It is the month of August in Selma, North Carolina, like it is the month of August everywhere in the whole world as far as I can see. The heat pins us down like a rude dog. It is chewing on the backbone of every day. Summer’s set the world on fire, and the heat shakes us like a rag.
Tilde, Maggie, Roselma and me are sitting on the front porch at Easter Street, listening to how Baby Lucille will not quit her wailing. Maybe she is a little too hot this morning, or maybe she is hungry like me. She is crying and crying.
Tilde, second oldest after me, comes running up to pronounce what she believes is a great idea. “Let’s put dirt in the hole,” she says, referring to the baby’s mouth, agape.
I consider it some and then tell her, “Nah, Tilde. Mother’d get us if we did.”
Tilde scratches the top of her head, and I wonder if she’s sprouting lice again or what. I am too hot to get up and look, so I glance away.
There, leaned against the wall of our ramshackle house, sits Maggie, the next oldest after Tilde, second born away from me. She is chewing on one of her toenails. Mother likes to say this is one of the worst habits a human being can have for itself, and though I am only eight years old and nearly nine, I surely do agree.
“Stop it, Maggie,” I tell her, but all Maggie does is turn her big blue eyes up to me and keep on gnawing. She knows I am not her mother or even her big sister, and she fails to be scared of me on account of it. I go over and smack her on the foot anyway. She starts hollering.
Meanwhile, Tilde has snuck over to the box and smeared dirt all over the baby’s face. Maggie is still whining from her foot-smacking, but at least the baby is quiet now and not wailing. Tilde looks proud for having caused the peace, but just as I am thinking on that, Roselma, the knee-high child, falls from the porch and starts to screaming. She’s struck her little head on the throwed-away brick.
It is all too much for me. I can take no more of the racket, so I decide to knock on the front door. I reach right through the hole in the screen and knuckle our door for all it’s worth.
“Mother!” I call. “Mother, you best come on out here. The baby quit her crying, and Roselma done hit her head.”
I blam on the door as hard as my fist is able, but Mother does not come to answer. Maybe she cannot hear my knocking for all the outside clamor.
“Mayme, look!” says Tilde, running up, and I turn my head to see.
There comes a man striding through our yard, and it is Daddy, Mr. JD Cross. We hardly ever see him, and today it don’t much appear to be him, all dressed up and shiny, wearing a matching suit of pants and coat, both the color of magnolias in bloom, same tint the rich folks wear. When he gets to the bottom step and puts one foot on the top rung, I spy his brand-new shoes. I keep my knuckles stuck to the door, but ogle him in a real long glare.
He says, “What are you staring at?”
“You,” I say. “You going somewhere?”
He says, “Yeah, might be. For a little while. Maybe longer. All depends.”
My jaw goes to sawing, like it does when I get mad. I say, “’Fore you go off, you reckon you can get Mother out here on the porch for me?”
He looks around. His jaw ain’t sawing. It is clamping and unclamping like a vice. He shakes his head no, but then changes his mind.
“Oh, I reckon I can try,” he says, stepping up and banging his fist on the door so loud it makes Roselma quit her crying. She crawls back up on the porch with a skinny stripe of blood running down her forehead. Tilde goes over and rubs some dirt on it, too. She likes dirt a lot. She’ll most likely grow up to be a farmer.
While Daddy is waiting for Mother to answer the door, he looks over at the baby in the box. It must be that Tilde put a little too much dirt in the hole, for Daddy rushes right over to Baby Lucille, and he starts screaming, “She’s turning blue! Baby Lucille is turning blue!”
Well, he picks her up fast, flips her upside down and goes to whacking the tiny space between her little shoulder blades. It seems to me he is beating our baby to death, so I run over and start pounding on his backside like nobody’s business.
“You let our baby go, Daddy! You put that baby down!”
Suddenly, a big chunk of black mud flies out of the baby’s mouth and hits Daddy’s pants, right in front of his Thing.
He shouts, “Shit-shit!” and resets the baby in her box. He turns around real quick. He kicks in the front door. His foot tears our poor shabby screen to further smithereens. The door flies open. It slaps the inside wall, twice.
There in the cool dark of our silent house lays Mother, all sprawled out on the couch and snoring like some old lady-hog, asleep. Daddy don’t go inside. He just stays on the porch with me, staring at Mother through the dimness of that smelly room. He looks at her whiskey bottle too, knocked over on the floor. I look at him. He studies her. Mother don’t twitch an eye. Flies buzz by. She seems dead to the world, but she ain’t—not yet anyway, I don’t believe.
Behind us, the woman in the buggy yells out sweetly, “JD? Is everything alright?”
Well, if I ain’t ever heard music before in my life, I do at this very instant. That woman’s voice floats to me like butter and sugar, all at once. The sound of it reaches out and snags my Daddy for all he’s worth.
He looks down at me with a sad-sack face and says, “Mayme-girl, I got to go.”
I look around at all the mess and the youngins and the heat waves wiggling up off the neighbors’ roofs. A lazy black crow calls from the tree top, “Un-unh. Un-unh.” His flapping out of the tree makes wind on the leaves. Maybe Daddy’s leaving will give us a breeze.
I say, “Alright then, Daddy.”
“Okay, then,” he says. “I’ll be seeing you around.”
I give him the stink-eye. “Okay, then. Bye.”
Just as he rides away with that woman in her carriage, Roselma falls off the porch again. She and the baby start up a crying contest. Tilde goes to digging in the front yard with a spoon. She is making hills bigger than the baby. Maggie starts chewing on the toenails of her other foot. I look in at Mother throwed out on the couch, and I decide I have had it with the whole wide world.
“Shit-shit!” I yell just like my Daddy, but I don’t kick in no doors or break any worthless screens. I just wait for something good to happen. Maybe this is how you call down Help, I think, and I wait for It to come barreling out of the sky, like a meteor come bolting. I imagine It streaking a trail through the heavens and splitting the clouds to sunder. I picture Help sliding down the Blue Ridge Mountains, lighting off the sycamores, bouncing to the red oaks, and springing off the feather boughs of dark green cedars. I see Help rolling from the foothills to the flatlands. I see It searching everywhere, till—at last—It whirls into the center of our dry dirt yard, and It comes to a screeching halt. When the dust of Its spinning settles, I vision It striding up and staring into the faces of me and all the little girls. Between all of us youngins, It’ll pick the pupils of my brown eyes to gaze into. Then, Its sudden voice will snap through the air like the whip of some holy angel, and It will say, “Girl! Was that YOU called down my name?”
I would answer Help with a gap-tooth smile and a nod of my shaggy head.
But, hey, I know all that’s just crazy thinking. It is the stuff that lays back, wanting, in the clouds of my young mind. It ain’t nothing but wishes, stuck between the layers of my brains. I am quick starting to believe that Help is a slippery thing—that It does not come after you and offer up Its services, no matter how bad you might want It—no matter the needs of your poor little soul.
If Help is going to act like It’s too good for me, I might as well act like I’m too good for It. I will live life on my own, without It. We’ll see what Help thinks about that.
I plop down like a lump on the steps and stare at where that woman’s carriage used to be. Seems like I can still see it there at the edge of our street: sunlight glinting off the door handles; that woman sitting in the shade, tilting her head like a delicate bird; the shadows of the day turning her yellow dress gray; that gray tinting the waves of her reddish-brown hair to the color of flat, dead coffee.
I don’t care what she looks like. I wish I could go with that woman and her sugar voice too, but then—where in the world would that put me, I think—someplace any different, someplace one bit better? I don’t know. Everything’s a mystery to me, and as I sit on the porch studying the fact that mysteries and cussing don’t impress Help enough to actually get It down here on the face of the earth, Tilde and Roselma and Maggie come draping their arms over my shoulders and leaning into me, giggling. They have pulled up the baby’s box behind us and are sitting down all around me. I guess we look right pretty, grinning back and forth to one another, like dollies in a show. Maybe it’s that Baby Lucille is finally sleeping, instead of wailing, that we have a chance to be happy for a while. I hope that she is still breathing.
Tilde looks up and says, “You like all the holes I digged in the yard, Mayme?”
I tell her, “Yeah, Tilde. You done a lot, didn’t you?”
She says, “Yeah,” and the day keeps right on going, just like nothing ever happened.
I have to hide from the breeze of Daddy’s leaving, though. It feels more like the wind of a hurricane.
The cold of November is setting in around us. The wood in the stove has nearly gone out. We children are huddled together in our one bed with all the quilts in the house piled on top. We let the dog in, so he could keep us warmer in the bed. I have to pee, but the outhouse is too far out to go to walking through the colden rain. We all use the cook pot instead and are happy we can stay inside. Mother is sick in her bed. She is coughing and will not stop. I guess we will not have any kind of Thanksgiving this year. I am only eleven and have never in my life thought about cooking Thanksgiving.
We ain’t seen Daddy in a while.
Baby Lucille waddles over to Mother’s bed. It has been cold in the house for a long time now. How that child can cry continuous, amazes me to pieces. Her little voice sounds like a croaky frog. We ain’t got water from the sink. I think it’s froze in the pipes. Lucille crawls up with Mother in the bed. She shakes Mother on the shoulder, and Mother’s whole body moves like a board. She does not open her peepers. I believe something terrible has gone wrong. She ain’t coughed the whole night through. She ain’t called for a drink or nothing. I think she might have wet the bed. Her covers look a darker damp.
There’s knocking at the door, but we are too cold to go and answer. I yell, “Come on in!” We don’t care who it is. We are past hungry and thirsty and are shivering beyond all care. Maybe it’s the Big Bad Wolf. I will eat him if it is.
Doc Enders is here with the church ladies. There’s two other men as well. The women pinch their noses. I reckon we must stink. Look at the children, they say behind their closed hands. I can only stare. My sisters are all asleep. Doc Enders starts giving orders, and we are taken in a heap. We are wrapped up and taken in a heap. The night is like a long dark tunnel. I cannot tell if we are getting warmer. I think I wet my step-ins.
Mother is dead. We are clean. We have new dresses and coats and socks and shoes. The church ladies scrubbed off our skin and cut our hair. The baby has new diapers, must be a thousand of them; we will never have to wash another one. Daddy says we cannot stay at the house anymore because Mother has up and died. We have to put her in the ground. A lot of people show up to see her being put in the ground. Some of them come from a place called George. I know our Daddy is right—we cannot stay at the house no more, because I don’t know how to cook, and I barely know how to clean. He thinks I could not raise my sisters on my own, but it’s been me doing it all along. He just don’t know. Daddy’s just never around. He says we’re going on a trip. Says him and Uncle John are taking us all up north. He wants me to stay with our Aunt Darthy. She is married to a man with big money. Daddy spells it out. He says, “B-i-g-m-o-n-e-y.” She lives at the beach where Daddy says I can have fun. He says I can play in the sun and build castles out of sand. They will leave me there, and they will go back home.
Daddy and Aunt Darthy get in a yelling contest. Uncle John’s asleep in the car. I am busy trying to keep the youngins calm. They are trying to be louder than the grown-ups. Their racket and the winter wind make my ears hurt. I smack all their little hands and make the girls sit down on the stoop. Daddy tells Aunt Darthy she owes him at least this much—to take care of me for a change. That makes her angry, and she tells him, “You know I’m too nervous to be anybody’s mother!” and she slams the door in his face. He tells me to stay put on the stoop. He says Aunt Darthy’ll be back in a little bit. Him and Uncle John and my sisters all leave. Maybe they went for hot chocolates. I get mad at them. Aunt Darthy don’t come back in a little bit; I spend the night on the steps. It is very cold. Next morning, Aunt Darthy opens up the door and stands there with her fists all crammed into her waist. She’s frowning. Her beady little eyes are flitting everywhere. She is a scary-looking sight, and I do not want to stay with the likes of her even if she is married to Bertram B-i-g-m-o-n-e-y. She gets closer and says, “Mayme, come here.” I go, but not because I want to. It is just warmer by the door. She reaches down and pins this note onto the collar of my shirt. Then she tells me her keeper, Esther, is going to take me to the station, and I am to ride a train and won’t that be fun and she laughs like a little bird. Esther comes out patting her big wet eyes with a hanky and looking at Aunt Darthy like Aunt Darthy’s the cruelest woman in the world. Seeing Esther all teary makes me want to break down and have at it too, but instead, I climb into Mr. Big Money’s automobile with Esther, and we ride to the station like some mixed-up traveling show. That is, all but Aunt Darthy. She stays home by herself. Might as well, because I don’t want her, and I wouldn’t keep her if I had her. She ain’t been no help to me.
By late afternoon, the train pulls into Selma Station. The man who walks up and down the aisles asking for tickets comes and stands by my seat. He smiles real nice and tells me there’ll be a fella waiting for me on the dock when I get off the train. Says his name is Mr. Pollard, and he’ll help me get to where I’m supposed to go. I ask the nice man where that might be, and he says according to the note pinned on my shirt, my destination is The Shortfield Home for Orphan Children.
I would start crying, but I think my wailing might never stop.
Mr. Pollard is waiting on the dock, alright. He’s a shifty-looking man. He has a long, thin scar on his cheek. I can’t stop looking at it, it’s so pink and long. Once I get situated in his automobile, he catches me staring, so I ask him about the scar. I ask him where it’s from. He laughs out of the side of his mouth, and his eyes start hazing over like he’s in some kind of dream. He tells me some little old Indian gal put it there, twenty-four years ago. Says she marked him for life so he would always remember. I ask him, remember what? And he shifts his eyes from the road to me. They are the color of mine, only golder. They gleam with a meanness I ain’t never seen, and he says it’s her she wants him to remember. I turn away fast-fast and gather into the circle of my own arms. I believe I have just met the Devil. I never felt so alone. He guns his automobile, and we fly from the Selma Station.
The Shortfield Home for Orphan Children is a tidy, red-brick place. Little ones are always coming and going, and you never know what kind of family’s going to pick you out of the crowd to go home with them. Tilde is the child of the Thomases now and Maggie belongs to the preacher’s set. Roselma’s living with the Joneses—they’re kin to Doc Enders who saved us from the cold. He was the one pronounced Mother dead. I ain’t ever been so by myself alone.
Here at the Home, there’s a girl that looks just like me. She lives in the basement, under the Devil’s house. I feel sorry for her. Everybody likes to talk about what the Devil does to her, but nobody seems willing to stop him.
I slow down one day on the walking path and take a glance at her. She is looking through the window at me. She tilts up her chin, and I do the same. I think at first, I’m looking into a mirror, she looks so much like myself, but the Devil comes up behind her, and I see his lips move. He tells her something. He is talking. She nods and turns away. He sees me out the window, but I am not afraid. He thinks just because he is the Head of the Home everybody is afraid of him. Well, I am not—not anymore. I never smile at the Devil, and that makes me feel stronger against him. I am helping myself to courage, but bravery has its price; nobody’s ever picked me to go home with them. They say, “What’s wrong with that girl? Why ain’t she a happy child? Why don’t she ever smile?”
Well, I don’t care what they say. I plan on leaving this place in three short years. I will be nearly fifteen by then, and to me, that is just about growed. See, the Devil don’t fool me one bit. I know there is more to the world than just Shortfield, North Carolina. There’s more to life than just biding time at this Home, living by his rules and catering to all his little whims.
I will make my own way in this old world, and I won’t count on nobody to help me—the Devil or Help, either one. Don’t even mention the name of my daddy, Mister G.O.N.E., Gone.
My husband rolls into the kitchen and yawns. “Morning, Mayme,” he says.
He scratches his belly, and I realize today on my twenty-seventh birthday, that life has filled up around me like a flood. It is pushing me forward on a tide. I see things now from a woman’s point of view. I do not look back at the past, my time spent on Easter Street or in the Shortfield Home for Orphaned Children. I don’t care to recall my history, rambling from town to town, looking for work and places to stay. I don’t ponder losing track of the girls, or my daddy. I don’t think on the death time of my mother. It’s all such sticky sorrow. I will go with the tide and be done.
He scratches his head. The shocks of his curly hair seem like ribbons. I rub my big old belly. It is six and a half months full of my very first child, from this man I found and married. His name’s called Garland Wishant, the Third. I met him at a dance hall in Birdsong, Alabama. We got hitched in Louisville, K.Y.
He clears his throat and says, “Darlin’, whatever took you so long to find me?”
I am tired of his dull humor. He ain’t funny to me no more, but I answer him back just the same. In a marriage, it’s important to keep the peace.
“Oh, Garland, you know it takes forever to find a good and decent man.” I say this fib, and yet I expect him to be like every other man I have ever known—starting with my own daddy: they all have going inside them, going away that is, going the hell away.
Garland’s got no idea I’m unfond of the species as a whole. I only picked him for being the first in line. Truth is I fell in love with wanting a baby. It is all I ever dreamed: baby, baby, baby. It would be my saving grace, for having run away from the lot of Mother’s keep, or at least that is what I thought. Garland came along and shined his smile at me and told good things on his steady little job and his steady little pay check. I liked feeling his body next to mine when I went to sleep at night and in the mornings when I woke up. So, I married him, a baby-maker from the start. Maybe a keeper, too, but I’d never tell him I ain’t sure of his being a keeper, or how much I hope it is truly true. My wobbliness on the subject would most likely break the poor man’s heart. I know it’d tip my tiny scale.
Garland snakes up all flirty behind me at the kitchen sink. “Mayme, girl, why don’t you and me go celebrate your birthday today over at Churchill Downs?” He kisses the back of my neck and reaches around sweetly to caress my belly and breasts.
“Garland Wishant,” I say back. “We ain’t got the money to go out.”
“But it’s your birthday, Mayme. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
I let the dishrag drop. “I don’t know, Garland. Gets awful exciting at the races, don’t it? I don’t believe I can take the hubbub or the heat. Just look at my ankles, anyway. Look how they’re all swole up and fat.”
Garland turns me from the kitchen sink and kneels in front of me. He strokes the puffy muscles of my calves, then moves his hands up my thighs.
“Races only get nervous if you’re about to win, Mayme. Either that, or lose.” I shake my head and grin. Garland says, “Come on girl. It will be F-U-N.”
I surrender to both his ideas. “We’ll have to stop and get me a wide-brim hat.”
“Okay, Sugar,” he says, kissing my neck. His voice is husky and urgent.
We finish making hard, quick love at the sink, Garland slap-pats my rear end and says, “We best be leaving soon.” I can still feel his rams, deep inside me.
His old runabout soon delivers us to the races, and we park in a field far away. The crowd’s thick as gnats, and the sun is bearing down. Garland pays our way through the ticket door. He finds us good seats in the regular folks’ section. At least we’re not sitting in the poor division, two miles back at the county line. We settle in the third row, nearest the fence, in the grass, at the end, adjacent to the barn. I spy a refreshments stand.
“Garland, why don’t you fetch us a nice lemonade?” I ask him and he gallops away grinning. I cannot figure why he acts so happy. Maybe it’s from this morning at the sink. I still feel him up inside of me, but the stick of it feels more like a bad headache now. Of course, I’d never tell that to Garland.
My new wide-brimmed hat provides light shade on my face and neck and shoulders, but shade ain’t nothing unless you have a breeze. There ain’t one, not even a speck of an honest breeze. So, I make my own with a discarded program I find. I fan and fan—for the life of me, I fan. The day is getting sticky, and my husband is taking forever. I can’t readily spy Garland at the refreshments stand, so I strain upwards on my toes to see. His fedora is nowhere to be found. I crane and strain to spot him in the crowd.
Suddenly and without warning, water gushes from between my legs. I am stunned by this unexpected urination, as I did not know I had to go. The muscles of my belly pull up hard. I’m as dizzy as a whirlwind, so I grip the chair in front of me. I can’t seem to catch my breath. It hurts where Garland rammed into me. He must have pushed too hard.
“Garland!” I yell, dropping to my knees. Someone nearby calls out for help, and in an instant, there’s a flurry of folks all around. One woman braces my shoulders and sits me on the grass. Another lays me gently down. The pain eases off. I’ll be fine I think to myself. I close my eyes and rest. They are all telling me a doctor’s on his way, he’ll be right over, he’s only at the barn.
“And they’re OFF!” The loudspeaker spits and pops and crackles over the roar of the crowd. The noise swells around me, and I swoon in the mighty heat. The pains have crawled back up in me again. I feel that something’s wrong. Why did I come to the races?
“Garland Wishant!” I scream, fairly sure the effort of it moves my bowels.
Another commotion—some man shouting, “Make way, folks! Move! This woman’s trying to have a baby!”
My hard cramping fades. I open my eyes, but only to slits. The sun is bright and blinding. But I can see the man, dressed in white and leaning over me. His eyes are the bluest blue, like sky at the ocean’s end.
He pats my cheek and says loudly, “Ma’am? I’m an intern for the races here, and I’ve come to help you deliver this baby.” He must think I am deaf by the way he’s yelling.
“O-o-o, I ain’t ready to have this baby,” I say and draw my knees up as the pains come on me again.
“Well now, this being ready part don’t usually matter a lot.” He smiles knowingly. I read the name tag on his shirt: Veterinary Staff. A horse doctor’s going to deliver my child.
“Please, sir, can you find my husband? His name is Garland Wishant, the Third.”
The man sets down a clean white sheet and moves me slowly over. He helps remove my urinated-in but otherwise clean, thank goodness, step-ins, and he props my legs apart. He begins the inspection of my Down There. I wonder if he’ll find evidence of Garland’s Thing. It feels like one’s exploded inside.
“Ma’am, exactly how far along are you?”
I make an awful face, trying to figure up the numbers. “Six months and a few days,” I tell him. “Have you seen my husband?”
My belly pulls the tightest yet. The ebb and flow of it gets me. I’m now panting hard, so when Garland flies up in a rush, he appears to arrive in jaggedy pieces. His face is all bent up. He looks terrified.
“Garland, you’re here,” I say between my quick breaths. He does not reply. “What’s wrong, Garland?” I tug on his britches leg. He pays me no heed. Nothing but the race is on his mind. He is ogling the tracks over the heads in the crowd.
“Step aside sir,” says the intern. “Your wife needs room. She’s having your baby too soon.”
“Too soon?” I ask. “My baby’s coming too soon?”
The intern grimly nods. He checks his watch and says for me to push. I do. My screams cut the air like blades. The clearness of my voice surprises me. My sounds cover the volume of the crowd and rise above the winner’s call. I glance up to my husband. Between my winded breaths, I squeal.
“Why ain’t you down here, Garland? I’m about to birth this child!”
Garland looks down. He is no longer familiar to me. In an instant, he is not him.
“I’ve lost everything, Mayme.”
“What—what do you mean, Garland?”
“Ma’am!” says the intern. “I need you to push. You got to push right now! Give me everything you’ve got!”
“I bet it all on a loser, Mayme! A bucket of glue. I bet everything on a nag.” Garland strains, bending over. The veins in his face bulge. He looks to be a man I don’t even know. He’s sure one ugly thing.
The intern glares at Garland, then turns and speaks softly to me, begging for my attention. “Ma’am, please! We got to get this baby out. You are in bad trouble! You got to push, and I mean big. You got to do it now!”
So, I disregard Garland and I push and I blow and I push and I blow, until out pops our teeny-weeny baby. She shot out in a lump, all unusually blue.
One look at her and I know the poor thing has surely come into the world too soon. The intern cradles the tiny girl in the bowl of his great big hands. He sends me a cheerless expression. The wetness brimming behind his lids tells me no doubt, my baby’s been borned a still one.
The air I intake turns to lead. My chest does not want to move. The spirit of my baby has left in a flash. It is a hot summer day at Churchill Downs. Funny how it reminds me of the day my daddy left. I cannot feel Garland up inside me no more. Our kitchen’s a thousand miles away. I am floating through the air.
“Garland,” I whimper, but he’s nowhere near. The intern looks away like he’s ashamed over my husband’s lack of care. His disappearance is a disgrace, but I try to smile anyway. I try to tell him it’s okay. The intern knows it is really not.
He ties off and cuts the cord of my dead baby. He covers her in a short white sheet. “Your Garland Wishant, the Third just up and ran out of here, Miss. You want me to make an announcement? You want me to see if we can get him back? Maybe you want me to find the cops.”
I shrug. “Naw, I don’t think so, but thanks. I won’t be needing him no more.”
The intern nods like he knows what’s what. Then, he cocoons my infant, slowly and properly, with the greatest of care. No relief floods through me as he covers her little face. Her quick leaving strikes me—there is no heavenly grace, truly no Help at all. I let my head fall back. I make myself inhale, and I make myself exhale, and it goes on like this until he says, this beats all he’s ever seen, and I make myself inhale, and I make myself exhale, and it goes on like this.
He lets me know about giving up the afterbirth, and when that’s all said and done, the ambulance arrives. They gurney me up and ride me to the hospital for a routine examination. I turn my head from the first aid nurse. My tears fall away and away to the stiff, starched sheets.
That I cannot cradle-hold my sweet little babe—my arms are killing me.
Many long weeks after birthing my still borned at the Great Kentucky Derby, I go to the park for a walk. Late October smells dusty and crisp. The look of its sunshine is harsh. It blinds me with silver sparks, flashing off the mud-colored lake. Halfway round this great bowl of water, I see the fish and ducks have followed me. They’re hoping for a handout. I don’t have a thing, no bread, no corn, no nothing.
But my mind is still full of the sorry man who was once my valued husband. It is better than well that Garland Wishant, the Third ran away. I never want to set eyes on the varmint again. If by chance I ever do, I believe my hands might slay him.
I pitch a rock into the lake. All the gold fish dive down. The orange-and-white ones streak across the water and swim away. The ducks just stare. They know I won’t hurt them. They know I’m not allowed. They are tamed. They are also fat and probably could not fly if they wanted to. Am I like them I wonder? About the flying, I mean.
I look at my hands and out of idle desire, I picture them seizing Garland’s neck. My fingers curl and tighten around it, and he loses his stupid grin. He thinks I am kidding, but when my thumbs crush deep into his windpipe, his eyes pop wide, and he begins to struggle. He cannot call for help. He’s not able. His lips turn blue and teardrops spring from his eyes. They are not tears of sorrow over leaving me. They are tears of regret at being caught in the justice of my grip. I release this dream of killing him and turn away. Now, Garland Wishant is dead to me, eternal, forever, D.E.A.D., dead.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I say.
The words drip out of my mouth like honey or molasses, but even the act of my slow cursing gains me no leverage against the sorrow of losing my baby, just like it lent me no relief from losing my daddy so long ago, or my sister-girls, too. My poor baby stays still-borned. Garland won’t ever show back up again, sorry sack of shit. And have I seen a hint of my daddy since the time of Adam and Eve?—sha no—not a single glance.
Above all and everything though, Help does not show Its everlasting face. It does not strongly part the clouds, nor does It rush down from Heaven to save me. I know It never will. I have known that for a very long time, since the time I lost my sister-girls to the orphanage that winter—oh my little dearies!
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I say again, cussing in the ear of Help. Let It strike me dead. I don’t give a damn.
I think to It: Your storms of life have sucked me dry. They have gnawed on my every nerve and cracked all my bones. They have made me rotten to the core. I’m amazed I can even look at those children across the lake, playing on the swings and slides. Help, how can You leave me so wanting?
But, then I think about Tilde, digging up the yard on Easter Street, lo’ those many years ago—oh how she sent her spoon to flying. She didn’t need any man to do it for her—not Daddy, or any other. She jumped right in herself, and went to digging. I shake my head and chuckle. We couldn’t make sense of anything back then. We just kept on going. It’s a wonder we did not die. Hell—it’s a wonder we did not kill each other.
“I’m through with this business of being blue,” I tell Help as I look into the lake.
Fish eyes pop up near the surface of the water, and they begin watching me again. Carps are hopeful critters. I’ll vouch for that. The ducks, though? They don’t seem to care. These are the old fellas who won’t be flying south again. You can see by their ancient feathers and the dull fading in their eyes. They still glide across the water pretty well, and this gets me to thinking. They have found a nice place to end up. Folks like to feed them and tend to them in all the different seasons. They are practically a feature of this lake. Maybe I could be a feature somewhere, too, just not here. This lake and this place, they are far too muddy for me.
Maybe I could visit Mother’s relatives, the ones that showed up at her funeral. The ones I ain’t seen since then. They live down in the south of George. And of course, by that I mean Georgia.
Suddenly, I am crazy onto this idea of traveling. My feet crunch through the fallen leaves as I weave a shortcut across the park. I say good-bye forever to this place of fat fish and old ducks and water, the color of mud. I say good-bye to my dear, gone baby. She don’t need me as a mother anymore. It is a brand-new day.
Next morning, I pack a necessities bag, button up a fresh dress, and climb into a pair of clean step-ins. I tie on my walking shoes and shake the landlady’s hand for not expecting rent. Said she’s been left by a man, herself, so she understands.
My next-door neighbor girlfriend gives me one of her extra coats. She says I can keep it. We wave so long to one another, and I take off down the street. We won’t ever see each other again, but we agreed to be happy about it and not sad.
“Have fun in George!” she yells. “Ha. Ha. Ha!”
“Okay! I’ll try!” I shout back. She knows I am reaching out for a new day—that I’m adventuring to places way different than Selma, or Easter Street, or the Home for Orphaned Children. Topping it all, I am leaving Louisville. Next stop—Valdosta!
The urge to run grows stronger with every step. I brace myself to walking though, for it will be a long and arduous trip. Out goes my lucky thumb. The hitching now begins.
Kentuckians are a fair-minded lot. Local folks give me rides and are friendly enough, talking about the weather and such. One lady named Candy hugs me good-bye sweetly. One-by-one, they ride me far out of the city limits and beyond the state of Kentucky.
The people in Nashville sing a lot of songs. I particularly like the one about will the circle be unbroken. A woman named of Ada wrote it. Everybody knows the words and they sing it often. They’ve even got me to humming it.
Down in Huntsville, Alabama, I run up with some folks who are fond of quoting scripture. They try to teach me about the Bible. I grin and nod, but do not tell them I gave up on Help long ago.
I meet laughers down in Birmingham. They all have jokes and funny stories, but swinging over to Atlanta, it is a different story. Most people there are a stern-looking folk who do not tolerate much out of the ordinary. One thing I find quite certain though, the longer my backside is turned to the past, the better my front side feels.
The whole of the long trip to Valdosta, Georgia takes me about fifteen or twenty separate rides and is over one month long. It is now the beginning of December. I have to shed my girlfriend’s coat, as we get closer to south Georgia. The weather down here is stifling.
This land is a place unlike any other. Here the earth sinks in upon itself, and mud is everywhere you look. Soft, frothy muck surrounds people’s houses. It lays across their farmlands too. It sits in between and all around the great and perfect rows of pecan trees. Bet it mires down the nut trucks, harvesting in the fall.
Maybe it’s the bones of their buried dead, churning themselves into a lather deep beneath the earth. Maybe the skeletons are angry, and they’re rising up to cover the face of the land and to tell their stories. It gives me the willies to think about who might have done the dying, and who might have done the killing. Mother used to say, “Listen to the night birds tell it. Them Cherokee owls got stories galore.” I don’t know what she meant by that, and it’s too late now to ask.
Maybe these George relatives will invest me with some idea. Maybe they will tell me tales, and give me the shivers like Mother used to. I am going to see them, whether they scare me or not. Being with kin should do me good. I miss having family—to the marrow of my bones, I do.
It’s twenty-one years since I’ve seen these people, from the death-time of our dear Mother. They simply appeared at her funeral, and it surprised everyone that they claimed to be Mother’s fourth cousins from somebody on a grandmother’s other side. Daddy let them in, as they were wanting to exchange proper sullen faces. He shook them each by the hand and called them by odd names like Teetum and Libercy and Offrup. They shuffled along in the short line of viewers, passing by Mother’s stand. She was laid out nicely in a Number Nine yellow pine coffer, complete with wrought iron handles and a set of lock bolts, running down the side. They all whispered nicely at how Cousin Mother would have been so proud.
Daddy coaxed us sisters into shaking the Georgians’ hands. They seemed nice enough people, not squeezing our little fingers or crushing our tiny wrists. I told Daddy I wanted to go south with them when they were leaving. Daddy would hear nothing of the sort. He said he was taking me north instead. He did, and there’s where my recollection of the Georgians ends. Still and yet, I hope they will avail themselves to me as a family since I’m in dire need of one.
Regardless of all of that, I visit places here and there around Valdosta. There are many corners to this town. One has a church with a great tall steeple. Another has an ice cream store. I talk and talk about Mother’s cousins and soon, the folks here have no trouble making a reliable connection.
At the feed store, I quickly discover that the shine-making business of my mother’s relatives lays nestled in the shadowy cove of a well-hid swamp. Everybody in the store points the way. So, I take my leave and by mid-afternoon, come to a halt at the top of their path. My eyes scan the area well.
They may not remember me, but I sincerely hope otherwise. Either that or at least I am wishing they’ll offer me a decent place to stay. Now that I’ve made my way clean down to Georgia, I have to admit I am tired to the center of my bones. Seems like the death of my still-born’s been chasing me, but I can neither let go or hold on.
Mother’s cousins take me in as heartily as if they’ve been waiting for me to show. For the most part, I do not mind their slight accommodations, or the fact they all look so much alike. Mainly it’s the swamp bugs that bother me.
The squishy brown bodies of them float everywhere in the air, and they fornicate constantly in front of you—day and night, night and day. I pass most of the time by fanning to clear the space around me.
Then, there is Cousin Teetum to contend with. He sees me working against the insects and wiggles his thick brows at me. “Aw now, Mayme girl!” he says. “Don’t let them bugs be bothering you. They ain’t nothing, but l’biddy old L.O.V.E. Bugs!”
Into the second week of visiting, I can take no more of Cousin Teetum or the bugs. They both give me the itch to leave.
Teetum says, “Aw, Mayme girl. Now, where’re you going off to?”
I want to pop him, but don’t. Instead, I just say, “I’m wanting to see the sea.”
His mama tells him to leave me alone, and she turns to help me repack my modest satchel. I shake all their hands politely and haste away from their moonshine camp.
On my way up the slight incline from their place, it hits me how I just ought to go see Aunt Darthy. She does live at the beach, after all. Maybe she could get me a job at one of Mr. B-I-G-M-O-N-E-Y’s stores, but if not, I won’t worry. I never allow my brains to think this is the last resort, oh, no, no, no-no-no. There’s always California. Maybe even Idaho.
A longer version of this story was originally published in The Broad River Review in 2010.