeated.

            “I know who he is,” I spat.

            She cocked an eyebrow. Mr. Demby shouted from the back of the store.

            “You boys leave that child alone. What’s wrong with you boys? Billy, come take care of your brother.”

            Bruce was my brother. It wasn’t his fault he was different. I strode purposefully around the corner of the aisle and toward the counter. Mr. Demby was coming from the back.

            “My brother ain’t bothering none of y’all,” I said. “Leave him alone.”

            “Biwee,” Bruce sang happily.

            He was smiling that big, stupid smile. I moved him behind me with one arm.

            “Leave him alone.”

            The three boys squared off with me. They were all bigger than me. I was going to get my ass whipped.

            “Or what?” the biggest one said.

            His eyes played over me and I knew that he knew I was scared of him.

            “That make you feel like a big man, picking on somebody who can’t fight back?” I asked.

            “You wanna take his place?”

            “I just did.”

            Mr. Demby, carrying a broomstick, came up between us.

            “I ain’t gonna have no commotion in my store,” he announced. “You hear me, Bob Smith? Put your money on the counter and go on about your business.”

            The big boy stared at me. I didn’t look away. He tossed some change on the counter without taking his eyes from mine.

            “Come on, boys,” he said.

            At the door he turned his body square to me and pointed a finger at me.

            “I ain’t gonna forget you, boy.”

            “Get your sorry self outta my store,” Mr. Demby ordered.

            “Billy McCaskill,” I said.

            I held his stare until he left. Only then did I realize that I was shaking. Where was Bruce? I whirled around. He was standing beside Crazy Jane. She had taken him aside and, with the fingers of one hand softly on his shoulder, was showing him a colorful box cover and he was looking up at her with that big happy smile. She looked at me, her eyes weighing me briefly before she looked back to Bruce.

            Mr. Demby showed me the thread I needed, put it on my dad’s bill and we left. I was glad Bob Smith and his cronies weren’t waiting outside. Crazy Jane left about the same time and walked fifty paces behind us. Bruce kept wanting to go back to her, but I took his arm and led him home.

            Mom must have been watching for us. When we walked into the kitchen, she was at the counter, her hands working on something.

            “You boys sit down,” she said, forcing brightness into her tone.

            We sat. She put a piece of blackberry cobbler in front of Bruce. His eyes got wide and his mouth opened in a silent ‘O’. He clapped his hands.

            “Pie, Biwee. Pie.”

            Mama reached over my shoulder to put a piece in front of me. Her left hand rested on the back of my neck.

            “Thanks, mama.”

            She patted my neck then caressed my head once.

            Those Scottish Presbyterians left a lot behind when they came to the New World, but they brought with them their work ethic and their fierce independence. They also brought their tendency toward actions rather than words. This was her apology for slapping me. She moved back to the counter. I stood and went to her. When she turned, her eyes were uncertain. I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her. It was my apology to her. My parents were not physically demonstrative, so she got a little rigid when I hugged her, then she sighed deeply, gave me a squeeze and rested her cheek on the side of my head.

            “Eat your cobbler, son,” she said.


            In June of 1949, the Johnsons moved onto Gus and Emma Hudson’s cattle farm about a mile or so west of us. I remember it was June because we’d just gotten out of school. It was significant because the Johnsons had two boys, twins, Homer and Horace, and both were my age. I’d never had anyone my age to play with who lived that near.

            That year was significant for other reasons, one of them that the McCaskill children suddenly found themselves with free time. Dad got out of both the dairy and the egg business: sold it all, lock, stock and barrel. We no longer had to milk cows and clean the equipment twice a day, neither did we have to feed chickens or collect eggs. Dad sold the chickens to Crazy Jane, told her what he knew about producing eggs and we even constructed a hen house for her. She was right there with us, handing lumber or nails, helping stretch the chicken wire.

            I stole glimpses of her. She was about 5’4” and fit: her flesh didn’t jiggle when she worked. Well, her breasts did, not jiggle but sway. She didn’t wear a bra; poor people couldn’t afford them. My sisters hadn’t been given bras until their breasts had gotten large enough to be noticed. I was nearly thirteen and had started noticing things like that. Jane wore a faded sundress of the type common at the time. Her skin was dark and appeared quite smooth. Her hair was in cornrows and two tightly wound pigtails came out from beneath her faded bandana. Her nose was flat, her nostrils wide, her lips thick. Her eyes were almost black. She was quiet, intelligent and pretty. I remember being taken completely by surprise by the realization, first, that a colored woman was intelligent and, second, that a colored woman was pretty. I didn’t know anything about crazy people, but nothing about her seemed crazy. She just seemed sad. I think she was sorry when we finished up.

            “If you have any questions,” dad said, “or problems with the hens, let me know.”

            “Yassah. I do dat, and soon’s they start a layin’, I be bringin’ y’all some eggs. Jane pay her debts.”

            “I know you do, but there’s no rush. Give the hens time to settle, and make sure you have enough eggs to sell.”

            “Yassah. That mighty neighborly of you, help a poor colored gal.”

            We were in the pickup pulling away when Jake turned and looked across me to dad.

            “What if she don’t pay her debt?”

            “Let me worry about that.”

            “What if she don’t take care of the chickens, or a fox gets them?”

            “It’s not your worry.”

            Dad didn’t seem overly concerned. Something clicked in me.

            “The strong help the weak, ain’t that right, daddy?”

            Something clicked in him, too. He held his gaze straight ahead, but I saw something in his face, a little smile.

            “That’s right, son.”


            I didn’t understand at the time, but by working hand and being wise with their money, my parents had paid off all their debts. Money pressures relieved, dad got out of his extra businesses, and life for all of us took on a more relaxed tempo. That relaxed tempo meant, among other things, that I was able to play Little League Baseball for the first time. I’d played backyard baseball with Jake as far back as I could remember, but I didn’t know the game and wasn’t very good at it, but I liked it. That new tempo also meant that I had the freedom to visit my new friends, Homer and Horace, and they could visit me.

            They rode their bikes to my house one day in early August to go fishing. We started out below my house, as always, but Homer kept working his way along the bank. He and Horace had brand new rods and reels, which made me envious, and Homer would toss his lure out once or twice, decide the fish weren’t biting and move on. We worked our way along the bank to the dam, across the dam and up the other side.

            “We can’t go any farther up that way,” I advised.

            “Why not?” Homer replied.

            “That’s Mr. McGilroy’s land. I don’t think he likes people fishing from his land.”

            “You don’t think he does, or you know he doesn’t?” Horace asked.

            “If he never said nobody couldn’t fish, then we can fish,” Homer added with a grin.

            “It’s a bad idea,” I persisted. “Besides, nearly the whole bank is thick with trees and brush. Where’re you going to cast from?”

            “That’s the best,” Homer said excitedly. “Fish like shady places.”

            “How do you know?” his brother asked.

            He waved a dismissive hand. “Everybody knows that.”

            “I don’t think we should do it,” I said.

            “Why not?”

            I leaned my head toward them. “The woman who lives up there is crazy.”

            With considerable interest, they followed my pointing finger up the incline to Crazy Jane’s house. To my dismay, everything about the place appeared absolutely normal: clothes rippled gently on the clothes line, beds of bright flowers waved and the tasseled heads of straight, tall ranks of late corn danced gently with the breeze.

            “What’re you trying to pull, Billy?” Homer asked.

            “I’m telling you, she’s crazy.”

            “Chicken. Billy’s a chicken,” Homer chided, walking away.

            Well, hell. I wasn’t a chicken, but I was relieved when we had worked our way along that bank without seeing either Mr. McGilroy or Crazy Jane. I was happy when we crossed the feeder creek that marked our farm’s boundary. We’d all had enough of fishing and played in the barn until they had to leave.

            At supper mom asked about my day. “Did you boys have a good time? They seem like good boys.”

            “We fished all the way around the lake,” I said.

            Mom and dad got quiet.

            “All the way?” mom asked.

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            I was puzzled by the tone and looked at her. Her face seemed to turn a little red.

            “Billy McCaskill, you didn’t go anywhere near that colored girl’s house, did you?”

            “No, ma’am.”

            “Well, don’t you even think about going near her house.”

            “We weren’t near it,” I replied. “We were next to the water.”

            “I don’t want you getting even that close,” she replied.

            I was still puzzled and didn’t respond.

            “Do you understand me, Billy McCaskill?”

            I nodded. Dad gave me a little slap on the back of the head.

            “Speak when your mother speaks to you. God didn’t give you that mouth just so you could stuff it with mashed potatoes.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            She wagged her finger at me. “If those boys insist on fishing from that side, I guess you can go with them, but you’d better not get any closer to her house than the edge of the lake.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            The table got quiet.

            “Is she really a witch?” Charlotte asked.

            “Let’s drop it,” mom said.

            “Doesn’t the Bible say witches should be burned?” Charlotte continued.

            “She’s not a witch,” dad said definitively. “She’s just…different.”

            He didn’t continue. Everyone at the table looked at him expectantly.

            “We’re not supposed to talk about folk, but lest one of you goes off half-cocked talking about burning witches, we’ll bring it out just this once. She’s not a witch; she’s just not right in the head. The way Cyrus McGilroy tells it, she was willful as a child, but not overly so. But when she got to be a teenager she started acting…erratic, talking crazy, acting crazy, then she ran away from home and got mixed up with the wrong sorts.”

            He looked at us children with a warning in his eyes, as if running with the wrong sorts might make us crazy, too.

            “When she came back home, her mama couldn’t do anything with her and finally had the judge send her to the state mental hospital. You know her mama died a year later. When Jane got released, she moved back into the house where she was raised.

            “Where’s her daddy?” Gwen asked.

            “Nobody’s seen hide nor hair of that scoundrel since Jane was a baby.”

            “Daddy,” mom said with a cautionary tone.

            “He was a scoundrel.”

            Mom’s eyes went around the table to her children. Dad sighed.

            “That was uncharitable of me,” he said. “Her daddy was not held in high esteem by those who had dealings with him. That includes his colored brethren.”

            Mom arched an eyebrow.

            Gwen looked from mom to dad. “How old is she?”

            “I guess she’d be nineteen or twenty,” dad said.

            I could see the sympathy in Gwen’s eyes. “How does she get by, daddy?”

            “She fishes about every day,” he said, “when those hens start laying, she’ll have that, and she has a big garden. I suppose she puts up what she can for winter and has the corn ground into cornmeal. Mr. Demby sold her onions and cantaloupes at his store; most people don’t grow them much, and I understood that he’ll be selling the pumpkins she’s raising come Halloween. I believe she knitted some of the socks he sells. I don’t know if he buys from her outright or trades for dry goods, probably a little of both.”

            “Is that how she pays her rent?”

            “Huh. It’d be a crime if Cyrus even charges rent for that rundown little ramshackle place, but if he does, that’d be how she pays.”

            Gwen looked back at her plate, an unsatisfied look on her face. Dad gave her a moment then continued.

            “Cyrus says she can be violent. I know she can be profane; I’ve heard her use language that would burn a sailor’s ears. And she does not like people coming around her house. That day we put up her chicken coop, she was obviously anxious to have us finished and gone.”

            I’d had just the opposite sense, but I said nothing.

            “She chased some guy off with a butcher knife – life insurance salesman. I happened to be down at Demby’s when he came in and he was some kind of shook up. Said he got himself lost out here in the country and just wanted to ask for directions, which was probably a lie, but that’s beside the point. Point is she chased him off with a butcher knife. It’s safe to assume that she’s dangerous and should be given a wide berth.”

            The room was quiet. Mom broke the silence.

            “On top of all that,” she said, “a boy your age does not need to be seen hanging around the house of a young, single woman, especially a young, single colored woman, whether she’s crazy or not. Do I make myself clear?”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            She looked at me hard to make sure her words had taken root. I nodded then said, “Yes, ma’am,” again before daddy could cuff the back of my head again.

            I guess I’m just a contrary person. Crazy Jane suddenly became more interesting to me.

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