Even though this conversation happened when I was a boy, I can clearly hear the words and see the smile of a woman who shared her love story.
A Remedy for Nightmares and a Troubled Mind
At age twelve, my walk through the woods from my grandparents’ country log cabin to the highway took about twenty minutes. You could set your watch by the accuracy of the Trailways bus running from Quitman, Georgia, to Valdosta, Georgia, so I started walking early enough to give myself some cushion. I also planned on that hot day to spend a nickel and buy an RC Cola at the country store near the bus stop. The middle-age woman behind the counter and I agreed that “it sure enough is hot enough,” and I took a seat on the porch and waited for my ride. She joined me, with her own cola, and after some small talk, she told me something she wanted to share on that day.
She said . . .
Ididn’t sleep too good last night. Generally, I don’t have trouble falling asleep, ’cause my bedtime is when I feel sleepy. I don’t need no clock or a shot of anything to tell me when it’s time to get some sleep; other parts of my body tell me when it’s time to rest, and last night it was my ankles that started to hurt, and they kept on hurting, even after I rubbed on some of that liniment that gave me some soothing when my knee ached. Funny thing about the body, if one part won’t work, another part takes over. Last night I felt so miserable that it didn’t matter which other part took over, I just wanted enough comfort to let me get some sleep. One thing I do know; it sure wasn’t my brain, ’cause when I did fall asleep my mind took me through a nightmare that caused me to toss and turn until I couldn’t take it no more, and I just got up and walked the floor, mostly on the good ankle, thinking about my Willie James. I always think about my Willie James when things ain’t right. I sure do miss him. He’s been dead now longer than the amount of days we played with each other and did things that won’t do no good for me trying to talk about, ’cause I ain’t got no words good enough for our love, which still comforts me when I’m weary. And so, when my body acts up and aches here and there, I just fix my mind on my memories of me and my Willie James, and pretty soon I hear the sound of his voice, and when he calls my name everything else in my body pays attention, and when he calls me ‘sugar,’ every vein in my body knows where to take the sound of his sweet lips to where I need the relief.
Long before I knew him, I did the best I could on my job at the pecan factory, but my wits were shaky, and my body cycles were out of whack. I had a powerful yearning for somebody to love me. But nobody I knew around here was worth a count, so I just did my best and found some comfort in prayer. The other thing that helped keep me steady was my visits to the cemetery every Sunday. After church I would strike out walking and pass the saw-mill where my pa worked for thirty-two years, and on to the cemetery to visit for a spell with him and Mama. I took real pride in how I kept the weeds from covering their tombstones. On Saturday during the season for gladiolas, I would go down to the Big Star grocery store and get a nice bunch of gladiolas and arrange them in a porcelain vase that my mama said belonged to her mama, and I placed the vase up near where my mama’s head is resting. Then, when I was at my lowest, God sent my Willie James to me.
One day, as I walked through another part of the cemetery, I saw a man who politely said, “Howdy,” and I answered, “And to you too.” Now, there ain’t no way for me to try and make sense to you how his eyes made me feel, but it was like a fresh cool breeze on a hot day, and I started to walk home with a little sprint in my step. About two blocks away I looked back and saw him still in the cemetery, and I just turned around and went back to him. He looked almost like he expected me, and when he said, “Howdy again,” I asked him, “Mind if I sit down a spell?” We just sat there, not saying a word for a long time, each of us seeming to just enjoy being close to somebody without talking, but when we looked at each other, there was no mistaking that we were comfortable with each other.
Finally, I said: “Mister with the pretty eyes, what’s your name?”
He smiled and said, “Lady with the dimple in your cheeks, you give me a name, and I won’t let anybody else use it.”
I just thought that was so pretty and special; him saying I will be something to you that I won’t be to nobody else. It almost gave me chills. We continued to just sit there in silence, until I finally asked him: “Will you be my Willie James?”
He just lay back on the grass and laughed, and then he said: “Tell you what; I’ll be your Willie James if you be my Angie. That way; when we come across each other in some other company, we’ll still be strangers.”
And so, not to draw suspicion on why we were spending so much time together in, of all places, the cemetery on a Sunday afternoon, my Willie James took a rake and a hoe from his truck, and we spent about an hour hoeing and raking around other folks’ graves. My Willie James finally said it was time to go. I reminded him that we had missed some graves, and he knew what I meant, so he asked if we could take care of them next week. I told him I would let his Angie know her schedule for next Sunday. Walking home that day was one of the happiest strolls of my life, ’cause I just felt the urge to see a man who let me give him a name for myself, and who called me something special to himself.
But guess what! Wouldn’t you know it, the next Sunday a heavy cloud hung overhead a little after morning services, but I had a bunch of gladiolas for mama, and I wanted to see my Willie James, so I rushed to the cemetery. He wasn’t there. Oh, I felt so downhearted. After I put new flowers in the vase, it started to drizzle, and I started home in a trot, disappointed and dejected. Then I heard a horn, and I turned to see my Willie James’s truck speeding toward me. When I jumped inside, neither of us said a word, we just grabbed each other and hugged and kissed like we were silly, and then we started giggling. We just sat there hoping it would rain until next Sunday.
We also worked out a plan to see each other in places and at times of our choosing. We decided to meet every Thursday night, at nine o’clock, in the cemetery. I can’t tell you what was in some of the pecans I packed on Wednesday and Thursday, ’cause my clock and my mind was ticking to nine o’clock Thursday, when my Willie James and his Angie, two people apart from everybody else, would meet and just give every ounce of ourselves to each other, without pretense or explanation. Then, one night about nine-thirty as we sat on the grass in the cemetery, we saw somebody with a flashlight shining about and headed in our direction. My Willie James told me to get in the truck, and he moved closer to meet the person, ready as he could be for confrontation. It was a man, and he told my Willie James that he observed us last week, and that he wanted to offer us another private place. He was the night watchman at the railroad yards where the boxcars and cabooses were stored. He said on any given Thursday we had our choice of any caboose from dusk to dawn. On the next Thursday, my Willie James and his Angie had a night picnic in a caboose with markings that read Atlantic Coast Line.
For the next six months we switched back-n-forth between my Willie James’s truck, the cemetery, and the rail yard, just two lovers who created a world so special and personal that we left our true names and identity outside.
But as you know, time and circumstances bring everything to an end. My Willie James told me to prepare for it. He told me he had a bad heart, and his doctor told him it was running close to the end. He also told me that where we first sat together, next to his papa’s grave, is where he planned to be buried. When he told me that, we just sat in silence, just as we had done the day we promised something special for each other.
Less than a month later my Willie James went to sleep in this world, and he woke up in heaven. I don’t mourn his passing, ’cause he won’t ever leave me.”
She stopped talking, and just fixed a stare in a direction that I imagined was where she could almost see her Willie James. After a while she said softly, “I just hope everybody could love somebody that much in a lifetime. It sure is a good remedy for nightmares, and it makes everything else feel better.”
As the bus approached, we waved goodbye and shared glances. I can still hear her valediction: “See ya.”
This story first appeared in I Wish You Had Been There, Sharing Memories of an Exciting Life, which I published in 2013.