It may be morning. Somewhere in the real world, something is tapping on your front door. You’re still dreaming about your father holding his hands out to you like he did when you were a child. You’re too far away. The tapping is faster now, and you can hear two women cooing to you things about distractions, about interventions, about forgetting. You won’t forget, you refuse to. Your father’s arms are still outstretched, open and waiting for you to pour into them, but you’re floating away too quickly. The two women begin pounding as you slip away from your father’s arms, and, in the real world, you throw your covers back and stumble out of bed before you even realize you’re awake. You reel for a moment, still in that vague, foggy pit between consciousness and dreams, and then gain your footing.
The sun pours into your bedroom with a stark whiteness, morphing your furniture into a fuzzy, underwater version of reality. You fumble for your glasses on your nightstand, knocking over a bottle of water with a low glug before you find them and slip them on. The girls—Sandy and Marge, you recognize their clucking voices now—are still knocking. “Hello,” one of them calls, “we know you’re in there!” Must be Sandy.
You pick a robe off the floor and shake it out before pulling it on. Your mind is still floating from being snapped out of that dream. You’re already forgetting what it was about anyway. Something about your father, you can remember that, though you can’t imagine why you’d be dreaming about him after what has to have been over twenty years since his death.
As you pass by the mirror in your foyer, you stop and smooth out your hair. You stopped counting grey strands years ago. You rub your lips with your finger to get rid of their pale hue before opening the front door to two beaming faces. Marge is short with a mousey face and grey hair that was once dark and thick. She’s hugging Sandy’s arm as Sandy just stands there staring at you, face stretched and eyeliner thick like she’s still in junior high.
“Want to go for a ride?” Marge asks with a beam in her face that makes her seem to bounce at the prospect. They both have more energy than you did even when you were a teenager. You’re getting older. You’re pushing fifty with an early retirement.
Sandy says with a pat on Marge’s hand, “It’s your day to forget.”
“Forget what?” you ask, but they’re already inside and chattering, picking things up off your foyer table: your keys, your makeup bag, your checkbook. You should have known this was coming. It used to be that once a year the three of you girls got together and reminisced about the old days when the economy was good and when gas didn’t cost a fortune. They tell you that you haven’t experienced real life since Robbie, though they don’t say it directly. It’s time you did yourself a favor, they say. It’s time you get out, let your hair down, relax and have fun. They sound like they’re advertising a tropical vacation spot.
You walk back to your room as you say, “It’s not my day for anything but more sleep.”
“Come now,” Marge says, “I know you don’t mean that.” She’s slipping your cigarettes into your pocketbook, which Sandy holds out with a limp wrist.
Sandy hands Marge the purse and steps in between you and your bedroom door with her arms crossed. “When was the last time we were together for anything other than a quick coffee, anyway?”
You sigh. You thought retirement would have brought you all closer. You almost miss that stupid boutique for, if nothing else, the fact that it kept you awake.
Marge smiles at you from across the room. “We’re going to a great little town just two hours from here. Lots of shopping, lots of little touristy things you’ll never need.” As if the store owners there don’t know your names and faces by heart now.
“Wear the blue shirt,” Sandy says.
After ten minutes, you three get into Marge’s Toyota. She sings to Peter Paul & Mary the whole two-hour drive with the windows down and the sun shining in like an old confidant back from hiatus. Sandy talks to you from the front seat about all the old gossip from high school, over thirty years ago, and she fills you in on the happenings of your old friends, as if you still care. Before, it was who broke up with whom, who cheated on her boyfriend with what guy, who got caught smoking pot in the bathroom. Now, it’s whose divorce was filed this week, who’s having plastic surgery, who became an alcoholic and lost his job.
Same old gossip, different scenarios. You’re getting older. You can feel the minutes ticking over your skin, leaving their crumpled paths behind. You used to be immortal.
Sandy chirps and gesticulates and confides in low tones things about people who are hundreds of miles away from Marge’s speeding car. Somehow, though, Sandy gets you to laugh. Marge’s smiling eyes looking slyly at you in the rearview mirror as if sharing a joke only the two of you know make you laugh harder. “It’s about time,” Marge says to the windshield.
You only smile and look at the grey threadbare floor mats as Sandy sits twisted around, smiling at you softly with her hand on her chin. “You know,” she says, “it’s been four years, hasn’t it?”
Marge says something in a quick low voice and Sandy turns around and starts adjusting the radio. Marge looks at you in the rearview mirror and calls back to you, “It’s such a beautiful day to be outside like this, isn’t it?”
You tell her it certainly is, but you aren’t thinking about the weather. You close your eyes. You’re now thinking of deer, of a gunshot, of the weeds grown thick and scraggly and the way they’d bitten at your ankles as you ran.
You step out of the souvenir shop, fresh-faced though you’ve just spent four hours shopping in this quaint, historic little town called St. Augustine. Your five swollen bags, meaty from the killings you made in the discount sections of practically every boutique on St. George Street, hang like dead weight from your arms. The sunlight glares into your eyes and you have to shield them with your hand because Marge forgot to dump your sunglasses into your purse this morning. You can scarcely see the droves of people shuffling across the pedestrian street, but you know they’re there because you can hear couples talking about the history of the city and children complaining about passing the ice cream store.
The coquina streets shimmer and glisten in the mid-March sunlight as if they aren’t centuries old. A man stretches and folds an accordion that strains out the notes to a vaguely familiar tune like a desperate plea. Tourists clog the ancient street wearing straw hats, large sunglasses, and cameras strung around their necks like weighted nooses. They all wear the same facial expression: mouths open with half a smile looking up at the buildings, maybe wondering what it looked like when people still lived in them and carriages clomped and rattled across the street. The notes of bustling life crescendo and fall in currents of rhythm in a symphony of human nature.
“So busy today,” you say. “Not at all like it used to be.”
“Well,” Marge answers, “that’s just because you haven’t lived much lately. You can’t coop yourself up in that dusty old house for years and ignore all this,” as she gestures, this same woman who used to count the veins in leaves and make pictures from the stars. She never seems to tire of this world.
“Yeah,”Sandy says, “imagine all the shopping you’d miss.”
You three laugh like you never forgot how. As it dies, Sandy points out what she addresses as the cutest puppy ever dressed like Raggedy Anne, sitting on the lap of a man who just smiles at the passersby—but you remember there used to be two little raggedy dogs, but now the man’s wife just sits next to him, empty handed while the dog pants and stays perfectly still on his lap—just as you hear the funeral drums. One, two, one two three. The sun drips heat waves onto the street so you can’t see much apart from blobs in either direction, but the drums are getting closer. Marge scowls at the owner of the raggedy dog and mutters something about torture and heat. The drums are getting closer as the man’s wife spits a sharp reply that sounds rehearsed to some semi-aware part of your mind. Eventually you see the 30-some marchers in procession, all dressed in black with signs around their necks. They step in time to the beat of the drum that a man in front carries with a solemn, fixed expression.
As they step closer, you can just make out what the first sign says: “3,860 +BABIES DEAD.” The woman wearing it is using a walker. The man behind her has a scraggly beard and shoes worn thin. He wears a sign that says, “THEY HAD A CAUSE—” You turn away before you see the next sign.
At some point Marge stood next to you, because all of a sudden she’s next to you and she says, “You’d think they’d end that war by now with numbers like that.”
You squint at Marge for a second before saying, “What war?” There isn’t a war on abortion as far as you know, unless some fanatical religious group wants to call it that—and, as far as you know, Marge isn’t religious.
“What war?” Marge repeats, laughing almost like you are a small child and you don’t know any better. “You really haven’t gotten out, Honey. The one in the Middle East. Come on, you do know about that.”
But this is a protest on abortion or child labor or offspring limits in China. You look back at the first sign just as the lady inches past you. The drum pounds a headache into your head because it’s so close. The sign says, “3,680 + US SOLDIERS DEAD.” The sign of the man behind her says, “THEY FOUGHT FOR A CAUSE—” Behind that, a lady with a sign that says, “—THAT HAD NO NECESSITY.”
They shuffle past you and even Sandy stands there and watches with a somber expression as they pass. “141 JOURNALISTS DEAD.” “1 IN 4 VETERANS IS HOMELESS.” “1,100,000 IRAQIS DEAD.” They stream past you, little silent reminders of the world that moves on while you’re busy ignoring it.
After a moment, Sandy says, “Well, let’s not let that put a damper on our day. Shall we?” She continues walking, followed by Marge, and then, eventually, you follow too.
Sandy stops outside of a women’s boutique with two large picture windows and a wooden sign hanging above the door. She points to the sign and says, “Oh, girls, look at that adorable butterfly on that sign. Let’s go in here.” Sandy and Marge start walking into the store but you hesitate, wondering if this is a joke. You stand outside for a moment, looking at the sign. You never would have thought to put that butterfly there.
This is your day to forget, you decide. Just like it’s any other store, you walk in to that smell of lavender and linen with a mist of oldies music, like stepping through a curtain in time. You stand there for a moment taking in the atmosphere of the store. It’s busier than you’ve ever seen it, with all five of the curtained dressing rooms in the back full and women all over pulling clothes from the racks and holding them up to themselves. The body heat alone begins to make you sweat.
You sort the disarranged clothes. Nothing is in a logical place. Sandy stops at a rack of tight-fitting ruffled shirts and comments about how she doesn’t have the figure for them, but you certainly do. Marge is away investigating sweaters. “It’s not my style,” you say to Sandy.
Sandy frowns and says, “Oh, honey… according to you, nothing’s your style.”
Sandy wanders away as you strain to hear the tune of the song that’s playing. It’s familiar, but something about it is off. Slowly, you realize it’s an updated version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” only with a less-experienced pianist and a woman who is singing at least a half step flat. She’s forcing a vibrato so hard it’s a wonder the speakers stay on the walls. You try to tune out the song before the ending fermata. Marge walks by you, singing with a sweet voice that makes the recorded one more bearable. She smiles at you as she sings: “Yet today, my love has flown away… I am without my love.”
You just look at Marge, who sails away as smoothly as she had floated by.
The sunlight drifted in through the window in the upstairs music room as Robbie sat on the floor with his new phonograph—“new to me anyway,” he’d said when he brought it home from an antique store smiling like a kid with the latest cool toy. Benny Goodman’s clarinet bobbed through the horn. You’d just walked into the room to tell him dinner was ready, but before you got the chance, he said, “Babe, listen to this. Just listen. Wait a minute, it’s coming up.” He was always getting you to listen to just a minute of music that usually turned into an hour.
He sat there, cross-legged with his eyes closed and his hands mimicking a conductor, up and down and back and forth to the rhythms of the clarinet solo, and you watched him more than you listened to the music. When the solo was finished, he opened his eyes and you had to quickly look back at the phonograph as if you’d been fascinated by the music the entire time.
“Isn’t it great?” he said, eyes growing.
“It’s wonderful,” you told him, unsure even then if you were really referring to the music at all.
You turn and sift through a rack of clearance clothes, not really looking at anything. Maybe the girls will get bored soon. You look over at Sandy who is already holding three flashy tops to try on and scrutinizing a fourth.
The funeral drums of the protestors return, beating along the street past the store.
You then look over at Marge, who is gazing at a flowy dress that advertises itself as being able to be worn in ten different ways. You walk over to Marge who says, “I’ll never be wise enough to wear a dress like this.”
“You’re already wise enough,” you say to Marge. “You’ll just have a hard time figuring out how to put it on.” Marge smiles and laughs, the crow’s feet around her eyes making her all the more beautiful.
“Are you still mulling?” Marge asks, her smile fading.
“I haven’t mulled on anything since.”
Marge nods respectfully, but with a hint of skepticism.
“Oh girls,”Sandy calls with a sing-song voice. “I found a sweater you’ll just love on me.” She turns around with a multi-colored, feathery monstrosity of a sweater robbing a musk ox of its heat and she’s beaming like Christmas lights in March. Somehow, this becomes the funniest moment of your lives.
You and Marge burst out in childish giggles, not even attempting to cover it up until you notice Sandy’s serious, confused face, and that only makes you explode in more giggles. Your laughter-bruised sides flare again quickly, but the pain is a reminder of only good experiences.
Slowly, the laughter dies and hangs like ash in the air. Something lingering and murky [no… muddy] slips toward your consciousness. You stare at the speaker on the wall until you realize that it’s the song assaulting your joy. Husky, deep-south acoustic guitar with haunting violins. A woman with a low, Mississippi voice sings something about cotton and hay until you finally understand what song this is.
Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits please.
“Listen to this song,” Robbie had said to you sitting in the music room.
“You’ve already played this for me,” you said, toying with his ear, kissing his neck.
“No, but listen.”
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
You’re frozen, now staring at a painting of woods on the wall. A deer stands tall, but he’s hardly noticeable because he’s off to the side, nearly hidden by the trees.
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
The weeds bit your ankles as you ran, calling his name in a desperate plea. You’d heard the gunshot, he was just hunting in the back and he must have caught something—but it wasn’t even deer season, and all you had back there were deer and squirrels—but then you saw his body crumbled on the ground facing the fence that separated your backyard from the woods, and that’s when you’d started running. His 12-gauge shotgun lay next to him, and he was on his back shuddering and spitting out blood in pools. You saw his ravaged midsection, the throbbing pulp that was once a digestive system, but you refused to see it. Even in that electrical moment, you knew you were denying it and the crazy thing was, you kept on denying. His camouflage pants turned black and brown down to the knees, covered in dirt and blood. His socks were pulled halfway off his feet, his eyes wide open and staring out. In one surreal moment, you found yourself looking around for his shoes.
“Robbie?” you said stupidly, because even then you somehow knew he was dead and his nerves were just firing off, but simultaneously thought maybe it was just a joke. His body shuddered and you could see the coiled mess beneath his ribcage swim. It wasn’t real yet. You were probably sitting in your room just imagining Robbie dying because you knew that it would be the only thing in this world that could have destroyed your life.
After a while, you don’t know how long, you noticed that Robbie had stopped shuddering. His eyes stared up through his wife, through the sky.
You just looked at the grass thinking about how you two met at a high school play. You’d gotten seated together and ended up making fun of the horrible play the whole time. Robbie would have liked that memory. You decided you’d see a play with him soon. He’d like that. It would cheer him up.
The night wind left chilled blankets on your skin before you decided it was time to go inside and find Robbie. You had a play to see.
You stood up from the grass, using Robbie’s sticky shoulder to push yourself up, and ambled inside.
The sales person behind the counter looks at you and says above the customers’ prattle, “Laurie?” You don’t realize she’s talking to you until she rushes over to you in clicking heels and drapes her arms around you. This is the young one, you remember, but you don’t know her name. “Oh, we’ve missed you! Anna’s been making a lot of changes you know. I hope you don’t mind.”
When the police questioned you about Robbie’s death, you couldn’t remember anything. You might have had scrambled eggs that morning. Maybe just a bagel.
They gave you to a psychologist and deemed his death a hunting accident. A misfire, they said—you told them. It had to have been some sort of misfire.
And Mama said to me, Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
The girl is talking to you, chattering about how wonderfully the store’s been doing since you left and all you can do is stare at the painting of woods and think about how you never did find Robbie’s shoes anyway.
They’d told you it was a hunting accident, and, because you couldn’t remember anything but something about weeds and a deer, you believed them. The shoes, the obsession with that song, the guilt that chained him to the bed day after day. He would sit in that room and listen to “Ode to Billie Joe” on repeat like he was carving it into his brain, feeding off of it, or maybe—this idea comes to you much, much later—he was just trying to send you a message.
“I’m so sorry about Jamie,” he’d said the night before. It was such an odd time to bring up the baby, but you let him have his piece because he didn’t often speak about his emotions unless they involved music.
“It’s okay,” you said, not sure if you should touch him now or leave him alone. “It’s not your fault. It’s not our fault.”
He began crying and wouldn’t stop, even when you asked him to come to bed with you. You could always have another baby, you said, though it sounded gritty and stale in your mouth to say it.
The next day he’d put on his hunting boots, picked up his shotgun, and told you he was going out back for a while.
“Now? It’s March,” you’d said, playfully whining. Anything to get him back inside, in your arms. “Sweetie, the deer are all sleeping. They’ll wake up again when it’s deer season.”
But he was already out the door.
You back away, knowing nothing now except where the door is. Your feet move in slow-motion and you wonder if you’re even going anywhere. Sandy says, “Well, look at that, Laurie, they’re playin’ all the songs you used to play in here!” And with that, you bolt for the door.
A year has come an’ gone since we heard the news ‘bout Billie Joe…
You throw open the door to the outside and as you stumble onto the street, white and hot—
I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
—and your eyes contract, screaming from the merciless rays of the sun.
and dropping them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
You stand in the street staring into whiteness as you hear the living, breathing, laughing people walking past you, moving onward.