He had tried to make her see. Staying in the valley to farm would take years off their lives, and probably Gracie’s. People lived longer up north, where the workdays were shorter and the pay was better, where there were hospitals minutes and not hours away. Gracie could go to school and become a nurse herself if she chose. Annie Clyde might get homesick but it would be worth the adjustment. Even with the dam, there were fewer opportunities here than there were in the cities. He and Annie Clyde were still young. In Detroit they could figure out what path they wanted to take. In Tennessee, every path led to the graveyard. But he guessed he’d been losing his wife before the power company ever came along and opened up the rift that was already between them. Annie Clyde still had some notion that he resented her. James couldn’t seem to convince her otherwise. All because of a handbill advertising factory work. He would have given anything to go back to the beginning of their marriage and leave it tacked to the post office wall. Annie Clyde was distant by nature but he had been winning her over until she found that paper. He had picked it up without thinking, so used to planning his escape before he saw her. He had tucked it into his pocket and forgotten about it. No matter what she believed, he wouldn’t have abandoned her. He had only hoped she could be persuaded to leave Tennessee after her mother died. Then she saw the handbill and a distance crept back into her eyes that had widened in the last two years. James didn’t want to lose Annie Clyde like his parents, like the sister he hadn’t seen in ages. He worried that he had already, even if he got his way and she left for Michigan with him tomorrow. But more than any- thing, he worried that she might not come with him at all.
As he worked to spark the truck’s engine, stomping the starter and pulling the choke until it finally sputtered to life, he thought of the way she looked at him lately without much feeling. But he remembered being loved by her. How in hot weather she would carry water out to him in an earthen jug. He’d stop plowing long enough to drink, runnels trickling into his dusty shirt collar. Once during a drought the earth was so dry that it boiled up to cover him, clogging his throat and blinding his eyes. She led him by the hand to a redbud tree and as he lay stretched out in the shade beside her she took his bandana from the bib of his overalls. She dipped it in the jug to bathe away the dirt then tied it dripping around his sunburnt neck. As she pressed her lips against his she took his face into her hands, holding him still as if there was anything he would rather be doing than kissing her. He was counting on her to remember that day. He was praying that when the time came to go in the morning she would love him enough to choose him.
Steering the Ford past the cornfield and up the track, he felt lonelier than he’d ever been. Not even Rusty greeted him when he pulled up to the house. He heard the dog barking, tied out by the barn. He went up the porch steps and leaned against the door to pull off his muddy boots, resting with his eyes closed before turning the knob. When he stepped into the dim front room it was so quiet that he thought for a second Annie Clyde was gone. She had taken Gracie and left him. Then he heard Gracie’s chirping voice in the kitchen and followed the sound to the table. “We meant to wait on you but she got too hungry,” Annie Clyde said, glancing up from her plate. Her food looked untouched. Corn bread and soup beans, sliced tomato, fried chicken.
Gracie climbed out of her chair and ran to James. He lifted and turned her upside down to make her laugh. “You’re getting heavy,” he teased as he set her feet back on the floor. Then he went to Annie Clyde and touched her shoulder. He noticed how she tensed but he was grateful when she covered his hand with her own. “What about the truck?” she asked, not looking at him.
He pulled out a chair across from her. “It’s running, that’s about all I can say for it.”
“Sit down and let me fix you a plate,” she said, getting up and going to the stove where the beans still simmered. She brought back his dinner and slid an apple pie onto the tabletop. Gracie sat on her knees and poked at the steaming crust, licking off the stickiness. James thought of the day she was born. He was so struck by the blood on the sheets, in the shape of a bird with widespread wings, that he didn’t look at the baby. But once he was sure Annie Clyde was all right, he went to see what she held in her arms. The room was filled with light. Like that day he saw Annie Clyde standing there, a new creature on the riverbank. Gracie had a dark head of hair and little fists curled under her chin. She seemed at first like another part of Annie Clyde, but later he saw that she was her own self. She had a temper and was too stubborn to cry even when she got hurt. She liked being carried and rode everywhere on his hip. When James forked hay, mice would fall down from the bundles and scurry off, making her laugh and clap her hands. In summer she hunkered down in the loam to look for sow bugs under the rocks while James weeded the garden and Annie Clyde picked beans squatted on her haunches, deft fingers shaking the leaves and sweat making patches of damp on her summer dress. In autumn when they burned brush Gracie watched the glowing embers shoot up, the heat lulling her still long enough for James to see how much she resembled Annie Clyde. He tried to picture her in Detroit. In the tract house he had rented with one naked lightbulb in the center of the front room. Instead of mountains she would see tall buildings there. Instead of burning brush she would smell hot tar. “This is some good corn bread,” he said, to ward off his sadness.
“Gracie stirred the batter,” Annie Clyde told him.
“Did you? What else did you do?”
“I got some apples,” she said.
He pointed his fork at her pie. “Ain’t you going to share?”
She shook her head, eyes shining.
“Give your daddy a bite,” Annie Clyde said.
Gracie scooped up a sticky clump and held it out for James to gobble off her fingers.
“I swear, it’s like having two younguns,” Annie Clyde said, but she was smiling. “If you’re done playing with that, Gracie, go wash your hands. Your face, too, while you’re at it.”
Gracie climbed down from her chair and went out. James listened as she padded to the end of the hall where the washstand stood and scraped back the wooden stool she used to reach the enamel bowl. He felt a sinking. Without her the kitchen was closer and darker. After a spell of silence Annie Clyde got up and headed for the door to rake her scraps to the dog. James tried to go on eating but found that his appetite was gone. He couldn’t bear the strain anymore. He made up his mind to have it out with Annie Clyde at last. To say all that had gone unsaid for the past two years. They had to if they meant to start over in Michigan. But when Annie Clyde came inside and cleared the dishes from the table, he couldn’t bring himself to say anything at all. He stared at her, bent over the basin. He wished Gracie would come back but she had quit splashing at the washstand and gone off most likely to play with her dolls. James was alone with his wife. When the dishes were done he would have to say something. He watched her taking time with each cup and utensil, washing some of them twice. Scrubbing the bread pan after it was clean. Drying the plates one by one until they squeaked, putting him off. She seemed to know what was coming. He glanced up at the wall clock. It was almost three. His tailbone was sore on the cane seat. Finally she turned around with the dishrag in her fist, pale and drawn. James blinked. Nothing he’d planned to say came out. What did was the truth he guessed he had known.
“Annie Clyde,” he said. “You don’t mean to come with me. Do you?”
She didn’t answer, but her face told him enough.
His shoulders sagged. “I was wrong the other night.”
“James,” she said.
“You love Gracie better than life.”
“Why don’t you love me, though?”
She looked pained. “I do.”
“Where do you aim to go?”
“I’m staying here.”
“There ain’t no staying here.”
“We’ll live in Whitehall County.”
“And do what?”
“I could farm a few acres.”
“By yourself ?”
“Yes. We’ll be all right.”
His hands clenched on the table. “You and Gracie.”
She looked at him again without speaking.
“You can’t have my little girl, Annie Clyde.”
She shook her head. “No. That’s not what I meant.”
“She’s as much mine as she is yours.”
Annie Clyde paused, twisting the dishrag. “Then stay with us.”
James fell silent. He rubbed his forehead. “You know I’d do anything for you and Gracie. But I can’t—” Before he could go on the storm that had been brewing all day broke loose, barraging the tin roof with rain. They both looked up, startled. Annie Clyde had dropped the dishrag. As she stooped to grab it her eyes settled on a fallen lump of Gracie’s apple pie.
“Just come with me,” James was saying. “I ain’t never begged you for nothing before.”
Annie Clyde glanced around the kitchen, not seeming to see him anymore. She started for the doorway but James blocked her path. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Don’t ignore me, Annie Clyde. I’ve had enough of that.” He saw the color rising in her cheeks. She pushed past him and he followed her into the hall. She looked toward the washstand, at the spilled water on the floor before it. She turned and went to the front room, rivulets pouring down the windows.
“Where’s Gracie?” she asked, almost to herself, lifting the curtains that Gracie liked to hide behind sometimes. She stood in the middle of the shadowed room, seeming to forget James was there. She went to the bottom of the stairs and called Gracie’s name, her voice ringing in the emptiness. When she started up James took her arm. She whirled on him. “Let me go,” she said.
He went up to the bedroom close on her heels. “I ain’t done talking to you,” he said. She knelt to look under the maple bed as if she hadn’t heard him, tossing the hem of their quilt out of her way. He had thought he knew what she was doing, avoiding the argument they should have had a long time ago. But then she raised up and looked him in the eye. Stormy light from the window shone on her face and the cabbage roses of the wallpaper. She was white, now, with fear.
“Lord, Annie Clyde,” James said. “What’s got into you?” She pushed past him again and stumbled down the stairs. “Slow down,” he hollered after her. “Before you break your neck. She can’t be too far.” But he felt the first inkling of worry himself. If Gracie had gone outside, she was caught in the storm. He followed Annie Clyde back through the front room and out the door. He paused on the porch to shove his feet into his boots, not bothering to tie them, then hurried to catch up with her. Together they moved through the yard, through the sheeting rain that was plastering their hair to their skulls, running into their mouths and filling their ears. When there was no sign of Gracie they ran around the side of the house, puddles splashing up their legs. As they reached the elm shading the barn lot Annie Clyde staggered to a stop. The chain was still wrapped around the base of the trunk but Rusty was gone. She turned to James with wide eyes. He knew what she was thinking. Someone had let the dog loose. Gracie couldn’t unfasten the hasp on the chain by herself. They ran on to the barn where Gracie liked to play sometimes and stood panting in the opening, water pouring from the eaves. James was certain she would be there. There had been moments of panic before when she was only hiding from them in the box wagon or the corncrib. But there was nothing in the barn besides the smell of old saddle leather.
After that, without even having to speak, Annie Clyde and James split up. She headed across the hayfield while he went back around the side of the house. He whistled for Rusty under the porch, checked the privy and the hog pen. Everywhere he looked, he expected to find Gracie. He couldn’t grasp what was happening. Only minutes ago he had been in the kitchen pleading with his wife. He was thinking how foolish he would feel later, after Gracie came out of her hiding place, when Annie Clyde called his name. It was a strangled scream, loud enough to be heard over the downpour. James ran out to the hayfield, his breath coming in wheezing huffs. Through the weeds he saw the dark top of Annie Clyde’s hair. She was on her knees under the apple tree. He was sure then that Gracie had fallen out of the swing and hit her head. He was sure that he would find Annie Clyde kneeling over their little girl. He was prepared to gather Gracie into his arms and run with her to the truck, praying the road to the doctor’s office in Whitehall County would be passable. But when he reached the tree Annie Clyde hovered over nothing it seemed, on her hands and knees among the puddles under the lowest boughs, where there wasn’t enough light for grass to grow. “What?” James shouted at her. “What is it?” She turned her face up to him, drenched hair in strings, shuddering in the cold rain. “Amos,” she said. “What are you talking about?” he asked, sinking down beside her. Then he saw it. There in the mud, surrounded by leaves and filled with water, was a single long footprint.
From the Hardcover edition.