by Pranav Mishra
Art by Caroline Wang
Issue: Paracosm (Winter 2017)
I be watchin’ Ann, watchin’ her carefully. I never woulda thinked this day would come, but here I am, hearin’ the priest holler out the words that will tear her outta my life forever.
She be smilin’ in her weddin’ dress. He be holdin’ her hand. Ann’s Meemaw gives out a shriek o’delight, saying she never knowed her granddaughter coulda bin so lucky and found such a great guy.
Bile rises like rotten wheat into my throat. I suppress the urge to run outta the church.
“Come on, Jesse!” Ann telled me excitedly, clutchin’ my hand. She always in visited the evenings, when the asphalt drownded in crackling autumn leaves and the rusty ol’streetlights grinned into the premature eve.
“Y’all don’t be long out!” Pa called from the kitchen, oil hissin’ as he put the chicken a’fryin’. “I be hearin’ that there be coyotes in the woods.”
But Ann ain’t been ‘fraid o’coyotes. In fact, Ann never was ‘fraid o’anything.
The walk to the clearin’ took ten minutes. It was pleasant n’all in the autumn, cuz the breeze was cool an’ crisp on our flesh.
“You know, Jesse?” My pulse quickened when she said my name.
“I don’ think I wanna live here when I be grown up.”
“Why not?” I don’t think I hided the disappointment in my voice.
“I wanna see the world, y’know? There be all kinds o’sweet places outside Mississippi.”
“But Ann… what about your farm? Your house? Little Lou? You can’t jus’ leave em’ here!” I said.
Ann sighed. “I know. My Meemaw’d never let me leave. You be right about Lou too. I couldn’t just leave my sweet-tongued sister here, now, could I?”
That’s when we heared the splinterin’ crash. A sonorous, metallic noise like when Pa tipped over the utensil rack and all the saucepans came clangin’ down. I jumped, and grabbed a’hold o’ Ann’s hand.
“Well, well. Look what we have right here,” Randall’s voice hissed out from the undergrowth. He came out, towerin’ like a stalk o’corn that had hogged too much o’sunlight.
“If it ain’t little Jesse and his girlfriend?” He spitted at my feet. I been shivering now, my skin all pale an’ stretched. “Look what my daddy got me, righ’ here, Jesse,” Randall said, patting his waist. The shiny barrel of a gun glittered in the sunlight. “I be huntin’ squirrels an’ pheasants, but looks like I be fixin’ to do something better now,” Randall snickered loudly, and then he be pointin’ the gun at me.
I felt Ann’s little fists clench, and then her voice:
“Leave him alone, you fat ol’bully.”
Randall’s eyes was unnervin’. Bloodshot, unfocused, his pupils quiverin’ with lunacy.
“Who you been callin’ a bully, girlfriend?” Randall said. He tilted the the gun so that it was on Ann’s chest. “I knowed you were a bad’un when I saw you.”
Randall tooked a step back.
“Nobody be getting’ hurt here if Jesse gives me the money like a good boy. Jesse, I be waitin.’”
I be shakin’ proper now. I hadn’t forgotted ‘bout the money I owed him, all right, but I couldn’ta stoled nothin’ from my Pa.
“Leave him, alone Randall.”
“Shut yer hole, girl.”
“Leave him alone Randall!”
Ann picked up a thick, wet clod o’ peat from the soil, sloppin’ through her fingers. ‘Fore Randall coulda reacted, she throwed it right onto his face. Randall’d bin shriekin’, a wounded gazelle’s cry clawin’ it’s way outta his throat. Ann grabbed my hand and we ran off the path, veerin’ into the woods all breathless as we heard two staccato clicks o’gunshots in the distance.
“Is he chasin’ us, Ann?”
“Don’t think so, Jesse.”
We reached the clearing. It been lovely, covered in wildflowers like yarrow and poppies and laceleaf. I lay down, the ripplin’ cool blades o’grass like ice ‘gainst my neck.
I felt the tornado of Ann’s messy brown hair merge into mine, an’ I felted the heat of her body as she layed down beside me.
And then, she held mine hand in hers, and I felt a sizzlin’ electricity enter every pore o’my body.
I shoulda known that it wouldn’ta lasted. But I be a fool.
Ann bin all fancy now. She didn’t come back home from college n’all to Mississippi ‘cept when she came to bury Little Lou. T’was the cholera; she been sick for a long time.
“Ann,” I managed when I sawed her after all them years. The playful glint o’her eyes was gone, an’ everythin’ else had changed.
“It’s good to see you, Jesse,” she said, her gaze barely acknowledgin’ me. Her voice sounded all squat an’ posh, like a woman from the radio.
“Gosh, I be sorry ‘bout Lou. Must be hard.”
She didn’t answer. All those years hanged like an awkward ol’silence silence between us. Secretly, I couldn’ta helped but feel ashamed o’my dirty ol’ farm-hands cracked like undercooked dough, an’ my greasy shirt torn from the fields.
I bin realizin’ then that I be just a simple farmer an’ she be a law student. I tended to the land and the earth to grow good crop, while she be tendin’ to glossy textbooks and pencils and whatnot. Did we have anythin’ in common?
When t’was evenin’ and I finished up with the fields, I was fixin’ to go to the market by the gas station to get soap and and detergent and bread. The rains’d bin kind this year, and the plants had grown good n’tall. Okra and corn and wheat. While I was drivin’, I sawed some little’uns with their parents hunchin’ over the strawberry fields pickin’ away at this year’s harvest in the dyin’ afternoon. I remembered the days with Ann in the woods an’ the fields, when she be happy, actually happy.
But when I reached the last crossin’ by the interstate, I saw what I couldnta ever saw comin.’ “THE JONES MOTEL: VACANT” screamed from a glowin’ neon sign. And in its light, I sawed Ann, talkin’ to Randall. He be all posh too, now, with his Pa’s estate, and his own motel an’ pharmacy. And the darnest thing was: they were both laughin’. Laughin’ hard. I swear I sawed a look on Randall’s face couldn’ta remembered from anywhere, a gentle smile like a half moon on his face. The scene flashed by my window, an’ then t’was gone. It mighta not happened. But it happened.
You’re a farmer, Randall. You’re a filthy ol’farmer.” I tell myself. I see it so clear now, runnin’ with her hand in mine, through the cornfields ripplin’ into infinity. And once more, I remind myself of the things that I will never be.
And now I be watchin’ Ann, be watchin’ her smilin’ as the priest says:
“Do you, Annelise Miller, take Randall Jones as your lawfully wedded husband?”