L.E. McCullough’s Family Story Hour

©  L.E. McCullough 2000

“Don’t you just love what Martha Jane’s done to her hair?”

“Ruthanne Durrow, what a thing to say about your eldest sister! See if you look half as put-together when you’re her age.”

“Excuuuuse me, I haven’t been to my plastic surgeon this month. Anyway, it’s just Jane now, isn’t it?”

“Jayne with a ‘y’, I do believe.”

“Geneva, Ruthanne, hush. Let’s finish this.” Arlette glanced wearily at the clock on the mantle. “Harold’s got the kids at Meemaw Dugan’s and Martha Jane has a long drive back to the city.”

Jayne adjusted an earring, one of the new platinum-ruby Lily of the Valley pair she’d found on sale at Nordstrom’s, and looked out the dining room window at the patchy mid-afternoon sky draped like a torn grey blanket over the rolling soybean fields that extended across the western half of the county right up to the edge of New Palestine, eight miles to the south. She tried to recall when it was that Arlette, at twenty-seven the youngest of the four sisters, had assumed their mother’s role of beleaguered peacemaker. Jayne had missed that funeral, too, as well as her father’s last month. Of course, she’d made it clear years ago that the excellent pay and health benefits of a state social worker were typically offset by an inflexible vacation schedule.

Geneva shifted in her chair, grunting softly as she re-crossed her legs and reached past Arlette for another biscuit. “I think it was real sweet of Daddy to give us some little personal item to remember him by, a whatchamacallum thingitybob—”

“Legacy,” said Jayne, noticing the rolls of dimpled flesh congealing around Geneva’s knees and calves. In another year or two she’ll be as big as the others on Daddy’s side. Big and beefy gals, those Durrow women, stand their ground full of eggs and ham. A square dance melody flitted through her head. Get out the way, Old Dan Tucker, you’re too late to get your supper; supper’s over and dinner’s cookin’, Martha Jane just stands there lookin’. . .

“That one of those words you learn in therapy, Martha Jane?” snickered Ruthanne. Only three years younger than Jayne, she had married at seventeen and was about to be a grandmother thanks to the local school district’s policy of high school sex education classes for students over eighteeen only.

Arlette frowned and picked up the last unopened gift, a rectangular three by six-inch brown cardboard box that might have originally housed a man’s hair brush or straight razor. “This one’s marked ‘Martha Jane’.”

Jayne took the box gingerly, careful not to disturb the thin red ribbon already starting to unravel, and held it in her lap. “Thank you,” she said, adjusting her other earring and turning toward the window.

“For gosh sakes, Martha Jane, aren’t you going to open it?” asked Ruthanne.

“I’ll open it when I get home.”

“Home!” yelped Geneva. “Arlette, make her open it.”

“You saw what-all we got,” said Ruthanne. “He left Geneva his cologne sprayer.”

Jayne’s nostrils filled with a scent she hadn’t smelled since she was eleven warm night even for June running all the way from church. . . “Arlette got his money clip for her boy.”. . . opening the bedroom door so slow very ssshhh quiet the brass money clip on the floor with a crumpled bill lying loose next the bed not on the dresser where it was every night when Momma and Daddy went to sleep whose nylon stocking ssshhh quiet open. . . “And I got his favorite silver buckle, though I think Momma threw the belt away a long time ago.”  . . . please I won’t I won’t not the belt Daddy I. . .

Geneva chimed in. “Now come on, Martha Jane. We got a right to know what legacy Daddy left you.”

Wordlessly and without visibly betraying the wave of nausea surging through her stomach, Jayne undid the ribbon. “Shake it first!” barked Ruthanne. “Let’s all guess!”

“Might be an old hog bone,” giggled Geneva.

“Just open it up, Martha Jane,” groaned Arlette.

Jayne slowly lifted the lid, Geneva peeking over her shoulder. Inside, encased in a plastic zip-lock bag was a harmonica. “Goodness me!” squeaked Geneva. “How lovely!”

Jayne stared at the relic. It was a ten-hole dime-store model her father had picked up in his Army days. The manufacturer’s name had worn off, and the metal cover on both sides was pitted with rust. Years of saliva had stained and warped the brown wooden comb that housed the blow holes, making it resemble a gaping mouthful of crooked, discolored teeth.

“That is so perfect,” gushed Ruthanne. “The rest of you are too young to remember, but when Martha Jane was little, she wanted to grow up and play music, didn’t you, Martha Jane? You’d dance around the house and sing your little songs till Momma said it was like to drive her crazy.”

“Play us something you used to play on Daddy’s harmonica,” prompted Arlette.

“Oh, nosiree-bob!” said Ruthanne. “Nobody could touch Daddy’s harmonica under pain of a very bad whupping.”

“Not that she would, anyway,” sniffed Geneva. “She was always Daddy’s goody-goody girl.”

Jayne placed the box on the table and stood. “I’ve got to go,” she announced in a quiet voice. She grabbed her purse and walked out of the room, leaving the harmonica on the table.

“Martha Jane!” Ruthanne called as the front door slammed. “Will you look at her!”

Geneva rolled her eyes and reached for another biscuit. “That poor girl better get a husband to settle herself down.”

Arlette stopped her in the yard. “You need to take this,” she said, pressing the plastic bag into Jayne’s palm. “I know you live a different life now than us down here. But if Daddy wanted you to have this, it was for a special reason. Maybe he wanted to remind you of what you left behind.”

Jayne’s cheeks flushed, and she was convulsed by the urge to shout a string of obscenities into her sister’s worry-lined face. She inhaled deeply and held her breath with eyes tightly closed. . . the moment passed, and she let Arlette give her a hug. “I think you’re right,” she said, sliding behind the wheel and flipping the power lock button. “I think that’s exactly what he wanted.”

Jayne placed the bag on the passenger seat and tossed a County-Wide Giant Estate & Auction Sale flyer over it. She drove quickly along the black dirt road stretching between the green crop fields and the brown river, drove for several miles without once looking at it, drove quickly but not overly fast, hands steady on the wheel, a small line of perspiration at her forehead just below the hairline frozen in place by the air conditioning, another line starting at her left temple as she drove into the setting summer sun no without once looking at it not once no or even really thinking about looking at it no even once no until no she was just no a quarter mile short no of the highway turnoff where she no no no NO! happened to glance to the left where the dilapidated clapboard shell of the Missionary Friendship Church of Jesus Savior still occupied the middle of a small clearing beyond a trailer park.

She stopped the car and rolled down the front windows, shutting off the air conditioning so she could listen to what? Sunday school’s been out a helluva long time at this congregation. Amazingly, the lower half of the front sign was nearly intact — B I   L E   T U D Y 7:3  P — missing a few letters but “Life doesn’t always come to us spelled out perfect, does it, children?” Reverend Mason would say in a patient, strong voice, “and sin and temptation doesn’t just afflict the smart children, the good spellers and good readers, children, it does not I am here to tell you, even the smallest sin, even the smallest stumble upon the righteous path can lead us not to the sweet cool fields of heaven but straight to the fiery deep pit of hell. . .”

A gust of wind blew the flyer off the bag. Jayne looked down at the harmonica. She laughed, shivering with a sudden chill and struck by the queerest notion it might rise up out of the bag and start crawling toward her. She had borrowed not taken Daddy’s harmonica. He was away on a job till Tuesday, said Momma gone herself to Nineveh to help nurse Aunt Zettie’s kids down with the chicken pox, so Martha Jane had sat by the river underneath a sheltering grove of myrtle trees practically the whole day before with not a soul around making the most beautiful sounds she had ever heard or thought of in her mind’s ear, like angel music maybe, and wouldn’t that please our Savior Jesus? She was very careful, wrapped the smooth shiny little thing up tight in one of Arlette’s cotton baby diapers, why was Daddy so strict about his old harmonica anyway, all he ever played was Camptown Races and Old Dan Tucker, and he said she was his good girl, his best girl, and if she wanted to find out how his music made him happy and share that with him didn’t that mean she should be able to find out for herself?

Jayne brought the harmonica to her lips. The wood smelled like old cologne, musty but with a lingering sweetness that drew her tongue lightly along the comb’s nicked edge. She breathed softly. A brittle chord answered faintly, an angel whisper drawn from tortured reeds long laid to rest “. . . in a fiery furnace, dear children, where those with the dark leprous spots of sin on their soul will be devoured in flames, consumed into eternity”. . . he’s right, I stole Daddy’s harmonica, doesn’t matter nobody knows it’s a sin, Jesus knows, he knows I’m not Daddy’s best girl, I’m a sinner yes sinner better run home, everybody still at service put it back in his dresser and don’t ever sin again no I won’t ever sin. . .

Jayne abruptly put the car into gear and drove up the road, her left hand holding the steering wheel, right hand holding the harmonica. “No,” she stated flatly, eyes fixed on the road ahead. “No.”

She sped onto the highway, passing the gated entrance to Myrtle Blossom Cove, a new housing development on the river. “No!” she shouted, still steering with her left hand. I won’t be a sinner! I’ll put Daddy’s harmonica right back — why is it dark, I know I left a light on, ssshhh tippytoe quiet now, what’s that!

. . . don’t be scared of a little noise just a possum if Daddy were here he’d laugh at you scared wait — whose shoes not Momma’s pretty though, creaking in Momma and Daddy’s room just the wind or maybe Rollo on the bed again bad dog not scared no why did I sin why never opening the bedroom door so slow very ssshhh quiet brass money clip on the floor a crumpled bill lying loose Daddy? no next the bed not the dresser where it is every night nylon stocking ssshhh quiet open aaah-no!

Jayne shrieked into the harmonica and her foot pressed down on the gas pedal. A woman’s voice “ohgod Harlon who’s that? Is it my husband ohgod ohgod!” — ssshhh quiet — “Shutup it’s just the damn dog!” Out the front door running door slam don’t cry! Daddy shouting harmonica dropped on the porch hurry! woman yelling into the woods my husband! past the Reverend’s car parked round back hidden in the trees. . .

Jayne bit down on the harmonica, seizing it between her teeth and gnashing down on the metal as hard as she could. She growled into the 4 hole — waeohhwaeohhwaeohhwaeohh — the note bending and screeching as she hissed and growled and spat into the holes, ramming the wooden comb hard against her mouth, blowing-ramming-louder-harder as she drove up Highway 67 through the onrushing darkness flecked with traces of fog and neon, past Seven Sisters and Wolf Springs, past Gnaw Bone and Bean Blossom, past Edgar and French Lick and the all-nite bluegrass barbecue at The Rockin’ M with J.B. Woodard and His Brown County Playboys, halfway almost to Floyd’s Knob and Pandora Junction pounding the dashboard poundingrammingscreamingramming the moaning metal trying to outhowl the wind pummelling her cheeks like a flurry of big hard hands slapping her bare bottom owwwww daddy no no I won’t ever no take nothing no don’t belong no sorry sorry I never please stop I’ve been bad I’ve owwwww splinter jabbing her lower lip oozing fresh drops of bloodfroth onto the steering wheel as she suddenly rounded a curve and veered onto the shoulder missing by inches the concrete base of the Lil-Toots Truckstop sign and wrenching the car into the parking lot, squealing to a stop amid a blinding spray of dust and gravel.

She cut the engine and bounced out of the car — lips, tongue and teeth locked in a howling embrace with the number 6 draw hole — a piercing, sob-choked wail that endured for nearly a half minute before she ripped the instrument away from her face. Eyes closed and breathing hard, she fell back shaking against the passenger door, the harmonica dangling in her right hand by her side. With her left hand she smoothed the hair out of her eyes and dabbed at the blood on her blouse front.

A pair of truckers standing by an empty flat bed watched in silence. The taller one took a long last drag of his cigarette before squashing it into the gravel. “Maam, you all right?” he called out.

“Yes!” Jayne blurted, surprised by the harsh whisper that emerged from her throat. She coughed, expelling a thick glob of bloody spittle onto the car door, and coughed a few more times until the cough became a rasping chuckle, then a gurgling, mirthless laugh as she paced slowly in a circle, clutching the harmonica in both hands and squeezing it as if she were struggling to pull open a stuck window.

“Damn,” said the shorter trucker.

A grating noise caught her attention. She looked past the men to the diesel pumps twenty yards or so distant, where a teenage attendant wearing headphones leaking hiphop had just finished lifting off the ground tank lid and was uncoiling the hose from the fuel truck. Instantly, she began striding toward the pumps, picking up speed with each step.

“Maam.” The taller trucker moved forward but was yanked back by his buddy not more than a second before Jayne marched by, gaze fixed straight ahead and right arm held out stiffly, clenching the harmonica in a white-knuckled fist. In another moment she reached the pumps, where the attendant was stooped over the hose. Her shadow startled him, and he stumbled backward as she straddled the tank, her closed right hand nestled against her heaving left breast.

“Hey, lady, you can’t— ”

Jayne hurled the harmonica into the tank. It clanged dully against the sides, ricketing down with an echoing skreel of rupturing metal before hitting bottom with a soft, thunking splash. The attendant shut off his CD player and uncovered one ear, taking another step backward as he stared at Jayne bent over the hole and peering down, her bruised, swollen lips drawn back in ecstatic fury as if she were about to scream, vomit or dive in headfirst.

Instead, she straightened, swaying for a moment before righting herself and walking briskly back to her car, both arms atop her head as if they were keeping her skull in place on her neck. Before easing back onto the highway headed north, she gave two sharp horn blasts and tossed the plastic bag out the window.

“Damn,” said the shorter trucker, as he watched the winking tail lights disappear around the curve.

His buddy stuck a fresh cigarette stub between his lips and searched his pockets for a match. “Nothing but a little bitty piece of wood and tin.” He shook his head and sighed. “You’d think it done somebody a world of harm.”



Three Sides to a Square & Other Studies in Circumstantial Fatherhood
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

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