Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Bitter Not



Numbed out everybody colored him. And it was his own damn fault. He didn’t talk much. Couldn’t. A stutter and lisp so pronounced, that what sprung from his mouth was more akin to a strafing of bird shit by agitated crows than conversing. People would dodge the spittle and mutter, “Did he even know what we was talking about?” So June Bug had learned to proffer gestures instead of words, which folks could take as they chose. It was fine with him. What did he know?

In school, the teachers concentrated on the children who picked up classwork easily, not on those with physical needs. Shushed and ignored in the back of the classroom, June Bug listened, trying to crack the nut of what was actually on people’s minds. He picked up that a word’s definition was only a rallying point, often far afield from the speaker’s purpose. Irony and sarcasm, family and class pecking order, voice intonation and facial expression carried more weight than the individual words did. And all had to be kept in mind whenever he was cornered and forced to choose from the three options afforded him–a grin, a wince, or a hammerlock.

His bride, Bernice, was born without a discernible chin. No one but the dentist ever saw her lower teeth, which everyone speculated had to be lodged somewhere down that long neck of hers. She also suffered from brigades of pustules that waged a parry and retreat on at least one cheek. Boils to beat the band. She flabbergasted everyone when she announced their engagement. More than a few of her discouraged suitors, queried each other, how come she’d let that mule-head in her drawers?

Bernice was popular, and did well in school. She had the deprecating mien of those who accepted their flaws without flaunting them, and she had a sharp elbow yoked to a loud yelp that alerted everyone in the county if anyone should trespass her encouragements. June Bug on the other hand, though they were both seventeen, looked forty. His eyeballs peered out from so deep in his elongated skull, for him to see you, you had to stand right in front of him. And when you did, you wished you hadn’t. His face was painful to take in because of his height, which exceeded six-six, and a large, fleshy nose, which didn’t seem to know its place. So besides having to strain your neck, you’d find yourself staring up two cavernous nostrils inhabited by what looked like waves of bats plicating their white, tiny wings. A sight recommended only for mature audiences.

One Sunday morning, Bernice saw June Bug surrounded by riled-up churchgoers. They were taunting him with, Who’d he think he was anyway? Did he think he was better than everybody else? She pushed her way into the crowd and learned what he’d done. He hadn’t joined in the choruses condemning sinners. An unrepentant June Bug kept repeating in his sepulchral voice, “Don’t get good thaying bad,” until someone morphed his words into a refrain. The half-mocking, half-joyful crowd dispersed, singing, “Don’t get good thaying bad, Oh Lord,” all the way back their cars, leaving June Bug alone, face-to-face with Bernice.

It was as if she had planned it. She had fancied June Bug for quite some time. He never complained nor asked for favors. Fine qualities for a husband to have. His seldom speaking in the first place failed to factor into her deliberations, but no one else’s manning up to join her at the altar mightily had. She proposed right there and then.

June Bug didn’t object, as no other gal had paid him any mind. When the wedding took place, the townspeople were even more surprised that Bernice was not in the family way. She must have miscarried, but her stick-to-itiveness triumphed over common sense was their verdict. And for her part, Bernice never disowned the slander, which helped its stink soak in good, especially after she had the marriage annulled on account of abandonment.


* * *


All are welcome at The Anniston Regional Medical Center. On Labor Day, 2003, its emergency unit admitted one June Bug Jones, found unconscious at St. Anthony’s, a local soup kitchen. June Bug had multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, or MODS. Head Nurse read the medical report and ordered the next of kin be advised. When she learned that none could be identified, she contacted the State archivist to find one, STAT.

* * *

In a small conference room, archivist Sally Chase reports her findings to the senior staff of the hospice. They all, except Head Nurse, sit in ergonomic chairs at a round, highly polished, mahogany table. Head Nurse stands. After the usual pleasantries, Sally starts, “I found conflicting dates of birth for June Bug Jones, but I believe he’s sixty-four years old.”

Nurse Ireland asks, “Which Jones family is he kindred to? Cotter, Shelby, Mallory? Obediah, maybe?”

“Don’t know.” Sally replies, “Insists he was born in Arbacoochee. I tried to learn as much from the patient as I could. It was a struggle I can tell you.”

Nurse Ireland follows up, “You think he’s lying, ’specting if he wasn’t born here, we’d let him rot on the street?” Then adds, “Or are you saying he’s non-verbal?”

Sally turns to Nurse Ireland and says, “Practically. His speech impediment is worse than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”

“Is he an imbecile?” Nurse Fitter asks, then chuckles. “I should have said mentally challenged.”

“Sometimes, I surely think he is. Others, I wonder if he can’t read my mind.”

“Sally.”

“Yes, Head Nurse,” She catches Head Nurse’s eye and says, “You, you want me to get to it?”

“Please. Thank you very much.”

“I’m sorry, I forget this is just one of the units you oversee, and…” Sally notices that Head Nurse peeks her tongue out of her mouth like she had a mind to launch a blow dart in her direction. Sally ducks her head, scans through her notes and hurries on, “The first public record I was able to locate on Mister Jones was August Thirty-First, Nineteen Fifty-Four, Cleburne County.”

Head Nurse sighs and walks over to look out a window. Sally interprets Head Nurse’s behavior as her being this close to throwing a fit, so Sally quickens her pace even more. “On that date, Mister Jones wed a Bernice Whitfield by a justice of the peace in Gadsden. The very next day, he was arrested for car theft in an unincorporated area near the Georgia border. He received a twenty year sentence. He was sent to Heflin Corrections, afterwards to Kilby Barracks, then on Thanksgiving Nineteen Sixty-Eight, in the middle of the night, Mister Jones and four hundred other inmates were transitioned to our beloved Holman Correctional, having just been built. Holman released him one month ago, yesterdee.”

Nurse Mensalem says, “Why all the transferring? Troublemaker?”

“Heflin and Kilby were condemned by the Alabama Board of Corrections,” says Sally.

Head Nurse adds, “Shoddy construction if I remember rightly.”

Joyce says, “Do the math gals. Twenty plus fifty-four is seventy-four. Why didn’t they release him then?”

Sally answers, “His sentence kept being extended.”

Nurse Fitter jumps in, “I knew it. He’s dangerous. Alert security.”

“I called Holman about that.” Sally says. “Warden Johnson assured me he wasn’t. For sure, I thought, and demanded to see Mister Jones’s file.

“Except for one time, the infractions were his joining strikes for better food, heat, ventilation and the like. Now,” she pauses, reading over her notes, “he took part in a prison riot in Nineteen Seventy-One. Four guards were hurt, seven inmates killed, more than a hundred injured. Funny thing though, other than this note in Mister Jones’s file, I couldn’t find a single reference to it.”

Joyce adds, “Prison conditions never change. A guard has to die before it make the news. When that happens, the governor will form a committee. It always blames the hell on earth we’ve created inside there. Nothing gets done, until the next time, when nothing gets done again.”

Nurse Ireland says, “Remember what that guard told us, Charlie something? Asked us to forgive him for his part in stirring up fights at Holman. Said they’d handicap the prisoners like racehorses, lay bets, then take some liberty away or spread a rumor that one of them had ratted on somebody.”

Nurse Fitter says, “Strong, Charles Strong was his name.”

“Well, anyway,” Sally continues, “the fight earned him a six-month infirmary stay and another twenty years.”

Joyce, peering at the intake paper work in front of her, says, “Is that when he lost his left eye?”

“No, that was from a scythe accident. They were clearing brush. Evidently, he was working on a chain gang.”

Joyce says, “Well, he’s dangerous no longer, pretty sanguine on the morphine drip I give’m. Plus his vision is two fifty-three fifty. That’s going on blind and with only one eye, he has no depth perception. He’s likely to miss any intended target by a hefty margin. I think we be safe.”

“As if we’re the arbiters of who’s saved and who’s not,” tosses in Nurse Ireland.

Head Nurse says, “What about fitting him with glasses?”

“No good. He’s got cataracts,” Joyce says then turns to Sally, “What make of car did he steal anyway?”

“Brand new red Thunderbird, with white leather seats.”

“Classy,” says Nurse Ireland.

Head Nurse turns away from the window, like a snake sizing up its dinner, “A Thunderbird, in fifty-four? Fastest car around back then. Sally, how’d the police catch him?”

“Doesn’t say.”

Head Nurse returns to looking out the window, and in a volume so low they all strain to hear asks, “Living family members?”

Sally says, “Could not identify a one. I rushed out a want ad. Too many Joneses around here to waste tax dollars calling each. Mister Jones had no idee where his mother was born, just that she died giving birth to his younger sister.”

“Where is she?”

“Died in a farming accident.”

“Children?”

“She was only fifteen.”

“She could have had children, maybe a couple” Nurse Fitter says and laughs. They all join her, even Head Nurse.

After catching herself, Sally, says, “No record if she had.”

“His Father?”

“Died in Belgium in World War Two.”

“What about his wife?”

“Oh yes, Bernice. She moved to Tennessee. Tennessee doesn’t keep records worth bothering about looking to.”

Nurse Fitter says, “Well, we won’t be bothered by visitors either. Holman for certain won’t be issuing leave for any prisoner wanting to pay last respects.”

“There really isn’t much time,” Joyce adds. “Really not sure how he’s still breathing, his vitals can’t deteriorate much further. He must be one of those that don’t take to dying.”

“Any more than he did to living,” says Nurse Fitter.

Head Nurse asks, “Any other medications?”

“No,” says Joyce. “He’s ’cusing me of being a pusher with the morphine drip, making an addict out of him. Then he chuckles. Like Sally was saying, one minute you think he’s ignorant, and the next he teaches you how to deal.”

“How’s that Joyce?” Nurse Fitter asks.

“With humor.”

“Is he in pain or playacting?”

Joyce, peering over June Bug’s medical chart says, “Ignoring for a minute the bruises from his fall at St. Anthony’s, and his blood pressure registering seventy over forty-four, he has fibromyalgia, which we all know is excruciating. Holman treated it with aspirin. The lab work came back. He’s allergic to aspirin.”

Nurse Ireland says, “Shock shock. He’s in constant pain and Holman’s remedy was to make him sicker. What bones did he all break?”

Joyce passes her clipboard to Nurse Ireland and says, “Pretty much each one at least once.”

Head Nurse, her back to everyone and still looking out the window, asks, “Sally, you like him?”

Sally’s startled. She’d never been asked this before, but without taking an extra breath she replies, “Very much. I know I’m lucky to have this work that really doesn’t need to be done, finding lineage for people who have none worth speaking of, to give them a final hearing and all, but he’s comforting. Most of the people I dig for, they’re… They’re either barely conscious or steeped in mulligrubs. He misses nothing that’s going on and he doesn’t blame anyone for anything that’s happened to him.”

Nurse Fitter laughs and says, “Well, maybe he should start. Himself for instance. Why’d he say he took the car? Trying to impress his wife?”

“Borrowing it.”

“These people with their self-justifying stories. Incredible. ‘I didn’t know I was stealing a brand new sports car.’ You’d think at this point, in the final act, they’d own up. Get a grip, people. Jesus!” Nurse Fitter breaks off, lowers his head, chin shrinking in. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Didn’t mean that.”

Head Nurse says, “Sally, does he know he’s dying?”

“Yes, he does.”

“Did you get his last will and testament?”

“Yes. He has a savings account from his earnings at Holman, eighteen hundred, sixty-three dollars and sixty-five cents. He’s leaving it to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’ve made the arrangements with the bank. That’s all he has.”

“Good. We’re running out of time here,” Head Nurse says. “Did you learn if Mister Jones has any favorite books he’d like to read? The Bible perhaps, or sports hero biography?”

“He can’t read. He’s partial to ee cummings, Head Nurse.”

“All righty then, we have American blank verse in our library. Very good. I know it wasn’t easy, Sally, especially on short notice. You did fine.” She ushers Sally out the door. Sally leaves, blinking heavily in a do-I-have-to? plea.

Head Nurse carefully closes the door behind Sally. She strides to the table and looking at Joyce asks, “Can he be moved?”

“Yes, Head Nurse.”

“Good, place him in the corner unit. Give him the VIP treatment. The entire laundry list.”

“Head Nurse,” says Joyce, “Reverend Kirk’s already in the corner, and Senator Minute doesn’t let an hour go by without peeking in to see if Kirk hasn’t joined the Lord, so the senator can take over the place. This June Bug Jones is gonna have to wait his turn.”

“But Mister Jones can’t wait, can he? We have three unoccupied rooms. Give the reverend his choice.”

“But why? Mister Jones can’t talk, can hardly see. He has a record of violence…”

“Because he’s spent fifty years in prison for stealing a car. A car. He’s been treated pretty shabbily, don’t you think? And by the same government that supports this hospital. He sure didn’t develop MODS in the few weeks since his release.”

Nurse Fitter says, “So Holman dumped its problem on us, hardly the first time. We took him in. That’s sufficient amends for me. What do you all think?”

“They could’a at least had his cataracts removed,” inserts Joyce.

“And switched him off aspirin,” offers Nurse Ireland.

“The reverend’s gonna fuss,” squawks Fitter.

Head Nurse says, “I shouldn’t think we’d need to remind a man of God about the import of the coming life over the comforts of this one. If he objects, I will talk to him.”

Nurse Ireland asks, “How often do you want us to check in on this convict? Every hour might not be enough even.”

Head Nurse leaves the window and walks slowly back to the other nurses, their white hands lying out on the dark table like blackjack cards, their eyes not leaving her maternal girth. She tugs at and straightens her white, pleated uniform. Finds a gray hair. Picks it off, drops it and watches it disappear into the carpet. “Let’s not forget he’s an ex-convict. Find out how often he would like us to. He’s earned a respite.”

Nurse Fitter interjects, “This is a fairy tale, Head Nurse. We don’t know nothing about this guy. This could end up being a huge pain in our backsides. And for what? Fifty years in the clink makes men feral, not candidates for sainthood.”

Head Nurse lowers her head and pauses for a few seconds. She takes a deep breath, then giggles. “I’m sure you’re right, Nurse Fitter, but humor me. We’ll turn it into a play. He’ll be our prodigal son. We all know the story and as Joyce said, it won’t be for long. It will be the last solace he experiences.”

Nurse Fitter says, “Until he goes to the other place.”

“Especially if he goes to the other place. I will do my part.” Head Nurse turns and looks at Joyce, “How’s his appetite?”

“He shouldn’t have one, but so far he’s polished off everything we brung’m.”

“No more cardboard gruel for our prodigal son then, I’ll cook his meals. Expect me in early the next few days.” She winks, then says, “Fair notice for you who dally a bit getting in.” She waves her hands to shoo off imaginary gnats and says, “Never mind which you are. Let’s look forward to this little charade. It might be the brightest time we’ve had in quite a while.

“Nurse Ireland, how’s that green house of yours doin’? What’s blossoming?”

* * *

 June Bug and Bernice happened upon it when they were just a few miles from their honeymoon cottage. Both were exhausted from the less than lavish but long wedding reception. They hadn’t spoken but a few words since they had driven off, most to do with where to turn, their thoughts more on the novel life that lay ahead than the unfamiliar roads before them. June Bug had detailed three cars owned by a local car salesman for the use of the Ford Thunderbird. The dealership was closed weekends in compliance with the State’s blue laws, so who would notice the car was AWOL?

With no phones, police, or hospitals for miles, Bernice and June Bug didn’t even consider not stopping. Helping people in need is in Alabamans’ DNA, lodged snug between heartbreak and resentment.

In the middle of the dirt highway, two cars had plowed their fenders clean up to the cowls. The wheeze of steam from their radiators competed in the dark humid night with crickets’ incessant chirping. A green and white Buick stood abandoned, its doors and trunk wide open. Unlike the deserted Buick, the Chevy resembled a giant licorice jelly bean being ravished by an army of white ants. Bernice circled over to talk with the women and children milling around it. Obeying a man’s natural default, June Bug walked around the vehicles, assessing the damage. Through the Chevy’s busted-out windshield, June Bug could plainly see its driver. He looked about forty years old and past ever celebrating another birthday.

A young girl’s voice, yelling for someone to get out of there and help, drew June Bug’s attention away from the cars. Someone was in the scrub. Pretty soon, a bear of a man in coveralls burst onto the road and waving a fat stick, charged the girl. June Bug, almost jerking the head off his neck, spewed, “Bitter not!” The two words, rendered as singularly bright as the smithy’s first morning anvil strike, shook off the night’s milky haze into a crystal clarity.

The man in coveralls, a bootlegger, jolted backwards like he’d been gut-punched. He saw June Bug, read him, lobbed the stick into the woods and spat a long stretch of tobacco rheum on the dirt road. Then he sat down on a tree stump, a good head start from June Bug, if it came to that.

After the accident, the bootlegger had gotten real busy stowing his white lightning so the cops wouldn’t find it and fine him for running moonshine, or for drinking or some such, the way they do. He’d had plenty to drink, and been driving without headlights as fast as the Buick could go, but keeping to the middle of the road for caution. He showed neither an inclination to scoot nor to lend a hand, and just pedaled his foot up and down like he was working a potter’s wheel. He chewed on a plug of tobacco and on how he was gonna settle the score with Mister Big Shot Bitter Not.

The young girl, who’d been nagging the bootlegger, forsook that ministry, and ran to this new defender. June Bug fixed his attention on the bootlegger, expecting more funny business. For his concern, June Bug was ambushed. Three teenage girls grasped his wrists and tugged him towards the brush.

“You have to find Theron,” they shouted. “We can’t! Help us! He got thrown out. Help us. Please!” These were farm girls, their hands callused, their grip hardy. June Bug figured if he wrenched himself free, he’d harm at least one of them, so he looked over at Bernice to plead for his release. Instead, Bernice told him they should drive to the hospital with the girls’ mother, who was bleeding badly at her right temple.

No one was having any of that. “I’ll be fine,” the mother said, with that small town assurance which affords no counterin’. Pressing a bloody rag against the side of her head, she said, “Daddy’s gone. There’s no hepping him. We have to find our baby. See if he’s still with us.”

“He was on my lap,” one of the girls cried.

“He’s five, must weigh forty pounds,” said the mother.

“Try,” June Bug said. The girls let him go and he lined up the broken windshield with the point of contact. The girls were all talking over each other. June Bug yelled, “Thut fug up!” Even the crickets obeyed.

He listened for the underbrush’s flexing, heard its fighting against a fresh foreigner blocking its only will, steepling toward sky. He walked straight into the dark, right where the boy lay.

June Bug shook himself. The boy’s face was bloodied. A femur end, silver white, protruded out of pink thigh muscle. The stomach had been impaled by a sugarcane, nevertheless the chest rose and fell in a regular rhythm. June Bug worried about the boy’s daddy, dead in the front seat, about the man in the coveralls, and about what life brings us. Should he warn the girls not to come see? His lips and his teeth clamped closed. He snapped off both ends of the cane stalk, lifted the boy and carried him over to where the women waited. He lowered the boy into his mother’s tremulous arms. Then in one motion, without a signal or paying heed to the females’ plaints, scooped her up and deposited mother and son straight through the open convertible top, into the passenger seat of the Thunder Bird, and drove away. Bride left behind. He didn’t even wave. Bernice had passed his notice, but still. Her soul crinkled. A wound that soon healed, cauterized by never seeing her husband again.

June Bug made it to the hospital all right, but otherwise things weren’t. For one odd reason after another, the attendants showed more interest in the accident than the mother and son’s injuries. That one crack of time, when people needed June Bug, understood him, had passed. The attendants woke up the sheriff. The sheriff arrived and demanded to see June Bug’s car, but the Thunder Bird didn’t have a scratch. That line of cause and effect defeated, the sheriff then ordered the owner of the Ford dealership out there. When the dealer saw blood stains on the upholstery, he signed a complaint for grand theft auto. The sheriff had what he wanted and led June Bug away in handcuffs.

* * *

At first, June Bug figured this was how they treat you when your laps are up, but his first wheelchair constitution around the ward belied that. His room was the largest single, and had the finest view. A manicured flower garden was just below his window and beyond that a green valley stretched out for as far as his eye could see. Dale Minute, a semi-tarnished, former State Senator, entertained a cadre of well wishers from a room that overlooked the community cemetery and cesspool. The rest of the single rooms were windowless. June Bug even overheard a patient grousing about being downgraded from the corner room. It made him wary. What in Sam Hill was going on?

He had his own bathroom. His own bathroom! And when he clicked the remote, as quick as a chigger finds your ass at dusk, two orderlies would come, lift him onto the commode and leave so he could do his business in private. And when he clicked again, they’d gentle him back into bed as if he was made of fine china.

The nurses noticed right away he didn’t watch TV and asked him if he’d prefer a radio. He said he would. They brought in a fancy one, which reached stations as far away as Chicago. Hot damn. They also wheeled in a separate air conditioner–not to cool, but to drown out the ward noise whenever he wanted to sleep. And boy. In fifty years, he hadn’t nodded off for more than a few minutes before some disturbance hadn’t minded to see if he couldn’t be made any more uncomfortable. Here the room temperature never varied, so he did fine with only the light cotton gown they gave him. At Holman, to keep from freezing to death in the winter, you slept fetus-tight, and to keep from cultivating new life forms in your underwear in the summer, you laid bare naked. He woke rested, which once morning’s fog cleared, only heightened his vigilance for the pisser that had to be in store for him.

The nurses even brought him a parakeet to befriend and exhibited no annoyance that he let it fly around the room. Neither did they show any irritation when the parakeet had an accident, nor when he did. The nurses just laughed and they or cheerful orderlies got right down to swabbing the floor or changing his sheets.

Every morning, they brought in fresh flowers–jasmine, gardenia, lavender and lilac fragrances filled the place, a far prairie from the hard sweat, old musk, vinegar and despair of Holman stink. Even the bedding smelt wonderful. Clean. And Dry.

But the food.

When Head Nurse cleared the plates of her first offering–fried pork chop, hominy corn and string beans, June Bug told her, “If known food here thith good, died thooner.” Supper was filet mignon, asparagus in a herby white sauce, mutton corn, and red wine. He’d never eaten a meat that hadn’t required fifty chews between swallows.

Dessert capped it though. Lemon meringue pie that tasted so fine he cried. When a nurse heard his whimpering and asked what could she do for him, he pled like a found-guilty kindergartner, “Thecondth?”

So when Head Nurse came in later to read some poetry, she brought two large slices. He ate what he could and cried again. He hadn’t cried since Mister King was assassinated. Now he knew he was sure dying, providing he hadn’t already and somehow made it to heaven–an improbable idea that no matter was gaining credence.

The next morning, when Nurse Mensalem served him eggs over grits with thick slices of bacon on the side, June Bug asked her, “Why treat me tho good?”

Not wanting to let June Bug in on the act they were playing, Joyce told him that he was cared for the same as everyone. And when he protested, “Thame grub?” She adroitly countered that everyone gets what they order, and exited before June Bug could attest to the falsity of that. He hadn’t asked for a thing.

That evening after supper, Clara Jo Lamott read to him. Clara Jo was one of Head Nurse’s sisters. Head Nurse was her family’s matriarch, orchestrating all the holiday meals and family reunions. For payback, brother and sisters visited anyone she thought needed looking-in on.

The following evening, after June Bug was served fried chicken and okra, mashed potatoes and a green salad with slices of fresh pear; another sister, Mary Ellen Beckett, arrived to read. June Bug’s rapture lit up the room, startling the parakeet into circling the ceiling in alarm when she recited the line, there is some shit I will not eat. And Mary Ellen, a proud Baptist, chuckled at the thought of ever giving voice to such a thing.

Head Nurse cleared June Bug’s plates after every meal, so she’d know first when his stomach shut down. Tomorrow would be his last supper.

* * *

 “No. It’s best I do this myself. Be right down. Thank you very much.” Head Nurse hangs up, and navigates a dozen hospital hallways before making it to the front desk where her brother waits.

He had always been the fiery cross in the family: having a hissy fit if he couldn’t hatchet the chicken’s neck for supper, putting a snake in the girls’ lunch buckets, setting the school’s outhouse ablaze, and then when interviewed by the local paper, setting off another firestorm by lampooning the township’s efforts to extinguish it. He was a small-time, flagitious philanderer on his fourth marriage. Head Nurse sent birthday cards and a small check to each of his children because he sure didn’t. He’d had more careers than wives even–jeweler, printer, door-to-door cutlery peddler, taxidermist, and hair dresser. Now he made his living blogging, bragging about having millions of fans.

She sees him, a tall lighthouse, leaning on his cane. He wears that authoritarian thin mustache and that aristocratic pouch. He’s casing the place, as much to warn anyone he deemed disgusting to come no closer, as to lure any woman he found not unattractive to oblige his carnal appetite.

He sees her and glances out the windows to reassure himself that the Harley isn’t being molested. It tilts on a shiny, chrome kickstand in a handicap parking slot, with his shibboleth streaming from the rear wheel fender to each handlebar–faded Confederate pennants.

She walks right up to him and, before he can retreat, grabs both his hands, her chest as close to his as it can be without actually touching. She can tell he hasn’t showered–which is his telling her he’s not her slave, as if his arriving an hour late hadn’t already, while his showing up at all revealed something else entirely. He towers above her five foot height, but the family resemblance is unmistakeable. Same forehead, cheeks, mouth and chin, only their noses are different–his Roman, hers pixie.

“Come,” she says, and tugs him behind her by releasing the hand that holds his cane. He violently shakes her grip off. She snickers and shakes her head.

She leads him up to the corner hospice room, softly knocks on the doorjamb, and calls out, “Mister Jones, do you have a minute?” She takes a hoarse caw for assent and sweeps in, her brother incrementally increasing the look of distaste on his face and his distance from her.

A dark hairless head and chest, and the backside of two hands peep out of white linens, all framed inside even whiter walls. June Bug switches off the radio.

Head Nurse pivots to stare straight into her brother’s blue eyes and says, “Brother dear, this here’s Mister Jones. I’m sure you don’t remember him, but in Fifty-Four, he done saved your life.”

Without waiting for her brother’s reaction, she turns to June Bug and says, “Mister Jones, meet Theron Welsh, my baby brother, the boy you drove to the hospital with my ma in the middle of the night some fifty years ago.”

June Bug looks from Head Nurse to her brother and says, “Thee run?”

Theron doesn’t utter a sound. He raises his cane a few inches off the floor. Eyes it. Lets it drop. Frowns like he’s bitten into a green persimmon. Then spins around and struts out. Lord that he is, he didn’t have to put up with this and wasn’t about to.

June Bug, shaking all over with laughter, says, “Get it. Oh yeah. Yeah. Makth thenth now.”

Head Nurse tries to restore order in her world, “My brother, Mister Jones, is a… I’m so ashamed… It… He… He cost you… Can I sit down here, Mister Jones.” He nods and she does. She rubs her nose into her hankie for a long while, then titters, “What else did I expect from him? He now works, if you can call it work, to agitate us against one another. He treats everythin’ no more than playing a parlor game.”

June Bug lightly pats her hand, and says, “Changed nothing.”

She stares at her hand, then at June Bug. She ponders the possibility that maybe he is an imbecile. But he’d been Moses that night, Moses parting the Red Sea. She looks him over now. All she sees is a dying old man. She tacks. “Mister Jones, Theron is running for Grand Dragon of the KKK, and they say he’s a shoo-in.”

“Tho?”

“Mister Jones, you went to prison for saving his life.”

June Bug traces her features out like he’d thought she was someone he knew and now discovers she’s a stranger and feels the fool. His gaze finally spirals in and fixes upon her pregnant irises before he resignedly drops his head against his dark bare chest, sticking out of the hospital gown the way they do and mumbles, “Ah h’m.”

“Are you connecting the dots Mister Jones?”

“Yeth ma’am.”.

“Mister Jones,” Head Nurse says, her voice cracking, “the boy you saved, grew up to be … a … white supremacist.”

“Din’chuall?”


 



William Kirk: a navy brat, born in Japan during the US Occupation, who after twenty years of schooling got a day job adjusting property claims, having failed to win one as a school teacher. Inspected catastrophe losses in forty different states and retired having learned more than anyone needs to know about tragedy, karma and the continuum of resilience. Now retired, husband, father, NAMI volunteer, he finds that writing defines, so he seeks clarity under the umbrella of words. The author thanks Don Swaim’s Bucks County Writers’ Workshop.