Short Story Exercise #10

This week’s painting is by William H. Johnson and is entitled “I Baptize Thee”. This story was a pretty big departure for me, both in theme and content, and in the fact that the painting was purely inspirational. When I had the initial idea, I thought I would be ending with something that had to do with the baptism depicted. Even at about the halfway point I was still planning on it, but when I got to the end, it just didn’t fit.  I tried to tack it on, but it just didn’t feel natural. I think it’s better off this way. 986 words.

Pretty much my whole life has been a starin’ contest with the Lord. The day Mama died, I swore I’d never blink. I swore as I ran through the fields, hot with sun and dust. I swore as I curled up under the hickory tree, sobbin’. I swore as the burnin’ tears flowed that they’d be the last I’d ever let run. I swore I’d never cry again. Never cry and never blink. And I didn’t. For twenty-three more years I fought against the Lord. I kicked and I screamed and I never blinked. And I never cried.

I used to make fun of my little brother. He said his prayers, every night. Spoke to Mama and to Jesus. Told her how much he missed her and how much he loved Him. I’d see his tears catchin’ the moonlight and I’d laugh. He’d just cry harder. I’d get a hidin’ for it, next day when James would tell Gramma and she’d tell Grampa. He’d take off his belt and hide me good. So I learned to laugh on the inside. I’d see his hands clasped together and his eyes leakin’ like a stream and I’d laugh to myself. Laugh myself right to sleep. Come morning, Grampa would eye me like he was ready to hide me right then and there, but James couldn’t tell on me, so he’d let me be.  But James would look at me with his red eyes, and he’d know. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I wouldn’t let myself feel no feelin’s. Nothin’ but spit and gravel and hate. That’s all I had for the world and for the Lord and for the memory of mama.

After my chores were done I used to go down to the stream, the little one that emptied into the river. I’d sit and whittle and catch bullfrogs. And I’d swear at the sky and at the land, and sometimes at the Lord. Gramma would have boxed my ears. Mama too. But Mama was gone so what did it matter? What did I care what anybody thought about anythin’?

I got older and I moved away. Passed through New Orleans, out through Texas and halfway to California. Didn’t find anythin’ I was lookin’ for, so I headed back. On the way through Sulpher, Louisiana, I met Meg. She was angry, like me. Somewhere between the fightin’ and the yellin’ I guess you could say we fell in love. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a brittle, electric thing. But it filled a little piece of the hole inside of me, so I didn’t pay it no heed.

We moved to Baton Rouge and for almost a year me and Meg stared down the world. Just me and her. We didn’t need no one else. Then one day she found somebody else. But by then I knew it was time to move on. There was more fightin’ than lovin’ and that thing inside of me was just growin’ dark and nasty and rotten.  So I headed home.

Most folks thought I should be comin’ with my tail between my legs. But I was more proud than ever. I never asked for no favors or nothin’. Just went about my business and let others go about theirs. Gramma and Grampa barely spoke to me.  But James did. He acted like I hadn’t ever done those awful things to him. It took me a while, but I finally realized it was because I was all he had left of Mama. It almost made a dent in my heart. Almost, but not quite. It would be a year before anythin’ actually got through to me.

It was colder than normal, when James finally convinced me to go visit Mama’s grave. It was October 8th, her birthday. He’d been workin’ on me the whole week before, and finally I told him the only was I was goin’ is if I went alone, and still no promises. I woke up that day and saw the gray sky outside and somethin’ inside of me just told me I had to go. I put it off until roundabout two in the afternoon, then there just wasn’t anything else to keep me from doing it.

The cemetery is a short ways out of town, and as I walked there I could feel a cold in my bones that wasn’t from the wind. I got there and I stared at her gravestone. First time in years I’d seen it. I stared so hard I thought I was gonna break it in two. But it just stared right back. It wasn’t gonna blink either. After a little while I sat down beside it. I watched the big dark clouds pilin’ onto each other as the came toward me.  The wind tugged at the bright red leaves, tryin’ to rip them away.  There was a flash of lightin’ and a crack so loud I thought my head was gonna split.

I knew this was it. I stood up and screamed at the sky. Screamed at the heavens for all the pain I’d felt those past years. Screamed because I knew why I was this way. I knew why I acted like I did. And I hated it. Even more than I hated my mama for leavin’ and the Lord for takin’ her. The sky hollered back and we went on like that for a while. It started to rain and I was glad, because then I couldn’t tell if I was cryin’.  I yelled and I cursed and I got it all out that day. Or most of it anyway.

In the end I guess you could say I finally blinked. It bothered me a bit, but when I walked home that day, I felt lighter than I ever had before.  And I knew I could finally start to heal.

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8 responses to “Short Story Exercise #10

  1. Love the story .. so real. Enjoyed the painting as well. Still trying to link the two in MY brain. That’s why you are the writer and I’m the reader.

  2. Great story. I love stories that speak to the human condition, and this does that very well. Great voice maintained throughout. I don’t see any link with the picture, but I think that just goes to show that writers never really know where they writing will take them. I think you made a wise choice not to tack on the baptism at the end. The story is fine on it’s own. (I like the picture though.)
    ~jon

  3. Thank you for the kind words Jon. The story doesn’t really tie into the painting at all. Basically what happens is my wife will pick out a painting, and I’ll use that for inspiration for a short story. I started doing these as a way to get myself to write more often. The previous ones have had much more to do with the paintings that I used for inspiration. But you’re right, you never really know where you’ll end up. That’s part of the fun 🙂

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