Jocelyn Receives a Call
by Mark Smyth
“No one else can make me feel the colors that you bring. Stay with me while we grow old and we will live each day in springtime”
On the last Saturday in October, 2002 Jocelyn Parker stared into the swiftly moving stream that ran through the back of the house where she lived. She had paused after hanging a basketful of clothes on the line and wandered down the incline that led to a decaying bridge, laid across the six-foot deep embankments of the stream. It had been her practice to take frequent meditative breaks throughout the day in order to focus her energies on matters of the spirit and to simply break away from the routine of her chores.
Listening to the purl of the water as it moved among the rocks and the sound of the birds jockeying for space on her feeders always seemed to bring her mind to a better, more tranquil place. After taking in the sounds of nature, or on days of relative quiet, focusing her attention on the wind as it brushed against her arms, it was her routine to breath deeply and close her eyes until even these pleasant sounds faded from her consciousness. Remaining still for a time, she would conclude with a prayer and continue with her work.
She was living outside of Jacksonville, Florida in Baker County, between the town of MacClenny and the Georgia state line in the home of her friend, Robert “Rusty” Edwards. The home was of a newer vintage, in a fairly good state of repair and situated almost ten miles from the nearest small town. She shared the home with Rusty and his two sons that he had from his previous marriage.
The boys Robert Jr. and Calvin had long since forsaken their birth names for nicknames though Jocelyn refused to acknowledge these as a matter of common decency. Robert Jr. was 16 years old and Calvin, 15. Jocelyn had for two years attempted with limited success to become a kind of surrogate mother to the boys although the nature of her relationship with Rusty, legal and otherwise, had been ambiguous from the beginning.
As she climbed the incline back towards the clothesline, she grabbed for the top of her floppy denim hat as a strong gust of wind picked-up from behind her nearly sending it flying from atop her head. With both her hands on the top of her head, she continued her climb when she heard the phone ring through the screen door.
Running awkwardly, elbows raised she reached the phone on the fifth ring. She noted that the answering machine had been turned off.
“Yes hello, Jocelyn?” a voice answered.
She squinted her eyes as she tried to make-out the voice. The call was long-distance or the caller had a bad connection or the call was initiated from a cheap phone. It was all three. Scratchy echo over fuzz - an amplified voice.
“Yes, to whom am I speaking?” she answered as her chest began pounding - she recognized the voice. “Oh my God,” she shouted at the same time the caller replied, “Jocelyn it’s me, Charles.”
“Oh my God, I don’t believe my ears. Well I’ll be…” she responded, exuberant at first then guarded.
“Hey baby, how you doin’?” asked Charles uneasily.
“Hey baby is it? Well, I suppose I’m fine. Now how in the world did you get this number?”
“You know I’ve got my ways,” answered Charles with a nervous laugh. “Actually I called Kenneth and he did some diggin’ for me. Is it all right that I called? I know that you have, what cha’ call…responsibilities these days and I don’t mean to cause any trouble.” Charles appeared shy, awkwardly humble.
“Well it’s no trouble I suppose,” Jocelyn replied, concerned Rusty would soon be returning home from work. “But I wouldn’t make a habit of it.”
“Yeah, well I see.”
“Yeah,” she replied letting go a nervous chuckle.
“Well I hear you have a pretty nice life out in the country, somewhere out along Route 10?”
“You might say that.”
“Well that sounds real nice…real nice, yeah…so I guess you’re keeping busy and doing your thing… Are you still in that choir?”
“I still go to the old congregation every so often, but now that I’ve been out here in the sticks I’ve joined with the local church group and they’re pretty good, very nice services and the people are very kind, but not as much soul, if you know what I mean.”
“Hmm… yeah, I know what you mean, probably have you singin’ some real nice banjo music or something.”
“It’s not that bad really. I don’t suppose you’ve been inside a church lately and can I ask where in God’s world you are right now?”
“Aw yeah, I’m in Kuwait, just the same as always and maybe I should be going to service, I’m sure you’ve heard about what’s been going down lately?”
“Yes I have and you’ll be needing to take care of yourself,” she began, noticing herself projecting an affectionate tone. She altered her voice and continued more stoically, “and you might begin by attending that service on base. I know they must have one.”
“Yes, in fact I was thinking of doing just that.”
A silence then fell over the conversation. Charles searched his mind for something to say and found nothing. Moments passed uncomfortably, slowly. Charles felt an overwhelming urge to cry; Jocelyn felt a fluttering in her stomach. Tears also welled in her eyes. The silence continued for a time and Charles began mumbling incoherently to fill the void until they both blurted out simultaneously.
“Things ain’t so good,” collided with Jocelyn’s, “You know I used to try calling you?”
Again they both spoke at the same time, “What?” and “I couldn’t hear you.” There was an unsettling delay present on the line, a common function of long distance phone lines but also the specific result of the wavering strength of Charles’ signal. It was also the result of anxiety and uncertainty.
A third time they spoke over each other’s words and they both laughed. The line became clearer.
Jocelyn then resumed and changed course, “I hope that you’re being careful over there, I hear a lot of bad things are going on.”
“Oh yeah, it’s starting to get heavy, but I’m not worried. Nobody’s gunna start anything with me. I’m on base all day and I just drive home, but lately I’ve been driving home without my camouflage hat, I’ll tell you that,” he answered with a chuckle.
At that point in the conversation, Charles heard the sound of a man’s voice through the phone. It sounded loud and brash. He heard Jocelyn’s voice shout, “Robert, Robert, where are you going now? Will you be back for dinner? I need to know now otherwise I won’t have enough prepared…”Charles then remembered Kenneth mentioning that the man she was living with was named Robert. His budding confidence immediately waned as he felt his chest deflate.
“I’m sorry Charles, had a little interruption there.”
“Yeah, that’s no problem…well I’ll let you go now, you take care…now, okay?”
As the line went dead, Jocelyn felt a pang in her heart. She placed her head in her hands as she sat down at the kitchen table. The uneasiness she felt did not pass quickly and she continued sitting facedown for 10 minutes. She offered a prayer and asked God for strength before she stood up from the table on hearing loud music from Robert Jr.’s room. She wished that Charles would call back and immediately the phone rang. She answered anxiously.
“Hi Jocelyn.” It was Rusty.
“Oh, hi Rust, how’s your day going?”
“Fairly well, fairly well. I was just calling to say that I probably won’t be home till about seven tonight. I’m way at the other end of the county on some business and might be an hour or so late.”
“Say, have you seen Robert Jr.?”
“I surely haven’t, but I’ve seen his shadow now and again. I believe he’s in his room now. He decided to stop by about 20 minutes ago and he’d been gone since late morning. Do you want to talk to him?”
“No, no that’s okay. I was just wondering if he’d be joining us for dinner tonight, I wanted to go over a few matters with him.”
“Well, I tried asking him that same question earlier, but the boy’s not real fond of the English language, so your guess is as good as mine.”
“Okay, well I’ll see you at seven.”
Jocelyn put down the phone and walked down the hall to Robert Jr.’s bedroom. She knocked loudly in an attempt to be heard over the blaring music.
“Yo,” came Robert Jr.’s voice through the door, over the music - detached and strong.
She opened the door and began to ask that the music be lowered as her request was preempted with some reluctance.
“Your father wants to know if you’ll be joining us for dinner tonight.”
“Nah, I’ve got plans.”
Jocelyn replied plaintively, “Okay, thank you very much, sir.” She closed the door, the music became louder and she returned back down the hallway.
She went outside to retrieve a basket of dried clothes that she had left on the grass. She felt vulnerable. Deep breath. Still vulnerable. Tense air filled her lungs. She spent the next hour folding and ironing laundry. Although steamed and pressed her pile seemed limp, wrinkles remained. The laundry to which she attended was her standard assortment of mostly Rusty’s weekend shirts and the boy’s underwear with some miscellaneous bedding mixed-in to complete a full load. While struggling to fold a large bed sheet, she heard a soft tap at the door. She sat down her partially folded sheet and scurried to the door. It was her friend Charlene from her old neighborhood. The sight of her smile through the door’s window brightened instantly her tense-gray mood.
She opened the door to a familiar exuberance. Down-home cheer with hugs and laughter.
“It was so good to see that big goofy smile of yours when I peeked through my little window,” said Jocelyn.
“Oh girl, I was just on my way back from Tallahassee and figured I’d stop in on ya and see what you have goin’ on out here in these backwoods,” countered Charlene in her slow, animated southern drawl as they made their way down the hall towards the kitchen.
“Well before I offer you something to drink, let me put you to work, come over here and give me a hand with this sheet.”
Charlene took an end of the large faded sheet and placed the center portion beneath her chin as she straightened the edges with her strong fingers.
“So how’ve you been darlin’?” began Charlene cheerfully.
“Well today’s been a challenge, I can tell you that, but alright I suppose, how’ve you been?”
Hearing something hidden in her few words, Charlene’s face changed from a rosy smile to a look of concern. She took the opposite end of the sheet from Jocelyn’s hand, folded it twice and set it gently on the kitchen table.
“Now that doesn’t sound quite right, what’s on your mind Jocelyn?”
“Oh nothing. Would you like some iced tea, dear?”
“That sounds nice…and very country I might add.”
“How ‘bout a nice big piece of this peach pie I made yesterday. Rusty never touches it, just leaves it for me to get all fat-on.”
“You don’t have to convince me. I’m sold dear. You always could cook. Girl, I know that’s the truth.”
As Jocelyn poured the tea, Charlene continued in a softer, more delicate tone.
“Tell me what’s bothering you Jocelyn?”
After some hesitation, Jocelyn answered, “Oh, I don’t know…a lot of things I guess.”
Charlene looked at her gently and did not speak.
“It’s just been building-up and building-up and then today, oh boy today. I am so glad you stopped by today. I really do not know what to do, Charlene, I really don’t,” she began as she absently fumbled through the kitchen cabinets after serving Charlene her pie and iced tea.
“Tell me about today. Just sit right down here and let’s talk and don’t worry about fixin’ any dinner… I’ll help you with that latter.”
“I guess it’s about Rust… and this house and his hoodlum kids and everything really, it’s just everything.”
“Well I’m with you about those kids, I just saw one of them leavin’ as I pulled in. Girl, what in the hell was he wearin’? It looked like he’s goin’ for some type of Jamaican pimp look or something... ouh-wee did he look silly and he didn’t even bother to say hello.”
“I know. They don’t listen to me either. Heck they’re not home enough for me to be able to say anything to them anyhow… Then again, why would they listen to me? I’m not their mother, heck I’m not even their stepmother. I’m just their father’s girlfriend… Now doesn’t that sound silly, a 44-year-old girlfriend? Hell, may as well call it what it is: I guess I’m just their father’s mistress, their father’s whore, daddy’s piece of ass.”
“Jocelyn, now stop that. Stop that right now. You know that Rusty is a good man…he’s honest and hard-workin’ and a lot of good things. Now, I don’t claim to know him like you do, but he’s not the type of man to use you like that. He’s just worried about things not working out because of his divorce and the stress from those boys.”
“Girl, he doesn’t give a damn about those boys. He’s gunna have hell to pay when those two get arrested by his own department. The good Sergeant Edwards, straight as an arrow, raises two criminals and visits them in his own jail. I can hear the gossip now. ‘State Trooper arrests own kids,’ that’ll be the headline. And about being worried about getting married and divorced again…hell, he just likes things the way they are…lives in the country now, owns his own home, rags to riches, discipline and hard-work, honest black man…that’s it, the honest black man who won’t make his black woman, an honest woman…hell, if he wants to live like white folks so much, why won’t he get married? Maybe that’s it; maybe he’s looking out for a nice white woman… heck maybe that’s where he’s at right now, for all I know maybe that is where he’s at now. What do I care? I don’t want him anyway.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Now Jocelyn, you calm yourself down. You’re not being fair and you’re letting emotion get the better of you. I doubt if any of that is true, you just calm down honey…now I’m here for you, you just cool down,” replied Charlene as she reached to comfort Jocelyn, who was crying softly.
“Please Lord forgive me, I’m sorry. That’s not fair. I’m sorry. Rusty is a good man. I just don’t know. I don’t know what’s goin’ on.”
“Okay now. I know. I know what you’re goin’ through dear. Trust me, I do. It’s not easy. It’s never easy. You just need to keep yourself rooted. Rooted in the Lord and take things calmly. Take your time, think things through, easy like. Do you understand? Now I hate to see you hurtin’ like that, but I’d hate even more to see something silly happen between you and Rusty.”
“I know, I understand what you’re sayin’.”
“Now tell me about what happened today?”
“I got a call from Charles.”
“Oh my Lord. Lord have mercy. Lord in heaven above…”