By Jesmyn Ward
A phone call to Michael’s parents would tell me everything I need to know. I could just pick up the receiver, dial the number, and pray for Michael’s mama to answer the phone. This would be our fifth conversation, and I’d say: Hello Mrs. Ladner I don’t know if you realize but Michael’s getting out tomorrow and me and the kids and Misty is going to get him so y’all don’t need to all right ma’am bye. But I don’t want Big Joseph to answer, to hang up on me after I sit on the line and breathe into the mouthpiece and don’t say nothing while he says nothing. At least then I’d know if I call back, he’d let Mrs. Ladner pick up the phone to deal with whoever it is: prankster, bill collector, wrong number dialer, his son’s black babymama. But I don’t want to deal with all that: to talk to Michael’s mother in halting starts and stops, or to suffer Big Joseph’s heavy silence. This is why I am riding upcountry to the Kill, my trunk packed with gallon jugs of water and baby wipes and bags of clothes and sleeping bags, to leave a note in their mailbox way down at the end of their driveway, a breathless note. What I would have said in a rush. No punctuation. The note signed: Leonie.
Michael had never spoken to me before. During lunch break at school one day, Michael sat next to me on the grass, touched my arm, and said: I’m sorry. I thought that was it. That after Michael apologized, he’d walk away and never speak to me again. But he didn’t. He asked me if I wanted to go fishing with him a few weeks later. I said yes, and walked out the front door. Wasn’t no need to sneak out anymore, my parents wrapped up in their grief. Spider-bound: web-blind. The first time me and Michael went on a date, we went out to the pier off the beach with our poles, me with Given’s held out in front of me like some sort of offering. We talked about our families, about his father. He said: He old—a old head. And I knew what he meant without him having to say more. He would hate that I’m out here with you, that before the night’s through, I’m going to kiss you. Or, in fewer words: He believes in niggers. And I swallowed the fact of his father’s bile and let it pass through me, because the father was not the son, I thought. Because when I looked at Michael in the piecemeal dark underneath the gazebo at the end of the pier, I could see a shadow of Big Joseph in him; I could look at his long neck and arms, his lean, muscled torso, the fine shank of his rib cage, and see the way years would soften him to his daddy. How fat would wreathe him, and he would settle into his big frame the way a house settles into the earth underneath it. I had to remind myself: They are not the same. Michael leaned over our poles and his eyes changed color like the mountainous clouds in the sky before a big storm: darkest blue, water gray, old-summer green. He was just tall enough that when he hugged me, his chin rested on my head, and I was cupped under him. Like I belonged. Because I wanted Michael’s mouth on me, because from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the color of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.
Big Joseph and Michael’s mother live at the top of a hill in a low country house, the siding white, the shutters green. It looks big. There are two trucks parked in the driveway, new pickup trucks that catch the sun and throw it back into the air, shooting sparks off the angles. One red truck, one white. Three horses roam around the segmented fields that abut the house, and a gaggle of hens scampers across the yard, under the trucks, to disappear around the back. I pull over to the side of the road, stop feet from their mailbox; the grassy shoulder is not so wide here, bordered by a ditch at least hip-deep, so I have to get out of the car and walk, can’t just pull up next to it and slide the note inside. It’s been some days since we had rain. When I walk around to the box, the grass sounds with a dry crunch. There are no other cars on this road. They live way up in the Kill, nothing but houses and trailers in great spreading fields, off a dead-end road.
Just as I’m pulling the mailbox door down, I hear a buzz, which loudens to a humming, which loudens to a growl, and then a man is riding around the side of the house on a great lawn mower with a steel-bolted deck, the kind that’s so expensive it’s as big as a tractor. It costs as much as my car. I slide the note into the mailbox. The man angles toward the north end of the pasture, turns left, and begins making his way toward the road. He must mean to cut the yard from top to bottom, riding in long, clean lines.
I reach for the handle, pull it open, and it shrieks, metal grinding against metal. “Shit.”
He looks up. I get into the car.
The lawn mower speeds up. I turn the key. The car stutters and stalls. I turn it back, look down at the dashboard like I could make it start if I just stared long enough. Maybe if I prayed.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
I turn the key again. The engine groans and catches. The man, who I can see now is Big Joseph, has decided to abandon his plan of cutting the top of the yard first and is cutting diagonally across the yard, trying to reach me and the mailbox. And then he is pointing, and I see the sign nailed to a tree feet away from the mailbox. NO TRESPASSING.
I shift the car to drive, look back to check the street, and see a car advancing, a gray SUV. Fear rises to my shoulders, up my neck, a bubbling choke. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. What can he do but curse me? What can he do? I’m not in his driveway. Doesn’t the county own the sides of the road? But something about how fast he’s gunning that lawn mower, the way he points to that tree, the way that tree, a Spanish oak, reaches up and out and over the road, a multitude of dark green leaves and almost black branches, the way he’s coming at me, makes me see violence. I press the gas and swerve out into the street; the car behind me skids and its horn sounds, but I don’t care. My transmission switches gears with a high whine. I sling the car around and go faster. The gray SUV has pulled into a driveway, but the driver is waving his arm out the window, and Big Joseph is passing under the tree, stopping at the mailbox I just abandoned, lumbering off his lawn mower, striding toward the box. He is taking something off the seat of the mower, a rifle that was strapped there, something he keeps for wild pigs that root in the forest, but not for them now. For me.
When I pass him, I stick my left arm out the window. Make a fist. Raise my middle finger. I see my brother in his last photo: one taken on his eighteenth birthday, leaning back on the kitchen counter while I hold his favorite sweet-potato pecan cake up to his face so he can blow his candles out; his arms are crossed on his chest, his smile white in his dark face. We are all laughing. I accelerate so quickly my tires spin and burn rubber, throwing up clouds of smoke. I hope Big Joseph has an asthma attack. I hope he chokes on it.
Excerpted from Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, to be published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., in September 2017. Read two additional excerpts in the Oxford American’s Spring and Fall 2017 issues.
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