AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
A novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
BRUCE AND CRAZY JANE
It was a long time before I visited Jane again. Cyrus McGilroy’s threat to see my dad had a powerful effect, but there were other reasons, too. Homer, Horace and I spent time exploring and playing. We cut away the brush beside the pool down at the sawmill, making our own private swimming hole. Winter turned into spring and it was time to plant again. Basketball season ended and baseball season began. When there weren’t games there was practice. Bob Smith and I continued to spar. I’d learned all he had to teach so we boxed for the sport and the practice.When summer came, Jake got a job working for the town of Pinckney and Charlotte got a job in a bank there and rode with Jake in the 1944 Chevy he’d gotten. Dad got Gwen and me jobs at Tucker’s peach shed eight miles south of us. He drove us down each morning and picked us up each afternoon. The pickers went out at first light and by 9:30 the tractors were bringing in wagons piled high with bushel baskets of peaches. That’s when we had to be there. The girls culled the peaches, picking out the one that were badly formed or bruised. I worked loading the boxes onto waiting tractor-trailers that carried the peaches to cities in the north. Gwen made twenty-five cents an hour. I made thirty-five cents an hour and thought I had found the golden goose. We argued about the pay differential. I had the more physically demanding job. Besides boys believe they’re superior to girls. We can’t help it. I think it’s genetic. Males get criticized for it, but I’m sure females believe they’re superior, too.
In the afternoons and on Saturdays we had our regular chores. Kids and adults gathered most weekends at the school ball field for pickup games, and I went when I could. I rode my bicycle every chance, with or without Homer and Horace who were helping their dad on the Hudson’s farm.
I had a growth spurt over the spring and summer, grew five inches and got slimmer, not a lot slimmer; I was a hefty boy. I saw Jane from a distance, fishing at the lake and once at Demby’s, and saw Mr. McGilroy two or three times from a distance.
First thing you know, Jake was packing to go back to college and Charlotte was preparing for her freshman year. Gwen and I started school again, and I turned fifteen. I went out for the football team and soon found that I liked football better than basketball or baseball because in football you’re supposed to be rough. And my first school romance blossomed. Sally Murphy, one of the cheerleaders, and I started hanging out together at school and sitting together on the bus on game days. Though I’d been driving vehicles as far back as I could remember, I was only fifteen and couldn’t drive legally, so those were our dates.
A pretty woman elevates a man’s standing with other men. I had fought and hustled my way to a higher rank among my peers, but Sally Murphy on my arm lifted it even higher. I liked it. I liked Sally for herself, but I liked even more the effect she had on my rank.
In early October, Rev. Stockton died of a heart attack. He’d been the minister at Ebenezer for twenty-seven years. Sudden unexpected deaths will stun a community. He’d barely been laid to rest when Gus Hudson died. He wasn’t but thirty-five. He’d been out bush-hogging, got off the tractor to check something and, well, nobody knew what happened. The tractor had surged forward, knocked him down and run over him. Miss Emma found him.Everything comes in threes.
In the middle of October, Bruce got sick. He’d been sick off and on for most of his life, but he’d always bounced back. I guess he’d used up his last bounce. Day by day you could see him getting weaker and weaker, and one night he just eased away. Nearly to the end he kept that innocent smile.
It tore a big piece out of my parents’ hearts. They called on that old stoic fortitude that had served them so well for so long, but it wasn’t there. Gwen and Charlotte tried to take over the household duties for mom, but she wouldn’t let herself be alone with her broken heart. Jake and I tried to take over some of dad’s chores. He would sit and stare out across the lake then sigh deeply and go back to work for awhile before he sat again and stared out across the lake.
Bruce’s death hit me hard. I’m not sure why. I didn’t see it coming and it hit me like a battering ram. I was able to find some stoic fortitude for myself when others were around, but at night in my bed, I wept. Gwen heard me and came to my room. We held each other and cried.
It was hard, really hard the day we laid Bruce to rest. As we made our way to the graveside, I looked around. Nearly the entire congregation was there as well as many other members of the community. Bob Smith was there. Elam Simpkins, a black man who sometimes helped on the farm, was on the periphery of the crowd with his wife. Several feet behind them was Crazy Jane.
It takes an awful lot of time for a deep wound in your heart to heal, but you have to keep on. Jake and Charlotte went back to college. Gwen and I went back to school. I practiced football in the afternoons. About a month after Bruce’s death, the coach had something to attend to and football practice was cancelled. I rode past the church on my way home, stopped at the cemetery and sat on the ground beside my brother’s grave. I couldn’t help but cry. I felt so guilty about being ashamed and embarrassed by Bruce. I heard a car door close. I dried my tears and didn’t look around but heard footsteps as they came up behind me.
“Hello, Miss Emma.”
“I’m so sorry about Bruce.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you. And I’m sorry about Mr. Gus.”
We were silent. I expected to hear Miss Emma walk away but didn’t.
“I’d be obliged if you’d sit with an old lady for a little spell,” she said.
“You’re not old, Miss Emma.”
She smiled indulgently. I stood and we walked to a cement bench she’d had put beside Gus’ grave.
“This is where I want to be laid when I’m gone,” she said, “right here where I put this bench. Will you remember that for me, Billy, in case I go suddenly and no one knows to get rid of this bench? Will you?”
“I sure don’t want to be out of line, Miss Emma,” I said, “but you could marry again and have children. You’re a handsome woman.”
She blushed and looked at the ground.
“Thank you, Billy. That’s not out of line. A woman likes to feel attractive. Gus always made me feel like I was attractive. But I can’t have children, and I don’t know as I’ll be looking to get married again.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Emma.”
She bowed her head and brought a dainty handkerchief to her eyes. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I scooted over until our legs touched and put my arm around her shoulders. She leaned her head against me and cried briefly then she patted my leg and sat up. I moved my arm. She daubed the corners of her eyes.
“I thought that particular well was dry,” she said, “and I certainly didn’t mean to impose on you, but I appreciate your kindness. There’s something comforting about physical contact with a…a kindred spirit.”
I thought about holding Gwen and crying with her.
“Yes, ma’am, there is.”
We sat there quietly for another minute.
“It doesn’t seem to make sense, does it?” she said.
I thought to try to dodge that question, but I didn’t.
“No, ma’am. I’ve been thinking how many things don’t make sense.”
“You want to talk about it?”
She nodded. “I know you miss Bruce.”
I looked away when my eyes moistened.
“I was mean to him. I was embarrassed by him.”
She put her arm around my shoulders.
“Why couldn’t he have been normal, like other kids?”
“He was always happy, always smiling, and that makes me think that he didn’t have to endure the conflicts you and I experience as life tugs us in contrary directions. Personally, I think that children like Bruce are God’s gift. While all the rest of us are fighting to find and keep our place in the world, there are these special children who love everyone for no reason except that they do. If they notice the wrongs we do them, they forgive them. I think God gives us children like Bruce to remind us that there is such a thing as unconditional love.”
Holidays are particularly difficult after the death of a loved one. We tried to create a sense of normalcy during Thanksgiving and Christmas, but one of the voices in the song of our family was forever silent.I sneaked over to Jane’s after Christmas. I took her an orange and a tangerine. Fresh fruit, especially citrus fruit, in the wintertime was a treat back then, so there was always an orange in our stockings along with the nuts and hard candy. That year there had been three oranges and three tangerines for each of us.
Jane was tentative, her eyes haunted, when she answered the door. She stood for a brief moment then opened the door for me.
“Sorry I haven’t been by.”
She just nodded. I sat and she sat opposite me, her left arm on the table and her right down beside her.
“I brought these for you.”
“What they is? I know that an orange. That an orange, too?”
“It’s a tangerine. It’s like an orange, but sweeter. Try it.”
She didn’t show much interest and didn’t take the fruit, so I started pealing it. She looked from my hands to my face.
“You ‘bout all growed up,” she said wistfully.
I halved the fruit and pulled a wedge off, handing it to her. She just looked at it.
“You eat it first,” she said suspiciously.
“I already know what it tastes like. This is for you.”
“Ole Gil send you down here with that?”
“He trying to poison Jane, you know. He ain’t sent you to poison Jane?”
“Jane, I wouldn’t hurt you for anything. You’re my friend.”
Her eyes showed a skirmish going on inside her. I didn’t understand it but I saw it. It frightened me and made me sad at the same time. I put the wedge in my mouth and chewed, spitting the seeds in my hand.
“They’re real sweet, but they have a lot of seeds,” I said.
The skirmish in her eyes continued. I held a wedge out to her. She just stared at it as if there was nothing else in the world. I was at a loss.
I spoke softly, but her eyes snapped up to mine. She looked through me then focused on my eyes. She seemed afraid.
“I don’t hear it no more. They so loud, I don’t hear the music no more.”
“Who’s so loud?”
“The voices. The voices so loud I can’t hear the music.”
I stood up and went to her side.
“Dance with me.”
I held out my hand. She was indecisive.
“You come to hurt me? That what they saying.”
I had a chill.
“No, Jane. I would never hurt you.”
“It Billy, ain’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am. Billy McCaskill.”
“He a good boy. He dance with me.”
I put my fingertips on her forearm.
“You ain’t gonna hurt Jane?”
“No. I want her to hear the music.”
As she let me take her hand she brought her right arm up and set the butcher knife on the table. That gave me another chill. She stood and brought her body up close to mine and we began to sway. We swayed slowly for three or four minutes.
“I hear it,” she whispered. “I hear the music.”
I could tell that she was hearing the music; I could tell from the sway of her body. She put her head against my shoulder, her mouth near my neck.
“Why you nice to Jane? Why you nice to a crazy colored gal?”
“I like Jane. She helps me hear the music, and I like to hear the music.”
We danced slowly for a long time, five minutes maybe.
“Why they so loud, Billy?” she whispered. “Why them voices so loud?”
“What do they say?”
“Crazy things sometimes.”
“They talk to you?”
She hesitated then nodded. “Sometimes they talk to me. Sometimes they talk among they selves. They doing that now. They saying you gonna hurt Jane.”
I shook my head slowly. I don’t know if I was more scared or sad. I turned my face slightly and gave her a little kiss on the ear. Jane’s hand went up and touched the spot.
“You kiss a colored gal.”
“I kissed my friend.”
“They saying it a poison kiss.”
“I don’t care.” She snuggled up against me. “You my friend, and I hear the music.”
“Don’t listen to them. Listen to the music.”
“They say ole Gil gonna kill me, sooner or later.”
“If you’re afraid of him, why do you stay here? Why don’t you move?”
She pulled back slightly. “Where I gonna go? I ain’t got nobody. Where I gonna go?”
She nestled up against me.
“I couldn’t run away, even if I had somewhere to go. He done told everybody how crazy I be, how I done all manner of wicked things when I was a youngun. The Sheriff just pick me up and haul me back. Then I be sorry. I learnt that lesson.”
“What do you mean?”
“He had the Sheriff come take me to that mental hospital. He done it ‘cause I started screaming and hollering ever’ time he come to do his business with me. The more he slapped me around, the more I screamed and hollered. He finally got fed up and made my mama say it was her idea and swear to all sorts of lies. Then after my mama died, he come down and laid down the law, said he’d get me out but I had to do what he wanted, when he wanted it.”
She looked up at me as if for understanding.
“That hospital a horrible place. All the men be using Jane, so I come back. He don’t bother me much, just now ‘n again. I can grow my flowers and dance in the sunshine, and I’m glad I come back ‘cause I found a friend.”
She nestled back against me and we swayed gently for another few minutes.
“He kilt my mama,” she said softly.
I stopped dead still. “What?”
She tilted her head back, held my eyes and nodded. “They told me he done it.”
That gave me the creeps. I didn’t know what to say. “Somebody ought to tell the Sheriff.”
She smiled indulgently.
“You? Or me?
She laughed humorlessly.
“Can’t nobody do nothing. For certain can’t no young white boy nor some crazy nigger whore do nothing.”
Could nothing be done?
“Long as I remember, ole Gil been coming down here. He used my mama and when I got big enough, used me, too. Got me in the family way and sent me off to have the baby. Made up some lie I’d run off to whore with some rambunctious crowd. I was in the mental hospital with a belly full of youngun. After the baby born, they give it away and a doctor fix me so I couldn’t have no more babies.
“They still a lot of doctors fix poor colored women like that.”
“They say he kilt my daddy, too. Mama wouldn’t never talk ‘bout it, just said he went off one day and never come back. One time when she been in the muscadine wine she said he probably at the bottom of some dry well on Ole Tom Tilton land.”
“Don’t know. Anyhow Ole Gil told everybody he a no account scoundrel, and maybe he was, but he didn’t deserve to get kilt just so some white man could have his wife and little girl.”
I hugged her tightly.
“That man evil, Billy. Don’t let him never get wind of you coming around here. Ain’t no telling what he might do, and he can lie so good, he get away with it. Course, he ever hurt you, I cut his throat.”
She looked up at me with a gentle smile and caressed my cheek.
“You my friend.”