Read an Excerpt
Cold Rock River
By Jackie Lee Miles
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Jackie Lee Miles
All rights reserved.
I was five that spring Annie choked on a jelly bean. She was twenty months old; she wasn't supposed to have any. Mama made that quite clear. Sadly, I wasn't a child that minded well, so I gave Annie one anyway. I figured she ought to taste how good they were. I figured wrong.
Annie choked bad on that jelly bean, and her face turned blue. And Mama wasn't home. She'd gone to Calhoun to sell her prized jams; sold twelve jars of her double-lemon marmalade. Imagine that; there's Mama, waving folks over to get a sample of her jam — selling her heart out — and all the while Annie's choking to death.
My pa slapped Annie on her back; smacked her hard with the side of his hand, right between her shoulder blades. Pa had hands the size of skillets. He smacked her twice, but it didn't do any good — might of made it worse. Annie stopped making those sucking sounds like she did when her face turned colors, and her body went limp and her pretty blue eyes just rolled up and disappeared right inside her cute little head.
My older sisters, Rebecca and Clarissa — twin girls Mama had two years before she had me — got on their knees and prayed like preachers. They asked God not to take Annie from us. I didn't get on my knees. I watched Pa beat on Annie instead. It was more interesting. I didn't have anything against praying, mind you. We did it all the time in Sunday school and I knew most of the prayers they taught by heart, except for The Lord's Prayer, and I was working on that.
"She can't die," I said. "She's in our family." It made perfect sense to me at the time.
"Oh hush, you ninny," Rebecca said. "You don't know nothing."
"Help us pray, Adie," Clarissa said.
I wasn't worried. I knew Annie couldn't die. Bad things like that only happened to strangers. The proof arrived daily in the newspaper Pa buried his face in. Mama had hers in the Bible or a cookbook, the hands on the clock determining which one. While she stirred the pot and touted miracles, he turned the pages and spouted mayhem.
"She can't die," I shouted, stomping my feet, trying to get their attention.
Rebecca and Clarissa kept praying, and Pa kept pounding — his eyes big as mixing bowls. I started wailing. Pa dangled Annie upside down by her feet and ran with her like that all the way next door to Miz Patterson's. She wasn't home. She'd gone to Clarkston to see her grandbabies. She went every Friday; stayed the whole day — took me with her sometimes. She and her daughter Delores would sit on the front porch and sip iced tea and rock themselves dizzy while they watched Delores's kids — mostly boys — wrestle on the dirt ground that used to have grass. I wanted to tell Pa, but he ran out the door before I had a chance to. I chased after him but couldn't catch up; he was running two-forty.
"Call an ambulance, Rebecca!" he shouted. Annie was flopping like a rag doll washed one time too many.
"Miz Patterson!" Pa's voice sounded like the low keys on a piano when he talked and when he bellowed it got deep as a pipe organ that had a bad cold. Miz Patterson was as close as we ever came to a neighborhood nurse. Everybody went to her house when they needed doctoring. There was a path to her door on account of it. She didn't charge anything for her kindness. People gave her what they could; a cup of sugar, a few eggs, maybe a pound cake made with real butter. Bernice Harper gave her a banana crème pie when her son Willie fell over the handle bars of his bike and nearly bit his tongue off. After that, whenever I thought about Miz Patterson, that's what was on my mind. So, my pa's running over to her place, Annie's choking, and I'm thinking about that creamy slice of pie she gave me.
Pa ran back with Annie still hanging upside down. His face looked like a bear had scared him and his eyes agreed. At that tender age, I didn't know there was a word for that look — my father was terrified. It certainly got my mind off that pie. Rebecca was on the big black phone with the operator trying to explain where Route 3, Box 949 was.
"Well, it's in Cold Rock, but it's not on a street, ma'am," she said. "It's on a route! Ain't you ever hear of a route? Who hired you anyway?" Rebecca yelled. "Our baby Annie's dying. Get us a ambulance here, you ninny!"
Pa heard it all and realized help was not coming anytime soon. The look on his face got worse. His eyes were crazed as a horse that's been spooked by a snake. It scared me plenty. I dropped to my knees.
"Pleasegodpleasegodpleasegodpleasegod ..." I chanted, staring at Annie draped over Pa's arm. She was limp as a stuffed toy that had lost all its filling.
Pa stuck his thumb backwards down Annie's throat. I remember being comforted by the fact it wasn't me. Pa's big thumb stuck backwards down Annie's throat looked like a terrible way to die. But what do you know? That jelly bean popped right up out of her mouth! It spewed out with a bunch of vomit and splattered all over Mama's clean linoleum floor. Annie started coughing real hard and crying. Pa said, "Sssshhhhh, you're okay, baby. S'gonna be alright, now. Daddy's got ya." He hugged her to his chest and patted her softly on the back — like she was a China doll and would break — which I thought was very strange, seeing as he nearly pounded her to death when she was choking. Pa bent his head forward and buried his nose in her blonde curls. His shoulder muscles started dancing with each other.
"Pa's crying," Rebecca whispered.
"Don't cry, Pa!" Clarissa said and ran over and wrapped herself around one of his legs. He reached down with his free hand and rubbed her head, but his shoulders never stopped moving. That started Clarissa wailing, which got me upset, seeing as she was the one I favored. I ran over and hugged her.
Annie struggled to get free from Pa's arms. He eased her down, then wiped his face with the big kerchief he always kept in his back pocket. Clarissa stepped back and looked up at him while Annie toddled about. Pa was taller than a cornstalk with legs as skinny as stilts. He reached down and dried Clarissa's eyes. She was hiccupping and sucking her breath in and out. I rubbed her backside while Pa steadied Annie on her feet.
"No need crying over sorry milk," I said, and "Pretty is when pretty does," and "Do like you said and not like I do." I had the words a bit mixed up and most of their meanings were lost to me, but I liked how they sounded whenever Mama said them, and I was desperate to comfort Clarissa. There was something about the way she cried that day that made me think — if she kept it up — I might stop breathing.
"It's okay, 'Riss," I said. "See?" I pointed to Annie wobbling across the floor. "Her face ain't purple and her eyes ain't lost in her head no more." Clarissa looked up to where I was pointing, and Pa let go of her. I heard the air rush out of his chest. He sat down on our old maroon sofa and pulled a pack of Camels out of his shirt pocket. He tapped the bottom, pulled one loose, and slipped it into his mouth. Mama always said Pa's hands were steady as rain, but when he flicked open his lighter they were bobbing like a fishing line with a bite on one end. It was the Zippo Mama gave him. He spun the wheel with his thumb, and a flame shot high into the air. Pa turned the lighter over, slipped his nail into a tiny groove on the head of a small screw, and twisted. Like magic the flame settled back down. He tilted his chin sideways, leaned forward, aimed the tip of cigarette into the fire, and sucked inward. I watched as the smoke curled into the tail of a cat, zigzagged upward and outward, then disappeared.
"This the only other thing should be lighting your fire, hon'," Mama said when he opened the shiny red box it came in one Christmas. They both laughed.
"They have dumb jokes, don't they?" Clarissa said, and I nodded.
"You don't neither one of you know nothing," Rebecca butted in. "You're the dumb ones."
Pa carried that lighter from then on. It had a shiny gold eagle on it that faded over time, but he said he would no more replace it than he would one of us. If he was up and dressed, we knew that lighter was in his back pocket. He had a habit of taking it out and snapping the top open and closed till it drove Mama batty, but we weren't allowed to touch it.
"Could burn the house down with this thing," he told us.
"I'm gonna burn you down, you don't put it away and stop that racket," Mama said. Then something bad happened between them, and Mama took back the lighter. We never saw it again.
That day Annie choked, though, Pa still had it. He lit two Camels up, one right after the other, but he kept his eyes glued to Annie. She waddled over to where that jellybean lay in the middle of all that vomit, snatched it up, and aimed it straight for her mouth. Rebecca grabbed hold of her and slapped it out of her hand. Annie let out a howl like she always did when she didn't get what she wanted.
"Clarissa! You and Adie clean up that mess," Rebecca said. Me and Clarissa were used to her bossing us around since Mama usually left Rebecca in charge and her standard warning was to mind her or else. Most of the time I did like she said, but I wondered why Clarissa did. They were the same age, except Mama said Rebecca came out first and was three minutes older.
"Three minutes — that hardly counts!" I informed Mama and nearly got my head knocked off.
"Clarissa doesn't have to mind you," I told Rebecca during another moment of defiance. "You're not her boss; she's the same age as you."
"Hush, you little brat," Rebecca said, "and you do like you're told 'fore I tell Ma you been sassing me while she's gone. You won't get no supper." Mama was making macaroni and cheese, my favorite, so I immediately grew contrite, behaving like an absolute angel for the rest of the day. Don't ask me why, but Clarissa always behaved, no matter what. Not me. It all depended on what was being offered for dinner. For instance, I hated cabbage. But Rebecca didn't know it. I kept it to myself, and when I wanted to sass her good, I picked those nights so I'd get sent to bed early. It was a good deal for me. I didn't have to do any dishes, I didn't have to eat that darn cabbage that tasted so awful, and I got to lie in bed and read books for hours with no one pestering me.
"You take that sassy mouth of yours to bed, missy," Mama would say. "Won't be no supper for you tonight. I'm making corn beef and cabbage, too." I'd hang my head down and look real sad while I climbed the stairs that led to the bedroom we girls shared. It was next to Annie's — which was really just a little sewing alcove that barely held her crib and a changing table. Mama and Papa had the bedroom downstairs. It faced the train tracks. Mama said the trains lulled her to sleep. But poor Pa, when the whistles blew in the night, he'd jump out of bed thinking it was the alarm clock. Took quite a few of them pesky wake-ups before he stopped getting dressed for work in the middle of the night.
"I got to go in early enough as it is," Pa announced loud enough that the neighbors would hear, if we'd had any. He repaired the machines over at the poultry plant. "I don't need no dress rehearsals at three a.m. What the hell they put them dang tracks next to the house for?"
"Charlie, them tracks was here first!" Mama said. "Now shush and go back to sleep. You forget I'm up same time as you? Who do you think fixes your lunchbox, the fairy lunchbox fixer?" By then we were all awake. Eventually, Pa adjusted to the shrill blast of the whistles as the night trains sailed through Cold Rock.
As for me, I liked lying in bed and hearing the trains rumble past in the dark. On hot nights when the air was too thick to breathe, I'd settle in next to the windowsill, my knees resting on my pillow, my head cradled in my arms. In the fall there was a cool breeze when the cold winds blew down from the mountain. But the nights I remember best were the muggy ones when I couldn't sleep, when the sheets were damp with sweat from Clarissa and Rebecca and me being scrunched too close together in the double bed. Pa had promised to build a bed for me and Clarissa that would fit under the eave, with a trundle bed that would slide out from beneath it. He never got around to it. The sticky bedcovers woke me before the train whistle ever got a chance. I'd kneel at the windowsill while the cicadas held their evening concert. A single magnolia tree rested at the side of the clapboard house. When the wind blew just right, its fragrance drifted into the room, rich and heavy as any treasure, and if I inhaled deeply, its sweet, musky scent made me dizzy. When I felt reckless, I kept breathing it in until my knees grew weak and I'd sink, half delirious, into the pillow parked on the floor. There, I watched the lights from the caboose twinkle past, pretending I was on it, headed to China or Africa or South America to be a missionary, like the women who visited us at Christ the King Holiness Church when they needed more money to carry on their services. Later when I found it took more than trains to get them to where they were going, I dreamt of planes and boats and anything that traveled to distant lands. I was going places; I was going to see the world. My dreams got bigger and brighter with each passing year.
But for the time being, seeing as I had the entire world laid out for me up in that little bedroom crouched under the eave of our house, what with my books and the night trains and the future I painted, I planned out most of the times I wasn't going to mind Rebecca and did it on a regular basis. I got out of doing a lot of dishes, and I ended up with much prettier hands than Rebecca. Hers were already beginning to look like Mama's.
Of course, all that misbehaving made me the black sheep of the family. I was always in trouble. I got extra skinny, too, since I missed more suppers than I ate, but I was the best-read one of the bunch. It's a wonder not one of them ever caught on.
"Girls, you stay off that sleep porch till it's time for lights down," Ma would tell Rebecca and Clarissa. "Teach her a thing or two about minding." Clarissa was always quite sorrowful for me — she had such a tender heart. I could have told her Rebecca and Mama were just playing into my hands, but I knew she'd let it slip, so I didn't. Not until we were grown. Then we laughed on it good, even Rebecca. But the day Annie choked was no laughing matter.
We found out later that what Pa did — stuck his thumb down Annie's throat — is the worst thing to do when someone's choking. Well, Pa didn't know that. He did what he thought he had to, and it saved Annie's life. When Mama got home she hugged every one of us and said, "Well, sometimes the worst thing turns out to be the best thing."
Too bad it didn't work out like that the next time Annie needed help. We'd gone up Cold Rock Mountain to fish and swim like we did many Sundays when the weather was nice. What happened changed all of us. But Uncle Burleigh said, "Didn't change ya, it ruined ya," as he sucked on the toothpick permanently housed in the corner of his mouth. "You won't never be the same," he added, "not none of you's."
He kept running his big mouth — as usual — until I wanted to ram that toothpick into the soft spot at the base of his throat and make him take back every word.
I hate to give that old codger credit, but turns out he was right. None of us was the same — not ever.CHAPTER 2
I'm sure you've heard people say, "It'll be just like old times." Which is ridiculous — nothing can be like it was. They know that. Still, they say, "Come on over. It'll be just like old times." Maybe in the part of their brain that knows it won't be, they can't accept it, and their words come out of their mouth the way they live in their heart: a sweet memory, aching like a piece of candy that was always their favorite — and still is — only now it doesn't taste near as good as they remember. Memories are as strange as they are powerful. They can rest in the gentlest part of your heart, docile and dormant for years, meek and mild as a baby lamb. And they can pounce without warning, as ferocious as a lion denied food and freedom. Annie's a memory like that. My folks don't talk about it, and Rebecca and Clarissa won't admit to it, but that hardly means our wounds have been properly tended to. They're right below the surface, raw as fresh-skinned knees.
Excerpted from Cold Rock River by Jackie Lee Miles. Copyright © 2010 Jackie Lee Miles. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.