The Truth About Billy Joe is a story based upon a song, and also was my entry into the acrostic story contest held annually by Brucedale Press of Port Elgin, ON. It won second prize in 2019 and was published in The Leaf, #44, Spring 2019 edition, published twice yearly by Brucedale Press.
THE TRUTH ABOUT BILLY JOE
by Ruth Latta
Always curious, also concerned, I worry about my sister-in-law Bobbie withdrawing from the world. Becky Thompson is my name, or rather, was my maiden name, and Bobbie was my best friend all through school. Carroll County is where we grew up, a farming community on the Mississippi Delta with Choctaw Ridge the only high point for miles around. Daddy’s gift of a down payment on a store, a wedding present for me and Jeff, means that we’re living in Tupelo and aren’t as close to Bobbie as I’d like to be.
“Easier,” is what we say if someone from home comes into our convenience store and asks how we find city life. Folks at home think Jeff should have stayed where he was and continued working the land, even though his pa had willed the farm to his mama, but after the tragedy with our friend Billy Joe MacAllister, and then his father’s death from a virus soon afterwards, Jeff deserved a new beginning. Getting started as a married couple and small business owners has been wonderful, but I feel badly about leaving Bobbie back home, brooding and grieving.
“Help us in the store,” I coaxed, but she said she had to stay home and see about renting out the land, since her mama was too upset over her daddy’s death to do much of anything. I can’t fault Bobbie for wanting to care for her mother. Just between you and me, though, I think she should pull herself together and try to find someone new instead of being caught up in sorrow over Billy Joe as if she were to blame.
Knowing everyone in our high school class so well, I was surprised when Bobbie confided to me that she and Billy Joe were in love and were seeing each other secretly up on Choctaw Ridge. Lots of highschool students marry their sweethearts shortly after they graduate, including Jeff and me, and I think she pressured Billy Joe to make a commitment so she wouldn’t be left out.
Maybe poor naive Bobbie assumed, back in ninth grade, that when Billy Joe tried to scare her with a frog at the picture show it meant that he had a crush on her. No one else saw Billy Joe as husband material; in fact, I always suspected that he liked girls only as friends.
One day after graduation our preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by to discuss wedding details with me, and while there, asked me if there was anything going on between Bobbie and Billy Joe. Playing dumb, I listened as he mentioned observing them together on the Tallahatchee Bridge, and seeing Billy Joe throw something over the rail, down into the muddy water. Quickly I said that the only connection I knew of was that they, along with me, had formed a trio, the “Three Bees”, and had sung at high school assemblies. Remembering something else, I decided to keep silent. Secrets, like Bobbie wearing Billy Joe’s ring on a chain beneath her collar, were none of Brother Taylor’s business.
The day Jeff and I got back from our honeymoon my parents broke the terrible news that Billy Joe MacAllister had jumped to his death off the Tallahatchee Bridge early that morning. Unnerved, I wept as Jeff drove us to his folks’ place to see Bobbie.
Violently sobbing, she lay curled on her bed, while her mother, downstairs, told Jeff she didn’t understand why his sister was so upset. With trembling lips Bobbie told me that Billy Joe had broken up with her, saying that while he liked her a lot, he couldn’t love her as she ought to be loved, and would she please keep the ring. “X-rated” is the term for the frank conversation they had, and I won’t repeat any of what she told me, except that when she put the ring on the bridge rail he seized it and threw it away.
“You’ll find someone who isn’t a misfit like me,” he called after her as she turned and started home.
Zealots like Brother Taylor, quoting from Leviticus and preaching about Sodom and Gomorrah, create a climate that makes sensitive boys strive too hard to be normal, whatever “normal” is, and I blame him, not poor Bobbie, for Billy Joe’s tragic death.
© Ruth Latta, 2019, 2020