CJ still had not shown up at Jubalee’s house for the wake two hours after the funeral. I wondered if anyone else was as aware of her absence as I was. When I was certain CJ wasn’t coming, I went to find Aunt Ed to say good-bye. Sitting on the bench swing in the shade of the oak tree in the back yard, Aunt Ed popped the top of a can of Miller Lite and held it up to me.
“To Harvey,” she said, tapping my can with her own.
“To Harvey.” I sat down next to her on the swing. “Since when do you drink beer, Ed?”
Aunt Ed grunted. “Ain’t nothin’ else inside but some vodka. I’m too sad to start drinkin’ the hard stuff. Lord knows where I might end up.”
“I know what you mean,” I agreed. “Liquor’s never gotten me nothin’ but trouble.”
“Look, Aunt Ed, I wanna to talk to you about somethin’, but I don’t want you gettin’ mad at me for sayin’ it.”
“Pumpkin, there ain’t nothin’ on God’s green earth you could ever do to make me mad at you. What’s goin’ on?”
“I know Harvey was a good guy, and all these people here today think so, too, but what I don’t get, Aunt Ed, is how a nice guy like Harvey could ever love someone as mean as Juba.”
“Yeah, not a likely pair, them two. But Harvey brought out the best in Juba, I’ll give him that for sure.” Aunt Ed chuckled a little bit. “He just knew what to do to keep from rufflin’ her feathers.”
“I wish he would have told me his secret. I’ve spent my whole life tryin’ to make her happy and never could.”
“Juba’s got some sharp corners, that I know.”
“Yeah, but Juba don’t treat anyone else as bad as she treats me.”
“It ain’t your fault.” Aunt Ed shook her head. “Ain’t never been your fault, Sweet Pea.”
“Oh, Aunt Ed, it’s always been my fault. I can’t never do nothin’ right in Juba’s eyes, no matter how hard I try. She didn’t mistreat Harvey, and she don’t mistreat you, or even CJ. Why just me?”
“It’s wrong, the way Juba thinks. Always has been.” Aunt Ed tossed her empty beer can into the grass. “No one in their right mind blames an innocent baby for their problems. But for some reason, Juba just had it in her head from the beginning that you were the cause of all of her problems.
“When you were born, Juba thought you took CJ away from her. Before it had just been the two of them, and even though they was always fightin’, they was tight. Juba was jealous of you because CJ gave you a lot of attention. She loved you more than anybody or anything.
“Then, when Trigger kept messin’ with CJ, wouldn’t leave her alone, Juba blamed you because she was convinced he would have moved on to someone else if it hadn’t been for you. You kept them connected, kept Trigger in their lives, made him think he owned CJ. That’s why he tried to kill her that night, because CJ was foolin’ around on him, even though they wasn’t together.
“Then, after CJ got home from the hospital, she was a shell. Nothin’ inside. So she left. Juba knew CJ needed to leave for her own good, but in order to let CJ go, it meant Juba was gonna end up raisin’ you alone, all by herself.”
Aunt Ed cupped her hand under my chin and turned my face toward her. “I asked Juba if I could have you. I knew CJ would’ve let me. But Juba said no. Said you were her responsibility.” Aunt Ed sighed, tears in her eyes. “Maybe she was right. What kinda life could I of given to a kid out there on the road?”
“Oh, Aunt Ed, it woulda been a great life.” I laid my head on her shoulder.
“Your life is made by the choices you make, Teenie. I wish I’d made better ones. But it’s not too late for you.”
I glanced at the trailer. “I don’t think she’s comin’.”
“Who? CJ?” Aunt Ed moaned softly. “No, Honey Pot. I don’t think she is.”
I left Aunt Ed on the swing and went to tell Jubalee I was leaving. I found her sitting on the couch, family members surrounding her.
“I’m goin’ now, Juba,” I said. “Call if you need me.”
“I wanna talk to you, Teenie, before you go.” Jubalee stood up, the people next to her moving out of the way. “In the bedroom,” she added, motioning me to follow her. She led me back to my old room. I’d forgotten she’d wanted me to clear out my things.
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