THE WILD STRAWBERRIES

 

John R. Guthrie

 

 

                        The candle burns to be consumed,

                        The moth’s seared wings were long fore-doomed,

                        Weep not for roses that have bloomed –

                        Nor reason why.

 

The blackboard on the gritty plaster wall behind him had, “Original Sin” half-printed and half written in white chalk letters and underlined twice. An arrow pointed down to “All Mankind!” Original sin was the Deacon Rainey’s favorite topic. He was a big man with a hooked nose supporting black-framed glasses. He made his living in the Piedmont and Dixie railroad shop where they repair and paint freight cars. He had just a few strands of dark hair that he combed straight back on top of his head. He taught the WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? Sunday school class for teens at Flint Mills Baptist Church.

Deacon Rainey held the Bible in one hand above his head as he spoke. “And young people, Eve was smiling.” He nodded knowingly. “You know what kind of smile I mean. That smile was not the sunshine of a Christian greeting.” The teens in the room chuckled. He smiled, then puckered in an imitation of Eve’s come-on for Adam. “And she moved up close to Adam.” He crabbed sideways, all 250 pounds of him, leaning a bobbing shoulder forward to mimic Eve’s seductiveness. 

Jelly, a petite teen with honey blond hair and eyes like topaz, leaned over and, and hand over her mouth, whispered, “Jack, if I did that would it…turn you on?”

“I’d be major worried if you did that,” Jack, a gangly teen whose weight hadn’t yet caught up with this height whispered.

Deacon gave the two a warning look. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and his mouth with the front of his hand.

 “’adam, honey,’” he continued, mimicking Eve in a falsetto voice hoarse from too many cigars. “I got something for you. Then she poked out her hand and handed Adam that forbidden fruit. Young people, Eve probably said something like, Come on, Adam, don’t be a nerd. It’s real good,’” Deacon/Eve nodded, “the serpent told me so. And that serpent is s-o-o-o smart.’” Deacon Rainey slammed his Bible shut and looked down at the floor, shaking his head sorrowfully. “Young people, Adam fell for it and took a bi-i-i-g bite of that apple. Adam was just like many a poor fool today that’s got a sheepskin in his hand,” he paused, shaking his head,   “and a sheep’s brain in his head!”

Outside the window, the hedge bush was in bloom, its tiny flowers white against dark green leaves. Jessamine snaked up the branches of the hedge, and honeybees buzzed and worried at the yellow trumpets. Jelly nudged Jack with her elbow. She slid a scrap of paper she had torn from a page of her Sunday School Quarterly toward him. Jack studied the note. The handwriting was small and neat and had just the right curves in all the right places. Like Jelly.

Jack - If I were a flower, what kind would I be?

 

♥Jelly ♥

 

Jack scribbled his reply while looking toward Mr. Rainey, glancing down only occasionally to make sure he was doing it right, and handed it back to her.

 

Jelly--Definitely wild strawberry. Sweet, wild, and free.

X O

Jack.

             She scribbled again and returned the note.

 

That's nice and fits both of us! But I

was sure you’d say Queen Anne’s lace for me.

But at least you didn’t say Sow Thistle.  

 

Jack laughed out loud. Deacon Rainey stopped talking and looked at the two as if he was on the verge of hurling a lightning bolt their way. “Jack and Jelly, the Holy Scriptures ain’t a cause for laughter! Maybe you’d better step outside and get control of yourselves so the sincere young people in this class can finish the lesson.”

Jack looked at Jelly sheepishly, trying not to smile. The two got up and left. Jelly said sotto voce once they emerged from the church, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.” They wandered into the churchyard, Deacon Rainey still thundering in the background. “…God said to the woman, I will multiply your pain and sorrow! And he told Adam the very ground was cursed because he had listened to Eve…” They drifted out of earshot into the church play yard where swings hung from a metal A-frame beside a sliding board, and took a seat on one of the benches there. It was the last time either of them would ever sit in Deacon Rainey’s class. 

All around the churchyard and in the yards of the Flint Mill community beyond, the red earth of the South Carolina Piedmont had burst forth in flowers and greenery. Tulip trees and dogwoods were dappled with blooms. Azalea and narcissus, crocus and jonquils lit up the poorest yards with splashes of lavender, red, and gold. Queen Anne’s Lace nodded in the breeze in the open spaces between the power poles that brought electricity to the church. The air was sweet with honeysuckle.

“Deacon’ll be paying our parents a visit again,” Jack said. Speaking in Deacon Rainey’s hoarse voice, he continued, “Lara, Carlton, I just come to have a word you about Jack. You know your Bible, Carlton: ‘Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him’”

“Yep, the rod of discipline,’” Jelly added, “Yum, yum. Thank you, Jesus, for the rod of discipline.” She nodded, trying to look solemn but laughing anyway.

All around the bench wild strawberries bloomed, bashful and low to the ground. The flowers were tiny, white, their yellow centers heavy with pollen. Jelly reached down and plucked one of the berries. She took a nibble. The fruit, dimpled with seed, was scarlet against the warm vermillion of her lips. She passed it, its raw surface glistening, to Jack.

“Thanks.” Jack licked the juice from the raw surface, then ate it and reached down for more. “So what’s new?”

“I told Mama we should get her an extra long water hose. “

“Water hose?” Jack said, chewing away.

She said, "What in God’s name for? I said then she could just lie in bed with one end of the hose in her mouth and they could funnel in the whiskey from the liquor store and save her a lot of trips.”

  Jack ejected a bit of half-chewed strawberry as he laughed.  “And what, pray tell, Miss Wild Strawberry, did your Mama say to that most thoughtful and practical suggestion?”

“She slapped me so hard my ears are still ringing.” She said it quietly, her voice trembling.

“I’m sorry.” Jack put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer.  “What did your Daddy say?”

“He wasn’t there. He’d gone out of town on Teamsters Union business. He does that every chance he gets. I guess I can’t blame him.” Her eyes brimmed with tears and she wiped at her cheeks with her index finger before she continued. “He can deal fine with a noisy union meeting, but he can’t deal with Mama. I think he still loves her somehow. And you know what? I do too. All I ever really wanted was to be close to Mama. For all her ways, I remember, when you and I were little kids, how Mama would help us make clover chains in the churchyard, smiling, happy, sweet as could be.”

Jack said, “Yeah, then life, like, ground her down. She climbed into the bottle.” He pulled her closer, saying, “And know what, Jelly? It’s like my Mama and Daddy. They really try, but they are weird; way, bad major weird, like, you know, aliens, and at least most of the time they didn’t understand crap. They keep talking college when you and I know there’s a war to be fought, stripes to be earned, medals to be won.”

“I wish you’d stay,” Jelly said, leaning closer.

“Jelly, listen, my Granddaddy earned his sergeant’s stripes and a Silver Star on Peleliu. He was the coolest old dude ever. He ended up in charge of a rifle platoon and then a rifle company ‘cause all the lieutenants and most of the captains in his battalion were killed. He ended up a lieutenant himself. I was 13 when he died.  Daddy said because of pneumonia. Mama says ‘cause he was a drunk. But he’d understand perfectly.”     

“It’s hard to think about being here without you,” Jelly drew back, sniffled, wiped at her eyes and looked toward Jack. She leaned close again, and Jack could feel her breath on his neck as she slipped her arm around his and leaned against him, her fullness pressing into him. She looked straight at Jack, eyes turquoise blue and clear. He leaned toward her without even thinking about it. She puckered up. Jack leaned closer, feeling the beginnings of boner, all the time knowing he shouldn’t because it was Sunday. He gave her a little kiss on the lips, then pulled back.

Jelly her mouth half-opened, paused, then bent over to pick up one of the wild strawberries that dotted the grass of the play yard as she spoke. “Not much longer.”

“For you, not long. For me, it’s iffy. Grades, especially English.”

“Still looks grim, huh?”

“’Fraid so. I had two assignments to make up. Ms. Pickford said I also have to turn in, ‘A polished and exemplary exam paper,’ to pass, which means just to get out of high school.”

“Jack, what’d you do with your time?”

“Read a lot. I liked the Kipling stories, so I went to the library and got more. Found other stuff I liked while I was there. Read it too.”

“So?”

“I’ve studied all the assigned stuff; the definition of gerund, that passage from Dr. Zhivago. I liked Zhivago so much I read all but the last few chapters, not just the part she assigned. But I ran out of time. So, I don’t know. I’ll find out tomorrow.” He squashed the strawberry near his foot with the tip of his sneaker and studied the red paste that remained.

She leaned over and put her hands around Jack’s shoulders. “Look!” 

She leaned her head to the side, and leaning close, brushed Jack’s lips with the tip of one strand of her honey-colored hair.

He smiled, eyebrow arched. “Hey, that tickles.”

“Good. Know what? You’ll do fine in the Marine Corps.”

“Yeah,” Jack nodded.

“Know what else? I think you’re crazy to do it.” 

“Maybe. But maybe I can help make things better that way, also have some money to go to college when I get out. You have your music scholarship, you can do it now. I can do it later. In the meantime, I’ll go somewhere. Anywhere. I’ll write. I’ll be home on leave.”

“You better.”

 

Jack walked out of the conference with Ms. Pickford, shoulders hunched, head low. Jelly was waiting in the hall.

Her brow wrinkled as she saw him. “Jack?”

“Yeah?” he mumbled.

“Did you...what happened, Jack? It didn’t go so good?”

He stopped, stood up straight and nearly laughed. “Hey, I’m putting you on! Think I don’t know English? I aced it, Jelly. A-C-E-D! Ms. Pickford said it was the best paper of all. I’ll graduate Saturday.”

She threw her arms around him, gave him a squeeze, reached up and pecked him on the cheek. “But know what, that proves it.”

“Proves what?” He was pleased, waiting for the compliment.

“That miracles still happen.” She reached up and gave him another peck on the cheek, then hooked her arm around his. “Let’s go to my house. Mama and Daddy are both gone. We can just chill, catch a little TV, play cards.”

 

They got off of the school bus and walked down the winding road from that cut across the railroad to the gray frame house beside the tracks. The front door stood wide open. Inside the two bedroom doors were open. Everything was quiet. They walked in, looking around, then went back into the kitchen. There was a note on the table, scribbled on the back of a used envelope. Jelly picked it up and read it, then passed it to Jack.

Jelly —

I’m not putting up with the crap that’s going on around here any damned more. I’m leaving. And I’m not coming back!  When your Daddy gets back, you cook and clean for him. And both of you can kiss my royal ass!!! 

 

Love,

Mother

“Good riddance!Jelly said, but then she covered her face with both hands and started crying, shaking and sobbing. Jack reached out for her, then pulled his hand back, then reached out again. She parted her hands and looked at him, then hugged him, still crying, the note wadded up in her hand.

Jack put his arms tighter around her. They finally turned and stepped into the living room and sat on the nappy and threadbare couch that stood against one wall. A small television sat on a small wooden table in the corner. There was nearly a full quart of wine on a lower shelf. Jelly stepped over and picked it up. The label read “Roma Rocket.”

“Mama forgot something. Want some?”

“Why not?”

She stepped into the kitchen, returning with two empty peanut butter jars.

Jack twisted the cap off. “Ah, fine wine, doubtless aged for several hours.” They clinked their glasses and took a gulp.

“Whew!” Jelly said, making a face as she bolted it down. Jack did the same.

They sat on the couch and had another drink. Their hands soon began traveling, exploring as if of their own accord.

Jack tasted her tongue, and shifted his hands beneath her clothing, feeling the smooth warmth of her, the two dimples at the top of her hips, the firm cones of her breasts. They undressed each other, and he put his hand between her legs. She was soft and wet. She grasped the portion of his anatomy that was bobbing like a metronome each time his heart beat.

Beside the couch, the bottle of Roma Rocket sat empty on the floor, the rocket on the label arching into a purple sky filled with brilliant stars and speeding comets. 

 “You ever think about what Deacon Rainey told us last summer?” Jack said as he stripped the two pieces of the condom away. “That we could burn in hell for doing it before marriage?”

Jelly said, “Yeah. I don’t believe that, most of the time. But you know what? If we going to hell for it anyway, let’s do it lots more before we go.”

They slept in her bed. They awakened just after midnight. They reached for each other once more. Once spent, they laid back on the bed again.

Finally she said softly, “C’mon, I’ll play something for you.” She threw her legs over the side of the bed and stood there for a moment, smiling down at Jack. Her skin glowed golden in the light of the bare bulb she switched on. In Jack’s eyes she was as awesome as any miracle the deacon ever told about. He lay there looking at her, then she finally held out her hand, “Let’s go.” In the living room, she sat on the stool before the battered upright Baldwin, jumped back up and looked at him. “Cold,” she said, then made a face and sat again. Jack sat on the couch, the fabric rough against his bare skin. She shifted a little to compose herself, lifted her hands and began to play.

The music was solemn, stately, not at all like the hymns Jack heard her play in church, though he liked them too. As the music moved along, she leaned into the piano, her bare toes slender and splayed as she worked the pedals. Each note resonated, sparkled and took flight, and took Jack with it. Then the two were no longer in a rickety frame house beside the Piedmont and Dixie Railway tracks with a naked teen playing a beat-up piano, but somewhere ever so grand. Then the final chords sounded, then slowly faded away. Jelly swiveled toward Jack on the piano stool, her breasts rising as she took a breath. Neither of them said anything. Finally Jack broke the silence.

“Jesus, Jelly. That was so, so, wow! Beautiful.”

“It’s Pathetique, by Ludwig van Beethoven.”

“Wow!”

“It’s my recital piece. Miss Clyburne taught me to play it.” Miss Clyburne was the church pianist and choir director. “She says I play it better than she does now, but I don’t really think so.”

She came and sat by Jack, her thigh warm against his. Jack took her hand and their fingers laced together. They sat as one, silent, charmed, overwhelmed by the wonder of it all, and for that moment were special among all nature’s creatures.

 

Jack got home when the early morning sky was barely graying on the horizon. The lights were on in the kitchen. His Mama and Daddy were up. He could smell the sausage that sizzled in the pan. He entered quietly and tried to sneak up the stairs without being noticed.

“Jack?”

“Yes’m?”

“Come in here. Where’ve you been, Son?”  Jack’s Mama had her apron on and her face was shiny from the heat of the stove. On the wall above the stove was a framed cross-stitch, a picture of a fat cook stirring a steaming pot with a verse inscribed beside her:

A cheerful Kitchen,

Bright and gay,

Will make all troubles

Fade away.

 

“God! You want me to give you a list of everywhere I go? I passed everything. I’m graduating. I’ve been, you know, celebrating.”

Daddy stepped up behind her at this point and said, “With your friends, I suppose, unfortunately.”

“My friends,” Jack snapped back, “are the people who live around here to be friends with.”

Mama looked at him. “I wonder how Jelly’s getting along?”

“I guess she’s doing fine.”

Mama raised her eyebrows a little, then said, “At least you’re graduating. You can go to college.”

“Sure. Who has the money? Anyway, I want to get out of here. Look, I’m tired of being bossed around all the time. I’ll go into the Marines.”

“Interesting concept, Son,” his father said.

 

“Sure. I’ll save my money, and go to school when I get out. I’ll go some place interesting that way.”

My mother turned back to the stove and attended her cooking as she spoke. “Some places are too interesting these days. We have more troops in Afghanistan every day. Uncle Sam’ll be dealing with them for a long time. You don’t want to end up there. And, you don’t want to end up being a ditch digger somewhere down the line ‘cause you didn‘t go to college. You can live at home, go to Epworth College right here in town. Work just part time to pay your tuition.”

“I’d rather go to Afghanistan any time! U. S. Marines! I’ve had enough of Chickasaw County.”

Mama, flipping the sausages in the pan, shook her head. “There’s good, honest work here. It wouldn’t last forever. You don’t need to be thinking about any Afghanistan, or Timbuktu or Tupelo or Marines, either. Look at your Cousin Milton. He was a good boy, then he went in the army and never drew another sober breath. His poor mother… ” 

Daddy weighed in again. “That’s right. Your grandfather was in the Marines in the Pacific during World War II. Caught a fungal infection he carried to his grave!”

“Oh, come on! I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about Afghanistan. I read this story by Rudyard Kipling that Mrs. Pickford assigned…”  

Daddy shook his head as he continued. “Of course, if it’s misery you want, you can be miserable right here in Chickasaw County. Especially if you get some little hot-assed girl in a family way.”

Jack’s face felt hot. “Jelly’s the best friend I ever had.”

 Daddy was shaking his head. “I didn’t say a thing about Jelly. What I would’ve given to have the opportunities you have. I was already working in the mill at your age. I never even thought of staying out all night, either. Mother, let him go into the Marines; go to Afghanistan or Iraq or Colombia or North Korea or Iran. Looks like there’s always going to be another hellhole to go to now with that joker we have in Washington. Mother, Jack’ll wish he’d listened. No use casting one’s pearls before swine, is there?”

 “Swine? Little hot-assed girl? Listen, you old fart. I’m not swine, and Jelly’s not some little hot-assed girl. You can’t call me or her names anymore without a reasonable probability of getting your ass beat.” 

Mama snapped back, “Jack, how could you say such a thing?”  She was looking full at Jack now, hands on her hips, the spatula still in one hand. Jack looked at her face. She was losing it. They were both losing it, and here I am in the middle again. God!    

“Why you insolent...” Daddy was up and moving toward Jack, telegraphing a roundhouse right. Jack stepped back, recovered, got ready for action, intent on finishing it then and there with a left jab to his nose.   

“Carlton, Jack, stop it!” Mama stepped between the two warriors and Jack lowered his guard. She held her spatula like a club. “Jack, be ashamed!” Jack’s Daddy was behind her, fists still raised for action. She turned and rapped him on one upraised hand with her spatula. “I said stop it.” She looked back at Jack. “Jack, you are a disappointment. And Carlton, you’re an old fool.”

Jack’s father brushed his nose with the thumb of his left fist, like a bull pawing the ground. Mama looked quickly first at Jack, then at his father.

Jack looked at Daddy. Suddenly felt like crying. His father was standing, fists at his side, still breathing hard, and looking more sad than angry. He’s hardly been out of Chickasaw County. For all his talk, he doesn’t know anything about Afghanistan, or the U.S. Marines. He’s had the color and adventure life had to offer bleached out of him. Also, though I try not to let this get out, he is, sweet Jesus, a poet, scribbling poems that  sometimes end up in the newspaper or the church newsletter.

Jack looked at his Mama again, the worry lines deep on her forehead. He wanted to say something to her, something comforting that would be a balm for the pain and hurt, the harsh scarcity that had always been her lot, but he couldn’t find the words, so he hesitated, then said only, “I…I’m going outside for a little while.”

The kitchen door slammed behind him and he made his past the wired in enclosure where the chickens were kept and down the path toward the creek that ran through the valley below the house. The air in the pinewoods was pungent and new. It was cool beside the creek where he sat, his chin cupped in his hands. He listened to the water that gurgled and splashed over the rocks in the early light, trying to think it all through. It isn’t easy. Mama is so disappointed. Daddy, too. What if I am making a major mistake?

Jack was startled by a sudden fluttering and struggle nearby. He jumped to his feet. It was an owl. Jack could barely see it in the gloom of early morning. It had dived from the sky to the edge of the underbrush and put on the brakes in a confusion of wide spread, beating wings. He watched as it swam powerfully back up into the darkness with some small, sad, silent thing hanging from its claws. Jack watched until it was out of sight, then turned and walked slowly back to the house.

 

He called Jelly in the afternoon. She said, “Mama came back loaded. She said she had gone to see a gentleman friend at the VFW. Then she went in to take a nap. I haven’t heard from her since except for the snoring.” 

Jack watched the news that evening, half laid back on the couch as his Daddy sat in his recliner. It showed the bombing of an Al Qaeda cave complex in a place called Bora Bora. The smoke boiled up higher than the mountains.

Jack finished Dr. Zhivago that evening, lying in bed and reading far into the night. One of the final passages captured his attention: “Thus Greece gave way to Rome, and the Russian Enlightenment has become the Russian Revolution.

“There is a terrible difference between the two periods. Blok says somewhere: ‘We are the children of Russia’s terrible years.’” Jack had no idea who Blok was, or why he or she mattered, and he wasn’t sure why the paragraph was so interesting, but he thought about it, and like a puppy worrying a slipper, grabbed it first one way and then another and chewed on it until he fell into a deep sleep.

 

“Jack, Jack....” Jack rubbed his eyes and tried to focus in on his Mama and what she was saying. She was crying. “There’s been a fire…”

“A fire?”

“Oh Jack, it’s Jelly’s house. It’s on TV ...”

He rushed barefoot to the kitchen, hopping to pull on his jeans as he went. He stopped in front of the TV in its black plastic cabinet on the kitchen counter. The announcer, who’d been the morning newsman for WASC-TV since Jack could remember, said, “…fire of unknown origin. The two bodies removed from the fire have been identified, but their names are being withheld pending notification of family. Fire chief Terry Wilson said the cause of the blaze is unknown so far, but foul play is not suspected. We’ll keep you updated on this tragedy, folks. We’ll now return you to our regular programming.”

Jack reached out and snapped the TV off. He stood unmoving for a moment, then looked at Mama. She was sobbing into the balled up apron she held in both hands.

Jack could see it all. Jelly’s mom went to bed and passed it out. She awakened in the middle of the night, got up to pee. She had another drink straight from the new quart of Roma Rocket she’d brought in and sat on the floor beside the bed.  Restless, she lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and blew the smoke out through her nose. She took another drink, then lay back and promptly fell asleep again. The burning cigarette fell from her fingers. The smoke from the bedding widened, coiling toward the ceiling like a serpent.

 

The windows in the sanctuary were open, but it was still hot. Mourners filled the sanctuary, cardboard funeral home fans fluttering like the wings of moths. There were two white coffins at the front of the church, both bolted safely shut to conceal the horrors within. One had a picture of Mrs. Fortenberry on the top in a dime-store frame of gold-colored plastic. She was young in the picture, hopeful and pretty, hardly older than Jelly. Her hair was neat and she had on a dark blouse with a white collar, a necklace around her neck. On the other one was a picture of Jelly; her yearbook picture, but Jack could only glance at it for a moment.

They sang hymns, old Baptist hymns, Jack couldn’t remember later which ones, just ones that you sing at a funeral. Jack had known since he was 12 or so that a lot of them don’t make sense when you think about the words. Still, they wrap around you, as familiar and comfortable as an old coat, one that even though it’s threadbare with holes at the elbows, covers you and warms you when it’s cold.

   “Brothers and sisters,” the preacher began, “We know how much Jelly and her mother trusted the Lord. Just like it says in the book of Timothy, their faith was unfeigned, because theirs was a godly family, Mrs. Fortenberry a godly woman, and Jelly a godly girl, one brought up in the fear and admonition of the Lord.”

Somebody in the congregation cried out, “Yes, Jesus.”

The preacher paused to mop his red face with his handkerchief.

“Many sorrows shall be to the wicked, but he that trusteth in the LORD, mercy shall compass him about....“

People were sniffing and honking into their handkerchiefs. Jack looked over at Jelly’s Aunt Eleanor. She looked straight ahead, chin up, dry-eyed and unmoving. She’d never laughed much, and she didn’t cry much now.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; they rod and they staff they comforteth me.”

“Thou art my comfort, Lord,” someone in the congregation cried out

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

On the front row, next to Jelly’s father sat Jelly’s grandmother, a wretched splinter of a woman, dried up and wrinkled, who stank of cigarettes and rose water. She fainted, sliding to the floor. Church ladies instantly surrounded her, fluttering their fans at her like the wings of so many sparrows.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

“Our fire chief Terry Wilson,” Preacher continued. “tells me that people in a house fire at night usually die in their sleep from the smoke, before the fire ever gets to them. That is further evidence of God’s mercy, the suffocation before the flames…”

 Sure, Jack thought to himself, like the knife Abraham carried for Isaac.

No matter how hot it was in that church, Jack felt cold. For a moment he was 12 years old again, at the Baptist retreat called Crestview in the Smoky Mountains just across the North Carolina line from Chickasaw County. He went there with his Mama and Daddy. They were going to meetings. While they were busy with meetings, he hiked across the mountain alone. Then he realized it was getting darker and clouds were frowning down as they rolled over the peaks. A breeze that made goose bumps on his arms started shaking the leaves on the bushes nearby. Soon the clouds were overhead, the sky dark though it was the middle of the day. Lightning pitchforked over the mountain peaks. Thunder crashed, then bounced around through the hills.                                                                                       

Jack hugged his tee shirt to his chest and started back, hurrying down the path. The hail started, bits of ice as big as marbles that stung as they pelted his face and fell down the back of his collar to melt against his back as he bent into the wind. His face was burning from the cold; the front of his thighs ached, the front of his jeans were saturated.  He came to a branch in the trail, then another, both times choosing the one that looked the best. He realized he could get lost in the storm and never make it home. Sitting in the sanctuary during Jelly’s funeral, he felt like he was up in the mountains again, all alone in that storm, the wind blowing, the hail in his face, running from the storm and wondering if he’d ever find his way back.

A noise in the sanctuary interrupted his reverie. He looked to the side where a mother shushed her two restless children and where Jelly’s dad sat looking straight ahead.

Miss Clyburne, the church pianist, who was also Jelly’s music teacher, arose from her front row seat and reseated herself on the piano bench. Miss Clyburne was fat. She powdered her face so heavy that it always looked like she’d been in the flour. She usually had lipstick on her teeth. Often her slip showed. When she lifted her forearms to play the flesh sagged toward the keyboard. But when Miss Clyburne played the piano, you didn’t think about that.

Jack recognized Pathetique with the first chord that sounded. It had always been the most dignified song he’d ever heard and now each note bloomed into the stillness of the church, glistening and glowing like a pearl, only to be replaced by another even more beautiful. Then Miss Clyburne, with her sags and wrinkles and powder blue dress with the broach at the throat was gone. It was Jelly who played, Jelly who was and now and ever would be as young and as full of promise as the sky of morning. Her skin glowed in the light flooding through the stained glass window. Her back curved slightly as she leaned into the rhythms and cadences, each note singing forth as true and certain as the rising of the sun as her slender fingers struck the keys. Her bare toes splayed as she worked the pedals. Each note resonated, sparkled and took flight, and took Jack with it. The final chords sounded. The church was still except for sobs here and there.

The catafalques rumbled as they carried the two white coffins to the foyer and out of the church.  Outside twin hearses waited. The pallbearers muscled the gleaming coffins into their gaping maws.

 

Mourners stood beside the two open graves as the preacher said the final words. The crowd moved back and shuffled around stiffly after the preacher finished, speaking to each other, seeking the comfort of familiar words and faces. An excavator, its front bucket packed with dirt, snorted in from somewhere and squeaked to a stop. It rattled and splattered the red clay over the white tops of the coffins.

The sky was cloudless that day, and here and there a crow angled above the tree line at the edge of the graveyard. The sun dappled through the trees, patterning the ground with half shade. A green lizard skirted across the ground to seek refuge in a bay bush. Jack walked away alone after the preacher spoke.

When he looked back, flowers blanketed the filled graves. Jack murmured aloud to no one, Jelly is finally close to her Mama. He walked further away, across the field and toward the woodlands beyond.

“Jack?”

Jack turned to see Deacon Rainey. The Deacon removed his cigar from his mouth and said, “Jack, Son, you know this is part of God’s plan. An important part.”

Jack studied the ground at his feet for a moment, fists clenched. Finally he looked the deacon in the eye and said, “Then I hope he’ll leave me out of his plan next time.”

The deacon’s eyebrows screwed up and he opened his mouth as if to say something angry. Then he stopped and looked away. His face softened as he looked at Jack again, and said more softly than Jack had ever heard him speak. “I know, Jack, I know. It ain’t easy. It ain’t never easy, son. I’m so sorry. So very sorry.” Then he reached out and hugged Jack briefly, awkwardly, then stepped back and sort of clapped him on the arm. He looked at Jack a moment. Then not knowing what else to do, so he took a drag off his cigar. It had gone out, so he threw it on the ground, crushed it beneath the sole of his shoe, turned and walked away.

 

Jack woke early. It was still dark. He lay there in the darkness, thinking of all that had happened and all that would be. He finally got to his feet, pulled on his clothes and picked up a grocery bag with Winn Dixie printed on it in red from the floor. He placed it on his bed, then stepped over and opened the top drawer of his chest of drawers. The drawer, worn and loose, sagged down as Jack pulled out a set of jockey shorts and an extra tee shirt and a pair of white socks. He placed them in the bag, then added a toothbrush and a half-squeezed-out tube of Colgate toothpaste. He folded the top of the bag down and went down the stairs into the kitchen

Daddy glanced up from his paper but said nothing, and Mama, her back to him, was working away at the stove.

 “Your breakfast is ready, Son,” Mama said. 

“No, thanks, Mama. I’m not hungry. I’ve…I’ve got to leave now.”

“Leave?”

“I’m going to the Marine Corps. Gunnery Sergeant Watson -- he told me he’d have the ticket ready. I’m going on the Greyhound.”

Mama’s spatula clanged to the floor. Daddy, frowning now, said, “Son, you need to stop and think, right now! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You don’t need to be going to any Marine Corps. Don’t think they’ll send you to a tropical paradise. Think Afghanistan! I read that it’s terribly cold there, too, just desert and mountains.”

“I can save some money, do some things before I go to college. Maybe I can take some courses at night. It wouldn’t be so bad, to go some place like that. At least it’s not Chickasaw County.”

Daddy shook his head. “Nothing but poverty and disease, suffering and death. That’s Afghanistan.“

”Maybe I could help somehow…”

“Oh, Jack.” Jack could hear the trembling in Mama’s voice that meant tears were on the way, which was worse than any beating could be.

The screen door screeched and slammed shut behind him as he headed across the yard, grocery bag in hand. Then the screen door squealed open again. He stopped and looked back, a tall and slender boy, as alone and unsure as any ever had been.

They stood there, silent and grim. The tears were dripping off Mama’s chin, and her misery was Jack’s as well.

He turned and ran back to them, hugged them both close and said, “Afghanistan, if I get to go there, it won’t be so bad. I learned in Mrs. Pickford’s class how it was always the gateway to the riches of India...”

His Mama smiled a little through her tears as he continued and his Daddy looked interested now, “Yeah, so for thousands of years caravans bulging with treasure crossed though.”

Then Daddy admitted, “That sure does sound interesting, Son, the history and all.”

Then Jack said, “It’s not all desert. Some parts have forests of ash and pine, and there are wild dogs, jackals, foxes and even tigers.”

He could see Mama was impressed, so he continued.  “And the mountains there are ever so high and jagged and capped with snow.”

They nodded and smiled. Mama said, “We love you, Son. We’re proud of you.”

Daddy added, “We know you’ll give a good accounting of yourself, Son.” 

 

But in fact, as Jack looked back, the three of them stood, scalded, bleeding, beyond words. Finally, Jack turned and continued to walk away.

He crossed the narrow road to the field beyond where the wild strawberries grew, crimson and fragrant, hugging the earth of that place. Soon he entered the patch of woods that stood before the Piedmont and Dixie Railroad line. Once on the tracks, he turned to follow them the three miles towards town.

Crossing the trestle that stood 75 feet above the creek that ran below, frothing and bubbling between the rocks and boulders, he stopped and looked down to the water rolling beneath the trestle. For a moment, Jelly was there, Jelly in all her sweetness. She called and beckoned.

He hesitated, stretched out his arms for balance, straightened up and plodded on.

In the city far ahead, a train whistle sounded; two longs, a short, then another long, as the freight cleared the train yard. Jack soon saw the headlight in the distance, and stood to the side of the track. The diesel-electric engine, throbbing and moaning, tugged on ahead as his shirt fluttered in the wind of its passage. The cars rattled by, finally leaving only the cry of the whistle, wailing like a lost and wounded thing as the train progressed into the hills beyond.

 

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Author’s Note:

The epigraph is from “Star Crossed” by C. L. Guthrie.