ELJAY WASN’T A DESTINATION. It was a word on a road sign, white letters on green, one exit of a hundred exits between Nashville and New Orleans. About ten miles west of town, the interstate cut a gray ribbon through the rolling hills and farmed-out bottoms; where it crossed State Route 308, fast food restaurants, gas stations. Even a truck stop had sprung up to provide refreshment to travelers. People from Eljay worked there, but they were quick to point out that this hub of cheap food and expensive gas was not really part of their town.
The bus station would have been more convenient out at the interstate; but it squatted at the west edge of town, right across from Draper’s Feed. If a person walked east from the bus station, they would cross the railroad tracks and pass the old depot. After about four blocks, they would come to the roundabout in the more-or-less middle of town, where 308 intersected with 1203. In the center of the roundabout was a statue of the town’s founder, Lazarus Josiah Lee. Reverend L. J. Lee stared at the gutters of Satterly’s hardware store with an expression of rapt adoration, wearing an antebellum frock coat and clutching a Bible. His bronze likeness stood upon a marble base, which was set into a wide circle of concrete, surrounded by a rusting, knee-high, wrought-iron fence. On each side of the square marble base was a bench. Tourists took photos there, and locals sat there in fine weather: old women exchanging gossip, young people exchanging kisses, an old man resting his knees, all in the shade of the town’s most venerated individual.
Jarvis Poole was the only child of his parents that survived being born. Mrs. Poole was past forty when she disregarded the doctor’s discreet suggestion and got in the family way again. She came to her time early after her brother, Willard, came home from Korea in a coffin. When she birthed her blue-faced son, Old Dr. Midders dunked the baby’s head in cold water and gave him a few good slaps; the violence jerked his lungs to life and finally gave the Pooles a living son. But those few moments without oxygen left their mark; Jarvis was a tiny baby, and he grew to be a small man with a thin, wiry body. He was slow to speak and slow of thought, but good of heart. Anyone in town would tell you that.
Jarvis lived in the same small house where he had been born and where his parents had died. It sat just off Route 1203 at the north edge of town. In better days, over a hundred acres of cotton, corn and wheat filled the fields beside and behind the white-painted home. But bit by bit, the land had been sold off to pay for doctors and medicines and a trip to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, none of which saved Mr. Poole from the lung cancer that took him after a lifetime of smoking. Jarvis and his mother lived on in the house after Mr. Poole’s death. They raised a garden every year and kept a small flock of chickens until something dug under the coop and got most of the hens.
Mrs. Poole was a careful and thrifty housekeeper. Everything from the garden was canned, dried, frozen, pickled, or turned into jelly. When the weather was fine, she and Jarvis walked to the Baptist Church; when the weather was wet or cold, Jarvis drove his father’s dull blue 1976 Chevrolet truck at a snail’s pace, completely focused on the road and the task of getting them both safely to the church’s graveled parking lot. The only other place he ever drove was to take his mother to the doctor at the other end of town, a distance too far for her to walk. When the pain of her diabetes made even that short drive an ordeal, Young Dr. Midders attended her at home. He came out in the middle of a February ice storm, the one that collapsed the roof of the high school gymnasium, to close Mrs. Poole’s eyes and tell Jarvis that his mother was dead.
More than a decade after that ice storm, Eljay bloomed with an early spring. The Sunday after Valentine’s Day was oddly warm and humid. After sunset, flashes of distant lightning could be seen north toward Nashville. The dispatcher at the sheriff’s office was reading a weather update over the radio as Sheriff Ed Miller pulled his brown cruiser to a stop in front of the old Poole place. A state police car and a white Ford van parked behind him. Sheriff Miller blew out a deep breath before fixing his hat on his head and getting out of the car. He couldn’t remember when he’d dreaded an official duty as much as he dreaded this one.
A young uniformed officer and a plain-clothes detective got out of the state police cruiser and walked up to join him. The people in the van did not get out; they would wait there until summoned.
“I hope you’re right, that this man won’t give us no trouble,” the uniformed trooper said.
The sheriff shook his head. “This man has never give anybody a minute’s trouble, except his mother when he was born.”
“The neighbor saw her leave—”
“But they didn’t see him go after her,” the sheriff snapped. “How about let’s go see what he has to say.”
The gate opened without a squeak, and they went up the concrete walk through a manicured yard, the green of early grass still vivid in the twilight. They could hear a radio playing as they stepped up onto the front porch and rapped on the screen door. The radio went quiet, replaced by the sound of slow footsteps and the click of a switch. Light spread across the faces of the officers, and spilled through the screen onto the face of a small, wiry, gray-haired man.
“Evening, Jarvis,” the sheriff said. “I sure hate to bother you, but there’s been some trouble and we hope you might be able to give us some help.”
Long knotty fingers fumbled with the hook-and-eye secured the screen door. “Why, Ed, I’ll help you any way I can,” Jarvis said, the words slow to leave his mouth and painstakingly formed. He finally worked the hook free of the eye, and opened the screen door. “You-all come in. The radio says we might be in for some weather.”
The three officers followed Jarvis into the living room. The plain-clothes officer and the sheriff sat down on the sofa. The uniformed trooper lingered in the entry, observing the old but immaculate furniture, the neat stack of newspapers on the table, a cracked Homer Laughlin saucer that held a few nuggets of dry cat food. The cat was nowhere to be seen.
“Will you fellers drink some coffee? I can make some.”
“No thank you, Jarvis,” the sheriff answered, “but would it be all right with you if the state trooper takes a look around the house?”
Jarvis wrinkled his brow and cocked his head like a dog, easing into the rocking chair that stood next to the old-fashioned, floor model radio. “All right, I reckon. What it is you’re looking for? I’ll show you where it’s at.”
The plain-clothes officer nodded at the uniformed trooper, who unlatched his holster and worked his way through the dark downstairs, turning on lights as he went.
The rumble of distant thunder disturbed the silence. “Right strange weather,” the sheriff said.
“It’s a early spring,” Jarvis answered. “I’ve done started mowing. The Misses Ellersons’s lilac has done budded.”
The sheriff grunted agreement and studied his fingernails for a minute, then looked up. “Jarvis, have you met a woman lately?”
Jarvis looked off toward the edge of the front window, frowning hard, thinking. “Not a woman,” he said at last, “just a girl.”
“Just a girl,” the sheriff repeated, as the plain-clothes officer pulled out a notebook and began to write. “What was her name, Jarvis?”
The two lawmen exchanged glances. “Last name?” the plain-clothes officer asked, his tone brusque and businesslike.
“Jarvis, this is Detective Rick Puckett from the state police. He’s here to help us figure out the trouble I mentioned.”
Jarvis nodded at the introduction and looked at the detective. “She never give no last name,” he answered.
The detective made a note. The uniformed trooper returned to the doorway, shook his head, pointed upstairs. “Jarvis, do you mind if the officer goes upstairs and has a look around?”
“Nobody sleeps up there no more.”
“Where do you sleep?” the detective asked.
“Downstairs, in Mommy’s old room. My knees hurt.”
Detective Puckett made another note. “And this—Sister Charity—was she ever here?” he asked.
“A few nights ago. Just one night.” Jarvis pushed his toes against the rug, making the rocker creak as it moved to and fro. “Is she all right?”
Sheriff Miller cleared his throat. “No, Jarvis, I’m afraid she’s not all right.” His words were polished smooth by years of delivering bad news. “Sister Charity is dead. A feller that works at the Atlas Truck Stop out by the interstate found her, when he took garbage out to the dumpster.”
Jarvis stopped rocking. “How’d she die?”
“Somebody killed her.” The detective’s voice was flat and matter-of-fact.
Sheriff Miller frowned at Puckett and looked back at Jarvis, who now sat very still and looked very sad. The uniformed trooper came downstairs and waited in the doorway. He caught the detective’s eye, raised his eyebrows and jerked his head toward the street. The detective nodded. The trooper went outside to call in the forensic team that waited in the van. He let the screen door bang shut behind him. All three men in the living room jumped at the sound.
“Jarvis, we need to know everything you can tell us about Sister Charity,” the sheriff said. “How you met her, why she came to stay here, anything she might have told you, anything that might have—happened—between you two. Will you tell us that?”
The screen door banged again. Two forensic specialists, wearing jumpsuits and carrying boxes of gear, followed the trooper indoors and up the stairs. Jarvis looked at them and started to rise from his chair.
“It’s all right, Jarvis,” the sheriff said. “They just need to see where she slept, take a look at any clothes she left, that kind of thing.”
“She wore my pajamas,” Jarvis said. “They’re in the wash pile.”
“That’s fine. They’ll take care of that. What we need from you right now, Jarvis, is anything and everything you can tell us about Sister Charity.”
The rocking chair restarted. Jarvis nodded his head in time with the motion, and his words took on the same, slow rhythm. “It was the first day I mowed,” he began.
Most folks didn’t need their yards mowed in February, but this February was as warm as May, and the grass had grown like nobody’s business. Jarvis noticed as he walked to the grocery store that folks’ yards were starting to get tall. So after he got home and put his groceries away, he went out to the shed and uncovered the lawn mower. He pulled the spark plugs out of the coffee can full of gasoline, where he kept them over winter, and carefully screwed them back into the engine. Then he filled the empty tank with fresh gasoline and pulled the cord. The old red mower started on the first pull. Jarvis took it out to the front yard and cut the patches of lawn on either side of the walk, checking the shorn grass to see how the blades were cutting. Satisfied, Jarvis shut off the mower and pushed it through the gate.
It had become obvious to Mr. and Mrs. Poole fairly early in their son’s life that his options for earning a living were limited. Although he was small compared to other men, his lean muscles had plenty of stamina. He was also, like his mother, meticulous about things being tidy. Reading was difficult, and he was shy; but he had sharp eyes and good hands. His father taught him how to run and maintain the farm machines and how to tend to the plants in the yard garden. By the time his father died, Jarvis had a business of sorts, cutting grass and tilling gardens for people in Eljay. He walked most places, driving only when he had to; wrestling the mower and the tiller into the truck by himself became more difficult with each passing year. Spring through fall, Jarvis set out south toward the center of town, mowing yards for folks as he went. He kept a strict schedule, covering the four major streets of downtown with occasional forays up the side streets as needed.
Jarvis was sitting on a bench at L. J. Lee’s back, his elbows resting on the preacher’s bronzed heels after that first day of mowing, when he saw the girl walking from the bus station. The sun was behind her, making her into a long-legged and skinny shadow. She ran across the train tracks, stumbling a bit on the end of the ties, and then sashayed to where West Broadway ended at the circle. Jarvis got a better look at her as she waited to cross the street. She was taller than he was—would be, even without those chunky high heels—and she wore a pair of red satin shorts over black fishnet tights. A pink unicorn with a rainbow mane danced across her tight, white t-shirt. An old Army surplus backpack hung from her shoulders. When the traffic thinned, she ran across the blacktop, arms outstretched for balance, those crazy heels going clop clop clop like a horse.
She stepped onto the concrete and over the low iron fence into the circle. Jarvis saw that her hair was the color and texture of straw, roughly chopped off at chin level. She was pale, heavily made-up with dark red lipstick and doll-like eyelashes. Long, dangly, mismatched earrings swung from her pierced lobes. She walked one full circle around the statue of L. J. Lee, staring at the Bible in his arms and at the pious smile he offered the pigeons on Satterly’s roof. When she came to the concrete bench where Jarvis sat, she took a seat on the opposite end.
“Say, you got a cigarette?”
It took Jarvis a second to realize she was asking him. “No.”
“What good are you, then?” She looked east, toward the edge of town where the new grade school was being built. Then she turned back to Jarvis and said, “Ain’t there no hotel in this town?”
“Out at the highway.”
“Oh hell, that’s thirty dollars a night. Y’all got a bar or a pool hall?”
Jarvis frowned. Hotels, bars, and pool halls were things he knew nothing about, save that they existed. He’d never set foot inside any of them. He had a suspicion that bars and pool halls were evil, or at least the ones in Eljay were, from hearing how the folks at the Baptist Church talked about them. “Eight Ball on Gill’s Camp Road.” He pointed south. “Right on Harper, cross the tracks, right on Gill’s Camp.”
“Eight Ball,” she repeated. “They serve food?”
“I don’t know.”
She jerked her head toward the lawnmower. “You live here, or you just tote that thing around the country for fun?”
“I live here,” Jarvis said, a little defensively.
“But you don’t know if the Eight Ball serves food?”
“Never been there.”
“Course you ain’t,” the girl sighed. She reached inside her shirt and pulled out a thin sheaf of folded bills and counted them. “I got enough left to get something to eat,” she said, stuffing the money back into the bra that covered her small breasts. “I reckon I’ll go down there and see what they got.” She stuck her hand out to Jarvis. “I’m Sister Charity.”
“I’m Jarvis,” he said. She had a strong grip for a girl, and a smile like sunshine. She also looked far too young to be showing up with no suitcase and no family. “Where you from?” he asked.
“Everywhere and nowhere,” she said. “Where you from?”
“Here.” He pointed north. “Last house on the right.”
“But you ain’t never been to the Eight Ball.” She shook her head and stood up, carefully detaching her hose from the chipped edge of the bench. “Well, thanks for the info, Jarvis.”
“You’re welcome.” Jarvis watched her step over the fence, mindful of her nylons, and head south down Main Street.
The next week was warm and dry, and Jarvis was busier than he’d ever been in any February he could remember. Impatient folks wanted their gardens tilled, so they could get their peas and potatoes planted and their little cabbage plants set out. Older and wiser folks welcomed him to mow their lawns, but held off on tilling. “Early spring is a fool’s heartache,” the elder Miss Ellerson told Jarvis when he came to mow her yard. He agreed with her. Folks who counted on an early spring to last got to sit by and watch their baby peas turn black and the blooms drop from their fruit trees, when the unnatural warm spell passed and frost clung to the morning grass once more.
Regardless of the calendar, grass was growing, and Jarvis had things to get done. He got up every morning, made his breakfast, fed the cat and washed up. Then he went on his rounds—every day except Sunday—with a peanut-butter sandwich wrapped in wax paper for his lunch. In the afternoons he came home and bathed, did what housework needed to be done, fixed and ate his supper, fed the cat again, and did the dishes. He spent his evenings laboriously sounding out words in the newspaper while he listened to the radio. There was no television in the house, and never had been. When the local AM station signed off at eleven, Jarvis folded up the paper, added it to the stack in the hall, turned off the radio and the lights, and went to bed. His evenings were seldom interrupted by visitors. His sleep had never been interrupted by someone banging on the door in the stillness before daybreak.
In the early hours of a Sunday morning, the day after Valentine’s Day, Jarvis jerked awake to the sound of a fist hammering on his door. He grabbed the flashlight in one hand and an old ax handle in the other and shuffled through the dark house to see what all the fuss was about.
“Who is it?” he hollered from the shadows of the front hall.
“It’s me. Sister Charity. We met at that old preacher’s statue. Can I come in?”
Jarvis turned on the flashlight and pointed it through the faded lace curtains. He could see Sister Charity on the other side of the screen door, and she looked a mess. Black tears ran down her face. Her pink-painted lip was split, spilling blood onto her chin. He opened the front door a crack and spoke to her through the screen, keeping one foot pressed against the bottom of the door, just in case. “Are you in trouble?”
“Just let me in, Jarvis, please.” She balled her fist up against her mouth and hugged herself with her other arm. She was shaking. Jarvis opened the door, unlatched the screen door, and let her in.
Sister Charity was wearing a short black dress of some shiny stuff with strands of diamond-like stones for straps. A shimmery belt gathered the dress tight against her thin waist. Her right ear sported an earring; her left earlobe oozed blood from a gash where the other earring had been violently ripped through her flesh. Her fingernails—as short as a baby’s, bitten down to the quick—were painted neon pink.
Jarvis latched the doors behind them and switched off the flashlight. “I’ll make coffee,” he said, leading her down the hall to the kitchen. Every night before bed, he made up the percolator so that all he would have to do in the morning was start it. He plugged it in and rummaged in the cabinet by the sink for a second cup, waiting for the pot to signal it was finished. Sister Charity dropped her backpack on the floor, slid into a chair, put her head on the table, and sobbed.
Jarvis didn’t say anything until the coffee was poured. He drank his black, but he remembered that his mama and some of the women at church added sugar and cream; he brought that, too. Then he sat down across from her and said, “You need the law?”
She raised her head and shook it hard, flinging black tears onto the tabletop. “Don’t call the law,” she said. “Law won’t help me.”
“Law helps everybody.” He firmly believed that, had his whole life.
“Law won’t help me, Jarvis,” she insisted. “The law will send me back to Missouri, faster than you can say scat.”
“Missouri?” he asked.
“I ran away.”
After a moment he asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I sure as hell ain’t going back to Missouri.” She put about a quarter-cup of sugar in her coffee, stirred it, took a sip. “My mama married a man who beat the hell out of me. That’s what he said: he’d beat the demons out of me till I got right or died.” She took another drink. “Mama was afraid of him. Wouldn’t even try to stop him. So I left. Been looking after myself since the week before Christmas.”
“Your mama’s worried,” Jarvis said.
“She ain’t worried, and if she is, I don’t care. She ought to have done something about him taking a belt to me every chance he got.”
Jarvis didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to say. His parents had been quiet and kind, God-fearing and honest. They’d never raised a hand to their boy in anger. They’d never raised their voices to one another in anger. The kind of life Sister Charity described was as alien to Jarvis as if she’d been a green goblin from Mars. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of being beaten like that, of having to fend for himself where he didn’t know anybody.
“How old are you?” he finally asked.
“Fourteen,” she said. “I been on this godforsaken earth fourteen long and weary years.” She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands, then wiped her hands on her dress. “Can I stay here tonight? I won’t be no trouble. I’ll head out in the morning. I’ve got enough for a bus ticket.” She reached down her dress and pulled out a thick wad of bills.
Jarvis looked at the money, then at Sister Charity. It was a lot of money.
She saw the doubt in his face, and a crooked half-smile twisted her mouth. “Don’t worry, I ain’t robbed nobody or stole nothing. I just sold the only thing I got to sell.” He gave her a puzzled look. Tenderly, she asked, “You ain’t got no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
She let out a long, shaky breath. “You’re something else, Jarvis,” she said, and took another drink of coffee.
It was in Jarvis’s mind to offer to let her stay. His mother, relying on the Lord’s instructions about do unto the least of these, would have done it. Regular meals would fill out the hollow cheeks. She might decide to talk to the sheriff, or call her mama, maybe even go home if her mama would keep that man away. “You can stay here,” he said. “You can sleep upstairs. I sleep down here.”
She set her cup on the table and stared at him. Her lip quivered. “Bless your heart, Jarvis,” she said at last. “Your world ain’t got room for nobody like me. You don’t know me a-tall.”
“Where you going to go?”
A bitter, old laugh escaped her. “On down the road, I reckon.” She pushed back her chair. “Could I trouble you to let me take a bath?”
“Bathroom’s across the hall.”
“Thanks.” He heard her shoes clop-clop on the hardwood floor. The bathroom door closed, followed by the sound of running water. Jarvis tidied the kitchen, then went to his room and pulled a pair of his clean pajamas out of the chifforobe. They would be a mile too short for her, but they would be better than sleeping in that torn and dirty dress. He stepped back into the hall and laid them on the floor in front of the bathroom, and tapped on the door.
“I’m a-going to bed,” he said.
“All right, Jarvis. Thank you.” He could tell from her voice that she was crying again.
Jarvis went back to his own room, climbed into bed and turned out the light. He said the prayers his mother had taught him, but he couldn’t sleep. He had to do the right thing, but he didn’t know what the right thing was. If she’d been a potato sprout, he’d have known exactly how to save her from the biting jaws of spring frost. But he didn’t know how to save a little girl from the biting jaws of a cold and heartless world. He was still trying to puzzle it out when sleep stole him.
In the morning, Jarvis hollered up the stairs on his way into the kitchen. There was no answer. He hollered again, louder, and banged on the wall the way his father had, early on dark mornings when there was work to be done. Still no answer. He reached out and gripped the banister, pulling himself up the stairs, grunting, knees popping with every step. Maybe she was hurt bad. Maybe she would need the doctor.
The room under the eaves was empty, the bed made. The pajamas he’d lent her were neatly folded on the foot of the bed. Sister Charity was gone.
He collected the pajamas and headed back downstairs. The towels she’d used the night before were tossed into a basket in the bathroom, still damp, flecked with blood. He added the pajamas to the pile, not noticing that the pajama pants were also stained. But he did notice, when he was cleaning up from his solitary breakfast and clearing the table, that there was a dried smear of blood in the seat where Sister Charity had sat the night before. Jarvis wiped it off and put the dishrag in the dirty clothes. Women had a lot of mysteries, none of which he understood.
Jarvis stopped rocking and stared over his slippers to the edge of the rug. No one spoke. Finally he took a deep breath and looked at Sheriff Miller. “I ought to have called you, Ed,” he admitted.
The detective’s cell phone chirped, and he answered it, rising quickly from the sofa and stepping outside to take the call.
“Why didn’t you call me this morning, when you saw she was gone?” Miller asked.
Jarvis shrugged. “She was gone. Weren’t no use.”
Detective Puckett returned after a few minutes, bringing with him the sound of thunder, closer now than before. “Well, we’ve made an arrest. Man showed up at a truck stop, down the interstate at the Elkton exit. Had a few drinks, flashed a roll of cash, started talking about where he got it. Son of a bitch almost made it to Alabama.” He pushed the front flaps of his suit jacket back with his hands, hooking his thumbs in his belt. He bounced on his toes and cleared his throat. “Thanks for all your help, Mr. Poole. We understand a lot better now what happened. Of course, you may be called to testify.”
“Testify? Like in church?” Jarvis asked.
“Like in court, Jarvis,” the sheriff said. “Say, Rick, why don’t you go on outside? I’ll be there in a minute.”
“All right. Good night, Mr. Poole.” The detective walked onto the porch, followed by the forensic team and the trooper. One of the investigators carried a bag made of clear, heavy plastic that contained the sheets, the pajama bottoms, and the dishrag.
Jarvis rubbed his fingers back and forth across the smooth wooden arms of the rocker. “She was just a girl.” It was almost a question, a plea for an explanation.
Sheriff Miller leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and hunted for the words to answer that question. “No, she wasn’t no girl, Jarvis. She was a boy. We don’t know his name for sure yet, but he matches the description of a fourteen year-old runaway from Wallace, Missouri.”
Jarvis frowned at the sheriff. “Sister Charity was a boy?”
After a minute, Jarvis started rocking again, his forehead furrowed with the effort to understand. “Her mama and that man, they wouldn’t be looking for no girl.” His slow voice sounded like the echo from a well of sorrow.
Sheriff Miller thought about explaining to Jarvis how it all fit together—the stepfather’s anger, the feminine clothes, the sudden money, the bloodstain on the kitchen chair—but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, to break the innocence of a simple, middle-aged man. “I bet you’re right, Jarvis. I bet he done it to get away.” He stood up and put on his hat. “Well, I’ve got to get down to the office and put in a report. Can’t let the state boys take all the credit.”
Jarvis rose from the rocking chair. They walked into the hall in silence; but just as the sheriff went to open the screen door and make his goodbyes, Jarvis said, “Did he think she was a girl? That man that killed her?”
The sheriff stared at him. Maybe Jarvis would have understood, after all. “Yes, Jarvis, I believe he did.”
Jarvis shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor. “That didn’t hurt nobody, did it?” He raised his head look at the sheriff through eyes puddled with unshed tears. “She didn’t hurt nobody.”
Sheriff Miller studied the mournful man who stood before him—frail in so many ways, yet filled with a depth of goodness that most folks never reached. He wanted to offer some words of comfort; but the phrases that sprang to mind were worn too thin to be of use, and he was tired of saying them. He reached up and laid one hand on Jarvis’s shoulder.
“Take it easy, Jarvis.”
Jarvis thumbed tears out of his eyes. “You too.”
The sheriff closed the screen door gently and stepped off the porch. A cold rain started falling just as Jarvis switched off the porch light. The raindrops were carried on a wind that proclaimed the retreat of warmth and the return of frost. It promised death to all the tender things that had sprouted and bloomed too soon.
Born in eastern Tennessee and raised in southwestern Virginia, Lonormi Manuel has called Kentucky home for over thirty years, and is a passionate advocate for her native Appalachia. Her short fiction has appeared in Still: The Journal and Wraparound South; her short story, “An Unmarked Grave,” received the 2017 Short Fiction Prize from Still. Lonormi currently divides her time between earning her MFA and writing her first novel, which explores sexual exploitation in a West Virginia coal camp during the 1920s.