The heat becomes a monster. It's bad in the daytime but you can turn on the garden hose and spray yourself, or go to the woods where it's cooler. At night it seems worse, so muggy hot that even a thin sheet feels like too much covers for your sticky skin. The fans set in the windows turned up high to blow in enough night air to cool the hot, stuffy rooms sometimes just blow humid air from one place to another. Still, a breeze feels better than no breeze. This was one of those nights when I couldn't sleep and the fan whirred almost uselessly. I heard Mother coming down the hall towards my room. Sometimes you just know what's about to happen and in that way I knew she was coming to turn the fan off so it wouldn't run all night, wasting electricity. She peeked her head in the doorway.
"It's too hot," I said to let her know I'm awake and to not turn off the fan yet.
"You're a night owl, Willa Mae. You ought to be in dreamland by now."
Sounded like she was in a soft mood, so I sat up a little.
"Will you tell me a story?"
"Oh Lord, girl. It's late. I'm wore out. Did you say your prayers?"
"Yes ma'am. Just a short little story?"
She came over and sat on the edge of the bed. She brushed my damp bangs off my forehead and sighed. "I don't have any stories this evening. I'm ready for bed myself."
"What's a joot joint?"
"A what? Where did you hear that?"
"Birdy said her brother that died went to a joot joint. I think he might have been in a car accident."
"Birdy tole you that?"
"She told me he went to a joot joint and I figured out the car accident part myself."
"You did, did you?" Her voice was teasing but not mean.
"She don't like to talk about it but she told me he rode out to a joot joint and then he died, so I figured he must have been in a crash. Was he?"
"It's not 'joot' joint, it's 'juke' joint."
"Oh. What is that anyway?"
"A dancehall sort of place."
I thought about that for a minute. Mother and Daddy don't dance; no one in our church does. It's not exactly a sin, at least not one that gets preached about, but if you're saved you just don't. Billy loved to dance. It's what they always say about him. I felt a flicker of worry in case he wasn't saved. He was still a kid when he died, or at least not yet grown up.
"How old was he, Birdy's brother, when he died? Did Daddy know him?"
"He died long before your daddy was born, Willie." Her voice wasn't smiling any more. "I don't know his exact age but he hadn't graduated yet, though to hear Birdy speak of it he all but had a Harvard diploma in his hand."
"Nothing. You go to sleep now." She stood up and bent to kiss me where she'd brushed my bangs back.
"I thought you was going to tell me about the car accident?"
Mother snorted. "Well, I don't know nothing about a car accident your great uncle Billy might or might not have been in. He's been dead long enough to have been turned to gold. Whatever he was really like and what happened that night out there on Old Country Road folks may never know, or at least not remember."
So. Her mother knew something. It was clear by the way she said it that she and Birdy didn't see eye to eye on the dead boy. There was more than one big gap between the way Mother and Birdy saw things.
"Birdy said everybody loved Billy."
"I suppose everyone Birdy knew did love Billy. But Billy probably knew a few more people than the Willoughby family and their silver spoon set. He weren't at no country club the night he ended up dead, that's for sure."
"What was the name of that place?"
"I have no idea, Willa Mae. I have never in my life set foot in one of them places and don't plan to. You ask a lot of silly questions for a girl that ought to be asleep."
"If someone would just tell me, I wouldn't keep asking."
For some reason, Mother sat back down then. She just sat there staring in the dark until I thought there might be something wrong.
Then she said, "Willie, you can't keep poking around in people's business like you do. But you're right about not knowing and how that makes you overly curious. I'll tell you what, Billy would have been your daddy's uncle, and even your own daddy don't know what all happened to him. So it's not like we've been keeping some big secret from you. Whatever it was, it wasn't like he was a war hero or something, so just take all that 'Billy was God's gift to the world' talk with a grain of salt. He had been out to a place where people drink, smoke, cuss, gamble, dance and lord only knows what else. Lot of no count folks end up in those places and sometimes bad things happen, fights and such. Different kind of folks go there, and I reckon it's some high society folks' idea of fun to rub shoulders with migrant field hands and other riff raff. I don't know how many times Billy would a been out there, but one night he didn't come back alive. Maybe it was cause his car landed in the ditch, but it seems doubtful that's what killed him. More likely he got in a fight with somebody who pulled a knife. Now that ought to be enough to give you nightmares. I must be addled myself to be telling you all this when you ought to be asleep already." But she stayed sitting on the bed.
"I don't get nightmares. I don't mean to be nosy but I ought to know about my own family, right? It's not being a busy body when it's your own kin, is it?"
"No. I reckon not. But now you know as much as I do about it and that's enough. This isn't something you need to be talking about with anyone else, not even Birdy. Especially not Birdy. And no one outside the family neither."
"I know. I'm not dumb."
"No, Willie, you ain't dumb. But you know what they say 'Curiosity killed the cat.'"
"But satisfaction brought him back."
Mother laughed. I felt starry with pleasure. She had come in tired, mainly to turn off the fan and I'd gotten her talking and even made her laugh.
"You got a quick tongue. I hope it don't get you in as much trouble as it's likely to. Now get to sleep."
She left the fan on, pausing in the doorway. For a soaring moment, I thought she might say something else, maybe add to the Billy story, but she didn't. Her heavy-heeled footsteps went around the house as she turned out lights, then disappeared into the dark of her and Daddy's room.
I lay there mulling over the new details. I started
erasing the car smash up that I'd been picturing and felt almost giddy with the
even worse thing … it could have been a knife fight. Mother had pretty much
said that Billy wasn't as perfect as Birdy made him out to be. She had said it
in the same sort of voice she used talking to the church ladies. I couldn't for
the life of me remember a time when she'd just flat out told me something about
the grown up world. I felt bigger than my own body and hoped she'd keep talking
to me like that instead of always trying to shoo me away from the grown ups.
But for now, I really just needed to think about this new piece a little more.
I needed to see how that golden boy, who wore a ridiculous velvet suit with a
lace collar in his baby picture, grew up to be someone who could get in a knife
fight, and be killed. It was almost too good to be true.
BIO: June Sylvester Saraceno is the author of two full length poetry collections of Dirt and Tar and Altars of Ordinary Light as well as a chapbook of prose poems, “Mean Girl Trips.” Her work has appeared in various journals including Poetry Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature, and Tar River Poetry. She is English program chair at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe, as well as MFA faculty and founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. For more information visit www.junesaraceno.com