Brewton, Alabama—Camp 31 Barbecue. A place with pine on the floors, pine on the walls, pork on the plates.
It’s Tuesday, lunchtime. I’m sitting with Miss Jacque. She is a slight, older woman. She has bright blue eyes, and when she opens her mouth, South Alabama comes out.
“You’re a writer, huh?” she says.
“I’ve been called worse, ma’am.”
“I taught writing, you know,” she says. “I was a middle-school teacher in East Brewton, nearly all my life. I taught’em, graded’em, and sent’em up.”
Miss Jacque had students from all walks of life. The well-off. The not-so-well off. And those living in poverty.
She has stories about underprivileged students that would make a grown man leak saltwater.
We are interrupted by our waitress.
Our server asks if we need refills on iced tea. Miss Jacque nods. The girl fills our glasses and leaves the pitcher on the table. She gives Miss Jacque a hug.
Miss Jacque’s face loses four decades.
When the waitress walks away, Miss Jacque remarks: “She used’a be in my class, long time ago. She was a rowdy one, but I sure love her.”
Miss Jacque seems to have a lot of love. In fact, she would’ve taught school forever if she could have. But time caught up with her.
Every cowgirl has to hang up her lasso eventually.
The day after her farewell party, she realized retiring was harder than she thought.
“I was slap miserable. It was horrible. I got so dadgum bored I about died. I’m too old to be bored.”
Too old. Though I do not learn how old she is, exactly. Miss Jacque is a sophisticated belle. And the time-honored rule is: any Alabamian woman who does not disclose her age—consentingly and of her own accord—is thereby twenty-nine until Jesus comes back.
After Miss Jacque quit teaching, she found other ways to keep busy.
One of her projects: she visits thrift stores. Not for herself.
She wanders the aisles of second-hand shops selecting middle-school-sized jeans, shorts, shirts, skirts, and shoes. She buys by the truckload.
“I take’em home, wash’em, and then I iron’em.” Then, she drops them at the school.
I ask Miss Jacque which church program she does this for.
She laughs. “Church? Ain’t no church. Just me. I do it outta pocket. I’ve seen what these kids go through. Some of their parents can’t afford decent clothes.”
Recently, someone called Miss Jacque. There was a teenage boy who didn’t have any underwear. They asked Miss Jacque if she could do anything about it.
Miss Jacque was on the problem like stink on rice.
“I rounded up all sorts of brand-new boy’s underwear. Folks donated so much, we had plenty to go around. Boys need clean underwear, you know.”
So I’ve heard.
The waitress brings our bill. Miss Jacque insists on leaving a healthy tip. She slides money toward the edge of the table. She stands. She hugs me with frail arms.
“Folks tell me I talk WAY too much,” she says. “They’re probably right. Hope I didn’t chat your head off, I’m really sorry.”
Sorry. Don’t be.
You’re one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.