Sweet Tea

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

A young boy remembers Jackson at Jackson's funeral and the stories he would tell.

Sweet Tea

 

At the funeral home, my parents and I were met by some of the black townsfolk. They appeared surprised that white folk came to Jackson’s funeral. We were the only white folk there. The men politely shook our hands, and the ladies hugged us. Most of the ladies were crying, and the men looked politely sad. Everyone was whispering like they was afraid they’d wake ole Jackson up. I wished with all my might he would wake up. An elderly black lady who I knew as Ms. Lily walked up to us as we stood near the back of the chapel.


"You mus' be Timmy, my brother's friend," she said, smiling and leaning over slightly to shake my hand.


"Yes'm, I is. You're Ms. Lily, right?"


"Yes. My brother told me how much he enjoyed your visits. Jackson didn't have much after he retired from the railroad, but you were a joy to him, and he liked you very much. I jus' wanted to thank you for bein' his friend." Ms. Lily then paid her respects to my parents before returning to the front of the chapel. I began to cry and remember how I met Jackson and how our friendship began. My parents and I sat down for the service while the memories of Jackson and the stories he told me came rushing back.


My father always visited the Oakdale General Store on the first Saturday of the month, and that’s where I first met Jackson. I was helping my dad load up his old 1946 Ford pickup with supplies and carrying a sack of flour when I tripped on a warped board in front of the store. The sack fell on the boardwalk, and I fell right down on top of it, busting the sack open, flour spilling everywhere and into the air like a cloud made by an explosion. I was covered from head to waist with the white powder. I jumped up, brushing myself off, coughing and couldn’t see a thing. Then I fell backwards and would have fallen on my arse, except someone caught me. It was Jackson. He was laughing so hard he could hardly stand up himself.


“Boy, don’t you look a sight,” he said, as he laughed. I ignored him and continued to brush myself off.


“Somebody tripped me,” I said. Looking up at Jackson, I noticed he was a Negro with no teeth, just gums.


He stood six feet even, and his dark, wrinkled face looked like soft leather, especially when he smiled. His hair was closely cropped and almost completely white. Arthritis had deformed his large, weathered hands, which I found out later was the reason why he finally retired from the railroad. He wore faded blue coveralls with a red handkerchief stuffed into the left breast pocket, and there was at least a two-inch gap between his ankle high work boots and the bottom of his overalls and between his wrists and the cuffs of his shirt. He looked like a man trying to fit into clothes two sizes too small.


“Yep,” he said, “somebody sho did. I think it was you!” He started laughing again. I was getting mad, now. Then my father came out of the store to see what the ruckus was. He started laughing, too.


“What happened to you, son?” my father asked.


“Nothing, Pa,” I said, still brushing off the fine white powder. Mr. Clark, the store owner, then stepped outside to take a look.


“I’ll just write this up as spoilage,” Mr. Clark told my father. “Get yourself another bag, Seth,” he said, shaking his head and grinning from ear to ear as he stepped back into the store.


Jackson was laughing a high-pitched laugh, now, through his nose with his mouth closed and smiling broadly. He grabbed a broom and began sweeping the flour off the boardwalk and onto the street. It was the most embarrassing day of my life up to then.


After our chance meeting, I was intrigued by Jackson and wanted to know more about him, so I started paying him visits. He always greeted me with a wide toothless smile and a warm welcome.


Jackson lived in an old run down shack that looked like it wouldn’t stay up on a windy day. The shack sat back off the road about 60 feet and was surrounded on three sides by high weeds and oak trees. The shack itself was nothing more than one-by-sixes nailed together on a wood frame. The weather of many seasons darkened the wood to a salt-and-peppered navy gray, having never been painted or protected. A black stovepipe protruded at a slight angle through the left side of the corrugated tin roof.  Dead center at the front of the house was a wooden door, once yellow, but discolored with age, the paint peeling. On either side of the door were two square windows. Plain dirty-white curtains hung inside on both sides of each window.

A porch extended six feet from the front of the house, and the tin roof extended out over the porch supported by two poles at each end. On the porch and to the left of the door sat a wooden table with two wicker rocking chairs, one on either side of the table.


In the front yard sat all manner of what I call junk. There was an old, rusty oven, a refrigerator with the door removed, a couple of rusted 50 gallon drums, an old, broken down Model T, all sorts of discarded lumber, an old wagon wheel—the list went on. When I asked him about all that junk, he told me, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” I wondered what kind of man would consider all that junk to be treasure.


Once I tried sneaking up on Jackson by crawling through the brush after setting my bike down on the ground about 50 yards from his property. As I poked my head through the weeds at the side of his front yard, he waved at me.


“You gonna make your mama powerful mad when she sees all that dirt on your clothes, boy,” he shouted at me, gums showing through his wide smile. “I got some tea here if you wanna wash down all that dust.” Jackson would always be sitting on the porch at the wooden table with an ice cold pitcher of tea and two glasses.


Blast that old man! I wondered how long he knew I was sneaking up on him. I never could surprise him, so I eventually stopped trying. 

The tea he made was always sweet with a hint of lemon, just the way I liked it. When I asked him why he had two glasses when it was only him there, he said, “Ya jus’ never knows when company is a’comin’.” I bet he knew every time when someone was coming.

He often told me stories about his life working on the railroad. One story gave me chills, but also got me thinking about what is real and what isn’t, and after his death, the story changed me forever.


Sometimes Jackson would just talk about things that seemed unrelated. At first, I just thought he was crazy, but as I got older and thought back on his words, I realized he was teaching me all the time, but in a way that I, as a kid, would not rebel against. He was a much wiser man than I had imagined. I think he might have been a genius in his own way.


Jackson would rock slowly in his chair, holding a hand-rolled cigarette between his arthritic fingers and stare off into the distance just above the treeline across the road when he talked, as if he was reading words in the sky. I hung onto every word, anxious for the next one.


“I remember once when we was in Wyomin’,” he started. “It was awful cold. The wind was a blowin’ and the snow was so thick I couldn’t see past my nose.” He chuckled then took a draw on his tea, wiping his lips on the back of his hand. “I was ridin’ in the caboose way in the back. I was always the last one to get where we was goin’,” he said, laughing.


“It was about noon, but ya’d never know it, cuz everythin’ was kinda dark with all that snow and the clouds blockin’ the sun. Mr. Brady, the Engineer, was goin’ real slow cuz he couldn’t see nuthin’ either.” Jackson wiped his face from his forehead to his chin with his big hand, then shook his head.  “I’m tellin’ ya, boy, I was real worried we would wind up derailed or sumthin’.” He paused.


“All of a sudden the brakes came on and I fell on the floor thinkin’ we was in trouble now. It musta taken a hunnerd yards for us to come to a stop. Not a word on the radio from Mr. Brady, no suh. It all happened real sudden like.”

Jackson’s face was serious now. I had never seen him tell a story with such an intense look. He took another sip of his tea and a puff of his cigarette before continuing.  “When I got to my feet, I stuck my head out the window to see what I could see, but I couldn’t see nuthin’. Lawdy, it was cold, too. Almost froze my face in just a few seconds. Then I heard Mr. Brady on the radio. He asked me if I was alright.”


‘Yes suh, I sho nuff is, Mr. Brady,’ I told him. ‘What happened, Mr. Brady?’ I asked.”


“You’ll never believe it, Jackson,” Mr. Brady said. “You’ll never believe it. I thought I saw a Nun walking in the middle of the tracks. Keep an eye out for her, Jackson. I don’t think we hit her. I hope to God we haven’t.”


“Yes suh, I will for sho,” I radioed back. The train started slowly movin' again, and I kept jumping from side to side in the caboose looking for the Nun, hoping I would see her standing by the tracks. When the train started across the old trestle over Devil’s Canyon, I still had not seen the Nun.” Jackson puffed again on the cigarette.


"What's Devil's Canyon?" I asked. 


“Devil’s Canyon is a gorge ‘bout 200 feet deep and 500 feet across. The only way from one side to the other was by crossing an old wooden trestle that was built back when I was ‘bout your age. As we crossed it, I looked down, but the snow was so heavy, I couldn’t see nuthin’. I ain’t afraid to tell ya, boy, it was the first time my ankles felt like jelly.  We made it across alright and pulled into Rocky Point station a few hours later. I left the caboose and headed to the station house. The snow and wind stopped blowin’, and I had an eerie feelin’. Somethin’ weren’t right.


It was nice and warm in the station house from a potbelly stove in the middle of the station. Mr. Brady, the Fireman, and the Station Manager were standin’ round that stove talkin’, but soon as I stepped inside, they all got quiet and stared at me a minute. I wondered what I did for them three to stare at me like that.”  Jackson flipped his cigarette butt out in front of him onto the dirt yard and watched it until it landed in a patch of dirt where it wouldn’t start a fire. Then he drank some more tea. After downing half the glass, he reached into the breast pocket of his overalls for the crumpled up red handkerchief, wiped the sweat off his face and stuffed the rag back into the pocket. I sat on the edge of my chair, anxious to hear more.

“Mr. Brady asked if I had seen that Nun anywheres. I told him, no suh.”


“Jackson,” Mr. Brady asked, “when did we cross Devil’s Canyon?”


“Bout a couple o’ hours ago, suh,” I answered.


“That’s impossible,” said the Station Manager. “Part of the trestle collapsed yesterday during this storm. Your train isn’t due here until the day after tomorrow. I haven’t had time to throw the switch up at the junction because of the storm and the telephone lines are down, too.”


“Well, suh,” I said, “we just crossed it. It ain’t down.”


“I know we are a little early,” Mr. Brady said, “but we didn’t have to stop at Cody this time. Another engine made a special trip. That saved us a whole day.” Mr. Brady rubbed his hands over the potbelly stove and shivered as if shaking the cold from his bones. “I hope our early arrival isn’t inconvenient for you.”


“No, no, not at all,” the Station Manager replied. “This Nun---what did she look like? Where exactly did you see her?”


“What does any Nun look like?” Mr. Brady asked. “We saw her after we passed the Y-junction. And why would anyone, even a Nun, be out in weather like this?” The Station Manager inhaled deeply and slipped his hands deep into his overall pockets.


“I guess you fellas never heard about Sister Ruth, huh?” the Station Manager asked. We shook our heads. “It’s for sure part of the trestle is down. I seen it myself just yesterday,” the Station Manager said. He hesitated, stared at Mr. Brady a moment, shook his head and said, “I just don’t understand how you boys crossed it.”

“Well, we did,” said Mr. Brady. The Station Manager gave a quick “hmm” then continued his story.

“About sixty years ago, Sister Ruth lived in a small parish not far from the trestle. She used to care for the Indians that lived nearby. She’d take them food, doctor them up, and teach them religion.”


“She lived there all by herself?” Wilson, the Fireman, asked.


“Yep. All by her lonesome,” the Station Manager said. “It was during a storm like this one back in ’09 that she disappeared. It was three days before the weather cleared up enough for the Indians to come out. They started looking for her to make sure she was alright. They found her froze to death not far from the trestle with food on a sled for them. They then carried her back to her parish and buried her there. It isn’t far from Devil’s Canyon. Sometimes folks in these parts, especially the Indians, say they still see Sister Ruth walkin’ the mountain near the Parish.” The room fell silent. Wilson dropped a wrench he was holding, and the loud bang on the wooden floor made us all jump in our skins.”  Jackson laughed nervously, and shook his head. I could tell the story still affected him.


“The Station Manager said Sister Ruth musta fixed that trestle jus’ for us. No one said a word. We was thinkin’ bout poor Sister Ruth.” Jackson looked at the pitcher of tea.


“Come on, boy,” he said. “Drink up. Don’t let that ice water the tea down. It ain’t good then.” He poured himself another glass, emptying the pitcher.  “I’ll be right back. Got to get us some more tea.” He disappeared into his shack, and I sat there thinking about what he had told me so far, wondering if he was telling me a tall tale. The story made me feel a little afraid, and I didn’t like feeling afraid. Jackson stepped out on the porch again holding a fresh pitcher and set it on the table. Then he sat down in his rocker, lit up another cigarette and took a long drag, his lips pulling into his mouth from the lack of teeth. As he exhaled, he continued his story.

“None of us said much after that while we were at Rocky Point. We grabbed some grub and headed down the mountain. We all agreed not to say anything about the story, cuz no one would believe us nohow.”  The hairs on the back of my neck tingled. I didn’t know whether to believe him, but he hadn’t given me any reason before not to believe him.


“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I told Jackson.


“Really?” he asked.


“I ain’t never seen one.”


“I ain’t never seen Paris, but that don’t mean it ain’t there, boy,” he said. “You ever see God, boy?” I laughed.


“Ain’t no one seen Him ‘cept in the Bible,” I said.

“God is the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. So ghosts must exist.”

“That’s different.”

“How so, boy? You said you ain’t never seen God, but you believe, right?”


“Yes, sir, but He’s God. He can do anything. I don’t believe in some old ghost jus’ walkin’ around cuz they is still here,” I said with conviction.


“I been aroun’ a long time, boy. Lotta things in this world ain’t got no explanation. I never seen a ghost, but that don’t mean they ain’t here. Might be one or two here right now.” Jackson looked at me and smiled.


“You funnin' me, Jackson?” I asked. Jackson laughed.


“No, son, jus’ tryin’ to learn ya." Jackson paused for a moment, then stared out over the trees again before continuing. “Why do you come here, boy?”


“Well, cuz you’re my friend. You are, ain’tcha?” Jackson flicked his cigarette out near the previous butt and turned to look at me.


“Yep, guess I is, Mistah Timmy,” he said, grinning widely, his gums glistening in the daylight.

We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about all sorts of things and sipping his tea. When the sun dropped behind the tree line, we knew darkness was soon to follow.

“Bout time you got on home, don’tcha think, boy?” he asked me. “Your mama will be powerful worried if’n you ain’t home by dark.” I finished my tea, shook Jackson’s big, arthritic hand and hopped on my bike for the long ride home.


A tapping on my knee interrupted my memories of that afternoon. My mother leaned over and whispered in my ear.


“Come on, son. We have to get home, now,” she said. I walked over to Jackson lying in his shiny bronze coffin and touched his hand, feeling how cold and stiff it was. He seemed to be smiling, and I hoped he was.


A few days after the funeral, I went back to Jackson’s shack. When I noticed a pitcher of tea on the porch table, a cold chill ran down my back.  Water was condensing on the cold glass like beads of perspiration. Next to it were two empty glasses. I dropped my bike on the ground and ran inside the shack.


“Hello? Anyone here?” I called out. Only silence answered me. I ran into the bedroom, the kitchen and out into the back yard. There was no one there. Suddenly, I felt someone behind me and spun around, but no one was there. A little shaken, I walked back through the shack and out onto the porch. The tea was still there, so it hadn’t been my imagination. 


Up to then, I still did not believe in ghosts, but the tea on the table and the absence of anyone that I could see or hear was quickly changing what I believed. Maybe Jackson's ghost was right there sitting in his chair rocking and smoking a cigarette, his gums glistening in the sunlight. I picked up the glass and took a long sip. It was sweet with a hint of lemon. Just the way I liked it.


Submitted: August 21, 2013

© Copyright 2022 ThomasC. All rights reserved.

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