Homer moved farther down the bank near the water's edge. The tree-lined Mississippi stretched a couple hundred feet wide. At this time of evening, long dark shadows rode upon ripples of muddy water. A west wind rattled leaves above him. From afar, a crow cawed.
He leaned against the furrowed bark of a massive oak, relieved to find himself alone, except for the mosquito that whined in his ear. He batted at the maddening pest.
He took the envelope from his pocket. Did he really want to do this? Let Nieta stir up feelings he didn't want to feel?
The mosquito buzzed him again. He fanned it away and unfolded two papers that were inside. The one on top was his and Nieta's certificate of marriage. He let out a half laugh. Why would she think seeing that would hurt him? Maybe she regretted her mistake, and she was the one who hurt. He tore it into pieces, tossed it into the wind and watched the ragged pieces ride the ripples then sink.
The remaining paper appeared to be a sheet from a drawing pad, like those he remembered from grade school. Seeing a faint colored drawing showing through, he flipped it over. He stared at the drawing he had done in the fifth grade. His family tree.
Congratulations, Nieta, you got yourself a double whammy. Few people knew the story behind the scar on his forearm. Nieta knew. So did Catfish. But he'd never told Eight Ball.
He glared at his childish attempt to make something out of nothing. The elaborately detailed leaves colored emerald green and outlined in black crayon. The fat trunk outlined the same and colored a rich brown. He'd thought if he made the tree beautiful the teacher wouldn't ask questions and embarrass him in front of the class.
At the center of the trunk, he'd printed his grandfather's name and birth year, Thomas Fields,1910, then his grandmother's, Iola, born 1911. His eyes flickered to the tree's only limb. Two names and dates hung out on it; his, Homer Ashley Fields, 1954, and . . . his mother's, Nola Promise Fields, 1934.
But the teacher did embarrass him. "Homer Ashley Fields," she'd said, "you take this home and ask your grandfather to help you with the names of your relatives." He remembered saying, "That's all the family I got." But she hadn't believed him, and said, "Surely you have great grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins." His retort to her rang in his head, "I told you; it's all the family I got." He'd grabbed the drawing from her and jabbed his finger on two of the names. "My grandmother's dead. My mother's dead. It's just me and Old Tom," he'd said, and ran from the classroom to home.
That day, he'd learned Old Tom had been right; the pain you can't see hurts much more than the pain you can.
A sharp sting on his hand snapped his eyes to the mosquito that sat feeding on his blood. He slapped his hand over it and ground it into his skin until nothing was left but bits of legs, wings, and blood. With hard strokes, he wiped the remains on his trousers.
He hated the drawing for all the grief it had caused him . . . and Old Tom. Thirty-two years of Old Tom's silence. How was he, a boy of eleven, to know the consequences of his asking Old Tom questions about family? Of one thing he'd always felt certain--- something horrible had happened at sometime in Old Tom's life.
The first years of Old Tom's silence had been the hardest for Honer, and he supposed for Old Tom as well. While in high school, he'd spent hours upon hours searching newspaper microfilm and genealogy books at Millington's library for information that might tell him anything about Old Tom's past. He'd fed the pay phone his lunch money to telephone every Fields listed in the Millington and Memphis directories. And found nothing.
Then as he slipped into manhood with responsibilities, he gave it less and less thought and simply accepted the way things were. These men asking questions, were they somehow connected to his grandfather's past?
A metallic jingle from behind him caused him to turn.
Carmel stood at the top of the incline. "Mind some company?" Her charm bracelet jingled as she combed her fingers through short curls. She moved down the bank to him. "It's nice and cool down here."
He stuffed the paper and envelope into his pocket. "Yes it is," he said, stunned, still angry at her, and half resenting her intrusion. Apparently, she had drank the slide. Or lost her rattlers.
What? No apology, just go asking personal questions as if nothing happened? "You from around Memphis," he blurted out without really thinking, but wanting to turn her questions away from him.
"No, I just moved here."
"You have relatives who live here, parents?"
"No, they were--- they're dead." She answered as though her mind were in a place of bad memories.
"You say that as though they passed away at the same time. Car accident?"
"You never answered my question."
"Love letter," she said, dipping her eyes to his pocket.
"No. It's---it's just---something I rather not talk about."
"Sorry. The older gentleman you came in with, Catfish said he's your grandfather."
"Catfish said he can't talk."
"Can but won't. He used to." Homer looked away, then back to her, ignoring the questions in her eyes. He got the feeling Catfish told her a lot more. "So you just moved to Memphis?"
" . . . . Several months ago. With my grandmother."
Her tone and the hesitancy gave him the feeling she had things she didn't want to talk about either. "Where from?"
She swept her eyes over the water then to the distant sky. "Across the river. West." Her voice had a remembering sound to it. "Grandmother was a blues singer in the forties. She wrote her own songs. Blues mostly. Blues and jazz were big there back then." She turned back to him with a faint smile. "My grandmother won't sing anymore and your grandfather refuses to talk. A coincidence?"
Homer nodded. "Do you sing her songs?"
"I can, but I don't." She laughed at what she said. Her eyes sparkled and lit her face.
Homer made the "can-do won't-do" connection and laughed, too. "Carmel your real name?"
"Real enough. What's your full name, Homer?"
"Homer Ashley Fields."
She stuck out her hand and took his. "Pleased to meet you, Homer Ashley Fields." She held her eyes on his for a moment before letting go of his hand. "I'm terribly sorry about earlier. It's just that I sometimes feel all a man wants from me is---"
"I wanted only to get to know you. That's it." Sounded good, mostly true, but a man would have to be a eunuch not to want her.
"Do you live with your grandfather?"
"Why do you ask that?" Homer said, defensively. He suddenly felt smaller. Until now, he had never thought about his living arrangements one way or another. A middle-aged man living with his grandfather; what kind of man did that make him in her eyes? A lazy bum unable to make it on his own, living off an old man's social security?
She took a step back. "I didn't mean anything by that---only that I saw how caring and kind you were toward him. I admire that in a man. Not many care about or have time to give to the old."
Though she may still have doubt about his capability of self support, he straightened to his full height. Before he could get out some kind of comment, he saw her gaze settle on his left ear.
"What happened to your earlobe?" she asked, not with pity or morbid curiosity in her voice, but in the same way she might have asked where he bought the shirt he was wearing. "You an artist?"
"No." Damn, couldn't she just not say whatever pops into her head? She had focused on something that irritated the shit out of him. That and the fact he believed she thought he wouldn't be knowledgeable as to what reference she'd made. Plus, he wasn't about to tell her his true story of Crazy Sue's "Play Misty For Me" episode that cost him the half inch of his earlobe. "Unlike Van Gogh I would never cut off my ear to prove a point," he said, a bite to his tone.
Her face held a childlike sadness, as though she'd dropped her ice cream cone in the dirt and knew there would be no more. He felt like slapping himself.
"I apologize if I've made you feel uncomfortable. I didn't think . . . I mean, I was being insensitive, trying to be . . . . "
Homer let out a breath of near disgust. At himself. "Please don't apologize. I'm the one who should apologize. I'm sorry for being such a jerk."
In her eyes, he saw pain.
"We all carry scars of the past, whether they're visible or not." She turned and went up the riverbank.
He would have expected her to say drop dead or go fuck yourself, anything but what she'd said. The statement was not only personal but chastising. More than that, it hit home. He snapped up a stone from the ground and hurled it into the river.
Over the years, he had dated a few of the female entertainers who played at Rattlers. Mostly one night stands. They all seemed to have a sharpness around the edges. Homer supposed to work the nightlife and clubs, they had to have a bit of brittleness. But Carmel was different. There was a softness about her, yet at the same time, a hardness lying in guard beneath that surface.
Living with Old Tom he'd learned that a far deeper form of communication came not from what one said but what one observed. He had known Carmel only a few moments but he knew she had a story to tell---one he wished he knew. Her voice drifted down to him as she sang Billie Holiday's, "Don't Explain."
Click here to purchase Sweet Gums