“That’s the third time I just about slipped off here and broke my neck.” J.B. scooted up feebly from the eave as loose shingles fell away. “Last time I help you out,” he called over his shoulder. “And that ain’t a threat—that’s a promise.”
His brother Royce grumbled, “Well, I ain’t ast for pine limbs to fall on my house. Ain’t ast for the storm, neither.”
Beyond the two old brothers, high thinning fog sifted through purple banks of pines. The dawning sun gleamed like red sap through crumbling bark.
“Least you can do is give me a proper pry bar,” J.B. whined. “You got us up here picking off shingles with a claw hammer.”
Royce knelt by the chimney, slicing up tarpaper with a razor. “The tools is fine.” He flung some shingles over the eave and they soared like a hawk into a nearby bush. A mockingbird struck out of the leafy cloister and shrieked its rebuke, jutting up one wing and then another like a wind-up machine until its mate swooped in from a bay leaf tree.
Early light crawled over the gray roof and lit up scattered flakes of bark where the pine bough had crashed. As the brothers scraped up busted shingles, the rhythm of the gritty strokes now and then coincided and a silence swelled in the gaps. J.B. tossed an old shingle and surveyed the yard as it sailed away. At the barbed wire fence along the thicket, a fig tree held up fists full of bright leaves and fruit in its forked branches. He could nearly taste the sweet, earthy pulp. In the brothers’ boyhood summers, a barefoot girl named Rosalee from up the road came often to the back steps with fresh eggs or cream, swaying bashfully and swinging her black braided hair as she bargained a trade with their mother. In late summer when figs hung low in the Texas heat, the girl would bring jars of fig jam spiced with cinnamon, year after year. And after many summers, Royce took her as his bride.
“I tell you what,” J.B. declared, so as to not betray his thoughts, “that Rosalee sure knows how to tend them fig trees.” Royce tapped at nails, seeming not to hear. “Not like me. Shoot. My fig tree’s plumb beat from this drought.”
Royce perked up. “Ain’t no drought. I told you your tree was eat up with crown gall.”
“Yeh. And I told you I cut off them galls just soon as I seen them growing.”
Royce huffed a mean laugh. “Don’t do no good cutting them off, lamebrain. Not once it all sets in.”
J.B shrugged to wipe sweat from his brow. “Well how ’bout you mind your trees and I’ll mind mine.”
“What trees you figure I got to mind?”
“Trees over your house. Told you when that blue norther blowed through, said these limbs was liable to come down. And I said if them limbs come down it wasn’ gonn’ be me up here patching the roof. But here I am pitching in nonetheless.”
“I see how it is. Lord says if your brother ast you to walk a mile, you oughrt to walk with him twain. Guess you hadn’ read that part.”
“Don’t you tell me what I read and what I hadn’ read. I’m the one’s read the whole Book. You ain’t even got the full Gospel.”
Royce rose up tottering and shook his flathead screwdriver at J.B. “How you gonn’ sit here in my house—”
“I ain’t in your house. I’m on it.”
“How you gonn’ sit here on top of my house and tell me I ain’t the Christian I oughrt to be?”
J.B. went back to nailing. “Good a place as any.”
Royce twisted this way and that, looking bound to throw his screwdriver down. His wide face burned from the neck up. “I ast the Lord into my heart and my name’s written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. And cain’t no Pharisee sitting on my roof tell me different.”
J.B. laughed, “Won’t do no good astin’ the Lord into your heart if you hadn’ got the Holy Ghost.”
“You talking about all y’all running around the church house, jumping over pews and screaming like lunatics?” Royce scoffed. “That ain’t the truth, I’ll tell you that.”
“You better quit that. You talking about the baptism in the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues.”
“That was for the time of the apostles. You ain’t no apostle.”
Not knowing what to do with himself, J.B. took a nail in hand again and grunted between hammer blows, “Acts—chapter—two—verse—thirty—eight.” He tossed the hammer down. “You know it’s the truth! You cain’t get into heaven without speaking in tongues. And yet here you forsook the Holy Ghost way Mama raised us in and you went and joined the Baptists just to get a girl.” He wiped his brow and went back to tapping.
Royce worked his tongue behind tight lips. He said measuredly, “I saw the truth. That’s how come I left Mama’s church. And don’t you dare judge me and say otherwise.”
J.B.’s jab had made its mark but he could not savor the strike: he knew full well that he, too, would have abandoned his mother’s Pentecostal church for a tender, loving Baptist girl. Against his mother’s wishes, he once snuck off with Royce to a revival at Good Shepherd Baptist Church on account of all the young ladies there. Down the pew, young J.B. heard a woman’s forceful voice—as earthy as ripened figs—tolling not the melody, but the implacable alto line beneath. It seemed to him that this otherwise hidden strain gave new meaning to the tune on top, and that the sweet throat delineating it must be a sublime vessel. When they stood for the benediction, he saw that the voice belonged to the girl who had once brought eggs and cream and fig jam to the back steps—Rosalee Davies—now seventeen and with her black braids plaited with red ribbons. Between each verse of the closing hymn her chest collapsed and surged with a breath so wild it clutched J.B.’s heart.
The sun swelled as it scaled the loblolly trunks. The midmorning blaze consumed the thicket and the shingles began to pant beneath the old men’s knees and hands with the warmth of a living thing.
Royce hollered down the chimney, “Bring us on out some lemonade! Liable to have a sun stroke up here.”
J.B. thought of Rosalee sitting in her high-backed armchair at the front bay window, brushing her poodle Sugar Baby, and he seethed to think of his brother’s voice rattling down and shattering her peace. It happened now and then when J.B. was visiting that Royce would step out of the house or run an errand in town and leave his brother sitting with Rosalee in the front room. J.B. would feel as if a summer storm were about to roll through, so charged was the air. Rosalee would look up from brushing Sugar Baby and address J.B., most often with some surprising and sweet reminiscence, and his heart would leap at this intimacy.
And on some mornings such as this one, J.B. would arrive early and while Royce was still off getting dressed he would sit at the kitchen table, sipping his black coffee, and watch Rosalee fix breakfast at the stove. She always cocked one hand on her hip, drawing back the heavy housecoat a little, and under her pink nightgown her breasts would rock like a lullaby against her paunch as the other hand stirred the ham gravy. In such moments, he tasted the pleasure he had missed these many years—the sweetness of old love that outgrows conversation, the profound passion of two bodies doing no more than inhabiting a home together peaceably.
J.B. had drifted off from his work. He found himself staring down his knees, straddling a patch of shingles that he had started nailing some time ago. All the while, Royce had been grumbling not about J.B.’s lack of progress, but about—as near as J.B. could tell—shelling peas. J.B. went back to tapping and tried to follow his brother’s rant.
“Sure enough, first time she took them peas out of the deep freeze and heated them up for dinner, they tasted about like a mouth full of corn starch. And I says to her I bet she didn’t blanch them peas long enough before she put them up in the freezer. That’s what give it that nasty taste. I said if she ain’t even gonn’ put them up in the freezer right, I done wasted all my time and I put my back out for nothing.”
J.B. easily envisioned Royce at the kitchen table in his undershirt, Rosalee striding over from the stove in one of her billowing puebla dresses she wore around the house, Royce griping with his mouth full of cornbread. J.B. struck the nail recklessly and drove the head sideways into the shingle. “I tell you one thing, way you treat her, it’s a wonder she stays around,” he hollered.
Royce whipped around and stared his brother down. Dragonflies swarmed over the eave and hassled the air. “You best watch it, son.”
J.B. tossed his hammer. “Come to think of it, I hadn’ never heard you pay that woman a compliment all the years I ever known you.”
“Yeh? Well, come to think of it I hadn’ never ast if my complimenting suits you. And if I do take a notion to ast somebody’s opinion, why’m I gonn’ to ast an old loner like you how to handle a woman anyway? Don’t figure.”
The dragonflies swirled and drained away. J.B. struggled to rise on his bad knees. “I’m just telling you, you don’t know what you got.”
“And who do you think you are, keeping score of what I got?”
“I know what I seen.”
“Sounds to me like you been doing a whole lot of looking”
“Blind man could see what I seen.”
“Well, any man that’s got any sense in his head knows you ain’t got no business standing here telling me how I ought to treat my woman. Standing there talking like you keeping track.”
J.B. stomped over to the ladder. He threw one leg over the top rung and found his footing. “Kinda hard to forget how mean you act. Been seeing you act that way since you took a shine to her. I tell you what I remember: I remember when you and Rosalee was just courting and you brought her over to the house for dinner. And with all that beauty right there before your eyes, only thing that come out of your mouth was you bellyaching about how she didn’t carve the chicken right. Laughed her to scorn right there for all to see. Pained me to death. I always knew I could have done right by her if I’da had the chance.”
Royce’s bowed-up body lurched forward as if caught in a gale. “You sitting up here on my roof, gonn’ tell me how you been sanctified and then you come out with how you been coveting my wife?”
“A man can’t covet what’s been stole.”
“How you figure she’s been stole?”
“Only way you courted her was sweetening her up with the love notes and little poems I wrote—the ones I’s to bashful to give her. I’s the one likened her eyes to the sunlight on a rippling creek. It was me said her hair was dark as shade in the thicket. I’s the one said all them things and you the one stole it. And you stole my woman, too.” J.B. hastened down the ladder.
When Royce saw J.B no more, he hollered down, “I ain’t stole your poems.”
The ladder rattled again and J.B.’s mad red face dawned over the eave. “Yeh you did. Took them right out from under my mattress when I wasn’ looking—took all that sweetness I come up with and stuck it in your letters to Rosalee.” Royce stood astride an unpatched section, his plump chest heaving. “She oughrt to have been mine,” J.B. barked.
Royce’s filmy green eyes followed the red face until it slipped away over the edge and there was only the bright, blurred grass.
The screen door rattled below and Rosalee came around the house with Sugar Baby under her arm. “What’s all the fussing for out here?”
J.B. stomped past her, though he did tip his hat. He slammed his squealing pickup truck door and spun down the long dirt driveway. Rosalee stood before the dusty wake with her braceleted hands propped on her high round hips. She squinted at the roof and Royce called down, “Ain’t your concern.”
“Two grown men,” Rosalee declared to no one. “I swear.” She set the poodle down tenderly.
Sugar Baby circled the bay leaf tree, rooting her nose and sniffing, and stopped to hitch her leg. As she watered the trunk she caught sight of Royce with her matted poodle eyes and barked hysterically.
“Shut up, you!” he yelled down. Sugar Baby bounded onto the jumbled heap of shingles beneath the eave and leaped in a circle, barking. “Git on! You hush!”
Rosalee caught the dog up and cradled it at her bosom, eyeing Royce atop the house. She snapped her gaze away and sauntered under the porch. “Don’t nobody talk to Sugar Baby like that.”