My whole body turned hot, then ice-block cold. I thought I might throw up or pass out. Did I feel sick because of my breath-holding, the bump on my head, my blood connection to Daddy? I didn't know, but I needed air bad, so I sat up, looked at Phoebe, studied her nettled face. Figured she could use some kind words. So I leaned into her: "He ain't dead."
Then I scrunched down into the seat, but not so low that I couldn't see out. The countryside whipped by fast. It felt like I was watching a moving picture. We streaked past farms and groves and signs that touted fresh citrus and the power of God. As we neared Moccasin Branch Bridge, I grew amazed, for it appeared as if every man, woman, child, and dog in Lily had gathered along the western bank. How they knew to be there, how they knew Billy Jackson was going to attempt to take his life right there on the slim white shoreline of that brown-water river, was a mystery to me. I hadn't yet learned that in a small town everybody knows everything instantly.
I eyed those busybody folks and was seized by a funny thought: It would be a good time to rob the bank. Then my heart stumbled a beat, as if it had gotten caught on one of the cypress snags in Moccasin Branch, and I searched that crowd for my daddy. But I did not see him. I looked to Phoebe, whose cinnamon skin was flushed and clammy. Her dark eyes were dry, which was a terrible thing to see. My mama always said the Devil steals tears--keeps them in a box with your name on it so that when you go to hell you will spend eternity crying the stored-up teardrops of a lifetime.
Mama struggled and cursed as she tried to get out of the police cruiser,but you can't open the back door of a cop car if you're on the inside, so the three of us were trapped. I felt a fit coming on, one of those leg-kicking, arm-flailing, wailing fits, when Mama had one of her own. She let loose with a string of cussing so potent it caused Jack the policeman, who was standing outside talking with another of his own kind, to blush.
He opened the door and said, "Sorry, Glory, I just need to make sure what was what. We've got Billy in custody. He's okay."
Jack nodded in the direction of another police car, and I craned my neck to see, but there were so many people milling about that my view was blocked. "You want that we take him in, or that you carry him home?"
Mama stared straight ahead, her eyes hard as steel. She said, "Take the son-of-a-bitch in."
Then she gathered her pocketbook into the crook of her arm and took me by the hand. I slipped my other one in Phoebe's. Pretending we were women of grace, wearing our pride like long black veils, we slipped out of the cruiser and threaded our way through the gawking crowd--friends and acquaintances all. Some said, "Glory, can we help?" but my mama responded to no one. She fixed her granite gaze on the storm clouds rising upon the horizon and pulled us right along behind her.
We got in Daddy's white Impala. Under the sun's glare not yet shadowed by the approaching clouds, the Impala seemed only a glimmer, a ghost car that would ramble through the Florida scrub toward a future thick with questions and grief.
Mama drove us home. She kept her lips sealed, and through instinct and experience, Phoebe and I knew to keep our own traps shut.
We had a shotgun house on a lake no one had ever bothered to name, in the middle of a citrus grove owned by Mr. Bailey T. Watson, a rich man who lived a lifetime north of us in a mansion that overlooked Lake Panasoffkee. We rented our house from him, and it was okay. The grove was a good place to hide.
As we walked up the front porch steps, Mama, who looked whipped but stubborn, said, "You girls play Chinese checkers or something. Do anything but fight."
My sister said, "Can we have a Co'-Cola?"
"Yes, you may, but don't drink too much."
Then Mama and Phoebe went into the kitchen, and I stayed on the porch and looked through the cracks in the wooden floor slats and said, "Here, kitty, kitty," because there was a wild cat that sometimes stayed under there and I wanted to tame her, thought that would be a fun thing to do.
Phoebe tired to catch the screen door with her foot as she came out with two Co'-Colas, but she wasn't fast enough. It made a popgun sound. From somewhere inside the house Mama yelled, "Damn you, young'uns!"
I took my cold drink. "Why do you think she's making Daddy stay in jail?"
Phoebe ran her finger down the long crest of her nose. "Try to teach him a lesson, I guess."
I took three big swallows, and as the soothing fluid rushed down my throat I wondered what kind of lesson could he possibly learn--not to play with guns, not to make Mama angry, not to do anything to attract attention? That must be it--I acted poorly whenever I desired sweet attention. Maybe all my daddy needed, more than anything in this world, was for my mama to be Jesus-like, all-forgiving, and gentle to little animals.
Phoebe looked out toward the grove. Its straight, orderly rows of citrus trees were shaddy and often cool. She swatted a fly off her forehead and said, "I wish the rain would come soon."
I liked the way I sounded when I agreed with her. I thought I came off as a grown up, trying on my big sister's words and ideas rather than my mama's high heels and beads, which always landed me in trouble. I blew on the lip of the Co'-Cola bottle, coaxing from it a long, sad whistle. Daddy could whistle like nobody's business. Was he in that jail cell all alone, or had they thrown him in with a bunch of robbers and murderers? Was he wearing one of those striped prison outfits? Was he safe? I didn't have any answers. "Sister." I patted her leg. "Will you play me one game?"
Phoebe looked down at me as if I was a pest, but then her sharp black eyes softened and she said, "Yeah, Bird, I'll play you a game."
We sat on the porch, Indian-style, placing the marbles on the Chinese checkers board. Mama came out, pocketbook on arm, paper sack in hand. She'd put on fresh makeup and had changed out of that nice linen dress and high heels she'd been wearing earlier and into a blue wraparound skirt, a white cotton blouse, and flats. Despite the dark circles under her eyes, she looked comfortable, newly scrubbed.
"There's egg salad in the refrigerator," she said. "Phoebe, fix you and your sister a sandwich while I'm gone."
Phoebe didn't look at Mama, just kept on with those marbles, glaring at them as if they were being unruly and she was trying to make them obey. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"To take your daddy something to eat." Mama bit down on her bottom lip. I saw her whole face start to tremble and then pull itself back together. She took a deep breath, stared over our heads, and in a justifying tone of voice--as if we were accusing her of something--she said, "He's probably hungry by now."
"I guess so," Phoebe said.
A mockingbird started singing, and in some faraway field a tractor droned to life. A wisp of hair fell in Mama's eyes. "I've got to go," she said. Then she hurried down the steps, settled into the car, fiddled with the keys. Had to try three times before that heap of wheels and metal would start, but once she got it going, she hollered, "You two behave while I'm away. Bird, don't give your sister a hard time. If your head hurts, put some ice on it."
Then Mama was gone, disappeared down the road in the white Impala. A clap of thunder cracked the heavens, and a flock of sparrows flew from the live oak that overhung our tin roof, taking cover in the grove.
Phoebe seemed unmoved by the rumbling sky. Just kept her eyes on the Chinese checkers game board and its perfect triangles filled with marbles of such luscious colors I wanted to eat them. But they wouldn't be sweet, no they wouldn't. Sister, she looked beautiful, staring down at the board, her face framed in shadows and cloud-spangled light. I thought, She would make the most perfect angel.
I watched as she stretched over the board to flick off a fallen leaf. Underneath her thin cotton shell, I saw how fragile the bones in her back were, far too sliver-prone, far too light to support a pair of wings.
Something tickled my arm. I looked down; a ladybug walked among my many freckles. My hairs must have seemed like a forest to a creature so small. I brought my arm close to my lips and softly blew, my breath a gust of wind to send the ladybug on her way. She flew off to another world, maybe a blade of grass, maybe a flower with a pool of water cupped in its petals. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, stared into the heat. "Do you think she's gonna yell at Daddy; do you think he still has that gun?"
My wingless sister moved a red marble. I thought I heard the cartilage holding her skeleton together snap as she said, "Who cares, Bird. Who the hell really cares."