His words eat at me and I have to stop them. The thought went through her head, circled around and around until she felt dizzy enough to grab the back of her chair and sit. She shouldn't have. At least she found that out when he took the opportunity to lean over her while shouting his words. She wanted to vomit. And she prayed his moment of anger would pass before she did.
"You hear me yet, you ignorant bitch? I said I'm gonna kick your ass outta here 'cause you don't deserve to have a roof over your head."
Spittle landed on her face, but Jess didn't raise a hand to wipe it away. She kept her eyes on him. If she looked away, he might hit her. He'd done it before.
"Ah, what the hell. It don't matter." Tom reached out to grab a wet rag off the counter. He turned back and raised his arm. With one swipe the cloth slapped the side of his leg.
Jess flinched and hoped he hadn't noticed. Her eyes stayed.
"You ain't worth it. You ain't worth keepin' or throwin' away." He lifted his arm once more, only this time the towel landed straight across her face.
She fell off the chair, maybe on purpose. When he yelled for her to get up, she just stayed there. She figured the back of her wouldn't sting as much as the front. And it came. One swat after another to the back of her head, then to her arms, her legs, and another and another until he must have gotten tired.
She heard his steps fading and she breathed again. It was then Jess saw it. Right there within reach, so she could stretch her arm out and grab it. She wanted to and told her mind to do it. And she I did.
"I told you, he was always gettin' up late and so I didn't think nothin' about it. And when the delivery truck come around to pick him up and I saw he wasn't outta bed, well, I found him then. Dead."
Sheriff Burl nodded and kept writing on the pad in his hand. The only thing Jess could think of was one of those bobble head dolls, nodding and bobbing when the car moved.
"So you found him dead in the bedroom?"
"Yes sir." She thought she'd just said that.
"And he was alive and well when you two went to bed?"
"Of course he was," she said and sat on her hands to keep them from fidgeting.
"And you don't remember anything out of the ordinary happening during the night? Any noises? Or Tom talking, or yelling, or ... Okay, I see you didn't."
She waited while he wrote some more. The clock struck nine. It had been three hours since she called Burl's office. Jess wished he would leave so she could eat breakfast. While her stomach growled her eyes followed the stretcher being carried out of the bedroom and through the kitchen until it disappeared out the door.
"I guess that's about it." Burl slapped the pad shut and she jumped at the sound. "I'll be in touch, Jess. Probably need to ask more questions after I think on it awhile."
She nodded and held out a hand to shake.
"You get some rest, now." Burl smiled and cupped her hand in the both of his. "And I'm real sorry, Jessie Lynn. It's a shame. Tom was a good man. He's been delivering goods to my place for nearly twenty years. Real shame."
She nodded once again while biting down on her lower lip. After he walked outside Jess closed the door and slid the bolt across to lock it.
* * *
"You don't know me," she said when they first met, and she listened to him laugh. She thought he had such joy in his heart. She liked that joy. Jess wanted to hold it in her hands forever.
"Yeah, but I want to know you, Jessie Lynn Myers. That would be nice." He smiled and placed his hand on top of hers.
"But what if you find you don't like me?" She whispered the words, a soft utterance.
"Oh, I don't worry about that none. You'll see." Tom got up and pulled Jess' hand to make her follow. And she did.
* * *
Jess tried to concentrate on her eggs, sunnyside up with the yolk runny and ketchup on top. Just the way she and Tom liked them. After two or three bites, she dumped the rest in the dog bowl and rinsed the plate. The stream of red running down the drain made her stomach lurch. She ran to the bathroom with a hand clamped on her mouth.
She opened the window to let the warm, damp smell of summer rain inside. Then, sitting at the kitchen table, she watched the hands of the rooster clock move. Past noon and the phone hadn't rung. Not that she was ready to pick it up. She tried folding towels and made the edges tight and even, placed at angles in the drawer. In her mind, Jess saw his ugly face, and with one swift motion, she snatched the towels out and shook them. A second later her hands hurried to shove them back into the drawer, all in a bunch, but then she couldn't close it.
"Ignorant bitch," she muttered and walked back to the bedroom and lay down to sleep.
Two hours later she awoke. She'd slept better than she had in months, maybe years. Jess felt she had the energy of twenty women. She wanted to shout, to jump up and down or maybe to dance. Instead, she chased the dog around the house. She laughed and squealed when Sadie chased her back. She grabbed a towel from the half-open drawer and they played tug-o-war. Slobber from the dog's mouth made the cloth a gooey wet. Jess laughed and nodded, but only for a minute. Then she sobbed. Her tears made the towel even wetter.
* * *
"You're nothin' and a nobody. You just remember that, girl. If you set foot in that classroom, they'll spit you back out. Hear? Just like I said, nothin' and no good."
She nodded and sat there with her mouth shut. Nothing and No Good was not about to argue. But she wanted to speak, if for nothing else than to ask him when did he get so mean? Instead, she just sat there with her mouth shut, eyes lowered to the floor.
"There's no way in hell you're gonna do that. No way," Tom shouted and slammed the door after him. The winter cold entered and left its chill behind.
Jess heard the car start, and then her tired body slumped down on the sofa to cry. She threw a vase across the room. It felt good for a second until she saw the tiny pieces of blue china scattered on the floor. She sucked in a huge gulp of air. It made a sound she couldn't describe, and then she ran for the dust pan and broom. The pieces of vase soon rested in the backyard, behind the shed, buried under a pile of leaves.
She returned to the house and sat waiting.
* * *
"Well, Jess. I got some news for you. Looks like Tom had himself a heart attack. Pure and simple. Again, I'm real sorry for your loss. You need any help with the, ah, the arrangements, you just holler, all right?" Burl said.
The words fell in place, inside her head. They rested there, all quiet and subdued, not making a peep of protest or anger. Only acceptance.
"Yes, sir, I hear you. If I need it, I'll call you. Thanks, Sheriff," she said and hung up. Seeing her hands free, she looked for a place to put them, to give them something to do. She grabbed the leash and decided to take Sadie for a walk.
"Just us girls. Right, Sadie? Just us girls, now." She grabbed tuffs of fur and hugged her tightly. Another thought sprouted in her head; Jess pulled the leash and Sadie into the bedroom. Reaching inside the dresser drawer she took out the knife and walked back into the kitchen. She stared at it a moment, her face a distortion mirrored in the shiny metal. Then it clattered as she dropped it into the sink.
* * *
"I tell you, I'm done with you. Shoulda left you with your daddy. Maybe he would of knocked some sense into you. God knows I can't. What the hell's got into you, Jessie Lynn? Huh?" Tom spat on the floor and laughed. It was a mean and angry sound. "You're too damn dumb. You oughta know that. Didn't even finish high school."
Jess watched from the floor, her face pressed down to the cool tile. She watched his shoes move. He threw the towel in the sink and headed for the bedroom. She could hear the sounds of paper tearing. Her insides felt like that. Tearing. She got up slowly, inch by quiet inch, and when she got to her knees Jess reached across to pick up the knife.
Her feet and her legs had their own way about them. Her mind had another. It wanted to run out the door, far away from the house, but her feet and legs decided different. They headed to the bedroom, toward the tearing sound and Tom still talking.
"School. Shit. Ain't nothin' but losers go back to school when they's adults."
Jess figured her hands and arms decided to go along with her feet and legs because soon enough she was in the bedroom with the knife held against Tom's side. She felt him grow rigid. The tearing stopped.
"Just what are you doin', you stupid girl," he said low under his breath.
"Those are my books, Thomas Peele. Mine," she said. Her legs quivered underneath her. Each word had come out like a surprise. "And if you don't stop, I'm gonna slice you from liver to kidney."
It was then she heard the gasp. Jess had never heard that sound from him. It sounded weak and timid. It was disquieting in some way and yet serene. She watched his face wrinkle up and then it seemed to smoothen out, like someone took an iron to it. When he fell over, he landed flat out on the floor. She watched his chest not moving. She couldn't remember the last time he looked that rested, peaceful. Like it was just another day, Jess walked to her underwear drawer and placed the knife inside. Then she walked out to the living room couch, lay down, and slept until dawn.
* * *
The rain had started up again. Sadie shook out the wet every few yards or so. Jess just let it sink in. It made her feel clean. By the time they reached the other side of the woods and the end of the Peele property, they were soaked through. Jess shivered and wished for her sweater. "Ignorant dumb bitch," she mumbled and led Sadie back home.
The mailbox door had flopped open. She could see the letter inside. Reaching in, she grabbed it and took a deep breath. Sadie followed her into the house, the leash Jess had dropped dragging behind her.
"We are pleased to inform you that your application has been accepted. Enclosed you will find your scholarship and grant money allowance along with admittance documents to sign. Please return at your earliest convenience." She had to read the words aloud to make them real. And she read them again to make sure. And again, thinking they might disappear.
* * *
"I love you, Thomas C. Peele," Jess said into his shoulder as she hugged him.
"Of course you do, Jessie Lynn. Just like I knew we was meant to be together." He hugged her back, a tight grip that numbed her.
"And you'll love me forever? Just like this?" She stopped her heartbeat to wait for him to speak.
"Forever and always." He laughed and tweaked her nose. "What's not to love? You're just perfect the way you are."
She smiled and nodded while her body quivered.
* * *
That morning brought rain again. She stood there, alone in the crowd of black, watching and thinking God had made it so. He wanted to show how He felt. Thomas C. Peele died and now was buried. And God wept. She figured this out because everyone was saying it to her, and they said it again and again like a prayer, Thomas was a good man.
The rain stopped and Jess looked up at the sky for a moment to warm her face in its light. Everyone said it, so Jess let it be. She stared once more down at his grave and she read the stone, only this time aloud. "Thomas C. Peele, born January 10, 1948, died June 7, 2009. Here lies a good man." It didn't seem any more real to her when she read it out loud. Not as real as the warm sunlight on her shoulders or the sound of the chickadee chirping from the tree above her. No more than her life before Thomas C. Peele died. It didn't matter, she decided. She set the bunch of daisies next to his name and left. Nothing and No Good had better things to do.