Raymond wasn’t cut out for military life. He understood this fact when he boarded that bus to Recruit Training Command in Illinois at 5:00 that Friday morning. He knew this to be true the minute they sat him down and buzzed his thick black hair into a military flat top. He knew it when he was fitted for his white uniform and shown his bunk that would be his only space for the next eight weeks. His heart ached on the day he boxed up his few personal items and shipped them back to the farm where his father worked the soil and where his mother worried about him and his siblings. His arms ached from preparing for and passing the swim test. His legs ached from the 6:00 a.m. PT training. His lungs ached from the gas chamber training. His brain ached with regret that he had not chosen to go to the university to study English with that scholarship he had been awarded, and his spirit ached with the desire to write poetry. Raymond had made his choice, and his mama always preached “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it”, so for the next eight weeks, he lay in it.

His older brother had dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and gotten a job at Albert Winston’s garage where he worked until he was old enough to enlist in the Army. The Army was such a good fit for Sam. He excelled in his training schools and was made a sergeant as soon as he was eligible. Raymond, however, had been a strong student, especially for a boy who had to get up before dawn to help with the farm chores. He was popular and handsome, athletic and bold. And he wrote. He wrote poetry in the margins of his Algebra notebook. He wrote limericks for answers on essay questions. He was himself, pure, unfiltered, clean spirited when he wrote. His senior year, he won awards for his academics and for his writing. He was offered a full scholarship to the university where he could continue working on his poetry and maybe become an English teacher. While his older brother was thriving in the Army, Raymond was struggling to figure out how to get to the university that was four hours away from home. He had no car and no prospects of getting one. He had only one pair of nice pants and only one nice shirt. His scholarship did not provide for books or room or board or for other expenses he would have at the university and he knew his parents would not be able or willing to help financially, not because they didn’t want him to go, but because they were sharecroppers who had four other children at home. He could see no other option but to follow his brother into the military, so he enlisted for two years in the Navy.

He made it through boot camp, then received his notice that he would be going to A school for further training. He missed being in the country. He felt overwhelmed when he saw the unending expanse of Lake Michigan. He wanted some of his mother’s banana pudding. He wanted to sit under a shade tree and write poems in his notebook, even if his daddy complained about him wasting his time. He had a long weekend plus a couple of days of liberty between completing boot camp and reporting to his A school assignment at Camp Lejeune, so he bought a bus ticket to his hometown and called his parents on a pay phone when he got there on Saturday afternoon. 

Saturday night, he spent the evening telling his family about the last few weeks and making it sound as if he couldn’t be happier. Sunday, he went to the Baptist church with his family and visited with a few friends and relatives. Monday, he drove his mama and younger siblings to visit his grandmother and aunt. 

On Tuesday morning he got up early and went to milk the cow for his dad. He ate some biscuits and sausage, kissed his mom on the cheek and left for the bus station to go to Camp LeJeune.  He drove the family car, planning to leave it parked at the courthouse for his dad to get later. It was planting season and his dad had to get the crops in before the rain started. Halfway to the bus station, he took a left. He didn’t know where he was going for sure, but he knew he was not going to the bus station. He drove aimlessly down roads that softened his spirit and soothed his soul until he found himself pulling into the driveway at his cousin’s house. Charlie and Laura Beth were sitting on the porch enjoying the cool spring breeze when he pulled in and of course, were thrilled to see Raymond. He and Charlie were raised more like brothers than cousins. Raymond had driven the two of them to Corinth the night they decided to elope a couple of summers ago. Laura Beth was only sixteen at the time, but in Mississippi, the law allowed girls her age to get married without permission. Her parents would never have agreed for her to marry Charlie who was dirt poor and picked up odd jobs when he could. Raymond’s reunion with his cousin was joyous. The beer flowed freely and the house was filled with laughter as the two reminisced of stories about their boyhood antics and played five-card stud. As evening fell, Raymond asked Charlie if he could stay for the night. 

Thursday, the sky was dark and cloudy, so Raymond’s dad found a ride to town to get his car. The car was not where Raymond had said he would leave it. His daddy walked all around the court square and all the way to the bus station, but no car was in sight. His daddy walked to the police station and reported that his car might have been stolen. He used the phone at the station and called his brother, Billy to come and pick him up and they drove around looking for the black Ford Fairlane before finally driving home. Friday, Laura Beth had had enough of Raymond and Charlie told him he needed to go home. Saturday, the MP’s came and took Raymond away for being AWOL.

Raymond wasn’t cut out for a life behind bars either. He knew this fact that Saturday when they put the handcuffs on him and placed him in the back of the car. He knew this to be true as he saw the hurt in his mama’s tears and the fear in his little sister’s eyes when the MP’s drove away from the tenant house he had reluctantly called home. He knew it when he was given his prison clothes and shown the 8X8 cell that would be his only space for the next eighteen months. His heart ached on the day he stood before the judge to receive his sentence. Soon his arms ached from the homemade tattoos he got. His legs ached from walking in circles in the prison yard. His lungs ached, longing for fresh air. His brain ached with regret for his decision to hide out at Charlie’s house, and his spirit ached with the desire to write poetry. Raymond had made his choice, and here he was, lying in it again. 

Author BioSheila Arnold was born and raised in rural West Tennessee into a hard working tenant farming family. A retired educator, she earned degrees from Union University in Jackson, TN and from the University of Memphis. She now lives in Jackson, TN with her husband, Bobby and their dog, Louie. She is the mother of two and grandmother to six. She is an avid supporter of local artists and an advocate for improving the livability of her community and the literacy and educational opportunities for locals. 

Jergen’s Lotion- A Short Story