Ma and Pa Gainey sat on the porch of their old house. It was sundown and they liked to relax and enjoy the transition from day into night.
The screen door opened and banged shut as Jesse Gainey came out and started down the rickety steps. He stumbled, tried to regain his balance, and fell into his mother’s flower bed.
“Jesse, you’re drunk, drunk again.” Pa Gainey got up from his rocking chair, and looked down at his son sprawled amid the marigolds.
“Did-ja hurt yoself?”
Jesse shook his head. “I’m okay.”
“You gotta git a hold a yoself , son. I know it was tough over there. But you been hittin the bottle ever since you come home. Yer killin yourself Jesse.”
Jesse struggled to his feet and dusted himself off. He tried to straighten the crushed flowers.
“Just leave em son,” his mother mumbled. She fidgeted with the knitting on her lap.
“ I’ll fix em. They was gonna die pretty soon anyways lessen we git a good rain. Right Pa? We sure do need a good rain.”
Jesse reached in his shirt pocket, pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes, lit one and inhaled. That triggered a hacking cough that came from deep in his chest. He turned his head and spit into a ditch, then wiped his lips with a handkerchief. There was blood on it, blood mixed with vile yellow mucus. He inspected the handkerchief as if he was reading a document. He was looking at his death notice and he knew it.
When he came back from overseas the Army took him from the troop ship straight to the VA hospital. At times the pain in his chest was so great they had to strap him to his bed. Blisters from the mustard gas scarred his arms and left his face and neck disfigured. The gas had blinded him for a time. He had regained vision in one eye. The other was a grey milky sightless orb. There was nothing the doctors could do about the damage to his lungs.
He started toward the truck parked in the yard.
“Where you goin, boy? “ Pa Gainey said.
“In ta town. Where the hell you think I’m going?”
“Not in my truck, you ain’t. Not all liquored up like that.”
Jesse reached in his pocket, took out the keys, and threw them onto the porch.
”I’ll git my own goddamned car.”
“You better hold your tongue boy. I’ll not have you taking the lord’s name in vain, Jesse Gainey. Not in front of your mother.”
Jesse turned and started down the road that ran in front of the house.
Ma Gainey had tears in her eyes. “He was a good boy Pa, a good boy before he went off to that war.”
Jesse walked along the side of the road. He reached in his pocket, took out a pint whiskey bottle of Old Crow, took a long swig and threw the empty bottle as far as he could. It shattered in the gravel roadway as a car rounded the bend and swerved to miss the broken glass. The driver shook his fist at Jesse as he passed by.
Jesse laughed and kept walking, arm extended with his thumb out. Nobody stopped. A few cars slowed, then sped up when they saw it was Jesse. He had been voted most popular his senior year in high school. Now, he couldn’t get a lift into town on a Saturday night.
As a teenager, Jesse had been quick to laugh, mischievous, the class prankster. Girls were always getting crushes on him, and Jesse was a natural leader when he went hunting and fishing with other boys his age.
When he came home after the war, people felt sorry for him. Everyone cut Jesse a lot of slack. When he went on binges, the sheriff would take him home rather than throw him in jail.
He was, after all, a war hero. He had volunteered for the American Expeditionary Force and fought with General ‘Black Jack’ Pershing in the Argonne. He had been cited for bravery and had the medals to prove it.
The pastor of the Baptist Church offered counsel to help him stop drinking but Jesse refused to see him. A buddy from Jesse’s platoon came for a visit and left in disgust. Jesse stayed drunk most all the time, picking fights with people who had been his friends when they were all growing up. Jesse’s drinking just got worse and along with it, his mean streak. People started avoiding him.
The little farming town of Lexington was bustling on a Saturday night. It was about the only time people could get way from the back-breaking work in the cotton fields. They came to town to shop and to socialize and the stores and businesses stayed open late for the trade. So did the juke joints on the edge of town. Jesse walked through the front door of the Red Rooster got a bottle of Old Crow and a glass and began drinking. It was the only place in town that would still serve him.
He noticed a woman he did not know standing at the bar. It occurred to him that his mother would have called her a floozy. Her face wasn’t much to look at, but then, Jesse thought, neither was his. And she had a nice body a real nice body. The red polka dot dress emphasized her long legs and very big breasts. Jesse had not had a woman in a long time, and the more he drank, the better she looked. Her name was Wanda.
She joined him at the table. They made short work of the Old Crow and were well into the second bottle when Jesse asked her if she wanted to go down to the Mississippi coast, down to Gulfport, get a room and have a good time. Jesse’s hand was up her dress and her hand rested on his knee.
There was, of course, the problem of how to get there
“Where there is lust, there’s a way.” Jesse told her.
She giggled. “What honey?”
“I got money in the bank Wanda. Come on Baby. I’m gonna buy me a car.”
Main Street was only a couple of blocks long. The road circled around the Confederate memorial in front of the county courthouse at the top of a hill. The sheriff’s office, and a couple of law offices were close to the courthouse, and further along the Holmes County Bank, a dry goods store, the Chevrolet car dealership, and the funeral home Across the street and further down the hill a hardware and feed store, a gas station, and on a corner, the Ford automobile dealership.
That was Jesse’s destination with Wanda trailing along behind. She was beginning to have second thoughts. Jesse was acting really crazy and she was getting scared. She had never drunk so much before in her life and she was feeling sick.
Fred Byars was feeling good. He had sold a car that day and another customer would probably be back to close a deal on Monday. The dealership had a new paint job inside and out, white with blue trim. A big picture window had been installed in the showroom where a brand new Ford Roadster was on display.
His wife was keeping dinner warm, and Fred was finishing paperwork before closing for the night when he saw Jesse coming in the door.
He knew trouble when he saw it.
“Evening Jesse. Good to see you. I was just closing. The little lady’s waitin dinner on me.”
“I wanna buy me a car. Hot Damn, I want that car.” Jesse walked over to the roadster and slapped the fender,
“She’s a beaut. Ain’t that right Wanda honey. Gimme the keys. I wanna crank her up and see how she runs.” He climbed on the running board.”
“Sure Jess, sure. But now ain’t a good time. Come back Monday and we’ll do the deal.” Fred laughed. He was trying to keep it friendly.
“I don’t wanna wait fer no goddamned Monday. I wanta buy this car right gooddamned now. The bank’s still open. I’ll write you a check. I got the money from my Army pay. Check’s here in my pocket.
Just call Homer over to the bank….”
Fred interrupted, “Now look a here Jesse. Quit your cussing.” Fred was a big fellow, easy going but not easily intimidated. He’d been in plenty of scraps himself as a younger man and he had had enough.
“Jess, I done told you onct. Come back Monday and we’ll get you fixed up. Don’t make me hafta call the law. You been drinkin and its best you leave.”
Jesse took a swing, a real roundhouse. Fred saw it coming, blocked it, and punched Jesse hard on the nose knocking Jesse on his butt.
“You son of a bitch. You goddamned son of a bitch.” Jesse pulled out a dirty handkerchief and wiped he blood from his nose.
“Get out Jesse. You asked for it. Now get out a here.”
“You’ll be sorry you goddamned bastard.” Jesse struggled to his feet.
“You gonna regret what you just done. “
Wanda was really afraid. Jesse pushed her along in front of him as they headed up Main Street.
“I’ll show that son-of-a-bitch,” he mumbled.
“Damn right. I’ll show that SOB.”
Billy Joe Reed stood in the doorway and looked down Main Street. The lights at the Ford dealership were still on. Billy Joe had made a pledge to himself that he would stay open at least a half hour after his competitor closed down. Ford automobiles were popular. Byars Ford was getting most of the business and Billy Joe was determined to get some of it back. He had not sold a Chevrolet all week and he was desperate to make a sale.
When Jesse Gainey walked in waving a check around, common sense took a backseat to greed. He knew Jesse was drunk and had no business behind the wheel. That’s a matter for the police, Billy Joe said to himself to ease his conscience. My job is to sell cars. Homer at the bank confirmed Jesse had the money to cover his check. Fifteen minutes later Jesse signed the paperwork handed over a check for $735 dollars, and Billy Joe handed Jesse the keys to a Chevrolet 490 touring car.
They pulled out of the parking lot and Jesse turned left and headed up the hill toward the courthouse.
”I thought you said we was gonna go to Gulfport Jesse. This ain’t the way”. Wanda’s voice broke. She looked at Jesse. Later she told police he looked like a demon, like a man possessed by the Devil.
He drove up the hill and circled the Confederate memorial and brought the car to a halt facing down the hill. Jesse reached across Wanda and opened the door.
“What Jesse? I thought…”
“Out. Get out a tha goddamned car you whore.” Jesse gave Wanda a shove.
He released the hand bake and started down the hill, accelerating as the car gained momentum.
Fred Byars had finished his paperwork and was closing down. He noticed the headlights coming down Main Street and thought to himself whoever was driving was going awfully fast. He leaned down to unplug the light at the big showroom window. When he stood up the last thing he saw was the headlights of the Chevy just before it crashed into the building. The car’s gas tank ruptured and exploded from the force of the collision.
Pa Gainey had fallen asleep in his rocking chair on the porch. The explosion woke him. He saw the fireball and smoke rising in the sky and wondered what had happened.