NOT QUITE A MORNING AFTER
I woke up early at the Davis house, the sun far from hitting the edge. Thinking I’d just get a glass of water and go back to sleep, I noticed a light on in the living room and poked my head in to see the child, Gillie, reading a book. It was a collection of poetry.
“You’re up late, or early, Miss Gillie.”
“You like poems, Mister Cobb?” She set the book down. Emily Dickinson. Made sense.
“I like any words, written or spoken, that say a lot in a small space.”
“You think she was in love, Mister Cobb? I mean, there’s a lot of really gushy stuff that’s hard to get from your ‘magination.”
Again, I was having a hard time fitting the young girl with her older soul. “I’m sure of it, Miss Gillie. I think she was in love with a lot of things.”
Gillie sensed that I wasn’t going to expand at this hour, on this subject. So, quite innocently, she came around to what she really wanted to know and I was caught with no way to politely maneuver my way out.
“How come you only told part of the story of your wife’s dying? Why’d you hold all the other stuff back?”
“Reckon it just wouldn’t be polite to dump a whole night’s telling on a family I just barged in on. Besides, I don’t know anything about you or your parents or your little brother. Seems to me a relationship should unfold slowly, on its own time.” Gillie squirmed a bit and searched her young mind for any answer that would move her quicker toward adulthood and all that she perceived it would bring.
“What if you didn’t own a lot of time, Mister Cobb? Pretty soon I’m gonna’ be nine soon and then nineteen and then all growed up and maybe married and what will I know about bein’ a grown up unless I ask other grown ups? I don’t read fairly tale books like the other kids my age. They all lie. I seen, oops…saw your face last night when you were telling the story. That’s the truth, Mister Cobb. I don’t have time for make believe. I liked your sad story.”
“Okay, Miss Gillie, you want the stuff that got passed over, here it is. Now, you stop me if you don’t understand a word because this is the part where you don’t normally practice telling it to kids.”
She seemed quite pleased with herself and sat back in the chair, closed the Dickinson text and folded her little hands like she was praying. Only they were lower, right around her tummy.
“Now where did I leave off?”
“You never really started but my daddy told me that your wife drowned when she fell off of a boat. He told me that when he tucked me in and I told him back that I should say a prayer for her soul. Sometimes Daddy forgets to remind me to pray so I remind him to tell me so we both don’t forget.”
“Well, that makes some sense, I reckon, but your daddy is correct, she was out on a small boat, the very same one that’s sitting out in your front yard, when she fell. Her uncle, a good man, thought kinda’ wild sometimes, won day-rights to the boat in a card game. They weren’t far from shore and she was standing up and slipped. I think Ruth hit her head or something, because she was a good swimmer. Chuck couldn’t swim a lick to save himself.” I was working hard not to get emotional and mostly winning the battle.
I could see that Gillie was doing her best to follow the tale but at one point she stopped me and wanted to know what happens after people die. Like we all do.
“I don’t know yet, Ms. Gillie but I’ll send you a sing when I get there.”
“What did you do then, Mister Cobb, after you brought them in from the lake? Did you take them to the hospital?”
“Sort of,” I swallowed hard somehow realizing that I was speaking more to my repressed memory than a young girl. Still, like music coming from the backyard of a neighbor, I was unable to change the volume or the content. “Chuck was alive but not Ruth. There were lots of other Negroes around by then. The women sang and Chuck coughed up some lake water and insisting on driving me and Ruth and our child in her tummy to the hospital and I held my past in my hands while my future bounced around the bed of our truck. The world spun and the truck sputtered, splitting the fog as it crept across the surrounding marsh. From the back, with Ruth face cradled in my lap, her lips an off color of blue in the fading light, I asked Chuck to turn on the transistor radio, to help drown the other-worldly voice from inside my head as it was coming too hard and too fast. And from that radio Woody sang that ballad of his. This land or that land. To the gulf stream waters.
“Turn it off,” I screamed into the mist with so much force that I thought I might wake Ruth. “Take it back, I don’t want it! Now just leave me be. I didn’t need what you let happen.” And Uncle Chuck must’ve known that my conversation was not with him but with something after life ends.
“But others might, Johnny Cobb. Others might,” The strange voice drifted inside my own while the clouds crept in from the east and the wind seemed to die like a breath gone quiet. Chuck slowed the truck and pulled over on the dirt road. He left the motor running and he left Woody singing and he came around to the bed and put his big black hand on his niece’s cold, blue cheek. His eyes looked dead as well, to my thinking.
“I done killed your wife and child, Johnny. It ain’t God you ought to be blaming but me. I killed her, Johnny. And isn’t nobody bringing her back. I’m a sorry sombitch Johnny, just a sorry negro.” And then Uncle Chuck bent down and kissed the wrinkled forehead of his dead niece, touched me on the shoulder and walked off into the walled sheen of cypress and magnolia and sorrow.
I called out for Chuck, told him we didn’t owe heaven nothing any more. We shouldn’t pay it any mind at’ll. But he disappeared into the thick and left me alone with the spirits and the dogs and the dead.
“Chuck you get your ass back here right now. I done saved it once and I’m not gonna’ go havin’ to do it again.”
I tried to pry myself away from Ruth but when I moved her chest to go after Chuck, a pale fluid came out of her mouth and the dogs whimpered and Woody sang and crickets began their calls and I heard His voice as if he was sitting in the cab, leaning His head around the edge of the truck.
“Others might, Johnny, others might. I’ll watch over Ruth. You watch over those who most certainly will come after.” I wedged Ruth’s body between a spare tire and the two old shepherds, Isaac and Jeremiah and thought about running off into the woods after Chuck. But when a man like Chuck, who’d grown up in the thick and denseness of nature and the way things were; when he didn’t want to get found, you wouldn’t find him. I spoke to my dead wife as if she was sleeping: We’ll be there in just a bit, Hon. You rest a bit now.
I drove the last few miles to the hospital and parked around back. There the nurses took her for a period but I don’t remember how long. Later, I watched them load Ruth into the barn doors of the local Negro hearse as it swallowed her feet last; her heels reaching out from underneath the lake-stained sheet. I saw the oil lamps reflect off the wet pavement and everything that I had ever felt about her or would come to feel in later years could not flush the lake from her lungs or our child from her belly. The last thing I saw were her heels and I thought again of her in the garden, pulling carrots or picking worms from tomato leaves. When I would see those tanned feet with the rough-hewn soles standing sentinel to the hungry crows passing high above, I knew that Ruth was sound yet evolving still, same as the earth that would envelop her.
A man in a hospital coat came up to me and asked if I had any plans on burying her.
“No sir, the thought of putting my wife in a box and letting the earth swallow her was not something I had thought often about.” Then I asked him if he was married and did he think about putting his wife or child in a grave. He called me an uppity nigger and walked away. I was young then, but that’s no excuse, only a testimony to my naiveté.
“You want the Parrish to pay for her burial in the city cemetery or you want to come back for her in the morning?” The coroner had conjured up some empathy from way down below where a coroner might store it.
My tongue had filled my throat and was cutting off any sound. I just nodded.
“Okay then,” he was back to business, “We’ll box her up and have her ready for you in the morning. You best go on home now.”
I looked across the room at the girl in the growing light. “That’s the most of it, Miss Gillie, that’s the most.”
Gillie sat there as if cast in wax, listening and doing something else I couldn’t be sure. “Wow,” she finally said. I don’t really understand some of the worlds but I’d be sad if I lost my mom or dad or Phin. Thanks for telling me, Mr. Cobb.” And as she slipped off to her room she turned once and said it must be nice to know that God hisself made a point of talking to me.
I sat there in the first hint of the new day and thought about the other middle part, the meaning of the missing words worth more than the telling of the ones that’d come out.
The death of Ruth and the unborn was my fate. They could’ve lived forever because, in fact, in my life, they already had. And what was forever anyways — just a long continuous silence without interruption? I knew I’d make the best of a solitary life if I had to.
Passing over my lifeless family to the coroner that evening, cheap whiskey on his breath, a stale, city smell lurking near the loading zone behind the hospital, the sun refusing to set as if God was waiting for my answer, I put my long knife in its own cradle, but kept it sharp and close and threatening for many years. I think He understood and was patient with my apprenticeship.
When Gillie came out of her room mid-morning she asked me where Ruth was buried and I said not yet, child. Not yet.