Susan O'Dell Underwood
What had she expected to find in November? Fields full of buttercups? And the river a perfect crayon blue under a perfect sky? Probably the river hadn’t ever been blue. Just like she could never really ever have been seventeen. Here was the real deal: her wrinkles in the rearview, a few big drops of rain on the windshield, and right where Janette wanted to park — at the river’s edge under sycamores — a motorcycle gang.
Not a gang, really. There were only three of them, but when she’d first rounded the gravel curve they might as well have been a battalion in black leather. They stonewalled her a hundred yards away, but Janette put her Jeep in park instead of reverse. She revved her motor a little bit. She’d bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in eighteen years. She had a six-pack of Budweiser in her lunch cooler and two Allman Brothers CDs in the console. She’d taken half a personal day from the bank. Dwayne and the boys wouldn’t expect her until they got hungry for supper. No retreat.
The river was camouflage green. Jimmy would wear a uniform that color, probably. Unless they sent him to the desert. For Afghanistan there was that special tan camo she’d seen on the news, along with the rest of the horror, which was all she could think about. Amputees at veteran hospitals. Interviews with leftover families. Somebody had told her the government wouldn’t let them show caskets being brought off the planes. But they thought it was okay to show boys without arms and legs? And the ones with head injuries. Burned off faces, with no ears on the sides of their heads. An awful roulette kept coming into her mind. If she had to choose between Jimmy living that way or dying, would she want him back with any injury, even the worst, even if he was paralyzed, or a vegetable?
When he was four or five, before he started school, Jimmy’s favorite color was pink, which wrecked Dwayne’s whole universe. Jimmy went through a phase of wanting to play dress-up in Janette’s nightgown and a sweater, both of them pink. And she’d let him do it when nobody else was home. Both his granddaddies said she made him soft. Janette knew they meant Jimmy was happy. She wasn’t about to apologize to two old men for raising a safe, normal kid. But for three nights now she’d been awake trying to understand why her hard work and prayers hadn’t stuck. Maybe a boy’s mother is always the last one to realize who he wants to be. When Jimmy showed her the recruiting papers, he couldn’t understand why she was mad. She made him go to his room.
And he minded her! Nearly nineteen years old, acting like he was seven. How would a boy like that ever come home right again?
Janette rolled down her window and lit a Marlboro with shaking fingers. She thought the biker in the blue bandana doo-rag waved at her, but he was just pointing at something near the old Nance house. The fat one waddled in that direction then, and turned his back beside the viney porch and yanked at his crotch and swayed there. She was surprised the developers hadn’t torn down the house already. The plywood barricading the windows and door were probably all that was holding up the whole dilapidated place. Not even sturdy enough for the meth heads who roamed around looking for abandoned buildings to cook in.
The house at its dead-end hadn’t seemed livable even when Janette was in high school. But she and her friends would sit on the porch with old Mr. Nance sometimes when they came to the river. He would tell them tales about running his family’s ferry. When he was a young man there were crossings all day, back and forth. The Nances had scraped a living together, enough to have a hundred acres of good bottomland. So they prospered, ferrying on a simple barge and tow-line between the narrowest crossing on the Holston between the counties, too far across and too deep to ford with a wagon, and later a car. But too underpopulated to build a bridge, the state always said. Mr. Nance had been the last of his family, an old bachelor, decades after they closed down the ferry.
“A man could earn a living then,” he would tell. “Before so many damn, blasted roads.” He had nothing to do but sit on his porch and watch Janette and her friends skip rocks across the water, laughing when they showed off. He let them shoot cans off fence posts out in the empty pasture. If they got rowdy, he might holler for them to turn down their car radios. He didn’t even mind when they climbed the hill to his family graveyard. He’d tell them to clean up and tote out their beer cans. Which they did. Nobody ever got in trouble. The drinking age was nineteen, then. Just about Jimmy’s age. Now you have to be twenty-one, three years after a boy can legally volunteer for service without his parents’ permission.
The last time she’d ridden out to the old Nance’s Ferry crossing was in Mike Renfro’s Camaro. Nearly twenty years ago. More than half her life. Why hadn’t she ever been back? Dwayne would’ve wanted to come with her, even today. That would have been as much of a trespass as inviting him over to Mike’s family’s for Sunday dinner. Or showing him the box of old letters and photos she still kept, way back in the corner of the upstairs closet in an old Kotex box. In a house of men, there would never be a better hidey hole.
There were no other houses in sight, though there would be soon. Nobody across the river on the Grainger County side, either. Just Janette and the three bikers. If any of them banked at First People’s, she ought to recognize them, which she didn’t. Probably daddies taking the afternoon off. But black leather can’t help but look menacing, its own kind of uniform. Still, she ought to feel safe and entitled enough to walk right down there between their bikes, right to the edge of the river.
The one with the blue bandanna leaned against his handlebars like he owned the place. And who knew? Maybe he was the Knoxville developer who’d bought the whole shebang. Owning a motorcycle nowadays cost a fortune. Rich people rode bikes and went bass fishing. Dwayne loved to fume about the upside down-ness, how unfair things had turned.
“I used to go to Thunder Valley before anybody thought racing was a bit cool. Now NACAR’s nationwide, and a man can’t get a ticket without selling his soul. Can’t hardly afford the simplest things people used to think was for rednecks. Rednecks got to be rich just to survive now. What’s left for the working man?”
Janette would remind him that his credit card had never been declined at the Bristol Motor Speedway. She didn’t say sitting in an air-conditioned office hardly made him a working man. But now she got why he was so pissed. Who were these people, taking over? When she first read in the paper that the Nance’s farm would be developed, she felt like somebody told her they would have to amputate her foot or hand, a part of her she’d taken for granted. All this land, which her memories gave her a right to, would be off-limits to her and her kind. Even though she hadn’t been here in years, just knowing the farm was there, untouched, had been a foothold into some kind of pleasure, a sense of who she used to be, what the world had been.
Now the whole, open stretch would be cut up into rich people’s back yards. Jimmy would go off to war in a country he probably couldn’t find on the globe. McMansions and a golf course. Afghanistan and funerals. Janette looked up the sloping hill overlooking the Holston River at all the little pink flags like fluorescent wings stuck into the ground. And beyond that the headstones silhouetted at the crest of the hill.
Ten years ago she’d never heard of a gated community. Now one would reign over this valley, a perfect cul-de-sac already in place, a river view on one side, mountain view on the other. And the biggest houses plunked right on the site of that family cemetery, with the best view. The developers, she’d heard, had gotten permission to move every casket and grave marker. Some had been there since before the Civil War. Heights used to be a luxury for the dead. The living had to be practical and build their houses near a water source. They didn’t think about lording over.
How much did it cost to move dead bodies from one place to another? From one country to another? How much did it cost to keep a wounded boy bedridden in the back room for the rest of his life? What kind of mother worries about that?
Janette put in one of the Allman Brothers CDs and opened a beer, which was already getting warm. The motorcycle guys shuffled along the river’s edge, stubbornly bivouacked right where she deserved to be. A half-hour had passed with them squatting by turns, talking and sometimes doubling over with a laugh she could barely hear.
“Okay, boys,” she mumbled to herself. “It’s my turn now. Hightail it out of here, why don’t you?” Being at a sacred place shouldn’t be like waiting in line at Wal-Mart. She pressed her palm into the steering wheel, shaking with the urge to blow the horn. She turned up “Rambling Man” and stepped out of the Jeep, slamming the door. The men turned to look, all three at once, paused their conversation. She climbed up on the hood and stood for a couple of minutes to see over the rolling moss-green water. She lifted her beer to them, when what she wanted was to flip them off.
As far as she knew, Jimmy had never tasted beer. They didn’t keep it in the house. He didn’t know she and Dwayne sometimes had a beer when the kids weren’t around. Without her or Dwayne even asking, Jimmy promised he would always be a teetotaler. Now she wanted to go home and force him to guzzle until he passed out. Beer, bourbon, grain alcohol, down to the bottom of every bottle.
Other boys drink and drive, they knock over mailboxes with baseball bats. They fail geometry. They get girls pregnant and do or don’t do the right thing. They live to be old, old men, old enough to laugh about the ancient times when all those stupid mistakes mattered. Until now, Jimmy had never done one stupid thing. He knew she would’ve wrung his neck. Just months ago, he’d signed a chastity contract at church, agreeing he’d remain a virgin until he married. At the time, Janette had been proud. Now it seemed embarrassing. Awful. Jimmy had never said anything about a girl, not once. He was that shy. Janette had thought he had all the time in the world to be shy.
Out of all the propaganda, she worried she was the one who had duped him worst of all. He couldn’t know what he was giving up, or he wouldn’t have. What if he died without ever having sex? What if he was damaged, even if he came home alive?
Now it terrified her to think maybe he’d never even kissed a girl. But she was supposed to believe he was ready to put on a uniform, a helmet, seventy pounds of gear, fly in a plane across the world, land in the desert, and kill enemies. He had to see how out of shape he was, not athletic enough to mow the yard. He slept until noon on Saturdays. He’d always had bad eyesight, clumsy motor skills. The twins always beat him at Nintendo, even when they were little. Even Dwayne could out-play him.
Out of all the propaganda, she worried she was the one who had duped him worst of all. He couldn’t know what he was giving up, or he wouldn’t have. What if he died without ever having sex? What if he was damaged, even if he came home alive? To think of the waste, the carefree possibilities he was throwing to the dogs. She should have raised him to be free enough to understand the freedoms he was sacrificing. Which contract was worse, the one he signed with the military or with the Baptists?
She had been younger than Jimmy by two years when she and Mike Renfro started coming to the river after dark, without any of their friends. The first time, Janette thought she wasn’t ready, that they would wait, but Mike’s hands on her belly, under her shirt, under her bra, moved her out of the car with him, down the stretch of field out of sight of Mr. Nance’s house. There was nothing ever as sweet as that dark, which changed from season to season. And in between the times they could get away, the lilting burn inside Janette drove her into a frenzied happiness she thought equaled being a grown up. She thought those days were just the start of more.
Mike Renfro had gone and died before he was twenty, then, killed at a train crossing between New Market and Knoxville one early Sunday morning. The paper said there were beer bottles in the floorboard of that Camaro, but blood tests showed he wasn’t under the influence. It got bad rumors going, but people who knew Mike knew he wouldn’t drink and drive, that his daddy borrowed his car sometimes on a Saturday night. He probably just hadn’t had time to clean out his mess. But what did it matter now? A boy’s stupidity shouldn’t be a death penalty.
Mike Renfro never had any kids. Never got married. Never breathed a breath past twenty. What if she had never slept with him out there in the fields, in his car, in the one motel he paid for on their anniversary night? It was supposed to be shameful for a girl back then. Turns out it was the one thing Janette had done right. She’d given over to Mike at the river on a night with a half-moon and a blue jillion lightning bugs. She felt married to him then. From then on. They had wandered through the blinking and made plans they’d thought would never change. Her mother had found a dead lightning bug in Janette’s long ruddy hair the next morning and wanted an explanation. At seventeen, her life was hers, and the raging she and her mother did proved it. She’d believed she would never let anything lessen the tangle between her and Mike. And in a way she hadn’t. She’d never told anyone, not even Dwayne. Now her hair was greying, short and dull. She was anonymous and average. Her life was average, but she had made do for her family and kids. She had been young once, and now she wasn’t. Living once ought to be prize enough, but it wasn’t .
Janette had met Dwayne a few months after Mike died, and got pregnant within weeks. Everybody in the church knew they had to get married, but Janette didn’t care. She would be busy forever now. She was alive and grown up, and then she was a mother, and nothing could make her look back. Until now.
For nearly a decade after Mike Renfro died, his family put a memorial in the paper every year on his birthday. The same photo, from their high school yearbook, so he never changed. Janette looked older than she ever dreamed she would at thirty-eight. She hadn’t gained much weight with Jimmy. But when Mike knew her she was a rail. The twins had left her with baby fat, even though they were going on twelve. She wondered more often than she’d like to admit what Mike would think of her now, whether he’d still love her if they had gotten married. Whether he’d be jealous of Dwayne, who was living the life meant for Mike.
If anybody knew that a person full of life is going to die, if we stopped to think that on any given day someone we know, right in front of us, is liable to be killed or die, then we would think about old times without vanity, and not be sorry for anything, and we’d say to one another without shame, “Hey, remember that time you and I were just kids, when we were happy not knowing any better.” She wanted that for Jimmy, to live long enough to outlive people he loved, to have enough life to understand the life he’d lived. She thought she had that, just now. But Jimmy put her life out of control for the first time since Mike Renfro died, and everybody looked at her as if she was going to climb in that casket with him. But she hadn’t. She had lived. And he was stuck in time, just a little older than Jimmy. She was old enough to be the mother of the boy he was then.
Janette sat on the hood of her Jeep, looking at the motorcycle guys and the river, until it started to sprinkle. She got back inside the Jeep and opened another beer, woozy and blurry. She turned on the windshield wipers to see if they were gearing up. They were probably younger than her. One of them might not make it home to his mama or his girlfriend or wife. She had never been one before to dwell on the negatives, except when it came to Jimmy. She had pooled all her worrying into him, afraid he’d be hurt, that it would be her fault for not paying close enough attention. And now it would be far worse, every day. The little possible hurts and scrapes he might get into, his wrong choices, those were mosquito bites compared to having half his body blown away, arms or legs replaced with prostheses. Coming back blind, being sent back to her on a stretcher, brain dead. He’d never be her little boy, hardly even her son, after just the first week at Basic. He’d be away for months, and the next time she saw him he would be farther from her than anyone she knew. He would be a strange man, the boy who just a few nights before had bared his back and asked her to mash zits he couldn’t reach. Afterward she’d scratched his back until he fell asleep beside her on the couch.
And even that evening he’d known he would be signing papers that would take him away from her. Recruiters had come right into his home room, outright weasely. Jimmy begged her not to go to the high school and make a scene. He begged Dwayne to make her calm down. She pictured him whining like that when some sergeant was yammering in his face.
“Mama, it’s not like they made me do something I didn’t want to.”
“You don’t know what you want,” she said. “How many permission slips have I signed? And this is the only time they don’t want my two cents? We’re not talking about a field trip to Dollywood here, Jimmy!”
Dwayne found out it was all legal. The school board allowed it, the same men and women who had a zero tolerance policy for bringing video games to school, and any weapon -- even a pocket knife somebody’s granddaddy had given to him. But they would let men waging war half-way around the planet come on school property and convince her son that he could become a man if he just signed on the dotted line.
Just as he stepped away from his buddies, out of the shade along the river, Janette thought the biker with the blue bandanna was waving to her or saying something. And this time he was waving at her, coming toward her as he took off his leather jacket in the thin sunlight that had replaced the drizzle. He was taller than she had thought, and thinner, but muscular. She was sweating. She turned the key for just enough power to roll her window back up and be sure her door was locked. But then she stopped the window half-way. She didn’t want to offend him.
Even though he headed toward her car, Janette thought he might walk past her, up the road. His legs were so long, he seemed to cross the distance between them in three strides. She reached for the ignition again and rolled the window up the rest of the way. Knowing a thing is about to happen makes it even more shocking sometimes, the doubt of it in balance with the certainty. Janette was hot from the beer, unsteady in her breathing. The guy’s body blocked the sky at her driver’s side window, and she glanced up into his sunglasses. She looked down at the ignition and touched her keys.
She jumped when he tapped the glass with the studs on his fingerless leather gloves. “You okay in there?” His voice came muffled through the window. “We didn’t know if you might need some help.” “I’m fine,” Janette yelled so loud that the guy winced backwards, ducking his head. He came up laughing. She couldn’t help a nervous, embarrassed laugh. It pricked her conscience to think he might think she was afraid. She turned the ignition and rolled down the window.
“Hey, there.” He leaned forward and folded his arms on the door, pressing his face into the car. He could grab her hair. He could drag her out in a split second. No one knew where she was. “It’s awfully warm being this close to Thanksgiving. Muggy. You start burning up in there, you just come on out. I promise we’re not half as ugly as we look, especially those two.” He looked back at his buddies and waved. “Look mean as the dickens, don’t they? Wouldn’t hurt a flea.” He reached into his leather vest and handed her a business card, printed in feminine cursive.
As Janette read, he said aloud: “‘Brother Tom Land. Bikers for Jesus.’” He extended his hand across the steering wheel. “Glad to meet you.”
She thought her hand might burn from the glossy grip of his glove. She couldn’t tell if his knuckles were dirty besides being hairy and dark. “Janette. Shall we gather at the river?” He barked a laugh and stood up straight and opened her car door.
“Sister, seriously. Come on down and set a spell. We’ll move on out of your way here in a minute. We got somewhere to be.” He sounded like a bad actor, trying to do Southern in a TV sitcom.
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” Janette swung her legs out of the car, doubtful she should or could take a real step. He reached out his hand to steady her, but she pulled away. She smelled like beer. “
Josh and Leon and me, we’re out of Memphis. Leon’s cousin lives in New Market. She put us up.” He stepped past Janette toward her car and shut the door for her. Out of instinct she beeped the lock, which made the guy laugh again.
The breeze off the river was cooler every step they took. The other two guys were busy with their bikes, so maybe they truly were gearing up to leave and let her have the place to herself. The last thing she wanted was to ratchet-jaw with some motorcycle Jesus freaks. But she couldn’t back out now.
“Wonder if I know his people,” she said as they walked. “I didn’t think an outsider would ever just run across this place. You pretty much have to mean to get here. I had a hard enough time. It’s been years.”
“Not to dispute you, ma’am — You mind if I call you Janette?”
“Nice name. Like I said I’m Tom, and I don’t mean to disagree, but I don’t really believe anybody’s an outsider. That’s just perception. We’re all right where we’re supposed to be, in God’s plan. Every place is just a stop on the journey of life. And then we move on. That’s what our ministry preaches, even to non-bikers. All of us have mileage on us, no matter what road we follow.”
Janette looked into the guy’s face and wondered if he was high. His sunglasses kept her from seeing his eyes.
“So you call it a ministry— ”
“Don’t just call it a ministry. That’s what it is. We’re headed to a big rally in Bristol this weekend. Hundreds of us from all over. We have chapters in every state except Hawaii”
“So, it’s a motorcycle rally,” she said.
“Well, no, ma’am. We ride, but that’s not our main goal. We’ll set up like a big old timey camp meeting. Dinner on the grass. Fishes and loaves. Preaching and witnessing. We ride at the pleasure of our Lord Jesus Christ, and live in the peace we have because of Him. That’s what our ministry hopes to bring to bikers and their families, and to spread even further the blessings of Jesus Christ. And I believe I can sense that there’s some trouble upon your heart right now.” Janette wanted to ask how the hell he guessed. A woman alone, sitting and doing nothing but drink and watch strangers at the edge of a river on a hot November afternoon while everybody else was at work. But she knew evangelizers like him. If she played it any way but straight, he would turn the screw deeper and pray for her to give up her smart-ass ways.
“My son joined the armed services a few days ago,” she said as lightly as possible. They had come to the muddy, sloping bank under the leafless sycamores, where his friends turned toward her. She nodded, stepping across the sandy mud and up onto a big rock she’d swear had been there forever. Now that he’d walked her to the river, like a gentleman, maybe he’d take his hellions for Christ and head out. She stepped off the rock, put it between them and her, stepping closer to the water, the air off it pooling cool around her. She turned away from them to watch the river.
“Well, you’ve got a lot to be proud of,” he said brightly. Janette half-turned her face and tried a tight smile, disappointed that she hadn’t thought of a quick lie. She’d given him his touchstone, a way in to his self-righteousness. “We minister with veterans, from Vietnam, the Gulf War, men — and women too — who just came home from Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d say seventy percent of us have some service record. Wouldn’t you say, Leon?”
Leon half-nodded, as if he were skeptical.
“Well, my son’s never even been on a motorcycle,” Janette answered, turning back toward them. “Much less a tank.” Maybe off-kilter would play better, or make a good finish to the conversation. But the guy didn’t laugh this time, or follow easily into empathy, not even fake empathy.
“Now you’re talking,” he said. “Man, what I wouldn’t give to go up in one of those Apache helicopters. Wouldn’t you, Leon?” The guy had started digging for something in the cubby under his thick leather seat, and barely looked up from his inspection. Maybe he was going for a gun, or a knife. Maybe a Bible.
“I’d just as soon Jimmy -- that’s my son -- would take his time and grow up some,” Janette said. “He just got his driver’s license a year ago. I don’t believe he’s ready to go out and track down Osama bin Laden. The only time he went hunting he came home crying because he killed a squirrel.” The words had come out of her mouth, an awful, private shame to tell. “I’m not sure he’d do well to shoot real, live humans.”
“We need men like him, willing to sacrifice,” Tom said.
“You’re right,” Janette said. Her throat tightened. “We need men, and my son is not a man. I was hoping he’d find some safer way to grow up and become one. Plus, I’m not sure who’d be sacrificing here. I’ve put eighteen of my best years into him.”
“We all have to pull together to support our troops,” Josh said. The three men stood in a triangle around her.
“Nobody supports our troops more than me,” Janette said. Her heart was pounding. “There’s men and women have been at this their whole lives, tough people raised to think and act on instinct. They grew up in military families. Maybe grew up knowing they wanted to be soldiers. Some people can’t wait to get into battle.”
“Maybe your boy is one of those people,” Tom said. “I don’t know anybody’s mama that thinks of her son as a fighter. But you got to give him a chance.”
“Like I said.” Janette felt the words in a strangle. “My boy is a boy. He made a boy’s mistake, and they won’t let him out of it, even though he never asked his daddy or me, neither one, what we thought about sending our flesh and blood to fight in a war we’ll never win.”
“Winning isn’t what’s most important over there right now,” Tom said. As if on cue, Leon handed Josh whatever he’d scrounged out of his bag. Tom reached across for a little pamphlet. “Here. This will tell you about the End Times, which we’re in the throes of right now. Your son will be doing the Lord’s work, prophesied before Christ. Read the book of Revelation — “
“I’ve read Revelation. I’ve read the whole damn Bible. Keep your pamphlet.” He pushed it into her hand, a flimsy paper with cartoon drawings and big red scary type.
“Tell me this, Tom. If I read Revelation for myself, why do I need a pamphlet?” She realized she was arguing with him. They’d been arguing since he tapped on her car window. He was the kind who always picked a fight, probing and needling until he found an in-road to say what he’d memorized, the running sermon in his head that kept him in armor.
“Sister —“ Tom started.
“I am not your sister. I go to my own church. I’m born again just as well as anybody else.”
“Then you know that God will not turn his back on Jimmy. All you have to do is pray to God, and he’ll deliver your son.”
She wanted to bash his head with his helmet. She wanted to crush his face into the river rocks and drag him under until he was sorry he had ever found his way to Nance’s Ferry, where he didn’t belong.
Janette stepped back onto the big rock, toward the three men. “The way he’s delivered all those other mothers’ sons who prayed for their boys to come home safe? You really think the boys who die over there die because nobody prayed for them?"
Tom was shaking his head again, so sad for Janette behind those sunglasses. She wanted to rip them off his face. She wanted to bash his head with his helmet. She wanted to crush his face into the river rocks and drag him under until he was sorry he had ever found his way to Nance’s Ferry, where he didn’t belong.
“God may not answer your prayer the way you want, but —“
“Oh, save it. Jesus Christ! You people are all the same. Nothing ever happens to you that’s not ordained by God. Do you really think God is all that interested in you?”
“God has a plan for your son, just as he had a plan for his own Son. God understands a mother’s sacrifice more than any human.”
“Like God understood Mary’s sacrifice?” Janette hated the knowing look Tom gave her, the answers he had memorized for every question, when all her thoughts were fiery new. “You think he gave a damn about Mary and all those years and worries she put into Jesus? Not to mention what he was willing to do to Isaac and all His so-called ‘chosen children?’ What a monster.”
“Now you’re blaspheming, Sister.”
“I’m just calling things how I see them. Brother.” She snarled the word, and she thought in the back of her mind about being in the delivery room having Jimmy, in the angry part of labor, when she would have stood up and walked away from the pain if she could have. She would have forsaken the child going through equal anguish just to get out of her. Then they were in it together, and her awful thoughts were gone. She was fighting for her baby, furious this time for his sake, and then it seemed like no time he was born, and they laid him on her chest.
Josh and Leon had moved to stand beside their bikes, giving one another some sort of signal, but Tom stayed near her, looking at her with a strange smile on his face, pity mixed with arrogance.
“Wipe the smirk off your face,” Janette said. “It’s so easy for you to get my son mixed up in your bullshit fantasy that people killing people for oil is a holy war. You want to bring on Armageddon, then you go fight.
“Seriously,” she said, turning to the other two. “How come the three of you aren’t fighting? You have arthritis so bad you can’t carry a seventy pound pack? You’re healthy enough to ride a motorcycle. He’ll be carrying seventy pounds at least on his back, sometimes more, in heat that can get to 120 degrees, and then in the winter, if he’s up in the mountains, it can get down to frostbite weather.
“And right now he’s already complaining every morning about how cold it is, and it’s not even Thanksgiving. I can’t get him out of bed because he’s afraid of a little shiver. You tell Jimmy to read Revelation. You think that’s going to make a hill of beans to him?”
“It might,” Tom answered.
“Oh. You think you’ve got a private line to God, and so you’ve figured it all out for everybody, riding around using up gasoline our soldiers fought and died over, wasting fuel up and down the road. Jesus this and Jesus that. You go on and die for your country.” She ripped the pamphlet into tiny pieces and flung them toward him, stomping them as she stepped off the rock toward him. “You go ahead and even pretend that you’d lay your life on the line. Then I might listen to you.”
She poked her finger toward his leather-covered chest. “You have a kid?”
Tom’s silent stare behind his sunglasses told her he didn’t. She stepped closer toward him on the sandy river bank. Josh and Leon came to flank him, mumbling that they needed to go.
“I repeat: Do you have a kid? Either of the other two of you? You ever have to get up with your kid in the middle of the night when he’s vomiting or having a asthma attack so bad you think he’ll die? You ever sat up with a baby that’s got a fever of a hundred and four?” She dared them, and they were silent. “Right. You’re all full of shit.”
“Janette,” Tom started, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’ve got to have faith that God knows what’s right.”
“I think you mean you know what’s right. In your religion you’re more important than Jimmy. And I have to tell you, the God I know is not a God who wants a child to lay down his life because of something you believe.”
“But you only think that way because you don’t have faith. You just need to have faith.”
“Faith will bring Jimmy home safe? Really? All I have to do is have faith? Well, why didn’t somebody tell me that when I made sure he got all his shots. I could have just had faith he’d be okay. And why send him to school or even feed him? Let’s all just live on faith.”
“You know that’s not how faith works. I know you’re angry with Jimmy. You can’t take that out on God. Your son’s life depends on your faith.”
“Don’t you dare put that off on me,” Janette rushed toward him. Tom raised up his palms as if to push her back, flushed and surprised. “Don’t you dare, don’t you tell me he’ll die because I don’t have enough faith.”
“Step back, lady,” Leon said, motioning as if he were swatting at flies.
Tom took a sideways stride toward his bike, turning from Janette. He stopped and spun back toward her on the heel of one boot.
“Man, stop this,” Josh said.
“Yes,” Tom said, stepping toward Janette again. “I’m starting to believe your sweet Jimmy truly will not make it. And all because you convinced him what a lame-brain he is. If Jimmy dies, it’ll be because you didn’t have faith. In Jimmy.”
Janette’s scream echoed across the river, off the trees and rocky mud in Grainger County and back again into Jefferson County, up on the hill where the Nance family graveyard had stood for a good hundred and fifty years, but now would be moved to make room for big families in big, expensive houses with views of the Holston River, safe and rolling. The TVA dam up-river would ensure their lawns would never flood. Janette bent in rage, doubled over in a second careening scream. In her spinning vision as she stood, the slope spilled upward above the sycamores. She rammed her fists into the leather vest covering Brother Tom’s ribs.
“Get the fuck out of here!” She was screaming and trying to get free of his hands around her wrists.
“Get off me. Get her off me!” The other two were pulling her, lifting her up by her forearms. They let Janette go, and she fell clawing at the ground to get up. She came to a crouch with her hands full of mud, casting it toward them, and then she bent again to pick up two and three river rocks at a time, flinging them without aim, not seeing if she had hit anything. She heard rock crushing against metal. She heard voices and yelling. But she was blind, scrambling for weapons, rocks, sticks. Her hands were full of mud and rocks.
“Get the fuck out of here, and stay out! Get the fuck away from me!”
When she had to stop to breathe, Josh and Leon were fastening their helmets as they climbed on and kick-started their motors, all in one swift motion, as if they had run from scary women before. She focused on Tom, plunging toward him. But he moved slowly, as if she were nothing to him, as if she weren’t the worst threat he’d faced in years.
Some of the smaller river rocks and mud wads Janette threw hit him in the head just as he’d tightened his helmet and started his bike. She threw a few more handfuls that bounced off his black machine and the back of his leather jacket before he was out of her range. Still she scrounged for the biggest rocks she could find, heaving and crying, but the three of them were around the curve. Then they were nothing but vague noise that disappeared.
Janette sank on the rock where she’d stood before and cried and cried, the way she had the day Jimmy was born, relieved and scared and exhausted. She flung sandy mud off her hands and scraped at the gunk on her arms, amazed to see that she was covered. Her fingernails were broken and bleeding. She wobbled when she tried to stand, collapsing back onto the rock. But in a couple of minutes she was able to make it to the Jeep. She put it in neutral and eased it down to the sloping bank. This was the first time she’d ever been to the river’s edge alone.
She sat on the Jeep hood and was barely able to start her new lighter. She smoked with muddy, shaking fingers. The sun was going down. Dark filled up the trees. She was shivering from the cold, and she didn’t know how long she’d been shivering. Half the pack of cigarettes was gone and her lungs hurt.
She hadn’t thought about Jimmy for several minutes, and it was like she’d blacked out. She’d been hearing Mike Renfro’s voice, or what she thought she remembered he sounded like, the way he used to call her “Baby,” calling her his sweet baby. It hit her hard to wonder what he would think of her now, what he might have told Jimmy she used to be like when she was just a girl.
Susan O’Dell Underwood’s work has been published in various journals and anthologies, including Oxford American and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee. Her poem "God as Edmund Pettus Bridge" won first runner-up in the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Southern Humanities Review. Underwood has published two chapbooks of poetry and directs the creative writing program at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. With David Underwood she founded Sapling Grove Press in 2014.