Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story
The Sweetgum Tree
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. - Mathew 6:21
"Them children needs shoes," Jonah's grandmother said, scraping grits off the inside of the pot with a snuff-stained finger. He watched her lick off the white glob, her small tongue flickering out of its cave mouth. Her black eyes, two raisins pressed into the sodden dough of her face, turned to his father. "Don't want none of them women at the school saying nothing, do you?"
Jonah felt a poke in his arm as his father paused the circular shoveling of food to his mouth. The older man pointed to the coffee tin sitting on a shelf behind the wood-burning stove next to a stack of newspapers with war news from the Pacific and Germany.
"Do something useful before you run out on me tomorrow," his father said.
Jonah stood and ate the last mouthful of eggs he had fried himself and placed the plate in the basin under the water pump. Looking out the window over the basin, he could see his brothers and sisters rough-housing on the edge of the bursting cotton field. A small pile of canvas bags lay near them with Georgia Cotton Merchants printed in fading red letters on the sides. White puffs bloomed from the craggy brown plants, and Jonah's hands ached with the memory of cuts and pricks on his fingers from past harvests. He clenched his hands in and out of fists, warding off the echo of stiffness and swollen joints. This was the first crop he had planted himself, pouring everything he knew into each furrow, feeling the sun rise and set over his shoulder every day as he tended to the fields. It pained him to be leaving now. But a draft notice had arrived, and tomorrow he would be on a bus headed for Fort Gordon. It would be the first harvest in his 18 years he would miss. For that, and most other things, his father was unforgiving.
Jonah reached for the broom standing behind the water pump and broke off six straws. From the back porch, he waved his brothers and sisters to him and they tumbled over each other, up the steps, and into the row of fishing poles lined up against the wall of the house.
"Hush up!" his grandmother cried, stuffing herself between the arms of the rocking chair on the porch, her mouth working a dip of tobacco around her gums. The chair creaked as she began to rock and for a moment, her swollen form blurred, and Jonah saw the sliver of a woman that was his mother, her head flung back with laughter as she rocked faster and faster in that chair he made for her. He had tried to convince his father to let him make more and sell them by the roadside. The older man never looked up from sharpening his axe as he said, "Your place is here. Don't you forget where you come from." Then Jonah's mother died, and his grandmother came, and there were children to dress and feed and teach how to care for the animals. Jonah never spoke of the chairs again.
The children crowded around Jonah and, one at a time, placed a dirt-crusted foot on a straw, toe at the end, while Jonah snapped the straw at their heel. Their feet had grown in a year, and he hoped he would be able to find shoes that would match the length of the straws. The smallest girl held on to his shoulder as she put her foot down, then rolled into his arms. "Carry me," she said, clamping his waist with her tiny legs and hooking her arms around his neck. She smelled like earth and soured milk and sun dried sheets, and he squeezed her to him. Jonah stood with some effort, he wasn't all that big himself, and carried her down the porch steps where her brothers and sisters hovered over a frog, pounding the ground around it, trying to get it to jump. Delighted with the frog, the wee girl quickly forgot him and joined the others. He would miss them, their squeals, the padding of their feet on the ground around the house. When his mother died, his grandmother had come to help care for them, but Jonah soon realized his father's mother was really looking to be cared for herself.
"Why the Army wants you is a mystery to me," she said to him. "You're a runt of a boy, and the Lord knows you ain't to got the sense God gave a goat. Can't hardly even say nothing."
Jonah stuffed his hands inside the bib of his overalls, narrowed his blue eyes at the bloated woman in his mother's chair, and scurried through the screen door, letting it slam behind him. She hated that. The Bible said to honor thy mother and father, Jonah thought. It said nothing of grandmothers. She was the one who decided to hold prayer meetings at home so he couldn't go to church anymore. No more bible study in the Fellowship Hall. No more Lily. Jonah had protested with the father, but the man just shook his head, weary from a lifetime of fighting his mother. "Resting on Sunday's for the rich," his father said and sent him out to the fields.
Inside the house, Jonah carefully folded the straws in a sheet of newspaper by the stove and reached for the coffee tin. He counted out nickels and dimes. There was paper money here when he had brought in last year's crop. But only coins rattled in the tin since his father took to bringing home canning jars full of corn liquor from his visits to the Dawson place. There had never been liquor in their house before. His mother had not allowed it. But everything was different since her death. When she lived, they had Bible stories at night, next to the warmth of the stove, and peppermint sticks on their birthdays. His mother had looked after them and protected them with her faith. She refused to let the father bring a telephone into the house because it was the Devil's box with voices coming from unnatural distances. And when Uncle Raymond gave Jonah a stack of cards with painted faces and numbers and bicycles on the back, the mother saved him from the Devil's grasp and threw them into the fire.
Without her careful watch, his father had succumbed to seduction. Jonah found him in the barn, two days after the funeral, drunk and naked with his arms around two women. "Pick whichever one you want, son," his father said, shaking the women gently by the shoulders. The one on his right, snoring, rolled over like a slaughtered pig, falling across his lap. Jonah's father looked down at her, his breath gasping with whiskey-soaked tears as he ran his fingers through her hair like it was a spiderweb. "It don't matter no more, son, your Mama done left us. You're a man now. You got to choose." Jonah turned from the smell of vomit and hay. He ran away from the barn and into the field. In the furrows, he fell forward to his knees, looking out at the long straight lines he had plowed as they stretched farther than he could see in the moonlight. He imagined them going on, beyond his father's land, wrapping themselves around the planet, making it all his. Beneath him the seeds he had planted waited for nature's law to tell them when to root and when to break the surface. Reaching down, he buried his hands in the moist, rich soil, then held them to his face, breathing in the ripeness of the earth. If the farm were his, he would send his grandmother away to live with other relations. He would raise his brothers and sisters himself. He would marry Lily. He thought of her in the house waiting for him at night, and he bent low over his knees trying to still the quivering in his chest, suddenly afraid of wanting more than his share of life.
Jonah pressed down on the lid of the coffee tin and returned it to its shelf behind the stove. It was an hour's walk into town. He would pass Lily's place on the way home, maybe catch her outside where her folks couldn't see. It would be his last chance to see her before getting on the bus for Fort Gordon the next day. He wished he could leave her with something more than his good-byes, a token of his intent, something that would say what he could not.
As he dropped the nickels and dimes into his pocket, his father grabbed his wrist with a stiff, calloused hand. The creaking from the chair outside stopped, and Jonah knew the grandmother was listening. The father looked down at his son with soft gray eyes that for the briefest moment seemed pleading before they hardened into the look of a farmer who was losing his best fieldhand.
"Stop by Dawson's on your way back," he said, slipping a few more coins into his son's hand. Jonah didn't ask why. It wasn't the first time he'd been sent for one of Dawson's canning jars full of spirits. "And don't be spending the rest on anything but shoes. That money's got nothing to do with you anymore."
Jonah patted the lump of coins in his pocket as he walked into the church basement. The room smelled of old men and stale perfume from the tables piled with discards from the town people. The tables were set up like stores, each with their own sorted wares, with a narrow path in between. A few women moved slowly around the tables, inspecting bits and pieces. Another woman, thin and crooked like she were made from tree branches, sat in the corner by the door behind a small table, her hands resting on the metal cash box and her eyes closed as if she were praying.
At the shoe table, Jonah pulled out the folded newspaper from his back pocket and measured soles against the straws until he found six pair that matched the six pair of feet at home. He walked back toward the front of the room, past the milling women, dangling the shoes by the laces like a fresh catch of fish. Facing the praying woman and the cash box, he saw someone had nailed a map to the wall behind her. It looked like one that had been used in the school before the last war and the countries all changed colors. He found the spot where he was fairly certain Georgia was and tapped it with his finger. Then he followed the straight lines east and north until he ran into England, France, Germany. Someone had stuck pins in the countries with little flags in them. He followed the lines west to the Pacific to find more pins with flags. To the side of the map, he saw a list, handwritten in the block print of Pastor Reeves. It was a list of dates, places, and names. They were names Jonah knew, names of boys he wouldn't see again. It had not occurred to him that he might not come home. He was small, but he was a crack shot. Surely that was enough to survive a war. But as he looked at the map again, the miles felt like a foot pressing down on his chest.
Upstairs, the organist began to play I'll Fly Away , practicing for Sunday morning worship. Jonah thought of Lily and how she hummed that song as he followed her into the woods that day after bible study, just as she had asked him in her note. He closed his eyes from the map, just as he would one day close his eyes from the blinding Pacific sun as his blood poured into the sand beneath him, and saw the world again through the tender green light under that sweetgum tree, its hand-shaped leaves brushing his face, Lily's body flowing like milk under her dress. She looked him in the eye as she pressed his hand into her breast. He felt as if he were melting into her, letting her wash over him, losing himself in her grace. He envisioned the two of them lying next to each other, his hand on her belly, round and full with his child. If my purpose is pure , he told himself, it is not a sin . He tried to kiss her, but she turned her head, and he burrowed into the dewy curls that hung over her neck. And in his ear, he felt her breath and heard her whispers of promises.
Jonah turned from the map, blinking away the vision of that day, when a flash of white on the book table caught his eye. The bible's lettering and pages were tipped in gold, and it felt like a river of angels in his hands. Lily did not have her own bible. She always looked in one of the battered books stacked on the end of the church benches with the hymnals and the fans with pictures of Jesus on the front. He thought of Lily walking into church on Sunday with the white bible pressed against her, folding her hands in prayer over this book that looked fit for the Queen of Sheba, who came to Solomon's kingdom to test his wisdom. And in return for her good will, Solomon gave her all that she desired.
Jonah slid his hand back in his pocket and pulled out the coins. He took the shoes and the bible to the woman at the cash box. He was not going to the Dawson place. If he were lucky, there would be a few pennies left over for peppermint sticks. Tomorrow, he knew, he would board the bus still stinging from his father's razor strap. But a woman he loved, with her white bible, would remember the sweetgum tree and pray for him in all ways.
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