Disclaimer: This is fan fiction. Although I did my homework and have included some facts surrounding locale and possibilities, all of this is fiction.
The ride across the causeway to St. Simons Island always lifted my spirits. I rolled down the window a little to smell the sea air. I needed a bit of peace before making this pastoral care call, for the woman I was visiting was dying. Ruby was losing her battle with breast cancer, and had made the decision to forgo any further treatment. She had moved to St. Simons, Georgia from Greenwood, Mississippi to live with her daughter Mary when she first started chemotherapy. It did not take her long to fall in love with the island folks and with our small Unitarian Universalist congregation in neighboring Brunswick. Our community fell in love with her as well and she and I had a special connection. She was glad to “finally have a lady preacher,” and I was pleased to connect with another liberal social justice activist who had very conservative southern roots.
As I passed the docks with their beautiful boats and beautiful people, I wondered if Ruby would be able to make it to any more services. I also wondered why she had asked that I come listen to her share a story, a confession she called it. We Unitarian Universalist ministers seldom hear anything like confessions because our folks generally don’t worry about forgiveness and salvation. But confession is good for the soul, and I was going to provide Ruby with that opportunity.
Ruby’s daughter Mary ushered me into her downstairs room. It had been a small family room, but Mary’s family converted it to a bedroom for Ruby since all of the other bedrooms in the large house were upstairs. Ruby had become too weak to climb them. Attempts had been made to make her hospital bed seem less clinical, and a beautiful multicolored patchwork quilt surrounded Ruby, who sat propped up on her pillows.
Mary had a little pitcher of lemonade and some cookies at the bedside table for us to enjoy during our visit. After a bit of chit chat asking me about my family members, Mary indicated that she had some housework to do and would leave us to “visit for a spell.” I smiled at the language, glad that our common southern upbringings opened the possibility for us to use these favorite phrases.
Then I knew our task was at hand and said, “Ruby, I hear you have something you want to share with me. And I’m always glad to hear you share your stories.”
“Well, this one is a little bit different,” she said in a lowered voice. “It’s one you’ve sort of heard before from someone else – at least you’ve heard part of it.”
“Oh, has Mary told me some of it?”
“No, not Mary,” Ruby said as she shook her head vigorously. “Mary doesn’t know.”
I realized that this really was a secret confession. Mary and Ruby were very close, and I could not imagine Ruby keeping anything from her daughter. I also couldn’t imagine anyone else telling me something about Ruby that Mary did not know, unless it was something that happened at church. Ruby set me straight about that idea though as she explained that the story came from her youth.
I took a sip of lemonade. “Well, let me hear it Ruby. I’ve got plenty of time.”
Here is what Ruby shared with me that day.
You know I grew in a rural area out from Greenwood, Mississippi, actually lived there all of my life till I moved here. Oh, yes, I remember you telling me that you were familiar with that part of the country because you got your doctorate from Mississippi State. Well, you know it’s a very conservative region --- still is, but it certainly was when I was growing up. The McDonalds lived a few miles from us, up on Choctaw Ridge. And their boy and me, we were best friends as children. We’d meet in the middle between our farms and play. Our favorite thing was making mud pies near the edge of the river. My brother Johnny would come with us sometimes too, but he said our games and playing were too silly for boys. He’d tease Willie about it. And in fact, he teased so much that Willie quit playing as much with me, and started hanging out with Johnny more. He explained to me that he wanted to fit in with the boys – because he was a boy, but he enjoyed playing with me more. We would still meet at our special place and share what was going on in our lives. As I got older, Willie wanted to hear about my crushes and dates. And he would always grill me to pieces about my brother Johnny and whether or not he was dating anyone.
One day when I met him, I could see that he was bruised pretty badly. He said Johnny had gotten upset with him, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was about. His eyes welled up and he said, “You know I love your brother.” That was kind of a funny thing for one boy to say about another – but I knew they were close, like brothers almost. I told Willie that Johnny probably rather have him for a brother than me for a sister. And Willie just shook his head. I asked him why Johnny had hurt him. But Willie said I wouldn’t understand.
At the end of my junior year in high school I met Willie at our favorite place near the river and he was excited. He said, “I’ve decided to share something with you Ruby. I want you to know. Now that Johnny and I have graduated and I’ve saved some money from my job at the gas station, I’m going to ask him to go away with me.”
“Why would you go way,” I asked. “And why would Johnny go with you?”
“Because I love him. And I think he loves me. And we can’t live here!! He and I have been making love for a long time, and it’s what I want.”
“You’ve been making love? But you are both boys,” I said. “I don’t know what you mean.” I really didn’t. Back then we just didn’t discuss such possibilities. Besides, I kind of always liked Willie, and hoped that someday he would see me as something other than a friend. Now he was telling me he loved my brother!! Besides, Johnny was going steady with Betty. I didn’t know what or how to feel. Willie pulled out a letter he had written and asked me to give it to Johnny. It was a love letter, complete with more romantic language than I had ever read in a Harlequin romance novel. Then I understood.
“You can’t do this!” I shouted. “You will ruin his life and your own life too. You’re crazy. Do you know that?”
I took the letter and started running. Willie caught up with me as I got to the bridge that crossed the river. He cried out that he couldn’t live without Johnny. “Yes you can!” I screamed. “You will have to. I will never let you do this Willie. You will have to come to your senses.”
He caught up with me in the middle of the bridge. Tears were in both of our eyes. We just cried and held each other for a while. Then I tore the letter in half. “Let’s just throw this thing down into the Tallahatchie River,” I said. And not bring this idea up again. And we let that letter fall down to the muddy water below us.
Indeed we did not bring the idea up again, because I never saw Willie again. Two days later, on June 3, 1960, they said that Willie McDonald jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. I knew better. I pushed him off. Not literally – but with my rejection of his love for my brother and my rejection of his sexuality – although I didn’t know that term then. In any case, I could have been the caring person who at least tried to understand. I was his best friend. Yet I let him down. I wanted to talk to my brother about it. But I just couldn’t. He and Betty married and moved to Tupelo, then Johnny died in a horrible car crash when he drove off the road into a tree a couple of years later. I always wondered about whether that was intentional too.
Ruby turned her head away, but I could see the tears and her mouth quivering. “Ruby,” I interrupted as I touched her hand. “Is this the story that Bobbie Gentry told in her ballad?”
“Yes,” Ruby said, “but she wasn’t Bobbie Gentry when I knew her back in Greenwood. She was Roberta Lee Streeter. She changed her name for her singing career. I would never have shared anything about it with her if I had known she was going to write a song about it. She and I were good friends and I just shared my frustrations about how everyone was going on with life as usual when we heard about Willie’s death.. Of course she changed our names. She changed Willie McDonald to Billie Joe McAllister, but folks in Greenwood knew who the song was about. I had to hear that song over and over again in 1967. It was a number one hit and won three Grammys. Bobbie told me she had to write a song for the B side of what she thought was going to be her first record. She thought many folks would never even hear it. She didn’t know the whole story of course. I’m glad she didn’t or she might have put the whole story in that song. I’ve had enough guilt to deal with all my life as it is.”
I hugged Ruby and said, “you are a little older than I, but not by many years. I know from my own experiences how things were in that era. We were products of our time. We did the best we could. Ruby, you need to let go of that guilt if you can, reminding yourself of how you’ve lived your life. Your grandson Jeff is proud that his grandma supported him when he came out. Plus, you’ve been such an inspiration to us in our congregation, especially with your participation in the organization of our PFLAG chapter. I’ve always marveled at your enthusiasm, made more remarkable because you were managing your own serious health problems. I assumed that your passion was due to your grandson’s coming out, but I can see now a tragedy long ago helped make you the compassionate person the congregation and I know.
The tears began to glimmer in her eyes again, but she smiled. “Yes, I think you are right,” she said softly. “ I do feel better now that I’ve told you about it.”
“Ruby, can I say a little prayer for you?” I asked.
“Yes, I’d like that,” she said.
I held both of Ruby’s hands as we closed our eyes and I prayed:
Oh, Spirit of Life and Love, we connect today in your loving presence. Ruby has shared a story that has burdened her heart for many years. We pray today that with the telling of this story, her burden is lifted. For even in the telling and the listening that we’ve done today, our own spirits have been lifted. Ruby has been a blessing to her family, especially her grandson Jeff, and to our congregation. We love her. My prayer is that our love will give her comfort and peace. And that she will know what a wonderful difference she makes in our lives. May she be an inspiration to me and others so that we all may work together to end oppression of every kind. May we accept her gifts to us as that shining light that endures from generation to generation. And may that peace and love that is present with the two of us today, inspire us to share it with others, till, like the old prophet said, “justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like and ever-flowing stream.” Amen.
And Ruby said, “Amen.”
And the reader says…
Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe” is a musical southern gothic tale which provided enough open spaces for major speculation by those who heard it. The main point of the story was how folks went on with their daily everyday lives in the midst of such tragedy. But the mysteries of the song received the most attention, including the reason for the suicide, the identification of what was being thrown off the bridge by the narrator and Billie Joe, and the relationship of the narrator to Billie Joe. Every speculation that I’ve read, including the later movie based on the recording, assumes a romantic relationship between the narrator and Billie Joe. My fan fiction opposes this assumption and demonstrates that Gentry’s song is open to a queer interpretation, one in which Billie Joe is in love with the narrator’s brother. It also demonstrates how fan fiction can mimic the canon by using some of the same literary elements.
This fan fiction has only three characters in the 2014 story, including the first person narrator who is a Unitarian Universalist minister. It’s easier to write what we know, and as a minister I know of the pain of folks who carry burdens and need to talk to their ministers about them. So I used this familiar setting to provide a basis for Ruby sharing her story. Perhaps that was to provide a level of comfort for me as the author. Hopefully it also provides greater connection for the reader as well. The story within the story told by Ruby has additional characters from the song. These names are different, but Ruby explains the reason and for fans of the song, it’s obvious anyway.
The queering of this story takes place in the middle, as Ruby shares how Willie explains his plans to share his desire with Johnny that they move away together. This makes no sense to Ruby. Even though Willie has shared about his love with Johnny to her before, she didn’t “get it.” Her mind was closed to the possibilities of what that kind of love would be like and she assumed he was referring to a brotherly love. When she asks why he wants Johnny to move away with him, Willie tries to be more direct. “Because I love him. I think he loves me. He and I have been making love for a long time, and it’s what I want.” Ruby still cannot perceive the meaning and objects with “But you are both boys…. I don’t know what you mean.” Part of her lack of understanding may be due to a lack of language for explaining. This was prior to Stonewall and the more open gay rights movement. People in rural Mississippi may have had the attractions, but they did not have the words for “coming out” to others in an understandable way. It was not clear to Ruby until she read his love letter to Johnny and recognized it as romantic love because it reminded her of the Harlequin romance novels she had read. Even with the understanding she rejects the idea by saying, “You can’t do this! …You will ruin his life and your own too,” and pronounces Willie as “crazy.” The sequencing of this part of the fan fiction may be read as symbolic for the sequencing of the coming out of gays in America in the last decades, beginning with everything being closeted and hidden, then rejection with the assumption that individuals must be mentally ill, followed by a slow understanding that was often accompanied by denial and even anger. Sadly just as many in the gay rights movement did not live to see this understanding and acknowledgement that we are experiencing from society today, Willie does not live to see Ruby’s acceptance and love of him as a gay man.
The “Ode to Billie Joe” and my fan fiction contain some common literary elements. In the fan fiction story, Ruby shares a deep secret with her minister. She doesn’t tell her minister initially that she is inspiration for the narrator in the “Ode to Billie Joe.” This becomes clear, however, as she shares the story. The facts of the story serve as the clues for the minister solving this mystery. For example, Ruby shares that the minister has heard the story before, but not from her daughter who doesn’t know. She also shares it’s from her youth, which provides a time perspective for the minister’s discovery. She reminds the minister that she’s from Mississippi and that this is the setting for her story. Gentry’s song specifically mentions Mississippi and specific geographical locations, including Choctaw Ridge and the Tallahatchie Bridge. These specific localities gradually are uncovered in Ruby’s narrative as well. Ruby talks about Willie McDonald living on Choctaw Ridge and shares about her brother coming with her to meet with them at their play times as children. I attempted to write the piece so that the READER would discover the connections at the same time as the minister. Having some suspense and mystery in this piece seemed appropriate since the cannon itself is full of mystery. I also used the everyday descriptions of time and place to introduce the story, just as Gentry introduced her tale with the words, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay.” My fan fiction introduction includes sharing the setting of going over the bridge to St. Simons with the smell of the sea air and sitting down for lemonade and cookies prepared by Ruby’s daughter. Sharing some of the same literary devices as Gentry allowed me to connect with her as a story teller. These connections would probably not be obvious to the reader, but subconsciously it may affect the reading of the piece.
I close the fan fiction with a prayer which provides the opportunity for some reconciliation for Ruby. I chose to close it this way because this is what I would actually do in a setting like this. But it also provides a sense of atonement (at-one-ment) for the reader who has experienced the tragedy and pain vicariously and perhaps needs the reconnection to love and healing the prayer provides.
Oh, may it be so.