AWID….

Stretch walks up to where we sit, a huge cigar hangs out of his mouth. He looks like a dead fish. Eyes wide with yellow teeth, he reminds me of a gaspergou I caught in the Mississippi River.

“Gentlemen, throw it down your neck and taste it later. We roll out in five mikes. Check your gear, we will go house to house.” As Stretch walks away, someone mutters, “I don’t like that guy.” They sum up my feelings perfectly.

As a young man, I read many books concerning World War II and how some of the most vicious fighting took place when going from house to house. Today is no different. Breach, bang, clear. We repeat this process over and over. 

“Hey, Freeman!” I turn and see a friend of mine from my unit. Wearily, I smile and make my way through the rumble of buildings to where he kneels. Andrew Ranken slaps me on the back.

“You good, man?”

“Oh yeah, good to go. How are you, Ranken?”

“Man, it’s crazy out here. These tanks are destroying entire blocks. How goes the house to house business?”

I flash back to those killed in the name of liberation, the wounded forever scarred by the hands of war. Ranken notices my forced smile.

“Ah, you know how it goes, Ranken. It’s messy.”

Another sample of the AWID re-write…

I get two hours of sleep. It is fitful sleep, my mind keeps flashing back to Hank’s death.  The carnage we visited upon the people of this city disturbs my peace. I can’t make sense of what I’ve seen and done. My stomach rumbles. “I can’t be hungry and sleepy. I have to pick a struggle.” I dismount from my vehicle and join a group of men eating MREs. One of them leans against a t-wall and nods. 

“You did good today.” His eyes are dead. His face is dirty with the blood of those we lost upon his cheeks. I nod my head, unsure of what to say. 

“It was a crappy start to this entire operation.” He nods and pops some Skittles in his mouth.

“Yeah. It will only get worse. Figure out how far you’re willing to go to win. If we win this battle, the next thing have to figure out is how to live with what you’ve done here. Take it one step at a time.”

The rewrite continues…AWID…

As time goes on, my psyche’s scarred by the various things I’ve seen, and the things I’ve done to stay alive. I use humor to hide the pain inside. 

“Morning, Freeman.” SSG Jayme Willard walks into my room. “You are to report to the office for a briefing.”

“Morning, Sergeant. Am I going somewhere?” SSG Willard chuckles as he walks out of my room. “I guess I am about to find out.”

I push away from my desk and walk down the hall to my platoon’s office. Inside sits my platoon sergeant, and two people I don’t know. They look up as I enter. 

“Morning, Freeman. How are you feeling this morning?” I force a smile. The two other people look on but say nothing.

“Fine, Sergeant. What is going on?” I am waved to a chair next to his desk. I sit and wait for whatever is coming down the pipe. 

“These folk sitting across from you need help with something.”

I look at the representatives who are seeking help. Both are males in their forties or early fifties. They nod in my direction and I nod back. Both men have beards, although one is tall and slender, the other is of average height and built like a stonemason. Their eyes are soulless.

“Okay, Sergeant. Where am I going?”

“There is a troubled spot up north, and our friends have asked for some support in executing their mission. They require the best, you will go north and help them. The rest of us nobodies will stay here and carry on.”

“Roger.”

“Pack for a minimum of three days, but you may be there for seven. Gentlemen, you can brief him on the rest.” The tall agent stands, I call him Stretch. He stares at me for a moment and then he begins his rehearsed speech.

“We have an area swamped with insurgency. They have access to small arms (rifles and RPGS), and they are executing anyone who disagrees with their ideology. We are the scalpel that will remove this cancer.” The average agent chimes in, I call him Goon. “This is a joint task force. Our mission is precise, there is no room for error. Meet us at your squadron headquarters at 1330 for a full briefing. We will see you soon.” I glance at my watch, it’s 1000. 

“Roger, understood.” Both men stand and exit the room. My platoon sergeant nods and I follow the two men out. I pack an assault pack. I filled it with uniforms, extra magazines for my weapon, energy drinks, and clean socks. “Sometimes, there is no greater feeling than changing your socks.” I lie across my bed and wait for the next briefing.

Twenty minutes prior to the briefing, I leave my room and walk to squadron headquarters. As I walk in, I am greeted by the squadron XO. 

“Are you lost, Freeman? What brings you up this way?” I chuckle. Major Williamson smiles and shakes his head. “What’s so funny?” I shake my head and look at the floor.

“Nothing, sir. I am here for the briefing.” Every time I see the XO, I can’t help but chuckle. When we were home in Texas, he complained about soldiers not saluting him. One day, some friends and I caught him at the commissary buying groceries. As he walked out, we stood a few feet apart from each other. Every two steps, he had to stop and salute us. Finally, he stopped and gave us all one salute. Angrily, he threw his groceries in the car and we never heard about saluting again.

“The briefing is down the hall, last door on the left.” I thank him and walk down the hallway. The door is open, people sit around a horseshoe table. I take a seat toward the middle. Stretch and Goon walk in and close the door. 

“Okay, gentlemen. Let’s get down to brass tacks. We selected you to carry out this mission. You are the best and the brightest your unit has to offer. We can’t guarantee your safety, because we are walking into the jaws of hell. The odds of you returning to this place is nil. Does everyone understand? However, if we succeed in our mission, we will destroy a huge part of the insurgency and liberate the populace. Valhalla will sing our praises. Gather your gear, we roll out in fifteen minutes.”

We all stand to our feet and secure our gear. Together, we fall into step and walk to our vehicles. My riding buddy is a tanker from another unit. He nods at me, and I nod back.

“I am Hank, but everyone calls me Buster,” he said in the way of greeting. I chuckle and shake his hand.

“I’m Freeman, and no one calls me Possum.”

Buster laughs. “Why would anyone call you Possum?” I shake my head and open the door to my vehicle. “When I was young, my parents would rock me to sleep. When they put me in my crib, I would wake up. My dad started calling me Possum because I always faked them out.”

“Man, that is a great story.” I look him in the eyes. My mouth tightens into a mirthless grin. “Yeah, and if you tell anyone, I will make sure you don’t tell anyone ever again.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Sure. I’m joking. According to Stretch and Goon, we are dead already. We just don’t know it yet.”

“Do you think it’s that bad? Are we all going to die?”

“Only the Lord knows. I guess we will find out.”

Hours pass, but we finally make it to our destination without incident. My new home for the next week is a small camp with a few scattered buildings. Hank and I walk to our assigned hooch and throw our gear onto a bunk near the doorway. A Marine sticks his head in the doorway and looks at us.

“Y’all with the newly arrived task force?” 

“Yeah.”

“There’s a formation in five mikes at the motor pool.”

“Roger, understood.”

Hank and I walk to the motor pool. Hank is a good ole boy from Alabama. His accent is thick enough to cut cane syrup. A good natured man, he hasn’t missed an opportunity to smile, except for now.

“I guess we are about to find out what they want us to do.”

“Yep. I’m sure it’s what they always want us to do. Find the enemy, destroy the enemy. It’s a straightforward job.” Hank guffaws.

“Where are you from, Freeman?”

“Hattiesburg, Mississippi.” We walk up to the gaggle of people standing around a Humvee. Goon stands on the hood, his Ray Ban shades shining in the late afternoon sun.

“We go into the city in three days. The city has insurgents and civilians in it. The point of this task force is to limit civilian casualties, while removing the threat of the insurgency. The DFAC is in the center of camp. A shoppette is next to it. Make liberal use of both.”

They dismiss us. Hank and I walk toward the dining facility. “Hopefully, the chow is better here.” We walk into the air-conditioned tent and stand in line. Shepherd’s Pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, and various other foods are on the line. 

Grabbing a tray, the cooks load our plates, and we walk to the nearest empty table.  In the background, a television plays the news. ‘Experts’ spout their opinions as truth concerning the war. “This war is being carried out on a false premise” one military ‘expert’ shouts. Hank looks up from his food. 

“Whatcha wanna bet, the ‘expert’ has never even made it to a combat zone, much less picked up a rifle and fought for something he believed in.” I nod and try to swallow a mouthful of mashed taters and gravy before responding.

“Mmmhmm, you’re right. It’s easy to sit at home and spout off at the mouth, when someone else’s kid will go fight the war. These fools make me sick.”

“Me too.”

“Let’s change the subject. I hate politicians and the media. Who’s your favorite team?”

“Pro or college? Football, baseball, basketball, or soccer?”

“Um, whatever you want to talk about Buster.”

“Well Possum, I like college football. Ohio State is my favorite team.”

“Ugh. That alone is worth a bullet. Why Ohio State?”

Hank laughs. He wags his finger at me. “The tradition man, plus I went to college there.”

Laughing, I took another bite of my Shepherd’s Pie. “Fair enough.”

“Who is your favorite team, Freeman?”

“College football? Alabama.”

We finish our meal and head back to our bunks. The night air is a cool 90 degrees, the moon is full. As we walk in silence, we hear indirect fire coming in. Both of us fall to the ground and cover our heads. The mortar hits a building and explodes. Jumping to our feet, we rush to where the explosion occurred. Emergency personnel help us pull people to safety. 

“Wow. Looks like they know we are here. Guess they didn’t want us to get bored before we kill them.” I look at Hank, his face is grimy. His eyes are cold, and his mouth is in a hard line. “Yeah, Hank looks like he could kill somebody.”

“Well Buster, boredom isn’t an issue.” The fire is quickly put out, and our casualties treated. Together, we walk from the ruined building, and make our way to our bunks. I throw myself across the single mattress and close my eyes.

“That explosion is just a small taste of the hell we will face. Might as well sleep while I can.

It doesn’t take me long to figure out that hell isn’t just a place, but also a state of being.

Warfighters don’t quit…AWID

General Sherman’s famous quote, “War is hell,” springs to mind as I watched Hank bleed out. We walked right into the killzone. “Thanks to that idiot Lieutenant.” Hank and I had sought cover behind a barrier made of sand, and God only knows what else. Thick, black smoke fills the air, the smell of burning rubber and human flesh makes it impossible to take deep breaths. We return fire and provide covering fire so our men can get out of the killzone. As usual, you never hear the shot that kills you. I hear a loud crack and Hank hits the ground. Blood pools in his lower torso, and I drag him to the corner and begin first aid. The bullet hit Hank in the liver, just below his flak vest. 

I open his vest and cover the wound with my glove. “Freeman, I’m dying. Put me out of my misery and continue mission. We have to help these people.” I can’t get the bleeding to stop. Hank groans and I prop him up against the barrier. 

“Hold this bandage against the wound, Hank. I have to beat back these clowns, they are charging us.” I put Hank’s hand over the wound. Lifting my weapon, I press the trigger and spray bullets. With the help of the other soldiers, we finally beat the insurgency back. I turn to Hank and sit down next to my friend. I put two fingers on his neck to check his pulse, but he is dead.

I stand to my feet, and can’t believe my eyes. Dead bodies litter the ground, blood stains the walls, the ground, and the faces of my fellow soldiers. Vehicles and buildings are burning. I grab Hank by the shoulders and pull him to the nearest vehicle. The entire scene is carnage. 

“God help us.”

As I walk back to my vehicle, a Sergeant Major stands outside his Humvee yelling into a hand mic. I feel something whiz past my ear, and I watch as the bullet strikes the SGM in the ear. His brains fall out of the side of his head.

“Jesus!” I duck and race to where the Sergeant Major had fallen. His body lies under the armored door of the Humvee. I check him and I see movement from the corner of my eye. Turning, I lift my weapon and track the insurgent.He comes out of the ditch, RPG raised and aimed at my friends. I pull the trigger three times. The bullets thud into his body and he slides down the ditch. Our new convoy leader signals for us to load up. We all jump into our vehicles and continue mission to the next rally point. Darkness falls upon us as we pull into our ‘secured zone.’

After the last vehicle has pulled up to the rest, we all download. I stretch. My body feels like it has been ran over. Wearily, we all trudge to the formation that Goon called. 

“We lost some good men today. However, we have dealt a critical blow to the insurgency. They know we are here. Today, they felt it. We should not get cocky though, these guys will not back down. We have to take this city. Hunker down for a couple of hours. Get some rest.”

“ Hank is dead, God only knows how many more will die in this dump.” I walk to my truck and crawl in the driver’s seat. Stripping down, I take off my helmet and open my vest. It feels like my gear weighs a thousand pounds. 

“I’m gonna die in this freaking place. I will die lost.” Alone in my truck, I cry. I cry for Hank, for those who didn’t make it to the rally point, and I cry for me. It has been years since I went to church. My thoughts turn to God. Does He still love me? Will he forgive me for what I have done? When I am done here, will He be able to call me His son?

Exhausted, I lean back against the seat and in seconds, I’m asleep.

More from an untitled novel…

The cool September air is refreshing as Franken walks out to his vehicle. Al Wilkerson, the security guard selected to escort him to his vehicle walks two steps behind him.

“This is becoming something of a regular occurrence, LJ. Why don’t you try getting along with people?”

“People are a complete waste of time, Al.”

“So, you’re not going to be nice and apologetic to your boss? It may shorten your suspension.”

“I have a better idea. The military has plenty to offer. I am headed there now.”

“Son, you might-”

Franken tosses Al a wave as he tears out of the parking lot for the last time. 

The recruiting station is located in a bland strip mall, hidden away from the busy highway. “I suppose they figure if you come here, you are already sold on the idea to serve.” Franken parks and walks into the building. Teenagers sit in chairs talking to recruiters hoping to fill the void left by the terror attacks of September 11th. Patriotism has filled the hearts of every young man and woman in America. “All I want is a way to provide for my family. I love my country, but you can’t eat patriotism.”

“Hello. Can I help you?” Franken turns from a poster showing a soldier fast roping out of a helicopter. A soldier stands behind him. His name tag reads Givens. LJ nods and clears his throat.

“Hi, I would like to speak to someone about joining the Army.”

“Come on in. I am SSG Rupert Givens.” SSG Givens leads Franken to a corner desk. He motions to LJ to have a seat next to his desk. They talk of Franken’s expectations. After discussing what the steps are for joining and filling out numerous pieces of paperwork, SSG Givens shakes Franken’s hand. 

“Are you married, Franken?”

“I am.”

SSG Givens nods his head and places a hand on Franken’s shoulder. “Far be it from me to tell you how to run your house, but you may want to talk this decision over with your wife before you sign your and her lives away. Come back tomorrow, and I will explain the military life to her.”

“Okay.”

Franken walks out to his vehicle and drives away. “I have to tell her about the suspension but at least I have a plan for the future.”

The beginning…a preview of some untitled work…

The beginning of any story seems to be the simplest part of said story; nothing is further from the truth, even the story of me is filled with moments of complication. Who is LJ Franken? When viewed from the lens of billionaires, celebrity status, and the powerful, I am nobody. Until that fateful day in September, I was a milkman. After the towers fell, I was transformed into a killer. A focused razor of my nation’s rage. However, I have sprinted down a rabbit trail or as we say in Mississippi, I have my cart ahead of my horse. 

The beginning has me standing in front of the union steward, Hooker and my supervisor, Tucker. 

“Did you have to beat down your co-worker,” Hooker asks. I shrug nonchalantly. As far as I am concerned it’s just another day at a job that has no future. Tucker sighs. He is really good at feigning he is put out by my antics.

“You’re always in trouble, Franken. Why am I not surprised you beat down your help?”

“Both of you idiots act like I whooped him for no reason. Did you miss the part where he spit in my face?”

Tucker sighs and crosses his arms. Hooker shakes his head in frustration. Neither seems to be on my side of the conflict. Finally, Hooker moves close to me and gets to the meat of the matter.

“Franken, you know that the guy you ‘whooped’ is a minority, right? How do you think this will play out in this community that is 70% minorities?”

My lips pull back in a sneer and my brow furrows. “Who cares? If you’re dumb enough to spit in a man’s face, you deserve to get beat down, regardless of your race.”

Tucker nods his head. “You leave us no choice, Franken. You are suspended without pay for two weeks. Get your gear, security will escort you to your vehicle.”

I turn and walk out of The Clabber Wagon for the last time. “Screw it, I’ll join the Army.” I had no idea how fateful those words would turn out to be.

A sporting conversation…A short story…

“Uncle, are you excited for the return of college football?”

I peer over my glasses at my nephew. Scowling, I try to think up a reasonable answer without the hateful sarcasm which drips into my soul.

“Nah. I am done with sports.”

“Why? You love sports. Basketball, football, baseball, you love all of it. Why would you quit watching now?”

Apparently, I am not going to be able to avoid this conversation, no matter how hard I try. I place my coffee down and turn away from my computer.

“What is my incentive for watching sports? So, I can watch multimillionaires tell me who to vote for? Or hear them virtue signal about ‘social issues’ they ‘care about?’ No thanks.”

“They aren’t all like that, unc. Some of the athletes actually love our country.”

“Mmmhmm. Then they are ostracized for taking a stand against the system and sent to re-education camp.”

“You don’t understand, uncle. They are just expressing their First Amendment right.”

“Yes, I understand that. Here’s a question: Instead of taking a stance against the country that has provided them every opportunity to amass unimaginable wealth, why don’t they spend their time giving back to the impoverished communities they virtue signal about?”

Some do, uncle.”

“I agree that some do. Yet, every day more and more come out in support of Communist regimes who violate human rights with such ferocity it is mind numbing.”

“Uh-”

“Then to top it all off they want to consider themselves ‘social justice influencers.’ Some of these ‘influencers’ didn’t even finish high school. Yet, somehow they know what is best for all of us.”

“Uh-”

“Anymore questions about why I quit watching sports?”

“Um, no I don’t think so.”

“Good. Remember this, nephew. I swore an oath to defend this country against ALL enemies, both foreign and domestic. I don’t support organizations that are anti-American.”

“Okay. I think I’ll go home now.”

“Roll Tide.”

I watch as my nephew walks out to his vehicle. “There goes the single largest voting demographic in America. Whoever wins the youth will shape the future of the world.”

Bad intentions…A short story…

Is there an easy way?

Often you hear people say you can do it the easy way or the hard way. Retrospectively, I look back at some of my choices, and I only see the hard way.Maybe something is missing in the translation or perhaps, I am pre-programmed to only choose the hard way.

As I write a post for my blog, a vehicle tears down my driveway. Mirthlessly, I smile. “They’ll need a front end alignment when they bottom out at the base of the hill.” I listen for the bang of the vehicle slamming into the ground. It doesn’t take long. 

BANG!

“Someone’s unhappy now.” The driver slams on the brakes and the car slides to a stop. SLAM! Heavy footsteps rush across my porch, and I slide my sidearm out of the drawer. My front door is assaulted with heavy blows. 

“Yeah?”

“Mr. Freeman? My name is Denise, I am with the Sheriff’s Department. I need to speak with you concerning a recent post you shared on your social media site.”

“Sure. I’ll be right out. Have a seat on the front porch.”

“This won’t take long, sir. Could you open the door?”

“Sure.”

Quietly, I sneak out my backdoor and slip around the side of my house. Four deputies are in breach position, and all are armed. I pull my sidearm out and step into view. 

“Good morning.”

They all turn and I bring my sidearm up. 

“You guys planning on tearing up my house?”

Denise puts her hands up and the other three keep their rifles trained on me.

“We don’t want no trouble….”

“Says the lady with three shooters. Exactly what post do you and your overlords have a problem with?”

“We don’t want to kill you.”

“Well, that’s comforting news.”

Denise gestures to the black clad figures at her side and they lower their weapons. I lower mine in response to their willingness to compromise. 

“May we speak to you, Mr. Freeman?”

“Sure. You stay there, and I’ll stand here. Whatcha got?”

“You have shared numerous posts accusing the government of traitorous behavior. None of which has been proven. It is suspected that you may have terrorist ties. Are you a member of any such organization?”

“Lady, I live in the woods for a reason. I write a little, and rarely go into town. The woods provides me with what I need to live off of. I don’t do meetings or people very well.”

“I see, but there is still the posts that you’ve shared…”

“I mean no disrespect toward you or your team, Denise. However, if a few posts concerning the overreach of the government warrants a four man team to breach my cabin, then maybe the posts are accurate.”

“I could detain you and bring you in.”

“Yes, you could. I would suggest that we talk like civilized people and you say your piece.”

“Okay. Your government asks that you stop posting unverified accusations concerning their intentions.”

“Too easy.”

“Failure to comply will result in detention.”

I smile but all I see is red. Denise motions to her team members and they amble off my porch.

“Tell me something, Denise. Do you end all conversations with an implied threat?”

“Generally, we don’t have a conversation.”

“Okay. Well, y’all have a nice day.”

Denise forces a smile and I watch as the black SUV drives down my driveway. I wait to see if they return, but after a moment the roar of their modified exhaust dies out in the distance. 

“All that for speaking my mind? Bad intentions indeed.”

High Heat…A short story…

“Mississippi in the summer time is unbearable.”

Mary Jane Richter sits on the back porch and muses about the humidity which threatens to siphon the oxygen out of her system. A life-long native of the aforementioned state, she is acclimated to the bi-level threat of suffocating heat and smothering humidity. “I sure am thankful for the heat though, it keeps people from noticing my tears.” Mary Jane uses an old hanky to wipe the sweat and tears from her face.

“What’s the point in showering, when you just gonna be soaked after five minutes on the porch?”

Her hazel eyes watch as a worn out Chevy Cheyenne pulls up in her driveway. Jimmy Wayne Richter, Mary Jane’s twin brother, steps out and staggers toward the porch.

“It sure is a hot one lil bit. It’s hotter than Satan’s rump out here.” Mary Jane nods her head. “Yep. Whatcha doing here, Jimmy?” Jimmy Wayne, or JW, as he is known to those who might feel some tinge of regret at his passing, shrugs.

“Can’t I come see my baby sister?” JW’s black teeth glint in a mirthful smile. Mary Jane forces a smile back. “Sure, but weren’t you just in Parchment for a triple homicide? Or did I dream that whole nightmare about my brother being given three consecutive life sentences?”

“I got out early for good behavior,” Jimmy Wayne chuckles. “I can’t stay long, sister. Places to be an all that.” Mary Jayne runs her fingers through her black hair. Her hair is now streaked with gray, soon it would all be gray.

“Yeah, I understand. What do you want, JW?”

“Dad’s ole shotty still shoot?”

“Yes.”

“I need it and as many shotgun shells as you got.”

“It’s hanging on the rack over Ma and Pa’s bed.” JW walks into the house and the screen door slams shut. From the back porch Mary Jane can hear JW rummaging through the drawers looking for shotgun shells. Heavy footsteps announce JW’s presence at the screen door. “Eight shells? Is that it, MJ?”

“If that’s all you see, that’s all there is, JW. If I had known you would be breaking out of prison, I would have bought some.” JW nods and cradles the shotgun in the small of his arm.

“By God, I hate to ‘grab and run’ sister but the law will be this way in a minute.”

“Yep. Good luck, JW.”

“Love ya, MJ.”

“Love ya, too.”

JW crosses the yard and reaches for the driver door, when a shot rings out. The high caliber round slams into JW’s chest and punches him to the ground. Mary Jane pushes herself from the rocker and walks out to where her brother lies.

“Ugh-”

“Shh, Jimmy. Just listen. Did you really think after you got my children Denise an Lil’ Ricky involved in your scheming and dirty living, I would let it go? You killed my children, then you stop by here for help?”

“Ugh-”

“Stop trying to talk. I’ll spell it out for you. The Sheriff called me and told me you broke out. He asked if I would take care of you. You know, give the taxpayers a break an all that. I told him not to worry about it. So, you’re gonna die here, JW.”

“Ugh-”

Clamping a sweaty palm over her brother’s mouth, Mary Jane Richter smothers JW to death in the shade of a towering white oak. As JW convulses, MJ leans back against the tree. Her sweaty shirt sticks to her body and she watches as her youngest son walks out of the tree line with the 30-06 used to wound JW.

“Well, JW wasn’t wrong. It’s hotter than Satan’s rump out here.”

Tater Salad, Jesus and family…A short story…

“It’s a hundred today, Sue Anne if it’s ten. Even the cows are tired.”

Sandy-haired Sue Anne leaned on the cattle gate and gnawed on the blade of grass stuck between her teeth. Her blue eyes are shaded by her LSU hat. Sweat dribbles down her neck, and she swats at a mosquito who is trying to get a free meal.

“Yeah. Look at ‘em lazy cows, hiding out there in that shade. Maaaa, you lazy bums.”

Johnny Cruz, sat on his bike and spat on everything. Johnny’s hero is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Johnny is the product of Sue Anne’s aunt’s wild lifestyle. 

At one of the church’s ‘dinner on-the-grounds’ Sue Anne’s momma Beth, got into it with her sister Twila, concerning this unplanned addition to the family. 

“There ya go, Twila! Look at you all knocked up. You got no idea who the donor is do you?”

Twila balled her tiny hands into fists and her dark eyes showed the rage building in her heart. 

“We at the house of God. You gonna throw my mistakes in my face when the Lord will forgive me?”

“Getcha preggers stomach from over the tater salad you crazy broad.” Don’t nobody mess with the potato salad. Pregnant or not, we Mississippians will fight to the death over our comfort food. Of course, this is all water under the bridge. Sue Anne is 14, and Cousin Johnny is 13.

Sue Anne’s daddy has gone on to be with the Lord. He died at 38. He was a railroad worker. One hot day he passed out on the tracks and a train did him in.

After the company called Beth and gave her the news, she carried on something fierce. Wailing and thrashing, overturning tables, Sue Anne thought her momma was having a coronary. The old folks at church call it a conniption fit, but the preacher calls it a sin.

“Oooh Lord, you have put too much on me to bear!” Johnny and Twila sat on their porch and listened to Beth as she moaned for several minutes before Twila spoke.

“Well, she either got saved all over again, or somethin’ bad happened.” Twila slipped on her flip-flops and headed down the long, winding dirt driveway. Johnny pedaled his bike next to his mother.

They found Beth out in the yard, nary tear stained her cheeks. Instead, she clutched a stack of papers close to her chest. She waved them at Twila.

“That stupid redneck finally did something right. He took out a 400,000 dollar life insurance policy to provide for me and Sue Anne.” Sue Anne watched as her momma giddily pranced into the house. Looking at Twila and Johnny, Sue Anne shrugged. “Daddy always said momma’s religion only went so far. Her hypocrisy though went straight through to the bone.”

“You need anything,” asked Twila. She pulled off her flip-flop and swept the bottom of her foot off. Sue Anne shook her head no. 

“Nah. It’ll be alright. Momma may have a stroke or somethin’ if she gets more good news.”

“Well, y’all holler if you need anything.”

“Aunt Twila, do you think momma loved daddy?”

“Child, does it matter? You’re daddy is cold and in the ground.”

Sue Anne reaches down and plucks a blade of grass and began gnawing on it.

“Naw, I don’t reckon it matters anymore. Promise to shoot me if I act like momma, won’t ya?” Johnny punched his cousin on the shoulder.

“It’s the least I could do, after all, that’s the whole point of family.”