The Old Church Down the Dirt Road
Martha Leigh Jones
“Turn the steering wheel to the left quick Sugar and slow down! There’s a damn ditch over here. I didn’t know when I told you that I’d give you a driving lesson that you’d try to kill me and you both.”
“I’m so sorry Uncle Charles. I just need to get the hang of it that’s all. I know I can do better.”
“Well, you better do better or your cute little butt’s not going to stay in the driver’s seat of my car. That’s for sure-fire certain.”
He chuckled with that comment and slid over to the middle of the seat with one arm behind me. I could feel his fingers touching my hair so I moved up on the seat.
“You know Sugar, just like I told you, I taught both my daughters to drive, and your cousin Christine and even your own mamma. Now you didn’t go and tell your mamma our little surprise did you? I reckon just about every pretty girl in our family can thank me for their driving abilities. But you’re going to be the best yet. You’re the prettiest too you know.”
He then moved even closer still. “I just need to be able to take control if you do something else stupid Sugar.”
I could feel his hot breath that smelled of the peppermint he was sucking on. He pulled another from his pocket. “Want one? I’ll unwrap it for you; you just watch where you’re going. This may be a dirt road, but it has twists and turns you better be watching for.”
We were bumping along the old dirt road that ran along the edge of my grandparent’s property which had been in the family for generations. They were long dead. Uncle Charles was the oldest of their nine children. My mamma was the baby. He lived in the family home with his sour wife, my Aunt Esther. Their girls were now grown with families of their own, and didn’t seem to visit much. My cousins and I used to play along this road, but we never ventured this far.
“Sugar, you must be relaxing a bit cause you’re doing real good now.” He leaned over and kissed my cheek.
With that, I slammed on the brakes, and we both lurched forward.
“There you go trying to kill us again Sugar! Here, just let your old Uncle Charles drive us down this road a little farther. There’s something beautiful I want to show you.”
He was now practically in my lap as he took control of the wheel and drove on down the dirt road.
“Uncle Charles, I think I’ve had enough driving for today. Can’t we just go back to your house, and I’ll call Mamma to come pick me up?”
Although the thought of calling Mamma and telling her what I’d been up to this afternoon disturbed me because I had lied and told her I was going to the library. And no, I hadn’t told Mamma Uncle Charles had offered to teach me to drive. Mamma had always been what I considered overly protective of me and my younger sister. So the day I ran into Uncle Charles at K Mart and he asked if I wanted to surprise my mamma by learning how to drive, I immediately agreed. Why in just six months, I’d be old enough to get my permit. I needed to learn to drive.
“Here we are, and would you look at that Sugar!” He shoved his left foot on the brake pedal stopping the car, and then brushed my chest with his upper arm as he reached across me opening the car door. He pushed himself over until I was forced out of the car.
I looked around to see that tucked into the pine trees and overgrown vines and bushes was a graceful old clapboard church. It was in dire disrepair, but still intact enough to visualize what it must have once been.
“Uncle Charles, I do think it’s lovely, but can’t we just get back in the car and go?”
“Come on Sugar, don’t be like that.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me with him. “Uncle Charles really wants you to see inside. This old place has family history. Our family owned all this land years ago before my daddy sold it off to the power company. This was our family’s private chapel. I’m told back in the eighteen hundreds our slaves used sit up in the balcony and sing like angels. I remember coming here when I was a youngster for family reunions and such. Once my daddy sold the land though, nobody cared much about keeping up the church. Last time I was here there were still some old hymnals in the pews, and I know how much you love music. Let’s go see if they’re still there.”
“Okay, just a quick peek, and then we’ll head back, right Uncle Charles?”
As we walked up the rickety old steps they cracked and groaned with our weight. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, inside, the sanctuary was almost dark. The door slammed behind me. When I looked around, I couldn’t see Uncle Charles.
“Uncle Charles, where are you?”
Outside, I could hear the katydids singing their afternoon tunes in the loblolly pines surrounding the church.
Without another moment’s hesitation, I turned to leave, but the door was jammed. Uncle Charles grabbed me from behind. His calloused hand covered my mouth. His peppermint breath whispered in my ear.
“Uncle Charles charges a fee for his driving lessons. And guess what Sugar? The fee hasn’t changed since I taught your mamma.”
Uncle Charles raped me that day back in 1965. I was fifteen years old. I later learned he had raped my momma at the age of fourteen, my cousin Christine on her fifteenth birthday, and both his daughters beginning in their early teens. There were probably others, but back then we just didn’t talk about our family secrets.
Thank God though, times changed. Finally, we talked.
We talked about Uncle Charles, the monster. He was a pedophile who preyed on young girls. He fed his demented appetite by abducting their innocence. We talked about the fact that at the time, we held onto our deep, ugly secret for what seemed to us a valid reason. Our family was well-known and highly respected in the little southern town and had been for many years. Our family had been the town’s mayors, doctors, teachers, nurses, business owners and even three ministers. To have revealed the skeleton in our closet would have devastated too many loved ones.
We pretended all was well while we went about our lives. The secret within festered in various ways. My mamma was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at sixty. Cousin Christine battled drug and alcohol addiction and was in and out of rehab for years. Both of Uncle Charles’ daughters suffered bouts of depression, endured divorces and custody battles resulting in the youngest one, Mary Alice, losing her children after her second suicide attempt. She succeeded on the third.
It was my belief that I’d escaped any ill effects. To me, family secrets were just that, family secrets. Everybody had them; however, I had to admit some were significantly worse than others.
But by the time the women in my family had shared our similar scars, diabetes had blinded Uncle Charles. The disease caused amputation of his legs below the knees. He died last week in a local nursing home.
We were told his death was a slow, painful one. That pain medications did not ease his tormented screams. He was in the home for years. He never had a visitor.
Today, I received a call from the director of the crematorium. No one from the family had claimed Uncle Charles’ remains. No surprise. He told me that I was next on his list of known relatives. I drove downtown, walked in and signed the release papers.
Uncle Charles was brought out to me in a small oak box with a brass plate on the top inscribed with his name and dates of birth and death. The box was heavier than I expected and even seemed to feel warm to the touch. I knew my imagination was playing tricks with me. His ashes wouldn’t still be warm—Uncle Charles had been cremated days ago. I slowly walked to my car and placed him on the front seat right next to me.
All the way home the smell of peppermint wafted through the air causing my stomach to churn. At one point, I could have sworn I felt his hot breath brush my cheek. I slammed on the brakes pitching me forward and throwing Uncle Charles’ box on the floorboard.
An eternity passed by the time I pulled into my driveway. I carried Uncle Charles in went downstairs and placed him way back on the top of a metal shelf in my basement. I then carefully surrounded the box with stacks of old hymnals from my collection.
At least now I know exactly where to find the old, evil bastard.
Martha is a native South Carolinian. She has lived in five southern states and Ohio. In 1986, Martha and her family returned to South Carolina. She now resides in Columbia with her husband. Martha writes poetry, short stories and is currently working on her first novel.