Little River County, Arkansas – July 1988
The weatherman had mentioned a heatwave—record highs, he’d said—and he was right. It had to be well over a hundred degrees and it was barely noon.
Jim Jackson sat back on his haunches alongside Tim and Betty Rea Downing. He wiped the sweat from his eyelids as he stared at the unconscious possum ten feet away.
“I’m tellin’ ye,’ Timmy,” he warned, keeping his voice quiet, “it ain’t dead! My daddy says they lay down like ‘at to make ye’ think they’s dead. If you go touchin’ it, it’s gonna bite ye!”
“Nuh uh,” Tim scoffed, inching closer. “Miller got ahold of it. Ain’t no way Miller left that summbitch still alive. Miller don’t grab hold of nothin’ and leave it still breathin.”
Jim looked out toward the little white house containing the monster Rottweiler every kid with any common sense was deathly afraid of. Old man Carl worked nights at the power plant, which meant he was probably still sleeping with Miller cozied up in the bed beside him.
Jim swallowed, rising to take a cautious step backward. If Miller saw them so close to the house and started barking, Carl might get up to let him out. And if Miller was outside, it didn’t matter if you were an animal, a kid, or a grown man, he would rip you to shreds for being this close to his property.
“Come on, Timmy,” Betty Rea called after him, nervously following Jim’s gaze toward the house, “leave it be and let’s go down to the creek. Momma’ says we gotta’ be home by six. It’s too hot out not to go swimmin’ today.”
“Ye’ scairt, then?” Tim teased, plucking up a stick from the ground and slowly inching closer, making chicken sounds along the way.
“I’m not scared,” she assured him, “but… what if Miller gets out?”
“I ain’t scared of Miller,” Tim lied, wiping his brow with his forearm. “What about you, Jimmy Lee? Ye’ scared Miller’s gonna’ get ye’?”
“No.” Jim stood straighter. “If ‘at dog’s gonna’ get somebody, it ain’t gonna’ be me. I can run faster than the both of yuns.”
Tim chuckled. “Everybody knows I can run faster than you.” He bounced his eyebrows at Betty Rea. “And we both can run faster than you, slow-poke. Maybe you better go on down to the creek then if ye’ don’t wanna’ get eaten. This is a man’s business anyways.”
Betty Rea laughed. “I don’t see any men! Just two little boys wastin’ time talkin’ about a stupid possum when we could all be swimmin.”
Jim frowned. “I’m a man, Betty Rea.”
“Oh yeah?” she teased. “You got any money?”
He raised his chin. “Well, I’m fixin’ to have five dollars when I win this bet.”
Tim returned his focus to the lifeless possum in the grass. “No, ye’ ain’t. It’s dead, look.” He extended the stick, a little shakily, toward the body, his exposed shoulder blades moving visibly as he tensed.
Jim crept up slowly behind him.
“How do you know he’s even got five dollars?” Betty Rea called from behind them. “He still ain’t showed it to you. Where’d you get five dollars anyway, Timmy? Daddy sure didn’t give you no money.”
Tim narrowed his brown eyes as he looked over his shoulder at her. “I been takin’ a dollar out of the collection plate evra’ Sunday and ain’t nobody noticed.”
Betty Rea gasped. “Timothy Downing, you can’t take the church money! You’re gonna’ burn in hell for that!”
“Why? It ain’t like they’re givin’ the money to God! I took five dollars away from the stinkin’ Sunday luncheon nobody likes anyway! Lordt knows, Mrs. Dodge cain’t cook to save her life and everybody’s just bein’ nice eatin’ her meatloaf! Now, be quiet, Betty, I’m concentratin.’”
He took a deep breath and poked the little creature. An ungodly hissing sound emitted from the ground, and Jim wasted no time sticking around to see what might happen next. He spun on his heel and sprinted, the world around him a blur of brown and green, as he ran as fast and hard as he could toward the safety of the creek.
He could feel small rocks digging into his bare feet along the dirt trail but he dared not stop. He was sure he could still hear it hissing, and some part of his mind was convinced he’d heard Miller bark. Clutching his towel under his armpit, he ran harder, ignoring the sun beating down on him to push stinging beads of sweat into his eyes.
When he reached the shore of the creek, he didn’t slow his pace, but threw his towel on the grass, and, because it was bad luck not to do so, he shouted, “CANNONBALL!” as he leapt into the cool muddy water.
He giggled as he came up spitting to find Tim and Betty Rea breathlessly reaching the water’s edge. “I told you it wasn’t dead!”
“Whatever.” Tim rolled his eyes, tossing his towel to one side. “You was the first one to run away, ye’ big chickenshit!”
Betty Rea huffed. “Will yuns quit cussin’ all the dang time?”
Jim grinned. “I wasn’t gettin’ eat today by no possum. Now, show me my five dollars… Bastard.”
“Jimmy Lee, that’s the church’s money.” Betty Rea shook her head, planting her fists on her hips. “You can’t take that money. It ain’t right. You’ll be cursed your whole life for it.”
“Hush.” Jim waved her off. “There’s no such thing as gettin’ cursed. Show me.”
Tim groaned, reaching down into the pocket of his jean shorts to pull out a small wad of crumpled dollar bills. “See. I wasn’t lying.”
“There is too such a thing as gettin’ cursed, Jimmy Lee,” Betty insisted, sitting on the dirt to unlace her shoes. “You two both got the devil on your scent now! God help yas.”
“Betty Rea,” Tim warned, squatting down beside her to place the money beneath a rock, “if you don’t quit actin’ like a baby all the time, I’m not gonna’ let ye’ play with us no more. Me and Jimmy Lee’s third-graders now and we don’t have time for first-grader Sunday school stuff on a Tuesday.”
“Yeah. We’re men now,” Jim agreed, grinning as Tim backed up several feet to get a running start and front flip into the water. “We don’t believe in all that baby stuff and we can cuss as much as we want.”
He splashed Tim as his head emerged from the water beside him. “Bet you I can swim to that stump faster than you can.”
For the next several hours, they swam in the creek, racing, doing flips, swimming out further than Betty was allowed to, and taking turns rescuing her when she got brave and ventured in too deep. For as much as he pretended to dislike having Timmy’s little sister tag along with them every time they went out, he got an odd sense of satisfaction each time he carried her to more shallow water.
They didn’t need a watch to know they were nearing the end of their allotted playtime. The sun was lowering and its heat had painted their noses, cheeks, and shoulders a bright freckled pink. Jim could feel the tingle on the bridge of his nose and purposely scrunched it repeatedly to feel the scratch of the sunburn against the wrinkles he created.
“We best be gettin’ back,” Tim finally said, wading out of the water to stand in the mud. “We’re goin’ to gramma’s for supper. Here.” He pulled the money from beneath the rock. “Fair is fair.”
Jim hurried out behind him and took the wad of money. He sat down on his butt in the grass, straightening each dollar bill so he could fold the stack neatly in half and place it in his drenched pocket.
“My momma was gettin’ her hair done,” Jim sighed, pulling his towel over his shoulders. “Got them church ladies over there and the whole house stinks like somethin’ awful. Daddy’s gonna be right pissed when he gets home and the whole house smells like ‘at. It’s like she’s askin’ to get whooped by him. I wish she’d quit doin’ stuff to piss him off.”
Betty Rea groaned. “Quit cussin’, Jimmy Lee!”
“Shut up, Betty,” Tim said. “Piss ain’t a curse word anyway. Not really.” He offered Jim his hand to help him up off the ground. “My momma says you can come stay any time ye’ want—‘specially when your daddy’s in one of his bad moods. She says it ain’t right, him beatin’ on you and yer momma the way he does. You could come with us to gramma’s. She’s real nice.”
Jim shook his head. “No. I’ll be alright. One of these days though, I’m gonna’ be big enough I’ll hit him back so hard it’ll kill his sorry ass.”
Tim grinned, draping his arm over Jim’s sunburnt shoulders. “Well, when you do, I’ll be right there to help you bury the sack of shit.”
They walked back to a soundtrack of singing katydids, taking the long route home to avoid potentially becoming Miller’s next meal. Betty Rea ventured off the dirt trail a few times in pursuit of early evening lightning bugs while Jim, as he so frequently tended to do, became increasingly anxious about his father the closer they got to fourth street.
While summer days could be spent among friends—Jim lost in childhood play at the creek while momma got caught up with the church lady gossip—nights were hard in the Jackson household.
Daddy would come home around seven and for the hours that followed, Jim and his momma would be extra careful to be nice to him. Any little thing could turn him sour fast, and once he was mad about a thing, he’d start throwing punches at whoever was close by.
Momma would always put extra makeup on to try to cover up her bruises, but the whole town knew what was happening. Nobody wanted to get involved in their personal business, not even the sheriff. They’d all grown up with Paul Jackson, and in a small town, while people were quick to judge, they never stepped in. Family matters stayed in the family.
If anyone was going to put a stop to daddy, it was going to have to be Jim. His entire life, he’d prayed for a miracle at night. He’d sometimes pray to God daddy would wake up with a different perspective and be a normal man; a good man that loved them. Other times—and more frequently than not—he’d pray lightning would strike him dead.
But Timmy was right. They were getting bigger and they didn’t believe in first-grader Sunday school talk anymore. Praying wasn’t gonna be enough to help his momma. God wasn’t coming… Jim Jackson was.
CHAPTER DIVIDER HERE
He jogged across the grass, dragging his muddy feet across it as he approached the house. The windows were open and he could hear the church ladies still inside cackling.
Marleen Waters had the loudest laugh of them all, a deep husky laugh that oftentimes set the rest of the women off. He heard her first, followed by the long, drawn-out wheeze of Tammy Johnson, his least favorite church lady. Just thinking of her chubby sneering face made his shoulders tense.
With a sigh, he pulled the squeaking screen door open and grinned to himself when it slammed shut behind him with a satisfying smack.
“I tell ye’,” Marleen was saying from the kitchen table where she combed through his mother’s suddenly curly, dark hair, a cigarette dangling from her lips. “She could depress the devil!”
His mother wheezed with laughter. “She sure could!” She thumped the butt of her own lit cigarette against the ashtray. Catching sight of him, she smiled. “Jimmy angel! Come in here and tell me what you think about momma’s new perm! You think your daddy’ll like it?”
He frowned. “It’s… big.”
“Of course it’s big,” Tammy said from the stove, staring down at him through her gigantic half-tinted glasses as she turned pieces of sizzling chicken in a skillet. “The higher the hair, the closer to God, darlin’.”
“It stinks,” he added, snarling. “The whole house smells bad.”
“It does?” His mother looked up at the kitchen clock nervously. “We rinsed it out hours ago. You can still smell it? Even with the chicken cooking?” She spun in her chair to meet Marleen’s eyes. “Marleen, we gotta’ do something. If Paul comes home to a stinky house…”
“Oh, hush, Arlett.” Marleen took a deep drag of her cigarette, her long red fingernails hovering to each side of it before she took it smartly between them and spoke through her exhale. “He ain’t gonna’ be worried about the smell, honey. Only thing he’s gonna be thinkin’ about is how to get you out of this dress. You look just like that Maria Shriver!”
Momma shook her head. “You know that man’s gonna come in here with a burr in his saddle after workin’ all day in this heat, just itchin’ for a reason to fight somebody.”
“Tammy,” Marleen said calmly, “go set that fan by the screen door. He ain’t gonna’ be home for another hour. You got any scented candles or incense?”
Momma shook her head.
“My nails are still wet,” Tammy said. “Jimmy Lee, I’ve got some perfume over there in my purse in the front room. Grab it while you’re movin’ this fan over to the screen door for your mama.”
“She told you to do it,” Jim said, not considering he was outnumbered, and man or not, the church ladies were not to be talked back to.
“Excuse me?” Tammy placed both hands on her hips, her supposedly still-wet nails forgotten as they were curled into her fists. “Did you forget your raisin,’ son? Arlett, do you hear this smart mouth?”
“I heard it, I just can’t believe who it came from. James Lee Jackson, you’ll take your scrawny little behind in that front room right now and do as you’re told if you know what’s good for you! And good Lord, where are your shoes? You’re covered in mud. Hurry up, and when you get done, go warsh off.”
Groaning, he slumped his shoulders and stomped into the front room.
Maybe the church money was cursed. Not only did he have to put up with Tammy’s attitude, but he was already in trouble with his momma and he was going to spend the night in a stinky house. Daddy was definitely going to be mad. Daddy hated Tammy’s perfume—so did Jim for that matter. The burning dog smell of the perm might be preferred to the potent sweet sting of Tammy’s Jovan Musk. It was going to be a long night.
He set up the fan, collected the perfume, and snuck out the back door, away from the now scowling evangelical women he’d angered.
Annoyed, he sat down in his tire swing and turned in a circle, winding the chains around each other with each turn.
He hated Tammy. He didn’t understand why his mother even invited her around. She wasn’t funny like Marleen, and all she ever did was boss him around and get him in trouble. He wished he was bigger. A woman like Tammy wouldn’t mouth off to a bigger boy. She’d be scared. She was scared of his daddy.
He wondered if his daddy might come home in a better mood and not notice the smell. His moods were unpredictable and there was no way to know which man would show up—the one who wanted to fight or the playful one who wanted to wrestle entirely too rough with his son. He didn’t really like either but the playful one at least kept his hands off momma.
Hopeful as he might’ve been the wrestler would come home, he knew, deep down, which man it would be. Daddy didn’t like when momma changed things and the perm was a big change. He’d hit her last week just for rearranging pillows on the sofa. It broke his heart to see his mother beaten; to watch her cry and beg and apologize for things no one should need to apologize for. How many more times would Jim stand aside and let him hurt her?
Now that he was a third-grader, was he big enough to hit him back? Surely, if he had a weapon of some sort, he might be able to knock him down. Did he have the guts to do it? If he didn’t hit him hard enough, daddy could kill him. Then who would save his momma?
When the chains that held the swing became impossible to twist any further, he let his mind go quiet, raising his legs to spin uncontrollably and blur the world around him.
Over and over he did this until his mother called to him from the back porch. “Jimmy Lee, I told you to get in there and warsh up. Hurry up. Your daddy’s gonna’ be home any minute.”
Begrudgingly, he made his way to their tiny bathroom in the back of the house. He turned the creaking faucet with both hands, then peeled off his mud-soaked shorts. Remembering his five dollars, he hurried to check the pockets and sighed in relief to find the money still there.
He’d need to hide it after his shower so daddy didn’t think he’d taken it from him.
In the shower, with his eyes tightly closed, he did his very best impression of Randy Travis, singing Forever And Ever, Amen to a large crowd of people, all of them cheering loudly. Among them was Betty Rea, right in the front row, and she swooned when he took his showerhead microphone and directed the chorus at her.
He grinned to himself, but then he frowned. He and Timmy hated girls. They even had a tent in the backyard with a ‘no girls allowed’ sign pinned to it. What was he doing thinking about Betty Rea? Maybe this was a sign he really was becoming a man. Men, unlike boys, were interested in girls… Very interested.
His daydream was cut short by the sound of Daddy’s truck pulling onto the gravel driveway just outside. Quickly, he turned off the shower, ran a towel over himself, and got dressed just in time to come out of the bathroom as his daddy barreled through the front door. He knew the look. This was not a playful-wrestling type of night.
“What in the Sam Hill you done to your hair, woman? And for the love of Christ, what is that awful smell?”
“Oh,” she said sweetly, touching her hair, “I thought I’d try somethin’ new. Marleen says it makes me look like Maria Shriver. Don’t you like it?”
“Somethin’ new?” he spat, dropping his cooler loudly on the tile floor. “Who the hell you tryin’ to impress with somethin’ new?”
“You, Pauly,” she laughed nervously. “I thought you might like it.”
“I liked ye’ fine the other way. Hell, I married ye’ that way, didn’t I? If I wanted a poodle, I’d have gone down to the pet store, not the damn marriage office. Can ye’ warsh ‘at shit out?”
“Come on, honey, don’t say that. You’re just not used to it. Everybody’s gettin’ ‘em now.”
“I don’t care what everybody’s gettin’ and I don’t plan on gettin’ used to it. Can ye’ warsh it out?”
“Jimmy Lee, go in there and get me a beer.” He ran a hand over his sweat-soaked hair. “Jesus Christ, I’m gonna’ need it if I gotta’ sit here and stare at that giant hair all night. What the hell were you thinkin’, Arlett?”
“Oh, stop carryin’ on, Paul. You’ll get used to it. Jimmy Lee’s already used to it, ain’t ye’, darlin?” She didn’t wait for him to respond but grabbed his father’s hand. “Come on and sit down now. You must be exhausted after the heat today. I’ll fix ye’ a plate.”
Cautiously, Jim followed behind them into the kitchen. He hurried to the fridge to grab a beer bottle, considering for a moment bashing his father over the head with it like he’d seen on TV, but resigned to place it on the table and quietly take his seat.
“Did you know she was fixin’ to do that to her head, boy?” Daddy asked, bringing the bottle to his lips and swigging nearly half of it at once.
“No, sir. I’s down at the creek with Timmy all day.”
“Oh you was, was you? Christ almighty, the whole house smells like fried hair and Tammy’s perfume. I cain’t breathe in here.”
His mother smiled as she set a plate full of food on the table in front of him. “Tammy tried to mask the smell with perfume. I’ve got all the windows open and the fans goin.”
“Yeah, and what’s that gonna’ cost me in electricity?” he asked, picking up a piece of chicken between his stained black fingers. “You know how many hours I got to work to pay that damn electric bill you’re runnin’ up in here? All cause’ ye’ wanted to try somethin’ new…”
“Speakin’ of electricity,” she said, expertly changing the subject as she loaded two more plates with chicken, mashed potatoes, greens, and a biscuit, “you’re not gonna’ believe what Sandra Dodge has got down in her basement.”
“Somethin’ to take curls out of hair, I hope?” he snickered.
“A dang tannin’ bed!” She returned to the table, placing a plate in front of Jim before she took her seat. “Marleen said her husband had to go down there and run a special electric line just to plug it in. Can you believe it? Sandra, of all people, gettin’ a tanning bed.”
“Hell, she’s more burnt than this chicken. And if you added any more wrinkles to her, she might be able to screw her hat on her head!” He laughed loudly. “Fetch me another beer, boy, then I want you to run down and get me the clippers out the bathroom.”
“Pauly,” she rolled her eyes, “that’s not funny.”
He tilted his head to one side. “I ain’t tryin’ to be funny. You want somethin’ new, I’m fixin’ to give ye’ somethin’ new.” He narrowed his eyes at Jim who was frozen in his seat. “I ain’t gonna’ tell ye’ twice, boy. Go on.”
“Don’t you go nowhere, Jimmy Lee,” momma hissed. “Now, Paul, that’s where I’m drawin’ the line. You ain’t cuttin’ my hair. Marleen spent all day workin’ on it.”
“The hell I ain’t, woman. I’d rather have a bald-headed wife than one that looks like she’s fixin’ to place in the dog show.”
“You ain’t doin’ it and that’s that.”
Jim took a deep breath. He’d seen the look his father had now several times before. He was going to have to do something. Running to his bedroom and hiding under the blanket to pray wasn’t an option anymore. He was in the third grade after all.
As his father reached across the table to take a handful of her freshly curled hair into his grip, he watched his own hand, as if it were someone else’s moving in slow motion. He watched as his fingers tightened around his fork and was surprised when he stabbed it down into his father’s forearm.
Blood sprayed out from the arm like something out of a movie, and suddenly the world was moving at regular speed again. His father let go of her hair to pull the fork out, covering the wound with his palm as he spewed obscenities and bent over in pain.
He’d hurt his father for the first time. It’d been him inflicting the damage this time instead of the other way around. Of course, he was about to pay for that, but for the fleeting few seconds daddy was doubled over in pain, Jim felt a sense of pride in himself; a powerfulness that made him suddenly bolder than he’d ever been in his life.
Yes, he was a man now.
He stood up from his chair. “Don’t you ever touch my momma again, you good for nothin’ summbitch! You hear me? You wanna’ shave somebody’s head, you shave mine! You don’t never touch momma no more!”
“Jimmy Lee!” His mother gasped. “What have you done, baby?”