Grandma Vernie sat on the porch swing and looked down the road for the Methodist preacher. Sprawled lengthwise beside her was Nida Ruth, her twelve-year-old granddaughter with curly auburn hair and gold wire spectacles. The child snored gently, her head pushed up against Vernie’s forearm, her mouth opened slightly to reveal an upper row of widely spaced teeth. Vernie glanced down at the child in half-pride, half-exasperation. She’d called Nida Ruth out to help her watch for the preacher (her vision was haloed by cataracts), only to have her fall asleep five minutes into the vigil. Occasionally, the motion from the swing or the wind in the ivy would disturb her and she’d shift and stir, but she’d never open her eyes. Instead, she’d asked in a clear voice meant to let Vernie know she’d never really slumbered, “Seen any sign of him yet?” and her grandma would answer, “No, miss, no sign at all.”
The preacher wasn’t coming now. He probably didn’t have the nerve. They’d been waiting since one and now it was a quarter past four and he still hadn’t come. All of the church people and most of the neighbors had been on time. Then the funeral should have started but it hadn’t. They’d waited over an hour for the preacher during which time the women sat clustered and chatting while the men stepped out to smoke on both the side porches. At exactly five minutes past two, Vernie had nodded to Essie McClure to start the playing. Essie had had to play “Oh, for a Closer Walk with Thee” through three times before they’d quieted enough to listen. Brother Bob Yarwood had done a fine job, but it wasn’t the same as having a preacher. Even if the boy had been half-witted, he still should have had a preacher.
“A funeral with no preacher,” she said, shaking her head. “I never thought I’d live to see the day.”
“I know what you mean,” mumbled the child and stuck her foot down and under so Vernie wouldn’t rock.
Vernie sat unhappily.
“No dignity,” she said, then kicked at the child’s foot and began to swing.
They could have had a preacher if they’d really wanted one but some situations called for a bit of moral fiber and this was a classic case. Ernest Lee was her boy but he was too soft. He’d have called Dellrose Methodist if she’d let him. She wouldn’t let him. There is no preacher, she’d said, standing like the wrath of God in the middle of the living room, ever had to be ask to call on his flock in time of need, they’re jus’ supposed to be here. When Ernest Lee had pointed out that maybe this Timms fellow wasn’t there because he wasn’t really their preacher, that their preacher was a Baptist and laid up Mills General with kidney stones, she’d quickly pointed out the facts. Doll Gass, her special friend and a Methodist, had told her that she would see Pastor Timms knew of their predicament, and she was sure Doll had done her part. The rest was up to Timms. He’d been told. And until the arrival of the first caller, she’d stalked through the house with an air of silent violence.
Later, when the men had run out of smokes and the women began trotting to the bathroom, Vernie began to have doubts. If Ernest Lee had asked her then, she’d have told him to call Dellrose and get Connie, the secretary, on the phone. Connie was Doll’s niece’s sister in law. But he’d been too busy shaking hands to think about a preacher and so she’d sat, stone-faced with what everyone thought was grief, and watched as her plans turned to ashes.
“Ya’ll want some chocolate cake? A thin, high voice wound down the hall from the kitchen, unfolding as it came like a dry, ridged leaf. The voice belonged to Kaylene, the girl’s momma. “It’s double chocolate. Cream cheese in the icing.”
Nida Ruth stirred.
“No, thank you,” said Vernie.
“There’s enough left for two, maybe three, pieces,”
Nida Ruth opened her eyes and made a face.
“Maybe later,” said Vernie.
“Well . . . all righty,” Nida Ruth sat up as her mother’s footsteps faded back through the house.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Vernie, cupping her chin and turning her face toward her. “You sick?”
“No, but I’m not eating anything brought on his account. I’m not going to eat a bite.” Nida Ruth hissed like a wet kitten and Vernie loosed her grip.
“Suit yourself,” she replied mildly. “Every tub sits on its own bottom.”
Nida Ruth settled back against her. Vernie jerked her arm up in protest but failed to dislodge her. Nida’s cheek was stuck to her arm like glue, perspiration binding them together. Vernie looked down at her in defeat. Nothing ever turned out the way it should, she thought, and today was a prime example. Here she was with a story bursting inside her, a revelation both dark and deep, stuck without a preacher to confirm it. Left out on a limb without a man of God.
Without a preacher, all her observations, whose culmination lay cold and rigid in the chrome plated coffin would sound too fantastic, too wild. She’d be taken for a rambling old woman, but she’d only been sixty when the first sign had plopped in her lap, as stark as the belly of a dead fish. Now, everyone called her Grandma Vernie, whether they were related or not. Without a preacher, she would have been laughed to scorn. She knew how they’d treated all the other prophets. Elijah had had his raven, and Moses his watering rock, and she’d needed Pastor Timms.
He hadn’t come.
A slow flush began at the base of her neck and traveled up her throat, splotching her skin until she appeared in the throes of an allergic reaction. She’d never have a chance like this again. The boy in the coffin; all the people assembled. It would’ve been perfect but for that good nothing Timms. She heard he was young, too. She didn’t doubt it.
With a violent motion, she heaved the swing.
“Grandma,” muttered the child. “Don’t rock.”
“I got to, miss, I got to.”
If only he’d come, she’d have said, “Folks, may I have your attention?” and they’d have looked up, politely impatient in the face of an old woman but she’d have understood. They were thinking she was going to be emotional. She wasn’t. She’d hadn’t looked in the coffin because she’d gotten a good look at the half-wit when he was born. Long and knobby even at birth, with a shock of black hair, the only sign the boy belonged to her son. The rest of him looked like nobody she’d ever seen and over the years he’d continued to grow, despite his brain (or lack of it) into a larger version of the baby he’d been. His face stayed smooth and his limbs uncoordinated, his eyes guileless as a hollow moon. If tied right, he could sit and rock for hours and Ernest Lee had taught him to snap his suspenders when he needed to use the bathroom.
But first her piece. She’d have said it pretty and smooth. She didn’t believe in shouting.
“Folks, today’s the day to share what I’ve known for many a year. Today’s the day to lift a burden from my heart.” She’d have stopped to favor her son with a pained expression.
“All of you remember Anjean Jenkins who married Ernest Lee and then left him.”
She could hear the murmurings and a “Good riddance to bad rubbish from someone in the afternoon circle. Those women always sat together.
“Everybody figured it was her body found in the well at Fraizer’s Bottom, but that’s not so. That poor soul was falsely accused. Anjean Jenkins is alive and well and most likely living in Charleston.”
Then, the silence would’ve exploded into chatter. Pokes, vigorous nods, someone would have slapped a knee. Kaylene might have fainted. But no shocked reactions would’ve stopped her. She’d have plunged ahead, careful not to look at her son where he was lifting Kaylene from the floor.
“You see, fifteen years ago, I was sitting on my front porch behind the ivy. It was early, a sunless morning. I’d washed a mess of beans in the sink and taken them out on the porch to string when I saw a figure come off the clay road and onto the blacktop. Who could that be, I wondered, because exactly ten families lived out Nine Mile at that time and none of them walked. Everybody drove big trucks. But the figure was creeping down the side of the road in the shadows, and I couldn’t tell right off. Anyway, I wondered, who’s that?”
At this point, she’d have looked around to bask in their puzzlement. Not a one of them knew what she knew.
“Then the sun popped out and lit up a head of hair that flashed like lightening and I knew it was Anjean. Not another head of hair like hers in the county.” She’d have looked at Betty Frances (sitting within the confines of the circle, for she was the very one who’d bleached it. And she called herself a beautician. Vernie had marched to her shop that same afternoon and asked her what in the blue blazes had she done to her daughter in law: Anjean had gone in looking normal come out looking like a pin-up in a body shop; all she’d needed was a set of red lips. When Betty Frances’ eyes had flicked nervously to her cosmetic counter, Vernie had exploded. She thrown a box of end wraps that Betty used to prevent chemical damage and the papers had gone flying.
“She turned to the left and I called out, but she never answered. She waved over her head like she was swatting flies. She carrying a suitcase in one hand and a bulging purse slung over her other shoulder. I kept quiet until she got far enough ahead and then I followed. I knew where she was going before she got there. She was going where the bus and the Greyhound used to stop for rides. Remember the shed with the built- in seats, painted green? The Board voted to tear it down a few years back and now there’s nothing but a wide spot. Every time this county changes, it changes for the worse. Anyway, I hid out behind a clump of honeysuckle and watched her. She was smoking a cigarette. Pretty soon the bus came and she climbed on. The sign on the front said “Charleston”. She’d deserted her dear ones.”
Now she’d have stopped and allowed them time to talk and agree among themselves while a look of inestimable sadness played across her face. Anjean might have been plain white trash but she was saddened by the break -up of any home.
This would have been the longest pause by far. But that was okay for next came the hard part, the part where she’d needed strength. The part where she needed the preacher. If they’d been intrigued by her story, they’d be scared off by her prophecy. Without him, she could do nothing.
In her mind she pictured Timms with a thick black glasses and protruding ears. She motioned him forward and he came to stand beside her.
“I know the way of the transgressor is hard so I waited to hear from her.”
She wouldn’t dwell on this part long because this was where she’d been the most wrong. Vernie had waited in good faith to hear something terrible about Anjean. Even when the phone had refused to ring, she’d still believed. When Anjean hadn’t called, crying and begging to come home, she’d prayed, knowing it would be a matter of time. When nothing happened, she began to fear the worst. Anjean had been murdered and no one had identified her body. She’s been sent the medical school in Morgantown; the Adult Service Worker having checked the box, “anatomical gift”. Still clinging to hope, Vernie had faithfully watched the news for a report of a platinum-headed woman murdered or uniquely molested, but all the victims had names and the murderers apprehended. One day it occurred to her that Anjean might be all right. The thought had been so unthinkable that she’d shoved it back. Life had consequences. Sin will find you out. David lay with Bathsheba and the child died. Jonah got swallowed, and Jezebel was eaten by dogs. This last example always turned her back to her ex daughter in law.
Once she’d spotted a cloud as perfect and round as the half-wit’s head. She’d stood on the porch step and shouted at the sky, “What are you waiting for?” but the cloud continued to hang until the sun shot through it, changing it into a cut-up pie.
Anjean must have written. Having thought that, she was surprised she hadn’t thought it before.
Fortunately, Delia Chapman down at the post office knew her well enough to let her have Ernest Lee’s mail. Kaylene thought it was real sweet of her to pick it up every day and save her a trip into town. Vernie had told her she didn’t mind, but after three years of sorting through utility bills and seed catalogs, she began to despise her son and his wife for the boring life they led.
In the tenth year of Anjean’s departure, her eyes were opened to the truth of the boy’s affliction. No one, however, knew it had taken her that long to decipher. She had a reputation, after all.
“When we didn’t hear from her, I knew right off that something else was at work. Something powerful and revealing. When the doctor from the Morgantown clinic pronounced the boy mentally impaired,” She twisted her mouth to use the words he’d used. “ I knew right then and there we had another David and Bathsheba situation on our hands.” This was a slight mistake. She thought of Ernest Lee. Maybe it would be better if she’d pull the preacher over to the side and explain that they were like David and Bathsheba with a twist. Ernest Lee, unlike David, had not strayed. He would’ve understood what she was not saying about her former daughter in law and shouted, “Oh, how mysterious are the ways of the Lord!”
“But I was blind to the workings of justice,” She would have chimed in after. “I was blind but now I see. The bus that struck and killed the half-wit was marked Charleston same as the one that carted off his Momma! Yes, sir, it all worked out!”
She leaned back, oblivious to the child beside her and marveled. She marveled at all the other vehicles out there on the hard road, all the luxury cars with sun roofs and televisions, all the junk cars smeared with house paint, even all the motorcycles. He could have been hit by any one of those but he wasn’t. He’d been hit by a Greyhound, its lights blinking Charleston. She threw back her hand and hooted for joy at the miracle hand of God. Nida Ruth awoke but it couldn’t be helped. Off in the distance, she’d seen a flash of light and a streak of color. Someone was coming in a blue Pontiac.
“Look there!” cried Nida Ruth, struggling up on one elbow. “There comes the preacher!”
“Looks that way,” said her grandmother, fighting against the sun that obscured the car. “Run inside and tell Ernest Lee and your momma.”
The girl started up, but before she could take flight, one cool dry hand, elastic as steel, clamped around her kneecap.
“Wipe your mouth when you get inside,” Vernie said. “You’ve got chocolate cake all over it.”
Flushing, Nida Ruth jerked around, “You didn’t see me eat it,” she said.
Vernie didn’t deign to answer but kept her gaze focused on the car tearing out of the horizon. She wore a highly qualified expression, as if she could see into the future but was bored by it.
“Go on,” she repeated, “Tell them.”
Vernie waited until she heard the bang of the screen door before she allowed herself to rise and smooth down the front of her skirt. One of her cultured pearl buttons had come loose and this she fastened with a hand that trembled slightly. Had she been a woman prone to inner misgivings, she would have admitted to nervousness. As she was not, she put down the fluttering of her heart to too much coffee and excitement. Besides, she’d forgotten to take her heart pill. She’d never dreamed of having a laying when she picked out her carpet for the front rooms and the linoleum for the kitchen. The room the boy had been laid out in had been her wildest choice. The carpet there was green and gray and twisted with tiny white specks and had she been honest, this was the real source of her agitation. She’d been real particular to notice everyone’s reaction to it and when anyone had mentioned the flowers or the fern pots at each end of the coffin, she’d been real quick to say, yes, and didn’t all the greenery look good with her new carpet seafoam spray?
And now her come the preacher. In his own sweet time. Her breast heaved indignantly.
The blue car stopped, started and stopped again until it was parked under a giant sycamore. From behind the ivy that grew on strands and covered half her porch, Vernie watched him unobserved. He was a neat, spare man in a yellow shirt and navy- blue slacks. Before him marched an air of calculated kindness and had she not seen the maroon Bible pressed under his arm, she’d have mistaken him for a Vista Volunteer. She’s already decided to call out when he looked up and caught her watched. His face reddened as he tugged at his tie.
“Hello,” he said. His voice was soft yet precise. If he sang at all, he’d be a tenor. “I’m Reverend Timms from Dellrose Methodist. Your friend, Doll, and her niece—”
“Great niece,” said Vernie.
“Right. Anyway, someone said you’d be needing me today.”
“We needed you at one.” She stretched out the words like taffy. She wanted him to realize gradually, the way a man sometimes comes to his senses, that he’d missed the funeral. “It’s going on five and there’s nothing left to do.”
“I’m sorry, so sorry to be late,” he said, suddenly animated, “but it seems I was given the wrong directions! I suppose the old fellow misunderstood me, for when I asked him where the Hurlows lived, he directed me down the road and out a fork.” He tried to smile. ‘I’ve spent the last three hours just trying to get back where I started. Do you realize the church is less than ten minutes from here?” His smile vanished. “My car got stuck in a clay bank.”
Swiftly, her eyes flew to the Pontiac. It was a tank of a car that looked as if it had been dropped in quicksand and lifted out to dry in the sun. The tires were layered with pounds of sticky red clay and clumps of mud, woven with blade grass, hung down from the fenders. Her critical eye took in his person as well. The cuffs of his trousers were splattered and stained and his shoes were stiff boards of mud.
“I don’t believe it,” she said, hoarsely. “You went right past the house.”
“Yes,” he cleared his throat. “I did.”
Vernie didn’t reply. In the silence that followed the only sound she heard was the rapid beating of her heart. Under the startled eyes of the minister she turned white, then red, then all over mottled. She seemed to be trying to form words, gulping air in between.
“May I step inside and get you a drink?” he asked, anxiously.
“No, thank you,” she managed.
Vernie calmed slowly, first on the inside and then on the out. It was such a shock to realize the whole mismatched affair boiled down to a set of wrong directions. It had to be Midget Walters, a drunk who’d quit drinking, but still sat on a porch built six feet from the road and talked to anybody about everything and never got nothing right. With this knowledge came another realization. Divine revelation was her own responsibility. If Midget Walters was all it took to throw things out of whack, then Providence could use her special help. She’d always been a strong woman, lots of common sense. She felt the burden ease down about her shoulders and grew lucid. She threw her mind furiously into gear. There was a way out of this. Tomorrow was Sunday and a Sunday sermon would be better still. She didn’t know how she’d get the Dellrose Methodists and Calvary Baptists in the same building, but they had twenty- four hours to work things out. All the preacher needed was a few facts and if he should ask her to stand and establish his story, she’d wear her navy -blue suit with the in-set pockets and stand where she sat.
Still, it was hard to take in.
“Heavens to Betsy, you went out to the trailer.”
“You can’t trust a thing Midget Walters says,” she made a tipping motion with her hand. “He’s stopped drinking but it hasn’t helped him none. Why, the whole town knew I told the kids they could use my house the minute I heard about the accident. A trailer’s no place for a funeral. She stepped back to offer him the use of her porch rug. “Not that Kaylene’s not clean, but it’s a trailer. And poor Pastor Burgess is in the hospital with kidney stones. Can’t pass. They’re going to put a tube in his—”
She wiggled her pointer finger.
“I heard,” Revered Timms flushed and stared stolidly at the rug, wiping his feet as if determined to get every speck of dirt off his shoes and then some. “Is your husband home?”
“My husband?” asked Vernie, blankly.
“Mr. Hurlow. Is he around?”
“Why, bless your heart, preacher, Mr. Hurlow’s passed on. The only Mr. Hurlow here is Ernest Lee. He’s my boy.” She was warming up slowly, finding it hard to believe that he’d never known, rather than just forgotten, the facts. But either way it didn’t matter. By now he’d been completely justified, not only for the lateness of the hour, but for the thin strip of hair that covered his upper lip as well. “I’m the grandma of the boy that got crushed and mangled and Ernest Lee is, er, was his daddy. He lives in the trailer you was sent to by mistake. Like I was saying, I told the kids to bring the body up here when I heard what happened. More room.” She narrowed her eyes and looked at him. “You shouldn’t have left the hard road . . . you know what a hard road is?”
“I do now.”
“My name is Vernie Lee Hurlow,” she stepped closer and stuck out her hand. “But everyone around here just calls me Grandma Vernie.”
“Mrs. Hurlow,” he began.
“Grandma Vernie,” She tightened her grip.
“Certainly,” Reverend Timms proceeded to stumble over her name so badly that she wondered if he’d ever known the love of a mother. “Grandma Vernie. May I see the parents now.”
“Sure can!” Vernie responded with a nod that was almost savage in agreement. “They’re in the kitchen, straight on back.”
“How’s the mother doing?” he asked.
“His real mother?”
“I can’t rightly say,” she began carefully. “His real momma left these parts when he was hardly more than a young’un.”
The minister thought a moment. “She knows nothing about his death?”
“Not a word,” said Vernie. “She was a Jenkins before she married my boy and when you’ve lived around here long enough you’ll learn that some families don’t amount to nothing and she was from one of them kind. Never has been a Jenkins yet that amounted to a hill of beans and I don’t know why we ever expected her to be any different. She don’t know a thing about the boy. She don’t know he’s dead, she don’t know he turned out to be half-witted. Never will know and you know why?” She waved him furtively from the door, as if she were to bestow on him some new and foreign knowledge. “When you sever your family ties the way Anjean did, it ain’t usual to leave behind an address.”
Here she stopped and waited for the minister to asked her what she meant. Clearly, his curiosity was aroused. She could tell by the way he shifted his feet and blinked his eyes in rapid succession. Any second now he’d asked and she’d give it to him straight. The whole story — starting from the time she’d caught them half naked and necking out behind the tobacco barn. They hadn’t even been married.
He rattled the keys in his pocket and looked at her. She opened her mouth to reply. But at the moment he should have asked, when it seemed he would pursue her allusions, he turned and began to study the azalea bushes to the left of them. The gesture annoyed her considerably. She didn’t know why until she realized he put her in mind of the half-wit. He, too, had had the same way of studying the simplest, most ordinary things until all you could think about was shaking him until his teeth rattled. Once, he’d stared at the tip of a Crown Royal candy dish without lifting it for hours. She’d yanked him up by his suspenders to shout, “What do you see? What do you see?” but he’d just stared at her, mute and piteously appealing, and she’d shoved him back down in the chair and left the room.
Now the same urge presented itself but she ignored it until only the puzzlement remained. Why was the preacher looking that way? He was an educated man, a man of the cloth! Why was he deliberately acting ignorant?
“Those look like good healthy azaleas,” he commented. “I see you keep them pruned.”
Suddenly, it struck her and she knew. Suddenly the air was filled with a wild sort of singing. His words, so simple on the surface, had triggered a release within her, leading her past her intellect, pushing past her consciousness, until she heard, not only what he’d said, but what he meant to say as well. She was attuned to her inner antenna, the one dealing with mystic portents and divine interpretations, listening as it throbbed violently in her head. With a knowledge past speaking, she knew that when he’d spoken of the azalea bushes, he was actually referring to the sheep and the dead limbs were the goats. People like the half-wit, Midget Walters and, of course, Anjean. This was the sign Vernie had been waiting for — or something very nearly like it.
“Like I was saying, she took off when the boy was months old. No one but me seen her go.” Here she paused to consider her words. She had to be careful for once loosed she reckoned they’d fall like bombs in the air around them. Finally, she said, “His momma left here on a Greyhound bus heading for Charleston.”
Reverend Timms continued to stare, a faint air of puzzlement stirring. By now he was aware this fact held special significance for her and so he responded, a little too brightly, a little too eagerly, and all too innocently, “Yes, I find the bus a convenient way to travel myself. No responsibilities, no maps, the driver does all the work.”
She was struck dumb by such stupidity. She felt her blood rise and her heart expand. Vernie came close to dying at that moment. She was disgraced. She’d cast her pearls before swine. That he might not know the details of the boy’s death, that he might be under the impression that he’d died naturally, didn’t occur to her until her heart had nearly plummeted out of her chest. When the thought took hold, she calmed gradually, until she was able to speak quite graciously, as if she were talking to someone slightly deaf or senile. “His momma left on a Greyhound one morning and never returned.”
When the preacher didn’t jump or cry out at these telling details, it became clear to her that what she was dealing with was plain ignorance. Some simple soul, probably Old Man Walters, had neglected to tell him how the half-wit had died. Timms still didn’t know that the boy had been hit by a bus, probably the same one that had carried his momma off on her hot trail of sin into the city.
Anxiety gripped her at the thought. She must be the first to tell him.
“Yes, sir, she left not long after he was born. Anjean Jenkins was her name and she painted her toenails beige and never did learn how to do the wash. When she left, I knew no good would come of it, but I never thought it would be the boy to suffer.”
“Children are always the first to suffer,” interrupted Timms and started to go indoors. Vernie blocked him at once.
“I agree but sin will find you out and the sin was found in him. Wasn’t too long before the doctor from the Morgantown clinic pronounced him mentally impaired.” She said the words without difficulty. “That meant everything would grow but his brain. I knew right then and there we had another David and Bathsheba situation on our hands. Why, that boy would’ve died years ago if we hadn’t watched him every minute. We couldn’t keep him off the hard road, walking that yellow line was where he wanted to be. Or just walking. Once he walked into the pigpen when the sow had just littered. Ernest Lee pulled him out just in time. I needn’t tell you I wasn’t surprised, finding him run over was pretty much what I expected. He wasn’t hit by any old vehicle, either, he was hit by a Greyhound.”
“What a coincidence,” muttered His Shephard, and pushed past her into the house.
“Wait a minute,” Vernie followed, but failed to catch hold of his sleeve. “There’s something of significance I’ve got to tell you.”
Rev. Timms didn’t hear her for here come Ernest Lee, one rough hand extended in front of him. It irritated her to see that hand. He hadn’t even heard the preacher’s excuse and already he was glad to see him.
“It’s a pleasure,” said Ernest Lee.
“Mr. Hurlow, allow me to offer—”
“Ernest Lee,” she snapped, and at the sound of her voice, the men drew slightly apart. “This is the preacher from Dellrose Methodist. Preacher, this is my boy.”
“Glad to meet you, “ said Timms. “Please accept my apologies about the funeral. Believe me, I—”
“Ernest Lee, listen to this,” she said. “He turned up Nine Mile. Went out to your place. Midget Walters told him the funeral was there.”
The two men looked at each other sheepishly. Ernest Lee cleared his throat. “Mother thought it best if we held the service at the house. On account Pastor Burgess being in-“
“He can’t pass a single stone. They’re going to–
“Good decision,” said Timms, quickly.
Quietly, they filed into the room where the boy had lain. Kaylene sat on the couch by the window. On the table next to her, resting on squat wire legs, was a plastic wreath of red and pink and purple flowers. The flowers resembled gladioluses and in the center of these was a fuzzy lamb’s head. The mouth was open slightly, as if caught in the middle of a silent bleat, and from its neck hung a yellow ribbon emblazoned with the words, REST IN PEACE. Vernice watched as Timms crossed the room and caught up Kaylene’s hands in a compassionate squeeze. Kaylene, however, at their first fleshy contact, sat up as though plugged into an electric outlet and wailed, “He weren’t mine but I loved him like he was my own!”
Timms half sat, half tumbled onto the couch beside her. As soon as he straightened his tie, he took her other hand and said, “You’ve had a terrible shock.”
Vernie took a chair herself. “Pull yourself together, Kaylene. You’ve carried on long enough.”
“She’s going to be fine,” said Ernest Lee, giving his wife a hard stare, “Aren’t you, hon?”
Nodding, Kaylene dropped her head.
“About the funeral,” said Reverend Timms. “I’ve never missed one before. Do you think we could have it again?”
“Naw, everybody’s gone home and they ain’t coming back. Besides, tomorrow’s Sunday and you can tell them from the pulpit.” Again, the thought of both congregations packed in Dellrose Methodist bothered her, but she’d called Doll as soon as Timms left. “You’ll need to write down everything I tell you and have the scriptures handy. I made a list years ago, but I can’t find it now.” She looked around, focusing back on the preacher. “I have something big to tell. Something on the order of David and Bathsheba.”
“Ohhh!” squealed Kaylene. “Anyone I know?” She leaned forward and then jumped, startled by something just beyond her. “ So that’s where you are, young lady, you get out from under there right now. The preacher’s here!”
A scraping noise directed them to a corner where stood a pump organ. Slowly, the bench was being pushed back by a pair of black patent leather shoes. When it was halfway out, Nida Ruth could be seen compressed beneath, her behind resting on the pedals. When she saw them watching her, her knees flew back under her chin.
“You heard me,” said her mother. “Right now, miss.”
Nida Ruth rose and a loud whoosh followed. She stood unsteadily for a moment, balancing on one foot, then the other, then bolted for a chair beside her grandmother.
“I never did see anything like her for hiding,” said Vernie. “Hides all the time, half the time we can’t even find her. She’s been worse than usual lately. We figured it was on account of the accident. Saw it from start to finish, didn’t you, hon?”
Keeping her eyes on the floor, Nida Ruth said nothing, absorbed in the swing of her feet.
“Quiet, too,” observed Vernie. “Why, I bet she ain’t said more than ten words since the half-wit got killed, except when she told her story to the police. Then she spoke up like nobody’s business.”
“She was an eyewitness,” added Kaylene proudly.
Vernie looked at Timms and felt her heart give a squeeze. He was as lost in space over this as he had been over the azaleas.
“Say hello to the preacher,” she said, and gave Nida Ruth a pinch that made her jump.
“Hello,” said the child quickly, and darted her eyes back to the floor.
“Hello,” said Timms, aware that he was talking to nothing but not embarrassed by it. He’d run into this trait, what he privately termed “Appalachian Introspection” time and again in these mountain people. Being from the North, it had taken him a while to label this quality and much longer to learn to deal with it. He’d never yet entirely succeeded. The best he could do was observe, having failed to penetrate this elusive, double-edged quality which, when turned outward, usually on strangers like himself, made for idle, easy conversations while their eyes took in every detail and when turned inward, created an impenetrable vacuum of silence about the individual, sheltering them from the outside world while they thought out their own conclusions at leisure. At time like these, conversation was virtually impossible, and he’d had to step aside on numerous occasions until the fog lifted and he could go on with what he had to say.
“About the funeral,” Timms continued. “Maybe a memorial at the gravesite would be best.”
He looked at Ernest Lee.
“I reckon that would be—”
“You’d better not reckon on anything until you hear what I have to say,” said Vernie, loudly.
She was speaking to them all but by the time she’d finished, her eyes were settled on her son. He looked back with the expression of one who knows he’s about to receive without asking. Much to his credit, he only flinched once.
“Ernest Lee,” she said, “The preacher asked about his momma. His real momma.”
“No need to drag her into this,” said Ernest.
“I told him as much as I could,” Vernie had no sense of interruption. “But he didn’t wait to hear it all. Maybe it’s better this way. I won’t have to repeat myself twice.”
“If not a service, then a brief memorial,” suggested Timms. “As far as I’m concerned, it wouldn’t matter when.”
“When was fifteen years ago,” Vernie closed her eyes, determined to be oblivious to all but the truth. “Maybe before, in the womb. Who knows when the worm first turns? At any rate, my eyes can only see back fifteen years to the time when my boy, Ernest Lee, married a girl named Anjean. She was a Jenkins and I tried to warn him, but he thought she hung the moon.”
She shook her head and snorted.
“Mother,” said Ernest Lee. “The preacher is here to talk about the funeral. We think a few words at the grave would be fine. That’s all we want.”
“I called to her but she wouldn’t listen. She wouldn’t slow down, neither. You never knew I called to her, did you?” From outdoors to indoors, and now everything was hazy. She squeezed one eye shut and focused on her son. Then she rolled her good eye over on the preacher. “You don’t have to say nothing on our account, Rev. Timms. We’re all Christian folk. We carry the good news in our hearts. Besides, we know things about the boy you don’t.
“Mother, I’m warning you,” said Ernest Lee, “Let it alone.”
“Ernest is right, Momma,” chimed in Kaylene. “There’s no need.”
“Firstly, he was never baptized, neither by water or the Holy Ghost,” Her voice was high and hard and loud. Vernie was tired of them all purposefully missing her point. “He went up front at a revival once, but he didn’t know what he was doing. He just saw Nida Ruth up there and wanted to be near her. I knew all along he wasn’t led by the Spirit because he wouldn’t submit to the flow. Some said he was frightened by the river, some said he was frightened by the crowd, but I knew it wasn’t neither of them things.”
Vernie stopped to catch her breath. She’d never had a drop in her life but she knew she was drunk. Perspiration stood on her lip and from somewhere atop her head, circling downward like some noisome bird, was Ernest Lee’s voice. He was saying, “Mother, Mother, listen to me. Stop it. Stop it at once.”
“But I haven’t told it all!” she opened both eyes and looked at him. He looked terrible as the law.
“I know things you don’t,” she whimpered.
Ernest Lee’s hand closed about her forearm and pulled. The rest of her followed rather than be yanked; it would be undignified to struggle. Of course, it didn’t matter where he took her, she figured the preacher would follow.
“I’ll be right back as soon as I see to Mother,” she heard Ernest Lee say. “It been a big day for her. Too much excitement. People in and out.”
“I understand,” said Timms and though Vernie motioned with her free hand, he didn’t follow.
Ernest Lee shoved her so hard down in the swing that her knees buckled.
“Mother, listen to me,” he was shouting. He didn’t have to shout, being so close and all. “I want you to stay right here, do you hear me? You stay right here until I settle things with the preacher.” He straightened, only to swoop down once more. “One more thing. His name wasn’t the half-wit. It was Ernest Lee Hurlow, Jr., and he was my boy.”
Then, he was gone, the screen door banging behind him.
Vernie waited until her heart stopped pounding before she pulled herself up and made it down the steps of the porch. Even then, she staggered. But she knew where she was going. Out to the orchard to a wooden bench where her husband used to sit and whittle. He’d carved up a whole bunch of little animals the summer before he died, like he was stocking an ark against the flood. Elephants, donkeys, tigers, turtles, all kinds of things. She didn’t know what happened to them, but they sure had been cute.
When Vernie passed the white rock, she knew she was halfway there. Actually, the rock was a pile of lime delivered to the wrong field by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. They’d trucked it out three years ago when Ernest Lee had called the state about sweetening the soil in the tobacco allotment. They’d dumped it in the orchard instead. Ernest Lee had talked about spreading it out anyway but in the end, he’d done nothing and it had stayed there, hardening into a low, irregular pile with lines and ridges that looked like splayed feet. Once she’d stumped her toe pretty bad but that had been on account of her open toes shoes and not because she hadn’t known where she was going. Vernie had always known that. Anjean had, too. They were more alike than most.
She sat down on the bench. It gave a sharp creak, then fell silent. Her heart was pounding again. No funeral, no sermon, no ears to hear. Pretty soon someone would come out here and tell her she’d had no vision. Not on your life. She said it out loud, “Not on your life.”
She’d write a letter to the paper if that’s what it called for. She’d take her time about it, choosing her words carefully and putting in facts no one else knew. Then they’d clamor to hear it in church. She could picture the headlines now BOY’S DEATH LINKED TO MOTHER’S MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARNCE and when they asked her for details, she’d stand where she sat and tell them everything she knew. She’d start out something like this, “I saw Anjean leave. I saw her walk down the road that morning, suitcase in one hand and a purse full of shoes in the other. As the Lord is my witness, I saw her go.”
Vernie paused, trying to remember what Anjean had been wearing. After a bit, she pictured her in a red dress and heels. She was considering her jewelry when she heard footsteps to the left of her. So, they’ve come already, she thought smugly, wagging their tails behind them. She was startled when she saw Nida Ruth. She hadn’t expected her.
“Hi,” said Nida.
Vernie didn’t answer. She just studied her. The more she looked, the more she realized it was Anjean. Especially when the sun came out and illumined her hair. The halo about her was white and dazzling. She was smiling that same sneaky grin she’d been smiling fifteen years ago when she lit out. Anjean hadn’t changed one bit. This was better than what she’d expected. She’d come home to repent.
“Well, look who’s here,” said Vernie. Her heart was pounding like a jackhammer.
“’Yep, it’s me,” she said, “I came to see you were.”
Vernie ignored this. Anjean might be sorry, but Vernie would have to hold her feet to the fire. “It’s about time,” she said. Her body was trembling so hard that she began to rock out of necessity rather than habit. The half -wit had rocked for hours. Back and forth. The clothesline didn’t help. There wasn’t a knot he couldn’t get out of. Now, she said to his mother, “I guess you were curious to see how things turned out.”
The figure snorted, sounding like a child with a nose full. “I know how things turned out. He’s dead, ain’t he?”
She’d not expected Anjean to be so sharp tongued. Nor had she expected her to let her hair go dark again. The ball of light changed into only sun and she saw a brunette with flashes of red. She was wearing it different too, cut short and curled about her face. She looked like a kid.
“Yeah, he’d dead but how did you know?” Vernie asked, and then, skipping to the core of the matter. “I saw you leave.”
“So? They can’t pin nothing on me,” the figure snapped, then looked down at her nails. They were stubby and chewed. Another change. Anjean had always worn hers long. “Besides, it was an accident.”
“Rubbish!” cried Vernie.
“It was an accident!” The figure was shouting, too. “I was taking him to the store like you told me when he slipped the knots. Then, he started acting stupid. You know how stupid he could act, hollering at the top of his lungs, stamping his feet. I couldn’t get ahold. I snapped his suspender, not hard, but enough to get his attention. Then, what does he do but run? Running and bawling in the middle of the road. I tripped him. Then, I told him if he didn’t dry up, I’d give him something to cry about and to stand up so I could pull the line through his belt. He wasn’t having it. He covered his head, whooping and hollering, and the next thing I knew, a bus and I had to run. Two thuds and then the brakes screeched. Everyone was going crazy and that’s when I stepped out and I started crying too. “That’s my brother,” I said to the driver. “He wouldn’t hurt a living soul.”
“You and your stories,” Vernie waved her hands as at a gnat invasion. “I saw you step on the bus like the Queen of Sheba. That was my suitcase. Where’s it at?”
At this the figure stopped and grew silent. She cocked her head and ran her fingers through her short, curly hair. Slowly, slowly a light brighter than the fear began to shine in her eyes. She burst out laughing.
“Ain’t nobody going to believe your story, old woman.” She said, and turned and walked away.
“You get back here,” shouted Vernie. “You get back here right now.”
The figure kept walking. Vernie struggled to keep up, squinting her eyes against the afternoon sun. It was hard to see, harder still to walk, but she had to catch up. The message was for Anjean, if only she would stop and hear it.
“I got something to tell you,” Vernie called. “Something about you and him.”
The figure stopped and looked back. Seeing she had her attention, Vernie pressed ahead. She could be there in half a minute if it weren’t for her legs. They’d turned to jelly. Her face felt hot, too, as if she’d been canning beans all day. But she couldn’t wait to cool off. She had to get there. Anjean was waiting just beyond the lime pile.
Three feet from the pile, Vernie began to rattle. “You don’t know how hard it’s been,” she said. “The doctor from the Morgantown clinic told us about his impairment, but he didn’t tell us everything. He didn’t know how to eat. Everything he ate came right back up. I didn’t have a dry cloth in the house. For five years I kept him without a dry cloth until Ernest Lee married Kaylene. Mealy-mouthed. I wanted Ernest Lee to write you and tell you to come home but he—”
A cloud passed over the sun, dissipating the halos in her eyes. Her words died in her throat like a warped record. Her jaw hung slack. The face staring back at her, amused yet solemnly attending, wasn’t the one she’d envisioned. It mocked her in half shadow, waiting to see her reaction. She tried not to let it show, but the suppression of sheer emotion churned up like a tidal wave inside her, washing violently over her heart. By the time, it ebbed, Vernie was flat on her back, eyes open to the now bright sun.
Still, she managed to say, in a voice laced with pain and amusement. “That’s a good one on me. Ha, ha. Yes, sir, a good one on me.”
The tide swelled up again, inexorably pulling her under and one last time, Vernie reached out blindly, her hand coming to rest on the rock over which she’d once stumbled. Nida Ruth stared, a round-eyed witness, then, silently, swiftly began to run in the direction of the house.