HomeSouthern VoiceDeath’s Messenger

Death’s Messenger

by Danny Thomas

I want to waltz in, hollering, “Git yer gladrags on, ladies. We’re going to the picture show.” But first I want some of Miss Georgia’s lemonade she’s got cooling in the kitchen ice box. Seeing as how it’s July in Wilcox County, we find ourselves boiling in Hades both day and night. I drag my feet under the day lilies to clean my shoes best I can, not wanting to bend down to wipe ’em but not wanting my wife and daughters to fuss at me for tracking dirt and dust on the rug neither. Hot under the collar, favoring my back, I’m moving, oh, so slow coming in, letting the screen door close quietly behind me. The womenfolk in the back of the house don’t know I’m here.

I back out the screen door a minute later, lemonade in hand, and take off my hat to wipe my brow. Tuckered out is what I am, after supervising the gin three nights running. I ain’t as young as I once was. I’m lucky to have the store, the gin, and my school bus driving job so I can keep my ladies in finery and take them to Camden for the picture show twice a month.

Moving under the eaves to find shade, I light up my cigar. It’s been seven months since Pearl Harbor, and already I had made several rounds around the county delivering bad news night letters. The Army hired me to deliver them out of the Camden office because who knows these dusty country roads better than a school bus driver? They send the telegrams at night, the ones that notify families their boy gave his life for his country and include precious few details so as to save money and to get the dirty work over with as quick as possible. I think of poor Ollie Taylor, who got crushed when a concrete septic tank slipped off a truck bed on him. He lived two days but never said a word. We didn’t get that from the night letter.

“I regret to inform you that your son, Ollie Taylor, died on station in Honolulu … “

Mrs. Taylor took the telegram from my hand, read it, and handed it over to her girl, Shirleen, to read for herself. While Shirleen was wailing and generally carrying on, Mrs. Taylor’s face suddenly flushed red like I had slapped her ‘cross the face. Her eyes darted to her daughter collapsed there on the couch. Then to me, who she knows well enough. Shoot, every Sunday I’m sitting with my family of womenfolk just two rows back of her at Lower Peach Tree Baptist. But now she wasn’t looking at me, the school bus driver, the fella that brought the War Department news. She was looking at Ollie in my face just for an instant. She saw his apparition. Then he was gone forever, leaving just me in his stead, standing in front of her at the couch.

A week or ten days later we learned the full thing from Ollie’s cousin, who was in the hospital at Pearl, recuperating from the mumps. He wrote his Momma a letter, and she took it to Mrs. Taylor. Lots of folks read the Taylor’s night letter, and then shied away, not looking me in the eye, wary of me. But, gosh, it weren’t my fault.

Mrs. Taylor took her bad news better than some. I mean, Mrs. Taylor was stunned. I seen that, and I wanted to get out of there quick as a wink, but Mrs. Taylor, she recovered after a minute or so. Still, she was all right because Mrs. Taylor is feisty, able to withstand a blow. Mrs. Ledbetter, though…. She’s just more delicate. Sure, she had another boy, Kenneth, same age as Shirleen and old enough to be some help around the place. And there were the twins, Kendra and Kile, probably four years old. But I worried about how Mrs. Ledbetter would bear it, losing Davey like that.

When it came time to tell her, I dropped off all my riders and backtracked to their house. I was hoping I could just hand the letter over to Mr. Ledbetter, but his pickup truck wasn’t in the yard. I trudged up the walk, admiring the pink hollyhocks and yellow gladiolas, the little gray pea gravel walkway neat as a pin. I knocked on the screen, and Kendra came to the door.

“Momma,” she says, smiling, calling back into the house, “it’s Mr. Morgan.”

Mrs. Ledbetter came out, wiping her hands with a napkin. “Hidy, Mr. Morgan,” she says.

She seen the envelope in my hand and swooned before she even touched it. I tried to catch her, managing to throw my back out pretty severe. Lucky for her, Kenneth was close enough to catch her, and he pulled her back inside to let her down easy on the living room rug. The little ones thought she was playing and jumped down on her, trying to get on her lap, giggling, pinching, and pushing one another.

“Here, now,” I says. “Git off yer Momma!”

They hopped off, eyes wide, and Kenneth dragged her over to the rocking chair. He run into the kitchen and come back with a wet hand towel for her brow. I took her hand and patted it, saying, “Mrs. Ledbetter, you need to wake up and take care of these young’uns.” Then Kenneth started the patting routine as I rested my back some.

She was breathing shallow, her skin clammy. I didn’t want to touch her, but I looked at Kenneth, and he didn’t know what to do next. His chin quivering, his eyes pleading with mine.

“You’re doing it right,” I says, nodding at him. “Keep doing that.”

Finally, I says, “You go take care of your sister and brother.”

Mr. Ledbetter saved me when he come home. I didn’t have to explain a thing because Kile ran outside and told him. Then Kenneth and Kendra went out and helped the little boy tell it. And they handled it a lot better than their bus driver ever could. Mr. Ledbetter was grim, quiet and slow moving.

Now my cigar is about smoked down, and there ain’t even a hint of a breeze out here. I’ve got one of those War Department envelopes in my pocket for that gypsy family—Hungarians, I think—the Zugars. I have decided I’m not going to take it to them yet. It’s Saturday afternoon, and I ain’t driving the bus today. I been carrying the letter around since yesterday afternoon. The Army says same day delivery, if at all possible, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I need some respite from these infernal night letters. I feel like Death’s messenger, and that ain’t right. I don’t want to worry about Eddie Zugar tonight.

But on Monday, I’m thinking more about Eddie, one of the nicest kids I ever had on my bus. He wasn’t the smartest or the best ball player, and he talked a little funny but still a whole lot better than his folks. The very first day I brought him home they came out to meet the bus. They waited out by the road, wearing those dark, heavy clothes in that heat. I would have melted, but they stood it fine. Behind them stood their store tent, and beyond that was their house tent. When Eddie got off, they walked up to the bus and said something I couldn’t understand.

“They said thank you,” he told me. “They said you come in for tea?”

“Naw,” I said. “Got to take the bus on back now.”

Eddie told them what I said, and Mr. Zugar said something, which made Eddie smile. “My father says you got no childrens on the bus. Why go now?”

Eddie’s was my last stop.

He said, “If you don’t want tea, you drink wine? My father makes good scuppernong wine. My parents want to thank you. For what you do for me.” Mrs. Zugar made a drinking motion with her hand and said, “Wine?”

“Oh, that’s nothing. It’s my job.”

“Even so, they thank you for what you will do. For bringing me home.”

Mrs. Zugar held up a hand, pointing toward the tent. A little black and brown goat with nub horns walked up, pretty as you please. Mr. Zugar rubbed its neck, and it snuggled up to him, bleating softly almost like a cat purring. He gestured like his wife, making the drinking motion.

And I says, “What the heck! I can stand a couple glasses.”

That was the only time I done that, but they waved if they were around the tent when the school bus came by, and I honked if I was driving the empty bus. Eddie had eight little brothers and sisters, and Katie Evelyn and Beryl Aleen, my two oldest daughters, said they talked and dressed funny, and their clothes had holes in them.

I decided to deliver Eddie’s letter when I was back in the work week, so after I drop off my last kids today, I head on toward the Zugar’s. A breeze had picked up a little, and I expect rain by supper time. It was cooled off some, thank God, and the trees are ruffling and waving. The tent canvas is billowing, and I wonder what life would be like living like that year-round. I had only seen the inside of his store a couple of times, once after dark, and it was exotic and overwhelming, scented with sweet smoke and cooking smells I couldn’t name.

Once they offered me shish kebab, cooked meat on a stick, which I learned later was kid goat marinated before it was put to the flame, so tasty good it almost melted in my mouth. Zugar never stood still when I was there, and the language problems we had with one another made him seem shy.

I couldn’t tell if he was boss or she was. Mrs. Zugar had some gentility in her ways, too. Mr. Zugar came and went, quietly handling things, bringing a tray with glasses when she indicated. He bowed and smiled, fetched what she wanted, removing what was no longer necessary. He directed the children, those impish ragamuffins in tattered shirts, barefooted, agile gypsies, silent as mice, except for Eddie, who Mrs. Zugar would allow to translate when she wanted my opinions. He acted like his father, quietly industrious, but he usually warmed to the task whenever she said, “Eddie, come. Talk for us.”

Suddenly I am ashamed of how poor prepared I am. I can’t figure how to go about it. I could tell her like Mrs. Taylor, who steeled herself with the news I had delivered. But I don’t think Mrs. Zugar is at all like Mrs. Taylor. Mrs. Taylor is more sociable, a real talker. One of the finest ladies in Lower Peach Tree. Ain’t many times folks strike up a conversation with Mrs. Zugar. She don’t know English too good. Or I could tell it like Mrs. Ledbetter, with smelling salts and cushions to fall down on. But would Mrs. Zugar even understand what I’m saying? I got to come up with something pretty quick.

I pull the bus up slowly, kill the engine, listening a moment to it cooling, ticking and sighing in the warm breeze. Turning to the velvety blue draped entrance to the Zugar’s store, I am greeted by the youngest one, a dark-eyed little tomboy wearing a dusty brown skirt and an old yellow blouse that was much too large. She has luxurious black hair with eyes to match, and she motions for me to wait, disappearing inside the tent. I hear murmuring. What could she be telling? Sounds like more than just, “Momma, the school bus driver’s outside.” Far as they know, I got no good reason to be stopping at their tent because Eddie ain’t on my bus no more.

After a few moments the little darlin’ returns, dressed this time in a bright green dress that brushes the ground as she walks. Did she change clothes for me? Silently, she comes forward, grasping my left hand to draw me inside. Once inside, my eyes take a few seconds to adjust to the flickering candlelight. The rugs and cushions, low tables and tapestries, vases at once ornamental and practical, are mysterious and new to me. The Zugar children appear from various panels and curtained crevices, maybe all eight. I don’t have time to count ’em. Each smiling and studying me silently. They are not the poor tattered young’uns I’d seen before. Now each wears rich, vivid colors, silken slippers, the girls with sparkling earrings, feathers in their hair, and the boys in ballooning trousers with scarves wrapped around their waists or on their heads. Their clothes got holes here and there and some tatters, but I ain’t never seen them dressed up like this.

Mr. Zugar comes in carrying a brass tea service on a platter, that bashful look on his face as he sets the platter on an ottoman before me. He, too, is dressed in finery, a vermilion sash at his waist. He glances at the tallest of his daughters, who replaces my young guide and draws me by the hand to a large cushion before the tea service. Zugar retreats through the rear of the tent as his wife enters like an empress, a long silvery gown hiding her feet. Her hair, piled upon her head in an intricate knot, shows her fine shoulders, a lovely, delicate neck. Her fingers glitter with rings, bejeweled with the colors of emerald, sapphire, and ruby. Her earrings bedazzling. I can’t tell if they’re real, but she’s got a special pride wearing this finery. I can see it in her face, her manner. Shy, but honored.

I’m speechless until I remember that, without Eddie, I have horrible work to do.

“Mrs. Zugar, I need to … There’s something I should … “

“Stop, Morgan,” she says. “You bring Eddie home.”

“That’s my job,” I says. “I take children off to school in town, and I bring ’em back home.”

She nods her head. “You come with Eddie news. The last time for Eddie.”

Chin held high, she searched my face for words as she pours the strange tea she’s made, offering it with both hands, then lying herself down flat on the carpet, as do husband and children. I’m shifting uneasily on the cushion, not just because of my back but because of this solemn celebration I’m witnessing.

“This ain’t what I came here for,” I says. “Eddie … he’s … ,” I say, accepting the tea but worried about how to say “Thank you” in a way they’ll understand. A way that will help us understand one another. Their boy was a good American, going off to war like he done, sacrificing like others did. I need to explain that part to them.

Yet here I sit, savoring this foreign drink she’s handed me, this precious offering in my cup. I wish I could think of something good to tell the little Zugar kids about their older brother. Show them how much I cared about him. But I can’t think fast enough to do it. I ain’t got words in English, and I sure ain’t got gypsy words for it. I need them to understand, but this Zugar message is more than American somehow. I take another sip of the strange tea, thinking how much more this message is.

 

Danny Thomas is a retired school administrator living in Winston-Salem. He has resided in the South all his life, from the North Carolina Piedmont to the hills of East Tennessee to the Black Belt of Alabama. Authors who have influenced his writing are Tom Franklin, Jesmyn Ward, Heather Newton and Rick Bragg. In 2012, he won the Hackney Literary Award out of Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @DannyThomasAuth.

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