Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I looked around good. Hit struck me how lonesome the cabin was, set back in the cedar trees thataway, despite her children a-playing all around the steps. Hit was kindly dark back in there, and the cold wind come a-blowing through them cedar trees with a sighing sound, a crying sound, real mournful-like.”     Lee Smith, The Devil’s Dream (1992)


The biggest mistake I ever made was moving to the mountains. Mother warned me and I didn’t listen. “I love Arthur,” I proclaimed one night at my parents’ elegant dinner table, home for a short break from college, and she said, “‘Love,’ my white ass,” and stormed off. This sort of crude language was unusual for Mother who, born poor and married rich, rarely returned to her roots. In fact, she went from Penny Gap, Virginia – “where,” she’d mock, “didn’t nobody have a penny” – to Richmond with her high school senior class to see the ballet Giselle, deciding then and there that she’d never be a weak-hearted peasant girl done in by her betters. Instead, she felt tremendous determination to become one of the elite; she would do whatever it took to join forces with wealth and, with either God’s help or the Devil’s, she pulled it off.

Mother moved to Norfolk at eighteen and met John Harrington at an officers’ ball when she was twenty. They married within six months, and she followed him and the Navy all over the world until my brother Dalton’s impending arrival was announced. At that point Mother said it was time to settle down in Chesapeake even though Daddy kept working and traveling. Three years later I was born; Mother named me Giselle so as to commemorate both her moment of awakening in Richmond and her ultimate victory in escaping generational poverty. Throughout my childhood she held court in a gated community called Cedar Grove Estates, a name she hated because it reminded her of the red cedars from home. All letters sent to Chesapeake from Penny Gap were returned unopened, but not before one day I finally thought to write down my grandmother Hattie’s address; I kept this secret treasure hidden away for years in my beloved jewelry box, the one Mother had given me for my fifth birthday. The box sheltered a tiny ballerina, a silent, patient girl hunched inside waiting to be released to twirl madly in her petal-pink tulle skirt.

I didn’t dare write to Hattie for fear of Mother’s temper but grew up longing to know about this side of my family. Daddy told a few stories about crazy aunts and witchy cousins (but only when Mother was off with her women’s club friends), and Dalton remembers meeting our grandparents once in Abingdon when I was a toddler, but I didn’t know them at all. As a result, I romanticized mountain life; envisioning rugged terrain and intense passions, I read Wuthering Heights at fifteen and yearned for connection with my wild heritage. Hattie could be like Cathy, for all I knew, roaming the hills and loving some brilliant, moody Heathcliff. I identified not with Daddy’s people who were originally from Maryland but with Mother’s, kinfolk spread out over a few coves and hollers within our same state but a million miles from the Tidewater.

Dalton believes I fell for Arthur Dennis because of this tendency to idealize mountain culture, and I’m sure he’s right. Arthur and I met at Radford University where, much to Mother’s disappointment, I refused to join a sorority and instead declared a History major with a minor in Appalachian Studies. Hailing from Grundy, Virginia, Arthur was a quiet, serious geology student whose parents had saved just enough money for him to attend the first two years of college; after that he was on his own, so he worked various part-time jobs and managed to stay afloat. We met at a mountaintop removal event during our junior year and talked about the importance of making a contribution in the world. Later, Mother said over the phone that our romance was “just a phase” but I envisioned the two of us living deep in the mountains, my teaching Social Studies and Arthur teaching Earth Sciences, both of us crackling with energy and youth and the fire of purpose. We would inspire rural kids with our knowledge and light a path for them to see their way beyond limitations and into wider realms of opportunity.


Giselle thought she had it all figured out even before we graduated from Radford, way before we knew anything much about each other or the mundane crap of adult life or what in hell we’d do to manage classrooms full of rebellious teenagers who didn’t give two damns about Native American artifacts or the Emancipation Proclamation. But what I loved about Giselle in those early days was her hope. She wanted us to join forces and build a life that mattered. I was hopeful, too, but more practical because I knew the mountains in a way she never could. The land itself was rich but fickle, physically wounded by human greed and prone to vengeance.

A bad feeling kept hanging around me like a ghost during our last semester, a dread I couldn’t get rid of even after Giselle – always the one who took charge and blazed trails – heard about a remote West Virginia high school that was hiring new teachers, then found the “perfect” little cabin without a neighbor in sight and “lots of potential.” I knew in my gut that this girl who grew up with the finest of everything wouldn’t be prepared for what surely awaited us in an old, isolated, fixer-upper cabin in Monroe County, but she was excited and her laugh so sweet that I couldn’t help but follow and hope maybe it’d work out. Hell, I’d been wrong before.

Giselle’s family met mine for the first time at our graduation day luncheon. That’s what Mrs. Harrington called it, “luncheon.” My parents didn’t know what to order off the menu so I pointed out some appetizers that might be good. Dad took one sip of his gazpacho and whispered to Mom, “Is this soup supposed to be cold?”

Well, the highlight of the event was Giselle’s grandmother Miss Hattie’s big entrance. She’d come over from Penny Gap and shocked everybody to death. Giselle had written to her, not expecting to hear a word back, but all of a sudden here she was rolling into the country club on her walker. “God almighty, it’s Hattie Buchanan,” Captain Harrington exclaimed. “Another round of bloody marys, please, Chip.”

Giselle’s brother Dalton jumped up to help Miss Hattie to a chair. Giselle was so happy she started crying.

“Good Lord, Mama, did you drive here?” Mrs. Harrington asked, white-faced. Miss Hattie acted like it was nothing, like she’d been joining the Harringtons for luncheon every Saturday of her life. “Aw, hell no, I haven’t drove in years. My cousin Inez got her boy Malachi to carry me,” Miss Hattie said. “He’s out in the car now. I figure I’ll bring him some ham sandwiches to eat while we all go to these young people’s to-do.” Miss Hattie put on her glasses to look at the menu but kept on talking. “Malachi don’t want to see nobody nor get out of the car. Old Plymouth he bought off of Onie’s people. You remember Onie and them, don’t you, Peg?”

I’d only known Mrs. Harrington to be called Margaret, so hearing “Peg” was a surprise. Sensing the tension, Mom made her usual changing-the-subject statement: “Well, the weatherman surely has been good to us, hasn’t he?”

Dalton smiled, relieved. “Yes indeed. Perfect day to celebrate Giselle and Arthur.”

Miss Hattie took off her glasses, her sunken gray eyes staring right at Giselle. “I hear tell you’re coming over toward our way for work, child.”

“Yes,” Giselle said brightly. “Arthur and I can’t wait to get settled. We’re going to be renovating this cabin – ”

“You’uns getting married?”

I cleared my throat while Mrs. Harrington took a pretty big sip of her second bloody mary. “We’re thinking about something small next summer,” I stammered, “after we get the first school year behind us.”

“Well, this is another surprise,” Mrs. Harrington’s voice was unusually high-pitched. “I don’t see a ring, do you, John?”

“Mother,” Giselle warned.

“Ain’t no reason for that wedding foolishness, is what I was about to say,” Miss Hattie barked. “One day I’ll tell you stories about your granddaddy, Giselle, stories that’ll curl your hair. Horace was bad to drink and stubborn as a goat, mean too, and ran with any woman in the gap that paid him the least bit of attention. I ain’t shed no tear about losing him to the pneumonia must of been five year ago now.” She leaned in and pointed a gnarled yellow finger first at Giselle and then me. “It’s a whole hell of a lot harder to get out of something than it is to get in it. You mark your old granny’s words, you hear?”

We sat in silence for some time. Giselle nibbled on a crab cake. Finally Dad said, “There don’t seem to be any regular-sized sandwiches on the menu, Miss Hattie, but this cold soup isn’t too bad if you think Malachi might want some.”

Hattie nodded. “I’m obliged to you for that.”

Thinking back on that day, I wonder what might have happened had Giselle written to Hattie sooner. Would she have told her granddaughter some truth about mountain life, like she did about marriage? Could she have said or done anything that would get Giselle to think differently about our move?


One of the first keepsakes I put out on our dresser in the cabin was my pink ballerina jewelry box. Somehow having it in sight made me feel like there was order amid the chaos of moving boxes, a reminder of better times despite the mess I’d made in convincing Arthur that Monroe County could be our home. A life lesson that even college didn’t succeed in teaching me: nothing is ever as good as we imagine. I dreamed up “rustic” and “charming” when really our cabin felt like it was falling down around us, dusty and dark, an angry outsider rejected by civilization. We were outsiders, too. Well, mostly I was the misfit; Arthur adapted to the Crabtree community’s ways pretty well, and his dad and some friends from Grundy fixed the worst of the cabin’s structural problems.

Still, no matter how many people came to see us that first summer, either to work on the house or to visit, nobody stayed long. Once darkness started to fall, our guests would get itchy to leave, almost like a spell was cast or as if they were put in a trance and told to go. Harlan Vance, the closest neighbor we had who lived about five miles down the road, would stand up at the appointed time and say, “Well, we better get on back.” He and his wife Erma would shuffle out to their Buick and leave Arthur and me alone to watch the fireflies dance in our front yard. Used to warm sea breezes, I never got accustomed to the chilly evening winds that whipped around us in those mountains, even in July, reminding me that I was not merely out of my element but isolated, forsaken, abandoned by the hopes that had bolstered me through long nights of studying and dreaming and making plans.

Gearing up for work in the fall was even worse. That August I stood in front of a classroom and struggled to find my footing, worried that my student-teaching experience in a more urban high school near Radford hadn’t prepared me for the different challenges that rural education systems faced. In fact, I couldn’t figure out the system at all; maybe there wasn’t one, or maybe I was never to be let in on its inner workings. I’m still haunted by the memory of one student in particular, a laid-off coal miner’s son, who blurted out right in the middle of my lesson on the Battle of Blair Mountain, “You foreigners don’t know nothing about it.” My first impulse was to tell him I most certainly did know about it, that I wrote my senior paper about Appalachia’s socio-political response to the mine wars, but then I realized: the student was right. I knew nothing about it.

Arthur’s team leader Mr. McKinney told us, when we went to him for advice, “We’re not social workers or addiction counselors or therapists, which is what most of these kids need. Just do the best you can and leave the rest to fate or God or whatever it is you choose to believe in.” Arthur was resilient, able by December to figure out some strategies that worked with even the most unruly of his teenagers, but I had lost my belief in much of anything. I fell into a really dark place after school let out for winter break. Icy winds wouldn’t stop blowing through the cedars; no matter how many times I put plastic over the crack in the kitchen window, the curtain kept blowing in. The cabin floors creaked at my every step. Terrifying nightmares about being chased into a corner with no way out made me afraid to sleep, so on top of it all I was constantly exhausted and irritable. Erma Vance came over fairly often with holiday recipes and small talk but the last thing I wanted to do was cook, much less chat politely about the goings-on at Crabtree First Missionary Baptist Church.

I wanted to close my pink jewelry box over my head, lie down with the silent ballerina, and disappear from life.


Arthur wrote me a letter and I knowed I had to go. It was Christmas Eve when me, Malachi, and Inez pulled up to that cabin in Malachi’s old truck, snow piled up deep against the walls, not but one light flickering in there. I hollered from the porch and Arthur let us in, us three and the cold blasting through that heavy door all at once, and I seen Giselle wrapped up in a quilt by the fire but she didn’t even hardly blink, just stared at the flames, and I knowed she was hurting bad.

Inez did too. Her and a lot of the women in our family (not me) got that magic something to where they feel things. She told Malachi to set down in the rocking chair by Giselle while she walked all around that cabin, feeling things, and I went straight to the kitchen with Arthur and started fixing up some beef soup. “Inez can see the haints and talk to the spirits all she wants,” I told Arthur, “but my grand-girl needs some meat on her bones.” He helped me cut up some vegetables and I could tell he was worried to death. I liked him a sight bettern I did old John Harrington that stole my Peg away. Well she was already gone by the time she met John so I don’t know.

Just when I got the soup ready to set out for everybody, here come Inez out of the main bedroom and into the kitchen, eyes blazing.

“Hattie, Hattie,” she said, grabbing at my arm. “They’s a woman in that bedroom wants to talk to you.”

“God’s blood, Inez, you know I can’t hear nothing like that. Get her to tell you and you tell me.”

Every time, Christ help us, every time, me and Inez have to do it this way. She can’t never remember I don’t have the gift or doesn’t want to, one. I went to the main room, put the soup on a tray in front of Giselle, and we were all quiet for a while.

Inez finally mumbled, “She wants to talk to Hattie.”

“Mama, Hattie can’t hear her,” Malachi hollered, rocking slowly, knowing Inez hears haint voices bettern human ones. “You got to tell it.”

I was setting beside Giselle who’d pepped up a little with some soup in her when I noticed Arthur was getting testy, wondering who in the world Inez thought was back in their bedroom. He’d done been back there twice and not seed nary a thing.

“Shh!” Inez shushed us, peering into the bedroom from the door frame. “Hush now, hush. She’s back in that corner, hiding. But I can see you, lady, come on out. Ain’t nobody gon hurt you here, come on, honey.”

I heard no sound but the fire crackling.

“She won’t come out from that corner by the bed,” Inez said. “But I can hear her whisper, can’t you, Hattie? She says, ohh, like a moan, o, it’s a sigh, but there’s more to tell than that, she wants to tell it but ain’t nobody ever listened, and she’s sad, gon fill up Giselle with hurt till she hears it too. O, it’s like a sad sigh, poor lost girl.”

Of a sudden Giselle cocked her head and said to me, “I hear her crying, Granny, can’t you?”

Erma Vance

Those young teachers in the cabin moved out right quick-like in the new year, and I’m glad of it. That place ain’t no good for nobody. Lyin son of a gun real estate foreigner from Beckley told them that the owners had foreclosed and they’d get a good deal, cabin just needed some fixin up, a little tender lovin care. He’ll get his for telling that story. Then again maybe me and Harlan are part to blame too. We never could bring ourselves to tell them about what all happened.

I recollect the winter forty-odd year ago when Harlan went over to the cabin to check on Ivy Wallin, all alone after her husband disappeared with some hot-to-trot thing he’d brought home from Vietnam, after the war over there. Ivy was hanging by the neck in the corner of her bedroom, Harlan never did tell me no details. He called the sheriff and they cut her down, bless that poor woman, didn’t have no family here and the closest kin anybody knew about was in Florida, so Preacher Davies and some deacons buried Ivy out back beneath the cedars, and things ain’t been the same in Crabtree since. Some say Ivy hung herself, some say her no-good husband come back and made her do it, forced her to make it look like she done it to herself. Preacher Davies said at the little graveside service, Oh, I pray her soul will rest, and that she repented and was saved by the sacrifice of our Lord in heaven, but Ivy hadn’t never been much of a church-going woman, so most everybody doubted it.

She may not of been saved but Ivy sure did love to dance, I remember that. They was these dance socials over at the square and she was the best and prettiest one there. The socials went on for a few months until the church elders said dancing was of the devil, which I didn’t believe. You wouldn’t believe it, either, if you’d of seen Ivy move so sweet in that pink shirtwaist dress, laughing and swaying with the husband she thought loved her more than life. And maybe he did cause he left that other woman and come back to the cabin a year later and shot hisself in the head with a rifle on Christmas Eve, didn’t nobody find him till after the thaw and he wasn’t but a twisted-up skeleton laying on the bedroom floor. Them rats and such got him, I reckon, course he was a rat too, they’d gnawed away at him till they wasn’t hardly nothing left. Harlan told anybody who asked, Yessir, wasn’t nothing left of that rat Mr. Wallin but his cold white bones.


How me and Giselle survived that winter eight years ago, I don’t know. Now that we’re living in Chesapeake near her folks it all seems like a bad dream. It happened, though, and Hattie still writes to us every month with updates about her garden and her cousins. She and Mrs. Harrington started to make up some when our little girl Ivy was born. She’s four years old now and loves to laugh. That laugh brings us all together, I guess, helps us stumble out of the old ways into a new generation.

Most days I’m happy enough here on the coast. Most days I hope for a typical Tidewater childhood for Ivy. Every now and then, though, I see something in our daughter’s face that makes me think of Inez, and Hattie, and all my relatives in Grundy, and the wild mountain blood that runs through Ivy’s little veins despite our constant drop-offs and pick-ups to swimming lessons and spring-flings and recitals. Frenzied activity fools us into believing that we can stave off the uncivilized and deadly forces that Giselle wanted to leave behind in the mountains. We left it all back there for good, she says, and that’s that. But outside on summer evenings just before dark when Ivy cocks her head and says to me, “Daddy, I see a pretty lady dancing,” and I see nothing at all, I wonder.

Shit Just Got Real: A 21st-Century Fairy Tale

Shit Just Got Real by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I did not feel half bad walking the red-dog road down the mountain that next morning, in fact I felt like running and whooping it up, yelling and swinging on grapevines like we used to do up on Pilgrim Knob. Because it is a fact that if you are ruint, like I am, it frees you up somehow.”   Lee Smith, Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) 

Once upon a time in downtown Asheville, North Carolina – this past Friday at 4:30pm, to be exact – two professional women were leaving work in business-casual dress, trying to decide whether or not to check out the Magic Mike Male Revue show later that night. Well, Eliana was trying to decide; Ivy had already made up her mind that she was definitely going and bringing three friends along for the wild ride.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Ivy said. “Girls’ night out. How long has it been since we’ve done that?”

“I don’t know. I’m tired,” Eliana said with a sigh, rubbing her temples. “This week has just about done me in. Plus I worry about what if we see people from our office, or my church singles group I quit going to a while back. They’ll think I’m ruined for sure.”

“Ruined!” Ivy laughed, grabbing her friend playfully by the arm. “What is this, the 1800s? Anyway, you’ll get your second wind once you see those guys. I bet there’ll be some in military and fireman outfits. Maybe a stripper-policeman will put us under arrest! Throw on that dress you used to wear to your dance class and meet us at the door.” Right in the middle of Pack Square, Ivy bumped her hips a bit then moved into a full-blown shimmy. A man’s voice shouted out from a passing car, “Hey, African Queen!” The friends giggled and kept on walking.

“Have the VIP tickets sold out?” Eliana asked. “I don’t want to rub elbows down there by the stage with the bouncers and, well, the drunken riff-raff.”

“Yeah, the private booths are long gone, so we’ll have to get our tickets at the door. But the riff-raff is the best part.” Ivy leaned in, “No telling what could happen when you’ve got tipsy women stumbling around in stilettos or cowboy boots, slinging their purses and hooting at half-naked men. It’ll be an adventure.”

“I’ll think about it,” Eliana said, ignoring Ivy’s eye roll. “Hey, remember when I was in that book club at work? We read a novel by Lee Smith called Fair and Tender Ladies. There’s this one part where the main character says being ruined is liberating. What do you think of that?”

Ivy laughed. “I think we’re just going to be doing what men have done for years. They aren’t too worried about ruination or damnation or whatever. See you tonight!”

“I’ll think about it,” Eliana said again.

Eliana drove home, fed her cat, watered the plants, put on her pajamas, and nestled into her plush ivory couch. She thought about it. Option 1: eat popcorn for dinner and watch a scary movie on TV since it was getting close to Halloween; that would leave plenty of time for her to finalize some reports for work and then go to bed. Option 2: peel herself off the couch, get dressed (again), go by the ATM, walk some distance in uncomfortable shoes to a loud nightclub, and throw away her hard-earned money one dollar bill at a time.

The choice was easy.

Eliana picked up her phone to text Ivy that she was going to skip out on Option 2 when something stopped her. What’s happening to me? I’m only 35 years old and acting like an old lady. She looked down at her cat Muffin who was playing with a tattered piece of string on the floor and enjoying herself immensely. Even my cat has more fun on a Friday night than I do.

Muffin’s pitying blink finally made Eliana trudge upstairs to her bedroom, fish out that short black dancing dress in the corner of her closet, dust off her glittery heels, fluff up her hair a little bit, and head out. Cars were backed up on the interstate from every direction. Were all the women of Asheville out chasing these “male entertainers” tonight? Maybe it’s something else they’re chasing, Eliana thought as she sat in traffic clutching the steering wheel: escape from the drudgery of their real lives, relief from the weight of responsibility they carried every day, the gift of laughter and friendship, and maybe most of all the experience of being treated like valuable human beings and not machines.

Eliana had told Ivy more times than she could count that women functioned as the backbone of society – bottom line, they made life work. She could hear Ivy asking in her sassy way, “Yeah, so what’s your point?” Now, Eliana thought, it’s our turn to cash in on some of the fun we’ve earned while keeping everything and everyone else afloat. “That’s my point,” she said out loud as if her friend were there, and laughed with abandon, surprising herself by feeling a hint of excitement about the night ahead.

“Just got parked,” Eliana texted Ivy as she followed the crowds of women trundling toward the club on a pilgrimage. Good thing they knew where the venue was; she wouldn’t have to bother with her GPS. As soon as she reached the door and peered in, though, she panicked.

“Hey, E!” Ivy called out, lovely in her light green jacket and black leggings. Her flawless brown skin was smooth like caramel. “Are you ok? You look a little freaked out.”

“You didn’t tell me this was the First Date Place!”


“This club is what used to be that arcade where Wilson and I had our first date.”

Ivy looked at the building as ladies swarmed by them to get their hands stamped. “Oh no… it is! I’m so sorry, I didn’t think.”

“It was almost two years ago. To the day.”

“Well, I always thought it was weird that he invited you to an arcade for your first date,” Ivy put her arms around Eliana’s small, slumping shoulders. “But this is perfect. You can get rid of that memory now. Come on, let’s go in.”

Eliana took a deep breath and greeted Ivy’s friends, happy that she wasn’t alone. Plus she knew that a Bahama Mama or two wouldn’t hurt in terms of nerve-calming, so she elbowed up to the bar and put her order in. The music was already so loud that she had to shout to be heard.

Waiting for her drink, she glanced around. The place was completely different than it had been when she’d first met Wilson there. Bright colors and cozy booths replaced drab tables and creaky barstools. Eliana herself was also different after nearly two years of trying to make things work with Wilson. She knew better now who she was, what she wanted, the quirks she could tolerate and the red flags she wouldn’t wave away.

Ivy’s friends claimed a table in the back just when the lights in the club went down and a loud, deep voice boomed out from the speakers:

“Ladies of Asheville, get ready…. we’ve brought some of the Southeast’s finest entertainers here just for your pleasure….”

The light show nearly blinded Eliana but the drum-beat wildness of the room’s energy was contagious.

“Put your hands up….”

Ivy and Eliana jostled toward the stage with the others as if drawn by a powerful magnet.


Ivy’s jaw dropped as the first dancers came out. At nearly six feet tall, she had easy access to the stage and got her camera phone ready.

Eliana yelled, “I can’t see a damn thing! What’s happening?”

“Oh my God, E! He just set that girl from the bachelorette party down on a chair and then picked her up, chair and all! Can you see her feet? She’s upside down!”

Eliana was only about 5’3 in her highest heels and felt like Zacchaeus from the New Testament. She chuckled to herself, recalling the image from her Vacation Bible School book: Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus passing through one day, so he got the big idea that he’d climb a sycamore tree to get the best view. Eliana conjured an image of old Miss Florence, her VBS teacher, who would be in dire need of smelling salts if she could see Eliana on this night. Then again, maybe it would have done Miss Florence some good to get turned upside down in a chair by a hot fireman on occasion. Eliana grinned, left Ivy watching the act, and set off to make a story of her own. Hell, if a diminutive outcast tax collector could do it back in Bible times… Eliana thought, taking off her heels to climb up the makeshift sycamore tree, damned if in the day of women’s emancipation I won’t hop up on this table alongside this wall and see precisely what I can see.

What she saw amazed her. There were women of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes diving into life, filling up the room with their energy, experiencing all the senses at full tilt. They laughed, hooted, cheered, celebrated. They celebrated impending marriages, finalized divorces, big birthdays; they celebrated life itself, and they did it together with the men playing right along. Eliana hadn’t felt so free and uninhibited since she’d gotten involved with Wilson two years before. She set her shoes down beside her and danced on that table without a trace of self-consciousness, danced like a gentle wave, regretted her thoughtless comment earlier about “riff-raff,” and let go of the fear of being seen and judged herself.

Mesmerized by the third performance and moving with its rhythms, Eliana was oblivious to the small commotion going on behind her at the front door. Nor did she see Ivy making her way through the crowd to check on her friend, so when she felt a hand gently touch her leg, she jumped; Ivy, fresh drink in hand, smiled up at her. “Now you’re in the spirit, girl,” Ivy said. “But you’re having way too much fun without me. Get down from there and let’s see if we can sneak into one of those VIP booths.”

Eliana took Ivy’s hand and jumped off the table, slipped back into her heels, and together she and Ivy turned around to take in a scene neither would have ever imagined.

An old woman, probably in her mid-80s, was pushing herself forward into the club on a walker – one of those contraptions with wheels on the front two feet and bright yellow tennis balls on the back. Here she came, pink tracksuit and all, helped along by her “younger” friends, whippersnappers probably in their early 70s. A 20-something bride-to-be spotted the senior group and placed her rhinestone tiara on the lady’s white curls. Both women, maiden and grande dame, were beaming.

Ivy summed it up: “Shit just got real, E.”

Eliana laughed, knowing what Ivy meant. This camaraderie among generations of women – those maybe on their first real adventure and at least a few known at some point in their lives as “fallen” or “ruined” or “slut-shamed” because of their unflinching expressions of self and sexuality – allowed for real freedom and progress in little corners of the world.

Everyone watched as one of the male entertainers gyrated and swayed his way back to the tiara-crowned woman and escorted her to the best seat in the house. There, at the premiere booth, sat the club’s VIP – the belle of the ball – the oldest woman in the room who knew better than anyone else what it means to embrace freedom, to show up for life.

That night Eliana and all of the belles, regardless of their mundane or even tragic circumstances beyond the walls of that pulsing club, believed they’d live happily ever after.

Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks

Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I do not have any home. So why should I be homesick?”     

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)


Watching my clothes dry at a 24-hour laundromat in New York City, I eased myself into a corner seat near the window and took one sip of “Co-Cola,” as my family back in south Georgia called it, and all of a sudden I was ten years old again, sitting on that wobbly bench outside Kincaid’s Store, waiting for Mama to get off work at River Girls and take me to the fireworks. The regression was so real that in my mind I could hear Mama describing what we’d see when the rockets shot up over the river, and only when a car backfired outside the laundromat, startling me back to the tumbling clothes, did I realize with surprise that I was 33 years old and hadn’t had a Coke in years. After the sudden noise I settled back down and let the cola bubbles tickle my nose. The sound of the clothes nearly lulled me to sleep. The icy, syrupy Coke tasted sweet, too sweet, and soon it brought back everything about who I was and where I’d come from, and especially about that 4th of July that I thought I’d left behind when I moved up north and away from Georgia for good.

My mother, Ada Lee, gave birth to me when she was 17. My father was 18. They had grown up together in a little town near the Altamaha River and for some mysterious reason decided, at a high school football game one Friday night, to bring a new life into their shabby little world of pine trees and sand. My parents said their vows at the Baptist church, and I arrived six months later, right on time. Dewey, my father, called me “Junebug” because I was born in June, and the nickname stuck. “Junebug wasn’t a accident,” I overheard Ada Lee telling one of her girlfriends when I was in the second grade. She tossed her frosted curls and puffed on Virginia Slims. “Me and Dewey wanted a baby real bad. We just didn’t know it would happen so fast!” The women laughed and smoked in the dry, scrubby yard, sharing some kind of secret grown-up knowledge that was beyond me. I remember feeling frustrated that I had been left out of the conversation but was still somehow at the center of it.

Though I felt only vague fear and gnawing anxiety then, looking back I understand that the realities of marriage and childcare didn’t match Dewey and Ada Lee’s youthful hopes and expectations. Disillusionment settled in and edged my father out of the trailer when I was about five years old. He came to visit on my birthday, some years, but mostly I just saw him from a distance around town. He worked odd jobs along the river and spent a lot of his time fishing. “Your daddy used to could thow a baseball like they was no tomorrow,” old Mr. Kincaid told me at his store when I asked about Dewey. “He don’t hardly do nothin’ now,” one of the other men muttered when I wandered back toward the cooler and was, they thought, out of earshot. The men chuckled, shook their heads. “Eh, Lord, he ain’t been much count, sure enough.”

I’d pay for my Coke and sit out front under the red and white “Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks” sign, watching the people and the cars go by. Kincaid’s was the most integrated part of town. Black folks and white folks met there, played cards, told tall tales. Women shopped with their lists and scurried on home; men hung around for a while. All were friendly and kind to each other in a place that was short on genuine kindness. Kincaid’s was an oasis for many outsiders and misfits, myself included.

Around the time of my parents’ wedding, Dewey’s sister helped Ada Lee get a job at the phone company. She liked the job well enough but it didn’t pay much; especially after my father left, we found ourselves just scraping by. Ada Lee didn’t want to ask her parents for help – they lived up in Athens, anyway – and enrolled me in the school lunch program. I wore hand-me-down clothes from my cousins. The worst part of our poverty, though, was being forbidden to walk down the road to Mr. Kincaid’s store. I missed seeing him, missed hearing the stories the patrons told. My favorite story was one about how a hoop snake could roll up on itself and chase people. “Yeah, Junebug, that thing’ll put its tail in its mouth and just roll, real fast,” Mr. Kincaid said. This image both terrified and fascinated me, and I never forgot it.

“You stay out of Kincaid’s, you hear?” Ada Lee finally said, frowning at me over our tiny kitchen table. “We can’t afford Co-Colas and such right now.”

Though there was very little talk about it in “mixed company,” everyone in town knew about River Girls, the bar and strip club down by the railroad tracks where the black families lived. At various times the church ladies (armed in Hamrick’s pantsuits and tight, short perms) marched door-to-door to get signatures, trying to close down the “devil’s juke joint.” But River Girls stayed busy all the time and brought in so much money that nobody could stop it. Ada Lee started working there on weekends, but all I knew or cared about was that for the first time I had nice new shoes and dresses for school and a pretty silver bracelet with a single charm on it, a “J” for Junebug.

That “J” worked like a charm in one way when Ada Lee hired a scrawny bleached-blonde teenage babysitter named Tiffani who let me stay up late and watch TV on Fridays and Saturdays, even programs like The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas. We would eat hot dogs or cheese pizza for supper and then nibble on buttery popcorn during our shows. Sometimes Tiffani’s boyfriend would come over and we’d share the big bowl of salty goodness with him; once or twice he took us out for ice cream. On Sunday mornings, yawning and wearing faded pajamas, Ada Lee would drop me off at church in her old Buick, slink off, and pick me up after she’d taken her nap back home.

I loved Sunday school, children’s church, and especially Vacation Bible School. We made all kinds of crafts and listened to stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Samson. These stories from the Bible were almost as good as Mr. Kincaid’s, and I was enthralled. One summer a group of athletes came down on a mission trip. Ada Lee picked me up after the day camp and asked what we had done. I thought for a minute and responded, “We played basketball and talked about Jesus.” She laughed then asked, “Well, what do you think about Jesus?” I shrugged and said, “He’s ok.” Ada Lee laughed again. It was never Christ’s bloody ordeal endured for the sake of mankind but the Bible stories themselves that hooked me; I wanted to stroll in the Garden of Eden, step into the Red Sea as it parted, walk with the animals two-by-two.

I was in heaven with all the store-bought clothes, TV shows, Bible stories, Cokes, and freedom until one day I noticed that Ada Lee had stopped laughing. She smoked more, drank more; she went every now and then to visit a new boyfriend in Savannah; she whispered something to her girlfriends about morning sickness and a baby. When I asked her about this later, Ada Lee said without looking at me, “I’m not sick no more, got it took care of.” I didn’t know what that meant but I longed for a sister or brother, someone to talk to about it all, someone to ask, “What’s wrong with Mama?” Maybe together we could fix it, fix her, help her laugh again. Dewey had several more children by this time but they were scattered around, and I only saw them in the Piggly Wiggly, their wide eyes green like Dewey’s and mine, walking with their mothers who either glared at Ada Lee or turned their carts in the other direction when they saw us. “Damn River Girl,” one lady hissed over by the cantaloupes. “You ought to be ashamed of what you do out there.” I felt alone in the world, isolated, confused. Even my “J” bracelet was starting to tarnish.

On the morning of July the 4th a month after my tenth birthday, I sat on Ada Lee’s ruffled bed and begged her pretty-please to take me to the fireworks that night. It was a Friday. “Tiffani’ll take you,” she said, putting on make-up in front of her heart-shaped mirror. “This is a big weekend, I’m liable to have to work pretty late.” But Tiffani called later and said she couldn’t watch me, said she had family from Florida coming in for a cookout and had to be there with them. Later I found out that Tiffani had eloped to Gatlinburg that weekend, and I never saw her again.

“Mama, I want to see the fireworks!” I whined. Ada Lee sighed then called everyone, even Dewey who made a habit of never answering his phone, until finally she reached Mr. Kincaid’s store. “Are y’all still open?” she asked. “My babysitter canceled. Can Junebug come up there for a little bit? I’m going to see if I can leave work early and get her before the fireworks.” Mr. Kincaid said, “Send that little bug on up here.”

I skipped to the store and claimed my regular spot on the rusted bench out front. Mr. Kincaid finished up with a customer and came out to sit with me; it was the first time he had ever done this, and I felt special. He brought with him two Cokes that were fizzing, icy from the cooler. I fumbled for the dollar bills Ada Lee had given me but he held up his hand and said, “Your Co-Cola money’s no good here, pardner,” and I giggled.

“We’ll see you, Horace,” called a black man, Fred Mooney, as he walked out the front door. Mr. Kincaid said, “Ok, buddy, have a good one.” Mr. Kincaid turned to me, leaned in and whispered, “You know, Mr. Mooney done seen a hoop snake the other day.” I said, “He did not!” I never knew how many of Mr. Kincaid’s stories were true. “Did, so,” Mr. Kincaid said, sipping his Coke and stretching. “That thing rolled hisself up and went after Mr. Mooney. He like to never got away, but he did just in time. Did you see that bruise on his arm? That’s where the snake bumped into him, near-bout got him! Good thing Fred said the magic words and ran the snake off.”

I spent the next hour trying to guess the magic words. Abracadabra? Alakazam? Open sesame? Mr. Kincaid just pulled at his suspenders and shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “The magic words are secret. They come to you just when you need ‘em. But I sure hope you don’t never meet that hoop snake. Ooo-wee!”

He went in the store when customers came then ambled back out to sit with me. When I got hungry he brought peanuts. When I felt restless he let me play some checkers. Finally it got dark; he locked up the store, and I wondered where Ada Lee was. “Reckon we could call Mama?” I asked in a small voice. “Oh, she’ll be on directly,” Mr. Kincaid said, looking off toward the river. But I could tell by his expression that he wasn’t sure about that. Maybe he already had a bad feeling.

I didn’t think much of the faint sirens because the loud banging of the fireworks overpowered them. Mr. Kincaid and I craned our necks to see the explosions, red and blue and silver. We could make out some of the higher blasts just above the tall, skinny longleaf pine trees. After the show was over, my face burning, I wiped away tears, trying to hide my disappointment and shame. Ada Lee had abandoned me.

Back at Mr. Kincaid’s house I was eating ice cream in the living room when the sheriff pulled into the gravel driveway. Mrs. Kincaid went to the door, and she shouted for her husband who had gone downstairs to putter in his workroom. “Is Junebug here?” Sheriff Jones asked. “Fred Mooney said he saw her over at the store with Horace.” Mr. Kincaid came up and they all talked out on the porch, closing the front door behind them. My hands were shaking so badly that I put my ice cream bowl down on the coffee table, staring at Mrs. Kincaid’s doilies, praying for the magic words to come, willing them to form in my mind and on my tongue.

Ada Lee was killed in a car accident that night. I overheard the whispery gossip at Kincaid’s and Piggly Wiggly. I like to think that my mother had argued with her boss at River Girls, stormed out of there and drove like crazy to get to me before the fireworks started, but I won’t ever know. Some said later it was a drunk driver who ran into her; others said it was her “dope-fiend” black boyfriend from Savannah who was driving the Buick; some said she was drunk herself. In any case, the magic words never came. My mother was 27 years old.

I stayed for a while with the Kincaids and then with Dewey, but his girlfriend told him it wasn’t working out so I moved to Athens to live with my grandparents. I never felt at home there or anywhere, but it was in Athens that I discovered Carson McCullers as a high school Honors student. Ada Lee would have been proud, I think, that the school accepted me into the Honors program. She’d always told me I was a smart cookie. Anyway, I read everything McCullers wrote and decided that my only hope was to go to college and escape to a place where no one knew me, where I could start over again. I could write a new life story, one where River Girls never existed, where Ada Lee neither lived nor died, where I could shed my accent and hide in the urban wilderness.

I wouldn’t have been holding that bright red and silver Coke can at all except that it was the only thing left in the decrepit vending machine, and I was too tired after a long day of work to walk down the street for coffee. Like McCullers I’d come to New York and tried my best to forget Georgia. In that laundromat, where I was ten again for the length of time it takes a firecracker to climb the sky and explode, I realized that like McCullers, I never could forget the place I came from, the stories I loved. I earned a Master’s degree in Library Science and aspired to create an exhibit of McCullers’s work as part of my job at the New York Public Library in Manhattan. The only time I’d returned to Georgia was to attend Mr. Kincaid’s funeral just before I finished school. I cried for days and swore I’d never go south again.

Then that laundromat Co-Cola sneaked up on me and tasted like home. It took me right back to the banks of the Altamaha where I first heard stories running smooth like the river and, on Independence Day, where I learned to make them up. 


Persephone by Author Ellen J. Perry

“By dimpled brook and fountain-brim,
The wood-nymphs, decked with daisies trim,
Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove;
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
Come, let us our rights begin;
’Tis only daylight that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report.
Hail, goddess of nocturnal sport…”

John Milton, Comus (1634)


Although she had experienced horrible nightmares growing up in the Louisiana bayou, Nadine Brunet’s most recent dream was more terrifying than anything she remembered from childhood. Early that morning she woke up soaked with sweat, panting, fumbling for her water glass and reaching out to defend herself against something that wasn’t there. Then her bedside table lamp started to flicker, the usual sign from her grandmother who had died four years earlier. The three-way bulb went from light to lighter to lightest, over and over again, until Nadine calmed down. “Oh, Mamere,” she whispered, “help me.”

Nadine lay still on the narrow bed in her dorm room wondering who she was, how she’d ended up in northern Louisiana, and what her nightmare meant. Well-intentioned but clueless students sometimes asked her, “What are you, exactly?” They tried to get her to claim a certain ethnicity, join one of the various hyphenated groups on campus. This frustrated Nadine because her identity was hard to explain. Nadine’s mother’s family belonged to the Houma Tribe; her father was of African and Haitian descent. She had been raised primarily by her grandmother and rarely saw her parents; they dropped in and out of her life as they pleased, together or separately. She came to college from Louisiana swampland and the swamps of her home were eroding, disappearing – the coast, the culture, all of the Louisiana she knew was fading. Nadine felt like she was disappearing, too, drowning in stagnant water.

Just before she died Mamere looked at Nadine’s golden face and told her, “Find a way out, boo, before the land falls away from your feet.” To keep herself afloat Nadine read every book she could find, performed well in her high school’s advanced classes, took on part-time jobs at restaurants, and applied for scholarships with the help of a guidance counselor. She had no confidence in herself, so despite her dedication and work ethic, she was astonished when she heard back from a university that all her expenses would be covered and she was welcome, invited, wanted. Could it be? Was it possible that Nadine could study Greek mythology, voudon, Cajun folkways, and environmental preservation, and then write papers about how all of these traditions and belief systems and facts worked together? That’s what she had claimed in her application essay that she wanted to do, and the Admissions people told her, essentially, “Go for it. Come on!”

Now she was going for it well into her second year but feeling deeply troubled and afraid. During the daylight hours she could hold it together by reading, writing, studying, researching, working. At night, though, Milton’s “dun shades” overwhelmed and haunted her, made her feel inadequate and unworthy. Who was she – a bayou girl – to act like some big scholar, some privileged college student who had leisure time to listen to and discuss ideas with smart people?

If Nadine’s nightmare was any indication, she was sinking fast. In the upside-down world of this dream she had taken a long streetcar ride from her home to a location that was a strange blend of New Orleans and a Mexican barrio; she didn’t know exactly where she had ended up, but she felt hopeful because a friend was supposed to meet her there. Nadine disembarked along with the other passengers in order to meet her traveling companion and explore the town.

Nadine roamed around in the dark, looking for her friend by the light of the flashing neon signs along the sidewalks. There was no moon. Panic set in as she realized her phone didn’t work and she couldn’t even remember her friend’s name or where she lived. Everyone around her spoke a different language; oddly-proportioned people floating by stared at her, pointed and laughed. Panic shifted to terror when a group of wild revelers wearing Mexican death masks and elaborate Mardi Gras costumes accosted Nadine, calling her terrible names and knocking her down onto the dirty street where they took turns kicking her. She managed to regain her footing and ran, stumbled, fell, ran again trying to find the place where she’d been dropped off.

Just as she spotted the back of the streetcar, though, it rolled away with all the other passengers tucked safely inside. How had they known when to get back on? Nadine tried her best but couldn’t catch up; exhausted, she stopped running and stood still in the darkness alone. Sensing an awful presence behind her, she turned around to see the most fearsome of the masked attackers walking toward her. He jeered, “How are you getting home now? It’s too late, too late for you.”

Nadine remained for a while in bed that morning after the nightmare, staring at the ceiling and focusing on breathing steadily until her alarm went off and startled her into motion. Daytime, up up up – go, get going. No time for thinking about it. Just go, do. These words and phrases she repeated to herself as she showered, dressed, nibbled on a breakfast bar, and darted out just in time to make it to her first class. She sat in the front row as usual, glancing at the other students around her; opening their laptops, they had no idea she had just experienced such a terrible nighttime vision. Nadine wondered if they ever felt like they were slipping, groundless in the world.

Probably they would never admit it if so. They’d find various ways to cope, maybe drink the sinking away on Bourbon Street during spring breaks at Mardi Gras, maybe go to mass and confess everything later in secret, maybe fill the lonely spaces with cheery Instagram and Snapchat photos. The point was that few people ever said anything real out loud, but Nadine felt like screaming. She knew she could either scream or slink back to the bayou in shame. Desperate for meaningful human connection, she gathered her courage and went after class to see her advisor.

Nadine knocked softly on the office door that was halfway open, only the high back of a huge leather swivel chair in view as she peeked in. “Dr. Clemmons, I know I don’t have an appointment, but my name is Nadine Brunet and I wonder if – ”

“Come on in, Nadine,” called a familiar voice that seemed to be coming from somewhere other than the chair. Nadine cleared her throat and walked forward. The chair didn’t move but a rustling drew Nadine’s eyes toward the ceiling. There, a petite, almost ethereal woman with a pomegranate tattoo on the inside of her wrist stood on a stepladder looking through books on her many shelves, frowning. Nadine recalled the surprise she’d felt when she was first introduced to this sprite-like figure. The sprite didn’t turn immediately, but focused still on her shelves. “Now, I know I just had that one,” she said. “A student was asking me about it. Well, anyway. Thomas Moore, you know of him?” She turned then, looked Nadine in the eye and added, “Dark Nights of the Soul?

The question seemed at first to indicate clairvoyance. Did the sprite know about Nadine’s dark night? But then Nadine recognized the question as a title and wished she could say she’d read the book. “Well, Dr. Clemmons, I. . .”

“Please call me Tyler. None of this ‘Dr.’ business. Too many big egos around here now, they’ve forgotten we’re all human. What can I do for you?”

Knowing her advisor was busy and she had to act fast, sum things up, get to the heart of the matter, Nadine thought of several smart and professional responses she might offer – things like, “Thank you, Dr. Clemmons (she just couldn’t manage the first-name familiarity); I need a bit of direction in terms of my Graduation Plan,” or “I’d like to get your advice about the possibility of pursuing a double major,” or “I very much enjoyed your lecture last week entitled ‘The Symbology of Monstresses in Greek Myth.’”

What came out instead was, “I want to go home, Dr. Clemmons.” Nadine burst into tears.

“Oh!” Tyler exclaimed, taking Nadine’s heavy backpack from her bent shoulders and noting with sadness her advisee’s apparent need to hold to titles. Well, she’d work on that again later if she could keep Nadine from going home. “Sit down,” she said gently, “right here in this awful lumpy chair I inherited from the dean and keep meaning to replace.” Tyler looked at her watch, set the backpack against the wall, closed her office door, and pulled a smaller chair to the edge of her desk. “I’ve got time. That tenure review committee meeting can wait. I bet even old Dr. ‘I-Only-Read-Literary-Works-Dating-from-the-Counter-Reformation’ Keller can get things started without me.”

Nadine settled in the lumpy chair and reached for a tissue to wipe her eyes and nose. Every time she thought she had control, fresh tears would come. Tyler gave her time, pretended to fuss with the papers on her desk as if still looking for the lost book, wondered out loud what might have happened to it. “You know, every place I’ve worked,” she said, thinking she might know the source of Nadine’s problem, “the English department has had the weirdest people in it. Hard to deal with. Plus the higher-ups always put me in an office near the craziest of them. What’s wrong with English people, you think? Did one of them upset you?” Tyler asked the question without turning from her search, watching Nadine out of the corner of her eye. But as soon as she saw the tissue in her advisee’s lap, she let the papers go and moved the chair closer to Nadine’s. “I bet,” she said, “it was Fred Hollingsworth with his regular rant about how Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich were schizophrenic and we shouldn’t pay any attention to what they wrote.”

“No,” Nadine said, “It’s not the English people. Though they do seem to get upset about little things and then tell on each other to their students.” Tyler laughed. Nadine sniffled. “I just – it sounds so stupid,” she said and then stopped.

“If you want to go home, whatever it is can’t be stupid,” Tyler reassured her. Nadine looked at her advisor and swallowed against the aching in her throat, willing the embarrassing tears not to start again; she hadn’t expected this kindness when she came and, as usual, didn’t feel deserving. Finally she said, “I had a terrible nightmare and I’ve lost my way. I don’t know what I really want, what I’m supposed to do. I’m on a scholarship and I feel like if I don’t talk to somebody right now I’m going to quit school and disappoint everyone, let people down, especially the ones who believed in me enough to send me here.”

“I have a niece,” Tyler said, “who’s about your age. Laura has had every opportunity in the world and then some. She took a few college classes, went on safari, dilly-dallied around in Europe, nearly married an Irishman whose name she couldn’t spell just because she liked the sound of his voice. Her dad, my brother, had a fit about all of it but I told him, Laura will find her way. We all just have to try things, do the best we can to discover the great love of our lives.”

Nadine said, “The last thing I want to do right now is look for love.”

Tyler smiled. “Great loves aren’t just people, you know. They can be. But sometimes a great love begins with the initial pursuit of an idea or a symbol. This really vague, nebulous notion we’re passionate about can then lead us to the right path.”

Nadine thought about this.

“Don’t think too much about it!” Tyler cautioned, waving her hands frantically. “Just respond. Ok here goes. If you quit school tomorrow but had one last opportunity to take a class this afternoon, say a two-hour seminar or workshop on any person, place, or thing – what would the subject be?”

“Hekate,” Nadine said without hesitation, surprised by how quickly the answer came.

Tyler sat back in her massive chair, silent for what seemed like a full minute. Finally she said, looking straight into Nadine’s watery black eyes, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Right then a loud banging on the office door caused both women to jump as if reacting to an electrical shock.

“Dr. Clemmons,” the voice on the other side of the door boomed, “Just curious about whether you feel like gracing us with your presence today. I know Dr. Lightfoot would like at least to pretend that we the committee members are as concerned about his tenure status as he is.”

Tyler rolled her eyes and answered, “I’ll be there in ten minutes, Dr. Keller. In the meantime maybe you boys can figure out how to take meeting minutes without arguing about the necessity of semicolons so that I can actually complete my advising session with a student.” Tyler stood up, marched around her desk, and shouted through the door, “Which is real work, by the way, as opposed to what you’re doing with, air quote, organizing that Ignatius of Loyola conference. Your administrative assistant shouldn’t be having to put the panels together and you know it.” Then she shouted over her shoulder, returning to her desk, “Read A Confederacy of Dunces, for God’s sake!”

“That’s a funny book,” Nadine said, going with the flow of this tiny woman’s enormous fiery energy.

“Funniest thing ever,” Tyler said as they listened to Dr. Keller storming off. “I love it when Ignatius goes to the movies and eats his ‘current popcorn’ while the ‘auxiliary bags of popcorn’ sit waiting on the seat next to him. Kind of like the popcorn is on the right hand of God.”

Nadine was getting her spirit back. She offered up a quote she’d memorized from the novel: “‘I have a valve which is subject to vicissitudes which may force me to lie abed on certain days.’”

“Good one!” Tyler said. “Oh, that John Kennedy Toole. Bless his heart, what a complex man. Died at 31. But not before writing his masterpiece. Ok, Nadine, back to Hekate: how is she part of your masterpiece?”

“I don’t know about masterpiece, but I think she might be my great love,” Nadine said while wiping mascara smudges off her cheeks, still surprised by the Hekate revelation.

“What do you love about her?”

“She’s misunderstood. People think she’s evil, a witch, out late stalking, the Queen of the Night looking for trouble and casting spells like a mean spirit on the bayou.”

“Who is she, really, then?”

Nadine said, excited, “She’s a cool triple goddess who protects women, advocates for powerless people, watches at crossroads and entryways, holds up two torches so that lost souls can see. She even helped Demeter find Persephone and became Persephone’s friend. Nobody remembers that part.”

“You’re right,” Tyler said, touching her pomegranate tattoo. “Tell me more.”

“Hekate did all kinds of good. She looked out for older folks, made sure babies were delivered ok. She knew her plants and healing herbs, poisons too. Never married, preferred solitude. Had dogs and owls with her for company.”

“Think about this,” Tyler said. “Hekate is a powerful, ancient symbol that still resonates today. She represents change, transitions, passageways; she reminds us that new beginnings are scary as hell but part of the human experience, and they can be liberating or devastating depending on how we interpret them.”

“I guess I’m in transition right now,” Nadine said. “I’m at a crossroads where I have to make a choice, and it’s dark and I feel so alone. I don’t know if I should stay at school, go home, do something else…”

“Well, no wonder you’re drawn to Hekate. Her torchlight will get you through this. You know, you can teach people something about mythology one day. You might share the lessons of archetypes and myths with others who are hurting, feeling lost.”

Nadine let this possibility sink in.

“If you decide to stay in school,” Tyler said, “come back and see me this same time next week. We’ll figure out a plan together, something you feel good about. Maybe by then my Dark Nights of the Soul book will reappear and you can borrow it. Moore writes a lot about myth and struggle in there.”

Nadine felt like crying again, this time tears of relief. She hugged her advisor, and suddenly she thought she might. . . and then she did. “I’m grateful, Tyler,” she said. “For everything. But I don’t think I’ll try the first name with the other English people.” Tyler smiled and hugged her closer.

“Hey, this is my great love,” Tyler said, blue eyes beaming. “It’s what I do. Now if I’m not here next week, run tell the dean that Dr. Keller is holding me captive in the English department lounge and forcing me to listen to him lecture at length on the Council of Trent.”

Smiling, Nadine left Tyler’s office and strolled to the library to read some scholarly articles about Hekate. She attended afternoon classes, ate dinner, met her roommate at the yoga studio, completed an assignment due the next day, and finally settled down for bed. Nadine endured more turbulent dreams that night but woke up at 7:30am feeling steady and grounded. Her bedside table lamp shifted by itself from light to lighter to lightest, three times. Right next to her lamp on the table she saw Thomas Moore’s book Dark Nights of the Soul.

Mamere, Tyler, Hekate,” Nadine whispered, “Triple Goddess, thank you.”

Not So Good At This

Solstice by Author Ellen J. Perry

I’m not so good at this. Sports are not my thing. Still, I try; I bounce the ball on hot sand. Dee won’t watch to save her life. My cheeks flame red, not bronze the way Tim glows. I laugh, though, and hope to catch Dee’s bright blue eyes. Here she comes in that stars-and-stripes swim suit. “Hey,” I say. She laughs, “Hey back. Can I play?” Tim scoffs, “He’s not so good at this,” but I stand tall. “Sure,” I say. Dee smiles like the sun; she will be on my team from now on. Tim’s bronze jaw drops.

(100 words, each word one syllable)



Real Close

Real Close by Author Ellen J. Perry

Growing up in the hills of rural Wise County, Virginia, Travis Owens never imagined he’d be cleaning the swimming pool and doing odd jobs at a swanky beach hotel, but here he was at the Starlight Harbor Resort and Marina at 8:00 on a Saturday morning doing just that. Guests of the Starlight were coming to life, tumbling out of their rooms and suites (with or without breakfast vouchers) and riding the mirrored elevator down to the lobby-level Sandpiper Grille. They were indeed “guests,” not “customers,” Travis’s supervisor Wesley had told him during his training period. “We do anything the guests ask of us,” Wesley said, “and we do it with a smile.”

Travis did the minimum with this directive, smiling only when Wesley was watching and sometimes in accord with Wesley’s pep talks (especially if they matched his own sense of potential profit in smiling) but otherwise remaining near-invisible, a constant observer on the job. He noticed Wesley’s slight mouth twitch; he listened to the maids speaking musical foreign languages when they met each other with their carts in the long hallways; he spotted the differences between the guests who presented breakfast vouchers at the Sandpiper Grille and those who didn’t. Wesley always reminded the morning crew, “Take extra good care of the folks I like to call the Non-Vouchers. They didn’t come here with the coupon deal because they don’t need a deal. They have money, paid full price for their vacation or got it covered by some company or other. That means they tip way better than the Vouchers. Remember that.”

Travis remembered. And he watched. One morning while helping the servers refill guests’ coffee mugs he overheard a boy about eight years old, the son of a Non-Voucher, ask his father during breakfast, “Does it pay well?” regarding some type of software consulting job. The father went into a long story about how yes, it did, but it would be better for the boy to study law and become partner at an established firm like his Uncle John had. Both father and son sat up perfectly straight in their high-backed chairs and chewed their food slowly; they looked like a duo in a catalogue, serious and composed, their clothes neatly pressed. Travis figured they would take coffee or a low-fat muffin up to the mother later. If there was one. He wondered about the mother some but didn’t spend too much time thinking on it. Non-Vouchers were, to him, a different breed, not like real people at all. The mother may even have been a robot for all he knew, winding herself up in their bleach-clean suite so as to face the day.

He was only 28 years old but the road to this menial job in Virginia Beach had been a long one. The middle child in a family of three boys, Travis had always felt different and a little bit alone. His brothers would stay in Wise County all their lives, he knew, surrounded by generations of family and familiarity. Travis had longed to escape the confines of home, on the other hand, and find out what else might be out there. He was quiet, thoughtful, idealistic; his older brother Jamie kidded him about how his nose was always in a book or a map, even when he grew out of his awkward phase and surprised everybody by winning medals in track and field events.

During his senior year of high school people would look at him and say, “Travis is the good-lookinest one of them Owens boys,” and he’d blush. His girlfriend Sherri wanted to get married, especially since according to Preacher Scott they’d already “fornicated” and the church’s teachings on fornication and other sin-related topics weighed heavily on her mind. “Y’all have done the deed, so you may as well seal the deal,” Jamie said to Travis at his graduation cookout. “Settle down now and make you some pretty babies. There ain’t nothing else much better to do around here anyways.” With a toddler and a second child coming, Jamie worked long hours as an Assistant Manager at Family Dollar. He helped Travis get on there too.

So Travis worked, ran, lifted weights, took Sherri out to eat on Friday nights, and generally acted like a responsible adult, but something was missing. The mountains started closing in on him so bad that he had trouble getting his breath. He talked to Sherri about joining the Navy when a recruiter came around a few months after he started the Family Dollar job. She didn’t like the idea at first but then agreed it might be exciting to go with him, see new places. Plus she knew that signing bonus wouldn’t hurt when it came engagement ring buying time.

Travis went first to basic at the big training center between Chicago and Milwaukee, cities he’d only dreamed about when tracing lines on the globe in Mrs. Smith’s middle school Social Studies class. Then he was sent to Norfolk and really found his stride. Navy life suited him; he knew he had options, opportunities, structure, the chance to move beyond Family Dollar and the life Jamie and Wise County had chosen for him. He came out of his shell and made friends, kept himself in excellent physical condition, and challenged his mind by reading books on espionage and military strategy.

Sherri came to visit during one of his leave weekends, but things weren’t the same between them. She seemed distant, cautious, while he had evolved and gained confidence. Despite his heroic efforts to show her his new world, she disliked just about everything at the base and the beach: it was too hot, there was too much going on, the water tasted funny, the people were loud. She returned home and within a month’s time started dating Travis’s younger brother Richie, which Jamie and their parents were angry about but Travis wasn’t. Richie called and told Travis, pain in his voice, “I’ve always loved Sherri.” Travis knew it was true and wished them the best without any hesitation or ill will. Released, he was completely free to pursue a new path, one that involved volunteering as often as possible for posts in Asia and Africa.

Travis found himself mysteriously drawn to one place in particular, Cape Verde off the west African coast. He loved the bright colors, the music, market fare, kiteboarding, the women who were part Portuguese and exotic, thrilling. At the market one day he approached Cristina, a dark-skinned woman in her 30s with eyes so bright blue it almost hurt to look at them. From then on she kept him both tortured and enthralled. When he wasn’t assisting with law enforcement operations for the Navy by day, Travis would meet Cristina down by the resort in Sal where she worked. They laughed at the sunburned tourists with their huge suitcases and oversized everything.

She took him to the Baia das Gatas Music Festival, the full moon celebration in August, and it felt like a dream when the sad morna played. On top of it all Cristina could dance the batuko like no one else, shaking her hips like casting a spell, and he knew he had to have her. She drove him crazy nights down by the docks where she lived in a shabby little water-front apartment that her mother, now dead, had rented years ago from a fisherman. One time Travis and Cristina were making so much noise that a neighbor came banging on the door. “Kinda busy in here!” Travis shouted over his shoulder, not missing a beat, and they laughed about that for days.

Cristina spoke mostly Creole but knew enough English to get by. She loved hearing stories about Travis’s home back in Virginia, a place that seemed strange to her, far away and uncivilized.

“You mean they push the head under the water, to baptize?” Cristina asked in horror as they lay sprawled on her tiny bed late one night during carnival.

Travis pictured the old church where he’d grown up, saw the preacher in his mind’s eye, felt the water rushing over his nine-year-old head as he dipped backwards. “Yep, right there in the river.”

“Christ on the cross,” she said, touching her rosary which was all she was wearing until he took it off, too, lifting the pinkish-red beads off her neck and moving with her to the sound of the drums outside.

Travis marveled at how real Cristina was. She was a real woman, honest and forthright, independent, wise, nothing like Sherri or the girls back home. She was her true self all the time and allowed him to discover his truest self as well. He found that he actually liked that man, the real man, covered up though he was with layers of something left over from the Puritans, maybe, and reinforced by the generations of Virginia hill country folk.

Every other day Travis asked Cristina to marry him. They could live wherever in the world she wanted – maybe Brazil where her cousins were – and she could buy anything she wanted, never again having to serve cocktails to obnoxious European and American tourists. “The Navy will move us and pay for everything,” he said. Cristina just smiled, used to empty promises from sailors and airmen who arrived at Cape Verde, charmed the women, claimed and conquered them like land, and ultimately disappeared. “Silly boy,” she said, touching his face as if he were a child. But Travis meant it. He was lost to her.

In fact he might have stayed indefinitely in this adventurous and sensual trance, like Odysseus among the sirens, except for the injury. Travis was playing soccer with his buddies from the ship and some street kids on a bright Saturday morning when his knee turned in such a way that he cried out and couldn’t stand without help; the doctor said, “Torn meniscus,” gave him a bottle of painkillers, and sent him to Spain for surgery. Missing Cristina like a lost limb, Travis counted the days until he could get back to her.

When the Navy gave Travis permission to return to the Cape several weeks later, though, Cristina was gone. The staff at the resort where she’d worked shrugged when he asked about her; one maid shook her head and said slowly, “Não compreendo.” Fear and panic swept over him. He ran to the waterfront apartment, empty except for Cristina’s rosary and a note reading, “T – must leave be back some time maybe, adeus.”

After that everything fell apart. Travis wandered around the harbor at night like a wild ghost, refusing to report back to base even when his friends showed up. They tried to reason with him but nothing worked. He took more and more pain pills even after his knee had healed. He drank sugar cane rum and waited every day for Cristina in her apartment. After the Navy released him with an “Other Than Honorable” discharge Travis begged for work at the resort, happy to be cleaning swimming pools and washing dishes, waiting for Cristina. He knew she’d come home soon and agree to marry him; they’d live out their lives together, travel the world, and need no one else.

One of Travis’s buddies called Jamie in Virginia who immediately withdrew money from his meager savings so he could fly to Africa. Jamie and Richie planned the trip, somehow, without letting the rest of the family in on any details right away. It would break their parents’ hearts if they knew how far Travis had fallen. “He’s just had a little unlucky streak,” Jamie said to his wife, soothing their two-year-old daughter while she cried. “That’s all, ain’t nothing to worry about. Be back before long. Can I get some more of that cornbread?” It was the Owens family’s way to keep things covered up, pretend tragedies weren’t happening: change the subject.

With the help of the police, Jamie and Richie, two men who had never before left the state of Virginia, finally found Travis huddled up in Cristina’s apartment, clutching her rosary, an empty rum bottle, and a Cape Verde help-with-translation phrase book. He moaned again and again, Dja N perde nhas amiga.  

I have lost my friend.


“I said,” Wesley snapped, “be sure to get the corners and edges.” Travis returned slowly from memories of Cristina to his new reality: cleaning the swimming pool at the Starlight Harbor Resort and Marina in Virginia Beach. He had come home, sobered up, dried out, and worked for nearly six months to pay Jamie back and get on his feet again. Wesley said, “Remember, the guests get what they want. And today they want a clean pool to frolic in. So get to frolicking with that vacuum.” Wesley thought he was funny.

Travis finished up at the pool when some young women, revelers at a weekend Bachelorette party, wandered toward him. They all wore the same cotton shirts over their bikinis; one shirt, white, read “BRIDE” in big letters while the other shirts, lavender, indicated “Bachelorette.” Travis had noticed this group the day before at breakfast in the Sandpiper Grille. Of course, they were Non-Vouchers; their waitress doted on them, hoping for a big tip. Travis was fumbling with the cleaning equipment when one of the Bachelorettes called out to him.

“Hey, can you take our picture?” she asked, offering up her phone.

“Sure,” Travis said. This woman was about his age, probably a few years younger. Cute. He thought he remembered her giggling the other day at the resort bar. But then again all the Bachelorettes looked alike with their tan skin, blonde hair, and perfect teeth, so he couldn’t be certain.

The ladies gathered around the bride, posing and glowing, making pouty faces, dabbing on fresh coral-colored lip gloss. Travis took picture after picture.

“Thanks,” the woman said, taking her phone back and arranging a towel on one of the Adirondack chairs. “I’m Elizabeth. Hey, can you run get me another mimosa?”

We do anything the guests ask of us, Wesley had said, and we do it with a smile, so despite the fact that Elizabeth looked like she’d already had about three mimosas too many Travis went inside to see if the bartender would fix another one. Travis didn’t drink anymore but that chilled champagne sure looked good, like a celebration. He went back out to the pool and handed the bubbling glass to Elizabeth.

“Delicious,” she said, sipping. “What’s your name?”


“Can you sit down with us or are you still working?”

“Still working.”

“Ok,” she sighed drowsily, putting her DKNY sunglasses on and leaning back in the chair. “The girls and I are here through tomorrow morning then we’ve got to get back to campus.”

“Where do y’all go?” he asked.

“University of Richmond. Kappa Sigma Gamma,” Elizabeth added as if this last bit of information explained everything. Maybe it did. “Brooke’s getting married in May. I can’t believe she’ll be a bride before me! Damn.” She took another long sip.

Sorority girls, Travis thought. They were all the time staying at the resort for long weekends, living it up and spending Daddy’s money. Their shallow sameness made him sick but he smiled and smiled like Wesley said. He had to finish paying Jamie back if it killed him, which dealing with sorority brides and bachelorettes might well do.

“Have a great time,” he said, walking away.

“Travis,” Elizabeth called softly so that her friends couldn’t hear. “I’m in room 233. Michelle was staying with me but she had to leave early. Come up later to keep me company? It’s our last night.”

“Sure,” he said after a moment, brushing aside uncomfortable thoughts of what a contradiction this was. He hated sorority girls and yet he was going to room 233 to, likely, “fornicate” with one. For the first time in a long time, Travis allowed himself to indulge in the tiniest bit of happy anticipation; he would pretend Elizabeth was Cristina, just for a little while.

All day he worked on some hotel repairs and waited, thinking about what might happen. It would be nice to lounge on those big fluffy white pillows and get a little crazy like he did in the old days. Hell, it would be nice just to feel something again, anything other than that constant ache in his chest. When he spied the Bachelorette gaggle returning to the resort from the boardwalk that evening, he caught Elizabeth’s eye by the marlin fountain; she winked and slipped in the elevator. He held back until all the girls had surely scattered to their rooms, then he clocked out and ambled toward the elevator himself. Too easy, he thought.

What wasn’t easy was talking to Elizabeth once he got up to room 233. She ordered room service for them both but the food wasn’t anything to talk about and nothing else he brought up interested her. Ten minutes into this awkward visit he realized the only subject that kept her occupied was Courtland Jennings IV, her bastard ex-boyfriend who had broken up with her just weeks before and started dating a girl named Trinity from Blacksburg. “Can you believe it?” she shouted, knocking over Travis’s bottle of O’Doul’s. “Oops, sorry. I guess the maid’ll clean it up. But I mean really, can you believe it? ‘Trinity,’ what the hell.” They were sitting side by side on the couch. O’Doul’s ran down into the flowered pillows and on the otherwise spotless carpet. Travis pictured Maria, his maid friend, dealing with the mess later; he tried to dab the worst of it up with Kleenex.

Well, forget talking, Travis thought. Time to get down to business. He made a subtle move to kiss Elizabeth and she responded by shoving the shrimp cocktail to one side of the coffee table and taking off her sundress almost before he knew what was happening. She lay back on the feather-soft bed and things were well underway. Moving toward her he took his shirt off and was working on his belt when she said, flirty, “You know, I’m a Dance major at U of R. I can do a damn fine bellydance if you want a little pre-game show.”

He stopped cold, remembering Cristina’s swaying hips. He could almost hear the drums all the way from Cape Verde. “Do you know the batuko?” he asked, genuinely curious. He sat down on the side of the bed.

“No,” she said. “Is it an African dance? Maybe you can teach it to me. Come here.” She pulled him down. “What’s that thing, a necklace? Oh my God, are you Catholic? Courtland and Trinity are both Catholic. Shit.”

Travis reached toward his chest and touched Cristina’s rosary beads. He so rarely took them off that he’d forgotten they were there. But there they were in room 233, and Cristina was there, and Courtland was there. Travis lay back on the bed beside Elizabeth. They stared at the ceiling for a long time, numb, beyond sad and exhausted. “Shit,” Elizabeth said again. He put on his shirt and left the room without another word.

Travis had the next day, Sunday, off work so he decided to spend some time fishing on the pier at sunrise. He noticed there was a new hand-written sign in the parking lot – “Real Close Parking Beach/Peer” – and he laughed to himself both at the spelling and the sentiment. Real close to the real thing, Cristina, he thought, knowing he’d never see his great love again but wishing her the same joy and freedom she gave him on those balmy Cape nights.