“There’s something in Mrs. Treadway’s root cellar,” I said to Mama’s back. “Something gruntin’ and groanin’ like an old hog.”
Her paring knife stopped circling the tater in her hand. She turned around and looked at me, frown lines gouging furrows in the skin between her eyes. “April May Clark, didn’t I tell you to stay away from there and not be botherin’ that poor woman?” She jabbed the shiny blade in my general direction. “She’s got enough on her shoulders without you snoopin’ around, asking your silly questions. What with her husband up and leaving, and Jesse joining the Army right after. I don’t know how she runs that place by herself…course, truth be told, Jesse wasn’t much help anyway.”
“I ain’t said nothing to her.” I bit into the pear I’d picked out of the scrawny tree out behind Mrs. Treadway’s outhouse. Juice ran down my chin and I wiped it off with the back of my hand. “She didn’t even see me.”
Mama pointed the knife at the half-eaten pear in my hand. “Where’d you get that then?”
I sighed great big. “Off her tree, but she didn’t see me. I didn’t go nowhere near her house. But you know that old root cellar way out behind her garden…something’s in there. I heard it. And there’s a new lock on the door and—”
“April May, how many times have I got to tell you to quit making stuff up—”
“I ain’t making it up, Mama.”
“Or imagining it or telling stories, whatever you want to call it.”
I didn’t know why Mama just didn’t say I was lying—though I wasn’t, not this time. But she put stuff nicer than Daddy; he always said I was plain out lying. And most of the time I guess I was ‘cause the things I thought, well, they wasn’t always so.
“Go outside and play and let me finish supper,” Mama said. “And don’t you go telling your brother and sisters this foolishness when they get off the school bus.” She turned around to the sink. Another go-round of the knife on the tater. “And for heaven’s sake, don’t say nothing to your daddy either.”
“Mama, there really was…I mean…”
I stomped across the cracked, green linoleum and pushed open the backdoor screen, letting it thump shut behind me.
Sometime I got so mad. Why wouldn’t she believe me? Jeeze…
I clomped around in the back yard, every once in a while kicking the big piles of leaves Zack had raked up the evening before, scattering them all back out again, He’d be mad at me when he got home from school, but I didn’t care ‘cause I was mad too. Mama didn’t believe me, and this time I knew I’d heard something. And it didn’t matter if I told Daddy and Zack and Evie and Nora, none of them would go look in that root cellar and see I wasn’t telling no story.
What was in there? It’d sounded kind of like a pig, but maybe it was a dog and maybe it was starving. Maybe that was why it’d sounded so funny. Yeah, it was a dog, alright. I just knew it was.
I liked dogs. They licked your face and grinned and wagged their tails. But we didn’t have no dog ‘cause Daddy didn’t like dogs. But maybe if I got that dog out of the root cellar and he saw how hungry it was—probably its ribs was sticking out—he’d feel sorry for it and we could keep it.
But the root cellar had a padlock on the door with a keyhole in it and I didn’t have no key. How could I open it without going and asking Mrs. Treadway for the key? Mama would call that “bothering her”.
A picture jumped into my mind of Daddy sawing off a lock like that one. Last year, Grandpa had died and Daddy couldn’t find the key that fit the lock on the metal box Grandpa had kept under his bed with his important papers in it, so he’d used the hacksaw we kept in the barn to cut through it.
And I knew just exactly where it was.
It wouldn’t be very long before Zack and Evie and Nora got home, and Daddy a little while after. I didn’t have much time.
I ran into the barn, grabbed the saw off a big, rusty nail driven into the wall, and raced out the open back door and into the woods. I’d get that dog out. I’d show everybody I wasn’t lying.
In just a little while I was back at Mrs. Treadway’s place. Staying just inside the woods, I circled around the house, down the length of the garden that was now just a bunch of weeds and dying plants, all the vegetables picked and canned and stored away for winter. I stayed hidden in the edge of the woods until I was right behind the root cellar.
It wasn’t much more than a knee-high bump with a door and frame set into the grassy top of it. And just like I’d remembered, locked up tight. I didn’t hear no noise, but between the door and frame, I saw light.
And that made me see it was starting to get dark.
Better hurry. I was gonna be in trouble now for sure.
I hunkered down beside the door and starting sawing. And that’s when it started up again.
I stopped sawing long enough to say: “It’s okay, doggie. I’m gonna get you out of there and take you home with me.”
I thought that’d calm it down, but it only seemed to make it worse. Jeeze, it started carrying on awful, and now thumps and bangs joined the gruntin’ and groanin’. If it got much louder, Mrs. Treadway might hear it and it would bother her.
I put everything I had into dragging and pushing the saw blade against the lock, while around me night settled in.
Mama and Daddy was gonna be real mad at me for being out after dark. But maybe when they saw the poor, hungry dog…
With a loud clatter, the lock gave way. I pulled it out of its hasp and opened the heavy, wood door, settling it against the ground as quietly as I could. Light and a jumble of noises raced up the stairs and smacked me in the face.
I had to hush it before Mrs. Treadway heard and got bothered. “I’m coming, doggie.”
I clomped down the steps and into a root cellar that was mostly just a big hole in the ground. And in about the center of the dirt-room was a chair with a man tied in it. Not a dog. A man! He had a rag stuffed in his mouth, and jeeze, was he ever dirty and smelly.
He yelled behind the rag, shook his head from side to side. Then his wild eyes met mine and I knew who he was: Jesse, Mrs. Treadway’s son.
“Ohmygod, ohmygod…” I dropped the saw. “What…why?”
I stepped forward and pulled the wad of cloth out of his mouth.
“Help me,” Jesse said, his voice a raspy whisper. “Mama. She’ll come…”
I stumbled around to the back of the chair and tore at the rope tied around his wrists. Somehow, I managed to loosen it enough that he was able to pull his hands out. Then he leaned over and untied the loops around his ankles.
His legs trembling, he stood up. He braced a hand against the wall, then looked down at me. “Thank you…ah…you’re April May, ain’t you, Dave and Libby’s youngest?”
I nodded my head, “Y—yes.”
“Thank God you found me. I thought I was gonna die in here.”
“How did you…” I swallowed hard. “…get here?”
“Mama. She went crazy. Killed Daddy and put me in here.” He smiled. “If you hadn’t of come along—”
“Dear Lord above, what have you done, child?”
I sucked in a startled breath and turned toward the stairs. Mrs. Treadway stood halfway down the steps, a shotgun cradled to her breast.
I had bothered her and now she was going to kill me.
With a scream that didn’t even sound like it could come from a real, live person, Jesse Treadway pushed me aside and made for his mama. In his hand I saw the gleam of the saw.
“No, Jesse,” Mrs. Treadway said, backing up the steps. “You don’t know what you’re doing. No, son. Stop!”
I didn’t even see her try to raise the shotgun. Tears running down her cheeks, she stopped on the top step, and closed her eyes as Jesse took her down. “You bitch, bitch, bitch!” He screeched.
I heard gurgling sounds and tearing sounds. He was sawing on his mama like I had the lock. And if I didn’t get out of there, when he finished with her, he’d start on me.
Slowly, quietly, I climbed the steps. At the top I eased around Jesse who was still screaming, and his mama. She wasn’t screaming, though; her throat gaped open like a big red mouth.
When my sneakers hit the grass, I took off running. And as the woods closed around me, I heard Jesse Treadway call out: “April May…come out, come out, wherever you are…or I’m coming for you…” Then he laughed, but it wasn’t no nice laugh. It was a mean, lowdown, dirty laugh, so awful it made me wet my britches.
I had to get home. I had to warn Mama and Daddy and Zack and Evie and Nora. I had to tell them Jesse was coming and he was gonna kill me and them too.
Please, God, make them believe me. Please!
“Come out, come out, wherever you are…”
He slid onto the bar stool beside her. He flashed his most engaging grin, knowing the effect it had on women. Dazzling white teeth coupled with a tanned, handsome—but not too handsome—face, tall, muscular-but-lean body clothed in a perfectly-fitting Armani suit as black as sin, he was every woman’s dream man.
She said, “Don’t get to close.”
He said. “Why…you don’t bite, do you?”
She sipped the drink he’d bought her. “I might.” Her cool, gray eyes met his over the rim of the glass, laughter dancing inside storm clouds. She licked salt from her red lips.
He bent his head, moved in close, letting her catch just a hint of his expensive, musky aftershave. “And I just might like it.”
She leaned back so that their eyes made contact again. Swirls of darkness ebbed and flowed inside the gray. He’d never seen eyes like hers; they excited him even though no blood smeared her body.
She said, “There’s no might about it.”
Her full lips parted in a smile that left him breathless. And he wanted her. Badly. He wanted to tangle his fingers in the mass of curly, blonde hair that fell almost to her waist. Wanted to bury his face in the cleavage of her tight, scarlet dress and breathe in her scent. Wanted to run his hands down her long, slender legs, slip off her white stilettos and lick between her toes. He wanted to do everything imaginable to her.
But not kill her. Not yet.
She said, “Thank you for the drink.” The pupils of her eyes were huge pools of moonless midnight.
He said, “Come to my place. You can thank me properly there.”
She said, “Sound like fun.”
He paid for their half-finished drinks, and holding hands as if they were teenagers, they exited the bar into the balmy, New York night. He flagged down a cab and gave the driver his address—his real address where he actually lived.
He couldn’t keep his hands off her, and her hands were all over him as well. He felt her softness. She felt his hardness. He was so excited he almost took her in the back seat of the smelly cab. But he contained himself. She deserved the clean silk sheets of his bed.
She said, “Nice building,” as they stepped into the elevator.
He said, “It’s home.”
He backed her into a corner and claimed her puffy, lipstick-smeared lips in a kiss that went on and on as the elevator climbed the floors all the way to the top where they whooshed open, revealing an opulent living room done in varying shades of cream and white. The only color other than that of purity filled the floor to ceiling wall of windows that looked out upon the thousands of lights dotting the New York skyline. He swooped her up in his arms, and like a groom with his new wife, carried her over the threshold.
She said, “Beautiful….” her eyes on the glass as he strode through the living room.
He said, “Not as beautiful as you.” He passed through the bedroom door and kicked it shut behind him.
Another wall of windows let in enough light from the city stars for him to see his way to the bed. But he wanted to see more. He wanted to see her. He wanted to see her lips, her eyes, her body, her soul. He flipped the light switch, bringing the room into bright, sharp focus. Whites and creams here too. Her red dress stood out like blood on a white towel.
She said, “Put me down.”
He said, “I don’t want to turn you loose.”
She said, “You won’t be.”
He reluctantly let her feet slide to the floor. She dropped her shoulder bag and tore at his suit-coat; he helped, letting go of her long enough to shrug it from his shoulders. Then as one they stumbled toward the pristine bed, fabric ripping, buttons popping, clothing and shoes marking the floor of their passing.
They made love like wild, starved animals that had not eaten in days; they consumed each other, marking their claim with scratches, bites and bruises. Daylight was pinking the sky when at last, exhausted, they fell asleep face to face, arms and legs wrapped around each other.
He woke and she was gone.
He lurched out of bed, panic filling him. She couldn’t be gone; he wasn’t finished with her yet. And he didn’t even know her name, how to find her. Her blood, damn it! He hadn’t taken it, tasted it, hadn’t—
Then he heard it: the sound of the shower running.
His racing heart slowed. Calm filled his mind.
Whistling softly, he eased open the nightstand. He smiled. The shiny blade winked back at him. He curled his fingers around the bone handle, lifted the knife into the air, admiring the way the sun caressed the steel, sending out glints of lights along its six-inch shaft. Only the special ones had felt the pleasure of its razor kiss. And it was only the special ones he brought here—like the one in his bathroom.
He heard the water stop. She would be out soon
He padded silently on the plush white carpet to the closed bathroom door. And his heart aflutter like a boy about to kiss his first love, he waited. For her. He’d push her back inside the bathroom and…
The doorknob began to turn. He raised the knife, anxious to see the terror in her eyes.
Then the door opened, and what he saw caused him to take a step back. Naked and wet and wielding a wicked-looking knife of her own, she came after him, her smile beautiful and brilliant and utterly insane.
He couldn’t help it; he laughed. He’d be damned. She was going to kill him.
The crazy look left her eyes and she glanced down, saw the evidence of his excitement.
She said, “Let’s do it again. Want to?”
He said, “Hell yes, I want to.”
He pitched his knife onto the floor. Hers clattered atop it. This time they didn’t even make it to the bed. She took him down and straddled him on the floor.
Later, they could sort out who does what to whom—and when.
Like many of my fellow writers, I have quite a few manuscripts boxed up, novels that never found a home. And it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part. I sent them off to literary agents and publishing houses, hoping they would be taken in, nurtured, edited, sent to the press and released into the world to soar above the clouds. But the simple fact is they were not good enough. (There, I’ve admitted it.) Looking back, I see now the first one was terrible, the second a little less so, and so on and so on, until now, the sixth one I have completed is out making the rounds. I pray for it nightly, pray that some agent or editor sees in it what I see in it, and says, “This is pretty damn good”.
I first started writing seriously some years ago when my eldest sister, Mary, made the comment at one of our Sunday family get-togethers that when I was in school, I wrote some nice little stories–or something to that effect. I’d been married for quite a few years at the time, and since the day I’d said “I do”, had not written another single story or poem. Mary’s offhand comment started the wheels turning in my head, and I think within a week I was writing, flat on my back (I’d herniated a disc and couldn’t sit without experiencing extreme pain.) using pencil and paper. And lots of erasers.
I wrote and I wrote, and the more I wrote the better I wrote. I became proficient enough that a literary agent took on my fourth novel. And though she queried quite a few publishing houses, she was unable to sell it.
Then my first husband died. And something in me died too, the something in my head that could tune in to all the imaginary people living out their lives inside my brain. I couldn’t write; my mind was wiped clean of all the colorful characters residing there–or at least it seemed to me as if that were the case at the time. And for some years an uncompleted manuscript (And all the old ones.) traveled with me when I remarried and moved a couple of times.
Then the itch hit me again, and I reread my unfinished manuscript and skimmed through the old ones. That’s when I realized I needed a little help honing my writing skills. So I took a course on writing short stories–a form I hadn’t delved into since my teenage years–offered by Long Ridge Writers Group (I highly recommend them to anyone wishing to improve their writing.), and within a year I sold my first short story, “Birds of a Feather”.
Then again, fate intervened, and writing was once more placed on the back burner. My mother became ill, and my siblings and I cared for her for four months before she passed away. Then my dad left us a little over a year later. Once again, I couldn’t write; my mind was like a blank slate bereft of even a smudge of chalk marks.
After a time had passed when every waking moment wasn’t filled with memories of my parents, I wrote more short stories. And more were published. But my thoughts kept returning to that unfinished manuscript. My characters were muttering in my head, wondering how long and possibly, if ever, their story would be finished. They gave me no peace. Again, I turned to Long Ridge Writers Group before once more taking up the threads of Lee and Ty’s lives. I wanted to tell their story the best I could, so I took another course, this one on novel writing. I’m so glad I did; the knowledge I gained helped me weave the threads of my novel stronger and tighter.
Those of you who read my blog know that Quoth The Raven is now making the rounds. I have read that it can take one hundred or more submissions to find the right literary agent. I know I can go the self-publishing route, and that many authors have been discovered by well-known publishing houses in this manner; but for now I am content to keep on searching for an agent. I’m in no big hurry to publish a novel. Right now I am happy to sell a short story occasionally, and to write on my next novel, When The Stars Fell. After all, those among us who are storytellers don’t do it for fame and fortune–though that would be nice. No, we don’t do it for others, but for ourselves.
It’s a funny/strange thing, but after I have written a novel, when some time has passed, I can look back on it and see pieces of myself scattered throughout it, pieces both good and bad. I see my fears, my longings, my hopes, my dreams mirrored in my characters. I see pieces of people I know. And sometimes I see myself getting what I can’t have in the real world. I don’t know how I fail to see these things as I write them–it sure is plain as day after the fact–but I don’t. I suppose it must be hidden somewhere in my subconscious, waiting for someone else to give voice to it, because maybe, just maybe, I don’t have the courage to do it myself.
And as I write this, I am wondering if any of you out there experience the same thing I do. Or if not, what need does the craft of writing fulfill in you?
I’m curious. Let me know, fellow storytellers.
“There’s snakes under the house,” my sister said. “I heard them last night.”
“You heard them?” I said. “Doing what? Crawling around on their bellies in the dirt?”
Mary Lou chopped down a couple more weeds from around the okra plants, then raised her head and looked over toward the back porch where Daddy sat in the shade, drinking beer and playing poker with Mr. Doolittle and Mr. Hunter. She stopped grubbing. Through the screen of okra pods and leaves that separated us, her green eyes met mine. “Talking,” she said. “Whispering to me. Couldn’t understand them, though.”
“You’re crazy, Mary Lou.” I whacked a sticky weed on my side of the row. Dust puffed up around the blade, settled on my bare feet. “Snakes don’t talk.”
“Yeah, they do. You just gotta listen real hard ‘cause their voices are so little.”
Snakes. Mary Lou talked about them all the time. Ever since Mama’d got bitten by that copperhead, seemed like my sister couldn’t get them squiggly things out of her head. Me, I didn’t wanna talk about them. Didn’t wanna think about them either.
Daddy’d been off somewhere for days when that mean old snake got a’hold of Mama. I’d stayed with her while Mary Lou had run to Mr. Doolittle’s house to get help, but it was so far away that by the time Mr. Doolittle got to our place with his truck, then took Mama into town to the doctor, it was too late. Mama died.
Mary Lou leaned her arms on top of the hoe handle and looked out over my head, her eyes as empty looking as the fish that Daddy brought home for supper every once in a while. “Wonder what they were saying…”
Sometimes Mary Lou acted kind of creepy. She didn’t scare me, though, not like Daddy did, ‘cause she wasn’t mean like him.
“Mary Lou, Dora, get your asses back to work!” Daddy bellowed. “Don’t want me to come out there with my belt, do you?”
Head down, I set to work with my hoe. Whack, whack, whack.
I had trouble going to sleep. Even with the window open, it was still hot and stuffy in Mary Lou’s and my bedroom. And I kept listening for snakes. Seemed like I lay there for hours and hours and I never heard a single snake. But I did hear Daddy.
“Mary Lou,” he whispered.
My sister didn’t answer. I knew she was pretending to be asleep. But it wouldn’t do no good. Daddy wouldn’t go away. He never did.
I felt the bed shake.
“Get up and come with me.” His voice got a little louder. “Now.”
Mary Lou left with Daddy. In a little while, she got back into bed with me. She was crying. I scooted up against her back and put my arm around her. And even though we sweated and stuck together, she didn’t tell me to go away.
“Good little gal you got there,” Mr. Doolittle said. “Just kind of took over after Emma died. Wish my gals would do half the work she does.”
Daddy said, “You show their backsides a belt and they’ll hop to attention.”
Mr. Doolittle laughed, his gray whiskers bobbing on his chest and his big belly jiggling under his striped overalls. He made me think of Santa Claus. ‘Course, I knew there wasn’t no Santa Claus ‘cause me and Mary Lou hadn’t gotten any Christmas presents since Mama’d died. But he looked like Santa Claus if there’d been a Santa Claus. “I couldn’t whip my gals if my life depended on it, Ray. It’d plumb kill me to hear them cry.”
Daddy snorted. “Might as well get some work outta them before some other man gets them.”
“I get pleasure just having them around. That’s enough for me.”
I set the big bowl of pinto beans that Mary Lou had cooked on the table between Daddy and Mr. Doolittle. The smell tickled my nose. My belly growled.
“Where’s the cornpone?” Daddy said over my head, looking at Mary Lou.
My sister opened the oven and pulled out the pan of bread. The smell that came out with it was even better than the beans. It sure would taste good with some butter spread on it while it was still warm, but me and Mary Lou couldn’t have any butter ‘cause only Daddy got butter.
Mary Lou cut the bread into squares, put it on a plate, then placed it on the table by the bowl of beans.
“Dig in,” Daddy said to Mr. Doolittle.
“Ain’t your girls gonna eat?” Mr. Doolittle asked.
“They’ll eat when we’re through.”
Everyone always said that Mary Lou was the pretty one. I didn’t know where she got her pretty from. Wasn’t from Daddy, ‘cause he was tall and skinny and dark all over. And I looked like Mama, lots of freckles and frizzy red hair, and no one’d ever said I was pretty. Sometimes I thought that an angel must’ve given Mary Lou her pretty. Where else could she have gotten hair that was as white and smooth and straight as the sheets that Mama had ironed?
Cotton Top–that’s what Mama had called her. And I was Freckle Puss. To Daddy, we were always just plain Mary Lou and Dora. Unless he was mad. Then he called us all kinds of things, and all of them bad.
The springs squealed. Mary Lou got out of bed. Since Daddy wasn’t there telling her to get up, I figured she was going out behind the house to pee. I needed to pee too, so I followed her.
Instead of Mary Lou squatting with her gown hiked up, she was down on her hands and knees looking up under the porch, and even though the moon was big and full and throwing off all kinds of light, it was still black-dark under there.
“What’re you doing?” I asked.
She jumped and made a squeaky sound. Her head jerked around. “Oh, you scared me, Dora.”
“Sorry.” I came closer. “What’re you looking for?”
“I’m not looking, I’m listening.” Her head dipped back down, her white hair dragging in the dirt. “The snakes…”
I backed up.
Mary Lou said, “Come here. See if you can understand what they’re saying.”
“Uh uh.” I didn’t want anything to do with snakes. I didn’t wanna swell up like a dead possum and die.
Mary Lou looked over her shoulder at me. “Come on, they won’t hurt you.”
I took a step closer, then stopped.
“It’ll be okay. I’ll protect you.”
And I knew she would. My big sister had always watched out for me.
I got down on my knees beside her and looked up under the saggy old boards. All I could see was black. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but it was still as black as the tar Daddy had slopped up on the roof when it’d leaked.
“I don’t see any–” I started.
“Shhh,” Mary Lou said. “You ain’t supposed to be looking. Just listen.”
I strained my ears. Nothing. I cocked my head to one side like a dog did when it was listening real hard. Nothing. I tried closing my eyes. Still nothing. I heard rackety crickets and burping frogs and Mary Lou breathing, but no talking snakes.
“I just can’t quite make out what they’re saying,” Mary Lou said. “Maybe if I get closer…”
She started forward on her hands and knees. Half of her had disappeared up under the porch before I realized she was gonna go look for the snakes she was hearing. I didn’t really think there were snakes under the house, but still…
I grabbed her ankle.
“Don’t go under there, Mary Lou.”
She turned back to me. “I’ll be all right. They won’t hurt me.”
I was afraid for her. I didn’t want her to get bit and die like Mama. “Don’t go under there. You can’t see.”
She was quiet for a minute, then said, “You’re right. There might be spiders or something.”
She backed out, came out of that scary dark place where there might be snakes.
On the Fourth of July, Mary Lou and me spent the whole day canning corn.
We picked the corn with the brown tassels, shucked it, pulled off the silk, washed it, cut the kernels off the cob, cooked it, packed it in jars, and canned it in Mama’s big pressure cooker. We had to watch the gage real close and not let the pressure get too high, or it might blow up. That was the tricky part, not letting the pressure get too high. Mary Lou had to keep moving the canner around on the wood cook stove, first to a spot where it was good and hot, then to a not-so-hot place so it could cool down a little.
It made me kind of mad at Daddy–though I’d never tell him ‘cause he’d hit me if I said I was mad or even acted like I was mad–that he’d go off and leave Mary Lou and me to do all the work while he went into town to watch the parade and the after-dark fireworks.
“It ain’t fair,” I said to Mary Lou after the last jar of corn had come out of the pressure canner and we were washing up the pans and stuff we’d messed up.
“What’s not fair?”
“That we have to do all the work and Daddy never does nothing.”
Mary Lou looked down at me–she had to look down to see me ‘cause she was three years taller than me. Her mouth kind of twisted around, not really a smile but not a frown either.
“Life ain’t always fair, Dora. If it was, Mama’d be here now and Daddy’d be rotting in hell.”
I guess she was right. Mary Lou was right about most everything.
When the sun went down, we went out back and sat in the grass between the house and the garden and watched the dark sky. Every once in a while we’d see something go up and explode and rain down colored fire, but mostly we just heard rumbles and kabooms from the direction of town. After it’d quieted down, Mary Lou went into the house and brought back the yellow bar of Dial soap and two towels, and we washed up in the starlight, using water out of the rain barrel.
We wrapped the old thin towels around our bare skins and went back into the house.
And there was Daddy sitting at the kitchen table, a half-empty bottle in front of him. “What y’all doing outside?” His black hair stuck out this’a way and that’a way and his eyes were all red. He was as drunk as a skunk.
Mary Lou said, “Washing up.”
I scooted up against Mary Lou. She kind of sidestepped and moved in front of me.
“I can see that, girl,” Daddy said. “Why didn’t you set the washtub up here in the kitchen like you’re supposed to?”
“Because it was too hot in here and–” Mary Lou started.
“You’re damn straight, it’s too hot in here.” Daddy’s eyes narrowed. “Thought I told you girls to get done early so the house’d be cooled off before I got home.”
Mary Lou didn’t say nothing, just bent her head over. She was real mad. I could tell ‘cause her lips were clamped together and her eyes had that shiny look to them. I saw, but Daddy didn’t. All he could see was wet white hair.
“Guess I’ll have to teach you a lesson.”
Daddy stood up, pushing the chair back. He unbuckled his belt and pulled it through the loops on his jeans.
He was gonna whip Mary Lou!
My belly twisted up in knots.
The last time he whipped Mary Lou, he’d hit her so hard with his belt that he’d brought the blood and she couldn’t go to school for two weeks. She couldn’t even sleep at night she’d hurt so bad.
“Turn around, girl, and lean over the table.”
I couldn’t stand for him to hurt Mary Lou like that again.
I stepped out from behind her. “It’s my fault, Daddy.”
“Hush up, Dora,” Mary Lou said. She moved me behind her, and said to Daddy, “I’m the one who–”
“Shut up, Mary Lou, and let your sister talk,” he said. “You got something to say, Dora?”
I peeked out from behind Mary Lou. I figured I’d see Daddy with his face all red and his eyes shooting those crazy sparks, but he was smiling.
“Come on out from behind your sister and let me see you.”
I eased around beside Mary Lou. She put her arm around my shoulder. Daddy squatted down in front of me. He smelled like whiskey and sweat and summer dust, and it wasn’t a good smell. I swallowed back sour stuff.
“I was beginning to wonder if you could even talk,” Daddy said. He reached out and ran his hand real slow down my arm. “Don’t have much to say, do you?”
I shook my head.
His rough hand moved back up my arm, stopping where the towel was tucked in over my chest. “You’re getting to be a pretty little thing.”
Mary Lou’s fingers dug into my shoulder.
Daddy’s smile got bigger, and I didn’t like the looks of it one bit. It made me–
I pulled away from Mary Lou, and ran for the back door. I barely made it outside before I gagged and the sour stuff came up my throat and out my mouth and nose. Then Mary Lou was there, putting her hand on my forehead and tilting it back the way Mama had so the puke wouldn’t go up my nose.
Later that night, Daddy came and got Mary Lou. When she crawled back in bed with me, she didn’t cry like she usually did. She shook so hard the whole bed shook too, but she didn’t cry.
I woke up from a bad dream, something about snakes. I rolled over toward Mary Lou, wanting to snuggle up to her so my afraid would go away.
But she wasn’t there.
My afraid got bigger, opened up its big old mouth and swallowed me whole. I sat up in the bed, my eyes searching the gray light of early morning. “Mary Lou?” My voice came out all little and sounded as scared as I felt.
I heard whispering. And something else. Coming from…
I rolled over to Mary Lou’s side of the bed and peeked over the edge. She lay on the floor on her belly, her face turned toward me with her ear pressed against the gray boards. Her lips moved like she was talking.
Her eyes cut up to mine. “Shhh…I can barely hear.”
“Hear? Hear what?”
I was quiet like Mary Lou wanted me to be. I kept my mouth shut and tried to hear what she was listening to, but all I heard was her saying “uh huh” and “yeah” and “okay.”
When she slid back into the bed beside me a few minutes later, I asked, “Who were you talking to?” Though I thought I already knew.
“The snakes,” she answered.
“What’d they say?”
“That they were sorry they killed our Mama and left us with the worst kind of snake–a walking snake.”
“What’s a walking snake?”
Mary Lou nudged me over onto my side and curled up around my back. “Never you mind. Go back to sleep.”
She put her arm around me. I knew Mary Lou was as crazy as a bedbug, but I still felt safe, like nothing could hurt me as long as I was with her.
The man on the radio said it was gonna get to one-hundred-and-five degrees today, said we were in the dog-days of summer. I wondered what dogs had to do with hot weather, but when I asked Mary Lou she didn’t know, and I sure wasn’t gonna ask Daddy ‘cause I didn’t like the funny way he looked at me anymore.
I stirred the pot of bubbling oatmeal and Mary Lou fried eggs, while on the radio Elvis sang about his blue suede shoes. I looked down at our four bare feet and wondered when we’d get shoes. And clothes. School started in two weeks.
The backdoor screen squeaked open. Daddy was back from the outhouse.
I kept my eyes on the plopping oats, hunched my shoulders to make myself little.
I heard him pull out a chair at the table.
Mary Lou dished ham and eggs and taters onto a plate, and set it on the table next to the two pieces of buttered toast and cup of black coffee she’d put there earlier. Then she divided the oatmeal into two bowls for us. I got the spoons. We sat down across the table from Daddy.
Around a mouthful of eggs, Daddy said, “You girls best get on out in the garden before it gets any hotter.” He shoveled in a big bite of taters and ham. “Pick everything that’s nigh on to ripe. Gonna burn up anyway.”
Mary Lou and me finished up our bowls of oatmeal–Lord, that ham sure smelled good–then grabbed a couple of buckets off the back porch and tromped across the dry brown grass to the garden.
We picked tomatoes, we picked beans, we picked okra. And we sweated and sweated under that hot dog-days sun.
Every once in a while I’d think about going to the house and getting a drink of water, but then I’d look up and see Daddy sitting out on the back porch drinking beer and watching us, and I knew he’d be mad if I stopped. So I didn’t.
I kept on picking.
The sun climbed higher in the hazy sky. The ground grew hot against the soles of my feet. My mouth dried up.
I stripped the last tomato plant of its little red tommy-toes. When I picked up the full bucket and straightened up, my belly tumbled over. I saw black spots. My legs felt all weak and quivery, and when I took a step they just kind of gave out and I went down on my knees in the dirt. I tried to get back up ‘cause Daddy’d be mad if he saw me, but my legs were rubber legs and wouldn’t work anymore.
“Dora!” Mary Lou’s voice.
Then she was there squatting down beside me, her hands on my arms holding me up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m sick,” I said. “My tummy…it feels like I wanna puke.”
“You need to get out of the heat, drink some water. Come on. We’ll go to the house.” She helped me up.
I looked toward the back porch. Daddy was on his feet watching us. My heart thump-thumped.
“Daddy’ll be mad,” I said.
“He’ll whip us.”
“I won’t let him lay a hand on you.”
Most of my afraid went away. “Okay, then.” But I kept my head down ‘cause it’d probably come back if I looked at Daddy.
Mary Lou held tight to my arm as she walked me out of the garden and across the stretch of crinkly dead grass to the house.
“What y’all doing stopping?” Daddy asked. “Appears to me y’all ain’t done yet.”
Mary Lou stopped in the shade of the house. My head still bent, I rooted up against her as close as I could get.
“Dora’s sick,” Mary Lou said. “She got too hot. She needs to rest and drink some water.”
“Is that a fact?” Daddy asked.
I saw his bare feet with their long yellow toenails step down off the porch onto the ground in front of us.
“Dora, honey, are you feeling poorly?” His voice was all syrupy-sweet. It was more scary than his mean voice.
My throat was stuck to itself. I couldn’t talk.
Mary Lou said, “She needs to cool off. And some water.”
“I’ll take care of her,” Daddy said. “Get your ass back out in the garden.”
My sister didn’t move.
Daddy squatted down in front of me. “We’ll get them hot clothes off and douse you with some cool rainwater. That’ll feel good, won’t it, honey?”
My afraid came all the way back, and there was so much of it that I thought somebody else’s afraid must’ve come along with it.
Mary Lou said, “No.”
I was so surprised that I raised my head.
Daddy stood up, tall and mad. “What do you mean–no? You don’t tell me no, girl.”
“I ain’t gonna let you do to her what you did to me,” Mary Lou said.
Daddy’s face got as red as a beet. Up came his arm, and he backhanded Mary Lou, knocking her down. “Shut your goddamn mouth right now, you good-for-nothing little bitch!”
I started crying. “Daddy, please don’t hurt Mary Lou.”
He didn’t look at me, just kept on glaring at Mary Lou.
My sister slowly got back on her feet. Blood dripped from her split bottom lip. She turned and walked out into the yard a little ways, and I thought she was going to the garden like Daddy had told her to. But then she turned back around and looked at Daddy, and Lord you could see the big hate she felt for him plain as day on her sunburned face.
“You’re a son-of-a-bitch,” she said. “A sorry, lowdown son-of-a-bitch.” She drew back her arm, whizzed a rock at Daddy, hitting him on the cheek. Flecks of blood sprayed out from a small gash. Tit for tat.
Daddy started after Mary Lou. “Goddamn you!”
Mary Lou waited until he was almost on her, then she ran to the back porch and dropped down on her hands and knees. She crawled up under the old boards.
Daddy yelled, “You come out’a there right now!”
“Come and get me, chickenshit!”
“Why you…” Daddy dropped down and followed Mary Lou into the blackness.
I held my breath. I was scared, but at the same time I knew…
Screaming. Daddy screaming. “Get ‘em off! Get ‘em off me!” And hissing the likes that I’d never heard before. Mad hissing. Glad hissing.
I sat down on the steps.
Daddy just kept on screaming. And it didn’t bother me, him screaming. I kind of figured it was his turn now.
After a bit, Daddy didn’t do anything but kind of moan. Then that stopped too.
Mary Lou wriggled out from under the house. She was all dirty and her lip still bled, but she was okay.
She mounted the steps and sat down beside me. She took my hand and held it tight.
I felt as light as air. Happy.
Daddy was dead and couldn’t hurt Mary Lou or me or nobody else anymore.
My afraid was all gone. Dead and gone.
A very nasty bug took up residence in my body a few days ago, and I’m too sick to post this week. Hopefully, I’ll have something up in a few days. For now, all I can do is sleep, stare at the TV some, and feel sorry for myself.
Ecclesiastes was born into a world out of balance. He felt it even as an infant, the power in both his mother and father, strong, stubborn souls who would not back down, who would not let the other assume dominion. Neither willing to subjugate.
So there were the inevitable fights. His parents screamed at each other, and Ecclesiastes screamed in his crib. Then one day his father went away and only he and his mother remained, and for the first time in his short life, Ecclesiastes felt calmness in his world. His mother was big and strong, he was small and weak. Balance.
As he grew older, he saw and understood the balance in nature: cold, icy days and hot, steamy days; heavy rain and brilliant sunshine; trees bare of leaves, trees a profusion of green; soil cracked and dry, soil wet and boggy. Nature, it seemed, knew the importance of balance.
People on the other hand…they were the problem.
Some took and never gave. Some allowed themselves to be loved, but never returned it. Some hoarded all their money, never giving to those in need. And some tortured and killed their fellow human beings, but were never caught, thus never paid for their crimes.
But those were not the people who concerned Ecclesiastes, for their lives were balanced, because for every twisted, selfish person, there was an equally good person walking the face of the earth.
It was the ones in the middle; those were the troublemakers. And they outnumbered the ones who kept the world in balance by the billions. A man might anonymously gift a homeless shelter hundreds of dollars one day, and the very next, break his wife’s jaw in an argument and tell her it was all her fault for making him mad. Or the nice lady down the street who treated her lap dog like a precious baby, might lock her own child in a dark closet for days because she took food out of the refrigerator without asking.
It was too much. His mind slid, dipped, turned upside-down. And he found himself locked away in a mental institution.
But the good doctors there had shown him the error in his way of thinking, had convinced him the world was naturally chaotic, that there was no order, no balance in the universe. It had taken numerous shock treatments, and hours of therapy, but Ecclesiastes had learned to deal with the tipsy-turvy world on its own terms.
Five years after his mother had had him committed, twenty-year-old Ecclesiastes walked out of Southwood Manor and into a new life. He went to college, earned a master’s degree in business, was hired by a well-known corporation, met a lovely woman there, got married, bought a mansion in Riverfront Valley, and two years later became a father.
That’s when things began sliding sideways. Again.
Some nights, he slipped out of bed, and leaving behind his softly snoring wife, padded barefoot into the nursery and watched his infant daughter as she slept. He loved her, oh how he loved his little Samantha. But something wasn’t…quite…right. And he worried, thought: Is something wrong with my child? Is there some disease, some abnormality that I, and everyone else, have overlooked? Ecclesiastes knew something was wrong; he just didn’t know what it was.
But eventually, he figured it out. Night after night of staring down at his baby girl’s face finally bore fruit. And it was so simple he wondered why he hadn’t figured it out months ago.
The birth of his daughter had thrown the world out of balance. There had been a time of being born, but not a time of dying. There had to be a death to bring back balance. Tears filled his eyes as he bent over the crib and placed a gentle kiss on Samantha’s chubby cheek. “I’m sorry, Sammie, but I have to fix it,” he whispered, his lips resting against her smooth skin.
With a resigned sigh, Ecclesiastes shuffled off down the hall to his office. He clicked on the desk lamp, then reached into the bottom drawer of the nearby file cabinet and pulled out the loaded snub-nosed 38 he’d purchased illegally from a pawn shop on Third Street when he and his wife had moved into their new home. Just in case.
Gun in hand, he moved at a snail’s pace back up the hallway, dreading with every fiber of his being what he had to do. But he had no choice; he had to put the world back in balance.
He crossed the cold, wood floor of his daughter’s bedroom. Tears streaming down his face he leaned over the crib railing and placed a final kiss upon her forehead. “Goodnight, sleep tight, sweet dream, Sammie,” he said softly.
Then Ecclesiastes shoved the 38′s barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
I have always loved The Twilight Zone–not the movie but the old, black-and-white TV series. Show me a still from an episode and most likely, I can tell you what it is about.
There were many outstanding tales told in the five years The Twilight Zone aired: My favorites include: “It’s A Good Life”, “The Eye of the Beholder”, “To Serve Man”, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner; and the first runner-up on my list, “Time Enough at Last” starring Burgess Meredith”. You remember that one: the meek, bespectacled man who happened to be reading in a bank vault when the world ended. Oh, the irony, the horror, when his coke-bottle-lens glasses fell off when he leaned over, and were broken. I, as a voracious reader, felt his pain. He now had all the time in the world to read, but was unable to do so. Hell on earth. Might as well have been killed along with everyone else.
Topping my list as THE very best episode of The Twilight Zone was a little story titled: “The Hunt”. It was written by Earl Hamner, Jr.–who later on created The Waltons based on his book, Spencer’s Mountain, which in 1963 was made into a film bearing the same name. Whew…long one there.
What made this particular episode special to me was the lead actor, Arthur Hunnicutt who, like me, was born in Arkansas. He played the character of Hyder Simpson, backwoodsman, to perfection. Growing up in the backwoods myself, one generation–give or take a little–removed from the time period in which this story takes place, I had older relatives who reminded me of Hyder Simpson. It was sort of like revisiting my early childhood. His wife, Rachel, who was played by Jeanette Nolan, put me in mind of Grandma Workman with all her superstitious talk of “blood on the moon” and such. And Hyder’s coon-hunting dog, Rip, looked like the skinny hounds that lazed around on the front porch–and sometimes under it–of the old, weathered house I grew up in.
I loved those lean, long-eared hounds. When I was elevenish, I went coon hunting with my daddy and one of those dogs one night; but that’s another story.
“The Hunt” boils down to a yarn involving Hyder Simpson, Rip, an ill-fated coon hunt, heaven and hell. I’m not going to tell you anything else. If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend you look it up on Netflix, Hulu, or some other such website and give it a watch. You won’t be disappointed, especially if you are a believer in the Hereafter, a dog lover, or both.
And now, to where all of this leads.
My husband has known from waaaay back that I loved “The Hunt” with a passion usually reserved for such types of fodder as The Walking Dead and Alien. But something about this simple story captured my heart the first time I saw it more years ago than I care to recount. And so with the thoughtfulness he has always reserved for my wants and needs and anything else he thinks might interest me, my husband did a little research on Arthur Hunnicutt and found where he was buried–and it turned out to be a fairly short drive from our home.
So one day last summer we took a drive to the Coop Prairie Cemetery in Mansfield, Arkansas to pay our respects to a man who had made a career portraying grizzled old codgers. Arthur Hunnicutt had played in numerous films and television shows, so Husband and I expected to easily find his gravesite. Perhaps it would be roped off, or maybe a rectangle of bricks might mark it. That, in the least, we expected. But when we arrived at the cemetery there was nothing we saw calling attention to any grave in particular–on either side of the highway. (US Highway 71 bisects the cemetery.)
So, we got out of our vehicle and started looking. My husband soon gave up, his COPD making it extremely difficult for him to breathe on that hot, humid day, but I was determined to find Mr. Hunnicutt’s grave–for both of us. As I wandered, sweating like a hog, among the headstones, I saw Husband talking to a couple of men who were standing next to a truck parked beside a building I supposed housed equipment used to maintain the cemetery. (Later I learned from Husband they were employees of a funeral home, there for the purpose of setting up a headstone, and had no idea where in the huge cemetery Arthur Hunnicutt might be buried.) By then, I was quite some distance away, still searching. The only clue I had as to where I might find his grave was a picture I’d seen on the Web of his headstone, shaded by a small tree. So I looked around trees. No luck.
I gazed across 71, and seeing a few likely looking trees there, crossed the busy highway. And began hunting again, reading every headstone anywhere within spitting distance of a tree. I was close to giving up–lord, was I ever roasting–when at last I found it. Under a scraggly, little oak on dirt so dry hardly any grass grew, was the headstone I’d been seeking. I yelled and motioned to Husband, and he got into his Explorer and drove up the highway and parked on the side of the road close to the gravesite.
It was a sad thing to behold. No flowers, no mementos, nothing to imply that here lay a well-known actor and his wife. I repeat: nothing. I noticed that there was no date of death on Pebble Pauline Hunnicutt’s side; just the date of birth: 1913. Must still be alive, I thought. Then I noticed a little plaque on the other side of the headstone, and when I went to investigate saw that it read Pebble’s date of death was 2010. But it had never been etched upon the headstone. I wondered why.
Husband and I discussed this a little, and came to the conclusion that they must have had no children. He said when he’d researched Arthur Hunnicutt he had seen no mention of children, or any other relatives for that matter. I thought then of my parent’s grave, how most of us kids visited on occasion, how brother Mike and sister Mary, who lived the closest, made sure their resting place was kept neat and tidy. But there was no one to do this for Arthur and Pebble Hunnicutt.
My husband and I sort of adopted them. We have plans to return for a visit, and he is seeing into getting Pebble’s date of death inscribed upon the headstone. It’s the least we can do for a man who had entertained so many people–and still continues to do so–people who have no idea that in death, he has been forgotten.
But I haven’t forgotten. Rest in peace, Arthur. I’m sure you passed through that holy gate without a hitch.