THE TESTIMONY OF ELIJAH LEE ROSWELL
(a novel in progress)
Elijah Lee is a Mississippi
sharecropper's son turned bank robber in the early 1950's.
At the age of 29, he's recollecting his past in a series of
handwritten notebooks. This
excerpt deals primarily with a woman he thinks of as the lost love of
his life, from a time when he was 16 years old.
went by Jackie in her family, but I like to call her whole name.
You say it like this: WAH-keena.
Which is the prettiest sound I ever heard.
claimed to have some mestizo, and maybe so.
Her eyes were like amber without any bugs in it.
Also her big eagle nose and her cheekbones. She looked more like Sitting Bull than Pocahontas.
But cute. Real cute.
asked Mr. Gandy about it and he said no low see-in-tow which means he
dont know but then its Spanish and he was a joker.
would go over every night after supper.
We had supper right after our baths because Momma wasn't going to
have a dirty man at the supper table.
Only if there was extra plowing before the rain settled in or
fixing a busted fence so the mule and pigs wouldnt get out, she would
bring us out a bunch of sandwiches or fried chicken legs and we would
keep right on going.
food would go down like cottenseed in the hopper and then I would skip
on out to Joaquinas. It
hurt Momma's feelings, her cooking all afternoon and then I would be out
the door without a Goodbye or Thank You.
its the Lord made us crazy for women in the first place.
it would be an hour after the sun was gone but the sky would still be
light in the west with that kind of thin trembly green like somebody
thrown a silk scarf over a table-lamp.
The crickets would be going at it like fiddlers at the
Resurrection Dance, and the bullfrogs would be singing like a bunch of
baritone millionaires and the lightning bugs would be switching on and
off and I was too happy to notice the mosquitoes and had a leather hide
I was running down that path to Joaquinas and there come the worst
squealing sound I have heard till yet and ever.
Unless it was Hurricane Bonnie when she run the car off the road
and burned herself up.
always carried a flashlight because you didn't want to step on a
moccasin. I would save on
the batteries by just switching it on and running the light up ahead of
me a ways and then switching it back off.
this time I stopped in my tracks and switched that light on and I went
slogging through the weeds and johnson grass and briars and cattails on
the edge of the slough. I
was scared not just because of the moccasins but because you might plant
on a sharp stob in the mud or break your ankle in some washed-out
crawdad hole or tear a foot on an old piece of bob wire.
Lord-a-mercy, that squalling sound..
was a cottonmouth with a bullfrog.
He didnt run away when I shined my light, just stayed there
swallowing. Snake cant do
but one thing at a time.
frog was about halfway down and pushing with his front feet like Santa
trying to get out of the chimney. His
mouth was wide open and that was where the sound was coming from.
woulda had to kill the snake. Which
I wasnt going to do because this was a natural thing.
But I wasnt going to run away either.
Sometimes all you can do is just witness while that bullfrog
slides on down.
about the time the snake worked up to his shoulders, the bullfrog got
used to the situation. He
shut up and closed his mouth and blinked twice and opened his mouth and
blinked again and went to sleep.
front feet was the last thing to go down, waving out of that shut-up
snake-mouth like a couple of little tiny fern-leaves.
went on along to Joaquinas, but I wasnt my usual self.
It didnt seem important enough to mention but I couldnt get my
mind off it.
have thought about Joaquina for two days so I could get her across to
you. She thought I was mad
because I wasnt talking, see. Finally
I had to let down and explain. Did
you know frogs have feelings.
course they do, she said. They
just as alive as you or me.
Joaquina Jezebel Jones.
was twenty-three with a couple of babies, Jemmerson and A. L. Gandy
Jones. Her aunts and uncles
children run around all together with hers in and out of the houses and
you lost track of which was nephews and nieces and which was littlest
sisters and brothers and cousins. But
they was all beautiful children, just as alive and happy as a tribe of
you went to her house along deercamp road it was a little bit under
three miles and you still had a half mile of river path.
But that road gravel would hurt your feet and shoe leathers
expensive, I saved mine for work.
I liked my feet being free and my toes in the cool dust.
But you cant rob banks barefoot.
You wouldnt get no respect at all.
I remember looking at my Daddy relaxing on the porch and
wondering why he wasnt barefoot. I
see now, one way and another a man winds up wearing shoes.
was a dirt path out our northwest corner down by the slough and through
a patch of woods and up over the levee and then down through another
patch of woods where the dock and the deercamp was and on down along the
river where Joaquina and her Uncle A. L. and and her Aunt Bertha Mae and
fifteen or sixteen brothers and sisters and kids and what-all lived in
three little shotguns on a backwater.
A. L. and Bertha Mae lived in one and Joaquina and her aunt and
kids lived in another one, but they was all back and forth all the time.
Joaquina lived with her aunt because her mother Ethyl died on a
witnessed it when she was a girl.
was this Big Daddy lurking around in the swampholes on the edge of the
river. Couple people hooked
him ever year but couldn't hold on.
He was supposed to weigh a hundred and twenty if he weighed an
ounce. They said he been there forty years and for all I know hes
Ethyl hooked Big Daddy she was bound and determined to bring him in.
She said she was gonna fry up a chunk of him for ever worthless
man ever sweettalked her and left her with no rent and no grocery and
another baby on the way. She
said there might be enough to go around.
to see where Joaquina gets it.
cat probably didnt even notice he had a big old steel hook in his mouth.
Just swum off and jerked Mrs. Jones under the water.
She give Joaquina a great big smile, braced and leaning back
against the pole and it bent over like a pulled bow and the line
singing. Now I got him, she
is ironic because the Joneses and the Gandys lived on catfish much as
anything. That and pokeweed
sallet. Which is pretty
good if you boil it four times and throw away the water and put some
butter and salt and pepper and tabasco sauce and chopped boiled egg and
onion on it.
path wasnt a inch off a mile and a half.
I would run it coming and going and time myself counting
elephants. Once I ran the
whole way there in 359 elephants. Hardly
never beat 500 coming back.
would get there and A. L. would look at me with them green eyes of his
and where yall off to and we just going for a walk, Uncle A. L.
Well yall behave and don't be gone long but you could tell he was
probably glad to get one more body out from underfoot even just for a
L. seem like the easy-goingest fellow you ever met but when he did put
them green eyes on you it was like you were being took apart and put
back together and you seen he wanted things for his family and he was
deciding whether you were useful or completely worthless.
Him and his baby boy, both with them same green eyes.
Either one of em pale enough to pass for white but Bertha Mae
blacker than a coal mine at midnight.
Its a funny thing what comes down in the blood, how it halves
itself out. I wish me and
Joaquina had pups. I would
have like to have seen the ways it would have went.
Daddy either died or left a long time ago.
Mr. Gandy looked out for her though she wasnt blood kin just a
niece by marriage.
had us a place up in the sycamores on a rise overlooking the river and
Mr. Gandy watched us sharp but never said nothing about why was she
carrying that old wool blanket out of the house on such a warm night.
Their mules kept the grass short and the ground churned up so no
chiggers and the blanket was softer than my mattress at home once you
detailed the sycamore balls.
would spread the blanket and drop off her dress and stand there shining
like a carved statue with maybe a masquerade mask where the moonlight
shadows of the sycamore leaves was making black feathers that moved
around on her face in the wind and she would say Elijah Lee Roswell you
get that baby-maker out and stick it in me right now.
maybe it was summertime and the sky still light and her laying there
dark and shiny with sweat, like she was made out of oiled mahogany wood. She had the finest old woman-place you ever saw, like a shiny
wet rose. That high smell
come on up in my nose and got me crazy and I would commence to nibbling
and kissing till she sang out loud.
Or I would just lay there and look.
was like a rose floating on a sea of chocolate milk.
I was eleven my Daddy seen me out in the barn with my pants down and the
dogs licking. He chased em
off and sat me down on a bale. He
said there was a better way than bacon grease.
He said women had a place that was the best feeling thing in the
whole universe but a lot of women kept it to themself but some of them
didnt because it felt just as good to them as it did to you and maybe
even better. He said you could get right envious of a woman.
He said he was getting off the track and what he meant to say was
the whole trick of living was to find that kind of a woman and if you
did you had everything and there wasnt no rules no more except you
couldnt do it with your mother or sister.
your children. He said Look
what happen to Lot.
said it was the one thing God give us made the rest of it worthwhile.
I went into a search and Joaquina was the only woman anywhere nearabouts
who was old enough but wasnt took but I couldnt have done no better with
a jet plane and flown all over the world looking.
But she wouldnt have me for the first three years because I was
too young and I was on pins and needles the whole time because I was
afraid she would come up with somebody else.
We have spent a lot of time waiting on each other.
in my life I wanted more than marrying her and carrying her back to my
eighty to raise a bunch of pups and eventually the two of us buried
together in the little graveyard with the iron fence and the all-year
green grass out in the middle of the south cottonfield where my Daddy
already lay a waiting.
told Joaquina and she kissed me. We
were laying there sweating and cooling off and singing two-part on
Farther Along and she had fetched some persimmon beer from fall the year
before that Mr. Gandy didn't want because you should only drink it in
the winter right after it was made.
said, That's real sweet, Elijah. And
out down back in here maybe aint nobody care enough to make us no
a these days Im on tell you about trouble.
would have married that girl in a flash but I was waiting to turn 18 so
I could get a full driver license and borrow a car and take us somewhere
up north where we could find an honest preacher and no questions.
Brother Goosehawk would have done it but Momma said Elijah Lee,
when my Earthly trials are over I want to be able to tell your Daddy a
white preacher done the job.
took back to the church after Daddy went.
He said drink and churchgoing was the same thing, both of em
would give you a headache and leave you crying in the early morning
hours and if he was gonna give up drink for her she was going to have
leave off Sunday Meeting for him. He
was laid in the ground Saturday and Sunday Momma was in church and she
never missed a service since. Brother
Jack would come by in that black Studebaker.
He felt the call of the Lord and would pick her and Joey up for
Sunday School or Training Union or Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night or
Revival in the summer. That
car would already have six or seven people in it and a couple of the
boys would get out and ride on the fenders.
Momma wouldnt let Joey ride on the fender no matter how much he
old Studebaker looked just like a Flash Gordon spaceship.
should have never took that land. They
should have let my Momma be buried there too.
Their selling petroleum over his bones every day and hes lying
out there singing for Momma and she wont never come.
wouldnt be surprised if the bones of my Daddy didnt haunt the whole
state of Mississippi till they break up that gas station and plant the
grass and flowers back and let her come back home and lie down with him.
all sad words of tongue or pen the saddest is these, what might have
been. I know that one. But still all I feel like doing is setting around in the
sunshine on the portale and listening to the wind in the pine trees and
imagining me and Joaquina living here together and after a while shell
come out with a glass of iced tea and lean against my shoulder without
saying nothing and run her hand through my hair and well just set there
watching the magpies and the shadows shifting on the pine straw and the
jackrabbits nibbling on the leaves of the aspen saplings and maybe a
mule deer come up out of the underbrush and everything taking its own
sweet time but happening just when it ought to.
every grass blade thats ticking over in the sunlight is moving to
invisible rhythms and theres an air of coolness rising from under the
trees like the ice tea coming over its cubes into your dried-out mouth,
and me and Joaquina just leaning back and taking our ease in the middle
of it all.
people wont take no account of a thing because of how its wrote.
No matter how much truth its got in it.
I cant do nothing for those people.
learned some better in school but come to try it out and by the time you
get what your trying to say stretched out across the rules it takes too
long. So now I just write
it down the way it comes out of my mouth.
true I quit after the tenth grade but they moved me up to it when I was
thirteen. I learnt my
tables and the fractions and a little bit of Algebra.
I was proud of fractions because at first I didnt get it because
you multiplied em and they got littler and I thought multiplication
always made things bigger.
one day I was sitting at my desk and it come clear it was like which end
of the funnel was you looking at? It
was just like a light went on in my brain.
I would have took Geometry the next year which I was looking
forward to because you could build things with it.
I had some History and Current Events and Geography which I liked
the most and they give me Chemistry and I had me one year of Latin which
helps with developing your vocabulary.
learnt some English too but not enough.
wasnt too bad except for setting around inside all day.
And punctuation especially apostrophes.
I give up on apostrophes. Why
would you put something in just to show you left something out? Besides they make me nervous hovering around up there like
gnats without any wings.
mean whats holding em up?
marks is twice as bad.
I liked school in spite of apostrophes.
So all you little children out there, you stay in school and make
a good living and dont turn out to be a bank robber and a criminal. Its only that after Daddy died there wasnt no way I could.
And anyhow it didnt seem to matter so much no more.
cant see trouble coming.
you could it wouldnt be trouble.
take a young boy just a few days shy of his sixteenth birthday in early
May in the middle afternoon just a little bit over exactly twelve years
ago now, and hes heading over to his girl friends house and he knows
shes gonna be glad to see him and the breeze is shaking the buttercups
along the edge of the ditches and the dewberries and wild roses are
blooming and you can smell honeysuckle everywhere you go and the crows
are swapping lies in the tree tops.
boy aint expecting no trouble.
boy is just loping along looking forward to things but in an easy way
instead of a hungry way for once and for once there aint no work to do
and it rained last night and the ground is steamy and puddles everywhere
like somebody scattered busted mirrors and hes loping along up to where
the path crosses deercamp road and he hears a motor and he wades around
while he waits to see which one of the Butler boys it is and why dont he
recognize the engine.
a white Cadillac with the top down comes raring up instead of a truck.
Them town people think your just a country puddle-stomper anyway
so you step back out of the water.
But the driver is close enough to see now and he gives the wheel
of the Caddy a little twitch and the Caddy swoops over and plows right
through the middle of that puddle.
the boys standing there soaking wet trying to scrape mud out of his eyes
but his hands are muddy too but he aint mad yet.
I mean hes tossed a rock to make his own dog in the woods jump at
somethings under the leaves. He
put paper on the cats hind legs once with a rubber band to make him
dance and it was funny till his Daddy took a strap and give him to be
Cadillac pulls to a stop. Backs
up. It has maroon leather
a darkheaded fellow in flannel pants and a jacket and a white shirt gets
out. Its Thursday and hes
wearing a jacket and a white shirt.
He pulls a cigarette out of a gold case thats also a lighter and
fires up. Sucks a big
breath of tobacco in. Cocks
an eye. Blows two smokes out of his nose.
say old boy, he says. Is
this the way to the Butler deercamp?
The boy dont answer. The
fellow gives a wink. Fraternity
party, he says.
this road on up onto the levee and run with the levee a while, the boy
says. Then it goes down on
in. It dont go nowhere
if the fellow would just get back in the Caddy and drive off and thatll
be all she wrote. But no
hes got to stand there grinning like the teachers at school when your
pants split open on the playground.
Water said I can see your underwear.
I was in fifth grade. That
was when I first started noticing it.
Her not even touching me, just saying I see your underwear.
I wanted her to say underwear again.
the Cadillac boy takes out a long flat wallet and riffles through it and
pulls out a hundred-dollar bill. He
folds the bill in half lengthwise like a fellow making a one-handed
cigarette and holds it out.
says this ought to take care of your cleaning.
dont work for you, the boy says. And
I got nothing up for sale.
Boy puts his fists on his hips with his elbows cocked and looks down at
the ground and shakes his head helpless like what am I gonna do with
this guy but still grinning. Im
glad you think its funny the boy says.
really old fellow he says. Your
such a Lil Abner.
Butlers would save a weeks papers and drop em off after church ever
Sunday. I read Mondays on
Monday and Tuesdays on Tuesday so there was about a weeks difference
between me and the world.
always end with the comics, right before I drop off to sleep.
a difference I said. Lil
Abners a real nice fellow.
Im sure you are too, he said. Really
old man it was completely inadvertent.
I mean, I've offered to pay your cleaning.
up your manners first I said.
worked his jaw at that but then he grinned again. He had a skinny handsome face like Henry Fonda or Frank
Sinatra. Well well
well he said. Yes, folks, there it is.
Its a mean little campfire, its a common little blaze, choked and
pitchy and banked against discovery, but you cant stamp it out.
There it is, in death or diggable, the smokey flickering of
snopesy and pride.
looked up inadvertent but I never did locate snopesy.
pulled a silver flask out of his hip pocket and unscrewed the top and
took a swallow.
boy had more equipment than a doctor.
all your going to gets the money he said.
sloshed through the puddle over to where Cadillac Boy was standing.
Then gimme a swallow that liquor I said.
laughed out loud. We were
really doing some living now.
handed the flask over and I took a long pull like a burning rope being
pulled up out of my throat and chest and it made me tear up some but I
held it. My Momma thought
whiskey killed her Daddy though it was a pistol shot that actually done
it though he was holding on to a bottle of bourbon at the time.
So I never done no drinking before but I seen right away it could
be a great consolation in times of loss and trial.
held the flask and walked around to the front of Caddy.
You could have watered cattle out of that hood if you turned it
how much this car cost?
Boy said five thousand.
overhauls Im wearing. How
much you reckon a person could get for em?
I mean if they wasnt muddy, if they was cleaned up?
says I don't know. Dollar?
Dollar and a half?
I busted out his right headlight with the flask.
Then I busted out the left one.
Then I drawed the flask back and pounded a good dent in the long
smooth hood of that Cadillac Car and flipped the flask over his way and
he caught it with his mouth dropped open like Charlie McCarthy.
what a dollar means to both of us, I say, I believe you're still ahead.
lights up like Jesus coming. Skins
out of his jacket and starts rolling up his sleeves.
Comes around the car grinning like a fool and I skip back but he
keeps coming so I skip on back out of the road onto the other side where
Im standing on grass instead of gravel just in case.
don't know but one way to fight, I say.
you try yours and I'll try mine he says.
puts his arms up in front of him like a turtle in a shell and then the
turtle come sliding toward me like it was on rollers and then the turtle
lashes out a fist and pops my head back a good three inches.
the cowboy movies they slug each other bare knuckle for ten minutes and
then everybody gets up and goes on their way.
Dont you believe it. I
drop like a football suit when the hook on the wall gives way.
curl and cover but nobodys kicking me, head or ribs.
I peek out and the turtle is bobbing and weaving, fighting the
air while he waits.
realize the turtle means to box me.
get up slow and take a deep breath and shake my thoughts loose.
a welterweight and a couple inches shorter but tough as two day old gum
and has experience. I let
him pepper away at my muscles and shoulders and such.
After a while that will make your arms heavy as a kroker sack
full of bricks and probably most people let their guard drop and he
stings my ribs and belly too but I must have bent over and straightened
up about a million times a day. I
liked to wrap my legs in the rope over the creek and swing out upside
down and pump the rope to go higher by doing curl ups.
I would do that an hour at a time sometimes.
he was working away but not really getting nowhere but wearing a great
big happy smile like a hang tongue dog on the seat of the pick up when
your going hunting and he knows it because of the shell jacket.
head was ducking around behind his hands so you couldnt get to it like
somebody in a shootout staying behind the furniture but running from
window to window and taking a shot at you and his eyes was tracking my
kept his feet moving so you couldnt knock him over, like he run on ball
bearings and had a gyro balance. He
only planted when he punched. The
dancing would go into a rhythm and you would get sucked along into the
rhythm and he would change it on you and throw a hook into your
went on a good twenty minutes and I was beginning to feel all loose and
oiled up and happy and his shoulders dropped and I quivered my left and
it drew his right but slow and I shot my right and he blocked left but
slow and lagging behinder on every punch so I come back right again left
again right again and caught him upside his temple and laid him down.
can quit now I said. Its
been fun but we can quit.
climbed to his feet. He
snorted. He did a little
dance with his hands down. He
waggled his head side to side. Is
that the best you got?
sweat was pouring down and my overhauls was dragging like chainmail
trousers and his white shirt was sticking to his skinny chest with pink
skin showing through and the top of his gray flannels soaked black.
He had big bronzy eyes like a tiger cats which got all mixed up
with the sun because of the way we was spinning and boxing. It was like there was three suns and the sky was everywhere
but I could a seen a lady bug on a four leaf clover away off in Kansas.
His fingernails on his left hand was dirty where he caught
himself when he fell but the fingers on the right was clean as a wax
stone in his college ring was maroon.
was both breathing hard, but his was raggeder.
In a little while he would be too tired to keep his arms all the
way up. I give him a flurry
just for fun, just to let him know what was coming if he didnt cry
on MacDuff, he said. And
cursed be he who first cries hold enough.
Thats Shakespeare but he didnt know I known it.
laid back a couple of minutes like he was already wilting and I figured
he was just drawing me into an ambush but I went with it anyway and when
I come in he busted loose with about twenty punches real fast, bammity-bam-bam-bam.
But I bounced em like hammers off a Sherman tank and toward the
tag end he opened wider and wider and I hooked him in the gut and froze
him and give him a left and right on opposite sides of the head and he
got back up like Deacon Niland climbing a ladder to clean the church
windows. He was bleeding
from the mouth and blowing like a run out filly but he was grinning
bigger than ever. Play on
he dropped into another kind of stance I never seen before, like a cat
with his head rared back and his ears laid flat, flicking out that paw.
He come at me with a couple of punches I blocked but they were
just decoys for him hooking my leg and thumping me onto my back.
I bounced over frontwards but he did a whirl around and popped a
kick upside my crown that pitched me over into a black nowheres with a
red rip across it like a earthquake split the ground.
scramble like a bug trying to come right side up and he whupped a kick
and caught my chest and knocked me over and I rolled and come up and he
kicked but I whapped that leg to one side and busted
him in the middle six times quick like a tree shaking under the ax and I
socked him in the head and said timber and he went on down. I felt like Tarzan when
he puts his foot on the dead lion and beats on his chest and goes
jumped up breathing like a rip in the bellows and his eyes running all
over my face like he just woke up and didn't know who I was but maybe he
was in the hospital and I was the doctor and what on earth was wrong?
Mother, he said. Tell
Mother Im sorry
went running off sideways with one arm hanging and bouncing and opened
the door with the other and slid into the Caddy and pulled the door shut
behind him and turned the radio on and laid his head back and let out a
laughing whoop and holler that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
better wait a while before you drive that I said.
I walked over. His
eyes was wide open and looking up but he wasnt listening to me. He wasnt listening to Blues Boy King neither.
He wasnt listening to nobody.
dont usually cuss. But that
one time I did.
damn it I said. I told you
I didnt know but one way to fight.