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A Shame

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When I think about Mississippi, I remember how wide and blue the sky was under all of those sunburned trees. At night, it looked like a fine piece of velvet stretched over a dinner table at Pete’s Café, with hundreds and millions of twinkling stars dropped like pearls all over the place. I remember how hot it tended to be, and how the water running under the Tallahatchie was always the color of mud poured fresh from a boot in wintertime. That’s why the flowers grow so wild down on the hills there. Everyone comes down from Chickasaw and Choctaw to pick them – ‘cause the dirt’s richer than the people working it.

***

I knew Billie Joe all my life. He was the kind of fella a girl meets when she’s four and lives her whole life with him buzzing around in the background, never really looking at him again until he’s well past sixteen, even though he’s always hanging around, pulling your pigtails and teasing you about your freckles. I was turning the corner on my seventeenth year when I met Billie Joe again at a box social at the Baptist Chorale. Brother Taylor had just joined the revival, and he considered it his job to deliver fire and brimstone with our baskets of chicken and jugs of apple cider. We squirmed through a few ‘amens’ and a couple Hail Marys before cracking open our Tupperware. Someone struck up the band, and the floor was cleared for dancing.

That was the night Billie Joe asked me up for the first time. My brother told me years later that he’d been chewing over the idea, just trying to work up the courage to say hello, like I was some kind of fancy starlet. I didn’t know why – I was plain in those days, barely grown higher than a boxwood sapling. But Billie Joe said he thought I was beautiful as we danced our careful ruler’s length apart, talking about the homecoming game and the teachers we had, which movie was playing down at the Carroll County. Was I courting anyone? No I wasn’t. Why yes, I would love to see ‘Wild Guitar’ with him on Friday. I was giddier than Tammy at a school dance. Billie Joe was an older man, and he seemed so worldly and bright when he held my hand.

There was a big white cross up on the wall covered by a bunch of tissue paper buntings as we whirled around and around under the lights, listening to a fiddle crying soft and lonesome to the thump of a big bass guitar. Billie Joe held me real close, and when I looked up into those beautiful eyes of his, I knew we’d be dancing like this on our wedding day.

***

We started going steady after that night – it weren’t one of those things that just happened out of nowhere, we toed around it real slow. We’d go to the pictures, ride our bikes down to the general store, neck under the bleachers during home games, or pick flowers down on the Tallahatchie. Then I didn’t have to worry about going slow – we were where we wanted to be one summer night, hiding in the back of Billie Joe’s best friend’s car. I tried to be careful, but I did it again, and again, and after awhile we forgot about being safe, ‘cause the only thing that mattered was how we could make each other feel.

I convinced myself it wasn’t a big sin – rosaries wiped all the bad in it away, and after all we were gonna get married once Billie Joe got a raise down at the factory. We were still lying to my folks about having a ‘whale’ of a time at Brother Taylor’s revival tent. Sure. Every night, we’d listen to Brother Taylor preach, and then we’d sneak away with a bottle of white lightening and lie in the tall grass and watch the stars when we weren’t watching each other.

I knew Billie Joe too well by the time I’d turned eighteen. I knew that his mama had died birthing his baby brother and his daddy had disappeared into the bottle. Now Tommy was with his cousin Minnie in Mobile – Billie Joe said that when he had enough money he’d send for him, and we’d all live like a real family. Both of us knew we were too young, but my brother kept us safe. I think he wanted Billie Joe to be happy; I learned plenty soon what he knew, and why Billie Joe had the right to be miserable. Glad for the help, we didn’t ask him questions – I was too caught up in Billie Joe, and everything he promised. The future grew up like a weed in front of us. We were gonna go somewhere fine, someday soon, Billie Joe and me. Didn’t have any idea how or why, but we’d get somewhere bigger, buy a real house far from the place we’d been thrown, and just live – the way we deserved to.

Then one day – I remember it was two days after Valentines’ day, ‘cause the Conversation hearts my homeroom teacher gave us made me sick - I found himself holding my breath and counting back the days. He took my hand and squeezed it hard, beaming.

“That’s just fine, darling. We’re gonna be a real family now,” he said.

***

The weird part is that I could feel it going funny; a strange little twist inside of me turning everything upside down. I don’t know how or why it happened while I was out with Billie Joe, but I like to think he saved me at the Ridge that night.

He held my hand as it spilled out from between my knees. It wasn’t much bigger than the size of my thumb, just old enough to look human, with eyes closed tight and shiny fingernails. I can’t say what else it looked like, ‘cause I closed my eyes tight.

“We have to get rid of it,” I said, my voice a shock in the silence.

He stared at what lay in his hand, then at me. “We can’t do that. It’s a sin…”

“…It’s a sin to bury it without proper mourning.” I don’t know where I got the power to stand, but I grabbed his arm and managed to waddle to my feet. I was in pain, but it was a clean, pure pain – the kind that gets a person through. The bleeding had nearly stopped. I’d be all right.

***

I remember saying a little prayer over a blue handkerchief. Then the whistle of the wind and the stars shining so bright I thought I’d go blind.

***

Then we was lying out under the stars in that field out behind Bewley’s General Store, and I held his head for a long time as he cried the shoulder of my new blouse clear.

When Billie Joe moved, his eyes had swollen up. “Brother Taylor said it true. The wages of sin are awful heavy,” he muttered, fingers cutting into my arms like sharp little knives.

“We’ll carry it ‘round together,” I said. “There’ll be more babies, once we…”

“Don’t say nothing,” he demanded, crushing me against him. “I saw it. It had your nose.”

I clamped my hand on his arm. “Aww, hush. We’ll have more. Ones with your smile.”

He didn’t say anything. Just kept looking at the stars. He was spooked and spooked good, but so was I.

I tried to kiss him good night at the back door of the rooming house, but he jerked right out of my grip.

“Ain’t I done enough to you?” he asked, locking the door.

**

He swore he’d be fine. Once the bleeding stopped I stuffed a wad of cotton from the store bins in my underwear and sneaked into my room through the back door. A couple of days later, I burned my clothes in the pit out back. I watched myself for the heat of a fever, but no infection arrived – and mama thought my excessive waddle was on account of the hay mowing.

Some might say my survival was a miracle. But I’ve come to learn that when you’re a child God looks out for you, ‘cause you’re too plain dumb to lookout for yourself.

***

I knew that Billie Joe was a fine swimmer. If he wanted to, he could’ve cut through that water and come back to the shore, come back to me. But he had the weight of the world on his back, and the Tallihatchie’s got this way about it, a pull that could suck the skin from a man’s bones.

***

Brother Taylor spent a year trying to get me to confess to my ‘sordid deeds’, but I never did tell him the truth. I said once that Billie Joe missed his mother and probably wanted to be back with her, but he thought that was a dumb excuse and tried even harder to get the truth from me.

At the last church social of my senior year, he grabbed me for a dance. “Dottie Lynn?”

I stared at his hand on my shoulder. Stared as if praying would make him disappear like lemon ink left to bleach in the sunlight. I lost my nerve on seeing my folks standing near the doorway. Papa was hollow-eyed and ill, leaning against mama’s shoulder but watching me proudly. Both of them hoping I’d make a good, near holy marriage with this man and stop crying over poor old Billie Joe. I managed to smile, even though my mouth felt numb and took his hand.

We danced the customary ruler-length away from each other during a reel. It seemed to take forever to end, and when it did I jerked away from his body, the heat of his look and the anger in his eyes.

The weight of Brother Taylor’s words pressed against my mind the way he pressed my hand with his fishwhite, moist fingers. He breathed into my neck.

“The wages of sin are awfully heavy, aren’t they?”

***

Mama said I was a handful, now that Pappa was gone. Since Brother Taylor didn’t meet with my approval and the farm was failing, I ought to be getting on to somewhere I was needed. Mama put the house for sale with its acre and half of land, moved into a little hotel downtown, and then sent me to Becky and my brother’s place in Tupelo.

I don’t suspect he knows the real truth of what happened – my brother won’t talk much about Billie Joe, anyway. He says it brings up bad memories and hurries on to something else. They probably think I’ll be wearing white some day when I walk down the aisle on my brother’s arm. The idea makes my heart turn into a little lump of stone, but I don’t let them know.

I spend the afternoons throwing flowers in the river. I think maybe they’ll float all the way to heaven where the baby is, where Billie Joe should be, no matter what Brother Taylor's book says.

You have to understand that me and Billie Joe could’ve still had something. We could’ve made more than most of the people in this place ever get to see in their grubby lives. We had love, but he couldn’t let himself live with the wages of sin and what we'd done. He’d always had clearer eyes than mine, and he’d seen that little nose, hidden under a fist that’d never open.

I keep myself alive, ‘cause that’s what he would want. I taught myself how to run a cash register so good that I could get a job anywhere. I have this guitar and I’ve taught myself a few chords.

Soon I’ll get myself a new job – one that’ll pay me enough to get me out to California. You’ll see. I’ll keep myself so busy I won’t have time to think about Mississippi anymore.