Sadie was a sable mountain of a woman. She towered six feet even, with an impossibly big face kissed with impossibly small lips and enormous worried eyes. She was 59, and looked exactly the same way she’d looked 20 years before when she’d run out of gas in Lebanon, Kentucky on the same day Malcolm X was shot — with nothing but 2 suitcases,a 5 year old son who stuttered and a story that didn’t quite make sense – and had decided to stay.
She adapted quickly to Lebanon. Working as a home nurse by day and selling her homemade peach cobblers on the side. Her son Booker was an odd but gifted child, prone to flights of fancy and outright lies. Sadie never mentioned Booker’s dad Lost Charlie, except to say that he was dead; which was also an outright lie. It wasn’t until a couple years later, when Sadie’s sister told her that Lost Charlie had gotten remarried to a woman with 2 young sons, that Sadie first felt that painful knot in her chest that wouldn’t go away — even when, three years later, bigmouth Co-rinne told her that the same lady had packed her kids and left in the middle of the night. And it wasn’t until this morning nearly 15 years later, when the oncologist told her in no uncertain terms that she would die sometime in the next 3 months, that Sadie figured out what had become of that painful knot.
Isvara had driven Sadie to the doctor for her results. Now, they drove back in silence. Sadie loved Isvara absolutely; that there was nothing she wouldn’t give for Isvara. Sadie had always been a giver. To her parents when they were alive. To Booker, with private Catholic school and speech pathologists that she could ill afford. Even to Lost Charlie who had initially put her on a pedestal, then systematically perforated her with critiques about her housekeeping, how she dressed, the way she spoke, squeezing her wide nose and ample waist with his judgmental fingers, all while loudly praising any woman that wasn’t her. (She would have still been with Lost Charlie, folding his clothes just so, if she hadn’t found him, naked in bed with the first thing that had ever mattered to her, and found herself, swinging a machete in heavy wide strokes, the last stroke connecting in a dirty scarlet spray, deflating Lost Charlie with an quiet thud. She would find out 3 weeks later when she dared to phone home that Lost Charlie had survived with 60-odd stitches. But on that night she’d taken no chances, loaded Booker and whatever she could carry into Lost Charlie’s car and never looked back.
Isvara was ten years older than Sadie with an air of military seriousness. They met when Isvara was her patient, recovering from a stroke and trapped in a faithless marriage to Pastor Carty. Sadie bathed and fed and nursed and walked Isvara; the women settled into a nested intimacy that folded in easily like whipping cream. As soon as Isvara could walk again, she’d packed her things without a word and moved in with Sadie. Other than putting a temporary dent in Sadie’s peach cobbler business at the Lebanon Assembly of the New Covenant Baptist Church, their union was met with customary small Negro-town shoulder shrugging.
Sadie studied Isvara’s freckled, caramel skin, telltale red blotches surfacing on her face. Isvara was overwhelmed and terrified. But Sadie knew exactly what to do, if Isvara was willing.
”No, keep driving straight, babe”, Sadie instructed just before the exit that normally took them home. Sadie and her painful little knot had a score to settle.
Inky gray clouds blocked out the moon and stars, and with no streetlamps on the old country road, the headlights on Isvara’s 79 Corona might as well have shined brightly into tar. The air, dank with rotting sedge, rushed in through the open windows along with the shriek of mating crickets. They had decided to kill Lost Charlie, and had spent the last 12 hours driving, planning and stopping for murder supplies just as casually as one might plan a barbecue. Sadie turned off the headlights just shy of Chatgros, Mississippi, and turned abruptly onto a dirt road, kicking up a noisy spittle of small pebbles and dust. Minutes later, they parked behind a stand of trees about 100 yards from Lost Charlie’s cabin and waited. They could see him walking about inside, the sound of fake moaning and VHS depravity echoing through the open window into the night. When the moaning finally stopped and the light went out, Isvara armed with a poker, and Sadie with a baseball bat stole quickly down the overgrown driveway to the house.
The cabin door had a latch but no lock, just as Sadie remembered it, and smelled like homemade gin, just as Sadie remembered it. In 4 steps she was at the foot of Lost Charlie’s bed. Isvara guarding the door. It hardly seemed like the occasion, but Sadie suddenly began praying in a whisper over the low rattle of Lost Charlie’s drunker snoring. Isvara laughed grimly to herself. She had far less faith than Sadie, but knew better than to interrupt her when she was praying: Lord forgive me for not killing him the first time I had a chance, for letting him live to do it to that next lady’s kids….” She hesitated. Lost Charlie had become old and weak but then she remembered that the weakest men are always the most dangerous. and so she continued. “And forgive me for killing him now…and forgive him too.” “Thwunktch”, she swung the bat and connected. Lost Charlie convulsed, the way Sadie remembered seeing cows do when their throats were slit; so she swung again, harder this time. Thunkth. And again, thunkth thunkth thunkth, every blow carrying decades of un-meant yeses, and all the agony that Lost Charlie had caused. Thunkth. The crunch of bone, the squishing of flesh, bat connecting with Lost Charlie’s body like a meaty metronome until -
“Babe!!!” Isvara shouted. Sadie came back from her fugue; looked down at the bed. Lost Charlie was very dead, Sadie and nearly everything else in the room spray painted with his blood.
The women dragged Lost Charlie’s corpse down to the dock. Then they stuffed his clothing with fresh fish guts they had brought just for this purpose. The painful knot in Sadie’s chest was molten now, as she thought of her only son. His stutter had eventually resolved and Booker turned out to be a brilliant student. He’d left for Georgetown 8 years ago on scholarship, but had never written, called or visited since. Sadie only knew he was alive because she’d call the admissions office every September and they’d confirm that he was still enrolled. But after graduation, nothing. She knew Booker was ashamed of her, of Lebanon, of his poor country upbringing, of the thing they did not discuss. He made up stories even as a child about his dad being an airline pilot. Sadie grieved for her cracked, violated child — now tall, dark and lost, like she’d once been, searching the bigger world for his own safe place, knowing that once that world had injured him, she wouldn’t be around to protect him this time either. It literally hurt her heart.
Sadie pushed Lost Charlie off the dock into the water with a plunk. The darkness sizzled with the sound of gators launching out of the bushes and diving into the water in their direction. Without a word, she turned and lumbered back toward the cabin she and Booker had once called home. Together, the women doused the interior with moonshine, boat fuel, whatever they could find. The intensity of Sadie’s violent binge had been unexpected and messy, so the women were improvising. Standing now together outside the cabin, Isvara lit a match and looked at Sadie. Sadie nodded. Then Isvara threw the match and watched the miserable little cabin go up in flames. The women turned and walked back to the car.
Sadie awoke the next day at home. She followed the smell of burnt coffee and found Isvara already up, bearing 2 steaming cups. They went for a walk up the slight incline behind their house, Isvara a few steps ahead, lost in thought. Sadie wondered to herself - Who will take care of her? How long do i really have? Who will love her when I’m gone….” For the first time since the diagnosis, she was afraid.
Sensing her, Isvara stopped and turned around, backlit by the rising sun, the pollen hung yellow in the air, framing her. A stiff breeze blew one dreadlock across her face and into the corner of her mouth. Sadie knew, even from that distance, that it smelled like sandalwood and lemon; tasted of licorice and a hint of smoke.
Sadie labored a bit as she caught up to where Isvara waited. Isvara picked up a stone, flinging it as far as she could, then looked at Sadie with a smile.
”So, Sadie,… what do you wanna do next?”