The kitchen door stands open; yellow walls shine and white curtains flutter. The room is filled with sun and with the smell of three days’ worth of cooking prepared with love by every mom, aunt, grandmother and cousin in the neighborhood. Green bean casseroles are lined up on the counter alongside cheesy, scalloped potatoes. Four glass pans are filled with sweet, spicy-smelling baked beans, and there, among them, my mom’s potato salad—crunchy, sweet, sour: just good. The fragrant scent of corn adds the hint of summertime in creamed corn pudding and in the slightly burnt aroma of one of the six pones of cornbread in their cast iron skillets. Large pitchers of iced tea sweat nearby.
In the front room, a small coffin rests on a metal stand surrounded by peace plants and roses. A sweet scent fills the room along with the fragrance of gardenias and lilies and the clean smell of soap and bath powder. Several women are there in black dresses adorned only with a brooch in the crevice between their breasts, while other, larger women, wear loose dresses covered in flowers—blossoms large and small, in all colors: yellow, red, green, orange, pink and purple. They make me think of the song in Sunday School last week that we all sang with gusto in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter who we are or how we look, Jesus loves us:
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
I wipe my eyes. All the boys and girls in the room have their hair combed and slicked behind their ears, their faces shining.
Mr. Sizemore shakes hands with my dad. They each tug at their starched shirt collars, grimace, smile, and become serious again. Mr. Asher stumbles into the room from a side door. His face is swollen and his hands tremble. Several of the men move toward him, but Daddy’s there first and offers him his hand. Mr. Asher takes Daddy’s arm and walks around the room greeting all those who have come to say goodbye to T.J..
Three women stand near the open casket. My mother, serious, rubs her neck as she talks; T.J.’s mom wipes her eyes with a wrinkled, white handkerchief trimmed in pink crochet. A heavy woman whose white hair frames a round face wet with tears hangs onto the hands of Mom and Mrs. Asher.
Mom checks that I stay nearby; however, I edge one step closer to the casket where I run my hand along the cold, hard surface. Is it metal, I ask myself. No, I don’t think so. I turn my eyes away and let my hand drift down inside the coffin until I touch T.J.’s shirt. I move back half a step, close my eyes, then open one eye as I take a look at my playmate. I close my eyes again and rub the smooth, unyielding, cool skin of his arm. It doesn’t feel the same as when he pedaled, and I rode handlebars on his bicycle.
“T.J.,” I begin softly, though I’m pretty sure he can’t hear me. “Do you remember taking me for a ride on your new bike? I loved it.”
“Carol Dawn,” my mother whispers as she puts her hand on my shoulder, “what are you doing?”
I open my eyes to see her bending close to me. The smell of cigarette smoke burns my nose. I wiggle my face into her hair that smells like Breck Shampoo.
“Honey,” she says and lets her hand play with my hair before she turns to comfort T.J.’s grandmother.
T.J. had gotten a new bicycle on his tenth birthday three weeks ago. He came by the store to show it off to everyone.
“That shore is a fine, lookin’ bike.”
“You take care of that, you hear?”
“Can you ride a bike that big?”
All the men who like to sit around the front of the tiny neighborhood grocery have something to say as they gather around T.J. and his bike to check out the wide seat, the red paint, the black handlebars and the well-oiled sprocket chain. I push my way forward to stand near the front tire.
“Carol,” T.J. says low and slow as he leans forward over the handlebars, “Would you like a handlebar ride?”
“T.J. I’m only seven.”
“I’ll be real careful,” he assures me, as he straightens back up.
With me running behind, T.J. guides the bike far from the road, but still on the wide gravel area where cars pull off the highway. All the men have resumed their whittling and Mom has gone back inside, so I back right up and hold onto the grips of the handlebars to lift myself in order to perch along the top. My feet dangle on either side of the front wheel so I lift my toes to the sky and, weaving back and forth, away we go.
“T.J. Stop wobbling. Stop! Stop!”
“Carol, you gotta sit still, real still.”
I relax my death grip on the handlebars, but I am so excited.
“Oh boy, oh boy!” I breathe.
We are rolling along when one of the men looks up from his whittling long enough to notice our dips and curves.
“Nath,” he shouts. “Look at that child!”
“Carol,” my dad calls, “Come back here.”
T.J. nearly wrecks as he brakes right next to my dad. Daddy scoops me up and holds me sitting on his left arm.
“Carol Dawn, what were you thinking? I should spank your bottom.”
“No, Daddy, we were just riding.”
“And you, T.J., don’t you know better? You need to be careful with your new bike.”
T.J. bounces the front tire up and down causing little puffs of gravel dust to cover his shoes.
“I didn’t mean to get Carol in trouble . . .”
“It’s okay son, just remember to watch how you ride your new bike.”
“Yes sir. Thank you. See you, Carol.”
“’Bye. See you, T.J..”
A few days later, T.J.’s mom and dad stop by on a warm, sunny afternoon and stay to visit out front. Mom offers six-ounce bottles of Coca Cola all ’round. T.J. and I walk back to the garden.
“I like green onions, don’t you?” He looks like he wants an onion, so I nudge him on the arm: “Go ahead. Pull one. I won’t tell, unless someone asks me.”
T.J. pries an onion out of the dry earth and peels back the dirty outer leaves. It sure smells fresh and pungent, but it’s nothing I want.
“Carol, does your dad let you shoot a gun?”
“Yes, he lets me do target practice with an old .22 rifle. He says I need to know that guns are dangerous, so he wants me to learn how to use one. Mom gets all nervous and mad about it.”
“My mom does too, so my dad just says they’re too dangerous for us boys.”
“Come on, I’ll race you to the hog pen; we can feed the pigs.”
“Wait. Carol, is it true your dad won’t let you have a cap pistol?”
“Yes. He says no playing with any kind of gun, and to treat any gun as though it’s loaded . . .”
A week later, after breakfast, Daddy looks sad and serious; he says, “Carol Dawn, I don’t know how to tell you this . . .” His voice trails off, “Honey.” He tries again and looks as though he might cry. I put my hand on top of his hand and pull up onto his lap.
A seven-year-old can sit on her daddy’s lap if he looks sad.
“This morning, one of the Asher’s neighbors came by the store and said that T.J. had accidentally shot himself.”
“Shot himself!” I exclaim, sliding off Daddy’s lap. “How? What?”
“T.J. was cleaning his dad’s .22 single shot and there was a cartridge in the chamber.”
Daddy pulls me back on his lap. “Oh.” I stare at Daddy’s shoulder, at the shoulder seam of his shirt, the double stitching, the blue color, like the sky. Did T.J. rise into the sky? “Oh,” was all I could utter. “Oh.”
I lean into Daddy’s shoulder.
Two days later, my mom helps me bathe and wash my hair. She has a new dress for me, blue for the sky.
When I walk through the open kitchen door at the Ashers’ house, I smell and see all the food assembled there. I stand by the coffin of my friend. I touch his shirt. I touch his arm.
As I remember all the times T.J. stopped by the store to play without bossing me around and without ever being mean, my head begins to buzz. The bicycle ride was best, scary and thrilling, as we careened around in front of the store. I close my eyes hard to keep from crying. I want T.J. to wake up and be there with me and, if he can’t wake up and play with me ever again, I want him to fly to the blue sky and go to heaven.
Reverend Noe begins to sing, “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
I hope so.
Carroll Grossman, also known as Teaberry, lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. Born and raised in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, she followed her dad along narrow deer paths, steep hills and razorback ridges, and across clear, cool streams. Many of her stories and poems reflect the honest, strong and resilient nature of those living in economic poverty while surrounded by great natural beauty. Her work has appeared in Edible Louisville; Harmony, Humanities Magazine of the University of Arizona College of Medicine; Calliope, an anthology published by Women Who Write. Her work may also be found in, The White Squirrel, a literary arts magazine of the University of Louisville; Interstice, a literary publication of South Texas College; Literary Accents and Canary, a literary journal of the environmental crisis. A collection of poetry, Possibility . . .Yes, was published in 2012. She recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University.