Marietta’s Husband

by Donald Mace Williams

 

The Turtleshell Café had a desirable location in the business section of Azimuth, Texas. It was next door to the post office. People who had driven pickups down the hill—and very few in that cowtown would have walked—to get their mail in the mornings found it convenient to stop in for coffee or breakfast. Since everybody with a job or an outlying ranch would have gone to work hours earlier, the Turtleshell’s morning clientele was mostly retired folks, including some who weren’t old but who, when they opened the first check on the gas and oil catacombs underneath their land, had quit working forever.

Jody Cooper wasn’t the second kind of retiree, though a minuscule percentage of the royalty on a gas well in his widow’s family did add a bit to his Social Security and what he had from the sale of the weekly Azimuth Transit, which he had owned and edited for most of his working years. On a spring morning when dust was already blurring the tops of the twin buttes to the south of town as if he had left his reading glasses on, he walked over to the Turtleshell and spread out his mail on the table in a booth.

“Junk, junk,” he said across the gray Formica tabletop as he tossed an unopened envelope into one of the metal wastebaskets that Bella, the proprietress, had had the wit to provide for each booth.

“Just don’t hog the basket,” John Porter said, shuffling his own mail. Each side of the table was also provided with a chained-down letter opener, and toward the bottom of his stack Jody finally found something to use his opener on.

“Haven’t heard from him in a while,” he said.

“Jim, is it? I bet it’s about this fellow Tar . . .  Tarsle, Tarsus, what was it?”

“Tarsley, Carl Tarsley.” He took out the letter from his son and unfolded it. It was in ink and, like all of Jim’s, very short. “Please be patient with Carl,” it said. “He’s a bit of a case, as you’ll see, but he’s a devout follower of Jeff’s, and determined to spread his word. Like the rest of us.”

Jody put the letter back into its envelope and looked at his watch.  “Hell, I’ve got to get out of here.” He stood up, took one more cautious drag at the hot coffee, dropped a couple of bills on the table, raised a hand to John, and walked out, pulling his hat down farther over his eyes than necessary. He wished he could have stayed. John, a newly retired history teacher at Azimuth High, had been his loyal supporter at the Transit, a rarer and rarer thing as more of the populace felt the touch of Jody’s honest characterizations and skeptical reporting.

Swinging his left leg stiffly so as not to bend the bad knee, he made his way up the two steep blocks to his house. Just as he finished turning his key, he heard a car pull up to the curb and stop. He took the key out and turned around. A tall young man was bending and twisting his way out of a Honda Fit that had Peace! Peace! in large white script on its side. He strode up the sidewalk, swinging a scuffed case with one hand and waving energetically with the other. Jody braced himself.

“Welcome to the Chapstick capital of Texas,” he said at the bottom of the porch steps, his words unsteady from the vigor of the handshake.  “Come on in.” Better not sit on the porch with the dust coming up.

They sat in the dining room at the slim-ankled table that had been handed down through three generations of Marietta’s family and drank out of the white mugs that Marietta had disliked because of their thickness but that Jody nowadays used regularly, rotating the three of them daily and keeping them as clean as if she were there to inspect them. Jody’s coffee was black, like what he had had at the Turtleshell, and Carl’s tea, from the supply of bags that Jody kept for visits from his children and grandchildren, was milkily white. After a little talk about the weather and how-do-you-like-the-Texas-Panhandle—“Oh, fantastic, it’s so, you know, different!”—Carl took the   recorder out of its case, set it on the table, and pushed a pair of buttons. He leaned forward on his elbows.

“Mr. Cooper, I’m sure this will be hard for you, but, you know, it’s not just for a—a”---he spread his hands—“a book that will interest people—it’s, the world needs to know all about this wonderful, this awesome man, every little thing you can tell me about him.”

“I’ll do my best. Ask me something.” Make this guy work for his story, the way Jody, as editor and reporter, had had to do no telling how many thousand times.

“ Just tell me anything, anything at all, Mr. Cooper. What he was like as a child, as a teenager, as a college student. What he did, what he liked, what he said, how he said it, what he wrote .  . . Oh, did he keep a diary, write poems or anything?” He clapped his hands. “Believe me, Mr. Cooper, you can’t tell us one thing about him that won’t be important. Important now and much, much later.”

Jody leaned back and looked at the high, wallpapered ceiling. Jeffrey: he and Marietta had picked the name because they liked the sound, but they did know it meant Peace-traveler. Maybe the etymology had influenced Jeff, though he never said so. At any rate, that was the name of his suddenly booming organization: Peace! Peace!

Jody thought back thirty-eight years. On a spring afternoon in 1974, Jeff, having loped home down the O’Toole Street hill from Azimuth Junior High and quickly changed from school jeans into home jeans, was sprawled in the living room, one leg draped across an arm of the couch, eating the last piece of cold pecan pie that his mother had saved for him from the night before. Since it was a Thursday, Jody was there, too, in the fat chair across the room, resting up from getting that week’s paper out. Hooves sounded outside. Jeff jumped up. “I’m going for a ride,” he said.

“OK, be careful.” Jeff shook the crust crumbs from his paper-towel napkin into the wastebasket, broke off the scalloped half of what was left of the pie wedge, and held it out the door before showing the rest of himself. Jody, as he got up to watch, shook his head and smiled. He, as a teen-ager, had never been that generous.

“Slow and easy,” the other boy said, his mouth already full. “She’s a wee tad new at this.” One of the two horses whose reins he was holding had shied backward and was standing with spread legs, flared nostrils, and wild eyes, spooked by the emergence of a stranger.

“Jeez,” Jeff said, “that’s the filly I saw last summer, isn’t it? Oh, man. What a beauty.”

Jeff and Elmer Derryberry had been friends since the third grade, when Miss Randall seated the class alphabetically and the two of them quickly began passing notes to each other, staying uncaught for a day or two by barely moving their arms and keeping their faces turned innocently toward the front. Then one of the notes made Elmer laugh so hard the teacher, ignoring Jeff’s protests that “I was the one that wrote it. It wasn’t him,” moved Elmer over with the T’s, between two girls. “It wasn’t he,” she said. “And anyway, it was both of you.” The horseback visits started soon afterward—bareback visits, since neither boy could yet lift a saddle to the top of a horse. Jeff became a fair enough rider over the next few years, though nothing like his friend, who regularly won boys’ riding and roping events at rodeos.

School work was a different matter. Jeff scarcely had to study anything connected with words, and Jody knew he would barely open a book that night to get ready for the next day’s English Lit. exam. He certainly wouldn’t have skipped a ride to do so. He loved being around horses and cattle, though they were not to him what they were to Elmer: his Shakespeares and Miltons, to be analyzed and memorized down to the stanza, the line. So the boys set out, talking and laughing. They would ride along the dirt road at the town limits and go through the gate at the end of the cattle guard where the Derryberry land started, at the foot of a steep hill. Jody, later, mostly by way of what Jeff told Marietta, reconstructed the events of the ride.

“Beat you to the top,” Elmer said. They dug in their heels, and, no surprise, the mare surged far ahead. At the other side of the hill, just at the top, unseen because of the steepness and unheard because of the hoofbeats, one of the Derryberrys’ big Ram pickups roared upward and became practically airborne, barreling townward with Elmer’s slightly older cousin at the wheel. “Look out!” Jeff screamed from the better perceptive of his trailing position.

Too late. Inside a cloud of dust and dismay, the pickup had skewed to the side with a smashed grille, and the prize filly lay snorting and twitching, the bottom fourth of her right front leg skewed at a shocking angle from the rest. Jeff had never seen Elmer cry before, not since their voices had changed. He cried, too, when he saw Elmer fall to his knees and cradle the beautiful head. The cousin, grim faced, turned the pickup around and a few minutes later came back in a different one. He got out with a lever-action .30-30 in his hand. Jeff pulled Elmer gently away. The cousin aimed and fired.

“Jeff?” His mother, slim and dark-haired, came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. It wasn’t like him to have come in and not called to her. “Oh-oh. What happened?” Her younger son, Jim, hearing her tone, rolled off the bed in the two boys’ room and came in barefooted, standing silently to watch and listen. Jeff told them briefly and went to his room to stare at the wall, picking up his literature anthology once or twice and reading titles without comprehending or, fortunately, needing to do so. “There’s nothing I can do,” was all he would say when Jody stepped inside and said, “Son?”

“Poor boy,” Jody, cup towel in hand, said to Marietta. “I don’t know how he’s going to bear it when he starts having bad luck himself, on top of everybody else’s that he shares.”

The horse story was one that Jody could picture as if he had been a participant. He told it to the visiting tape recorder as Carl nodded eagerly, encouragingly.

Stimulated in spite of himself by this acceptance, Jody told about Jeff and Emily Carter when they were both just finishing Azimuth High.

“She came from a really poor family, an uneducated family. She wasn’t dumb, by any means, you know. But she had that great handicap of not growing up around books or ideas or correct grammar. Just the same, she worked so damn hard that before the end of her sophomore year she was getting on the honor roll regularly, and when it was nearly time for graduation—she and Jeff never dated, though they sat in the same classes several times, but this girl that Jeff did date, Cathy Pierce, told him that poor little Emily was dying to be the valedictorian.

“Jeff told me and Etta—Marietta—about that, and she said, ‘Jeff, the only way you could help being the valedictorian would be to flunk about three of your finals. Maybe all of them. You know that, and she ought to know it, too.’

“Jeff said, ‘I know it, I know it, but I just feel so sorry for Emily. I wish they could have a boy valedictorian and a girl valedictorian.’”

Jody broke off to clear his throat, though his spring allergies weren’t as bad this year as usual, what with the drought’s withering of the offending plants.

“Did I hack loud enough for your recorder?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” Carl said, practically wringing his hands with assurance. “I hope it isn’t bothering you.”

“Nah, it’s fine. Anyway, when the honors assembly came along, they announced the valedictorian and damned if Etta and I didn’t almost fall out of our seats. It was Emily Carter, and Jeff had never told us a thing about it.”

“He had done something on purpose to . . .?” Carl was leaning forward again, breathless.

“He had done just what Etta said would have to happen. Flunked all four of his finals, on purpose. But you should have heard the sound that went up from that bunch of students. I mean, they were all as surprised as we were. Jeff was the salutatorian, of course. Up to then he had had just almost a perfect record. And barely had to study, you know?”

“What a wonderful, generous thing to do. Did Jeff tell you what he had done? Or how did you find out?”

“We put two and two together. Etta put two and two together. She always saw things that I never noticed. Besides, he told her things. They had a special closeness, something I could never quite put my finger on. Something . . . beautiful, I guess.” He cleared his throat.

“Anyway, she remembered how he’d barely answered when she asked him how this or that final was, how he’d done. And wasn’t he going to study for this next one, the history one, not even a little?—Because he was sitting in the front room and watching the Yankees and Red Sox, the night before it. Anyway, she finally asked him if he had blown those finals on purpose, and he said—I remember just what he said—he said, ‘Mom, I didn’t need to be the valedictorian. She did.’ That was all, but it was enough.”

“Did he ever tell the girl—Emily?”

“I think she knew. But he never had a chance to tell her, not that he would have. She avoided all dealings with him after that, wouldn’t even look at him.”

Should he tell this boy the very first thing in Jeff’s life? It would help him do a rounded characterization, the kind that had made enemies of a fair number of Azimuth people when Jody had written profiles of them. That was a lesson Jody had learned as a boy from Autry Whippo, the founding editor of the Transit: “Write who they are and what they did,” Whippo said. “If they don’t like it, they shouldn’t have done it.”

So when Rodney Puckett was running for county clerk, Jody wrote a full profile of him, quoting several assessments of his character and ability that were as laudatory as back-cover blurbs on a romance novel but also reporting that the candidate had resigned suddenly from the clerk’s position in the next county to the east when the commissioners’ court began asking him about apparent discrepancies in financial records. Of course Jody asked Puckett about the incident; of course he was told that no discrepancy was ever found—that Puckett had resigned so he could move to Azimuth, where his wife was teaching school; and of course Puckett beat his opponent by a large margin two weeks after the story ran. Jody was therefore hardened in his determination to report the facts, every time.

He would give some to this Yankee boy.

But no, he wouldn’t tell about that one time in the back seat of his parents’ old Chevy with Etta. His first time, for sure; hers, too, she told him afterward when in his innocence he had had to ask. He was relieved; he knew she had gone out at least once with the glowing blond giant of a boy who came from nobody knew where and just appeared at the high school’s spring dance, supposedly on a weekend visit to some relative in Azimuth. She and Jody married secretly as soon as she saw it was necessary, and she gave birth to the child in the same back seat, Jody having acquired the car as a glumly given, after-the-fact wedding present from his parents while he worked on his English degree at Texas Tech. The couple had set out from their rented farmhand house for Methodist Hospital in Lubbock too late, that brilliant winter night, and arrived with Jeff wrapped in Jody’s windbreaker and making scarcely a sound, as if already concerned more about the people around him than himself.

In the silence Carl bent a hand around his mouth and yawned. “Excuse me,” he said, as embarrassed as if he had belched.

Jody waved a hand. “Spring fever got you?”

“Perhaps that’s it. Really, I stayed up till two this morning, sending e-mails.”

“E-mails,” Jody said vaguely. “You mean about the peace outfit?”

“Oh, yes. We have groups starting up all over the world. London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Buenos Aires. And dozens in this country.”

“You send them e-mails about . . .?”

“About your son and what he taught. What he was like, what he said and did.”

“But you never knew him. You’re too young.”

“I heard him once, when I was eight years old. My mother took me. I’ll never forget. Such a, a radiant presence, and such a message.”

“Let’s see. If you were eight, that would have been—eighteen years ago, about.” Carl nodded. “And it was seventeen years ago that he made that trip to Persia. To Iran, I mean.” The trip on which he was arrested and put to death, supposedly as a spy but really, Jody was convinced, as a subversive, an intruding infidel. “So how do you know so much about him?”

“From all those who knew him, who worked for him. And of course from Jim.”

“Hell, he can tell you a lot more than I can, growing up with him and working with him or for him all that time. And hero-worshiping him the way he does.”

“But he knows different things. Nobody understands a person in just the way a parent does.”

Jody shrugged. “How is that guy doing? Still working his tail off, I suppose.”

“Absolutely. Nobody on the entire headquarters staff works harder or more devotedly.”

“So hard I damn seldom hear from him. But never mind. And how about Maddy?” He saw the corner of Carl’s mouth twitch. “I do hear from her.”

“She works as hard as Jim, just like she did when Jeff—when . . .”

“When Jeff was alive.” And when the two would come visiting, she with her graceful figure and the long, dark, dense, soft-looking hair that he could hardly keep his hands off. When Jeff, quite openly, did stroke it, she leaned into him affectionately, almost gratefully. Etta always showed them to separate bedrooms, but, as Jody reminded himself with some satisfaction, there were no bear traps in the hall between.

On none of his visits had Jeff ever spoken to an audience in Azimuth. Jody would have gone to hear him, certainly, and so would Marietta, she glowing with a pride ready to flare up if she heard one neighbor say “Chicken!” to another, he proud too but uneasy, telling himself that he and Jeff would sit down later and talk these things over, as they had done more than once when Jeff was still living at home and had already begun shaking his head over war headlines, putting  the paper down, staring out the window toward the brown slopes beyond town.

“Who doesn’t want peace?”Jody had asked back then. “Who among reasonable people doesn’t want peace? I guess the Spartans, some of the Nazis, would rather have war, all right. I guess some of us. I once knew a kid, a perfectly nice guy, who would go into a bar—have I told you this story before?—and order a glass of milk just so he could get into a fight. Even he, you know, he might have voted for peace if that had been an option. Even they might have—the Nazis. Especially once they had known war close up. But Jeff, who’ll move first? Who’ll pull up his pants leg and step into the snakepit? Suppose we disarmed all the way and announced to the world that we wouldn’t fight. How many of us would survive the next day’s H-bombs?”

“It wouldn’t have to be unilateral. It would be by agreement. Everything would be done under supervision, like in a duel. You know, when the seconds had their pistols ready in case one of the duelists shot early. Or twice.”

“So any country that refused to ditch its arms would get shot?”

“Would get fined. Embargoed. . . . I don’t know, Dad, that’s for diplomats and such. All I know is that we’ve all got to agree on peace. Somebody does. Somebody has to start.”

Peace. It had had its great advocate twenty-one centuries back, and who could say but what there might have been even more killing without him? But if he had really succeeded, Jody thought, if wars had become extinct, there would be no scale anymore, no way to measure a nation or an era. It would be like trying to appreciate life if death were abolished. The history of the world was the history of wars. He had said something like that when Jeff was home from Tech one summer. A warless history would be a drone, everything the same, every day the same.

“Dad,” Jeff had said, “instead of war we would have art. Not just painting”—his father’s head had shaken—“but creativity of every kind, medicine, science, music, words, the realizing of ourselves as we really are, not having to put aside our progress every few years and kill each other like, like ants, like Neanderthals.”

Jody had known Jeff’s expressiveness since his first words. The conversation shot through his memory cells now, along with the impulse to tell it. But should he? What, really, was this fellow’s motive? What was the motive of the outfit in Memphis, of the writers there, of the organizations springing up everywhere? No, not of the organizations so much: of the organizers. In a newspaper lifetime, Jody had learned to doubt leaders but to hope, at least, that followers might mean well.

He did tell Carl about that conversation, and about many others like it. Memories for Jody, now that he was in his eighties, usually lacked color and definition, like cattle on the pasture west of town and beyond Coyote Creek when the pre-dawn light made them barely discernible, as in a Frank Reaugh painting. But Carl Tarsley’s appeals called for midday form and color, and once Jody had opened the gates, there was no quieting the hoofbeats.

Carl kept saying, “Fantastic,” and, “Oh, awesome!” He turned a cassette over as the stream continued; put in a new one; turned it over.

It was past noon when Jody finally caught himself. All this goodness and light.

“You-all practically worship that guy,” he said, “and he was a fine son, a fine guy. But you know, he wasn’t any saint. He was all boy.” And he told about the scandal, right after graduation, how this girl whom he wasn’t going to name had turned up pregnant and the whole town knew the star student and all-state baseball pitcher was the father-to-be. Only he didn’t ever be that, because she disappeared from town early on and came back a couple of weeks later unpregnant, Jeff having quickly taken on a weekend lawnmowing job to add to what he made working weekdays in Willeford’s Hardware. “Oh, he was responsible, all right, but there wasn’t any talk about marrying her. Not as far as I know. Or any of the other girls he slept with.”

Carl caught his breath several times during the story, but the recorder kept running. Jody told it about the time Jeff was home after his freshman year, one summer night: the watermelon from Old Man Ballew’s garden, which Chancellor Davis, the only black resident of Azimuth back then except for his family, plowed and watered and weeded for him.

“And Chancellor knew—man, how he knew—exactly how many watermelons were in that patch. Probably had a name for every one. At least a number. Of course he didn’t know who stole that one, but I bet he had a good idea. Probably never told Ballew it was gone. Might have lost his job or got his pay docked. Funny. Jeff didn’t even like watermelon. Just a prank, maybe a little bit of thumbing his nose at the rich old bastard. Just playing-like, that’s what it was: acting like Huck Finn. And then going back to Tech and being the president of Students for World Peace, or whatever it was. And finishing up summa cum. A hell of a lot better than I ever did. That was the Etta in him.”

God. Etta.

Only nineteen when they got married. A year and a half of college already, SMU. Could read Horace and Ovid and all. Slender and dark, and so limber she dropped a carrot top on the kitchen floor and just folded double, collapsed, to pick it up, talking away. He smiled at the memory while Carl changed cassettes.

The morning after, hung over, Jeff told her about the watermelon.

“I’ll send two dollar bills to Old Man Ballew,” he said.

“No, no, not to him. To Chancellor.” And he did—walked up to the wall in broad daylight and called him over to give it to him.

Jody, drunk only once in his life, and then insisting on walking back to his dorm because the guy with the car was drunker yet, had never stolen a watermelon or anything else. But, all right, he had slipped up that once, with Marietta, and paid for it, or made her pay, made her risk her reputation back then when girls either had or didn’t have such a thing. Would she have married him otherwise? Jody wasn’t sure. Wasn’t sure she loved him, then or later. Was damn sure he had loved her for a year before that and for fifty years afterward and had never stopped marveling at his luck.

Luck: if he had been driving his prewar Ford coupe—koo-pay, his folks called it—that night instead of his dad’s sedan, Jeff might never have been born. Stick shift on the floor, steering wheel in the way, no space to push the seat back. Or if it had been raining. It was a beautiful mid-March night, with for once only a breeze, and after she finally nodded, breathless, and whispered “OK,” he crashed out the door, scrambled around the front of the car, jerked her door open, and pulled her out, kissing her wildly, almost pushing her into the back seat.

When Jeff started dating, it was farther to the back seat but easier to get there. Especially for a star athlete, compelling leader, big, handsome kid. Being a top student didn’t help—might have harmed, in fact, but not with Maddy, another summa cum in the making. Later, she joined Peace! Peace! as a sort of chief adviser and handout-writer, traveling with Jeff everywhere. No way did Carl Tarsley not know what was going on.

Peace! Peace!—Jeff was a long way from being the only American weary of his countrymen and countrywomen’s coming back from wars without arms, legs, faces, or minds, or, like Elmer Derryberry, not coming back at all. What a story that had been for The Transit and later for the big papers that picked it up: Cowboy Soldier Commandeers Afghan Donkey, Dies Charging Enemy to Save Comrades. That, losing his best friend that way, gave Jeff the final nudge into his peacenik career, Jody was sure. It wasn’t long till Jeff was converting winos and dopeheads in flophouses and stonefaced old fundamentalists in revival tents. Converting them, that is, to peace. Even the hooting teenagers, some of them, came round—after all, they were the ones who’d have to go to war. It wasn’t all sweetness at those meetings, though. Jody had read the news stories: scoffers in the audience shoving and slugging the converts, Jeff wading in, pulling them apart with his powerful arms, roaring out, “Peace! Peace!” Some of the hardest punchers were the same ones that had taken oaths of peace five minutes before. Jeff went to jail briefly: inciting a riot by preaching peace.

“There was a, like, purity, a selflessness that just emanated from him,” Carl said. “Men would be so inspired by him that they quit good jobs to work for us—for him. Really.” Jody had cocked his head and squinted at him. “A parent, a father, doesn’t see these things like others.”

“Maybe not. Tell me, Carl, what’s in this for you? For you and the rest of them, blowing him up like this?”

“You have every right to ask, Mr. Cooper. All I can do is to say that everyone in the movement has decided to devote their life to the cause, and not one of us that I can think of is doing well financially off it. I know that I had a far better job before, as far as money is concerned. Look, do you know the Roadrunner Motel here in town? Well, that’s where I’m staying, and not in the Hampton Inn or the bed-and-breakfast place up the hill. It’s a matter of money, to be frank. We have backers, of course, and more and more individuals who contribute ten, twenty dollars. But that money goes back into the movement, and just a minimal amount goes for expenses and salaries.”

“What did you do before you started this?”

“I did P.R. for the gas company in Toledo. A good job, and I was on the way up.”

“So you really are a salesman. And your family? Do you have a wife? Children?”

“No. But others do. They join us anyway.”

They broke off to walk downhill to the Turtleshell for hamburgers, Jody trying not to show the pain in his knee, then climbed back for another hour of recording. Jody made sure to tell how hard it was for him and Marietta to get Jeff to make up his bed or pick up his pajamas, or how in high school Jeff had grabbed a boy who was smaller and less athletic than he—as nearly all the boys his age were—by the collar and shaken him thoroughly, warning him to stay away from Leevonne or whoever the girl of the moment was. “Bullying, they call that  now,” he said. Again, though, he was big brother and teacher to three, so Jim could read Winnie-the-Pooh two years before school, and Anne, when she could hold still long enough, picked up adding and subtracting at about the same stage. Helen—Helen loved the piano, which Jeff didn’t play, and then she loved the violin, which ditto, and last and most of all the viola, though when she was nineteen and started playing in the Lubbock Symphony she chose the violin for her audition because the viola section was smaller and more exposed to the audience’s view. Jeff taught her, too, or told her, never being sure she caught on because she was too shy to recite for him. And he encouraged, comforted and sometimes avenged them all, sometimes with his fists, and he bought them dip-squirts at the drug store on Saturdays with his lawnmowing money.

Carl heard about such things but also about how Jeff snorted and clapped his hands, and went into the front room to tell Etta, loudly, when Jim, age five, read “misled” to rhyme with “whistled.” How he yelled at Helen to look up at him and take her finger out of her mouth and answer his question, at which she ran out of the room crying. He did make sure to tousle her hair and pull her ear gently that evening when she came in to say goodnight to everybody. And she raised the skirt of her nightgown to give him a little mock kick, and ran away. Jody’s eyes blurred. All the kids loved Jeff.

Then and several other times during the rest of the session, Carl shaded his eyes and peered at the recorder to make sure it was working right. Finally, Jody said it was time for his nap and he had to drive into Pampa after that and buy some soft cheese and things they didn’t have at the store in Azimuth. Carl came back the next day and for several days after that. Then, after so many expressions of thanks that Jody almost said, “OK, OK, now get out of here,” he walked backward down the sidewalk to his car, waving his free hand, and drove out of Azimuth forever.

Seven months later, Jody looked through the glass of his post office box and saw the brown-paper-wrapped package that was curled into a half-cylinder to fit. He worked the combination, opened the door, and bent the package further so he could pull it out. From Memphis. Aha. He had almost forgotten.

“Hey, Mr. Editor, how about a cup?”

It was John, of course. They went next door to the Turtleshell, took mugs off the rack, drew their own coffee, and sat down in a booth. John’s eye fell on the package.

“Somebody sent you a book, looks like.”

“Yeah. It’s from that guy that interviewed me. Must be the one he was going to do.”

“Hell, aren’t you going to open it? It’s not every day you get a book about your son in the mail.”
Jody took out his Case pocketknife and sliced the brown tape on one end of the package. He had to cut partway down each side, too, before the book would come out. It was thick, with a soft, textured black cover and red page-edges.

“‘Jeffrey, the Peace Traveler, by Carl Tarsley,’” he read aloud. He found the first page and read again: “This is the story of a perfect man.”

He shook his head, put the book down, and took a sip of coffee, holding it on his tongue awhile to protect his throat before swallowing.

“Well?” John said.

Jody swallowed. “Well,” he said, “maybe it’s necessary. Maybe it will work.”

John leaned back and gazed across the room. “This time, huh?” he said, almost to himself.

“Yeah,” Jody   said. He closed the book and took another sip.

John watched him for a moment, then reached across the tabletop, reopened the book, and held it up to Jody’s eyes, shaking it insistently. “Hell, man,” he said, “it’s about your son.”

Jody did not say, but for the thousandth time thought, “Maybe.”

 

Donald Mace Williams is a retired newspaper writer and editor and also a former professor--of journalism, though his  Ph.D. from the University of Texas was on the prosody of Beowulf.  Among his books are a historical novel, The Sparrow and the Hall, and a poetry selection, Wolfe and Other Poems.   He lives in the Texas Panhandle.