The ladies of the church often noted that Hattie Bohannon appeared taller than she really was. They regretted that she took a tan well and looked fashionable, while most women her age, raised on the class/color quotient, had shied from the sun to maintain their perch above the rising tide of social democracy. However, current fashion equated tans with health and youth. So these same women drove first to the tanning salon on the town square, where they burned for $15 an hour, and then trudged to a pink gym twice a week so they could jiggle in pastel sweatsuits, like fruit-and-butterscotch swirl puddings, in front of a huge mirror. They drew the line at the sauna. Diseases lurked there.
What disturbed them even more about Hattie Bohannon was her ease in handling orphanhood, widowhood, and de facto single parenthood. Hattie had no breakdowns or depressions or weight gains or drug dependencies. Equally disturbing was her smooth clear skin that hinted of expensive treatments, old Atlanta, and inner peace. There was no Christian way not to admire her.
She was friendly and moral–the kind of woman you could trust with your husband–but come to think of it, that was a little peculiar. Did she think she was too good for their husbands? Impossible. She was from Brentone, the resort town on the other side of the mountain, where questionable things went on. Northerners vacationed there, demanding foods with foreign names. They spent the evenings splashing nude (it was reported) in the natural springs. As a girl, Hattie Dameron had waitressed at the resort and snagged Oakley Bohannon, a man twice her age, for a husband.
In truth, the Resurrection ladies claimed they rarely thought of her, except on the few occasions when they emerged from aerobics, sapped and glowing, and spotted her coming from the bank, dry in a cotton print dress, another transaction mastered and satisfaction reflected in her calm smile. That woman could flatter a pair of overalls, they’d think, and wonder what they were doing wrong–not that they’d be caught dead in overalls.
They watched her new truck-stop venture with more attention. Even went up there and ate and were surprised that the grubs–truckers–it was designed for had not made the place grubby. It was okay for a cheap meal, say on a Wednesday night before church, but not the place to go for a nice dinner out.
This gossip that clogged the telephone wires at the Maridoches exchange drove Jewell Miller, telephone operator and police dispatcher, veteran of World War II, absolutely mad. Was this the democracy she had fought for in the Women’s Army Corps? Was this why she had lost her left leg below the knee? More than once she’d misconnected parties only to have the conversations flow smoothly into one another without a pause for subject-verb agreement.
In the blue light of the dawn, Hattie Bohannon held her hand out to feel the air. She stood in shadow on her porch and leaned over the rail, testing the darkness. In it she smelled heat, the tips of summer’s fingers creeping into the valley. From now on, whatever drifted into Maridoches would wallow there until football season began.
Hattie licked her lips. It would be her truck stop’s first summer. Fifty yards below her house it gleamed, an island of light in the Ruby River Valley. She had created a world bigger than the dark mountains outlined across the highway, a world as vast as the brightening sky. Seeds planted in distant soils, in arid climates and in cold ones, grew into vegetables and grains, were harvested, packed, and sent in cool trucks to her address, where they nourished thousands of customers, who, in her mind’s eye, became a sea of different-colored bill caps bent over Coca-Colas. Mississippi catfish slinking along muddy river bottoms, Iowa beef grazing dumbly near corrugated steel sheds, Florida oranges fluorescent against their green foliage, crisp apples from Delaware, Kentucky raspberries so lusciously red she always wanted to plunge her hands into the containers. Her heart beat with awe at the world she had spun around her.
She tested the cup of coffee cooling on the rail. Mornings like this made her miss Oakley. The big sign over his former fields, Bohannon’s, would have pleased him. But this was not his world anymore. She’d razed his tobacco barn to make room for the truck stop. The dark wood had heaved and groaned before collapsing into the sweetest-smelling lumber she’d ever known. She was glad he’d been in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., the last four years, spared the upheaval of the interstate. But he’d always imagined coming back home. She sighed. A year after his death, his body was stuck in beaurocratic limbo. The good people at Walter Reed had lost his remains. She drained her coffee and went inside to rouse her daughters.
When she came out, dressed in her uniform, ready to lead her parade of girls to work, she saw a tractor trailer, sporting a logo of vegetables doing the can-can, park behind the truck stop. Hattie leapt off the porch and ran down the driveway past the bank of wild roses, scattering gravel, until her sneakers smacked the flat blacktop parking lot. As the truck’s accordion back door squealed open, she picked up her pace. She flung herself across the delivery entrance. Her breath was hot.
A trucker in wide-hipped jeans backed toward her, balancing a box in his arms.
“Open that box,” she said. A broom leaned against the wall, just out of reach.
He swung around and stepped toward her. Two drops of sweat peered, like the eyes of a field mouse, out of his mustache. She didn’t recognize him–probably an independent, gotten cheap. His box of Florida Sun-Ripened Tomatoes rested in his arms just inches from her nose. Flattened against the closed door, she looked beyond him into the yawning trailer full of gassed vegetables. Once he got the box into the truck stop, she had to accept this delivery.
“Open it.” A small crowd, witnesses, had come out of the restaurant. She pushed the box back at him.
He staggered. “Lady, I’m not going to unload every tomato by hand.”
“Open the box.”
The box slid down to the shimmering pavement. He ripped the cardboard and, with a grin, raised a pink tomato above his head. The crowd booed. He hitched his pants, paused, hitched them again, then strutted toward the loaded dolly.
‘don’t unload another one of those things.” Hattie picked up the broom and stepped into the lot. She tossed the firm tomato high above the truck, a pink ball brilliant against the blue sky. As it fell, she swung. A solid hit on the broom straw. The tomato careened off the shiny truck, barely missing the trucker’s head, and landed in the parking lot.
Gee Sullivan, a regular customer who was half deaf, hollered, “It ain’t even split.”
“Hit another one, Hattie, to make sure,” said Haw, Gee’s twin.
She rested the broom against the wall and waved the customers away. “I got business to take care of.” Not a bad swing for a forty-two-year-old, she thought. She yelled to the trucker, who shoved the box with his foot. “I won’t buy shoddy produce. This is the third shipment in a row of substandard vegetables. Tell Mr. Ranford I wouldn’t take them.”
“I’ll save him some trouble. This is the last delivery you’ll see for a while,” said the trucker.
Hattie turned on her heel and strode into her restaurant, where the steady sound of silverware and the intermittent flutter of napkins was all the applause she needed. The place was clean and comfortable. She conceded one small aisle to the right of the cashier for chips, candy, cigarettes, and cold drinks. A red arrow glued to the cash register directed customers down the long counter that swept into a curve, opening up a large room lined with padded booths and private phones, the preference of truckers and travelers. In the center of the room, beneath a shower of country songs, round tables spun with local romance.
The decor did not look like it belonged in a truck stop. Hattie refused the deer heads, stuffed fish, and presidents’ portraits suggested by Kenny Ranford’s salesman. She believed people wanted to eat in comfort without something dead looking at them. She painted the walls sky blue, chose dark blue seat covers, and placed seasonal flowers in thin juice glasses on the tables.
Weaving through the breakfast crowd, Hattie smiled as she recalled her interview with Kenny Ranford two years ago. He’d said, “You are doing this truck-stop thing because you have no other way to make a living. You are a desperate woman.”
Desperate as Hank Aaron, she thought. Desperate as Babe Ruth. In her office, she opened the ledger to the savings account and felt a quick rush of pleasure. The balance always gave her a lift, not that she had extravagant plans for the profits she made. Only to send Heather, who was seven, to college when the time came. The other girls, Connie at sixteen, Darla, eighteen, and Jessamine, twenty-one, were too old to benefit from a savings plan. They thought she ought to get a new car. She had no use for a new car. True, Oakley’s Jetstar 88 was an antique, having passed its twentieth birthday. But it was a large steel machine and it gave her a tremendous sense of security as she drove on the highway. Let those expensive toys cruise by but they’d better not hit her. The Jetstar would squash them flat. No, she’d tell her girls, I don’t need a new car. This one is in prime condition. No sense replacing steel with fiberglass. Kenny Ranford wanted her to be a showy success. He’d cook up something like a gold Cadillac with a vanity plate proclaiming eats.
She picked up the mail, half sorted. A pink envelope from North Carolina topped the stack. Inside was a matchbook. Printed in red and black letters, its cover read: full-color photos of beautiful models on adhesive-backed decals. Its small print said, Apply to automobile dash or locker door or carry in wallet. She unfolded the matchbook. A naked woman stretched diagonally across the yellow one-by-one inch square. Her glow-in-the-dark red mouth was open, her eyes shut, one hand on a bent knee, the other cupping her thigh underneath her very white buttocks. She was wearing short black heels. The photo was out of focus. Dixie Nudes, indeed.
Hattie threw it in the trash. She was amazed by the amount of creativity that went into the advertisement of condoms. Scented ones she could not fathom. If you had to scent the condom, you shouldn’t be near the man who needed it. Naturally, Kenny Ranford had told her nothing about the disgusting machines that could junk up her rest rooms if she let them. Instead, he delighted in annoying her and began their conversations with his private secret of success. “I offer truck-stop franchises to single mothers. Divorced women. I do not mean the women with gold bracelets on their arms and booze on their breath. I mean women who fall into bed every night and sing hallelujah for the soft cushion of their pillows.”
She thought of Kenny’s saying on nights when she found the softness of the pillow too oppressively nonhuman. Then she’d get furious. If the Veterans Administration returned Oakley’s body, she could forge a new social life. With, perhaps, the sheriff? She flushed. He was due at ten o’clock with his squad for breakfast.
“I am not desperate,” she announced to herself. Adversity was an old defeated friend, and Hattie, who believed she operated best under duress, looked forward to beating the business odds in the same foolish perverse way she had looked forward to the labor and delivery of her first child.
The red-orange soup puckered then popped loud kisses as I bent over the cauldron, a two-gallon can of kidney beans digging into my hip. If I hurried the simmer, I could add cayenne before Gert, the day cook, returned with the meat for her special spaghetti sauce. Even though I was the kitchen manager at the truck stop, she and I fought all the time over the recipes. Gert thought there were three food groups: sugar, salt, and oil. If I cooked up a vegetable, she slipped a slab of bacon into the pot. I preferred food to taste like itself.
I tipped the can and stirred. The beans settled like silt. Strips of jalape”os, seeds intact, and sliced red onions bobbed in the thickening stew. I picked up the pepper sauce and shook it into the pot. That would give truckers a wake-up call before they hit the road.
Gert said that’s not our job. They got drugs for that.
She came back overloaded with packages of ground beef. Because she forced all her thick hair into a hair net, her nose gained prominence, arching forward like a dolphin diving into the spray. Her head looked unbalanced. Gert dumped the packages on the counter, then knifed each one before skinning off the plastic and cracking the Styrofoam backing. The meat hissed as it hit the hot griddle. I shuddered to imagine her with a fresh-shot deer.
When the ground beef turned from pink to brown, Gert took up her dicing knife and quartered a dozen garlic cloves. She scooted the shavings into a pile. “When is your mama going out with the sheriff?”
She liked to bring Mama into our arguments. It was her way of saying if I wasn’t the owner’s daughter, she’d be the manager and I’d be the cook. ‘sheriff Dodd’s a regular customer, that’s all.”
‘she ought to be looking somewhere else for happiness,” Gert said.
‘she’s not dating him, okay?” I scraped the cauldron hard to drown out what she might say next.
“Your mother’s been off her feed of late.” Gert moved down the grill and poked the warming sausages with a giant prong.
I glanced at the clock. My heart picked up a beat. Soon Richard would arrive and I would go on break. I pictured him like he was the day we met, standing on the deck of a speedboat, the wind whipping around his tanned chest, the flecks of gray in his hair like the rifts of foam on the dark lake.
“It’s hot as hell,” said Gert, as she threw open the back door. Late spring’s languor was starting to build on the blacktop.
A drop of sweat formed on my forehead and fell toward the chili. I lifted my head to brush it dry and saw Richard staring through the employees only door. I blushed to my roots because I knew from his crooked grin that we were remembering another drop of sweat and how it came to be, he and I so close we shared it. I watched the drop spread on the edge of the pot and vanish.
Even without looking I knew his shirt was tucked crisply into his ironed khakis. He had a nice face, with just enough cheekbone to offset his blue eyes. He was forty-seven but still built, square shouldered, kind of shy in public like me. Our bodies talked best for us.
Gert peered down her arched nose at me. She knew the air had changed and she seemed to have got a whiff of why. She shook her head and went harumpf and muttered some evil little prayer, but I did not care because I knew what Richard and me did was absolutely right.
I tasted the chili and it was perfect, full-bodied and peppery.
Gert took off her apron and freed her thick dark hair from the hair net. Swaths of flesh fell from her shoulders and gathered neatly like balloon drapes above her hard round elbows. The rest of her looked solid, shoulders and legs muscled for action. “I’m going to ask your mother to come to church with me.”
She was gone before I could answer. Richard said Gert’s church, the Church of the Holy Resurrection, was like the kudzu weed overrunning the South. His wife attended services there daily. Mama would never brighten their door. Richard’s clean plate came in on Connie’s tray, the circle of crab apple placed dead center, like a bull’s eye.
It was cool and dark in the storeroom. I lingered in Mama’s recliner, soft gold, worn corduroy. It reminded me of the rows of corn across the valley in the fall, burnished and even. I leaned back, cradled by the soft cloth, and smiled. It was all I could do. My clothes were here and there and Richard had left me glowing again.
He had held my breasts as if they were precious and fragile, then caressed them with his mouth as if they provided succulent necessary nourishment. He did this before and after and during.
The chair felt to me like the hand of God. I was held in His great palm, the golden light of His approval washing over us as we made love. There was nothing else that feeling could be but holy.
Richard had left me a bag of chocolate kisses and I ate them one by one, letting each pyramid melt to a small spoonful of sweetness before sliding down my throat. I was insatiable for chocolate after we were together. I traded with him. He gave me silver-coated kisses and I gave him quarters for his trips to Mississippi, where he played the slots.
The door banged open and in came the cart of cleaning supplies, buckets rattling and rags swishing, followed by Gert’s heavy footsteps. I held my breath and hoped she’d leave the cart and go back to the kitchen.
She huffed loudly, paused to look back down the hall, then pushed the rear of the cart into the room. She skirted it, cursing as her hip hit the Lysol dispenser, which sent out an antiseptic spray. Off balance, her behind swished around aimed at my chair. I shouted, “Holy Moses!”
She dropped a cigarette pack and gasped, covered her mouth, and crossed herself like Catholics do. Then she lunged toward the light switch and turned it on.
“Thanks, I needed that.” I crossed my legs.
Her face was dark red and she collapsed into a swivel chair that bucked like an unwilling horse. I dared not move.
We sat a minute or two staring, me getting paler and more naked than I’d ever been while her face shifted through all the shades of the color spectrum. When we discovered neither was go-ing to yell again, we relaxed, breathing in tandem. Gert picked up the pack of Marlboros she dropped. “Could you reach me them matches?”
They had fallen underneath my chair, too far back for her to reach without some major contortions of the flesh. Her knees loomed like white boulders. She ought to be required to wear pants. I tucked my feet under my butt and posed my hands as if they were fig leaves. “Could you wait to have a smoke until after I leave?”
Gert tapped the cigarette on her knee. It bounced up and down as she sucked her cheeks between her teeth and began to chew them. She was addicted. I would have to move first, before Mama came down the hall wondering where the kitchen staff was. Our restaurant was smoke-free, no smoking allowed. None. Mama was willing to lose a customer here or there to keep her restaurant clean. My father had smoked all his life and it had killed him, so she was zero tolerance on cigarettes. Gert knew her job was in danger.
My lavender bikinis dangled from the knob on the closet door. A sigh heavy as an old woman’s came from my lips. Would Gert tell on me?
I reached over and palmed the underwear. As I inched them up my thighs, they rolled into a stretchy string. I flushed. My movements were obscene, as if Richard were still there while Gert occupied a ringside seat.
I tossed her the matches. She lit up, inhaled, and blew the letters of her name in smoke at the ceiling, a hazy e dissolving on the too-bright bulb.
I smoothed out my underwear, taking time to line up the small triangles in the front and back before skittering over to Gert’s chair and snatching the bra from its leg. I fumbled with the bra’s front hooks. Richard preferred that kind. None of his passion put on hold while he clawed at fasteners he couldn’t see.
“Pretty titties,” Gert said.
I blushed and retrieved my uniform.
I shook my head, then said, ‘sure.” I’d smoked until Richard complained about my breath.
“You know, girlie, you’re going to hell in a handbag.” Now that Gert had had her fix, she puffed up, lording the situation over me, her usual grand toady self.
“That’s my business.”
“You’re screwing a married man. You’re twenty–”
“You done had a baby.”
“I did not. I did not have a baby.” No one, not even my friends, had ever guessed the truth about Heather. I inhaled, my fingers shaking. The smoke came back up through my nose.
Gert took a long slow draw, her eyes shutting as she relished the pleasure of nicotine hitting her cranium. I thought of dinosaurs, grand in body, tiny of brain, settling for so little.
Gert smiled. “You think I don’t see them stretch marks on your titties?”
The overhead bulb was unbearably bright, highlighting in pale purple the faded darts along my breasts, indelible reminders I’d take to my grave of a pregnancy I had to forget. In private I sometimes looked at them because they were proof that I had borne a child. Deep down, my body remembered the stretch, the way my hips opened, the pain of milk not drunk. Wasn’t skin supposed to replace itself every seven years?
No one else had noticed. Not Richard. Maybe only women would know. I finger-combed my hair. “At least I won’t end up working as a go-go dancer.”
Gert laughed. “No, but you could end up with a can of Lysol as your best friend.”
The phone rang, the sound I’d been waiting for. Richard’s call that came after he got back to work. I lifted the receiver after the fourth ring, wishing Gert was gone so I could tell him about my bizarre experience with her, when he blurted, “I’m getting a divorce,” and hung up the phone.
Gert saw my face, its sudden dark tinge, and walked out. My break was long over but I couldn’t go back to the heat of the kitchen. I picked up the bag of chocolates and ate five or six kisses, chewing and swallowing without tasting. I wanted to go to Richard and say, Don’t get a divorce. Think of us. We are fine. I’d almost told him the truth about Heather, but keeping secrets from my secret lover added a sweetness that was almost unbearable.
I folded the pants of the blue uniform, then the pebbly top, and dropped them into the laundry basket. In the closet, I found my white blouse and khaki shorts. If Richard got a divorce, his wife would reign as pity queen until the next man threw away his worn-out wedding vows. Everyone would know about us. And what about us? Was there any kind of future for Richard and me?
I went outside to finish the chocolate. Heather was jumping rope on the blacktop. She’d tied one end to the door handle of a patrol car and had a trucker turning the other. Soon I was turning the rope and she was chanting, ‘my mother and your mother hanging out clothes/My mother punched your mother right in the nose,” her blond hair flipping up and down at the ends. My little lie had gained fifty pounds.
My virginity vanished quickly, not in a progression of stumbling steps but suddenly one night, at the river, with a boy I barely knew. It was the last weekend before ninth grade. Already the water had started to cool but Darryl, my cousin, dared everybody, even us girls, to go skinny-dipping. Darryl stood on top of the big rock, silhouetted against the red sky, and hollered like Tarzan, beating his chest and making his other parts shake. Right then a boy I did not know slipped a Styrofoam cup into my hand and wrapped his fingers around mine. I smiled and he smiled back. We gave each other sips of peach brandy, our hands twined around the warm cup. Soon I was giggling. When the brandy was drunk, the boy pulled his white T-shirt over his head, then stepped out of his jeans. Without a word he walked up to the big rock and dived. Minutes passed, it seemed, before I heard his splash.
Behind a thicket of junipers, the other girls giggled as they stripped. I picked up the boy’s clothes. His shirt held the faint smell of tobacco. I undressed, crossed the small beach, and walked straight into the water, as if nudity was my common appearance. The other girls followed, running, laughing loudly. The boys hooted.
My skin tingled as water crept up my thighs and on up over my shoulders. The others were swimming further out, where several rock islands formed a cove. I parted the water with my hands and let the ripples break coolly on my breasts, frog-kicking shivers all the way to my toes.
On the far bank, fireflies blinked like a thousand tiny lighthouses, fluid and various, a thousand destinations. The boy appeared silently from underwater, the sudden gleam of his limbs beneath the surface a shock. I treaded water. He swam on. His arms, white in the moonlight, rose up and beckoned with each arc of the crawl. I soon matched his strokes and we crossed the current, heading for the rocks. I veered toward a willow. The long wet leaves brushed over me like fingers as I glided toward the trunk. Overhead, the branches rocked in soft rhythm, a murmur of river and cove. The boy slid close. His warmth surprised me but my skin welcomed it. He kissed me and I kissed him while my whole body shivered from the cold, the warmth, the water, the night air.
Heather is my baby. I feel she is only mine. The boy faded distantly until I couldn’t remember the color of his hair, the slant of his shoulders, if he was tall or smart or fun or cute. I couldn’t see him in her at all as she tired of jumping and raced into the truck stop for a drink. I left the rope dangling from the sheriff’s door and picked up my bag of chocolate.
Even Darla and Connie don’t know that Heather is mine. That was the first lie, or the beginning of it. I ate another kiss. One lie led to another. It was an addiction, perhaps as great as that to cigarettes, just as deadly, accumulating like tar in the lungs. Soon breathing would be impossible. Soon speaking would be impossible. I’d suffocate myself with my own lies, my mouth clogged with fabrication. My body could function and I’d smile, plastic as a TV actress, desirable, of course, because of what I presented. But I’d know I was dead.
I passed the cash register in the dining room and snuck breath mints from the candy shelf. Heather and Mama shared a booth with Sheriff Dodd. A bowl of chili and a half-drunk sweet tea sat in front of each of them. Mama’s spoon was coated with the greasy red residue but Sheriff Dodd’s was licked clean.
Mama laughed, at some stupid joke no doubt, the lines around her eyes transformed into good-humored crinkles. She had naturally curly brown hair and smooth skin that she maintained with Dove soap and lots of cold cream. She liked clear nail polish, nothing tacky, and had this air of aboveness, like she was running the truck stop out of the goodness of her heart, not economic necessity. The truckers said ‘ma”am” when Mama walked by and put their napkins in their laps and never ever made any lewd suggestions to her. I should be so lucky. Heather lounged on Mama, a wet Sugar Daddy in one hand.
Sheriff Dodd’s cropped hair slowly came to attention on his pinky clean scalp. His cap hung on the corner of the table, above Mama’s knee. “That’s a mighty big girl to be sitting on her mama’s lap,” he said.
‘she’s my baby. When she’s fifty years old, she’ll still be my baby and she can still sit on my lap,” Mama said.
Heather smacked her lips.
“I wasn’t allowed to eat candy before supper,” I said, feeling the dig though Mama didn’t mean it. That’s what got me angry. Once Mama took over Heather, she didn’t seem to think I had any feelings for the baby. It was like giving birth was an anonymous act. “You must be getting soft in your old age.”
“You need glasses, honey,” Sheriff Dodd said. “That’s one firm woman.”
A faint blush appeared on Mama’s face, as if she and Sheriff Dodd shared a common cord.
I couldn’t believe it.
I stood above her brown, softly waved perfection of curls and aimed nasty thoughts at them, snarls to catch her comb on. She slid Heather off her lap and turned toward me, giving him a better profile. He reached toward her chili with his spoon and said, ‘may I?”
She nodded as he dug in, with the manners of a cur.
I had to get out of there.
If I could get quarters, I would take them to Richard, and we’d talk about our future. Having something to offer seemed necessary. We were in new territory now, him and me. The truth would spread like wildfire and torch this place Mama had built. Unless I stopped it now. ‘mama, I need ten dollars for the rest of the day.”
“It’ll come out of your salary.”
“I know.” I resisted saying, What salary?
“Take a ten and mark it down in the ledger.”
“Can’t I have quarters?”
“We’re low on quarters in the register.” Mama’s voice was so even, I couldn’t help but be impressed. But her cheeks rose and deepened past a pleasant blush. Her eyes were blue flint. “Ten dollars is ten dollars.”
‘don’t be a grump,” said Heather.
I went to Mama’s office, knowing she’d be out front with Sheriff Dodd long enough for her skin to fade to a more pristine shade. I used the tiny key to click open the cash drawer, took out a roll of quarters and put in the ten. I had to have them. They were my reason to call Richard, which I never had done before. We had to talk. To protect us from the people we feared so much, our customers and friends in Maridoches. The quarters fit into the valley between my breasts.
Richard was not taking any calls, I was told when I phoned Logan’s Yard, which meant he was probably at home. I headed out toward his house but my stomach got queasy, too much chocolate rush. So I cruised off the highway and headed up an old road and thought about glasses of milk. Soon I passed brick houses with mowed yards and old tires planted with marigolds. I drove higher and higher up a mountain that began in Georgia clay and rose over the state line, combs of southern pines spiking its soil.
A vaguely familiar scent drifted in the window, the smoky scent of damp wood and pine needles untouched by the sun. It was the same thick air that had surrounded me in the days after Heather’s birth. Mama had arranged for me to wait out my pregnancy with Aunt Leola up on Sand Mountain. That year, Daddy was in and out of the Birmingham hospital, so he did not see my shame, but he wrote me funny notes about his confinement. Mama ate herself fat to convince everyone at home that she was pregnant.
My birthing screams were partly anger, partly pain, but they marked the end of my bliss. Mama made me walk every day, even those first days when walking and sitting were so painful. She made me walk until we flattened a path through the broom sedge to a granite slab jutting over the valley. Then she made me sit flat on the warm rock for fifteen minutes morning and night.
“Help you heal,” Mama said, as she nursed my baby.
It is seven years and I am not healed. Shame hovers around our front door, threatening to come in and break up our house, if I dare say what is in my heart. When I see my little girl hugging Mama tight and hear her, every night across the hall, praying to keep Mama safe, my stomach churns like a washing machine. She is pretty and has hazel eyes. Her light hair is like mine. I am so close but I can never hold her like I want to.
Eventually the afternoon heat reached the pines and filled the car. I had to do something. I knew what lying felt like, invisible ankle cuffs weighing me down. But telling the truth would be freedom to own my life. Mama was wrong to lie about Heather. I would tell the truth about Richard and me. Then watch me fly! It was strange to think what I needed really mattered. I mashed that pedal to the floor before I could chicken out and start to consider everyone else first, as Mama had taught me to do.
Richard’s house squatted on a shallow plateau in the middle of a steep hill. Fresh yellow paint around the door reflected, like flames, two geraniums placed below the slim windows. I remembered a dab of paint on Richard’s neck, a yellow spot at the base of his skull after he’d tossed me the chocolate kisses, just before he stepped into the hall.
I rapped hard on the door, wondering why it was closed in the heat. I didn’t hear an air conditioner. It was too quiet on the steep hill, in the clipped yard. Nothing moved. I swung my purse against my thigh to hear my keys jingle.
“Come in,” a woman called. Richard’s wife. I didn’t think she’d be here. Before I could run, she opened the door.
I stepped through the doorway into the dark living room. Gradually I noticed the floor-length drapes drawn closed, the sand-colored carpet, two stuffed chairs upholstered in cool violet chintz, the sofa print, geometric birds in chocolate, violet, and teal. It was a desert effect, the desert at night. I shivered. The woman held some mending, a thread between her front teeth, her eyes looking up under shy, lined brows.
She tied a knot and deftly snapped the thread. ‘may I help you?” she said, with the brittle veneer that passes for politeness to strangers.
We were the same height but Mrs. Reynolds’s coloring was brown, a surprise. I expected a pale, puny woman. I spied the beauty mark Richard had mentioned, a dark mole on her cheek, framed by a stiff curl. Her other moles were hidden in lingerie. “I’m Jessamine Bohannon and I’ve come for Richard.”
Mrs. Reynolds’s face froze. Her mud-colored lips blanched. She stretched her mouth wide several times and coughed. “Oh, do you work with him? In accounts? Purchasing? You’re from Logan’s Yard?”
Mrs. Reynolds’s voice did not change pitch, her face stiffened. She knew. That kept me planted firmly in the heavy carpet. Richard had always assured me that no one, especially his wife, knew about us.
“It’s not my fault,” I said, and, realizing my sentence lay there like a lit match, added, “your divorce.”
Mrs. Reynolds closed her eyes. Her chest heaved but her mouth stayed firmly clenched.
On my right was a china cabinet full of religious figurines. Porcelain scrolls offered scripture lessons in fine-lettered gold.
I turned back to find myself pinned by Mrs. Reynolds’s eyes.
‘deciding what you want when I’m gone and you live here?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want your things.”
“No. Merely my husband.” Mrs. Reynolds paused. A short whistling came out of her nose. “I suppose I should give you a tour. Please come to the kitchen.” She gripped my elbow with strong fingers and guided me into the next room. “The oven” –she banged open the door–”cooks twenty-five degrees higher than its setting. I asked Richard to fix it but he never did. You should have no problem getting him to do what you want.” She opened all the blond cabinet doors, letting them swing into each other, showing every box and bag wrapped in plastic and secured with a twist tie at the top. “It’s cockroach free. The chill keeps the vermin away.” She slammed back a wooden lid. “And here you’ll store the potatoes. And here.” She dumped a bucket of garbage down a chute.
‘mrs. Reynolds, Mrs. Reynolds, please. Richard hasn’t asked me to marry him.” I shrugged my arm loose and did not add yet because she was already in a frenzy.
“Live in sin then as you already have been!”
‘mrs. Reynolds, he’s just leaving right now. That’s all,” I said, and realized that was the kernel of it all. He’d promised me nothing.
“Oh, no, you don’t, you little bitch.” Mrs. Reynolds’s mouth stopped as if to taste a new forbidden flavor. “Bitch!” she screamed. “Bitch!”
She lunged forward and ripped my blouse open. Her hands so adept at knots were equally skilled at ripping, knowing a garment’s structural weaknesses. In a single yank, my bra was unhooked. “Look at them! Look at them! Perfect! That’s what he wants!”
Mrs. Reynolds tore open her blouse and unsnapped her bra. “Look at mine!”
I backed to the door and ducked my head. “No,” I said.
Mrs. Reynolds had only one breast. Where the other had been, a ridge ran, raised and pink against her brown skin.
I covered my bosom with my arms. The swift memory of Richard’s obsession with my breasts made me gag. I leaned into the refrigerator with my eyes closed, hoping the coolness would keep me from getting sick. My knees gave way and I sank to the hard floor.
“Too ugly for you, my dear?” Mrs. Reynolds stepped closer.
I saw Richard in my mind. His chest sagged, and he was brown and wrinkled on his torso but he’d never been ugly before. Tits, that’s what I was to him. A pair of tits. “I have to leave.”
“Oh, no,” said Mrs. Reynolds. “It’s too soon.” She shook out her hair, took off her blouse and folded it into a square, then took off her bra and hung it on a cabinet door. Her breaths gradually became silent. “Well. You can’t leave looking like that.” Lightly touching my arm, she helped me stand up, then led me to a closet and took out a navy cardigan. She held it open for me and I forced my arms through the sleeves. Inside the big sweater, I shrank. I was a puppet being pulled along by Mrs. Reynolds.
“You must have some tea. It’s already made.” Before I could escape, Mrs. Reynolds said, “I insist.”
I sank into the sofa while Mrs. Reynolds poured iced tea. The cubes were large and square and had sat in the glass unmelting for as long as I had been there. The tea was the kind Mama served at the truck stop, sweet and sticky.
“When is your wedding day?” Mrs. Reynolds said.
Her words poked my bruised heart. Richard never intended anything but sex, but for me it was holy. My fingers numbed around the glass. I hated her suddenly, this strange ugly woman. I wanted to leave but she had me cornered with her one brown breast staring like an accusing eye. “There isn’t one.”
‘so he’s plain leaving me.” Mrs. Reynolds sipped her tea. A change passed over her eyes. The iris and pupil blended into one dark hole that gave off only the impression of energy. There was no spark of intelligence, no hint of expression behind it. She set her mouth in a line that could have been called a smile if it wasn’t for the paralysis of her eyes. She opened her sewing box and took out a pair of large new shears. The blades, ten inches long, shone too brightly to have ever been used on the thick material they were designed for. Mrs. Reynolds slowly rubbed each blade with a scrap of corduroy.
“You know,” she said. “Richard gave these to me at Christmas.” She opened and shut them. Then, as if fascinated by the shirring sound, she clapped the handles faster and faster. Holding the flashing shears above her head, she stepped toward me.
I slipped the quarter roll out of my purse and wrapped my fingers around it. I climbed over the couch and scooted backwards toward the front door, bumping the china cabinet and rattling the contents.
“Are you afraid of me?” Mrs. Reynolds gave a short spurt of a laugh.
I slammed the front door. At the end of the driveway I stopped the car, stripped off the sweater, and threw it in the ditch. My burning fingers fumbled to button the one button remaining on my blouse.
Mrs. Reynolds moved from window to window, shearing the drapes in half. The sashes fell first; the heavy fabric curled slowly toward the floor; the half curtain swayed uncertainly.
I sped up and down the hills and caught sight of Richard’s red Oldsmobile rolling toward home like a marble in a trough. I pulled over behind a rotten barn and watched him drive by. He was singing; an arrangement of daffodils and glads was propped up in the passenger seat.
The car dipped out of sight. I imagined Mrs. Reynolds with her scissors tearing into Richard, slamming his head with the flat of the blades, jabbing him, until he felt like I did.
©2002 by Lynn Pruett. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.