fiction: Marla Cantrell

My mama has been hit by lightning, so my tore-up leg holds little interest to her. “Go wash,” is all she says when I stumble through the front door, a bandana wrapped around the gash, still shaky from the experience. 

When I return from work, she’s sitting at the kitchen table. Peaches are scattered across the countertops. Her intention, she said, when I left that morning, was to make jam. It’s 3:30 and still the peaches remain, reminders of my mama’s sloth.

“So what happened?” she asks and dips a carrot into a bowl of onion dip. 

“I was climbing through the barbed wire fence.” I wait, but she doesn’t answer. “I slipped,” I say. It had taken six Band-Aids to cover the wound.

“Not very smart,” she says. “The gate’s not locked. Foolish not to use it.”

“Still,” I say.

“I couldn’t sleep again last night,” she says finally. “Dreams.”

And I ask, “The lightning?”

It had been eleven months since the storm tore through. She was in the tin lean-to where we keep the riding mower. When the lightning struck, Mama was leaning against the shed, and it grabbed her like a miser holds a dollar bill. Her dog Jester was with her, and he watched as my mama lit up. He watched until he couldn’t stand it and then he backed up and ran straight to her.

Jester died when the electricity jumped from her to him.

My mama did not.

She wishes she had.

Our neighbor found her and called the ambulance. We buried Jester under the oak tree by the creek as soon as the rain stopped. 

My mama’s right eye is twitching—a residual effect of the strike. She’s still a beautiful woman. Go to town with her and men will knock you down to shake her hand, to have the chance that she’ll smile at them the way she can when she’s feeling it.

But the twitching is a problem. The dreams are a problem. The medical bills are a problem. 

“I’m having a stone made for Jester,” she finally says. 

The next morning, the cut, four jagged inches straight down my shin, is gaping. I need stitches, but there’s no way I’ll ask. I wrap up my leg and head to work. I count semis that drive by on the old quarry road. The county’s doing a study about road use, and I’m their newest employee. I wear an orange vest and sit in a tan outbuilding. Sometimes I read when I work, so the count is off. I jack it up before I leave at 2:30. Not much, I don’t want to get caught, but enough so it seems like I pay attention.

“How’s your mama?” Theron says to me when he brings
me lunch.

“She’s having a stone made for Jester.” 

Theron shakes his head. He looks like John Wayne. “John-Wayne-On-A-Brush Hog,” is what Mama calls him because he clears land for a living. “Granite?” he asks. 

“I guess. Or gold,” I say. “Sure loved that dog.”

“Gave up his life for her,” Theron says. “No greater love…” A semi passes, and I watch. “Write it down,” Theron says, so I reach for my notebook and put another X on the paper.

Mama is sitting on the porch when I get home. Her left foot is on the railing. She’s painting her toenails purple. “I’m gonna have the stone say, Jester, 2006 – 2013, Hero, Friend, Soul Mate, Defender.”

It’s 101 today, but Mama’s not sweating. It’s another thing she gave up when the lightning hit. To get cool, she has to lie down on the cold bathroom tile, get her skin right up against it, like a dog does. “I got fried and now I can’t perspire,” Mama said, the first time I found her curled up by the commode. 

“Soul mate sounds like you were in love with Jester,” I say.

“I wish you’d shut up,” she says and storms off, walking on her heels, her toenails pointing toward heaven.

When the stone comes in, Jester is misspelled. It reads: Hester. And my mama cries. I go to the kitchen. More peaches have fallen from the trees. Mama’s picked them up again, scattered them across the counters, piled them on the living room floor next to her chair. I pick one up, wash it off and take a bite. 

All night long I peel and cube. I open freezer bags and toss in handfuls of peaches. At two in the morning, I’ve had my fill. The floor is sticky, the sink cluttered with peelings, the freezer full. I take the rest of the peaches and put them in grocery sacks. The next morning, I leave them by the road with a sign that reads “Free.”

For weeks Jester’s stone sits on the coffee table. Mama touches it when she walks by. Glides her hand along the smooth gray top. Traces the letters with her fingertip. She starts buying flowers in town, daisies and carnations, and she places them on the stone where neither Jester nor Hester lies.

“He was a good dog,” Mama says one Sunday afternoon. “Looked at me like he knew things a dog had no business knowing.”

“He was a good dog,” I say. “The best dog.”

The doctor released Mama to go back to her job at Ace Comb Company on Monday, but she’s resisting and now HR is involved. On the phone, she says, “Well, for one thing I can tell when a phone’s about to ring. I can feel it about to ring.” She is thumping her chest now. She is crying now. “My heart jumps around in my chest, my hearing’s gone all tinny. I can’t sweat, for heaven’s sake. At the Sonic, when I press the red button to order, their whole intercom system shuts down.” She waits. “It certainly does. I have been banned from Happy Hour! Go ask the manager!”

I call in sick the next day. I call Theron, who rumbles down the path to our house in his yellow pickup. His window is rolled down and he has a brown hand towel laying across the doorframe so that he can hang his arm out and not get burned.

“Joetta,” he says when he sees me. “My Joetta. “Get me out of here,” I say. 

“Just a minute,” he says, and heads into the house.

He comes out with Jester’s stone. “We gotta fix it,” he says. “None of this business is gonna stop until we do.”

We fly down the highway, me and Theron and Jester’s misspelled stone. We weave through Summitville, we climb the hill to Hiland, and we find a stonemason who agrees to help. 

When we get home, Mama’s in the yard waiting, her arms folded across her chest. 

“You took my stone,” she says.

“And we brought it back, Cissy,” Theron says. “See,” he says, and he unwraps the granite. 

I have never seen my mama cry like she does now. She is a river turned wrong side out. Theron hands me the stone and helps her inside.

“Only thing I ever did right was Jester. Not Joetta. No sir, not Joetta. I have failed Joetta.”

“Mama,” I say. “Stop.” But she keeps going.

“Jester, though, now that I did right. Got all his shots. Bought the name brand food. Washed him every Saturday. He’d stand by my door in the morning. Never barked. Just stood there, waiting.

“I was low that day. I get low a lot. I was thinking about moving away. I always liked the thought of Vermont, especially in the fall. I could see me there, nobody knowing me. I’d wear my hair down more. I’d buy sweaters. I’d eat a lobster the size of a squirrel.

“Jester was whining. Dogs know storms. I shooed him away. ‘Go on home,’ I said, and his ears dropped. Nothing sadder than a shunned dog. But he wouldn’t leave me. Not Jester.”

I pull Mama to me. “It’s okay,” I say. “It’s okay.”

Theron got us all to sit down. “There are some things in this world worth crumbling over,” Theron says, his voice as serious as a preacher. “War, kids without clean drinking water, the
Razorbacks’ losing streak.”

Mama blew her nose. “Your best friend dying,” she adds.

“But Jester wouldn’t want this, Cissy,” Theron says, and then he reaches out and touches her shoulder. 

“He’d want you to go back to work or go to Vermont or throw an Avon party. Anything but what you’re doing now. It’d break his heart to see you like this.”

“I can’t sweat anymore,” Mama says. 

“Not a lot of sweating in Vermont,” Theron says.

“I can tell when phones are about to ring.”

“Might come in handy. They might hire you to troubleshoot at the movie house or something. Stop cell phones before they chime in and ruin everything.”

“I can’t go to Sonic.”

“Not any Sonics in Vermont,” Theron says.

“No?” Mama asks.

“I don’t believe so.”

We place the stone on Jester’s grave just as the sun sets. Mama says, “You were a good dog, a fine friend, and I never once deserved you. If I could lie down and you could rise up, I’d do it in a minute.” 

Theron nudged Mama with his elbow. “Cissy,” he says, “say something with some truck to it.”

Mama takes in air. She stands up taller. “I loved the way you slid across the kitchen floor sideways when I called you to eat. I loved the way you pushed against me on the couch, like I was a boulder that couldn’t be moved. I loved that you were smarter than people gave you credit for.”

Mama hesitates, then takes the clip from her hair and lets it fall. It is a small thing, but it is something to see. Her dark hair rushing down, unleashed, the dappled light beneath the oak, the creek water stumbling along. She takes a step, turns back once to look at the stone, but only for a second, and then we head for home.  

Soon, in a day or two, in a week or two, Mama will have to make a decision. The Ace Comb Company won’t wait forever for her to come back. She could stay or she could leave me for Vermont. Theron puts his hand on my neck, right where my ponytail meets my shirt collar. He holds me in the open field as Mama walks ahead, and then he kneels down, he kisses my bandaged shin. “Let’s go get that looked at,” he says, and I start to cry, and he tells me it’s OK, and I start to believe that it just might be.

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