Rum and Pearls
By Herbert Girtley Jr.
Illustration by Isip Xin
Something told Jack Jack Wright to turn back while he was leaving Lake Hollis. He was rocking down a pathway in the middle of some woods, mounted on Rum, his beloved mare. Rain slid down his knee-length fleece jacket, soaked his silver beard and worn khaki trousers, and filled the inside of his old rubber boots. Sitting on top of his head was an all-black bucket hat. In his left hand was a pail filled with the trout he caught before the rain picked up; in his right hand were the reins he steered Rum with. An old knapsack carrying bait and a fishing rod was strapped to his back.
Jack Jack was about a mile away from home. All he wanted to do was heat up some Jiffy Pop popcorn, pour sugar onto the warm kernels, and listen to his Richard Pryor album, but the storm surrounding him was working against that. The soil beneath Rum’s hooves was thickening with every drop of rain that rushed down, making it difficult for the mare to trudge through without strain. He was worried that she’d give out in the middle of it all because, out of all of the horses he had, she was his most worn. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing Rum, even though he already had two other horses that were far sturdier than she was: Cigarette and Fat Girl. There was no way for him to pin down a singular thing that pulled him so closely to Rum. He figured that Wanda Culpepper, his deceased wife, buying the mare for him two years before she died had something to do with it. He also figured it was a mixture of Rum’s tar coat, the white that slid down the front of her skull like a lengthy dagger, and the years he’d spent with her riding in the pasture behind his house. With all of those years packed into his brain and heart, he claimed it as his duty to get Rum to the stable where she was safe.
“We almost home. Keep trucking,” Jack Jack said through the raindrops falling onto his lips. “Almost home.”
Halfway to his destination, Jack Jack turned right off of the pathway and went onto a thin road that was lined on both sides by rustling trees. The rain had subsided slightly, but the thunder and lightning persisted above him. Farther down the road to the left was a white Cadillac. He hated those models of cars because he saw too many of them while he was doing yard work in Chatham Circle, a neighborhood a couple miles from the piece of land he lived on in Rosewood, Mississippi. As he came up on the car directly and the window rolled down, he locked eyes with Bertha Hathaway, a woman who, like him, was in her late fifties. At the top of her head, wild strings of graying hair stuck out in every direction as if she just had a shower, and the two-layered black parka she was wrapped up in had lines of raindrops sliding down the sleeves. A costume designer at the Turner Theater for the Arts, she was one of many people who lived in the elegantly built homes in Chatham Circle and paid Jack Jack every ten days to trim shrubs and mow the lawn.
Bertha explained that the Cadillac had run hot and cut off while she was on her way to Hattiesburg, which was about forty minutes away, and needed to be towed to Bowie Street for inspection. From Jack Jack’s house, Bowie Street, one of the main business districts in town, was twenty minutes away. He wanted to strap her car onto the back of his flatbed truck and haul it to Herschel and Son Auto Repair, but the weather showed no signs of easing up.
Jack Jack felt the rain beating down on his hat like it was a tin bucket. “I stay back there in that house right down the road. You wanna sit in there till the storm pass? I’ll haul you and your car to Bowie after that.”
Two rounds of thunder sounded off from up above. Bertha reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed her purse. “Let me get my umbrella.”
The rain, thunder, and lightning cranked up in rage just as they reached the carport at the house. The stench of manure traveled from the stables, where the horses bucked and neighed at the storm. After she closed the umbrella, Jack Jack handed Bertha the pail of trout, pointed to the welcome mat, and said over the rain, “The key right underneath. Gone head and unlock the door and go inside while I put this horse away.”
“You leaving me in there?” Bertha asked.
“You’ll be aight,” Jack Jack said, stepping back into the rain.
He felt a light grow inside his spirit as he pulled Rum to her stall because she had finally reached home just like he had promised her. “Didn’t I tell you?” he asked Rum as he removed the saddle and rubbed a towel through her damp coat, looking ahead to Cigarette and Fat Girl in the neighboring stalls. After taking the bit from Rum’s mouth and making sure enough feed was in each of the horses’ troughs, he walked back to the house, eager to get himself out of the rain.
When Jack Jack opened the front door and set the backpack down, the lingering smell of the Andouille sausage and yellow onions he had used for the jambalaya the night before greeted him. He looked over to Bertha, who was sitting on a green sofa in a pit of gray light seeping through the living room window a few steps away. Sniffling, she took off her boots, which were lined on the inside with sheepskin, and examined the mud that had piled up on the sides.
“Why you sitting in the dark?” Jack Jack asked.
“I wouldn’t be if I had a choice,” Bertha said, her eyes still locked on the boots.
“Lights went out?”
Cursing the weather, Jack Jack walked toward the hallway and stopped halfway there, looking back at Bertha. “You need me to get you something? Some dry clothes?”
“Just a little hand mirror. You got one of them? And a rag,” Bertha said.
Jack Jack nodded and shot through a line of darkness in the hallway to his room. He rummaged through his dresser until he found a too-tight white V-neck and some blue pajama bottoms that had a gaping hole in the right thigh area. He removed all of his wet clothes, placed them in the hamper, and slid on the dry ones. He then slowly scanned himself in the mirror, seeing the silver hairs pop out of the collar of the V-neck, his scruffy beard, matted hair, and pudge. He grabbed a hand mirror off of his nightstand, took a washcloth from the closet in the hallway, and set them both on the arm of the sofa when he returned to the living room. Bertha had removed the parka and revealed a double-strand pearl necklace underneath a black cardigan made with fine seed stitching and almond-colored buttons.
“You sho you don’t want to get changed? Wanda was bout your size. I bet I can find something,” Jack Jack said.
“Wanda? Who is Wanda?” Bertha asked. She took a rubber band from her purse and tied her hair up into a bun. She examined her head in the hand mirror, then set it down once she was satisfied.
“Didn’t know you had a wife. Where she at?”
“I didn’t know that. Pologize for asking.” She looked to the right at the living room window where raindrops knocked against the glass like intruding pebbles.
“Don’t worry bout it.”
Jack Jack was unable to heat up any Jiffy Pop popcorn since the electricity was out, so he grabbed the pail of trout and walked to the kitchen. He dropped all the trout into the left basin of the sink then looked out the window to the sky. He then looked down a hill and focused on a white fence that surrounded a small pasture, one of the few places in Rosewood that allowed his spirit to be at peace.
Jack Jack opened up a drawer and pulled out a small knife. He picked up a trout and turned it over. Inserting the blade into the trout’s vent, he sliced vertically to the jaw and through the slits, opening up a hole below the jaw. He put one finger in the hole, gripped the jaw with another, pulled the guts from the trout, and threw them in the pail. “I’m a ask one last time”
“I’m alright. The storm ought to pass soon,” Bertha said.
“Don’t think it’ll pass no time soon, way it’s pouring down. Lord’s working out there today.”
“It’ll pass soon, it will.” Bertha picked up her boots again and wiped them with the washcloth. “You ever have anybody come visit you?”
“I don’t want em here. If I did, my place’ll be full of people like yours is. Every time I come up there, you got somebody either leaving or coming in.”
“That’s just cause people like me, and I like people.”
“I don’t fool with em, me.”
“I can see that. Maybe if you put yourself out there, cut that beard off, you’d know more people.”
“I know plenty people.” Jack Jack looked at Bertha. “Just don’t fool with em.”
“Why don’t I ever see you down on Bowie? Any time I see your silly-looking face is when you at my house cutting my grass.”
“Hell, you barely see me when I do that.”
Bertha set the boots down, her voice now high pitched, her eyebrows scrunched. “What?”
“You hardly ever look my way when I’m over there. Today’s the only day I heard you say my name in I don’t know how long. Surprised you remembered it.”
“That ain’t true.”
“Oh, it is.”
“That ain’t true at all. Day before Thanksgiving last year I had that lil get-together with Rachel, Nadia, Maybel, and some more people at my house. I walked up to you in the backyard, asked if you wanted to join us, we was having key lime cake, and you said, ‘Naw. I’ll just take my money.’ So I paid you and you went on your way. You don’t remember that?”
“I don’t remember it cause it never happened.”
Bertha leaned back into the sofa and shook her head. “Selective memory ain’t good for you.”
As the rain continued to come down, flowing like silvery drapes, knocking away at the roof, the two went on to argue over varying subjects. When Jack Jack said, “Technology a surely be the end of civilization as we know it. It’s bound to fail all us,” he felt affirmed in his statement, figuring he had somebody to agree with him.
But Bertha, lighting a Marlboro, said, “You ought to open your eyes and see you the only one that feel that way. That’s foolish, what you just said.”
Jack Jack stopped gutting the trout. “Failed technology the reason you sitting in my house in the first place. If we was living how folks used to live back in the gap, like my grandaddy nem, we wouldn’t have this problem. That’s why kids don’t know how to do nothing with they hands now.”
“You stuck in the 1900s and, I tell you, that ain’t no way to live. Ain’t nothing wrong with having respect for what came before you, I know that much, but you going overboard,” Bertha said.
“It’s beneficial and keeps man in touch with his roots.”
“It holds man back. Keeps him stuck in his own vacuum so he can grow a ole raggedy beard and be standoffish, that’s what it does.”
At that, Jack Jack turned and pointed his blood-soaked finger at Bertha. “Don’t come for me cause I ain’t send for you.”
When Jack Jack finished cleaning the trout and washing the blood off his hands, he turned to Bertha’s face again and leaned against the kitchen counter with his arms folded. He watched her caress her string of pearls as she effortlessly told him about himself. When she moved her fingers from the pearls, she went upwards to her right ear and fondled an earring that Jack Jack knew would sparkle if the lights were on in his house. Though the earrings were a pleasurable sight, he couldn’t help but feel a way.
“What’s the point of having on pearls and earrings? We ain’t come in this world that way,” Jack Jack said to Bertha.
“Dignity. More so the meaning behind them give me dignity, make me feel like somebody. Accounted for.”
Jack Jack pulled on his beard. “Pearls is unreliable and impermanent to man, you ask me. If a pearl necklace is what a woman need to have some dignity about herself then she must not have much dignity at all.”
“Well, what give you dignity?”
“Nature, mainly Rum,” Jack Jack said with his chin turned to the ceiling.
Bertha squinted her eyes, blowing a line of smoke. “You hypocrite. If a man got to depend on liquor for dignity then he must not have much dignity at all.”
“Rum’s the name of my oldest mare. And I ain’t touch the bottle in years, three to be exact.”
Bertha threw her hands up and smacked them against her thighs. “Shit, well, nature’s just as unreliable and impermanent to man as pearls!”
“It’s the other way around: Man’s as unreliable and impermanent to nature as pearls.”
“You got your way of seeing things and I got mine.”
“That’s right. I don’t expect you to hold up nature as high as I do. I respect nature. Cause I done seen the worst of nature, done seen the best. Done seen nature damn near kill a man.”
“Back when I was younger, a long time ago.”
“I can tell.”
Jack Jack waved Bertha away and looked down at the kitchen floor. “Over there on the dead end of Rosewood, the Gipson River had flooded cause a all the rain that poured down, just like it’s doing right now. I was eleven. Me and my daddy, we was rowing on top of the water on this boat me and him had built some years before the flood came. My daddy kept his head forward and told me to keep mine forward too but I couldn’t help but turn my head to what was around us. I was looking all around. Everything I knew was under water. The damn church. The grocery store me and my momma used to walk to on Thursdays. The little pawn shop. All of that. So while we trying to get to higher ground, my momma see this man named Nelson hanging on the rafter on this shotgun house a good way in front of us. She start screaming. She shake my daddy shoulder and point to Nelson, say, ‘Go get em.’ By time we row over to the man Nelson house, he done fell into the water, fell so deep into the water he not coming up for air. We thought he was gone drown down there. All of a sudden he just jump up out the water. Just screaming and kicking, kicking and screaming. My daddy had a rope beside him so he throw out the rope then he look at me, say, ‘Jack, come your ass on.’ So I come my ass on and start helping my daddy pull that rope till Nelson close enough for us to grab him. From the time Nelson got on the boat soaking wet to the time we finally found higher ground, he kept reminding us how we saved his life. He kept on saying, ‘Y’all wasn’t out there, I would’ve been dead. Lord knows it.’”
Bertha crossed her arms. “So just by being in nature, you feel dignified?”
“Being in it and being able to bear with it and survive everything it throw at you.”
“You sound just like my daddy.”
“Just based off that I can tell he know a lot.”
“He know a lot. Just like you, I can tell you know the land and all that.”
Jack Jack had his chin up again.
“But what else you got?”
“Oh, it’s a whole lot more to me. I got layers.”
“Seem like to me all you got is your manhood.”
At that, they both held their mouths closed, suspended in dead gray light. After a long bout of staring into each other’s eyes and flaring their nostrils, they saw the lights on the ceiling fan in the living room flicker on and heard the microwave make a beep. Chuckling away Bertha’s comment, Jack Jack opened up a cabinet to the left of him and pulled out a plastic tub of sugar and a Jiffy Pop popcorn packet. He put the packet in the microwave and when it finished, he got out a spoon, dipped it into the pile of sugar, and turned it over into the warm kernels. He walked to the living room where a record player was sitting on a small coffee table. With the popcorn in one hand, he put Richard Pryor’s That Nigger’s Crazy on the record player with the other and sat down in his leather rocking chair and began laughing and stuffing his face with sugar-covered popcorn.
“A man shouldn’t have a mouth as nasty as Richard Pryor did. I never liked him no ways,” Bertha said.
Jack Jack threw some popcorn in his mouth. “I got a mouth just as bad, maybe even worse than Richard Pryor. All you got to do is try me and see.”
The two continued to argue over who they believed contributed the most to their respective fields: Reagan and Clinton, Sly Stone and Prince, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. They became so hell-bent on telling the other why their beliefs weren’t up to par that they didn’t notice, or chose not to notice, that the rain was beginning to weaken outside. By the time the Richard Pryor record finished, Jack Jack had grown weary of bickering, but he had a distaste for Bertha’s ways of seeing the world that was so vast, that stretched so far into his soul it pulled him to keep going for another thirty minutes.
The thing that veered Jack Jack away from the argument was his bladder; he needed to use the commode. While he did his business, he looked to the window over the bathtub and saw a yellow light shine through the blinds. He realized that he heard no rain beating down on the roof as he flushed, so he walked to his bedroom after he washed the sugar and butter off his hands. While he searched for some new clothes, he heard Bertha all the way from the living room.
“Come back up in here! I ain’t done with you,” Bertha said.
Jack Jack ignored her voice and slid on some navy trousers, fluffy socks, rubber boots, a gray knitted hoodie, and the same fleece jacket from earlier, just in case the rain started again. He returned to the living room and said, “Grab your stuff. Let’s go.”
Bertha, staring down Jack Jack’s new clothes, slowly uncrossed her arms and slid her feet into her boots. “Bout time, ain’t it.”
The after-smell of rain sat in the air as Jack Jack and Bertha rode down Bowie Street, her Cadillac strapped to the back of his flatbed truck. Nobody was out on the sidewalks, but managers and counter clerks stood in the windows of their stores.
Jack Jack pointed out of the window on the driver’s side, passing by Bowie Street Boutique. “Used to be only a few stores over here when I was growing up. Now, look at it.”
Bertha pulled back on her hair while looking in the passenger mirror. “When’s the last time you been on Bowie?”
“Couple weeks ago. Just to get some feed for them horses. I don’t stay long when I come up here. And when I do, it be early in the morning, fore alotta folks even out here.”
“Maybe that’s why I don’t never see you.”
Jack Jack was quiet for a while then said, “After I came and got that tombstone for Wanda, I ain’t really have the urge to come this way. Started getting everything I needed from the market over on Florence Street, right across from that lil outlet. Me and her used to come here from time to time though.”
“Where’d she like to go?” Bertha asked, closing the mirror.
Jack Jack laughed with a kind of tenderness. “Lola’s, this lil shoe store she loved going to cause the lady who ran it, Mrs. Benson I think her name was, was always giving her a discount. She cut up when they went out of business.”
“I don’t blame her.”
They both rocked in their seats, letting the humid wind cut in through the windows and hit their skin. When Jack Jack reached a red light, Bertha said, “I had a spouse die too, you know.”
“Yeah, back in Texas. Before I moved to Rosewood three years ago.”
“Been coming to your house for almost two years now and ain’t know you had you a husband. What took him?”
“What was his name?”
“Joseph. I couldn’t be to myself after the funeral, didn’t know how to. Still don’t.”
“Why you think that is?”
“Can’t be to myself long enough to think about it. Me and Joseph was married twenty-three years before he died. Knew him more than half my life. He the real reason I wear these pearls.”
“What you mean?”
“He told me he was gone get them for me months before he died. He saw them in this little magazine I kept around the house. He was supposed to be getting them for my birthday. I told him I didn’t want him spending all that money on me, I was only turning fifty-four anyway. He shook his head and said, ‘I’m a get you them pearls.’ And he did get them. One week before he died, a little bit before my birthday. I found them hidden in his drawer when I got home from taking him to the hospital, the receipt was still in the bag and everything.”
“Why you ain’t say nothing earlier? I would a kept my mouth shut.”
“You ain’t know no better.”
Jack Jack adjusted his position in the seat. “Y’all ain’t have children?”
“Me and Wanda didn’t either.”
“You wanted some?”
“Yeah, I figure a kid would a been alright. You?”
Bertha nodded her head as if it summoned pain to her neck.
“How many you wanted?”
“Three. Two girls and one boy.”
“What would a been their names?”
“Gayle Hathaway. Rena Hathaway. And Joseph Hathaway Jr. What bout you? What would you have named yours?”
“Something simple: Booker. Booker Wright-Culpepper. Wanda would a wanted her last name put on.”
“So you a Wright.”
“Yeah. But hold up now. Hathaway ain’t your maiden name?”
“No. I was born a Bailey.”
“Ain’t that some shit. I never would a known.”
Jack Jack looked over to Bertha in the passenger seat sitting up with her hands folded in her lap and, for the first time in the past hour, didn’t want to curse her out. Having her there, inches away from him, bothered him and warmed him all at once, for it was the closest anybody had gotten to him since Wanda’s funeral. It was then that he realized that he had forgotten what companionship felt like, what it could do for the spirit. He had to shake his head in shame.
“What?” Bertha asked.
Jack Jack looked away from the road to Bertha’s profile then pulled his eyes back to the road. “Ain’t nothing. Where your people from?”
“You liked it down there?”
“Growing up I did. My momma hated Nacogdoches but my daddy loved it, said he couldn’t see himself being in no place but the country. That’s why I say you remind me of my daddy, you remind me of home really. I ain’t been back in a minute so it feel good to see a little bit of resemblance, I can’t lie.” Bertha scanned Jack Jack’s profile for a while, as if she had seen her own daddy tucked away in his beard. “My daddy wanted a piece of land like you, wanted his own animals. Just never could come up on it. That’s why we was always at Uncle Ash house. My daddy won’t say it but I know it to be true. Uncle Ash was the one with the money and the land. We was over Uncle Ash house every Sunday. My momma would put my hair in this tight ponytail, put me in a little dress, and put me in some shoes she made me swear not to get dirty. She’d do that every Sunday.”
Jack Jack bent his eyebrows. “So you ain’t come from no money. You worked your way up.”
“Took me a long time but yeah.”
Jack Jack nodded his head.
“I went to Prairie View, where I met Joseph, he had that buzz cut then. Could see every bump on the back of his neck. I called myself wanting to be a historian. You couldn’t tell me nothing bout Ida B., Fannie Lou, or anybody else cause I figured I already knew everything it was to know about them. All through my first three years, I could’ve sworn I was gone be a historian. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t gone be one. But when my fourth year came around, I ain’t have it in me to keep going another two years. After me and Joseph graduated, we moved to Houston cause that’s where he found work with his degree. To this day, I thank God I was a part of the CGP during undergrad. I’d a been lost if I wasn’t.”
“Charles Gilpin Players, a performance organization. I was one of the costume designers. I already had experience with putting fabrics together, seaming and all that, my momma taught me, so by time we got to Houston I was skilled. Real skilled. I just couldn’t find work. I looked everywhere round the city for months. I was depressed real bad, Jack Jack, you wouldn’t have wanted to be around me. Then I heard about the Ensemble Theatre and worked there for some years. I started getting work from all across the city after a while, doing little small movies that would come in. I loved working in Houston but when Joseph died and I got a call about working at the theater out here, I had to leave.”
“I don’t blame you. Least you doing a craft you won’t never get tired of.”
“I won’t. My work is something else, I tell you. I love when I get to sign on to a historical production. I just finished one a couple months ago at the Le Petit in New Orleans. I get to look at all these different scrapbooks and see how people used to dress and live years and years ago. I dig real deep for the pictures. And from that, I use my imagination and bring all these different garments from the past to the present for the actors and actresses. It’s something.”
“That make you kind of a historian to me.”
“Some’ll say it don’t.”
“Well, fuck em.”
Bertha laughed until Jack Jack pulled up to Herschel and Son Auto Repair. When he unhooked Bertha’s Cadillac, he drove back to his house, knowing he had left something undone.
A week later, Jack Jack had just finished mowing his back lawn when he walked over to his horses and discovered Rum laid out in her stall. She was struggling with what appeared to be snake bites to her two back legs and mouth. At the sight, he kicked the dirt, cursed God and nature, bent down on one knee, and looked the ailing mare in her eye. Must’ve been a copperhead, he thought. His first instinct was to call Kennedy Holmes, a veterinarian who worked over on Florence Street. But would Rum be able to hold on long enough for him to come? How long had it been since she was bitten? It had to be over an hour ago because when he initially cranked the riding mower, Rum had been in good condition.
While he continued to stare at the ground where Rum lay, a wind hit across his face with such power that it reminded him of the first day he rode her. For him, that November day had been full of Wanda’s deep-bellied laughter and rosemary scent. After he and Wanda left church that day, she drove him to Vic Roberts, a man who used to live on a backroad in Rosewood and bred horses. His spirit was high because the choir at the church had sung a heartfelt rendition of the Pilgrim Jubilees’ “I Love You” for their anniversary, but when they pulled up to Vic’s massive backyard his spirit was elevated even further. From the driver’s seat, Wanda said she paid Vic in advance so all he had to do was get out of the car, hop on the tar-colored mare, and ride it back to the house. And that’s what he did, still dressed in his Sunday best. While he was riding down the backroad, the mare’s hooves clinking against the pavement, his hands gripping onto her mane, he felt the wind burn his eyes, giving him a calmness he thought God would never allow him to feel again. All he had to focus on was the road ahead of him while Wanda cruised behind in the car, watching her husband ride the mare he was five payments away from buying.
Jack Jack stood erect. He walked to his pickup truck behind his house to retrieve a .38. Once he found the gun and its bullets in the glovebox, he walked back to the stall in slow steps, loading the .38, wiping away sweat from his face with his forearms until he stood over Rum. His hands shook as he held the gun out in front of him with his eyes closed. Just as he was about to pull the trigger, he opened up his eyes for one last look at Rum and saw that nature had taken her away before he could. Wincing, he walked around the entire tract of green in search of a proper spot to bury his beloved mare, the .38 still shaking in his hands.
He found a wide space a good ways from the pasture just before the opening of a path that led to some woods. Holding his hand over his forehead to block the afternoon sun, he looked over to the stable, removed the bucket hat on his head, and went inside to call Lambo Moore, a former coworker, to ask if he could dig a trench with his backhoe at about eight the next morning.
A couple of hours after watching Rum get dropped nine feet into the ground, Jack Jack lay in his bed with only white boxer shorts on, his head comfortably propped up by his favorite fluffy pillow, thinking of what Rum needed at her burial site. No other animal of his had died in the past, so he couldn’t gauge how far to go. He didn’t want to buy a tombstone that was overly pricey because that would mean dipping into his savings, something he didn’t plan to spend for another five years. But he did feel that Rum deserved a memorial he could walk out of his house and be proud of when he looked at it from across the yard. After running through all of the different crosses he could buy without spending too much money, he decided that a cross made of the most chiseled wood there was would be adequate enough for his beloved mare. He’d just have to go and get it from Eugene’s Memorial Co. on Bowie Street.
Jack Jack had a slight smile on his lips, yet he was still a bit uneasy, being that he had a task that required him to be shoulder to shoulder with folks. He rose up out of the bed and slid on a long-sleeved khaki collared shirt, blue jeans that fit too tightly for his liking, and a pair of his nicest boots. He reached into the dresser for his wallet and, just as he walked down the hallway to go to his pickup truck, he stopped, realizing he didn’t care to go into town by himself. He walked back to his room, looked into the dresser for the paper that had all of his clients’ numbers on it, and dialed Bertha.
“Hey there,” Jack Jack said when the call went through.
Bertha laughed into the phone. “Hey, Jack Jack. Going on?”
“Shit, just calling. You know, nature’s something else, boy. You might a been right the other day.”
“What? Why you say that?”
“Rum went and died on me yesterday. Snake got her.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You buried her yet?”
“Yeah, out there in my yard, not too far from the pasture.”
“Well, I’m sorry for you, Jack Jack. You got two more.”
“Yeah. Figured I’d get her a burial cross. I was gone head to Bowie Street. Wanted to see if you would ride with me.”
“Look at you.”
Jack Jack rocked back and forth on the heels of his boots.
“Yeah, I’ll ride.” Bertha quieted. “Just give me a couple hours.”
Jack Jack thought he had only wanted a modest marker for Rum’s burial site. He quickly forgot all of that chatter when he walked through the doors of Eugene’s Memorial Co. Hanging up on every wall were crosses of all kinds: sandwood oak, cedar, pine, cypress. Bertha suggested he get a western red cedar cross with an inscription of Rum’s name on it, yet he couldn’t stop eyeing a granite cross. After some minutes of searching around, a smiling woman stuck her head into the store and called for Bertha to step outside.
“How much I owe you for the silver one?” Jack Jack asked the man behind the counter when he reached his final decision.
Jack Jack paused.
“It’s 140, sir.”
“Yes, sir. 140.”
Jack Jack reached into his wallet and pulled out some wrinkled dollar bills. “I ain’t expect it to be that much. I only got $60 I can spend right now. Can I set up a payment plan?”
“We don’t offer payment plans.”
“Y’all do from what I remember.”
“You may be mistaking, sir.”
“I ain’t no mistaking. I came up here a couple years ago to buy a tombstone. It costed more than I could pay for at the time and this fellow named Peyton let me give him what I had and let me pay the rest every month. Where he at?”
The man stared into Jack Jack’s face for a while then disappeared into a door behind him. When he came back, he said, “Peyton used to run the store a few years ago but he quit. And Clint just told me even then we didn’t offer payment plans.”
Jack Jack watched the man’s face, wanting desperately to punch it, but he resisted the temptation and pointed to the wall where the display crosses were. “What’s the cheapest one you got?”
“The light brown one. 120.”
Bertha returned, ringing a bell that was above the door. Jack Jack turned away from the crosses and looked at her as she walked up and stood beside him, her elbow against his.
“You want to come back on a later date?” the man asked.
“What’s going on?” Bertha asked.
“Nothing. I got it,” Jack Jack said.
The man sighed. “You said you only have $60 with you.”
“I know that. You don’t got to tell me what I said. I know what I said.”
“That would mean it’s $80 short, sir.”
Bertha looked at the wrinkled bills as they crumbled in Jack Jack’s hand. “Which one you decided on?”
Jack Jack was quiet.
“The granite, ma’am,” the man said.
“We’ll take that one. I’ll pay the rest,” Bertha said and pulled her wallet from her purse.