This is the opening of a novelette entitled “The Stubborn-Ass Ghost of Jesse Ed McKinney.” It’s the first draft, to the extent that one can assign a ordinal number to my draft. I’ve read plenty of advice that says one should never edit while one is attempting to write. That is absolute nonsense. I firmly believe that how you open a story — or any other process for that matter — determines how it will proceed. As such, I don’t attempt to write the body of any story, especially a long one like a novel, until the opening is right. Why start Chapter 2 if you still don’t know what style Chapter 1 will end up being. I suppose if everything you write is exactly the same then it’s fine, but if that’s the case, why bother to write at all?
It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s what editing is for. However, it should reflect the tone, rhythm, and quality you’re aiming for in the longer piece. This is my third attempt at the opening passage, and odds are I’ll read it again before attempting to move on, and end up revising it. That’s fine, because once I think it’s good enough, then I’m in the right frame of mind to proceed.
I guess I’m as stubborn as Jesse Ed, but then again, all of my characters are a version of me, aren’t they?
Folks say that Jesse Ed McKinney was born stubborn.
His was an ordinary entry into the world—attended to by summer’s fly-buzzed sweat, by low expectations, and by the hovering burdens of a house too full of accounts too small—but it felt anything but normal. Even a silence-shattering electrical storm could not diffuse the night’s buzzing tension. Mama did her part, holding back when the midwife nurse told her to and straining through the sodden air in her incommodious bedroom when told to push. She lay panting and sweating, venting Jesus-cursed screams she didn’t mean, all to no avail. Mama’s small bedroom had seen more deliveries than some big-city dockyards, but Jesse Ed’s birth was running late. It was Jesse Ed who was the problem, staying put when he was egged by tears and incantations to enter the world. His little ship sat moored in place, much to Mama’s and the midwife’s dismay. One couldn’t really blame the boy, since the modicum of cramped privacy inside his mother’s womb was to be the last time he had any reasonable amount of space to himself.
The midwife, Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell—who insisted on the unfashionable title of Missionary Nurse despite her charging the ungodly sum of five entire dollars for her one day’s work—sat hunkered down in the small bedroom’s rickety wooden chair, her chin propped up by her left elbow and her right arm slung wearily over the chair’s lyre-shaped back. The crisp whites of her uniform wilted like late-season flowers. Jesse Ed stayed put. Mama went hoarse from hollering, praying, and cajoling that boy out. He wouldn’t come. Outside, Daddy paced a rut in the old wood floor, but Jesse Ed would have let him walk himself all the way down to the hot place before he’d come out from where it was nice and comfy. At the very least, one could argue that a gentlemanly young feller would have noticed Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell’s furrowed brow and made his entrance when it was due, if only to lessen her worry. If Jesse Ed noticed, he didn’t show it.
He was to be the last of his mama’s children, and given she’d easily forced out six sisters and four brothers before him, pretty much everyone, especially Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell, expected Mama to squat and drop her newest load with no more difficulty than she would have had in taking a high-grass poop after a hefty meal of grits, gravy, and collard greens. Hell, Mama’s youngest girl, little Marguerite, herself no more than three summers born, had entered the world while Mama was on her way home from early Sunday services. By the time the church bell had finished ringing for the eleven o’clock service, Marguerite had been swaddled, cleaned, fed, and introduced to her nine siblings. Jesse Ed wasn’t having any of that hurrying into the world nonsense. For six hours, then twelve, while Mama lay sweating and pushing, her cervix dilated wide enough to spit out a fully grown man, Jesse Ed floated lazily inside with his anchor rooted where it lay. The midwife’s assistant stood by attired in her no-longer-white delivery gown with the round white cap and glared down at Mama with black, judging eyes. Her posture was stiff and erect save for her neck craned in Mama’s direction, which, with her folded arms, made her look like more like a white-clothed raven than a nurse. Every fifteen minutes or so that adjudicating bird would uncross and re-cross her wings, first right over left and then left over right, and then look at Mama and let out a long sigh, as though the poor woman lay looking like a fat dark stain in those sopping sheets because she needed the rest and attention. One could suppose that to be true as well, but no one had known Mama to dawdle as long as she had a breath to give and a job to do.
It was Mama who finally coaxed Jesse Ed out into the world. She, by this time desperate enough for tears and wanting her damned baby to be born so she could breathe easily and finally move her bowels, was lying on her back staring at the bare, flickering ceiling light. She said, clear as a bell and with no more ire than a mosquito shows at being swatted at by a slow drunk’s mitt, “Boy, I swear by Jesus, if you don’t get the holy hell out of me in the next five minutes, whenever you do come out, I’m gonna slam you through that ugly-ass wallpaper your daddy picked out and let him scrape up what’s left of you to raise by his damn self.”
“Sweet Jesus!” crowed the midwife’s assistant, unclenching her arms long enough to clutch her chest.
Outside of the curtain that liked to pretend it was a bedroom door, three little voices giggled at hearing Mama curse for the first time. Daddy’s deeper voice bade them hush and go back to sleep with enough surety that the three giggled harder thinking it a lark that he would think they could sleep through such excitement in the first place. Daddy knew better, of course, but it was up to him to set the tone what with Mama laid up the way she was with that stubborn-ass boy she was about to give birth to. Mama didn’t mean to swear, of course, and she certainly didn’t abide physical abuse, but Jesse Ed thought it might be time to weigh anchor and sail for home anyway, just in case ten kids were her upper limit for tolerance.
“There’s his fuzzy little head now,” whispered Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell, snatching off what was left of the bedsheet and readying her gloved right hand as though it were a catcher’s mitt with Jesse Ed the Negro League’s official baseball.
After seventy-five frenetic seconds, wherein the midwife’s ravenesque assistant did her night’s work by mopping the missionary nurse’s sweaty brow (but only after a glob of Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell’s perspiration smacked the newborn in the face, startling him into his first, screaming breaths of life) Jesse Edwin McKinney, III was born into the world. His birth was recorded in the family bible as being at precisely six minutes and six seconds after midnight on the sixth of August 1902 in Hawkins County, Tennessee, about three miles outside of Rogersville, which was pretty much near to being three miles from nowhere. Mama kissed that boy’s crumpled little head for fifteen minutes before she let anyone else touch him. Jesse Ed breathed easier, now knowing for certain that mama had room in her heart for number eleven after all.