Jerry-Dawn Bradshaw’s eyes reminded me of April’s, blazing and sparkling as she skillfully wielded a ten-foot whip with an ability that can only come from years and years of small Texas town after-school-nothing-else-to-do experience.
The sound echoed back off every building of the tiny dusty town of Yula, Texas.
And then a thick, concentrated cloud rose from the spot where the whip struck.
“Bet you’ll get it right away, Marco,” she said to me, “Took me a whole day to learn how. Bet you’ll get it right away.”
Jerry-Dawn had a country-girl accent that would make any New Yorker denounce all the evils of city life upbringing.
She was my first experience of a real Texas girl.
“Go ahead, Marco!”
She handed me the whip as she flicked her honey-colored hair out of her face and wiped sweat from her forehead.
“Make it pop! You can do it,” she said, stepping back, putting her hands on her tall bony hips, “Come on Hollywood. Do it the way I showed you.”
I wiped sweat off my forehead, and I wasn’t sweating just because of the late June, hot-as-hell, Texas weather.
I moved the whip forward and back as fluidly as I could and then let it rip.
It didn’t pop.
It flew around my neck a couple times.
Jerry-Dawn fell down laughing as I pulled it off my neck.
I immediately tried again.
Forward and back and forward and back and then…
This time the whip made a miniature mushroom cloud of dust and the sound echoed off the barn and all the other buildings down the road.
“Good job, Marco!”
Jerry-Dawn gave me hug around the neck just as a tall skinny boy walked up.
He was a teenager like Jerry-Dawn and he could look me in the eye, taller than me with his hat.
“Nice one,” he said as he put his hand out to shake mine, “Andrew. How are you?”
“Drew, this is Marco. I was just showing him how to use it,” she put her arms around him and smiled and looked at me, “Drew’s my boyfriend.”
She told me earlier he’d be showing up sometime.
I was in Yula, Texas because Greenstein was filming my second script and because I was trying to forget April.
The original script I gave Greenstein wasn’t set in a small town at all but once I saw what he did with it I realized again why he was the director.
We spent a week and a half in that one-street town and it truly was the perfect place to get away to write and make new friends.
“Marco’s the Hollywood writer who wrote the movie, Drew,” Jerry Dawn said looking up into his eyes.
I hadn’t introduced myself to Jerry-Dawn as Marco but Marc.
She just started calling me that because she said I was the tallest Mexican she’d ever seen.
I told her that Marco was actually my real name and that I wasn’t Mexican but Italian.
Then she wanted to know how I knew Spanish so she asked me in Spanish and I answered her in Spanish.
I had learned it in Bolivia as a teenager and had used it plenty growing up with Puerto-Ricans.
That’s how my time in Yula started.
Jerry-Dawn and her whip lesson.
I had Jerry-Dawn and her boyfriend show Greenberg their whip-cracking skills and they ended up in the film- a very short part of a montage at the beginning.
Jerry Dawn’s father was Sam Bradshaw, a big man with a growly voice and perpetually stubbly face.
Sam nearly owned the whole town, had been mayor for twenty years, and the sheriff before that.
He also owned about a thousand acres that had been in his family for generations and Greenstein had a more than a few locations on Sam’s land he planned to shoot.
What Sam was probably most proud of out of all his possessions was his barn.
It was bigger than any barn I have ever seen.
It was a hard slab barn, big enough to host a party of five hundred every Fourth of July.
It had men and women’s restrooms, a huge bar in one corner, a removable parquet dance floor, two pool tables in another corner, a forty-five foot wide stage, and a disco ball hanging from the rafters.
We slept in the barn’s two upstairs bedrooms for a week and had breakfast most mornings across the road in Mrs. Bradshaw’s kitchen.
Even the actors joined us most mornings, although they had their own trailers.
Everything about that town seemed strangely perfect and the people living there were really thoroughly happy, not that they never experienced pain or discouragement.
They were just content.
Yula, Texas was forever stuck in a time when we’ve been told things weren’t so complicated.
No tall buildings.
I small perfectly hidden away piece of earth left in the past.
“Ever shoot a gun or a rifle?” Sam asked me after dinner the third night we were there.
“No, Sam. I can’t say I ever have,” I said.
I had never even held one.
Greenstein went back to the barn to work on the next scenes they would be shooting that night and Sam took me to a porch room at the back of his house and Jerry-Dawn and Drew followed.
He unlocked and opened up a tall armoire full of rifles and pistols.
That was the first time in a long time I remembered the distinctive smell of gun cleaner.
“I’m going let you try any one you like,” Sam said, “My daughter’s pretty damn good with a pistol.”
“Drew’s better than Dad, though. Ain’t that right, Daddy? That’s what you said,” Jerry-Dawn smiled.
“He’s not bad. But we’re going to let Marco shoot tonight,” Sam said deciding what to pull out.
“Oh, I’m not even sure I will,” I said, “I’d hate to kill anyone.”
“We’re not going to let you kill anyone tonight,” Sam said, “except maybe Drew.”
Jerry-Dawn punched her father on the arm and then smiled at me and kissed her boyfriend.
We walked out the back porch door, each with hands full of weapons and ammunition, and down to the back yard out to a picnic table under a tree.
To the right and further back was a huge chicken house.
Jerry-Dawn and Drew put their guns down on the picnic table and ran off to the front of the house out of sight.
“They’re going to get targets,” Sam said.
They came back and set up several targets in front of us along the trees and a fence and an old truck quite a ways off.
Sam showed me the different parts of a rifle and pistol and Jerry-Dawn showed me her ‘favorite’.
It was a semi-automatic 9mm Glock 17.
“The gun that rocked the world,” Jerry-Dawn said, moving her eyebrows up and down and slightly touching her top lip with her tongue, “That’s what daddy says.”
“Does Mrs. Bradshaw shoot?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“She leaves the shooting up to me and Jerry-Dawn,” Sam said.
Sam shot a few times and Jerry-Dawn used her favorite.
She wouldn’t use any other gun.
I don’t have much to tell about my shooting but Andrew really was an amazing shot.
Later, back in Mrs. Bradshaw’s kitchen, Sam and I talked past midnight and he told me that he and his wife had two girls until Jerry-Dawn’s older sister passed away from Leukemia.
She was twelve years old when she passed and Jerry-Dawn was just eleven.
It had been six years, for them.
Two years, for me, since April died.
It made me think about her and not with good results.
I missed April and felt a deep loneliness and depression coming over me that I thought I had moved past and I felt extremely jealous of the Bradshaws, which was followed by disgust, of myself for being so jealous, and sorry for myself for not being able to move on or forward or whatever the hell I needed to do to be happy again.
God had blessed Sam with a loving wife and an amazing daughter.
And it felt in those days that I would never have either.
I had written effortlessly those first two days, trying to record everything I could about that little piece of the world but after my chat with Sam I fell pretty far down for a few days.
I distanced myself from everyone, claiming I needed space to write and promising to join them for dinner whenever there was a break in filming but I couldn’t force myself to write anything.
It felt so useless since I would never be happy.
I didn’t even try to read April’s journals I had with me. Reading them had always picked me up.
Sometimes the one thing you need to do, the simple, easy thing, is the hardest thing in the world. Jerry-Dawn asked me to go to church with her family one Sunday morning and I told her I couldn’t since I had a lot of writing to do.
I’m sure that if it weren’t for something that happened on that Fourth of July I would have become more depressed than ever.
Greenstein had coordinated one of the biggest scenes to include the Bradshaw’s Fourth of July celebration.
Every year they had around five hundred guests from all over that part of Texas.
On stage that night, Sam Bradshaw introduced some up and coming local band that played all night and people danced for hours, drank beer and ate barbecue, and then danced some more, with a thirty minute break for fireworks.
Then the band played again after the fireworks and everyone danced and drank until after two in the morning.
During the fireworks show Jerry-Dawn walked up and smiled.
“What’s wrong with you, Marco?” she said.
Whenever someone asks me that question it reminds me of a teacher I had in third grade who would look at me and say, ‘Someone needs to put on a happy face’.
That bugs the hell out of me.
I always wondered if it made my third-grade teacher feel better to say things like that.
I know it never made me want to go around smiling when she would accurately point out to me that I wasn’t happy.
I didn’t see Jerry-Dawn the same way as I saw that third grade teacher but I wasn’t very receptive either.
“I’m just tired. My writing hasn’t been going well,” I replied.
“Well, no wonder. You’re not doing so well, huh?” she said.
I was caught off guard with her whole approach and my first inclination was I to say something very unkind.
“Why do you say that?” I asked defensively.
“You were so nice at first and then after you came over to the house you’ve been all sulking and stuff. Are you trying to get wasted? That’s just sad,” she said.
“What? No,” I said, realizing that was exactly what I was doing.
It had been a while since I’d even touched alcohol.
I moved the beer I had in my hand away from me.
It pissed me off that she had pointed that out.
“Do you miss her? I heard about your girlfriend that died. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love,” she said sympathetically.
“I know you do. Sometimes I have a bad day or two thinking about her,” I said.
“Well, I’m sorry,” she said, looking at me with her pretty eyes.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Hey, I’ve got a surprise for you, Marco,” Jerry-Dawn said, biting her lower lip and raising her eyebrows.
“What?” I asked, feeling better.
I tried to shake the buzz I already had and my unwarranted bad attitude towards her.
“I just finished your book,” she said, “I heard you were a teenager when you wrote it.”
“About your age. How did you read my book?” I asked, not quite believing her.
“Don’t tell anybody, Marco,” she said playfully, “I got it from the library.”
“The Yula library has my book,” I asked, now convinced she was lying.
“No,” she laughed, with a goofy laugh, “We don’t have a library. I drove a whole 45 minutes to the library in Beaumont. They had it. I have to go there for books or buy them on line.”
“Wow,” my heart softened toward her.
The booming fireworks continued high in the sky and the smell of sulfur had made its way down.
“Why haven’t you written anything since then?” she asked.
“I’ve written quite a bit,” I said.
“I mean another novel?” she said, looking at me with expectation.
That question touched a nerve for some reason and she could tell.
“Writing a novel isn’t an easy thing to do,” I said condescendingly.
“You kind of take yourself seriously don’t you?” she said.
I wanted to say something cruel.
“You’re more of a woman than I thought Jerry-Dawn,” I said.
She knew I wasn’t complimenting her.
“I’m sorry,” she said as her eyes started to tear up, “I just wanted you to know I liked it.”
Oh hell, I made her cry.
“I’m sorry, come here,” I said.
God damn it. I am the biggest asshole sometimes.
“I’m glad you liked it,” I said, “It’s nice that you read it.”
“No, I really liked it,” she said.
I nodded and smiled.
“I know you don’t stay up very late,” she said, “but I want you to stay for my song, right after the fireworks.”
“You sing?” I asked.
“Sometimes. You’ll like the song I picked. Stay,” she said, wrapping her arms around my arm.
“Of course,” I said.
Immediately after the fireworks Sam was back up on stage thanking everyone for being there and telling them not to leave because the band would be playing until all the beer was gone and that wouldn’t be any time soon.
He then invited Jerry-Dawn on stage and she jumped up there and plugged in an acoustic guitar.
“This song is dedicated to my favorite Hollywood writer,” she said smiling.
She began to strum her guitar.
I didn’t recognize the song from the instrumental intro but I immediately knew what it was when she sang the first two words.
Those two words were the title of the novel I wrote when I was close to Jerry-Dawn’s age.
It was Moon River.
She sang it like she really understood it, like she really got it.
Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
Wherever you’re going
I’m going your way.
Two drifters off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end—
Waiting ‘round the bend,
My huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.
I realized after that night that Jerry-Dawn Bradshaw understood a lot of things.
She sang that song like an angel and it made me miss April all of the sudden, but this time in a good way.
The next morning Jerry-Dawn walked with me down to the set and I asked her when she learned that song.
“I’ve known it since I was a baby. When my big sister died I always thought of her as my Moon River,” she said.
“You’re an amazing girl, you know,” I said.
“You should have come to church with us Sunday,” she said.
The last shooting day in Yula we wrapped up as planned just after the golden hour.
That evening, the Bradshaws barbecued every kind of meat you can imagine for the whole crew and all the local volunteers.
It wasn’t anything like the Fourth of July celebration but it was still another huge party.
After dinner, Jerry-Dawn pulled me aside.
“Do you climb trees, Marco? I’ve been meaning to ask you?” she said with a huge anticipatory smile.
“I did when I was a kid. Sure, I liked climbing trees.”
She took my hand and we walked away from the barn.
The party sounded further and further away as we walked through the biggest, rolling meadow on the property behind the Bradshaw house and past the chickens.
The stars were huge and dense in the sky above.
We saw at least 15 shooting stars that night.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“I’m showing you. Don’t worry,” she said.
“Drew won’t ever do this with me,” she said, “so it’ll just be our thing and since I’m not ever going to see you ever again after tonight I thought this would be perfect.”
She was right.
I never saw Jerry-Dawn Bradshaw after that night.
“Here it is. Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked.
The moon, full and bright, was showing through the tallest tree on Sam Bradshaw’s land.
The outline of all of its large thick limbs reached out in every direction of the night sky.
“I come here and climb all the whole way up when I need to. Sometimes it’s for a good reason. Sometimes it’s for a bad reason. All I know is when I finally come down I’m ready to start living again. It’s sort of like a place reminding me that things will never be the same again from that moment on but it’s still going to be okay. I love it!”
She let go of my hand and darted to the tree.
We were still half a football field away from it.
She yelled back, “Well, come on, Hollywood! Let’s climb!”
I ran and caught up with her about the time she leaped into the air, grabbing the lowest branch.
I followed her and pulled myself up that low branch watching her in the moonlight skillfully weave her way up to the highest possible part of the tree.
“God told me to read your book Marco,” Jerry-Dawn said with a smile.
I settled into a high branch just below and opposite her.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, squinting, trying to see more than the outline of her face.
“I looked you up and saw that was the name of your book and I knew had to read it. I knew it was a sign from God,” she said.
“That’s not a sign from God,” I said, even though I thought maybe it was, and wishing I wouldn’t have said that.
“Ok. Whatever. If you don’t think it was, I do. So can I ask you a question about it?”
“If it’s too personal, I understand,” she said as she resituated herself on her branch.
I wondered if she was nervous or just as uncomfortable as I was in the tree, about a hundred feet in the air.
I decided it was neither.
“The old man in your book, that was really about your dad, wasn’t it?” she asked.
I nodded, blown away by her insight.
“I thought so,” She said, with a smile that even in the moonlight I could tell had compassion in it.
She smiled and I smiled back.
“I think you’re amazing, just so you know,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“But you’re kind of stuck, aren’t you?”
I moved around to show her I could move.
“In life, not the tree,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I just mean, it seems like you get stuck. You were cooped up here in Yula, right? You were acting so weird. And do you think you should drink?”
“I shouldn’t drink at all,” I admitted.
“Then stop,” she said.
“I will someday, for good,” I promised.
“I hope so,” she said.
“Why do you feel it was God telling you to read my book?” I asked.
“I don’t feel it. I know it is. Why do you get so stuck in the past or whatever?” she asked with less patience.
“Why do you ask so many questions?” I said.
“That’s not an answer,” she said.
“It’s a bad habit. Okay?” I said. “Does that answer it?”
“I guess. But you should stop that, from now on,” she said, sounding like she was done lecturing.
“You’re right,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” Jerry-Dawn said with a big smile.
“I’m thinking I’ll stay here in Yula. Maybe settle down, raise chickens,” I said.
“You’re crazy. You can’t do that,” she said laughing.
“I think you’re right again,” I said.
“But it’ll be here anytime you want to come visit,” she said with a Texas-welcome in her voice.
“That sounds good,” I said with a chuckle.
“I’m ready to get down now,” she said with a satisfied sigh, “Are you?”
After a moment I nodded and we started down that enormous tree.
That night I realized if I ever had a child of my own I would want her to be like Jerry-Dawn Bradshaw.
She was right when she said I had been stuck and now I wasn’t.