Dawn DeBraal lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband Red, two rescue dogs, and a stray cat. Dawn has published over 400 stories in many online magazines and anthologies, including Palm-sized press, Spillwords, Mercurial Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Edify Fiction, Zimbell House Publishing, Black Hare Press, Clarendon House, Blood Song Books, Fantasia Divinity, Cafelit, Reanimated Writers, The World of Myth, Dastaan World, Vamp Cat, Runcible Spoon, Siren’s Call, Setu, Kandisha Press, Terror House Magazine, D & T Publishing, Sammie Sands, Iron Horse Publishing, Impspired Magazine, Black Ink Fiction and was the Falling Star Magazine’s 2019 Pushcart nominee.
Blessed Are They Which Are Persecuted
The whole town was abuzz when the news that my uncle was being released from prison came out. Twenty years ago, Fran Tuck, my father’s younger brother, killed a young man, as a young man himself, but now he was coming home.
I’d never met my uncle; I had only seen pictures of him in photo albums and looked at his graduation picture on the wall in my grandmother’s house. He had dark wavy hair that he combed to the side, and it was said he looked like a young Clark Gable. The black and white picture with a sly smile followed me around the dining room—the eyes of a murderer.
We were not to talk of it. I asked my father about it once, and he told me it was an unlucky punch that made Jimmy Bordeaux fall and strike his head on the sidewalk curb. Fran and Jimmy were both wrong for fighting in the street, but it was Uncle Francis’ who got in the fated punch. Their friends stood in a circle around them outside the Royale Movie Theater, urging them on. It was a hot, muggy night, and everyone was fixing for a fight. Uncle Fran said something about Mabel’s skirt being a bit tight. Mabel told him to keep quiet, and Jimmy flew at him, both fists swinging.
When Jimmy’s head cracked open like an egg on the sidewalk, the friends scattered, except for his girlfriend, she was inconsolable, they said. Mable Leach married someone else and moved out of the area, which was good for the family.
Fran and Jimmy had been tipping a flask in the theater’s balcony when the movie “The Devil Doll,” starring Lionel Barrymore ended. They walked out together with a gang of friends. I never forgot the show’s title because I kept thinking that maybe the Devil himself caused that fight? What Fran said about Jimmy’s girlfriend resulted in the first punch by Jimmy to my uncle’s chin.
It was said that Fran never made the first punch, but according to the family, he always got the last one.
Twenty years of his life spent behind bars at the state penitentiary. I couldn’t imagine that length of time because I was only thirteen years old, and a year seemed to take forever. We’d never seen one another. I was excited to meet my uncle for the first time.
My father was a good carpenter with a solid reputation. He worked on several properties in the area. When he found out that Uncle Fran was getting out of prison, my father wrote to his brother, offering him a job as a carpenter’s assistant.
If it weren’t for my father, I don’t know what Uncle Fran would have done. They released him from prison with nothing but the clothes on his back and a chip on his shoulder.
Grandpa Bill said Fran couldn’t stay in the home where he grew up. My grandmother was very upset about that, but she lived under the rule of her husband, as most women did back then.
My father was working on a horse ranch at the time, building new stalls because some of the horses cribbed or ate the wood, out of nervousness or for whatever reason. He replaced worn boards when he noticed running water in the barn, an outhouse, and a dilapidated shed outback. An idea came to him, and he asked the rancher if he could fix up the building for free. In exchange, the building would become a temporary living place for his brother until he earned enough money to find his own place.
Uncle Fran had a natural talent with horses having been raised on a farm. After finding out that he wasn’t a thief and knowing what happened was an accident, Mr. Hennessy agreed that Uncle Fran could live on the ranch in exchange for helping out with the horses.
With enthusiasm, my father fixed the roof, built a sleeping bunk, painted the old shed with a coat of whitewash. I made some gingham curtains with a matching table cloth; my mother planted flowers near the doorway. The cottage looked fresh and loved.
My Dad went to collect Uncle Fran by himself. Grandpa Bill and Grandma Maisey stayed back, allowing the brothers some time to catch up with one another. Dad had visited his brother every few months over the last two decades, and was the only one from our family who saw Uncle Fran and reported back to the rest of us.
“They’re here!” screamed my sister Kelly when the car pulled into the driveway. Mom had made a fried chicken dinner for the occasion. It was Uncle Fran’s favorite meal.
Grandma jumped from her chair to look out the window. I watched her hand come up to her mouth as she gasped. Imagine saying goodbye to your nineteen-year-old and seeing him again when he was thirty-nine.
Uncle Fran followed Dad into the house and received a sobbing hug from his mother. I was near tears myself. Grandpa shook his hand stiffly.
“Glad to see you,” then he stepped back. My mother gave him a quick hug and introduced Kelly and me.
“It’s good to meet you Ruby, and Kelly. Your Dad talked a lot about you and brought your pictures to show me how grown-up you were.” Kelly moved behind me, being the shyer sister. I stepped forward and shook the hand of my uncle, the murderer. He had a firm grip. I couldn’t help but think it was the hand that dealt the fatal blow to Jimmy Bordeaux. I wiped it off right quick. After the excitement settled, we awkwardly stared at one another.
“Kelly, play your song for Uncle Fran.” Mom smiled. Kelly robotically sat down and played “The Dancing Snowflake,” with only a couple of mistakes. Everyone clapped. I was glad not to have taken piano lessons, and I felt sorry for my sister having to perform. Maybe she liked not having to talk to people but communicating through her music.
My Dad told Uncle Fran about his old jalopy and that it was still parked in the barn. He said that when Fran got his driver’s license, he could come back for the car. He also told him about the little cottage at the Hennessy horse ranch. Fran said he was tired and wanted to go home. I got to ride with my father out to the Hennessey ranch. Sitting in the front seat, Uncle Fran looked at the little white cottage. I can’t say for sure, but I think a tear might have rolled out of his eyes. He picked up his belongings in a sack, along with some leftover chicken from my mother, and waved goodbye.
“Do you think he likes it? ” I asked my father as we pulled away, Dad nodded yes. “I left a Bible. I hope that was alright,” Dad nodded yes, again.
“Ruby, your uncle is going to need a lot of kindness and understanding from us. It’ll be a while, but soon the town will come around. They know it was an accident, what happened with Jimmy Bordeaux.”
That is what we did; we visited my uncle every day. Uncle Fran worked hard at the ranch feeding and watering the horses, mucking out the stalls in the mornings, and then went with my father to work as a carpenter’s assistant during the day. Mr. Hennessey and Fran were pleased with the arrangement.
When school started in the fall, I stepped onto the bus. Amy Tori sang
“Jailbird, jailbird, your uncle is a jailbird,” in a sing-songy voice. I glared at her staring her down until she shut her mouth. No one joined in with her. Amy looked the fool she was. The bus lurched forward. I jerked, grabbing the seat directly across from her all the while I kept glaring at her. Amy backed down, turning bright red. She was the only person with the nastiness to say these things to my face, and when she was showed up, everyone else backed down.
Uncle Fran worked hard, saving every penny he earned. When he got his driver’s license, he came for the old jalopy. He and Dad spent a lot of time restoring it. Uncle Fran said he loved to drive it because he felt nineteen again. Life seemed to settle down, and things were going well until the Christmas holidays.
School closed for a week. Families gathered to spend this joyous time together. Uncle Fran took me to the Five and Dime to give me a chance to pick up a small gift for Kelly and my parents. That was when he bumped into a woman who was also shopping.
I didn’t know it was her at the time, but I could tell by Uncle Fran’s face the meeting was a traumatic incident. The woman’s jaw dropped while Uncle Fran tried to backpedal out of the store.
“Fran, wait,” she called out to him. Her hair spun into a beehive; she raised her gloved hand, touching him. I watched Uncle Fran’s shoulders slump. He probably thought he was going to get a tongue lashing. Instead, she put her arms around him.
“I’m so glad you are out,” she held him for a long time, and when she pulled back, I watched him mouth the words,
“I’m sorry.” She nodded her head as if to acknowledge his remorse and pain. I stood by, holding my breath. When I heard her name Mabel, I knew who she was and thought that her skirt didn’t look too tight.
“Ruby, got your gifts?” Uncle Fran said in a shaky voice. I nodded, still mesmerized by the moment, then followed him to the register where we paid. The clerk put my things in a bag, and I almost walked out of the store without them.
“That’s Mabel?” I asked stupidly. When we got outside, the cold wind caught us.
“Yes,” he answered. He never said another word all the way home.
After that fateful day, I saw the light go out of my uncle’s eyes. When he first got out of prison, I think Uncle Fran felt he had paid for his mistake, and that for the first time in a long time, he had a future, but after seeing Mabel, he couldn’t let his mistake go.
We celebrated Christmas Day at my grandparents’ house next door. Grandma set the table with her finest China service, the one with tiny roses on it and a gold rim. A huge roast beef sat in the center of the table, with glasses of Port wine at the point of each knife blade. Kelly and I had a little sip, only I wouldn’t say I liked it.
Uncle Fran was on his fourth glass when my father put his hand on his brother’s forearm, shaking his head. As far as we knew, my uncle hadn’t had any spirits in twenty years, and now, he was obviously tipsy.
“Uncle Fran,” I asked, “are you alright?” What should’ve been evident to the others for some reason wasn’t. I could see his face was flushed. Dad clucked his tongue and gave me that look.
“I’m gonna take you home, Fran,” Dad said after dessert was served. Fran said he was alright to drive, and my father said no, asking him what had gotten into him?
I piped up and said Uncle Fran had been sad since he saw Mabel at the Five and Dime a few days ago.
“Ruby, shut your mouth.” I couldn’t believe my uncle would talk to me so.
“But it’s true. You have changed.” He pushed me back, and I tripped over the footstool in front of the rocking chair. My father attacked his brother.
“Don’t you touch her!” My mother helped me up as I realized Uncle Fran had a temper. Mom walked Kelly and me out of the room before words started to fly. I was crying not from the fall but because I felt I had betrayed my uncle by telling the secret.
“Ruby, it’s not your fault, honey,” Mom pulled me close. I wished I hadn’t heard the words spoken in anger from my grandfather to my uncle, from my father to his brother. All of them damning and raw.
“You can’t be around my daughters if you drink,” Dad shouted. Uncle Fran left, slamming the door behind him. Dad was holding the jalopy keys he’d surrendered to him.
“Carl, you can’t let him walk home. That’s seven miles. It’s cold out there!”
“I’ll let him cool down and pick him up in a bit.” Dad sighed, rubbing the back of his head, something he did when he was upset.
After the fight, no one felt like celebrating the Lord’s Birthday. Grandma cried for serving Port with dinner, but grandpa said it wasn’t her fault. Dad pulled me off to the side to find out what happened at the Five and Dime. He thanked me for telling the truth, that it would help Uncle Fran. I was relieved and started to cry all over again. It was never my intention to hurt my uncle.
After an hour, Dad went to look for Uncle Fran to give him a ride home. He came home later without finding him.
“Maybe he got a ride home,” my mother said.
“Clare, I was at his house. It was open. He wasn’t there.”
“Are you sure he wasn’t in the ditch?” My father rolled his eyes.
“No, Clare, I can’t see in the dark. He’ll show up.”
It was hard to sleep that night, not knowing where Uncle Fran had gone off to. It was Christmas night, and nothing was open. I kept picturing him out in the ditch, freezing to death.
I awoke the next morning to a commotion in the hen house. Had a fox got in? I ran to my window, and to my relief, Uncle Fran was gathering eggs. When I came downstairs, he was making French toast.
“Uncle Fran? I’m sorry,” I sobbed. He put his arms out to me.
“Ruby, I’m sorry. It was the drinking that sent me to jail twenty years ago. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Kelly, Mom, and Dad came downstairs, my Dad opening the desk drawer picking out the keys to Uncle Fran’s jalopy.
“Where were you? I looked for you?” Dad said, handing him the keys.
“In the barn. I slept in the hayloft. Sorry, I worried you. Carl, I’m never going to take another drink. I don’t like who I become.” Mom called grandmother to let her know everything was alright, that Uncle Fran was safe.
“Carl, I am going to move out of the area, someplace that doesn’t know my past. A place where people look at me and not see my sins.” Dad rubbed the back of his head deep in thought.
“I understand, Fran. Whatever I can do to help,” the brothers hugged one another.
It took months, but Uncle Fran got a job out of town, far enough away that his past did not follow him for the time being.
The whole town was abuzz when the news that my uncle had moved out of the area came out. Sometimes no matter how well-meaning folks are, they tie the anchor of sin to you. It’s a form of subtle persecution. As long as Uncle Fran remained in Royale, he would never move beyond that night at the movie theater, when he made the snide comment, and Jimmy Bordeaux threw the first punch. Uncle Fran, as usual, got the last one.
The Good Book says, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I don’t know if moving to Mount Prairie seemed like Heaven. But in time, Uncle Fran met a nice woman they married, and had a little boy. I never saw him happier.