Sheila On Earth: What Happened

In Issue 59 by Dan Yonah Johnson

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Photo by Meredith Petrick on Unsplash
Synopsis

In the early 1960s, Sheila Lloyd and Julia Watkins are farm girls and best friends in Ohio. The narrative backdrop is Sheila’s father Evan. He has PTSD from his WWII service and harbors a family secret: that it’s connected to an ancient underground peace movement. Evan is anti-nationalism and anti-organized religion, and Sheila has inherited her father’s predilections with a vengeance. She pulls no punches.

In 1970, Sheila and Julia are in middle school and discover their sexuality. They are a couple. As their relationship becomes known, they face prejudice in a social milieu of toxic masculinity. A central crisis erupts when Julia is raped in a utility room at school by a militaristic history teacher and a sadistic vice principal. When Julia is nowhere to be found, Sheila is frazzled and attempts suicide by overdose. But both survive and end up in the hospital together.

In 1980-81, Sheila and Julia are graduate students in Washington, D.C. Sheila pursues a master’s in public health and Julia is in med school. Through a series of Washington coincidences, Sheila and Julia stumble into a conspiracy to assassinate Ronald Reagan. They’re in trouble. Evan sends Sheila and Julia to Palma, Mallorca, where the underground leadership resides. They obtain an audience with the leader of the movement: A woman. The woman is none other than Maryam of Magdala…shockingly still alive due to a strange genetic condition by which she doesn’t age. The same is true of her husband who is 2nd in charge. In a previous life he was a notable Galilean preacher. Maryam grants protection and directs that Sheila and Julia return to Ohio…not as Americans, but as secular citizens of the Earth…with no allegiance to any nation state or organized religion.

Chapter 4: What Happened

Welsh Cemetery, Radnor Ohio, Thursday, May 7, 1970

It was a bad week in Ohio. First, there was the massacre at Kent State. And then another local boy came home dead from ‘Nam. It was too much. It was now very difficult for fifteen-year-old Sheila Lloyd and Julia Watkins to remember their happier grade-school days...when they would get in trouble together for silly pranks along with their buddy Jake Jones—younger brother of the dead soldier. Gone were the days when all Sheila and Julia really had to focus on was playing in the fields—their family farms being adjacent to each other.

The Lloyd and Watkins families lived quiet lives. Very quiet. Julia’s dad Albert had died from cancer years before, and her mother Wanda carried on by leasing out their fields. Sheila’s dad Evan struggled in silence with PTSD from his WWII service...especially his participation in liberating the Mauthausen concentration camp. He never got over it. He never would. He couldn’t understand it. God damn it. He couldn’t accept it.

Decades before, Evan’s grandfather had been the pastor in Radnor—a small Welsh immigrant farming community in north-central Ohio. Back then, the Reverend Amos Lloyd would try to get his parishioners to care about the Earth beyond Radnor...to go out and do ministry with the less fortunate. They wouldn’t. They refused. They fought Amos and treated him and his wife like dirt. The good parson and Mrs. Lloyd didn’t deserve it. Just didn’t. So, their son David—Evan’s father quit the church. He figured that if the Lloyds were all just dirt—then all the more reason for them to just farm. Evan and his wife Alice took the same course. Forever. Channeling his grandfather’s Old Testament anger, Evan counted hunger, poverty, and war crimes as attributable to the Church, despite all its claims, being just really atheist...of not having the faith to defend its own Gospel against the forces of Death. And Sheila was the same way. Although she had younger brothers—Tommy and Davey—Sheila had a special thing with her dad. Both she and Evan thought...and felt deeply about what was thought.

The funeral service in the church was bad enough...as they would later hear. Sheila and Julia didn’t go in. They would attend the graveside rites. With their folks, they waited outside the building for their friends. Good weather with crisp breezy air on a bright sunny morning made the death pall all the more surreal. Finally, the service broke up and the people flowed out. In heavy dread, Sheila walked hand in hand with Julia and their other schoolmates the quarter-mile trek east from the church to the cemetery. A hundred yards out, she could see that the hearse had already arrived ahead of them. It waited in the large entry of the stone lychgate fronting the cemetery. In Welsh tradition such gates afforded a particular dignity—they were a resting place for the departed until the clergy arrived for the final graveside services and provided a smaller entry to the side for mourners to pass through...perhaps passing through something gave people an extra sense of solemnity.

Sheila and Julia, their families trailing somewhere behind, just followed the crowd through the narrow mourners’ gate. When they got to the periphery of the graveside tent, they could see Jake Jones’ family already assembled. An easel stood at the front of the tent bearing a placard with the name of the deceased: Robert Waldon Jones. He had been widely popular in the community of Radnor and specifically in the high school where he excelled in basketball. On April 16, Bob—Jake’s older brother—had been killed at Firebase Atkinson in southwest Vietnam on the Cambodian border. He was artillery, Company B, but never got off a shot. The PAVN attacked at midnight from the Cambodian side. Bob was in his bunk and a rocket took out the whole fucking tent. That was all she wrote. Shit happens and it did. In the subsequent fierce firefight, the Americans were able to repel the PAVN unit within a couple of hours. But at the end of it, there were seven Americans and sixty-six PAVN dead. Numbers. Fleeting daily statistics dispatched to families and their rituals somewhere.

The hearse pulled up. The funeral home staff exited the vehicle and kibitzed awhile until they opened the rear hatch and extracted the flag-draped casket part way. The pallbearers took their positions at the side handles of the casket...Tommy and Davey among them. They hoisted and proceeded forward to the grave tent with a white-robed minister leading.

The cleric was relatively young. By word of mouth, it could be learned that he was called Rev. Eric. He was part-time, since the era had long passed when the Welsh church could afford a full-time minister with a full pay package including housing and benefits. Those days were long gone. Rev. Eric, it was said, was a student...and quite an odd one at that. Indeed, he looked and sounded like a student...with a serious face and black horn-rimmed glasses and a very methodical manner of speech. But the odd thing was: the guy already had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton and a Master of Divinity from the Methodist seminary just south of Delaware. And now, he was a student again...taking math courses at the Ohio State University in Columbus. Because, he said, he seriously doubted that either philosophy or ministry were any longer very promising full-time career fields. He had a family to support. He needed to prepare for new realities. That’s what people said of him. That’s what went around.

The mourners waited under the grave tent and out about its periphery. Teenagers and young adults who knew Jake and Bob tended to clump together in mutual support...boys in half-pressed white shirts, some in ill-fitting suits not worn in quite some time...girls in mini-dresses, straight long hair parted in the middle, and dress platform shoes. The casket was brought to its bier under the tent, and Rev. Eric took his place at the head of the flag-draped mahogany case. He opened a little black book split by a solitary black ribbon that he had been carrying. He read the words.

And the words went on for a long while in a methodical, passionless reading voice. The words all clumped together into a numbing syntactic fog. Sheila, staring into the air, ambiently heard the fog but not the actual words. She clung to Julia, her arm around Julia’s waist...her upper body and long black hair leaning upon Julia’s shoulders. Some noticed the intimacy, but most didn’t...or didn’t think anything about it. The two had been inseparable forever. But Alice Lloyd watched her daughter closely. Evan, standing stonelike, watched Alice watch Sheila. Their daughter had been on some kind of downslide for well over a year, and they didn’t know why.

Gone were Sheila’s childhood comedic antics. She had gone serious...way serious...like Evan. She read a lot in her room. She studied. And while she got good grades, Alice was convinced that not all of Sheila’s reading was for school. Not at all. Mothers snoop for good reason. At times Alice would find books in Sheila’s room typically far afield for a girl her age. Once she found Hiroshima by John Hersey under Sheila’s bed. Another time it was Julia’s black Bible and some maps of the Middle East photocopied out of an encyclopedia or atlas or something. Weird. Weird for a child of Evan Lloyd. Alice didn’t mention the literature to Evan. Maybe it was just typical weird teenage girl stuff. Alice had nothing to compare it to. She gazed upon Sheila’s arms flung tightly around Julia as they stood among their friends, half listening to Rev. Eric read words. On one hand, Alice was grateful for the emotional support her daughter had in the relationship. On the other hand, she just wondered about it.

Suddenly, the book-words ended. Rev. Eric said something about military rites. And then a group of older men in uniforms marched forward in a crunching sound...veterans. They bore long guns. They formed a line off to the side of the tent. Then, all at once, one grunted some kind of loud order and the whole group raised their guns into the air at an angle. Immediately, there was a synchronous shot-blast vicious enough to rip one’s stomach lining inside-out. Sheila stomped her foot. She cried. She whisper-shrieked into Julia’s ear, “Why guns? Why? They should make the guns stop!” Julia nodded silently and squeezed her beloved’s hand. Sheila’s mouth fell open upon Julia’s shoulder and strawberry hair. A flood of tears and lipstick drool strung down upon their dresses. And then one of the marching men stood out from his comrades and raised a bugle. The mournful melody was played...oft observed in movie scenes about dead soldiers and even a time or two in a Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Finally, the band of old soldiers removed the American flag from the casket and ceremoniously folded it into a triangle. One took the cloth artifact and knelt before Jake’s mother sitting with her husband in the front row of the grave tent. The old veteran said something about the President and a grateful nation and then cradled the flag into the mother’s arms. And that was it. She had a flag. Sheila sneered at the sight. “Bullshit,” she whispered to Julia. “Just plain God damn bullshit.” Julia nodded.

Wanda Watkins, with Alice’s help, had arranged a reception for Bob’s school friends at her house. Showing up in clumps at the side door of the Watkins basement, the young people were grateful for a place designated just for them. The large rec-room was just the right amount of space. And it was a source of comfort to Sheila and Julia—it being their old playroom—where so many of their early relational memories were rooted. There was enough hubbub with food and punch and basketball talk to keep most the kids busy, while Sheila and Julia lounged on an old couch at the far end of the room. Ruby Taylor sat with them for a good while but rejoined her brothers and her mom as they kibitzed with the others. It did Sheila’s soul good to watch Black and white people just being ordinary people together.

The gathering lasted a couple of hours. As the last clusters of young people and some of their parents departed, Wanda and Alice busied themselves with cleaning up the basement. Julia and Sheila, having gone outside to send off the last of their friends, were left to themselves.

“Wanna go down to the creek?” asked Sheila with a shrug like it was just plain ordinary, especially on such a fair summerlike day.

“Sure,” replied Julia in the same tone.

In their platform shoes, the girls high stepped over the bean rows in the field west of the house. They headed for the tree line at the far end of the field. As Sheila was leading, Julia’s eye followed the full curvature of Sheila’s legs arching over the crop hurdles and her long black hair flowing back in the breeze. Sheila was of thicker build than Julia’s taut figure but pleasingly so in Julia’s considerations. As the sun glinted upon Sheila’s face, the fullness of her countenance, commensurate with her thickness, engendered a certain far-away piercing of her grey eyes...which Julia loved. And as they went, Julia beheld the wide blue expanse of cloud-drifting sky above...compelling her to feel each step upon the Earth. Immediately, gratitude welled up in her for Sheila...who in her passion for all things, had taught Julia to feel more deeply. Yes, the old days and their games were lost. But yet through the fields now, perhaps they were on the cusp of immersing themselves in a life-changing new way of play in the waters of the creek.

At the tree line was an outer hedgerow pierced by a small entry path that surely only Sheila and Julia knew. Through the narrow way and its thicket, they came into the creek banks. It was a wider part in the creek, a cove...an open sanctuary. The tall, dark, leafy trees made for a protective wall and partial canopy. There was a good amount of open space in the upper reaches. Rays of a generous mid-afternoon sun illumined the creek bed in all its grasses, herbage, and stone. Indeed, close to the water’s edge resided a huge smooth boulder, flattened at an angle and perfect for reclining upon. There, many times, Julia and Sheila had dwelt watching over the creek life. Minnows, tadpoles, frogs...turtles and crawdads. Sometimes small gulping carp or chub fish. The gangly strider bugs flitting on top of the waters and patches of floating green kelp. Once, a baby garter snake. Deer, many. Another time, a small red fox. And then the whole pantheon of birds among the trees and along the creek–sentinels of storm who quiet the cove before the rain’s arrival. Otherwise, they show off their colors. All the varied earth tones of small sparrows and finches dancing on branches to the echoing staccato music of woodpeckers. The larger black starling hopping along the banks. The bi-color robin finding its worm. And then flits of sharp color through the air...the blazing yellow goldfinch, the striking blue jay, and the crimson pride of Ohio, the regal crowned cardinal. And then the wondrous rare sighting of a blue-grey heron standing stately straight in the silt at the water’s edge. Her stillness inspiring reciprocal quiet and awe at the gift of her presence.

The girls took to their usual place on the stone and kicked off their clunky platform shoes. Sheila lay back upon the stone and Julia eased alongside with her hand gently smoothing over Sheila’s waist. They both knew that they were taking up where they had left off in the last fair days of the previous fall. It was an incremental thing. It was their thing. Only theirs. Julia rested her head in her other hand. The sun shone and the tree leaves mixed their shade over Sheila’s face giving her lips the color of a vibrant fleshly pink. Old-time religion was dead. Still, in Julia’s ear, a faint tune of an old hymn rippled new...

Rock of ages

cleft for me

let me hide

myself in thee

let the water

and the blood...

As the invisible cicadas buzzed around, Julia leaned and laid her mouth to Sheila’s, open like the small fish of the stream. Sheila was not at all surprised, immediately giving of herself. It was happening. Diving into it, they swam within each other’s embrace as their wetness escalated. Lost to the fields and roads and houses made of wood and stone beyond the trees. Succumbed and submerged in the reverberating cicadas’ hum. With a stroke of her hand, Julia brought down Sheila’s paisley peasant blouse and bandeau. Light shafts through the trees gave more allure to Sheila’s heavy-laden breasts than a gym class shower ever could. The light distinguished firmly between her fair bulbous endowment and their rich brown halos, soft and wide, aproning stout nipples. Between her cradling palms Julia latched on. And with her own hand Sheila helped support her breast as she felt strangely new the long, wet draw. It was as good as she had hoped. Julia’s red hair flashed and in rhythmic cycles her mouth fell off and immediately reattached like chub fish in the stream. As they swam on, Sheila’s eye wandered from the open sunlit cove of their recline farther downstream, farther from the light, where she and Julia had not ever thought to go...into the darker waters of rush, moss and muskgrass. Hitching up their skirts they waded into the tickling flow and wallowed in its tangles making it their own. Time eddied with their waters while everything else streamed its own way. And they slept peacefully on the stone.

At the advent of dusk, lying sapped under looming tree shadow, they felt the probable call of life’s course that they should return to the world. Half-strapping their shoes, they passed through the tree line and stumbled over the bean rows still feeling in their arms each other as treasure to be carried home. Mid-field, under the lowering sun, they stopped and clung to each other in sputtering hesitations of parting for the night. And finally, Julia turned toward her house and then back again to her girl as she watched Sheila traipsing straight through the field toward her own house and she turning her eye back also.

From the back window of her kitchen, Wanda Watkins had seen it all. She had beheld the far flight of soul in her daughter’s eyes, and she kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

About the Author

Dan Yonah Johnson

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Dan Yonah Johnson is from Ohio, and he’s been a schoolteacher, social worker, and antiques dealer. Ohio writers Sherwood Anderson and Dawn Powell are Dan’s literary role models. He has lived in the childhood towns of both authors—where no one remembers them. A previous novel, Date of Birth Unknown, was released in May 2021 by Adelaide Books.