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Tony Earley, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, has earned a place on Granta's list of the 20 Best Young American Fiction Writers and a National Magazine Award for fiction. He has twice been included in the acclaimed anthology, Best American Short Stories. The author's previous novel, Here We Are in Paradise (Little, Brown and Company, 1994), received critical acclaim in The New York Times Book Review and Details, among other publications. He lives with his wife and dogs in Nashville, Tennessee.
Here We Are in Paradise
Jim the Boy
During the night something like a miracle happened: Jim's age grew an extra digit. He was nine years old when he went to sleep, but ten years old when he woke up. The extra number had weight, like a muscle, and Jim hefted it like a prize. The uncles' ages each contained two numbers, and now Jim's age contained two numbers as well. He smiled and stretched and sniffed the morning. Wood smoke; biscuits baking; the cool, rivery smell of dew. Something not quite daylight looked in his window, and something not quite darkness stared back out. A tired cricket sang itself to sleep. The cricket had worked all night. Jim rose to meet the waiting day.Jim's mother opened the stove door with a dishrag. Mama was tall and pale and handsome; her neck was long and white. Although she was not yet thirty years old, she wore a long, black skirt that had belonged to her mother. The skirt did not make her seem older, but rather made the people in the room around her feel odd, as if they had wandered into an old photograph, and did not know how to behave. On the days Mama wore her mother's long clothes, Jim didn't let the screen door slam.
"There he is," Mama said. "The birthday boy."
Jim's heart rose up briefly, like a scrap of paper on a breath of wind, and then quickly settled back to the ground. His love for his mother was tethered by a sympathy Jim felt knotted in the dark of his stomach. The death of Jim's father had broken something inside her that had not healed. She pulled the heaviness that had once been grief behind her like a plow. The uncles, the women of the church, the people of the town, had long since given up on trying to talk her into leaving the plow where it lay. Instead they grew used to stepping over, or walking inside, the deep furrows she left in her wake. Jim knew only that his mother was sad, and that he figured somehow in her sadness. When she leaned over to kiss him, the lilaced smell of her cheek was as sweet and sad at once as the smell of freshly turned earth in the churchyard.
"Oh, Jimmy," she said. "How in the world did you get to be ten years old?"
"I don't know, Mama," Jim said, which was the truth. He was as amazed by the fact as she was. He had been alive for ten years; his father, who had also been named Jim Glass, had been dead for ten years and a week. It was a lot to think about before breakfast.
Mama put the biscuits she pulled from the oven into a straw basket. Jim carried the basket into the dining room. The uncles sat around the long table.
"Who's that?" Uncle Coran said.
"I don't know," said Uncle Al.
"He sure is funny-looking, whoever he is," said Uncle Zeno.
"Y'all know who I am," said Jim.
"Can't say that we do," said Uncle Coran.
"Howdy," said Uncle Al.
"Y'all stop it," Jim said.
The uncles were tall, skinny men with broad shoulders and big hands. Every morning they ate between them two dozen biscuits and a dozen scrambled eggs and a platter of ham. They washed it all down with a pot of black coffee and tall glasses of fresh milk.
"Those biscuits you got there, Jim?" said Uncle Zeno.
"Better sit down, then."
In all things Jim strove to be like the uncles. He ate biscuits and eggs until he thought he was going to be sick. When Uncle Zeno finally said, "You think you got enough to eat, Doc?" Jim dropped his fork as if he had received a pardon.
Uncle Zeno was Jim's oldest uncle. His age was considerable, up in the forties somewhere. Uncle Coran and Uncle Al were twins. Each of them swore that he did not look like the other one, which of course wasn't true. They looked exactly alike, until you knew them, and sometimes even then. Not one of the uncles found it funny that they lived in identical houses. Uncle Al and Uncle Coran built their houses when they were young men, but, like Uncle Zeno, they never took wives. Most of the rooms in their houses didn't even have furniture; only Uncle Zeno's house had a cookstove.
Jim's mother cooked and cleaned for the uncles. When she said it was too much, the uncles hired a woman to help her. Uncle Coran ran the feed store and cotton gin. Uncle Al managed the farms. Uncle Zeno farmed with Uncle Al and operated the gristmill on Saturday mornings. As the head of the family he kept an eye on everyone else. Occasionally the uncles grew cross with each other, and, for a few days, Uncle Al and Uncle Coran would retire to their houses immediately after supper. There they sat by their own fires, or on their own porches, and kept their own counsel until their anger passed. In general, however, everyone in the family got along well with everyone else; to Jim, the sound of harsh words would always strike his ear as oddly as a hymn played in the wrong key.
Jim patted his stomach. "That ought to hold me till dinner," he said.
"You ate a right smart," Uncle Coran said.
"Well," said Jim, "I am ten years old now."
"My, my," said Uncle Al.
"I've been thinking it's about time for me to go to work with y'all," Jim said.
"Hmm," said Uncle Zeno.
"I thought maybe you could use some help hoeing that corn."
"We can usually put a good hand to work," Uncle Zeno said. "You a good hand?"
"Yes, sir," said Jim.
"You ain't afraid to work?"
"What do you say, boys?" Uncle Zeno said.
Uncle Al and Uncle Coran looked at each other. Uncle Coran winked.
"He'll do, I guess," said Uncle Al.
"Let's get at it, then," said Uncle Zeno.
Copyright © 2000 - 2002 by Tony Earley
Excerpt used with permission from Time Warner Bookmark