Jack Butler

(a novel in progress)  

(Michael Patterson)

patterson7.jpg (126984 bytes)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.

May 16, 1963
She 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.
She 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.
I 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.
I 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.
That 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.
But its the Lord made us crazy for women in the first place.
Maybe 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 anyway    
Once 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.
I 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.
So 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.
But Lord-a-mercy, that squalling sound..
It 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.
That 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.
You 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.
Along 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.
His 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.
I 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.
I 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.
A course they do, she said.  They just as alive as you or me.
Thats Joaquina Jezebel Jones.
May 21, 1963

She 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 rabbits.
If 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.
Anyway 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.
There 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 catfish.
She witnessed it when she was a girl.
There 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 there still.
When 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.
Easy to see where Joaquina gets it.
That 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 says.
Which 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.
That 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.
I 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 little while.
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.
Joaquinas 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.
We 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.
She 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.
Or 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.
It was like a rose floating on a sea of chocolate milk.
When 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.
Or your children.  He said Look what happen to Lot.
He said it was the one thing God give us made the rest of it worthwhile.
So 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.
Nothing 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.
I 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.
She said, That's real sweet, Elijah.  And out down back in here maybe aint nobody care enough to make us no trouble.
One a these days Im on tell you about trouble.
I 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.
Momma 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 said.
Daddy 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 argued.
That old Studebaker looked just like a Flash Gordon spaceship.
They 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.
I 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.
Of 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.
And 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.

May 22, 1963

Theres 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.
I 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.
Its 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.
Then 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.
I learnt some English too but not enough.
 School 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.
I mean whats holding em up?
Quote marks is twice as bad.
But 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.
May 23, 1963

You cant see trouble coming.
If you could it wouldnt be trouble.
You 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.
That boy aint expecting no trouble.
That 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.
And 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.
So 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 more sympathetic.
The Cadillac pulls to a stop.  Backs up.  It has maroon leather seats.
Yonder 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.
I 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.
Follow 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 else.
And 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.
Becky 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.
Now 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.

He says this ought to take care of your cleaning.
I dont work for you, the boy says.  And I got nothing up for sale.
Cadillac 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.
Well really old fellow he says.  Your such a Lil Abner.
The 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.
I always end with the comics, right before I drop off to sleep.
Theres a difference I said.  Lil Abners a real nice fellow.
And Im sure you are too, he said.  Really old man it was completely inadvertent.  I mean, I've offered to pay your cleaning.
Clean up your manners first I said.
He 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.
I looked up inadvertent but I never did locate snopesy.
He pulled a silver flask out of his hip pocket and unscrewed the top and took a swallow. 
That boy had more equipment than a doctor.
Well all your going to gets the money he said.
I sloshed through the puddle over to where Cadillac Boy was standing.  Then gimme a swallow that liquor I said.
He laughed out loud.  We were really doing some living now.
He 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.
I held the flask and walked around to the front of Caddy.  You could have watered cattle out of that hood if you turned it upside down.
Reckon how much this car cost?
Cadillac Boy said five thousand.
These overhauls Im wearing.  How much you reckon a person could get for em?  I mean if they wasnt muddy, if they was cleaned up?
He says I don't know.  Dollar?  Dollar and a half?
So 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.
Considering what a dollar means to both of us, I say, I believe you're still ahead.
He 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.
I don't know but one way to fight, I say.
Well you try yours and I'll try mine he says.
He 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.
In 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.
I 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.
I realize the turtle means to box me.
I get up slow and take a deep breath and shake my thoughts loose.
Hes 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 nails them.
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.
So 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.
His 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 eyes.
He 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 breakdown.
We 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.
We can quit now I said.  Its been fun but we can quit.
He 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?
The 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 whistle.
The stone in his college ring was maroon.
We 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 uncle.
Lead on MacDuff, he said.  And cursed be he who first cries hold enough.  Thats Shakespeare but he didnt know I known it.
He 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 went down.
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 said.
Now 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.
I 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 [1]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 Kreegah, Kreegah.
He 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?
Tell Mother, he said.  Tell Mother Im sorry
He 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.
You 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.
I dont usually cuss.  But that one time I did.
God damn it I said.  I told you I didnt know but one way to fight.