Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Headlines: Multiple Deaths Stun Tennessee Community

Joyce Billingsby


Prologue to The Gleam, a Novel


The First Baptist Church of Fancy, across the corner from the town square, was filled to capacity.  The mourners gathered on the steps, stood in the streets, congregated on the sidewalks, and overflowed the grassy, tree-shaded court square.

The small farming town had stopped in its tracks; who could conduct business in the aftermath of the tragedies which had just occurred? Journalists and the news media had swarmed into town like a horde of killer bees, sensing a larger story than was being admitted by the town people.

The Jackson Sun and Memphis Commercial Appeal sent reporters; television crews from as far away as Nashville and Paducah converged on the scene, sticking their cameras everywhere they weren’t wanted, asking questions no one knew the answers to.

A large sandy-haired man, bursting out of the seams of his shiny new blue suit, stood on the church steps beneath the landmark steeple, and was heard angrily telling one camera man where he could take his camera and shove it. He added in a belligerent voice that it was a crying  shame that decent God-fearing folks couldn’t even bury their dead in peace and dignity without having to contend with a pack of out of town vultures snooping around, poking their TV cameras up everybody’s asses.

It was a steaming July day and the air felt like it was blowing off Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace; perspiration flowed as freely as the spring fed waters of the North Fork River on the edge of town. It had been several weeks since the small farming community had seen a good soaking rain, and the tall green corn in its critical tasseling stage was firing up yellow in the fields. Thunderclouds were building up in the southwest, a hopeful sign that the needed moisture was coming. Meanwhile, those standing around the town square found the extreme heat an oppressive omen, climaxing the most turbulent period they could ever remember. The deaths were the only topic of conversation.

At the pagoda in the square, the American Legion was dispensing crushed ice in paper cups for the hot, thirsty crowd. Lilly’s florist had sent to Jackson for fresh flowers to fill the demand for wreaths and bouquets, after having exhausted the neighboring towns’ supplies. Betty MacIntire at the Dixie Cafe had called in some local high school girls to help with the rush of customers. "All these city folks pushing their way in and out, looking down their noses at us," she angrily complained to T. Bone Jones, her black cook who dished out some of the best bar-b-que this side of Memphis.

Farmer’s Bank across the square, once having had an unfriendly visit by the notorious Jesse James, closed its doors from one to three for the funeral service. The post office had been flying its flag at half mast. No one seemed to have the will to conduct their usual business. The only comfort they could find was being with each other and sharing their collective grief.

Still the town people gathered, some even driving in from the neighboring farms, mourning the deaths that had affected all their lives. Chief Jackson stood sternly on the church steps, his legs spread, his hands hovering around his holster, looking dashing in a freshly pressed uniform, his hat pulled rakishly over his face. His General MacArthur look, he thought modestly. Through his dark sunglasses, he surveyed the crowds suspiciously, ready to intercede if any of those pushy press people tried to dare enter the sanctuary of the church, harassing and violating the privacy of the mourners. He had a restraining order in his pocket, signed by Judge Culbertson only this morning, forbidding the entry of the news media, (or any other unwelcome guest, based on the prudent jurisdiction of Chief Jackson in whom the judge had the utmost confidence) from intruding into the family’s private grief.

Chief Jackson had kept law and order in this town for almost thirty years, and if anybody did any harassing and violating, by god, it would be he. He ran a decent, clean town, where a few people got drunk occasionally, and recently some kids were raiding the farmers’ storage buildings, looking for fertilizer to steal, stupid kids, making dope and wanting to blow up the world, and for lack of better things to do, vandalizing the neighbors’ mailboxes.  If they had to get out and chop cotton, sucker tobacco, and haul hay when it was 110 degrees in the shade, like he and their parents’ had, they’d have a little more respect for private property, he rumbled to the old men sitting on the park benches, whittling and spitting beneath the shade.

Every now and then, he issued a few traffic tickets; nothing made people more mindful of obeying the speed limits than seeing flashing blue lights, and some poor sucker pulled over to the side of the road, scratching through his wallet for his driver’s license. Occasionally, Oscar Redmon got jealous of his wife Billie Anne, who ran the beauty shop and saw nothing but women all day, for Christ sake, beat her up, and had to cool off in the slammer for a few days. Billie Anne did have flirty ways, but Chief Jackson had no personal knowledge of wrongdoing, and it was impossible to keep a secret in this small town.  Or so he had thought until a few days ago. Now, by god, it seemed like everyone had secrets.

The air conditioning inside the church had been pushed past capacity with the heavy flow of the congregation; the stained glass windows had finally been opened, allowing whatever air was circulating to find its way inside. For three days, the town had been in shock, unable to continue with their daily routines, waiting for the finality of the funerals and burials to try and return to some sort of normalcy.

The sight of all those coffins inside the church was a chilling image that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. How, why, they wondered, speculated, and wondered some more. Through the open windows, the people outside could hear the choir singing the old familiar, comforting hymns of their childhood.  There were surprised murmurs at the order of the service. Poetry was read by different people, something about following a gleam; another voice thundered out death be not proud, someday ye shall die.  And then someone talked about bells tolling for mankind. Mary Ann Cravens sang  “In The Garden” in her beautiful melodic voice, so filled with emotion that many feared she would  break down before she finished.

In an effort to avoid the suffocation of an entire congregation, Alexander’s Funeral Home searched in their storage shed, found, and distributed cardboard fans, in vogue long before the days of air-conditioning. And people fanned, wiped away perspiration, searched for air and fanned some more.  A baby cried out. Jessie Pirtle, obese, asthmatic, and shrill, who should have had the good sense to stay home but had sat down as close to the front as she could, to show her support for the family and to closely scrutinize what the women were wearing, fainted and had to be carted out the side door in search of fresh air.

Rev. Leon Davis (some said he sounded like Billy Graham) stood before the wilting, emotionally drained congregation, saying in a despairing voice: “Dear family, and dear friends;  I stand before you with a heart that is broken.” He had married, baptized, and buried members of the church and community, stood with them in times of sickness and death, rejoiced in their children's births, followed them to emergency rooms, waited with them through surgeries, prayed with them over family problems. He had never felt such an oppressive weight on his shoulders, while with the help of the All Mighty, he strove to find words of comfort. “The Lord is my shepherd,” he began in his rich baritone voice, now cracking with sorrow, “I shall not want.”

And then as the mourners filed out, the organ pealed forth a haunting melody that no one could quite recall the name of; however, it seemed a most unusual choice for a funeral. A long mournful blast from the Illinois Central rumbling through town seemed a fitting requiem. The crowds surged forward, anxious to see how the family was bearing up. There was just too much grief to go around; the lives of too many people were torn asunder, their private lives now opened to a voracious public. And the people wondered who had done what to whom and when it all had begun. How long ago had the seeds been planted that would culminate in this shocking, unbelievable act of violence?

Tolbert James, the bulging, sleepy-eyed reporter from the Jackson Sun, wearing a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball cap on his balding head, wandered through the crowds, picking up tidbits of information. He hoped to ascertain from the local gossip what  they believed had led to this horrendous event. There was more to this story than met the eye. He had an uncanny nose for sniffing out headlines, digging up long buried details unimportant to anyone else, which had led him to some scoops and several news’ awards.  There might even be a Pulitzer Prize in his future if he could unravel this intriguing small town American tragedy. From what he could gather, it may have all started a few weeks ago with a couple of phone calls from Jackson.

Scribbling on his note pad, he traced back the events that had come to haunt the small town of Fancy, learning about a secret love affair from a wheezing asthmatic source sitting by the sidedoor of the church, who begged to remain anonymous.

_____

Joyce Billingsby is a Weakley County, Tennessee, farmwife and poet. Her novel is Wildwood: Confessions of a Moon Wife, available online through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million. Her poetry has been published in perodicals including Windmills (UTM), The Jackson Purchase Historical Society, Lyrical Fiesta, The Family Farm, and Down Home.

READ MORE ABOUT JOYCE BILLINGSBY

© Joyce Billingsby

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012