By Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Turtleback Books Distributed by Demco Media Copyright ©2004 Gwyn Hyman Rubio
All right reserved. ISBN: 0606305033
On June tenth, I turned ten. The Saturday after my birthday, the eye blinking and popping began. We were eating breakfast. Matanni was sitting across from me; Patanni was at the head of the table. To this day, I can remember my first urgeso intense it was, like an itch needing to be scratched. I could feel little invisible rubber bands fastened to my eyelids, pulled tight through my brain, and attached to the back of my head. Every few seconds, a crank behind my skull turned slowly. With each turn, the rubber bands yanked harder, and the space inside my head grew smaller. My grandmother was studying me, making sure my face had been washed, my hair combed and fastened on each side with the blue barrettes she had bought me for my birthday. While Matanni studied me, I stared straight ahead and glued my eyes, growing tighter with each second, on the brown fuzz above her lip.
"Icy," she said, sipping her coffee, "what are you staring at?"
"Them hairs above your lip," I blurted, extending my arm and pointing at her face. "They're turning gray," I said, jiggling my arm at her nose, "right there."
Patanni, spooning sugar over his oatmeal, snatched up his head and turned toward me. "Calling attention to a person'sweakness ain't nice," he said.
"B-but Patanni ..." I stammered, aware only of the pressure squeezing my head and the space inside it constricting.
My grandfather laid his spoon beside his bowl. "Apologize, Icy," he demanded. "Tell Matanni you're sorry."
"But Virgil ..." My grandmother reached out and caught his hand in hers. "What the child said ain't so bad. If them hairs turn gray, they won't stand out. Gray is almost white, Virgil, and white matches my skin." She smiled, caressing the top of his hand with her index finger. "It even feels white," she said, releasing his hand, stroking her upper lip.
Patanni pushed back his chair; the legs scraped against the blue-checked linoleum rug. "That ain't the point, Tillie," he said. "Icy, here, made mention of your weakness like it weren't nothing."
"She's just a child," my grandmother said.
"But it ain't respectful," he said.
"She meant no harm," Matanni assured him.
"Icy, what do you say?" Patanni insisted, leaning toward me.
"'Tain't necessary," my grandmother said, sitting on the edge of her chair, her large breasts weaving over her bowl.
"Icy!" Patanni ordered.
"Icy!" Matanni shot back, looking straight into my eyes.
"Icy!" he began again.
"Icy!" she repeated.
I jumped up. "There ain't no fuzz on you!" I hollered, feeling the rubber bands tug tighter and tighter, sensing the blood in my body pooling behind my eyes, pushing them forward, so far forward that I could stand it no longer, not a moment longer, and, hopping up and down, I bellowed again, "Fuzz is on my eyeballs. It itches my eyes!" Frantically, I wiggled my fingers in front of my face. "They itch!" I screamed, fluttering my fingertips. "They itch!"
Then, unable to close my eyelids or scratch my eyes, I covered my face with my palms and inhaled deeply, hoping that the itchiness and tightness would go away; but instead I felt my eyelids, rolling up further like shades snapping open, and my eyeballs, rolling back like two turtles ducking inside their shells, and the space inside my head, shrinking smaller and smaller until only a few thoughts could fit inside; and, terrified of the contraction, of each thought's strangulation, I threw back my head and cried, "Baby Jesus! Sweet Jesus!", and, not knowing what to do or how to stop it, I gave in completely to the urge:
Out popped my eyes, like ice cubes leaping from a tray.
Patanni and Matanni just sat there and watched my eyes spring from my head, but a minute later both pretended that everything had passed like it always did each morning. Matanni drank four cups of her mud-black coffee with a squirt of Essie's cream. Patanni finished his one cup, black with six tablespoons of sugar, and I drank my milk. All of us ate our oatmeal. I ladled honey on mine. Patanni preferred sugar. Matanni ate hers unadorned. No one resurrected Matanni's mustache. That one big pop had unleashed all of the tension, and the space inside my head grew large again, plumped up with thoughts. We ate in silence, and I sat calmly, as though nothing had happened.
Still, after that Saturday morning, during the summer of 1956, the urges claimed me. I was no longer Icy Sparks from Poplar Holler. I was no longer that little girl from Icy Creek Farmour sixty-acre homestead, replete with two milk cows, a dozen chickens, and Big Fat, the five-hundred-pound sow. I was now a little girl who had to keep all of her compulsions inside. Whenever it became too much, after hours of hoarding blinkings and poppings that threatened to burst out in a thousand grotesque movements, I'd offer to get Matanni a jar of green beans from the root cellar, a pantry-sized room dug from a hill not twenty feet from the back door; and, once inside, I'd close the wooden planked door and let loose. Every blink that had been stored up spilled forth. Every jerk that had been contained leaped out. For ten minutes, I'd contort until the anxiety was all spent. Then I'd climb up on the footstool and grab the Mason jar.
With canned beans in hand, heading toward the house, I thought, Secrets are evil, and wondered what secrets my grandparents kept hidden. I listened to the crickets sing. Covered in shadows, their legs contorted deep in the woods; chirping, they gave their secrets away. A wildcat cried, mourning over something forbidden. Down a dirt road cradled between two gnarled, unfriendly mountains, Poplar Holler guarded its mysteries. So far, mine were hidden in a root cellar. Clitus Stewart's were tucked beneath his mattress. Mamie Tillman would throw hers into Little Turtle Pond. Everyone in Poplar Holler had secrets, even the animals, but IIcy Sparksknew that mine were the worst.
If I could catch a ride into town, I went to the movies whenever I could. Immersed in celluloid fantasies, I became a rugged, square-jawed pioneer with a rifle, protecting my land, shooting bloodthirsty Comanches, or I was Running Deer, a Navajo Indian maiden, sitting cross-legged in front of a fire, cradling a baby in my arms. I became Shirley Temple, tap-dancing across the floor, or Joan Crawford, mysterious and dark, scheming for money, plotting out murder. As I sat in the second row of the Darley Theater in Ginseng, I longed to be anyone else. Even Ginseng's Jeanette Owens in her wheelchair seemed luckier than I was. At least the townsfolk pitied her. They thought her brave, rolling through life, a sour grin plastered over her face. Lonnie Spikes, a twenty-year-old simpleton, elicited clucking sounds and slow, pendulous swings of the head. "Poor thing," the townsfolk said. "He ain't got no idea. 'Tis a blessing." Each citizen slackened his pace to let Lonnie stumble by. He'd amble toward the Ginseng Post Office, where he'd sit for hours on the outside steps with his pants unzipped, his tongue lolling from his mouth, his eyes enameled over like those of a corpse.
Clutching a Coke in one hand and a box of Milk Duds in the other, I scrunched back into the brown leather seat, my feet nervously rapping the floor, and waited for Coyote Sunrise to begin. The lights blinked three times, Joel McRoy, slouched in the chair behind me, kicked the back of my seat and said, "Icy Sparks ain't nobody's girlfriend."
"Wino cares?" I answered, swallowing some Coke and munching ice.
"Peary Lawson does," Joel said. "He likes you."
I twisted around and glared at him. "I'm only ten," I snarled. "I don't like boys."
"You ought to like him," Joel said.
"How come?" I snapped, tossing back my head, flicking a Milk Dud into my mouth.
"'Cause he has frog eyes like you." Joel held on to a Chilly Dilly, a long green dill pickle sold at the candy counter.
I slammed the Coke and Milk Duds down on the armrests, one on each side, and jumped up. "You polecat of a dog!" I didn't know if those words meant anything nasty, but I liked the sound of them. "You big fat liar!"
"Your eyes pop out like a frog's," Joel said, waving the pickle around like a baton.
"They don't," I said.
"They do, too," Joel said, thrusting the Chilly Dilly in my direction.
"Liar, liar, pants on fire!" I screamed, losing all composure, pointing my fist at his pickle.
"Shush!" came a voice from a few rows back.
"I seen you, Icy Sparks. I seen you behind Old Man Potter's barn."
"You seen what?" I demanded. "Polecats stink. They ain't able to see."
Joel McRoy rose to his feet, swung his hand upward, and angrily crunched. One-half of the Chilly Dilly disappeared into his mouth. "I ... seen you ..." he said between bites, chomping down dill pickle like it was an ear of sweet corn, "jer ... king, pop ... ping them frog ... eyes of yours ... behind Old Man Pot ... ter's barn."
"You slimy ole pickle!" I bellowed. "You ain't seen nothing."
"Frog eyes! Frog eyes! Frog eyes!" Joel screamed back.
"Be quiet, you two!" someone warned.
"Liar! Liar! Liar!" I yelled, ignoring the warning, then grabbed my cup of Coke, rocked up on my toes, leaned over, and poured the whole drink, ice and all, over Joel's head. Stunned, he just stood there, a green chunk of Chilly Dilly inside his mouth, swelling out his check, a half-eaten pickle gripped in his hand.
"You ain't seen nothing! You just tell lies!" And with these final words, I marched outknowing full well that Joel McRoy was telling the truth, that the week before when I was out playing tag with him and his cousin, Janie Lou, the urges had gotten really bad, and I had stolen away behind Old Man Potter's barn and let loose such a string of jerks and eye pops that the ground behind the barn seemed to shake.
Not only was I a hoarder of secrets, butin the space of ten minutesI had also become a full-fledged liar.
That afternoon, after leaving Darley Theater, I whiled away my nerves and guilt roaming the hilly, winding streets of Ginseng. I passed by the Crockett County Courthouse, the center of town. Farmers in bib overalls were scattered along the brick walkway that led to its four skinny white columns. Red geraniums bloomed on either side of the walkway leading to the entrance graced by a Kentucky flag and a U.S. flag. I continued east on Main Street, walking by the post office only two buildings down, but saw no one sitting out front on its dusty white steps. Adjacent to the post office was the Samson Coal Companyits offices located in a two-story, red brick building. Next came People's Bank, a gray, quarry-stoned building constructed during the 1920s. Three buildings down from the bank on the other side of the street was the Darley Theater, a crimson brick movie house with a marquee in front, where I had told off Joel McRoy. I definitely didn't want to go there; so, instead, I abruptly cut across the street and headed down a steep sidewalk toward the Cut 'n Curl, which was tucked into a corner of Short Street.
When I arrived, I said hello to Mrs. Matson, the proprietora tall, large-boned woman who wore her orange-red hair in tight, short curlsand helped sweep up strands of hair around the chairs and beside the sinks. After I folded towels, picked up scattered magazines, and cleaned the toilet, she gave me a bottle of Coke, so cold that ice clung to the glass while an iceberg floated inside. I sipped the drink slowly, sucking the ice between my lips, feeling my teeth ache from the cold.
Yet all the while, my thoughts were fixed on Old Man Potter's barn. Behind a mound of hay, I had popped and jerked like a caught fish lighting. I had done it alltwisted, contorted, and misshaped my body into a thousand unsightly knots; and Janie Lou and Joel had watched.
I swallowed the last of my Coke and shuddered. "Mrs. Matson, what can I do now?" I asked as she took the bottle from my hands.
"You can get along," she said. "Go find some kids and play."
"But," I argued, "they're at the movies."
"Not all of them, Icy Sparks. Scat, now!" she said, clapping her hands. "It ain't healthy for a youngin' to sit around grown folk all day."
"But" I persisted.
"But, nothing," she said. "Go outside and play."
Through the glass door, I saw the sunlit streets of Ginseng with its buildings traced in gray, coal's bold signature. Ginseng had always been prosperous. Through coal's boom and bust, it liked to brag on itself. It bragged about Samson Coal and the contracts that kept its miners working even during hard times. It bragged about young Dr. Stone and his brand-new office that stayed busy with soon-to-be mothers, victims of car accidents, miners with black lung, and sick folk who didn't have to travel all the way to Lexington for treatment anymore. It bragged about being the county seat, about having a movie theater and decent schools. It bragged, bragged, and bragged, all the while averting its eyes from the nooks and crannies deep in the hills where life could be hard, where good and bad times depended upon the price of coal and the future plans of the coal companies. Pressing my hands against the glass, I stared at Ginseng Full Gospel Baptist Church, stuck between Willena's Cafe and Dr. Stone's new office, and spotted the Church of the Nazarene, inserted in the tiny space behind Schooler's Funeral Home. In town there was no root cellar in which to hide, no shadows to eclipse my fears. The many churches, squeezed into corners, offered little refuge. They were for righteous, truthful people. As I twisted the doorknob, turning around to wave good-bye, feeling lonely, I remembered Miss Emily. As the sun's warmth burned through the glass and caressed my skin, I knew that Miss Emily would not betray me. Although lately I was too scared to trust anyone, I knew that the child inside her would not turn on me if she caught me jerking. Hadn't her soft, fat arms always sheltered me and kept me warm?
Long before I met Miss Emily, I had heard about her strangeness. At Comb's Restaurant on the river, I had heard the townsfolk gossiping. "She comes by it naturally," they'd say. "Both her parents were fat. Huge tubs of lard." At Margaret's Bakery, I had listened to housewives whispering in superior voices, "She buys three dozen sweet rolls every morning and eats all of them at once." The men at the barbershop snickered and said, "No God-fearing man will marry Miss Emily. If she took to hugging him, he'd be squashed." Women at Stoddard's Five and Dime milled around the lingerie, held up pairs of underwear, snorted, and said, "They don't make panties big enough to cover Miss Emily's broad behind." Then they'd giggle, cup their hands over their mouths, their eyes darting from side to side, and feel pleased with themselves and the unanimity of their attack.
At six, I hadn't understood everything I'd heard, but I had understood the sound of disdain and knew it was mean. In spite of this, I hadn't connected such meanness to the people expressing it, but rather to the one at whom it was directed. So when Patanni first took me to Tanner's Feed Supply and asked me to come inside and meet a really nice womanMiss Emily TannerI hail been afraid.
She was in the backroom sorting out corn feed as we had walked through the door. When the bell above the doorway jangled, I had jumped back. "Patanni," I whined, my toes trembling inside my shoes, "I don't want to. Can't I just wait in the truck?"
"I reckon not, Icy," he said, grabbing my hand and pulling me forward. "I brought you over to meet Miss Emily and you're gonna do just that."
"What if she don't like me?" I said, straining in the opposite direction.
"I'll be coming directly," a voice rang out. "I'm shoveling corn."
"What if she don't like me?" I repeated, leaning so far toward the door that my grandfather's fingers popped.
"Doggone it, Icy!" Patanni barked. "Straighten up. The woman ain't no witch."
"But she's fat. Her bottom don't fit inside regular underwear."
"So?" my grandfather said. "What does her bottom have to do with her heart?"
"She cats three dozen sweet rolls every morning," I spewed out.
"She's too fat. She could crush a person if she hugged her."
"Nonsense," Patanni said. "Miss Emily ain't crushed nobody."
"But" I pleaded.
"Shush!" Patanni cut in, holding a finger up to his lips. "Mind your manners."
From the back of the store, I heard wood scraping along a floor and heavy breathing. Suddenly Miss Emily laughed loudly. "What she laughing about?" I asked, tightly squeezing Patanni's hand. "Ain't nobody back there with her."
"Maybe she enjoys her own company," my grandfather said. I swallowed hard and nodded. "Maybe she's a nice woman who likes to laugh."
"Yessir," I peeped.
"Maybe" my grandfather went on, but stopped short when he saw Emily Tanner, red-faced and sweating, emerge from the backroom. "Hello, Miss Emily," he said, extending his hand.
Ignoring my grandfather's hand, she grinned broadly and said, "Mr. Virgil, I'm gonna hug you instead." Then she lunged toward him, wrapped her huge arms around him, and clasped him ferociously to her chest.
I heard my grandfather groan, saw his head buried in her blue plaid cotton dress, and her face, all bunched up and creased with fat. My heart raced. My palms began to sweat. I could see myself suffocating in Miss Emily's quicksand of blubber, and I stammered, "Not me, oh no you don't!" Releasing his hand, I inched toward the door and threatened, "You ain't gonna squeeze the life out of me. You ain't gonna squash me." Quickly, I pivoted on my toes and ran.
"I'm gonna hug you, too!" Miss Emily squealed, chasing after me, her flesh crawling forward like a blue-stained snowdrift. And before I realized it, she had snatched my shirt and was pulling me toward her, right into her rotund arms. But instead of moaning from pain, I had groaned from pure delight, cognizant only of her sweet warmth.
Now under a July afternoon's bright skies, with the smell of coal dust tingling in my nose, I headed for Walnut Street, one of the inclines that zigzagged up and down both sides of the courthouse square, passing by Margaret's Bakery, Stoddard's Five and Dime, Denton's Barber Shop, and Danny's Filling Station, to spend the rest of the afternoon in Tanner's Feed Supply.
"Howdy, Miss Emily," I said as I creaked open the screen door, my hand springing up, my fingers fluttering hello.
"Howdy, Icy Gal," she said from the back of the store. Then she turned around from the wire rack where she was arranging packets of seed and held out her arms, so fleshy that the fat flapped to and fro when she moved them.
"I been missing you," I said, throwing my body into those hamhocks, nestling my head between her huge breasts. "I been missing you," I repeated, closing my frog eyes, feeling the tension seep out of me into her surrounding corpulence.
"Icy Gal, where have you been?" She combed my curls with her lingers. "I haven't seen you, in weeks."
"Around," I mumbled, my mouth engulfed in gingham.
"You know how I miss you when you don't visit," she said, placing her square hands on either side of my head, rocking me back, and staring into my eyes. "But I knew you were coming today. Johnny Cake told me you were in town."
"I saw him at the Cut 'n Curl," I said. "He was filling up the Coke machine. I'm sorry I ain't ..." Then, lowering my eyes, I coughed and corrected myself. "I mean, I'm sorry I haven't seen you in so long."
"Don't feel badly, Icy Gal," she said. She took my hand, and fleshlike warm dough risingcushioned my fingers. "I've got something for you in the back. Guess what it is." She smiled broadly; her thin lips, a pencil stroke, slit her face.
"A coffee cake?" I asked, knowing full well what Miss Emily had prepared for me.
"No," she said, shaking her head from side to side, her reddish brown hair stroking her chin.
"A peppermint stick ?" I ventured.
"Certainly not," she said, and squeezed my hand. "Seems to me after all these years you'd be smart enough to guess what I have for you."
I shrugged my shoulders. "I'm tuckered out from guessing," I said. "I just want to be surprised."
"Get ready. Get set!" she said, still holding my hand. "Go, Icy Gal!" All three hundred pounds of her pulled me through a doorway from which hung a blue velvet curtain. "Now close your eyes," she ordered, trudging forward as I trailed behind. "Okay," she announced, "you can open them!"
As always, teacups, saucers, plates, and miniature silverware were laid out on a small, rectangular table covered with a yellow, pinstriped cloth. "'Tis wonderful!" I exclaimed, clapping my hands. In the center of the table was a cobalt-blue platter decorated with teacakes, a bowl of sugar cubes, a pitcher of cream, a saucer of lemon slices, and a silver bowl heaped high with taffy. At one end of the table in a doll-sized wicker chair sat Mrs. Possum, a string of baby possums attached to her stomach. At the other end, Gigi, the half-French and half-Persian stuffed cat, was propped upon a leather stool.
Miss Emily lowered herself onto a huge wooden bench on one side of the table while I sat down in a diminutive Queen Anne chair covered in gold satin. "I never would have guessed," I lied.
"Oh, never!" Miss Emily giggled. "But what's different?" she asked.
I scanned the table, hesitated theatrically for a few seconds, then said, "The sugar cubes. We've never had sugar cubes before."
"So right you are, Icy Gal!" Miss Emily said. "So right you are!" She leaned over and removed the tea cozy. "You couldn't have timed it better," she said. "Just a few minutes ago, I put the kettle on to boil. Would you like some tea?" she asked politely.
"Yes, ma'am." I nodded and lifted my teacup.
Miss Emily poured a stream of tea into my cup, then some into hers. "Sugar and cream or lemon anti sugar?" she asked.
"Lemon and sugar," I said as she handed me the bowl of sugar cubes anti the saucer of lemon slices.
"A tea cake?" she asked, arching her eyebrows.
"Of course," I said.
"Mind if I don't?" she said. "I'm watching my figure."
"Of course not," I said.
"Mrs. Possum, would you care for a cup of tea?" she asked, turning her head in the possum's direction.
"A cup of cream only," Mrs. Possum said in a high-pitched voice. "I don't imbibe in caffeine when I'm nursing. And three tea cakespleasethat is, if you've enough."
"Cream is good for a nursing mother," Miss Emily explained, looking at me.
"That's what Miss Gigi said," I answered, staring back at her, trying to trick and confuse her, wanting to catch her when she threw her voice.
"Miss Gigi?" Miss Emily said, suddenly twisting her neck. "Would you like a cup of tea? After all, you're not a nursing mother."
"Oui, oui," Miss Gigi purred. "I adore the full-flavored taste of tea, with just a hint of lemon." Speaking with a thick French accent, in a smug, self-congratulatory voice, she added, "But I hate children, especially babies."
"A tea cake?" Miss Emily asked, reaching over, holding up the tray.
"See this slim figure?" Miss Gigi hummed. "I didn't get it from eating three tea cakes."
"So what?" Mrs. Possum snarled from the other end of the table. "You got only your prissy body, no man and no kids."
"No babies stealing my strength," Miss Gigi seethed. "No babies leeching from my belly."
"Babies don't leech!" Mrs. Possum growled. "Babies suckle down nourishment."
"Your babies leech," Miss Gigi shot back. "They're parasites, drinking down the vermin you eat."
"I'm warning you!" Mrs. Possum screamed. "Shut that arrogant French trap of yours or I'll ..."
"You'll what?" Miss Gigi said softly. "Use your brats as switches and whip me till I'm quiet?"
Miss Emily held up both hands. "No more sniping," she commanded. "This is a tea party, not a prizefight." Then, leaning over the table, she asked, "Icy Gal, do you like the tea cakes?"
I nodded, bit into my fourth, andwith a full mouthsaid, "Especially these little black things."
"Poppy seeds," Miss Emily explained. "They're little poppy seeds."
Picking one from off my lip, I stared at it on my finger and praised, "They sure are good," as I licked it off.
Miss Emily smiled, stretched herself for over the table, and raised up the silver bowl piled high with taffy. "My piece de resistance," she announced. "Icy Gal, will you join me?"
My grin traveled the width of my face. Wanting Miss Emily to see it, I held it until she set the bowl down. Then, not saying a word, I grabbed a handful of pull candy, slipped a glob between my lips, elongated and smoothed it out, and delicately placed the other end between Miss Emily's thin lips. Simultaneously, we both leaned back and watched the taffy grow into a lean, flexible cord connecting the two of us. After which we slowly ate our way forward, coming closer and closer, biting off mouthfuls until we touched noses. Our eyes met, declared love, and we both clamped down, breaking the cord, and swallowed our lumps of taffy.
And although I had not mentioned a word about the jerks and eye pops, I understood, right then and there, that in her heart Miss Emily knew. She was simply waiting for me to tell her.
Excerpted from Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio Copyright ©2004 by Gwyn Hyman Rubio. Excerpted by permission.
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