In the spring of my freshman year at Maryville College, I drove into the mountains to go on a trail my parents and I would hike on trips there when I was a child. I went because I wanted to paint a picture of a waterfall along the path. I remembered that the waterfall often slimmed to an insignificant whispering trickle in the hot summer months and that mosquitoes and leaves would swarm over my view in a sticky overgrowth of humid vociferousness. But if I could find a break in the spring rains, I knew that I would find a glittering morning song gushing down and over an expanse of rock bluff framed by the fresh outburst of soft green leaves and clusters of rhododendron.
It was not safe for a young girl to be out in those woods alone. Daddy would have stormed if I had told him I was going, but I didn't because it was spring, a time for moving in silence, connecting in a subverbal animal way to the timbre of the earth's heaving breath.
I have never wanted to be a professional artist. I never wanted to have people telling me what to paint. My art has always been strictly for myself and the spirit of what I hope life is and can be. And that's what this trip was aboutgoing into the woods, sitting where plenty of snakes could have probably swallowed me whole, and listening to and watching the water swathing through the bright spring foliage in its liquid silver swirling haste. Hours washed along with the stream that day, and I kept adding more and more shadows to my picture because with each shadow it seemed that the light grew bolder, and brilliant light is difficult to render in watercolors, my medium of that day. When I finally tore myself from that spot in the woods, it was nearly night. I have never been back since.
Now I am back in Davis, the town of my birth, the town of five generations of my family's births. The Tennessee state line is only about twenty miles away, but Maryville, the mountains, the stream, and the time when time could be the massive swell of something not comprehended and never measured all seem very far away. I have just closed up my art shop, which by the graciousness of David Briggins (or rather the importance of my father in town) I was permitted to open in the old City Café building on the square for a very reasonable rent (which my father doesn't hesitate to pay). And now that I have made the one-way route around the square, I linger at the stop sign for a few extra seconds to allow two black men to cross the street. They are Jack and Bill Green. Jack is wearing the same ratty, checkered sport coat he wears all seasons of the year; his face is drawn from a stroke, and one eye is red. He looks at me with that big red eye, turning his entire upper body, and waves at me. I can never tell if he knows who I am, if he knows who anybody is. Bill is taller and he wears what looks like new overalls over a white shirt. He is very dark. He waves too. As I start down the street, I can hear the faint click of Jack's cane tapping the pavement.
From there until I reach my parents' house on Forrest Street, all I can think about is Brody. Last week, I stopped yet again to let him cross the street right where Jack and Bill just crossed. His hair flowed back and out, and his long shaggy sideburns pointed forward like slippers toward his nose. And the flab of his face shook as he intently watched his steps across the road. He did not wave; I've never known him to wave. He was still wearing his maroon J. C. Bright and Son's Grocery Store shirt, which I am sure he was hell-bent on changing as soon as he got home because it would turn his stomach to have to wear State maroon for any reason except to make a living. I'm surprised he never managed to talk the manager into letting him wear alternate red and blue shirts. Everyone in my family is an Ole Miss fan, and that is final, even if my great uncle did go to State to become an engineer and did have a chance to work for DuPont but went to war instead. It didn't matter, really, because he always pulled for Ole Miss.
At homeand home is something claustrophobic to me, even if I do love it, since I have had to be here since the divorceAnnabelle pads out to meet me, as old in her business of pointing as my father is in his business of shooting. I go inside to find that my parents have driven to Tupelo for the day to shop at McRae's. It is so quiet, and this house is so old, one of the oldest in town. Dust covers the blinds, the old velvet furniture, and the Spanish leather wallpaper in an ever-thickening film. Alone never meant to me before what it means since I learned to cherish the drone of voices connected by the fibers of love. Well, maybe not that connected.
Back in the eighties, my mother decided to have our old filmstrips transferred to video tapes. I have been watching one of them all week, and it is still in the VCR. I watch it until I reach the part that shows the two boys playing football in the back yard. Brody and Cody. It is spring time, although the old film makes things look darker than they probably were. The two boys are big; their love-handles flair out over the tops of their jeans, and their t-shirts struggle to cover them. Neither of the boys are very athletic and their awkward bodies wheel and jounce over the screen as they clash against one another and wallow on the ground. They are laughing, their teeth flashing under their lips, which are separated because they are playing hard and breathing, breathing, breathing so heavily. There is no sound, but I know my father was egging them on, telling them Archie Manning would never take a hit like that. They look at him the way all boys look at their uncles: as something higher even than a god.
Their mother's name was April, and she had a sister named Autumn. Here comes Spring and Fall, my mother said people would say. I do not remember either of them. But I have seen pictures in the old albums, pictures of April. It's amazing to me that you can see entire lives pass in a photo album.
April was beautiful. In the pictures of her when she was young, she stands beside my mother and my mother's sisters. April is the one with the dark rings under her eyes. Her skin is dark and her hair is dark. She looks like a señorita. And her thin legs look like colt's legs, with the knees turned in slightly. And the overall look of her is slight, slighter than the faintest summer breeze. In later pictures, she is more filled out, her skin looks more settled and her girth is increased. But the eyes are the same, the same haunting, dark, rings, smiling yet tragic, just like the month for which she is named, full of so much promise but doomed to bad weather. She died of cancer when Cody and Brody were six and three years old, respectivelyreally too young to comprehend the tragedy already set into motion in their lives. I don't know if people ever really grasp tragedy when it grips them in youth; perhaps tragedy is like a callous that, when created early, feels no pain whatsoever.
The boys' father's name was Larry. He did not stay with them long. About four months after April died, he vanished from town altogether. He was a known drunk and philanderer. He was rumored to have a mistress in Memphis, but then all men who have anything dangerous about them are rumored to have a mistress in Memphis. The more dangerous, the more colorful the mistress, literally, so that if a man is also rumored to have killed someone he most certainly has an octoroon (you laugh, but the term is still in use around here) hussy with three breasts stuck away down some alley off Beale Street.
Autumn still lived here at the time, and so she took the boys into her home. She and her husband, Floyd, were never able to have children. And they kept the boys and watched out for them and loved them. They loved them. When I sit here in this silence, it seems to me that nothing is more tragic than the love Autumn had for those boys. No watercolor could ever capture the bright glory of that tragedy of her love juxtaposed against the shadows of those boys' lives.
Cody and Brody were ten and seven years old when I was born, and though I am sure they played with me when I was a baby, I really had little to do with them. At length, Floyd found work in Georgia, and so he and Autumn and the boys moved away. But the boys were back in Davis soon. They worked wherever they could. They could not stand the thought of staying away from Davis. I think about them at that time. They seemed happy in the fact of being together. They fought like wild animals, to be sure, and they were forever threatening one another, one telling the other he would leave and never come back. And they never made up after these fights. Things just went on. That was what life was. That was what being together meant.
But I still never really had much to do with them. I liked them and we spoke occasionally, although they were both awkward with girls, particularly Brody. Brody, see, was the sweet one, the one who never had any concept of himself. The younger one for whom life never held anything but his brother, for whom the death of a mother was never any particular loss any more than the loss of a father because the brother was everything. I can see them racing about the shadows of my mind, the older sure of himself, quick with either truth or lie when the inevitable questions came from the younger, always more deeply scarred, always more aware, always more independent and reckless. Behind him the younger, absolutely unconcerned about whatever might be the world at large, absolutely secure in the fact of the older, whose very body mapped the expanse of the younger's world-the younger always tragic, always unaware, always incomplete and uncomprehending and utterly benign.
They were always the poorer ones in the family. It's one of those things that you realize and wish you could do something about but never quite get around to. Furthermore, there was something unbelievable about them. They never asked anything of you. They had nothing and we had everything, but they never asked anything of us. My father would give them things: several times he gave them tickets to Ole Miss games; I doubt those boys missed a single home game when Archie Manning was there. But then, after giving them things, you just sort of forgot about them because in the end they were silent. Silent and still.
But not still enough. Because Cody finally decided to make something of himself and become a culinary artist. I remember my father coming inJanie, Mildred, you'll never guess what that Cody's taken it into his head to do, Daddy said. He wants to go up to Memphis and learn how to cook. I guess my father helped him pay for it because Cody started driving up to a culinary school in Memphis and then he took a job at what was then called Plain-O-Fixin's restaurant. Then he worked at Simpson's, where he cooked up the best crawfish and frog-legs anywhere.
But none of us were prepared for what happened next. He moved to St. Louis. He got a job all the way off in St. Louis, cooking for a big-time restaurant. I say none of us as if I was there, when in fact I was living in Nashville at the time and was pregnant with my first child. I was too absorbed in my own life to worry about anything here at that time. And of course, neither Brody nor Cody asked for anything. And, as usual, they were silent-so silent that I forgot all about them. If you have never really had much trouble in your life you never really think that anyone can have that much trouble in life: you think that maybe trouble is something you just pretend to have for a little while and then life goes back to normal. And so you forget about people in trouble. It is like snow: when you are in Mississippi in February and the jonquils start blooming, you can try every way in the world but cannot imagine that at that moment in Maine the snow is slanting in opaque sheets and that the wind is whistling through the window panes like a ghost held too long in the ice-solid freeze of summer's forgetfulness. You just cannot imagine it.
In fact, I never thought about either Brody or Cody for a long time. I was never really surprised about Cody. Even though I really didn't know him, I knew enough about the kind of things he said and did to know that no small town would ever hold him. But I never really thought about what either Brody or Cody was doing for a long time.
And then two years ago trouble suddenly became something that does not just disappear in your sleep. My husband came home from work one day and flatly announced that he was leaving me and that there was nothing I could do about it. He arranged to keep custody of the children and pretty much everything else. I wound up with practically nothing. I had no idea what was coming; if I had anticipated it, perhaps I would have done something. Perhaps I would have known how to fight.
That is when I came back here and moved in with my parents and opened the shop. That is when a new universe of thought lifted its garage door for me to look at all its years of accumulated junk. I thought about myself mostly, and my thoughts about myself would include thoughts about everything else, including Brody. I remember the first time I ran into him in J. C. Bright and Son's.
Brody. You remember me? Janie?
How are you, Janie?
He looked at the floor as he spoke.
I'm fine. And you?
Is Cody liking his work?
Isn't he up in Memphis or somewhere?
That's a long way away. Do y'all talk much or visit?
No ma'am. Just at Christmas.
You been working here long?
Yes ma'am. About eight years.
Eight years. I'll be.
He stood there with his hands fidgeting on the edge of his pockets. I tried to imagine how he saw me, the homecoming queen, still in shape in my thirties, my hair frosted. To him I probably seemed like a goddess. He had no idea about my physical flaws, much less my heaps of mental and spiritual problems. To him I had probably always seemed part of another world.
You take care, Brody.
He stood fidgeting a moment.
It's good to see you again, Janie.
God, I thought about it. Here he is in his late forties and has never been married. Later in the week of that same day, I watched him cross the road to walk home. He never had a car. He would watch his steps carefully. He reminded me of Eli Waynewright, who used to count every step to town and if someone got in his way, he would stand aside and fuss at them until they moved on and then start right back counting where he left off. What must it have been like never to have experienced the warmth of another body, the closeness of someone caring about you? He didn't even have a mother.
Any time I was in J. C. Bright's, I would always make sure and speak to him and he would always speak to me in that same fidgeting way. When my kids would visit, I would take them to Dixie Video to rent movies for them. It seemed like he was always there. I would watch him when he checked out: he would hand the tapes to the teenage girls. He would never say anything. They would never say anything. It seemed to me that sometimes I would see him glance at their bare midriffs, or stare at their tight-jeaned butts as they walked around the store. They were always cute girls dressed in cute outfits. And I would think to myselfwhat must he be thinking? What must they be thinking?
And then I forgot about him for a while as my life became more involved in work and I began to think about myself again. Again, he never asked for anything, and so I just forgot about him. I forgot about him until this time last week, in fact, when I was pulling off the highway toward the square and saw him start across the street as a car whipped around the corner and struck him ten feet in the air. He hit the pavement like a doll, arms flailing, hair tossing. The car was screeching but could not keep from running right over his head. I remember seeing his face, innocent and benign as ever, sideburns still pointing like slippers. I remember the shadow of the car creeping-it seemed like forever-over his face and then the gleam of the bumper. But that is the last thing I remember. After that all I can remember is that day back in the mountains outside of Maryville. It seems that right then I just left myself and was there sitting beside that stream, working hard to get the paint out of a particularly obstinate tube, listening to the water, feeling the soft warmth of spring, alone and not worried in the least about it. It seems that right then all I could remember were the shadows of leaves swapping over the radiant brightness of boulders and the rhythmic mirror-waves of the water reflecting on the rocks along the bank of the stream. And it seems now that the lights and shadows of those boulders transformed into the light of those t-shirts swaddled around the love handles of those two boys as they played football in the backyard, laughing, secure in their vicious togetherness.
And every day since then I have asked myself over and over and over and over. I hope I never forget because I quit asking.
Taylor Hagood, of Ripley, Mississippi, has had poems and articles published in several journals, including Appalachian Heritage, L'Intrigue, Moria: A Poetry Journal, Poetalk, and The Southern Literary Journal. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Mississippi.