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.