Dr. McCoy’s examining rooms have been musty since the forties, when he opened his little office on the Mt. Hebron square. Not long after Daddy died, which was just last month, I showed up in one of them. I ticked off a list of symptoms, just as soon as he opened the door.
“I’ve seen this coming for years,” he said, sitting across from me on his stool, “and, I’m not a damn bit surprised.”
He took one last pull on his cigarette and dabbed the butt in his ashtray, a ceramic replica of a healthy, pink lung. Smoke came out of his nostrils, and he sighed, like the burden was all his; then, he rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “Come on now,” he said, like a coach. “Get real. Evelyn,” he said. “You know what you need?”
“Tell me,” I said.
“You know what a fiddle is?”
“It’s a sensitive instrument, am I right? When it gets coiled too tight, it can’t sing.” He opened a metal drawer and pulled out a pad. “Am I right now?” he said. “Try this, you hear,” he said and scribbled something I knew the pharmacist would call, as always, “McCoy’s dang chicken scratch.”
“If that don’t work,” he said, “and it probably won’t. Go for a ride.” He leaned back. Behind him the wallpaper was stained nicotine. “Get out on a Sunday afternoon. Take you a long, long ride, you hear?”
Bert, my husband, was in the waiting room. “That didn’t take long,” he said, when he saw me. “He even look at you good?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “He looked.”
But the truth is, Dr. McCoy hadn’t. He didn’t check my heart. He didn’t feel my glands. He didn’t see my tonsils. He asked me about my yard. “You got any tomatoes growing?” he’d asked. “Not this summer,” I said. “Huh,” he said. “You must feel real lousy not to grow a tomato.” He said, “Go for that ride now.”
It was one of those hot, hot days. The parking lot had asphalt that played tricks on the mind. I thought I saw water, and I felt thirsty, like a castaway.
Bert opened his truck door, and I climbed through an oven of heat. I was wearing shorts, and the vinyl stuck to my skin. “Where to now?” he asked.
“The pharmacy,” I said, and then, though I was trying to break the habit, I started in on my nails.
“Gnaw them to a pulp,” Bert said, like a challenge, as he found a parking space right in front of Clyde’s pharmacy. We could see Clyde, counting pills, and we could see his short wife, too, Beverly Anne, her sweeping, sweeping, sweeping around a tall metal stand holding crutches and canes. I stared over at Bert’s nails: clean, trim. Then, I glanced back up at Beverly Anne, who’d stopped sweeping to see if we were ever going to get out. Bert will outlive me, I thought, if I let this shit go on.
“How about ride me around a little longer,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
Somehow, years ago, I birthed Bert’s girl. We’d gone without sex for a solid year straight; then, we did it, quick, once, on the fourteenth day, and three weeks later, my breasts were so sore I couldn’t sleep. “Damn,” I said. “Miraculous,” I said.
Her name is Leigh, named after my big sister, Becky Leigh, who’s been dead and gone a long time now. Leigh does her living in the City of Roses, Portland, Oregon: three thousand miles away from me.
She teaches at a Montessori school off Burnside where the children eat kalamata olives. They don’t call Leigh their teacher. They call her their guide. When the little boys cry, I imagine Leigh, easing down to their level. “I can see your angry,” I hear her say, guiding. “How about you just tell the world why?”
You’d never know she grew up around here, a fact I’m certain she’s mighty proud of.
I’ve lost her. One time, when she wasn’t but eleven years old, she tried to guide me direct. I was in the kitchen, and she tapped my shoulder. “Mama,” she said, “I ran back in class to get my jacket, and I heard Mrs. Thompson say something to Mrs. Parker, out in the hall.”
“What’s that, hon?” I asked.
“She said there’s something real fishy about you and Daddy.” Leigh cocked her head towards the living room. Bert had his back turned to us. The television was loud. It was the fall, and Georgia was whipping Florida. “He’s deaf,” Leigh said, “so what you reckon Mrs. Thompson meant?”
Now, I don’t get to have Leigh but on the phone.
And she’s not my best friend, not like I dreamed about when she was growing inside of me. Between us, there’s lots unsaid.
But, when she grew not far below my heart, I wrote her immense love letters that when she got old enough to partly understand, I never let her see, much less read. I ought to burn them, but instead, I’ve been sneaking them out. I swallow two a day; it’s like nibbling cookies on a diet. I savor each line slow.
I used to address God, down on my knees, but now I’ve been standing, hoping that, if I’m a little higher to the sky, I’ll be a little faster to be heard.
Sometimes I skip God and go straight to Mrs. George Tyson. She’s dead. But she got a divorce, the only divorce in Hebron, the year my big sister died. People thought she didn’t belong in church no more, because of it, but she showed up, early, wearing straight dust and denim. Every Sunday of my childhood, she showed up.
Last Sunday, when the choir director waved his hands, indicating it was time to sit down, I kept standing. I glanced back at her empty pew. Bert tugged on my skirt. “Evelyn,” he said. “Sit.”
“Dear Mrs. George Tyson,” I said, in my head, instead of “Dear God.” I said, “Give me, damn it, the gumption I need.”
Then, I sat down.
Sometimes I try to lure Leigh back with promises of home-cooking. “We’ve got things they can’t imagine,” I say.
“Oh, Mother,” she says, “If you just knew a thing. The food out here, you wouldn’t believe!”
Bert’s got red signs that line a freeway, The Fall Line Freeway, runs right up against our town, big red signs, “Eat at Bert’s BBQ,” those big signs everywhere, so, I said, “They don’t have your daddy’s barbecue.”
“Mother,” she said, again, which ticks me off, every time, every single time. “What this ‘Mother’ business?” I asked. “Since when did you abandon ‘Mama’?”
Silence on the other end, just miles of it, her out there, so foreign, independent, and well-fed. All these years, what rumors has she lived with?
“Mother,” I said, “it just sounds so distant, so, I don’t know, unfriendly.”
“I’d say we’re friendly,” she said, like she’d describe her relationship with the neighbor six doors down, and we hung up like that.
After I slipped the phone back in its cradle, I sat on the edge of my bed, my ankles crossed. Hebron’s got a phone book. I don’t know why. It’s skinny, not metro, and just about every number I need, I can recite by heart. Still, I scanned the T’s.
“Hello,” Gerald, Mrs. George Tyson’s cousin, the inheritor of her blessed old truck, said, after I dialed his number.
“Gerald,” I said, “This is Evelyn down the road.” I said, “What was your mama’s real name?” I said, “Because it wasn’t Mrs. George Tyson.” I said, “You know, her first name.” I said, “The name she went by as a girl.”
I pictured his shed. Behind most old houses in the South is a shed that holds the decaying vehicles of the beloved: dead Aunt Raytha’s jalopy, for instance, or Grandpa’s Caddy.
These cars, these trucks, they die a slow death; the tires become flat, the roof gets rusty; still, the car, the dead relative, they become one. You don’t dare get rid of it. One glance at it, and down flies their spirit.
On the line, I could hear lots of commotion. Gerald roused up. “Give me my glasses,” he said to his ornery wife.
“Good Lord,” his ornery wife said, “Gerald,” she said, “Has somebody died?”
Gerald said, “Evelyn, you know what time it is?”
I reached for my own glasses. I glanced over at the clock on the far-off dresser. “Good Lord,” I said.
“Damn near midnight,” he said. “You having trouble?” he asked.
“Give me that,” his wife said. “Evelyn,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m on Western time,” I said.
She said, “You’re not making a dab of sense.”
I’ve never hung up on anybody I can remember, and I didn’t bang the phone down then. It was tender. I let the receiver slide, gently, down from my ear, across my chest, then, a slight click.
They say marriage is good for a man. After Mrs. George Tyson got rid of George, George slid downhill. His belly went swollen, and his head went white, and by the end of the second season, he was dead.
Mrs. George Tyson, she learned to drive, and she bought the Ford; it was blue, like a clear, summer sky. Behind the wheel, she wore her hat, a yellow straw hat with a lean, leaping green deer sewn in a white patch above her brain.
After I hung up on Gerald’s wife, I got reckless. They didn’t tell me Mrs. George Tyson’s first name, so I stuck my shoes on and went walking.
I walked in the shadows of the pines along 15 until I ran up behind Gerald’s house. Across his yard, a big fat moon was my hindrance, but I stayed out of the light, and when I saw the dog pen, empty, I remembered Buster, how they’d just had to have him put down, and this felt, somehow, on my behalf. Encouraged, I tip-toed.
In the South, there is death all around. Everybody’s got somebody destroyed in war. Around the dog pen, I saw the tailgate of Mrs. George Tyson’s truck sticking out back of the shed, and beyond that, in the field, was the old Tyson cemetery, it behind a fence, not a black iron fence like that say is down in Savannah, but an old wire fence, like the kind to pen in animals, and there were markers, little squares, with names and dates etched out with a stick, looking just like Doctor McCoy’s chicken scratch, hard to make out. I saw WWI scribbled and WWII.
But Mrs. George Tyson’s resting place was more recent, and though she’d survived many a war with Mr. George, her marker didn’t honor that.
Despite this lack, I could make her name out clear. “Mary Sanders Tyson.” I did the math. “Dang,” I said, “She lived a hundred and two years.” I shot an eye over at George’s marker. He didn’t fair so well.
“Dear Mary,” I said, the next time I found myself in church. “I carry a lot of shame over never learning to drive.” I said, “I can get it out on the grass, but it scares me on the highway.”
This talking went on into the night, and when the sky began to lighten, I knew I’d have to pick this conversation up at home.
The long walk back, down 15, I said, “Oh Mary, at night, it’s just me and the owls.” I said, “I get so despondent.” I said, “Can’t you see? It’s gotten so bad.” I said, “I wish I was brave.” I said, “Dear Mary, find me a blue Ford, will you?”
My big sister’s name was Becky Leigh, and she tried to get a divorce, too, when they weren’t common. Mama had her when she was young, and she had me when she was old, and Becky Leigh rarely came home, not until she left her husband, and I didn’t know her, see, though I knew her name.
That summer, I was twelve, when my big sister returned from Atlanta. I was living in her old room, sleeping in her old bed. She stood in the hallway, and we stared, like strangers. A rat terrier ravaged with the mange was tucked tight under one armpit, while a knotty suitcase was clutched beneath the other. For a long time there, everything on or near Becky Leigh looked neglected or mad one.
Right at first, she wouldn’t let on how bad it went wrong, so Mama, I remember, had to keep faithful in melting the sharp edges down. After supper, for nights in a row, Mama filled the tub with warm water and drops of rose. “Come,” she said, “You need another dunk.”
Out on the porch, we all sat, sweating, the three of us in the swing, me, Mama, Daddy, and the dog hassling beneath. We kept quiet, while inside, Becky Leigh thrashed the water about and cried, a sort of shattered-soul cry, like that, maybe, of a mad, wet cat.
“You just watch,” Daddy said, overly optimistic, nights into the mess. “She’ll get her strut back.”
Mama was sitting on my right, Daddy on the left. Daddy was swinging us high, but when he said that, I heard Mama’s skid marks, as she shoved her heels, hard, into the wooden floorboards and dragged us to a halt. Every night, Mama’d been tightening with an inner belt of anger, and though Daddy commented on the lightning bugs, twinkling out there, oh, the sweet smell of a summer night, Mama wasn’t having it.
“Well, Goddamn it, when she does,” Mama said, reaching in front of my face and grabbing Daddy by the collar, “I’m not letting her go off with just anybody, not like you did.”
After a while, things quieted down. Becky Leigh hadn’t noticed me much, not until a few weeks before my thirteenth birthday, and when she did, I felt cornered, intimidated by her long stares. I was washing the dishes, when she walked right up to me, silent, and untied my flowery apron. She turned off the hot water. “You come on outside,” she said. “I got something you need to know how to do.”
With beige heels on and her strength returning, my big sister flounced, and I followed the breeze in her swish. At least a half foot taller than me, she wore a peach-colored dress that swung wide, and when we got in the shade of the old oak, she lifted my chin towards the sunlight twinkling through an ancient limb. She bent forward, so that our eyes were level, hers dead-serious, gunmetal gray-blue, like the car she’d named Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse, founder of the American Red Cross.
“Get into Clara,” she said, and opened the driver’s side door of her Fairlane, a car rusted but capable of running. I stood there, biting my lip. Off in the distance, her terrier had treed a squirrel and that’s how I felt, treed, with those eyes on me.
“Get in,” she said.
I said, ‘Maybe later.”
She whipped me towards her; “How about maybe now?”
Her nails were painted pearl, but each one left a raw half-moon mark in the softest and palest part of my upper arm. I couldn’t look her in the eyes, but in her mouth stood a chipped tooth I once remembered whole.
It took me till the sun climbed down, but she stayed patient with me and the clutch. Daddy, Mama, they weren’t home, so it was just this Clara Barton somebody, my big sister, and me, my big sister with her long pretty fingers, a cigarette burning between them, her elbow draped over the passenger windowsill, the three of us burning a pig-path through dry grass, around the house, the Butler Bin, the red barn.
She stayed quiet. I stayed quiet. I think we both feared the car stopping. I moved us around and around the yard, until, finally, she said, “That’s good for now.”
Becky Leigh’s divorce didn’t go through. Harold Harrison, a lawyer and also her husband, called up one night, and said, “I wouldn’t want to shock your system, but you’re still mine.”
When late summer turned early fall and the husband wouldn’t stop calling, all hours of the night, and our Barney Fife proved to be no help, Mama got her carving knife out, until Daddy, softer, steered that option away.
“Now, now,” he said, one evening when the husband’s threats got violent. “Let’s keep our heads.” He said, “I’ve got a sound plan.”
We listened. None of us turned away when Becky Leigh opened her knotty suitcase and emptied her childhood chest of drawers. Out poured her silky panties, lacy bras. “Hurry,” we said, huddled there, in the bedroom, a room me and her now shared, all of us standing in the center of the rug, including the rat terrier, him anxious too, since he’d just gotten his shiny coat back.
The window unit, I remember, was as loud as a big truck shifting down, and we startled each time it jammed out of rhythm. “You drive straight there,” Mama said, “and you call us.”
“What’s the way again?” Daddy asked Becky Leigh.
“I could just stab him,” Mama said, and because we believed her, Daddy said, “Two rights, right?”
“Two rights and a left,” Becky Leigh said. “And then,” she said, “It’s about thirty miles to Milledgeville.”
“Go,” he said. “Your Aunt Susie’s waiting.” Then, he said, as though to remind himself, “He won’t know where that’s at.”
But Becky Leigh told him. And until Daddy died, he blamed Aunt Susie for it. Aunt Susie was rail-thin, never married, but sweet, so sweet she dressed in pale purple and smelled of lilac. But she was sad, and Daddy didn’t realize it. Her house echoed, like an empty church, and no matter how young or old the girl was, she always asked, “How many boyfriends you got?”
Aunt Susie kept her Bible in an infant-yellow knitted covering, so it wouldn’t get “banged up,” and when she wasn’t reading the stories within, she was watching the story, The Young & the Restless, and sometimes, it seems now, the two worlds clearly blurred, because, she got it in her head that Becky Leigh was like Peter and her marriage was like the storm on the shore of Galilee, so when Becky Leigh described for her how the white winds howled and the white waves went high, Aunt Susie told her, “Honey, you’ve just got to stay in the boat.”
“And,” Aunt Susie said, “keep right on rowing.”
For a while, my big sister was doing all right. She’d enrolled in the little college, Georgia College for Women, what today is called Georgia College & State University, and from Aunt Susie’s house, she could walk to typing and French. Sometimes she’d call, and Mama would answer, and while we’d stand around the phone in the kitchen, listening to Becky Leigh say things like, “And the professor, she brought this thing called quiche,” we’d scan the forsythia bushes along Mama’s fence, scared silly we might find, any minute, Harold’s eyeballs bulging out.
Aunt Susie was a good cook, and Daddy loved this about his sister, how she, unlike Mama, could get the lacy edges on her cornbread right. Most Sundays, she invited us to Milledgeville for chicken dumplings and tarts, the fruit hanging from the bushes and the trees at the back of her yard. It was after such a spread, not long after Becky Leigh died, that Aunt Susie let it slip.
“I’m going to tell you now,” she said. “I don’t believe I’ve seen a sadder stray.” She coughed. “I was right over there,” she said, “next to the stove when I saw that man peeking through my peach limb, and let me tell you, he had the biggest old eyes you’ve ever seen, just deep blue wells of sorrow and pain.”
Daddy’s fork was suspended in mid-air, but Aunt Susie wouldn’t have known it, since her eyes were fixated on her plate. She said, “Becky Leigh was back in the sewing room. I don’t know why. She didn’t have any interest in sewing. I hollered back there, and I told her, I said, “I believe you might ought to come see if you recognize this man.”
Aunt Susie kept her face down. With a cloth napkin, she took a long time to dab at the corners of her mouth. “Well,” she said, “let me get up and see about our tarts.”
But Daddy released his fork. It dropped in a loud crash. He reached over to steady Aunt Susie’s hand. “Suzanne,” he said. “Nobody gives a damn about the tarts.”
I’ve never been afraid of my daddy, not one time; Mama, she’s a different story, but Daddy was a lamb, but if he got lion in him, it was time to run. Becky Leigh hadn’t been buried six months, and it was the first time we’d gone over to Aunt Susie’s since what the local papers had called a tragic accident.
Daddy leaped. He overpowered the table, when he grabbed the back of the empty dining room chair, Becky Leigh’s old mahogany seat, and threw it across the room towards his sister’s china hutch, legs first.
“Well, Henry,” Aunt Susie said, shaking, all of her body shaking, her feeble hands, her feeble head. “I didn’t announce my address!” She bowed her head. “He was her husband, Henry. After all, I guess he had a right to see her.”
She eased up out of her chair; honestly, I don’t know what she was thinking. She walked closer to Daddy, one step too far. Her old fingers trembled. She whispered, “Weren’t we raised not to give up after a little old spat?”
This man, my daddy, it was clear he wasn’t capable of being reached. His head went down, closer to Aunt Susie’s face, his nose titled towards the floor, like a herding dog on heels. He head-butted the air, all the way till he got Aunt Susie hemmed into the corner of the kitchen, right by the stove, in front of the window where she first laid eyes on the man.
Aunt Susie tried to cross her arms over her head. Her shoulders were stiff, unable to rise, but she covered her face in defense, and when she slid down the wallpaper dotted with old grease and faded tulips, she made a low whimpering noise. I saw her thighs, when her thin dress rose above her knee, her thighs, translucent, without muscle or tone, my Aunt Susie, exposed, with her thighs covered in a congested blue highway of broken veins.
Daddy returned to himself. He stepped back. He said, “Oh God, oh why, oh how?” Quickly, he bent forward, and Aunt Susie gripped her brother’s forearm and was lifted, as from burning wreckage, towards his chest. They held each other tight, their faces buried so we couldn’t see, and the sobs came fast, and Aunt Susie said, “Henry, oh Henry, he carried her in his car. They weren’t going but down to the corner for a quick bite of supper.” And, because Becky Leigh and her husband both died, she said, “I don’t know. We’ll never know.”
After that visit, Mama went straight to bed. She kept a carving knife by her lamp, even though she knew it was too late for Becky Leigh then. At Mama’s funeral, which happened not long after, the preacher said, “Anger will win. It’ll straight kill you.”
When I hit eighteen, five years after Mama died, Daddy said, “I’m Hawk-Eye now.” He said, protective, “I’m going to stay on you like white on rice.”
On my thirtieth birthday, finally engaged, Hawk-Eye got me a surprise, a double-wide trailer, brand-new, wall to wall blue carpet, with kitchen cabinets that smelled of waxed, fake wood. I’ll never forget the two big trucks that hauled my halved home, split straight down the middle, all the way down 15. Daddy waved at the two big drivers. He instructed them to plant my home in his back yard, not more than fifty yards from his door, out by the shed, which had become a casket for the car, Clara Barton.
When the men left, he said, “I feel better now.” He said, “You need to show Bert sometime.”
Bert and me, we did our best to make it ours. I staked a fence around the tires, which seems meaningful now, and in front of the fence, Bert planted tall, thick shrubs. By the time we were grounded, the wheels had disappeared.
The following week, I got married; Daddy hung satin from the rafters in his barn and formed an aisle of sprinkled hay. He paid for three nights at an old hotel on the Mt. Hebron square, and he called, on the hour, every hour, until we decided to just honeymoon the last two in his swing.
Every fall, at the Kaolin Parade, for years, our small graduating class has ridden on the back of a pick-up. Before we were married, Bert and me, we sat on opposite bales of hay, him down at the tailgate, me up near the cab. I never looked at him. He never looked at me.
But, one fall, when we were about to hit twenty-nine, the only other classmate who’d waited nearly as long to meet somebody was Sandra Mathis, blind in both eyes, and on that sunny October day, she stuck her hand out and said, “See.”
The ring sparkled, and that’s when Tommy Sampson, the old quarterback, shouted up at me and down at Bert. “Hey!” Tommy said, “Isn’t it about time you sniffed each other out?”
I felt pellets of candy hit my chest. Nancy Cramer had bad aim. “I was trying,” she said, “for those children in the crowd.” My eyes welled up from the sting.
Another block down, I was about to lose it, as Tommy Sampson egged him on. “Hey, Bert,” he said. “I see some space up there next to her. Why don’t you go try?”
Everybody laughed. And I did too. But I was biting a hole out of the inside of my bottom lip, willing myself not to sob, especially when Tommy Sampson said, “You got to get by Evelyn’s old man though. He’s going to keep her tied to a post.”
At sunset, the next Saturday, Bert showed up in Daddy’s driveway. He was carrying a blue corsage, awkward as prom, and though I think he wanted our encounter to start out with an expression of goodwill, he cut right to the bone.
“Listen, Mr. Henry,” he said, “I’ve got something important to take care of with your daughter.” Daddy had showed him a chair on the porch. When I got outside, Bert sat up straight, very noble. He said, after Daddy went inside for a drink of water, “We get talked about.” He said, “I’ve been up all night, sick of it. Aren’t you?”
On our wedding day, when I turned to face the guests- all our married classmates- when we ran pummeled under a spray of their rice, I sensed Bert and me were failing ourselves, but now, in a final way, before the town and God, we’d have no choice but to go right on, living blind.
About a year ago, when Daddy first got bad sick, Sandra Mathis and her husband bought ten acres a mile or so down the highway. She was good to come over. She brought tea cookies, warm from the oven, big pitchers of cold lemonade. Daddy said, “Sandra, being blind’s never held you back,” and she said, “Amen to that.”
During that time, she started sniffing around. “Where’s Bert?” she might ask. “Is he off gallivanting?”
“At work,” I’d say. “Running a restaurant takes morning, noon, and night.”
Her husband had just retired from the kaolin plant, and they’d been venturing across the county line. As Daddy grew weaker by the hour, Sandra grew stronger with what she had to say. “When he’s dead,” she said, “you can get out of the county and see you a little bit too.”
“Tennessee,” she said, not missing a beat. “Oh the pancakes we had, big and round as an old steering wheel. I’ve never seen so many pancakes.” She went on, describing the cool, clear air of The Great Smoky Mountains. “We saw bears,” she said. “But they were caged.” She said, “People threw stale bread at them, but not me.” She said, “That’s just encouraging the attraction.” She said, “Them bears got caged, but they ought not have, you know.”
Last night, her husband dropped her off. Bert was gone. And, of course, Daddy was too. It was just me, in the trailer, in the woods. She said, “We discovered Atlanta.” I knew they’d been planning a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. I thought I was about to learn about hammerhead sharks. “Bad traffic,” she said. “We got caught up in a parade.” She leaned close. “We need to talk about that parade.”
I’d been afraid to stare at her eyes, but I did then, an intense cataract-gray. “We wound up at Einstein’s in Midtown. They got good banana pancakes.” She rubbed my hand. “Bert and that man, Aaron Reynolds, were there.”
She said, “On gay pride day.”
My gut coiled. “Ya’ll must not have seen right,” I said.
She said, “Plain as day.”
“Aaron’s dating that woman, isn’t he, what’s her name?” I said, “She’s from out town.” I said, “What’s her name? He’s been dating her a long time.”
I thought of Aaron, in the kaolin parade, riding on a bale of hay, him in the pick-up behind ours, him one class year younger, him, the only one from that group never to have married.
When Sandra’s husband picked her up, I stayed in the yard. From where I stood, I could see Daddy’s house. I hadn’t been inside since the day he died. The key he kept to the house was underneath the clay pot. When I opened the door, the dark house was hot, and the heat made the smell of him strong. When I sat in his recliner, I could feel his presence baked in the thread. From there, I saw a ghost slip down the hall. A dress swished, and a young girl stood, in a fury of light.
She yanked my arm. “Get up,” she said.
In her old bedroom, in my old bedroom, she had me find a box. Inside, I discovered Harold Harrison’s promises to love her better. But that’s not all. I found notes addressed to self. “Becky Leigh’s Goals,” one said, a note where she’d figured the math on the car, how she’d earn it, how long it’d take, and the number of miles she could get out of an oil change.
She had records of reasons to run. “Bruised,” one said, “Again, tonight, for cheating.” From our window, I could see Clara Barton’s back lights, her tailpipe. “But I’m not cheating,” she wrote, followed by a road of exclamation points.
I read each, sitting on the rug; then, I crawled to our bed, and I curled up, beneath our quilt. I rocked, with the tears, and I held my stomach, and I thought of Leigh, how good it felt when she was a part of me. I was an angry mother.
Is that why she ran away?
I need to feel her hand on my shoulder. I need to hear her say, “Mama, I can see you’re angrier than shit. Why don’t you just breathe and tell us why?”
“I’m angry,” I shouted. “I’m so goddamn angry.”
Now, morning has come; the sun is sharp, and I’m sweating in my old childhood bed. There’s no air on in Daddy’s house, so I get up, and I go across the hall to the bathroom. I splash water in my face. Out the window, I can see my trailer. Bert’s truck, it’s still gone.
I go back to the bedroom. In a little glass container is Becky Leigh’s pearl earrings. By them sits her keys. When I step out, into the yard, the sky is cloudless, brilliant blue, hot as chrome. I walk towards the shade in the shed. The tires are flat, locked in by fire-ant beds. I tear at vines that threaten to strangle her door.
When I climb in, it’s to a nest of wasps. Rats, I sense, are chewing wires around Clara Barton’s engine. But I don’t jump. I close my eyes, and I picture Mary Sanders Tyson, her living old, lively, in her yellow straw hat. “Mary,” I ask, “What’s it going to feel like, to drive away from the poor house?” I do the math. I can sell Daddy’s land; I can sell his house. I play at switching gears. Ahead is the wooden back wall of this shed, but I see my daughter, her Oregon, all the miles more.