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|Publisher:||Maiden Lane Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.50(d)|
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Prologue It was up to Vida to save her boy. With Nate in her arms, she fled through the back door and toward the darkened field behind the house. If she could get Nate to the bayou beyond, into the dark stand of cypress, he would be safe. The two white men must have heard the back screen slap shut, because the lights of their truck were now cutting across the field. She turned. It roared toward her, plowing through rows of cotton, the bumper mowing down plants half as tall as men. They were almost upon her. There was no way she could make it to the bayou. Vida dropped down between two rows, cradling Nate beneath her. The truck braked and she heard a door open. She peeked above the row. They stood only a few yards away, listening to the night, the headlights throwing their shadows long across the field. Nate whimpered and one stumbled off in the direction of the sound. The old man lurched after him. “Don’t!” he shouted. “You don’t want to kill nobody, son. Specially not no little baby. Specially not yore. . .” “Shut your goddamned mouth! He ain’t my nothing,” the other one slurred. “That boy lives, I lose it all!” The old man called out in a panic, “Gal! Stay down. You hear me? Don’t raise up.” He reached out and tugged at the barrel of the gun. Vida leaped up and started off again. Moments later came the first blast, followed quickly by the second. With blinding force, the searing spray of buckshot sent Vida and her child tumbling into darkness. As the explosions echoed throughout the quarter, the lanterns in the shanties dimmed as quickly as they had come on. 1947 Chapter One A MAN WHO TAKES CARE OF HIS OWN Hazel was busy arranging a display of Tangee beauty products at the Rexall where she had been working in Tupelo when a tall handsome man right off the bus, fresh from the Navy and still wearing his summer whites, strode confidently into the drugstore. His eyes were two dark stars. He grinned at her and tilted his head in a way that set the butterflies in her stomach to fluttering. “Is the druggist in? I need to get me a prescription filled for a root beer float.” He spoke in a voice like a country love song, tender and true. At first Hazel couldn’t answer, she could only stare wide-mouthed at him as if she were waiting for the second verse. “Now, you wouldn’t happen to know the formula for one, would you?” Blushing, she could only stammer, “I sure do. . .can. . .will.” By the time she got behind the fountain, she had calmed herself enough to joke, “I won’t even ask to see your doctor’s note.” That made him laugh. It was a good laugh, gentle, seemingly incapable of meanness. Setting the glass before him, she warned with a wink, “Don’t eat it too fast or you’ll freeze your goozle.” He said, “I’m sure not in any hurry now.” It was his eyes that really got her attention. Like dark mirrors of polished iron, they were beautiful to look at, but they wouldn’t let Hazel in. His eyes seemed to push back on her, which made her want to come all the closer. She told him, “I bet you could stare a buzzard out of a tree.” He blushed and said, “You got the best posture of any girl I’ve ever met.” Hazel could tell he wanted to say more, but he didn’t need to. In his mirrored eyes she saw herself as pretty, as pretty as she’d felt the day that traveling photographer had snapped her picture. Hazel had been twelve years old when the slick-haired, -sugar- talking man arrived one hot summer afternoon with the mysterious black box he swore would show her to be as pretty as anybody in the movies. Up until then, she had never seen a photograph of herself. While he set up his camera and posed each one of her brothers and sisters, she flirted with him, tossing back her hair and licking her lips the way she had seen Jean Harlow do. Standing out in the yard as the man took her picture, she felt her skin burn at the thought of escaping the Tombigbee Hills. Her mother never had any patience for this full-of-feelings girl. Each time Hazel asked if the pictures had arrived, she was warned about getting her hopes up. “Hope does the plowing in Misery’s field,” her mother said. But the delicious anticipation of things hoped for had to be the best sensation Hazel knew of. She didn’t know how she could live without thinking something good was about to happen, not in the sweet by-and-by but tomorrow, if not today. When the photographs finally arrived two months later, her hands trembled as she opened the envelope. The first was of her momma and daddy sitting stiffly next to each other, the way strangers share a bench at the dentist’s office. The next was of her daddy with his arm around his mule’s neck. How much more at ease he appeared posing with a plow mule! Finally she came to the family portrait, twelve of them in front of the paintless barn. On one end was her daddy in his white starched shirt and overalls, and on the other end was her momma, tired and worn, holding baby Jewel. Bunched between them was the brood of wooden-faced children, not a size missing between knee-high and full grown, with two spaces left empty for the boys still off to war in the Pacific. Something wasn’t right! Hazel touched her finger to each face in the picture. She could identify her brothers and sisters, yet her own face was missing. Had the camera skipped over her? “No!” she gasped. That photographer had played an awful trick on Hazel! In her place he had put a half-starved orphan, neglected and bound to die soon. The poor little girl was stoop-shouldered and had hair the texture of broom straw. A dingy, hand-me-down dress swallowed the rail-thin body. The face was gaunt and hollow-eyed. She had the haggard look of a woman of fifty, not of a girl of twelve. Hazel’s shock gave way to tears. It was no trick. She should have known. Her older sisters had told her often enough. Hazel Ishee was as homely as a wart-headed chicken. No fancy man with a magic black box or a head full of hope was going to change that fact of life. Baby Ishee noticed how her daughter moped, and tried to comfort her. “You’re pretty enough.” Hazel was doubtful. “Enough for what?” “Enough for any man from these parts.” “Were you ever pretty, Momma?” Hazel asked, not meaning to offend, and biting her lip when she noticed the quick tensing of her mother’s face. For the first time, Hazel beheld her mother clearly instead of through the clouded lens of a child’s familiarity. The hump that rose from her mother’s back. The tiny foot that had not grown since her mother was a child and had turned inward, causing the hobble Hazel had accepted as being as natural as hair color. Before this, Hazel hadn’t thought of her mother in terms of “pretty” or “not pretty.” Now the hump appeared freakish and the crippled foot grotesque. She became aware of other things, too. Her mother’s nickname, Baby, had not been given to her out of affection or devotion, but because of a deformed foot, like one would call a person Stump or Gimp. Hazel was suddenly ashamed for her mother. As if reading her daughter’s thoughts, Baby scowled at herself in the mirror. Then she wiped a trickle of snuff from her chin with the corner of her apron. “Pretty don’t mean much. Men are like hawgs,” she said. “Ever seen an ol’ hawg wearing spectacles?” “No ma’am,” Hazel answered, running her toe along a crack in the floor. “Course not.” Her mother spit into the Calumet can she always carried. “Old hawg don’t care what he gobbling up. Pretty ain’t worth doodly squat to no hawg.” With that, Baby Ishee turned and left the room, her little foot sweeping the floor as she walked. Hazel told herself that her mother had been right. She was a fool to hope. She tried resigning herself to her ugliness, taking to her fate like a Christian martyr. As her mother had done, she would become the wife of some man who didn’t care how she looked and who was more flattered at having his picture taken with a mule than with her. She would have a brood of children, each year pushing the last baby out of her lap to make room for the next. Her older sister, the pretty one, had little patience for Hazel’s sulking. “What’s the matter with you?” Onareen asked as she poured a bucket of water into the horse trough. “I’m ugly!” Hazel snapped. “Ain’t you noticed?” Her sister’s face softened to pity. “You know, Hazel, having beauty to lose is much worse a burden than never having it to begin with. God was looking out for you by making you plain.” Hazel’s mouth dropped. “You saying He did it on purpose? You saying me being homely is God’s will?” “That’s right, Hazel. Take it as a blessing.” Hazel pushed Onareen into the horse trough. Then and there Hazel decided to come down whole hog on the side of hope. She was going to be pretty if it killed her. By thirteen, she was well on her way to becoming a self-made expert on beauty. She began by relentlessly working to change her appearance. At the risk of getting a whipping, she snatched eggs from under laying hens and concocted a hair remedy of fresh yolks and mineral oil. After everyone had gone to bed, she boiled a flour sack and wrapped it around her treated hair. In a few weeks, the texture softened. For her arms, which were as spotted as turkey eggs, she stole pennies from the collection plate and sent away for jars of freckle cream advertised in the almanac. The toughest challenge was her stooped shoulders. The effects of dragging a cotton sack from the time she was six, and years of hunching so as not to tower over the boys at school, could not be fixed with cosmetics. After much deliberation, Hazel hit upon the solution. Salvaging a discarded mule harness from the barn, she constructed a halter to wear. Though the straps bit into her skin, it forced her shoulders back. For hours she practiced walking like Jean Harlow, one foot directly in front of the other. It took her a few years, but Hazel’s looks began to take a slow turn for the better. Her hair turned a lustrous auburn, her eyes blued brighter than robins’ eggs, and she had grown lovely, round breasts, finer even than Onareen’s. Still she wasn’t satisfied. Hazel decided she needed cosmetic assistance. Knowing of only one person who used makeup, she cornered the undertaker at church and begged a supply of lipstick, rouge, and powder. After a week of clandestine practice, the day came when she was ready to surprise her family with the new, made-up Hazel. The reaction was swift. Her brothers called her Little Miss Sow’s Ear. Her sisters called her worse. Her father made her go wash her face in the horse trough. She might have given up out of pure humiliation if not for the dark, brooding look she caught on her mother’s face. That’s when Hazel knew she was onto something good. It wasn’t long before Hazel discovered there were other types of men in the world besides farmers and sons of farmers. There were men with routes—men who drove automobiles from farm to farm, never getting their hands dirty on any of them, who looked you directly in the eyes and weren’t afraid to laugh at nothing at all. These were men who talked for the same reason other people sang, for the pure, simple sound of it. They looked at her with smiling eyes and told her she belonged in California. Or Jackson, maybe. Hazel thought nothing of skipping school to make day trips into Tupelo with the Watkins Flavoring man and into Corinth with the Standard Coffee man and into Iuka with the man who had the rolling store. Hazel would catch a ride from any man with a route who was going her way. They would drop her off and she would spend the day at the soda fountain counter studying the fashions and poses of those picture-perfect women in the movie magazines. Poring over the color photographs, enveloped by the smells emanating from the cosmetics displays, she felt more at home than she ever did on the farm. She spent so much time at the Rexall in Tupelo, the druggist took a shine to her and offered her a job. She right away took her own room in town, the first she didn’t have to share with five siblings. From all the romance stories she had been reading in the movie magazines, Hazel gathered that finding the right man and living off true love was the key to everlasting happiness. Yet she was not foolish enough to believe that just any man would do. You needed someone special, a man you could lay your best hopes on, one who would love you enough to see you got everything you wanted, even before you knew you wanted it yourself. If you had to ask, it didn’t count. What worried Hazel the most was the impermanence of good feelings in general. From what she could tell, they tended to melt away as surely as ice cream in the bottom of a Dixie cup. Was love going to be the same way? The magazines didn’t tell her that. When she asked her mother, Baby said, “Feelings come and go like morning dew on a pasture. They ain’t anything to build a future on.” Hazel frowned, yet her mother went on. “Hazelene, there ain’t but two kind of men in the world. Them that take care of their own, and them that don’t. Now, the first kind of man will stay on out of duty. The other?” Her mother flicked her wrist as if she were shooing a noisome insect. “Why, as soon as there’s a dry spell, the other kind has jumped the fence and is looking for fresh dew. If you know what I mean.” Hazel hadn’t been partial to the dewy part, but she did like the piece about a man taking care of his own. That sure sounded right enough. Hazel took her mother’s advice to heart, never forgetting her words, using them to measure all comers. And there was a host of them. Men dropped by the drugstore all the time, flirting and asking her out. Their hungry eyes and grinning, greedy mouths frightened her, and she remembered what her mother had said. Hazel could tell that all they had an appetite for was the dewy part. But the minute Floyd walked into the store, she began hoping he was the one she’d been waiting for. She wondered, is this how true love shows itself? Can a complete stranger walk into your life on a fine Indian summer afternoon while you are stacking tubes of lipstick, and then, just like that—in the twinkle of a mirrored eye and the flash of a toothy smile—all your hoping suddenly pays off, and life is never the same? Is that the way it’s supposed to work? Can something that happens so quickly be counted on to last a lifetime?