by Robert L. Penick
Jesse got his first suit coat on the morning of his uncle’s execution. It was raining outside and the roofing nails protruding down from the ceiling were black with moisture. Pulling himself up from his cot, he worked his chores: raiding the hen house to prod the hens from their prizes, then emptying the slop jars as the rest of the family had breakfast.
Grandma Rail cooked bacon and eggs and biscuits for the family. There was Grandpa Rail, Cousin John, John’s wife Mattie and the whore Angeline. Of course, the young children, too. John and Mattie had four boys who looked so much alike Jesse never learned their names. Whore Angeline had three girls out of wedlock to three different men and they all looked like unhappy shithouse rats, scampering across the floor with never a smile on their faces.
Momma and Daddy were already down the road at the penitentiary in Eddyville, praying with Uncle Maurice. Jesse heard later they stayed at the Matador Motor Court, which sometimes rented rooms of the hourly variety. Jesse could find no purpose for a mirrored ceiling but Momma would titter about it years later. That and the machine that made ice, the shower in the bath, and the two stations the television picked up from Memphis and Paducah. It seemed like a nice place to live, if you could afford six dollars a night.
Once the plates were cleared to the kitchen, Jesse went in to get breakfast. Grandma Rail scraped the leftovers onto one plate, added two biscuits daubed in bacon grease, and sat it down in front of him. As Jesse dug into the food, Cousin John opined from the doorway:
“Don’t know why we have to take half-wit there, much less buy him shoes.”
“’Cause Maurice wants him there, that’s why,” whore Angeline told him. “Jesse is his favorite.”
“Jesse don’t even know where he’s goin’, do you, Jesse?” The boy looked up from his meal as John continued. “If they scheduled the barbeque a week earlier, he’d still be seventeen and wouldn’t be allowed to witness. Now we got to buy clothes for the idiot.”
Grandpa Rail looked at John and said, “Why don’t you get on somewhere? I’m sicka lookin’ at ya.” The old man stared, and John slunk from the doorway.
Jesse looked up from his plate. He understood a lot, and knew John was talking bad about him. Uncle Maurice was in the hospital, sick, and was going to die soon. Jesse had considered making a cross for his grave. But the family was planning on a tombstone, so maybe he could make a wreath out of birch branches. Jesse thought about this as he gulped down his biscuits. Someone said he was getting a suit. He hoped it was a good one, a full house or four jacks.
The drive over to Princeton was a short one. The 19-year-old Studebaker sedan bounced over potholes and slight washouts. Angeline’s girls bounced in the back next to Jesse like Mexican jumping beans.
Tim Jennert’s Clothing Emporium was crammed full of gingham dresses and denim overalls. Farmers got their work boots there–G.H. Bass shoes that would last half a decade in the fields and winter muck. There existed also, in Jennert’s store, an abbreviated section of what folks called “Wedding and Funeral” clothes; two racks of suit coats, slacks and severe dresses. Boxes of dress shoes, male and female, were stacked nearby. Members of the Rail family, five adults and three children, entered. The younger ones gaped at the finery.
“So, the turnip truck passed by,” opined Mr. Jennert before directing the family to the Wedding and Funeral section.
“Okay,” the whore Angeline announced. “Shoes for Mattie and me. Shoes, pants, and a coat for Jesse. And Grandpa wants a tie.”
“Whores and retards buying clothes,” Cousin John grumbled.
“I ain’t no whore,” Mattie snapped. “And you’re just mad ‘cause you didn’t get invited to the execution.”
It was true. Maurice was entitled to four witnesses and he chose Grandpa Rail, The whore Angeline, Jesse, and John’s wife, Mattie.
“I don’t wanta see him fry, no way.” John walked away to look at fishing poles.
After a tumultuous hour, complete with screaming children, arguments over color coordination, and a bucket of umbrellas being knocked over, the group shambled from the store lighter by eleven dollars, but ready for the evening.
On the way home, Cousin John laid one arm across the front seat and looked back over his shoulder at Jesse.
“So, you ready to see your favorite uncle die tonight, boy? You ready to see his eyes roll up in his head and steam come out his ears?”
Mattie slapped John in the face and the whore Angeline called him a word the children had never heard before. Jesse was oblivious, looking down at the jacket across his lap, the buttons shining, the static that popped as he stroked it.
Robert L. Penick‘s poetry and prose have appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review and The California Quarterly. He lives in Louisville, KY, USA, with his free-range box turtle Sheldon and edits Ristau: A Journal of Being.