Sugarpool, an Appalachian Novel

I rolled out of bed this morning, clumsy as a cow, feeling every bone in my body. Usually, I ache only under my left breast where the pocket of infection is, but now I feel like someone has beaten me with a board.

This is all Nonna’s fault. I don’t consider myself an excitable woman, but after she told me how much money I could make at the flea market, I walked the floor all night, fell into a fitful sleep around four, only to awaken two hours later to shut off the alarm.

Lucky sleeps in the spare room across the hall. He moved his things when I was sick and coughed all night; now, it looks like he’s going to stay. But I still rouse him every morning because he shuts off the alarm, then burrows under the covers. Once he’s awake, though, he’s awake completely, and the first words out of his mouth are, “Jesus, Winnie, why didn’t you get me up sooner?”

I’ve never found a suitable reply.

I don’t wake Lilyanne anymore because by the time I’m up, she’s already in the shower. She takes another shower when she gets home from school. I’ve warned her about too much bathing; she’ll wash all her strength away. Growing up, that’s what Momma told us. I wasn’t prepared for her laughter.

After everyone is up and moving, I go into the kitchen and fix Lucky’s breakfast. Lilyanne stopped eating what I cook last year and now insists on a bark and twig cereal in the morning covered with a wash of 2% milk. Every other day, she adds a piece of dry toast.

Nonna’s words threw me into a tizzy because she was telling the truth. Nonna knows how to make money because she’s been making money all her life. She started working at The Virginian Theater selling tickets when she was just sixteen; plus, she married a man who’s always encouraged her natural abilities. I’m not saying I envy Nonna; my sister-in-law has been too good to me for resentment, but when I mentioned developing my natural abilities to Lucky, he said he’d be happy to help once I knew what they were.

He could be right. All my life I’ve been looking over my shoulder for my sister. Sometimes I hear her behind me: the crunch of a leaf, a bark of laughter, even the sound of splashing water although she drowned. Her name was Evelyn Elaine. Evie and Winnie. We were inseparable until one day she stepped into the Guyandotte River, plunged into a current, and drowned. I stood on the bank, frozen. She bobbed up once, her face frozen, too, but for her eyes. She knew what was happening. I ran for Daddy, and then the men came with the dogs. They found her body on a sandbar near Branchland, her feet tangled in brush.

That’s why I needed Lucky, raw, roaring and full of life. He pulled the sorrow out of me; I thought he could backbone my dreams. Now, the sorrow has returned and my dreams are dead. That’s why stacks of Contempo magazines are up in the attic; I don’t want to throw them away, but I don’t want to look at them, either. All the light and clean lines live inside my head. Also, I wanted to be a school secretary; now I couldn’t stand the noise of kids.

When Lucky’s mother died, we got all of her furniture. Mrs. Nicholas and I didn’t have the same tastes, but it hardly mattered. The furniture fits this house on Sugar Creek, although I drew a line at the clutter. I probably threw out a hundred refrigerator magnets and hundreds more cards, but her crocheted items are stacked neatly in a drawer.

You would think that being out here in the sticks with no job, a half-time husband, and a daughter who is nearly grown, I wouldn’t have much to do, but the truth is, I’m always in a rush. I often imagine facing the Lord on Judgment Day, and his first words to me will be: Edwina Rose, where did you think you were going in such a hurry?

This morning, I hurried fixing Lucky’s eggs. He likes them over easy so he can dip in his toast, but I was thinking about something, probably Evie, and let the first one fry too long. Then, I flipped the second one over so fast that my arm bumped against the pocket of infection, and I felt such a jolt of pain that I dropped the spatula and grease spattered everywhere. Now, my morning is shot. After they’re gone, I’ll be scrubbing and wiping, all the while rehashing Nonna’s words.

You could make a fortune, Winnie.

It’s not old stuff, it’s Applachian crafts.

Lucky will never notice. Buy what you want.

The pocket of infection doesn’t worry me. I’ve gone to Dr. Cobble all my life and believe what he says. He may not be an expert in Nonna’s eyes, but he brought me into this world. He still runs the same clinic he started as a young man. The only time the Cobble Clinic was closed was when his wife, Henrietta, died. Everyone around here called her Henry. She was a jewel, who sent flowers and cards to encourage his worst cases, and anyone who called her Mrs. Cobble or Henritetta was corrected on the spot. She was just Henry, just as I’m Winnie and not Edwina Rose. I bear down on a grease spot and feel a stab of pain. A poor comparison, I suppose.

After my examination, Dr. Cobble told me that I’d had pleurisy and still had a pocket of infection in the lower lobe of my left lung. As for my breast, he said it was more of the same, only deeper, that it would disappear when all the poison in my body was gone and that wouldn’t take long because, unlike most of his other patients, my lungs weren’t filled with smoke.

Dr. Cobble has always calmed me. Momma took me to him after Evie died, and he gave me pills that made me sleep. I probably should have told him about the tightness my chest and how I sometimes choke up doing simple things, but I let it slide. I didn’t want to spout nonsense half naked on his table. The exam was over, and I began to swing my feet. I didn’t realize I’d also wrinkled my brow.

Dr. Cobble did. I sometimes think that after he examined the body of my sister, he can see inside me as well.

“Edwina Rose,” he said. I grew still. “I can tell by the look on your face you don’t believe me, but I literally pulled you out of your mother’s womb, a difficult birth for a woman of her size, and I wouldn’t tell you wrong now.”

I mumbled something about being afraid of cancer.

He said cancer didn’t hurt and since my lump did, it wasn’t, but if it would make me feel better, he’d call St. Mary’s and schedule a mammogram. But the doctors there wouldn’t function on a personal basis and would put me through a battery of tests, some of which Lucky’s insurance wouldn’t cover, and in the end they’d come out with the same diagnosis as his.

“Do I need an X-ray?” The question popped out before I realized I shouldn’t be asking; his waiting room was packed with all sorts of really sick people and I was wasting his time. I’d been in Dr. Cobble’s x-ray room before and thought that was where he’d send me. After Evie died, I stopped growing, and when I started again, Momma thought I had a curved spine. I’m not afraid of the coldness; it doesn’t remind me of a morgue.

“I could,” he said, considering, “but that would be a waste of time as well because I know what you’ve got and furthermore,” he leaned forward, our noses almost touching. “I know how you got it.”

“You do?” I felt like I’d told a secret, but I couldn’t think how.

“Yes, Ms. Winnie, I do. You’ve been feeding Lucky’s hounds all winter, plus that monster dog he had shipped in from out of state and–“

“It’s a Fila Brasileiro,” I interrupted. Pace wasn’t a monster.

“Feel-uh whatever, you’ve been running outside in the morning without a jacket. The result is that you’ve ended up with a deep cold and pleurisy, too.”

I stopped swinging my feet.

“Humph. I knew I was right. Lucky feeds them in the evenings, but that’s not enough, is it? You have to feed them, too.”

I shook my head once because he was only half-right.

“Okay,” he resettled his glasses and crossed his arms over his chest. “I want to ask you a question. When are you going to do something about that eye tooth?”

“The missing one?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with the other.”

“I haven’t really thought about it. I lost it crunching down on an ice cube.”

A slow blush began at my navel and moved upwards. I knew I was on the straight path to hell for not telling the whole truth. This is the truth: I didn’t lose my eye tooth crunching down on ice, though that might have led to it. My gums had been sore and bleeding for months, soI bought a soft-bristled tooth brush because I tend to brush my teeth the same way I scrub floors and toilets. The bleeding stopped but the tooth had already become wobbly, and sensitive to hot and cold. I’d bitten down on an ice cube, but the tooth didn’t come out then; it fell out one morning while I was brushing my teeth, gentle as could be, bounced against the sink and lodged sideways in the drain. I picked it out with a pair of tweezers and then stood staring like a kid who expects something from a fairy.

“I didn’t asked how you lost it,” said Dr. Cobble. “I asked when you were going to do something about it. Whether you realize it or not, an exposed gum is not something to ignore. I’m not claiming to be a dentist, but a virus could set in which could travel to your brain.” He sighed. “Good God, Winnie, you’re still in your thirties. Do you want a false set of uppers in a few years?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Are you going to do something about it?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You’ll do this for yourself or do you want me to have Sharon ring up Dr. Curry?”

“No, I’ll do it,” I replied and meant every word. I despise the sound of drills, but just being around Dr. Cobble gave me courage. He is such a good man. If my missing eye tooth were something I couldn’t do anything about, he’d never have mentioned it.

“Good, it’s settled. I’m prescribing you an antibiotic, and when you come in for a follow-up in six weeks, I expect to see a new tooth.”

I was happy that he didn’t mention the dogs again, because I hadn’t been telling him the truth about that either.

I hadn’t been feeding Lucky’s hounds. I hate them. I was, and still am, feeding the Fila Brasileiro, Pace.

And I didn’t get sick until this past February, when it was blue cold and the soft cloth of my robe whipped around my legs like razors, I started feeding Pace last fall during the most beautiful Indian summer I’d ever seen. Lucky feeds the hounds once a day, but at summer’s end, Pace began growing like a weed, and he needed more. What I began in that summer of a fall carried into winter, which was my bad luck because I can’t remember a colder one, except in ’79.

I had to break the ice in his water bowl and fill it from the spigot on the side of the house. Some mornings, the spigot would be frozen, too, and I’d have to race inside and run hot water. I never changed into anything warmer because I didn’t think I was doing myself any harm. I always took a hot bath afterwards and let that steal the coldness from my body. Sometimes, I’d soak for an hour, my nose breaking through like a spout.

But as I listened to Dr. Cobble, I realized I was in both a good and bad place. A good place because Lucky had put in new pens over the summer, real kennels with thick wires between block houses and seven foot concrete runs with drains so we were no longer being bothered by smells or barking, but bad because it would mean more than a quick dash. Next winter, I’d have to wear a coat and boots.

I wouldn’t have started the whole business but for Pace, the “monster dog,” whose anguished howl somehow pulled together my shattered self and galvanized me into action. I thought him nothing but a bother when he arrived, resenting the fact that he cost more than a sectional leather couch and a glass-topped table combined.

And I was jealous.

When Lucky brought Pace home, he was prouder of him than any of the dogs that have passed through his kennels. The sire and dam were Brazilian imports owned by a breeder in Georgia, and Lucky had had the pup flown in at twelve weeks, the earliest the airlines will allow. Lucky drove him straight home and didn’t even stop to show his friends.

Lucky was bubbling with excitement, when he strutted into the kitchen, just like Nonna when she gets a new idea. Neither of them will admit it, but they’re exactly alike when they have a new pursuit, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

I lowered the heat on the potatoes, put on the lid, and turned around. He was smiling at me, wide open, the same way he had when he’d first held Lilyanne. I laughed out loud.

“Look at the size of this little fella, Winnie! He’s only twelve weeks old! Look at his paws! He’s got the biggest feet I’ve ever seen. Do you know what that means?”

I told him I certainly didn’t.

“Never mind.” He looked sheepish before he clutched the pup tighter in his arms.

The pup was a light brown, almost a fawn color. He had a black muzzle, drooping ears, and a dewlap. His eyes were brown, almost black, and expressionless. I’ve never received such a look from either a child or a pup; most young things want acceptance.

“This dog will only bond with me,” Lucky continued. “It’s a Fila Brasileiro, a Brazilian cattle dog. Repeat the name for me.”

I did.

“Yep, you got it. Fila Brasileiro means without fear, or at least the Fila part does, and these dogs have loyal, fearless hearts. No fear of man except for the owner. Do you know how the breeders used to cull the litters?”

“Lucky, I don’t think I want to hear this.”

He paused, then plunged in. “When the pups were maybe four or five weeks old, the breeder would get a stranger to come stand at a distance. Then the stranger would whistle. The ones that came running were stomped to death. The ones that stayed behind with the dam were kept.”

“Do they still do that?” I clutched my stomach. So much loss in this world.

He shrugged. “Some might. I don’t know what goes on in Brazil, but I doubt if there’s any laws. Winnie, I’m going to train this boy so he’ll swim a river for me.”

“I think this pup has been through enough just by being born,” I replied. “And why bring up a river? That’s an awful thing to say.”

“It’s only a manner of speaking.” Lucky says after a moment. I can tell he’s ashamed. “Besides, he’s a dog.”

I reached out to pet the pup, but he growled. What had my husband brought home?

“You’ll understand when I’ve trained him.” He lowered his voice, as if this next part was going to be important. “When I’m off on a long job, this dog will protect you and Lilyanne. Only a fool would drive out here when I’m gone, once word gets out about this little man.”

The pup squirmed and he tightened his hold.

“Ever since the robbery down at the Myer’s place, I’ve been worried. I thought about getting you a pistol, but you’d only shoot yourself in the foot.”

No, not my foot, I thought, followed by, you’ll never make me believe you bought this dog for me and Lilyanne. Instead, I nodded. There’d been a small thread of tenderness in his voice, a thread I hadn’t picked up on since our daughter was born, and I was half ashamed to be so glad. The pup heard it, too, because he started wagging his tail.

“You’ll feel safer with this little guy here, but he won’t be little for long. When he’s full grown, he’ll weigh well over two hundred pounds. I have to take him out for his run, let him stretch his legs and give him water. No, he can’t spend the night in the house.”

I disagreed. Whatever the pup would turn out too be, he should at least have a box in the kitchen on his first night with one of Lilyanne’s old plush toys thrown in.

“He’s too small to be put in the kennel.”

“Look, if I start coddling him now, I’ll never be able to go anywhere. He can’t get too attached to me because he’ll grieve himself to death while I’m gone. The breeder in Georgia was emphatic about that. Winnie, this dog is a weapon. Filas respond to authority, not love.” He nodded toward his gun case before he went out the back door. “I can’t wait to take him to a rare breed show.”

I waited until I heard his footsteps clear the deck, then raised the lid and said aloud to the potatoes:

“None of this is ever going to happen.”

to be con’t.

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