Mattaponi Queen: Storiesby Belle Boggs
Winner of the 2009 Bakeless Fiction Prize, a confident debut collection from Belle Boggs about life on and around the Mattaponi Indian Reservation
Set on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation and in its surrounding counties, the stories in this linked collection detail the lives of rural men and women with stark realism and plainspoken humor. A young/p>/b>
Winner of the 2009 Bakeless Fiction Prize, a confident debut collection from Belle Boggs about life on and around the Mattaponi Indian Reservation
Set on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation and in its surrounding counties, the stories in this linked collection detail the lives of rural men and women with stark realism and plainspoken humor. A young military couple faces a future shadowed by injury and untold secrets. A dying alcoholic attempts to reconcile with his estranged children. And an elderly woman's nurse weathers life with her irascible charge by making payments on a decrepit houseboat—the Mattaponi Queen. The land is parceled into lots, work opportunities are few, and the remaining inhabitants must choose between desire and necessity as they navigate the murky stream of possession, love, and everything in between.
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By Belle Boggs
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2010 Belle Boggs
All rights reserved.
On the first day of deer season the high school is deserted by all the boys. This is expected by the teachers, who will chat with the girls and show movies all day, and by the principal, who shrugs and laughs, looking out at the empty student parking lot. He was once a boy too; just last year he bagged a ten-point buck. Tomorrow he will give out stern looks and admonitions while inviting the boys to tell him all about what they shot. But today is an easy day — with no fighting to worry about, a general air of femaleness takes over the building. A softness and gentleness. He thinks they dress more casually on this day, no boys to impress. He likes the space between their sweaters and their jeans, soft pale expanses of spilling flesh that were always covered when he was a boy, when he used to take off school days for hunting.
But it is a harder day than most for the secretary, who must bubble and bubble all the absences on the Scantron forms — so many absences! She thinks of all those boys out there in the woods with their rifles, thinks about their test scores, which she must also compile in forms, and hopes her own children at the elementary school, all of them girls, are safe inside. Also there is the principal with nothing to do, who stands over her drinking his coffee. He slurps as he sips it, though it is surely cold by now, and there will be the faint sour smell of coffee on him all day, stuck in his mustache where he doesn't wipe his mouth. He is smiling privately as if remembering something funny that probably soon he will tell her and will not be funny but instead will be arrogant, bragging; for the satisfaction of slapping him she sometimes thinks she would give her job.
Down the hall Jenny is glad to have the day away from her boyfriend. He is always kissing her in the halls, embarrassing her, or putting his hand in her back pocket as they go from class to class, which makes it hard to walk or even to feel like a person. He is taking art, like her, even though he hates art and makes fun of the slides their teacher shows them of Pollock, de Kooning, Klee. Even Monet: he doesn't get Monet. Jenny is working on a charcoal still life of the roses he brought her on her birthday; they are dried up and brown, which makes them harder to draw, which is the point. She is working on the curled shriveled lip of the rose nearest her when she hears a shot, distant and echoing, and looks up. The rest of the class, a few girls and nerdy guys, are all bent over their own still lifes. The teacher walks from person to person, murmuring advice or appreciation, and Jenny is suddenly and unexpectedly filled with happiness. It is a warm, fleeting feeling; it will dissipate in a moment, leaving her with the poorly drawn roses, which are beginning to look like a mass of long-stemmed prunes. She thinks of her boyfriend and hopes he has not killed anything; she is an animal lover, only eats meat on holidays and when her parents nag her. She imagines the deer with their moist eyes and soft fur and hopes they run like hell.
Two seats away, at the end of the long, scuffed table, sits Jason. He is shading in an aluminum skateboard truck and he is also glad, so glad that Jenny's boyfriend and the rest of the rednecks are missing school today. He hadn't expected them to take this class, Art I; they are juniors, seniors, and not exactly into art. They give him shit about his clothes, his hair, the music he listens to; it's easy to think of things to say back, but he keeps them mostly to himself. He can't quite capture the metal's shine; he sees now that he should have brought something easier, like feathers or leaves or roses. The art teacher stands behind him, leaning over his shoulder and nodding. She smells suspiciously like mouthwash; he knows what that means. She pats his shoulder and he can feel a transmission of sympathy coming from her, but he doesn't want it, doesn't want Jenny next to him to see the teacher's hand on his shoulder. Anyway, Mrs. Hayes probably thinks Jason wishes he were out hunting, ha, what a joke. Jason's dad offered to take him; he left a message on their machine, but then he never called back when he said he would. He was probably waiting for Jason to call him back, and Jason was busy. Later, maybe later in the season or maybe not at all. Jason doesn't think he could shoot something as helpless as a deer anyway.
Mrs. Hayes is tired today, hungover after a night of drinking and fighting with her husband. She'd forgotten all about the first day of deer season — how fortunate it came now, when she needs it. She was planning to show slides of Futurist art but thinks how much better it would be to let these kids work for a while, to let them draw uninterrupted by jeering and teases from those boys with their model trucks and deer antlers. Jason with his wheel thingy and Jenny with her bunch of dried-up roses, they seem as though a weight has been lifted from them. It has not really affected their work, which remains lumpy and coarse and badly composed. Their shoulders seem less tense and constricted though; without thinking she puts her hand on Jason's shoulder and feels him flinch under her touch.
She and her husband are fighting over a hole on their property — a sinkhole, her husband claims, but Mrs. Hayes thinks it is actually an ice hole, dug a century ago or even earlier for the purpose of storing ice cut from the frozen lake in winter. Her husband wants to fill the hole with sand and dirt; it has a depth of almost twenty feet and he says it isn't safe or right to keep it, what if it gets bigger and bigger, degrading the value of their land? Mrs. Hayes has found things inside the hole — a beautiful little hand-blown glass bottle, an arrowhead, a Confederate belt buckle, a bone toothbrush without any bristles. How did you find those things anyway? her husband wanted to know. I dug around a little, she said, remembering descending the sloping sides into the hole's cooler air, brushing away the layers and layers of leaves and scraping the damp clay walls with her fingers. Next time you'll likely find a copperhead, he said, meanness in his voice. Their fights escalate over nothing, become a reason for shouting and crying and making a bed on the couch. Her head burns with a dull ache; she wishes she could lie in the hole now, unseen under a big pile of cool, golden leaves.
The glass bottle, the arrowhead, the belt buckle, and the toothbrush sit on the windowsill above the heating vents. Their images bend and waver in the warm, billowing air. No one has chosen to draw them; even the girl who forgot something to draw dug around in her book bag until she found something of her own — a pencil, nervously bitten during last week's trigonometry test. It is hard to render all the tiny tooth marks, the barest scraping away and flaking of smooth yellow paint, but at least it is hers and not someone else's. Those are her tooth marks, after all; she bought the pencil herself at Walgreen's. She has made no mark on the glass bottle, the arrowhead, the belt buckle, or the toothbrush, nor does she know where they came from. Better to leave them there on the windowsill, mysterious and wavering and fragile-looking.
Two more distant shots open into the overwarm air, but no one looks up this time. If they did, and stood looking through the window where Mrs. Hayes's excavations appear to tremble, they might see something. A white-tailed deer has wandered from the cross-country path behind the school onto the track, has tripped across the pale crunching gravel to stand near their double-glass window in a forgotten and overgrown patch of brownish chickweed. Long dry fronds brush against its limbs and it holds as still as a gasp. It is a young buck with a small rack of newly hardened antlers, bone for locking against bone. It has found the safest place in the county, but of course it does not know this and soon will run off again into the woods, where shots will be fired throughout the day and into dusk.CHAPTER 2
Good News for a Hard Time
It wasn't his car or his house or his clothes that told you Ronnie's father had made it, but the way he treated his dogs. Walking through the tiny airport's automatic doors into April sunshine, Ronnie spotted him pacing before the muddy green Subaru, cell phone to his ear, Tiparillo cigar in his mouth, and knew the dogs were why he hadn't met her at baggage claim. He liked to keep the engine idling, to power the specially installed, oscillating fan that cooled the two fat mutts, Brooks and Dunn, passed out in the sun-hot backseat.
When she was a little girl, before her mother left, their various dogs had slept outside and rarely made trips to the vet. Lola, a favorite, was let in on the coldest nights to warm herself next to the stove; her fur was so long and fine that she had to be watched carefully lest she catch fire. Bruce, Ronnie's dad, still lived in the same house she'd grown up in, a defunct hunting lodge on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation. From the outside it looked much as it had when Ronnie was little — a square, one-story log cabin with creosote-black logs and pale chinking — but inside, everything was different. The kitchen had real tile floors, the drafty casement windows had been replaced, and he had central air conditioning, not to mention forced-air heat that clicked on with satisfying regularity. Brooks and Dunn slept under his bed, on big, cedar-scented pillows he'd ordered from a catalog. They rode with him everywhere, to job sites and on vacations, and they had a standing appointment each month to have their fur groomed and nails clipped at the poodle shop in Tappahannock, where Bruce made the old ladies blush and giggle with his stories and easily overheard cellular conversations.
He saw her and waved, but didn't stop his pacing or talking. She shifted her carry-on to her other shoulder, smoothed her blouse over her stomach. She had not told her father yet about the baby, two months along, nor had she even told her husband, who would the next day return Stateside to Walter Reed, right arm gone to just above the elbow. Her scalp twitched just thinking of his poor arm, so she put it out of her mind, smiled wanly at Bruce.
"All right," he said, tossing down the cigar to give Ronnie a half hug. "My daughter's here, gotta go."
"Dad," she mumbled into his scratchy pullover. She yanked open the back door, shoved in her luggage. "Hey, Brooks. Hey, Dunn," she said, like they were sullen younger siblings and she was home from college instead of an army base. Dunn lifted his head an inch off the hairy carpet and thumped his fat-heavy tail. Privately, she thought the dogs' names stupid — Brooks was a bitch, after all, and Bruce was no fan of contemporary country music — but they had been named by Bruce's friend Skinny, who loved country music and was slowly dying of hepatitis C and painkiller addiction. Skinny lived on the reservation too, and was a real Indian, unlike Bruce, who lived there because no one had the heart to kick him off after Ronnie's mom moved to California.
"It's chilly, Dad," Ronnie said, as she slid into the front seat.
"Georgia's spoiling you," he said. "Turning you into an old lady."
Ronnie frowned. "I don't look —"
"No, you don't look like an old lady," Bruce said, with exaggerated annoyance. He lit up again, and Ronnie cranked down her window and leaned toward fresh air in what she thought was a subtle way. "I'm just saying, it's a retirement place. For people who can't deal with life anymore."
"That's Florida," Ronnie said. "Nobody retires to Georgia." In truth a perpetual dissatisfaction with the weather, begun in childhood winters warmed by a too-small woodstove, was one reason she hadn't dissuaded Jeremy from joining the service. The overserious recruiter — he talked on and on about 9-1-1, like it was a call to the police — said a base in the South was likely, and Ronnie had pictured warm winters, palmetto trees, all the time she needed to herself. Okay, she'd said, a decisive firmness in her voice. Jeremy and the recruiter had looked up from their Cokes as if they were surprised to find out that all along it had been her decision to make. In fact, they'd looked surprised to find her in the room at all.
"I should never have let him join up," Ronnie said, as I-64's newly green trees swished by on both sides of the highway. "I should have said no."
"Probably you're right," Bruce said. "But how could you have known what was coming? Three weeks babysitting a tank's gas gauge and then this?"
"I should have stopped him," she said again. She didn't buy her dad's surprise — he'd had buddies in Vietnam, spent three years in college until his draft number came up low — and so a growing part of her blamed him now too.
"Well, you are the smarter of the two of you."
Ronnie had gone to an expensive art school in Savannah, and even though Bruce, with his contracting business, had kicked in what he could, and with scholarships from the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, she'd had to drop out, thirty thousand dollars in debt, at the end of her second year. She told Bruce that she'd taken all the important classes already, and that the actual piece of paper that said you graduated was not really so valuable when it also said painting and printmaking. Bruce hadn't tried to talk her out of it, though she'd wished he would; he tended to believe what was most convenient at the time.
She didn't mind dropping out, not really. Savannah had not exactly been a welcoming place, and she'd been homesick and lonely most of the time, though she hated to admit it. People always wanted to know where are you from? and who are your people? and Ronnie found herself perversely referring to the reservation and growing her thick, near-black hair long and wearing it in a single braid. She lived by herself in an unheated basement apartment that was perpetually damp, and cold three seasons of the year, and after a while her clothes and her long hair and even her skin smelled of mildew. She missed Jeremy, though she'd dumped him before starting school. He still wrote her letters on lined notebook paper, which he folded into little squares and mailed inside envelopes he made from the local newspaper.
Hey what's up? most of the letters began.
He told Ronnie about shows he'd seen in Richmond, about working as a dock builder in West Point, about friends they had in common. He recommended CDs she'd never buy, movies she had no interest in watching.
Alarmingly, the letters also told of a growing friendship — was that the word? apprenticeship? — with Bruce. Bruce has aquired for me an Indian hunting license. Bruce is taking me on a deep-sea fishing expidition. Bruce put me on his crew.
Ronnie had always found Jeremy's predilection for formal words he could not spell to be an endearing trait. He was sweet. He was funny. He was even handsome — tall, with sandy blond hair he had to brush out of his blue eyes and a wide, easy smile. He'd been a senior when they started dating during her sophomore year; once he graduated she was happy to keep him around to drive her places, make mix CDs for her, and provide an easy exemption from high school social events. But she did not want to date him past her own graduation — she knew, all along, that she would wind up pregnant and poor. Married.
So she mailed warning letters back to Bruce:
I don't know what you're doing with Jeremy but it needs to stop.
An Indian hunting license? Out of the three of us, I'm the only one who should have one of those. Let him hunt with his own dad.
Seriously, Dad, don't you have friends your own age?
Of course, Jeremy was there when she came home, waiting. She accidentally got drunk and slept with him her first night back, accepted a marriage proposal within the year. They rented a house, went to jobs, barbecued alone or with their families on weekends. Once or twice a week he played guitar in their basement, sending up the muffled, twangy notes while Ronnie lay awake, listening. It was a life that offered so little surprise that Ronnie didn't get involved when her husband stayed up all night watching C-SPAN, when he got all worked up about al-Qaeda and making a future for them, when he decided to join the army and move the two of them to Columbus, just a few hours from where she'd dropped out of school. If she was really honest with herself, anger with Bruce, who all along just wanted her back the way he wanted her mother back, was also part of what made her say, to the surprised recruiter, Okay.
She told Bruce about the baby as they crossed the metal drawbridge that divided King and Queen County from King William County. The wheels thudded against the loose wooden planks. Brooks struggled to stand and sniffed the air.
Excerpted from Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs. Copyright © 2010 Belle Boggs. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
BELLE BOGGS has published work in Glimmer Train, Oxford American, and Best New American Voices 2003. She received an MA in fiction from the University of California at Irvine and grew up in King William County, Virginia.
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This is a wonderful book of short stories. I loved all of the stories and the characters were great. This was a very enjoyable book.