Chapter One: Nonna
I want to take Winnie to Miller’s Bottom, to low flat ground along Route 60 where people buy and sell everything, where money changes hands like water and hard cash is plunked down for junk. That’s where I want to take her, but my sister-in-law isn’t sure if she wants to go. She laughs at me as she wrings out a dishcloth, telling me I must have been to heaven. I throw up my hands and tell her only what I know.
I lean against the doorframe that connects the kitchen to the den where my husband, Jim, and Lucky are watching a ball game. The men excused themselves as soon as dinner was over, and Winnie and I have just finished in the kitchen. Now she is wiping down the cabinets, but I don’t help for two reasons: she likes to do this alone, and I don’t see the point.
I watch Winnie. I’ve just painted a picture of ease and prosperity, which I imagine hangs like a bright dream from the ceiling, and Winnie walks through it with a blue dishcloth in her hand, tearing the world apart.
My niece, Lilyanne, sits at the kitchen table, her knees drawn up beneath her chin. Lilyanne hasn’t moved a muscle since I started telling her about the flea market, but her feet are pressed so hard against the chair’s stretcher that her toes have turned white, an indication of how badly she wants to go. Lilyanne has seen the dream I fashioned and knows her mother is approaching it in the same way she approaches all of life’s wonders — with suspicion and reserve.
“I don’t know,” Winnie says again, scrubbing a purple stain that’s been on her countertop for the last fifteen years. I should know since it was my son, Billy, sho spilled grape juice when his sippy cup overturned and stained it permanently. Even so, Winnie has never stopped trying. “I just can’t imagine.”
“You can imagine what you want, but everything I’ve told you is true.” I fold my arms across my breasts, my voice sharper than it should be. That she’s failed to see my vision is one thing, but doubting my word is another. “Just last Saturday I saw an old woman get three hundred dollars for a raggedy quilt. It was dirty, too.”
“Get out of here,” says Winnie.
“It’s true.” This time I tap my foot.
Actually, the woman hadn’t been that old, but as that was my first impression, I see no reason to change the story. Ever since the flea market, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Winnie. In the first place, she’s married to my brother, Lucky, who’s been a pill from day one, and I can only imagine the stuff he’s pulled on her over the years. Some of his escapades the family knows about, but not from Winnie. I’ve never heard her say one word against my brother; she must be some kind of a saint.
Winnie has never had a nickel to call her own since she married my brother, but if she did, it wouldn’t be wasted. She’s nothing like the trashy woman who sold the tattered quilt for a small fortune. As I watched the young man pull three one hundred dollars bills from his wallet, giving a wink to the wife behind him, I knew he thought he was getting a steal. Appalachian crafts are a myth; he was buying a “porch quilt.” A porch quilt is what people around here throw over the old couches they set on their front porch, the quilt the dogs sleep on. And the woman who sold it? I knew exactly where the money was going: lottery tickets, beer and cigarettes. But Winnie could handle money, if Lucky would ever let go of the purse strings. Winnie is clean, proper and fears the Lord. Every time the door of Calvary Baptist is open, she’s the first to enter.
But back to money, which by my lights means independence. I own my own beauty shop, named The Mane Place, at 207 Main Street and have the best business in town. But that’s me. Winnie, well, as long as she’s been married to my brother, which is going on eighteen years, she has been waiting to decorate this place he bought on Sugar Creek, although he promised a bi-level in town. The closest she’s come to remotely satisfying her desires is a whitewashed gun case, a black Eames chair with matching footstool, and a huge, sleek television, before which Lucky sprawls every night. The fact that none of her decorating ideas has materialized isn’t her fault. My brother is one of the most self-centered people I know, even though the same blood runs in our veins. The good woman he married only honed his worst tendencies.
Incidentally, my brother’s name isn’t really Lucky, it’s Royce Lee Nicholas, Jr. Daddy called him Lucky from the moment of his birth because, after three girls, he said he was lucky to have a boy. The fact that mother went on to produce two more male children, the twins, George and Lucian, didn’t affect Lucky’s charmed status one bit. He started smoking at fourteen, first on the side porch, then in the house, and not only that, he’d rub ashes in the carpet when he was on the phone and an ashtray wasn’t handy. Lucky has always paced. He wore out the carpet in the hall. When my son Billy started school in ’68, a paper was sent home explaining new discoveries in child development, and suddenly I was reading not about my son but my brother. Mother said she’d seen Dr. Cobble write “nervous energy” on his chart when he was small, but the real name is Attention Deficit Disorder, ADD for short.
I can forgive him for the ashes and the worn rug, but I can’t forget the Saturdays.
When we were growing up, Judy, Shirley, and I were assigned to clean the downstairs, and Lucky would think nothing of barging through the back door with muddy boots on, and we’d have to re-do the floors. That was pure meanness not poor impulse control, because we were screaming at the top of our lungs for him to stop. I’ve never let him forget those Saturdays. It is my duty, as all my siblings have left the state and my parents are dead, to remind him of our wasted work.
He doesn’t listen. My comments roll like water off a duck’s back. He tells me I’m overbearing; I tell him he’s not the only one walking the face of this earth. The only good thing he’s ever done was marry Winnie, instead of that trash he kept trying to push on us. Winnie’s real name is Edwina Rose, a beautiful name for a beautiful girl from the heart of the country and barely out of high school. She was quiet, then as now, with an abundance of tawny hair, tightly pored skin, and a churchy streak already apparent.
We all hoped the church would turn Lucky around, especially after Daddy’s death, and for a while it seemed to do him some good. He did manage to get baptized, but his conversion lasted only as long as his grief did. I should have told Reverend Williams Lucky was a special case and to hold him under longer, like until bubbles came up. He attended church long enough to get baptized, wear a tie, and agree with Paul on the role of women, but then he got mad when the finance committee bought a second- hand bus, which Lucky roared would be a waste of money and break down in the first year. It did, and so he believes that he was right on both counts: his interpretation of Ephesians 5 and that no one should ever buy a product from General Motors.
Winnie was under his thumb right from the start. At first she tried reason, but when she got pregnant, she stayed tired and swollen and lost ground. After Lilyanne was born, she concentrated on her daughter. My son is eight months older than my niece. As for Lucky, she was head over heels at first, but now she wears the look of a woman tormented by hope. I don’t know what she’s hoping for. Lucky will never change, and Winnie doesn’t believe in divorce.
I must confess that my niece is a puzzle to me, as she’s a combination of both parents, and considering my brother and Winnie are so different, I expected Lilyanne to be one or the other. She loves her mother but tends to disregard her, and though she’d probably lay down her life for Lucky (and he for her), they can’t be in the same room for more than twenty minuets without ending up in a shouting match.
Right now, Lilyanne is trying hard not to look bored during our adult conversation, but her toes are still white on the rail of that chair.
“I’m not calling you a liar, Nonna,” says Winnie, pausing as she swipes at the stain, “but I can’t see people paying good money for old stuff.”
“To them, it’s not old stuff,” I explain. “They call it Appalachian crafts. You’ll just have to go down and see how it works. The woman who sold that awful quilt got three hundred dollars,” I repeat. Then a sudden inspiration hits me. “You know what else she told me?”
“You talked to her?” Winnie’s eyes are wide.
“It wasn’t exactly a conversation. It was just after the couple who’d bought the quilt walked off. She started laughing, and I asked her what she was laughing about.”
Winnie looks relieved that I’ve not talked to someone dishonest without reason, and I’m glad I lied. My story feels solid beneath me, the woman’s name now firmly fixed in my mind as Dolores.
“Dolores told me — I did asked ask her name to be polite — that her youngest boy’s beagle bitch whelped on it. Thirteen pups.”
Winnie is so dumbfounded she stops her scrubbing and stands before the sink in what I call her “ten after six” pose. After she lost her right eye tooth, to disguise the gap, she developed a habit of putting her hand to her face while she talks. She tilts her head slightly to the right, just where the minute hand of the clock would be, and that is why I think as I do. I’ve never voiced this observation, even to my husband, but I’m afraid someday I might blurt it out. I don’t know why Winnie doesn’t have a bridge made. Lucky works for the railroad and has good insurance.
“Oh, my, thirteen pups?” Her hand flutters away, then back again.
I nod. Thirteen was a nice touch. Who said it was an unlucky number.
“Three hundred dollars is an awful lot of money, Momma,” says Lilyanne quietly.
“She’s right,” I add, feeling pride rise in me. Lilyanne is smarter than my brother. People smart. She hasn’t blurted out everything the way Lucky would, believing his voice to be the only one in the room. “That’s why you’ve got to come and see for yourself.”
We embark on a stare-down. Winnie is the first to look away. She reaches under the sink for a can of aerosol cleanser and begins spraying the lids of the canisters. Then she grabs the dish cloth she’s just folded and wipes the lids. As if it mattered. A fly wouldn’t land on them, not even on the one containing sugar. The entire house is this way, so clean and shining that one never knows where to step. When we visit, Jim and I wipe our shoes on the floor mats in the car, then on the mat outside the door, then on the rug inside the door, and sometimes we take off our shoes.
When the kids were small, Jim and I used to drive to Sugar Creek every weekend for Sunday dinner. Winnie needed company, stuck with a young’un out in the sticks. Now that Billy is a teenager, our lives are different. He’s always got something to do on the weekends and I don’t like to be gone while he’s doing it, but when Lucky phoned this past weekend and invited us out, I was eager to come. It seemed like an age since I’d seen Winnie, and even though she’s always busy picking and cleaning, I find the house oddly restful, like visiting my grandmother’s before she passed on.
Winnie has always reminded me of an older person, although she’s younger than I am, one of those shy, silent women who keep to the house and mind their business. Church and family. A woman of another generation who has had all her graces stripped away. Lucky hasn’t noticed; he just knows that for the last eighteen years he hasn’t had to turn a hand.
A man with my brother’s attitude would last one day in my house. In Winnie I see unhappiness that won’t look me in the face. As she rinses the sink, which she’s done twice already, I realize that in addition to unhappiness, there might be something physically wrong. She’s favored her left side all day. Recalling her movements, I realize it is in the way she carries herself — in the small of her back, the protection of her breasts — and in the expression in her eyes when she thinks no one is watching. Something is wrong — something female, private and sad.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
Winnie turns off the faucet and looks at me. I read caution in her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“What I said. You look like you might be sick.”
Frankly, she reminds me of a picture I once saw of Georgia clay eaters — people so poor they ate dirt to get the minerals from the soil. Yet Winnie’s problem is not one of intake, but outflow, as though the salt she craves comes from the tears she’s shed.
Before she can answer, the phone rings in the den.
“It’s for you, Lilyanne,” Lucky bellows from his chair. I peer into the den and think: That’s just like him. Didn’t even bother to inch the receiver from his mouth before he hollered and busted someone’s ear drum.
“I’ll take it upstairs,” she said, and then, “Daddy!”
“What?” Lucky bellows again.
“I’m taking it upstairs. Hang up when I pick up.”
Lucky says something none of us can hear, except the person on the other end of the line, and Lilyanne rises from her chair. She starts to tear out of the kitchen, but stops and kisses me on the cheek. We are nearly of a height.
“See you soon, Aunt Nonna.”
‘You bet, sweetheart.” I give her a wink.
“Cool!” She runs up the stairs, and I know she knows who’s phoned.
Winnie watches our exchange with a far-off expression. No, lost. Something is very wrong here.
“Winnie, I asked if you were sick.”
She shakes her head as if coming out of a dream. “Not anymore. Not really. I had a bad cold in early spring and haven’t been able to shake it. I still get sharp pains when the pleurisy kicks in.”
“Pleurisy! Why didn’t you call me?” But before she can answer, I demand, “Did you go to a doctor?”
“I went to Dr. Cobble. He gave me some pills.” Her head shoots up without her hand but I forget about her tooth in my astonishment at her choice of physicians. Dr. T.O. Cobble is half-blind, nearing eighty, and once had his license suspended for giving out too many nerve pills. He shouldn’t be practicing medicine, but he’s the only licensed physician in Davis County, the county where Winnie was raised and now lives again.
“Winnie.” I try to keep my voice calm. “T.O. Cobble isn’t the answer to anyone’s medical problems. Were those pills he gave you dope?”
“Of course not! They were antibiotics, and they were working fine but I didn’t take the full course. I was supposed to go back and get a refill from Sharon, but I got busy around the house and just forgot.”
“You need to go back for refill, but be careful he doesn’t load you down with anything else. Pauline Hicks went to him for a broken hip and ended up addicted to everything.”
“Nonna, nothing like that is going to happen to me. Dr. Cobble wouldn’t let it. He brought me into this world. He cares.”
She tilts her head and covers her lost tooth.
“At least listen to me about the flea market.” I let out a deep breath. “You could make a fortune selling half the stuff you’ve got squirreled away around here. Sell, Winnie, and buy the things you’ve been wanting all these years.”
“Nearly all our stuff came from your mother’s house. Lucky would throw a fit if I changed anything.”
“Let him.” I shrug, but one look at her horrified face and I know I’ve taken the wrong approach. “Look, Lucky is a man and men don’t notice things. Oh, he might object at first, but then he wouldn’t care.” I continue with a confidence born of experience. “One time I bought a new refrigerator in the same color, and Jim didn’t notice for months. Finally, he caught on when he realized he was pushing his glass against an ice maker instead of getting cubes from a tray.”
“I don’t know about this,” she says slowly, and the hand over her mouth goes into her apron pocket. Other than Winnie, I haven’t seen a woman wear an apron in years. “It’s not out of the question, but I’m not like you, Nonna. You can talk to anybody, I can’t.”
That’s because you never leave the house, I think, but I know fear when I see it.
The television clicks off and Winnie jumps. Lucky comes into the kitchen with Jim trailing behind. My brother sets a coffee cup down on the counter, which Winnie immediately takes to the sink and rinses.”Jim and I are going over to Laurel,” Lucky announces, looking not at Winnie but at me. “A friend of mine is selling an English Pointer bitch, not more than two years old. Bloodlines are good, but I want Jim to take a look.”
“Jim doesn’t know anything about bloodlines.” I don’t know why but every time my brother opens his mouth, I get furious. “We get our dogs from the pound. It’s the humane thing to do. Besides, it’s going to be dark soon and I want to get home and check on Billy.”
I shake my head at Jim, but he’s looking out the window at something I can’t see. Must be interesting, I think, because he’s studying so hard he won’t look at me.
“Leave the kid alone, sis. He’s almost seventeen,” Then, he says, “Come on, Jim.”
Jim follows him out the door, but I call after, “Don’t forget what I said, Jim. Back before dark.”
My husband waves his hand in a flag of surrender.
I stand at the screen and watch the pick-up until it’s out of sight. “My brother will come home when he’s good and ready unless Jim takes the car keys, and I doubt if he will.” I pause and blurt out. “How in the hell do you stand it, Winnie?”
She’s silent so long I don’t think she’s going to answer. “I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve picked up after him half of my life. Now, it’s her, too.” She jerks her head in the direction of the stairs. “Lilyanne’s just like him.”
I’ve wanted her to admit something like that for years, and now I wish this can of worms hadn’t been opened. But I pried the lid.
“Lilyanne is just going through a stage,” I say quietly. “The floor in Billy’s room is a sea of clothes. He’ll pick something up and yell, “‘Mom, is this clean?'” and I yell back, “‘How would I know?'” Lilyanne will turn out fine. She’s got more of you in her than you think.”
“You may be right. She stays to herself, but I don’t remember being so alone when I was her age. I mean, her friends call, but she doesn’t go out with them. She goes up to her room and stays there. She reads too much — not books from school — and she’s started locking her door. I used to tap on it at night to see if she was okay, but the last time, she didn’t answer. In the morning, she wouldn’t speak. Breakfast she eats half a cup of cold cereal with 2% milk, and I can’t stand to watch. It reminds me of the water Lucky pours over the Gravy Train.”
Lyddie’s hands are motionless. I should say something, but the tension in the room is as palpable as the air before a storm. When she speaks, her voice is expressionless, but her words take my breath away.
“All I can think about is dying. Sometimes I wish it would be soon. I think how it might happen. Don’t look at me like that, Nonna, I don’t have any plans, just listen. I used to be so afraid, living this far out the creek. I know I was raised in the country, but at least we could see Pappaw’s house from where we lived. There aren’t any neighbors here, just miles of woods and that pond where Lucky used to fish.”
“Sugarpool,” I say, thinking back to the day when they first moved. The pond was the reason Lucky wanted this land. He was into fishing then, and as soon as they moved, he stocked the pond with bass. Two years later, the Guyandotte flooded and that changed the river basin. What had been a pond became a pool, the main spring that fed into it gone. Not more than four feet deep, but deep enough to drown in.
“Winnie, you aren’t –“
“Just listen. I don’t give being solitary a second thought anymore, but I do think about a stranger, a man, pulling up in the yard and stepping on the porch like he doesn’t mean me any harm. Even the dogs like him. He’ll tell me he needs to use the phone or maybe ask for a glass of water, and I won’t think twice. But once he’s in he’ll shoot me with pleasure, like he knows the worst secrets of my heart. He’ll shoot me between the eyes, and I’ll fall right here on this kitchen floor. I imagine looking down at myself with my blood and brains spilled out, and my last thought will be, ‘Look at that mess. That’s one mess I won’t have to clean up.'”
“Go back to the doctor, even if it is T.O. Cobble,” I say quickly, trying to talk past the thickness in my throat. “Tell him exactly what you told me.”
“I certainly will not. It’s just a thought, and thoughts don’t mean anything.” She begins to wipe down the last cabinet door. The subject is closed and I can’t tell you what relief I feel at seeing the blue dishcloth move again.
Finally, we sit at the table and talk of normal things. We talk about the outrageous rise in grocery prices, especially butter, and the kids and how well they’re doing in school. Lilyanne is at the top of her class, but she doesn’t like Laurel High. She wants to go to the town school where she says she could at least be in a decent yearbook. Winnie has always squashed this idea.
I know Lilyanne is a strain on Winnie, but I also know that girl is the only thing that ties her to this earth, so I am not shocked when I hear her say, “Lilyanne and I got in a fuss the other day, and suddenly I saw things her way. She wants to live in town and be part of things. Really, it might be better. She said we could solve the problem of changing districts by letting her move in with you. She said her Aunt Nonna would take her.”
What are you doing, Winnie. Are you giving me your child?
“I’d take Lilyanne in a minute, but now isn’t the time to talk about it. You’re not yourself, Winnie, and I think even you know that.”
Winnie sighs, but gives in without a fuss. I wonder how many times she’s given in to my brother, but when she tells me Lucky is planning to leave for a hunting trip next weekend, she doesn’t have to spell it out. I know what she means. She’s decided to accept my help.
I’m ready to shout Hallelujah! when truck lights flood the yard. The men are back only a little later than I expected, and as soon as my brother hits the door, he calls for Winnie to make coffee.
“None for us,” I tell her, smiling, and she smiles, too, though she keeps it in her eyes.
“Got to get going,” says Jim. “Winnie, thanks for another wonderful meal. There are no words.”
Winnie blushes and tilts her head in her ten after six pose.
By the time we drive past the Davis County line, night has fallen in earnest. Then some fool barrels around Big Bend Curve without dimming his lights and blinds me good.
I say nothing. Usually that kind of thing drives me crazy, but when I shut my eyes, the lights against my lids, it’s not spots I see but the young Edwina Rose, looking fresh and newly awakened to life. The old Winnie is gone, and a new one has taken her place, burned clean. I inch closer to Jim and lean my head against his shoulder. This position is more comfortable than having the door lock in my ear.
“You’re up to something,” he says, mildly.
“Yes, I am.” I nuzzle his ear because I know he doesn’t mind.
Actually, my head is buzzing with plans. First, I’ll take Winnie down to the flea market and get some cash in her hands. If she won’t sell Mother’s stuff, I will. Then, I’ll talk her into seeing a good doctor, one who will get to the bottom of all this crazy talk and start her on a series of estrogen shots. Women need all the defenses they can get in this world. I smile broadly into the darkness. Her life will change, and so will Lucky’s. Poor, sweet Winnie, I think, as I lean closer to Jim, only she’d believe it is her duty to love some goddamned saved man.