I’d discovered the cemetery one day when the fence around it shimmered through the trees, tempting me closer.
Every time after that, when Mama booted me outta the trailer, I headed straight to that cemetery. I sure loved how the leaves rustled around me like whispers while I plucked moss from the old headstones. I liked being all by my lonesome. That was until one day when a voice said, “Well, hello there.”
Before I looked up, I crossed my fingers and hoped and hoped before I asked, “Are you a spirit?”
But it wasn’t, cuz a face topped with gray hair peered over the fence at me with a friendly smile.
“No spirit here. Just a preacher. Preacher Joe.”
“Only cuz my name’s Jo, too.” I didn’t bother to mention I was mostly called Dodo Jo by all the kids at school.
“Well, isn’t that something? Would you like to join me for tea at the parsonage, Miss Jo?”
Mama always said to never trust men. But I sure liked being called Miss Jo instead of Dodo. So I followed him outta the cemetery. At the parsnips, Preacher Joe blew the steam whirling from his mug. “You enjoy the cemetery?”
I stuck my pinkie out like a rich lady. “I wish I could live there forever with all them spirits.”
Preacher Joe raised an eyebrow like adults did when they want you to keep talking. So talk I did.
I told him how I wished that ole fence was walls, and the dead folks was spirits to keep me company.
After that day, tea with Preacher Joe became a ritual. Mama would shoo me outta the trailer saying, “Time to git, Jolene-Marie, Mama’s gotta work to put food on that ole rickety table of ‘arn.”
So, I’d go to the cemetery and do my pretending. Then Preacher Joe’d wave me into the parsnips for tea and talk.
“Need help with schoolwork?” Preacher Joe asked.
I shook my head. “Already done.” And I made sure to look into my teacup when I lied.
One day Preacher Joe took me to the basement of the church. I didn’t like it much down there.
Cold hung in the air, and it smelled yucky, sorta like an old, wet towel.
“It’s okay, Miss Jo. Come along.” Preacher Joe waved me to the room in the way back. I shivered but followed him.
He flicked the light on. I blinked, then stared at piles and piles of clothes.
“Donations to the church. A few times a year Mrs. Clarkson sorts it all and has a rummage sale. Have a look and take whatever you’d like.” Preacher Joe swept his arm out inviting me into the room.
I dove into them clothes like a chicken discovering a pile of worms. I found dresses, jeans, and a fuzzy purple jacket soft as fur. I glanced at the mirror on the wall. I twirled around as if I was a model at a highfalutin fashion show wearing a purple stole.
“I’ll look like a smart girl in these new clothes.” I ran my hands over the jacket.
Preacher Joe scowled at that. “Remember, Miss Jo. A mirror is just a reflection of the outside. What makes a person is the inside.” He pressed his hand over his heart. “Smart and kind is much more important than fancy clothes. Whenever you look into a mirror, be sure you look long enough to see beyond the outside to who you are on the inside. And every day is a new day. Whenever you make a mistake or a bad choice, tomorrow can fix anything.”
Then he grinned and shook his head. “I just can’t not preach, can I?”
I giggled. I liked when he preached. I didn’t always understand what he was trying to say, and it seemed like he went in a roundabout way to get to his point, but I liked listening anyways.
The next day I pranced into that fifth-grade classroom of mine as if my dung didn’t stink. I held my head up all high n’ mighty.
Marlene Pierce sniggered and pointed. “Well, looky at Dodo Jo. She’s gone and got a cast-off from the church basement.” Her eyes narrowed mean-like. “And she’s wearing my old purple jacket.”
The rest of the kids laughed and rotten ole Bobby Hill chanted, “Dodo Jo, she’s so slow. There ain’t nothing she’ll ever know.”
Heat burned my cheeks so’s I thought they’d burst into flames. I turned and ran straight to Preacher Joe’s parsnip. I planned to talk him into writing a note to that dumb ole school, saying I wasn’t ever going back.
Red lights swirled in the parsnips driveway and that made me shiver with worry. I rushed past the ambulance, and through the front door where Mrs. Clarkson bawled like a banshee. When she spied me, she shut her mouth, straightened up, and marched on over. “I’m sorry, child, I hate being the one to tell you. Preacher sure took a liking to you. He said to me only yesterday, that Miss Jo is the brightest child I’ve ever met.” She hiccupped and patted my head. “Sweetie, Preacher Joe’s gone.”
“They’re saying a stroke.” Mrs. Clarkson heaved out a sob.
I was pretty sure of what she was telling me. I felt like mean ole Marlene Pierce just kicked me right in the gut, then reached straight into my chest and squeezed my heart. I turned and raced toward the cemetery fence. It shimmered, beckoning me, just like it done the first time I seen it.
Not one live person in the world was ever nice to me except Preacher Joe and now he up and died. And if that weren’t bad enough, I wore Marlene Pierce’s used jacket. I twisted it off and dropped it. I wove around the end of the fence, tripped, and bashed my head straight into Lucinda Boynton’s mossy headstone.
I laid there bawling for hours before I got up and went home to Mama.
For the longest time, I didn’t go back to that cemetery. Twenty-two years to be exact. When I did, it was for Mama’s funeral.
The shimmery fence had gotten rusty. Lichen overtook Lucinda Boynton’s headstone so that it was no longer readable.
Preacher Joe lay under a simple granite stone. I knelt in front of it and pulled at the grass around the base that the weed whacker had missed.
“I’m sorry I never visited. Sorry you didn’t know how much you meant to me, and how you changed my life.” I whispered the words so that the few people clustered around Mama’s casket wouldn’t hear. “I just want you to know that it took me a while to figure out what you meant about a mirror only seeing the outside. The day I made my best choice it wasn’t even my inside I saw in the mirror. It was you.”
Someone behind me cleared their throat. “Are you ready?”
I stood and smoothed the front of my dress. “Yes.”
Mrs. Clarkson handed me my bible with a hand mapped with wrinkles and age spots. I took ahold of the hand that belonged to the person who’d guided me after Preacher Joe had died.
The second most influential person in my life. “Thank you.”
Mrs. Clarkson dabbed a hanky to her eye. “He’d be awful proud of you, Preacher Jo.”