Southern Legitimacy Statement: Southern since ’63 with no plans to change.
What a Jezebel Looks Like
If I never say nothing else in my life that’s true, they’s one thing I can say for sure and be satisfied about it: Men is dogs and always have been dogs and always will be dogs. And that’s that! Look at your Bible. Look at your history. Look at the way men has done women from all the way back yonder to all the way up here, in the year nineteen-forty-seven! I don’t have time to list ‘em all. Let me just say that the worst hounds in the pack undoubtedly belong right here in Compton, South Carolina, right here in the McMillan clan!
You McMillan boys has got into all your trouble for one reason and one reason alone: the fact you cannot and will not keep your trousers shut!
All of you. You. Earl. George. Russell. Harry. Clayton. The only McMillan that ain’t got a problem keeping good sense around a woman is Bert-Etta, and that’s ‘cause she IS a woman! Earl married and divorced twicet and him not even forty years old yet. George and that Singleton woman all mixed up and shameful and her barely out of the bassinet good. Clayton too drunk to know if he’s sleeping with Sarah or some tramp from Broadusville. Lord knows what Russell and Harry’s got into, but nothing would surprise me. And you too, Bert McMillan. Yes you. I know. All about you and Theresa. Don’t try to lie. Fact of business, I have done been in touch with Theresa about it this very afternoon. Said my piece to her about you and her and this thing y’all got going on. Or had going on, I should say, for it’s a finished thing now. I reckon you won’t be quite as attracted to her after today. You might want to go down the road and take a look at her. See for yourself what I’m talking about.
I had heard talk now and then over the years about you and your little girlfriends. Whispers and such as that. They some people can’t live and breathe lessen they causing trouble for other folks. Even had a friend come to me oncet in the mill and ask me if I knowed about you and so-and-so. Told her to go jump in the lake and not ever come round me talking like that again. It bothered me some at first, this talk, sure. What woman wouldn’t have been bothered to hear her husband ain’t been quite as faithful as he claimed, lessen she was made out of rock or something? On the other hand, I thought, “Goody-good if he’s getting it on the side. That’s less work and bother for me.” But then Theresa’s name got into it. Theresa Whitley! My sister-in-law. More a sister than a sister-in-law. My best friend in the world. That’s how close we been. Practically blood kin. You know that. We growed up together in Gaffney. Come to Compton about the same time. Lived two houses down from each other for all these years. Talked everyday if we didn’t visit in person. Natural enough, I didn’t want to believe such a thing no matter how much I might have heard. Not about Theresa.
But then I found out for myself. From you, Bert McMillan. That’s right. I woke up that night. Heard voices. One voice. Yours. Thought you might have been talking to Emory or Bertie Mae or Ruth. Maybe one of them was sick or scared and you were comforting them so’s they’d go back to bed and get back to sleep. I got up and went to the den but stopped at the bedroom door to listen. You was in the dark with the phone to your ear and talking. And I heard what you said. Not all of it. But enough. And I heard her name. You let her name drop in the dark, and I heard and knowed what was going on. Went back to bed but didn’t sleep. When you got back in beside me a few minutes later thinking I was sleeping, I prayed I didn’t sniffle too loud to let you know I wasn’t.
The next morning I went about everything – getting dressed, making your breakfast, everything – wondering if in the long run it really mattered that you and Theresa was seeing each other behind mine and Ed’s back. Did I really, really care? More important, had I loved you in the first place? Enough to marry you, I reckon. But I wasn’t even sure about that. You was good-looking enough when I met you. Had that hard McMillan jawline. And was put together well-enough. Looked good and solid in a military man’s uniform. Sort of like Gary Cooper but a few notches down. But it takes more than good looks for a good woman to love a man, really love him. To find him good enough for her love so she loves him for keeps. You worked hard. Always had. And went to church, till right recently. Least-ways you’d been baptized and didn’t cuss all that much. Now and then. But not enough to give offense to a Christian girl or her daddy. But you was peculiar. Still are peculiar. Going off by yourself so much, even here in the house, when I’m here nearby and might like to talk to you. You go to the kitchen and set at the table like it’s suppertime, when it’s not, not for hours. Or on the porch. Never ask me to come and set out there with you. What are you doing by yourself, Bert? Thinking? And thinking of what? Other women? Theresa Whitley?
Well, it’s a new day, Bert McMillan, and I done put away my wondering and my worrying. Done shut out the whispering of others and what they might mean. I roused myself this morning, fixed your breakfast, seen you off to the mill, then left this house in the very blaze of the hot summer sun and walked right down to Ed and Theresa’s. Didn’t say a word to nobody. Didn’t have words in me good enough to say how I felt, just powerful-feeling anger and righteousness. Went up Ed and Theresa’s front porch. Didn’t knock at the door. We don’t knock, you know. We kinfolk. We just go on in. So I went on in. Theresa was at the kitchen sink doing her dishes.
“Hey!” I says.
She turns and sees me and wipes her hands on her apron. She knows something’s up. “You all right?” she says.
“No,” I says back and without saying nothing else grab holt of her pretty brown hair and yank it so hard she hollers. But I don’t let go. No sir. I ain’t done with her yet. She’s a-yelping like a bitch in heat, and I just keep holt of her by the scalp and move the both of us toward the front door. It’s like we’re locked together, hand to head, with no chance of getting loose from one another. Pretty soon I turn and haul her behind me like I would a bag of garbage I was carrying out to the curb. We going outdoors. I want the whole of Byrd Street, as many people as who might be outside right then, to see what a Jezebel looks like. A genuine Bathsheba. The whore of Babylon! Don’t need to go to the movie show to see her. Don’t need no Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis. Here’s a real-life one right here in Compton. South Carolina! All you got to do is turn and look-see. Get you a eye full.
I get her and me out to the front yard and set down in the grass, right plumb near the edge of the road, hoping to God as many cars as there is in Compton would drive by and see us. Miss Jennilee Gentry’s on her front porch in her rocking chair, spitting snuff through her first two fingers now and then and watching it land in the dirt. She probably thinks me and Theresa has done gone crazy, acting like a couple of younguns in the grass. Which is fine. We are crazy. At least I am, crazy with hate for a woman I thought I could trust.
I’m on the ground, and I pull down Theresa across my lap. She’s short but a little stocky, so it hurts some. But I don’t care. It’s a good hurt. A righteous hurt. I pull up her dress so her bloomers shows, and I set about whupping the tar out of your little girlfriend, like she’s a youngun that’s done something awful wrong. She’s worse than that in my book. Miss Gentry’s done stood up by now to make sure she’s seeing what she’s seeing and it ain’t the sweet-tasting Checkerberry put fool notions in front of her eyes. She don’t know whether to laugh or call the law or what. “It’s all right, Jennilee,” I says to her. “She’s earned it. And if you stick around till about five o’clock, you’ll see Bert McMillan get hissen too.”
I ain’t going to hit you, Bert. Not now leastways. The notion might take me later. But not now. That’s just something I said to Jennilee to make for a better show. You might have a weak conscience, but you still got strong hands, and if you hit me with them, I’d have to kill you, I reckon. For a man that lays a hand on me won’t be a live man for very long afterward. Nah. I ain’t going to touch you. And you ain’t touching me either. Ever again. Long as we live together. Your woman-touching days is over and done with.