Bars on the windows. Look through them and see sky, pigeons, people on the lawn. They block sound. Wind. But not memory.
This is an institution. I live here, have for coming up on thirty years. Or has that mark passed?
They give me medications, in hopes of blocking the remembering. Big pills, little pills, pink ones and white ones and a little funny-shaped green one. All in a cup, like the ones you fill with catsup at Burger King. I remember anyway. A man don’t forget the thing that stuck him in a place locked away from everything by bars.
It was my fourteenth summer. Georgia; hot, still, sticky, cicadas screeching in the trees. It was the time of year they sang day and night, sometime in August.
Ollie’s voice rose over them.
“Sam Jay. Sam Jay, you quit! You jus’ like all them others. You a rattail possum, jus’ like that dirty brother a yours. You quit right now.”
I liked Ollie. Olivia Pruitt. Ollie to everyone but her pa. He called her Bitch.
I took my hand off her small breast, drew back like I stuck it in a hornet nest. I felt like I disappointed her, the way she talked.
“You git on home,” she scolded. “You know your ma’s callin’ you for chores. An’ don’t you be thinkin’ she don’t know what you about, neither.”
Ollie was crying. She cried a lot. I didn’t want it that way. She was such a pretty little thing, growing back in these woods like a field daisy or something. How do you tell a pretty thing like that you had great admirations for her? I didn’t know. I’d kissed her mouth, tasted the bitter coffee, warm sun of it. Only made me want more, but she didn’t give more. I was too big a disappointment.
“Don’t cry, girl,” I told her. I held her hand, looked at the jagged dirty nails and work-knobbed knuckles.
“Then why you got to be like the rest?” she sniffed.
“I ain’t like the rest. I’s better’n the rest.”
“So keep your hands in your own britches.”
I was much better than the rest. Her pa being “the rest”.
“I’m gonna get it right for ya one day. One day, when I’s growed…”
She took a swipe at a standing chicory. The blue flowers were withered by day-heat. “You don’ be makin’ no promises. No promises.”
I nodded, knowing the promise been made already.
“He beatin’ on you, ain’t he?”
Her dark eyes shifted. “None a your bisness.”
“He doin’ worse ‘an all that.” I knew what Pruitt did to girls. I saw Lucille Crabb hanging from a sourgum last summer, after she told her mama what Pruitt done to her.
Ollie turned away so I could see her profile, and her soft voice said tiredly, “You a mud-suckin’ scag, that’s what.”
“No, I ain’t. You know I ain’t.”
“You is. A mud-suckin’ scag, an’ pa says if he catch you ’round my skirt again, he’s gonna shoot ya.”
“He ain’t one to tell tales. He says you Vass boys is all the same, from your ole granpappy down. Say ever’ one a you’d poke a possum if it’d hole still.”
“Hain’t the truth.”
“You callin’ him a liar? My pa’s a church-goin’ man. He don’t tell lies, he says God be up there listenin’ an’ watchin’ an’ one day, He gonna come down on you an’ yours.”
“Ain’t never poked a possum.”
“You ain’t never poked nothin’.”
“He pokes you. You call that church-goin’ proper?”
She reached to pinch me hard on the thigh. “You shut up.” She turned, mumbling under her breath.
“You know it’s the truth. Why you stay with him?”
“Mind your bisness.”
“I want to know why.”
She twisted her spotty apron in her fist. After a time, she whispered, “I ain’t ready to die.”
I didn’t know what to say. I destroyed an ant lion’s funnel with the end of a twig.
“An’ that’s all I want to hear about it.”
So that’s all I said.
“Why ain’t you marryin’?” I asked, chewing on a stalk of sweet-grass.
We were laying out under the poplar trees, looking up their straight gray bellies. Ollie laid so the top of her head pressed the top of mine.
“I could be. Could have my pick of ’em.”
It was true. Any boy’d be glad to hitch up with Ollie. “Then why ain’cha?”
“Ain’t hardly your bisness, neither. You nosier’n a starvin’ coon dog.”
“I’ll marry you, Ollie.”
She started to cry again. When she talked, her voice had that bubbly sound, like when you stick your head in the crik and shout. “I cain’t hardly figger you, Sam Jay Vass. Not a’tall.” And her hand reached up and touched my hair. She went on crying softly; I looked up through the trees and gnats.
“So will you?” I asked. My heart was thumping off my ribs.
She was quiet for a long time. The cicadas screeched.
Finally: “You ain’t a man yet. You cain’t marry till you’s a man.”
I rolled to my belly and looked down at her face. “I’m more man than he is.”
She closed her eyes. Her heart moved in her chest.
“Sides that, I’d be good to ya, take good care of you an’ all. Ain’t that what a man do?”
Her eyes stayed shut.
“C’mon, Ollie. I care for you.”
Tears squeezed out of her eyes, left shiny marks in the dust on her face. I touched one, and she didn’t move. She didn’t swat me away. I leaned down, kissed her lips, and she still didn’t swat me away. I tasted her, and when her hands came to hold to my neck, I put my face against her shoulder and asked her again.
When she spoke, her voice was different. “Sam, I believe you’s a man. Maybe you the one can get me out.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, I was too lost in the excitement of her. When she bared her skin to my mouth, I knew I’d do anything to keep her.
A couple weeks we went on like that, coming together out in the woods and the heat, the cicadas covering the sounds we made. The more time we spent together, the longer our time apart seemed. I wanted to be with her all the time, to wake beside her in the morning and lie down with her at night.
Then we met one afternoon, the threat of storm in the distance. Her face was streaked, her eyes swollen. There was a bruise across her mouth.
I put my skinny arms around her. “What’s it about?” I asked.
“Pa knows. He’s madder’n a sow bear, Sam. You better git.”
I held to her tighter. “Don’t have no place to go. He cain’t run me offa my own land. An’ ma cain’t care for the younguns herself.”
“You go, or you be shot dead.”
Her voice was warm on my neck, her reasoning cool and hard. I said, “Thought he was church-goin’ an’ all that shit.”
“God’ll forgive him, you took what was his.”
We fell apart and she sat in the dirt. She touched her mouth with the heel of her hand, and brought it away to look. I don’t know what she expected to find, but she dropped it back to her lap and stared off somewhere I couldn’t see.
“I ain’t leavin’ you,” I said.
She shook her head mournfully. “You don’ get it-”
“I do get it. I ain’t dumb as all that. You come with me.”
“I cain’t leave him.”
“Why the hell not?” I exclaimed.
“You don’t understand. I’s all he got. All in the whole world. He cain’t do nothin’ for himself.”
I dropped to my knees in front of her and grabbed her face in my hands. “I love you, Ollie Pruitt. With all the heart I got.”
She didn’t say anything.
“If I fix it for you, will you marry me?”
“Sam, that’s crazy talk-”
“Jus’ answer. Will you?”
After a stretch, I felt her head move ‘tween my hands, up and down. I kissed her mouth and held her. “Then I’ll fix it for you.”
* * *
“Mr. Vass. Mr. Vass? It’s time for your medications, all right?” It’s the pretty nurse with the round face. I smile and nod at her. I tend to forget about the bars. The nurse has the little cup with the pills, and another with water. I take them and swill.
I was scared that night. It was hot and still. I sneaked up to the Pruitt house. The dogs set to barking, and the mule in the barn made the odd braying whinny mules make. The windows were dark. I knew Ollie was waiting behind one of them, watching. I felt her eyes on me, warm and scared as I was. My gut settled like a smithie’s hammer; I swallowed back bile. There was the weight of the shotgun in my hands, the one daddy’d left me. I’d cleaned it and loaded it, and had two shells in my hip pocket. But I wasn’t aiming to miss.
The dogs kept up their racket, and a light came on in one window. Seconds later, the hinges on the front door creaked as it swung, and Pruitt stood in his trousers, a battery-powered flash light aimed toward the barn. I raised the gun. Steadied it against my shoulder.
He fell. I don’t remember more than that. He fell, and Ollie stepped over him, a suitbag in her hand. She didn’t look at him, only straight at me. I dropped the gun, took her hand. Turned my back to the house.
Later, the judge said it wasn’t a “crime of passion.” He called it premeditated murder. Since I was under-age, they sent me to “school.” After my “schooling,” I’d go on to prison. But the lawyer provided me by the state appealed and got me an insanity charge. Said I was not fully in possession of my senses. The judge said fine.
Ma cried out where she sat fanning herself behind the polished oak rail. I turned to see her take hold of Ollie like I’d felt her take hold of me in times of sorrow. Ollie’s eyes were sad and dry. I’d promised to fix it for her, and I hadn’t. I’d left the gun, and whoever found Pruitt had known it as mine. A stupid mistake. And there was no proof it was anything but cold-blooded. Ollie didn’t come to defend me as a witness. They’d asked if she wanted to, and I’d seen her shake her head and look away.
I don’t hold it against her. I always was a disappointment.
The bars swim out of focus, and I feel Ollie’s soft belly under my cheek. The cicadas scream in the trees, somewhere outside the bars.