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On her sixteenth birthday, violet mathers nearly bled to death in a thread factory. The “incident,” as it was referred to in the company’s 1935 logbook, happened on the graveyard shift, just before break time, when the pounding and the whirring and the squeaking of the machines had crescendoed into a percussion concert conducted by the devil himself. Lamont Travers, the foreman, told her later in the hospital that the worst accidents always happen before break; people can’t wait to smoke their cigarettes or drink their coffee and talk about whose man or whose woman had done who the wrongest. Violet hadn’t cared about any of that; she wanted only to cut into the marble cake RaeAnn Puffer had brought, wanted only to hear her co-workers raise their tired, smoky voices in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
Excited and jumpy as a puppy with a full bladder, the birthday girl broke the cardinal rule of the Marcelline Thread factory, the cardinal rule printed in capital letters on at least three signs posted on the dusty brick walls: do not attempt to clear or repair the machinery without first turning machinery off.
She was running the Klayson, a big reliable machine that sweat oil as it wound and cut dozens of spools of thread. There were women who were possessive of their machines (Lula Wendell even named hers and explained that whenever the machine spit out thread or overwound, it was because “Pauletta” was on her monthly). Violet had formed no deep attachments to the masses of metal, preferring the job of “runner” and working whatever machine needed running. When she ran the Klayson, she felt as if she was wrangling a harmless but stubborn old cow, and it was almost with affection that she scolded the machine when it huffed and burped to a stop.
“Now, come on, gal, I ain’t got time for this,” said Violet, and with one hand on the Klayson’s metal flank, she stuck the other up into its privates, feeling for the tangled clot of thread.
There was a yank then and the benign old cow turned into a crazed bull, sucking her arm up between its jaws.
A flash fire of shock and pain exploded at Violet’s elbow joint and in her brain, and just as red hot was her outrage: But it’s my birthday!
RaeAnn, who was next to Violet on the floor, screamed, and Polly Ball, the only woman on the floor to have gone to college (she would have graduated from UNC-Raleigh with a degree in art history had she not been summoned home after her father died), thought: that’s the scream in the Edvard Munch painting.
Violet too heard the scream even as she fainted, even as the weight of her falling body helped further tear skin from skin and bone from bone. When she woke up in the hospital, her stub-arm wrapped and bleeding like a rump roast in butcher’s paper, the screaming was still inside her head—was in her head for more years than she cared to count.
When the morphine curtain lifted on her consciouness, her first thought was: some sweet sixteenth.
Violet should have known better; in her short history she had learned that expectations only deepened the disappointment that inevitably stained every special occasion—not that many were celebrated. In excavating her mind for memories of parties and presents, she’d only been able to dig up those concerning her sixth birthday, when her mother baked her a yellow cake iced with raspberry jelly and gave her a real present to unwrap. It was a rag doll Violet immediately christened Jellycakes, commemorating what she told her mother was “the best birthday cake and the best birthday doll ever ever ever ever made.”
The remembrance of that lone celebration was ruined by what her mother did three days later, which was to run off with the pharmacist from Henson Drugs. Considering her robust good health, Erlene spent a lot of time at the pharmacy window; every other customer walked away tucking green or brown bottles of tonics and pills and elixirs into their purses or pockets, but all her mama left the drugstore with was a flushed face and a soft dreamy look in her eyes. Violet liked Mr. Gladstone, the pharmacist—he gave her root-beer barrels, and once a Henson’s Drugs (“For All Your Drug & Sundries Needs”) calendar with a picture of a kitten on it—but after he robbed her of her mother, Violet came to think of the druggist as the criminal he was; a man guilty of grand theft. She was a child at the time of the crime, hadn’t even started the first grade yet. Ten years later, when Violet lost her arm, it occurred to her that this was not her first amputation, but her second.
Later, when she came to know how love can slam reason and responsibility to the mat as easily as a heavyweight takes down a bantam, Violet forgave her mother for running off (Yarby Gladstone did have nice clean hands, after all, and an entire set of teeth, or at least all of the ones that showed in a smile), but she never forgave Erlene for forgetting about her, for never sending a letter or postcard, for never sending for her. Mothers who disappear off the face of the earth leave their children feeling as if they’ve disappeared too; disappeared from everything they thought was certain and safe and true. Abandonment can be crueler to a child than death; Violet would rather her mama had died because at least a grave would have given her a place to visit, something to touch, something to talk to.
There were few people in Mount Crawford, Kentucky, surprised by the young Mrs. Mathers taking a permanent leave of absence; it didn’t take any great power of observation to see that Violet’s parents were as mismatched as a crow and a canary. Judd Mathers was Erlene’s senior by fifteen years and had always looked older than his age; he was not yet forty when his wife left, and yet his long thin face was as creased as a bloodhound’s, his black hair leeched to a lusterless gray. He was one of those men hobbled by his inability to exercise his emotions (except for anger), although Violet thought that in his stunted capacity, he really loved his wife. She remembered him smiling at her mama’s jokes, watching Erlene with a shy delight when she put the corn bread on the table, crowing, “Ta-da!” or when she hung the clothes out on the line, grabbing his union suit and pretending to waltz with it.
What registered most on the young Mrs. Mathers’s face when she looked at her husband was disbelief and impatience, as if she were always asking herself, “How did I get here?” and “How soon can I leave?” Had she not gone and got herself pregnant, Erlene would have laughed out loud at Judd’s marriage proposal, would have swatted it away as if it was a black and pesky fly.
There was a certain flightiness to her mama that, even as a child, Violet recognized. The young (she was only eighteen when Violet was born), trim woman could be in the middle of kneading dough when she’d wipe her hands on the dish towel and dash out of the back door, calling out that she was going to town to see what was playing at the picture show, and would Violet mind punching down the bread when it rose? The little girl longed to chase after her but had learned early on that she was usually included in those things from which Erlene needed to escape. When her mother was in an affectionate mood, she might invite Violet onto her lap, but it wasn’t long before the girl would be flung off, as Erlene would be distracted by chores or a sudden need to manicure her nails, to wave-set her hair, or dance to the crystal radio in the boxy little room she called the parlor.
Erlene was full of fun ideas—“Let’s pick raspberries and have a picnic on Mount Crawford!” “Let’s throw a tea party on the porch!”—and once or twice these ideas blossomed into reality, but most always Violet would be left waiting on the crumbling front steps, her eagerness bright as a balloon and just as sure to deflate. The bulk of memories concerning her mother were those in which Erlene stood her up (indoctrinating Violet early on into the sorry club of wallflowerhood), and yet the little girl believed her mama when she called her her “precious flower,” clung to those rare terms of endearment, knowing they were proof of her love.
Violet made all sorts of excuses for her, but in her deep heart she knew that mothers who loved their precious flowers didn’t leave them to grow up in a musty old house on the edge of town with a father whose personality vacillated between melancholia and meanness; surely Erlene knew how that would make a precious flower wither up and die?
Violet. It didn’t take long for everyone to see that the child had been misnamed.
“Gawd Almighty,” Uncle Maynard said the first time he saw her, “she’s homelier than Tate Seevers!”
(Tate Seevers was the one-eyed World War I vet who lived in a shack outside the junkyard with his half-wolf dog.)
Uncle Clyde nodded. “Yuh, I reckon you’ll see prettier faces in a horse barn.”
These stories were gleefully told to Violet by her cousin Byron, who seemed to have an endless collection.
“My mama says only people with hexes on ’em got faces like yours.”
“I heard your daddy says the only way you’re ever gonna get a boyfriend is if he sends you to a school for the blind.”
“Sit up, Violet, speak! Good dog.”
The Matherses’ back porch was the local speakeasy for Judd and his brothers-in-law, who’d congregate there to drink the corn liquor Uncle Maynard showed some talent at making; but after Erlene left, her brothers never came around. It wasn’t shame over their sister’s transgressions (Violet doubted they had shame, over their transgressions or anyone else’s) that kept them away; but their abandonment was double the hurt for her father, who not only lost his wife, but his drinking buddies. Violet didn’t miss them at all—they were loud and crude, like most drunks—and she could easily live the rest of her life without her cousin Byron and the two gifts he so conscientiously gave her during each and every visit: the “Indian burns” that cuffed the girl’s arms in welts and the constant taunts about her looks.
“Why does everyone think I’m so ugly, Mama?”
A giggle erupted from Erlene’s throat; she had an odd sense of what was funny and what wasn’t.
“Violet, now put that away,” she said, recovering her composure. “It’s time for bed.”
Erlene’s interest in things domestic was minimal, but occasionally she’d bring out her sewing basket (made of willow, it was the sort of crafted object that would be sold years later as folk art for the kind of money its creator, a mountain woman named Gimpy Mary, never saw in her lifetime), and wanting to share something—anything—with her mother, Violet was determined to sew too. Like her father, she was good with her hands; they were quick and deft and seemed able to figure out things with little guidance from her brain.
Jabbing the needle in the handkerchief she was hemming for her father, Violet set it on the upended flour can that was her nightstand.
“And everyone does not think you’re ugly,” said Erlene, bringing the faded patchwork quilt up to her daughter’s neck and crimping its edges. “It’s just that, well, I suppose it’s because you’ve got a chin that looks like it wants to pick a fight.” She smiled, fondling the jaw that would have fit a man’s face better than a little girl’s. “You’ll just have to work on your other attributes.”
“What are ‘attributes,’ Mama?” asked Violet, liking Erlene’s hand on her face, even as she disparaged it.
“Well, look at me: I’m pretty, but I don’t stop there. I work on things, things like being smart and clever—who can tell a joke as good as your mama?”
“No one,” whispered Violet.
“That’s right. Plus, I’m a good dancer and have excellent grammar. Those are all attributes, just to name a few.”
“Erlene,” shouted Judd from the kitchen, “ain’t we got more biscuits than these?”
The young woman sighed and got up as if she were an old lady whose bones hurt. She stood at the side of the bed for a moment, the light from the kerosene lamp throbbing like an ache against the wall.
“Don’t say ‘ain’t,’ Violet,” she said finally. “ ‘Ain’t’ is a word that makes you sound like you don’t care.”
“Okay, Mama,” whispered Violet, willing to do anything asked of her. “I won’t ever say ‘ain’t.’ ”
She didn’t either, until her mother left, until Violet realized that every time she disobeyed her absent mother, she felt a tiny jolt of power that let her forget, for a breath, how much she missed her. So she said “ain’t” and did all the other things Erlene had told her not to: she chewed her fingernails and burped and didn’t brush her hair and slept in her clothes. She became a dirty, tangle-haired, wild-looking thing; the kind of girl the school nurse always suspected as ground zero for lice and impetigo infestations; the kind of girl who found notes like “You stink!” and “Take a bath!” scattered like land mines inside her desk.
As the years passed, Violet became less a stranger to soap and water, but her improved hygiene couldn’t deflect attention from her freakish growth surge: by age thirteen she was five feet eleven, and it didn’t take Violet long to realize that height does a homely girl no favors.
“Look, a giraffe escaped from the zoo!”
“Hey, Olive Oyl!”
Puberty was not done playing dirty tricks either, deepening Violet’s voice like a boy’s and inspiring her tormenters to add the name “Froggy” to the many in their arsenal, or to ask why Olive Oyl had a voice like Popeye.
Every inch she grew on the outside, every bass note her voice registered, made her smaller on the inside. There were a few kindhearted children who tried to befriend the odd Mathers girl, but her mother’s abandonment, her father’s neglect and cruelty, and her own shame had worked like rust on Violet, corroding her ability to accept amity and eating away the belief that she deserved to have friends.
School was her one respite; Lord, to draw maps of places like Burma and Ceylon and write reports on their major exports! (Rice! Rubber! Hemp!) To listen to Miss Mertz recite (in a practiced British accent) “The Raven” with the window shades pulled! To figure out how many apples Farmer Brown harvested if he had an orchard of 350 trees and each tree yielded approximately 3.8 bushels!
She loved each and every subject, as was evidenced by her report card, on which without fail marched a straight row of A’s.