Winner, SLQ Short Story Competition (April 2010)
Ain't no thing
but a jelly bean. If you say it just right it comes near
enough t' rhymin' t' sound good. Supposed to make light of
something big, something folks are impressed with. Supposed
to let folks see how modest you really are. Catch a pop-fly
outta th'sun, win a card game, pick the right horse - ain't
no thing but a jelly bean.
Bean sounds more
like bing and
thing sounds more like theen.
Somewhere in between, anyhow. Blow your finger nails clean,
wipe 'em off on your lapel. No big deal. You just play it
cool, play it real. Folks don't dig on a show-off. You
never wanna be a show-off.
Like this one
time. Would have to have been ten, maybe eleven years ago.
Summer, hot and stinkin' the way it is 'round these parts.
Like sweaty gym socks left on the registers. Folks like
where I come from don't got none of that central air. Lucky
to get a patch of shade under the porch.
But I was sittin'
there down by the water. Billy was there, his fishin' pole
in the mud, as was mine. Sam Jackson (we called him the by
the whole as there was four Sams livin' out on our patch -
Jackson, Thompson, Fuller and Moon) was there too. Not much
for fishin', not much for anything, Sam Jackson had his pipe
and a greasy Styrofoam cooler from which to dispense bottles
of his own wheat brew. We had a pint or two 'a the 'Shine -
kept handy for medicinal purposes, a' course.
The river was
slow an' lazy that day - that whole summer, I recall. So
thick with grit you could sand-blast a car before anyone
knew it'd been sunk. Not much t'catch but still we had
t'try. It was mostly about sittin' there. A week's work
was done. My dogs was barkin', but a few a' Sam Jackson's
home brew (and a tug or two a' the 'Shine - for medicinal
purposes, a' course) an' the pain went far away.
there did it. Booze might a' helped, but the sun an' that
breeze off the water - an' that ol' camp chair a' mine - did
the trick. My back just melted into that chair. Sweat
pricked and chilled. I was just feelin' good. Didn't care
if nothin' came for a nibble at the pole. Clara had burgers
in the ice box an' we coulda had them.
I could hear the
kids playin' down the way. Ours was too young to be out,
but Billy's little Sandra woulda been nine then. Figured
she was just a-lordin' it over the pack. She was good at
that. Don't know 'bout fair - but good at it all the same.
Sam Jackson was a bachelor. Always was, always would be. A
few of the older boys was playin' ball in the common. Most
had gloves. Those that didn't - well, they had calluses.
Friday evening. No different than any other. Cares were
simple. Stress? That's a city word. We had our worries
but they amounted to naught but water under the bridge. We
got by. Even when times was tough, we got by. I could
always put a pole in the mud.
Sam Jackson was
talkin'. He was always talkin', on account he had no one
but a three-legged mutt to yak at when he got home. We
listened - or he thought we listened. He was hard t'follow
at times, having lost most a' his teeth with the years. An'
he only had so many stories t'tell. By the time I was a
father for the first time I'm sure I heard 'em all enough
times t'make up a baker's dozen.
I was kinda
listenin'. Mostly I was just wide open to the whole town.
That crack of a bat an' ball, Sly Preacher up yonder,
strummin' on his guitar. Carried like woodsmoke. No voice
to speak of, but, dang, them hands could work the guitar!
There was traffic out on the Interstate. That would be near
to two miles and just a drone, but it was there. Rich folks
goin' home from their offices to their Suburbs - infill, we
called it. Swamp'd be back soon enough.
happened right about when Sam Jackson was draggin out the
Mason jar again, gettin' ready t'pass it around. I came to
hear the silence from yonder ways. Them kids was all just
quiet-like. Made my skin prickle hearin' it - not hearin'
Now, if somethin'
bad they knew happened,
It woulda' bin' all screamin' and hollerin'. That I could
do with. I'd fetch up there and find me a young buck with a
fist full a' snake or a baby gator too small t'more'n break
the skin. I give 'em a rap upside the head an' get back
t'my pole. But that's Friday evenin' for ya. Same as any
The hush of 'em
kids was different. It meant somethin' different. I got
up, just then realizing Sam Jackson's gone an' hushed
himself. He's listenin' too.
"What's all that
about?" Sam Jackson says. He ain't gotten up yet, but you
c'n see him thinkin' on it.
says. I started up that way, up the cut. Through a break
in the houses I could see the kids - A dozen, an even
baker's dozen, standin' in a tight, little knot. Put a jump
in my step, I tell ya.
Billy came next,
Sam Jackson close behind, movin' well for a fella near as
wide as he was tall. There we was, truckin along the cut
like we had a purpose. Didn't quite know we had a purpose
'til we drew near. Seemed it took forever, but we got
I saw them legs
stickin' outta the pack, jus' twitchin'. Found that
purpose. Wasn't much of a runner, not then, not in years.
But I managed a good clip over that last bit. I hollered
something 'bout clearin' a hole and busted right in there.
There she was. Little Sandra. Face like wax. Eyes just buggin'
right out of it. Chokin' on somethin' or other. She was
just seconds away from it.
"I didn't do
I heard the
protest but wasn't in the blame-layin' game jus' then. Saw
the candy wrapper on the grass an' I knew it wasn't comin'
out. Didn't think. Just acted. I looked up just as Billy
and Sam Jackson caught up. Billy was blubberin' something
but Sam - he just stood there, eyes like fried eggs. I saw
the jar in his hand. Two inches from empty.
knife a' yours, Billy!" I barked. It was somethin' I hadn't
done in years, givin' a command like that. Back then I was
used t'the boys snappin' to when I did. Still had the trick
of it. "A dollar to the first one a' y'all can find me a
straw - a good fat one!" The kids, down to just a dozen,
jumped at the chance for a whole greenback. They scattered
an' I figured I was down t'no more'n fifteen seconds.
Billy had his
knife out, slapped it into my palm like a real, honest to
God, surgery room nurse. I could hear running feet; the
contest for my dollar was nearly won. "Sam Jackson, gimme
that, there jar!" My next command. It was snapped to just
Beth Andrews won
my dollar with a yellow and white wonder straight from the
nearest McDonald's. I splashed Sam Jackson's precious
Moonshine over the blade a' Billy's knife - one I knew to be
kept sharp enough t'shave with - and more up and over the
straw. I spared some for my hands and the dregs went over
little Sandra's throat.
Now, I never had
done this before myself. I'd seen it done back in the
service - twice in fact. Don't recall what the doc called
it but that don't matter. Billy's little girl was turnin' a
shade of blue just not natural on a living thing. Her legs
were still moving some, but it was her hands that was gonna
be troublesome. Grabbin' and such at her own face.
"Billy," I says
in that same tone, "you hold 'er steady now." And, bless
him, he did. Didn't say nothin' neither about me with a
knife sharp enough t'shave with over his little girl's neck.
I made the cut
- just a small one - and I waited for the bubbles. They
came real quick. And just like the doc, I turned the blade
t'open it. Stuck the straw right in there before pullin'
Billy's knife out. Easy as pie.
Now Sandra, she
managed a breath. Then another. We held her steady. Kept
her calm for the ambulance. An' that was that. They tried
t'give me a plaque. I just said, Ain't no thing but a jelly
Meant every word