It was just about 8:30 on Sunday morning when Jackson called to say that J.D. Satrey had gone crazy and stolen the boss’ bulldozer. Well as you can imagine I nearly jumped clear out of my shoes. I was being extra careful with the breakfast dishes, on account of Mama yelling at me if I so much as look at something that might stain my nice pink blouse, but when I heard what Jackson said I shoved the dishes at Grandma Florence and ran straight out to tell Daddy, seeing as Daddy was J.D.’s boss and it was his bulldozer that got stolen.
I found him walking up and down in the garden, smoking a cigarette. Dark blue sweat stains were already blooming on his shirt, and his bald forehead glistened in the morning sun. Daddy is not a thin man, and the heat bothers him something awful.
“What you want, Lilia? You all ready to go?” He threw his cigarette down and crushed it with the tip of his shoe, like an ice skater getting ready for his next move. Then I told him what happened, and before I knew it he’d jumped in the car, muttering to himself as we flew backwards down the gravel driveway. He didn’t even notice that I’d climbed in next to him.
“Goddamn crazy sonofabitch . . .”
That’s how I know Daddy didn’t notice me right away.
We got there in under ten minutes, and sure enough we found a big, empty space where the bulldozer should have been. The door to Daddy’s office, which was really just a trailer up on cement blocks, was hanging open like the flap of an envelope, the window smashed. Daddy parked, muttering under his breath as he hauled himself out of the car, and I could hear the fat, grumbling noise of the bulldozer engine from over near the library more than three blocks away. Even if I was deaf I could have found it though. Just about everyone in town knew that J.D. was on his way to Charletta Watkins’ house out on the bypass, next to the Church of the Holy Lord of Heaven where Reverend Watkins is pastor.
When Daddy got back in he just sat a minute, staring straight ahead. “Shit,” he said. Then he looked at me. “Where’d you come from?”
“I’ve just been here the whole time,” I said, batting my eyes a little and putting on my best innocent face. I was afraid he’d make me go home.
“Well all right then. Come on.” Then he put the car into gear and took off.
You couldn’t miss the yellow bulldozer chugging straight down the middle of Loudon Street. J.D. hadn’t gotten very far, but then bulldozers don’t go all that fast. The neighbors had started creeping out, the ladies all done up in their flowered church dresses marching right down to the sidewalk, the ones still in housecoats and hair rollers peeking from the front door, and the husbands with their slicked hair hanging back on the porch pretending they weren’t interested, even though they were outside watching just like everybody else. Daddy must have called the police, too, because Sheriff Lloyd was hanging out the window of his cruiser about ten feet behind the bulldozer yelling at J.D. on a bullhorn. We followed a ways back in Daddy’s big white car, then some boys on their bicycles weaving and swaying behind us like streamers, all of us making a strange, slow-motion parade that crawled straight through the middle of town.
“Stop the dozer, J.D.,” Sheriff Lloyd shouted, although you could barely tell over the engine’s coughing black smoke into the sky. “Just come on down from there and let’s talk about this.”
I couldn’t hear what J.D. said back, but from his hand gesture it wasn’t very polite and he definitely wasn’t stopping to talk about anything.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised. I heard Mama and Mrs. Avery talking about the whole thing just the week before, while they were in the kitchen drinking coffee from Grandma Florence’s rosebud china which she promised is mine once I get married. Mrs. Avery said J.D. had been sweet on Charletta for almost six months now, but her daddy told her she was to have nothing to do with him.
“Why not?” Mama said. “Because he’s a white boy?”
Mrs. Avery cut her eyes over at me real quick before she answered.
“’Course not,” she said, her voice all high and bright, and she looked at Mama like she was the dumbest person who ever drew breath. “Who would say such a thing? That boy’s crazy, that’s why. You just never know what he’ll do.”
Which was true. J.D. went to the high school with Jackson and my sister Louisa, where I’d be starting in exactly two years, four months and seventeen days. They’d told me how one time, on a dare, J.D. marched right into the school’s kitchen and tried to cook his own lunch, putting on one of the ladies’ hairnets and even waiting on two or three scared freshmen before the principal ran him out. And sometimes he’d come in to school straight after deer hunting all night with his brothers without so much as washing his face, covered in mud and smelling just like a baked skunk. Jackson said once he even kept his rifle in his locker all morning. They suspended him three days for that. I used to see him whenever Louisa took me down to watch Jackson play baseball, until last spring when Mr. Satrey ran off and J.D. had to quit the team and go to work for Daddy after school. Now Daddy swears he has to hire an extra man just to keep an eye on J.D. when they’re on a job, but Louisa says Daddy and Mrs. Satrey used to date back in high school, so he felt obliged to be helpful I guess.
“J.D. don’t be stupid boy, come on down from there,” Sheriff Lloyd tried again, but this time J.D. yelled something about “Gotta go to church, Sheriff.” Didn’t sound much like he wanted to pray. Sounded more like he wanted to choke someone.
A regular crowd had gathered on the sidewalk by now, and J.D. hunched down behind the wheel of the bulldozer like he was trying to make it go faster just by thinking real hard.
I could see Daddy losing patience. His whole collar was sweaty, and he gripped the wheel as if it might fly away if he lost concentration for a minute. The next thing I knew he stomped on the gas. The car shot forward, flinging me into the seat like a slamming door. We blew past the sheriff and the bulldozer, and then Daddy cranked the wheel hard and we screeched to a stop across the intersection about half a block down from the parade. The neighbors all rushed forward to watch, and the kids gaped from their bicycles like a bunch of stunned frogs.
A lady in a blue straw hat yelled, “Ephraim! Have you lost your mind? You move that car right now before you get that little girl killed!”
But Daddy didn’t hear her. He just stared out his window like he was throwing some force field to stop the bulldozer against its will. That big shovel crept closer and closer until I could see every clot of dirt stuck in the tines. My stomach knotted, and I felt my pancakes ready to make a return appearance on my nice pink blouse. Finally the bulldozer groaned and coughed like it might slow down, and I took my first breath in what felt like half an hour. Then the shovel started moving up. J.D. was aiming straight at Daddy’s glaring head. I tried to scream but only flapped my mouth open and closed like a choir on TV with the sound turned off. My legs had turned to cement. The shovel hovered inches from Daddy’s face, and I braced myself for the sound of shattering glass.
“Good God!” Daddy threw the car into gear, and we lurched forward just as the big tire of the bulldozer clipped the back fender, throwing us both sideways. Once we were clear he stopped the car and we just stared at each other a minute, my insides churning just like they did after the Ferris wheel at last year’s carnival. I wondered for a second if he might just give up and go home. But the next thing I knew we were back in the parade, surrounded by kids on bikes and following the flashing lights toward the Church of the Holy Lord.
Mrs. Avery said J.D. had tried everything short of running naked down Main Street to get Charletta to notice him, even though she’s a preacher’s daughter and going to college next year up at the big state university, and she’ll probably be a nurse or even a doctor someday. I heard one night he waited outside her house with a flashlight and a radio asking her to come out and dance with him until Reverend Watkins finally had to chase him off. Jackson saw him leave little presents in her locker, a wild rose or maybe a rabbit’s foot, and J.D. had asked Charletta to the graduation dance so many times that my sister thought for sure she’d give in and say yes.
But she didn’t. She said “Maybe.”
I don’t know what she was thinking, encouraging a boy like him. Louisa says he’s got the nicest blue eyes, but I say he’s still crazy. One time he came into Daddy’s office, his clothes all dirty and a big hole torn in the elbow of his coat, and when he looked over and winked at me my face got all hot and I felt like I had spiders dancing in my stomach. What business would Charletta have with a boy like that? I guess maybe she’s not quite as smart as everyone says she is. Still, after all that someone said someone saw Charletta holding hands with Walt Franklin Saturday night, and by morning J.D. was stealing the bulldozer and leading half the town through the streets at ten miles an hour.
We were getting near the bypass now, out past the High School and into a neighborhood we never came through except every spring when Mama brought our old clothes out to Mrs. Watkins for their church’s Rummage Sale. It seemed real quiet, like the houses themselves were watching us, the peeling paint hanging like eyelashes along the window frames. I didn’t see anyone, except a toothless old black man who was on his porch sucking on his pipe when we drove by. I wanted to ask Daddy where they all went, but when I saw him I thought the better of it. His face looked like a beefsteak tomato.
“You stop that dozer right now you sonofabitch, or you’re fired,” Daddy hollered out the window. “I’ve had about enough of this, J.D. Now you just pull over and we’ll call it quits. You hear me?”
J.D. didn’t seem to hear anything or anyone. He just focused straight ahead, like none of us was even there. Jackson swears he must have been drunk, but when it was all over no one could recall seeing him drink anything, even if his uncle Jasper says a pint of Wild Turkey went missing from his pantry the day before. Seems just as likely to me that Jasper Satrey drank it himself and forgot, but Mama says it’s not nice to say such things so I won’t.
By the time we reached the clearing between the Watkins’ house and the Church of the Holy Lord somebody had called to warn them, and the congregation all spilled into the yard to watch J.D. chugging down the street. I could see Charletta on the steps of the house in her white Sunday dress, eyes big as moon pies. Reverend Watkins stood in front of her stretching out his purple preacher robes like a kind of protective shield. The choir clumped together in the driveway, their gold satin gleaming in the sun, and everyone else fidgeted between the church and the house unsure where to go or what would happen or which way would be safest to run.
J.D. barged into the yard looking crazier than ever, aiming straight for the house, his eyes fixed on Charletta, and Reverend Watkins up there waving him off like he was directing a jet onto a runway. I heard gears grind, and a big puff of gray smoke burst from the exhaust stack, and I thought for sure he’d rip that porch right off. Then at the last minute J.D. turned a hard right, scattering parishioners like a flock of pigeons, and rammed the bulldozer straight into the church.
Well everybody just gasped and stared, not knowing what to do next. Then as if someone shot a starting pistol they all darted forward, scampering around, checking on each other, fanning themselves and clucking sympathy to Charletta and Mrs. Watkins who stayed on the porch looking too stunned to move.
J.D. slumped a little over the gears of the bulldozer, holding his head with one hand. Even though he was going slow I guess he got knocked a bit by the impact, and Sheriff Lloyd and Daddy rushed over to pull him out of the cage. But J.D. didn’t fight with them or anything. He just stared at Charletta with this sad, sorry look on his face as the Sheriff led him across the lawn. When I looked over at Charletta she seemed kind of sad too, like she wanted to go see if J.D. was hurt, her daddy had his arm clamped around her and she wasn’t going anywhere. The Sheriff helped J.D. into the back of the cruiser, and when I saw him staring through the rear window as they drove off I felt a little sad myself, although I couldn’t precisely say why.
They arrested J.D., of course. Jackson says some people wanted to call it a “hate crime” and made a lot of noise threatening to bring in lawyers from the city and all, and I guess it was a hate crime in a way, but I don’t think in the way that they meant. And since no one got hurt, and since he only knocked a few bricks loose on the church, and since Daddy decided not to press charges for the bulldozer, no one thinks J.D.’ll have to go to jail. Or probably not, anyhow.
After that we all went home. Mama gave me a big hug and said she figured I’d been to church already so I could just change my clothes and wash up. After supper I asked her what J.D. was trying to do and why everyone got so upset, but she said I shouldn’t worry about such things. I begged her to tell me more, but she just sent me off to help Grandma Florence with the dishes again.
Later that night when I went off to bed, I could hear the grown ups on the front porch talking in murmuring waves, their voices drifting in my window on the hot breeze. “Crazy,” someone said, probably Grandma Florence. “No,” Mama answered, “just in love.” Sweat prickled my skin and I suddenly felt restless, like the bed was too small and I might spill out of it any minute. I hurried over and curled myself around the sill to listen, the warm night air clinging to me like a veil, but they’d already gone back to their cigarettes or their drinks and all I could hear from below was the music of the crickets, chirping and singing, just beyond the trees.