I. Barn Burning Wood and hay kin burn. —William Faulkner…
I ain’t got much to say but the truth. I swear by God, President Kennedy, by each of my ten toes and every Tennessean sunset—I ain’t got it in me to hurt nobody. I only know that what I been doing would put my mama to tears. You acting out, my mama would say if she knew. She says it to me all the time. Baby Greene, you acting out, she said when I threw a branch at my cousin. It was never his fault. That was fourteen years ago. We was little then. I was six. He was eleven. Josiah is his name, and Josiah is probably why I done all that I done. He’s in the hospital. Rain on roads, old pickup flipped into a ravine, brain soup. Mama told me to visit him before it’s too late.
Yeah, I been acting out, alright. But I ain’t done no wrong, not really.
To make sense of it all, I got to go back a little. My misbehaving started the day after Josiah’s accident. I went down to the colored grocer to buy some scented paraffin candles and some pralines. When Mama gets upset, she fills the house with light. When Mama gets upset, she gobbles up enough sugar to rot the teeth in her head and mine, too. I couldn’t find the candles, and I was about ready to quit looking ’cause they smell like funeral flowers anyway. But I knew it’d make Mama feel better, so I figured I’d ask a worker. The first one I found smiled right away, and in that smile was clean moonlight. I put on my little girl voice when I said hello. I think it was his name tag that really got me—Otis. Don’t it sound like he should be singing something to me? Then I found out his last name when we got to talking. Sweet. And yes, Lord, he was walking black sugarcane.
That night, we parked his daddy’s car on the side of a mountain. He cracked the windows to let in some air. It got hot and humid in there fast. A thunderstorm boiled green on the horizon, and then it was on us, the rain and his sweat beating my face. I knew somewhere a creek was swollen from all that wet. “You like that, huh?” he asked.
“Yes,” I whispered. He slid in and out, in and out, and I folded inside myself. But I could tell by that little smile on his face he didn’t know that. He thought I really did like it, the way that yes came out my throat soft and easy as cottonwood seed.
“Lift your leg a little,” he said. I obliged. He nestled in me a little deeper. Sweat dropped on my lips, and I licked and savored his salt. I wondered if I still had a cherry. It didn’t seem to matter much to him. He groaned real loud and it didn’t sound nothing like Redding. And then he was in my mouth, a fat stick of maple, but there wasn’t no sugar in his sap.
He dropped me off at the bottom of the mountain, at the edge of the gravel driveway. I tried to straighten my limp in the downpour. I saw Mama in the kitchen. I peeked through the honied glow of the window and saw curls of smoke, humid pots, grease-slick catfish popping in a skillet. I paused on the porch and crossed my legs while standing. The rain pounded through my cotton blouse and chilled my spine.
I guess I do got something to say ’cause nobody likes to talk about this. When I crossed my legs, I met a real bad throb nobody warned me about in school or in scripture. And maybe I knew that throb before and didn’t know it. But this time it didn’t make me feel like a dirty washrag. This time it made me feel the way I feel when I catch the spirit at church, that real light fluttering when you just know there’s a heaven up there. And it didn’t have nothing to do with Otis, see. I stood there in all that rain and thought about his sweat. Thought about how I was sucking up all the life out that fool. And how he thought he was making me feel good, but really I felt good ’cause of me and my pretty show.
I must have stood out there longer than I realized ’cause when I went inside, Mama sat at the table. She looked too serious and too skinny in the orange glow of the slow burning candles. The house smelled like a field of burning lilies. I joined her.
“Where you been, Baby Greene?” she asked.
I spooned soup beans on my plate, some mashed potatoes all silky with butter, plopped on a cut of catfish almost as long as Otis’s—
“Bible study,” I said.
Mama scooted real close and wrapped her arm around me, and I wondered if she smelled the secret I could still taste. “You a good girl,” she said, “but I don’t like you going out in this weather. Look what happened to little Josiah.” As if that man ain’t a man. As if he been wearing cologne, rooster-strutting around town, taking things that ain’t his, all while teething and soiling diapers.
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“We’ll visit him tomorrow,” she said.
After supper, Mama ate pralines and half a chess pie while I showered. I made the water hot as I could, ’til parts of my yellow skin flushed red. I watched those beads of water go down the hills and valleys of me, really looked at my body for what felt like the first time in my life. I thought, maybe I could use this more. I thought, and don’t my nipples look like new pennies? So I decided to head down to the market at sunrise and get something to show off what I just discovered.
That night I dreamt of rain.
In the morning, I stuffed what little money I had in my bra and went walking. I don’t got to tell you about summertime. I don’t got to tell you about air so thick with humidity it licks the skin. How all the cicadas and crickets and bullfrogs jump into the same rocking rhythm. A day so hot you want to shed your clothes and lay splayed. Walking to town, I realized God made summertime for sinning. And in the green of ryegrass, in the blush of red clover and in the gold of all that buttercup that dotted the land, I knew I looked silly in my tan clothes.
I thought there wasn’t much worth buying in the market downtown ’til I found a little dress that was a purple so deep it looked like crushed blueberries. I liked it most ’cause it was cheap. I bought that and slipped out into an alley behind a dumpster. It smelled like piss and mint mouthwash, but it was hidden enough for me to change. Lord, it was a tight hug. Then, I went back to market square where white people walked their poodles and ate ripe peaches. I knew I should get going within the next couple of hours to visit Josiah with Mama. The sun roasted the cobblestone and my shoulders, and it felt good, so I decided to spend the rest of my money. I bought a tube of Yardley lipstick that was a nice pastel pink. I bought baby lotion in a powder blue bottle ’cause I liked the softness of it, and men don’t expect women who smell soft to suck the life out them. I bought a small bottle of peanut oil ’cause I remembered Mama needed some.
Something took over me after I bought it. I ain’t ever had much meat on me, but I’ve always liked my collarbones, the way they reach out and offer balance to whoever I lean into. I poured a little peanut oil on my fingertips and rubbed it onto my collarbones, and sunlight clung to them. I only had a few coins left. I spent it on a bag of candy. And so I walked in my tight dress, sack of my treasures swinging from my arm, a sassafras candy stick poking out my pink pout. Smelling like a newborn. Walked, and walked, and walked ’til the sun set. Walked and walked ’til the buildings changed from big white houses with columns that looked like fondant to brick apartments all inked up with spray paint. Which is to say, I walked to the East Side.
I got hungry but wasn’t ready to go home yet. I set out to use my body as it should be used. I walked a little farther and almost gave up, but then I heard the happy clacking of drunk voices and dancing piano. The noise led me to a building that looked like a house with a rusty sign that read: Big Joe Guru’s. Before I went in, I reapplied my lipstick and peanut oil and rubbed some lotion behind my ears. Mama says to always put perfume there ’cause the body heats it up and sends the scent out. I guess I really have been given hints on how to act and behave, hints about that nice throb. Why else we want to smell edible for someone else? I promised myself I’d stay for two songs, and if I didn’t see anybody worth a couple of pennies, I’d leave. I thought, what I look like, going into a rinky-dink bar with no company, no money? I left my bag by the door in the shadows.
I didn’t have to wait that long at all. As soon as my shoe touched the floor all sticky with spilled liquor, a man had me in his arms, spinning me around. So much noise: people chatting about this and that, Nina Simone trapped in the juke box singing Go on and eat forbidden fruit, it’s good and sweet, forbidden fruit. I didn’t even get a good look at him at first. I just knew he was fat as a wild hog and smelled like onions. I laughed and laughed as he spun me in the red and blue neon glow of the place. Air fogged up with Phillies cigar smoke.
Right before the song ended, a palm gripped my wrist and pulled me from the spinning, steadied me. My savior was short, built strong as bedrock, dark, too. But of course, we was all some shade of dark in that room. I met his eyes, and he smiled and motioned me to the bar. Before I joined him, the big dancing man tapped my shoulder. That’s when I noticed his jutting underbite and lazy eye. “You a snake,” he said. Nina turned into The Miracles, and he started up his spinning again.
“He would’ve kept you spinning ’til the lights were out,” the man said. I sat next to him. “I’m Turtle,” he said.
I bit my lip to stop myself from asking what the hell kind of name is that. Instead, I said: “Pleasure. I’m Baby Greene.”
He pushed his plate of fries to me. “That’s Big Joe Guru.” He nodded his head to the spinning man.
“He own this place?” I asked.
Turtle held up two fingers to the bartender. “Nah, that’s the owner’s son.” The bartender gave us each a shot of whiskey. “He a little…” He tapped the side of his head. “But he’s got the sight. Knew Kennedy would win the election, knows the snow before it comes.”
I downed the shot and let the burn sit in my belly. “Why he look at me all serious and call me a snake? What do that say about my future?”
He must have liked my little girl voice, ’cause he leaned in and traced his fingertip in loops at the hem of my dress. “Maybe he knows something ’bout how you move.”
Turtle’s voice sounded like jazz. I giggled, plucked his shot from his hand, and swallowed. After the fifth or sixth shot, sweet piano music trickled from the jukebox. Turtle slapped his thigh, went “Mm, mm, mmm.”
He grabbed my hand and took me to the dance floor. We held each other close, and his arms felt right. He smelled like pine. If you ever change your mind about leaving, leaving me behind. I love me some Sam Cooke, and so did Turtle, ’cause he was humming in my ear. It tickled. Then he started spinning me like Big Joe Guru: spinning, spinning, spinning across the dance floor, ’til we were out in the quiet, warm night.
I leaned down to get my bag from the ground and almost tilted. It must have rained while we danced ’cause the concrete was slick and cool. I scooped my bag and then Turtle scooped me up, and the throb was a steady drumbeat. He took me to the alley next to Big Joe Guru’s. It smelled like stale grease and cardboard, but it was private enough. I could hear Otis Redding muffled through the walls and a small stream of rainwater falling from a gutter. These arms of mine, they are lonely. Turtle lifted me up, pinned me against the wet wall, and then he was in me. A pressure, almost painful, and a heat that matched mine. Lonely and feeling blue. He moved so slow, so gentle. Not a drop of sweat. He kissed my chin like he was afraid to hurt me. He pushed my curls behind my ear. And all of a sudden, I was a little girl soaking in milky water, and Josiah was sneaking in, and he pushed my curls behind my ears ’cause that’s always how he started so I don’t know, I guess that’s where my mind was when I slapped his face.
“You like it rough, Baby?” And that pissed me off somehow, so I dug my nails in his cheek and pulled down.
He jumped back, and I fell on bits of gravel.
“You crazy bitch.” He pulled up his zipper and sauntered back into the bar.
I just laid there and listened. These arms of mine, they are wanting, wanting to hold you. I just laid there for I don’t know how long. I finally got up and pulled the bottom of my dress down. When I went under a streetlight, I held my nails up to the direction of where the moths flocked. A little blood, dark as oil, hid underneath. I know I said I don’t got it in me to hurt nobody, but the girl who did that wasn’t me, not really. That was a girl I thought died when she still believed things like making wishes when you pop the yolk of a runny egg, still believed in her baby dolls coming alive at night when everybody sleep. She’s still in there breathing and wanting. But she wasn’t there on that bridge. That was an act of God. I’m getting ahead of myself.
I stood under that streetlight looking at my bloody nails, wondering how I could get home when the door of Big Joe Guru’s opened. I looked, and from the back of him, thought it was Turtle. Maybe, I thought, I could make things right and get a ride. Maybe I could still suck the life out him. I ran all crooked on the sidewalk ’til I caught up. I grabbed his shoulder from behind, and right as he turned to face me, I realized he was a little taller.
“I thought you was somebody else.” I turned in the other direction and he grabbed my wrist.
“Where you going by yourself like this at night? Where your man at?”
“I ain’t got a man,” I said.
We got in his truck and he drove me back home. I’m sure he told me a name, but at some point after Turtle, I realized I don’t care much for the names they tell me. They either have no truth in them, like Otis Sweet, or hold too much truth, like Turtle. All slow moving. As if I got time to watch someone turn into a man. Anyway, we didn’t do nothing. He drove, and we talked. He scolded me for going out by myself at night with whiskey in my system. He had a soft spot for women, being raised by them, and said I was acting plumb stupid. While he went on about the dangers of being a woman, I decided to name every man I ever met. I named this one Pastor Turn-Around ’cause he liked preaching to the choir.
When we got to the edge of the gravel driveway, I said: “Thank you.”
He grinned, scratched the scruff of his chin, said, “You mind if I come inside? I got to use the bathroom.”
I heard something else in his voice and knew pissing wasn’t on his mind. “My mama’s in there. Daddy, too.” Boy, that was a cold lie to tell. My daddy got hit by a train when my mama was pregnant with me. He’s been in heaven so long he probably owns property up there.
Pastor Turn-Around sucked his teeth. I got out, and he sped away. I rushed over to the trees that line our property and changed back into my tan clothes. I dug in the bottom of my bag and found a stick of sassafras candy, munched on that to cover the alcohol on my breath. I wiped off whatever pink lipstick survived Turtle’s kissing. I started to head home but decided to pick some wildflowers. I placed them evenly in the bag to hide my dress, just in case Mama was awake and decided to search. If she saw how skimpy that dress was… I’m a grown woman, but that won’t stop her from beating the hide off me. All with love, of course.
I stepped inside the house and just as I was thanking God for my mama sleeping, a lamp in the living room flickered on.
“Baby Greene, where the hell you been?” Mama leaned forward in Daddy’s old recliner. “You got one time to answer me right. One time. You, leaving me to see Josiah by myself.”
I stood steady. “Mama, I’m sorry.”
“Mama, when I was at Bible study last night, they talked about two things: how Jesus went into the wilderness and how Hannah prayed for a son and promised to dedicate his life to God if He would just give her a baby. I don’t know, Mama, I went out picking flowers and prayed and prayed and prayed.” I lifted a flower out my bag and held it up, hoped she didn’t take it as an invitation to peek in. “I prayed to God and promised Him Josiah wouldn’t miss a year of Sundays at church if he’d just heal him.”
Mama sobbed and sobbed. I want to tell you I felt bad for lying, but I can’t honestly say that I did. She lifted her face from her bony hands, and her cheeks shined in the dimness. She said, “Oh, come here.” She cried into my chest. I pretended she was crying for me, and then I was crying, too.
“You a good girl,” Mama said. “Your praying is going to work, Baby. We’ll go visit him tomorrow. Get some rest.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
When I crawled into bed, the sky was blue with dawn. I slipped into sleep, but not very long.
I dreamt of a flood. Noah wouldn’t let me on the ark.
In the bright morning, Mama fried eggs and bacon. We ate breakfast in silence. When I scraped the last bit of eggs in my mouth, Mama said: “I need you to go down to the store and get some peanut oil. I told your auntie I’d fry something up. Can you believe she’s having to beg the hospital for food? Sitting there with her child day and night, wasting away.”
I thought of the peanut oil in my bag. I had forgotten to give it to her. “You got money, Mama?”
She slid me a couple of dollars. “Be back by two. Neighbor’s going to drive us.” “Yes ma’am,” I said.
I brought my bag with me. I figured maybe I’d buy her an extra bottle of peanut oil, or maybe I’d buy a couple of drinks back at Big Joe Guru’s. When I got far enough away from the house that I didn’t think Mama could see me, I changed back into my purple dress. I didn’t have to walk far. An old man in a white pickup stopped and asked if I needed a ride. Ain’t that something? I been walking these roads my whole life without any help, and the minute I put on something pretty, getting around got a lot easier.
“Where to?” River asked. I named him River in my head ’cause he was red-toned and wrinkled, looked like the type of clay you find on the banks.
“East Side, thank you much,” I said. I could feel my stomach turning. His truck smelled like raw meat and metal. That’s when I noticed the blood on his hands. “What you been doing?”
“Been stranglin’ chickens,” he said. “Alright,” I said. “You a farmer?” “No,” he said.
“Alright,” I said.
He dropped me off by the edge of the city, the line where East Knoxville melts into forest.
“Far as I can go. There’s more chickens yet,” he said.
I told you how I feel about summertime. I figured it’d be a while ’til there was enough people in Big Joe Guru’s to have any fun, so I wandered on into the wilderness like Jesus. I found a skinny path thick with honeysuckle and walked along it. The path grew wider and went uphill. I kept on. I heard running water somewhere. Then the trees broke open like a cracked ribcage, and there was a sign that read: “Black Fox Bridge | Hogskin Creek | Est. 1910 in memory of General Something.” I decided this was a good place to stop and freshen up. I sat on the edge of the bridge and dangled my legs over the creek. I baptized myself in lotion and peanut oil. Put on a thin coat of lipstick. The current below roared and rumbled in shadowed tangles, looked scary in all the light around me. I didn’t care how hot I got, I decided, it would take Jesus, Himself, to get me in that water. After a few minutes passed and I realized the bridge must no longer be in use, especially since it tapers off into an overgrown trail. I stripped out of my dress and laid down. Maybe I shouldn’t have ’cause the other side of the bridge was tarred road—but who in their right mind is going to drive off into a trail? I closed my eyes and let the warm touch of sun lull me. I thought about Turtle and my disappointment with him. I thought about Otis Sweet, and how I ain’t had a lay like him since. Even without me being pleased—how nice the brine of him was.
I drifted off and dreamt I was in a barn, sitting on a haybale. Chickens everywhere, screaming. I was sure River was somewhere getting ready to choke them into blackness. I tried to say, River, where you at? But only the scream of a rooster came out my throat. I rose, walked to the center of the barn, and there it was: my tongue hung from a rope all cured and dried with salt. I dropped to my knees and rooster hollered some more, but the blip of a police siren pulled me out of my dream. I wiped sleep from my eyes and propped the upper half of me up with my elbow. I saw the cop car throwing out lazy loops of blue and red light.
I ain’t proud to say this, but the moment he stepped out his car I had an image in my head: me straddling him in the backseat, his throat in my hand, rocking back and forth and back. But that was my only thought. I never wanted to see him hurt.
He was older, maybe in his thirties or forties. I’ve always been bad with guessing age. How tall he was, and that sandy hair. His eyes light and wide as the cups of Virginia bluebells. He looked like white Jesus.
“Good morning, officer,” I said.
“Afternoon,” he said. He grinned. His teeth looked like starlight. That smile soothed me in a way I knew it shouldn’t. I know how cops think about dark women. “What exactly is it you’re doin’?”
“The sun felt good. I thought this road was closed.” The peanut oil must have soaked in, ’cause I felt bold. I beckoned him with my finger. He obliged, sat next to me.
“You got identification, ma’am?” He asked this while looking at the gentle rise and fall of my chest.
“Officer,” I said, “do it look like I got identification?” I fell into my little girl voice, which was becoming all too easy with him next to me.
“Ain’t this the part where I take you to jail?”
“I think that’d make you a mean old man,” I said. I squeezed the fabric of his uniform between my fingers and rubbed. “You ain’t hot in this?”
He stood and pulled me up by my wrist. He kissed me, and he surprised me with a touch of tongue. I helped him get out of the uniform. We stood over water naked and drank up each other’s image. He kissed me again and tucked my curls behind my ear. Tucked my curls right behind my ear like he owned me. Then he said: “It’s hot ain’t it?”
We both shined with sweat in the swollen heat, and I knew it’d be easy to get what I wanted. “Sure is, and why you out here?” I asked.
He started stroking himself. “Good place to sit and have lunch. This bridge has been out of service for years. When they first built this bridge, legend is—” He grew in his hand. “—kids jumped in the water so much in the summer, they started charging. Like a theme park. Like a damn rollercoaster.”
I circled him and brushed my fingertips against the head while he stroked, soft as cream. “You ever jumped?”
“I could stand to get wet with you,” he said.
I strolled to the other side of the bridge, sure to bounce what little meat I have, looked over my shoulder and flashed my teeth. “Running start?”
He strutted over, wrist moving in and out, in and out. He nearly growled his words: “Yes ma’am.”
He pressed the meat of him against me and licked my collarbones. “On three.”
“One…” The officer brushed his thumb over my nipples. “Two…” Then he stuck his thumb in my mouth, and I made sure to move my pout to his knuckle. “Three.”
We ran. Our feet thumping across the old wood sounded like a foreboding knock on the door when the whole house is asleep, a knock that shouldn’t be answered. My toes stopped just before it reached the edge. I think the officer must have realized I didn’t jump as he fell ’cause he screamed something that was swallowed up by the water. It almost sounded like what the hell? I’ll keep that image of him in my pocket—his big arms reaching to the sky, the white cords of the muscles in his back writhing as he dropped into the dusky water. ’Cause what happened next keeps me up at night. What happened next almost makes me feel bad about the missing posters I saw tacked up around town.
I looked down and waited for him to break the boiling surface of the water, to laugh at my fear, down there in his quick escape from the heat. I counted to four: One Mississippi, Two… Only the pushing rage of Hogskin Creek. I counted to ten: Four Mississippi, Five… I peered and peered and whatever white I saw was only the foam of the current, the foam of snake spit.
Then I heard him near the other side of the bridge. To tell you what happened next, to make sense of it at all, I got to go back a little. When I was a little girl, Mama took me to the theater, and we watched a screening of The Wizard of Oz. I know now it’s a happy tale with a happy ending, with pigtails and friendship and magic. But then, I didn’t understand. Then, I thought witches lived in tornadoes. I thought tornadoes were the most common thing. That summer, every time thunderheads rolled in, I’d cry. I’d say Mama, we going to get sucked up. She’d say, We don’t get tornadoes on this side of Tennessee, and if I wouldn’t shut up, she’d say Baby Greene, you acting out. I’d cry ’til my eyes and nose got chapped. That’s what happened if I saw the clouds. If I heard the thunder, caught a glimpse of lightning, I’d get tight cramps in my belly and throw up ’til I had nothing in me but dry panic and air.
I ain’t ever seen anybody have the kind of fear I had back then. Not ’til I heard that officer pop up. He sounded like a goat mid-slaughter. I rushed over to the other side, and his body was ate up with black and brown. I thought, how the hell he moving like that? He jerked his arm, and a cottonmouth plunked into the water. Before I could take another breath, that space of white skin was covered with another snake. Must have been twenty, thirty of them slithering all over his body, mad as hell. He must have landed in a nest. I knew I couldn’t save him. I didn’t want to. He moved with the frenzy I always had inside. So, I stood there on that bridge and watched him ’til I couldn’t see him anymore. He either dipped down low and drowned or went beyond the bend, washed up on land.
I don’t got all the answers. I only know you’ll find his car on Black Fox Bridge. You’ll find his bitten body somewhere around Hogskin Creek. I only know that I saw him wrestle the shape of the devil and lose. I only know I saw the water carry him farther, farther like he wasn’t nothing but a hollowed bone.