Read an Excerpt
New American Library Titles by Karen White
Vivien Walker Moise
INDIAN MOUND, MISSISSIPPI
I was born in the same bed that my mama was born in, and her mama before her, and even further back than anybody alive could still remember. It was as if the black wood of the bedposts were meant to root us Walker women to this place of flat fields and fertile soil carved from the great Mississippi. But like the levees built to control the mighty river, it never held us for long.
We were born screaming into this world, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find what would quiet us. Our legacy was our ability to coax living things from fallow ground, along with a desperate need to see what lay beyond the delta. A need to quell a hurt whose source was as unexplainable as its force.
Whatever it was that drove us away was never stronger than the pull of what brought us back. Maybe it was the feel of the dark Mississippi mud or the memory of the old house and the black bed into which we’d been born, but no matter how far we ran, we always came back.
I returned in the spring nearly nine years to the day after I’d left. I’d driven straight through from Los Angeles, twenty-seven hours of asphalt and fast food, my memories like a string guiding me home. The last leg from Little Rock to Indian Mound was punctuated by bright flashes of lightning and constant tornado watches on the radio. I kept my foot pressed to the accelerator as strong winds buffeted my car. It didn’t occur to me to stop. I had a trunk’s worth of hurts piled in the car with me that only my grandmother Bootsie could make go away. She would forgive those long years of silence because she understood doggedness. I’d inherited it from her side of the family, after all.
It was nearly dawn when the storm passed and I crossed the river into Mississippi and headed east on Highway 82 and into the heart of the delta. The hills and bluffs to the west disappeared as if a giant boot had flattened all the land between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, creating a landscape as rich and fertile as it was difficult to contain and control. This place of my ancestors was known to make or break a man, and I figured by now the scorecard was about even.
I’ve been a long time gone. Billboards and highway lights fell away, leaving behind empty fields and ramshackle structures swallowed by kudzu, turning them into hulking ghosts haunting the roadside. Sinewy cypress swamps randomly appeared as if to remind us of our tenuous hold on the land. The predawn flatscape flashed by me in shades of gray, as if the years had absorbed all the color, so that even my memories were seen only in black and white.
A therapist had once told me that my hindsight color blindness was due to an unhappy childhood. I tried to tell him that I had never considered my motherless childhood to be unhappy. It was more of an accumulation of years filled with absence, that perhaps black and white were simply the colors of grief.
The rising sun had painted the sky pink by the time I passed the sign for Indian Mound, the first seeds of panic making my heart beat faster. I glanced over at my purse, where I kept my pills, wondering whether I could swallow them dry again as I’d been doing for most of the trip. My throat felt sore, and my hands shook. I’m almost home. I turned my gaze toward the dim light outside that seemed to swallow my car as I passed through it, and pressed my foot harder on the accelerator.
I slowed down, trying to avoid the increasing amount of debris tossed across the road, the tree limbs, leaves, and roof shingles that seemed to have been scattered by the hand of a careless child. I caught up to an old, faded red pickup truck as it slowed down at the bright flashing red and blue lights of a police car stopped in front of fallen electrical lines. A large, brindled dog, his lineage as indecipherable as the vintage of the pickup truck in which he sat, stared at me with a lost expression. A police officer guided our way around the danger zone, his other hand reminding us to slow down. As soon as he had disappeared from my rearview mirror, I sped up, passing the truck and maneuvering past a mailbox that stood upright in the middle of the highway as if it were meant to be there.
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I thought of the pills again, and how easily they could take away the pit of worry that had begun to gnaw at me. I went faster, clipping a tree limb with my left front tire and hearing a crack and a thump of the split wood hitting metal. I kept going, realizing that I was prepared to drive on the rim of a flat tire if I had to. I’ve been a long time gone.
I turned off the highway onto a dirt road studded with puddles and rocks. The road bisected a large cotton field, the furrows drowning in standing water. I remembered this road and had turned by instinct. It probably had a name, one we’d never used when giving directions to the odd visitor. We usually instructed visitors to turn right about one and a half miles past the old general store, which leaned to the left and still had a Royal Crown Cola sign plastered over the doorway even though it had been abandoned long before I was born.
The store was gone now, but I still knew where to turn in the same way my hair still knew where to part no matter how hard I tried to tell it different. But the road was the same, still narrow, with the tall white oaks—taller now, I supposed—creating a green archway above. Tommy and I used to race barefoot down this road, watching our feet churn up dust like conjured spirits.
My back tires spun out, bringing me back to the present and slipping my car off the side of the road. Panicking, I gunned the engine, succeeding only in digging the wheels further in muck. Although I knew it was useless, I gunned the engine two more times. I stared through the windshield down the tree-shaded road. It had taken me nine years to come back. I figured stretching it out for a few more minutes wouldn’t matter.
I began to walk, my leather flats sticking to the Mississippi mud as if reluctant to let me go again. A murder of crows sprang up out of the trees, cawing loudly and making my heart hammer as I tried counting them, recalling the nursery rhyme Mathilda had sung to me as a child.
One for sorrow,
two for mirth,
three for a wedding,
four for a birth,
five for silver,
six for gold,
seven for a secret never to be told,
eight for heaven,
nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own self.
I clenched my teeth, wishing I’d taken another pill. I glanced over my shoulder at the car, realizing too late that I’d left my purse. I’d almost decided to go back when a flurry of wings made me look up. Seven black crows, their inky black wings seeming wet in the light of the sun, swirled and dipped over me, cawing and cackling, then took off again across the field.
My throat stung as I walked faster, feeling light-headed as I tried to recall the last time I’d eaten. And then the trees by the side of the road fell away and I stopped in a large clearing with a wide, paved drive edged with centuries-old oak trees. The old yellow house of indeterminate architecture with columns and porches and an improbable turret and at least three different roof styles stood before me in all of its confused splendor. It was an anomaly among all the Greek Revival homes of the region, as peculiar and original as the women who’d lived there for two centuries. My heart slowed as if Bootsie were already with me, letting my head rest on her shoulder. I had come home.
Despite the storm, the house appeared almost untouched except for the litter of pink azalea petals that had been stripped from their stems and scattered around the drive and yard like fuchsia doubloons from a Mardi Gras float.
Grass blades stuck their tips out of standing water in the yard as if struggling for breath, the water reflecting the sky and odd yellow house. Its windows stared down on me with reproach, as if wondering at the audacity of the return of another Walker woman, my hubris in believing it wanted me back. But I’d lived my first eighteen years inside its walls and had run through the fields of cotton that surrounded it. This house was the only spot of color in my monochromatic memories.
I listened for the songbirds, as much a part of my memory as the landscape. Except for the crows, the only sound cutting the silence was that of dripping water as it fell to the ground from the eaves and chipped paint of the old house, and from the arthritic fingers of the oak trees. I slowly walked up the wooden steps to the wide porch, pausing to take off my mud-caked shoes and leave them by the side of the door, just as I had done as a child. I placed my hand on the large brass knob of the front door before deciding to knock instead.
I knocked twice, waiting for the tread of my grandmother Bootsie’s footsteps, or the glide of my mother’s bare feet. Or even the heavier tread of my older brother, Tommy. But all I heard was the sound of the water leaking from the house. Drip. Drip.
I hesitated for a moment, then reached for the knob. It didn’t turn. In all of my years growing up, the front door had never been locked. I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d known I was coming after all. I stood for a moment with my hands on my hips until I remembered it was a stance my mother had frequently used, and dropped them again. The air was heavy with the scent of rain and the boxwoods that had begun to creep over the porch railings unchecked.
I slid my shoes back on and crossed the drive to walk around the side toward the old carriage house that had been converted into a garage sometime in the twenties. I recognized Bootsie’s 1977 white Cadillac convertible and my heart lurched with relief. A white pickup truck with an enormous toolbox in the bed that I assumed was Tommy’s sat behind it, and next to it was a dark sedan that looked suspiciously like an unmarked police car. I didn’t take the time to think about why it was there. I walked quickly now, no longer caring about avoiding puddles, needing to be embraced by my grandmother until I no longer craved my pills to soothe away the hurting.
I moved to the backyard, looking toward the rear of our property, toward the forest full of sweet gums and pines, the solid land giving way to the swamp and giant bald cypress trees that Tommy had once told me were over a thousand years old. A lone cypress tree had managed to take root on higher ground halfway between the house and the swamp, standing by itself among the sparse grass and haphazard pine trees whose scraggly branches always made them look bewildered next to the corded majesty of the giant cypress. I’d called it “my tree” as a child, and I longed to sit in the comforting shade of its branches again.
But the landscape had been altered. Limbs and leaves mixed blindly with papers and other indistinguishable man-made debris. A porch swing that I remembered had once hung on the front porch sat right side up, its chains missing, in the middle of the yard. Close by, almost as if they’d been set there on purpose, were the two metal chairs that had always graced my grandmother’s vegetable garden. They had once been a neon lime color, but sun and time had faded them into a disappointed green. With the swing, they formed a cohesive seating group, almost as if the wind had decided in the middle of its destruction to take a break.
I paused, feeling my equilibrium shift as if I’d just stepped off a moving sidewalk. I took in the three figures standing in the near distance, and then waited for my gaze to register what they were standing next to, blinking twice until I understood. My tree, the stalwart reminder of the best parts of my childhood, had toppled over, clipping the edge of the old cotton shed. The roots were singed black, with chunks of bark encircling the area. I imagined I could smell the burnt ions in the air from the lightning strike, still feel the atmosphere pulsating with the power of it.
“Bootsie?” I called out, my walk becoming a run. Three heads turned in my direction just as another cluster of crows flew out from the dead tree, their shiny black bodies seeming to mock me.
I stopped in front of the small group, my breath coming in gasps, as we regarded one another, all of us looking as if we’d just seen a ghost. Nobody said anything as my gaze moved from one person to another, registering my brother’s face, and then another man, and then my mother. Whereas Tommy wore jeans and an untucked shirt, like he’d just been roused from bed by the sound of a lightning strike, my mother wore a silk brocade cocktail dress taken directly from the Kennedy White House, complete with rhinestone earrings and matching bracelet and ring. I recalled seeing a photograph of her mother, Bootsie, wearing the same ensemble.
My mother turned to me with mild surprise. “Vivien, I know I’ve told you before that you should never leave the house without lipstick.”
I stared at her for a long moment, wondering if there was more to this altered landscape than just a fallen tree.
My brother hesitated for a moment, then took a step forward to embrace me. He was ten years older than me, and almost a decade had passed since I’d last seen him, but now, at nearly thirty-seven, he still looked like the gangly and awkward boy I’d grown up with. Tommy’s shirt was soft and worn under my fingers, and I clutched at the familiarity of it. “It’s been a while.” He didn’t smile.
My lips trembled as I tried to smirk at his vast understatement, as if we both believed his words could erase nearly nine years of silence. “Hello, Tommy.” I forced a deep breath into my lungs. “Where’s Bootsie?”
His eyes softened, and I knew then that I’d lost more than just time in the last nine years. “You’ve been gone awhile.” His gaze drifted to our mother in her cocktail dress and high heels and something icy cold gripped the area around my heart.
Before I could say anything, the other man stepped forward. Tripp Montgomery was as tall and slender as I remembered him, short brown hair and hazel eyes that always seemed to see more of the world than the rest of us. He wore khaki pants and a long-sleeved shirt and a tie, which only added to my confusion. I looked at him, wondering why he was there and hoping that somebody would tell me this was all a dream and that I’d soon awaken in my bed in the old house with Bootsie kissing my forehead.
“Hey,” Tripp said, as if he’d just delivered me to my front steps after school. As if the earth had somehow stopped spinning in this corner of the world and everything was the same as when I’d left it. Except it wasn’t.
“Why are you here?” I asked, plucking at one of the random questions I needed to ask to make the ground beneath my feet stand still.
His face remained impassive, but I thought I saw a flicker of what looked like sympathy pass through his eyes. “I’m the county coroner.” He stepped back, allowing my gaze to register the gaping hole in the ground that the intricate root system of the giant cypress had once inhabited. The grass around the edges was blackened, wood and bark sprinkled like confetti around the wounded earth. And there, nestled inside the dark hole like a baby in its crib, were the stark white bones of a human skeleton.
My hands began to shake, my vision marred by mottled dots of light. I struggled to focus as I stared at the skull, unable to look away.
I forced myself to look at Tripp and saw that he was staring at my hands as if he knew why, like he’d always known everything about me without my ever having to open my mouth. I tried to clench my fingers into fists, but they were shaking too hard. The dots of light had now become streaks across my vision, and I tried to focus on Tommy again, but my mother’s voice broke through the pounding in my head.
“Have you taken my car keys again, Vivien? I can’t seem to find them.”
I looked down at the dirty white of the forehead bone, now shimmering in the bright morning sun as if it were trying to speak to me. I started to say something, but the light suddenly dimmed and I closed my eyes as I felt myself falling, still seeing behind my eyelids the glow of white bone against dark, dark earth.
Adelaide Walker Bodine
INDIAN MOUND, MISSISSIPPI
Everybody has secrets. Even thirteen-year-old girls like me who nobody paid any attention to, like we were supposed to be too busy with our dolls and pretty dresses and birthday parties to notice that the judge’s wife spent a lot of time alone in her house with different traveling salesmen, or that Mr. Pritchard, who owned the drugstore, always gave you free penny candy if you came in around closing, because he was too drunk from drinking bottled medicine by then to make change.
And I knew that my mama had jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge when I was ten because my daddy had been killed in the war and she just couldn’t take to life without him. I wish she’d asked me first, because I would have reminded her that she still had me. But I couldn’t say that to anybody, since I wasn’t supposed to know anything important. So I spent a lot of time outside halfway closed doors just so I could know what little I did.
My best friend was Sarah Beth Heathman, whose daddy was the president of the Indian Mound Planter’s Bank on Main Street. I didn’t have many friends on account of what my mama had done, like other parents were afraid that something like that might be catching. I was told that Mama had fallen into the river on accident, but I guess nobody else believed that either.
But it worked out, since Sarah Beth didn’t have many friends, either, on account of her parents being so old. They were old when they had her, and even older now that she was fourteen. Maybe that’s why Sarah Beth was so wild, or at least that’s what Aunt Louise called her. But it seemed to me that whatever crazy idea Sarah Beth came up with, I was always happy to go along.
On a Wednesday in late June, I was sitting under the cypress tree in my backyard filling my lungs with the thick warm air while pretending to read a book. I’d been staring at the back of my house, wondering why it was still yellow when everybody else’s house was white. I’d been told my great-grandmother had come from New Orleans, had the house painted and the odd castlelike turret added to one side, then given birth to a daughter before leaving it all behind to return to New Orleans. When the house became mine—and it would, because Aunt Louise told me that some papers meant that the house was always inherited by the oldest girl—I promised myself that I would paint it white.
I sometimes wondered if Uncle Joe—my daddy’s brother—and Aunt Louise and my cousin Willie ever thought it should be their house, since they were stuck taking care of me and forced to live there. I’d hear my aunt fretting about the house needing painting or another leak in the roof, but then she’d look at me like I was a kitten drowning in a puddle and she’d get all choked up, and hug me like I was the only thing that mattered. She loved me like I was her daughter, and I appreciated that. But she wasn’t my mama. My mama had walked off the Tallahatchie Bridge and left me behind.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, the men had all gone back to work after dinner, and the women were sponge-bathing themselves before collapsing onto sofas or beds in a cloud of flowery perfume and baby powder. A horn honked in the front drive, and I ran to find Sarah Beth in the backseat of the family’s Lincoln, their driver, Jim, behind the wheel.
“Want to go to a picture show?” she asked, smiling sweetly through the car window.
We’d already seen Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde three times. I should have known that she was up to no good. Jim dropped us off at the theater, and Sarah Beth waited for him to drive away before she told me her plans.
Twenty minutes later, I was wishing I’d said no. The sun was hot enough to burn the wings off a mosquito, and I could feel it prickling my scalp under my hair. Aunt Louise called it strawberry blond, but it was still just red to the Barclay twins, who always wanted to rub it for good luck before a baseball game.
I tramped through the tall grass behind Sarah Beth, keeping my face down to avoid getting more freckles. I’d be grounded for sure if Aunt Louise counted one more than I’d had the night before. She’d told me that all the women on my mama’s side of the family were great beauties, and that I just needed a little more time to grow into my looks. But when I looked at myself in the mirror, I knew it would take more than just time. Aunt Louise still wore corsets and hadn’t bobbed her hair, so I knew better than to listen to her about beauty.
“Are we almost there?” I asked for the third time, noticing how the pale skin on my forearms had started to turn pink.
“Almost. Stop being such a baby.”
I stopped for a minute to catch my breath, feeling the sweat run down between my shoulder blades. I glared at the back of Sarah Beth’s head full of dark brown hair and skin that never freckled or burned. I wondered how I was going to explain how I got sunburn sitting in a theater.
“Where are we going?” I shouted at her. We’d walked through the downtown area of Indian Mound and straight through a neighborhood of run-down houses that both of us had been promised a switch to the backside if we ever wandered into, then right through the other side, where tall Indian grass separated the town from the cotton fields. I looked down at my dusty shoes and considered for a minute that I should take them off along with my socks and go barefoot. But chigger bites on my ankles would be a lot harder to explain to Aunt Louise than dirty shoes.
Sarah Beth reached a dirt road and headed down it, and I followed, because I didn’t have anything better to do. She stopped and waited for me to catch up and it took me a minute to figure out where we were. There was a low iron fence in front of us with an open gate hanging catawampus from a single hinge like a dog panting in the heat. Somebody had tried to keep the grass cut, but long strands of it stuck out from the bottom of the fence.
I looked up, recognizing the back of the old Methodist church. People went to the new church closer to town now, and I’d never thought to wonder what they did with the old one. Which was nothing, I guess, but leave it be.
“This is a cemetery,” I whispered, afraid I might wake somebody up.
Sarah Beth rolled her eyes. “Of course it is. It’s the best place for secrets.”
Pretending not to be afraid, I followed Sarah Beth through the gate to where rectangle-shaped gravestones sat upright in rows like teeth. In the back corner, separated from the stone markers with a low metal chain, were rough-looking wooden crosses, each with a hand-painted name and dates. Some had little messages on them like “Gone but not forgotten” or “In the hands of Jesus.”
Sarah caught me looking at them. “Those are for the coloreds. They don’t have money for nice markers, so they make their own.” She began walking down one of the rows, being careful not to step on top of any of the graves. Everybody knew that was really bad luck, and that the angry spirit would follow you back home. I carefully placed my feet where hers had been. I figured I had enough spirits at home to worry about bringing home another.
“Why are they in the corner like that?”
She stopped, then turned around to look at me. With an exasperated sigh, she said, “Because they’re colored.”
I stared at her back as she kept walking, thinking about all those bodies buried in the ground and how once you became all bones it probably didn’t matter what color your skin had been.
Sarah Beth stopped, squatting next to five tiny stones stuck right next to one another. A rosebush had been planted at the foot of the middle one. It was clipped and the dirt around it didn’t have any weeds, so it looked like somebody came by pretty regular-like.
A yellow jacket lifted off a dandelion to buzz close to me and I jerked back with a little scream.
“Shh,” Sarah Beth hissed, her finger across her lips.
“Bees make me sick,” I hissed back. “If I get stung you’ll have to carry me to Dr. Odom before I stop breathing. And then you’ll be sorry you yelled at me.”
She frowned, then turned back to the stones while I moved to stand behind her, avoiding the dandelions just in case there were more bees.
My eyes moved from one stone to the next. Each had the same last name—Heathman—and each of them had only one date, going from 1891 through 1897 like some kind of filing system.
“That’s your last name,” I said to Sarah Beth, trying to sound observant and intelligent, which was normally her job.
She rolled her eyes. “I know. That’s why this is a secret.”
I looked at her silently, afraid to open my mouth so that she’d know that I had no idea what she was talking about.
With the same kind of exaggerated patience that Aunt Louise showed when she was trying to tell me why I couldn’t roll up my dresses on hot days or cut my hair, she said, “These are my brothers and sisters. I know it. The last one, Henrietta, died nine years before I was born. Mama always calls me her miracle baby, and now I know why.”
“There’re lots of Heathmans in Indian Mound. How d’you know they’re not cousins or something?”
“I wrote down every Heathman in town and there are no aunts, uncles, cousins, or anybody who would have been old enough to have babies that were the ages of these babies. Except for my parents. That’s why I’m the miracle baby. Don’t you remember that Bible story Mrs. Adams told us in Sunday school about Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who had a baby even though she was old? Just like my mama!”
“But why wouldn’t your mama have told you about your brothers and sisters?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it makes her too sad.”
“Have you looked in your family Bible? Every baby born in the family is supposed to be listed in the front.”
She stared at me in surprise, then shook her head, making me feel very smart. “I’m not allowed to touch it. We keep it in Daddy’s study on a shelf. Mama says it’s too old for me to look at it; that’s why she gave me a new one for my birthday.”
A slow grin formed on her face as she regarded me. “She usually takes another bath when she wakes up, and Bertha does the grocery shopping on Wednesdays. If we hurry, we could make it back and take a peek.”
Without waiting for me, she took off at a run, and I followed her because it had sort of been my idea. She lived closer to town than me because of her daddy being president of the bank, but in the middle of the afternoon I was about to die of heatstroke by the time we ran up the steps onto the columned porch. Her house looked like one of the old plantation homes in Natchez, but it was new. Sarah Beth made fun of my house, saying it looked like it didn’t know what it wanted to be—something I knew she’d heard her mama say. I could usually shut her up by telling her that it had been in my family for more than one hundred years and would one day be mine.
We very carefully opened the front door, then paused on the threshold. I breathed heavily as Sarah Beth put her finger to her lips, as if I needed to be reminded that if her mama caught us and told my aunt and uncle, I wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week.
We tiptoed over the thick rug of the foyer and into her daddy’s office. It smelled like pipe smoke, a smell I liked but one I could never separate from Mr. Heathman. Sarah Beth moved directly to a bookcase behind the large desk and pulled out a thick black leather Bible.
She placed it on top of the desk and, with a deep breath, she opened the front cover. I was a good head taller than her, so I could easily see over her head to the facing page, where two columns of names and dates were neatly filled in on the left side of the paper.
Carefully, Sarah Beth used her index finger to march down the list of names, coming to rest on the final five in the last column. John Heathman, 1891. William Heathman, 1892. Margaret Heathman, 1893. George Heathman, 1895. Henrietta Heathman, 1897.
Our eyes met. “See?” she said, her voice triumphant.
I glanced down at the Bible again, a thought niggling at my brain like a gnat. “How come your name isn’t in here?”
Her eyes got bigger as she looked down at the page, and for the first time ever she didn’t seem to have something to say. “I don’t know. Old people forget stuff sometimes.”
I thought of my daddy’s mama, who, before she died, saw naked people in the yard all the time and kept calling me by my dead mama’s name. But Mrs. Heathman was definitely not that old, and not seeing naked people yet, either.
We heard a footfall from upstairs, and we quickly scrambled to put away the Bible, making it to the bottom of the stairs before Mrs. Heathman appeared at the top of the steps, lines of baby powder already sticking to the creases in her arms. She was dressed to go out, in her hat and gloves, and barely had time to tell Sarah Beth to wash the perspiration off her face as she walked down the stairs before leaving for her bridge club. I was glad she hadn’t noticed the condition of our shoes and stockings or she might have thrown a fit when she saw us standing on her Oriental rug.
We were about to sigh with relief when a sound from the kitchen doorway made us turn. Mathilda, the daughter of the Heathmans’ maid, Bertha, stood watching us. She was younger than me, about ten years old, and she never spoke a word that I knew of. Her skin was dark, like coffee with just a little bit of cream, and she had big brown eyes that always seemed to be watching. Sarah Beth called her Boo because she was like a ghost, slinking around and staring at people. And she always ran away when we spoke to her.
“Hello, Boo,” Sarah Beth said with a smile I didn’t like, because it wasn’t really a smile meant to be nice. I was pretty sure Aunt Louise would stick a bar of Lifebuoy in my mouth if I ever tried it.
Mathilda stayed where she was, watching us, and then without a word disappeared back into the kitchen. I stared at the closed door, wondering how much she’d seen and heard.
Uncle Joe came and picked me up soon afterward, so Sarah Beth and I didn’t have a chance to further speculate on what we’d discovered that afternoon. But I couldn’t help wondering why those dead babies had all made it into the Heathmans’ family Bible and Sarah Beth had not. I looked out the car window at the cotton fields and considered all the possibilities. Everybody has secrets, I thought, thinking about my mother and how she’d jumped into the river, leaving me to always wonder what it was about me that wasn’t enough to make her stay.
Vivien Walker Moise
INDIAN MOUND, MISSISSIPPI
I woke up in my girlhood room, the sunlight shining through the pink eyelet canopy. Large butterflies the size of my head flitted around the wallpaper, the corners beginning to sag as if the insects had grown weary of flying. When I was eight and Mama left again without us, Bootsie had taken me to pick out new wallpaper, like my mother being gone was just another way of redecorating my childhood. And here it was, nineteen years after it was first stuck up on the walls, a reminder that at least on the surface, things hardly changed at all in this corner of the world.
I turned my head to the side of the bed and saw Tripp sitting in a chair and holding out a neatly pressed linen handkerchief. He’d loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves, looking more like the boy I’d known.
When I didn’t take it right away, he said, “You’ve been crying in your sleep.”
I closed my eyes, calling back the fading streamers of my dream, plucking at them like sticky strands of cotton candy. But they crumbled when I touched them, disintegrating until all that was left was the desolation. I took the handkerchief and held it over my face with shaking hands.
Then I remembered my mother in her odd dress, and Tommy, and the curve of a white skull against the dark earth, the ruined cypress scattered across the backyard. “The bones,” I said, trying out my voice, wondering why I’d chosen the skeleton as a place to start. “Who is it?”
“I’m not sure yet. The Mississippi crime lab has sent a CSI team to assist in the recovery of the remains. You have an Indian mound on your property, which could account for the bones, but maybe not, since they were found so far away. I won’t know for sure until the remains are examined, but it looks like they’ve been there for a while.”
He spoke slowly, and I noticed it now because I’d grown used to the West Coast and how people there spoke quickly and in abbreviated sentences, like verbal texts. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed his voice and the time between words that gave you time to listen.
Tripp sat back in his chair, regarding me silently for a moment. “Bootsie’s old housekeeper, Mathilda, would never go near that tree, remember? She said there were haints who haunted the tree. It’s where we used to go when we stole biscuits from the kitchen, because we knew she wouldn’t follow us.”
I could barely focus on his words, the throbbing in my head obscuring all thoughts. “Tripp, I left my purse in my car. Would you mind . . .”
I stopped at the familiar shake of a plastic pill bottle and I pulled the handkerchief away to see Tripp holding up the bottle. “This is powerful stuff, Vivi. Not to mention the two empty bottles of other medications.”
“Where did you get that?” I asked, my anger overpowering my embarrassment.
“Tommy brought up your bags and your purse, and they fell out.”
“And you had to read the labels.”
His steady gaze held mine, and I knew he wouldn’t answer. It had always been this way with us. It’s why we’d been best friends since, by the sheer virtue of our last names being alphabetical neighbors, his desk had been placed next to mine in kindergarten.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I didn’t take the other two medications. I emptied them in the toilet.”
“But you kept the bottles because refills are available.”
I didn’t argue. He’d always had a knack for pulling out the truth like a magician with a card trick.
“Who’s Dr. McDermott?”
I closed my eyes. “My husband. Ex-husband,” I corrected. “He’s a plastic surgeon.”
Tripp’s eyebrows rose, making me feel defensive and pathetic all at once. As if he’d just made me admit that I was so messed up in my head that I’d blindly take narcotics for anxiety and depression prescribed by a plastic surgeon.
He shook the bottle, the pills clicking against the plastic. “These are addictive, you know. And dangerous if not taken with close medical supervision.”
I shrugged, trying to pretend that I didn’t care. “I’ve had a tough time of it these last few years. And I don’t take them all the time—just when I need one to get over a rough spot.” I looked away so he couldn’t see the lie in my eyes. “Mark never told me. He just called them happy pills. And they are,” I added defensively.
Eager to switch the subject, I pulled myself up against the headboard. “Why are you the coroner? I thought you wanted to go to medical school.”
His face remained expressionless. “I did. But then I changed my mind.”
“But why? All you ever talked about was becoming a cardiologist.”
His silences might have been unnerving to anyone who hadn’t grown up with Tripp, but to me they were plain frightening. Because they always meant that he was thinking deeply, and what he said next was never what you thought it might be.
“You left,” he said, allowing me to interpret what he’d meant.
I closed my eyes, trying to focus on the meandering words ricocheting around my head, words to form questions I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answers to. I opened them again to find Tripp staring calmly back at me.
I opened my mouth to ask about Bootsie and what was wrong with my mother, but the headache stabbed at me from behind my eyes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answers to my questions, and knew that I needed a pill before I could even think about asking.
Refocusing on the bottle of pills, I said, “I need one. Just one. I need it for my nerves. I don’t even need water.”
He didn’t give me the bottle. “When was the last time you ate?”
My head throbbed, nearly blinding me. “In Arkansas. Yesterday sometime. I don’t remember.”
He stood. “You’re dehydrated and you need food. Tommy’s making breakfast. I’ll bring up a plate of eggs, bacon, and grits, and after you eat, I’ll give you a pill with a glass of water.”
I pressed the back of my head against the headboard, desperate to quell the throbbing. “Who died and made you king?”
Tripp shoved his hands and the bottle into his pockets, his unflinching gaze never leaving my face. Finally he said, “I’ll be back.”
I stared at the butterflies on the walls, wishing I could get out of the bed and storm downstairs and demand answers to all the questions that were hurtling themselves against my skull. But my whole body was shaking now, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to throw my legs over the side of the bed and stand.
After what seemed like hours, Tripp appeared with a tray of food. I looked behind him, feeling disappointed when I realized he was alone. “Where’s Tommy?”
Tripp took his time depositing the tray on my lap and making sure my glass of water was within easy reach on my nightstand. He waited until he was back in his chair before he answered.
“He’s not ready to talk to you. You left him behind, too, remember.” He indicated the tray with his chin. “Eat first and I’ll give you a pill. Then we can talk.”
I wanted to refuse, but the last nine years had beaten all the fight out of me. I’d learned that acquiescence was always the path of least resistance. And the smell of the food had reminded me just how hungry I was. I ate quickly, without speaking, then pushed my plate away and picked up the glass of water. Tripp removed the tray from my lap and set it on the dresser before taking the pill bottle out of his pocket and opening it, expertly spilling out one pill onto my palm. I swallowed it, then drank all of the water under his watchful eye.
He placed the nearly full bottle on my nightstand almost as a challenge. Leaning forward with his elbows on his thighs, he waited.
“Where’s Bootsie?” I asked, ready to hear the answer now. It could have been my anticipation, but the pill seemed to have already begun to form its cushion around all of my nerve endings, making even the harshest blow more bearable. It was the soft bed into which I disappeared to escape the realities of what had become of my life. I had left this house at eighteen with all the hopes and dreams a young girl could stuff inside her head and heart, and returned with empty bags. Only my grandmother knew how to fill them again.
“I’m sorry, Vivi. She died last spring. Pneumonia. It was real quick. She died in her sleep.”
The words skimmed over me like geese on an autumn pond, the pain blocked even as I remembered the unread letters I’d thrown away before I’d moved again, leaving no forwarding address; my unlisted phone numbers; and my constant vigilance just in case somebody from home came to find me. Shame and regret slid down my arms, and I folded my hands as if I could put those useless emotions away permanently.
“Tommy and I wrote to let you know.”
I turned my head and found myself staring at a large butterfly, its wings seeming to beat slowly against the wall. “And my mother . . . ?”
“Tommy should tell you. . . .”
I shook my head. “If he’s angry with me, it could take months, and I doubt I’ll be here that long.” Holding grudges wasn’t reserved for only the females in our family.
His expression shifted. “She has dementia. We suspect she could be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but she refuses to see a doctor and get tested. Tommy could sure use your help. He’s been running the farm and the antique clock business, and he’s pretty wore out taking care of your mama, too.”
I felt like I was having surgery while being completely awake, sensing the pressure of the scalpel without the pain.
I shook my head. “That can’t be right. She’s not old enough.” I closed my eyes, the beating wings of the butterfly making me dizzy. “And Bootsie can’t be dead. I would have known. I would have felt it.”
He didn’t speak for a long time, and I eventually opened my eyes again to see him still sitting by the side of my bed, his expression blurred. “Tommy would have called when she first got sick if he’d known how to reach you.”
I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. Numbness covered me now like a warm blanket, and I nestled further into it. I wanted to tell him that a mother’s abandonment is permanent even if she comes back when it’s too late to matter. That my leaving was meant to punish her and my family, who welcomed her back. If only I could have told my eighteen-year-old self that leaving home was like leaving behind a part of myself, that the pull of the land and the muddy river and the cotton fields would tether me to this place like an umbilical cord no matter how far I ran. I said nothing, inertia cocooning my body.
Tripp leaned toward me. “Tommy brought these in with your suitcases. He found them on the dash in your car and thought you might want them.”
He held out two photographs, one a sonogram and the other Chloe’s third-grade photo. I stared at them like a stranger would, only a vague squeezing around the heart telling me that they meant something to me. “Thank you,” I mumbled from stiff lips.
He didn’t ask—he wouldn’t—but I could see the question in his eyes. I shrugged, burying myself further into the blanket of oblivion. “They’re lost to me.” I was startled to feel the sting behind my eyes. “I was wrong to think I could be different.”
Tripp studied me with serious eyes. “Why did you come back?”
Because I’ve made a mess out of my life, and I needed Bootsie to make everything better. But now she’s dead and I’m lost. “No matter where you go, there you are.” I closed my eyes again, trying to remember where I’d heard those words before. I clenched my eyes tighter, realizing it had been Tripp who’d said them to my retreating back as I stepped into my Chevy Malibu, the trunk stuffed and the backseat piled high with everything I’d accumulated in the first eighteen years of my life. Bootsie, my mother, and Tommy had remained indoors, unwilling to accept my leaving. Tripp hadn’t even shouted the words, knowing his calm Southern voice would stay with me longer than any words hurled at me like stones.
Tripp stood and walked slowly toward the door. “I don’t know how long you’re planning on staying, but don’t leave just yet. I know I’ll have more questions, and the sheriff will have to write up a report and might have some questions for you, too. I know it sounds redundant, but in real life the coroner just mostly handles the forensics part and the paperwork. We normally don’t get involved in the actual case.” He paused. “You need to make your peace with your brother. Your mama’s gone back to bed, but Tommy’s at his workshop trying to salvage what he can. You might as well get it over with.”
I leaned back against the headboard, knowing there was something else I had to say to him. He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway just as I remembered what it was.
“I came back because I had nowhere else to go.”
He kept his hand on the doorknob without looking back at me. After a brief pause, he said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” He closed the door with a soft snap.
I sat up in bed and found myself facing the shelves Bootsie had hung on my wall to display my beauty pageant trophies, and the plaques and ribbons for my compositions and essays. I had once wanted to be an actress or a weather girl or a writer, and for one brief glimmering moment in time, it had all seemed possible.
I swung my legs over the side of the bed, then made my way through the old house. The walls seemed to grow and swell as I passed through the familiar rooms, as if the house recognized me and were welcoming me home. I paused near the bottom of the front stairs, at the mark in the plaster that had never been painted or wallpapered over. Or ever would be, I suspected, much like how Yankee cannonballs were preserved in the stately columns of the Vicksburg mansions like marks of pride. It was a watermark on the wall that showed the height of the water during the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. It had killed five hundred people, including a family member, an event nobody talked about anymore. The mark was the house’s scar, proof that it had suffered a loss as much as the family living inside it had.
I took two steps down and stopped, placing both hands on the newel post at the bottom of the ornate stairs, remembering the day my mother had come back for the last time and everything changed.
Shaking away the memory, I began to search for my brother, hoping that he would at least remember the girl I had once been and thought I could be, but half-worried that he had forgotten her as much as I had.
Vivien Walker Moise
INDIAN MOUND, MISSISSIPPI
The morning had given way to the heat of afternoon by the time I stepped outside again, finding my muddy shoes neatly tucked by the kitchen door next to the high-heeled pumps I’d seen my mother in earlier. A drainpipe hung loose from the porch roof, its paint long gone, its edges rusting. Water dripped into a large puddle from the gutter onto the corner of the porch, the wood floor buckled as if the rain had come in unchecked for more than just a single spring.
When Bootsie had lived here, flowers flourished on every walkway, by every door, and on every surface inside the house. Her vegetable garden rivaled that at any nursery, her plants green and lush, each stem hanging heavy with a bountiful harvest almost year-round. Fresh corn, watermelons, beans, okra, onions, squash, and cantaloupe were staples on our dinner plates, the taste and smell of them so pungent and authentic that nothing else would ever taste as good.
Even such a utilitarian place was beautiful to the eye, with raised sections for better drainage placed with architectural precision. I’d been told that the first Walker woman to live in the house had designed the vegetable garden, and each generation had added to it or changed it in some way, as if trying to prove to her mother before her that it could be done better. The women in my family could make things grow even in the middle of a drought, although it appeared that the gift had skipped my mother.
Ever since I could walk, I’d accompanied Bootsie while she gardened, holding baskets of seedlings and pruning shears and torn sheets. But I’d never bent next to her in the dirt, or stuck my hands in the soil. Even then I’d known not to make my mark here, to create roots I couldn’t sever.
Ignoring the activity surrounding the cypress tree, I stepped off the back porch and walked toward the fenced enclosure of the garden. I felt Bootsie’s loss here more than if I’d been standing by her grave. Most of the scalloped white fencing was missing, and what remained had been stripped of almost all its paint and hung listlessly, as if it couldn’t summon enough interest to simply fall onto the muddy ground.
Fingerlike stalks reached up out of the earth surrounded by dead leaves and debris; the spots where the outdoor chairs had been sat empty without even weeds to keep them company. I turned my back, unable to look anymore. I found myself facing the fallen tree, saw tire tracks in the mud leading to the site and a hearse pulled near with its rear doors open. I recognized Tripp squatting down next to a man in uniform, pointing at something inside the hole. For a brief moment, I envisioned going back inside and packing my bags before heading out the front door. I’ve got no place else to go.
I looked down at my muddy shoes, the words loud inside my head. I thought of Chloe and the storybook she liked me to read to her when she was small and still enjoyed things like sitting in my lap. I hadn’t seen her with anything but a cell phone in her hand in a long time, and I wondered if things might have been different if I hadn’t given up trying.
Thinking of Chloe made me stumble, and I had to catch myself on the fencing. The storybook had been about a little girl who’d been given life’s instruction book as a birthday gift. I wished for something like that now, something that would tell me what happened when there was no plan B, and when your only refuge had a No Vacancy sign on the door.
Squaring my shoulders, I slogged across the muddy ground, stepping over the tire grooves in the grass. The site had already been staked off with yellow tape. But even though a side porch of the old cotton shed and part of the roof had been clipped by the falling tree, the front door stood open, and I saw my brother in the doorway.
As soon as he spotted me he stepped back inside, which only made me walk faster. He was almost a decade older than I was and six inches taller than my own five foot ten, but I’d never been intimidated by him. We’d always known that we had each other no matter where our mother was. We had each other, and Bootsie, and Bootsie’s cousin Emmett, the house and the farm, and that had been enough for both of us. Until my mother reappeared, reminding me that there was a world beyond the Mississippi River that must be better than what we had here.
Damp, warm air hit me as I stood inside the doorway, my eyes blinking as they tried to adjust to the darkness. When Tommy had inherited Cousin Emmett’s antique watch and clock repair business, he’d moved it from the Main Street location closer to the house so he could oversee the farm and the business simultaneously. He’d taken over the old cotton shed and extended the second story beyond the attic, along with electricity, air-conditioning, and modern plumbing. He’d moved the farm’s office of operations downstairs, and all the old watches and clocks found a new home upstairs. Then he’d added a small kitchen and bedroom, where he’d stay during the planting and harvest times, with their long days and short nights.
The room had been paneled in a wood laminate, a guy’s interpretation of home decor, but even Bootsie wouldn’t interfere with Tommy’s self-expression, no matter how misguided. A basket of overflowing laundry sat by the side of the entryway, and I wondered if he now lived here permanently. The thought saddened me, not just that he lived alone, but that I didn’t know for sure. I used to wonder if Tommy had gotten married and if he had children. Then the disappointments in my own life had swallowed me, and Mark began prescribing pills to calm my nerves. After that, I discovered that I didn’t have to wonder or worry about anything at all.
I stared out the dirty window, toward where Tripp and the other man crouched by the roots of the old tree. I looked back at my brother’s laundry basket, a sock with a hole in its toe floundering at the top. It created a mental image of our lives, like derailed boxcars sitting alongside a track where we had no idea of how to flip the switches to get us running again.
I walked past the large desk with stacks of papers spilled across the top, along with three half-filled mugs of cloudy coffee and a desktop computer that looked like it should be in a museum, then toward the stairs. The steps had been rebuilt when Tommy renovated the building, but the actual stairwell was not expanded, so the stairs were narrow and steep. Bootsie had said Tommy had done this on purpose to discourage visitors to his private sanctum, where he liked to be alone with all the antique timepieces that were sent to him from all over the world.
I paused on the landing, suddenly aware of a bright light from above. I looked up and saw a clear blue sky through the ragged edges of a hole that had spread like kudzu across the wall and toward the back of the building.
Hugging the side of the undamaged wall, I climbed the remaining stairs before stopping at the top to survey the damage. The wall and floor near the gash in the ceiling were dark with saturated water. Leaves and papers and tiny plastic bags with various watch and clock parts, their labels smeared by water, lay scattered around the room as if they’d been stirred in a pot and dumped out. Antique and contemporary clocks hung on the remaining vertical surfaces, their pendulums moving side to side and their hands pressing forward as if to remind us that time stopped for no one.
When Emmett had owned his antique clock and watch shop downtown, I’d spent hours as a child studying the different faces of all the old clocks and listening to their incessant ticking, wondering about the other lives the old timepieces had measured and marked off with each tick. For a long time I’d believed that if we wound our clocks before they stopped their measuring, we’d live forever. And I couldn’t help myself from wondering whether, if I’d been here when Bootsie got sick, I could have kept her watch moving forward and stopped her from dying.
My brother stood with his back to me at the large wooden trestle table that had once been in the Main Street shop, a small stack of plastic bags in front of him. A large domed overhead light dangled above him, making his reddish-blond hair—just a shade lighter than mine—glimmer.
“Hey, Tommy,” I said, taking in the slump of his shoulders as he attempted to sort through the pile. “Looks like you got lucky when that tree fell.” I continued to look around the room while I waved my hand in the air, as if to erase what I’d just said. “I mean, it looks like it could have been a lot worse.”
I stayed where I was, wishing he’d say something. Wishing he’d tell me it was okay, just as he had when we were children. But he kept his back to me as if I weren’t even there. In another place and time, I might have been hurt by it.
I tried again. “Who do you think those bones belong to? It’s a little creepy knowing they’ve been here all along. Remember the time we found that bone by the Indian mound and how scared we were until Bootsie told us it was a chicken bone?”
He continued to study one of the larger bags and didn’t turn around when he finally spoke. “You got a death wish or something?”
My mouth dried, the only sign my body allowed to tell me that his words had skirted a little closer to the truth than I liked.
“What do you mean?”
He wrote something on a piece of masking tape and stuck it on the bag before dropping it into a box. “An old dog’s got enough sense to get out of the rain. Did it occur to you to seek shelter last night or didn’t you notice the weather?”
I swallowed. “I wanted to get home. I didn’t really think about anything else.” I almost winced at how stupid I sounded.
Continuing to ignore me, he said, “A tornado touched down in Moorhead and another near Yazoo City, and the sirens were blowing all night. There’s no cure for stupid, Vivi.”
This was the brother I recognized, and I found my breath slowing with relief. “It’s good to see you, too.”
He wrote something else on a piece of masking tape before affixing it to another bag and then dropping it into the same box as the previous bag.
He’d taken me off guard. “How do you know about Chloe?”
“I saw it written on the back of that picture on your nightstand. And I saw the sonogram, too.”
It was warm in the old building, but an icy chill filled me from the inside, making me wonder if my pain and regret were no match for mere chemicals. “You had no right to snoop like that.”
Keeping his head bent under the large domed light, he said, “I went up to talk with you, but you were sleeping. I saw the photos, so I looked. We hadn’t heard from you in nine years; I figured I’d take the chance of finding out what you’ve been up to while I could.”
“You had no right.”
He shrugged. “We’re family, Vivi. You might have forgotten it, but I haven’t.”
I remembered what Tripp had said—about how I’d left Tommy behind, too—and I softened. Even as children, Tommy had been the even-keeled one, always the cool head in tense situations. I’d always reasoned it a good thing, considering my own volatile nature, until he’d been the first person to run down the front porch steps to throw his arms around the mother I barely recognized.
I sat down on a hard wooden bench, one I remembered from the downtown shop. “Chloe was my stepdaughter,” I said quietly, my mental haze allowing me to take the sting from saying Chloe’s name. And to stare at the back of Tommy’s T-shirt with a beer logo emblazoned across his shoulder blades, absently noticing that his hair needed cutting.
His hands paused but he still didn’t turn around. “Was?”
“Her father, Mark, and I are divorced. Keeping Chloe in my life wasn’t an option.” I tucked the memory of her sad, angry face as I’d left under the fuzzy pillow of my pills, where I wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. “Mark and I were married for seven years—since Chloe was five. Her mother moved to Australia and had another baby with her new husband and kind of forgot about Chloe. I was pretty much all she had.” I swallowed. “When Mark divorced me, I didn’t even get visitation. I had to leave her behind.”
He stared down at the mess on the table but his hands were still. “And the sonogram?”
It sounded like somebody else speaking when I finally answered, probably because nobody had ever cared enough to ask. “I miscarried at twenty-eight weeks—a little girl. It’s one of the reasons why my marriage fell apart. I wanted the baby and he didn’t. But I guess everything works out in the end.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time, his hunched shoulders telling me that he understood what it meant for me to want a child and lose her. And what it meant to leave a child behind. Because I’d always been the one to say that I’d be different.
Quietly, he said, “I’m sorry.” He turned around, his light blue eyes from a father he never knew regarding me steadily. “You could have called, you know. Just once.”
I straightened my shoulders, eager to move on from the hard pit in my stomach that threatened to break through my mental pillow. “And you could have found me if you really wanted to.”
He didn’t drop his gaze as we realized that we both spoke the truth, and how empty it seemed. As Bootsie used to say, if stubbornness were a virtue, we’d be shoo-ins for heaven.
“What about Carol Lynne?” I couldn’t bring myself to call her Mama. Even in my memories I only thought of her by her given name. “Is she going to be okay?”
He stood and rubbed his hands through his hair. “Jeez, Vivi. Where have you been? You don’t get better with Alzheimer’s, okay? She’s in her own little world right now, a world that’s gonna get smaller and smaller, and I’m not going to recognize her anymore. Most of the time she thinks it’s still the sixties and will wear some of her old clothes. Or she’ll borrow something from Bootsie’s closet. And you never know what’s going to come out of her mouth next. I don’t know if it’s the disease or just age, but all filters have come off.”
He moved to the side of the table, where a folded blue tarp had been placed on the floor, and began unraveling it on top of the unmarked bags and small boxes on the trestle table. That’s when I noticed the stacks of corrugated boxes of all sizes leaning up against the side of the table and beneath it, all of them darkened with random water splotches. It was so much worse than I’d originally thought, and for one brief moment I really wanted to care.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “The water’s gone down a bit, so I’m going to ride out over the fields and see how they’re doing. Luckily we haven’t started the planting yet, but I’m hoping the water’s not too high that we’ve got to delay.
My brain felt sluggish, as if muddy water were running through it, too. “Can Carol Lynne take care of herself? Is she okay in the house without somebody there?”
Tommy tucked the tarp around the edges of the table and stepped back, the look on his face reminding me of the time I’d put bubble gum in my hair to see if it would stick and Bootsie had to cut it as short as a boy’s. “No. Not really. I’ve hired Cora Smith—Mathilda’s granddaughter—to do some light housekeeping and look after her. She used to come and help Mathilda some. Mama calls her Mathilda, and Cora doesn’t mind. I thought that was a good sign.” He glanced at his watch. “Mama usually sleeps until noon, and Cora gets here a bit earlier to get her to eat something and to make sure Mama doesn’t leave in Bootsie’s Cadillac.”
I followed him down the stairs, a sense of urgency bursting through my numbness. “But isn’t there some sort of therapy she can be doing? Like crossword puzzles or something?”
He turned around to look at me, and for the first time I saw how tired he was, how the dark circles under his eyes looked purple on his pale skin. “Have you ever known Mama to do a crossword puzzle? Me neither, but you’re welcome to give it a try. Most of the time she’s fixin’ to leave, her bags all packed, and the rest of the time she’s channeling Bootsie, about to give a big party. I’ve given up trying to make sense of it. Cora’s good with her—has all the patience in the world.”
He grabbed a baseball cap off a hook by the door and stepped outside. I rushed to catch up, trying to keep my thoughts from wandering too far before I asked the question I needed to. “But does she . . . I mean, she knows who we are, right?”
“Yeah, she does. She recognized you yesterday, although it was like she thought you were still in high school and had just been gone since morning.”
I turned my head for a moment, seeing that the men were leaving, presumably to grab something to eat. I wondered if Tripp had a wife to go home to, and if she made him lunch. I’d done that in the early years of my marriage, at least until Mark stopped coming home for lunch and went directly from his plastic surgery practice to the golf course, and Chloe accused me of making her fat.
Focusing on Tommy again, I said, “But does she remember enough to tell us that she’s sorry?”
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his keys and began to jangle them impatiently. “For what?”
“For ruining our lives.”
He stared back at me, the keys quiet in his hands. “I think she left that up to us.” He slid the baseball cap back on his head and began walking down the muddy drive. Over his shoulder he called, “I’ll be back around six for supper.”
I made to follow him, then stopped, catching movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and saw Carol Lynne, wearing familiar bell-bottomed jeans and a loose floral blouse with a drawstring tie at the neck. Her hair was down around her shoulders, thick and heavy and still the bright strawberry blond of my memory. People had always told me how much I looked like her, and I’d hated it, wanting to believe that she and I had nothing in common. But she was sixty-seven now and barely looked older than fifty. Maybe there was one good thing I’d inherited from her.
She stood inside the caution tape, her bare toes stuck into the mud on the edge of the hole. It had been dug wider in the search for more bones and any other clues, the digging instruments laid out on a square cloth just like a surgeon’s instruments before an operation. More of the skeleton was exposed now, including what looked like part of a rib cage with some sort of filthy fabric still clinging to it. I looked away, not wanting to see anything that made it more real to me, made me imagine the bones as a person walking around above the ground.
Crows cried from one of the nearby pine trees, but I didn’t look up. I moved to stand next to my mother, keeping my eyes averted from whatever lay in the ground just a few feet away. I tried to think about all the things I’d wanted to say to her, about all the hurts and pain her abandonment had laid at my feet as a child. How there are things you never forget no matter how far from home you run. I trembled with the anticipation of unburdening myself of all the pent-up emotions I’d carried for so long. She’d have to remember then; the force of my emotions would make her remember.
“I think she never left.”
The unexpectedness of my mother’s voice startled me. “What?”
With one pale, slender finger, she pointed at the exposed bones. “She never had a chance to come back because she never left.”
I wanted to ask her what she meant, but her shoulders had begun to shake, and to my horror and embarrassment she started to cry in great heaving sobs. I watched her, unsure of what to do. And then she put her head on my shoulder and I had no choice but to put my arm around her.
But I kept my head turned so I couldn’t see her cry, seeing instead crows flying out across the wide, flat fields. I closed my eyes to block out the image, smelling the wet earth and hearing my mother’s sobs and the fading sound of the crows. I’ve been a long time gone.
I pulled my mother away and back under the yellow tape, then led her to the house. I settled her on the family room sofa to wait for Cora before flipping on what I remembered had been her favorite soap opera. Then I retreated to my room and took another pill, wondering if I would have enough to get me through until I figured out what I was supposed to do next.
Carol Lynne Walker Moise
INDIAN MOUND, MISSISSIPPI
AUGUST 5, 1962
Today is my seventeenth birthday. I think it’s ironic that the day I get my first diary is the same day Marilyn Monroe dies. She was my idol. I have her pictures taped up inside my closet door where Bootsie can’t see them and make me take them down because she thinks it’s tacky to put magazine pictures on my walls. Mathilda knows they’re there, but she’s good at keeping secrets.
I’ve decided that I’m going to smoke my first cigarette today. I’m seventeen and it’s time to start acting like a grown-up. It’s a real gully washer outside, but I’ve got all the windows open. I figure it’s a lot easier explaining why the windowsills and floors are wet than why Bootsie might smell smoke.
Bootsie is my mama, but everybody calls her Bootsie, including me. She ran away from home when I was a baby, leaving me with my daddy, who’d gone crazy in the war, and my daddy’s parents to take care of both of us. The war gave Daddy a bad case of nerves, making him shake all the time and not sleep much. The doctor visited a lot to give him medicine, but most of the time Daddy lay in his bed and screamed like the devil himself was in his head. And then one day it was quiet and he was gone. Everybody said it was a blessing, but I didn’t. It was wasteful, just like throwing out a piece of aluminum foil that’s only been used once. I didn’t cry at his funeral because I couldn’t. I’d never even known him, really. I guess if you have to lose a parent, the real blessing is that you didn’t know them enough to miss them.
By the time Bootsie came back and we moved back into the yellow house, Daddy was dead and I was six and it was too late to start calling her Mama. I almost think she’d prefer me to call her Jackie, since it’s pictures of Jackie Kennedy she’d be sticking all over her walls if she didn’t think that was tacky. She dresses like her—even got one of those stupid-looking pillbox hats—and got her hair cut with a little flip at the bottom and a big puff on top. She’s even talking about dying her red hair dark. People always tell me how beautiful she is, and how her face looks like one of those new Barbie dolls. Mathilda says that all the women in my family are beautiful, but that it takes us a while to grow into it. I’m not sure what she means, and I’m still waiting to grow into mine. I want one of those new Jackie Kennedy haircuts, too, but Bootsie wants me to keep my hair in a ponytail like a little girl. If she had her way, I’d never grow up.
I’m going to try a cigarette now. Brigitte Bardot looks so sophisticated when she smokes. I want to look like that—like I belong in some café in Rome or Paris or anyplace that’s not Indian Mound, Mississippi. I’ll be right back. . . .
Mathilda walked in while I was coughing on my first cigarette. She brought me one of Bootsie’s ashtrays she uses for bridge club days and told me not to get ashes on the furniture or the bed and then she left. I know she won’t rat on me. Like I said before, she’s really good at keeping secrets.
Vivien Walker Moise
INDIAN MOUND, MISSISSIPPI
I awoke to the smell of chicken frying, and for a moment I thought I’d been transported back in time, with Mathilda and Bootsie in the kitchen and Emmett in the fields, Tommy in his bedroom taking apart old clocks, and my mother somewhere far away. I opened my eyes, registering my suitcase and the bottle of pills on the table next to me, and I knew with a sinking feeling that I could never go back to that place.
When the bedside clock came into focus, I realized that I’d slept for most of the afternoon and that it was almost suppertime. I quickly washed my face and hands, then made my way slowly down to the kitchen. I studied the family pictures that filled the upstairs hall and stairway, their order and placement as random as the architecture of the house. The painted portraits of the first Walkers were hung in the living and dining rooms, filling all the wall space so that by the time the camera was invented, those family photographs were framed and hung in the hallways and stairwell. Sepia and black-and-white photos of people whose names I could never remember stared vaguely at me from wallpapered walls that had not changed since the fifties. I paused at one of the first color photographs, hung in a place of honor over the demilune table in the foyer—my mother’s high school yearbook photo from 1963. She looked so normal to me, even with her bubble hairdo and thick eyeliner. Not at all like the kind of teenager who would “turn on, tune in, and drop out” and end up in a commune in California with two children whose fathers were either unknown to her or simply forgotten.
My senior year in high school I’d pulled out my mother’s yearbook in the downstairs library, just to see, and read her senior quote. There is a time for departure even when there is no certain place to go. It was the same Tennessee Williams quote I’d already turned in for my own senior page. Tripp was on the yearbook committee and had switched it out with another quote I no longer even remembered.
I paused by the entranceway into the dining room, with its tall, corniced walls and mullioned windows—the windows an addition to the house by an ancestor who favored the Gothic style. My mother, wearing the same vintage dress I’d seen earlier, but with worn house slippers instead of heels, flitted around the table, setting it with the family china, crystal, and silver, just like in the days when Bootsie entertained.
She didn’t see me and I quickly slipped away to the kitchen, unwilling to be drawn into my mother’s drama. I’d already spent a lifetime avoiding it, and I wasn’t ready to be sucked in right now when my own life had enough drama of its own.
A trim black woman with just a hint of gray at her temples stood at the circa-1970s avocado green stove wearing an apron over crisp khakis and a navy blue knit top. She had smooth, almost unwrinkled skin, making her look like she might be in her thirties or forties, but I figured if she was Mathilda’s granddaughter she must be in her mid-sixties. She turned to me with a wide smile.
“You must be Vivien. I’m Cora Smith. I’d shake your hand, but they’re covered in flour.” She moved her elbows in greeting, both of her hands fully immersed in a bowl of flour and seasonings as she coated chicken parts.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, staring at a serving platter full of fried chicken as my stomach grumbled. I’d not tasted anything fried in a long time. Mark had originally been charmed by my Southern cooking, until he’d gained a couple of pounds and forbidden everything with taste from our table and hired a microbiotic chef.
When nobody was looking, I’d break the rules for Chloe in a misguided attempt to make her happy, having never encountered a more miserable child in my whole life, except for me on those days when my mother announced yet another departure. I think that’s why I was drawn to her, as if my own abandonment would give me the secret to making her happy. I’d been stupid to think I could. But that hadn’t stopped me from trying.
“There’ve been a few phone calls from the local press, wanting to know about what’s going on outside in your yard. I took down their information on the pad by the phone in the front hall and told them that they’d have to wait to speak with you or Tommy.” She glanced up at me. “Tommy called to tell me you’d be here, but he had to go before I could ask him about the tree and the yellow tape. I was hoping you could shed some light on the subject so I’d have something to tell your mama. She keeps looking out the window and seeing the tree and asking me what happened.”
I recalled the image of my mother standing on the edge of the gaping hole. My mouth went dry, and I fumbled with the cabinets until I found the one with glasses—right next to where they’d once been kept. I took a moment filling my glass from the tap and drank some of it before I could speak.
“Lightning hit the old cypress tree, exposing the roots. It uncovered some bones that look like they’ve been there awhile.”
Cora stopped her dipping and rolling. “Bones? As in human bones?”
I nodded. “The coroner has been here and he’s working on removing the remains, but they’ll probably be digging around the tree for a while longer to see if they can find any clues as to the woman’s identity.”
“They know it’s a female?”
I stared at her for a moment, wondering why I’d said that. I quickly shook my head. “No. I was just thinking about what Carol Lynne said to me earlier today. Something about ‘her’ not coming back because she never left.”
A small smile of understanding crossed Cora’s face before she returned to her task. “I’m sorry about your mama. It’s a hard thing to watch the person you knew become a stranger.”
My hand gripped my glass tightly. “Well, then, I guess it should be easier, because she’s always been a stranger to me.” I set down my glass by the sink. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
After an appraising look, Cora indicated the refrigerator with her chin. “I have a salad and some homemade buttermilk dressing in there, and over there on the counter I’ve got a couple of tomatoes from my garden. If you could chop them up and then mix everything in the salad that would be great.”
Memories rumbled in the back of my brain, a sort of switch on my autopilot as I set about the familiar movements of preparing a meal. There was something comforting in the familiarity of it, like becoming reacquainted with a favorite doll you’d long forgotten.
“Have you been working here long?” I asked as I opened a drawer in search of a serrated knife. Sometime over the last nine years, somebody had rearranged the entire kitchen.
“Just since Miss Bootsie passed. Tommy needed some help with your mama, and I’d recently retired from teaching—I was an English teacher at the high school for over thirty years. My children are both in Jackson and I don’t have any grandbabies yet, so I figured why not. I couldn’t see myself hanging around my empty house all day. I’d rather be useful.”
“I’m thinking we probably met, but I’m sorry if I don’t remember,” I said, keeping the refrigerator door open with my knee while I balanced a jar of dressing and the large salad bowl.
She continued to coat the chicken without looking up at me. “It’s been a while, so I didn’t expect you to recognize me. I was busy raising my own kids when you lived here, but I sometimes helped my grandmother Mathilda. She didn’t retire until right after you left. She was ninety-five, although she sure acted like she was twenty years younger. It was her eyesight in the end. Could hardly see her hand in front of her face, even though her glasses were like the bottom of Coke bottles. She broke the antique soup tureen that used to sit in the middle of the dining room table. Even though Bootsie said it was all right and just an accident, we decided it was time. Just about broke both those women’s hearts. They were close. Hard for them to be separated.”
She began to place the chicken in the skillet, and we were silent for a moment as the grease splattered and popped. After she replaced the lid on the pan, she said, “Grandma used to tell me stories about how sweet you were. How you used to help with the polishing and dusting when her arthritis was acting up. And she loved the little stories you would write and then read to her. She said you were pretty good. She always thought you’d be a big writer someday. Or a movie star. You had that ‘sparkle’ is what she called it.”
I kept my back to her as I sliced through a tomato, the juice bleeding onto the orange laminate countertop. I was glad she couldn’t see my face and recognize my embarrassment, or my need for another pill. The cushion from the last one was wearing thin—thin enough that Cora’s words had struck like arrows to a target. My throat thickened as I waited for Cora to remind me that I’d left Mathilda behind, too. Like Bootsie, Mathilda had been one of the best parts of my childhood, a reminder that even without a mother I was worthy of love.
Clearing my throat, I said, “Are we expecting company? I saw that Carol Lynne is setting the dining room table.”
Cora’s eyebrows shot up as she lowered the heat on the skillet. “She does that sometimes, even when it’s just Tommy and her and me. Bootsie loved using the dining room and the good china and silver, and since she passed, your mama will do that sometimes. Like she’s a teenager again and Bootsie has asked her to set the table.” She was silent for a moment. “Losing Bootsie was hard on all of us, but especially her. I don’t care how old you get: Losing your mama is the worst kind of thing. It’s like burying your childhood.”
I wanted to tell her that she was wrong. That if I’d returned home and found out that Carol Lynne was already dead, I don’t think I would have missed her at all.
I focused on tossing the salad, the red of the tomato blurring into the green lettuce, the edge of the salad tongs fading into the side of the bowl. I blinked, surprised to find my eyes wet. I was about to ask her where she’d like me to put the salad, when the doorbell chimed at the same time the phone began to ring.
Cora was already washing her hands in the sink. “I’ll grab the phone if you’ll see who’s at the door.”
I nodded and made my way to the front foyer, pausing momentarily at the dining room, where my mother stood in front of the fireplace. She was staring at a photograph on the mantel, a crystal glass in each hand, as if she’d been in the middle of placing them on the table and then forgotten what she was doing.
She didn’t turn around as I walked past the doorway to the massive front door that somebody in the past one hundred and fifty years had had shipped over from Ireland. It had once graced a now-demolished castle, and looked as out of place on the house as the mullioned windows in the dining room and the Tiffany glass fan window over the door. But I always thought that it also gave the house an “I don’t care what you think” kind of attitude. Much like the people who’d inhabited the house, for better or worse.
I unlocked the front door and pulled it open, the hinges squeaking loudly as if the front door hadn’t been used in a long while.
“Looks like you could use some WD-40,” Tripp said. He’d removed the tie he’d worn earlier, and his hands were jammed into his pockets, reminding me so much of the little boy I’d grown up with—minus the frogs and worms inside the pockets, I hoped—that I had to smile.
“Bootsie always kept a can under the sink. I’ll go check later.” I stepped back to allow him into the foyer. “It’s kind of late for official business, isn’t it? I’m assuming that’s why you’re here, since you’re using the front door.”
“Tommy called me and asked me for supper. Thought it would be good to talk about a few things. Seems the sheriff already interviewed him, but when he came to the house your mother told him that you were at school and sent him away. He told me to let you know that he’ll be back tomorrow morning at nine o’clock to ask you some questions.” He jiggled loose change in his pocket. “And I’m using the front door because you’re here. You’ve been living in California so long that I figure you’d forgotten that friends and family pop in through the kitchen door without knocking.”
I closed the door behind me, my hand clutching the knob. “How did you know I was in California?”
“Your postcard. The one you mailed from Los Angeles to let me know you’d arrived safely, and you asked me to let Bootsie, Emmett, and Tommy know.”
“Oh,” I said, pushing myself away from the door. I’d forgotten about that postcard until now. I couldn’t remember the picture on the front, only the feeling of surprise that I was so far from home. And the weight of the memory of my mother’s face as I’d left, an unexpected mixture of grief and disappointment. “Nobody else is expecting you for supper?”
A corner of his mouth lifted. “No wife or a girlfriend waiting for me with supper on the table, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I wasn’t.” I closed my eyes, sinking into the warm, fuzzy cocoon that had become my brain, and walked past him without looking up. “I was in the kitchen helping Cora. Supper’s almost ready.”
My mother stood outside the dining room, still holding the two glasses by their stems. She didn’t seem surprised to see Tripp or me, as if we’d both just stepped out of the house for a moment and returned.
“Are we having a party tonight?” she asked.
Tripp peered into the dining room, where all the silverware and linen napkins had been placed in their appropriate spots. “Looks like it. Let me help you with those.” He took the glasses from her and put them on the table.
She turned to watch him, her gaze straying to the window, where the tree and yellow tape were visible. “The tree fell.”
“Yes, ma’am. It was hit by lightning in the storm last night.”
“The storm?” Her brow wrinkled.
“You probably slept right through it,” Tripp said, moving to stand next to her. “We found something that had been buried near the roots a long time ago. Do you know anything about that?”
Her green eyes, the exact shade as mine, went wide. “I’m not supposed to go there.”
Tripp tilted his head, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Who told you that?”
Her attention drifted back to the table. “Are we having a party tonight?”
I stared at my mother, a cold breeze blowing through my insides. “No,” I said. “We’re just having a family supper.”
“Will you eat with us?”
My breath was coming in small gasps and I had to remind myself to breathe. I had not sat at the table with my mother after she’d returned for good, eating my suppers in the kitchen with Mathilda. Bootsie and Tommy had given up asking me to join them, but my mother never had. She had somehow remembered that.
I swallowed. “Yes. I think I will tonight.”
Her face brightened as she smiled the smile I remembered from the pictures in Bootsie’s old magnetic photo albums, the Polaroid photographs probably now fading alongside the woman captured inside them.
I turned around and headed down the back hall toward the kitchen, almost colliding with Cora. She held the old touch-tone phone in her hand, its long, springy cord stretched to its fullest length. She had her palm pressed over the mouthpiece. “She’s called twice. I hung up the first time because I thought it was a prank call. But she called back and sounded so desperate that I told her I’d go see if you were home.”
“Who is it?” My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth as I thought of how few people cared where I was. Discounting Tommy and the people in the house with me now, that left only one other person.
“She said her name is Chloe McDermott.”
I stared at the phone in Cora’s hand for a long moment before taking it, wishing for once that I could think clearly. I met Tripp’s eyes, his appraising look suddenly conjuring my brave eighteen-year-old self. “Hello?”
Cora took my mother’s elbow and led her into the kitchen, distracting me for a moment.
“Don’t you ever pick up your cell phone?”
It was definitely Chloe. I pressed the phone closer to my ear as if to keep her close. I thought hard for a moment, trying to remember where my cell phone was. “I’m sorry. The battery died somewhere in Oklahoma and I threw it in the bottom of my purse.” I paused, chewing on my bottom lip. “I didn’t really think I had a reason to charge it again.”
A heavy sigh tripped its way from the end of the line, a sigh full of all the angst of a twelve-year-old. “You told me to call you if I ever needed you. That’s why you should keep it charged.”
I closed my eyes, trying to remember things that I’d pushed away so I wouldn’t have to think about them. “I stayed in an apartment in LA for six months, Chloe, just in case you called.” I felt something soft on my arm and looked up to see Tripp handing me a soft linen handkerchief to wipe the tears I hadn’t been aware I was shedding. “You needed me?”
“Yeah. And I had to hack into my dad’s computer to get your phone number in Hogswallow, Mississippi, or whatever backwoods hellhole you came from.”
I pressed the handkerchief to my eyes, too relieved to hear her voice to tell her not to swear. “It’s Indian Mound, Mississippi.”
“Whatevs. Same thing. But I figured even the middle of freaking nowhere was better than home.”
I leaned against the wall, not sure my knees could continue to make me stand. “What’s happened, Chloe?”
Another sigh. “Dad got remarried to some stripper bimbo and they’re on some lame monthlong cruise around South America for their honeymoon. Dad hired some lady who doesn’t speak English to babysit me. I figured Pigs Butt, Mississippi, had to be better than this.”
Hearing that Mark had remarried didn’t affect me at all. But I felt in the basement of my memories all the hurt of a twelve-year-old girl abandoned once again. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
There was a pause on the line and I became faintly aware of sounds behind her, people talking and a PA system making an announcement with the word “Atlanta” in it. “Where are you calling from?”
“The airport. I used Dad’s Expedia account to find the closest airport to you and to book a flight with his credit card.” I could hear the pride in her voice.
“Chloe, you need to go back home. I would love for you to visit, but your dad won’t let you. At least, not without his permission. I’ll call him and work it out, but it could take a while. And you’re an unaccompanied minor—they won’t let you on the plane.”
“I’m at the Jackson airport. I borrowed the bimbo’s heels and makeup so I’d look older, and I used my passport for my ID.”
I swallowed. “You’re in Mississippi?”
“Yes. At the Jackson airport. And I need you to come get me and call Imelda so she won’t freak out when she finds out I’m gone. She’s the babysitter. Don’t waste your time calling my dad, because he won’t answer. He said he didn’t want to be disturbed because he was on his honeymoon.”