Communicating with mother is tough. Sometimes you just have to sit there and listen to her yammer.
You know you can’t get out of the conversation. It’s your mother, who carried you in her womb for nine months.
Splattered with unpleasantness, you just sit there in it, because someone must.
I’m in the yard, next to the clothesline. I was walking away from another pointless exchange, but I have stopped, because mother is not finished.
I always stop at least once. Then I feel I have performed my daughter duty for the day.
She is leaning out the screen door, yelling at me to do something about my hair. Yammer yammer yammer. You hope, stupidly, for a significant event. A mushroom cloud, or the sudden return of Christ.
The sky is blue and the zinnias are in full bloom. Pink, orange, yellow, red, purple. The breeze is exquisite. I’m in my grass-cutting clothes, a pair of my father’s khakis and a blue-cotton work shirt, satiny to the touch.
“You can’t tell me how to wear my hair. I’m an adult. I’m lucky to even have hair, mother, because you are enough to make anyone’s hair fall out. You don’t understand boundaries. That’s why you don’t have any friends. People don’t, you don’t … You say things only a crazy person would say.”
I note these facts evenly, with just enough volume to carry across the lawn to her failing ears. I make big weatherperson gestures as if I’m standing in front of a map. Why am I acting like someone on TV?
“I do so have friends. You’re not telling the truth again. Joyce Anne commented on your hair. I am only trying to spare your feelings.”
She slams the screen with all the force she can muster. Oh well. That’s what I’ve learned. Oh well. The sum total of my knowledge.
Joyce Anne. Who is crazier than mother. The Thelma and Louise of crazy ladies born in Winston County, 1940. Have you never put this together? Have you never, mother? That you and Joyce Anne live in a tiny, rural Disney World?
This morning I noticed a stack of CDs I failed to return to their cases months ago. Dust coated the silver disc on top of the stack. It spooked me. I have stopped listening to music, except for the daily classical programs on public radio and a rare snippet or two of WSM at night.
I emailed my poems to William, but he didn’t like them. He said I didn’t understand the difference between meter and morae. I admitted I did not, that I was just writing them the way we did in Mr. Terry’s senior English class, and that Mr. Terry thought mine were the best of all the haiku poems in the class.
William filled up my inbox with a lot of mean things about Mr. Terry and how much I don’t know about literature, of which he is a tenured professor. Sometimes I just want to punch him in the stomach, which always worked until he was about ten.
I whistle up Daniel Boone for a walk. Long walks are good. I add this to the sum total of my knowledge.
William and his wife and kids live in Knoxville, which isn’t that far but might as well be in Alpha Centauri. As a rule, they do not visit. The explosions are far too horrific. William and mother are always at odds, and William has no patience.
Patience is like lacquer. Many coats must be applied over the years, or you will fall apart.
William is a prime candidate for a heart attack. Like my father, who died of a massive coronary, he doesn’t take care of himself. Even in posed photographs, my brother is red-faced, vexed, strangled.
Boone has a mole in his mouth. A squeak and a yelp in rapid succession. Boone gives the mole, now in the grass, a wounded stare. I pick up the tiny mammal by its tail. It’s alive and intact, ready for more mole work.
I carry it into a copse of pines, kick up some dirt and needles, deposit Mr. Mole. Boone watches all this.
“No,” I say. “Not for puppy.”
Boone follows me back to the path through the fields. He’s a smart animal.
At the very least, he has a firm grasp of No, which makes him smarter than me.
Sometimes, for no reason, he’ll walk over and rest his yellow head on my knee. This always seems to happen when I am thinking the darkest of my dark thoughts. Boone is no longer a puppy, of course. He has gray hairs on his chin, and floppy jowls.
I’d give anything to know what it’s like to be Boone, or one of the cats. To experience the world the way they do. Not forever. Just for a little while.
Mr. Terry was a great teacher, no matter what William says. He was an effeminate man, certainly gay, but direct challenges to his authority were few. It was a joy watching him handle the hillbillies and football players who entered his classroom plotting disorder.
One boy – I’ve blocked out his name for eternity – called Mr. Terry a queer.
Mr. Terry walked over to the boy’s desk, hands in pockets.
“I’ll ask you to repeat that.”
“You heard me,” the boy said.
“No,” Mr. Terry said. He might have been having a conversation about sunshine with this ape. “I didn’t. That’s why I asked you to repeat it.”
“I guess I didn’t say nothing,” the boy said.
“Do you have anything to say about Stephen Crane or The Red Badge of Courage?”
The boy shook his head. Mr. Terry let him sit there in it for a little while.
“Then keep your mouth closed. Now, class, we begin today on page …”
Mr. Terry moved to Minnesota a few years after I graduated. He died of AIDS in the early ‘90s. Some idiot made sure it was in the county newspaper. It was shameful. They put his picture from the WCHS annual on the front page.
I went to town to see Martha Trapp. The receptionist at the newspaper had pink fingernails and seemed exasperated by my existence. She was young, a font of white-trash beauty.
“I would like to see Martha Trapp,” I said.
“Who are you?”
“I subscribe to this fine publication,” I said. I gave my name and was made to wait for an unreasonable amount of time.
Martha Trapp did not offer me a seat, but I took one anyway. She huffed. She was a huffer.
“How may I help you?”
I decided to make some statements.
“You are the editor of this newspaper.”
“Yes, I am.” She was alarmed. I alarm people even when I am calm.
“My family has been subscribing to this newspaper for 70 years, maybe more.”
“Well, thank you.”
“Are you the one who decided to put the story about Mr. Terry on the front page?”
“I did not write that particular article,” she huffed.
“I know you didn’t write it,” I said. “I asked if it was your decision to put his picture on the front page under a contemptible headline.”
“People have a right to know–“
“I was one of his students,” I said. “He was a kind, generous, gifted teacher. He left here to get away from people like you.”
Martha Trapp’s tongue wiggled around in her mouth. She was flummoxed. I felt better.
“Please cancel my subscription,” I said. “If I ever see another copy of this alleged newspaper in my mailbox, I’m calling the United States Postal Service on you.”
That was that. I’m glad I stood up for Mr. Terry, even though the subscription was in mother’s name and the paper continued to arrive every Wednesday and Saturday.
Martha Trapp was eventually replaced by a young man from Moulton who is clearly a more progressive thinker. So there you have evidence of forward movement in at least one area.
Small victories. Oh well.
Boone is ahead of me, crisscrossing the fields at a brisk pace, following his nose. Every now and then he shoots a quick look back. Come on come on.
Smart people don’t stay here. I went to Tuscaloosa for four years. There I received a degree in something so boring it’s not worth mentioning. I came back here for Phil, because I thought we were in love.
We married and divorced. I was 25, free as a bird.
I could have gone anywhere. I could have gone to Minnesota.
Should we cross paths at the Big Star, Phil is nice to me. He’s on wife number three, and I’ve lost count of the kids. Phil manages the Bridgestone distributorship now. He reminds me of a grub. What an awful thing to say. But it’s true. I don’t think he spends more than five minutes a week outside. He used to love to hunt and fish. He was tan and thin and he smiled a lot. He liked the Eagles, an inoffensive group. When we shared our bodies with each other, the Eagles barely existed.
What a Chinese fire drill, life. Excuse the expression. It’s just something we said when we were kids.
All the Asian people I know own restaurants and would rather have major surgery than be thought impolite or ill-behaved.
I never expected a genuinely handsome man to want me. I fantasized about a Napoleon Solo or a Professor, but I knew I would have to settle for a Gilligan, a Skipper.
I’m the next step up from plain. I’m not plain. I have grandma’s eyes and cheekbones. Unfortunately, I have father’s nose and chin.
Mother is right about one thing. I’m more like grandma than anyone else in the family. “You couldn’t please her, either.” Mother says this regularly with great emphasis, as if anyone living or dead gives a damn.
Grandma loved these fields and woods and hollows. Few of her contemporaries are still alive, but those who are, like Mr. Sevier, pay special attention to me.
I check in on Mr. Sevier whenever I’m walking past his house. I walk on the road when it’s been raining or I just feel like a change.
It’s not like it used to be out here. Drivers yapping on their cell phones or high on hard drugs, running at interstate speeds. The younger males affect a hybrid of Hank Williams Jr. and Eminem. They are a violent, ridiculous breed.
Anyway, if you take your safety for granted, you’ll get run over or worse. Mr. Sevier and I begin our conversations the same way every time.
“Little girl, it worries my heart to see you walking out that road.”
“I’m being careful, Mr. Sevier, I promise.”
I’ve often wondered if grandma and Mr. Sevier shared a secret love. That would be fine with me. Mr. Sevier is about as ancient as you can be and still rate handsome on my scale. The last time I saw him he was working in his garden. His rows are straighter than mine, and that’s saying something.
“Tomatoes ain’t gone to make,” he said. “Too much rain. Ho me.”
“I know,” I said. “First it was too wet, then it was too hot.”
“Four years of drought and now this. I seen bad but this here is crazy.”
“Do you believe in global warming, Mr. Sevier? The climate change?”
He leaned on his hoe, removed his faded crimson baseball cap with the big, white A, and swatted slowly at a horsefly that was buzzing us.
“I don’t know to whether I do,” he said. “But there ain’t no such thing as a gentle rain, not no more. It will blow your corn down every time.”
“How are you feeling? Good enough to hoe?”
“Ho sure, little girl. You have Evie’s eyes. I told you that I reckon.”
He chopped at something I couldn’t see, twice. It was ninety degrees. I thought about what I’d do if Mr. Sevier keeled over.
“She was the prettiest girl on the mountain. Them boys didn’t know what to do.”
“It’s getting too hot to hoe, Mr. Sevier, don’t you think?”
“Ho sure. Let’s go on to the porch.”
I have heard all of Mr. Sevier’s stories about grandma three or four or five times. But they are so worth it. I listen for the one detail that might have escaped him before. He tells the stories like he’s laying brick. I recognize the new bricks. They stand out.
“She told this one boy off in front of the whole church. I mean she did. She could talk. She knew more words than the rest of us put together. But the way she looked at you. It was something. And she was fifteen, I don’t know, sixteen. Girls they didn’t act that way. Evie grown up young. She told this boy he had better keep his hands to hisself or she would flat knock him out. She said, ‘I will flat knock you out.’ Shot up in the middle of the sermon she did and her tall as you. ‘I will flat knock you out.’ Sure as God made little green apples. That ol’ boy didn’t know if he was coming or going. Ho we laughed to see that.”
“Mr. Sevier, when you say she grew up young, what do you mean by that?”
“She was the head of that house. The rest weren’t much to ‘em. I hate to say that about your people but. Evie grown up fast. She worked hard as a man.”
Sometimes I catch his old eyes rapidly scanning my face and body. It’s not salacious. He’s looking for her.
“Now your daddy made his money in the insurance.”
“I reckon that is one way to do it. He was a smart man.”
“She loved you all to death. I mean when it was Christmas. You know. She would fret about a accident. ‘Maybe they had a accident. Maybe they won’t come.’ That was Evie.”
“I wish we’d come to visit more.”
“Ho sure. Huh. You never see her ghost over there?”
“Good. Good. I thought I spoke to her but it was a dream I reckon. Ho sure.”
One day it will all be gone. All the stories and memories. All the flesh and blood and dreams. The mountain itself.
Boone rolls and wriggles in the hot grass. He’s on his back, tongue lolling to one side.
“You too, Daniel Boone,” I say. I add this to the sum total of my knowledge. I am always adding and subtracting, I suppose.
I want to know what people are for, I really do.
Sometimes John Hicks just makes it all up.