The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Barbara Nishimoto “Identifying Trees”


Andrew and Deborah were driving south on the Natchez Trace. They didn’t expect to get as far as Natchez or even to Tupelo. They were only out for a Saturday drive, traveling slowly and enjoying the fall weather. They stopped at the overlooks to admire the view, and they hiked a few of the easy trail loops. It was sunny and cool, and there was the rich smell of the damp earth and pine and decaying leaves. Above their heads the light flickered through the branches.

Deborah was hoping to have the chance to use her tree identification book. Since retiring she had thought of it as a project she could take on. But she was having trouble even distinguishing the types of leaves. “They all look toothed to me,” she complained to Andrew. “Would you say that was compound?” She knew her husband wasn’t really listening to her, knew he was happy that she was occupied with something that didn’t require his attention or participation. She had developed the habit of asking, “What was best about today? What was your favorite?” Little tricks to coax. “You’re just humoring me,” she used to shout at him. Deborah paused in front of a scaly barked tree. The memory of all those arguments. She marveled at how angry she had been. Surely the neighbors had heard. “Unbelievable,” she whispered. Andrew turned back to her, waited. “What’s that one?” Deborah shrugged, “I can’t tell.”

In the afternoon they pulled off the Trace into a little town. “No chance of finding any franchises here,” Andrew mumbled. Across from a restored train depot was a narrow wooden building. Mom’s Family Restaurant. For some reason the place was built on stilts, the windows some ten feet above the small parking lot. A wooden ramp led up to the entrance.

As she walked from their car Deborah heard a woman’s voice. Parked close to the foot of the ramp was an old Taurus. The windows were down, and Deborah could see a woman in the shadows sitting in the passenger seat. “I’m almost there,” the woman said. “I’m stopping for lunch now, but I’ll be there by tonight.” She lifted her head and laughed, and because there was no one else around, Deborah assumed the woman was talking on her Bluetooth.

The restaurant was small and low ceilinged with plywood paneled walls. The linoleum was warped and spongy, and the dozen or so tables were covered with shabby oil cloths. Deborah heard the clatter of a pan and turned and saw a large window, a pass-through, that looked into the kitchen. “Sit wherever you want,” a woman called out. Her back was to them, and she flipped her hand as though brushing at a piece of lint. “Mom,” Andrew whispered.

The only other customers were two women seated at a table in the middle of the restaurant. One of them glanced up at Deborah, smiled, gave a quick little nod, and then looked back at her companion. The woman had short gray hair that curled around her chubby, friendly face. She was wearing white plastic earrings and a beaded necklace to match, and she kept fussing with her companion’s table setting — aligning the silverware, pushing the water glass closer to the plate and then moving it farther away. Her companion kept her head down, apparently focused entirely on her meal. She was younger and thinner, and she was in a wheelchair.

Deborah and Andrew sat at a table by a window; she could see the little train depot and the base of the town’s water tower. There was a dusty mirror mounted on one of the walls, and Deborah could see the reflection of the other customers and the back of Andrew’s head.

“This ought to be good,” her husband sighed. “I don’t know what they’ll have for you.”

Deborah opened her tree identification book. She had placed a leaf as a marker, and now she held it up to him. “See if you can find the picture that matches this.”

Without looking he pointed at the book. “That one,” he smiled.

For a moment Deborah wondered how they must look to the gentle woman and her companion. She and Andrew were old, had been together a long time, and she thought that somehow they each had sunk deep inside themselves. Just like the stereotype.

“Come on.” She smiled, knew she was performing. “Help me. I can’t find it.”

“You’ll get it.” He picked up the menu, squinted as he read down the page. “Probably just takes time. Be patient.”

The door opened, and the woman from the Taurus stepped into the restaurant. “Is there a restroom in here?” She was dressed in a chambray shirt and mannish trousers. “Oh, never mind. I see it.” She turned to the women, laughed. “How could I miss it?” Her voice was loud, almost harsh. She had a sharp straight nose and clear skin, and her gray-blonde hair was carelessly tied back with a bandanna. There was something sloppy and jiggly and loose about the way she moved as if she were braless and had no muscle tone.

When the woman opened the bathroom door Deborah could see the toilet and sink, and even when the door was closed she could hear the sound of the woman relieving herself, running the water. She glanced at Andrew, but he seemed oblivious.

The woman came out of the bathroom and began walking around the perimeter of the restaurant. She paused to study the wall clock and went on to read a framed document hanging close to the pass-through. Then she leaned through the opening, hands clasped behind her, “I’ll take a glass of water and some kind of salad. Nothing over five dollars. I’m traveling on a budget. Three fifty would be closer to what I want to spend.” She straightened, turned back to face the restaurant, and Deborah instinctively ducked her head, hunched her shoulders.

But the woman decided to sit at a table next to the other two customers. “I’m Reverend Belinda.” She sounded a bit breathless as she scooted her chair too close and then had to inch it back.

The other woman put her hand to her mouth to cover her chewing; she bobbed her head. “Judith. This is Tiffany.”

“You heading north or south?”

“We’re just enjoying the weather.”

“I’m on a pilgrimage traveling all the way from Mississippi. Hope to get to Nashville by dinner. Think I’ll make it?”

“You should,” said Judith.

“Traveling all alone, but I’m not worried. I’m like Sarah Palin.” The Reverend chuckled, cupped her hands on the edge of the table and leaned back. “Lock and load.”

Andrew drew a breath and sighed. He turned to the window, gave a slight shake to his head.
“I’m not what you call a women’s libber now. I don’t do any of that. But I do like Sarah. She keeps those boys in line.” She kept turning her head, watching each woman as though looking for something in their expressions. “You like Sarah?”

“Mmm,” the older woman said.

“Mama Grizzly.” She sat back, stared at the woman in the wheelchair and smiled. “Actually,” the Reverend said, “I’m a healing minister. I pray for people, and it helps them. I have some pamphlets in my car.” She paused, leaned forward, tried to make eye contact though the younger woman’s head was bowed. “May I ask how you injured your back? Or is it your legs, or maybe your neck?”

“It’s not an injury,” Judith said. “She has MS.”

“Oh,” the Reverend nodded. “Does it bother her to talk about it?”

“No. It’s just she’s very shy.”

“You shy, Sweetie?” The Reverend ducked her head, leaned closer to Tiffany. “I could pray for you. That’s what I do. I pray for people. I could pray for her.”

“Oh.” Judith drew a breath.

The Reverend bent forward, her chest almost touching her knees. Both hands were atop Tiffany’s wrist. Her eyes were closed, her lips were moving, but Deborah couldn’t hear any of the prayer. The young woman was motionless, hands in her lap, her head still bowed. Judith’s eyes were open, her brow furrowed. She too was leaning towards Tiffany, her hand gripped around her companion’s thin forearm. The Reverend finished, straightened slowly and lifted her arms, palms up. Smooth brow and slight smile. Her eyes were still closed. For a moment she was a young woman again, and Deborah saw that she had once been pretty. The Reverend held that pose, drew a deep breath then opened her eyes. She placed both hands on Tiffany’s. “I’ll pray for you always.”

Andrew tapped her fingers, and Deborah turned to face him.

“If you like I could also perform an anointment. It’s a special part of my ministry.”

Judith stood, fumbled with her purse then put a hand on her companion’s shoulder. She bent forward as if to whisper in the younger woman’s ear.

“It wouldn’t take very long,” the Reverend said. “I have some healing tokens in my car and some literature you might be interested in.” She swiveled, her hands on the back of her chair as though she might push herself out of her seat and follow the two women. “I help people, that’s part of my ministry. I help people.”

Judith stopped at the register, placed some bills on the counter. “Thank you,” she called into the kitchen. “We’re leaving.” The cook came to the pass-through, stood with her hands on her hips. “All right then.”

“Do you need some help with the door?” the Reverend asked. “Here, let me help with the door. Please.”

“We’re fine.”


Judith had her hands on the handles of her companion’s chair. She pivoted and began to back towards the door. “No, Dear. You stay where you are. We don’t need any help.” Her voice was gentle and sweet as if she were talking to a young child, but she did not look at the Reverend. Instead she seemed to stare at the top of Tiffany’s head.

For that moment Tiffany was fully visible. Her face was very thin and pale, her long fingers oddly curled, clasped in her lap. She stared at the Reverend, frowned, her eyes ticking over the other woman’s face and shabby clothes. Then she lowered her gaze and was expressionless again, frozen, even as her chair bumped across the threshold.

The door closed, and in the silence Deborah heard footsteps on the ramp. The Reverend stood and began to move about the room again. Deborah looked at Andrew; he rubbed his forehead, pursed his lips then smiled. “I’ll protect you,” he whispered.

“Remember,” the Reverend called into the kitchen, “just ice water and a salad. I’m on a tight budget.” She turned and faced the room, and Deborah lowered her gaze from the mirror; she was sure the woman was staring at them. But the Reverend didn’t approach, instead she returned to her table. She sat with hands folded, head bowed in prayer; and for the rest of the time as Deborah and Andrew placed their order, were served and finally finished their meal in the uncomfortable silence, the Reverend sat staring at the wall, sipping her water and leaving her salad untouched.

Andrew placed his hand on the small of Deborah’s back as they left the restaurant and walked down the ramp. They passed the Taurus, and Deborah stopped, stooped to look in through the dusty windows. Laundry baskets and shopping bags stuffed with clothes and towels and dishes were piled in the backseat. Plastic and wire hangers and wadded up panties and T-shirts littered the floor.

“Jesus,” Andrew said.

“I wonder why she didn’t talk to us?” Deborah shrugged, felt a little sheepish. “I was sure she would.”

“She was nuts.”

“Maybe we don’t seem so kind.”

Andrew snorted, unlocked their car. “She better put a move on if she wants to get to Nashville tonight.”

They pulled out of the lot, followed the signs back to the Trace. The car was stuffy, and Deborah opened her window. She leaned back against the seat, stared up through the tinted glass at the blue sky and wisps of clouds. “I liked our lunch.”

“I did.”

“She sure chased those other two out of there.”

She smiled, “You’ll protect me?”

“She didn’t sit by us, did she?”

Years ago he had come to Virginia after she finished her course at the university. It was silly; their friends had rolled their eyes. Two cars, driving back separately. In the time before cells he had signaled the need for a gas stop by waving his arm out his window. Not flamboyant, he could never do such. Straight armed, a slight wiggle to his fingers. After filling up they had parked, sipped bottled water, and Deborah had laughed and fallen into him. “It was your signal to me,” she giggled, and all the way home to Tennessee Andrew kept repeating the gesture. She remembered seeing his head tilt to look back at her through the rearview, and now in her memory she saw his dark eyes and brows, and she couldn’t help herself, and turned to the window and kept smiling and smiling, holding onto that memory, filling up with it, why she didn’t know.

“Look at all the trees,” Andrew said. “You’re missing your chance. Shall I stop?”

“I only know two trees. A maple and an oak.”

“The magnolia.”

Deborah laughed. “Three.” She closed her eyes, felt she could fall asleep. She liked feeling the motion of the car, the warm sun on her face and throat, the slight cool breeze from the open window. “It’s just it wasn’t what I first thought,” Deborah said. “Do you think none of it was true?” she asked softly. “And if none of it was true, who do you feel sorry for most of all?”