Excerpts from This Will Never Stop with commentary.
I recently finished a book entitled This will Never Stop about four West Virginia women. Each spoke at length, some more than others, and as I typed the last paragraph, it was with a sense of completion. After all, I’d been with Lorraine, Carmen, Jenna, and Lizzie for nearly a year, reconciling not only their lives but their relationships, shuffling through a myriad of complaints until I fastened on what they really wanted to say. I’d chased them barefoot in the rain, up hills and down hollers, bolted to a bus stop, and even crawled through cut wire while mosquitoes buzzed over my head.
It was time to say goodbye.
But they’re still talking and they shouldn’t. Their sighs are like wind through heavy ivy; the leaves puff out, then the wind recedes. Snakeskins are in the lattice, brownish-green.
I’ve become jumpy.
“Lizzie? Carmen?” I call out when I’m alone. “Jenna, is that you?”
No one else can hear them. I know this to be true. The gurgle of water down a drain holds wild laugher; the dryer thumps, not with wet blankets, but with hands pounding to get in, and the fall leaves? They swirl like complaints, rising without wind. My ears itch as though filled with fleas.
They’re in this together.
A week ago, I put a flashlight, a pinch of pepper, and a silver-shaped bottle of perfume on the nightstand beside me. The days passed without incident and I began to write The Mortician’s Granddaughter, the sequel. Pearl has a story; Andrea, Margaret Veach, and Lena too. Pearl is a starburst inside me. She has a story of such love and loyalty that if I write nothing else, I must write her. I will tell her story in the way I heard it: unflinching, aching, and with dignity. I want everyone to know she was always a beauty, inside and out.
I am up to page fifty when I hear it. B. has just left town for what he thinks is the last time when the squeak of chairs interrupts me. The stir of a spoon inside a cup, the delicate ring as it drops against a saucer. Muffled laughter and what sounds like a spill. My characters are drinking coffee in my dining room.
I lean against the door jamb and watch my women. They’ve put the extra leaf in the round table, which makes it oblong, so now there is a foot and a head. Or rather two heads, for Lizzie and Carmen sit at each end. Carmen isn’t putting on a brave face, she is one. She looks delighted to be here, and is wearing a shapeless lavender dress with a beaded topper. Her hair is piled atop her head, and long earrings dangle from her ears. Lorraine sits to her right, looking relaxed and so in love with her mother that her face is flushed like a young girl’s. Jenna is happy because she’s wearing her short shorts. She’s delighted that her dead grandmother is now undead because Lorraine made it a point to tell her the shorts were her grandmother’s idea. “Believe everything she tells you, Jenna,” Lorraine told her. “Mom said that even though this is an exhibitionistic phase most teenagers go through, you should start making choices at this juncture in your life.” Lizzie is a skeleton, but even so, she’s the first to see me.
“Look who’s here. The mighty writer.”
“Mom, stop. You might not like the –“
“Oh, I know what you’re going to say and that’s not it at all. I’ve been shut up in a coffin, and now I’m shut up in a book.”
“Books have beginnings and books have ends.” Jenna doesn’t bother to look at her great grandmother. She’s busy watching a red Mustang drive slowly down the hill. “You can’t expect Joan to write about us forever.”
“Why not? She could do a second book. We’re better than Pearl Ellis.”
Lorraine swings her head in my direction and her eyes say it all. Traitor. “You’re writing about Pearl? Why?”
“Because she’s –.” I stop. I don’t want an argument. Once you start arguing with one of these women, they’ll all climb in after, and you’ll never get done.
“She has a story as well,” I say, more defensively than I should. After all, I am the author. “It’s only fair.”
“Did you make her better?” The skeleton that is Lizzie leans forward. “Did you make her better than me?”
“Mom is saying this due to a deeply rooted inferiority complex,” said Carmen. “Plus, now that the book is finished, she’s afraid of being abandoned.”
I ignore this. ” I didn’t make her better. I love you both.”
“Then why –“
“Because it’s time.”
Lizzie makes a clicking sound like teeth against tongue. And this could happen. Flesh regrowth. In the back of my mind, I’m beginning to realize there’s some things over which I have no control.
“One book isn’t enough.” Keening shakes her bones. “I want everybody to know that I remembered more about my daddy. I want them to know how Charlie LeMasters died. I want them to know that Al returned.”
“I’ll put you on my blog,” I tell her quickly. I can’t stand to see a skeleton cry.
“Why would you put me on a log? What kind of writer are you, anyway ?”
“Blog.” I over pronounce the B.
“It’s a place where she writes her thoughts so everyone can read them,” says Jenna. “On a computer.”
“We’re her thoughts,” explains Carmen.
“That’s what I thought,” I say.
“So you’ll put me on this blog?” asks Lizzie. The tips of her fingers now have nails.
“The only way I can write about you is to put the book on the blog.” Before she can protest, I say, “You don’t exist outside the book, Lizzie. Those pages are your home. But in the times between, times like these, I’ll let you rewrite yourself.”
Surprisingly, they all nod. They understand me. What’s more, they’re satisfied. While Pearl, Andrea, Margaret Veach and Lena are still forming, they’re going to be in black and white for everyone to see.
Jenna watches the red Mustang come back up the hill.
“About that bottle,” begins Lizzie, and I cover my ears. I know what she’s going to say and I know that she’s going to haggle all the way through the rewrite. She didn’t want it in a throwaway moment, but that’s life. Or death, in her case.
“I can’t change the book in print,” I tell her. Lizzie starts to say something but Carmen silences her with her hand. “The blog is up for negotiation, but there must be rules. First of all, I don’t want any more laugher from the sink traps, I don’t want any more leaves up to my chin, and the itching in my ears stops now.”
Even as I say this, I pull at my earlobe.
“But we didn’t –” begins Lorraine, and then breaks off. All three look at the skeleton sitting at the end of my table.
“Grandma!” says Lorraine, and Lizzie lets out a high witch’s sound.
“Stop it, Mom,” says Carmen. “She’s letting us write about ourselves. Which is pretty generous after all the. . . trouble some of us have caused.”
“Knock it off, Grandma Lizzie,” says Jenna. “West Virginia is hot. Everybody wants to read about us.”
Lorraine blinks and looks at her mom. Carmen mouths: Trending.
“Now, you must leave. I’ve got things to do.” I glance around the dining room after months of sitting behind a computer. “I have to dust.”
“I resent that,” says Lizzie, gone in a puff.
So, begins another book of sorts. The women re-writing themselves. Below is an excerpt from the actual book.
THIS WILL NEVER STOP
The vanity is a cherry veneer monstrosity, the kind of antique dealers laugh at. Attached to the back are three oval mirrors; the middle one, the longest, is crowned with a carved bouquet of rosebuds that, when the light is right, blink with gargoyle eyes in the sun. The blind is up, and the sun pours in steadily, but the woman sees only herself in the glass. Her freshly scrubbed mouth has been painted a dusky rose color; her hair is twisted atop her head without pins or clips in a way only she knows. Scattered before her are jars of creams, bottles of nail polish, lots of tissues smudged with shadow. The sun makes a dazzle on a gold mascara wand.
A child, just past eight, stands at the door watching. Her face is flushed; she had been running through the tangle of pear trees in the side yard. The girl’s attention is divided between the woman and the window, where she can see a dilapidated weather vane atop a detached garage. The husky humming sounds from the woman’s throat seem to turn it. The vane’s arrow swings north, then south, then in the direction of Glorious Life Pentecostal, where they are having a big revival.
The woman in my mind just now? That was my mother. Resurrection driven, gliding in and out of my mind as easily as a paschal moon, hungry for a feast.
We don’t celebrate Easter at my house. No church, no new patent leathers, no three-piece suit for the boy. Just two dozen eggs I’ll color and leave in the backyard while Royce drives to the mall and gets three huge pre-stocked Easter baskets from a party store. I always remind him to get pink, yellow, and blue because those were the colors of cellophane I used when I made them.
I made them until the nightmare.
I was stuffing Easter baskets late on a Saturday night when I fell asleep on the ear of a plush bunny. The sleep was light. I knew I was drifting, but I could rouse myself. I had stuff to do. Then exhaustion overcame me, and I plunged. I don’t know how long I slept before I met Mother, more real than she had a right to be and wearing the same soiled nightgown that smelled to high heaven. She was holding the silver bottle.
“Take it, Lorraine,” she said. “I’ll stay if you do.”
I woke, cursing, for this time I knew what I was being offered. A silver Judas. A slurred promise. A betrayal of trust. Sure, she left it behind on the day she left us, but that was because she was drunk and just forgot. Somewhere among another set of pear trees, I buried that silver bottle, and I know that somewhere, my mother bought another just like it.
The front door slams, and Nathan, my youngest, runs into the kitchen. His face is white beneath his tan, and he’s shaking like a hound hosed with cold water. His shoulders are hunched, the blades sticking out so prominently that I suddenly wonder if he’s eating enough. My girls are sturdy with matching dispositions. They would fight buzz saws.
“Mom,” he says, “I ran from the bad bus.”
“Nathan, today is Tuesday.” My voice is kind, even, but I step back and start putting things in the kitchen cabinets that don’t belong there: the salt and pepper shakers, the wind-up timer shaped like an apple, the cobalt blue napkin rings that belong in the napkin drawer. I’m remembering another small boy, my brother Jarrell. He was born a clinger, but after Mother left, he became a leech. I don’t think it would have happened if people, especially women, hadn’t kept reaching for him. He’s over the worst of it now, but for years, Jarrell had a problem with the bottle, trying not to grasp again.
Now I look at my son, proud of his skill, but defeated by circumstance. Doubtless, he’s run from an UPS truck.
“The bad bus doesn’t come until Sunday,” I tell him.
“Mom, I ran fast.”
“I know you did.”
The girls aren’t afraid of buses, but Nathan’s just turned five and still gets confused. I hammered bus facts into my children’s heads before they could walk. There are three buses that got through Harshbarger Mills: the yellow school bus, which you will never ride because you live in town; the Greyhound that stops twice a day on West Main; and the blue bus that says Glorious Life Pentecostal in letters about two feet high painted in state road yellow. Avoid the blue one, and if the driver gets out and tries to hand you a pamphlet, run straight indoors. Run for your lives! Run as if the very devil were on your heels! The girls laughed, delighted by my exaggeration, but Nathan took it to heart. I have to watch what I say around him.
My husband isn’t a Christian, but he used to be alarmed at the way I treated religion.
“Why does it matter so much to you that they don’t believe?” Royce said to me one night. “It’s a good clean way to live. Let them go to Sunday school with the rest of the kids. Nothing will happen.”
I propped myself up on my elbows and told him it wasn’t a matter of not believing. I hadn’t been inside Glorious Life Pentecostal since we were married, and there wasn’t one of those hypocrites who was a better Christian than I could have been. The point is, I continued, you can’t just be around Pentecostals. You can fight them, you can hate them, but once inside those double doors, you’ll start acting like them. The kids won’t know a day’s peace until they’re baptized, and after that, it’s all about abstaining from alcohol and sniffing out sin.
“But if that’s what you want,” I told him, “I’ll put them on the bus come Sunday. I’ll take them to the corner and show them where to stand. But let me warn you.” I straightened, taking the pressure off my elbows. “You’ll get more than you bargained for. Religion isn’t like cleaning a chicken. You can’t take the messy parts out.”
“You’ve been thinking about your mother,” Royce said flatly.
“Of course. She left at Easter, remember?”
“I didn’t know you then,” he muttered, facedown on the pillow.
“You knew about it, and don’t tell me different. Vera, Roseanne, and that uppity Jane Lee Veach? All pure as driven snow on the outside and rotten to the core underneath. They never let me forget for one minute what my mother did, and don’t tell me you didn’t listen to gossip. Everyone did. Nothing will happen? Listen, I had to go to that place after Mother left. No one would sit with me at the Sunday school table, and during the main service, Pastor Burgess always thundered about Whores of Babylon and Jezebels. Then when we read The Scarlet Letter in tenth grade, the whole thing started up again. Those kinds of scars don’t go away. I’d sooner let the kids join a street gang than that stupid Determined Disciples group. Are you listening?”
Of course, he wasn’t. Royce, having turned on his side, let out a rip of a snore. I thought about waking him and let it go. My bitching and venting about Pentecostals has become his bedtime story. Different words in different order but all told before.
My mother used to play the piano at Glorious Life Pentecostal. She’d sit at the bench, back straight, her wavy hair pinned up. In the spring, she wore corsages. Everyone liked her, and I once repeated a compliment that made her shake with laughter: Carmen’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.
I’ve given a lot of thought to her memory. At one point in my life, especially when Jenna and Carlee were small, I guess you could say she was all I thought about. I tried to imagine how she could leave us, especially when I was bathing my children. The sight of my girls lifting their arms to be helped out of the water made me think of my mother, and the thought twisted like a knife.
Sometimes, I’d see things her way, especially during those long summer months when Royce worked overtime. My husband works at Berry Construction; he’s their head drywall man. When the girls were small, Cliff Berry was building a subdivision out Yate’s Crossing called Love-the-Maples. Royce worked day and night finishing the dry wall so the painters could come in. He’d leave for work at five and sometimes not get home until past midnight. Then I could feel the pressure. Jenna was teething, and Carlee always seemed to have colic, and I’d walk the floor for hours, with a kid hanging on one leg and another squalling in my arms. Then it no longer seemed fantastic that a mother of three, saved when she was twelve, a virgin when she was married, could walk out on her family — just that she lasted as long as she did. She must have been like a motor idling.
My mother was a good woman; I’ll give her that. Her mother, Grandma Lizzie, was always at our house, teaching her how to cook and clean, and when we were sick, she didn’t waste time getting us to the doctor. Speaking of Grandma Lizzie, there was none finer. Without Grandma Lizzie, Lord knows how I would have turned out. When Mother left, she took us in until she had a stroke. Then West Virginia Child Placement Services interfered. But Grandma made sure I was remembered. She sent cards, addressed by the aide who went to Glorious Life Pentecostal, and I received dozens, each covered with flowers and a dollar or two tucked inside. even after I was fostered by the two schoolteachers and didn’t need one red cent. And the Thompsons in Davis County who took the twins, Rush and Jarrell? Before she would even consider such an arrangement, she made sure Mr. Thompson didn’t drink. But that was after Mother was gone, and I’m jumping ahead.
Like I said, I’ll thought a lot about my mother. I’ve even thought about her life before I was born. She was a change of life baby. Grandma Lizzie told me she hadn’t suspected she was pregnant until she was almost four months gone, and the shock spun her catawampus.
I don’t know what got into me, Lorraine. I must have been crazy. There I was, with what I thought was a pot belly, calling all my friends yet not allowing anyone to see me, not even Catherine, unless I was covered up in bed. I did the wash in the evenings, hung the clothes on the line in the dark, and brought them in around six, damp with dew. After she was born, I had the prettiest baby in the clinic. She had a headful of curls. I knew right then that Carmen was going to be someone special. As soon as Dr. Burdette released us, I showed her all over town.
No, she wasn’t crazy, just temporarily out of her sphere. For instance, where did the name Carmen Amber come from? My mother should have been named something serious, like Ruth, Leah, or even Mary. But Grandpa Hugh, the head usher, let it pass.
That was only the beginning. Grandma Lizzie learned to drive and not just around Harshbarger Mills. That might not sound like a big deal, but it was then because our part of the state is known for its terrible roads and circuitous routes. The only way to get to Clovington at the time was Route 40, a winding two-lane that was just as dangerous as any country road because the state never bothered to trim the growth along the berms. At a time when having a woman song leader in the church was a big stink, my grandmother drove to Clovington because her baby was going to have piano lessons from someone who knew music, and she was going to take tap, ballet, cotillion, and something no one teaches anymore — elocution.
There was always a lot of gossip. First, it concentrated around Grandma Lizzie. She told me so herself. Most of it came from Pearl Ellis, mother of crazy Lena and grandmother of Jane Lee Veach, who would torment me mercilessly at school after Mother left. Pearl actually stood up during a Wednesday night service and tried to prophesy. It didn’t work because everyone knew Pearl was incapable of seeing beyond her nose (which was very large and had a bump in the middle), but the words that flew out of her mouth stuck in my grandmother’s brain. Pearl prophesied that the devil now had a stronghold in Lizzie McComas, and because of her pride, Carmen Amber would desert the Savior and follow the world.
Grandma Lizzie repeated the accusation so often that I have to believe it bothered her more than she’d admit. But as often as she told the story, she told the ending twice — how the gossip-turned-prophetess enrolled her elder daughter, Andrea, in piano and dance, but the girl proved to be so hopeless at ballet, she had to quit. As for the piano, she lacked Carmen’s light touch.
Every time Mother did something extraordinary, like appearing on Talent Hunt or making head majorette, the gossip would start again. It was all based on jealousy. Grandma Lizzie told me, but I’d believe it myself. You see, I’ve got the pictures: her yearbook and dozens of snapshots taken in the backyard. My favorite is Mother in her full-dress uniform. It’s one of the few color shots. She’s turned sideways in an effortless pose, one leg straight and the other bent, knee directed at her chin. Atop her head is a huge majorette hat with a plume dyed dark blue, while the baton is tilted downward, held by a white-gloved hand. Yes, there is sex, but it is clean, clean sex spilling out. She looks so young, it’s hard to believe that in a few years, she’ll be my mother.
My father’s name was Samy, spelled with one m. He was such a handsome man, but the only picture of him was taken on the front porch steps. Because he is posing (what today would be called a J. Crew look), I know Mother must be taking the picture. That, and the fact that on the back, written in her rounded handwriting, is the word Dreamboat. And that’s it, none taken together. It’s almost as if my mother went straight from her majorette uniform into a wedding dress. I asked Grandma about this She snorted, and her cheeks turned red. She said she knew Samy was crazy about Carmen, but she had no idea they’d end up married, so she never bothered to get the camera out. I have wondered if Grandma Lizzie wasn’t trying to hold back time. Surely, it wasn’t deliberate, just that the time was nearing when all girls slip away from their mothers, and she wasn’t ready to let go.
I was born two years after their marriage. Around the age of four, my own memories began. We rented a two-story house, painted white, on the corner of Holt and Buttermilk. Our landlady was Mrs. Sanders, an elderly woman who lived next door. Across the street, in a long cinderblock building with a permastone front, was a print shop that published The Mill Record, the county’s only weekly paper.
The press started up early; each weekday I awoke to a constant clicking sound. Perhaps that’s why images of my childhood are triggered by sounds. Besides the press, there was the wind in the hollowed-out gourds Mother hung on the porch. Martins were supposed to nest there, but they didn’t because Grandma was always banging in and out. Next came Chum, the neighborhood bulldog, panting and grunting as he followed the mailman. Then a tremendous wheeze when Chum flopped down, usually in front of our house. Finally, there was the sound of bubbles. Let me tell you about them.
Every morning Mother would make a batch of bubbles. She filled a pan of warm water and squeezed in a bit of glycerin followed by a glob of Ivory Snow. The bottom of the pan was dented; it rocked gently on the linoleum floor. Mother always set it down with a sigh. I always held my breath. You see, the placing of the pan was invested with secret meaning. If the water spilled out, it meant the bubbles would be lazy, heavy, too oily to rise. If the waves sloshed just to the rim, it would be a good batch.
Imagine a hot summer morning. Imagine the motions of a small mountain town. The pan has been set on the floor, and the water has sloshed safely. In the kitchen is the drip from the faucet and the hum of the secondhand Frigidaire. I’m sitting on the floor with my legs splayed in a V, waiting. Mother is moving about in the next room. Then I hear her shut the door to the bath. More sounds of water running. The mixture waits in a spiraled glob in the bottom of the pan. At last, the sound of her body in the tub. I stick my finger in the pan and begin to swirl slowly, but when the bubbles come, it’s just too much. I make bubble lips and bubble mustaches. Mountains of bubbles pile up on the kitchen floor. I watch iridescent bubbles roll on the air until I can stand it no longer and jump up, clapping my hands to make them pop. I should remember the smell, but I don’t, only the sounds of light, pinprick popping. On some days, so many and fast, it sounded like rain. Sounds only. Sounds of my mother singing, sound of my bubble kisses, sound of her hips as the wet skin shifted against the enamel of the claw-foot tub.
Grandma Lizzie and Mother were close, but there was a bond outside of blood that made them closer. Both were widows. I never knew my grandfather because he had died in my mother’s junior year. His death was undramatic. Grandpa Hugh simply closed his side street market at noon, as he’d done for thirty years, walked home for lunch, and died while sitting on the front porch in a wicker chair.
My father’s death was a different matter. His death was dramatic, gruesome, and written about not only in the Mill Record but also in the Clovis Dispatch and the Burlington Gazette. LOCAL MAN CRUSHED BETWEEN TRUCK AND TRAIN. C&O TO INVESTIGATE FATAL COLLISION ON 16th and HUMMELL. HARBARGER MILLS NATIVE NEVER REGAINED CONSCIOUSNESS.
My father was a truck driver who’d just returned from a run to Clovington. He’d begun to cross the railroad track, even though he probably knew a train was coming, but it must have still seemed safe because an eyewitness said the warning signs were slow in coming down: When the cab was smack in the middle of the track, the engine stalled. The driver tried to start it. It went a few feet and stalled again. The guy looked up and saw the train but started fiddling with the engine again. He tried one more time before he jumped out, tripped on the tracks, and fell again. I saw the whole thing, but I wish I hadn’t.
My dad lived a few hours afterward, but the doctors told my mother there was no hope because his liver was crushed. Looking back, I don’t know which was the hotter topic: the way my dad died or the structured settlements we received, one from Tri-State Trucking and the other from C&O Railroad. Samy with one m. I should remember him more than I do. I don’t remember the eulogy at his funeral, just the expressions of his sons, Rush and Jarrell, born five minutes apart yet so different in temperament. At my father’s funeral, for the first time, I saw my brothers as twins. They wore the same expression: confused.
We got a lot of sympathy from the town and so much food that Mother bought a freezer, which she told Sears to deliver to Grandma’s because the wiring in our house was old and a freezer would blow a fuse. We had enough freezable casseroles to last for a year, but occasionally Mother would fix macaroni and cheese for Jarrell or make a meal from Chef Boyardee. She quit going to church, which Grandma said was only temporary, but sent us every Sunday and then went back to bed. During the week, she volunteered to teach the high school majorettes new routines and joined the Junior Woman’s Club, planting flowers and shrubs in front of the library, the town hall, and the covered bridge, which had been condemned for traffic but was being preserved as a historic monument. Grandma Lizzie kept us while Mother was out; plus, she came over twice a day, morning and evening. For a while, Mother had trouble getting out of bed.
Months passed, and soon my dad had been dead a year. Mother still grieved, but she’d stopped crying at night. The boys didn’t remember Dad, and as for me, I was forgetting him too, especially as his picture wasn’t being plastered of the front pages of newspapers anymore. But something was wrong with Mother. She’d never been the talker Grandma was, but now she scarcely spoke. There were other things. One day she was sluggish and swollen eyed. The next day, she was quick and nervous, jumping at every sound.
A new wind had swept through our screen door, causing Mother to spill out the words, “I’m bored.”
I couldn’t understand that statement. She had us. She had Grandma. She had plenty to do.
My understanding came because of a bad habit. I hadn’t given up on my bottle of Ovaltine yet. Mother had once told me that I hadn’t been breastfed, that when I was born, everyone had gone Gerber bottle crazy, and I still had one glass bottle left that hadn’t been shattered from a set of four. I used to get up at dawn and mix Ovaltine and milk in it, suck it, rinse it, and go back to bed. Quite a shameful habit as I was going on ten. One morning, however, I overslept, and Grandma Lizzie was over extra early. I was heading to the kitchen, knowledgeable of every creak in every board of the hallway, when I stopped, hearing the sounds of an argument. They were keeping their voices low, but there was no disguising the anger. I froze, slid down beside the phone table, and listened.
“You’ve been up and down for months, Carmen,” Grandma was saying. “I’m your mother. I know you and–“
“You know me?” That simple statement let loose a rage I’d never heard before and Grandma chose to ignore.
“Of course, I know you. Mothers know their daughters inside and out.”
This time, there was no response.
“All this isn’t because of Samy. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing you’d understand.”
I heard the slap of a hand on the table. Mother had made Grandma Lizzie mad.
“I understand more than you think. I know about those trips to Clovington and the Third Avenue ABC store. I know where you keep your liquor.” I peered around the table and saw my grandmother motion toward the top cabinet. “Right up there.”
I sat back in place, nearly banging my head against the wall. Liquor! The devil’s drink in our house. And worst of all, if Grandma had found Mother’s liquor, she’d found my bottle as well. Her liquor! My Ovaltine! My head was buzzing. I was undone, but Mother wasn’t.
“I know you’ve found the liquor. You probably found it months ago. You run through everything here — my drawers, the kitchen cabinets. You open the mail. You always have. Samy couldn’t even sit in his boxer shorts without you barging in.”
Besides pinching her upper arms, Mother had developed odd habits. She chewed gum, practically all the time; she’d even wake up with gum embedded in her hair. She drummed her fingers on the tabletops, the kitchen counters, the arm rail of the swing. She’d also begun laughing oddly, or rather at odd things.
She let out a whoop now. “There must be half a dozen liquor stores in Covington. How did you find the exact one?”
“Catherine Valentine told me. Her husband saw you there.”
It was Mother’s turn to slap the table.
“Oh, Lordy, Fred. Of course, I talk to him.” She was laughing so hard, both sides of her housecoat fell open. Then she sloughed it off altogether and let it pool around the legs of her chair. “We’ve both decided it will be a great day for West Virginia when it gets out of the booze business and hands it over to private control. There’ll be liquor and beer everywhere. Fred and I won’t have to drive so far.”
I peeked around the table and saw an expression on my grandmother’s face that I’d never seen before and would never see again. She’d lost her nerve.
“You didn’t say that,” Grandma Lizzie said, finally, firmly.
“Sure, I did.” Mom flipped her hair over her shoulder. “I’m glad Catherine finally admitted Fred drinks. She should be crying on your shoulder instead of spreading tales. You think I’ve got a problem? Fred’s had one for years.”
“Everybody already knew Fred drank,” she snapped. “Now I have to worry about how many people know you do.”
“I’m not worried about it. I don’t care.”
There was a silence that lasted for so long, I shifted positions because my right leg had gone numb. I stretched it out and then pulled it back when they started to talk again.
“Carmen,” Grandma said, “tell me what’s wrong. Tell me now.”
There’d always been tension between them, mostly over the three of us. Grandma said she was too easy; Mother said kids should be kids. Now I realized that the strife was deep between them, though I couldn’t imagine the cause. Whatever it was, it was bad because Grandma had those red spots on her cheeks and Mother sagged like the hollowed gourd Rush had pulled down and left out in the rain.
Mother broke first. She threw her arms on the table, palms up, and spilled out her thoughts. “I’m bored. I stay busy all the time, but I don’t do anything. I’ve got money now, and I was thinking — no, I’m not leaving Harshbarger Mills.” This was said rapidly, doubtless in response to a look of alarm on Grandma’s face. Then she took a deep breath. “I want to go to Burnell University and get a degree like Andrea Veach.”
“Andrea Ellis,” my grandmother said.
“It’s Veach, Mom. She got married around the same time I did, and widowed.”
Grandma Lizzie dismissed the statement, and now her voice held equal parts disgust and disbelief. “You don’t need a degree to be better than that girl. You’ve got more talent in your little finger than she has in both hands.”
“It’s not about talent. It’s about–“
“Carmen Amber, listen to me. If you’re worried about being replaced as the church pianist, don’t give it a second thought. No one is going to allow Andrea to horn in because there’s a crazy streak in all those Ellises, especially Lena, and the church is no place for confusion. And that little girl of Andrea’s already acts strange, even if she is half Veach.”
“You’re missing my point.”
“I don’t think I am.”
“Mom, when I used to take lessons from Mrs. Jones, she told me I had perfect pitch.”
I’d found an opening between the table top and the phone book on the shelf beneath, and now I could clearly see without moving. I watched as my grandmother rubbed at her cheeks.
“Perfect pitch, eh?”
“It means I have a natural gift and–“
“I know what it means.”
“Okay, then you should know that I didn’t benefit as much as I should have from those lessons. I cheated.”
“You did what?”
“Cheated.” My mother was drumming her fingers, a slight smile on her face. “Yes, I did. Mrs. Jones would play the songs for my next lesson, and all I had to do was listen. Then I’d come home and play the piece without using the music. She stopped playing for me when she caught on.” Briefly, Mother stopped drumming her fingers. “Oh, don’t look so horrified. I can read music, but I could have learned more back then.”
‘You don’t need to learn more now. You play beautifully as it is. You’ve just lost your confidence because you haven’t been to church in . . .” The red spot on Grandma’s cheeks had receded; now they flared again. “I can’t remember when. In fact, as soon as you give up this liquor habit, you won’t be bored. Liquor dulls the brain, and once you’ve quit drinking, you’ll find plenty of things to do in this world. You don’t need more education. You need a new house. Why don’t you buy in Harshbarger Heights, where the Valentines and Veaches live? You’ve got the money. The kids are going to need more room.”
“I’m not ready to move. I’ll buy when I’m ready. I want to go to school.”
There was silence, and for one glorious moment, I thought my mother had won. I wanted her to, although I’d never taken sides between my grandmother and mother. But Grandma Lizzie was shrewd. The same woman who’d learned to drive a stick shift might have changed in appearance, but her mind still worked the same. She had a trump card.
“Who’s going to watch your kids?”
“No, I would not.”
“You’re here all the time, anyway.”
“Not for hours and hours.”
“You’re here all the time, anyway.”
“Not for hours and hours.”
“Yes, you are.”
Grandma ignored this. ‘Lorraine is no trouble, but those boys wear me out. I’m not as young as I used to be, and you’re fine just the way your are. Except,” she added, “for the liquor and the house.”
Mother had stopped drumming the table and was now pinching her upper arms.
“Carmen, stop that.”
“Make me,” Mother said, continuing to pinch herself, hard. After one pinch that reddened every bit of extra skin on both her upper arms, she said, “I’ll get a babysitter.”
“A babysitter!” Grandma Lizzie raised her voice so loudly that she disturbed Jarrell, who let out a whine from upstairs. “A babysitter,” she hissed. “You never had a babysitter. Neither have your kids.”
“Maybe it’s time they did.”
“Maybe it’s time you quit trying to get above your raising.” Her cheeks were on fire now. “You’ve got money, but you’re not thinking straight. You have all the education you need. You’ll never be replaced at the church, not matter if Andrea Ellis gets degrees out her ears. Forget what that teacher in Clovington said.”
“You know good and well her name was Mrs. Jones. At one time, you thought Clovington was the place to be.”
“I only took you to get decent lessons. Your lessons are over. Now raise your kids.”
That was the end of the conversation. Whatever my mother’s thoughts were, I’ll never know because she didn’t answer, not even to say goodbye when Grandma Lizzie let herself out the side door. She sat at the table, drumming her fingers for so long that I gave up and went back to bed. Lying there, deprived of my Ovaltine, I realized how much my mother and I were alike, both wanting things we couldn’t have. Raise your kids. Was that when she started resenting us? Was that when she started looking for ways to leave?
End of Excerpt.
“Lorraine, why in the world would you think that?” Carmen is stricken. She looks ready to cry. “I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t plan to leave you.”
“Listen to that,” snorts Lizzie. “At one point, she would have walked off with the mailman.”
“Mother, you’ll never change.” The steel in her voice rises, and I recognize anger from the past. “You’ll never understand because you’ll never admit a wrong. Your way or the highway.” She pauses, then adds, “I think you’re a sociopath.”
“Would you two please shut up?” The heedless belligerence of a teenager cuts through the air. Jenna has pushed back the curtain and is lying on the floor in a wide swath of sunlight. “I’m working on my tan!”
I hope you enjoyed this. The ladies will be appearing weekly, most likely on Tuesdays.