A BRIEF COMMUNIQUE
by Avery L. Weeks
There is a place where the mighty Sierra Nevada, brooding and barren, pushes its bulk south from Reno into the lush alpine meadows of the California Sierra. That place is called Hallelujah Junction. Its roads choked with thick red dust in the summer, bogged with heavy mud when it rains, its winters vast canopies of white lying placid and cold across the land accentuating the bleakness of the square wood-frame houses, concealing the ugly litter of neglected yards -- a whiteness mercifully reaching skyward to blunt the sharp contours of the harsh black boulders belched eons ago from the bowels of the earth to the tops of these Sierra gargantuans, imperial guardians of the valleys hugging protectively to their sides the snow-covered red-limbed manzanita, pungent sage, massive cottonwood, fir and pine.
Her citizens ill-concealed caricatures of the troubled humanity wrenched from the tormented psyche of a multitude of literary interpreters of faded Americana, a people out of step and out of place in their own time, their decency assaulted by the compromise of life calling forth emotional responses little understood, chilling the intrinsic warmth of their being and rendering them inarticulate and idiosyncratic.
Emily Beckworth, born Emily Collens forty-five years ago at the old house on Grizzly Mesa where Highway 339 and 70 intercept -- a cautious-mannered woman, moving hesitantly as though discomfited by her own presence, her arms most of the time lay folded across her stomach in an unconscious attempt at hiding that portion of her body which bloated beyond the rest of her slender frame, her sallow features immobilized by the cancerous accumulations of a bitter past, her facial skin drawn and firmly secured with the trauma of those malignant forces emerging through the years in twisted shapes and forms -- forces she no longer had the resource or will to surmount.
Hallelujah Junction had been her life.
On a Sunday morning twenty-seven years ago at the yellow-and-white nondenominational church, in a room oppressed with the smell of sweet-scented sage and lilac, she married the catch of the Junction, honest hardworking millhand Harvey Beckworth, and gave birth to his children -- the girl Lucy, the deaf-mute Timmie, Pete and Jody. Then one year, in what was the coldest and wettest spring since ’45, snow fell on the apple blossoms and the big lake up at the timber line stayed frozen until May. That was the year pneumonia suffocated the life from eight year-old Lucy, and Emily and Harvey’s son Pete, thin and pale, tossed restlessly in a bed at the sprawling Sierra County Hospital -- stared vacantly at the bare walls and died. Tuberculosis, the doctor said.
Emily tightened her jaw and somehow survived the death of her kids. But Harvey, broken and withdrawn, took to his bed and refused to leave it. Then one still morning, as the sun broke along Wheeler Ridge, suddenly his heart stopped beating. Coronary occlusion, complicated by arteriolosclerosis, the doctor said. Emily’s lips moved slowly over the words.
The town gained its subsistence from the lumber mill and on a faded winter afternoon, while Emily was shopping at the company store, Daisy McElroy came screaming toward her. Timmie, who never knew the sad sound of the wind across the mountain or the joy of human laughter, had slipped silently into the murky recesses of the mill pond. With the three year-old Jody in her arms, Emily journeyed once again to the Junction cemetery, located up the hill from the new highway -- a desolate acre of rocky terrain confronted on the north by the foreboding Sierra Nevada, and on the south it ghoulishly guarded the ram-shackled little town of Hallelujah Junction.
Daisy McElroy, who made everybody’s business her business, said, “My Lord, she just sat there dry-eyed. Not one tear did she shed. I swear that woman’s made of stone.”
When through the years Emily’s rationale for existence failed her, Jody was the substance that supplied the spiritual nutrients needed for her survival.
Struggling for release from the prison of her stoicism, she tried to show him the things of life, the wonder of the seasons as they came, the brilliant blue of the lupine that frolicked along the swollen streams in spring. And that special feel of an early summer morning. And there were autumn days so rich and creamy -- Jody, in a moment of childish exuberance cried, “ Mama, they’es so pretty we could eat ‘em with a spoon.”
Had Emily’s desperate attachment to Jody required a unit of measurement, it would have equalled all the forms of measurement at man’s command and the distance they were capable of computing.
Jody turned eighteen -- handsome as a spring colt. Blond and stocky, he projected an aura of well-scrubbed amiability, that rosy-cheeked illumination benevolently bestowed upon the faces of the rural young. Shy and well-thought-of, but like his mother, verbal communication was achieved with difficulty.
Jody had gone to the Betencourts and Emily anxiously awaited his return. A letter had come and it worried her. Suddenly she flushed with anger, “Bet he’s with that Betencourt girl...”
She was ashamed. She had no reason not to like Tina Betencourt, Andy Betencourt’s visiting niece. But she did not like her. She wanted Jody to better himself -- try college -- get out of the Junction. And each girl he met was a threat to that. Emily didn’t want the mill to swallow him as it had his father and all the other men in Hallelujah Junction.
Jody arrived, and Emily, busy with supper, pointed to the letter. She watched apprehensively as he opened it.
“What is it, son?”
Without lifting his eyes or changing expression he said, “My induction notice.”
Consumed by a moment of material tenderness, she moved to him, lifted her arms in a clumsy attempt at affection but dropped them in anguish to her side. It had been years since she had touched Jody and both were embarrassed.
Emily arose at six and started breakfast. The Greyhound was due at eight-thirty sharp and Jody had to be on it. There was a lunch to make and his suitcase to pack.
She followed him through the house on to the wide screened porch.
Emily spoke in short inept phrases, “Don’t get tired”...”I’ll do fine”...”Write me now”...”Do you think”...”Don’t get in trouble”...”I’ll do fine”...
To this constant stream of unnatural chatter Jody’s response as he started down the walk was an uneasy “Yes Mama...don’t worry Mama.”
“Don’t get your clothes dirty,” Emily shouted. “And I don’t want you playing down at the river!”
Shaken by her outburst and the illusion of the small blond child her voice had pursued down the walk, befuddlement engulfed her.
Jody turned quizzically and sadly said, “I’ll write, Mama.”
“I...I mean”...and her voice became inaudible as Jody continued toward the highway.
Haunted for a lifetime by the specter of madness -- she was a Collens and three of the Collens’ women had died in the grey stone asylum at Clarksville.
A warm wind blew from the south as she fled the house in panic. Reaching the graveyard she rushed among the tombstones to the family plot. Her words tumbled out in rapid profusion...
“He’s gone, Harvey. Jody’s gone. You’re all gone, Harvey -- all of you. I never could talk, Harvey. I passed it on to my kids...all I wanted was to say ‘I love you’ and I couldn’t do that.” Emily collapsed to her knees and huge tears cascaded down her face.
The church exploded with activity. The Hallelujah Junction chapter of the Ladies Christian Social Committee were busy decorating the chapel for Grandma Bloomingdale’s funeral. For more years than most Junctionites could remember, she had provided the faith that kept the congregation together. It was to her the people turned in crisis -- more so than to the tight-lipped fundamentalist, the Reverend Greenley. He officiated at their rituals but Grandma administered to their emotional needs, and the church members were dedicated to the task of laying her away properly.
Working on his sermon for the event, the Reverend Greenley squinted in the dim light as Emily entered his dingy office. She startled him, and his tone was not friendly.
“What can I do for you, Sister Beckworth?”
“Excuse me, Reverend Greenley, but I heard on the radio...something about...what they called...here, I’ve written it here.”
Emily searched her pocket, recovered a torn slip of paper and repeated the three words she’d written there.
“Sole surviving son. It’s about the war...the draft. I’d like Jody home. I wonder...”
Emily sensed his irritation and her question remained unspoken.
Reverend Greenley placed his pen on the littered table in an inadvertent show of agitation. Making little effort to conceal his exasperation, he pedantically replied, “Sister Beckworth, I am taking my ministry to Susanville Wednesday the 8th. The Karl Stratten’s have kindly requested me to officiate at their daughter’s wedding. My schedule is crowded but I will talk to the men at the draft board about your situation.”
Emily, delighted with what she believed to be the Reverend Greenley’s interest in bringing Jody home, excused herself and returned to the Ladies Christian Committee and their flower arrangements.
The Reverend Greenley promptly forgot about Emily, the draft board, and Jody.
Emily whiled away the summer on community projects -- rummage sales, cake bakes. Money was always needed. The voluntary fire department was in the throe of raising money for a new truck. The Tucker family down at Clear Creek had been burned out.
Winter came slowly. Emily surveyed the endless miles of frozen ground. Holding Jody’s letter she turned to Mom Taylor who was busily shoving the pasty preparations for the bakery sale into the hot oven. Glancing at the letter, then out the kitchen window, and in reality the conversation was with herself.
She drawled, “He says it’s hot there...the radio this morning said it’s ten thousand miles from here...he says the girls there are pretty...”
A fleeting embarrassed smile flickered across her face as Mom Taylor’s sharp “Hump” conveyed her displeasure. Mom had no use for those “coons” down in the mill houses or those “back-stabbing, slant-eyed orientals” and the harsh guttural sound she emitted made Emily sorry she’d revealed Jody’s feelings about the foreign girls.
It was never a part of Mom Taylor’s logic, nor would she ever be cognizant to the fact that this disdained blood was seeping into the humid, jungle soil in total harmony with the blood of her “blond blue-eyed real Americans” -- a phrase she used on every one with the slightest opportunity.
It would soon be time to plant the garden, and next week when Red Harder drove to Oriville, Emily thought she’d send for some baby chickens. Last spring’s turned out to be mostly roosters and her laying hens were getting old. Emily filled her mind with the garden, quilting parties, chickens. But inexorably woven through each quilt, each garden planting, each laying hen, was the sudden painful remembrance of Jody and then the omnipresent question -- had the Reverend Greenley talked to the draft men in Susanville? She’d made up her mind, even though, as she said “he gave her the fidgets”, she’d ask this Sunday morning.
Emily had been up all night with Lizzie Stratten, whose husband Bill was attending the Stockmen’s meeting in Susanville, Lizzie had a fever.
It was now 1:00 p.m. and the letter lay unopened on the dining room table. Its presence was a burden on her soul but she dare not touch it.
Mechanically she answered the knock at the door. Grasping the door frame for support, the smoothly tailored ribbon-bedecked uniform spun dizzily in her mind. She remembered he said he was sorry...
Daisy McElroy thought it scandalous that she had refused the use of the church. But Emily insisted on a grave side service.
An early morning rain threatened to turn the hill white with snow as the funeral procession came to pay its due for having known Jody. If there were any thoughts of guilt or acquiescence it would not show, and the ritual of death, the military would dance around the moist open pit would make it all rational, and one and all would be proud to be Americans.
The rain subsided and the Reverend Greenley clutched his bible and stepped to the front of the casket.
“We ask not, dear Lord, that you reveal to us God’s divine plan. For we, Lord, are not worthy of this knowledge. We know there are reasons for our suffering. The mark of the beast is on God’s enemies, and dear blessed God, those of us who trod the path of righteousness have a holy commitment to oppose the infidel -- the ungodly anti-Christ. We ask your blessing on the widowed mother.”
The Reverend Greenley’s solemn rhetoric no longer a part of her consciousness, Emily’s eyes were fixed on the sealed flag-draped box three feet from her chair. She tried to perceive his face, just as she tried a thousand times since they brought his body home. She wondered had his face been injured? And once again that thought was too painful. She wondered if he’d called out for her? The paper said some dying boys had cried for their mothers...
A melancholy horn sounded taps as the flag was taken from the coffin, folded, and gently placed across her lap. She stood abruptly, dispatching the carefully compressed colors into the fresh dirt. Her body trembled. She folded and refolded her arms across her stomach, then let them fall in rapid uncontrolled movements. Her voice, like the cry of a wounded snowbird, screeched its disbelief. Propelled by awkward jerking motions, she lurched past the silent mourners, many of whom extended their arms as if to embrace the sobbing woman. She proceeded down the windy path unaware of her neighbor’s gentle gestures.
Emily’s sole determination was to reach the comfort of her house. Taking the short-cut across Stratten’s meadows, past the abandoned schoolhouse, she stopped in confusion at its gate. The old whitewashed building stood vacant and solitary overwhelmed by the broad expanse of meadow and the spiraling peaks at its side. The wind was rising and it gently nudged the tower bell as it softly vibrated with the sound of metal against metal.
She looked down at Jody.
“Go on in...go on now.”
It was his first day at school and he was reluctant. Her voice grew stern and her face clouded.
“Jody, I said go in right now!”
The small disconsolate figure ran to the door, started to return, but Emily impatiently waved him in. The bewildered boy, with one final glance, disappeared through the heavy lacquered door.
A terrified scream emerged from the distraught woman and images of Jody swam out of focus while she tried desperately to put her finger on the reality of that day.
Instead of taking the path home, she turned with resoluteness and headed up the mountain toward Big Lake. She had lived her life in these mountains and knew if she climbed high enough and fast enough, fluid would fill her lungs and the need to think would be ended. Pulmonary edema due to oxygen insufficiency and exhaustion, the doctors would say...
The Hallelujah Junction Bulletin that afternoon contained a brief communique. It read:
“Our casualties were light. Just one boy died today.”