This is a repost of a story from 2017, the first one I wrote for The Elephant’s Trunk. 🐘
“Impressive collection you have here” said Jackson to the owner of the record store.
“Feel free to look around” came a voice from somewhere behind a stack of boxes.
Jackson browsed the tiny cubby of a store, appropriately named “The Inner Sleeve”, looking for nothing in particular.
“Psst. Down here!” A battered box stashed in the corner called out. Jackson crouched down to wipe the dust off a yellowed label.
Feeling a jolt shoot straight to his heart, fingers racing through musty LPs, and suddenly there it was- “Les Annees Bechet”, #1: “Petite Fleur”.
“I’ll be damned”, whispered Jackson. No longer was he in “The Inner Sleeve”. It was Paris, 1982 in that enchanting café … what was the name?
“Café de la Paix. Yes, that was it!” he recalled. And then, in a barely perceptible hush, “Lisette”.
Slumping back against the wall, Jackson clasped the precious vinyl against his chest, caressed it lovingly with the same fingers that raced through the box just seconds before. The same fingers that released Lisette’s raven hair from its ‘pince à cheveax’ and showered it across her porcelain shoulders. The same fingers that traced her face as gently as butterfly wings – ‘ailes de papillons’ – from her widows peak to her crystal blue eyes, her nose, her blushed lips. “Just this one time” thought Jackson. Just once before returning to his insanely mundane existence in Stamford, Connecticut.
Oh, for just one more taste of Lisette.
Slowly Jackson stood, a sadness like none other enveloping him. He suddenly realized he had been crying and wiped at his eyes self-consciously. He wound his way through the maze of boxes overflowing with records that were meaningless to him. He had found what he didn’t know he was looking for.
Mid-August in Alabama is about as hot as hell’s back kitchen, or at least that’s what folks like to say. It was just me and ma making do as best we could since my pa got himself killed in some place called Vietnam. I don’t recall much about the day we got the news. Couple of soldiers in fancy uniforms came to the door and mama started wailing like she was being skinned alive. Ma never really got over that. Some folks said she went plum crazy that day. She’d sit on the porch in that rickety old rocking chair staring straight ahead, just mumbling to herself and fidgeting with pa’s dog tags like they was rosary beads.
I sorta became invisible to ma so I started spending my time down by the watering hole mostly swimming and fishing so we’d have something to eat. I went hunting one day, surprising ma with a rabbit and we cooked it up for dinner. Ma hugged me tight and put pa’s dog tags around my neck. Next morning I found her hanging in the barn and started screaming till the neighbors came running. That’s when I began living with the Jenkins Family. I was six years old.
The Jenkins’ was good hard-working farm folk and they treated me real fine. They had a truckload of kids – eight boys and one girl – but they didn’t think twice about taking me in. Ma Jenkins always said “Kids fill the house with love. What’s one more mouth to feed?”
At first the days moved slow as molasses in February. I knew right quick that farming wasn’t for me but I did my share every day. When I was about fifteen or so Ma Jenkins said I sprouted into a handsome devil, the spitting image of my pa. Right about the same time I started taking up with Nell Jenkins. Two years older than me, she was all legs, boobs and big sky blue eyes. We made love every night and she taught me stuff I didn’t think was possible. Somehow we never got caught. We was crazy for each other but I wasn’t looking to get hitched. I knew if I didn’t get off that Alabama farm I’d die there. One night while Nell slept I placed my pa’s dog tags on her pillow and slipped out. I was 17 years old.
I lied about my age and got me a job as a long distance trucker; hard as it was, it beat the hell outta farming. Shit! Where have the years gone? I been trucking now for 16 years. I’m only 33 years old and dog tired; I feel like I’m 103. I been thinking a lot about Alabama lately – maybe settling down, getting a job in a hardware store. A few days later I quit my job and went back to where it all began.
There was a nip in the air when I arrived home on the morning of Christmas Eve. It felt like snow could be coming. The Christmas tree was up in the town square, the same weathered ornaments I remembered from my teenage years. I got out of my pickup and looked around a bit; not much had changed. A brisk wind blew in from nowhere; I rubbed my hands together and stuffed them in my pockets to stay warm. A white Christmas hereabouts was almost unheard of.
Wiley’s Diner was still there. I went in and sat at the counter. It was early and the place was deserted. The cook popped his head out from the kitchen and asked what I’d like. “Coffee, please” I said and stared out the window as the first snowflakes started drifting in and I got lost in Alabama memories.
“Here ya go, fresh hot coffee. How about a slice of buttermilk pie with that?” I turned to see a young waitress wearing a Santa hat, a welcoming smile on her face. She was a pretty little thing and I found myself staring into big sky blue eyes. My heart skipped a beat. She wore a name tag with ‘Stevie’ written on it; around her neck hung dog tags and I knew. Lord Jesus! This is my baby girl! I asked if her ma’s name was Nell and she smiled, saying “Yes. Do you know her?” I said I did a long time ago. I don’t know what possessed me but I scribbled my name and number on a napkin, asking her to kindly give it to her ma. She said she surely would and tucked it in her pocket. Choking up a bit, I lowered my head and busied myself with my breakfast. I couldn’t chance her seeing the tears in my eyes.
I tapped the brim of my cap and smiled, saying “See ya” to the girl wearing my pa’s dog tags around her neck. “Now don’t forget about giving my note to your mama”.
“No sir, I surely won’t” she replied with a smile and patted the pocket of her waitress uniform.
I walked back to my truck and sat for a long time in the cab, my face in my hands. Dear God, is this some sort of Christmas miracle? Did you bring me back here to find my daughter? After so many years and thousands of miles I wondered if Nell could ever forgive me.