Somebody once told me that it’s gravity that keeps us here on this earth. I think it's strange that a force you can't see or feel is what ties us here. When I climb to the top of Big Rock and lie on my back to look at the sky, I don't believe it. All I see is a Cooper’s hawk defying gravity.
May 27th, 1980
"Jobie, get out of bed. Right. This. Minute." I had a dream last night that my teeth fell out. I was in front of Mrs. Allen's Creative Writing class reading a poem I had written about T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I felt something hard and loose in my mouth. “Dare I? Dare I?…” A tooth tumbled out and I watched as it traveled toward the linoleum. Then another one fell. I tried to hold them in with my hand but they slipped through my fingers. "....RIGHT. THIS. MINUTE.” I remember reading somewhere that people who dream their teeth are falling out are afraid that their youth is slipping away from them.
Me and Billy Ray are skipping school today. Well, that’s my plan anyway. Billy Ray has been my best friend since elementary school. We learned early that country kids and town kids don’t mix. It’s strange how this stayed true all the way through high school. Country kids get bussed into town. City kids get dropped off in carpools or drive their own cars. City kids wear Levi’s and Guess jeans, polo shirts and button down collars, matching belts and shoes. They always smell good. Like somebody has made it their business to take care of them. And they hang in crowds. That’s what makes us different. We don’t travel in packs. It might be because we remind each other of how poor and different we are, or maybe it’s because our houses don’t have rec rooms where we can lay around on the floor and listen to Led Zeppelin albums. It’s okay though. Me and Billy Ray have spent just about every Saturday together since third grade.
In any other place, Billy Ray might be called William or Will. He might play jazz piano and read poetry. He might be called “eccentric”. But here, Billy Ray is just plain strange. He wears his dead granddaddy’s old suits and shirts. If that’s not bad enough it’s made worse by the fact that he’s only as tall as me (5 feet 6 inches) and he weighs about 125 pounds soaking wet. Judging by the clothes, his granddaddy must have been a full six feet tall and a good 200 pounds. When you add in the suspenders and all of the folding and rolling up of his sleeves and cuffs, Billy Ray looks like he’s dressed up for Halloween every day of the year. I don't get it. I keep telling him that he should try to be less obvious. But then again, he probably thinks I’m crazy for spending hours in front of the mirror trying to get my stringy hair to look like the Cissy Spacek’s hair in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
I push two fingers in my mouth to see if my teeth are still there. Me and Billy Ray have never skipped school. We’ve never done anything bad when it comes to school. Our teachers like us. I'm what they call “the creative type”. Billy Ray is sweet. We make a good team, and we have to do something adventurous before we graduate. Skipping school and swimming in the quarry seems like the only option for adventure where we live. I’ve heard that there are rusted out old cars at the bottom and if you jump in and go too deep you can get caught up in the rusty metal and drown.
I cross the field and see Billy Ray’s old farmhouse. I bet it was really nice when Billy Ray’s granddaddy was alive. I’ve only known of it since the rain and wind have turned it gray. “Billy Raaaay!” I yell up at his window. Big Lettie hears me and yells from the couch, “Come on in, Jobie. Billy Ray’s still upstairs.” Big Lettie is Billy Ray's mama. She’s been sick since Billy Ray was a baby. She’s got sugar diabetes. That's why they live with Billy Ray's grandmamma. Big Lettie is Billy Ray’s biggest fan. That kind of devotion can weigh a person down. I think that’s why Billy Ray wants to run off after he graduates. What he doesn’t say is that he’s afraid that if he doesn’t leave, he’ll be living in that old farmhouse taking care of his mama for the rest of his life. I don’t know what Big Lettie will do without him. He’s her lifeline. He brings her news from the outside world and sausage biscuits from the convenience store in town. Anyway, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
“How you doing today, honey?” Big Lettie lies on the couch eating white powdered donuts. She must be having a good day, because she put on her Mary Kay (a shade called Really Red) lipstick which is a magnet for the white confectioner’s sugar. Billy Ray is always worried about Big Lettie. The last time she had a diabetic seizure she fell and hit her head on the coffee table. Billy Ray faints at the sight of blood. I wonder if anybody has ever told her that it is called “sugar diabetes” for a reason.
The road is pretty quiet. Not many cars this morning. “Jobie, did you know that I was born the day Norma Jean Mortenson died?” Billy Ray is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. Lately, he has tried to convince me that he is Marilyn Monroe reincarnated as a boy. When I asked why, in the name of heaven, would Marilyn Monroe want to come back as Billy Ray Ledbetter, he tells me it is so that she can have a real family life. I don’t point out the obvious fact that Billy Ray doesn’t have a normal family life. But then again, what is normal anyway? He loves Marilyn in The Misfits. I think it’s those two lines that get him every time. “How do you find your way back in the dark?” “Just follow the big star on the right.” Or maybe he just likes Clark Gable.
It’s hot and the road looks melty. I should be in Mr. Tanner’s class finishing up my map of the “Impact of Industrialization (1877-1900) in the United States” and listening to kids talk about going to college in the fall. No Trespassing: Violators will be Prosecuted. I imagine ivy covered walls and heady debates about feminism and society. Private Property: No Trespassing. I am going to Valley Technical College in the fall. In two years, if I work and save money, I can transfer to a university and finish my Bachelor’s Degree. Maybe I can meet up with Billy Ray and we can be roommates.
“Billy Ray, hold the fence apart while I go through.” With the exception of his fashion choices, Billy Ray is a rule follower. I think the No Trespassing signs spooked him. He looks nervous. “Billy Ray, are you coming?” I stand on the other side holding the fence apart for him. He steps through and we follow the deer path down to the quarry’s edge. “Look how far down you can see.” Something about the depth of the water makes my heart drop to my stomach. It’s a black hole. You have to use the rope swing to get in, and if you don’t swing out about ten feet you can crack your head open on the ledge of the quarry. There’s no turning back once you’re out there.
It feels funny to be standing here with Billy Ray in his yellowed briefs and me in my faded pink bra and cotton panties. I guess neither one of us considered this when were getting ready this morning. I notice Billy Ray has a star shaped birthmark on the back of his right shoulder. I can tell Billy Ray is about to say ‘this is a bad idea’ by the way he’s pulling on his lower lip. I don’t want to debate it, because I’m afraid if we start talking about it, we’ll never do it. I lean out a little to catch the rope swing and watch a clod of red dirt break away from the bank where my foot slips. It hits the water and disappears. I swallow hard and take a deep breath. I’m a red-tailed hawk. I drop like a stone and slice the water in half. All I can think about are those rusted out old cars at the bottom of the quarry. I kick hard to get back to the surface and suck in air once I get there. I see Billy Ray leaning over and looking down. “Billy Ray, you gotta catch the rope while it’s swinging back towards you. Come on.”
Billy Ray takes a few steps back with the rope to get a running start but stops short of the ledge. “Count to three and then go, Billy Ray.” One, two, three. Billy Ray sails over my head. My head pounds and I can’t breathe and I realize the rope ladder is still curled up at the base of the tree. We have….no way out. It’s my fault really. I used to spy on high school kids at the quarry when I was in middle school. You know those popular boys who drive those brand new pickup trucks and bring coolers of beer and pretty girls. I knew I was supposed to put the rope ladder down, but I was so caught up in jumping in that I forgot.
I wonder if Mr. Tanner will notice that I’m missing. Maybe he’ll call my mama. Maybe he’ll think I’m home sick and won’t do anything. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows we’re here. Mama will think I’m at Billy Ray’s and Big Lettie will think Billy Ray is at my house. Nobody will know we’re missing until close to dinner time when Big Lettie will be expecting her sausage biscuits. We have freedom to come and go as we please and look what we’ve done with it. No note. No trace.
I hear Billy Ray whistle and I breathe a little. “Hey Jobie, what are you going to wear to graduation? Do you think you might want to hitchhike with me? You can always catch a bus back home when you get tired of being on the road.” I try to picture me and Billy Ray catching a ride with some nice old couple or a family heading somewhere for vacation. We can make up stories about ourselves. We can say we are brother and sister and our parents died and we are trying to find our long lost uncle who might take us in. The driver will probably buy us lunch on the way.
I try to picture me on graduation day in my nice blue dress. Billy Ray will be wearing one of his granddaddy’s shirts and a tie under his gown. I think about going out for hamburgers and ice cream after. I think about that boy in my Algebra class who was looking at me the other day. I think about whether Aunt Johnnie will have time to cut my hair before the ceremony. Thinking gets harder when you’re cold.
Poor Billy Ray. I look at him floating on his back. “Jobie, I’m getting cold. Should we get out?” I scan the sides of the quarry looking for something to climb up on. Six foot slab walls. Straight up. He must have read my mind. I don’t want to tell Billy Ray about the rope ladder, because he will think it’s his fault. He's that kind of person. The one who is always saying “sorry, sorry” even though they didn’t do anything wrong. “Let's swim over yonder and see if we can see a ledge or something to climb up on.” Or hang on to. Until somebody finds us.
I am a red-tailed hawk.
Big Lettie was so worried by dinnertime that she lumbered her way across the field to knock on our back door. She was sweating something awful when she got there. Her hair was frizzed out and her Mary Kay Really Red lipstick was smudged on her right cheek. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to the phrase you can’t put lipstick on a pig.
Mama and Daddy turned my room upside down looking for something that would tell them where we were. Too bad I was never one for keeping a diary. By the time they put up the ‘Missing Person(s): $500 Reward for Information’ posters around town, there was all kinds of speculation. Me and Billy Ray were abducted. Me and Billy Ray ran off and eloped. Billy Ray abducted me. Funny how nobody noticed us when were right in front of them. In the flesh.
It was two days before somebody found our clothes by the rope swing. When they pulled us out we were holding on to each other for dear life. Separating two people who love each other is hard when you’re living and apparently even harder when you’re dead. After they found us, we became star crossed lovers who had a suicide pact. We are stars. I’m sure Billy Ray would find all this hilarious.
Big Lettie wanted Billy Ray buried in a copper coffin like the one Elvis was buried in, but in the end Billy Ray was buried in the coffin that she could afford with the donations taken up at church. I was buried in my graduation dress. Cool blue to match my eyes. Don't be sad. For all my hopes and dreams of going off to college and becoming something, the truth is I probably would have ended staying around and marrying a farmer. Billy Ray would be working at the convenience store in town and taking home free sausage biscuits to Big Lettie. At least in our passing there was drama and mystery and all those things that keep small town people talking about you forever. I am a red-tailed hawk.