Jesse Had a Wife
By Daniel McCoy
“Jim! Danny! You better get up! You don’t want to be late for school!”
My mom is holding the bedroom door half open and calling from the hallway.
She had called us a few minutes earlier, but both my brother Jim and I had drifted back off to sleep. A Monday morning is usually the hardest to wake up, but if we drift off again she’s liable to escalate by getting the cold water pitcher out of the fridge and threaten to dump it on us. She actually did that once, just once, to my brother. Once was enough. I flip back the covers and sit up, trying to blink myself awake. My brother is already sitting up on the edge of the other twin bed, but he soon pops up to his feet and starts pulling on his trousers. I just sit there, blinking, until Jim heads off to the bathroom, because there isn’t much room for two to get dressed at the same time in our little shared bedroom. I get my clothes on and use the bathroom after Jim is done.
I come out into the living room and Dad is sitting in his platform rocker. It’s a bit unusual to see him sitting there on a weekday morning. He hasn’t been feeling well for a week or two and hasn’t been going to work. He would normally leave for work about the time we got up, going out the back door with his hard hat and lunch pail to his old Dodge pickup, off to his job as foreman of a crew that builds roadside billboards for Foster and Kleiser. The platform rocker was where he would normally sit later in the day when he got home, to unlace his work boots and relax, maybe to watch TV. Some of my favorite memories are him sitting in that chair, pulling me up on his lap, and singing to me. He didn’t know many songs, so it was usually either “She’ll be comin’ `round the mountain” or “The Ballad of Jesse James”. Jesse James is probably Dad’s favorite song because his name is Jesse. It’s “J. C. McCoy” on legal stuff, “Mac” on his hardhat and lunch pail, but his name is Jesse. My dad was born in “ought-six”, as he would say it, in West Texas. He is twenty years older than my mom; not that ten-year-old me understands that. I love being on his lap when he’s singing to me, but as I get older and bigger, it’s happening less often.
Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man,
He robbed the Glendale train,
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He’d a hand and a heart and a brain.
“Breakfast is ready!” calls my mom from the dining room. My dad gets up out of the chair with a slight wince about halfway up. He puts his hand on my shoulder, and walks with me into the dining room. My brother is already in his chair. As we take our seats, my mother comes in from the kitchen with a plate full of french toast to serve up. We each are given a couple of slices off the serving plate with a fork. We slather them up with butter and Log Cabin syrup, then it’s quiet for a bit as we all eat. It’s nice to have a hot breakfast. We’ve been having them more since dad has been home on weekdays. Before that breakfast was often just Cheerios or corn flakes and milk.
“You boys better get off to school!” my mom says when we’re washing down the last bite of french toast down with a drink of milk. She wants to clean up the kitchen and get off to work herself. For the last few months she’s been working lunch shifts at a cafeteria-style restaurant downtown to make a little extra money.
My brother is the first out the door. He’s in eighth grade and going over to the next block to meet up with two of his buddies from junior high for their bike ride to the junior high. I’m out of the house shortly after him for my bike ride to the Blackford Elementary school for fifth grade. I don’t see anybody I’m friends with on my ride to school until I get to the bike rack at the back entrance of the schoolyard and Ricky Roland comes walking by just as I’m putting my bike into the rack. It’s 1962, nobody bothers to lock their bike, so I just grab a textbook and a folder out of the basket and join Ricky for the walk to the classroom.
Fifth grade had started off really well back in the fall with one of the more popular teachers at Blackford school, Mr. Smith, but some cold war thing, that I didn’t understand as a kid, happened such that he was recalled to active military service in the middle of the fall and was replaced by Mrs. Wadman, who quickly became the second least favorite teacher at the school, after Mrs. Fouch “the Grouch” who taught third grade. Mrs. Wadman’s popularity quickly got her dubbed “Mrs. Madman” by the students. But it’s early June now, we’ve gotten used to her and we’re looking forward to summer vacation coming soon. The class spends the morning working with fractions and going over an English lesson until the lunch bell rings. I get to the cafeteria and get in the line for a hot lunch, pulling out my little lunch card with half of the spaces left to punch. That’s one of the perks that has happened since my mom started working those lunch shifts, no brown bag peanut butter sandwiches. There are a couple of kids I can plop down next to with my sloppy joe and carton of milk on a tray. After lunch we all go out to the playground. I hang out with Ricky and a group of kids taking turns playing tetherball until the bell rings to send us back to class.
Mrs. Wadman gets us settled in and has us all start reading a short piece from our social studies textbook that we will talk about after. The room is quiet with everybody reading when the phone on Mrs Wadman’s desk rings. We’re all curious, phone calls during class are a bit rare, so most of us are looking at her talking on the phone rather than reading. I see her look directly at me, which feels odd. After she hangs up, she walks straight over to my desk, crouches down next to it, and tells me that I need to go to the office because someone is here to pick me up. This sounds strange. Nobody ever picks me up at the end of the day, let alone during the school day. I close up my book, put it back into my desk, and head out the door. It’s always a funny feeling walking through the school when all the classes are in session. The covered walkways are empty and quiet but the sound of teachers lecturing or kids talking comes from the various classrooms. I make my way to the office and standing there is Brother Bonds.
I’ve never seen Brother Bonds anywhere but church before, so I’m confused as to why he is here at my school. My mother takes my brother and me to a pentecostal church every Sunday where all the men are referred to as “Brother” and the women as “Sister”. It’s actually my father’s family’s denomination, both of his brothers are ministers in it, one back in Texas, the other out here in California. But my dad never goes to church unless we’re visiting one of his brothers. So it’s usually just mom, my brother, and me unless we drive a little further to visit Uncle Doyle and his family on a Sunday. Before I can ask him anything, Brother Bonds says he’s come to take me to my mother, but he offers no explanation as to why, only saying that she’ll tell me when we see her.
I’ve only ever seen Brother Bonds in his Sunday suit, but he has casual clothes on now. Brother Bonds is a car mechanic and you can tell because there’s always a tiny bit of dark residue of the grease around his fingernails, even when he’s dressed in his Sunday suit. But now he’s just got some casual slacks and a short-sleeved shirt on as he walks us out to his car. He’s less imposing in this outfit. We get into the car and he heads off towards our house, but then he turns left on Meridian instead of going straight. I ask where we’re going and he just says that we’re going to where everybody is. I have no idea what he means by “everybody”.
About a mile up Meridian there’s an A&W drive-in and Brother Bonds asks me if I’d like a root beer. It seems strange to have Brother Bonds pick me up from school to go get a root beer, but I like root beer so I say “yes”. We stay in the car after he orders from the car hop and she brings us two icy mugs of root beer. I’m not complaining, but I’m still perplexed at what is going on. After we finish the root beer and the car hop has taken away the tray, Brother Bonds pulls out of the A&W and continues back along Meridian. In a couple of blocks, he turns left onto Moorpark. I really have no idea where we are going now. A few miles later, after another turn, we pull into the parking lot of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, as it says on the sign at the driveway. I’ve seen this place before, but I’ve never been here before. My mom and dad always just call it “County Hospital” if they mention it when we drive by.
Brother Bonds pulls into a space not too far from what looks like a lobby door. He turns off the car and tells me “wait here, I’ll go see where everybody is”. He gets out of the car and disappears into the front door of the hospital. I sit there alone in Brother Bonds’ car feeling disoriented. He has given me no real information, just that we’re looking for either my mom or “everybody”. After about five minutes, Brother Bonds reappears out the door of the hospital. He gets in the car and while starting it back up says “they’ve all gone back to the house”. I still have no idea who “they” are or why they would be either here or the house. He pulls out of the parking space and drives back the way we came except for turning toward our house off of Meridian rather than back toward the school.
As we come up to the house there are way more than the usual number of cars parked on the street and a couple up in our driveway. Brother Bonds parks a few doors down and we walk back up to the house. He opens the front door for me and I walk into our living room. It’s full of people. My mom is sitting in the platform rocker and some women are standing around her, more people are sitting over on the couch and some are standing in the dining room. It takes a bit for my eyes to adjust since it’s a bright June afternoon outside and the curtains are drawn inside making it a bit dark. I gradually start recognizing some of the people. Sister Bonds and a couple of other church people are there. There’s my brother. My dad’s brother, Uncle Doyle, the minister, is here with his wife Avis and my cousin Darvis. My mother’s sister Lula from over in Los Banos is there with her husband Frank. There are some neighbors. I can’t really count everyone, because I’m looking at my mom. Her face is a wreck from crying. She has a handkerchief in her hand. I’m getting a bit scared because I have no idea what’s going on. I go over to Mom. She has trouble getting any words out for her sobbing. As she does start managing to get words out, I feel numb and distant. It feels so strange. I understand what she’s telling me but I’m not really hearing the words themselves. My father is dead. My mother starts sobbing harder and some women come to comfort her. I’m a bit numb and disoriented. I feel like I’m floating and not floating, expanding and shrinking, all at the same time. It’s like I’m looking down from the ceiling, and at the same time looking up at all these adults in this strange and unfamiliar scene in our familiar house. People try to talk to me. I overhear them talk to each other. I gradually piece together a story in my mind.
After my mom had left for her lunch shift that day, my dad had written out a couple of notes to my mom and to his brother. He got the pistol out of his top dresser drawer where my brother and I both knew it was kept and would sometimes sneak a peek at when nobody else was around. He had called the police and told them who he was and his address. He then said “you’ll find me in the garage”. He then went out to the garage and shot himself. He was dead when the police found him. I don’t know who is telling me what pieces and what I’m just overhearing, but the story comes together piece by piece. I wander around the house with no real sense of time, overhearing conversations, with people trying to comfort me, people trying to give me food, people just trying to talk to me. Nothing makes much sense to me. The living room is this dark pit of despair with my mother in the rocker being the bottom of the pit. I have no idea where I belong in this scene.
Eventually, I remember that my bike is still at school. Suddenly the most important thing to me is to get my bike back from school. I want to know my bike is safe and not sitting at the school overnight. I ask Brother Bonds if he can give me a ride back to school so I can ride my bike home. A couple of the other kids that are there want to come along for the ride, probably just to get out of the dark depressing house. On the short drive to school, they make some cheerful small talk that I barely hear. Brother Bonds drops me off near the back of the school where the bike racks are and drives off back to the house. I’m looking forward to a bike ride all by myself, away from everything going on at the house. Maybe it will clear my head. School has been out for over an hour by this time, so there aren’t many bikes in the racks. It makes it really easy to see that my bike is not there. I look around for a bit, but there is nowhere for it to be hidden in the nearly empty racks. I decide that my bike must have been stolen and start to walk home. In the first block, thinking of my bike, thinking of my dad, thinking how everything has changed, I start to cry as I walk. Pretty soon I’m bawling out loud and the tears are flowing profusely. I get about four blocks walking and wailing before Brother Bonds’ car comes driving up, with the same kids in it as before. They are all smiles and laughing. It turns out my friend Ricky had noticed that I left in the middle of school, so when he saw my bike was still there after school, he was thoughtful and rode it to my house. He had arrived right around the time that they had gotten back from dropping me off at school. Everyone is laughing about it as we drive back. My tears stop. My bike is ok, but I can’t really laugh right now. The best I can do is a weak smile. I get a feeling that the other people need me not to be sad right now. The grief about the bike is gone, that’s a relief, but there is another grief that nobody else seems to want right now. Back at the house, mom is still in the platform rocker, at the center of a vortex of grief. All of the space for grief today is taken. I need to put whatever this is of mine aside so that other people can feel alright.
Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children, they were brave,
But that dirty little coward has shot Mr. Howard,
and laid poor Jesse in his grave.