Jane was used to hearing that she had perfect hair. She’d worn it straight with blonde highlights woven between layers of black for months, during which it never had split ends or breakages. It was never tied or bent into a ponytail. It never changed color. It was always flowing and beating off her back, free like the tattoo on her pale right wrist said. It looked the same—smooth, rich, loose—that morning she dangled underneath the big tree, suspended at the neck by a rope Polly had recently put in the tool shed, the same rope that had been used to support the frail, fractured board swing that once sat underneath that same big tree.
Herbert would always whistle the Andy Griffith theme song—leaving out notes, inserting wrong ones, butchering it—whenever he was out on a stroll. But not many people other than Polly would know that. He’d always try to accommodate her, even if it meant wearing that distant, slothful smile while she went on and on about Desperate Housewives. And on most days he usually did a tolerable job of keeping up a conversation about which fictional home-wrecker slept with which fictional husband, excluding Friday nights when the $5 beer and $6 cups of Vodka made it nearly impossible. But Polly didn’t usually say anything about how he spent his Friday nights if she got her “womanly dues” as Herbert called it, a tax free $1250, the next day, which she usually did. It would make her keep her peace about the shouting and the grappling too. After all, they were tame compared to what she was used to.
It was Herbert, whistling and butchering, who first saw the body, lifeless and slightly swinging in the mild, howling gust of dawn. It was a wonder he was up before Polly. He’d had one of those nights again, which meant he should have stayed in bed moaning and asking for aspirin until sometime after 3. But on that quaint morning, there he was, up before even the animals, the twigs snapping under his bare, plump feet, his back to the climbing sun, shouting “Polly, get out here!” And he was sober too, so sober—far more sober, more alive than he’d ever been—although the smell of cheap Vodka still beat off him, the kind Polly hated.
She had done well in the genetic lottery and would always hear about it, especially in high school. There was never any talk of her good grades, though, although they’d gotten her a scholarship to Virginia State. That’s just how it was when your dimples made you seem lustfully innocent. They were among the top three reasons Josh Patterson had gone and made her his girlfriend. He wasn’t the type to settle down, however—quarterbacks usually aren’t at seventeen. And when Polly left town on one of those blue buses whose engine hummed an annoying tune, a melody of rubber and steel, he didn’t even say goodbye. By then it was 5 months since she’d told him that she was pregnant. She’d left proudly too, holding her head high, firm, straight, not loose and bobbling as it was held now while she ran that frightful morning.
“Call the ambulance!” Herbert said at Polly and her bobbling head.
Polly only screamed like her insides had turned black and were falling out, screamed louder than when she was giving birth to Jane.
“Call the ambulance!” Herbert said again.
Polly continued splitting the morning with her screams.
“Call the ambulance!” he said again.
“Call the police!” Polly finally said, then continued screaming.
The roosters that Herbert kept were crowing when the police came, so it must have been around six. Either that or they were only reacting to Polly’s weeping and wailing. The police seemed to come on their own because neither Polly nor Herbert had called. And they brought other government workers with them too. Some of them said “we’re sorry for your loss and 1-800-566-7000 is the number you can call should you ever need someone to talk to.” It was the best they could offer on government salaries. Polly only continued screaming. She screamed louder when the men in blue jackets were taking down the body. And by the time they were putting it in the black bag, her screaming had pushed her to the ground. Herbert fell on her and wrapped her up in his arms tightly, securely. And with Polly in her white night gown cuddled up under Herbert while the police and their friends moved against the background of dawn, the whole scene seemed so surreal, so illusory, so paradoxically novel and fresh but concluding—like a final fantasy.
Ruth, Polly’s only friend these days, had always told Polly that she had poor taste in men. Polly knew she meant something else. Polly knew her taste was fine, it’s just that when you have a child to feed and you don’t want to take one of those lame jobs, you kind of have to work with what comes along. Sometimes Ruth would ask to borrow clothes and Polly would give her the ones she felt like and when Ruth started complaining about the fabric and style, Polly would say “beggars can’t be choosers.” Ruth could always feel it in her bones that she was alluding to something else.
Conversations like these between Polly and Ruth were never bitter, though. Usually they took place in the kitchen. That’s where Ruth saw Polly most. Herbert liked his meals prepared a certain way and that way took time. If she wasn’t meticulous with a particular meal, Polly would hear about it, probably not the same day or even for most of the week. But it was sure to be brought up the next Friday night he came in from Joe’s.
Jane, who’d be back from hanging out with friends by the time Herbert came in on those Fridays, didn’t usually say anything when he was reminding Polly of her mistakes or blaming her for something like not helping him get a raise or for failing to choose the winning combination for the state lottery. Jane would just lay in her room silent as a lamb. They preferred it that way too, especially Polly. It made her stomach feel icy when Jane came down stairs looking all sad and desperate and even icier when Jane took action. One time Jane had called the police and when they came at 4:36 in the morning, Polly told them it was just a misunderstanding. And when they went away after spending an hour on Herbert’s porch, she went straight to Jane’s room and begged her to stay out of “grown people’s business,” saying things like “when you grow older, you’ll understand.” Since then, Jane had been kind enough to never call them again.
“Are you going to give the police a follow up statement?” asked Herbert.
“Don’t think I can bare to,” said Polly.
Polly could finally talk without screaming. The ABC evening news was on so it was sometime after 6. Herbert was holding her on the couch, stroking her right shoulder with his thumb while she buried her face in her palms.
“I want to vomit again,” she said when the ABC weather forecaster was saying something about a 20% chance of rain.
Herbert pulled her up, his arm around her remarkably thin waist that didn’t even seem to expand when she was heavily pregnant. His hand wrapped it too easily as they slowly made their way pass the kitchen to the bathroom, the “sanity spot” as she called it, the place where she’d lock herself away on those Friday nights when Herbert wanted to take things further than yelling.
Just then, Ruth came knocking. She couldn’t come earlier because she was employed at one of those places where you could only check your voicemail after work. She’d driven straight from there, speeding pass almost every other car that she could see in front of her on the highway, pass her house too, which was about half a mile away. Polly finished up her vomiting and came out. Herbert came too, his heavy body pressing down the porch’s wooden floor. He didn’t stay long, though. He never stayed long around Ruth, not even at Joe’s. His eyes always looked like they were trying to tame something raw and callous whenever she was around but only Polly would notice. That’s why she would only sneak Ruth over in the day time while he was at work.
“Jesus, have mercy!” Ruth said when he left. She watched him leave like he a walking piece of garbage.
Polly only let the tears flow.
Ruth hugged her, she smelled of mash potatoes and pork chops.
“You should get some rest,” Ruth went on.
“Let’s walk,” Polly said.
“Tomorrow, Polly. You should get some rest.”
“I want to walk!”
“Let’s walk like we used to when things were simpler. You know, before…”
Ruth didn’t seem too keen on having Polly say what she was about to, so the two stepped off the porch in silence, Polly’s head on Ruth’s right shoulder. That’s how they drifted down the dirt track that led to the east entrance, away from the north entrance where the big tree was.
“I have something to tell you,” Polly said as sunset slid into night above them.
“It’s Herbert’s fault.”
“It’s Herbert’s fault Jane did it.”
Polly pressed against Ruth a little harder. Ruth wiped Polly’s tears with her yellow polka-dot blouse but left her own untouched.
“What exactly are you saying?”
“The note Jane left said she did it because of Herbert.”
Ruth said nothing and only turned her head to the left in the direction of the big tree.
It was where Jane used to go to get away and relax, to “leave her body” as she called it. Those last few months, she’d always bring an ounce of weed whenever she was going out there. And she’d “roll one” blocked from Polly’s view by the tree’s 60 year old bark. It was the only way to avoid a lecture. Not that lectures had had any particular effect. Whenever they argued about her marijuana use, Jane would always say “alcohol is more harmful than weed and you drink. Plus, weed is a plant not a drug.” “Either way, I don’t want you messing with it. You’ve got a bright future; you’ve got to do well so you don’t need no man,” Polly would always respond. And that would be the last thing Jane heard about not smoking Marijuana. The last time they had this kind of talk was the evening after Polly had made Jane sign up for the SAT’s. Jane’s teacher was sternly against it, she said that Jane would be better prepared if she waited until she was as old as the other kids and used the extra year to study. Polly had made her sign up regardless. Jane started spending more time under the big tree after that, “driving down the property value” as Herbert would tell Polly on Friday nights. As if she didn’t hear when the evaluator had put a number that couldn’t go much lower to the value of his property.
It stretched out over two acres of what Polly called “useless Florida land,” farm land. Farming hadn’t gone on in those parts for at least 15 years. In fact, farming hadn’t gone on in 50 miles of that county in the last 15 years. And the only person who seemed surprised that no serious offers came in for the property after the 13 oddly placed “for sale” signs and 2 years of ads in the Deltona Sun, was Herbert. It was why he had to take that cashier job at the Winn Dixie right up the road. And although he was no extraordinary employee, he was usually a little more respectful of the company’s time than the others on his shift so they made him supervisor, which meant he was making $13.50 an hour instead of $10. Management didn’t care if he was only early because he literally lived a minute away or that some his co-workers didn’t respect him because they knew how he spent his Friday nights. Although two of them, Chad and Eric, who had drank beer at his house one holiday and left the empty bottles on the dirt track had nothing but love for him.
The bottles were still there when Polly and Ruth walked passed. Polly stepped over some of the broken ones as she gave Ruth Jane’s note that she’d kept from the police and Herbert. Ruth took it shaking slightly.
“I always pegged him as the type,” she said after reading.
“I don’t know what to believe,” Polly said.
“Believe your daughter.”
Polly’s tears started steaming afresh.
“You think your daughter would end herself over a lie.”
“It’s all more than I can bear.”
“Polly, he puts his hands on you.”
“Yeah, but only to shake me.” Polly’s low moaning made her words harder to hear.
“I don’t care. There’s no telling what he’ll do.”
“Hold me, I can’t see right.”
“Take it easy. I got you.”
Ruth put those toned, orange-tanned arms to use. She was one of those women who’d wear a “single and loving it” t-shirt anywhere. She had lived alone ever since Polly met her at St. Peter’s Baptist Church’s Easter Celebrations 3 years ago. In that time too, there was never even any talk of her seeing a man. Most times when she spoke about men it was just to say how unnecessary it was to live with one. She never sounded acerbic or biting or anything like that, though; she sounded more like a cold, detached mechanic telling a car owner that her car was more trouble than it’s worth and that she’d be better off taking public transit. The only time her voice sounded anything other than mellow was when Polly would tell her what Joe did on a particular Friday night. Sometimes after hearing which her voice would crack with righteous anger more than Polly’s—just like it did when she bared Polly’s weight in the crisp evening air.
“Let the police know about the note. Herbert has gotten away with too much,” she said as they walked back.
“No more drama,” Polly said still moaning.
“You’re scared. I get it. But you got to respect yourself for Jane now.”
“No more drama. I can’t take it right now.”
Check out Part 2 to catch the ending!