Tupelo Honey’s real mom died when she was real small but she loved her. That’s how she ended up in the sticks with Auntie Monster and her boyfriend, Thursgood. It was funny how someone named him Thursgood, like he worked in Washington or was a King, because mostly he was good for nothing. At home it was all crazy, all the time. Auntie Monster called herself a business owner but they weren’t nothing but a bunch of hooch runners. Hauling it. Drinking it. And whatever small amount of sane left in their brains was distilled a long time ago. But that place had a roof and walls. Or so they liked to remind her. Auntie and Thursgood had run off in the middle of the night in a frenzy of screaming and door slamming. The silence was nice but the shack was low on provisions.
Tupelo Honey put on her Sunday shirt and set off down the old, dirt path that led to the county line and that’s how she found that dead man floating face up, staring straight into the blazing gates of heaven. She’d never seen anything dead in all her life except maybe a bug or some furry thing squashed on the side of the road. The dead man’s eyes bulged like the nastiest sight you done laid eyes on. But here’s the thing. He was so quiet out there, floating under a clear, blue Mississippi morning with all of those Jesus bugs racing past his head. There had probably never been a finer morning in Jackson County and he was too dead to see it and Tupelo Honey thought that was a real shame.
She stared at him, trying to figure out if she’d ever seen him before and got this terrible fear he might step out of the water and snatch her up. She was gonna run away from the floating dead man when her eyes, god help her, caught a glimpse of those shiny new Wing Tips on his feet and boy were they nice. All leather and polished and pointy toed, looking like they cost a pretty penny. So, her mind got to thinking about how if she could get those shoes she could take them and sell them for money. And that was a fine plan so she rolled up her good pants and stepped barefoot out into the water where mud squished up between her toes. She said a quick prayer in Jesus’ name cause she was about to lift some shoes off a dead man and would need a nod from the Holy Ghost. She reached down sure as she pleased and tugged a wet shoelace. The shoe was stiff and wet and she wrestled with it. The man kicked up a stink. She tugged hard. His body sloshed around in the water until the shoe came free and she tossed it onto the bank behind her. She leaned over again and tugged on the second one cause one shoe is useless unless it’s a piece of art or something.
After she wrestled those shoes loose she took them over to the quiet, little boy in the house with the blue door off the boulevard. Then she walked right down to the Police station and asked the woman with big hair and pink fingernails if she could talk to Sheriff Dietrich. He saw her right off, but wasn’t smiling, because policemen are trained not to smile.
“Sheriff, there’s a problem,” she said.
That didn’t make him look any happier. “What’s going on, Tupelo Honey?”
“See I was walking down that old path that cuts from our property down to the county line and there’s a dead man floating out on that lake where the Canadian geese come to hang out in the winter.”
The Sheriff blinked. “What did you say?”
She sighed big and long and irritated and repeated what she’d just said.
“Are you saying you saw a dead body?”
“Yes, sir. Dead as you ever saw.”
“Are you sure?” He knelt down and leaned in so close she could smell the bologna sandwich on his breath. “You’re positive it wasn’t just someone playing a prank?”
She thought about wrestling them shoes off of his big feet, knowing he was already up at the pearly gates with St. Peter trying to decide if he’d been naughty or nice and just kept that part to herself.
“He’s floating out in the water, all bloated, staring straight up into the sun like it ain’t burning holes through his eyeballs.”
Sheriff put his hand on her shoulder and looked worried. “If you’re telling the truth then I’ll have to ride out with a deputy and if we get out there and there’s nothing going on then you’ll cost the taxpayers a lot of money.”
“I would never steal from a taxpayer,” she said real loud.
Sheriff stood up and said to the big woman, “Get Officer Harper in here. We’re going to ride out and see what Tupelo Honey is talking about.” He adjusted his gun belt and turned to her. “You can ride in the patrol car.”
She got to feeling all silly with excitement over riding in a real police car. The Sheriff let her ride in the middle and she pointed this way and that as Enoch Harper asked her questions and wrote the answers down in his little note pad. The Sheriff had no idea there was a bootlegger path back there and Tupelo Honey was kinda irked about having to reveal her secret pass through.
Aesop was a quiet boy. He liked flowers, gardenias and braiding his mother’s hair. That was before the war, before his daddy went off that fine day in June and returned in a box. He remembered his mother out on the front porch; hand over her mouth, talking to those men who’d come to tell her the truth. The locusts buzzed in anticipation of evening and the cicadas chirped. The sight of his mother crying, which he’d never seen before made him want to mash up all of the bad things in the world until they were nothing but a fine dust that he’d blow away like he blew out the candles on his ninth birthday. Daddy never saw his tenth. Aesop was a quiet boy. He liked candy wafers and the women on Sunday all dressed for church. It was early summer and the earth was moist with the yielding plenty that came after a wet spring. You couldn’t sit on the ground on account of the fact that a dark stain would appear on your britches so he sat out in the patio chairs rocking, watching his mother inside. She didn’t cry anymore but she stared out the kitchen window at the carriage house where Daddy’s workshop was set up. Nothing had been moved. Not a wrench or pipe or Saturday Evening Post. That’s just the way it was.
Until that day in July when bugs were singing and his mother was in the kitchen cleaning pots and pans with bleach and the stinging in his nostrils was so awful that he walked out onto the front porch and watched the Robins all a flitter in the birdbath. That odd little girl with the braids and buckteeth showed up, sneaking along the hedges. She asked him to keep an eye on a pair of shoes. Aesop was a quiet boy. The kind who could watch a pair of shoes and keep a secret for a long time. No one asked much of him. That crazy, little girl was like a crack of lightning in his life and made him smile. No one paid her any attention because her mama was dead and she lived out in the woods with a bunch of derelicts. He’d heard people around town talk about her when he was supposed to be buying flour for his mother. “That poor little girl,” they’d say. And he’d stop listening and imagine the rest. That was his favorite part. Filling in all of the blank spaces with more interesting things. Like that pair of shoes, damp and musty, that sat on the windowsill in his bedroom under the blazing sunlight. Little flecks of dust rose in streams of light like a thousand tiny angels hovering to get a better look. Praise be to God, his mother would say.
He imagined that maybe those shoes were his daddy’s and the little bucktooth girl found them in what could only be explained as a divine act of mystery. He took them gently from the windowsill, setting them quietly on the hard wood floor. He slipped his foot inside where it was cold and made his sock wet. His mother had cleaned his room for the day, so she’d be downstairs polishing and scrubbing and wouldn’t bother him. He pulled off his wet sock, then the dry one and hid them both in the bottom of the clothes hamper, under the cloth used to wash behind his ears. Back at the windowsill he lifted the shoes again. The smell of lake soaked down into the soles, a smell so rich and black it spread out under everything, like the boogeyman, dark and unknowable.
Aesop was a quiet boy and lived up to this notion as he stepped barefoot into the shoes, first left, then right, riding back on his heels, just enough to lift the toes off of the floor. He imagined the sound of his daddy’s footsteps on the stairs, calling out to his mother in a glorious roar, “I’m home, Sylvia. Where’s my boy?” He imagined the very act of finding the shoes would draw his father back from the hereafter. It was then and there, Aesop knew he must hide them and never let them go.
Lara had known sorrow. It wasn’t a bother to her. The world went on spinning. A big, dusty, round rock that hurled through outer space. It was something she thought about often. Outer space. Two of the most boring words in the entire human language spoke separately but once combined they became exotic, the stuff of mystery.
Most of the space in her present world was filled with the long dead furniture of Mr. Morris’ deceased mother, god rest her soul. A wife was not in his destiny, he said, what with all of the work he did and getting up in the middle of the night and having to go out because the world had come undone. Mr. Morris said respectable women couldn’t live under the same roof once they knew what he’d seen. Lara hated the women who drowned their babies upside down in buckets of dirty water and the men who stabbed people until all of the blood ran out of their bodies and left them in the morgue. Mr. Morris had seen those things with his own eyes. That was why the Jim Beam bottle followed him from room to room. The bottle and Lara.
She reckoned she could wait a lifetime for a man like Mr. Morris to notice the pretty green flecks in her eyes and the way her white skin glowed all pretty in the late afternoon light. She wasn’t an old maid yet. There was still time. So much of it. Time was another thing she considered on those mornings full of work. She imagined whole lives they’d never had together while she ironed his shirts, running her fingertips down the sleeves, lightly caressing the buttons, folding open the collars, unzipping the trousers. The bathroom smelled like shaving soap and Bay Rum. She inhaled deeply, polishing the faucets. The places she wanted to visit cascaded through her mind. The seven wonders of the world. They could see them together, hand in hand. Since her mama passed through the pearly gates no one waited on her to return home. They had been a small family. Then her mother fell down and Mr. Morris helped in every way, even carried her from the car into the house when she was discharged from the hospital. The whole time Lara stared up into the night sky trying to remember names of the constellations. Then Mr. Morris called her name and the sound of his voice was like a beacon in the darkest night and she followed.
Now his birthday had come around. In the old days his mother fussed and fiddled, putting a small party together for her only son. She bought a nicely decorated triple layer chocolate cake from the bakery and sent out invitations. It was nice. She was a good mother. But when she was gone, Lara realized that no one would be there to celebrate the day he was born. So, she made a secret trip downtown, wearing her navy coat and smart handbag. She wondered what in the world to buy until her eyes caught a glimpse of the perfect gift. A pair of Wing Tips sat on top of a display stand in the shoe department. A man needed a good pair of shoes. Sturdy, solid and attractive. A man needed a good pair of shoes to walk confidently into his future. She purchased the Tips on the spot and had the box wrapped in powder blue paper with a big silver bow.
On his way into work, Detective Morris drove past the house on the boulevard with the blue door but didn’t stop. Some nights he parked his unmarked Ford ten blocks down behind Jackson Tire and from there walked the distance through shrubs and silence to Sylvia’s back porch. She, too, waited in the shadows and when she saw him they slipped quietly into the carriage house. In the dim light of the hurricane lamp her skin glowed the color of warm cinnamon. And his breath inhaled her kisses that landed on his lips and face and hands. Years passed in secret. Except before it was more complicated. Her husband had been alive, his mother, too. But the two obstacles to their future died away and he snuck over often to see her. If anyone recognized him prowling around in the shadows, he said he was on official police business. Even that would be different soon. They were going to move. All of them. Together. To the edge of Harlem where worlds converged and people didn’t stare at the color of their skin and pinch the corners of their eyes up in disapproval. He had to think of the boy and his future. His boy. That strange, quiet boy who looked so much like him but with dark skin. He’d tried not to love her, for her sake, but he’d been terrible at not loving Sylvia. Be careful who you love because you’ll love them forever, his mother used to say. Truer words were never spoken. From the first time he’d seen Sylvia walking home from church when he was just seventeen, he’d loved her madly. Now she was a widow. And once you’ve married the wrong person and been set free you look upon the world with a bigger vision, a little hunger, that rumbles deep in your belly.
He looked down at the pot roast sandwich Lara packed in his lunch. The reports on his desk sat in a golden pool of lamplight. The station was quiet. At that hour most desks were empty. His eyes drifted to the stack of reports. He’d spent all day running leads and come up with zero. The big black rotary phone on his desk rang. The metal spring on his chair groaned as he rolled forward to answer.
“Jackson County Sheriffs Department. Detective Morris speaking.”
“What’s buzzin, cuzzin?”
“Who is this?”
“Is this the heat?”
Detective Morris straightened in his seat. “Who is this?”
“Who I am doesn’t matter jive daddy. Who I know is what makes a difference.”
“Who do you know?”
“You know how you’re always looking for those hooch runners filling up your county with Shine?”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I’ve seen you out there hoofing it in Nowheresville, man. Listen. You got something I want. I got something you want.”
“Yeah, like where those hillbilly hooch runners are and how they’re sneaking it down an old, dirt path straight to the county line. Your county line.”
“How do you know?”
“Same way I know the sky is blue. I seen it.”
Detective Morris shuffled papers around on his desk looking for something to write with. Finally, he flipped the top of his fountain pen off. “Give me directions. I’ll drive over check it out.”
The moon glowed high in the sky. Detective Morris pulled his unmarked Ford into a grove of trees, cut the engine and listened. Tree frogs and locusts hummed. Insects chirped skeet skeet skeet. The earth was soft. He looked down at his new Wing Tips. It was the first time he’d thought of anything other than busting up a Moon shine ring in the half an hour it took him to drive out to the woods, based on a tip from a slick mouth stranger trying to bust his cousin out of county jail.
Light from the dashboard reflected off his shiny Wing Tips. A more practical man would have the sense to keep a spare set of shoes in the trunk. Barefoot was not an option. Hell, if he ruined them, he’d drive down to the department store and buy a new pair, so as not to hurt Lara’s feelings. His eyes adjusted to the dark silhouette of leaves under the light of a full moon. He closed the door to the Ford gently, certain he knew how to cut down the path by the lake without getting lost. The slick mouthed stranger delivered detailed instructions during the call. He was hot to get his cousin out. Morris was hot to bust up a Shine ring and get the letter of recommendation needed to transfer to a precinct in Harlem. He passed the lake with the tree frogs covering up the sound of his footsteps with their loud, ancient song. He was sure he’d walked more than a mile when a lamplight flickered in the distance. He slowed to a stop, his ears trying to discern each sound. Footsteps, bottles clanking, car doors opening and closing. He pressed forward, to the edge of the wood, where he saw plain as day, a lamp in the window of an old shack. He patted his hip several times before realizing in his haste he’d left his gun belt back at the station, hanging on his chair. He bent over to pull his backup .38 Special from a leg holster when he heard a single twig snap. Morris rose up fast, flashed his badge. The dark figure of a man watched.
The wind blew through the trees, and a Whip-poor-will broke into its haunting song. Then the hard blow of a pipe wrecked his brain. He stumbled, turned, and was smacked again harder. His nose burned, blood filled his mouth. He fell to the ground, and reached for his holster but heard the crack of his own skull and felt the pain rush down his arm in a thunderous rage. By now he realized there was more than one dark figure. He tried to tell them he was on official police business, to put his hands in the air, but the words mixed with blood in his throat and gurgled, until he sputtered and closed his eyes. An image of Sylvia filled his mind. He could see her standing, bright and pretty in a white dress with tiny blue birds flying around the hem. The rich, brown of her skin glowed copper in the fading sunlight. She held out her hand to him as she called to their son. But he could not reach her and his eyes drifted to the lightning bugs, hovering and flickering above the lush mid summer grass. He felt a dark stranger pull his gun from the holster, then drag him along the path. Rocks dug into his shoulder blades but he could not move. Some deep, hidden fear in him rose up. Off in the distance he heard the sound of a little girl singing and he begged with all his strength, please find my boy. Tell him I’m coming home.
Lis Anna is a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of many awards including; a five time WorldFest winner, FadeIn, Telluride IndieFest winner, Helene Wurlitzer Grant recipient, Chesterfield Film Project Finalist, New Century Writers winner and a finalist in the prestigious William Faulkner Competition. Her short films, screenplays, and novels have all been nominated and subsequently won awards including Best Novel and Best Short Film. She is the 2011 Readers Choice Award recipient from Fiction Fix and the Second Place 2011 Winner of the Hint Fiction Contest. Her fiction has been published in Word Riot, The Blotter, Petigru Review, Hot Metal Press, The Smoking Poet, Eclectic Flash Literary Journal, Paper Skin Glass Bones, 491 Magazine, Fiction Fix, The Monarch Review, 5×5 Literary Magazine, Red Booth Review, Hint Fiction Anthology, Chamber Four Literary Magazine, Emyrs Journal, Literary Laundry, Barely South Review, Flash Fiction Offensive, Flashquake Literary Journal and The MacGuffin Literary Review. You can learn more about Lis Anna at:
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