Shelly Ayers is a graduate of Lincoln Memorial University and is currently enrolled in graduate school. She has served as the fiction editor for The Emancipator and currently works as a teacher.
I'm finally back in Jellico, Tennessee. After two years of living in Chicago with Randy, I could kiss the dirt in the yard. He had come down here to stay with his aunt because his Mama couldn’t do nothing with him. He was always fighting and getting into all kinds of trouble. She must have thought if she sent him to a place with churches on every corner, a ball park, and a Pizza Hut as the main attractions, he couldn’t find trouble even if he tried. She didn’t realize people don’t get "into” trouble. They either are trouble or they ain’t. Randy is trouble.
I was scrubbing cabins at Indian Mound Park when he showed up looking like a young Elvis Presley. Suds were dripping off my elbows like rain and I had smeared dirt on my forehead, but he sauntered over and took my sponge like I was wearing a prom dress. Too soon, he started telling me about Chicago and how exciting it is, especially compared to Jellico. He said people hardly ever drive to work because it’s easier to walk down the street or jump on a bus. Then he told me he had seen gang wars and had barely escaped being shot once himself. When he offered me some of his aunt’s oxycodone, my gut told me, “Girl, you need to run away from this fool just as quick as your legs will carry you.” Now, after wallowing in the city with a drug dealer, I wish to God Almighty I would’ve listened.
Most nights, I had no idea where he was. Sometimes he’d roll in at five or six in the morning with a face full of blood, acting like the cat that got the canary. I’d be mad as a hornet and scared because I only knew a few people from work and didn’t know how to get nowhere but Fox & Obel Food Market and Harrison Park. When I asked him where he'd been, he always smiled, swore it was the last time, and showed me a suitcase full of money. I believed him again and again though I could never understand why I had to scrape pennies and live on soup beans when he was bringing in that kind of cash. As a matter of fact, I didn’t see any new clothes or expensive things on Randy either.
I should've known he wasn’t just selling coke but I listened when he said, “Val, someday I’m gonna quit all this. I’m just doing it ‘til I can get ahead. It won’t be much longer, you’ll see.” So, day in, day out, I worked at Fox & Obel, then came home to the empty shell I lived in. It was a crackerbox apartment on the third floor of a complex called “West Gardens.” It’s funny to me that they called it this, though, because I never saw anything close to the rows of corn and beans I knew to be a garden. I could have lived with the ants in the kitchen and the screaming of the neighbors if I had only had someone there with me. The only thing that helped at all was people watching. Way up into the night, I could sit on a barstool by the window and watch the tiny people walking around below me. I liked to wait until I saw someone unique, someone with an extra confident walk, or an unusual hair color. Then, I liked to imagine what that person’s life was like. I’d decide if they was married or if they had any bad habits. I’d imagine what their childhood was like and if they was happy or if they hated their job. I wondered a million times if any of them felt the same stirring, the same ache, that I felt in my heart.
After a while, Randy got to acting wilder than usual and I knew for sure he was using. His nose got so raw from all the snorting that I had to wash his pillowcase every other day to keep it from looking like chicken pox was taking over. He would look over his shoulder and peek out the blinds at least twenty times a day. It was as if someone was after him. Then, one night when he was home, I went to the bathroom and saw him setting up lines of what looked like sifted flour on my mirror. His face was already twisted like a charging bull but when he saw me, he run after me, cussing me and promising to kill me for being nosy.
I believed him so I got me a butcher knife out of the kitchen and made him a promise. I said, “Randy Mason, you come one inch closer to me and I’ll cut you open like the nasty hog you are.” He must have believed me too because he pivoted, still calling me everything but a white woman, and I heard the click of his pistol in the bedroom. I didn’t wanna see if I could take him; a man that high wouldn’t feel it even if I had cut him open. So, I did what my gut told me to do a long time ago; I ran away from that fool.
When I got back here something felt different though. I couldn't exactly name what it was. Mama had always slinked around like a cat in a room full of rockers so that was nothing new. We had lived in a beige double wide at the end of Plum Street until I run off with Randy. After that, she got even more nervous, quit her job at the Days Inn, and moved in with Granny and Papaw. Her quitting surprised me because the only thing she did other than work was fool with her flower gardens. We didn't spend a lot of time together because of the way we had worked. If I wasn’t at school, I was at the park trying to earn extra money.
Sometimes I was jealous of my friends that could just lay around or go to the pool on Saturdays but after my daddy left I figured I better start taking care of myself. Granny always said he was a “No-Account.” Daddy was one of the first to ever introduce me to “someday.” Once every five or six years, I’d get a birthday card in the mail from him and he’d always say he was coming to see me “someday.” So, between Randy quitting his drug business someday and Daddy coming to see me someday, I’d decided that someday means the same thing as never.
Other than my own mess of a marriage, Mama was the only person I could account for being a little different. I'd noticed that she spent her time wandering around the yard, talking to herself, or God, or whoever else might be listening. I seen her giggling last Saturday and asked her what was funny. She said, serious as a heart-attack, “Aw, I was just laughing at Jay up there.” I took it that she meant that blue jay in the bird feeder but you never can tell. Jay might be an imaginary friend for all I know.
In spite of my feeling, I was excited about my old buddy, Trent Howard. He was taking me four-wheeling at Ivydale. Trent and me have been friends since we were little and he saved my puppy from getting run over. He’s still like that even though I quit fooling with him when Randy said so. Most people would get mad if they’d been good to you for years and you just snubbed them all the sudden. Not Trent. I saw him the other day at the B&B Market, buying his Camel cigarettes. He just walked right up to me and started talking like I never left.
When I heard his truck growling up the road I yelled, “Mama! Mama, I’m going to Ivydale with Trent; be back in a few hours.” She didn’t answer me so I went to her bedroom and she was laying on that dark purple comforter, tears running down her face full stream. “Mama, what’s wrong? Are you sick?”
Something about the way she was staring at the wall gave me chills. Her eyes had always been a real pretty green, like the sky after a storm but, that day, they were bottomless, like Norris Lake.
“Valerie,” she gasped, “honey, please don’t go nowhere today. Oh, please don’t. I seen an angel appear on the wall. She had long blond hair and was wearing a white robe. I didn’t see her for nothing. Somebody’s gonna die. Please don’t go. Please, I don’t want you to get out there and get killed.”
“Now, Mama, you’ve probably just had a bad dream or something. I ain’t gonna die. Let’s get up and fix you some soup.”
Mama’s skeletal fingers dug into my arm and when she locked her eyes on me, my heart like to have stopped altogether. “Val, I’m telling you, you better not go. You’ll get killed. I didn’t see that angel for nothing.”
I have to say she shook me up but I didn’t take it to heart too much. She probably did have a dream and I sure couldn’t start acting like she did, scared of every little thing.
When I got outside, Trent had already gotten his four-wheeler off the truck and was hollering, “See ya later, Granny!” Granny waved from the ocean of denim overalls she was hanging on the line and I remembered again why she always laughingly referred to her arms as hickory stumps. They were shorter and thicker than just about any other arms I’d seen and always the color of sap. Off across the pasture field, I saw Papaw’s John Deere dragging a bush hog along in arrow straight lines. His wavy hair looked white as cotton against the leather brown of his skin.
On the four wheeler behind Trent, I felt like I was being cleaned; aired-out like the overalls hanging on the line as the wind played with my hair. Whenever we went up a hill, I would lean forward and breathe in his scent; faint cigarette smoke and dirt. Not a nasty scent, just like the earth after rain. He smelled real.
By the time we made it up to the waterfalls, we were both caked with mud and sweating like horses. I bent over to get a tick off my ankle and when I looked up, Trent was beating dust out of his honey colored hair. I had to laugh because he looked just like Pig Pen from the Peanuts cartoon.
The creek was only ankle deep flowing to the drop off so we plopped down on those ancient rocks in the middle and ate the bologna sandwiches Trent had packed. The whole time I chewed, all I could think about was the fact that he had made us lunch. It seems like an ordinary thing but I can’t remember too many times that anyone had made lunch for me, especially a man. I kept picturing him, sleepy eyed, standing at the fridge in his sock feet, wondering what he had that wasn’t spoiled.
I felt very aware that day, maybe because Mama had scared me or maybe because I was so relieved to be with a person that I didn’t have to take care of, but I felt like I could see and hear things that I had never heard or seen before. I could feel the heat from the turtle-shaped rock seeping into my legs and I imagined that it was communicating with me, telling me of other girls that had set right where I was setting, of other stories it had heard through the years. I felt like the churning waterfall was actually a song, a celebration of freedom or life.
I was so aware of these new senses that I nearly choked on my Pepsi when Trent grabbed my hand and jerked me off the rock. The algae and moss was blanketed so thick in the creek bed that it was like a big slip ‘n slide. We sat right down and slid, side by side, to the edge of the waterfall and then Trent backed up, took a running leap, and jumped over the falls!
He flopped around like a catfish and hollered, “Come on, Val! Feels great!” Since the air was so heavy it felt like walking through clouds anyway, I stepped back and took a run but when I got right to the edge, I chickened out, caught myself mid run, and about fell over anyway. Trent was laughing to beat the band so I wasn’t about to let him outdo me. When I finally did jump, I scraped my elbow on a rock, smacked the water like a dead log, and my white t-shirt just about strangled me to death. Nevertheless, it felt life-giving, like a long drink after hoeing corn for hours. We stayed there until the sun started to set, floating on our backs and talking about everything from Trent's job at Austin Powder Co. to our shared passion for Hank Williams music. We sang "I Saw the Light" and even Trent, with his tendency to sound like a howling dog, was right on key.
By the time Trent dropped me off, there was just a sliver of dusty orange framing the mountains and I was struck by the way he set his jaw. It reminded me of the rocks we had just left; unyielding and permanent. For a minute, I had to wonder why I had never taken time to note what color his eyes were. They are chocolate brown and tender, like a deer’s eyes. I was so blinded by Randy's promise of something different that I had treated a rare person like an old, comfy pair of shoes. They're always there and you love them but you never give them much attention. I gave him a squeeze and ran toward the house. Just before I opened the door he said, “Someday we’ll go up to the real high walls and I’ll show off some for ya.” Then, he just grinned like a possum and took off.
A mournful, continuous groan woke me up just as the sun shined through the blinds. My heart started quivering as I threw on some clothes and headed downstairs to investigate. The quivering intensified when I saw the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department and Ambulance services in front of the house.
Running into the yard, I saw what nothing could have prepared me for. The groaning was coming from Papaw, who was usually as emotional as a fencepost. Granny was hunched over Mama, pleading with God. The paramedics and police officers scurried around talking in hushed voices and scribbling notes. These sounds made me want to plug my ears as they joined together like a headache pulsing behind my eyelids. With my new senses still intact, I knew this was the voice of Grief; making sure her voice was heard.
When I got to where I could see Mama’s face, my knees turned to mush and I fell to the grass, still wet with dew. Her eyes were open, bottomless, and staring again. Her face and lips were swollen, as if someone had pumped air into her ears, and had a bluish-gray color, like concrete. Her blue and white gown clung to her body like a latex glove and her feet were bare and covered with countless bloody scratches.
Mama had drowned during the night. Papaw had gotten up early to feed the cows and when he got to the creek behind the house, he saw her body tangled in some briars, face down. I couldn’t help wondering if she went down there intending to kill herself or if she was having another wandering spell and fell in. I can’t help wondering if I could have stopped it somehow.
All of Jellico must have brought food from the looks of that kitchen the next night. There were trays of sliced cheese and turkey, hills of fried chicken and potatoes, oatmeal cake, and even bags of cinnamon biscuits from McDonalds. All this did me no good, though. My stomach felt as if there was an iron fist turning and twisting it into a thousand knots. There were so many people coming by to offer prayers and sympathy that, pretty soon, all I could hear was a constant hum of, “I’m so sorry” or “I’ll be praying for y’all.”
Until the funeral, I hadn’t been inside a church since I was a little girl going to Bible school. While people filed in, I thought of how so many things had changed, yet the smell of cedar still lingered. They have a tub to baptize people inside the church now, instead of going to the creek and, rather than the wood I remembered, the carpet and padded pews were gray. The wooden cross still stood next to the piano. I noticed that the sash hanging around this cross was deep purple, the exact shade of Mama’s comforter, where she had been the last time I talked to her and she warned me of this death to come. Purple for royalty, I suppose. Purple for pain or pathetic or pissed.
The choir scrunched together in the tiny loft as they sang about crossing Jordan and the unclouded day. The bass pounded in my stomach as always but no hair stood on my arms, like it did when I was little. I used to think these chills were the Holy Ghost but I’m not so sure now. Lots of things have given me chills since then. Fear. Sex. Whiskey.
At the back of all these other thoughts, I couldn’t stop feeling like I should have been with Mama in the pink-trimmed casket I had picked out. Then the preacher, wiping gel-infused sweat off his brow, raged about streets of gold, gates of pearl, and how the death of God’s saints is precious in his sight.
We buried Mama in Broyles Cemetery, nothing more than a wooded loop where all our other family is laid out. I stood watching them lower her casket into the red dirt and felt like somebody had slapped the fire out of me. My whole body was numb and even though my eyes burned, no tears would come. It was like watching a sad movie, only I couldn’t turn off the TV. After most people had left, I heard a stick snap behind me and there was Trent, all dressed up in a suit as black as my mood. He pulled me to his chest and, when I met his eyes, it felt like a dam busted somewhere inside me.
You can tell a lot about somebody by taking a good long look in their eyes and, that day, I saw a good heart. Just when you think the world is going to hell, somebody truly good shows up to give you a little hope. There is something inside every woman that only one particular person can satisfy. It’s not sex, not romance, and not even friendship. It’s just a need to mean the world to someone and to know they’ll be there when everything else in life falls apart. It’s genuine and consistent. For me, at that moment, it was Trent.
Later that evening, I found Papaw sitting on the glider, picking a pitiful cry on his banjo and watching the lightning bugs dance on the mountainside. It’s amazing how a banjo can force a smile one minute and then turn around and break your heart.
I eased myself down on the splintered edge of the porch and watched Papaw pluck out the notes to "In the Gloaming." By the time he got to the part about the trees sobbing faintly, the stirring I always carried with me had worked its way from my chest to my mouth and I had no idea what was about to come out.
“GOD! I’m just so fuckin’ mad!”
This shook him so much that his fingers froze on the strings. His watery blue eyes looked into mine like he was searching for a secret.
"What makes me madder is knowing I can’t do a thing about it," I continued. "I should’ve never wasted a minute of my life on Randy Asshole Mason, I should’ve went on to college, I should’ve stayed with Mama instead of goofing off in Ivydale, and I’m pretty sure Mama killed herself on purpose. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I feel like I am always looking for something that’s just out of my grasp and it’s driving me crazy!”
Papaw’s face looked like a weathered map as he sat down his banjo and started to speak.
“Valerie, I know how you feel. I was always lookin’ for something. Always a lookin’ and never able to name just what it was that I was lookin’ for. When I was a young man, my daddy had one of the biggest moonshine stills in this part of the country. Just as quick as I learned to drive his old truck, I started hauling shine everywhere from Pineville to Knoxville. That’s when I got with a rough bunch and made a big mess of everything. There was many a night I helped carry one of my buddies out of the woods, shot to death doing business. It’s just the mercies of the Lord that I wasn’t the one gettin’ carried out. I knowed your Granny then but her daddy was a Holiness preacher and wouldn’t let her talk about such a hell raiser as me.
“One night, after making a run to Williamsburg, I was walking down an old, growed up holler when I felt something behind me. It was a night black as pitch. I couldn’t see nary a thing but I could feel a presence that made my skin crawl. I lit into running and didn’t slow down until I reached a great big pine tree. I grabbed a low branch and climbed as high as I could get into that thing but that presence was still following me and I knowed it wasn’t nothing but the pure old devil. I’ve never been so scared in all my days, a settin’ in the top of that pine with the devil about to claim my soul. I sobered up right real quick and started to call on the Lord. Honey, I knowed that was my only hope then. I promised him I’d quit my liquor runnin’ and be a good man, just how he wanted me to be. In just a split second that presence was gone and wasn’t nothing there but a breeze to rustle the leaves. That’s when I knowed God had give me a second chance to make something of myself.
“Now that’s not to say I never had another drink or that I went to church every time the doors were open but I knowed I was gonna be somebody someday. It was like all the sudden, I knowed what I was lookin’ for and it was all around me. I heard things I hadn’t heard before, seen and smelled things I hadn’t, and seen people and God and myself all for the first time. It ain’t always been the easiest road and it ain’t gonna get no easier. Life is just hard, Val. Sometimes we make it even harder with the decisions we make but that don’t mean we’ve gotta hang our heads down. That just means we’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got and go on.”
After that, I didn't have any words left to say. Before I got up, I barely managed to choke out a thank you. I knew if I went in the house, Granny would want to talk so I decided to take a walk to the creek. As I walked through the towering pines, the moon threw lines of white light on my path and "In the Gloaming" floated to my ears like a whisper.
Stopping to look up at the tallest tree I could find, I imagined my Papaw, such a quiet, mule-like worker, as a young man with whiskey breath. In my heart, I could hear him begging God to give him another chance. Grabbing the lowest branch, I swung my leg up and held on to that trunk like a friend, like I had held on to Trent earlier. If God gave Papaw a chance to be somebody, I knew he was giving me the same one. Leaning my head against the solid bark, I sang along with the twang of the banjo, "…when the trees are sobbing faintly, with a gentle unknown woe…."
I closed my eyes and felt the solid wood against my face, smelled the wild scent of the creek, and allowed myself to become completely aware. There was hurt and anger and evil but there was also love and hope and forgiveness. There was life and I knew I had to start my someday right then. I jumped out of the tree and walked right back up to the house, where I would face my mother’s mourners. Hopefully Trent would still be up there, waiting for me.