Time Wounds All HeelsbyDanielQSteele1©
(c ) Daniel Quentin Steele 2012
It's been awhile, but it's good to be back on LIT. This is a departure from anything I've done on this site. I hope that readers will enjoy it. This is a stand-alone story, although part of the First Coast series I've been telling over the last two and a half years. There are a couple of connections to another well known series if you look for them. But, as you might know by now, I believe we are all interconnected, all part of the same world, in literature and in reality.
DQS. And finally, as always, I would like to thank curiouss for his continued and valued editing of my rough work.
The dirt road circled to the left and, when he passed the curve of trees, he saw the weather beaten white wooden structure, looking like nothing so much as a rural country church, probably Baptist. As he saw the sign he realized that was exactly what it was.
"Praise God Baptist Church," said one white sign and another nearby said, "Putnam County Food Pantry."
There were two dozen cars and trucks parked in the field surrounding the church. Twenty-year-old pickups; old model Fords, Chevrolets, 90s model Pontiacs; station wagons which had seen much better days. The trucks for the most part had beds filled with odds and ends and tools. The cars looked like the original coats of paint been transformed by dust and grime to some in-between shades.
The exception was a late model blue Dodge Grand Caravan parked almost out of sight behind the church. Two boys were running a hose over it and two younger girls were using rags with suds. He found a place to park and took his camera, tape recorder and notebook out before locking it. Probably unnecessary, but it was a habit.
He walked toward the front of the building attracting curious gazes from the line of men and women, mostly women, standing in a line outside the door. There were a lot of small children. Some were pre-teens, but most of them were young enough to be in diapers, or were toddlers held in mothers' arms.
A few of the women weren't bad; frazzled, too young for him, but not bad. Most were older, heavier, tired looking. Keeping up with the swarms of little ones would tend to do that. He had thrown the camera on its strap around his shoulder and put the mini-recorder in his pocket.
"Hi," he said to an older man leaning on a cane. "Is this where I can find Mrs. Miller?"
The old man gave him a blank look.
A young boy, who looked to be on the cusp of turning from a pre-teen to a fully-fledged teen because his hands and feet were outgrowing the rest of him, had heard and said, "Oh, you mean the Wheelchair Lady?"
"Tommy," an older woman said, giving him a hard look.
"Yes, sir, Mrs. Miller is inside. She keeps things running."
Then, moving a little closer, the older lady said softly, "Don't mind the boy. Everybody calls her the Wheelchair Lady, or Miss Jessie. She don't mind."
He pushed open the screen door and stepped inside. The church was bigger than he had thought. It ran backwards a ways, a long, rectangular room. Today it wasn't a church - there were no pews. Instead, wooden tables had been set up end-to-end and nearly a dozen men and women bustled about behind and in front of the tables. The tables were heaped with loaves of bread, pastries, canned goods and some green vegetables that looked like greens or collards.
The fronts of the tables were lined with men and women, again usually women, holding paper bags that the workers behind the tables were loading with bread and canned goods and a few green things. Children were begging for particular cakes or pies while their mothers tried to move them along.
A stoop-shouldered older man approached him, glancing at the camera on his shoulder.
"Can I help you?"
He reached out and shook the man's hand, saying, "Yeah. I'm Robert Kincade. I work for the Times-Union and we had contacted Mrs. Miller about coming out and getting a few pictures. Doing a story, for our Saturday Florida section, about her, the work she does."
"Hubert, Hubert Mossman, Mr. Kincade. She told a few of us that somebody was coming out. But she thought it was going to be some guy named Bass, Harry Bass. A kind of unusual name. Not hard to remember that."
Kincade smiled, "Yessir, Harry does have a memorable name, but he's tied up on another assignment and I'm taking his place."
"Glad to see you here, Mr. Kincade. Jessie - Mrs. Miller – is a good woman and she deserves a little attention for all that she does."
"Well, that's what I'm here for."
"Sure, well come on back. She's in the rear."
When he walked through the rear door he found a smaller room with the door open to a back porch. In the back was a Winn-Dixie truck with its back panel open showing boxes of canned goods and containers of bread. A half-dozen younger men were shuttling the boxes and containers out on to the back porch.
A woman with golden hair piled high and contained in a hairnet directed the actions of the crew emptying the truck like a conductor managing an orchestra. She sat in a gleaming wheelchair that raised her head up to about the height of his mid-chest.
Mossman stepped up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.
"Whatcha need, Hubie? We need to get this stuff out because Ray at the WD just called and they need their truck back there in 45 minutes."
"A guy from the Times-Union is here, Jessie."
"That Bass guy? Whatever his name was?"
"No, he couldn't make it. They sent another reporter."
"Oh, well, send him back. I can't stop right now."
"He's right here."
She touched the arm of the chair and it swung smoothly around. She had blue eyes, the clearest blue Kincade thought he'd ever seen, except maybe one other time. And that was long ago so he couldn't be sure. She wore no makeup, no lipstick. She was dressed in a simple blouse and wore slacks that concealed her legs. And she was still a beautiful woman.
She touched the chair again and it whirred smoothly to within a foot of him. She had to look up to meet his eyes but, with the raised chair, not too far. She held out one slim hand.
"Hi, I'm Jessie Miller, and you are...?"
"Robert Kincade, Times-Union. You look pretty busy. Are you sure I won't cause you any problems, be in the way?"
She closed her hand over his and he felt the strength there. The hand wasn't rough, it was a woman's hand, smooth but strong. She wore no rings or nail polish. This lady was all business.
"You have a job to do, Mr. Kincade, and we need the publicity. I know your story is going to focus on me – the Wheelchair Lady - wheeling around Putnam County doing good deeds, but it doesn't matter. If I get publicity, the work we do gets publicity and we always need more help, more money, more volunteers."
"I hope it does you and this place a lot of good, but I'm pretty good at what I do."
"Then just stay out of the way, don't get yourself run over, and you can talk to anybody you want and take any pictures you want. I'll talk to you when I have time and things slow down, but they usually don't slow down until afternoon. There are a lot of people in this county who need help."
"Fair enough. Get doing what you're doing. I'll get pictures and talk to some people."
She turned away from him as if he had ceased to exist and was back into the business of shuttling food inside, finding places to store it, answering questions and solving problems that came at her regularly. He walked around and took pictures of men moving heavy crates of goods onto the porch and then downloading them into smaller crates to take inside.
As they worked, an old station wagon pulled up to the rear. A heavy set woman, leaning heavily on two canes and aided by two younger men, hobbled up to the steps out of the path of the workers and called to Jessie Miller.
"Jess, I got some onions, asparagus and a mess of tomatoes out here. I was thinking about taking them to the farmer's market, but the Lord put it on my heart to bring them here. You want them?"
"Does a bear crap in the woods, Olivia? Don't be silly. Boys, bring a chair out here for Miss Olivia and help her grandsons get those vegetables out and onto the tables."
As the workers helped her grandsons unload the station wagon of bag after bag of tomatoes and onions and fresh asparagus, Miller rolled her way to the edge of the porch and leaned as far out as she could, holding her arms out to the older woman.
"Give me a hug, Miss Olivia. Pastor Bennings said you haven't been to Sunday service in more than a month. Is everything all right?"
With her grandsons' aid, the older woman hobbled to the edge of the porch and was almost able to hug the woman in the wheelchair. Tears glistened in her eyes.
"Just getting older, Jessie, and this old body is failing me. Won't be too long before I'll be with Clete again."
"Bite your tongue, woman, Clete will wait for you a few years longer. Nothing he has to do other than lounge on clouds and pluck at harps anyway. He always said he spent his whole life waiting on you, anyway. You have two grandsons here that need you. You've got as long as the Lord gives you."
As nonchalantly as he could, he swung the camera up and snapped picture after picture of the two women together, catching the tears running down the heavy woman's face. These were money shots. The story might very well go out on the main metro Sunday page instead of stuck inside on the Florida edition front.
Jessie Miller glanced back and saw what he was doing, but said nothing. She was a practical woman, he could tell. She wanted the story and pictures to be seen by as many people as possible.
Something came up inside the hall and, saying a quick goodbye, Miller swung the wheelchair around with the touch of a finger and was gone. Kincade wondered if there was a V-8 engine hid inside it somewhere. Olivia stared at him and he made it down the porch steps when there was an opening. He approached her and held his hand out. She took it.
"Miss Olivia, my name is Robert Kincade. I'm a reporter with the Times-Union. The paper sent me to do a story and take pictures of Miss Miller and the work she does. You two obviously know each other. Would you mind talking to me for a moment?"
"Alright, let me get back in this chair. I can't stand up long much anymore."
When she was seated he squatted down beside her and took out the micro-recorder. It would be easier than writing notes in that position.
"Do you mind if I record this?"
"No, why not, there's nothing I could say about Jessie Miller that I'd mind anyone hearing."
"Say it for the recorder. My name is ...... and I am willing to let you record me. It's legal and I have to do it. I'll also need a verbal okay and I've got a form for you to sign to use the pictures I just took."
"I understand. Nowadays people sue for all kinds of reasons. I'm old but I'm not completely out of touch."
After she had made the statement into the recorder, he looked back to the hall where Miller had vanished and said, "You're obviously close to Miss Miller. How do you know her?"
"I didn't know here when she was growing up. She was a city girl, grew up in Palatka. I've always lived out in West Putnam but - after her accident - and the wheelchair, she started working with churches and the food bank and things like that. When Clete – my husband – died eight years ago..."
She stopped talking and looked at Kincade.
"You married? Have you ever lost anybody?"
"No ma'am, not married, and the only people I ever lost were my uncle and my stepfather. But that was enough. I wouldn't want to do it again."
"I understand. Losing people is hard. I lost mine a long time ago - lost Daddy when I was only a little girl, but it's different when you lose your husband or wife. You lose the parent of your children. You lose the person you used to talk about things with in the night. It's lonelier than you can imagine.
"Well, it was a bad time. I'd already lost my son, Calvin, and we were raising his two sons after that b- miserable excuse for a wife of his - got into drugs and then just vanished. Then, all of a sudden, it was just me and two teen boys. I was already pretty stove up and fat."
She stared into the morning sky. Pale white clouds were drifting, driven by an autumn breeze.
"Suicide is a sin. Us Baptists and Catholics don't agree on much, but on that we do. You cut yourself off from God's Grace and you condemn yourself and the people you love but, I have to admit, I was pondering it. Then Jessie started coming by, just to talk. She brought out coffee for us to drink together while we talked, and, cakes and pies, not that I needed them that much, but I'd stopped pretty much doing anything and the boys loved it, and they loved her. You probably already noticed that she is a very pretty woman, and they were teenage boys. However, she handled them just right, didn't hurt their feelings, and they really did need a momma figure."
She was silent again for a moment.
"Then, a few years ago, Clay got into running with a bad crowd and wound up in trouble up in Jacksonville. It would have killed me if he'd gone to prison, but Jessie went up there and worked a deal with some lawyer – a prosecutor or something – for Clay to be put into pre-trial inter-something and they sent him down here. He's done what he needed to do and he's okay now."
She shook her head.
"I know nobody human is perfect, and we Baptists don't believe in Saints. I know she has – must have – her flaws, I know she has really bad luck with men. I never did understand why, but I can tell you she's a good woman, and there are hundreds of people in this county who would be living a whole lot worse if she wasn't around."
Kincade spent the next few hours wandering around inside and outside the church. He got a few good kid shots and made sure to get photo releases for all of them. Nobody objected as soon as they knew he was doing it for a story on The Wheelchair Lady.
Hubert Mossman, the man he'd met on entering the church, was standing outside taking a smoke break as the line to the front never stopped moving. Kincade noticed people might wait a half hour to 45 minutes, but no one left.
"I had no idea there were that many people in need, really poor, in Putnam County. I know it's not the richest county around, but...?"
"This is not a bad day. There are Saturdays when there are three times this many people waiting. It doesn't happen often, but there have been days when we ran out with people waiting. Those are the days that kill Miss Jessie. I think it hurts her worse than it does the people we turn away."
He took another puff before dropping the cigarette to the ground and grinding it with his shoe.
"You got a college education, right? And a job? And an apartment? And insurance, probably? You would never guess how many people don't have any of those things, but they do have kids, or hospital bills, or parents they're trying to keep alive."
"Now, there are some worthless lazy pieces of shit that take advantage, but most people are just trying to get by. It takes one stroke, one heart attack, one bad accident and million dollar hospital bill, being laid off or fired by the pulp paper mill here, which employs almost everybody in this county, to turn your life into a nightmare. I'm one of the lucky ones - worked at the mill for 38 years, saved a few bucks and I live okay on social security and my savings, but every time I come out here to volunteer, I get down on my knees at night and thank God for my good fortune."
Kincade looked back toward the church and said, "Why do you think she does it? She works here, visits people, does God knows what else. What does she do when she's not working?"
Mossman grinned at the reporter.
"You noticed too, huh? She doesn't do anything with it, but she is still a looker. I've seen pictures of her as a youngster, and she was a beautiful woman. But - she pretty much doesn't do anything except work, visit people and go to church on Sunday. She really doesn't have that much time for anything else and, I kind of think, she's happier that way."
"Why? She's not that old."
"I'm not a gossiping old woman, so let's just say her luck with men stinks. Been married four times. Lost one in the accident that put her in that chair. Shot the second one. He survived but it kind of spoiled their marriage. Tried again twice with not much luck. I think she just gave up on men. Besides, there's a whole lot of men that never can get by the wheelchair."
"From the way you and I look at it! We're men. It does seem a waste but, from hers...I mean, she's crippled from the waist down. What is she going to get out of it?"
A late model Chevy pickup spun into the parking area and the door was open and shut before the engine had died. A tall, dark haired man with his hair cropped into a buzz cut, dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt was striding across the lot toward the entrance to the church. Mossman's face darkened and he told one of the teen boys standing at the door, "Get some men out here. Tell Miss Jessie."
Mossman stepped out to meet the younger man, broad across the shoulders and with a slender waist, standing a good half-foot taller than the old man.
"Stop Jimmy, turn around. Get of here now before there's trouble."
"There's already trouble, old man. Get the fuck out of my way before I knock your head off."
"Don't be stupid, Jimmy. They'll call the cops and she'll swear out a warrant against you this time, and you're going to go away. You'll never see your son."
"No one is going to keep me away from her, or my son."
"I'm going to try."
"I don't want to hurt you, but I will."
It was a stupid thing to do, and he knew he'd regret it later, but Kincade stepped between the tall young man and the short older man.
"I'm more your size, friend. Why don't you go away."
"I'll put you down, you interfering asshole. Who are you anyway?"
"Just a guy but, by the time you put me down, there's going to be a bunch of other men out here and you won't get through all of them. If you've got a problem, there's other ways of dealing with it."
"Go away, Jimmy. It's not too late to stop this before it gets ugly."
Jessie Miller sat on the porch behind Kincade, surrounded by four of the larger and younger men who'd been working in the back.
"You bitch, you're the one who put those fucking ideas in her head. She never would have left me if it weren't for you."
"I would have left you anyway, Jimmy. Miss Jessie didn't push me to it. She just helped me see what I should do."
The men on the porch stepped back and a dark haired, very pregnant, young woman stepped forward to the edge of the porch. She was wearing shorts and a loose blouse that still bulged to the limit of its buttons. She was barefoot and Kincade would have thought she was 13 if she wasn't obviously older. He wondered when he had gotten so old.
Jimmy started to move forward, then stopped.
"I haven't had a drink in three weeks, baby. Even when I was dying for one, I been dry. I am sorry. I know I was stupid. I never would have touched you if I hadn't been drinking. But I never will again. I promise you. I will never touch you again unless you want me to."
She shook her head.
"You've promised me before. I can't trust you any more. It was one thing when it was just you and me. I could put up with you being so crazy jealous and putting your hands on me when you were drinking. But you could have killed our baby, Jimmy. You could have killed your son. And you could have spent the rest of your life saying you were sorry, and it wouldn't make any difference."
Jimmy looked at his shoes. There was no sound.
"I love you, Alyssa, I always have. I always will. I can't go on living without you, without my son. If you do this, I'll die. Please, give me another chance."