We were on vacation when it died. My friends told me on our return about the funeral, about how Hank and Jo Ellen cried and hugged them and thanked them all for being there.
“It was just so sad,” Carol said, as if this were a question. As if it was still the question.
“Yeah, but it would have been sadder had it lived,” Jane added.
I felt bad that I missed the ceremony because I had been the most supportive of our group during the last weeks, calling and visiting them frequently. So the day we returned I walked the two and a half blocks from my house over to Hank and Jo Ellen’s apartment at Clarendon Manor. Hank opened the door, just as before, just as if this were an ordinary visit.
“Buddy. Come in. We were…”
“No, I can’t stay, but I wanted to see you and tell you how sorry I am for…” And that stopped me. Which word should I use before “death,” I wondered. But Hank saved me:
“Thanks Buddy.” And he even smiled. “We appreciate it. You sure you won’t come in? No? OK, I’ll tell Jo Ellen. See you on Sunday.”
Sure enough, the following Sunday there he was at church, shepherding our youth group—the bunch of us he’d volunteered to manage four months earlier. He’d set up a Ping Pong table outside our Sunday school classroom when he first took over and encouraged us to come early. What he never counted on, though, was the difficulty through those weeks in getting us to put down our paddles and come to Jesus. His call became familiar and so tired: “Let’s go group!” Increasingly, and to a teenaged person, we’d smirk and roll our eyes. After he turned his back, Jane would mock him, “Let’s go group,” in that way that only an adolescent girl can reduce a grown man to complete impotency in the eyes of her peers.
Hank and Jo Ellen weren’t like our former youth directors, Dick and Laura, who played James Taylor and Carole King records for us. Dick and Laura had “mentored” us for eighteen months at their house on Dartmouth Avenue, an old wood and brick parsonage with wide rooms and a jungle for a back yard. We didn’t confine our “Dick and Laura” visits to only Sunday nights for youth group. They told us to come by anytime. For teenagers, a refuge with cool, hip people who let them bring, and even bought them, beer…well, I guess we thought this was natural. Or at least we never questioned if it wasn’t. I had my first full beer—Miller Malt—at their house, and I was barely fifteen. I wonder how any of us, especially Dick and Laura, thought this arrangement could last. How we couldn’t see or even anticipate the storm that was coming to our little Alabama community at all.
The storm that turned into a deluge once Laura decided that mentoring us wasn’t enough.
When it broke in the spring of my sophomore year, the impact truly made the earth move under our feet. I’ll never know exactly how our parents discovered that Laura had seduced Ray-Ray, my best friend. I’m guessing that his folks started wondering about the lengthy phone calls and the even lengthier afternoon hours at Dick and Laura’s. I guess it finally dawned on them that it wasn’t healthy for a fifteen year-old boy to be actively seeking out the company of a twenty-two year-old mother of two. And when they finally acted, the debris left in our former youth leaders’ wake would be collected for decades in the form of bitter feelings and mistrust from all sides.
A bitterness and mistrust that almost cost me Ray Ray, my best friend. But that’s not the story I want to tell here.
After the revelation, the church elders quietly asked Dick and Laura to move. We would still see Dick in the corridors and classrooms of our school, though, for he had been and would continue to be our beloved English teacher.
We, of course, had no choice in the matter, though at the time our indignant minds thought we should have. The church elders began a more careful youth director screening process then, and their search turned up a young couple new to our congregation: Hank and Jo Ellen. After they were hired, a few in our group were invited to a dessert party to introduce ourselves. Hank said we could call him “Hank” on that night, but I noticed that then and always, his wife referred to him as “Henry.”
Hank worked in Sears’ shoe department, and you can infer what you will about that. I know we did. He was eternally cheerful, and unlike Dick who wore leather sandals, enjoyed fine literature and opera, and who was a Vandy grad, Hank wore half-sleeve dress shirts, clip-on ties, sidewalls above his ears. And compared to the VW bus that Dick bought and drove especially to cart us around, Hank drove a Dodge Dart “Swinger,” just like the one the elderly receptionist at my Dad’s office drove. Hank’s and Jo Ellen’s apartment smelled like stale lime Kool-Aid, too, and they never played music for us, though they did let us come swimming in the complex’s pool.
For the first eight weeks we knew them, we tried to make our arrangement work. I think the main thing that kept us all going was that Jo Ellen looked every bit the seven months pregnant that she was. A quiet woman, she never had performed on stage as Laura had. She never professed to liking Carly Simon or Rita Coolidge either. And once, when I sat down by her as Sunday evening service was beginning, she got up and moved to the other side of Henry. I’m sure now that she was overwhelmed by the changes in her life and what was to come for her and Hank. I know that we all watched and waited with her for the baby to come. Even teens know the excitement of a new baby.
Even teens can feel empathy, at least for short periods of time.
My mother was the one who broke the news to me. It was just like her to tell me without mincing words, without worrying about their effect, just as she had done when she informed me that the church had fired Dick and Laura:
“Y’all won’t be going to their house anymore. Imagine a woman like that around young boys. I knew it too when she and Dick came to supper that time. She had nothing to say to me, and when one woman can’t talk to another woman, well, that tells you something. She only had eyes for you boys!”
They were hard words to digest. This time as my mother spoke, however, I couldn’t even swallow. I had nothing to say, no fresh wounds to protect, no friend to defend:
“Hank and Jo Ellen’s baby came all right, if you can call it that. There’s something wrong with it, but they don’t know what exactly. It has water on the brain, and fluid all in its lungs. But what’s worse is that the doctors can’t tell whether it’s a boy or a girl.”
I sat at our kitchen table as I listened to this, surrounded by geometry problems. I didn’t understand it then, and in some ways I still don’t. I know nature has a will, and though we might take all necessary precautions, we can’t control the circumstances of childbirth—or what happens when one person’s chromosomes mix with another’s. What I do know is that when the time came, my wife had ultrasounds and the best pre-natal care we could afford. But it was only when I saw both of my daughter’s healthy and whole bodies in front of me, pink and raw, that I stopped worrying that something would go wrong, that something would be wrong. That what happened to Hank and Jo Ellen would happen to us, too.
As in any small town, word passed down quickly about the baby. That regardless of the circumstances, Hank and Jo Ellen still wanted people to visit, including the teenagers of their youth group.
“But will we have to see the baby,” we wondered, “and if we do, what will we do? What should we say?”
I had no practice in witnessing this sort of distress, the awkward reality of the dying or the abnormal. When I was nine or ten, on a certain route we always took driving through town, we’d pass a house where a water-brained, mongoloid boy lived. I don’t know if “water-brained” or “mongoloid” are even accurate terms for him, but those are the words my mother used back then. He had weird, elongated fingers too. Somehow, I even know that his name was Rene. Such a big head he had, and the blackest hair. He always stood on the street corner and either I or my brother or our friend Robert would shout at him as we passed, as if he were a post or a dog or a lightning-cleft tree. He’d wave or cry or groan at us, and try to smile, Rene would. And one day, he just wasn’t there anymore. I have no idea what happened to him, and for a long time I forgot about him too.
Not too long before the turn of events with Hank and Jo Ellen, my grandmother suffered a string of strokes and lay dying in her nursing home during that summer when I turned fifteen. “I don’t want you to see her like this,” my mother said in some semblance of protective instinct. So I quit going to see her. The last time I saw her she knew me and showed me her “progress,” as she termed it: the six or eight inches she could slide up and down her bed.
And fourteen years ago when my father passed, though I visited him as he lay in a coma, I chose not to look at his corpse lying in that unadorned Jewish coffin. I don’t know any longer what these decisions say about me or whether they were right or wrong. They simply were.
Just like my decision to visit Jo Ellen and Hank after they brought their baby home. We’re sitting in their living room. Jo Ellen has the baby in her arms, swaddled tightly to prevent any chance that I might see its ungendered region. She’s feeding the baby its bottle. It drinks greedily as babies do. Its head is twice the size it should be, the pulsing blue veins running throughout more noticeable than you’d believe they could be. It has pale blue eyes, though of course they have no focus to them. Halfway through the feeding as I stare intently at this scene, the baby spits up all the milk, as many babies also do.
Jo Ellen apologizes for it and tries to wipe it all away. I feel like I’m in the way, so I apologize, too, and tell her I have to be somewhere. As Hank walks me to the door, though, I hear his baby start crying. It’s a sound I’ve never heard before. How do I describe it? A high-pitched hoarseness? A wail? A tin door scraping in the wind?
After that afternoon, I never went back. I never saw the baby again. It lived for another few weeks. They always knew it would die in a matter of days, yet they continued caring for it, feeding it, changing it, and God knows, putting it down to sleep at night, until the end.
If my memory is right, Hank and Jo Ellen never named this child, or if they did, they never told us. I guess there are certain barriers in every experience: the ones you just can’t bring yourself to cross.
And unfortunately, another of those barriers was the one that existed between this couple and our youth group. I’d like to say that their tragedy brought us closer, but I can’t because it didn’t. Each Sunday morning, he’d call “Let’s go group,” and each Sunday fewer and fewer of us were there to respond. And those who were there chafed every step of the way. By my junior year in high school when most of us could drive, we’d leave the evening church service before youth group and drive away to Pasquale’s, our local pizza joint, to eat and carelessly socialize as we liked to do. At some point that year or the next, Hank and Jo Ellen moved out of our town. The Sears store where Hank worked at our pathetic little mall closed. Two years later, the entire mall was converted into a grocery store or something, but by then Hank and Jo Ellen were barely a memory for any of us.
It’s strange to think now of this couple we often made fun of; this couple we chose to abandon. We had cruel nicknames for them too. Him, we called “Winky-Dink,” a variation on his last name. For Jo Ellen, we didn’t so much have a nickname as an adjectival descriptor; she was always “the beautiful and vivacious Jo Ellen” to us. And, I will confess, these cruelties came after they lost their child.
They must be in their late 60’s now. Are they still together? Are they still alive? Did they ever have another baby? Or are they grandparents now? What do they remember about those days in our town, in Bessemer? Do they remember them as lost? As horrible? Did they ever get over the child who shouldn’t have lived but for a time did? Do they remember the names they surely considered for that child when they knew they were expecting? A boy’s name, and a girl’s?
And if they remember those days as vividly as I do, do they see us, the teenagers in the church youth group who looked so eager and trusting on that first night? The ones who came to visit; the ones who came to the funeral; and the ones who, after a brief period of mourning, decided they wanted nothing more to do with them?
I wonder now if they ever forgave us for all that we did. For all that we weren’t, and were. Or did they successfully bury us in Bessemer, too, on the day they left, quietly, completely, and with no forwarding address?
© Terry Barr