The night his father died, Jeff Olliet’s lungs were full of the same crepe myrtle and Spanish moss that teased his nose now in the full swelter of day. He leaned on the tree, listening to the congregation in the church singing about the sweet by and by as the river accompanied their chorus. He skipped rocks from the shade as “Nearer, My God, To Thee” warbled from the sweatbox of the little chapel.
He was waiting by the road when the church doors opened. He pulled at his once white shirt to free it from the moisture of his chest, squinting through beads of sweat at the people fanning themselves descending the baptist steps. His mother, Olivia, and his sister, Anna Beth, were surrounded by women. Jeff rocked foot to foot as a few of the men came to shake his hand.
“Sorry to hear about your dad,” some said. Others offered, “Frank was a good man.” Those were the same condolences he had heard for the last week, and they meant as little now as they did the day his daddy was put six feet under. Frank Olliet was such a good man that none of these people had showed their faces to shed a tear at his burial.
Jeff kept his mouth firm and thanked each person who approached him. As the well-wishers thinned, he heard his mother decline a ride. “Thank you, but no,” she told the pastor. “It’s just a little ways, and I want to enjoy this sunshine.”
Those that walked dispersed home as cars threw up dust. Jeff set out, not waiting for his mother and younger sister. His hands stayed in his pockets whenever a car would pass and honk, a hand waving from a side window.
“It was a wonderful sermon today,” Olivia said. Jeff ignored her. “Wasn’t it wonderful?” she asked, presumably, of Anna Beth.
Anna Beth mumbled something Jeff didn’t understand and which he’d probably find annoying if he did.
“Yes,” Olivia replied, “definitely,” to whatever was muttered.
At home, Jeff unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt and drew a bucket of water from the well. He drank with the ladle, but the water was hot and had an aftertaste of tin. He spat as much out of his mouth as he put in it.
“I have some lemonade in the icebox,” Olivia said. “I thought it’d be nice with our lunch.”
Anna Beth set bowls down from the cabinet and Olivia spooned heapings of day old stew into them. Jeff dug at the layer of grease that floated on top. Anna Beth’s nose sneered at her own. Their mother took a square of cornbread from the pewter plate on the table.
Olivia said a quick grace, thanking the Lord for all He had given them, and Jeff’s tongue withdrew at the first touch of the tomato rich stew.
It was Anna Beth that disturbed the silence. “I heard Mrs. Kirby ask after Olive.”
“Oh, did you?” Olivia dipped her cornbread in the bowl and it came up dripping red.
“She asked you had Olive come up for daddy’s services.”
Olive was the oldest of the three siblings. She had gone to Atlanta the month before last to work, as their mother explained it, for Bruce Sinclair. He was Olivia’s cousin, twice removed. Cousin Bruce owned a cattle ranch and had made quite a name for himself throughout Georgia. His wife, Lucy, required help with her housework. Olive was drafted to be a housemaid, of sorts, for the childless couple.
“That’s right,” Olivia said. “Mrs. Kirby did mention something or other. I told her how Olive’s position wouldn’t allow her to come home.”
Jeff said low, but clear enough for his mother to hear, “Her position or condition?”
Olivia banged her spoon like an irate judge, flinging stew. “I’ll not have that at my table!”
Jeff wiped a fleck of potato off his face, dropped his threadbare napkin in his bowl. His chair screeched across the floor as he pushed it back.
“You’ll go nowhere,” Olivia told him, having found her composure. “We’ll sit here and have a meal as a family. You can sulk like a whipped puppy if you want, Jeffery, it makes no difference to me.”
He sat for the duration, his eyes fixed on the scuffs of the table edge, as his mother’s and sister’s spoons clinked against their bowls.
The feather bed swallowed Jeff as the clamor of bullfrogs and katydids came through the open window. A stray breeze stumbled into the room, but it only agitated the heat. He removed his undershirt, it stunk of sweat and foulness no matter how many times his mother fought it with lye soap in the washtub.
In the dark, as the house swelled and popped, he felt like he was dreaming while wide awake. He saw himself as he stood in the grass that had grown to his shins. He stared at the full bulk of his father flat on the ground. Frogs croaked personal hymns that night as well. Jeff saw his mother run from the house, the confusion on her face in the light of a bone yellow moon. “Get the doctor,” she said, going to a knee beside her husband. She held the behemoth’s limp hand and her son saw a flash of sad relief. “Get him quick!”
Jeff ran, and his legs twitched now in the bed as he remembered. He had not run straight to Dr. Collier’s house, though. He hadn’t made it any further than the church when he stopped with a feeling he might cry. The tears never came, but he thought they were what he felt sink like rocks to his stomach. He ran at half speed the rest of the way.
When he came to the doctor’s home, he watched through an open window at Collier playing poker with Sheriff Everett and two other gentlemen. The house blazed inside with laughter and chatter. Cigar smoke coiled in the air, long ropes and thunderclouds of it. The President was on the radio giving a fireside chat. Jeff listened to the men, free with language and jokes they would never repeat in polite circles or in front of women, before he jumped onto the porch to beat the door.
“I’m sorry, Olivia,” Collier said after he raced in his car to the Olliet home with Jeff and Sheriff Everett. Jeff had ridden in the rumble seat, bouncing off cracked leather with each bump. “Heart attack. I’m mighty sorry.”
Anna Beth wrapped her thin arms around Olivia’s waist. Jeff watched them cry.
“He chased me out the house,” Jeff told Sheriff Everett. “I was back talkin’.” The sheriff met Jeff’s eyes then walked back to the doctor’s roadster to wait.
Doctor Collier said, “I imagine it was quick, if that’s any consolation. He was gone before he hit the ground.”
Jeff knew that wasn’t true. He fled half across the field when he realized his dad wasn’t on his heels. He stopped in the tangles of a willow and saw his dad in spasms on the ground. He approached him like stalking a deer, every step silent, cautious, hesitant. His dad struggled for breath and reached for him, menacing then pleading. The son withdrew as the scar of a razor strop burned on his back and the nightmares of his dad flipped in his mind, how he berated Olivia or stole into Olive’s room in the dead of night.
The fury dulled in the father. The dirty moon reflected in Frank Olliet’s eyes. Jeff watched those eyes go dumb.
A group of men in the community made his dad’s coffin. It was cedar, and Jeff breathed in big huffs of it before they filled it with Frank and loaded it on a pick-up truck for the cemetery. The pastor said a few words before exhausted men lowered the coffin on strained ropes into the grave.
Olivia tossed a rose on the coffin once it settled six feet below. Jeff dropped a handful of dirt. His mother sniffled beneath a black veil that obscured the fading remnants of a bruise under her left eye. She consoled Anna Beth with assurances her daddy was in a better place. The gravediggers gradually filled the hole and packed the dirt, they scattered the remainder. Jeff watched with the memory of cedar teasing his heart.