“Oh, I remember that night. I chased you down Beech in the rain, my bare feet slapping against the sidewalk. I wasn’t going to give up. You scared me to death!” Carmen shakes her head. Her inflections are soft and loud, high and low, some words drawn out by a mother’s worry. A terror of childhood she can’t forget. “I almost caught, you too!” she adds.
“Ha! You almost broke her neck!” Lizzie’s wedding ring rattles on her bony finger. “You pulled so hard on her pajama top that the elastic left a burn.”
“I did not. Her pajamas tore.”
“They did once she worked her way out of them. Tell her, Lorraine.”
Lorraine shakes her head. “It all happened a long time ago.”
“A deep red line across her throat,” Lizzie puts her head in her hands. “The sight of that little neck broke my heart.”
“That didn’t happen!” Carmen shouts. Yet, her conviction is debatable. She’s perspiring and when picks up her cup, her hands are shaking so badly she has to set it down. She stares at the brown liquid, obviously wishing for whiskey.
“That’s child abuse. I can’t believe you did that,” says Jenna. ” I hate you. I wish you were dead.”
“Death doesn’t always come when you want it,” says Carmen, lifting her head.
Beginning of excerpt
Considering her condition, Mother was pretty quick. She caught up with me five houses down on Beech and grabbed the neck of my pajamas. The neck was rounded, and I slipped out of the top and kept running, clad only in my bottoms. She couldn’t catch me like that, but she was close. I could hear the slap of her feet on the pavement, smell the sour breath pouring out of her lungs, and when I looked back, I saw her wavy hair streaming out behind me. I wouldn’t look at her eyes.
We ended up in the kitchen, glaring at each other under the too-bright bulb, she with her breath full of whiskey and I mostly naked, shivering from the night air. Finally, she shut the wooden door to the kitchen because bugs were crawling through the screen.
“You’re supposed to be in bed,” she said.
“So are you.”
“I was talking to Reverend Fisher about important matters.”
“You were going to kiss him. I know you were. You were flirting with him, Mom, just like those majorettes do with the football boys when they practice on the field. I’ve heard you tell those girls to keep their minds off boys. Well, you were doing it, Mom. You were flirting with Reverend Phew, and my dad is dead.”
“What did you call him?”
“Reverend Phew. Because he stinks and so do you.”
She slapped me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d known she’d wanted to slap me since the day I told her the music was bad. Now she let her hand fly. To this day, I’ve never been slapped so hard. Actually, I’ve never been slapped in the face since. It caused me to take two steps sideways.
I regained my balance and stared. She looked horrified but angry. We were both silent, bursting with words we’d never say. The only sound was a spatter. Mother had busted my lower lip. A drop of blood, then several, splashed on the floor.
Finally, she motioned me to come to her, but I shook my head.
“I’ve been crucified!” I said, stretching out my arms in a dramatic pose.
“You stupid little girl!” she screamed. “You don’t even know what I was trying to do.” Anger deflated, her shoulders dropped, and her shoes fell from her hand. The nylons, stuffed in one toe, fell out, and one stocking absorbed my blood on the floor. “Have it your way. I’m tired of trying to explain myself to everyone in this town.”
I went to bed, but Mother didn’t because her shouting had awakened Jarrell, and it was some time before he quieted down. As far as I know, Rush slept through everything. I finally went to sleep, an on-the-surface slumber. It was really late now, and I thought I heard the phone, a short ring. Maybe the front door opened and closed. I wasn’t sure and I didn’t care. I’d tried to save Mother and failed.
Rev. Stephen Fisher was gone by the next afternoon, after a huge dinner outside on the church lawn. Grandma and the boys went, but Mother and I stayed home. Mother had caught a cold from last night’s rain and a touch of flu because she complained that her body was sore. I stayed in my room, trying to block out the night before.
The next weeks passed in a haze. Grandma Lizzie was always at our house, but it wasn’t to babysit. She spent most of her time trying to get Mother out of bed. Mother was drinking and making no secret of it. She didn’t keep her liquor in the kitchen but in her bedroom: a glass and a bottle, usually empty, on her nightstand. The other bottles were placed neatly under her bed, like shoes. When people came to visit, Grandma Lizzie kept them at the door, told them she hadn’t realized how much of a strain the revival had been on Carmen, but she should have especially since Samy was gone. That was one excuse, but as the days wore on, she’d say Carmen had some kind of low-grade flu but it wasn’t anything to worry about, not sick enough to go to the doctor. With enough rest, she’d be back on her feet soon. She assured each called she was making lots of homemade chicken soup, not the stuff you get out of cans.
The chicken soup line struck a funny chord in me. The first time I heard it, I laughed out loud, but Grandma gave me a dirty look over her shoulder and turned back to the door, and I never laughed at that explanation again. I asked her why she kept talking about chicken soup.
“Because it isn’t true,” she said bluntly. “I’m lucky if I can get Carmen to drink coffee.”
My mother’s breath suddenly took on wider dimensions for me. If I could smell it, that meant other people could smell it, too. “You think people know?”
“Yes, but the boys don’t. They really do think she has the flu, and, Lorraine, don’t you dare tell them.”
I promised. I didn’t tell them, but Grandma was wrong. They both knew, Jarrell more than Rush.
“All those bottles,” Grandma continued, looking out the window. “People talk, even the garbage men. There’s no privacy in this town.” Grandma cocked her head, thinking, as if there were still a way out of this. “Why doesn’t she just wait until dark and bury them in the backyard?”
School started again, bringing a keener torture; even so, I was glad to go. The war at home was now a screaming circus, and though I tried (and the boys tried, too), we knew there was nothing we could do. Grandma was constantly rattling doorknobs or taping up notes in the kitchen. Mother was at her heels, shouting, sometimes following her outside in her nightgown. Once, we all threw fried onions against the kitchen wall. I knew that was wrong, but Mother was laughing, and I was afraid not to have fun.
Now I knew what the real trouble was about. It wasn’t just college. My grandmother had done something to my mother’s dad, and she’d said something bad about mine. Like before, I slunk around, trying to hear as much as I could, though what I heard pierced me to the core. Again, the boys stayed outdoors. They’d gotten the hang of the pup tent, so Mother had ordered a bigger one from the Army Surplus store, and they were trying to put together a huge frame that was taller than they were. At night, the phone was ringing again.
A few weeks into school, I lost the friends I had. I got nudged out of line by Jane Lee’s dirty work, and never tried again. There’d be times when Jane Lee would let me in, but she wasn’t being a friend. She asked me adult questions that made my cheeks turn red. Mrs. Hutchinson, a teacher who’d had my mom in class when she was a little girl, was always hugging me in the hall or smoothing my hair. The boys were in first grade, and but for some trouble with Rush bringing marbles, which he spilled everywhere, they seemed the same. My mother was a shadow, but people either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
I hated school, but I didn’t want to leave it. School meant teachers and patrols; home held no boundaries. Even when there was silence, violence hung in the air. There would be no healing, but I didn’t know that. This will pass, I used to think. Make this pass, I used to pray, and for a time, I thought my prayers were answered because Mother got quiet again and stopped shouting at Grandma. She seemed lost, wanting to reach out, but Grandma wouldn’t have it. When Mom came near, Grandma’s cheeks would turn red, and she’d get busy in the kitchen, banging pots and pans that would drown the words out. Mom spent most of her time in her bedroom with the door locked. When she did come out, it was in the same stained gown.
She came out a Easter, though, and almost seemed like her old self. She drove us to Clovington. It seemed to take forever because she hadn’t driven in a while and her hands kept slipping on the wheel. But we made it and got a bunch of new stuff. So much candy that Grandma snorted that we’d puke it up. We hunted eggs in the backyard, and something Jarrell said made Mother laugh, but when Grandma came over with dinner, she sank back into her shadow self.
Grandma was up to something. I could tell by the way she bustled about. I asked her what it was, but she said her lips were sealed. I’d have asked Mrs. Sanders, but she was gone. She’d broken her hip, and her son had driven in from one of the Carolinas and put her in a nursing home.
The day after Easter, Mother disappeared. She didn’t leave a note, not even for Grandma. She left everything: her clothes, the silver bottle, her whiskey, and her kids. She had money from the structured settlement, and I suppose we could have found where she’d gone from the lawyers (even if they’d been sworn to secrecy, someone would have told), but Grandma Lizzie didn’t pursue it.
She only said, “Carmen will come home when she gets over this.”
Carmen never did.
We didn’t hear from her again. I missed her terribly, but I don’t think the boys did. Grandma Lizzie bought our house and Mrs. Sanders house as well, and they had two yards to play in. One call was made to Athens, Ohio, but Reverend Fisher denied knowing anything about her whereabouts. I didn’t believe him at the time, but I did some months later when news of his disgrace was splashed across the front pages like my father’s death and just as ugly. ESTEEMED MINISTER CAUGHT WITH MINOR, CINCINNATI MOTEL ROOM YIELDS SIN, REVEREND STEPHEN FISHER DEFROCKED, CHARGES BROUGHT. I remember reading the headlines and clapping my hands as happily as I once did over the bubbles.
Grandma moved in with us for six months. Then she had a stroke. It was bad. She couldn’t move her left side or get out of bed. My dad was dead, and my mother couldn’t be found. By now, I was a tougher and smarter kid. I’d shoved my way back into the group and was hanging out with Jane Lee Veach and her crowd. Was it worth it? I don’t know. Jane Lee would alternately torment me and be my best friend, all the way through high school.
“Your mother has taken up with some man,” she told me one day in the lunchroom. She’d timed it so that the whole group was there. I didn’t look at them again in the face until the end of the year. “Aunt Lena said so. She’s landed a rich one. That’s why there’s no money trail.” Jane Lee paused and shrugged philosophically. “Or she could be dead. Aunt Lena said if she hasn’t found a man, she’s probably jumped off a bridge. Without a man, she can’t make it. Lena says that’s the way your mom is.”
Ms. Lewis is young and hesitant. Her grandparents lived in Harshbarger Mills, but she was raised in Clovington. Her face tells me she now knows who I am and probably wishes she hadn’t written. Yes, I’m that loudmouthed woman who’s in the papers now, the one who threatened to sue the school board over my daughter’s skinny jeans, which, since they don’t have a dress code, has caused the board to meet practically every evening until they can pass a ruling that will please not only me but everyone in Callope County. But I rein myself in because I want to find out what’s wrong with my boy.
Ms. Lewis talks around the subject in a series of long ellipses about her views on teaching, discipline, even her GPA when she graduated from Burnell.
I tell her mine.
Her hand flies to her hair like a bird seeking shelter from surprise. Ms. Lewis has long curly hair, which she’s twisted up in a Scunci claw clip, but one strand keeps getting loose. She puts it behind her ear, trying to get it to cooperate. I start to tell her it never will. She has natural curly hair, just like my mother, and it won’t be reined in.
“I didn’t know . . .”
“That I had a degree? Yes, in business administration.” I don’t add that I could probably run this school and if I did, I wouldn’t hire teachers like her. I tamp my antagonism. I have so many bad memories of this place. Every time I enter, I either get butterflies or a rush of adrenaline. Wait a minute, I think. The Lewises never did anything to me. They went to a different church. This girl is probably nice.
She breaks eye contact, become even more scattered when another strand of hair springs out. I lean forward and start to reach for her hand, but I don’t. I never been much for touching. Royce is the hugger in our house. He used to try to hug me; now he hugs the kids. I do the best I can.
“Just tell me. I’m his mother.”
It’s the buses. I should have known. Nathan loses it at 2:30 when they pull in to take the country kids home at 3:00. He asks for his sisters and crumples perfect papers, and on more than one occasion, she’s found him hiding in the coat closet.
“This is my fault,” I tell her, which is true, but the rest is a lie. “He’s allergic to bee stings.” I’ve warned him so often he thinks he could die at any time.”
“Bee stings? I’m talking about buses.”
“They stir up the insects in the grass when they pull in,” I continue smoothly. “He’ll settle down. I’ll talk to him.”
After Grandma’s stroke, we were the talk of the town, this time because we were orphans. The West Virginia Child Placement Services got involved, and once again, we were on the cutting edge. Grandma did what she could from her hospital bed and caught the ear of one worker, and they found people from the local area willing to take us in. I ended up staying in Harshbarger Mills, fostered by the Emerys, a middle-aged couple, both schoolteachers, who’d always wanted children but never had them. They were good to me, and when I grew up, I was good to them.
Mrs. Emery took me to visit Grandma at Hope Springs, but when I turned sixteen, I learned to drive and bought a car: a Mustang, red, which wasn’t my favorite color, but since it was bought with my dad’s settlement money, I thought red was a nice ironic touch that no one but me would understand. I had tons of money, as did the boys. The Emerys– who, even if they’d been allowed to, would let me touch a time while I lived with them– put the money in the bank for me every month, and every year, the lawyers would take the total and give it to the money manager. I got my car because one of the lawyer — Kline, I think–signed some kind of special paper so I could sell stock and buy it.
I visited Grandma three times a week until she died. No, I can’t begin to tell you the number of trips I made to Hope Springs Nursing Home because Grandma’s death wasn’t kind. She existed in that same state for years. When her right side finally succumbed to her left — that immobile, fixed-eyed side– I wasn’t driving the red Mustang but a green van. When her funeral was over, when everything was over and I was alone, I cried great gulping tears of relief. Then I took a bath.
The boys came in for her funeral. I was fostered, but they’d been legally adopted by the Thompsons, who lived out Route 40, just past the Callope County line. Yes, they were raised in Davis County, and when Grandma heard that, her mouth worked hard until she managed the words, “No drinkers.”
They grew up to be good men. The funny thing is, though, their personalities switched. Rush, who’d always been rough and outgoing, grew up to be a quiet, controlled man. Jarrell’s whining turned into boisterousness, which led him to be voted Laurel Valley’s class clown. Yes, Jarrell’s had his problems, but for the most part, he’s over them. Me? I just remember sitting in the judge’s chambers, swinging my feet from an oversized leather chair, and wishing I could find a way home again.
Royce and I have learned to control our arguments, especially after Nathan was born and we realized, for better or worse, we were in it for the long haul. We’d talked about splitting up before, once after each girl was born, but it stopped after Nathan. I guess there’s something about having a boy. We seldom argue and when we do, I usually have the last word, whether it makes sense or not, but when I tell him about my conference with Ms. Lewis, I can tell I’m going to lose. I straighten my spine.
After supper, he shoves three DVDs into Jenna’s hands, warns both girls not to aggravate Nathan, and tells them to turn the volume up loud. Then he motions for me to follow him into our bedroom and slams the door. He’s red-faced and shaking. I’ve never seen him this mad.
“I can’t believe my son, my only son–“
“Royce, keep your voice down.’
“I will not. My boy is failing kindergarten because he’s afraid of school buses! Look, I’m no shrink. God knows I know I’m only a dry wall man, but this is one damn stupid fear. And you!” He shouts louder, pointing at me. “You’ve put this into him, Lorraine. All this lands on your door.”
“I was only trying to–“
“Shut up. You’ve carried this thing too far. Your mother is gone, probably dead, but every day I live with a woman I’ve never met. I’m tired of it.”
“Do you want a divorce?”
“No, I want to move. I want out of town. There’s a house for sale at Love-the-Maples, one Cliff Berry built for himself, and he’s dropped the price down so low, it’s a steal. We can afford it without touching your money.”
“I’ve never thought you wanted my money.”
He stops– but only for a heartbeat. “I don’t know how you think, and right now, I don’t care. If you think money was the reason I married you, I’ve proved otherwise over the years. But you keep wanting more proof, proof that you’re not like your mother, proof that you’re tough enough to take on every one in this town, proof that– God Almighty, Lorraine, you’re beating a dead horse. Nearly all those people who talked about your mother are dead. You’re not news except for the messes you create for yourself.” He takes a deep breath. “No one cares!”
Outside the door, I hear a wail.
If we buy at Love-the-Maples, Nathan will have to ride a school bus,” I tell him.
“It will be good for him.”
I went back to Glorious Life Pentecostal once as an adult, and that was when I married Royce. Not to prove that I was getting legally married but to prove to myself that I could stare all those people down. I could walk in and out of those double doors, whose closing had ended my childhood. I was welcomed like a lost lamb, thought they’d snubbed me for years at school, after school, and when I saw them on the street. I played along, but standing on the church steps after the ceremony, I didn’t throw my bouquet to the crowd of gigglers. I aimed it like a missile and hit the side of Lena Ellis’s head. Lena hadn’t even been in the group. No one in their right mind was going to marry her, and she knew it, so she’d kept herself deliberately apart. I hit her so hard, it knocked her hat off and made everyone gasp. I laughed out loud.
But Nathan’s not getting any better, my middle daughter walks around as though searching for bread crumbs, and my eldest is involved in things I don’t understand. As for Royce, he said he’d let me make up my mind about moving, but the answer had better be yes.
I shove his ultimatum aside and think for myself. The revelations aren’t flattering. My sharp tongue is a defense, my oddities are based not on rebellion but on fear, and I’ve allowed my mother to live beneath my skin. I’ve been the woman I wanted her to be. Raise your kids. And with the same shock that came when I realized Ms. Lewis didn’t know about my degree, I now realize that the face of the town has changed. The printing press closed down years ago. The Sunbeam girl was replaced with central air. Jane Lee Veach lives in Wisconsin, and Lena was carted off and put on heavy duty pills. I’ve been caught in a memory maze. No one cares about my past. They haven’t for years. I’ve made a nervous wreck of my son; he fixated on buses so much that I’ve had to use the fly swatter on both girls to keep them from making fun of him.
We drive out to Love-the-Maples, and I walk through the house Royce says is a steal. Nathan, who’s been a shadow behind me, breaks away and runs outdoors. I watch him go up the hill. He begins spinning with his arms outstretched like the rattled weather vane that was atop our dilapidated garage. No, not like a weather vane, like a child, a normal, healthy boy.
Royce is showing me the custom kitchen, pounding on the cabinet doors and saying something about real wood, not particle board, when I interrupt and say, “Let’s buy it.”
“But I haven’t shown you the walk-out basement yet!” he says, sounding frustrated.
“I don’t need to see it.”
He leans against the counter and shakes his head. “Just like that?”
“Yep, just like that.” I give my fingers a snap.
“I’ll never understand you,” he says, looking out the window where he sees Nathan on the hill. he jerks his head. “He’ll have to ride the bus, and don’t even think about following behind or driving him in.”
Nathan has fallen but he picks himself up again. He starts another spin.
“He’ll be fine,” I say, and I sound like I believe it.
I know the girls will be more than fine. They’re already upstairs arguing over which room is the best and who’s going to get it.
I can’t bury my mother because I can’t find her, so I’ll leave that silver bottle just where it is.
This is the end of Part One, entitled Silver Bottle.The second story, This Will Never Stop, which is the title of the book, will begin soon.