Authors: Joyce Durham Barrett
a novel by
Joyce Durham Barrett
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
I am grateful to Dr. Louis Rubin, Jr., for his dedication to and support of good writing and new voices, and to all the people at Algonquin who by long hours and hard work magically produce a book. I am especially grateful to Virginia Holman, who has given me a renewed appreciation for copy editors.
To all my family
. . . . . .
pull up my white, 100 percent nylon panties I bought just for this occasion, sit down in the rocker at the foot of my bed, and watch the new day light up my window. Cotton panties are okay for working at the pants factory and for wearing around Littleton, but there's no telling what I might run into at Nathan.
The warm, mid-April sun gleams through the sheer curtain and glows on the right side of my nude chest, cutting my twenty-eight-year-old body in half and focusing a spotlight on my right breast. It is a child's breast, decorated with two cherry moles at the point of cleavage. If there were any cleavage to be seen.
Did she have any cleavage? I've never once thought about that. All these years, I've never considered size. On her. On me, yeah, wouldn't I love to have a little more of it. Size, that is. Not
Mama's going to be sick today, I can feel it. I can feel it as sure as I'm feeling sick about wearing the new floral-print dress she's sewed up especially for me to be put away in. That's what she calls it, “put away,” as if I'm going off to Nathan to be buried.
“You mean Elizabeth needs to be put away?” she asked old Dr. Hardy when he got through examining me and couldn't find anything wrong, when he heard I hadn't been working down at the pants factory for almost a month, that according to Mama, I didn't care about nothing or nobody anymore, especially the Lord and His Work, and that all I did was lie in bed.
That's not exactly true. Lying in bed, yes, but I do listen to that song over and over on my record player. The wild-flower woman song, where the man is saying just leave the little woman alone and let her cry and let her dream, because she's a woman and a child both. And besides, she feels like she's always paying for some debt she don't even owe, and the only way she can forget about the whole thing is to get into bed and pull the covers over her head. And sleep. That's the only peace. Sleep, sleep, sweet sleep, like salve on the troubled chest of the wildflower woman child.
The trouble with sleeping so much is waking up. That's why I keep sitting in the rocker. I just can't get myself awake. So, I rock and I rock just sitting here feeling the sunlight spreading across half my body and warming it up like butter
melting, but soon the spotlight shining down from the greater light of creation pulls away from my breast, just like a baby that's done got its fill, moves across the arm of the rocker, and pauses on the table beside my bed before it disappears. I wonder if I will ever feel the light spread across the whole of me and warm up this cold, dead body.
I lift my new, all-nylon, white brassiere, size 32A, stick my arms through its straps, and with a click of the back hook fasten myself into the halter. Just like a straitjacket, although I'm not sure what a straitjacket looks like, all I know it's some contraption they fasten you into when you've gone wild-crazy and they have to carry you off to Nathan fastened up in it. Like they did Annie Lou Parsons. Annie Lou went wild-crazy with screaming fits that wouldn't stop, that's why they carried her off, but nobody really cares why she went wild-crazy. All anybody around here knows to do is make cracks about it. “Man, you crazy as Annie Lou Parsons, you know that? They need to take you off to Nathan.” That's what they say. Mama included.
Well, I may be crazy, but I know I'm not wild-crazy, just maybe quiet-crazy, and I don't know which one is worse. Sometimes I wish I could be wild-crazy and scream and holler and go wild. That might feel better than keeping everything all bottled up, because I get to thinking that what if one day I get really all shaken up and my top gets popped, you know like when you shake up a Coca-Cola and you open it
and it goes spewing out everywhere? Whatever would I do if I went spewing out everywhere?
Okay. So people will say I'm crazy, that's what they'll say. But I've learned one thing here in Littleton in my lifetime: it's much more convenient for people to condemn than to try to understand. You see, nobody talks about why Annie Lou went wild-crazy; they never mention the quarter-sized tumor the doctors found on her brain, and how after they took that off she went back to normal. Nobody cares about the
Annie Lou Parsons had screaming fits that wouldn't stop and drove her wild-crazy. And that's exactly what I would like to knowâreasons. If there's one thing I want to get from this life, it's understanding. That's why I agreed with old Dr. Hardy to go to Nathan in the first place, to understand what's going on inside me, and why I have to sleep so much, and will I ever, ever be able to forget about it, and if not, will I have to sleep my whole life away, or can I somehow, someway, someday, wake up. And if people want to think I'm crazy, just let themâand I have Aunt Lona to thank for that.
“Well, Beth,” Aunt Lona said when I told her I had finally, with her help, decided that yes, I was going off to Nathan, “Dear, you don't know how so very glad I am you decided to go on. You know what I've always told you. It's what you in your own mind think that's most important, anyway, not what others think.”
I can talk with Aunt Lona about anything. Except one. And I don't think anybody could talk about it. A lot of times I start to try. But I don't even know how to say it, nor what to say. It's easier to just not say anything about it and just push it back down. Don't even think about it. Sleep instead.
I wish I could be more like Aunt Lona, and I've been trying, Lord knows, I've been trying. Aunt Lona has been teaching at the primary school for twenty years, plus she gives piano lessons on the side. She's never married, she makes her own good living, and she comes and goes whenever she takes a notion. Last summer she took off to England for two weeks, and she invited me to go with her.
“Aunt Lona, you know I don't have that kind of money,” I said.
“That's why I'm paying,” she said. “So, no excuses, you're going, and that's final.”
But when I told Mama that Aunt Lona had decided I was going to England with her, Mama, whose fits come in “small,” “medium,” and “large,” settled on a large-sized fit.
“Who, pray tell, does Lona think she is to be deciding where you'll go and when?” she ranted. “And where, pray tell, does she think we'd get that kind of money to go traipsing off to England? And what for, anyway? What's England got to do with anything? What's England got that we haven't?”
“Mama,” I said, “Aunt Lona's paying my way, number one. And number two, people go to other countries to see how other people live. And number three, what's England got that we haven't? Well, that's why you go there, to see what they've got. For one thing, they've got a queen, and we haven't.”
“You're not going, Elizabeth, so just get that notion out of your head right now. Besides, you can't go off and leave your daddy and me here by ourselves.” And although she didn't say those words exactly, I heard them loud and clear. “Who would watch after me, Elizabeth. Who?”
That's always the clincher. I can't go
and leave Mama. Not even to bed. Not even to sleep. No matter where I go, she's still there with me. When I turned twenty-one I thought surely I would feel more like a real grown-up woman, and would take to going places and doing things whether Mama liked it or not. But I just couldn't bring myself to leave Mama. Not except to go spend the night with Aunt Lona. And, now, seven years later, I can still feel this troublesome load pulling me down, this need to always be nearby in case something happens to her.
I hate that I'm leaving her even for a little while. Especially with her birthday next week. And I won't even be around to make her a cake. I should've made one yesterday, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I just can't seem to do
anything anymore. You know how your foot feels when it goes to sleep and you try to walk on it, and you can't get any feeling back in it, but you keep on walking on it anyway and you don't even feel it, or maybe you feel it a little bit and it feels like you're clumping around on a dead piece of meat? Well, that's the way my whole body feels, like all of me has gone to sleep, even when I'm up walking around. This body needs something, or somebody, to wake it up.
Mama is still in bed.
The bed. I never considered the bed, either, in all these years. What kind it was. Where it was. Surely it was in the bedroom. But it seems the light was there. Daylight. Broad daylight.
Mama is usually up by now, making cream gravy and biscuits for her and Daddy. I eat cornflakes for breakfast. I got sick of gravy and biscuits years ago, but Mama doesn't believe I just don't like them anymore.
“You're getting too good to eat what your daddy and me eat, that's what it is,” she always says. “You're trying to get above your raising, that's what it is.”
Poor Mama. Or poor me, and I don't mean that in the way of feeling sorry for myself, because I happen to think self-pity somehow isn't exactly the right way to feel. But, yeah, Mama, yeah, maybe you're right, maybe I am trying to get above my raising. And, surely Lord, it's about time. Past time. Still, sometimes I don't know whether to laugh
or to cry when it comes to Mama. If I think the least bit different from the way she thinks, she takes it as an insult. Or if I make the slightest suggestion about how to do something, she puffs up and gets mad. Like when we're practicing hymns to sing. A lot of times Mama and I “provide the special music” at Littleton Baptist Church on Sunday mornings, and when we're practicing there in the living room and I stop to show her that a note goes up, not down, she gets all huffy and stops. I used to keep on trying to get her to sing it the right way, but as I get older I've found the best thing to do is just play the note down, not up, and try to make the music match Mama rather than trying to make Mama match the music. I guess I've learned a few things over the years, even if I didn't go to England and see the queen. I sure don't want any arguments with Mama, and I'll do anything to prevent them. It took me a while, but I've learned she's going to believe what she wants to believe, and that's it. Period. Just like she's convinced it was all her fault about Angela.
Angela. Did she ever do it to Angela, too?
My dress is pretty, I'll have to admit, even if it is homemade. It's baby blue with lavender violets all over it, with a purple sash and a lace collar. Cute, as Mama said. “Yes, Mama,” I said, “it is really cute.” And it is. It would look cute on a five-year-old. But I do not want to look “cute.” Maybe when I turn thirty-one I'll get up the courage to insist
on store-bought dresses. I say thirty-one because when I turned twenty-one, I finally got the courage to tell Mama that I'd just start making my dresses myself, thank you. If they had to be homemade, at least I'd have some say-so in the matter and I could start wearing more grown-up dresses instead of her little frocks decorated with lace and ribbons and ruffles. But, just to try to help keep the peace, I let her make me one of her cute little specials to wear to Nathan.
Twenty-one. I keep looking back wondering where all the promise is that lay in twenty-one. That's when I thought I became an adult. In numbers anyway. But I must have been wrong. Anyway, that's when I started keeping back some money out of my check for myself and not giving it all to Mama, that's when I learned to drive, that's when I started going down to the Frostee-Burg on Saturday nights, and that's when I started learning to make my own clothes. As for the money I kept back, Mama just didn't ever see it, although she did wonder sometimes how I managed to make the money she gave back to me stretch so far. As for driving, though she whined around for a few weeks about there being no need for me to learn to drive, she soon came to see that I could go to the grocery, or up to the five-and-dime for her on command, and my learning to drive was all the better for her. As for going down to the Frostee-Burg, she and Daddy usually got a hamburger or a milkshake out of that deal. So
none of the things I suddenly started doing when I came of age bothered her that much. None except making my own clothes.