By Amy Barnes
“My old man’s a refrigerator repairman. What do you think about that?”
I said goodbye to Bessie the summer I turned twelve. It was a slow death made worse by the Alabama heat that lingered even at night, bed sheets semi-damp despite giant fans circling overhead. I had always been closest to her and sat by her side most days. It was too hot to play outside anyway, and she always comforting to me.
I was still so stick-skinny that you would think the heat would just roll off, but it stuck to me in a way that Bessie didn’t seem to feel. She had always been a hefty girl with “a little meat on her bones” as my aunt Toots used to say. Mama was sick that summer, which meant I was getting another brother or sister around Christmas. It also meant I had to run down to Tucker’s Store and buy groceries to make lunches and dinners for my brothers.
I’d come home with groceries, and Bessie would be waiting, ready to help me put them away. Just holding the cold milk in my hands made the mile-long run to the grocery store feel less stifling. Sometimes, I’d talk to Bessie about who I saw in the store and what they were buying and any of the gossip I heard.
“Did you know Ethel Smith is getting married again?”
“They’ve started carrying something called artichokes at the store. Doesn’t that sound like something murderous?”
“I saw Frank Thompson with his mom buying ointment. He hid behind her like I couldn’t see him but I did. I bet the ointment was for him.”
Bessie always responded simply, in a sing-song hum to let me know she was listening but still needed to keep working. She took her job at our house very serious, working into the wee hours of the morning. I would listen for her humming when I couldn’t sleep because the summer heat crept in and wouldn’t let go. Eventually, I’d doze back off. In the morning, Bessie would be waiting in the kitchen with cold orange juice and a soothing song.
Some days, we would chat about school coming up or mean Maddie Alcott who lived on the other side of town and had bows in her head for no particular reason. I didn’t wear bows in my hair. I couldn’t have even if I wanted to. My hair shone fire-engine red and coarse like the steel wool my mom kept by the sink. Most days, I wet it down and tried to cram it into one ponytail, except, of course, on Saturday night when it was rag curler time. I always told Mama that putting in the curlers wouldn’t help a bit, but she persisted. Bessie watched with a sympathetic look but didn’t try to stop Mama. She told me it wasn’t her place.
By the time, we got to church on Sundays, my hair became all fire-engine kink while Maddie Alcott’s hair was perfectly smooth with a pink bow offsetting her lips that I know had gloss on them though she tried to deny it.
One Sunday afternoon, we went back home to sit down for family dinner. Even Aunt Toots planned to eat with us. She never did that. She preferred the company of a handsome man at a local restaurant, according to my mama. I had never seen many handsome men in town, and the only restaurant was really just a Howard Johnson’s, so I didn’t see the appeal. I knew something was wrong the minute we walked in the door. Bessie saw no use in going to church, so she stayed home with the lemon chess pies and lemonade, coleslaw and lemon bars and popsicles.
“What’s wrong with Bessie?” I screamed.
She wasn’t humming her usual happy song. She looked as green as I felt the one summer I ate a corn dog before riding the fair’s Ferris wheel six times in a row.
“I don’t know, Elizabeth Anne.” My mother never called me by my full given name. I knew something was going on.
“What’s wrong with Bessie?” I repeated. By then, I clutched Bessie, praying to the God that I had heard could save anyone.
“Your prayers won’t work, honey. She’s gone.” Aunt Toots pulled me away from Bessie and took me in the other room. The last thing I remember was my dad trying to resuscitate Bessie. I knew he was the only one that could save her.
He failed. Bessie died two days before I turned twelve. Three weeks before I went to Forrest Middle School for the first time. It was the first time anyone I knew had died. My dad knew how close we were. When it came time to take Bessie away, he asked me if I wanted to go with him. Before we left the house, I grabbed a random Tupperware container filled with leftovers and stuck it in my book bag. I hopped in the back of the pickup and sat by Bessie for her final ride.
When we arrived at the service, I appreciated that Bob’s Salvage and You-Pull-It had taken such care in preparing for her arrival. There was a row of refrigerators waiting to join her on the crushing station. Her Avocado Green exterior sat well next to her Harvest Gold cousins. My dad and Bob moved Bessie to her final resting place. I opened her doors one last time hoping to feel any small bit of coolness and found only the burning heat of summer on the metal. I put the Tupperware on her produce shelf one last time and shut the door. I turned away while the large platform came down and crushed her into a Frigidaire cube.
By the time we got home, my mother had already installed Bessie’s replacement. I took the popsicles from her only because it was still hot outside, but I never sat by her and told her stories. She didn’t hum me songs until I went to sleep. The next Sunday, the pastor said to us that we all went to a better place after we died. I had nightmares the rest of the summer. My twelve-year-old self-thought I would be laid to rest at Bob’s Salvage and You-Pull-It after being crushed to death. I visited the cube that was Bessie until it disappeared into the archaeological metal pile at Bob’s, leaving behind my first two cars and my dorm fridge.
Amy Barnes’ writing appears in several publications including McSweeneys, The Higgs Weldon, The Giggle Guide, Stone Soup Magazine, Gayot, Everyday Health, Crixeo, Parent.co and School Leaders Now. This is her first contribution to The New Southern Fugitives.