4 She Called Him Joey
I went back to the river the next night. Jack's body had been found that morning, but still, I went hoping to see him at the river. I sat on the bank, closed my eyes, and prayed. I prayed that somehow Jack could appear in the water, swim towards me, get out of the water, and sit next to me on the bank. Please God..., but no, I opened my eyes and saw only the moon and water. I saw things in my mind, in my prayers, but I knew those things couldn't be if I couldn't see them with my eyes. My mind's view faded and what I saw with my eyes was a moon that offered peace and a river that offered taunts.
I saw the darkness move out of the corner of my eye, and before I could turn my head, she was sitting on the grass beside me. The moon was sitting on the opposite side of the river—right where it always sat—and in its reflection upon the water, I could see her movements but not the details of her appearance. But it had to be her.
She didn't say anything, and neither did I. Nothing came to mind to say to her. I guess nothing came to her mind either. I looked at her a few times, she kept her attention focused on the river. After a short while, she rose, and without looking at me, she turned and left.
I didn't go to the river again until after Jack was in the ground. I went the very night we buried him and sat in the wet grass for three or four hours. I had seen her at the river three times now, but she didn't show this night. I kept going back every night hoping she'd reappear, and after a few weeks, she finally did. She sat beside me facing the water, then turned her head to me, and then turned her attention back to the water. It seemed curious to me that she would sit down right next to a boy she probably wouldn't have recognized in the light of day. But her company was welcome. Her presence next to me felt comfortable for some reason, probably for some strange reason.
I broke the silence, "Where have you been?"
She turned her head to me, said nothing, and then turned back to the river.
I tried again, "You here waiting for Jack to appear?"
"Jack was my brother."
It occurred to me, she wouldn't have known that Jack was his name. She wouldn't have known he and I were brothers. That night, it didn't occur to me to tell her my name or ask hers'.
I decided, in my mind, what she looked like and guessed her facial expressions from how she moved her head, shoulders and torso. The way she cocked her head, held her head still, shook her head, quickly or slowly turned her head away, I could see facial expressions in all that. I saw more in how she moved the rest of her body. I could see her shrug her shoulders. I could see her shoulders slump. Truth is, it was probably too dark for me to see any of that, but still, I saw it.
"OK. I'm not waiting for anyone. This grass is wet." She shrugged her shoulders.
"My brother and I have been coming here since we were little kids. It was my brother you met here a couple of weeks ago, the same night you met me."
"OK. I've been coming out after my grandma goes to bed. This where I come."
"I don't understand."
"I don't understand either."
"I mean, why do you come to the river?"
She turned her head to me, and though I couldn't see her face in the dark, I knew I had insulted her from her response.
"Why do you come to the river? "her shoulders hunched.
I wasn't saying colored folks shouldn't be at the river. I was trying to ask why she came in the middle of the night with only a moon to light. It was about three o'clock when she showed, a time when any person with any sense would be asleep. The only three folks I'd seen at the river that late were Jack, her, and me. I didn't say any of that. I just left her feeling insulted.
She didn't say anything else that night that I could understand. I'd asked her to explain things she was saying, she'd say, "there's no explaining to do. It means what it means." I think maybe she was talking more to herself. I wished she could see me smile. A smile can sometimes say more than words.
We continued to meet for a few weeks without much being said between us. Always she'd greet me with a nod of her head. Then one night, she greeted me with a nod of her head, but she didn't look in my direction. After a few minutes of talking without saying anything I could understand, she said something I understood.
She told me, "that night you were here, that wasn't the first night between your brother and me. I didn't know him. Probably wouldn't have known him in the light of day. But that wasn't the first night between him and me, here at the river."
I searched for words.
"I saw what happened with you and him. You remember I was here? You have to remember what I saw. I saw him do what he did to you. Are you telling me I didn't see what I saw? Did you know him? I don't understand what you are saying. Were you meeting him here? What happened between you and him? After what we did, after what I did, I don't understand."
She wouldn't answer my questions. If I had had a better idea of how to talk to her and get answers from her, I might not have ceded control of every talk we had to her. She said what she wanted to say—without regard for what I wanted, needed, to hear—and she'd say no more. She had another statement to make.
"I have a baby inside me," she said with a shrug.
I was horrified. I yelled at her, "you are going to have his baby? Jack's baby? No. You can't do that. Please, say that you are not carrying his baby."
She didn't respond. She turned her face to me and stared at a face she could only see in outline. We hadn't talked about my part in drowning Jack. I never asked her about her part. She had no idea of the fear I had of Jack. She had no idea of the fear I now had for this baby she was carrying. In the dark, she couldn't see the tears that were streaming down my face.
I got up, and without looking in her direction, I walked into the woods and ended up an hour or so later, lying awake in bed, with tears still streaming down my face.
She had begun to grow big a couple of months earlier, I had noticed. I could see when she faced the river, with her side to me, that her stomach had begun to swell. Maybe deep in the back of my mind, I knew she was with child before she told me. The front of my mind, I guess, refused to see what my eyes were seeing.
Still, I kept going to the river, and so did she. I had to find out about her. I hoped she knew something about Jack I didn't know. I hoped she could make Jack's death understandable to me. She wouldn't talk about him to me. She never said a single word to me about Jack; she never spoke his name.
She came to greet me with a nod of her head that I took as friendly and answered, with a worried head nod of my own. She began to talk more to me. She'd say more than I could understand. When I say she was saying things I couldn't understand, I mean sometimes she'd turn her head away before speaking, sometimes she'd talk in a voice that wasn't loud enough for me to clearly hear, and sometimes she just repeated the same sentence over and over.
"It's been just my grandmama and me since my mama died. The rest of my family has left East County, Texas, for Houston, Dallas, and other cities, hoping to find work and find better lives. My grandmama talks still, of large picnics, with just family, that died as a family tradition when the other family left and never thought to look back. My mama and daddy had left, as well, before I was born, but we came back."
She had this great fear that her grandmother was soon to leave her as well.
"My grandmama cain't see at all. She stumbles around, trying to find things. She says that she knows where everything is and can find what she needs. She's going to leave me soon, I know it. I can easily see her lying down one day and not getting back up. She falls. Usually, she can get up on her own, but sometimes I have to help her. She says she gets into too much of a hurry and loses her balance. But she falls, and sometimes I have to help her to her feet.
"She has me read to her from her Bible. She marked her favorite passages when she could still see. Sometimes she just sits for hours and holds her Bible to her breast. She is obsessed with salvation; the way she says, old folks become obsessed with things. She talks of a better place. She knows she will soon pass.
"My grandmama took me and my mama in after my daddy, her son, left. He said he'd send for us when he was able. He hasn't been able. My mama died waiting for him to become able and I'm sitting here now, still waiting. It's been just my grandmama and me since my mama died. Just me and my grandmama, sitting and waiting, for nothing.
"My grandmama was always an out-and-about kind of person. She was nothing like me. She had lots of friends, she always was on the move. She used to drag me off to church, off to town to the grocer, off to visit her friends. After her sight left her, I just shut the two of us away and none of her friends remembered to come see her. 'Let's say a prayer for Sister Christina,' I could almost hear the preacher say in church, but he never came by either.
"She always had money for groceries, for other things. I never knew where it came from. Maybe she had saved money. Maybe some of her relations that left the county sent her money. We had a garden, we grew things, and traded with neighbors for things we needed. We didn't have any livestock since I was a small girl. We killed the last chicken and went without meat from when I was a small girl. Livestock was too much trouble. And we didn't really need meat, my grandma said. Every so often, a neighbor would barbeque and bring us some of what they said they could spare. Anyway, I lost my taste for meat, so we were fine. I was fine.
"I watched my mama die. She grew thin and weak. And then she grew dead. She was from Louisiana, and I sent letters looking for relatives. I got no responses. After we buried her, it became just my grandmama and me. We got the cheapest marker the mortician had. That doesn't matter, though. Her grave is still marked proper.
" And now my grandmama...."
I think the fear she felt was greater than any fear I could have imagined, certainly greater than any fear I had the right to lay claim to. My fear always came from a fear of not being let alone; hers was from being left alone.
Months passed. We continued to come to the river every night and sit quietly. Her grandmother died. She was absent for a few days, and I knew. She met me at the river the very night she laid her grandma to rest. She told me about the funeral.
"No one showed but me and the boys who laid her in the ground. Seems all her old friends had forgotten her, or maybe they are already dead. I didn't put out word that she had passed, but still, I thought her friends would have found out somehow. And I didn't even have money for a headstone."
That was the only time I remember her crying. She was alone, except for the baby she carried. She was alone, afraid and angry. I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.
She said more, "I cain't come down here no more while I'm carrying this baby. It's too hard a walk. You'd be welcome to come by where I live, but I can understand if you don't want to come. No, you cain't come. I'm sorry I said that."
I never thought about how far she had to walk to come to the river. I didn't know where she lived. I followed her back to the shack she called home. She walked through the door and kept the door open for me to enter. She walked over to a table in the middle of the room and lit a kerosene lamp while I held my post in the doorway. She turned to me, and I got my first look at her in proper lighting. I shook my head, I couldn't stay here: I left. Seeing her in the light of a lamp, I wanted to go up to her, but I couldn't.
The next night, when she answered my knock, I went inside.
She was a bit taller than me and still quite thin, her stomach excluded. She was an attractive girl; dark, warm eyes; thick lips; broad forehead. Not much like I had pictured her in the moonlight.
The shack was run down. I looked through everything there for some signs of her grandma. I thought maybe I'd be able to feel her presence, but she left this world completely, and there was no sign of her having been here. There were no pictures of her or anyone else. I looked for letters, but I couldn't find any. There was no sign of anyone having ever lived in the shack beside Angie. I'm not sure what she thought of my going through her things, but there was little to go through. As I went through her things, she stood quietly as if I had the right.
I turned to her and reached out my hand to her. In my hand, there was every bit of money I had. My mother gave me money to buy myself things I needed, and I'd resolved, I'd do without and give her every cent I was given. At first, she took the money I offered her reluctantly, but she came to understand that it meant a lot to me to help her. I felt it was my obligation to make amends of some sort for whatever wrong my brother Jack did to her. I knew he might not have done her any wrong if what she told me was true, but what I saw, what my mind saw, was what I acted on. Whatever money her grandmother had or was being sent, I never saw. I never saw her spend any more money than I was giving her.
I started staying with her as much as possible when I thought the baby might soon arrive. She was still on her feet almost, but she needed someone to come by and do the things she really needed to be done. All I knew to do was sit and look at her and keep her company. The thought entered my head that she would need help when the baby was ready to come out.
"I'll do the best I can," was her response when I brought up her needing help up.
The colored church sat about four or five miles south of town. I could take the paved road out of town and exit on the dirt road that led past the church. I went there and asked for the preacher. He came out in front of the church to meet me. He was a small fellow with a black suit and a ready smile. His eyes squinted through wire-framed glasses.
"Morning, Sir. Were you asking for me?"
"Yes, Reverend. I need your assistance. There's this colored girl who actually needs your assistance. She is with child, and she has it in her head that she can deliver the baby alone. You might be wondering, what concern is it of mine? It IS of concern to me, and that's all I have to say on the subject, and that's all you need to know. But she needs your assistance. If you can speak with a doctor, have him go by, see her, and make sure she has what she needs; I'd be greatly appreciative. I'll pay any bills issued. You have my word on that."
I was sixteen trying to sound much older. Maybe he could tell from my dress (I'd put on my best go-to-church suit) and my demeanor ("posture boys. Shoulders back, head up. Posture that says you're at the pearly gates, and you've just been waived through," Mama's words), that I could make good on any promises I made. He never doubted a word I said to him.
"Where can I find her?"
"Can you come with me now?"
He offered a ride on his wagon, but I was beyond feeling comfortable riding on a wagon being pulled by a horse, so he agreed to walk with me. We walked the dirt road to the highway and started south. I looked over at him frequently to see if I could judge his demeanor. It was unusually warm for late October, and I took off my jacket and threw it over my shoulder. I looked at the preacher, trying to encourage him to do the same with his jacket if needed.
"It's unusually warm for October, "he said with a smile. He didn't remove his jacket. Each time I looked at him, I'd receive a smile and a nod of his head in return. If I could have gotten inside that man's head, what I might have found might have stopped me in my tracks. We left the paved road for a dirt road, left the dirt road when we reached a barbed wire fence that was more down than up. I looked to the preacher, and something in his smile told me he knew where we were and who we were there to see.
When we got to her shack, I knocked on the door. I knew she couldn't get up to answer the door, but still, I knocked and waited. After a few minutes, I pushed the door open. I stood back and motioned the preacher in ahead of me.
"Hello? Hello?" I said. I went to the bedroom door and pushed it open. She smiled when she saw me and was about to speak. I stepped aside, allowing the preacher to enter ahead of me.
"This is the Reverend—, I'm sorry, Reverend, I didn't even ask your name."
"Reverend Jensen," he said with a smile. "Hello, young lady. I understand you are close to a blessed event. God has smiled upon you. Do you understand how lucky you are?
"How have you been Sister Angie? I hope this gift from God is not the reason you have chosen to stop attending our church. It was with great sadness that I heard of your grandmother's passing. It was with equally great sadness for me that you chose not to allow me the privilege of performing her services from the church she was baptized into many, many years ago. Do you know how close you are to bringing forth the new life?"
She shook her head.
"Can you guess when you might have become with child? We can add nine months to that date, and it will tell us about when your baby will come."
Angie didn't respond.
"That's alright. Are you living here alone?"
He asked Angie, but he was looking at me when he asked it.
"Yes. I've been here alone since my grandmama died."
"We'll see you through this birth and I hope that after you are back on your feet, you will come back to the church."
They did see her through the birth, but I don't think she ever set foot in the church again.
I'm the only daddy the boy has known. I never asked her if she told the boy I wasn't his daddy by blood. I never asked if she ever mentioned Jack to him. I hoped she had left Jack behind in her memory. Whatever happened between them, the ending certainly wasn't something she needed living in her mind; it wasn't something she needed to bring to life for the boy.
Angie never told me Jack was my boy's daddy, but it became obvious as he began to grow. He was big and had Jack's gait. He seemed to inherit Jack's facial expressions, his head movements, and the movement of his hands as well. I saw a lot of Jack in him. Maybe I just saw what I expected or wanted to see, whether it was really there or not. It wasn't exactly as if I had a second chance with Jack, but he made me think of Jack in a good way. His temperament was nothing like Jack's. His was mild, calm, and deferential. He was about midway in color between his mother and Jack. He had the fine facial features of Jack's race. His hair wasn't straight like Jack's, and it wasn't kinky, like his mama's. He looked to be a perfect blend of the two races. She called him Joey, after me.
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