‘Damn you, Annabeth!’
Mama came at me with an empty Pall Mall carton, twisted it in my face. I politely suggested she exit the room and fuck herself. She was wearin’ her platinum wig, so I should’ve known better.
Her eyes lit up like cigarette-ends.
‘Girl, I have raised you single-handed. I have sacrificed.’
Lord, drop a boulder on me.
Mama ran the bases. Pitched in a few tears for effect, and finished with:
‘You know why I done all that? Why I slaved and sacrificed?’
I said ‘Why?’ to keep the sweet charade rollin’.
She grabbed hold o’ my wrists.
‘I done all that,’ she said, shakin’ me, ‘so I could raise a fine daughter’ (shakin’) ‘who one day’ (hollerin’ down my throat like it was a well-hole) ‘would pilfer my goddamn cigarettes!’
‘I didn’t take ’em,’ I said.
‘Thief and a liar,’ said Mama.
‘I’m not lyin’.’
Mama laughed. She laughed, and she threw my arms back at me. Instead of whuppin’ me—charity begins at home, I s’pose—she just stood there glarin’ till her eyes burned out.
‘Sometimes I worry ’bout you, Annabeth,’ she said at last.
I worry ’bout me too, Mama. I thought. I worry plenty.
Danville Cemetery’s on the west edge o’ town. Whenever I got worn slap out from arguin’—damn near every day, that was—I wound up there.
Pedalled through the gates one blazin’ May afternoon; set my bike against Helmut Flazgraff.
Daddy was sprawled under the big willow, book in his paws.
‘What you readin’?’ I asked, lyin’ beside him, firin’ up a Pall Mall.
‘High Lonesome,’ said Daddy, flippin’ a page.
‘You ever read Where the Long Grass Blows?’
‘Just last week,’ said Daddy.
He smoothed his ’stache. Glanced at me.
‘Mama?’ he said.
That hit it on the head. I shook mine.
‘I just can’t suffer the woman.’
Daddy rubbed his neck, said in a sawmill whisper, ‘I never could suffer her, neither.’
‘You got it easy,’ I said, heavin’ a sigh.
Daddy sat up straight. Shut his book up. Looked me in the eye.
‘Peaches,’ he said, ‘you’ll be fine.’
‘How do you know that, Daddy?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Got a feelin’,’ was all he said. Winkin’.
A long while back, I decided…he had the kindest eyes, my daddy. On this earth. One good look at ’em was all I needed. To fix what was vexin’ me. To get my ass off the grass.
‘Thanks, Daddy,’ I said.
‘Anytime, Peaches,’ he said, crackin’ his book.
I gave my advance apologies to Mr. Flazgraff, stubbed my cigarette against him. Climbed back on my bike. And strummed its pedals hard, home.
Flighty as a barn swallow. That’s Mama when she lacks companionship. A redhead Monday, brunette Wednesday, and Friday she’s choked up ’bout Oklahoma. So, when she dragged home the butcher for supper, I cheered, damn near. Judson wasn’t handsomer than a pork loin, but we had meat seven days a week for a year. Best eating I had in my life till then, and the most peace, easy. Course Judson keeled over—when I’m happy, the good Lord’s inconsolable—and we was back to beans. Only good that come of the affair was the wagon. Mama was entitled, in her mind, to Judson’s station wagon, and nobody dared contradict her. Not when she had on that platinum wig.
First road trip we took was to Ponca City, where Mama went to kindergarten. Climbed a hill with our picnic lunch. When Mama looked down at the river…her ecstasies was audible a mile off.
‘Couldn’t you just live here, Girl? Isn’t this just paradise?’
It was pretty. But I didn’t say nothin’. I knew better.
Hour later, we brushed the crumbs off ourselves. Mama lit up a cigarette, took a last panorama view.
‘Lordy,’ she said. ‘What a dump.’
I asked the Almighty to strike me kindly with a thunderbolt.
Then I followed Mama back down the hill.
Mama teetotalled—from time to time. It was only when she was skunk drunk that I ever brung up Daddy.
One night when she was cork high and bottle deep—course she was in her ginger wig—I gathered up the gumption to ask her:
‘Why’d Daddy hang hisself?’
Mama rolled her eyes.
‘How in hell can that matter? You didn’t even know your daddy.’
‘You did, Mama.’
‘Nobody knows nobody on this planet. If I unzipped that pretty skin o’ yours…’
She plugged her lips up with a cigarette, howled at somethin’, stretched herself flat on the sofa.
‘But you must have an idea, Mama?’
‘Don’t know what’s the matter with you, Girl. Askin’ questions like that. It ain’t healthy. You wanna drink?’
Lord, I coulda used one. But I stuck to my sweet tea.
Mama sat up again, opened the jug o’ Royal Red. I opened The Tall Stranger.
‘Just look at you. Sittin’ home on a Friday night readin’. You need to get out there, Girl; find yourself a man. You got potential. I had potential—before I met your no ’count father…’
She brung her legs up beside her. Ran her fingers through her false hair and guffawed.
‘Charlie Martin. Most popular boy in Jonesboro. Perfect manners. Body to match. We was gonna get married…’
She chugged half a glass. Stared at nothin’ like it was somethin’ till her eyes was so heavy I reckoned they was gonna slide off her face.
‘So, what happened?’ I said.
Mama blinked and said: ‘He got killed. House fire, at his folks’ cabin. One of those ol’ tinderboxes. When they told me…’
She shook her head. Took a real long drag. Leaned back. Closed her eyes. In a minute, she was sleepin’.
I took the cigarette out of her hand, snuffed it.
‘Night, Mama,’ I said.
William ‘Billy-O’ Collins Crawford. Mama set her eyes on him in July, and we was settled in his farmhouse by Labour Day.
My bedroom was in the basement. So was an aquarium stocked with blowfish, a bar with you name it. I had nothin’ but peace for a week—till Billy-O and Mama started pourin’ downstairs at all hours, tryin’ their damnedest to outdrink the fish.
We was on thin ice, all of us. Billy-O stomped on it, Mama skated back and forth sportin’ wig after wig, and me…it took all the flexibility the Lord gave me to sidestep the eggshells. I didn’t need no crystal ball to tell me this was gonna play out poor.
I was halfway through Hanging Woman Creek when Mama hollered ‘Fuck you!’ and Billy-O hollered ‘Fuck you!’ and somethin’ glass smashed against the basement wall, and my picture of Glen Campbell plopped down on my bedroom floor.
I apologized to Glen. Pinned him back up, flopped back in bed.
‘Snake in the grass!’ yelled Billy-O.
‘Son of a bitch!’ yelled Mama.
They went on like that. Lord, they went on. Mama’s fluty-toned voice and Billy-O’s baritone. Back and forth like ping-pong.
When they ran outta breath, I cracked my book open again.
A bigger glass somethin’ crashed against the wall.
Down came Mr. Campbell onto the carpet. This time, I left him there.
I dove deep into Hanging Woman Creek.
Lord, I thought. Let me drown.
I dreamed ’bout Daddy.
He was slouchin’ against the willow tree trunk, readin’.
I sat down beside him. The Haunted Mesa—that was the book. Had a rope ’round his neck like a necktie. I jerked my thumb towards it.
‘I’m at the end o’ mine,’ I said.
‘Moonshine,’ said Daddy.
‘Lord, I could use some.’
‘Don’t you worry, Peaches. Don’t you bother.’
‘Cuz you got a feelin’, Daddy? Well, I got one too.’
Daddy just tapped his nose.
‘Things’ll come up roses.’
‘I’ll be pushin’ up roses. Like father, like daughter.’
Daddy slung his arm ’round my shoulder. Looked me in the eye.
‘You wait for those roses, Peaches. One more minute. And there they’ll be.’
I was gonna say, ‘If there was roses in this world for me, they’d’ve sprung by now.’ But Daddy’s eyes was so kind, I just smiled.
Daddy slapped my back. Adjusted his tie. Plucked up The Haunted Mesa.
‘Red roses,’ he said, findin’ his page. ‘Red roses—and blue skies. Just you wait and see.’
‘He’s dead,’ said Mama, shakin’ me awake.
A woke person’s woolly for a long minute. I blinked till Mama snagged my hand, drug me out the front door in my PJs.
The wagon was sittin’ in the driveway. Runnin’.
My lights finally flicked back on.
‘Who’s dead?’ I said.
‘Billy-O,’ said Mama, depositin’ me by the passenger door. She straightened her
wig—her black one. Rarest of ’em all.
‘Shouldn’t we call the popo or an ambulance or—’
‘What, to put a cork in his forehead? He shot himself, Girl.’
Somethin’ electric went through me. I held onto the roof of the wagon. I held onto myself.
The whole back half of the car was packed to the roof with suitcases.
‘I’ll buy you new clothes,’ said Mama, jumpin’ in the driver’s side.
I was still holdin’ on. Just barely.
‘Get in the car, Annabeth.’
My hands was stuck to that roof. Holdin’ on.
‘Get in the car!’
I held onto myself.
‘Get in the goddamn car!’
That’s when it all swamped me. That’s when it knocked me down. I fell down. Mama screamed, and her tires screamed, and that’s the last time I saw her face till it come on the TV screen at the hospital. Then it was my turn to holler, till the night nurse stabbed me with a syringe. After that, I stuck to books. Lonely on the Mountain. Ride the Dark Trail. They was what kept me livin’. While I tiptoed my way back to sanity.
Opened up my eyes in Ward C one mornin’, and a broad-shouldered lady in hair curlers was grinnin’ down at me.
‘Aunt Joan,’ she said.
I gawked at her stretched-out hand half a minute.
‘Mama didn’t have no siblings,’ I said at last.
The woman stuck her hand back in her pocket. Sat on the edge o’ the bed.
‘Well, your daddy did,’ she said.
I sat up. Drew a breath to keep my head from spinnin’.
‘I never even seen a picture o’ my daddy,’ I said.
‘Well, you’re awful like him. ’Cept for the ’stache. He and I was two peas, we was fraternals. Bet you didn’t know that, neither?’
‘Mama … didn’t say nothin’ ’bout that.’
‘Honey, I reckon there’s a mess o’ things your Mama didn’t tell you.’
My brain was still tender, so I kept my questions to a minimum.
‘Did my daddy…he have kind eyes?’
My guest grinned.
‘Kindest you ever seen,’ she said.
Aunt Joan took her hand back out of her pocket.
This time, I shook it.
Aunt Joan’s bungalow’s up in the hills o’ Ripley, Mississippi. From her front porch, you can see the whole damn town, the lake. Big garden in the backyard, flower garden. Bluebells, marigolds, roses. First time I laid eyes on her place…thought I’d gone straight up to paradise.
Carol Anne—that’s a girlfriend of Aunt Joan’s—owns the big greenhouse on Main Street. I got a job there, PT, weekends. Took me a year, but I saved enough for a Dodge half-ton, an ol’ beater. Drove it out to Danville one Sunday. I didn’t go right into town—I ain’t one for carnivals—just to the cemetery.
Daddy was up in the willow this time. Like a schoolboy. Beak in a book.
I stood at the foot o’ the tree, lookin’ up.
‘Blue sky and red roses,’ I said.
‘Blue sky and red roses,’ said a voice in the leaves.
‘Just like you told me.’
‘Just like I told you, Peaches.’
Gush of wind blew through me. When the leaves quit rattlin’…
There was no more sign o’ Daddy.
I fetched the pot o’ daffodils from the passenger’s seat. Set it against Daddy’s headstone. Stood there more than a minute.
Then I jumped back in the truck.
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