The Grand Street Bridge
In Greenwood Mississippi, the Tallahatchie River flows upward while the Yalobusha River, a mere hundred yards to the east, flows downward. Together they form the Yazoo. Two dragonflies hovered over a paper skiff near a small cluster of rocks awash in gentle waves. A small boy, not more than seven, clothed in dusty blue jeans, sneakers and a too large ball cap shuffled away from the Yazoo; his own paper boat crumpled in his back pocket. Heat from the midday sun felt like a warm hand on the back of his neck. His head bowed, the boy kicked at blades of grass as he headed west on Point Leflore Road knowing he would have to cross the Grand Street Bridge to make it home. He’d never once crossed The Grand Street Bridge alone.
Two and half miles southeast of the Yazoo, James turned his car left into a driveway just a few streets over from Highway 7. The black tires, centered by shiny chrome hubcaps rolled over gravel. James drove extra slow and rolled down his windows to appreciate the once common sound that indicated Dad was home from work. This particular driveway was two tire wide strips of gravel separated by a growth of grass and weeds almost ten inches high. James pulled his car to the spot where the gravel ended and the house began.
He pulled down the visor and looked at himself in the mirror. Sweat beads drained into his dark brown, bloodshot eyes. Summer in Greenwood Mississippi was vicious. James pulled down the lower lid of his right eye and searched for a constant irritant. Unable to find the nuisance, he took one last look around his face and wiped away the beads.
Unlike the neat neighboring lawns, the rest of this yard looked like the grass and weeds between the two strips of gravel. The house itself, once painted white, now resembled a faded tombstone. Wood four pane windows on either side of the back door had only two panes of glass each.
“Grandpa”, James shouted as he rapped on the screen door and then encased his eyes in his hands to get a better look. “Grandpa, you up?”
“Yea, I’m up. It’s past noon, ya’ know.”
“Well then get up and take this latch off the door,” James replied. “Hold on.”
Through the dusty, rust colored screen James could see the silhouette of his grandpa rising from his kitchen chair and steadying himself on the small round table as he walked toward the door. The kitchen was in back of the house which is where the driveway ended. Unlike all of the other houses in the area, the back of the house faced the road.
“About time,” James said as his grandpa lifted the latch from the eye hook.
Now inside, James looked around. The kitchen was small with a white four burner electric stove and a fire engine red refrigerator against one wall and a sink underneath the window on the other. The broken panes in the window allowed flies easy access to the dirty dishes in the sink. Yellow metal cabinets hung like rotting fruit on either side of the window. The red linoleum floor had enough holes to resemble the cratered blood moon so many blues singers blamed for their pain. A doorway opposite the screen door looked like the entrance to a mine as the rest of the house was kept dark by shades. A small TV on a butcher block table, an oscillating brass fan and a suitcase record player were the only other items in the kitchen.
“Watcha’ watchin’ Grandpa?”
“The news. I don’t know why though, they just play the same stories over and over again. And besides,I can’t figure out where the hell to look on that God damn screen. They got words goin’ across the
bottom and people talkin’ up top and the half people talkin’ are good lookin’ ladies. I don’t know wherethe hell to look”
“Look at the ladies. That’s what I do”
“So why’d you come by today? Ain’t you got sheriff business to tend to?” Grandpa asked.
“Just thought I’d stop by and see how your doin’ first.”
“Same as yesterday and every other day I can remember,” Grandpa answered as he sat back down in his chair.
James took a long hard look at Grandpa as Grandpa paid more attention to the TV than James. Grandpa, 88 years old, was a large man. His hands strong and rough as if they were made of tree bark. His black face was full of deep cavernous lines carved over the years by sun, hard work, and worry. James, a year shy of 40, was not a big man like Grandpa, who often reminded James how small he was and that he took after the women in the family. Being the local sheriff blunted some these jabs since being a sheriff was considered a tough guy profession.
“It’s a hot one Grandpa. Is the fan still workin’?” “Yeah, it works fine.
“Well it’s hot as hell in here.”
“Ya’ ever think I like it this way?”
“I guess, hot as hell though.”
James walked to the fan and turned the switch. Nothing happened.“I thought you said this thing worked?” he asked.
“It does when you plug it in.”
James knelt down and plugged the fan into the outlet. The air started to move.
“And you’re supposed to be some kind of detective huh?” Grandpa flashed a smile revealing his dentures.
“Well I didn’t think I was walkin’ into a crime scene but lookin’ around I shoulda’ known better,” repliedJames.
“If you want, I’ll make it a crime scene and don’t think I won’t. I ain’t scared of hell.” Grandpa shoutedback.
“You shouldn’t be, you already live in it old man.” “Like I said, ain’t you got sheriff business to tend to?
“Not at the moment, but I’m sure I will.
“Well be on your way then.”
“Alright, but how about I stop back for supper. I’ll pick up some fiddlers. That sound good?”
“Only good words you said,” Grandpa replied.
“Alright then I’ll see you about 5,” James opened the screen door and walked out of the house. He backed the car out of the driveway and listened to the harmony of tires and gravel.
James drove north on highway 7 as a call came over the radio.“Sherrif, come in.”
“We just got a missin’ person call into 911. A little girl, age 7 is missin’. Her momma called it in. Shelives over at 400 East Barton. Over.”
“Is she there now? Over.” “Yes, she’s at the house. Over.” “Okay, I’m en route. Over. “10-4”.
James sat at a small square table. The kitchen was very neat. The sink, counters and tile floor were spotless. Across from James, Nadine rubbed her face and sighed. Nadine was a petite woman. Tears from her blue eyes ran down her ivory cheeks.
“I work down at Patterson’s. Answerin’ phones and keepin’ the books. I can’t afford day-care when sheain’t in school. I trust her to do the right things.”
“I understand, now we don’t know if anything is wrong yet. Maybe she’s just at a friend’s house.”
James stood up and put his hand on Nadine’s shoulder. “Rest assured ma’am, I’m gonna do everything I can to find Caroline.”
“By the way, Patterson’s lumber, that’s where you work?” “Almost 20 years. Started there when I was a teenager.” “You must know my Grandpa.” James replied.
“Who’s your Grandpa?”
“James, Sr. I’m the 3rd.”
Nadine smiled. “Oh my God, I do know your Grandpa. He’s such a sweet man. You know he once gaveme rides back and forth to the house when my car broke down. Did that for two whole weeks. Hewouldn’t take a dime for gas money. I baked him some cornbread though. He loved that.”
“Is that right?”
Nadine shook her head.
“You sure that’s my Grandpa?”
The late afternoon sun was canary yellow and about three hands from the horizon signaling three more hours of daylight. Near the banks of the Yazoo an ambulance idled. A factory worker near Grenada Junction had spotted Caroline’s body. James and his deputies stood silent as the ambulance crept away.
“I told that girl’s mom not to worry, we’d find her. Now I gotta tell her just that,” James said, hypnotized by the gentle waves.
“You want me to go with you?” asked Carl, the youngest deputy who had only been on the force for amonth.
“Nah, I’ll take care of it.”
The sun, now marigold orange, lounged on the horizon as James pulled his car back into Grandpa’sdriveway. He rolled down the windows and tilted his ear toward the ground. He picked up a white paper sack from the passenger seat. The screen door was unlatched and the TV was off but James could hear the repetitive click of a phonograph that hadn’t been turned over or off.
“Grandpa, you here?” James yelled.
James walked toward the darkened room. His small stature in the doorway made him look more like ateenage boy than a man about to turn forty. He hadn’t crossed that threshold since the day of hisGrandma’s funeral, twenty three years ago.
James looked around the room waiting for his eyes to adjust to the charcoal hued darkness. An insignificant bit of light penetrated the shades. It shined like a dim flashlight on the wooden floor. Particles of dust floated in the beam like kids bobbing in a pool. Not a wisp of air moved in the room. Other than that faint sliver, the room was geometric shades of dark and darker. His eyes adjusted to the lack of light and he noticed a chair covered with record albums.
“Grandpa, you here?”
He heard a muffled response from the bathroom.
“Grandpa, you alright?” pressing his ear to the door.
“Yeah, I’m alright. I’ll be out in a minute.”
He walked back, picked up the records and took them to the kitchen. He read the cover of the first album. “Robert Johnson, They’re Red Hot.” He looked at the others.
“I’m starvin’. Said you be here at 5,” Grandpa said as he walked into the kitchen and sat down.“You ain’t starvin’, people in Africa are starvin’.
James ripped the side of the paper bag exposing two baskets heaped with fiddlers, french-fries, hush puppies and a small container of coleslaw. “Where the forks?” he asked.
“In the drawer,” Grandpa said his mouth full of french-fries.
They sat at the table using their forks to pull the flesh of the catfish from the bones. Crickets drowned out the sound of the still spinning record.
James looked at the record player. “Whatta you been listenin’ to, Robert Johnson?” “How’d you know?” Grandpa said snapping a glaze toward James.
“I saw the records in the living room. I didn’t know you liked Robert Johnson.” “Never said I did. I’m just listenin’ to it. Why were you late?”
“Remember that little girl I said was missin? We found her.”
“No, she ain’t alright. She ain’t alright at all. Some factory worker found her floatin’ in the Yazoo.” “Holy shit.”
“And I had to go tell her momma. That’s why I’m late. And by the way, you know her.”
“The girl’s mother, Nadine.”
Granda’s brow furrowed as he looked up from his plate.
“You’re not talkin’ Nadine from Patterson’s”
“I’m afraid I am.”
“Oh my God. Little Nadine. She didn’t have a daughter when I knew her. I guess she don’t have one now either.” Grandpa pushed the fiddlers away and stared at the table.
“That’s a God damn shame,” Grandpa said, shaking his head. “How the helled’ she get in there? Andwhat was her name?”
“Caroline was her name.”
“That’s a pretty name.” Grandpa closed his eyes.
“Yeah, sure is. Seems like she just fell in I guess, but some people were sayin’ they used to see her over there playin’ by the Yazoo with some little boy. We did find a paper boat. That was all. Some lady knewthe boy’s name so I went over to his house but he said he didn’t know nothin’ about it.”
“Was he with her?”
“He said he wasn’t and we can’t find nobody that saw ‘em together. Besides whatta’ ya’ gonna do with a seven year old?”
“Well, I hope he didn’t have nothin’ to do with it. That’d be an awful thing to carry around with ya’.”
“Sure would. Some people thought he probably had somethin’ to do with it. He’s apparently a meanlittle shit. By the way, speaking of mean, Nadine had awfully nice things to say about you. How’d you fool her?”
“Whatta’ you mean? I ain’t seen her in years. What’d she remember about me?”
“Said her car broke down and you gave her rides for weeks and wouldn’t take no gas money.” “Ah anybody’d do that.”
“How can you be so nice to someone and so God damn mean to your family?”
Grandpa looked at James. “I got my reasons.”
“What reasons?” James asked.
James got up from his chair and walked over to the record player and turned it off.
“Turn that back on and start it over.”
James put the arm back on the record. The scratches and clicks were almost as loud as the music.Robert Johnson’s voice and guitar resonated throughout the kitchen.
“Did I ever tell you I knew Robert?” Grandpa asked.
“Nah, you never told me that.”
“I never told anybody that. I didn’t know him real well, but I knew him.”
“Is that why you listen to his songs?”
“No, that ain’t why I listen to his songs, it’s why I’m so God damn mean.”
James shook his head.
“You know, I shouldda’ probably told your dad what I’m gonna tell you. I ain’t gonna be around muchlonger and I should tell somebody especially when you’re askin’.”
“You asked why I’m so mean, well now I’m gonna tell you. I think your Grandma knew but she neversaid nothin’. She was scared of me you know. Your dad though...he loved Robert Johnson. But he was scared of me too. I wouldda’ told him if he lived longer. You know it’s hard to watch your boy die or your daughter for that matter I guess. I’m sure Caroline’s daddy ain’t feelin’ too good today.”
James looked down at the table and the empty baskets. “Yeah, well it ain’t too easy watchin’ your daddie either and I had to do that. I guess watchin’ anybody die ain’t easy. If it is...there’s probably something wrong with you.”
“Yeah, well killin’ somebody’s even worse.” Grandpa said.
What do you know about killin’ anybody? You didn’t fight in any war.”
“No, but I wish I had. Maybe then things wouldda’ been different.”
“Different how? You ain’t had a bad life,” James said.
“Yeah, well I’ve been livin’ in hell for seventy God damn years.”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
“You know the story of Robert Johnson? How he died?”
“Yeah, he got poisoned or something...for fuckin’ somebody’s wife?”
“He got poisoned alright,” Grandpa said before looking through James like a laser, “and I’m the one who did it”.
“What? You’re outta’ your mind? Why would you say you poisoned Robert Johnson?” ”Cause I did poison his ass, simple as that.”
“And why would you poison him?”
“I had my reasons.”
Grandpa walked over to the record player, and ripped the arm completely from the turntable before heaving the record player into the dark room. The plastic, no match for the old wooden floor, splintered. James didn’t move a muscle as he watched Grandpa’s rage rise like a tide.
“I’m tired of listenin’ to that God damn ghost and I’m tired of lookin’ at you every time you come over. You ever wondered why you and you’re Dad were so fuckin’ little. Well Robert was little too. Maybeyour Grandma liked ‘em that way. Every day for 70 years I been thinkin’ about that. You know how long 70 years is when you got one thought in your head, playin’ like a song, over and over again. It’s like aGod damn dragonfly dartin’ around. Just like you comin’ around here all the time.”
James stared at the empty baskets. Grandpa dropped into his chair and sighed.
James and Grandpa sat frozen like tombstones for hours at the small round table as darkness crept through the empty window panes. James rose from his chair and walked out of the kitchen into the yard. His small frame pierced the stagnant blackness. Once in the car he turned the ignition, shifted into reverse not bothering to roll down the windows. The car rolled backwards into the night. A few miles away, a small boy, not more than seven, sat in his room recalling his trip across the Grand Street Bridge.