In my home town lived a young woman known as Sweet Melissa. I was about twelve when this news reached my ears, seeing how I was old enough to partake in the local events reached by every young man who has entered puberty. Something about a rush of hormones makes a young man more attentive towards social events and news. Call it coming of age, if you must, but it signaled the entrance into that world known as manhood, that mystical man cave of adulthood where we learn the roles assigned to us by biology. Melissa lived at the edge of town in an old Victorian, a sort of ramshackle place where exterior paint hadn’t been seen for at least a decade. I had been told she lived with a companion, a Miss Ida Lee, who did the shopping and on occasion hired a man to clear out the weeds in the garden. Of course all our knowledge was third hand, passed from one mouth to another over the years. But we believed every word, that was the main thing. Local legends always have a grain of truth mixed with a pack of lies.
So we learned that she had some lover, a nameless gypsy who had sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads three miles out of town, out there on the Cree Valley Pike. At this time the Cree Valley was little more that a gravel track that was passable during good weather but likely to bog a wagon or a automobile down in the mud and the water table rose to the surface. Beyond that by five miles was the track for the Seaboard Line that ran between Valdosta and Savannah. Course we had a spur for the Southern Railroad Line in out town but the only time one saw any trains coming in was when the cotton season was over and bales put on board for Atlanta. Passenger traffic was limited to once a month out of the goodness of the heart of the Southern Railroad. Every spring we’d see a number of boxcars pushed into the rail yard waiting on the summer cotton crop. We made it our business as young men to inspect each car, but common consensus was that they all looked the same. Local legend has it that the gypsy hopped a watermelon car on the way to Savannah after a robbery of the local Piggy-Wiggly, but I never saw it confirmed in the news paper. Not that out local reporter and editor of a newspaper that served five thousand and three hundred and fifty three families had bothered to report that robbery.
Of course we knew that the gypsy roamed from coast to coast and knew a great many women while loving none, this is what gypsies do, or at least what we were told by those older and thus wiser than out selves. How often did I imagine myself as the gypsy, cupped hands round the tin cup feeling the warmth of the liquid in my hands and smelling the chicory as the hot liquid gave off steam to announce its presence. I often though of how I would come back to my paramour and resume my love making, or at least such as I might imagine. Sweet words of love I would whisper to Melissa and we would make mad passionate love, such as I might invent since I had never done such a thing in my entire life. Ignorance makes up its own knowledge.
So we made up stories about the gypsy. None had ever seen him and the old people had no recollection of the man. Was he tall and handsome with a swarthy complexion? He must have had coal black hair, all gypsies do, you know. Can’t say I ever saw one but this had to be true. Oh yeah, he wore a gold earring, the kind you have to get your ear pierced to make it stay in. One of the guys fancied that he wore an eye patch on account of some other gypsy gouged it out in a fight. Of course he kill that man for having done that. And I bet he wore one of those gypsy leather vests and felt type hat. You know, wide brim and sort of round top, like a hat box. We all knew he wore boots that came up to his knees and he always carried a long Bowie knife in the right boot.
Many times we wondered what Miss Melissa saw in such a man. He never seemed to be around but then maybe he’d sneak into town some nights just to see her. Some of the old folks say he weren’t no gypsy at all. Man was a jealous suitor whom she jilted at the alter. The parson never made mention of that and when we had gumption enough to ask, he’d just grin at us. “Craziest story I ever heard.” He threw back his head and laughed a little and walked on down the street. I suppose, but you got to admit it fit. And why didn’t we ever see Miss Melissa on the streets? We were beginning to think she never existed. The only one going in and out of that house other than Ida Lee was the parson. We all figured he was giving her spiritual guidance since she never attended church, least ways, not mine. Sometimes we’d creep towards that house and try to peek in but seemed like Ida Lee had radar or something. she’d be out there chasing us with a broom. Then dad would wale the tar out of me for being a peeping tom. Mom would scold me and say has embarrassed she was to be seen about town knowing that her son was caught being up to no good. I often thought I got scolded and whipped because I got caught, not because I was up to no good. Maybe I’d run off and be a gypsy too.
I’d just turned eighteen and was waiting for my draft notice. I figured the local board had heard I was just some kid up to no good and the Army would set me straight. Besides, this old town has got me down. Nothing exciting ever happens here no more. Seems people been moving away to the big city. Hell, not enough girls to go around neither. It was the day just after the big storm. One of the big oaks in Miss Melissa’s yard had fallen over and the roots on one side stuck up in the air like it was Halloween. I saw the crown of men and women by the fence and went to take a look for myself. The sheriff was there and so was Doc Pilchards. They was leaning over a box and had the lid off. Then a sudden collective gasp came from the crowd and women began to get nervous and men started saying things like, “I told you so.” I saw what looked like a body in the box, the face was unrecognizable and the stench of rotted flesh that still hung from the clothes worse than any dead raccoon we ever found. Later that evening came the first glimpse of Miss Melissa as the sheriff walked her into the jail.