As a side note, I've discovered that I have some Russian readers. What a pleasant surprise. Welcome. People from various countries have dropped by on occasion, but it appears that a few Russians are visiting regularly. I'm happy to have you. Hell, I'm just thrilled with all you folks who are reading my work.
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AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
A novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
BRUCE AND CRAZY JANE
Some years pass and there’s nothing to say except, a year passed. We’d planted and hoed, cut and chopped, picked and canned and butchered our way through another year. When chores were done, Homer and Horace and I had played baseball, played at the saw mill and explored the county side. I’d sat in Jane’s lonely chair a couple of times and she’d fed me oatmeal cookies with raisins and talked about gardening and chickens. School had started again and I’d had another birthday.One morning in mid October, we were rushing around getting ready for school. Dad had left very early to go to the sale barn to help a friend pick out some milk cows and without his usual help in ordering the chaos, things were a little more disorganized than usual. As I walked into the kitchen, Mom was handing platters to Gwen and Charlotte.
“Okay, let’s eat,” she said. “Are the biscuits on the table?”
“Where’s Bruce? Where’s Bruce?”
“He was right here a minute ago,” Charlotte said.
“Bruce? Come eat, Bruce. Bruce, where are you?”
Mom was starting to get worried.
“I’ll see if he’s in the bathroom,” Gwen volunteered.
“I’ll check upstairs,” I said.
As I ran upstairs something in the window caught my eye. I stopped. Sitting out near the lake was Jane. With her was Bruce. I ran back downstairs.
“He’s outside,” I said, hurrying by.
“Oh, my God, the lake,” mom muttered.
She and the others rushed out behind me. Bruce looked at us with his big smile. He handed Jane a brown leaf.
“Jane,” he said, pointing at her. “Jane nice.”
Jane took the leaf he offered and looked up at us. She saw the distress in mom’s face.
“He alright, missus.”
“What’s he doing out here?” mom demanded.
“When I brung the eggs a little while ago, he must’ve followed me out. I didn’t see him ‘til he got to the creek yonder and started complaining ‘bout the mud. Well, I turned around an’ brung him back, ‘cept when we got here, he wanted to look around. I was just about to bring him on up to your house.
“Yes, dear. I know it’s Jane.”
“Jane nice, mama.”
“Yes, dear. I know. Why don’t you go on up to the house now?”
“Jane go, too?”
“Jane has things to do. Maybe you’ll see her again.”
Jane was still sitting. She had scarcely glanced at me, which suited me fine. Bruce went over to her, put his arms around her neck and gave her a hug. She hesitated, looked at mom, then hugged him back. He released his hug but held her cheeks for a moment, smiling his big, innocent smile. She caressed his cheeks tenderly.
“Booce like Jane.”
“I know you do, son. Come and go with Gwen.”
“Gwen, Booce like Jane.”
“She’s nice, isn’t she?”
“Charlotte, Booce like Jane.”
Their chatter went up the rise to the house. Mom seemed at a loss for words. Jane sat still, watching Bruce. Her eyes were soft. When she started to stand I offered my hand. She looked at it with uncertainty then took it.
“Thank you, Jane,” mom said.
“It wasn’t nothing, ma’am. He a sweet boy.”
“I hope he didn’t inconvenience you.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, not in the leas’. He made me smile. Nice to start the day with a smile.”
There wasn’t anything else to say.
“Well, thank you again, and thank you for the eggs.”
“No, ma’am. I be thanking you for the chickens, and for the trust.”
Inside Bruce couldn’t stop talking about Jane. I watched mom out of the side of my eye. She was pensive. Finally, food replaced Jane in Bruce’s mind.
A few days later there was a grocery bag of field peas on the porch beside the eggs. Dad took me to Jane’s because a man didn’t go alone to a single woman’s house; it was unseemly. She invited us in but we stayed on the front porch.
“I’d like to pay you for the field peas,” dad said.
“Oh, no, sah. I got me plenty and I wasn’t thinking ‘bout no pay. Nobody much wanna have no truck with Jane, and y’all been kind to me, what with them chickens an’ all, an’ I just wanna be neighborly.”
“Thank you, if we can do anything for you, just let me know.”
“Well, sah, they might be one little thing.”
She looked uncertain, grasping her hands in her dress pockets like she was drying them.
“What is it?”
“Mr. Demby, he say he can take thirty of my pumpkins to sell at his store, and he’ll pay cash money. And he say he know a group up near Overton that sell pumpkins every October. He gonna call them and they might take another thirty.”
“That’s good news You must have a mighty nice crop of pumpkins.”
She smiled broadly. “Yes, sah. They done just fine. I be glad for you to see them.”
We followed her to her garden where dozens of large, orange pumpkins stood out against the backdrop of the browning garden.
She smiled happily.
“What do you need?” he asked.
Dad usually cut right to the chase.
“Well, sah, it all gotta be done right quick like, so it be nice to have a little help getting them up, and I ain’t got no way to take them where they need to go. Mind you, I be glad to pay for gas and trouble, and for the help.”
“I’ll consider the field peas as pay for the use of the truck. Billy, how much would you charge Miss Jane to help her get up these pumpkins?”
I was so surprised that I had no ready answer.
“It doesn’t look like it’d be too hard. I wouldn’t charge nothing.”
“Ain’t looking for no handout,” she said to me.
There was a proud little edge to her voice.
“I’ll do it if you let me bring Bruce with me.”
She looked at me with a really odd look.
“Billy,” dad said, “you can’t be saddling Miss Jane with a babysitting chore.”
“No, sah. Wouldn’t be no chore. That a sweet boy, and I be glad he come over.”
Dad had heard about Jane bringing Bruce back to the house.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, sah. Sure.”
Thursday and Friday after school I worked cutting and carrying pumpkins while Bruce and Jane played. She did help some; it was her intention to help, but Bruce wanted to play and it made me feel good to see her laugh and play. He chased her and she chased him. He brought her sticks and leaves, and she acted delighted at his gift. Mr. McGilroy heard the laughter and came back to see what was going on. He just stood like an angry statue at the edge of the yard and looked. Jane was much more reserved, much more, while he was there. She was afraid of him. After a time, he left. She brought me a glass of water a little later.
“Why are you afraid of Mr. McGilroy?” I asked.
Her head snapped to me then she shook her head and walked away. Well, you know me. That just made me all the more curious, but I didn’t force it.
Late Friday afternoon dad brought the pickup and we loaded pumpkins and took them to Demby’s. Then we loaded the batch for the group in Overton which we would deliver Saturday.
Jane was sad that we were done. She hugged and kissed Bruce, and he hugged and kissed her back, and it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do that. What did Bruce see that none of us could see? Maybe, it was what he didn’t see. As dad took Bruce to the pickup, Jane put her hand softly on my shoulder.
“I know they wasn’t no pay, but I got something for you,” she said.
She threw up her hand to dad. “I got a little something for young Billy here,” she called. “He be right there.”
He nodded and I followed Jane around the corner of the house to the back door.
“Shush, Billy, it just a little something.”
Mom’s estimation of Jane had begun to soften, but she had told me in no uncertain terms that under no circumstances outside the safety of my brother was I to be inside her house. I waited at the door. Jane came back in ten seconds with a pumpkin pie. She looked at me brightly.
“Thank you, Jane.”
I think she was prepared to fend off my refusals of pay. She looked a little bemused then she smiled.
“You have a really pretty smile,” I said. “I like to see you smile.”
I felt the odd look on my own face. I wanted a hug and she saw it, understood it. She smiled gently, put a light hand on my forearm and gave a little squeeze.
“Be careful, white boy. Don’t need to be teasing a crazy colored gal.”
“I didn’t mean nothing by it. I just like Jane,” I said.
Her eyes caressing mine, she smiled softly and her fingers tightened just a little. Our eyes closed every distance between us and neither of us wanted to pull back. I didn’t have a name for it then, but the sexual tension at that moment was excruciatingly wonderful. She felt it, too. That’s why the little toot on the horn made us both jump.
When I got home I ran up to my room and, while that lovely smile was fresh in my memory, did a quick sketch of it. I liked to draw, had a knack for it. I’d done it a lot as a child until my big brother told me it was a sissy thing to do. Mama had been quick to correct him, but the crimp had been made in that fender and drawing became a secret, private thing.
As I put pencil to the plain loose-leaf paper, I was surprised at how well I remembered the contours and lines of Jane’s face. The pencil seldom lifted for the next fifteen minutes, and then I was looking down at the warm, happy smile of a black woman. A black woman. I had no sketches of my mama or my sisters, but I had a sketch of a black woman.
What’s wrong with you, Billy? Get rid of that thing.
I was afraid to simply ball it up and toss it; someone could be nosey and find it. I needed to burn it. I would have to remember it the next time I burned trash. In the meantime, I put it in my three ring binder, in the middle of some blank sheets of paper. And I forgot it.