Fred saved Jarba from elaborate machines, broiling ovens, bubbling vats of tar, cruel children wearing Izod shirts and Nikes who ripped her clothes and beat her with sticks. Or she’d be hung in a cage in a dim kitchen, the old witch letting her out now and then for chores. The witch always found something to get mad about, a flaw in Jarba’s work, or wrong expression on her face. Punishment followed. The witch slapped her, or made her sweep the porch in the sunlight where men returning from their labors could see her dusty unwashed body. Whenever Fred saved Jarba, she was grateful. Together they would run through the cornfield beside the plantation gatehouse where she lived. Sometimes they kissed.
In the real world Jarba hated Fred. Fred did not blame her for hating him. Fred would have hated Fred too had Fred been Jarba. Fred hated himself for how awful he’d been to Jarba on the bus.
On the bus:
“That’s the dress my mother gave to the Salvation Army,” Karen Tucker said.
“Jarba eats Spam, don’t you, Jarba?” Stacey Treadway said.
Jarba ignored them, looking out the window at the oaks trees.
“Her real name isn’t Jarba,” Jennifer Lawson said. “It’s Garbage.”
“She’s got a hole in her bathroom floor the size of a watermelon,” Fred said.
“A watermelon?” Karen Tucker cried out. With great jubilee she screamed, “Garbage has a hole in her bathroom the size of a watermelon!”
The kids on the bus began chanting it. “Watermelon! Watermelon!”
Chester pulled over at the graveyard. He pulled the brake and got up and said, “Y’all gots to be quiet! I cain’t be driving if you be shouting.” His face was full of sweat. Chester’s face was always very black and full of sweat.
“Oh, we’ll be quiet,” Karen Tucker beamed. “We know everything we need to know.”
Chester sat back down and the bus moved on, and Jarba turned her face at Fred. A braceleted hand reached up from the seat behind Jarba and pressed a glob of chewed-up gum in her hair.
Karen Tucker said, “Oh look, Garbage has gum in her hair. Does anybody else have any garbage we can put on her?”
Fred turned away from Jarba, looked out the window at the flat green lawns, the white-painted houses, the dusty pane reeling with his reflection.
One day Fred said to Jarba’s brother Mason: “Let’s go to the watermelon hole,” but Mason didn’t want to go to the watermelon hole. Mason said, “You looked through it last night.”
“It’s fun,” Fred complained, turning red in the face.
“It’s an invasion of privacy.”
“You say that because Jarba’s your twin. You get to live with her.”
“I don’t want you spying on my sister anymore.”
“Okay, whatever,” Fred said, and they ran into the cornfield and wrestled under the stars. After Mason went inside, Fred crawled under the gatehouse of the old plantation, and waited for Jarba to come in to the bathroom. Through the watermelon-shaped hole Fred watched Jarba pull her dress up over her head and fold it and set it on the small table where their mother Effie kept her beauty liquids. Jarba picked up a green comb and, watching herself in the mirror, tilted her head, and ran it through her hair, pulling it down in long strokes.
For History Fred wrote a report on John Branch who had lived in the old plantation house long ago. John Branch was the first governor of Florida. He’d planted the oaks in Waverly Hills, and John had had a sick wife who lived in one of the top rooms of the plantation house for seven years before she died. Each morning John walked through the gardens collecting flowers for her. There weren’t any gardens anymore. The current owner of the plantation had planted corn. A muscular black man named Roosevelt cared for it. Sometimes Fred and Mason got stoned with Roosevelt who had four children, all by different women. Roosevelt warned the boys not to do like him and be “deceived by beauty.”
The governor’s wife, Fred learned, could not move. The governor’s wife was confined to a bed all day while John carried on his governor business. John Branch’s wife could not get up to go for a walk with him in the garden, or through the woods, or into town. For dinner you’d have to either cart her to the supper table, or take your plate to where she was, which, in Fred’s mind, became twisted up with Mason’s closet, the hole they’d climb through to get stoned in the attic. Fred imagined the governor, dressed in a tuxedo, climbing up through the hole with his wife’s dinner plate. He saw the governor spoon-feed her, and heard the flapping of wings as pigeons fluttered above them.
Jarba was to compete in a big tumbling meet. She’d been practicing for weeks. Fred and Mason, from up on the roof, severely stoned, watched her in the dirt driveway doing flips, cartwheels, handsprings. They watched Jarba do a handstand up by the road then walk on her hands all the way around to the back of the house.
They watched her do three backwards flips in a row.
“If Jarba wins this meet,” Mason said, “we’ll get a thousand dollars.”
The money was to buy Jarba the trampoline she wanted, and some new clothes, and it might even buy her some private lessons from Ron Gallimore who’d competed in the Olympics, and had opened a gym in Tallahassee.
Before coming up on the roof they’d poured out tall glasses of melted chocolate ice-cream because the freezer had broken during the night. The cold chocolate oozed down their throats, filling their stomachs. It was one of those things that made you want to return, get more, but when Mason was gone, Fred crawled through the vent and found the spot above Jarba’s room. He pushed the drywall a little, trying to open up a crack in the seam to see if she was there. Fred leaned over, pushing and pressing until a bit of light opened up. He pressed his eye to the hole. She was on the bed in her tumbling outfit, stretching. Her arms were up over her head, spread apart, her hands clutching the iron bars of the antique bed frame. Fred pressed his eye closer, and one of his hands slipped through the rotted ceiling. Fred slipped off the beam that held him, and the 4×8 piece of drywall slipped from its nails. Fred rode the drywall straight down on top of Jarba. When she saw the thing come loose, she had screamed, and reached up a hand to protect herself.
Fred rolled off the bed onto the floor. A stuffed monkey, what their mother had shot in Africa, was against the wall, had these fangs, the monkey, and the monkey should have sunk his fangs into Fred’s neck. The monkey should have come to life and hurt Fred, maybe picked up a fork and stabbed Fred in the face, in his eyes.
That night Effie called Fred’s house. Fred was at the dinner table eating when the call came. Effie told Fred’s mother about the thousand dollar gymnastics prize they wouldn’t be getting because of Fred, about the hospital bill, about how Jarba’s doctor said her wrist would never heal all the way. Jarba’s tumbling career was over.
When Fred’s mother returned to the table she gave her son an encouraging look, one that said don’t worry. She proceeded to tell the story to Fred’s dad, how Effie had said, unless there was some restitution, she’d be left with no choice but to seek legal help.
“Fred’s a little idiot,” Fred’s dad said. “He didn’t know what he was doing. It was an accident. We have nothing to worry about.”
“They want to get a leg up,” Fred’s mother said.
Effie did consult a lawyer, but the lawyer said nothing could be done, the case was worthless. Fred’s parents forbade their son from seeing those “white trash people” anymore. When Fred saw Mason and Jarba on the bus, or after school in the neighborhood, they ignored him.
On the day Jarba would have won the thousand dollar prize at the Gainesville competition, the North Florida Christian school up on the hill held their annual event called Family Fun Day. Fred walked up there and watched some planes fly over. Several men jumped out with parachutes, and landed in the football field. There were booths set up where you could throw dimes in bowls and darts at balloons. There was a big cage that, if you paid a dollar, they would call out the name you gave over the loudspeaker. The person of the name would come get in the cage and either stay there for an hour or pay two dollars bail. The cage was full of girls and boys, their hands clutching the bars, but they were happy to be jailed. They were not like Jarba in Fred’s dreams, where the witch locked her up squattingly in the small cage that hung from the ceiling. The children wanted their friends to see them locked behind the bars.
In the football field the goalpost had been smeared with black grease. For a buck you could try and climb the pole to get the hundred dollar bill up top. The first person who tried, a teacher-looking man, grabbed the pole. The grease got all over his fine clothes and he was a mess. He couldn’t make it halfway.
The man in charge said, “Who’s next?” and Fred went forth with his dollar. Fred and Mason had climbed that pole many a time. They’d get up there and stand on each end and make the goalpost swing back and forth in the middle of the night. It was easy. And a hundred dollars was half of what a new trampoline would cost. A little more and Fred could buy Jarba her trampoline, and maybe Jarba’s wrist wasn’t as bad as Effie said it was. Maybe Jarba’s wrist would heal up fine. Maybe Jarba would still go on to win that gold medal in the Olympics.
Fred jumped onto the pole, but right away slid to the ground. Fred jumped again, grabbed the pole tight with his legs and arms, started inching up it. He was getting closer, but kept sliding, kept having to start over. He’d jump onto the pole and clutch it with all he had. People grumbled. “He’s had his chance,” they said. But Fred kept trying. It was right there, a hundred dollar bill flapping in the wind like a flag.
The man in charge grabbed Fred, told him his turn was over. Several more people tried and nobody could get it. Then this fat guy in a baseball jersey stepped up and everybody snickered like, yeah, sure, this will be fun to watch. But the man’s daughter took off her shoes. She climbed onto his shoulders and grabbed the pole. The man grabbed his daughter’s feet and lifted her above his head, the grease folding around the girl’s hands, dripping off in large clumps to the ground. When she grabbed the bill, everybody cheered.
The girl was very proud of what she’d done. She walked around smiling hugely. Then her name, Simone Belle, was announced over the loudspeaker: Simone Belle, report to the Jailhouse immediately. The girl broke out with crazy joy, jumping up and down. She’d been chosen. Somebody loved her. She took off running across the football field in her socks, apparently afraid that if she didn’t get there soon, the privilege of being jailed might be withdrawn.
Fred had grease all over his clothes and face and, even though he was a big fat loser as far as that hundred dollars went, he felt somehow elevated, heroic, and the grease was proof. He went over to the jailhouse and gave them a dollar. “Fred Cromwell,” they called over the loudspeaker. Fred felt a tingle of pride run up his spine, but when he stood in front of the door to the cage they said, “Wait, you can’t put your own self in jail.”
They gave Fred back his dollar.
Fred didn’t want the grease to go to waste. Fred thought he’d try and see Jarba now, let Jarba see him with all that grease all over him. Fred bought some cotton candy, a gift for Jarba, and walked up to the plantation and cut through the corn to the gatehouse. At the edge of the corn he got down and hid, peering out through the stalks at Jarba in the driveway, sitting in the sand in her pink tumbling suit, her legs making a diamond in front of her. With her cast arm she kept lifting up this little kitty by the tail then dropping it, still holding the tail so that the kitty’s paws paddled through the sand.
Fred’s heart, just seeing Jarba, beat crazy, and he kept telling it stop, don’t do that, be cool. He told himself to walk up to her, give her the cotton candy, tell her about the men falling through the sky, how when they hit the field their parachutes fell down on top of them.
But what if she gets angry when she sees me?
It was awful. Fred hated the feeling. And Fred felt all the coward. Whenever Fred saw Jarba’s face he melted. It, she, all of her, she was too good. Fred had tried making sense of it, reasoning that for something to be so good, something its opposite must happen. He reasoned that for Jarba to be so pretty Effie must, every night, or in the daytime when nobody was around, grab Jarba by the neck and shove her face into the toilet bowl. Fred wondered if something was wrong with him, to think such things, but it really did seem like there had to be a price for beauty, and the price for it had to be something awful. It was one reason he went to the watermelon hole whenever he could. He wanted to see what Effie did to make Jarba so beautiful.
Fred clutched the cotton candy, holding it out like a bouquet of flowers as he left the corn. Fred cut through the border of cedars at the edge of the gatehouse and Jarba, when she saw Fred walking up, stood, clutching the kitty by the tail so that it dangled. “Hi,” she said.
“It was a accident,” Fred told her, and gave her the cotton candy. Fred started telling Jarba about Family Fun Day. Jarba seemed bored, but ripped off some purple cotton and sucked it while the dangling kitty pawed the air, reaching out occasionally and scratching her leg.
Jarba said, “Doesn’t it make you sick, looking at her?”
“Yeah,” Fred said.
Jarba swung the kitty back and forth by the tail, and something in Fred wanted to take the kitty away from her, but this was Jarba. “Come on,” Jarba said. “Let’s find a good place to bury the little whiner.”
Fred and Jarba walked through the woods behind the gatehouse, and looked for places. They went down in the canyon and crossed over the creek to the sandy bank on the other side, where they squatted and dug a hole with their hands. Jarba wanted to bury the kitty all the way over, but Fred said they should at least let its head stay out, so that it could breathe. When the frightened kitty was buried, Jarba laughed at it mewing, how it struggled, its head turning back and forth. Fred thought of the old slaves he’d read about when he wrote his report, and pictured John Branch whipping the head of some poor child buried to his neck, his wife’s sickly laughter sailing down from the plantation’s windows above.
Jarba threw logs and clumps of clay at the kitty’s head. This was the first time Fred had ever been alone with Jarba, the two of them alone together, doing something, and this new feeling started in him. The love he’d felt for her for so long was becoming stronger and larger, spreading out through all his limbs and causing his face to tingle. Jarba’s laughter echoed back from a great distance, it seemed, and Fred knew that he wanted to live with Jarba forever, that if anything bad happened to Jarba, he would take care of her, just like John Branch took care of his wife. Fred would stroke Jarba’s forehead and bring her flowers from the garden and wash her body when she was dirty, and cook her dinners.
Jarba picked up a branch and started beating the kitty over the head with it. Fred went down the creek and picked up his own branch, and was going to join her, but Roosevelt jumped down from the bank. Roosevelt pushed Jarba and she fell backwards into the sand and water. “How you like that?” the huge black man said, and leaned over and yanked the stick out of Jarba’s hand. Fred thought he was going to lift the stick above his head and hit Jarba with it. It was Fred’s chance to save her, but he only stood there, admiring Jarba’s beauty.