Exhausted from the mental and emotional drain of arguing, Dixie had drifted into a heavy sleep. The afternoon wore on as she slept, and when she shook off the stupor of her Sunday nap the shadows were already beginning to stretch themselves long.
The house was quiet. Pumpkin vibrated beside her, singing a song of cat contentment. Stretching the crick in her neck she sat up and struggled to gain her bearings. As Dixie shook the lingering cotton from her mind she felt an urgency. Maybe Joe McAllister would have time for her this afternoon. She laid aside the soft blue skirt and knit top she’d worn to church in exchange for jeans, a checked cotton shirt, and her favorite boots. Even though evening was coming earlier and fall was in the air the days were still warm.
Kissing Pumpkin’s fuzzy head she switched off the lamp and headed out of her room. The house was wrapped in silence. Reaching the comfort of her old blue pickup she was gone before anyone noticed. Driving out-of-town she sought Joe’s small frame house hugging the rich delta fields. She knew her way to the old man’s house from a visit she’d gone on a few years ago with her daddy. The radio blared and orange roads flashed by as she made her way to the outskirts of town.
A humble, hungry eagerness fought the natural-born stubborn streak in her heart. In a few moments she had pulled into Joe’s bare front yard. Stepping up on the creaking porch of the old house Dixie raised her hand to knock on the screen door. After what seemed like a couple of minutes she heard a shuffling step approaching. Mr. McAllister opened the door. A surprised smile spread across his face.
“Well, Dixie my girl, what are you doing here on a Sunday afternoon?” Joe’s crinkled smile welcomed her in as his gnarled hand held the faded screen door open for her.
“I was hoping we could visit for a bit. I have a question to ask you.”
“Surely, surely. Let me get us some tea and we can sit on the porch and visit a spell.”
“I’ll help you,” Dixie said, following him to the tidy, simple kitchen. Dixie got the ice and Joe poured cold tea from a blue plastic pitcher. “There you go Dixie girl,” he said, handing her a glass. “Let’s go enjoy the last little bit of that sunshine.”
She followed him back through the front room out to the wide porch. Joe eased himself down in a rocking chair. He had taken off his coat and tie revealing brown suspenders over his white shirt. He was a southern picture sitting there, iced tea in hand. Dixie took the corresponding rocker. Looking passed the porch railing that was more gray than white, to a field of cotton ripening in the fall sun, southern snow, they sat companionable, sipping their tea. She could smell the tangy scent of cotton warm in the fields.
Joe took a swig of tea, sighed with contentment, and said, “It sure was a pleasure to see your young friends at church today. I hope they’ll be coming back.”
Dixie looked at him. “That’s what I came to talk to you about. What did you think about Kenny, did you notice anything, well, different about him? I mean did he seem, was he, did you… Do you know what I mean?” she finished, unable to find the right words.
Joe looked at her puzzled.
She plunged forward. “Did you notice that Kenny’s, well, he’s gay, Joe.”
The old man’s eyebrows arched up. “Well I’ll be durned,” he chuckled under his breath, “I guess that explains the painted finger nails. I just figured that’s what young people were wearing these days. Things change mighty fast, I can’t keep up – I just hang on.”
“He appreciated how kind you were to him, Joe,” Dixie said. “What made you take the time to talk to him?”
“Oh, I saw the hunger in his eyes. Like a stray looking for a meal. I hope he comes back. And your little friend too, he’s a bright boy.”
“My mother and Daniel don’t hope he comes back,” Dixie said, looking back over the fields. “They think I’m reckless to have invited him in the first place. Why doesn’t he offend you?” She looked back at Joe. “My daddy said you might be willing to spend some time with him. He told me to ask you why.”
“I guess your daddy figured I knew something about not fitting in. Dixie, your friend doesn’t offend me ‘cause I’ve got enough to deal with by takin’ care of my own offensiveness to be worried about anybody else’s offensiveness. I guess church is the best place to be for a young man like Kenny, struggling with the challenges of life.”
“Why can’t other people feel that way, Joe? Daddy seems worried not everyone will be so understanding. I think he’s right. Already I’ve gotten the cold shoulder from one of my friends, and my Mother most of all. I know he’s different than we are, but if they could hear his story. I can’t imagine people would be so willing to turn him away.”
“Stories are a powerful thing Dixie girl. They put a face on our fears. Some stories change us, but sometimes we just can’t handle another person’s story. Sometimes it reminds us too much of our own.”
Dixie sat without speaking, thinking about Joe’s words. The sun sunk to the tree line, painting the fields with gold. Shadow and light mingled making strange shapes, distorting the landscape’s true form.
“Why aren’t you afraid of Kenny’s story?”
“Because I’ve made peace with my own, Dixie girl. A long time ago. I’ve lived in the Delta all my life. It’s always been a poor area but when I was a young man times were so tough it was all a person could do to keep body and soul together.”
His watery blue eyes took on a wistful look as he stepped back through the years. “My family was poor. Daddy was a sharecropper; white trash, folks would have called us. And I guess we were. I hoped for something better than digging in the dirt, scraping to get by. I could easily have dropped out of school. A lot of my friends did, but I stuck with my studies. I was determined to make something of myself. I went to Ole Miss in 1948.” He shook his head. “Law, it seems like a lifetime ago. I had been too young to fight in the war. After it was over the whole country was bursting with optimism and potential. I didn’t want to be left out. I had never been out of the Delta before but I took the train to Oxford on my own. I don’t know how we paid for my education, everyone in the family scrimped and saved, I worked while I studied all four years.”
“I met my sweet Ethel in Oxford. We got married when I graduated. I got a job in a business in Vicksburg right out of school. We moved, starry-eyed and hopeful. I was determined I wouldn’t live like my parents had – hand to mouth every day.” Joe rambled on through his memories, sometimes quiet, thinking over his experiences, sometimes sharing them. “After our second son, Joe Jr., was born I just couldn’t seem to make ends meet with the growing demands of a family. I was still young, a few years shy of thirty. Temptation got the best of me and I took advantage of the business’ finances. One lie led to another and before I knew it I was in up to my chin. Worse yet, I found myself becoming a liar. The lies followed me home, everywhere I went.” He sighed deeply, shaking his head.
Looking at Dixie he said, “Being found out was the best and worst day of my life. I lost everything. But the spell of the lies was broken. I went to jail. Ethel and the boys went to live with her parents, the house was taken to pay the fines and restitution. I would work for several years to pay off the debt. Six months in jail gave me time to think, sort out what kind of man I’d become, get right with the good Lord. Eventually Ethel and the boys came back. ’Course that’s a long story. Forgiveness doesn’t always happen overnight. For a time I thought I’d never get a decent job again. We came back home and tried to start over. It wasn’t until Mr. Hamner at the city works gave me a job that I could feel hopeful again.”
He thought a minute. “But it wasn’t the job what changed me so much as someone takin’ the time to see me for what I was. In prison the Lord had showed me that any identity other than being his child just wasn’t enough. Bill Hamner didn’t see my record. He saw me as a person and gave me a chance. Now, I ask you, can I do any different?”
Dixie had known Joe McAllister her whole life and had never heard about his past. How many other people had stories she didn’t know? It was a thought to ponder. “Thank you for telling me your story, Joe.”
“Well, ’tis no secret little lady. I’m not proud of my past, but I’m not ashamed of it neither. Just thankful.”
“I guess that’s why I brought Kenny to church. If he can be around people like you, hear your story, know there’s hope, maybe life will be different for him. MyMother just doesn’t seem to realize that. She seems to think I’m just trying to ruin her life and my reputation.” A thick layer of bitterness clung to her words. More than she had intended.
In the gathering darkness she saw Joe’s eyes looking at her thoughtfully. “Your mama has a story too you know. Don’t forget that little missy.”
“I suppose. But if that’s the case then why isn’t she more kind to Kenny?”
“Maybe his story hits too close to home. Maybe it makes her afraid.”
“It’s hard to think of Mother being afraid of anything.” Dixie dismissed such a thought. “Would you be willing to spend some time with Kenny, Joe? I know he could use a friend. He doesn’t have family in his life.”
Joe rattled the ice in his cup and stroked his chin, thinking. “It’d be a pleasure. As long as he doesn’t mind an old coot like me.”
“I hardly think you’re an old coot! And I don’t doubt he could use your friendship.”
“Tell me when. My porch’ll be ready.”
Shadows enveloped the landscape as the light gave up its claim. Dixie stood and stretched. “Thanks for the tea and conversation, Joe.”
“Any time, little lady, any time.” He moved to stand but Dixie stopped him.
“No need to get up. I’ll bring Kenny by for a chat soon I hope. I’ll let you know.”
Joe nodded, “I’d like that. I’ll be looking for you all.”
Dixie hopped down from the porch and swung up into her truck. Crunching out of the drive she waved to the gentle old man rocking on his porch. As she drove her mind replayed the conversation. Could her mother have a painful story hidden away? Or was she just cold by nature? She couldn’t see what she would be afraid of. Maybe she hadn’t asked the right questions to know what was buried in her mother’s heart.