I awoke that morning to Sully, the apartment manager, pounding on my door and swearing my name. The door shook in its frame so much I was afraid he would break it in.
I quickly pulled on jeans and walked over to the lobby of what was formerly the Gulf Coast Motel but was now the Seaview Apartments, a dump of one-room hovels where the hot water was sometimes plentiful.
Charlene was on the phone. Part of me wanted to hang up on her right then but a weaker part of me was drawn to her voice, like a love bug drawn to a headlight. I wondered how she had found me but I guess the Seaview was an obvious choice, considering our history there when the joint was a motel and rooms could be rented by the hour.
"Leon, Abel's dying."
I tell you, just hearing her voice after so many years felt like a live wire shoved in my ear, and it took me a few seconds to realize what she was talking about. I imagined Abel’s broad, smiling face, the buzzcut blond hair. She was still talking but I didn't hear the words until cancer, three months—those words like headings on blank file cards, hints only of the story that was not being told.
"You sound like you're taking it pretty well." I didn’t mean to sound cruel. Maybe I did.
"I've had time to get used to it."
"How is he taking it?"
"I think he'd like to see you, Leon."
Part of me hoped it was really Charlene who wanted to see me. I hadn't seen Abel in seven or eight years, not since I ran into him through pure dumb luck on the Mark Twain casino boat in Gulfport where he was steadily and drunkenly losing at blackjack, but it had been much longer since I had last seen Charlene.
"It's been a while," I said, referring to Abel.
There was a silence on the line thick as gumbo and I wondered was she thinking about us, so long ago?
“Leon, he doesn't know."
"Oh hell, Charlene. What do you mean? Of course he knows. The man's not completely stupid."
"He doesn't know it's terminal. I can't tell him."
"And what do you want me to do about it?"
"Help him. Be a friend."
A few minutes later, I threw my belongings into a duffel bag, kissed the Seaview Apartments goodbye, and rode my thumb all the way home to Turner's Landing.
The place wasn't much to look at, a handful of weathered shacks sinking into the red earth, a cinder block garage buried under a shroud of kudzu, and the empty Agway store, blinded by sheets of weathered plywood where the windows should have been. The town had been like this ever since I could remember, a little knot of humanity humping along, aging, aging, yet never seeming to die. In the days when the Yazoo still passed by its front door, the town had been a trading center. Surviving Union gunboats and frequent floods, it could not survive the Army Corps of Engineers, whose Rube Goldberg flood control project diverted the Yazoo three miles east leaving the hamlet high and dry, a river port without a river.
Abel's place stood on a pine-studded knoll half a mile south of town, a small farm that had been in his family for years. Below the house, cotton blossomed in the rich river bottom soil. By the standards of rural Mississippi, Abel's house was a palace. He would leave Charlene a comfortable widow.
It was cool in the shade of the veranda encircling the house. I rang the doorbell and waited, the sweet scent of magnolia nearly smothering me. I remembered the magnolia surrounding the little white church where Abel and Charlene had been married, what, fifteen years ago? That was a hard day for me, though he never knew. Only a month later, I left town, telling the newly-weds I had taken a job at my cousin's marina in Gulfport. I don't have any cousins. I later heard that she became pregnant a few months after I left town but that she had somehow fallen down the porch steps and lost the baby. Straightaway, I thought Abel had something to do with it. He could get that way sometimes.
Even as she approached me from the dim interior I saw that she was still beautiful. Thirty-five, looking eighteen. Trim figure, dark hair and eyes, the kind of woman a man would wait in a dark alley for. I wanted to turn and run. But there was also the ghost of a purplish bruise below her right eye and I stayed.
"Leon," she said and there was something in her voice, a sigh of remembrance that shivered my bones.
"Hello, Charlene. Where is he?"
She opened the door and led me through the house. He was in the garden, bent low over some azaleas, talking to them it seemed to me. His blond hair had gone pale now, almost white in the sun, and his skin had a shine to it, a suspect tinge of something gone wrong riding just below his summer tan.
"Nice flowers, Alice. Picking them for a garden party are we?"
He straightened up, slowly. "Chief!" he said, referring to the few drops of Choctaw blood that ran through my Southern Mongrel veins, "What the hell are you doing here?"
He dropped the clippers on the ground and came out of the shrubs, grinning like a lunatic. Still, the blue eyes were hooded, secretive, and I couldn't read their message. Then he noticed Charlene standing nearby. "You told him, didn't you?"
He sighed and the smile vanished. "All right, so now you know." He stood there looking at me, sizing me up, almost like he was fixing to sock me one. "Well, it don't really matter anyhow," he said. "A couple months chemo and I'll be good as new." I saw Charlene flinch. "You picked a hell of a time just to visit and bust my balls, Chief." His smile was back in place. He grabbed my hand and shook it. "But I'm really glad to see you."
The flesh of his hand was parchment thin, sliding over the bones like waxed paper and I could feel it trembling as he squeezed my own.
We sat on the veranda and tried to recreate the past. Cutting classes at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, smoking weed under the bleachers. Working his daddy’s cotton fields in the summer, blowing our paltry wages on Rebel Yell and car parts. Racing beat-up wrecks on narrow washboard roads. Always it was Abel and me, inseparable, and then Charlene came along and we were three, just like that. Abel loved talking about old times, but for me, too many of those memories were of Charlene.
Who can say how these things happen, or why? All the time Abel thought it was him, there was me and Charlene and I am not proud to say we carried on even after their marriage, at least for a little while, until I finally found the backbone to put an end to it. We both knew it was for the best.
"Say, Chief, whatever happened to that '56 Fairlane of yours?" Abel said.
"Sold it. Right after I left Turner's landing." I didn't tell him that I was flat broke and had to sell the car, nor did I tell him how much it pained me to part with that car and its memory of Charlene in the back seat. Just as it pained me now to be sitting beside her again, her scarlet fingernails clicking on the arm of the wicker chair, the delicate scent of her perfume floating around me.
"We had some great times in that car." He chuckled and shook his head, downing the last of his lemonade in a single gulp.
Charlene looked at me and smiled, shyly. I had to look away.
"We were some pair of hellraisers, huh?" he said. "Who knows where I would have ended up, had it not been for Charlene coming into my life." He smiled, laid a hand on her thigh, and gave it a little squeeze. Sentimentality was something I had never before seen in Abel. "Yessir, this little lady straightened me out, all right."
She actually blushed. "You're exaggerating, Abel."
"The hell I am."
I sucked on my lemonade watching the two of them, listening to their banter. As a kid I had practiced making myself invisible—thinking it was an Indian thing—always with the obvious result. But I was invisible now. Abel and Charlene were completely fixated upon each other. I knew firsthand how passionate and emotional Charlene could be but Abel, I couldn’t see it. It felt like an act staged for my benefit and I was jealous. Resentful.
The day was drifting away and we had long before switched from lemonade to gin and tonics. With the last flash of red on the western horizon Abel decided to call it a night.
Charlene and I sat in the dusk, surrounded by fireflies, the sickly sweet smell of the summer night heavy on the air. Her features were growing soft in the twilight but her profile, the sharp line of her nose and chin, the slope of her breasts, were clearly defined against the shimmering shadows of night. I heard the ice clink in her glass when she set it down on the floor.
"I'm glad you're here, Leon." Her voice was soft and sudden as a cat. "For Abel's sake."
I felt the anger drain from me as she spoke to me alone, as if we were sharing secrets again. Sitting with her in the dark like that, knowing her husband was asleep upstairs, no words came to me.
I wanted not to think about that night so many years ago, she and me in the barn, fumbling at each other's clothes in the darkness, and the sound of his truck bumping up the dirt road, Charlene bolting upright, one hand buttoning her shirt closed even as she ran through the dark to slip inside the house before Abel's truck turned up the drive. I wanted not to think about that, and all the other times, so of course those thoughts sat swollen and fragrant in my mind.
"I'm glad to be here." We sat quietly for a few moments but I felt the tension rising between us like an old ghost drifting up from the floorboards.
I remembered the bruise and asked her about it. Even now, in the shelter of darkness, her hand rose self-consciously to cover the bruise, a gesture at once familiar to me, something my mother had done often enough.
Charlene laughed nervously. "It's nothing, a silly accident is all. Can you believe I stepped on a rake in the garden? Smacked myself in the face, just like Wylie E. Coyote. Isn't that ridiculous?"
"Ridiculous," I said. I could not picture Charlene or my mother as clumsy women.
She went quiet and the night was suddenly filled with the trilling of crickets. Somewhere an owl hooted. Then she spoke.
"He doesn't mean it, you know."
"I know," I said, remembering that Abel could be a mean drunk. I still had the chipped tooth as proof. Still, this was Charlene. "How often does he hit you?"
"Please, Leon, it's not a big deal. Once in a while. I can handle it. Besides, he's dying."
"That don't excuse it."
"Maybe. I don't know."
She would never have revealed those things if we could have seen each other face to face but the cover of darkness made her bold. She had me worried about her, and I didn’t want to worry about her, it wasn’t my right to worry about her. I didn't want to think about it anymore.
"Tell me about the cancer. How have you managed to hide the truth from him?"
"I spoke with the doctor at the hospital, when Abel was asleep. He told me what would happen and I decided not to tell him."
I nodded but I was not at all certain I was hearing the truth. Hadn't she once told me she loved me? Yet, she married Abel. Security, of course, I guess I understood that. Abel was nothing if not stable. Unlike me who could never hold a job for very long, always finding my eyes gazing out the window, my feet itching to move, never knowing why. Her words triggered an alarm in my head that made me nervous.
"If it were me, I'd want to know," I said.
"Maybe so I could do all those things I've always told myself I would do. Shoot the rapids on the Colorado River, see the Pyramids, that kind of thing." I sipped my gin and tonic. "Maybe just get myself ready."
"Make your peace?"
"Pack my bags." I slapped at a mosquito buzzing in my ear. "You sure you're doing the right thing?"
"Yes, I'm certain."
She leaned closer to me and saw the doubt reflected in my eyes. Her proximity made the night even warmer. Charlene had a way of looking at you that could empty your soul, like a blade pressed against your neck while your pockets are rifled. I could smell her perfume mingled with the scent of magnolia.
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
What I wanted to do was to forget all about her husband and cup her chin in my hand and turn her face to me, kiss her lips and taste the sweetness of her in that honeyed night, but I didn't. "I don't know."
I saw her glass wink as she raised it to her lips. I envied the glass. Then she was up and moving toward me in the dark, her figure a darker shadow against the shades of night. I felt her hand upon my shoulder, felt her fingers penetrate my flesh and grasp something vital deep within me.
"Be a friend to him, Leon. Help him. Help me," she whispered and then was gone.
I sat in the dark, pulling slowly on my drink. I raised my glass and watched the fireflies flashing through it like brilliant tiny angels in the night. Help him. Damn Charlene, this was just like her. Help him. Help her. What about me?
Abel was up early the next morning. There was a spring in his step that reminded me of the old Abel, the youthful muscle of him, the lady killer eyes. Not so long ago, really.
Now I was supposed to believe he was a dead man.
"You ready, Chief?"
I was sitting in a wicker rocker on the veranda, watching the sun lick its way across the treetops. Maybe I had been there all night. "Let's do it."
He handed me a couple of fishing rods. We loaded his Cherokee and headed for the Yazoo. The sun was sitting on the pines when we reached the river. Birds awoke, adding their voices to the chirring of the cicadas.
"Nice boat," I said, admiring the gleaming bass boat pulled up on shore.
He placed our gear on board. I gave him a hand with the coolers. "Don't know if we'll get much bass today," he said. "River ain't been too healthy of late."
I looked at the Yazoo flowing by, silty, dark like sludge. I was no scientist but I knew enough about the crap the sawmills were dumping into it to guess that I wouldn't drink that water for anything. There was mystery in this brown arm of a river, rippling like a muscle to the Mississippi. Things were hidden in its depths, unknown things, maybe the water spirits of my Choctaw grandfather.
We pushed off from the shore, letting the boat drift with the current. For maybe an hour or so we sat hoping for a strike, watching the sun on the water. He sat in the bow with his back to me. I let my line trail in the water, not paying much mind to it. I was thinking of Charlene, probably just now stretching her supple body in bed as the sun spied on her through the bedroom window.
As if he had read my mind, he turned to me. "So, what did she tell you?"
"Charlene, of course. What did she say about me?"
"God damn it, Leon, you know what I'm talking about. What did she tell you to get you down here?"
Whenever he called me by my given name I knew he was pissed. I didn't want to rile him any further. I leaned forward and opened the cooler that held the beer. I popped the top on a can and handed it to him. "Brew?" He put down the rod and took the beer. "She told me you were sick. Cancer. She thought you'd like to see me."
"Why would I want to see you, you sorry bastard? I haven't seen or heard from you in what, eight, nine years?"
“What have you been doing with yourself all these years, anyway? Still working at your cousin’s marina?”
“Still a bullshitter too, huh? Which make-believe cousin would that be?”
I set down my beer. “You knew?”
“Why’d you leave, Chief?” a mournful tone in his voice that almost made me want to hug him. It was like he took it personal.
I shrugged. “Don’t know, guess it was just that time. Maybe I wanted something better than Turner’s Landing. You was the one with a farm to inherit, not me.”
“True enough.” He adjusted his Ole Miss ball cap, pulling it down further over his eyes. “I thought maybe it had something to do with Charlene.”
“You know, with us getting married and all, and you without a woman. It’s understandable if you felt like a third wheel and wanted to move on.”
“It wasn’t about Charlene,” I lied.
He took a long swig of beer. He looked out over the water, watching the dragonflies hovering in the heavy air. "She thinks I'm dying, you know."
"Hell, yes she does. Send for the long lost friends and the next of kin, Abel's about to cash it in."
"Hey, that's pretty good."
He laughed. "Yeah, redneck poetry at its best." He set the beer on the flat bottom of the boat and picked up the fishing rod.
The sun was growing hotter as it rose in the sky. The boat drifted downstream, the muddy water rolling by, bubbles breaking against the bow as if the boat had run down something alive and unseen beneath the water. Pine and oak trees lined the shore. Acres of kudzu flowed over the brush and surged up tree trunks.
"The thing of it is, Chief, she's right."
I tried to look surprised. "What? How do you know?"
"It's my body. I know." He wasn't paying attention to his fishing and held the rod loosely. Some big old bass could have chomped down on the bait and yanked the rod right out of his hands. "Talked to the docs too."
Now I was surprised. "When?"
"Couple weeks ago. There was a message on the answering machine. Charlene was out. Seems they were checking up on me to see how I was doing. Was my energy level okay? Was I eating? Did I need any more pain medication? You know, medical stuff."
"You called them back."
"And they said you were dying?"
"They were surprised I didn't know."
I couldn't see his eyes, shaded as they were by the bill of his ball cap, but I wanted to, wondering what I would see in them. Fear? Pity? Resignation?
"Shit, Abel, I don't know what to say," I said, and I wasn't lying.
The rod in his hands suddenly jerked. He grabbed it instinctively but too late. The hook came up clean. "Damn." He set the rod in one of the mounts and picked up his beer again. "Listen, Chief, I don't want you saying anything to Charlene about this."
"Because that's the way I want it."
"She only wants to help you, Abel. That's why I'm here. She knows that you may be in for a rough time, with the chemo and all, and thought a little company would do you good."
"Yeah, I know. She means well. No doubt she's probably lighting candles for me right now. Maybe I need them."
"It's a Catholic thing. I don't claim to understand it. I never did know many Catholics until Charlene came up from Louisiana." He finished his beer and reached for another. "Them people have got a million saints, you know that? There's a saint for every occasion, for every need. She told me about this Jude, Saint Jude. Guess what his deal is?"
"I don't know."
"Lost causes. He's the patron saint of lost causes. What do you think of that?"
"Too bad there weren't more Confederate Catholics. Maybe we would have won the war."
We both laughed.
"Yeah, Saint Jude," he said, shaking his head. "He's probably her favorite saint right about now. So, make like a cigar store Indian, will you? Keep your mouth shut."
"But wouldn't it be better to be honest with her? She could help you, Abel."
He tilted his head back and now I could see his eyes beneath the cap. They were small, like a child's eyes.
"Just respect a dying man's last wish, Chief. You owe me that much at least." He set the beer down and turned back to his fishing.
I couldn't concentrate. What did he mean, owe him? He couldn't know about Charlene and me, could he? I had a vision of Charlene, the bruise like a dying rose upon her face, and I saw her lips, like the petals of that rose opening and heard her whisper, Help me, Leon. Could it be she suffered because he did know? Was he punishing her?
A fly buzzed in my ear and the vision was gone. Abel held his back to me as he intently studied the murky water. But he’d been treating me fine, just like the friends we’d always been. That was real enough. He couldn’t know.
"You know, Chief, there ain't nothing finer on a day like this than to be out on the water. Don't even matter if we catch anything. Like a little bit of Heaven, right here on earth."
Yeah, maybe Heaven, although my Choctaw ancestors had other ideas about this river and none of them were good. "Guess so," I said.
We stayed out a little longer, not talking much. Somehow we managed to pull in half a dozen or so small fish, enough to fry for dinner, before we headed home.
"Ah, the mighty fishermen returned from the sea," said Charlene as we stepped up onto the porch, our catch and gear in hand. She was barefoot, wearing a short denim skirt and a sleeveless white blouse knotted just below her breasts. I couldn't help counting the buttons on her blouse. Four, the top two already undone. Charlene kissed Abel on the cheek and touched my arm briefly.
The three of us went into the kitchen where Abel cleaned the fish, Charlene's rules, and she began to fry them up. I messed around with making a salad, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on the tomatoes.
Abel was in high spirits as we crowded around the table eating our dinner, as if he had not, only an hour ago, told me he was dying. The act was for Charlene, of course, but maybe a little for himself, too.
"You boys have a good time on the river?" Charlene said. "Playing?"
"Fishing," Abel said. "Serious stuff."
"I guess that would explain all the beer you took with you," she said, delicately nibbling a piece of fish off her fork.
"Serious work requires serious drinking," he said.
"Serious loafing, too," she said, taking a swallow of her beer.
I shook my head. All this chitchat. The man was dying, for Christ’s sake, both of them knew it, but pretended otherwise, and here I was sitting smack in the middle of their little play, not understanding a word of it. What the hell was I doing there?
"What's the matter, Chief? Lost your appetite?"
I saw a worried look in his eyes, as if he was afraid of what I might say, and realized I had been holding an empty fork for a while as I listened to the two of them. I stabbed a piece of fish. "No, I'm fine, just a little tired maybe."
"You shouldn't wear him out, Abel," Charlene said. She reached across the table and patted his hand. "And you need to take care of yourself, mister. Everything in moderation, the doctor said."
"Moderation, shit," he said.
I wondered how a person dies in moderation.
We finished our dinner mostly in silence but I was aware of Charlene's eyes upon me, as if trying to signal something to me, but I didn't know what she wanted. After dinner, we retired to the veranda, as we had the night before, to drink and talk. Abel tried to keep pace with us, but he was tired and the booze didn't help. He soon went up to bed, leaving Charlene and me alone.
It was as though my senses suddenly magnified the moment Abel was gone. Everything was Charlene. Every sight, sound, smell, Charlene. The smooth, cool glass felt like Charlene, the gin tasted like her and the moment she spoke, I was that love bug drawn to my fate against onrushing headlights.
"Leon? What are we going to do?"
She leaned closer to me, her blouse gaping open, the sleek curve of her breast revealed in the dying light. "About Abel. About us."
"You mean you haven't ever thought about us? Aren't thinking about us right now?" She reached out and took hold of my free hand. Her fingers were warm and knowing and when they squeezed mine, I felt it all the way to the very core of me.
"He's my friend, Charlene."
"That never stopped you before."
I set my drink down, rubbed my fingers across my eyes. "God, that seems like ages..."
She was up then, and before I knew what was happening, settled herself upon my lap where I sat in the wicker rocker, her arms around my neck. Her lips were only inches away from mine and then they were not, and we were kissing like the old days and I watched my soul flutter away like the moths bumping against the porch ceiling.
"I can't stand this," she whispered in my ear. "Abel dying and you here."
"You're the one who called me."
"Yes," she said, her fingernails curling the hair at the back of my neck, "and you’re the one who came here. I need you, Leon, I've always needed you."
"That's why you chose Abel over me? Because you needed me?"
"It had nothing to do with love, you know that."
Maybe. I wanted to believe that but fifteen years later, she was still with him, putting up with his abuse. I would never raise a hand to her. But the sad truth was, she called and I came running. I hated her for the hold she had over me, hated myself for being so weak.
She shifted slightly and leaned against me, resting her head upon my shoulder. My senses were smothered by the gravity of her. It was as though I could feel my blood being drawn off, my spirit devoured.
"Charlene," I said, "what is it you want?"
She lifted her face and kissed my jaw. "I want you, Leon. I don't want to be alone." Her free hand stroked my chest. "And maybe you could help Abel."
That again. Her words chilled me. "What are you talking about, Charlene?"
She sat up, her dark eyes holding me, and I watched her beautiful lips open as if in slow motion, but the words were ugly. Brutal. "Help him die."
"Please, Leon, don't look at me that way. You don't know what it's like. He's going to suffer. Do you want that? You can help me, together we can help Abel. It would be easy. All farms have rat poison. Oh, God." She gripped my shirt in both hands and she was crying. "You don't know. He beats me, Leon."
"But I thought you said..."
"Beats me. It would be a mercy to him, Leon, wouldn't it? Think of it that way, a mercy. You're his best friend." Her face was wet with tears.
I didn't answer, couldn't answer even if I knew the words, before she once again pressed her lips against mine and I tasted sweetness and salt.
"Think of us," she said, her breath hot upon my neck.
I did. After sitting with her in my arms for a few more minutes, both of us silent, I went up to my room. Alone. Down the hall, my friend Abel slept the sleep of the innocent and I wondered what it was he thought I owed him. A merciful death? Is that what he meant, too? Jesus. I looked out the window to where the road out of this place gleamed like a river of quicksilver in the moonlight and saw myself already on it. A dark shadow, some winged thing, drifted past the moon and I thought of Saint Jude and lost causes. I thought of Charlene.
* * *
John Kachuba is the award-winning author of six books and numerous articles and short stories. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Ohio University and an IMA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. He teaches creative writing courses through Ohio University, Antioch University Midwest and the Gotham Writers Workshop. John lives in Cincinnati and his website is www.johnkachuba.com.
A few words about “Patron Saint”:
At one point in my career I was lucky enough to have been mentored both by Lee K. Abbott and the late Barry Hannah. From these stellar writers I learned about the unreliable narrator and the rascally, slightly shady protagonist. From Barry, I also learned about setting, especially the gritty, “film-noirish” South. “Patron Saint of the Confederacy” is my own experiment with all these elements and is also something of a tribute to Abbott and Hannah.
PATRON SAINT OF THE CONFEDERACY by John Kachuba
"Everything was Charlene. Every sight, sound, smell, Charlene. The smooth, cool glass felt like Charlene, the gin tasted like her and the moment she spoke . . . ."