Independence Day: Part II
To catch up, read Part I here!
Officer Ted’s partner has kept the police lights on, and red and blue light slides across our faces. Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
When you cross red and blue you get purple. The color of royalty and flowers and bruises.
The man sittin’ across from me ain’t bothered to look at my arms. Not yet. He will soon, I reckon. And there he’ll find a garden of Jimmy Bob’s violet blooms.
“Tell me about that night,” Ted says. “The night of July 1st.”
Outside, I hear the gunshot pop of my neighbors beginning their celebrations. The first pop is echoed by one farther away that sounds like thunder.
From the stove, I smell Herbert’s stew burning.
I tug on the sleeves at my wrists. “I’m inclined to tell you the truth in its entirety,” I say. “It ain’t a pleasant one, though.”
Ted glances up at me. “Ma’am, I must advise you now before you say anything, that you have a right to an attorney. You may want to think carefully about what you say here tonight.”
I find this to be a mighty kind gesture, and it gets me a little misty, I admit. “Well Officer Ted, that’s very kind of you. And I’ll say, I think I may have been wrong in judging you the way I did.”
“And what way is that, Ma’am?” he asks.
“That you’re like Jimmy Bob,” I say.
He pauses, I can see his mind working and I reckon he gets where I was goin’ with that.
“What happened the night of July 1st?” he asks.
Another gunshot pop. I flinch.
“It started the same as most nights,” I say. “But the only difference is I was running late on dinner and Jimmy Bob was about to be home.”
I remember the fear I felt. I’d tasted it in my mouth, a sharp metallic tang. I’d looked out the window and back to the stove and the nearly raw chicken atop it over and over again. He’d be angry. There wasn’t anything new there. Jimmy Bob was angry most days when he got home. On the back end of a life filled with disappointments and setbacks. And the biggest disappointment, the cause of so many setbacks, was me.
“Jimmy Bob hated it when dinner wasn’t ready for him,” I say to Officer Ted. “I was usually so careful to have everything ready for him. But I’d gone to see a friend of mine and had lost track of time.”
He’d pulled into the driveway. Coming in so fast that the car kicked up a spray of gravel. I remember I closed my eyes. He’d been drinking more than usual. I could tell by the way he staggered outta the car. It was one of the bad days. He stumbled up the steps of the porch.
The screen door squealed.
“He had an awful temper, and it got worse when he was drinking,” I say. “Anything could piss him off.”
I’d made myself busy chopping onions to go with the chicken and taters. I wanted him to see that I was busy when he came in. Maybe he’d forgive me. Maybe he wouldn’t get angry.
Maybe he’d leave me alone.
The front door banged open and I flinched. The knife slipped and sliced my finger. Blood dripped from my hand and I pressed it into my apron.
“Millie Jane,” he slurred. I could almost smell the alcohol rolling from his hot breath, coming
from the hallway. “Where’s my dinner?”
“He made it very clear that I had to have my chores done before I saw my friends,” I say.
“If he were the breadwinner, I had to keep house. He hated it if I disobeyed him. He said it was in the Good Book that the wife had to obey the husband.”
“It’s coming,” I called. I hated how small my voice sounded.
“Why ain’t it ready?” he demanded. “What have you been doing all day?” He appeared in the doorway and leaned to one side.
“I ran some errands.” I avoided his gaze. He could tell when I was lying. He always knew. “It took longer than I thought.” I stared at my wrist and realized in a panic that I was still wearing the bracelet that Betty gave me that morning. He’d notice. I knew he would, sooner or later. I covered my bracelet with my sleeve.
Jimmy Bob snorted. “You never were so bright were you? But I love you anyway. Isn't that right?”
“Yes,” I said. I hated myself, but there wasn’t any use arguing. Maybe he’d pass out soon and I could have a quiet evening. Please, God, let him pass out.
I went back to chopping onions.
“He saw it as his duty to punish me when I was disobedient,” I say. I don’t look at Officer Ted as I pull back my sleeves to reveal the bruises on my arms and wrists. “He never bothered to tell me straight, but I reckon my disobedience happened to be anything I did that he didn’t like.”
He grabbed my arm and ripped my sleeve up. My new bracelet twinkled on my wrist. "Where did you get this?"
I froze. I couldn't think of anything to say. My heart started pounding faster.
And still, I hadn't said anything. He tightened his grip and tears sprang to my eyes as if they’d been waitin’.
"Honey," I whispered. "You're hurting me."
I needed to turn the chicken. I could smell the meat burning. It was a sharp smell that stayed in your nose long after it was introduced to the ol-fac-toree sense.
Jimmy Bob stared at the bracelet and his alcohol stained cheeks grew darker. I could smell the whiskey on his breath, mixing with the burned chicken in a nauseating way.
"Are you seeing someone?" he asked. "Did some guy give this to you?"
"What?" I stammered. "Honey, no. I'd never--"
His grip tightened even more and he dragged me from the kitchen. I stumbled behind him and tried to get my feet under me. He pulled me outside, and I had started crying along the way and just noticed when the humid air hit my damp skin. He let go of me and I fell in the tall grass.
We were by the pond, and the air was filled with the shrieks of cicadas.
I stop my story and I swear if I dropped a pin you could hear it bounce against the floor. The officer is so focused on my words that no one noticed that Herbert has come in to lie at our feet. I reach down and run my hand along his smooth scales. His cool skin slides under my fingers. One of his scales catches on the scab on my finger.
"Ma'am, are you telling me that your husband abuses you?" Officer Ted asks. His tone is as serious as a pastor at a funeral.
And I don't think I like the way he speaks to me now. There's a dash of pity in his voice.
Pity that I ain't asking for and don't need.
"I don't think that it's a secret, Officer Ted," I say. "Jimmy Bob was well known in town. And I talked to your department twice on the subject. They seemed mighty reluctant to get involved in the affairs of a married couple."
Officer Ted presses his lips together and looks down. I know he sees Herbert's tail peeking out from the table as the big guy swishes it back and forth. But, bless him, Officer Ted says nothing about him.
"Would you like to continue?" Officer Ted asks.
"Don't you lie to me, Millie Jane," he hollered.
I curled my head toward my knees and my knees toward my chest. "Betty gave it to me." I knew it wouldn't do any good. He wouldn't believe me.
This is what he'd made of me. A woman in her sixties curled like a child in the grass. For the first time, I felt something other than fear.
Anger, hot and sharp, boiled inside me. I dug my nails into my hands and my fingers closed around something hard.
Somehow, I had managed to hold on to the knife I was chopping onions with. I was so focused on Jimmy Bob, that I forgot I had it.
The moon was full and there warn’t many clouds in the sky. I could see the stars twinkling, like the bracelet on my arm.
Jimmy Bob hauled me to my feet and tore the bracelet from my wrist. He threw it in the pond, where it slipped beneath the water with nary a sound.
“You been unfaithful to me, Millie Jane?” he said. He was swaying on his feet something fierce, bending like a tree in a hurricane. “You been makin’ a fool outta me?”
I gripped the knife in my hand. He ain’t seen it yet. If he had, he woulda knocked it away. I looked out at the pond, my bracelet long gone. I caught the glint of eyes watching us just over the surface of the water. I couldn’t tell who it was in the dark. The eyes, shiny as a belt buckle, glided smooth as you like across the black surface of the pond, propelled by the undulations of a long, thick tail.
The frogs quieted as the creature, as old as dinosaurs they say, began his hunt. He came closer, silent as the night is dark. His eyes glinted in the moonlight.
I stepped closer to the pond, away from Jimmy Bob. He followed me and grabbed the back of my neck with a big heavy fist.
“Millie Jane, you answer me,” Jimmy Bob demanded. “You been unfaithful?”
My hand tightened in a fist around the handle. “I wish I had,” I muttered.
“What did you jus’ say to me?” Jimmy Bob tightened his grip on my neck. I felt the pressure of each fingertip push bruises into my flesh. His thumb nail scratched the soft skin behind my ear.
I didn’t look at him, but kept my eyes out on the water. The eyes of the creature had stopped moving, and floated a few feet from shore, waiting. Ht knew, I was sure, what was about to happen. The only one who knew what was going to happen.
“Nothing,” I said. My voice shook, and sounded strange, far away. A pounding had begun in my head and in the palms of my hands. The beat drummed loud in my ears, and drowned out what Jimmy Bob said next.
He pushed me forward, and I stumbled, but remained upright. I turned, and it felt like I took a year to do it, but it musta been quick, because Jimmy Bob was lookin’ at me. No, not at me, at what I held in my hand.
He stepped toward me, and then raised a hand and cried out. Blood ran from his hand, striped his dingy white shirt with red. He was on the ground, crying. Blood ribboned from a gash in his cheek, and a deeper gash in his neck, just about the same place where he’d nicked me with his thumb nail.
I don’t remember going back to the house. The next thing I can recall is doing the dishes. The suds were red and white. The kitchen window was open, and I could hear the rustle of somethin’ heavy sliding through the tall grass by the pond. Then the wet sounds of thrashin’ in the water.
Then nothing but cicadas.
I sit back.
Officer Ted looks a little peaked, like I did the time I ate some clam chowder that didn’t agree with me.
“I am inclined to go with you quiet like,” I say. “I know there ain’t no mercy on this path I’ve chosen. I just hope that the Good Lord will take some pity on my when I reach those big pearly gates.”
“Where are Jimmy Bob’s remains,” Officer Ted asks.
I look out the window. Fireworks burst in the sky, and illuminate the dark pond down the lawn. “Don’t know how much you’ll find of him.”
“Mrs. Jones, if you’ll come with us to the station…” Officer Ted began. Something seems to overcome him and he clears his throat.
“Right,” I say. “I’ll be along. I’d just like to say goodbye to Herbert.”
Officer Ted, the good man that he is, doesn’t laugh at the notion of an old lady needing to say goodbye to a gator. He waits in the hallway for me.
I crouch next to the big lug and run my hand along his back. My knees complain. I certainly ain’t as spry as I use to be. But there were so many things that I used to be that are now long gone, and so many things that am now that I ain’t never thought I’d be. But time is like that, the cruel bitch. She twists you up till you hardly recognize yourself.
I think on my first husband, Bill, who’d died when the kids were small. I think on the woman I was, single mom, who married the first man interested in me. I’d overlooked the drinking, and the yellin’ and by the time he started hittin’ I wasn’t the woman I’d been before. The woman who woulda left him.
But Jimmy Bob hadn’t been all bad in the beginning. Time had twisted him up too, I reckon. Turned him into a monster and he did the rest.
Who’s to blame here? All of us, and none of us, I guess. But I sure do know that the only one who isn’t a monster is this gator, purring beneath my hand.
“Goodbye, Herbert,” I say, and for the second time tonight, I feel misty. I dab my eyes with my apron. Herbert seems to pick up on the notion that I ain’t coming back, and gives me a nudge with his snout as if to say “Aw shucks, Millie Jane. No tears now.” I pat his head and try a smile. “You be good now. You hear me?”
Officer Ted peeks his head back into the kitchen. “Ma’am?”
“Yes, sir. I’m coming.”
I stand with a groan and turn off the burner on the stove. Herbert’s stew is ruined. But I reckon he only ever ate it because it made me happy. There are plenty of other things he can go hunting for. The whole world is his.
I reckon that Officer Ted won’t wait around while I tidy up a bit, and if people call me a slob, then so be it.
I follow him quietly out of the house. If there is one good thing about the situation, it is that I will never again have to hear that God damn squeaky hinge on the screen door.
I breathe in a deep breath, smell the dewy grass, the hint of pine from the trees down the way, and the heavy scent of smoke from the fireworks.
As we drive away and I see the starry bursts of light in the dark sky, I’m overcome with the desire to laugh. I try to stifle it with the palm of my hand against my mouth but I snort and then fall to pieces. I see the officer’s in the front seat glance back at me, then exchange looks, which only makes me laugh harder. I sound crazy, and maybe I am. My laugh is like shrieks and I ain’t seem to have no control over it. I just can’t help it, the guffaws punch from my heaving chest and I can barely breathe with the stitches in my sides.
We round the corner and pull onto the main road, and my laughter echoes off the pond and snares in the pine trees. I see the officers start to look more concerned but I really can’t help it.
It’s just too funny.
It’s all just so Goddamn funny.
It's dawned on me, suddenly and with that special twist of i-ron-ee, exactly what day it is. July 4th. Independence Day for the good old U. S. of A.