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Mercy Sings at Midnight

By Beck Gambill All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Drama


Four years ago I saw a young person walking down a southern country road. I offered him a ride. My life was changed. In the deep south a young gay man trying to make a life for himself stood out in stark contrast to our mores and traditions. As a pastor’s wife I had crossed neutral territory and found myself deep in the heart of a story. It was the human condition. The question every person asks, “where do I belong.” Mercy Sings at Midnight is a fictional story wrestling with that very question - where do I belong? Can a culture steeped in tradition find it's heart? If anyone can compel tenderness in a small Mississippi Delta town, spitfire Dixie can. Her red hair gives fair warning, she doesn't suffer fools.

Chapter 1

Dixie Lee’s eyes crackled, revealing a personality as combustible as the vapors from her Chevy pickup’s carburetor. Well, at least as combustible as it had been. At the moment she was standing on the side of a dusty Mississippi road, head shoved under the hood of her baby blue 1957 pride and joy. The only combustion happening was inside her.

Dixie’s red curly hair, frizzing in the muggy air, flashed a warning sign to anyone who would take heed. Muttering under her breath she whirled to retrieve her tools from the pickup’s bed. The movement sent her curls tossing.

Sadie stuck her head out the passenger side window. “How long will it take to fix, Dixie? Are we gonna be late to the Sheridan’s barbecue?”

Dixie flashed her friend a grin. “Don’t worry. If I’ve got everything I need, I should be able to have us on the road again in no time. I sure am glad Daddy taught me how to fix this old truck.” She turned her attention to the problem and got to work.

Hoisting the rusty, old, hand-me-down toolbox onto the front of her pickup she hopped up on the fender. Dixie kept her balance with her left hand as she rummaged around for her wrench. It was too late to worry about spoiling her favorite white shirt. She set her jaw and coaxed off the center screw to the air filter. She gave the filter a few good smacks against the tire to knock the road dust loose. Then she sprayed PB50 lubricant on the throttle valve. She checked to see if the fuel filter was clogged, then placed the filter back in place. Satisfied, she wiped her dirty hands on an old scrap of towel she’d found in the tool box.

Lately she’d had to baby the engine more than she liked. Dixie prided herself in being an independent young woman. But she preferred spending time on other things than working on a truck older than herself.

Hopping into the front seat next to Sadie, she gave her friend a hopeful look. “All right, let’s see if that did the trick.” She turned the key, the engine ground and died. She tried once more. This time the engine turned over. “Yay!” Both girls flung their hands in the air as Brad Paisley blared from the radio, mid-song.

Dixie jumped back out the driver’s door, boots kicking up clouds of red dust, and rushed to grab her tool box. She slammed the hood of the truck shut. It had taken less than half an hour to get the engine going again. There was still a bit of sunlight clinging to the edge of the late August evening.

She dumped the tool box in the bed of the truck with a metallic clank and climbed back into the driver’s seat. “Let’s go!”

They swung onto the dirt road as dusk wandered into the overhanging oaks that flanked them on either side. Catching a glimpse of herself in the rear view mirror Dixie grimaced. “I’m a sight!” Without success, she tried to tame the red frizz of her hair and wipe a grease smudge from her freckled, button nose.

Sadie pulled a napkin from the glove compartment and wet it from the water bottle rolling around the floor board.

“Hold still, Dixie.”

True to her sweet nature, Sadie tried to rub the dirt from her friend’s face as they bounced down the road. The result was a few pokes in the eye and peals of laughter from the friends.

Dixie turned onto Old MS-16 and headed to the Sheridan’s country sprawl, where the gentle slope of the inland meets flat delta land. Tucked at the end of a long drive, the Sheridan home took up a gracious guard under the arms of spreading oaks. To the right and back a bit was the barn. A big porch spread itself across the entire length of the large home. Happy light winked at them from gabled windows set in warm cedar shingles. It beckoned, with a welcoming feel that seemed to say, “Sit awhile and relax.”

Dixie whipped into a patch of grass beside another pickup truck and screeched to a halt. Sliding from the passenger side Sadie followed Dixie into the warm evening air. The night was just beginning to dance with lightning bugs and crickets’ cadence. Sadie had to quicken her pace to keep up with Dixie, who had grabbed up her guitar case and was striding toward the house.

The sound of laughter floated to them on the breeze, calling them to join in the fun. Rounding the corner of the house, the girls noticed a generous bonfire in full blaze several yards from the back door. An assortment of lawn chairs encircled the crackling flames, pulled back to avoid the intense heat. About a dozen young people had gathered. The girls knew most of them. A few of the unknown young men were Bo Sheridan’s college friends.

Catching sight of the girls, a collective hello rang out from the group. Bo walked over to greet them, his wide, white smile flashing, an unruly swath of dark hair swept over gray eyes. Boots, jeans, and soft pink polo spoke of country meets frat boy.

“Dixie Lily Lee, what kept ya?”

Dixie flushed with frustration. Why he relished using her full name she didn’t know. What had her parents been thinking when they named her after the tacky Elton John song about a river boat?

Assuming her most indifferent posture she shot back, “Finicky carburetor, but I took care of it.” A toss of her curls communicated more than words ever could.

“I can see that.” His eyes twinkled, taking in her smudged nose, rumpled hair, and dirty fingernails.

As much of a handful as Dixie could be, Bo approved of her. They’d been friends since elementary school, and the sparks between the two had flown more times than either could count. Even so the fun-loving, easy-going young man enjoyed their sparring.

He had graduated from Ole Miss last year and was back home for a while. Maybe he enjoyed Dixie’s company because he had his own wild streak. Loyal and kind, he was easy on relationships; he found his thrills in driving fast and taking risks. The barn at the side of the house was home to Bo and his brother’s dirt bikes, a motorcycle, four wheelers, and his original heritage race car. He’d been dirt track racing since high school. Fast was his passion.

Angela caught sight of her friends and sauntered over to join the conversation. “Girls, I was worried y’all weren’t comin’.”

“Hey Ange. Dixie’s ol’ truck broke down again.” Sadie shot a playful grin at Dixie and greeted her friend with a hug.

“That ol’ thing, Dixie why you insist on drivin’ that piece a junk?” Angela good-naturedly teased. Her black eyes crinkled and bright teeth sparkled in her café au lait skin. “Come on, pull up a seat. We’ve got marshmallows and the boys are settin’ off fireworks in a minute.”

Bo’s dad and younger brother, Fletcher, were gathered around a big grill at the back of the house. Nearby, a couple of sawhorses with planks laid across them stood laden with food and drinks.

Dixie and Sadie made their way to the circle, greeting various friends. Bo settled comfortably on one side of Dixie, Sadie on the other. A few minutes later the chatter was interrupted by the whine and pop of fireworks. Girls squealed and the few remaining guys, including Bo, dashed into the darkness toward the explosives.

For a while, the whole yard was lit up by the bonfire and continual burst of fireworks overhead. Sadie leaned her sable head back and turned her sensitive face to the sky. Sparks of light danced their reflection in the chocolate depths of her eyes. Settling in she listened to the conversation around her. Beside her Dixie chattered with Jenny Allen and Bethany Tolbert, catching up on their fall plans.

Sadie and Dixie had been friends since kindergarten. Had it been that long? Sadie’s mouth relaxed into a smile remembering. Dixie’s spark and sizzle had taught Sadie how to stand up for herself even then. Naturally a peacemaker and good-tempered, Sadie had a tendency to be pushed around by the kids at school. Dixie, wild mane flaming and freckles popping, had stepped in to show Sadie how to take care of unwanted attention. Occasionally their tempers had flared on each other, even Sadie could have a streak of sass, but usually they lived in a happy camaraderie.

The darkness deepened and the fireworks ran out. The Sheridan’s daughters, Mary Beth and Emily, joined the circle, as did most of the young men.

“Dixie, sing us a song,” said someone from the shadows. The request was echoed by others.

“All right,” said Dixie with a smile. Then turning to Sadie she asked, “You want to?”

Sadie nodded. Dixie reached behind her seat and pulled the guitar case to her lap, snapped the clasps open, and took out her baby. Cradling the guitar in her lap, her slender fingers began to play. Sadie was often surprised by the soft spell music cast over Dixie. For such a spitfire she could be soulful.

The strum of the guitar mixed with the night music of cricket violins, a frog’s mellow bass, and the breeze rustling through pines in the distance. In perfect unison Dixie and Sadie sang, their voices lifting up over the crackle of the fire, rising and dancing a haunting harmony. Sadie’s clear, pleasant voice overlaid Dixie’s rich, expressive one. The group fell quiet, enchanted by the music and fire.

Dixie’s green eyes closed and emotion filled her face. Her red curls danced in the breeze, catching the light of the fire and mimicking the flames. Sadie swayed in her seat, eyes closed as well, hands open in her lap, a look of tranquility smoothed across her soft features.

The water is wide, I cannot get o’er,Neither have I wings to fly.Give me a boat that can carry two, And both shall row, my love and I.Oh, love be handsome and love be kind,Gay as a jewel when first it is new;But love grows old and waxes coldAnd fades away like the morning dew. Must I go bound while you go free?Must I love a man who doesn’t love me?Must I be born with so little artAs to love a man who’ll break my heart? When cockle shells turn silver bellsThen will my love come back to me.When roses bloom in winter’s gloomThen will my love return to me.

The last note hung, fading in the night. Angela whispered nearby, “Dixie, why you always gotta make me cry.” Fragile laughter filled the air, breaking the mood.

“Sing a fast one, Dixie. Sing ‘Cowboy Memory,’” encouraged Mary Beth.

Dixie’s musical laugh rang out her agreement. Her fingers flew and her boot tapped. The girls sang, spinning their magic into the night. Friends clapped and many of them joined in singing song after song. One of Bo’s college friends, a tall, fair young man named Reid, grabbed his guitar, too.

After a dozen songs Dixie laughed. “My fingers are hurtin’. I can’t keep going! Besides, I start student teaching tomorrow.” A couple of friends agreed, adding their acknowledgment to the late hour.

Mrs. Sheridan, who had slipped into the group midway through the songs, stood up to bid the friends goodbye. The kind, honey-blonde woman hugged Dixie. “Come back for a visit, honey. We’d love to see more of you.” She smiled warmly. “And good luck tomorrow.”

Dixie had always like Linda Sheridan. She carried herself with style but without pretension.

“Yes ma’am, I will.”

In spite of the late hour Dixie had a spring in her step on her way to the truck with Sadie. “Come on, Sadie girl. Let’s get you home.” Climbing into the truck the girls waved and shouted their goodbyes to other departing friends.

Settling back in the pickup as they headed down the long, dark driveway, Sadie sighed, contented to end the summer on such a happy note. Dixie hummed as she drove. Sadie was nodding off when they pulled up to her tall, white Victorian home. Dixie reached over and gave her arm a soft squeeze. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Sade.”

“Mmhm, I wanna hear how it goes at school. Good night.” Dixie watched as Sadie made her way up the path to her family’s old Victorian house and slipped behind the ornate front door.
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