By Robert Earl Reed
With the sunrise Robert climbed from the concave spring mattress that was his oil stained nest. Were some unfortunate visitor to drop a match to the bed it would have burned three days on the oil alone. Placing his first foot to the floor wasn’t much of a task. However, when it came to the long suffering right foot with its ingrown infected nail rooted to his big toe, Robert would brace himself for the pain that would tear his eyes. Once dressed he would retrieve his boots… first the left then the right with a hole cut for the toe to peek its black head out of… and lace them up in anticipation of another long day.
Today would be an especially long day. Today joining the aches and pains of his sixty-two-year-old body was the pain of heart ache. The pain of longing. The pain of lonesomeness.
Juanita Mothershed was a new addition to McQueens grocery and road side diner. A diminutive sprite standing four foot three, she looked like a little girl until she smiled a nicotine smile and lit another filter king. When Robert first laid his eyes upon her he was smitten. Enamored by her small dainty hands and her slight frame. She reminded him of the delicate china dolls that lined his mother’s bureau. (Except for her teeth) Each morning he would walk the three miles from his Pavilion to the store, and sit in her booth to drink coffee and admire her every move. He would dream of fathering ten children by her, and teaching them all the ways of the Lord. Even the burnt coffee that she poured into his cup tasted sweeter than any elixir he had ever tasted. She was the object of his undying affection.
Unfortunately for Robert, the feeling was not mutual. “Not in this lifetime or any other!” she would tell the Cook when he teased her about being the old hermits “gerl-frand.” Day in and day out Robert would sit and drink his coffee and stare at the love of his life. Juanita would try to ignore him, and would have some success until he was seized with a fit of inordinately loud coughing and throat clearing that would only subside once he had expectorated some unspeakable substance into his napkin.
Sometimes the fits lasted so long and were so loud that Steve McQueen himself would have to yell from behind the counter, “Get outta here with all that racket Robert… you’re making everyone sick to their stomach!”
Robert tried everything he could think of to win the heart of his sweet Juanita. He brought flowers. He left seventy-five cent tips. He wrote love notes on cardboard for her and taped them to the trees that lined the parking lot of the store. He even went to Ripley and had her name inscribed indelibly by the tattoo “Artist” on his left bicep… left side to be nearer his heart. Robert never gave up on his dream of marrying… loving… kissing… breeding Juanita until yesterday.
When Robert appeared for his morning coffee Juanita was not at her usual post. When Robert asked Steve, “Where’s my sweet Juanita?” Steve glanced up from his stocking report and dryly said, “She done went off and got married to that Jenkins boy… they up and moved to Memphis… damn bitch didn’t even give me no notice ner nothin’”
Yes today would be a long day… Robert wound the logging chain around one end of the railroad tie then the other. He knelt. He bowed as if to pray, and then hoisted the chain over his head and on to his shoulders. He stood, struggling to maintain his balance favoring his right foot and took a deep breath adjusting to the weight of the tie around his neck. His shoulders screamed to set the weight down, but his mind was set and he turned to the lawnmower. Again he bowed as if to pray shifting the weight precariously as he grasped the pull cord of the machine. With a great burst he erected himself and yanked the mower to life. One foot in front of the other he began to cut a swath through the high grass around the Pavilion. Down one side to the wood line… turn around back down to the gravel. Sixty six steps in either direction. The mid day sun lit the way. The pain sewn to his face.
By the time Mr. John drove up Robert had cleared almost one acre of growth from the Pavilion “yard.” Mr. John looked on in amazement at what he saw. Robert pushed the mower. The minutes trudged by and the mower kept cutting. Finally sputtering the engine gave up for hunger of gasoline. Robert stood behind it as if in traces driven by some unseen mule team driver.
Mr. John called from his vantage point in the comfort of his truck, “Robert! What in the HELL ARE YOU DOING?”
Robert never looked at Mr. John. He just stared at the mower.
Again, Mr. John asked, “Robert, have you lost your mind? What are you doing?”
Robert turned to face Mr. John. The sweat rolling from his bald head. His clothes soaked. Standing erect in this manner he looked like a scarecrow on a crucifix. “I’m bearin my burden, John,” Robert said.
Mr. John asked, “You…You’re doin’ what?”
“My sweet Juanita wouldn’t have me. I’m bearin my burden like Jesus did John… like Jesus did with his cross… I’m bearin my burden.”
Robert Earl Reed