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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Jessie's Mountain
by Marie Burrack

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They lived in an old shack in the hills of Tennessee. Jessie was sixteen and had only gone to grade school, but she could read and write. Brother Ben was one year younger and he helped his Pa doing chores around the shack. Their other brother Joey and their little sister Betsy were school age but didn't go. Jessie tried to teach them what she knew.

Ma had taken off in a rage the summer before and Pa said she wouldn't be back, so Jessie took over her Ma's place. She did the washing in a tub and hung clothes from a line her father had put up. She cooked meals of beans, biscuits and gravy. There was never enough to eat, but Jessie ate less so the younger children could have their fill.

Pa worked as a driver for the Sampson's Lumber Company. He had worked there for years but he drank up most of his wages and regularly visited the local brothel. When he did buy groceries, if Jessie stretched it, she could make them last a couple of weeks. Sometimes Pa would disappear for a month or more. Jessie and Ben would walk to town with the younger children and ask the church ladies for food. They would give them beans, canned fruit and flour. The little ones were always wanting things they didn't have. Jessie would have given anything to get them nice things and something good to eat but what could she do? When Pa was around, sometimes he would buy a few oranges or apples and that was a treat for them all.

Jessie never had decent clothes to wear. She did the best she could out of flour sacks and her mother's discarded clothes, and she'd make a dress for Betsy and a shirt for Joey. Ben wore his old clothes and Jessie patched them the best she could. The only clothes Pa bought were his own work clothes. He knew all the roads in the county and that made him worth at least something to Mr. Sampson. Mr. Sampson paid him a modest amount but not as much as his other employees made.

Johnny Bridges was the best looking guy that Jessie had ever seen. He lived in town and she would look at him and think that no one who looked like him would notice her in her raggedy clothes and long blonde hair that always looked windblown.

Even so, she caught him looking at her once or twice - enough to make her blush and wonder whether there was something he liked about her, or something maybe that he didn't.

And she wondered that until Johnny stopped, squarely facing her in front of the drug store one spring morning. Jessie gripped the hands of Betsy and Joey tightly and looked down at her feet. He was asking her to have a soda with him and he made it clear that her brothers and sister were included as well. She couldn't believe he would want to be seen with them. Of course Betsy and Joey were jumping up and down begging to go. Ben looked like he wanted to go also so she said okay. What a treat that was for all of them. They thanked Johnny and he invited them to go the next week, too. It seemed too good to be true.

All the two little ones could talk about was Johnny and ice cream sodas. Jessie couldn't understand why Johnny, who was popular in high school, would bother with them. It must be pity or something. But as long as it made the children happy, she would go along.

They were running low on supplies and Pa hadn't come home yet. Jessie thought about going to the church to get groceries and hoped they hadn't worn out their welcome. They had to eat and no one had much to spare in the mountains. And Pa just didn't think about them that much any more. He did provide for them some, but not enough for all of them. She needed shoes and a new dress and Ben needed a new shirt and pants. She would try to grab a couple of Pa's things for Ben.

To Jessie's surprise, Johnny's mother came with them on the next ice cream soda day. She was very nice and offered to give Jessie some material that she said she had no use for. And she had some shoes, pants and shirts for Ben that Johnny had outgrown. Also, she gave Jessie some dresses she no longer wore but were in fine shape. Jessie was embarrassed but they needed these things so she just said thank you.

Jessie fixed the dresses to fit her and made some new clothes for Betsy and Joey. Ben was only couple of years younger than Johnny and the other clothes fit him perfectly. Every one looked so nice in their new clothes.

Pa came home that night and brought groceries. What a relief to get some new supplies. Pa never noticed the new clothes. Jessie guessed he thought she had plenty. Countless times she had tried to tell Pa how they needed new supplies every two weeks and clothes every couple of months. But it was like talking to the moon. Pa just tuned her out and went outside to sit.

One night Johnny asked Jessie to the movies. She asked Ben if he would take care of Betsy and Joey and he said yes, so she went. It was the best evening of her life. They had popcorn and candy and the movie was a comedy and they laughed and laughed.

Johnny asked Jessie out often over the next few months. Jessie learned to braid her hair and brush it out so it was full and fluffy. She fixed the clothes his mother had given her and found they were almost stylish. Her shoes were shabby but she kept her feet hidden under her chair and it was dark in the movie theater. Johnny never said anything about her clothes or shoes. He was polite and had only kissed her a few times. She loved him but knew she couldn't be more to him than a once in a while date before he went off to college.

Now that Betsy and Joey had some decent clothes, they were looking better than they had ever looked. Jessie planned to send them back to school in the fall so they would get some real schooling and make new friends. But Pa wasn't supplying them with enough groceries and it was getting harder to scrape together meals. Biscuits and gravy were the staple during these times. It went on like that for months and finally she had to yell at her Pa and say they were starving and needed food. He yelled back but came home with groceries. That evening they ate well, but it was a constant tug of war to get him to do his duty.

Fall came and Betsy and Joey started school. Johnny left for college and didn't return to the home town again.

Not much changed in the years after that. Jessie heard that Johnny was working as a banker in Atlanta, but there was no accurate word on it.

She continued to take care of Betsy and Joey who were now teenagers and found it hard to be without designer clothes and money for sodas. Pa still drove for Mr. Sampson, without a promotion, and, as always, each day was a struggle for the food they needed. Ben had run away at age 16 and they hadn't heard from him since.

Jessie planned to leave as soon as Betsy and Joey were grown enough to take care of themselves. She'd have to find work with her limited skills and schooling. Not much out there for her but it had to be better than this.

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