As a young girl Grace Marie struggled to escape from poverty, her father's lecherous, controlling grip, and a husband in the Klan. Determined to get an education, she clawed her way to a comfortable life and a home with indoor toiletsbut her most unexpected struggle turned out to be survivor’s guilt, so she kept returning home to “fix” her family and the sharecropper shack. After her father’s funeral, Grace Marie burns down the family homeonly to discover that she has unexpected ties to both the land and the people in her community. She realizes she will never have a “last trip home.”
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
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I buried Daddy on Christmas Eve in Arkansas. Even in death, he was inconsiderate. Nick and I were getting ready to go to a private party at our tennis club when Aunt Desser called with the news. It was always my aunts, Desser or Guster, Daddy's younger sisters, who called with bad news. None of my older relatives had owned a telephone long enough to feel free to waste hard-earned money on a long-distance call just to chat. I had longed for this call all my adult life.
In my recurring premenstrual murder fantasy, Daddy's death is always dramatic. The setting is always the middle of the night, in the sharecropper shack. He is driven over the edge, by despair or, perhaps, by some act of disobedience, maybe mine. He and Mama are in the front bedroom. He shoots her first with the .22 rifle he uses for squirrel hunting.
Asleep in the side room, I am awakened by the shot and filled with dread, but I am unable to move. I conveniently remain frozen while he continues his bloody path through the front room, where my younger, handicapped sister, Violet, is asleep on a pallet. I hear Violet's piteous cries as she begs him not to kill her. One more shot, and I am up. I stumble over the trunk on the floor and am unable to save my sister.
I hear him thump heavily into the middle room, where so many bad things happened. I turn on the light and fling myself fearlessly at him before he shoots my older brother, Joe Buck. Sometimes, I allow Daddy merely to wound Joe Buck, so I will have to drag us both to the hospital later. Daddy is always wearing the dingy white Jockey shorts he wore when he walked around the house at night, when he sat in the pink plastic platform rocker and read or watched television. With superhuman strength, I wrestle the gun away from him. Sometimes he shoots me in the struggle — a serious wound, but not mortal.
He throws me against the wall, but I keep coming back. Sometimes, I beat him to death with his own gun. I never shoot him. That's too quick and impersonal, letting a bullet kill him. I prefer a hands-on approach. Touching him in real life repels me, but, in my revenge fantasy, I am thrilled to grab him by his leathery neck and beat his head against the wall until his skull turns to mush and his brains drain through the hole in the floor where I used to sweep dirt. His last breath makes my breath quicken.
The reality was less dramatic. Aunt Desser got right to the point. "Grace-Mayree, your daddy's dead." Nobody in my family pronounced my middle name, Marie, correctly. I heard her cry softly. I felt the blow to the belly people are supposed to feel when a parent dies, but I tightened the stomach muscles around it. I needed time to examine my reaction and decide how to respond without being a hypocrite.
She continued, "He died suddenly. A heart attack, they thank."
I waited for more, something more dramatic.
Aunt Desser broke the silence. "I don't thank he suffered much, Grace baby. His heart just give out, Ruby said. Your stepmama was with him."
Didn't suffer much? That wasn't what I was waiting for. Right before I numbed myself, I felt a flash of anger. It wasn't fair that he died quickly and quietly. He should have died in agony, moaning and begging for mercy and forgiveness. An ordinary heart attack, his first one, and he died? Maybe at eighty he was too old to die in the midst of a scandal — shot or beaten to death. But couldn't he have died from a brain tumor? Or crazed from a venereal disease? Or from lung cancer after chain-smoking all those unfiltered Camels? Instead, he died peacefully at home with my stepmother, Ruby, at his side.
With the phone at my ear, I pictured Aunt Desser, smart and energetic enough to run a large company, solid and block-shaped like her mother — Mee Maw, we called her. My aunt would be sitting heavily, knees apart, in her spotless little house, built by her late husband.
After another long pause, Aunt Desser spoke again, hesitantly, maybe to see if I was still there. "I'm sorry to bring this up, Grace-Mayree, but we have to make arrangements."
Arrangements. I knew this word. It meant funerals and coffins and flowers. I tried to snap back and sound normal.
"Of course," I said. I couldn't leave Desser and Guster to handle this alone. Aunt Guster was prone to nervous spells and not as strong as her older sister.
"Is he at Wilson Funeral Home?" I knew he was. All my dead relatives were arranged there.
"Yes, he is. But we can't get anybody to bury him on Monday, that being Christmas Day and all. It has to be either Sunday or Tuesday."
"That makes it a little tight, doesn't it?" I knew without being told that I was the holdup, since I would need time to get there. It was just like Daddy to expect everybody to work around his schedule. I made a quick decision. "Let's shoot for Sunday, Christmas Eve, and get it over with. I'll try to get a flight out tonight or early tomorrow."
"That's good, honey. I'm glad you said that." She didn't even try to hide the relief in her voice.
"I'm sure you've had enough of funerals," I said.
We talked a little then about the coincidence that her husband and Guster's and now Daddy, all three of the patriarchs — though we didn't use the word patriarch — had died this year, within two weeks of one another.
Aunt Desser spoke again hesitantly, elliptically, but I could fill in the gaps. I knew the language.
"There's another problem. Nobody has called Joe Buck or Violet."
"I'll call them." I knew it was my job to call my older brother and younger sister.
"Well," she said, "that's not all. Ruby said for nobody to call Joe Buck. She said your daddy didn't want him called when he died."
I had heard Daddy say that myself: "I don't want Joe Buck called. He don't care a thang about me." He thought excluding my brother from his funeral would be the ultimate punishment.
Joe Buck had not returned to Arkansas even for Mama's funeral. "I'm afraid I'll kill the son of a bitch," he had told me on the phone.
Aunt Desser spoke again, with more of her customary energy. "Now, that ain't right, not to call him. I told your step-mama that, flat out: 'Now, Ruby, that ain't right, no matter what Goode said.'"
"Of course I'll call Joe Buck. There's not a chance in hell he'll come, but I'll call and tell him."
"Good," she said again. Usually up to any task, she seemed relieved to have me take responsibility for defying a dead father's wishes. "That's on you," she added.
Responsibility? It would be a pleasure. I wanted to call Joe Buck and tell him our daddy was dead.
"About the arrangements?" She introduced the subject again. "Ruby is too upset to make too many decisions. She don't know the first thing about making arrangements."
I knew we had to make decisions quickly about the coffin and the ceremony if we were going to get him buried on Christmas Eve. I said, as carefully as I could, "I don't want to embarrass you and Aunt Guster. I know funerals are important to you, but my vote is to keep it as simple and as inexpensive as possible." In our farm community, people spent more on funerals than on weddings.
"That's so sad. He was my only brother, but I understand," she said.
I relaxed a little, knowing she did understand, even though she and her children had bought an ornately carved wooden coffin for her carpenter husband. I guess he deserved an expensive coffin. Aunt Desser didn't judge me for wanting to give my father a cheap funeral, because she knew Daddy as well as anybody did. She was one of the few people with the balls to cross him.
Unfortunately, I relaxed too much and grew careless. I confided in her my barely remembered Jessica Mitford theory about all morticians being bloodsucking scumbags who talked grieving people into buying coffins and extras they couldn't afford, on the pretense that their loved ones would be protected from the elements.
Aunt Desser flared up at that. "Well, we did pay a extra two thousand dollars on a vault for Travis. Yes, we did. His wood coffin didn't have no insulation at all."
I put my guard back up and managed to eke out a few words of sympathy for her, but she brushed them off quickly.
"Don't you worry about me, child. I'm fine. Yes, I'm fine."
Her calling me child used to annoy me, but now that I was fifty-five, I enjoyed the illusion.
"One more thang, Grace, honey," she said. "Your daddy didn't leave no will. I know you say you don't care about the land, but I told Goode again and again to sign it over to you."
"Why me?" I asked.
"Because you're the only one who will pay the taxes on it," she yelled, as she tended to do when she was excited. "Now it'll just be a big mess. If Ruby gets her hands on it, she'll sell it to any kind of trash before your daddy is cold in the ground."
Daddy's daddy, Papa Joe, had told me the less-than-proud legacy of Hall land. His grandfather, who had moved his large family and a few slaves to Arkansas in 1856, left Mississippi because one of his sons was accused of being a horse thief. He didn't think the law would follow them that far into the woods, where there was no railroad or churches or graveyards. He was right. He bought four hundred acres cheap and settled a whole future community of Halls. They were left alone to work their land and multiply. As the land kept being divided, new generations became poorer and slowly deteriorated, perhaps poisoned by that horse thief who never had to pay.
The land was passed on in an orderly fashion — divided equally among the children when their last parent died. This kept the adult children tied to their parents and the land for a long time. The land had always felt like a heavy burden to me, but I knew I didn't want Ruby to have it.
I was used to Arkansas messes but hoped this would be the last one. Maybe, finally, this would be my last trip home.
I was glad I had been getting ready for a Christmas party when I got the call that Daddy had died, because it meant I was already groomed for travel. That would save time. When I told Nick the news, he said, "Oh, Marie, I'm so sorry," and reached out to hug me. Nick was a freshly widowed doctor I had met playing tennis and had been living with for almost three years. He was solid and respectable, smart and athletic — combinations I liked and never had before. Each year, more of the wispy brown and gray hair on the top of his head seemed to drift to his beard, but I didn't mind that look. He had a warm smile and laughed at my jokes. He offered safety and comfort, but that wasn't what I wanted the night Daddy died.
I brushed him off with "No, no, I'm not upset. I'm fine; I'm fine." Then I realized I sounded like Aunt Desser. I told him to go ahead to the party without me. For the hostess gift, I dipped my signature black-eyed peas and hog meat from a full, simmering Crock-Pot into a canning jar. The hostess wouldn't like them, but her husband would enjoy the subsequent farting.
The next few hours were a blur of phone calls and arrangements. I postponed the call to my younger sister, Violet, as I often did calls to her. As I expected, when I called my still-handsome, fifty-seven-year-old brother in Florida, he said he was relieved Daddy was dead and didn't even consider going to the funeral.
I spent a lot of time packing for the three-day trip. I worried about what to wear to the funeral. Since I had no contribution to make from the inside, I needed the outside to look just right. I wanted to look good but not tarty or ostentatious. I rejected the funky party clothes and the black wool suit with the mink collar I had worn to Mama's funeral and packed some schoolteacher clothes. Comfortable, respectable, drab.
I bought a Delta ticket to Little Rock for early the next morning. Nick offered to go with me and was visibly relieved when I said he didn't need to. I knew he wanted to be home the next day for the arrival of his grown children and a new grandchild. More important to me, his presence at the funeral would remind people that we were living in sin.
I had spent weeks decorating our home to compensate for hating the holidays. The whole house smelled of pine boughs and baskets of potpourri in every room, freshened daily with droppers full of liquid cinnamon scent. I had even decorated the two hand-carved, wooden Polynesian statues, a gift to Nick from his former mother-in-law. I had stuck bows over their private parts and taped a plastic champagne glass into the female statue's hand. Festive, I thought. It was a small bit of rebellion against Nick's insistence on traditional holidays and a large rebellion against my tense Arkansas ones, when Daddy sometimes threatened to "kick old Santy's butt" if he came to our house.
I walked alone around the house and looked in the hall mirror, topped by sprigs of mistletoe. My face, framed in L'Oréal-blond, shoulder-length hair, looked pale and frozen, but not swollen with grief. In the middle of the mirror, I had glued a large pair of smiling, red velvet lips that I had cut from a wide ribbon, left over from last year's wreath. "For people who prefer to kiss themselves under the mistletoe," I had explained. Now the garish red lips seemed to be reflected in the mirror, right in the middle of my face, with Daddy's blue-green eyes staring back at me.
This was not the face of a woman in mourning, I thought, even without the mocking lips. I was appropriately shaky but glad to be leaving the house of Christmas cheer.
When Nick returned from the party, I was already packed and in my office with my neck in traction. To keep my herniated disk under control, I put my neck into the stirrup of an over-the-door traction device at least once a day. That night, I strapped my neck in for a second time.
Nick opened the door without knocking, as he usually does. My chair banged forward, and my neck jerked backward.
"Oh, I'm sorry — are you hanging?" he asked.
"Of course," I snapped, then immediately felt guilty, thinking I should be softer in my state of bereavement, kinder to Nick.
Nick was such a good man that I had snatched him up practically at his wife's graveside, before the dirt hit the coffin. He could be boring with his hours of sports watching, but he also played sports and played them well. He played to win and, even at fifty-five, usually did. I liked that. A good mixed-doubles tennis partner is hard to find.
I even liked it that he was interested in hands-on gardening, which bored the bejesus out of me. After surviving the farm, I believed devoutly that, if God had meant me to get my fingers dirty, he would not have created Bristol Farms and Trader Joe's, where I could get everything but good tomatoes.
One of the things Nick and I typically fought about was his worm buckets. He had one small stainless steel bucket inside the house to collect coffee g rounds and old produce, like banana peels and radish tops. Then he had a huge, ugly, green compost container, full of worms, outside, into which he emptied the small container so the worms could break down its contents to enrich the soil for his garden. Since I washed the coffeepot and prepared most of the food, this back-to-nature process required my cooperation.
I was willing to make a reasonable contribution to keep Nick and his worms happy, but I refused to be a slave to either. I tossed a token amount of garbage into the worm bucket, but not all the garbage. Putting a rotten apple in the more conveniently located trash compactor required only one step. So, I compromised and tithed to the worms as I once did to the Southern Baptist Church: one piece of garbage to the worms, nine pieces to the trash compactor. Nick noticed and complained.
"You're not dumping all the coffee grounds into the worm bucket."
"It's too much trouble: I have to take extra steps, and the grounds drip all the way to the bucket."
"But the grounds make my worms happy," he countered, with no irony.
"They're worms!" I yelled. "How the hell do you know if they're happy?"
"When I throw in the coffee grounds, they hum."
"Jesus Fucking Christ!" I said, but I increased my tithe on the coffee grounds: two filtersful to the worms, eight to the compactor. I didn't care if his damn worms hummed or died, but I owed Nick a few extra steps.
As I sat with my neck in traction, trying to create some slack in the rope, he said through the crack in the door, "Marie, I know this is a bad time, with your dad dying, and I could wait if you'd rather, but I really need to talk to you before you leave. I'm seeing my attorneys next week."
Oh, Lawdy, he's noticed how unsuitable I am and is dumping me while I'm weakened by grief.
Excerpted from "Last Trip Home"
Copyright © 2018 Wanda Maureen Miller.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes 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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