We covered our tracks to make sure nobody knew we were goin’ down to the ole juniper tree. We hadn’t taken a trip down there in a while, at least not since the whole mishap with Summer Bidwell and her sister, June.
There were all sortsa delicious lookin’ berries on the shrubs as we trekked along, but I’d never dare put one in my mouth. Wyatt glanced at the colorful fruits before kneelin’ down beside the bush they were growin’ from. All I could think was that there was no way in hell he was going to eat one. God must have put those berries on earth for some reason, but I for one didn’t wanna’ find out what that reason was. He plucked one of the first berries he saw and jammed it straight into his mouth. Juice flooded down his white t-shirt. He had to wipe the juice from his fingers off on his crisp blue jeans. He musta’ finished the monster in less time than it takes for me to wash up for supper, and that ain’t long. He smirked at me as he washed it down with the moonshine from the flask he’d wedged in his right boot.
“Look, now you try one,” he said to me. “I ain’t fallin’ over dead now, am I?”
“No, you ain’t,” I hunched over to reach for a berry.
He was watchin’ me as I plucked it from the bush and brought it towards my mouth, inspectin’ me like a doc does a patient, glarin’ into my eyes. I couldn’t look away, what kinda’ man would I be if I did? I had to let him know I wasn’t some sorta’ wimp. The closer it got to my mouth the more scared I got, but I didn’t wanna’ be afraid a somethin’ that scared me. The gooey berry I’d started chewing was tart as can be. It made me wanna’ do that angry kinda face you do whenever your momma says it’s time for bed and you just ain’t ready to tucker out yet. I’m pretty sure he thought I didn’t have the guts to do it, and maybe on my own I didn’t, but Wyatt always had a way of makin’ me feel like everything was gonna’ be alright. He explained things in a way that I could understand, even if he was usually a bit of a drunk when he did the explainin’. He had long brown hair that swayed to the side all natural like, and eyes as green as freshly cut grass. Wyatt was never aware of the time, he was rarely aware of anything for that matter. He could blow smoke rings like a champ, but burned through packs like John Wayne.
“See, you just gotta’ try things Eli,” he said as we walked. “You gonna’ get nowhere real quick if you always thinkin’ about what coulda’ been insteada’ just lettin’ yourself go numb for once.”
Wyatt is a good daddy for the most part. His high school sweetheart Sarah Lou and him are soul mates, but he loves to be separate from her and their little boy Leon. As much as he really does love them, he just has to feel free. Wyatt’s band plays around town a lot. He even says he wants to make a livin’ of it. I try to tell him to keep a steady job to be safe, but he don’t like to listen. People sure do listen when he sings though. I know I do. He can really make ya feel somethin’, like he means every single word. He closes his eyes and commands the stage, wavin’ his hands and whippin’ his hair around like a mad man. I believe in him.
We get drunk every Friday night at the Husk, a local bar they play at every weekend. Wyatt always jokes about how he likes to drink on days endin’ with day. Women at the bar can’t get enough of him, even the married ones. They act like they don’t got no husbands back at home, and sometimes he likes to pretend Sarah Lou and Leon ain’t around neither. I know there’s more out there for Wyatt and his family. He’s just gotta believe in himself like he does me. He’d be alright if he could listen to the way he talks to me, all motivatin’ and inspirin’ like, but I don’t think he considers himself much a role model.
Once we got to the juniper tree we plopped down on the ground. Wyatt handed me the flask with a stern gesture, wavin’ it in front of my face till I took it from him. I took a long chug, just so he’d shut up about it. I was a little drunk by now, but I’d known what I was gettin’ myself into comin’ down here and all.
“I still think about June,” I sighed to Wyatt.
He took back the flask disgusted and bowed his head, shakin’ it back and forth.
“Ain’t no use in that Eli,” Wyatt said. “You saw how she was with Bobby Winston last time we saw her out.”
“Yeah, but Bobby is a chump,” I mumbled.
Wyatt could usually see through people, but not this time. I knew she wasn’t after Bobby. He was just a replacement of some sort. Last time we saw her we were sittin’ at the Husk havin’ our usual supper at eight o clock on the dot. Friday is the special. It’s $1.50 for a burger, fries, and a cold one. I love it. I can go grab some grub, drink, and ketchup with Wyatt before the band goes on. This night, though, was the first time I’d seen June since the happenin’ at the juniper tree. She was laughin’ too much, like the way she used to laugh with me. She kept flippin’ her red flowing locks back and forth, gazing back at us with those pretty blue eyes. They were so full of love, but she wasn’t even usin’ em for Bobby. She was tryna’ stir me up. She walked around like she owned the place, with her miniature perfect sized figure and red lipstick. Damn that red lipstick. She was flirtin’ with all the bartenders who knew her on a first name basis, and workin’ up drinks from the locals who didn’t know nothin’ bout her. She even had the nerve to put a certain song on at the juke box. It was our song, “All Shook Up,” by The King himself. The song in itself bugged me, I don’t know how she was doin’ it. She knew it’d get to me. Our relationship fell through right about the time they found Elvis dead on that toilet down there in Memphis, but I didn’t think it was a coincidence at the time.
“Cmon Bobby, this is our song!,” she shouted, making sure I heard.
I didn’t think much of seein’ her out. Or, not for a couple weeks, but as time went on it really started itchin me. I imagined her sittin’ by the phone waitin’ for my call. That rotary dial would take too damn long though. I think I might have to strangle myself with the curly wires that connect the phone to the dialing board if I had to talk to her for more than five minutes about “stuff”. Yet, here I was sittin’ by the juniper wonderin’ where she was at, and if she was still thinkin’ bout me. I looked over at Wyatt who’d rested his back against the tree. He was fast asleep with a lit cigarette burning away in his left hand and the open flask in his right. I wish I coulda’ captured that moment somehow, it was just so Wyatt. I took the cigarette from his hand. He musta’ been asleep for some time, on account of the ash on his finger was longer than the Mighty Mississippi. I took the last few drags of it and flicked away the butt in a spot where the grass wasn’t green no more.
I glanced back at the juniper as I laid against its rough grey bark next to Wyatt. The tree was ancient. There were so many scuffs on it from the accident y’ouda’ thought it had a run in with a bear or somethin’. One day June and I had carved “JB & EL” on it, back when we was somethin’. The tree was bound to fall at some point, but I think that’s what June wanted when the accident happened. Not so much of an accident if ya asked me. Mother Nature ain’t meant to be tampered with like that.
I remember it so well. June and I had been on the rocks the weeks leadin’ up to that day. I always picked up her younger sister Summer from school in my baby, a smooth blue Chevy Chevelle. It had a 220-horsepower, 283-cubic-inch V8 engine. The fiercest I’d ever driven, and had that manual shift feature with the Turbo-Hydra-Matic transmission they was always toutin’ on the television. I polished her every day. She was my everything, her and June that is. She wasn’t no habit, she was a parta my life. June never understood my love for the car, she said it was “just a machine.” It really grinded my gears.
June started wantin’ to be near me at all times, it was suffocatin’ me. She said she thought I loved the car more than her, and I could never argue with her. The day of the incident we was at her parents’ house watchin’ our favorite show “Happy Days” waitin’ to pick up Summer from school. June was always wantin’ to talk about havin’ a love like Joanie and Chachi, but I just wanted to play it cool like that Fonzie guy did.
“You know, Greg Burche and Sarah Hines are fixin’ to get married in the summer,” her eyes were fulla’ butterflies. “I heard he got her a diamond ring. I hope one day someone’s heart is full for me like that.”
“Oh yeah? That’s real nice,” I kept staring at the TV hopin she’d change the damn subject. She was hintin’ to me more than she ever had before, and I just wanted to ignore it.
“So what, you just gonna say nothin?” she said as her eyes started to swell up. She put one hand on her chest and the other on my arm. “I don’t know if you’re just scared, or if this has somethin’ to do with your daddy, but you gotta’ let me know. I want you to be mine forever. I love you, and I wanna’ take care of you.”
“I love you too,” I pushed my hair back with my fingers and took the word “forever” with a grain of salt. She didn’t believe me. She stormed off and slammed the already broken door to her room shut.
We’d been together for five years. After high school I thought life was over. You just get married and have a family, ya get boring. The wife cooks and takes care of the kids, while the husband goes to work nine to five, workin a little overtime when ya need an extra buck. Then ya grow old and wish you was still a kid. Maybe I didn’t love her, or maybe I didn’t know I did yet. Whatever it was, I was confused. These were not such “happy days.”
June came rushin’ into the livin’ room with rage in her face. She pushed me backward with all her might, knockin’ me off the couch and onto the dirty carpet. I laid on the ground the most confused I’d ever been. I figured she was pissed, but maybe it was some sorta’ playful fight? We usually did stuff like that. I looked up to see her with tears streamin’ down her cheeks, and all sortsa make-up smudges on her face. The seriousness of the situation started to sink in.
“What’s wrong baby? She said as she dangled the keys to my Chevelle above me. The sound was torture. “Is this somethin’ you’ll fight for? I didn’t know you was able to love.”
“You wouldn’t,” I stammered. Our eyes met in silence for a good long time. Neither of us was sure who was gonna make the first move, but she had the upper hand since I was on the ground and all. I abruptly struggled to get up, but she was too damn quick for me. She pushed me to the ground again and ran across the room with the keys jingling in hand. She slammed the screen door and was halfway to the car before I even had a chance to get off the ground. I heard the engine roar and watched as she sped away with my baby. In a flash she was gone.
June cranked the radio and flipped from station to station. Nothing seemed to satisfy her in that moment. She was whizzing past stop signs and breaking speed limits like she was one of those crooked rangers in town. When she got to the school she sped past the crosswalk. Then hurried her sister to get in the car.
“Hurry, let’s go. Mommas got supper ready at the house,” June lied.
“Why are you crying?” Summer pulled her polka dot dress down over her shiny red slippers as she trampled over the loose stuff in the front seat. “And supper already? Its only 4:00 o’clock.”
Summer didn’t wanna ask any more questions, probably because June wouldn’t answer them. The two were silent until they got to the Great River Road.
“What’s wrong June?” Summer had a frightened expression.
“Nothin’, nothin’ it’s just me and Eli. It’s nothin’.” June cried. She thought of his wavy black hair and his soft brown eyes. She thought of the faces he made when he didn’t understand something. She remembered his sweet voice. “I just need to go sit at the juniper for a little bit. It reminds me of the good times, or at least the ones we did have.”
June was sick of the radio, it was all just a buncha’ love songs that no one wanted to hear anyway. She reached in the glove compartment to look for a cassette, any cassette at all. She just wanted to have something to calm her nerves. She pulled out the first one she saw and jammed it into the cassette player. Just as she was starting to calm down, the cassette started to play a familiar tune.
“A well I bless my soul what’s wrong with me?” the lyrics on the tape began.
It was “All Shook Up.” The song immediately brought June into a high-pitched crazed scream, scaring the daylights out of Summer. She slammed her foot on the gas pedal and drove like nothing was important to her anymore. She wanted to forget it all, and everything it ever was. She wanted to go numb for once.
The juniper was now in plain view. June was crying and laughing hysterically at the same time. Snot was billowing from her nose and saliva was foaming out of her distraught mouth from whimpering so desperately.
“JUNE WE’RE GOING TOO FAST WE’LL CRASH IF YOU DON’T SLOW DOWN!!” Summer cried to her not so herself sister.
“Please don’t ask me what’s on my mind I’m a little mixed up, but I’m feelin’ fine,” the lryics echoed as the two collectively screamed. June was headed straight for the spot where JB & EL had been carved into the tree. She wanted to rid of it, forever. At least something in her life would be forever. The Chevy slammed violently into the juniper. The horn continued to blare as smoke and dust filled the air. The windows were all shattered with blood stain into a million pieces, the hood was smashed like an elephant had stomped on it, and the tree was beaten to a pulp, but the engraving of June and Eli’s names was untouched.
“I’m in love I’m all shook up Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!” the song continued. The tape malfunctioned as the words replayed over and over and over.
June’s parents wanted to sue me for all I was, and I wasn’t even in the car. My Chevelle was the least of my worries. I realized who my real “baby” was. June came out of the accident with as little as a scratch, but Summer was a different story. She’s paralyzed from the neck down now. I hear that some of the girls at school make fun of her just cos she can’t eat without somebody helpin’ her. A part a me feels like it’s my fault, but I’m just glad God was there lookin out for them.
I go to their doorstep every once in a while to try and talk to their daddy, but he always slams the door in my face. Sure, words they gon’ hurt, but hearin’ nothin’ at all hurts a whole lot worse. I have to walk there now since my car is gone. It’s not too bad, I only live a couple miles away.
I really wish I could go back in time and fix things, but what’s done is done. If I don’t ever get to tell someone I feel that four letter word for them again, at least I’ll know I still got hope. I could never blame June for anything that happened. It’s my fault. I gotta quit bein’ afraid a things that scare me. Sometimes I hear the kids in my wood-shop class at the local community college talk about her. They say she’s “crazy.” I guess we’re all a little crazy, or maybe we’re just crazy for somebody.
I woke up to the smell of nicotine, Wyatt was shaken’ me uncontrollably.
“Wake up,” he kicked me in the ribs. I could smell the moonshine on his breath. He took another quick swig. “We been asleep forever, we should start headin’ back now. The wolves be comin’ out at night.”
I didn’t wanna tell him that all I could think of was June. I’d been dreamin’ about her, and it wasn’t no nightmare. This trip to the Juniper was supposa’ help me get over it, but all it did was make me think. I like thinkin’.
“I can’t stop thinkin’ about June, Wyatt,” I said. “You were the one who told me to go numb for once. I wanna’ put everything behind me and try to start over.”
Wyatt glared at me as he dragged the last bit of his cigarette. The weather was gettin’ bad. I haven’t seen wind like that since that damn tornado storm some six years ago. He put out the cigarette on the engraving of me and June’s names, showin’ his thoughts on the matter. He started to walk back without sayin’ anything at all. I just sat and watched him pace away.
“WYATT” I yelled before he got too far. He stopped in his tracks and came toward me.
“I’m done with this shit Eli, get over it. If you loved her you woulda’ let her know,” he said.
I looked down at my feet, he was right.
“But I did tell her I loved her,” I didn’t know what I was sayin’.
“Anyone can do that Eli,” Wyatt explained. “But you gotta’ actually mean it. You can’t just say it. We ain’t in high school no more Eli.”
My sadness turned into guilt, and my confusion turned into hate.
“You’re a drunk, why can’t I go chasin’ after her Wyatt? Why?” I wanted an answer, but I didn’t mean to call him that. Maybe he was right, maybe I did just say things I didn’t mean.
“It ain’t about the chase Eli, it’s findin’ the catch,” It was the most soberin’ thing a drunk person had ever said to me. He was my best friend.
I opened my mouth to try and say sorry to Wyatt but was interrupted by a crackling sound nearby. We looked at each other, aware that somethin’ was amuck. I suppose the wind had taken its toll on my beloved tree. It’d had its time. The juniper broke in half and was crashing towards us with the force of a runaway freight train. I had to react quickly. I tackled a drunken Wyatt to the ground away from the big hunk of earth that I’d had such an attachment to for so long.
“Thanks,” Wyatt said with a wide eyed drunken’ expression. It’s crazy that Wyatt can help me get over somethin’ so quick with just his words, but a near death experience comes as nothin’ to him. It was just another day in the woods for Wyatt. The simple “thanks,” was all I needed.
I got up and frantically looked around the tree to see if I could find me and June’s names. If it was gone I don’t know what I’d do with myself. It was the last thing I had to remember our time together, and it wasn’t even mine. I wanted to carve it out and keep it for myself, but I wouldn’t wanna do that to Mother Nature. She’s got feeling too, ya know. There it was on the other side of the tree, unharmed. I coulda’ cried in that moment. I hadn’t cried for a couple a years, but I think it was time. I went numb, I was starting over. Wyatt saw my face wet with tears for the first time in a long time. He put his arm around me as we started walkin’ up the hill together.
(But the good ones stick around.)
“You don’t gotta’ eat no more berries if you don’t wanna’ Eli,” He looked embarrased. “You ain’t gotta do nothing you don’t wanna do. I was wrong, I’m sorry.”
“No you were right,” I replied. “I gotta take more chances, otherwise nothin’s gonna happen, ya know?”
We continued to walk for some time past the mulberry bushes and all the shrubs. A raccoon scurried past us. We could hear the wolves startin’ to howl, but we brushed it off like we didn’t hear it. We were fearless.
“Wyatt, why do you think June hangs out with that Bobby Winston guy? He’s not any better than me is he?” I asked. I wanted to get it all out.
“No one’s better than anybody Eli,” he said. “There’s just always that time in our lives when we long for somebody who don’t deserve us.”
I smiled at Wyatt, who returned a quick smirk back at me. I didn’t deserve June and neither did Bobby Winston.
We made it back to Wyatt’s truck and drove to the Husk for some burgers. The bar was empty, I guess Tuesdays just aren’t their night.
“You know Eli, I think I’m gonna’ try and be a better daddy,” Wyatt said with a serious kinda’ voice. “I been tellin’ you to try all these new things out, when I just been doin’ whatever I wanted for my entire life. My family needs me, and I ain’t been there.”
“Good for you Wyatt, good for you,” I said. “Thanks for helpin’ me go numb for once.” We raised our frosty mugs and made a toast.
“Here’s to you Eli,” Wyatt said. “You’ll find your catch. I just know it.”
You can’t just shy away the people that love you. What’s the point if you ain’t all in anyway? I find it hard to believe that we don’t all have somethin’ to give back to the world, I think we each should have a part in it. We can truly only be as good as we believe we are. I’ve accepted that I’m gonna’ get married and start a family, I’ve accepted that I will get “boring”. I know I’ll work nine to five with a little bitta’ overtime here and there to earn an extra buck. I know I’ll grow old with somebody. I just wanna be somebody’s somebody. I do love June Bidwell, and I mean it. I do want to remember the happy days with her. I do want to take care of her forever, but I want to deserve her. I’m done bein’ afraid a things that scare me. I may be all shook up, but I know there’s nothin’ to worry about. I think we’re all a little crazy. We’re crazy for somebody.