“If you can’t surrender to life’s hard knocks, you’re like the limestone arguing with the Suwannee. When a river comes up to a stone, do you think the stone spends all its time trying to push the water back? No siree. The limestone yields as the Suwannee encompasses it and becomes one with the rushing water. The Suwannee carves the limestone into shapes and images, and it becomes a feature of the river. In time, the limestone becomes a smooth, well-polished cavern. And the strength of its true character is revealed. That’s Limestone Gumption.”
Big Jake liked to poke danger with a stick.
But now the slam of his heartbeat against his chest told him he should’ve waited for his student instead of attempting this dive alone. When he’d thrown on his dive gear an hour earlier, he’d ignored the partner rule, wiped sweat from his brow, and plopped recklessly into the mouth of Suwannee Springs for a solo dive. Now lost and nearly out of oxygen, he must stay focused on finding a way out of this underwater cave.
Big Jake had turned his thrill-seeking into a career, mapping north Florida’s treacherous underground rivers and tunnels. Eleven months ago, his discovery of a ten-thousand-year-old Mastodon molar landed him on the front page of the August twentieth Whitecross News—a glory he’d begrudgingly split with dive partner Willard McCullers.
On this July trip, since his chicken-shit student hadn’t shown, he’d decided the spotlight would be all his. He would discover a fossil that’d have Whitecross buzzing for years. At one-thirty p.m., clutching his underwater lamp, he’d descended into the cold waters of the spring head and slipped through a narrow gap of sand and rock, barely wide enough to accommodate his two-hundred-ninety-pound bulk. The tight squeeze twisted and turned before emptying him into the belly of an underwater chamber as wide as three football fields, tall as a ten-story building.
Tied at the mouth of the springs, a white nylon rope would guide him back, trailing behind him now as he swam past eerie lime rock formations—gargoyles and screaming faces—carved by underground rivers that had cut through prehistoric limestone.
A black tunnel beckoned him. He kicked his swim fins like a frog, angling himself deeper into the passageway. As he skimmed along the bottom, he uncovered a handful of seashells and several oddly shaped bones, gingerly placing them one by one into the dive bag. Without warning, his lamp flickered then dimmed.
Shit! He pounded the bottom of the lantern until it brightened again.
At the spring head, the afternoon sun warmed a pair of jean-clad legs that shimmied down the river bank. A gloved hand holding a knife reached toward Big Jake’s nylon cord. The rope rebounded with a sharp snap.
But the only sound the big man heard was a steady gurgling of the breathing regulator strapped on his back. Beyond his beam of light, the only thing he saw was darkness.
He swam deeper, farther, stirring up silt clouds. His lamp dimmed again; his world faded to black. As he pulled against the trusted dive line, he felt it loosen.
What the fuck? Adrenaline shot through the roof of his brain.
Now he knew he shouldn’t have come here alone, but he’d wanted that damn newspaper article. Calming himself, Jake concentrated on his breathing.
In. Out. In. Out. No big deal.
Maybe the guideline was just loose, not broken.
As though reading Braille, Jake fingered the guideline, hoping it’d lead him back in the right direction. But he kept circling the maze of pitch-black tunnels.
He jerked frantically on the rope until it looped into his arms, causing him to panic. He slung the dive bag away, flailed his hands, kicked his feet, and entered one dead-end passageway after another.
His heart hammered his ribcage. His breathing, fast and hard, gobbled up his dwindling oxygen supply.
Frantic fingers slid over rough-carved limestone, poking for a portal, his neck slick with sweat, some faint instinct told him to dig his way through the tons of rock, and he fumbled for his knife, stabbed at the porous limestone.
The thought of what put him here flashed through his mind. Brad Pope, you son-of-a-bitch!
He muzzled his welling-up urge to scream into an agonizing guttural sound from deep inside—like death belching its bitter taste from the cave’s hungry throat.
The big man ditched his knife, clawed the cave walls until blood gushed from under his fingernails. Terror swallowed him, kicking, twisting, swirling.
One last howl….
One long pause….
One final breath….
Then his heart stopped, body stilled.
Big Jake—face bloated, eyes bulging, mouth gaping—took his place alongside the gruesome gargoyles beneath the Suwannee River.
In my opinion, Big Jake got what was coming to him. That might sound cold-hearted for a psychologist, but down here on the Suwannee there’s an old saying,: Evil carries the seeds of its own destruction. I stood on a boulder, peering down into the mouth of Suwannee Springs. Needles of sunlight shot through overhanging cypress branches, danced across the translucent green waters below. My wavy reflection mingled with schools of golden-orange sunfish and grass carp darting near the sandy bottom.
Brad Pope, I mused, what the hell are you doing back in this god-forsaken town?
I thought I’d put the past behind me.
At least I told myself I had.
But my childhood grief had strapped its tentacles around my heart. I’d lost myself in work, unsuccessfully chiseling away at the past that held me in its grasp. But grief doesn’t release you until you face and befriend it. My training as a psychologist had taught me that.
That’s what brought me home.
A chance to heal.
And a chance to settle the score with my daddy, who’d snatched away the boyhood I’d so dearly loved—watching the river roll by, catfishing on moonlit nights, exploring the river banks for Indian artifacts.
To this day, Whitecross, perched high on the east bank of the Suwannee River, was a sleepy town with a population of 1700, one caution light, and a new Walgreens that had crept to the edge of town. Locals were on-line and computer savvy, but if asked about blackberries, they’d think cobbler, not wireless. And townsfolk usually died of natural causes, not murder.
I hurled a rock across the water. The ripples spread toward the left river bank where mourners had stacked piles of notes and flowers, a shrine to Big Jake’s memory. Then I reluctantly hiked up the river bank and climbed into my green Pathfinder. I pulled onto the paved road, heading for Jake’s funeral behind a tractor-trailer belching a cloud of black smoke. When I drove through town, I winced at the words on the marquee out front of Bowen’s Funeral Home, Big J Lives On In Our Hearts.
I nosed my car to a squeaky stop in front of the small wood-framed church underneath the shade of a sprawling live oak. Even the massive tree seemed to mourn. Its embroidered branches drooped with heavy beards of Spanish moss, stretching low to brush the lush summer vegetation. And the monotonous droning of tree frogs added a woeful dirge that warned of rain.
Scattered over the passenger seat and floor of my car, the Whitecross News splashed “Foul Play” across the front page. A disturbing photo of dive partner Willard McCullers, grinning ear-to-ear, stared up at me. The article said that Willard had led a two-day dive search before discovering the football hero floating against the ceiling of a large underwater cavern—his arms and legs splayed wide like a scarecrow.
Looked like he’d been screaming, Willard was quoted as saying, like he’d seen the devil hisself.
I tore my eyes away from the newspaper, gazed through the propped-opened double mahogany doors of the packed church. Mourners overflowed from the chapel into the vestibule, down the brick steps, onto the sidewalk and church grounds. Thank goodness my grandma was saving me a seat.
The sweltering heat pressed against my car windows. Over the crooning of Thelma’s Gospel Hour from the radio, I angled close to the blasting air conditioner vent, savored the coolness against my face. When I looked up, a Piggly Wiggly delivery truck zipped by in a whoosh. On the rear roll-up door, a fan had scribbled in the grime, Jake Will Be Missed. I rolled down my window, swiped at my face with a coat sleeve to block the blanket of heat.
And I spat.
As I put the window back up, broadcaster Vasque Gaylord announced that more folks might become Christians so they could go to Heaven and be with Big Jake. That’s when I killed the engine.
No one in town knew the dark secrets that Gladys Nunn had been hiding about her husband, Big Jake.
Except for me.
In my role of psychologist, I’d had access to the town’s underbelly for the past year. To most townspeople, Big Jake was a god. To me, he was the devil incarnate. I’d decided to attend his funeral mainly for Gladys’s sake, partly for my own. I’d hoped the service would put an end to the spinning doubt in my head: Had I had a hand in his murder?
I stepped out of the car to a low rumble of thunder. Off in the distance, low-hanging storm clouds were gathering. A black thunderhead swirled in the direction of the church. Already, I felt a few drops of rain.
As I made my way up the rain-spattered church steps, the clouds tore.
Images of Big Jake’s agonizing death barrel-rolled in my head like a gator caught in a net. I was supposed to meet him for a dive lesson the day he drowned. After an emergency session with a client had run over, I was half an hour late. By the time I had gotten there, he’d gone on without me. If I’d shown up on time, would he be alive today? Or would I have died along with him?
Going back to Suwannee Springs had only made the haunting questions worse. No matter what happens from here on out, I told myself as I entered the doorway of the church vestibule, you need to get a fucking grip!
Inside the cramped sanctuary the closed casket rested in front of the altar blanketed with a spray of red roses, the Widow Gladys’s favorite flower. Scents of yellow carnations, white Lilies of the Valley, and dozens of fragrant floral arrangements sweetened the still air. All of Whitecross had turned out to honor Big Jake. Honking noses and wails of amen punctuated Ibejean Martin’s morose, off-note piano version of Rock of Ages. I crawled over knees and feet in the second pew, dropping beside my black-clad Grandma Gigi. Her neck circled in pearls, she looked every bit the proper Southern lady.
“Bunch of hypocrites.” She promptly whispered in my ear. “Whitecross has got holes in the soles of its shoes from parading to church and holes in the seat of its britches from back-sliding.”
“Shhh.” I brushed a finger against my lips when I noticed the preacher’s wife, Edna Black, lean in from behind us.
“Brad, don’t you shush me.” Gigi elbowed me in the ribs. “You know I don’t have much use for religion. The only time I set foot inside a church is for weddings and funerals. I’m getting weary of going to the same person’s wedding two and three times. Thank goodness folks only die once.”
“You’ve been saying that since I was little,” I murmured. “You’re the one who made me go every Sunday before I went off to boarding school—you and Mama.”
“That’s before I saw through it.” She mumbled in her low, gravelly voice. “All you find is a bunch of phony, squabbling back-stabbers.”
“Yes ma’am, but please keep your voice down.” I bent over and tugged at my socks to avoid the craning neck and curious eyes of Sylvia Wynn, the pharmacist.
My reprimand made Gigi scrunch up her nose, tighten her lips into a straight line. Her real name was Madge Pope, but Gigi—my boyhood failure at pronouncing “grandma”—had stuck. Pretty soon, everybody in town started calling her “Gigi” which she thought was a much hotter name than “Madge.”
I squeezed her boney hand, noted its cinderblock roughness against my smooth, well-manicured fingers then rested it on the hymnal between us.
I both loved and resented Gigi.
I loved her because as far as family went, she was it. That and despite her seventy-three years, she could do anything. Fix the carburetor on my Nissan when it skipped. Wield an ax to cut firewood for her wood stove. Or whip up a chocolate cake in no time flat. Her motto was, Never pay folks to do for you what you can do for yourself.
Then there was her crusty exterior, a natural scab to a hard life that hid a soft side. She delivered Friendship Trays to shut-ins, donated free merchandise from her thrift store, and stuffed extra bills into the pockets of field hands. But there’d been a tense undertow between us. I still hadn’t forgiven her for not visiting me during my ten years at the Asheville boarding school and for not being more forthcoming about my daddy’s whereabouts. Plus, more often than not, her opinions were bitter pills to swallow.
Even now, as she pointed to the mahogany pew across the aisle, she didn’t hold back. She curled her palm against my ear, her spearmint breath cooling my cheek. “That’s Myrtle Badger in the red. She fixes the departed’s hair and makeup so they look like they’re asleep. Works part-time as corpse dresser for Bowen’s and full-time as town bigmouth.”
“Isn’t that a wee bit like the pot calling the kettle black?” I elbowed her and smiled.
Gigi made a face, a small crease between her brows.
I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead. The air conditioner was apparently on the blink. I leaned slightly forward. Over waves of rustling funeral memorials and flapping paper fans—with pictures of Jesus on one side, Bowen’s Funeral Home on the other—I had a direct shot of Myrtle. Deep lines of disapproval etched a frown, and fat arms folded into a cradle across her stomach as though she were nursing contempt. A haughty ring finger boasted a humongous fire opal; an angry swollen foot tapped time to Ibejean’s rendition of The Old Rugged Cross.
Gigi elbowed me again, dropped her voice. “Myrtle’s nothing but a big show-off. She blowed and waved at the caution light yesterday, just so I’d notice that jaw-dropper-ring of hers. She got it from swindling her blood-kin out of their grandmamma’s will.”
I glanced around for signs that Gigi’s voice was carrying. Seeing no curious eyes or straining necks, I settled back on her. “Yes ma’am, but can we talk about it later?” Wilting from the heat, I undid the collar button of my once-starched shirt, loosened my tie, furtively wiping moist palms down my pin-striped suit.
Gigi shifted her body and pulled at the bottom of her black skirt. “Myrtle’s miffed because the coffin’s closed, and she won’t get recognized for her so-called artistic achievements.” Gigi made a low grunt then continued. “After Gladys viewed Big Jake in private, she said Myrtle’d made a mess out of him. Said his swollen face and bulging eyes were layered with thick makeup and his mouth had a gash of red lipstick. Said he looked like a drag queen.” Gigi chuckled and slapped her knee.
I double-blinked, surprised that my grandma knew about drag queens, although I knew Gladys did. In one of our therapy sessions, Gladys had shown me a picture of her sister’s boy in Tampa dressed up as Cher. “Bless his heart,” she’d said, “he oughta dress that way all the time. He makes a much prettier girl than he does a boy.”
Gigi continued in her raspy whisper. “To top it off, Gladys said Myrtle laid Big Jake out in a white suit, blue shirt and white tie, identical to the outfit Elvis was buried in. Said Big Jake ought to look like the celebrity he was. Problem is, Gladys never cared much for Elvis.”
I nodded and patted her hand hoping she had finished her tirade.
Just below the music, I could hear soft accolades humming like a low voltage wire across the flock of mourners: “He was a man’s man….” “Wasn’t afraid of the devil….” “Put this town on the map….”
As my eyes swept the congregation, I was alone with my frustrating thoughts. Jake had made All-American with the Florida Gators, even appeared on a National Geographic special with the dinosaur bone he’d discovered. Since then, the whole town acted as if he walked on water. If only they knew what I knew. But that was privileged information from my therapy sessions with Gladys.
I unwadded the funeral memorial, glanced at Big Jake’s picture on the front, and used it to fan away the stale church air. When my attention landed up front on the sealed casket, it triggered images of Big Jake’s bulging neck muscles choking for air as he lay stiff inside his container, his cardboard face drawn tight, his mouth pulled down as if it were tied to the bottom of his coffin to hold him there.
He had always been bigger than life—too powerful to be pinned down. I could picture him fed up with these restraints like King Kong, raging against his captors. It wouldn’t have surprised me one bit to see that casket start rocking back and forth. And Big Jake thrusting his bloated hand into a space… prying the lid from inside… popping it off with a loud bang… clamping both sides of the coffin and springing out of it… flying into the congregation.
Though the lid remained closed, the coffin sternly still, I wondered, Had I helped put him there? Had I wanted Gladys to do to him what I’d been unable to do when Daddy was beating Mama?
A grinding headache made me feel as though the ceiling had collapsed on my head. The room began to whirl and spin. A booming voice from the pulpit and Gigi’s finger in my ribs brought me back to the service.
Sweat-soaked through to my skin, I slid off my jacket, braced my head in my hands.
“Brad, what’s wrong?” Gigi rubbed her palm against my damp back, the way she used to do when I was little. “You sick, son?”
“It’s the heat.”
“I was saying that Pastor Black’s long-winded.” Gigi had been taking a swatting spree at Reverend Ollis Black’s eulogy. “I don’t have much use for the man. He’s been having an affair with Myrtle Badger for over a year.”
I took a deep breath, straightened, then focused on Preacher Black’s slick-backed pompadour. He had preached himself hoarse. Drips of sweat trickled off his nose onto the pulpit like beads of baptismal water. Coke-bottle thick spectacles magnified his eyes. His vision was set in two directions—one eye headed toward the Gulf, the other toward the Atlantic.
Gigi balled her fist into a megaphone, put it close to my cheek. “His insight is as bad as his eyesight. Word is, last week he pulled into the new Walgreen’s drive-thru pharmacy window. He ordered a Big Mac, order of fries and a Coke.” She chuckled then grunted, her voice softening. “No matter, I figure the poor soul could stand a good meal. So I fixed a mess of chicken and dumplings to take over to him and Edna after the funeral.”
I gave her an approving head nod and two thumbs up. One of the things I loved about Gigi was her heart was always in the right place.
Preacher Black went on for another thirty minutes praising Big Jake high and low. He ran his fingertips down a scrawny black tie, wiped damp palms across the opened Bible on the lectern, his quivering jowls underscoring his remarks. “No finer husband, father or friend existed in Whitecross. One thing’s for sure: Today, Jake Nunn is diving the caverns of Heaven.”
“Caverns of Heaven?” Gigi nudged me, her pale blue eyes sparkled like marbles catching sunlight. I shot her a wry smile.
A loud roll of thunder rattled the little church. Intermittent flashes of lightning lit the stained glass windows. After reading several verses of scripture, Preacher Black turned the service over to the purple-robed choir who sang Blessed Assurance and In the Sweet By and By.
Our disdain for Big Jake was common ground for Gigi and me. She nodded her head at the casket, mumbled beneath the choir’s hymns. “Gladys scraped the bottom of the barrel marrying that man. He was nothing but a glory hog, poking around in our caves, ruining the natural balance.”
Before I could put a finger to my lips to shush her again, her voice trailed off on its own. Reluctant tears rolled down her parched cheeks, dripping onto her dress. She was overcome by her own maternal grief at the sight of Big Jake’s mother weeping uncontrollably, throwing her head back on her only-surviving son, Eldred’s shoulder.
With her crusty nit-picking, my feisty grandma had tried to harden the loss of her only child, Ada Lea, my mother. But now, she’d let her guard down, revealed her true nature. I put my arm around her and squeezed. Her body went limp; her head gently fell onto my shoulder, the scent of lavender wafting over me.
With a knot in my throat, I watched the rest of the service through my own tears.
I glanced around the chapel, studying the Bible stories depicted in the six stained glass windows. While friends and relatives dabbed their eyes, I was keenly aware of Jake’s widow, Gladys—dry-eyed, stone-like in the front pew, her knees almost touching the casket. She stared at the pine plank floor, just like she’d done in our therapy sessions.
Hard-smacking pellets of rain pinged off the aluminum steeple. At the loud clap of thunder, I stretched my neck around. Mourners who’d stood outside made a mad dash to a green Bowen’s tent in the graveyard beside the church.
Following the final prayer and benediction, I leaned into Gigi and a sea of hunched shoulders under thumping umbrellas as we scuttled from the sanctuary to the gravesite. A lightning bolt snapped at our heels, moving us faster down the sidewalk across the churchyard to the cemetery.
“The wrath of God has descended upon us.” Wilma-Maytag Church sputtered behind us in quick, measured steps around the mud puddles. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was her. “Doctor, how’d you like my page-turning?”
During the service, Wilma-Maytag—named after her parents’ finest possession, a spanking new washing machine—had saddled herself into a chair beside Ibejean Martin at the piano and turned the hymnal pages. Gigi had told me that the choir director booted Wilma-May out of the chorus because she couldn’t carry a tune, but he let her page-turn as a consolation prize.
I looked back at her and smiled. “You were flipping those pages so fast I could’ve sworn I felt a few jets of air all the way over to where I was sitting.”
Gigi chimed in. “Wilma-May Church, what’s this I hear about you page-turning for Ibejean and the Glory Bees when they travel to that recording studio over in Gainesville to cut their new CD?”
Wilma-May shot us a toothless grin. “That’s right. It’s called, Jesus is Coming Soon.”
“I look forward to getting a copy.” I said, squeezing under the tent against Gigi and the sour-smelling clothes of mourners.
I clasped my hands in front of me. Willard McCullers and five other pallbearers, faces strained against the blinding rain, transported their heavy cargo from church steps to the tent that whipped wildly in the wind.
I glanced at Preacher Black. In his final tribute to Big Jake, he insisted that the Heavens had opened up and the raindrops were the tears of Jesus.
“Tears of Jesus?” I rolled my eyes at Gigi as hers rolled back at me. Even though I respectfully bowed my head for the final prayer, what I really thought was how screwed up this whole scene was.
As Preacher Black prayed for Big Jake’s soul, everyone at the graveside seemed touched by the service—everyone, that is, except for the Women’s Preservation Club, who peeked at each other over bowed heads.
In addition to Gigi, Gladys, and Wilma-May, there were three other founding members. Shirley Gilchrist, one eye closed, flashed the opened one at Gigi. One hand pushed on her oversized hair bun which hung lopsided from its lofty perch. The other fanned the dead air away from her face.
Another club member, Betty-Jewel Iglesias, peered over black-rimmed glasses at her club sisters. She cocked her head to one side as if she were trying to understand Preacher Black’s heavy Southern drawl, mashing the spectacles up the ridge of her nose with her middle finger.
Between peeps at Gigi, poufy-haired Jackie Priester snapped gum and furiously filed her nails. She flipped her right palm back and forth checking her work. Jackie looked up, blazed her thickly-mascaraed eyes at me, and winked.
Gigi had founded the Women’s Preservation Club when I was a boy to preserve Whitecross’s way of life and its natural beauty. According to her, the founding members started out calling it the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Culture but claimed the initials SPCC had too many letters, making it sound Hitlerish. So they ended up calling it the Women’s Preservation Club—WPC for short.
“WPC sounds more American.” Gigi had once told me. “More like a name FDR would give it.”
The six women referred to themselves as “sisterfriends.” Somewhere between fiftyish and seventyish, they’d all met at a prayer circle back when Gigi was into religion. The WPC’s biggest claim to fame was the garden they’d planted at the welcome sign on the outskirts of Whitecross.
When I turned my head toward the thick bushes at the graveyard’s edge, I startled at a pair of dark-circled eyes watching me. Dressed in bib overalls, the familiar figure moved from tree to tree in the shadows of the woods. He was shaggy-haired and whiskered, twenty maybe, with a bad leg that made an odd shuffling sound as he dragged it through the brush. During frequent stops, he squinted and blinked. His gaze traveled the length of my body, raising prickly hairs on the back of my neck. He laughed, mumbled to himself; his body twitched.
I noticed Gladys cutting him periodic glances between condolences from well-wishers. Could her relationship with this man be more than she’d told me?
Though his real name was Rufus, locals nicknamed him Lick Skillet because he fished leftovers and table scraps from garbage cans. A grave digger for Bowen’s, he terrified the townspeople. Anytime something went missing or was mysteriously wrong, fingers pointed in his direction first. Already, rumors were flying that Lick had something to do with Big Jake’s murder.
As mourners trickled out of the cemetery, rain drummed a rat-a-tat-tat on the tent. I lingered for a few minutes, noting the silent exchanges between Lick and Gladys. Then I walked over to Preacher Black and shook his hand, thanking him for the service. Gladys flicked her eyes back and forth between the woods and Gigi, who was giving her a good finger wagging.
The sound of their conversation carried. “You keep your mouth shut, Sisterfriend.” Gigi’s dangly ear-bobs, timed with her rapid-fire head nods, swayed back and forth. “Don’t you breathe a word. I got the say-so. You hear me?”
“We have to tell him what we did.” Gladys propped her tightly-clenched fists on her hips. “He’s got a right to know.”
The other women of the WPC huddled around the twosome, clucking their tongues. When I stepped closer, they scattered like roaches when the lights come on. Gigi dropped her finger; Gladys removed her fists from her hips. Both strained artificial smiles at me. I cupped Gladys’s cold hands, offered my condolences.
“Thank you.” Gladys stiffened, shrugged her shoulders. Face blank, eyes dry, she shielded her fingers over her mouth and spoke softly through them. “I have to tell you what we did.”
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