by Mark Poe
The emotions swirled in his head, as the tires thumped on Highway 18 leading Tommy home again. It was the same path he had driven many times, but never before for this purpose. His grandfather had visited Ms. Eudora many times and stories had been told to him by his father about her supposed prowess in seeing into the spiritual realm, but this had been his maiden voyage to her home. He wasn’t sure of his belief in such matters, but when a young man is searching for truths of heart, any avenue looks like the right road to explore. As much as he wanted the truth, the fear of knowing ate at him like a cancer. The twenty-five minutes to her house were nothing like the seemingly twenty-five-hour trip back, due to the simple words she had spoken to him.
“She’s gone chile’; she just ain’t left yet.”
Tommy had made the trip to her house on Belt Street in Jonesboro merely grasping at straws. As he pulled his ‘64 Ford pickup to the curb in front of the mint green home with the white metal awning, as he had been instructed, he was overcome with fear from the stories he had heard about this part of town being rough. He was also aware of the fact that the small town of Cypress Creek, Arkansas, where he was from, was bad, in its own right. As was the case in most small towns, they were all bad parts of any of the bigger cities that were close by. Druggies, drunks and hundred-dollar millionaires were an everyday challenge for any person trying to live and raise a family in this day and time. Tommy was none of these. He had been raised on the right side of the church pews, with a strong respect for his fellow man and a sense of family. With what he was currently facing, all of this was being tested and it had brought him here. Tommy opened the door to step into the cold gray sky of a February morning and was frozen through words hurled from the front porch. He noticed the screen door still settling and the sight of three figures had appeared. Two young men, about his age, both way larger than him in height and build, were flanking an old woman that had settled into a rocking chair. The ancient black woman had cotton-like hair and she was very frail. Her eyes stood out among the deeply wrinkled skin of her face and they locked with Tommy’s.
“How you kin to Jim Parker?,” she called out to him.
“He was my grandad, ma’am.”
“I could tell from your spirit you’s his kin. No need for you to come any closer. I can tell you what you are wanting to know from here. Afore I do, I need to know what you plannin’ to do with what I tell you?”
“Well if’n it’s good news, you gonna go home happy. If’n it’s bad news is what I’m interested in knowin’.”
“To tell the truth, I really haven’t given it much thought. I guess either way I’ll go back home and deal with it.”
“Uh-huh. I’ll tell you what you want, as long as you promise to come back tomorrow and bring me a mess of them good catfish that your Grandaddy used to bring. It’ll have to be a good mess. My two grandbabies here love to eat,” she said, looking up at the two men. They hadn’t cracked a smile or taken their eyes off Tommy since he had stepped out.
“Not a problem, ma’am. Be glad to do it.”
Ms. Eudora’s eyes locked on him and there was a definite change in her countenance. The look was digging into his soul and he felt a different chill creeping up his spine. She stared for a moment and then nodded to the boys on either side. They each grabbed an arm and helped her to her feet and stood until she was steady.
“She’s gone chile’, she just ain’t left yet.” And with that statement, she turned and disappeared back into her home. The last grandson latched the door and shut the interior door without another word spoken. Tommy felt a release from her, dropped his head and crawled back in the truck.
His marriage was only starting its third year and he had heard the rumors in town. Small town gossip was easy to deal with because no one held back from what they heard. There was always someone wanting to get a reaction from whoever was feeding the mill with today’s stories. It was any time a gathering of people instantly stopped talking when you walked up, then you should worry. Silence among friends was the smoking gun in these types of situations. Tommy had felt the gaze of these groups for weeks, but figured he was being paranoid. After all, the gazes had started shortly after he and Tammy had their first big fight of their relationship. He had worked late on a Wednesday and went straight to church. Tammy was to meet him there, but she never showed. After services, he went home to an empty house. She came home an hour later, mad at the world. Before he could question her well-being or where she had been, she started in about her car breaking down and having to have a stranger help get it running. If he had been taking care of servicing it, she wouldn’t have had to go through the humiliation of being stranded. He questioned her about why she didn’t call him and was met with the fact that her cheap phone wouldn’t hold a charge anymore and she couldn’t charge it at all with a dead car battery. It was obvious to him that, in her mind, everything was his fault. All he managed to come back with was a statement about him just being worried that she was hurt. Trying to ease the tension, he mentioned that, for all he knew, she had run off with someone else. The cute smile he flashed her was met with a rage, and she stomped to the back and slammed the bedroom door. It would be his first night to sleep alone since their wedding night.
The truck cab was the loneliest place on earth, at the moment. It was just Tommy, the hum of the heater, and the millions of questions about what to do now. Was it his skepticism about Ms. Eudora’s ability causing the doubt or was it his inner feelings of facing the embarrassment if it were true? The pain of betrayal was present, regardless. He wished he could go home and sleep it away and awaken to a renewal of the vows. If he had only gotten up and gone to work, like any other Friday, he wouldn’t be facing this moral war. Who was he kidding? This wasn’t going to be one of those issues that pop up in everyone’s life that you can just ignore and hope it gets better in time. It was time to take this boiling water off the stove, once and for all. He knew his wife would be leaving the library early on Fridays. He would stop in and pick her up for an innocent country drive. Time to go to the source.
Tammy was surprised but seemed happy to see Tommy walk in the door of the library.
“Hey, honey. What a surprise. You didn’t go to work today or just left early?”
“Something came up that I had to do. Thought we might go for a drive. You up for a little country road ridin’?”
“Always. Let me get my things together and I’ll meet you at the truck.”
Tommy sat in the truck and watched her through the window with phone in hand. Was it a work call or was she canceling earlier plans that he had unexpectedly fouled up for her? He was curious as to the voice on the other end. He watched her hang up the phone and head towards the door. As soon as she stepped out towards the truck, that same smile that had melted him years before was back and it created an embarrassment in his mind of the upcoming conversation. It was a false sense of hope that Ms. Eudora was wrong. Careful, he thought to himself. If he let himself be pulled in, he would take a lie as the truth, just to save face. Tommy felt the chill when Tammy opened the door to get in. He hoped it was from the cold weather and not from her. He pulled the truck onto the highway and headed to the levee road leading south of town.
Tommy drove the levee road slowly to soften the potholes and washboard spots. Each focused their gaze out their own window. They came to a spot on the levee where the river ran closest. The water looked a cold blue through the deadness of the timber. A small bunch of ducks, Mallards, were floating just above the treetops, looking for a promising hole in the bottoms to rest. He stopped the truck and put it in neutral. For the first time on the ride, they looked at each other. The humming of the heater was the only sound, other than the rapidly beating heart in Tommy’s chest.
“Are you cheating on me?”
Tammy’s mouth opened to speak, but before a word could escape, she saw his eyes. They were full of hurt, as if he already knew the truth. She closed her mouth and dropped her head in shame. As the first tear rolled down her cheek, Tommy had his answer.
“It was only once,” she was able to say softly through her tears.
“Tommy, please, trust me on this, it was only the one time, and if I tell you who, it will make matters worse.”
“I’m a little short on trust and I’m fairly sure it can’t get worse. Who was it?”
“Scotty Pendleton,” she answered reluctantly, still staring at the floorboard.
“My God! We’re in Sunday school class together! I’ve known him since we were kids, played ball together through high school! I always thought of him as my friend,” he said, with a chuckle, to hide the anger that was building. “But, then again, I always thought of you as someone I could trust. Guess I was wrong on both accounts.”
“Tommy, please promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” Tammy begged.
“You and Scotty did the stupid thing. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so that leaves me to make it right, and I will. I’ll drop you off at home. Up to you where you go after that. I got some things I got to take care of.”
With that, Tommy dropped the shifter into first gear and headed off into the grayness of the day that had now infiltrated the cab of the truck. The distance between them had outgrown the bench seat of the truck.
In less than an hour, Tommy had packed the 10 lbs. of river fish fillets in a cooler and was headed back to Jonesboro. Tomorrow seemed a week away and he hoped Ms. Eudora wouldn’t mind him showing up twice on the same day. He parked the truck in front of the house, climbed out, and grabbed the cooler from the back. Ms. Eudora’s voice called to him before he turned.
“Guess you got the truth quicker than I thought you would. Should a known, though. Your granddad wasn’t one to let things rest. Bring them fish inside and I’ll get the boys to heatin’ the grease. You can peel the taters while we talk.”
The interior of the home was as immaculate as the exterior. Linoleum, from the front door all the way through the kitchen, clean as if freshly laid. A cross hung on the wall above a chair with a hand-crocheted afghan across the back. A footstool tucked tight against the front, with a small side table and lamp. An age-worn Bible on the side table. Everything in the house had a place and it was where it was meant to be. The front room and the kitchen were all one room. One of the boys met Tommy at the door.
“Shoes,” he said, and pointed at the front door, while taking the cooler from his hands. “Granny don’t allow ‘em on inside.”
Tommy slid the boots off and placed them neatly beside the other three pairs.
Ms. Eudora was busying herself in the kitchen. Tommy walked in and she handed him a bowl of red potatoes and a paring knife. He could see the back door open and hear the rush of the gas burner under the fish cooker.
“Jerron is just the handler. He’ll batter ‘em good, but Marcus is the cook. He’ll put a scald on ‘em to a fare-thee-well. Now, I ask again. Whatcha gonna do, now that you know?”
“I know what I’d like to do, but then again, I don’t have a clue what I’m really gonna do.”
“Well, that’s a good start. You think you know what would be best, but sometimes the best reaction is no reaction. Take it from an old woman with many years under her hair, you ain’t the first man ever been cheated on and you won’t be the last today. Most probably don’t even know. Same goes for womens, too. People act on what drives they heart.”
“She said it only happened once.”
“Does the number matter to you? Number of times she out ruttin’ around with another doesn’t matter. You can only peel an apple once’t, afore it starts turnin’ brown and ugly.”
“Yes ma’am, you’re right.”
“You need to focus on one thing. What you gonna do now. Yeah, you could go beat up the guy or worse, but then you have to carry that stain on your soul from now on. Ain’t no peace in that and that ain’t no livin’. Could forgive her and take her back, but then, can you live with the knowin’? Sometimes, livin’ with the knowin’ is worse. Leaves a void that fills with questions over ever time she’s late.”
“You got abilities, Ms. Eudora. Can you give me an idea of what to do?”
“No chile. Good Lord gave me the ability to read people and see the truth that already happened, not in tellin’ the future. Tellin’ the future is from the Devil and I want no part of that. Only the good Lord above can lead in that way. Might want to take that up with him.”
Ms. Eudora took the freshly peeled and cut potatoes and handed them through the door to Jerron.
“Ms. Eudora? How did you get so wise?”
“Many years chile, many years. Ain’t been much in the way of sufferin’ through the bad side of folks I ain’t seed. Good and bad in all people, like I said, it’s what drives they heart that you see.”
“No offense, Ms. Eudora, but granddad always described you as an old woman, and that was years ago. You don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”
Before she could answer, the back door opened and Jerron walked in with a silver pan full of fresh golden fried catfish. The smell beat the pan to the table. Marcus was close behind, carrying a paper towel-lined bowl full of fried potatoes.
“Lord above, I couldn’t tell you. I ain’t got no idea my age. I know I’m too old for living, but not old enough for dying. Now, let’s get in them vittles.”
After everyone had leaned back from the table and was rubbing their stomachs, the table was cleared, the dishes were washed and put away, and they all made their way into the living room.
“Marcus,” Tommy started. “Your granny was right. Those were some of the best fish I ever had the pleasure of eating. My stomach thanks you as much as I do.”
“You welcome Tommy.” Tommy spoke. “Granny been knowing your family for many years and she always said you was good folk. You welcome to come eat with us anytime you want.”
“Tommy, you know why I asked you to bring them fish? ‘Cause you just like your granddad in spirit. I knowed you wouldn’t do nothing stupid until you brought me fish. You always put yourself last when a promise has been made. Plus, I was hopin’ I could talk you out of doing something that would vex you forever. Just remember, Tommy, you cain’t run away from somethin’. You have to run to somethin’. If’n you try to run away from somethin’, that means you still carryin’ the memory of it and you lettin’ it steal your joy. You run to somethin’, means you let it go and that’s livin’ on your own terms. Now, you need to get on about your doins’. You got plenty. I’ll be a prayin’ for you.”
Jerron went to the back and came back carrying Tommy’s cooler. He took the hint. It wasn’t a subtle one. Tommy slid his boots on and bid his new friends a farewell, with a promise to come back with a full cooler.
Yet again, the drive home was tormenting. The darkness of winter had fallen, and the headlights bounced ahead of him and his thoughts. And then he took the one piece of advice that Ms. Eudora had planted in his head that took him back to a safer and calmer point in his life. He prayed, earnestly and fervently, for direction, until the lights of his hometown glowed in the distance. His fried fish was needing another drink, so he pulled into the bright-lit parking lot of the local Quik Mart. A group of men resting on an open tailgate turned quickly at the sight of his pickup, just as they had been doing recently. In the middle of the group stood Scotty. Tommy stopped and hand-spooled the window down. At the sight of the pistol, the others scattered to a safe distance. Scotty stood still. Tommy’s eyes locked with Scotty’s, across the open sights. The anger in his hands was gripping the pistol with a white-knuckle force. His finger was shaking as it rested on the trigger. And then, from the far corner of his mind came the voice of Ms. Eudora. “You can only peel an apple once.” Scotty held both hands open, with palms up, as if asking for mercy. Tommy took a deep breath, laid the pistol back in the seat and drove off, granting the mercy that was asked.
The encounter shook the cobwebs free from Tommy’s mind. He pulled into the empty driveway of his house with a definite plan. The note on the table read that Tammy had gone to her parent’s house. She thought it best for the night and that she couldn’t find enough words to say she was sorry for what she had done. There were promises about it never happening again and that she loved him way more than even she knew at the time. She ended with the hope that they could talk tomorrow. He had had enough tomorrows for one day and his mind was set. His act of control was the catalyst to his prayers for calm in his spirit and the time was now to run to something. He loaded his clothes and personal belongings in his truck. The note he left on the table was a simple one, not unlike the simple phrase from Ms. Eudora that had started the day, “the apple has been peeled.”
Tommy drove through the night in peace. He had no idea where he was headed but knew he would know once he got there. In his mind, he sang the words from every hymn he could remember from the old brown Cokesbury hymnal of his childhood. It gave him comfort and made the miles pass easily by. He noticed a green marker sign in the beam of headlights that gave him a chill and he knew, from that sign, his new home was only 25 miles away. First light of morning found him sitting in his pickup on the side of the road, beside the wooden painted sign that read “Welcome to Eudora, Arkansas.” He wondered about it being a sign from above. He wondered if he could find a place to live. He wondered about a job. He knew the answer to all was a resounding “Yes!” The Lord brought him here, and he would provide. The only wonderment that was left unanswered was if the outcome from the night before would have been different if the gun had been loaded. It didn’t matter now. He was home.