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.

2

“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?”

“Travis.”

“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.

Dead End

Dellie by Author Ellen J. Perry

 

“Something
cold is in the air,
an aura of ice
and phlegm.
All day I’ve built
a lifetime and now
the sun sinks to
undo it.
The horizon bleeds
and sucks its thumb.
The little red thumb
goes out of sight.
And I wonder about
this lifetime with myself,
this dream I’m living.
I could eat the sky
like an apple
but I’d rather
ask the first star:
why am I here?
why do I live in this house?
who’s responsible?
eh?”

Anne Sexton, “The Fury of Sunsets” (1974)

 

Mae, 1935

            This morning when I woke up I was Miss Mae Dixon, then I married Alfie at noontime and that girl was gone for good. But I like my new self very much so far. Mrs. Alfred Jenkins, Mrs. A. W. Jenkins, I keep writing it. Can it be me? How did it happen that with such ease I put on my mother’s wedding dress, walked from our house down the path to Daddy’s church, held a bouquet of sweet white roses from my sister Ruth’s garden, said some words to Alfie, and became a different person? It seems like midsummer magic or a baptism, one. Well, maybe underneath, I’m the same east Tennessee mountain girl. But I’ve got a new life now and am thrilled to start it.

Alfie spent half a year building our house and today he carried me over the threshold. My own home to make! I wondered who our neighbors would be but turns out I didn’t need to worry about that. The only folks close by are buried in the Williams County cemetery, which I can see from my big kitchen window. Grey headstones spring up like memories frozen in time, just beyond the garden shed in our backyard. Old Mr. Calhoun is out there and the Smith girl who died of influenza. It’s sad to think of Dottie Smith taken up to Heaven so soon. I was just a little one then, but Mama talks about how sweet she was. Of a sudden I want to ask our Lord in His wisdom: how can it be that Dottie fell ill and died only a week before her wedding day, and here I sit on my front porch – a happy June bride? How can those two things be true at the same time?

Well. Never mind the cemetery. I’ll plant some sunflowers back there before long, and Alfie’s garden will come up, and then all we’ll see from the kitchen are living things. There’s such goodness here in our home, on this land, so many possibilities. We are young! The birds sing it back: we are young, like the first man and woman in Eden. This is the longest day of the year and the sun finally sets overhead. I can feel the last of its warmth as I lift my face to the violet sky and write in my diary, the book where I will record the days of my life as Mae Jenkins, Alfred’s wife.

Brittany, 2018
Brittany Wyatt
Ms. Jacquelyn Gibson
English IV
27 October 2018

I’m supposed to be reading some poems for school and writing a journal entry about them. But I’ve only made it so far as the MLA-style heading. Look how I got the date format right! Ms. Gibson will be happy. I’ve read two of the poems. It’s Saturday morning. My response is due Monday. I don’t know what to say about these poems except that they’re sonnets, but Ms. Gibson already knows that. She says just to keep typing until something happens so I’ll write till Kevin comes over. Type, type, type.

It’s my senior year and I don’t like poems or even school much anymore and I get scared thinking what am I going to do after graduation. Maybe I’ll turn this journal into a blog? Or she said we could write and then vlog about it. Anything but tweet. She wants us to write more than that. Type, type, type. A sonnet has 14 lines. “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” means John Keats is thinking about stars, and maybe love.

I’m going to “swoon to death” (14) if I keep reading this poem. I think I cited that right. What else? Keep typing. I used to like English class and was so excited when I got this laptop. Nana says I used to read a lot but that was before Mom went to rehab for the first time and we moved back here to Nowhere, Tennessee. Nowhere is somewhere between the North Carolina line and Johnson City. That’s what Dad tells people. Easy for him to say, he still lives in Charlotte.

Me and Mom are doing ok now. We live at the top of a mountain that’s hard to get to, even though you can see the start of our windy gravel road from the interstate. Most people probably don’t look. They speed by, real important and busy, they don’t even know we’re here. There’s a yellow sign at the bottom of our road that says DEAD END. So I don’t blame the drivers for not seeing us. I probably wouldn’t either, if I was them.

Mae, 1938

I am a mother.

I will write it again so I can be sure: I am a mother.

Our first child was born at home on Christmas day – “like our Savior, hallelujah,” Daddy said. Mama went downstairs at dawn and told him and Alfie both that it was done. She looked so tired. Ruth came and helped, too, my sister who has three of her own now, and we were all so tired by the end of it. The parlor chairs squeaked as Daddy and Alfie got up, and the front door slammed behind them; they’d gone out to the porch to smoke and I could hear them laughing out there, hollering to anyone who walked by: “IT’S A BOY!”

A boy, thanks be to God, for he will never have to experience the pain of childbirth, or understand that after he emerged in the world his life overtook mine completely and I could barely move and wanted to bury myself in the darkness beneath Aunt Margaret’s quilt. Maybe I could just slip away, I thought on Christmas morning as the church bells rang out, and sometimes still think. But then I look at my son through a haze and know he needs me to come back; he whimpers to remind me, and I return.

Now that Franklin is a month old there’s a new set of lessons for me in the icy new year, some that have come easily and others that are surprising. For one, I realize how in pictures and on our mantel the Nativity scene is always perfectly still and peaceful, but that’s all wrong, it’s the wrong story. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, we sing, the virgin Mother’s blue gown spotless, her halo glowing, nobody moving. The angel figurines don’t fly, they just hover suspended, and the Wise Men kneel with gifts that might be useful or not, like Mrs. Ferguson’s ham casserole that was so salty we none of us could eat it, but Alfie said to her at the door Oh thank you! Mae sends her best, she is resting, we are all well and happy.

The camel and sheep figures placed carefully near the Christ-child never move and are not like animals at all, but the wildness of my baby’s screams makes me think of beasts howling. From Franklin in early morning hours comes a long primitive cry akin to the sound a wounded animal makes. This howl chills my bones. The gritty-earthy power of tending new life exists miles away from the sweet manger scene, o little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, the lie we all believe, because there’s no other way to manage it otherwise, the raw truth of motherhood and how fiercely we both love and flail, as if desperate to keep afloat. These two things happen for new mothers, I learned – loving and drowning – at the same time.

Brittany, 2018

Kevin just got here but I didn’t know he was bringing his idiot friend Rob. Rob’s girlfriend Jenny had a baby this summer. He needs to be helping them out today, give Jenny a break. I think she’s trying to study for the GED. But no, he’s here playing video games with Kevin and acting like a big baby himself. Maybe if I keep typing they’ll get the hint and go do something else. I already told Kevin I have homework and my shift at Hardee’s starts at 4. Mom takes care of this old man Mr. Hayes so she’s at work today and using the car, or I’d drive someplace to get away for a while. I like Barnes and Noble in town.

Great, now they’re shooting out back and the dogs are barking like crazy. Kevin’s been working down at Citgo to make gas money for his truck and save for prom this spring. I guess we’re going together, if his crazy religious mom lets him out of her sight for two seconds. Or maybe he’s taking Rob? Haha. The school will probably get upset again about the gay kids dancing together at prom. I don’t go to church but Liza said their preacher talked last year about how the community needs to stand against this. Being one of the only mixed kids at my school, I know how the gay kids must feel. It’s hard to be different here in Nowhere.

Ok back to homework. I can do this. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.” Shakespeare uses alliteration here, I think. And he has memories that make him sad. But at least he had peace and quiet. This is a waste of my time!!! And I can’t think with all the shooting. I’m going to grab my notebook and walk down to Citgo.

Mae, 1943

            I got a letter from Alfie today and it reminded me to write in my diary. His letter was cheerful but I’m not, and here is what I want to say: we were minding our own business when some other men from other countries got ideas, and Alfie had to abandon the Tennessee fields for foreign ones. I don’t know these men but because of them our lives will never be the same. We had been doing our best but more is required, it seems. Daddy says often from the pulpit, “More is required,” and the congregation nods in solemn agreement.

I feel sad that our two-year-old daughter Ruby doesn’t know Alfie, and I’m afraid because Franklin plays every day with toy pistols, wanting to be a soldier like his daddy but not understanding what it’s all about, not knowing that Alfie might never come home, like Harold Waters and his cousin Sal who were lost to us in Tunisia. This reminds me: there is a globe in the library. Other day I saw Harold’s widow Lillian in there looking at it, her finger pointed at the top of Africa, and Miss Vickers the librarian had to run get the doctor when Lillian fainted and wouldn’t move even when revived. It took Dr. Jenkins and two nurses to get her carried back home, and Miss Vickers and I just stood there and cried until Franklin started spinning the globe around fast like it was a toy-world; he laughed and made the world revolve, and I thought how much I hated God for spinning and uprooting everyone, laughing at us, then I got hold of myself and asked forgiveness. We went home with our library books but it’s hard to forget Lillian falling, slowly like she did, beside Africa. I don’t know if she will ever recover.

Grief is an awful thing, a living being that flattens us even when we try to stand in pride and defiance. If we don’t pay attention to it early on, it will bring us down. I’ve almost started grieving the loss of Alfie already. I practice hearing the words spoken aloud, reading the blocky letters on the telegram, all of it. Any way I could get the news I rehearse in my mind for fear of falling and never getting up again. If Alfie lives, I will be happy but almost surprised, as if he exists neither in this world nor the next.

Meantime there are two new markers in the cemetery I see from my kitchen window, and since Lillian went down I’ve been putting sunflowers on Harold and Sal’s graves. Their bodies aren’t really there but Sal’s family already had the plot, so we all pretend. Those boys who never dreamed of leaving Tennessee are still in Tunisia but I visit them out back every day, Ruby on my hip and Franklin crouching behind headstones then rising up – eyes wide open for enemy groundhogs, toy guns blazing.

 

Brittany, 2018

I’d just sat down at Citgo to finish my poetry homework when Liza’s brother Eddie came in, and I figured there’d be trouble. He got back from Afghanistan a few years ago and hasn’t been the same since. I watched him looking at the firewood stacks outside all glassy-eyed and it reminded me of how Mom used to be. She started taking pain pills after she hurt her back lifting a patient at the hospital, and I guess Eddie got hooked on them after he almost died in an IED attack.

When I’d go to Liza’s house in middle school, I’d get all excited because I had the biggest crush on Eddie. He played football and was real smart, even made the high school’s honor roll every year. His girlfriend was homecoming queen, always smiling and waving in parades. Liza said she moved to Knoxville after graduation to go to college. They don’t hear from her anymore but she posts pictures of herself on Instagram looking cute in her orange spirit team uniform, still smiling and real peppy. But Eddie looks like a sad old man now with his limp and a scraggly beard.

He made his way inside with some firewood and Ralph at the register kept a close eye on him. A few weeks ago Kevin said Ralph had told him and all the employees to watch Eddie, make sure he didn’t take anything when he wandered in. He was bad to try to sneak beer cans under his big overcoat, stuff like that. But this time it seemed like all he could do was fumble in his pockets to scrape up a few dollars for the wood and some cigarettes. “You all right, buddy?” Ralph asked. Eddie was in slow motion, like under water. Finally he nodded. “Yeah, man, gon build a fire before the snowstorm hits.”

Today has been so warm, one of those bright October days where you might even forget winter was coming. For sure it isn’t going to snow. But I watched Eddie leave Citgo and thought about that poem Ms. Gibson read us in class, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and got a little chill. Eddie used to blaze like a bonfire, zig-zagging on the football field, doing a victory dance that made all us girls laugh and cheer. Now he’s stuck in the cold woods with miles to go. Now he pulls his coat close and hunches over, fumbling toward what, I’d be willing to bet, has got to feel like a dead end.

Mae, 1964

I was watering the garden this morning and thought about how long it has been since last I wrote. It took some searching just to find this book tucked away in my cedar chest. What dreams I had as a young wife; I imagined I would write about my adventures every day. Life takes over and we get tossed around and under by storms not of our own making, then lifted high on waves of joy, and always dropped back down to earth again.

The most important reason I haven’t written is because I am not only a grandmother now but a working woman – a teacher! Alfie made it home from the war, thanks to God’s grace, but he didn’t really come home, not for a while. He was badly injured on Omaha Beach in Normandy and didn’t talk to any of us for some time. He couldn’t farm or build, barely ate or moved for months. So I started school at East Tennessee State, got my certificate, and went to work. I didn’t care what anybody said or thought about it. Somehow as Alfie slipped away, I knew I had to get moving for the sake of our children. I suppose marriage is like that: when one collapses, the other pushes forward. It’s a wonder we ever get on the same track. Some don’t, especially after war; there are rumblings now of another one in Asia, and Ruby’s letters from Atlanta are mostly about why we shouldn’t get involved.

Alfie is better now and we’ve found each other again. But it has been a long road with much hardship. We lost a child when I was in my early 30s; she lived only a few hours after entering the world. Once the tiny coffin was placed in the ground I went back to my kitchen and sat at the window for days. I just stared at the headstones and wondered, why? What are we all doing here? Why do I live in this house that overlooks the cemetery where my baby Belle is buried? We all end up out there, sooner or later. It’s a dead end. And I’ve been living at this dead end since I was eighteen years old, a new bride with the foolish idea that planting sunflowers along our property line would shield us from the truth.

I wish I could write with authority that what saved me in dark times was the knowledge of God’s presence, or the relief of getting some answers, but there were many days after Belle died when I didn’t feel Him near us at all. So after a period of terrible grief my salvation came in the form of getting up every morning and knowing I had two purposes: caring for the family that remained and being present for my students. Even now I look at my “kids” trying so hard to learn and it makes me proud. I watch them writing themes and figuring out number problems; there are tender souls as well as hardened ones in my classroom. It is my duty to love and teach them all.

That is where Alfie and Franklin, and Mama and Daddy disagree with me. Except for Ruby, who recently started teaching school like her mama, I am the only one in our family who believes every child should get a chance to learn. People around here feel like they’ve worked so hard for the good things they have, and sometimes they’re afraid they might lose ground if others have access to some of that good life as well. But I don’t believe this is so. There is enough for us all if we can just let go of the fear of loss, of people different from ourselves. Franklin, sadly, is an example of someone who operates most every day from this fearful place. He and his wife Bonnie live in a brand-new housing development nearby, which Alfie helped build; we enjoy visiting their lovely home and seeing our little granddaughters. Every time I’m there playing princess-dress-up with the girls, though, I can’t help but think about my students whose parents barely make enough money to keep them in clothes that fit. When Bonnie prepares an elaborate midday meal, I think about my student whose mother works three jobs so as to keep her daughter from the stigma of the free lunch program.

Franklin is a real estate broker and talks to clients about how we need to keep our neighborhoods safe and thriving. On his desk he has pictures of Elizabeth and Madeline, which he points to when making the case that Williams County’s newest housing developments – the ones he represents – are the best choice because only the most respectable community members live there. “Further,” I’ve heard him say, “these homes are close in proximity to the highest-performing school districts.” When Ruby comes to visit she reminds Franklin that school integration is the law now, but Franklin just mumbles under his breath and changes the subject. Ruby sighs or storms out, depending on how patient she happens to be feeling, and I understand her frustration. In east Tennessee there are so few colored families that it’s hard to see any changes at all.

My eyes were first opened to this problem when a guest professor came to ETSU from Knoxville a few years ago and talked about what might be coming. I went home from that lecture and thought about how Jesus loved the little children – “red and yellow, black and white” – and I wanted to follow His example. I say this to Daddy often and he seems to understand, but then when the deacons are around and they get to talking about it, he takes their side. The head deacon Mr. Potter says, “Letting them into our schools is just the start. Where does it end? When they’ve married our women and moved to the neighborhood?” Daddy shakes his head and says, “It ain’t right.” Alfie agrees with Daddy but won’t speak up in public, says we should keep our thoughts about the negroes to ourselves. “No need to make a fuss about something that might be a big deal in the cities but won’t come to nothing here,” he says.

Alfie doesn’t much like it but since I’ve been going to the colored church with old hymnals and choir robes to donate, I’ve made a new friend. Rosalee has two children, twin boys around Ruby’s age who moved to Chattanooga for work but come home for holidays. She’s the teacher at the colored school. I’ve not met her husband George but Rosalee tells me he is a church elder and wants the colored children to stay among their own where they’re protected, at church and school both. George is a veteran though his outfit had to stay separate from the white units, which must have hurt him badly – especially because he was a distinguished member of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, an all-colored outfit that landed at Normandy on D-Day! They were on Omaha Beach, where Alfie was, and Utah Beach. I had no idea about this. Rosalee said it was the job of the 320th to manage armed balloons that kept enemy aircraft away. It troubles me that Alfie and George were both born in Williams County and went to the same war at the same time, fought on the same beaches in France, even, but they aren’t likely to speak to each other about it, or find common ground.

Rosalee and I talk about what it might be like one day for all this to change. It frightens and thrills, to have these secret conversations together after school; I help her hang up choir robes, and we imagine a different kind of world. What if our future great-grandchildren could play together and not be shy? What if they could learn together and not be afraid?

Brittany, 2018

Ok. So I emailed Ms. Gibson and told her I was having a hard time with the homework. I can’t get into the sonnets at all. She asked me if I wanted to see what her college English students were working on for their projects, and I couldn’t believe it! She teaches a night class at Northeast State Community College and I was so excited she thought I could maybe do the work. I’m not even in her college prep class at the high school. So now I’m on my break at Hardee’s and reading this wild stuff she sent. It’s like a different world. The weirdest so far is by a poet named Anne Sexton: “I open my pocketbook, as women do, and fish swim back and forth between the dollars and the lipstick. I pick them out, one by one and throw them at the street signs, and shoot my pocketbook into the Charles River.” HA! I don’t know exactly what this means, but it gives me a fun rebellious feeling and I like it way better than Shakespeare. It also reminds me of the mess of trout Kevin and Rob caught the other day and bragged about to no end. I’d like to throw a bunch of those poor old trout at the DEAD END sign at the bottom of my road, and run off laughing.

My favorite so far is Zora Neale Hurston, a writer I didn’t know anything about till now. Being part black in Nowhere, east Tennessee, I just about cried reading this:

“At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance…I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads. I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong. Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

 

Ms. Gibson said that for my homework I could write a personal response to one or two of the readings she sent. My break is almost over so here goes:

Something that’s been bothering me a lot lately is Liza told me Kevin’s parents said to her mom at church that they want him to find a good job after school and marry a good girl. Which means a girl that’s a Christian, and doesn’t have divorced parents, and whose mom isn’t an addict, and who is white. I think the big thing is white. Which means not me. Which means Kevin-the-mama’s-boy will do whatever she tells him to do. But I think Zora would say, Who needs them? I think Zora would say, Let’s figure out a plan.

Anne would, too. Dollars or lipstick, what’s more important? She wrote about ambition birds. “All night dark wings flopping in my heart. Each an ambition bird.” What if I didn’t fling dead fish, but let my ambition birds fly? Where would they take me? Could I go to college, take Ms. Gibson’s class at Northeast State? I bet she’d help me, figure out how to apply. I bet she knows I’m struggling. Maybe she sent me Zora and Anne on purpose.

Mae, 1985

So much has happened. I don’t know where to start. Maybe it’s best to begin with how Mama died of cancer last year and Daddy followed with a heart attack soon after. They had lived full lives, but I grieved as if I’d lost both in their prime. Drinking coffee in the kitchen this morning I glanced out at the cemetery; it’s so very full now, and I remember many of the people who are buried there. Every Friday this summer Alfie and I have been placing daisies on our parents’ graves. Every Saturday we take sunflowers to Sal and Harold, casualties in Alfie’s war; we offer chrysanthemums at the memorial to Nate, Freddie, and David, all sweet boys from church, killed in Vietnam. Then on Sunday afternoons I sit quietly alone with my baby Belle, the daughter I’ll never know. I don’t know her at all but I imagine that she would have liked violets, so I place them carefully around the white marble lamb on her headstone. “Behold the Lamb of God,” John the Baptist says in the Bible, “who takes away the sin of the world.” Belle, my youngest, was born on Good Friday just before Easter, and my oldest arrived on Christmas Day.

I always have questions. What does this birth order mean? Did Christ come full-circle through our family, with middle-child Ruby playing the role of social justice activist, pacifist, women’s libber – the revolutionary spirit existing between Nativity and crucifixion? When will Alfie and I be buried in our plot out there by Belle, the one we bought during the early years when our own mortality seemed a distant, silent shadow? Which of us will be called up first, leaving the other alone to mourn?

I’ve never gotten answers to any of my questions from an external source. But walking alone in the cemetery, when the afternoons are warm and long like my wedding day in 1935, I find them bubbling up from within. The most important answer is: I am responsible. I made choices in my life sometimes, and other times choices were made for me. But now at nearly 70 years old I get to act, interpret, believe, not believe, re-shape and re-vision; it is up to me to make meaning of the chaos that is human life.

Some days are easier than others. I am disappointed that Franklin’s girls have perpetuated so many of the same patterns of bigotry that Ruby fights against every day. Elizabeth and Madeline live with their wealthy husbands in what are called “gated communities” in Nashville, and they plan to send their own children to private school. Franklin, divorced from Bonnie, mostly works and plays golf on occasion in Knoxville. He calls us each week but Alfie and I don’t see him as often as we’d like.

My greatest hope now is that the life of Ruby’s only child, my 16-year-old granddaughter Josie (short for Josephine), will be a guiding light that symbolizes a new day. Ruby married one of my friend Rosalee’s sons, John – who is “black,” not “colored,” Ruby still has to remind Alfie. The union caused great scandal here in Williams County, but they live in Atlanta now where years ago they both began teaching in the newly-integrated schools. Then Josie arrived and lit up our lives.

Josie comes to stay with Alfie and me during the summers while John and Ruby are off working on their causes. Right now they’re focused on a new disease that we hear of pretty often on the news; Ruby wants to learn how to talk about it to the kids in her health classes. This disease and other world events scare me to death, but Josie and I just have fun when she’s here. She dresses up like Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper and the various pop stars, and teaches me their songs. Our favorite is “1999” by Prince. She plays it on her jam box and we sing and shimmy right along: Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999!

Josie is a precious jewel, born from love and justice. I can’t wait to see where life takes her – blasting like a rocket into the 21st century.

 

Brittany, 2018

A “PS” on my homework assignment that I’ll turn in Monday to you, Ms. Gibson: I got home from my shift at Hardee’s and heard Kevin out back shooting again and it made me so mad, I decided right then and there to break up with him. Forget about the prom and his stupid guns. I’ve got other stuff going on. I told Mom how excited I was about maybe taking a college class after graduation, that I’m going to ask you to help me and send me more stuff to read. Mom was tired from cleaning up after Mr. Hayes all day but smiled a little bit, then went and got something from her bedroom. “Come out on the porch,” she said, flipping the light on. It had turned cold (maybe Eddie was on to something about snow coming) but we bundled up and scooted the rickety old lawn chairs close together.

“This is your great-grandmother Mae’s diary,” she said, handing me an old book with yellowed pages so easy to tear I almost hated to touch it. “Go ahead, it’s yours. Your Nana Ruby wanted you to have it when the time was right. Mae and Ruby were both teachers, you know. They’d be so proud of you.”

Mom went back inside to lay down and I read every word of my great-grandmother Mae’s diary, right out there under the porch light. As a child I’d only thought of her as a scary-looking old lady in the nursing home that we visited sometimes, and Nana Ruby died when we were still living in Charlotte. She and Mom barely talked before Mom went to rehab, and even after that they weren’t close. I’d been selfish, never asking much about Mae or Ruby or wondering who they really were. But they came to life on the diary pages, and I was ashamed I hadn’t spent more time with them. It was midnight when I closed the book.

Mae thought Mom – Josie – would change the world, and she hadn’t. That made me sad. But sometimes we get stuck and stumble, like Mom and Eddie both did, like so many of us do. A few wrong turns and we start to believe the DEAD END sign is telling us the truth. But then Zora comes along, or you, Ms. Gibson: somebody who helps us see another way. If Mae could survive war and losing a child, and go back to school and fight racism, and push on even when she probably didn’t feel like it – I can, too.

Today is over. It’s dark and cold outside. Anne Sexton wrote, “All day I’ve built a lifetime and now the sun sinks to undo it.” Tomorrow is Sunday, though, a fresh start. I think I’ll go to the Williams County cemetery and leave some flowers for Mae, thank her for giving all she had to make a good life for her family. Tomorrow I’ll thank Mom for getting better and working hard to keep us going. Tomorrow I’ll tell Kevin to keep his guns, his trout, and his mama away from me. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll make my grandmothers proud; tomorrow I’ll let the ambition birds fly free.