Underneath the Griffin Tree

Wasn't just a few years ago I liked to lie under the Griffin tree. Least
that's how it was known back then. A big ol' shady tree in the middle
of a field where I'd go a-rompin' with the boys, givin' 'em of my sweetness,
robbin' 'em of that last bit of innocence they pretended they no longer
had. Oh, I'd get their number, right quick. Come along one o' them boys,
all slick an' fine, an' I'd take just one look at him an' know just what
he needed to complete his initiation into manhood.

Not that I'm a whore or nothing like that. No, sirree, I'm a church-goin'
girl. My Mama, bless her soul, brought me up right. An' Papa — well,
Papa's another story, always beatin' up on Mama, but that's the way a
man is, least that's what Mama always said, an' despite his shortcomin's,
Papa done his best to raise me proper.

Still, I never saw no harm in using my God-given gifts to their fullest,
pleasin' the boys an' havin' a good ol' time till the time come for me
to settle on down an' bring home the babies.

An' that really is why they done called it the Griffin tree. After me,
Sue Ella Griffin, though they always called me Sue Elle, dropping off
the "a" as if it made me some sort of foreigner they was too
damn afraid to come near. No, Sue Elle had a nice ring to it, far as they
was concerned. It just slid off their tongues so fine an' so fast - Sue
Elle, Sueelle - till it sounded just like "swell" as a cool
breeze blew a sweet song through the leaves of the Griffin tree an' I
slid open their tight zippers an' slipped my hand in onto their hot, hard,
bundle o' joy.

Now that was all fine an' dandy, 'cause, those days, my Mama an' Papa
knew nothing about what was going on, an' Lord help me had they heard
even one hint.

"Sue Ella," my Mama would call as I was 'bout ready to run
out the door an' off to see who might be a-waitin' for me. "Where
ya goin', always runnin' off like some coyot' caught with the goods."

"I'm goin' off to the crick, Mama," 'cause there was a crick
ran right by that ol' tree, an' I wasn't 'bout to lie to Mama.

"Whatchadoin' down there all the time, girl? Must be something real
good fer you to be spendin' the whole summer."

"Oh, nothin' much Mama. It's jus' nice an' quiet, an' I like to
lie down an' listen to the crick go by."

"You be careful now, Sue Ella. I heard jus' the other day from
ol' lady Hutchins 'bout some stranger come to town. Eyin' up all the girls
an' lookin' for something he ain't got no right to. Up to no good, I reckon."

"Don't you worry, Mama. First I see of anyone I don't know, I'll
come a-runnin' on home."

An' that's the day I met Willy.

Now Willy was a fine-bred boy, not one o' those hillbillies come down
to town, gettin' all a-drunk an' lookin' to pitch a fight. No, Willy was
from the city, so he said, had nice, smooth skin an' a face to melt away
the heart. His hair was long an' black an' always combed neatly an' his
clothes was always pressed jus' right.

We met at Ben's Soda Fountain, 'cause when I went down to the crick that
day an' found no one a-waitin', I hiked on over to town an', being that
I worked up a thirst, made my way to Ben's an' ordered me some pop.

"What's a pretty little girl like you doin' all alone on a fine
day like this," he called out to me, jus' like that, as I rocked
back an' forth on my stool an' waited for Ben to bring me my soda.

He was sitting in one of them booths, fingering his hair like he was
the Prince o' Wales an' I was s'pposed to bow down to him or somethin'
like that. An' truly to God, I would a done jus' that or perhaps swooned
at his feet but, seeing how Ben was around, I jus' kept my cool.

"I don' reckon I know you fer you to be talkin' to me like that,
" I said to him. "Don't you be runnin' your mouth off like that
'fore you know what you're getting into."

"Whoooee," he hollered, with a great big smile, standin' up
an' walkin' on over to me. "You is feisty as a fox," an' he
sat himself down on the stool 'side mine an' looked me straight in the
eye. "Name's Willy. I'm new in town, an' I'm jus' tryin' to strike
me up a friendship."

Now jus' about this time, Ben come along with my soda pop an' put it
right down in front of me, an' he jus' stood there a-watchin' an' a-listenin'
to all o' this, an' I knew if I didn't behave proper, my Mama an' Papa
would soon enough know everything that had gone on.

"Now you listen to me," I said, acting quickly. "I don'
care what your name is or what you're doin' here. You jus' min' your manners
an' if you can't do that, then you just go on back to where you come from."

An' then I drank up an' paid my bill an' hightailed it right outta there,
knowin' full well that a man like that was not jus' goin' to stand there
an' let his tail wag between his legs, if you know what I'm sayin'.

An' so I headed straight for the Griffin tree an' sure 'nough, he followed
right behind, though he was discreet about it an' kept his distance, an'
I sure did 'preciate that 'cause my Mama an' Papa would have surely heard
about it that very day.

Willy an' I became best o' buddies that summer, an' all the other boys,
they soon heard about it, so they stopped comin' around, an' it was jus'
me an' Willy lying beneath that Griffin tree, havin' a swell ol' time
an' enjoyin' each other's sweetness as the days wore on an' the summer
heat got even hotter.

An' Willy, he wasn't afraid to call me Sue Ella neither.

"Sue Ella," he would say, after we had done our business an'
we was jus' lying there, looking up at the sunset or listenin' to the
birds a-coo an' a-holler, "I'm gonna marry you one day. I'm gonna
marry you an' put a baby in that belly o' your'n an' we gonna be happy
as pie."

"Willy," I'd tell him, "stop talkin' nonsense. Before
you marry me, you got to get a job, an' then we got to find a way to tell
Ma an' Pa how I even come to know you. An' besides," I'd say, puttin'
on the look o' the devil, jus' to get him all a-bothered, "who says
I wanna marry you, anyhoot?"

"Don't you worry 'bout that," he'd answer me, all indignant
an' stuff, "I'm gonna take care o' all of that, an' we're gonna marry,
an' you'll see."

An' then he'd put his arm around me an' draw me close, an' before you
know it, we'd be doin' it again, like we had never done it before.

Now this went on all summer, an' far as I was concerned, I couldn't a
asked for anything more. But come August an' Willy, he's still talkin'
up a storm o' nonsense: "Sue Ella, I'm gonna make you the happiest
girl this neck o' the woods. Sue Ella, I'm gonna buy you the biggest ol'
house, jus' you wait an' see." Sue Ella this, Sue Ella that. Till,
soon enough, I was jus' about believin' that boy's crazy talk.

Then one hot August day, with the sun a-beatin' down an' the cicadas
a-singin' their sad, foolish song, we was lying under the Griffin tree,
gettin' all a-cozy, listenin' to the breeze blow an' watchin' the birds
struttin' around near the edge of the crick, when suddenly I get an achin'
in my belly, an' my head begin to spin, an' I get to feelin' this great,
big pit in my stomach.

Now Willy, he jus' sat there, playin' with the grass an' the leaves on
the ground, like everything was fine, but soon enough he put his arm around
me, makin' me think he was gonna try to comfort me or something, but instead
he starts a-making it. Well, Lordee, I jus' pulled his arm off o' me right
then an' there an' put it right back in his lap.

"Whatchugo an' do that for, Sue Ella?" he said. "I ain't
done nothin' wrong to you, honey, now have I?"

"I jus' don't feel like doin' it t'day, OK?"

"C'mon, honey," he said, puttin' his arm right back where I
had just removed it from.

Now maybe it's 'cause I was feelin' sick, an' maybe not, but something
a-sudden got into me, an' 'fore I knew it, I slapped him one right upside
the head.

"Whoooee," he hollered, rubbing his hand slowly on his cheek
an' lookin' at me like I was crazy or somethin'. "You sure is actin'
crazy, today. You got the rag on or somethin'?"

An' maybe I was crazy, what with school comin' up an' me bein' a senior
an' wonderin' what I was gonna do with my life come next year.

"Willy," I said, "you've been talkin' up your nonsense
all summer, about how we gonna be married, an' here it is August an' you
still ain't got no job."

"Now, Sue Ella you know I been lookin'."

"Lookin'? How can you be lookin' fer work when everyday you're down
here with me, an' every night, so I hear, you be carousin' with the boys
in town."

"Now, Sue Ella," he said again, gettin' all defensive, "a
man got a right to do what he want at night. I'n't that so?"

"I ain't talkin' about whatchu gotta right to an' whatchu don't.
I'm talkin' about all the promises you done made to me."

Now I've always been a strong girl. Everyone in town know they can't
pull no fast one on me. Take my ball an' I'll chase you till the sun goes
down. Throw a stone at me an' I'll whip your hide 'fore the day's through.
But that day, I wasn't feelin' myself. Maybe it was a realization that
I had been had, but suddenly I could no longer control myself an' I just
started cryin'. An' I mean a-screamin' an' a-wailin' like when death strikes
your closest kin or like when you've done something terrible an' you know
you've got to face the wrath of the Lord.

"Sue Ella," he said, gettin' all sweet an' fingerin' my long,
blond hair. "I'll get a job. I promise."

"Willy," I cried, "you ain't kept none o' your promises
so far, 'ceptin' one." Now Willy, upon hearing those words, got all
serious an' stuff.

"What is it, Sue Ella. What're tryin' to tell me?" An' here
the tears came down even more, an' my voice began a-trembling, an' that
awful pit in my stomach seemed to grow until I thought it would swallow
me right then an' there. A summer breeze ran through the air an' stirred
up the Griffin tree, an' I tried to concentrate on the sound of the leaves,
hopin' that would help me forget my woes.

An' then, lookin' at Willy, an' knowin' he was a-waiting for an answer
an' not knowin' what else to do or say, I jus' took his hand an' slowly
placed it on my belly. "Whatchu gonna do about it, Willy?" I
said.

Well, poor Willy, he didn't know what to do. The look on his face went
from happy to downright scared, like he had swallowed a wild berry an'
found out it was poison.

"We'll think of something?" he said, when he fin'ly got back
use of his tongue.

"Think of something?" I said. "What kind a girl do you
think I am? Think of something? You better be thinking of nothing else
'cept findin' a job an' gettin' married, if you know what's good fer you."

"Now, Sue Ella, there are ways. There are things that can be done."

"Things?" Well, Lord strike me dead, I could barely control
myself, an' before I knew it, I was all over him, a-poundin' my fists
into him like there was no tomorrow an' poor Willy, he jus' barely got
out of my grip when I began a-chasin' him 'round an' 'round the Griffin
tree, spillin' out my guts like a lost child an' jus' achin' to get my
hands on that no-good son-of-a-bitch.

Well, somehow, when it was all over, we were back in each other's arms
again, all sweaty an' outta breath. Willy 'pologized again an' again,
an' promised me he'd start looking for a job the very next morning. An'
'fore the day was through, we did it least three times, though Lord only
knows why I ever agreed.

Course, I never did get to see Willy again. Guess he knew his time was
up an' he'd better hightail it right outta town. But what ol' Willy didn't
know was that I really wasn't pregnant. Least, not that day. But not long
after, come time fer my monthly flow, an' I begin feelin' all crampy an'
it refuses to come. So I wait a few days, an' it still don't come, an'
all I could think of was Willy a-sittin' there under the Griffin tree
with his tongue hangin' out like a mad raccoon an' tellin' me there was
ways.

When I fin'ly got to acceptin' that I had done wrong an' there was nothin'
I could do about it 'ceptin' one, I kept thinkin' 'bout how that would
sit with the Lord, an' I knew the Lord would not be happy with me for
killin' a poor, ol' innocent child.

Then one Sunday, I was sittin' in church with my Mama an' Papa, listenin'
to the preacher preach, tryin' to ignore Papa sleep off his Saturday night
drunk, lookin' at Mama with that sad look on her face an' a great big
bruise jus' below the eye, an' thinkin' 'about that baby a-growin' inside
o' me an' not knowin' what to do about it. An', what with the heat an'
everything, I suddenly began to feel green, even with the fans a-hummin'
through the still church air, an' I looked up at my Mama an' let out a
sigh like the apocalypse was a-sittin' right there on the horizon.

"What's wrong child?" Mama whispered to me under her breath,
already humiliated by Papa's behavior an' not wantin' me to add to it.
But before I could answer, I jumped out of my seat an' ran right out of
that church, an' I reckon no one in that town never did see someone hightail
it outta Sunday service fast as that, 'ceptin', perhaps, for the boys
when they be makin' trouble an' the preacher chases them away in the name
of the Lord.

Well the day went by, an' my Mama an' Papa said nothin' 'bout what had
happened, but sure 'nough, come dinner time, an' we're sittin' 'round
the table an' Papa's a-drinkin' his moonshine an' a-rubbin' his chin like
he does when he's mullin' something over, when suddenly he looks straight
at me an' says: "Sue Ella. You been actin' strange these past few
days. Somethin' eatin' at you?"

"No, Papa," I said. "You worried, maybe, 'bout school
startin'?"

"No, Papa. Things are jus' fine."

"I been hearing tales 'bout you, Sue Ella," Mama piped in then.
"I hope, fer your sake, they're nothin' but tales, you know what's
good fer you."

"Whatchu mean, Mama?"

"You know what I'm talkin' 'bout, girl. Don't think I don't know
what happened at Ben's a while back. Don't think I don't hear 'bout the
boys followin' you all 'round town. I'm not deaf, Sue Ella. People are
talkin' an' I'm a-hearing."

"You better watch it girl," my father said then, standin' up
an' leanin' over the table. "Else I'm gonna lock you in your room.
An' you ain't never gonna come out 'ceptin' to eat. Understand?"

An' Papa, he banged his fist so hard on the table that it nearly tipped
over, an' everything went a-flyin' an' landed all over him, an' I never
did see Papa cuss up a storm like he did that day, an' poor Mama, she
was beside herself with grief, what with worryin' over me an' tryin' to
calm Papa down an' clean up the mess he had made all at the same time.

Well I realized that day that 'fore I had to face the wrath of the Lord,
I'd have to face my Mama an' Papa's an', Lord forgive me, but they won
out an' I decided right there an' then to do somethin' about gettin' rid
o' that baby.

Over the next couple of days, I tried jus' about everything, short of
goin' to a doctor, cause then surely my Mama an' Papa would a found out.
I ran around an' tuckered myself out. I jumped up an' down continuously
for an hour straight. I tried strenuous exercise: bending at the waist,
doin' sit-ups an' pull-ups an'all other kinds of nonsense. But that little
ol' baby was tied in tight an' Ireckon had no intention of lettin' loose.

Now just about this time, school began an' I got to see all my friends
an' acquaintances once again, an' it was all we could do but talk about
what we had done over the summer. Well, girls bein' girls, we discussed
just about everything, especially in the locker room after gym class.

So one day, while we was changin', after a rigorous workout on the track,
I noticed ol' Mary Beth eyein' me up, like maybe I was beginnin' to show,
an' she began runnin' her mouth 'bout how her cousin had gotten pregnant
an' how she had dislodged that baby with nothin' but a plain, ol' metal
hanger.

"Said it was easy as pie," Mary Beth said, like she knew what
she was talkin' about. "Said she just shoved that little ol' thing
right up an' everything jus' came a tumblin' out."

"You sure she ain't pulling the wool over your eye?" I asked,
secretly wonderin' if, perhaps, there was one thing I hadn't tried. "Cause
if it's that easy, why does everyone spend so much money goin' to a doctor
to have it done?"

"I do declare," Mary Beth answered. "You're just as skeptical
as a mouse, Sue Ella Griffin. Perhaps you ought to try it an' see for
yourself." Well, I didn't pay Mary Beth no mind, nor the other girls
who began laughing away like hyenas. Didn't give a damn 'bout what they
knew an' what they didn't. But that night, when I was all alone in my
room an' everyone was fast asleep, I got to thinkin' that this might be
the only way I had left.

So I got up out of bed an' walked over to the closet an' fumbled around
in the dark till I found one o' them wire hangers. Then I slowly tiptoed
my way down the hallway, past Mama an' Papa's room to the bathroom, petrifyin'
every time that ol' wooden floor gave out a creak.

When I finally made it, I locked the door an' got all undressed. Then
I got in the tub an', with nothin' but the moonlight as my guide, I slowly
twisted that hanger apart an' when it was nice an' long an' straight,
made a little hook at the end jus' like Mary Beth had described an' slowly
entered it up between my legs.

Well, at first the pain was bearable, but soon enough, as I pushed it
up, it starting aching so bad I couldn't take it, so I tried to remove
it from inside but the more I pulled, the more it hurt till I thought
surely I was gonna pull my insides out. An' sure 'nough the blood started
comin' an' I didn't know what to do an' I soon let out a scream loud enough
to wake up the dead.

The last thing I remember that night was my Papa breaking down the door
in his underwear an' my Mama standin' in the doorway, shoutin' the Lord's
name an' starin' in disbelief at the puddle of blood that had gathered
down around my feet.

When I awoke, all I could see was white, an' Lord, for a moment, I thought
I haddied an' gone to heaven. The walls, the ceiling, the bed, the sheets—even
the chair where Mama was sitting was white an' ghostly. A nurse was standing
over me, taking my pulse, an' when she saw my eyes open, she smiled politely
an' said I was going to be all right.

At first I didn't know what was goin' on, but then it all came back to
me.

"An'the baby?" I asked.

At these words, the nurse's face dropped like a stone in water, an' I
could see, from the corner of my eye, Mama shiftin' nervously in her chair
like she was convulsing inside. Instead of answering, the nurse silently
finished taking my pulse, wrote the results on the chart that hung at
the foot of my bed an' left the room quickly as she could.

When she was gone, Mama pushed herself up outta that chair an' walked
on over to me. She stood beside the bed an' stared at me without sayin'
a word. Her eyes werered an' puffy, like she had been crying all night.
Her hair was uncombed, an' her face was haggard an' freshly bruised. She
was dressed in an ol' frockwhich, I reckon, she had thrown on quickly
as the ambulance took me away. Herlips were trembling something terrible
an' I could tell that she was trying to avoid looking at me.

Then, suddenly, she dropped down on the bed an' grabbed a-hold of me
an' started to sob. "SueElla," was all she could say. "Sue
Ella."

An' after a while: "Why?"

An' then she lifted me up carefully an' put her arms around me an' pressed
my head tight against her bosom like she used to do when I was a child
an' I had done something wrong an' she had finally decided to forgive
me.

Mama held me tight like that for a long, long time, longer than she had
ever done, quietly sobbing in fitful waves as though she was still tryin'
hard to hold all her years of torment way inside.

Papa was not so kind. But then Papa wasn't a kind man. Only thought about
work. An' when he wasn't working, he was drinkin' his moonshine, or carousin'
with the men folk, an' God only knows what kind of nonsense they got into,
though I could well imagine cause some of them boys I was seeing that
summer 'fore I met Willy was their own flesh an' blood.

When I first came home, Papa flat out refused to talk to me. Wouldn't
even look at me, as if I had some disease that would turn him to salt
were he to cast an eye on me.

As he had threatened, I was locked up in my room. My meals were brought
to me three times a day an' whenever I needed to go to the bathroom, I
knocked three times, waited five seconds, then knocked again. Then, my
mother would come, unlock the room an' escort me to the bathroom. When
I was done, she locked me right up again. I don't believe she wanted to
do this, cause the look in her eye, just before she closed the door, was
drawn an' sad.

Then, a few weeks later, when I was fully recuperated, Papa came to see
me. It was late at night, but my light was still on an' I reckon he knew
I was still awake. He unlocked the door an' stood there, still an' impassable
like a huge mountain. It's hard to say what he was feeling, but I knew
from his eyes that he was drunk as hell. He said nothing. Jus' stared
an' stared for the longest time. Then, he removed his belt an' gave me
the worst beating I have ever received in my life.

When it was all over, an' I lay there a-whimpering, he quietly put his
belt on an' said:

"Sue Ella. You've brought shame upon us. An' I reckon, I'm the
one to blame."

Needless to say, I was taken out of school an' I was not permitted any
visitors. An' I was only allowed out once, an' that was for the funeral.
An' I was sure grateful to be allowed at least to give my baby a proper
burial. Not long after that, I was married. Forced to accept the only
boy in town who would have me. Not that he's an angel. None of them are,
Lord knows. But he's been kind to me, though he likes his moonshine, an'
raises up holy hell when he's had too much. But then I guess I'd still
be locked up, otherwise. Now, least I'm free, though I'm not as pretty
a sI used to be, an' I sometimes have to hide the black eyes an' the swollen
cheeks with the makeup I buy from the five an' dime store whenever I can
afford to.

We have two children, an' another one on the way. Doctor says I'm lucky
I can still conceive. Guess that's a matter of opinion.

Sometimes, when the weather's nice, I take them little ones on down to
the Griffin tree. We sit in the cool shade an' listen to the crick go
by.

The big one likes to run around in circles. It's a game she plays, like
she's chasin' someone, till, eventually, when she's all tuckered out,
she drops down, looks sadly at me an' says: "He got away, Mama."

The younger one is jus' learnin' to crawl. Whenever a bird land on the
grass, he gets up on his hands an' knees an' wiggles his ways towards
it. Course, the bird flies away an' then that boy gets all excited, laughin'
an' lookin' at me like he's the king o' Siam.

As for me, I like to gather wildflowers when I'm there. I pick them carefully,
mixin' all different colors an' shapes an' trimmin' the stems so they're
all the same size, till I have a right pretty bouquet. Then I take a long
blade of grass an' tie it tight around the base of them flowers an' I
place them under the Griffin tree, in the place where there is no longer
any grass. When I'm finished, I gather up my kids an' slowly head on home,
watchin' them chase each other innocently through the meadow, an' I look
at the sun set, an' I thank the Lord that yet another day has gone by.

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