An abused girl has a life lesson.
|BLACKBERRIES AND POISON IVY
Two things flourished in the lush Okfuskee county backwoods; blackberries and poison ivy. Or so Grace thought as she stooped over the viney tangle of shrubs, her wicker basket filled to the brim with the purpley-black fruit.
Groaning, she placed a palm at the center of her back and uncoiled her spine, rotating each shoulder to flex away the stiffness. She loved it out here, alone among the cathedral of trees, the ground vibrant with close-growing scrub; like the tightly curled down of a sleeping giantess.
With a peek at her watch, Grace saw she’d been at it for almost two hours yet still, the bell hadn’t rung. Meandering along the dwindling dirt track past pillars of oak and fat pungent cedars, she popped one berry after another into her mouth savoring the tart-sweetness of the summer warmed juice, the tiny soft seeds clinging to the backs of her teeth, so she had to pry them loose with a finger. With a sigh, Grace allowed herself to hope. If the bell hadn’t rung yet maybe it never would.
Stepping onto the gravel track leading home, she was hailed by her friend, Dylan, from the field opposite the woods.
“Hey, Gracie! Wait up.”
A muff of brown hair bobbed towards her, at first, barely visible above the tall grass he jogged into view as he mounted the slight hill to the road. Dylan was a round boy. His face round, his sapphire eyes round, his belly round; even his fingers, and toes, and glasses; all round.
“Looks like ya got quite a haul,” Dylan said, nodding towards her basket. He dropped a fishing pole and a stringer of fish over the strands of a barbed wire fence before hoisting himself over and joining her on the road.
“You sellin’ preserves again this year?” His eyes twinkled as he bent to retrieve his gear. “’Cause you can put me down for half a dozen jars.”
Grace smiled. “Course I am, but I ain’t lettin’ you pay. Your preserves is free.” Grace pointed to the stringer of fish dangling from Dylan’s hand. “And I see you been poachin’ on the Miller’s pond again?”
Dylan held up his line, the pale gray skin of two catfish and the bright pink belly of a bluegill gleamed in the Oklahoma dusk.
“Yup, best fishin’ pond for miles.”
“Don’t they mind?” Grace asked.
Dylan shrugged. “Don’t ever see no one, so I suppose not. I figure they woulda said somethin’ if they did.”
They walked in silence accompanied by the symphony of the breeze and the rhythmic scuff of their feet on the road.
Grace enjoyed her time with Dylan. He was quiet, like her, and yet, when they were together, she didn’t feel so alone. The demand to speak didn’t hang over her like it did at church or in the store. She and Dylan connected in a way that didn’t need words.
“Well,” he said as they approached the crossroads leading home. “Guess I’ll see ya tomorrow.”
He stepped closer and beneath his gaze, Grace felt her heat rise, like the gentle touch of the westering sun on her broad dark cheeks. The air swelled with the sound of cicadas and the dank smell of fish as he took her hand in his. She squeezed back relishing the warm firmness of his callused grip.
Still, the bell did not ring.
“Yeah,” she agreed a little shakily. “See ya tomorrow.”
A quarter mile further, and Grace caught sight of her house backed against the verdant woods, the corners of its sharp-edged roof forming a dark slash across the camouflaged canvas of the trees. A box fan hummed sedately from her upstairs window as she climbed the porch steps and considered the basketball-sized brass bell mounted beside the door. Dented on one side from where it had been knocked down during a storm, its once bright surface was pitted, its luster dimmed from years of harsh exposure. The bell’s clapper, a pear-sized orb, had a length of line stretching from it to a hole bored into the wall beside the front door.
She stared at the bell a long while before deciding it’d be best to go through the back. Her feet were muddy, after all, and Daddy wouldn’t approve.
The screen door’s springs groaned in protest as Grace stepped into the kitchen and set her basket beside the sink. She paused, listening for the bell, but even the weak thump, thump, thump, which had haunted her the last few days was gone leaving only the silence of the house to settle in around her. For five days, the bell had remained silent; for five days, she’d spent her time laboring in the warm June sun, coming in only at night and rushing upstairs to bed; after five days, was she finally free?
Turning on the faucet, Grace dumped the berries into a colander and let the water cascade over them. She wondered what Dylan was up to. Whether he thought of her as much as she thought of him.
It was hard to believe the bell had gone silent on both the best and worst day of her life, though if she thought hard, worst was a benchmark Grace was hard-pressed to define.
It had been Memorial Day weekend and like always, Daddy saw it as an excuse to get drunk. In general, he kept to the doctor’s recommendation, taking his medicine and staying away from booze, but he figured he deserved a day off what with him being a Navy veteran and all.
It had been a cloudy June morn, and Grace was in the garden weeding when the old brass bell began its sharp, persistent peal. By the time she’d made it to the back door, it clanged like an alarm.
“I’m here, I’m here,” she cried, bustling through the front door. Grace stomped past her father’s patched red recliner and past the stairs to the second floor before arriving at his bedroom at the back of the house.
She found him where he always was, his great bulk sprawled atop the bed, the flesh spilled across the mattress like some great ashen colored balloon. He wore nothing more than a pair of ancient boxers and a set of mismatched socks.
“Girl, you plannin’ on just leavin’ me here ta die?” he demanded as she stepped inside.
His sweaty dark skin glistened as a fan ticked back and forth in the corner spreading the stink of urine and body odor throughout the room.
“No, Daddy. I’d never...”
“It thought not,” he sneered. Grabbing hold of the hospital bed trapeze dangling above his head, he heaved himself up and rummaged through the bedside drawer shoving aside an ancient revolver and a pile of papers before leaning back with two twenties clutched in his hand.
“I want’cha ta run into town an’ get me a case ah beer.” As she reached for the money, he drew it back. “And a pint ah whisky too.”
“Are you sure, Daddy?” Grace’s eyes darted from the cash to the pill bottles scattered across the dresser. “Doctor Jacobs said…”
“I don’t give a good Goddamn what that quack says,” he barked.
Grace shied away, eyes closed, and shoulders raised against a blow that would never come. It had been years since Daddy plowed his truck into a tree and broken his spine, years since he’d done more than lay in that bed stuffing in food as if it might drown the anger and pain within’, and thankfully, she thought, years since he’d been able to touch her.
Yet her fear remained.
“Yes, Daddy,” Grace whispered not daring to meet his eyes.
When she returned from the store, she set the beer in an ice-filled cooler and left the pint bottle atop the table.
“Ya need anything else?” she’d asked.
Her father’s watery gazed drifted from the TV. “You’ll know when I do.” He waved a hand towards the door, the excess skin waggling beneath his arm. “Now get out.”
Grace thought of leaving, maybe down to the creek where she might find Dylan. Then the bell began to clang.
“Fix me a pizza.”
“I need more ice.”
“The remote needs a new battery.”
Again, and again, the bell tolled as again, and again, Grace attended, the chain of her servitude forged beneath the bell’s hammering chime.
For a long, while there was silence and Grace dared to hope he might have passed out. Until the tolling began anew. When she marched in, her father’s revolver lay atop the flap of one massive breast. His eyes were red and watery, his flabby libs moist with a grin.
“Come over an’ have a seat.” He gave the bed a pat.
Grace’s eyes darted for the door and the hallway beyond. Her legs grew stiff with fear.
When she sank onto the mattress, he reached up to caress her, his whisky scented breath filling the air.
“You ain’t so bad,” he said. “A bit fat, an’ ugly, but nothin’ a six-pack won’t fix.” When she scowled, he poked her hard in the ribs and laughed. “Aw, come on. I’m only jokin’.”
His eyes narrowed as he ran his hand up her back. “You remember when you was a girl? The times we had?” His hand fisted in her hair. “It wasn’t all bad, now was it?”
“Please, Daddy,” Grace pleaded “I left something on the stove.”
“Did ya now?” With a tug, he drew her near.
Grace gave a pained whimper.
“Please, Daddy. Don’t.”
Not since the accident had he forced himself upon her, the old terror rising fresh and new.
Grace froze as he lifted the pistol with his free hand and pressed it to her temple.
“You always was good givin’ head,” he said with a lusty grin. “Let’s see if you remember.”
He pressed her down, shoving aside the sheets and lifting a flap of skin to reveal his emaciated penis. As she took his flaccid member in her hand, the peppery-sour reek of him ballooned up around her. Warm and moist, it swelled in her nostrils and caught at the back of her throat. She gagged, tasting bile rise at the back of her throat and along her tongue.
Her vomit spattered across his belly in a liquidy splash and with a grunt, he dropped the revolver and clawed at the dangling ring trying to pull himself away. Before he could react, Grace grabbed the gun and raced from the room. She sped outside, the screen door slamming behind her as the bell tolled its angry cry. She ran until her lungs burned until her legs could carry her no further, then she dropped down sobbing onto the side of the road.
Lifting the blued steel revolver, Grace stared at it a long while wondering if it would hurt to shoot yourself. She wondered if the preachers were right about God, about going to hell if you took your own life. She wondered about a God who allowed children to be molested by their fathers. Grace pondered a great many things before rising to her feet and hurling the gun away, watching it cartwheel over the field to land with a thud.
As she wiped away her tears, Grace spotted Dylan strolling up the road towards her. He had a fishing pole in one hand and a backpack slung across his shoulder. Drawing closer, his smile faded, and his jaunty step slowed.
“Hey, Gracie.” He stepped up beside her, his brows narrowed. “Are..are you okay?”
She nodded, just a simple shake of the chin. “I’m fine.”
His eyes drifted towards the sound of the distant bell before returning to meet her stare. She dropped his gaze, her face growing hot.
“Had a fallin’ out with your father?” His lips tightened. “Sometimes my mom and I fight. ’Specially when she’s been drinkin’.” He dropped onto the ground beside her and unzipped his pack. He withdrew a pair of Mr. Pibbs and two Moon Pies.
“Ya hungry?” he asked with a smile. “I brought some snacks for later, but I don’t mind sharin’.”
Grace took the soda, the can cool and moist in her hand. “What else ya got in there?” she asked.
Dylan withdrew a dirt-smudged sketch pad, and a metal tin filled with pencils that rattled when he shook it, two comic books, and a jar filled with dirt and worms.
“I didn’t know you was an artist,” she said eyeing the sketchbook.
“I draw a bit,” he said as he handed her one of the comics.
“You’re a Hulk fan,” she said, eyeing the magazine’s cover.
Dylan laughed, tugging down the side of his shorts so the green face of The Hulk peered over his belt.
“Hulk underwear,” he said. “All the biggest fans are wearin’ it.”
Despite herself, Grace laughed. “Twenty’s a little old for cartoon underwear, don’t cha think?”
Dylan’s eyes widened. “Twenty?” He shook his head and smiled. “We’ve been friends since grade school. I’m twenty-four, just like you.” Dylan’s eyes brightened. “Besides, when are you ever too old ta have fun?”
Grace shrugged. “Never, I suppose.”
She flipped through the pages and handed it back.
“You can borrow it,” he said. “I got tons.”
Color rose in Grace’s cheeks; her arm remained extended.
“Oh, I forgot,” Dylan said as he took the comic. “You weren’t ever too good at readin’.”
He skootched up beside her and flipped it open to the first page. “You see here,” he pointed to the image of Bruce Banner strolling down the street. “It says Bruce Banner never expected trouble when he got into town.” He broke apart one of the Moon pies giving her half while reading first one page then another. As he read, he slid up close beside her so she felt the slick heat of his leg against hers.
They read until the sky began to purple. Grace leaned back and studied the heavens as Dylan pulled out his sketch pad and began to draw.
She watched him a long while.
He turned the pad and it was a sketch of her. Her boyish nose, her brushy brows, and dimpled chin. Emotion filled Grace’s eyes as she sprang to her feet.
Dylan grabbed her wrist and pulled her back down.
“What’s the matter?” his eyes ping-ponged from the sketch to her face. “It’s awful, isn’t it? You hate it,” Dylan said.
Grace shook her head. “No, no. It’s not that. It looks just like me…ugly.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “And fat.” She spat the word like a bitter seed.
Dylan dropped the sketch pad, his brows bunched in surprise. “You’re not ugly, or fat neither.” He took her hands in his. “I think you’re perfect.”
“I’m what?” Grace blinked, unsure of what she’d heard.
“You’re perfect,” Dylan said. “Just the way you are.”
The bell, which had lain quiet, began its incessant toll. Grace’s eyes hardened.
“I’d best get back,” she said. “I’ll see you…”
Before she could finish, Dylan leaned over and kissed her. When he pulled away, Grace knew what she had to do.
Looking back to the colander, Grace turned off the water to let it drain. She grabbed a dishtowel from the counter and dried her hands.
It was time to have a look.
Padding into the living room, she paused in front of her father’s recliner. Above, a tapestry of white ropes gleamed in the room’s curtained darkness. From each point of the compass, the lines ran across the ceiling bowing down from eyehook to eyehook as they streamed from every room in the house. The sloppy spiderweb snaked across the ceiling until all the lines bunched together to join a single line running into the hole beside the front door and the line leading to Daddy’s bell.
All the lines, that is, except one.
One had been cut before entering the hole. A knot had been tied at the end keeping it from being pulled through the hooks set in the ceiling. A knot that would make no more than a quiet thump if someone at the other end gave the line a tug.
Grace pulled over a chair and mounted the seat so she could reattach the line. Then she went to her father’s door and pushed it open.
Grace removed the coffee pot from the counter and refilled Mr. Jamison’s cup before smoothing her finest Sunday dress and rejoining him at the kitchen table. It had been a warm day for the black wool skirt, but given the situation, she didn’t have much choice.
“I know this is a difficult time,” Mr. Jamison said. He pushed the glasses up his hawkish nose as he bent down to examine the papers before him. “But believe it or not, there’s actually a silver lining.”
Grace’s eyes narrowed. “Silver lining?”
“Yes,” he said setting down the papers and lifting the cup. “Your father’s disability checks have been slowly accruing for several years now, what with the land being paid off and all.” He took a sip and smiled. “In fact, after burial expenses, the cost of repairing the wall they had to demolish to get his body out.” He waved in the direction of Daddy’s room, “and paying off any bills and taxes, he’s left you with a tidy little sum; $187,643 dollars.” He shuffled through the stack and retrieved several paperclipped pages. “And according to this, you’re also the beneficiary of a $200,000 life insurance policy.” He set the papers down and smiled. “Though it will take me a while to get all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, you should have the money by the end of next month.”
Mr. Jamison took a final sip before rising from his chair.
“I believe, Ms. Davis, that investing your money in the proper portfolio will likely provide you with a comfortable income for many years to come.”
He took a business card from his pocket and laid it atop the papers. “My company deals in such matters so, please, give us a call once everything’s settled. At the door, Mr. Jamison’s eyes lifted to the spiderweb of ropes leading to the bell.
“That’s an interesting setup,” he said.
Grace only nodded. “Yes,” she said. “And the first thing to go.”
She opened the door in time to see a white pickup pull into the drive. Mr. Jamison stepped out, giving the driver a wave as Dylan opened the truck’s door and slid from the seat. He had an aluminum foil covered casserole dish balanced in his arms with a stack of comic books and two Mr. Pibb balanced on top.
As he looked to her with a concerned smile, Grace thought life was much like the Okfuskee woods; it wasn’t always poison ivy, sometimes there were blackberries too.