AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
WILLIAM NATHAN MCCASKILL
A Novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
BRUCE AND CRAZY JANE
It was late afternoon; I had just gotten home from work. As I got out of the car I saw that dad was staring across the lake. Just then I heard a horrible commotion: screaming and crying and shouting. One voice was Jane’s. I didn’t recognize the others, but it was coming from Cyrus’ yard. I took off at a dead run. Dad took off after me.
The Sheriff and a Deputy, guns drawn, were slowly closing in on Jane. Thirty feet from them, butcher knife at his throat, Jane had Cyrus against a large oak. Her eyes were wild and unseeing, or seeing something none of the rest of us could.
“He kilt my mammy and my pappy!” she screamed. “What y’all gonna do ‘bout that?”
“Put the knife down, miss,” the Sheriff ordered.
The Sheriff heard me run up, turned a quick look at me.
“Stay back, son. Stay back.”
“He kilt my mammy and my pappy and y’all ain’t done nothing! Y’all ain’t gonna do nothing when he kills Jane, neither.”
“Put the knife down and we can talk about it. We can’t talk with you holding that knife.”
Jane squeezed her eyes closed and shook her head hard, like she was shaking something off, then she screamed.
“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”
“We can’t do that, miss.”
But she wasn’t talking to the Sheriff.
“I think I have a shot,” the deputy said.
“Hold off. Don’t shoot yet.”
“Jane,” I called gently.
“Stay out of this, son! Y’all need to get on outta here. Go on. McCaskill, get your boy outta here.”
I took two slow steps forward. Sheriff Hooper put his hand roughly on my arm.
“Get outta here, boy! I ain’t gonna say it again! McCaskill, get your boy!”
“Come on, Billy,” dad said.
I pulled free of both their hands and took three steps forward.
“Jane, it’s me. It’s your friend, Billy.”
She looked hard at me and started shaking her head, slowly at first then more rapidly.
“No. He done kilt my Billy. He done kilt my onliest friend in the world.”
She turned her face to Cyrus and leaned slightly into him.
“No, Jane! Jane! Listen to the music. There’s still music, Jane.”
Her body relaxed slightly. I took two more steps. She was looking at Cyrus as her head shook slowly.
“They ain’t no music no more.”
“McCaskill,” Hooper said softly, “get your boy outta the line of fire.”
“Give him a chance, Sheriff,” dad said, uncertainty in his voice.
“They ain’t no music no more,” Jane repeated. “They don’t let me hear no music.”
“I’ll help you hear it, okay?”
She shook her head slowly but there was a struggle inside her. I moved slowly forward.
“Dance with me, Jane. Dance with your friend, Billy.”
“Billy dead. Ole Gil done kilt him.”
“I’m not dead. I’m right here.”
She let me get to within arm’s length. Her eyes narrowed threateningly and her head canted to the side as the knife went more firmly against Cyrus’ neck.
“Who gave you the stone to whet that knife?”
She thought for a moment.
“Who brought you tangerines for Christmas?”
She blinked several times, like she’d come suddenly out of a dark place into the sun.
“It Billy, ain’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am. Billy McCaskill.”
Her bottom lip quivered.
“He a good boy.”
“Will you dance with Billy? Maybe you can hear the music.”
She looked at me with misgiving but didn’t pull away when I took her wrist gently. She let me turn her to me. Cyrus slid down the tree to the ground. The knife was still in her fist and I took that hand at the wrist. I started to sway. She was stiff but tried to join me. After a minute she looked up at me, her eyes moist.
“I can’t hear the music no more, Billy.”
Her frightened, childlike voice touched me deeply. I pulled her close to me and held her. She held me tightly; her body was trembling.
“They so loud, I can’t hear my own self no more. I scared, Billy. I scared all the time. I scared when I goes to bed an’ I scared when I wakes up. What I gonna do, Billy? I never be free of them.”
“Listen for the music.”
I didn’t know what else to say. She was still for a moment then nodded against my chest. She gave me one squeeze and started to pull away.
“You a good friend. Now Jane be free.”
What did that mean? She turned her back to me and plunged the knife deep into her chest. I caught her as she collapsed.
“Jane! No! NO!”
“Hold my hand while I flies away.”
I took her hand. She squeezed mine weakly. Then there was nothing.
I held her and cried. The deputy helped Cyrus away. The Sheriff squatted and put his fingers to Jane’s neck.
“She’s gone,” he said quietly.
Dad squatted beside me, his hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t stop sobbing.
“Let her go, Billy. She’s free now.”
“Dad. Dad, I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, son. I don’t either.”
I didn’t want to let go of her, didn’t want to leave her lying there, alone, on the cold, hard ground. Dad finally helped me up and started walking me away. I stopped and started to turn. He took my shoulder firmly.
“Don’t look back, Billy. Don’t remember her like that.”
I sobbed into my bloody hands as he led me home.
Mom and Gwen nearly swooned when they saw my state and the blood all over me. Dad assured them I wasn’t injured and brushed off their questions, getting a little brusque at mom’s persistence, and he took me to the bath where I washed the blood off with shaking hands. He took away the bloody clothes, brought clean clothes and I sat on the edge of the tub for a few minutes but couldn’t stay there. I had to get out. In the kitchen mom looked at me doubtfully. Gwen put her hands to her eyes and left the room. Dad was sitting on the steps.
“Don’t go back over there, son.”
“No, sir. I wasn’t. I just can’t sit.”
I went to the wood pile and started splitting wood. Dad watched from a distance. I was so angry. It made no sense to me. I slammed that axe into wood until it was too dark to see.
Sheriff Hooper came by a couple of hours later. Mom sat him at the kitchen table and he asked how I knew Jane, what I knew about her. I gave him a brief accounting.
“We were friends,” I said, wrapping up.
“I see,” he replied.
“If that tone means what I think it means,” I said, “then you don’t see at all.”
“Billy,” mama cautioned.
“Mama, I don’t give a sick rat’s ass if this man believes me,”
“Son,…” dad said.
“but I want you to believe that I never did anything with Jane that would shame you, unless being a friend to another human being is a shameful thing.”
I started crying again. Mama came to my side, hugged me and kissed my head.
“I believe you, Billy. You did a good thing, being a friend to that poor girl.”
“But it wasn’t enough. She was so…tortured.”
She kissed my head again and rocked me gently.
The Sheriff thanked us for our help and stood to take his leave. He was in the doorway.
“What about Cyrus McGilroy?” I asked.
“What about him?”
“Jane said he killed her daddy. She said he raped her and her mama, and that he wanted to kill her.”
He considered me for a moment.
“He was pretty shook up so we sent him to the hospital, didn’t want him having a heart attack. I’ll be going by in the morning to get his story.”
He turned away then turned back.
“It ain’t strictly procedure, but you seem to have a personal stake in this so, if your daddy has no objection, you can sit in tomorrow morning, about 9:00. I’ll be the only one asking questions, you understand.”
I didn’t sleep much. I cried some. Gwen, God love her, came to my room and held me and cried with me. Mama came, too, sat on the edge of the bed with us and they listened as I talked about Jane and our talks and dancing and tangerines.
The next morning dad and I were at the hospital. Mr. McGilroy hadn’t had a heart attack but he looked more gaunt and haunted than before. He told the story as if he were glad to get it off his chest.
“Jane was a sweet little girl, hard headed but a good child. But she was different. When she was just a little thing, she talked about voices talking to her. Well, children often have imaginary friends and Jane didn’t have no real friends since none of the other coloreds would have nothing to do with her mama after Sam duped them and took off with their money.”
“You spend a lot of time around Jane, when she was little?” Hooper asked.
Cyrus looked at Hooper, a guilty look in his face, then back at his hands.
“White folks blamed me for what Sam did and they shunned me. Even at church they shunned me and my missus. My Mildred was sick at the time, cancer, and that hurried her to her grave. There wasn’t but one person who would speak kindly to me, and I was the only person who would speak kindly to her. A soul needs the company of another soul. I’d take a load of wood or a few tomatoes to Mamie, that was her name; I’d take some little something to her, and we’d chat a spell. And one day she brought me a piece of pie, apple pie, she’d just made, and we chatted. There wasn’t no plan on either of our parts; it just happened.”
“What ‘just happened’?”
“We, uh, we came to have…feelings for each other. I know it’s wrong for a white man to have feelings for a colored woman, but I couldn’t help it.”
“Well, a man does need female companionship, on occasion. That would explain it.”
Cyrus stared at his hands for a long moment.
“Yes. I suppose it would.”
Cyrus didn’t look up from his hands. He sighed deeply.
“When she was thirteen, fourteen, Jane came in on us. She was supposed to be at the store, but…well, that doesn’t matter. She came in and she just exploded. I guess she’d heard about how white men had used colored women; I don’t know. She kept saying over and over, ‘They told me he was evil. They told me he was evil’. Well, I got out quick as I could, but every time I went near that little house after that, she exploded, screaming and hollering. We, uh, stopped spending time together but that didn’t stop Jane. When she was fifteen or so, she ran off with some man and was gone for a year or so and when she came back she was more difficult than before. She would fight her mama, hit her, slap her and call her all manner of filthy things. Mamie put up with it as long as she could, then she had her put in the mental hospital.”
“Did you kill Mamie Good?” Hooper asked.
Cyrus shook his head slowly.
“I took ill that January, flu, and it put me down hard. I thought, hoped, Mamie might come check on me, but we’d agreed not to see each other, and I was too sick to wonder about it. After I got some strength back, I was outside and saw there was no smoke coming from Mamie’s chimney, so I walked back and found her.”
“Why did you get Jane out of the hospital? Why did you bring her back? Did you bring her back to use her like you used her mama?”
The Sheriff’s accusatory tone surprised me and jerked my eyes to him. Cyrus’ wet sniff brought them back to him. His shoulders heaved.
“I never lay with Jane, not before nor after. Mamie came to see me once, the day after y’all took Jane. She said she didn’t have nobody and said if anything ever happened to her, would I take care of her girl. I figured she was just upset at having to send her child away; Mamie was young and healthy and wouldn’t nothing happen to her, so I said I would. I brought Jane back because I thought that’s what her mama would want.”
Dad went with me to Jane’s graveside service. She was laid beside her mother. There was no family, no friends, so there was no funeral. In attendance were the minister, three of his deacons, two men from the funeral home and a white boy and his dad.They read her body into the ground. The minister read a lot of Scripture verses but had no words to say about a poor, lonely, tortured soul cast adrift by circumstances which overpowered her, which hammered relentlessly against her spirit until the music in her soul died. He had no words to say about the poor soul who had passed through this world unloved by her fellow man and, it seemed to me, unloved by God.
I didn’t air my thoughts with anyone. I didn’t know how to question the love of God, wondered if by questioning it in my mind I had slipped off that narrow path Rev. Stockton’s sermons had constructed for me. I was just so damned angry at the injustice of it all.
I went to work every day, worked hard, twelve hours or more, tiring myself out and saying little to others. I came home every evening, ate a late supper and did my chores with little to say to my family. Gwen asked me a couple of times if I was alright. I shrugged her off. I caught little looks between mom and dad, but they didn’t say anything to me.
I came home at my usual late hour three weeks or so after Jane’s death. Mom busied herself around the kitchen while I ate. When I was done, she took my plate and put a piece of blackberry cobbler in front of me then sat down beside me. As I stared at it I was suddenly taken back to an earlier day.
“Bruce loved cobbler.”
Her eyes pinched then she nodded.
“That boy did love his sweets.”
She wiped her eyes with her apron.
“Whatever brought that to your mind?”
My lip started to tremble. I hate to cry. Men aren’t supposed to cry. I bit it hard. I couldn’t reply; I just shook my head. I lifted a spoonful of cobbler but couldn’t put it in my mouth. I bit my lip again but it didn’t help.
“It’s not fair, mama.”
“What’s not fair, Billy.”
I shook my head. A tear fell on the cobbler. She got up and hugged my head to her.
“Talk to me, son. Tell me what’s weighing so heavily on you.”
I shook my head.
“You can talk to me. I don’t care what you tell me. I love you, Billy, and that’s all that matters, and I don’t care what you might have done.”
“I never lay with her, mama.”
“I believe you, son. I just don’t understand why you’re so upset.”
“Because it’s not fair. It’s just not fair. She had to go through her entire life hearing voices that told her crazy things. She pushed back against them, mama; I know she did, but she had to do it alone. Where was God, mama? That’s what I want to know. Where was the Good Shepherd when one of his lambs was lost and afraid and alone? Where was he? She had to go through her entire life alone, without anyone who cared, and I want to know what kind of God would do that to his children.”
Tears were flowing freely and I had to get away. Mama caught me at the door, put her arms around my waist and held me.
“Billy. Billy, turn around here. Now, you’ll have to struggle with God about your bigger question, but it’s not true that she never had anyone who cared. She had you. You obviously cared about her and she cared about you. It’s important to have someone who loves us, but it’s more important that we have someone who we can love, and she had you.”
“But I couldn’t save her from killing herself.”
“No, son. That part lies with God. Lay that on his doorstep and leave it there.”