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The rain is coming down on this old stone house so hard, it seems there are a hundred tap dancers on the roof. When Etta left for school this morning, it was drizzling, and now, at two o'clock, it's a storm. I can barely see Powell Mountain out my kitchen window; just yesterday it was a shimmering gold pyramid of autumn leaves at their peak. I hope the downpour won't beat the color off the trees too soon. We have all winter for Cracker's Neck Holler to wear gray. How I love these mountains in October: the leaves are turning — layers of burgundy and yellow crinolines that change color in the light — the apples are in, the air smells like sweet smoke, and I get to build big fires in Mrs. Mac's deep hearths. As I kneel and slip a log into the stove, I think of my mother-in-law, who had fires going after the first chill in the air. "I love me a farr," she'd say.
There's a note on the blackboard over the sink in Jack Mac's handwriting: Red pepper sandwiches? The message is at least three months old; no one should have to wait that long for their favorite sandwich, least of all my husband. Why does it takes me so long to fulfill a simple request? There was a time when he came first, when I would drop everything and invent ways to make my husband happy. I wonder if he notices that life has put him in second place. If he doesn't, my magazine subscriptions sure do. Redbook came with a cover exploding in hot pink letters: put the sizzle back in your marriage! we show you how! Step #4 is Make His Favorite Food. (Don’t ask about the other nine steps.) So, with equal measures of guilt and determination to do better, I'm roasting peppers in the oven, turning them while they char as dark as the sky.
I baked the bread for the sandwiches this morning. I pull the cookie sheet off the deep windowsill, brush the squares of puffy dough with olive oil, and put them aside. Then I take the tray out of the oven and commence peeling the peppers. (This is a sit-down job.) My mother used to lift off the charred part in one piece; I've yet to master her technique. The vivid red pepper underneath is smooth as the velvet lining of an old jewelry box. I lay the thin red strips on the soft bread. The mix of olive oil and sweet hot bread smells fresh and buttery. I sprinkle coarse salt on the open sandwiches; the faceted crystals glisten on the red peppers. I'm glad I made a huge batch. There will be lots of us in the van tonight.
There's big news around here. Etta is going to be on television. She and two of her classmates are going on Kiddie Kollege, the WCYB quiz show for third-graders. Etta, who loves to read, has been chosen for her general knowledge. Her fellow teammates are Jane Herd and Billy Skeens. Jane, a math whiz who has the round cheeks of a monarch, has been selected for her keen ability to divide in her head. Billy, a small but mighty Melungeon boy, was chosen for his bravery. He recently helped evacuate the Big Stone Gap Elementary School cafeteria when one of the steam tables caught fire. No one could come up with a prize big enough to honor him (an assembly and a medal seemed silly), so the school decided to put him on the show. I guess the teachers feel that fame is its own reward.
Jack Mac borrowed the van from Sacred Heart Church because we’re transporting the team and I've promised rides to our friends. The television studio is about an hour and a half from the Gap, right past Kingsport over in Bristol, Tennessee. The show is live at six p.m. sharp, so we'll leave right after school. Etta planned her outfit carefully: a navy blue skirt and pink sweater (her grandfather Mario sent it to her from Italy, so Etta thinks it’s the best sweater she owns, if not the luckiest). She is wearing her black patent-leather Mary Janes, though I pointed out that you rarely see anyone's shoes on TV.
I make one final pass through the downstairs, locking up as I go. With its simple, square rooms and lots of floor space, this old house is perfect for raising kids. Of course, when Mrs. Mac was alive, I never dreamed I'd live here. For a few years, this was just another delivery stop for me in the Medicine Dropper. I remember how I loved to drive up the bumpy dirt road and see this stone house sitting in a clearing against the mountain like a painting. If I had known that Mrs. Mac would one day be my mother-in-law, I might have tried to impress her. But I didn't. I'd drop off her pills, have a cup of coffee, and go. I never thought I would fall in love with her only son. And I never thought I would be looking at my face in these mottled antique mirrors, or building fires for heat, or raising her granddaughter in these rooms. If you had told me that I would make my home in this holler on this mountain, I would have laughed. I grew up down in town; no one ever moves out of Big Stone Gap and up into the hills. How strange life is.
I check myself in the mirror. Etta is forever begging me to wear more makeup. She wants me to be a young mom, like her friends have; in these parts, the women my age are grandmothers! So I stop in the hallway for a moment and dig for the lipstick in the bottom of my purse. My youthful appeal will have to come from a tube. You would think that someone who has worked in a pharmacy all her life would have one of those snazzy makeup bags. We have a whole spin rack of them at the Mutual's. Maybe Etta's right, I should pay more attention to the way I look. (Covering up my undereye circles is just not a priority.) Folks tell me that I haven't changed since I was a girl. Is that a good thing? I lean into the tea-stained glass and take a closer look. Eight years with Jack MacChesney have come and gone. It seems once I fell in love with him, time began flying.
Someone is banging on the front door. The thunder is so loud, I didn't hear a car come up the road. With one hand, Doris Bentrup from the flower shop juggles an umbrella in the wind and with the other, a stack of white boxes festooned with lavender ribbons. Two pairs of reading glasses dangle from her neck. Beads of rain cover the clear plastic cap she wears on her head.
"Come on in!"
"Can't. Got a wagon full of flowers. Got a funeral over in Pound. I'm gonna kill myself if this rain done ruined my hair."
"It looks good." I'm about a foot taller than Doris, so I look down on her tiny curls, each one a perfect rosette of blue icing under a saran-wrap tent.
"It'd better. I suffered for this look. I sat under that dryer over to Ethel's for two hours on Saturdee 'cause of the humidity. She sprayed my head so bad these curls is like tee-niney rocks. Feel."
"They're perfect," I tell Doris without touching her head.
"Etta all ready for the big show?"
"We hope they win this year, on account of no one from Big Stone ever wins."
"Didn't the Dogwood Garden Club win on Club Quiz?"
"Yes'm. But that was a good ten year' ago. And they was grown-ups, so I don't think you can count 'at. Wait till you see who these is from. I nearly done dropped my teeth, and you know that ain't easy, 'cause I glue 'em in good."
I pull the tiny white card bordered in crisp pink daisies out of the envelope. It reads: Knock 'em dead, Etta. And remember, the cardinal is the state bird of Virginia. Love, Uncle Theodore.
"That there Tipton is a class act. He ain't never gonna be replaced in these parts," Doris announces as she tips her head back to let the rain drain off her cap. "Sometimes we git a ferriner in here that makes us set up and take notice. How’s he doin' at U.T.?"
"He says he's got the best marching band in the nation."
"Now if they'd only start winning them some ball games."
As Doris makes a break for her station wagon, I open a box. There, crisp and perfect, is a wrist corsage of white carnations. Nestled in the cold petals are three small gold-foil letters: win. I inhale the fresh, cold flowers. The letters tickle my nose and remind me of the homecoming mums that Theodore bought me every year during football season. For nearly ten years, Theodore was band director and Junior Class Sponsor at Powell Valley High School. He chaperoned every dance, and I was always his date. (Parents appreciated that an experienced member of the Rescue Squad chaperoned school dances.) Theodore always made a big deal of slipping the corsage onto my wrist before the game. Win or lose, the dance was a celebration because Theodore’s halftime shows were always spectacular. Besides his unforgettable salute to Elizabeth Taylor prior to her choking on the chicken bone, my favorite was his salute to the Great American Musical, honoring the creations of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Each of the majorettes was dressed as a different lead character, including Maria from The Sound of Music and Julie Jordan from Carousel. Romalinda Miranda, daughter of the Filipino Doctor Who Was on the Team That Saved Liz Taylor, was the ingenue from Flower Drum Song. Theodore pulled her from the Flag Girls; there was a bit of a drama around that, as folks didn’t think that a majorette should be drafted out of thin air for one show just because she looked like she was from the original cast. Once the controversy died down, the Miranda family basked in the glory of the celebration of their Asian heritage. (Extra points for my fellow ferriners.)
I gently place the boxes on top of my tote bag full of things we might need for the television appearance. Extra kneesocks. Chap Stick. Comb. Ribbons. My life is all about collecting things for my family and then putting them back. Lists. Hauling. And I'd better never forget anything. Even Jack relies on me for tissues when he sneezes and quarters for the paper. Sometimes I wonder if all these small details add up to anything.
Big Stone Gap Elementary is a regal collection of four beautifully appointed beige sandstone buildings, built in 1908. In mining towns, the first place the boom money goes is to the schools; Big Stone Gap was no different. There is at least an extra acre of field for the kids to play in, a glorious old auditorium (with footlights), and a newly refurbished cafeteria (since Billy the Hero). I wait at the entry fence as my own mother did for so many years.
As the bell sounds and the green double doors swing open, the kids pour out onto the wet playground like beads from a sack. Etta stands at the top of the stairs, surveying the fence line. When she sees me, she hops down the steps two at a time and runs toward me. She has a hard time holding on to her red plaid umbrella in the fierce wind. Her rain slicker flaps about. I give her a quick kiss as she jumps into the Jeep.