AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
WILLIAM NATHAN MCCASKILL
A Novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
With chores and school and getting ready for winter, I didn’t see Jane for some time. Part of me welcomed the separation. As would be my state of being for most of my life, my lower nature and my higher nature were at odds. I still had that powerful sense that it would be wrong to satisfy my sexual desire by taking advantage of Jane’s need for a friend, but there was the sense that we were becoming friends and, if she weren’t buying my friendship, then she was doing something she wanted to do.
That sounds all high minded, and it’s what I repeated to myself but at the heart of it all were two simple facts. First, she was black, and it was ingrained that a relationship, any sort of relationship, between a white male and a black female was strictly taboo, beyond taboo. Second, I was afraid. A fourteen year-old boy will fantasize about being with a twenty year-old woman, but the reality of such a thing is pretty scary.
Fortunately, I had other things to occupy my mind.
I ran into Bob Smith down at Demby’s. He was at the counter waiting for Mr. Demby who was looking for something in the back. I stood beside Bob. He looked at me, gave a little tilt of the head and looked away.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
He considered me. “It’s going.”
“Not much new, huh?”
“We ain’t friends, McCaskill. You think we’re friends or something?”
Mr. Demby came back, took Bob’s money, then mine. Bob was in his old pickup sipping his dope when I went out. I walked over to him.
“How’d you learn to box?” I asked.
He considered me then shrugged.
“Seen a feller at the County Fair one time taking on all comers. Said he’d pay ten dollars to anybody who could last two rounds with him. I watched him all night. Nobody lasted more than one round. I decided I wanted to be able to do that, so I went back every night for a whole week and watched him. During the day, I practiced by myself. He seen me there every night and on the last night they wasn’t no more suckers, so he took me in the ring and showed me some moves, made it part of his show, give me a dollar when it was over. I kept practicing by myself and, course, they’s always opportunities to practice on other boys.”
He arched an eyebrow and cranked the pickup.
“Teach me to box,” I said.
He looked at me quizzically then snorted a little laugh.
“You done alright.”
“I want to know how to box.”
Bob looked off into the distance. “My old man took his stick to me that night, after y’all left. He don’t usually need no excuse, so I sure ain’t looking to give him none.”
“He doesn’t have to know. How will he know?”
“You crazy, McCaskill. If we boxing and not wrestling, I’ll beat your ass.”
“But we’ll just be practicing, not really fighting. What can happen?”
I think you bring shit on yourself sometimes with your own words.
Bob agreed and we went behind the store and sparred for awhile. There were actual blows exchanged, but we were pulling the punches. He showed me how to jab and block. He showed me how punch in combinations. He kept telling me to keep my head up but I kept ducking and an uppercut caught me flush on the nose. He wasn’t even swinging that hard, it just caught me perfectly. I heard a crack and blood gushed out.
“Damn, McCaskill! Damn! Look what you done. My old man gonna beat hell outta me.”
“I won’t tell. I’ll say I fell.”
I started walking away. I was still dazed from the blow. Bob’s hands were on my shoulder and he put me in his truck.
“Damn, McCaskill,” he said as he cranked the engine.
A few minutes later we were pulling up to my house. Dad was in the yard and looked at me as I got out. I had my head tilted up to stop the bleeding. I stumbled. I felt Bob’s hands on my shoulders supporting me.
“What…” dad exclaimed. “Bob Smith, I swear…”
“He didn’t do anything, dad. I did.”
I heard the screen door slam and mama and Gwen came running out. Halfway, Gwen ran back. I gave a brief explanation of what had happened. Gwen came back with a wet towel. They were so agitated that they weren’t listening to me. Mama started crying anger tears.
“It’s broken this time. It’s broken. This is the last straw, Billy McCaskill. You hear me? And as for you, Bob Smith, I swear…”
“Stop it, mama,” I said loudly. “Will you just stop for a minute?”
Everyone looked at me in disbelief.
“I told you, I asked Bob to teach me how to box. He was showing me and I ducked when I shouldn’t have.”
“Billy McCaskill…” mama said with a quivering voice.
“Mama, I want to learn how to box. As soon as my nose gets better, I’m going find Bob again.”
“I won’t teach him, ma’am,” Bob said. “I swear I won’t teach him.”
“If he won’t teach me, I’ll just pick a fight with him and learn that way.”
Everyone was silent.
“Billy McCaskill, you are the hardest headed boy I’ve ever seen in my life. What am I going to do with you?”
“Mama, it’s just a broken nose. It was an accident. If I’d walked into a door, you wouldn’t tell me to stop walking. Bob wasn’t trying to hurt me. It was an accident. He could’ve just gotten in his truck and drove off, but he didn’t. He brought me home even though he knew he’d have to face you.”
They were silent for a moment.
“I just don’t know why you have to be such a…ruffian,” mama said.
She turned her side to me and daubed her eyes. The depth of her disappointment hurt. A sudden tear rolled down my cheek. Bob looked away.
“What do you want me to be, mama?” I said softly. “If you want me to be a lap dog, that’s what I’ll be. I swear I will. Tell me what you want me to be.”
Mama turned and walked back to the house. I think she didn’t want anyone to see her tears. Gwen followed, her arm around mama’s shoulders. Dad put his hand on Bob’s shoulder.
“Thank you for bringing my boy home, Bob.”
“It was an accident. Don’t think anymore about it.”
Dad took me to the doctor’s office and he reset my nose. That hurt worse than the break. The tension in the house was thick for the next three days. Mama was chilly toward me. Gwen was my nurse.
“You know mama loves you, Billy,” she said. “You’re her favorite.”
I laughed, which hurt my face. She pulled a bloody gauze plug out of my nose.
“It’s true. Jake is his daddy’s son and you’re your mama’s son.”
“Who are you?”
“Mama’s daughter. Charlotte is daddy’s daughter, when she chooses to visit this plane. We all have favorites, can’t help it, just like I love Jake and Charlotte, but you’re my favorite, and I’m your favorite.”
“You’ve got it all figured out.”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t take a genius. You just have to watch.”
After school on the third day, I was sitting at the kitchen table working on some homework. Mama was behind me fixing supper. Gwen was occupying Bruce in another part of the house, so I knew something was up. Mama seemed fidgety. Finally, she sat beside me, turning her chair to face me.
“Turn around here,” she said. “We need to talk.”
I turned my chair to face her.
She held her fingers to my lips for a moment.
“I don’t want you to be a lap dog, Billy, not my lap dog, not anybody’s lap dog. It’s not in your nature and if I made you try to be that, it would kill your spirit.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you anymore, mama. I want you to love me.”
Her head twitched back slightly.
“Do you think I don’t love you, Billy?”
I leaned forward so she wouldn’t see me cry. She leaned forward and hugged my head.
“Oh, Billy, there aren’t any words to describe how much I love you.”
I cried. I think she did, too. Presently she sat up.
“Dry your eyes, son. I have more to say.”
I sat up and wiped my sleeve across my eyes.
“I’ve been thinking, and I wonder if maybe I took a wrong course some years back. When you were just a little thing, I saw how bright you were, and I began to think that maybe you’d be a teacher one day. That’s been my goal for you ever since. That was what I wanted, and I didn’t stop to consider what you wanted. I always thought I was giving you positive direction and you were just a contrary child, but maybe I was trying to force you in a direction that was against your nature.
“I say you’re hard-headed. Your daddy says you’re determined. I guess those are two sides of the same coin. We both agree that you have a big heart. You’re rough and tumble, but you know right from wrong and you’ll be a good man one day, and that’s all that matters, so I’m going to let out the apron strings, let you follow your inner voice and make as many of your own decisions as is safe for a boy to make.”
“I’m almost done,” she said. “Wait here.”
She stood and left the room. I just looked at my hands. She came back fifteen seconds later and set a large box on the table beside me, then took her chair.
“They were less expensive than the visit to the doctor.”
I laughed. “I love you, mama.”
“I love you, too, son.”
I leaned forward and hugged her.
“Let’s not get all gushy again. Honestly, I don’t know where you and Gwen get that gushy side.”
“I think we get it from you,”
“Huh. Go wash up and set the table, then call the others. Supper will be ready shortly.”
I can’t describe how good it felt to have my mom as an ally. She wasn’t about to knuckle under to whatever whim came to my mind, that was against her nature, but I began to see in her eyes and in her attitude that she was weighing everything as to how it might benefit me.
I practiced boxing with Bob Smith a couple of times a week in our barn. Dad often watched. Gwen watched a couple of times but she didn’t like violence. Mom wouldn’t watch. Bob and I got to be on pretty good terms. I wouldn’t say we became friends but we developed a level of mutual respect.
I still rode my bicycle whenever I could for as long as I could.
At school I did what I had to do to get by, academically, but I enjoyed socializing. Some of us were playing basketball after school and the coach saw me and got me to try out for the team. We were a small, community school, so you didn’t have to be good to play a sport; you just had to be willing to work at it. Maybe life is like that. Anyway, I was a strong, solid kid and took up a good bit of space under the basket. We practiced every day after school and dad got a big flashlight for my bike so I could ride it home after dark. A number of times I thought about swinging by Jane’s but it was too dark. On Saturdays I had wood to cut and split to make up for not helping with that during the week. Jake was away at college, so that fell to me.
We had our first basketball game the week before Christmas break. We played a bigger school and got a thorough thumping. The bus ride back was quiet. We did better in the second game, but still lost. I liked basketball. I was awkward and largely ignorant about it, but I liked being part of a team. Then school let out for Christmas.
I’ve always liked Christmas and everything I associate with it: the crisp winter air, the music and the atmosphere. I like to greet and be greeted with, ‘Merry Christmas’. I just like it. It was a pleasant Christmas, for the most part. Bruce was sick for a lot of it. He was sick more and more frequently. They said it was a part of his condition. Except when he was very ill, he never lost his big blameless smile or his cheerful greetings.
Before Christmas we participated in the church pageant, as usual, went caroling to some of the shut-ins. We drank spiced cider and ate with dad’s people, then did the same the next day with mom’s people, just like we did every year. Christmas Day we spent quietly at home, just family. It sleeted the day after Christmas and no one could go out. The days after Christmas tend to be anticlimactic, boring. On New Year’s Day it had gotten warmer and I told the folks I was going for a ride and took off.
I circled wide and went to Jane’s. She was in one of her sad moods, but Christmas all alone, with no family or friends is depressing for anyone. She listened indulgently as I talked about school and basketball. I got some wood and stoked the fire in her little cook stove.
“I got something for you,” I said.
She looked with an unreadable expression.
“Jane didn’t…know you be coming by,” she said.
“That’s okay. Here.”
She took the little object.
“What it is?” she asked.
She weighed it in her hand.
She tore the paper off and held it up.
“A whet stone?”
“For your butcher knife.”
She suddenly busted out laughing, then jumped to her feet and hugged my neck.
“You don’t think Jane crazy. You don’t think Jane crazy if you got her a stone to whet her knife.”
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. She watched with interest as I unfolded it.
“I drew this the day you gave me the pumpkin pie. You can have it, if you want it.”
She took the paper and studied the image for a long moment before she looked up at me.
“You drawed this?”
“Who it is?” she asked. “This Jane?”
Her voice was soft and guarded, as were her eyes. I nodded. She looked back at the paper.
“Jane purdy,” she said softly.
“Yes, Jane is very pretty.”
She wrapped her arms around me and held me tightly for the longest time. I held her. It was just so damned stimulating to feel her body against mine.
“You come with Jane,” she whispered, “she give you something special.”
She started to pull away but I didn’t let go.
“No. I can’t.”
“If Jane white, would you go? Jane can’t never be white, but she been trying to talk better with you. She listen to how you talk and try to talk like you, so you don’t think she just a ignorant colored gal.”
“I think you’re very smart.”
She looked in my eyes, smiled and gave me a little hug.
“Your mouth say you don’t wanna go with Jane, but other parts ain’t so sure.”
“I can’t. My mama and I had a hard time a little while back, but we’re working on it and she’s trying really hard to trust me to do the right thing. If she found out I lay with a grown woman, it would break her trust, and I don’t want to do that.”
“You a good boy.”
She pulled away and patted my cheek.
“When you ready,” she said.
“We should just be friends,” I said.
She studied my eyes and something seemed to click. Her eyes narrowed.
“You be my friend just because?” she asked.
I nodded. “Just because.”
As I got to my bicycle Cyrus McGilroy came out from behind a tree. It scared me so bad I yelled. He pointed his cane at me like a gun.
“You’re playing with the devil, boy,” he said.
I couldn’t speak.
“That gal’s crazy. I’m telling you for your own good. Ain’t no telling what she’s capable of. Stay away from her.”
I jumped on my bike and sped away. He called from behind.
“Don’t make me go see your pa.”