"I'm going to kill you." This was what I told my mother when I was five. She had insisted I finish eating my green beans and carrots, or no peach cobbler for dessert.
You'll be a motherless child," she said, and plunked a freshly-washed dish into the drain. Her back was turned, and I couldn't tell if she was smiling. She wore an orange house dress, one of her favorites. Its bodice made her breasts look pointed and formidable, not like the two soft cushions I liked to snuggle against at night. "You won't have me around to do everything for you."
"I can handle that." I tilted my chin up so that it was even with the edge of the table.
She handed me a sponge and nodded to a puddle of milk I'd spilled on the table. "Then start practicing." She picked up the other dishes from the table and began to sing "What A Friend We Have in Jesus," giving it a bluesy spin to change the mood. I mopped up the milk and finished eating my vegetables. It was her voice. Everybody surrendered to Mama's voice, soft and hurt-sounding. She sang as if every wound in the world was in her heart, but like she was healing the pain at the same time, soothing it with her voice.
When she saw me eating my carrots, she launched into an old jubilee song, "I Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now," one she'd heard at a hand-clapping gospel festival at one of the black churches. For Mama, music could be a powerful celebration. She'd even named me Jubilee.
That was the first time I threatened my mother, only to surrender to her. The second was in the early spring of 1963. I came home early from band practice in the seventh grade and overheard Mama talking on the princess phone in her bedroom. At first I thought it was Daddy she was talking to, since she called him "sugar muffin." But I'd never heard her call him that. It was always "sweetie pie" for Daddy.
"It doesn't matter what folks say, sugar muffin," she was saying. "I love you. But it doesn't matter what you say, either. I love Harry and my girls, too. We both have too much to lose."
Her voice sounded different than it did when she talked to Daddy: excited but gentle, the way she'd whisper during the national anthem before a big baseball game -- hushed, reverent, something on the verge. She loved sports, especially the Washington Senators.
Daddy used to say she liked the Senators because she liked politicians in general. She'd fallen in love with Daddy when he was a leader in the Biloxi, Mississippi Shriners in 1949. I have a photograph of the inaugural speech: Daddy jabbing his finger in the air, his broad shoulders thrown back so that he looks taller than his five and a half feet. He could be so eloquent, Mama said, and just look at that thick hair, she'd tell us, tapping at the glass in the picture frame. It was black and wavy, combed straight back from his forehead.
Standing on the stage behind him, Mama looks like Rita Hayworth, in a slinky dress that hugs her waist and pushes up her bosom. She's only sixteen, but she's wearing her red hair in a French twist, with a pout on her lips, like she doesn't appreciate playing second fiddle, even to the new head of the Shriners, a man as handsome as Daddy. The Shriners had asked her to sing, and that was the night she and Daddy met. Mama was never a white-gloved Southern lady, Daddy said. Hell no, when she sang, she smoked.
So second fiddle wasn't a role that came easily to Mama. When she was young, her smoky blues voice was famous around town. In high school, she sang every week-end at the Green Lizard Lounge in a town called Libertyburg near Biloxi. That was her regular gig -- she drew a big crowd there -- but she'd also performed as far away as the French Quarter in New Orleans once, sneaking away on a bus so my grandparents wouldn't know. When the Biloxi Shriners asked her to sing at their campaign reception, she sang her first song, a torchy version of "My Sweetie Went Away." I'm like a little lost sheep, I can't sleep, and I keep trying to forget. . . Daddy said every man in the place went crazy, including him. She and Daddy never took their eyes off each other. Or so Daddy's legend has it. Mama would always smile like the Cheshire cat while she listened.
She must have sung the song differently, years later, to my sister Charlene and me at bedtime. It was soothing and gentle then, not sexy and hurt, and it would put us to sleep in a minute. We would snuggle under the covers on our twin beds, the quilts pulled up to our chins against the cool of the oscillating fan, stirring the air as if a fairy-tale wizard were there, breathing wishes into our dreams while Mama sang.
Charlene and I were Mama's only audience as she sang us to sleep with funnier old songs like Bessie Smith's "Kitchen Man", about how wild she was about the way her 'kitchen man' warmed her chops, how she couldn't possibly do without him. . . I didn't understand the sexy stuff then, or the way she'd make eyes at Daddy when he'd appear in our bedroom door, listening to her.
"Sing the one about the pork chops, Mommy," I would chant, long after Charlene had caught on. Charlene would look at me, her upper lip curled in the disgust only an older sister can give. But catching my eye, Mama would sing as if it were just another funny song, then kiss us good-night. Her musky perfume would trail on the air after she closed the door. "Ambush," the label on the bottle said.
When I was thirteen and overheard her on the phone, I caught on to something a lot bigger than the sex in Mama's old songs. The next day, when Mama and I were in the kitchen washing dishes, I worked up my nerve. "Who're you calling sugar muffin on the phone, Mama?" I asked.
She scrubbed at a dish, holding it to the light as if some creamed corn were stuck there, but I could see it was perfectly clean. Then she slid it onto the counter and turned to me, frowning so that her blue eyes looked more intense than usual. "Sugar muffin? When did you hear that?"
"Yesterday. Band practice ended early for the trumpets, and I heard you on the phone."
"Why did you end early?" she asked. "They shouldn't be giving the trumpets all this preferential treatment. You need your practice."
"Practice? Don't you hear me every day? You've always said a girl can do anything, even play trumpet, if she works hard." When I first heard Miles Davis play "Ole Devil Moon," I'd asked Mama what that purple sound was. It carried me away, like a velvet magic carpet, and Mama saw it in my face. For my tenth birthday, she bought me a trumpet in New Orleans. At first, the noise was a zoo of squawking creatures, and I'd been banished to the garage for practice, but now the sound was smooth, sometimes even purple. It made me feel holy, like god was blowing his breath through me, even as I stood in the garage, trumpet pointed to the spider webs in the ceiling.
"You're being sassy, Jubilee," she said, an edge in her voice. Sometimes, she liked it when I was sassy, but not then. The checked curtains above the kitchen sink were parted, and the late light slanted across Mama's face, making the creases around her mouth look deeper.
"All I did was ask a question. I just wondered who was on the phone yesterday."
"Sugar muffin," she said it like she was thinking it over. "You're sure you heard me say that?" Mama wasn't a bad actress, and for a second I wondered. But then I caught the flicker of guilt and fear in her eyes, and I felt a terrible sorrow.
"Maybe I didn't hear right," I shrugged. I stood on tiptoe to slide the dry dish into the cabinet, so I wouldn't have to look at her. Fear wasn't something I was used to seeing on Mama's face, and it made me feel like I didn't even know my own mother.
She picked up another wet dish. "You and Harry," she said, meaning Daddy. "You two ask the funniest things. Did you hear Daddy and me talking last night?" She slid me a look and I shook my head, wondering what I'd missed. "Well, I tell you what. There's nobody I love more than your Daddy. Or you and Charlene." She put the dishtowel down and hugged me. I could feel her heart thumping through her apron.
I felt awful. But as long as she loved Daddy, that was all that mattered.
But on an April morning a month later, somebody -- maybe Mama's "sugar muffin" -- put a knife through her heart while she warmed up her pick-up truck. She was getting the motor ready to drive me to school.
That same spring morning, the police reported that Levi Litvak, our TV weatherman, was found burned to a crisp in the wreckage of his blue Thunderbird convertible on a swampy back road near Picayune. The car exploded into flames when it hit a giant cypress tree, and they had to pry the smashed engine away from the trunk. He'd hit the trunk so hard that his false teeth were knocked out. It was hard to imagine that his even, white television smile had come from dentures, but later it started to make sense, like nothing about him had been what it seemed.
Daddy and I didn't know anything about Levi Litvak when we found Mama, lying there in the truck, her face chalky, her breath rattling in her throat, a pulse Daddy's frantic fingers couldn't find.
It was a clear, crystal morning. Dew spotted the begonia Daddy had planted in the flower box outside my bedroom window, its blooms red. I had been lying awake in bed, my arms folded behind my head, thinking about a choral group from the Mobile blind school that had sung at our assembly the day before.
They were just kids, like us. We had filed in and slouched in our seats, ready to be bored. When the choir director said the cue, the blind kids began to sing, a sudden rhythm of open mouths: Walk right in, sit right down, Daddy let your mind roll on. . .
Shocked into silence, we'd stared: it was their eyes, the circled sockets, hollow and dark, too young for comfort. Everybody's talking 'bout a new way of walking . . .
Broom-makers, whispered a boy named Grady Pickens, but no one sneered.
We applauded wildly when they finished, as they sank their hands into their laps and smiled at the noise we made. We surged to our feet like a heaving beast: beating our hands madly, cheering our luck, pounding our guilt through our palms.
Call it a premonition, but as those blind kids nodded and smiled into their darkness, I felt as if I'd lived all my life on the light side of the moon, and never even known a dark side existed until that day. Early that morning, I was already feeling strange, like I knew that something even more foreign would happen, soon, to put me on the moon's dark side for a long time to come.
The bus always came early for Charlene, to take her to the high school, and that left me plenty of time in the bathroom. On the bus to Tallulah Junior High, two boys had been pinching my rear every time I'd get off, and when Mama complained to the principal, he laughed.
"Just boys bein' boys, that's all," he told her. "It's nothing serious."
"I'd like to pinch his fat butt with a pair of pliers," she stormed to Daddy, outraged. "Or someplace else."
"Now, don't get carried away." Daddy flinched.
Mama ignored him, into her own fantasy. "'Just girls bein' girls, that's all,'" she imitated the principal's voice, her fingers working a set of imaginary pliers. "Honest to goodness, I feel like taking Jubilee out of that school." She stopped when she saw me standing in the door. But when she realized that the only other option was the Catholic parochial school, with its nuns and rulers and regulations, she decided she'd personally drive me to Tallulah's front doors every morning. "No hooligan's going to touch either one of my daughters," she told me. I was embarrassed, but I loved her for it.
That morning, I was putting on Charlene's neon green eyeshadow when Daddy came knocking at the door.
"Jubilee, hurry up. Your mama's warming up the truck, and you haven't even had breakfast yet. You're going to make her late to her lesson."
The choke had started sticking. It was an old truck, brand-new back in 1948, when grandpa had bought it to haul hay on the farm. Now, Mama kept it in great shape, and its red hood gleamed in the sun. From underneath the hood came a high-pitched whine that sounded like a desperate animal, the motor hysterical in the driveway while Mama tipped the toe of her high heel against the gas pedal. But she knew how to handle it, and after frantic complaining, the motor would suddenly yield and make a sound like awright awright awright. Mama had glued a little plastic hula girl to the dashboard, and that's when she would come to life, shaking ever so slightly with the vibrations beneath the hood.
Mama had been letting the engine run in the morning before she drove me to school. She always dropped me off at Tallulah Junior High before she went to give singing lessons in people's homes, to old ladies who wanted to perform better solos in the church choir, and to girls who took voice lessons along with their tap, baton, and ballet, so they could compete for Miss Mississippi someday.
"Miss Mississippi!" Mama had sneered, after Mississippi had two Miss Americas, one right after the other. For years, everybody made a big fuss about it; it was the only good thing about the state in the national news. No one could believe the fortune that had smiled on Mississippi when Mary Ann Mobley crowned Linda Lee Mead in 1960. Fireworks spluttered and exploded in parks all over the state, and every year, flyers plastered telephone poles, announcing new pageants of all kinds. "Little Miss Biloxi" was for toddlers younger than three. All the girls started using their middle names. Carol Johnson was Carol Fay Johnson and Kathy Holliday became Kathy Sue Holliday, just like all the Southern competitors in the pageant every year. Girls signed up for every kind of lesson under the sun, not to mention charm school at the Y.
But Mama wasn't impressed. "You might as well use a cookie cutter on those girls."
Daddy tried to agree, chiming in about how it wasn't that the girls were outstanding in Mississippi. The male judges, he said, just knew how to pick them. That made Mama furious.
"Yeah, you men are the ones who invented the cookie cutter! Playboy Magazine!" Then, with Daddy bewildered, she raced off in her truck, with the license plates that said "Mississippi: Home of Two Miss Americas!" For years, prisoners at Parchman State Penitentiary up in the Delta stamped them out for ten cents an hour.
But the two Miss Americas had given Mama a lot of new business in her singing lessons. Statues of Mary Ann Mobley and Linda Lee Mead went up in the rotunda at the State Capital in Jackson, alongside Senator Theodore Bilbo, who wanted to send black people to Africa. Every mother thought her daughter had a chance of winning the national tiara and being put on permanent display in the Capital.
On the days when Mama didn't have lessons to give, she'd work on one of the solid oak bookcases she made to sell in the Sunday want ads. It gave the family some extra cash, so that Mama could stop sewing and buy our clothes instead. She was a lousy seamstress, and I dreaded wearing dresses with crooked seams and loops of loose thread. Charlene and I would cover our ears against the awful click-clacking and cursing whenever she sat at the sewing machine, but it was fun to watch her make bookcases. In the garage, I'd watch her sand the wood and rub lemon oil into it, using strokes so sensual she might've been massaging the wood. Then she'd inspect it as carefully as she would her fingernails after a manicure, turning it and buffing it with a chamois cloth. It was the bookcases that started the whole mess.
When school was starting in the fall, the television weather forecaster, a handsome man named Levi Litvak, had called the house about her bookcase ads. I answered the phone that evening. "This is Levi Litvak," he said, in that deep voice I heard every night on TV. He sounded foreign, no trace of a Southern accent. "From WLOX," he added, as if I didn't already know. "I'm calling about a bookcase."
My heart started thumping. No one else was home, so I made the appointment for him to come. Levi Litvak! People all over town talked about him, not so much for his weather forecasts, though he'd made an instant name for himself by predicting the first white Christmas for Biloxi, right after he'd been hired. It drizzled instead, and everybody made jokes about him, even my Sunday school teacher.
At first I thought it was all in good fun, but it wasn't long before the name "Levi Litvak" turned people ugly. They said he was a Communist sympathizer or an anti-Christian Jew, part of a Soviet plot to take over the South by mingling the races. The Klan put out a special death list just for whites, with Levi Litvak third, right under a Catholic priest in Mobile and some college kid who'd dated a black woman in Pensacola. Mama adored watching him predict the weather. A brave man, she said.
Before Levi Litvak came over, Charlene and I teased our hair into a style called a "bird's nest" and bobby-pinned little velvet bows in front where the middle of the nest was supposed to be. We stared at him when he came, from the cuff in his narrow creased pants to the wave in his pompadour.
Levi Litvak bought one of the biggest bookcases Mama had, then stayed to watch the football game with her, sitting in one of the dining chairs that Mama used to round out the living room furniture. His back was straight, the way he sat on TV. In the kitchen, Daddy was canning tomatoes from the garden, clinking cans and cursing the steam.
He winked at me when I asked for his autograph, even though Charlene glared, like I was being too forward. That was what she said later, but I tried not to care.
"Your momma's tee-rific," he grinned at me. "A beautiful lady who can make bookcases and knows the football plays!" Then he handed me his signature, with a little swirly line beneath the letters "tv" in his last name."It's an unusual name, Litvak. What kind is it?" Mama asked. His face colored. He crossed one ankle over the other knee and twitched his foot. Penny loafers with yellow socks. "My dad's from Lithuania," he told her, with a tight smile that seemed apologetic.
"Lithuania. It sounds like a place from a fairy tale," Mama whispered, and Levi's mouth relaxed, showing a row of even white teeth. "I'll write a song about that place."
"You're the singer!" Recognition flashed in his eyes and he snapped his slender fingers. "I've heard about you. Bernice. . ."
"Tattershall." She glanced down at her fingernails and looked back up at him under her lowered lashes. "At least, that's who I was before I got married." The look on her face said it all. "I'll sing you a song sometime, Mr. Litvak."
"Call me Levi," he said, smiling with those television teeth.
Then one of the Redskins made a touchdown, and they went back to watching the game. But something had eased between them. Levi Litvak's foot had stopped twitching so much.
During half-time, Mama excused herself. When she came back, her lipstick was brighter and I could tell she'd given herself a new squirt of her Ambush perfume. She sat on the sofa and smoothed her hand over the cushion seam that had just begun to split. You could see the foam rubber inside, and she pushed it back with her finger.
"When's that sometime?" Levi asked after the game ended. "I'd like to hear you sing."
While Mama sang, Levi played the piano, his fingers rippling out chords that seemed to dance with Mama's voice. They were watching each other, even when Daddy came in and applauded after they finished. Mama introduced Levi to Daddy, and though their hands gripped and both of them smiled, their eyes watched each other carefully. Daddy's blue eyes glinted a little, like he was trying to see past the sheepish look in the brown of Levi Litvak's eyes.
But Mama didn't seem to see. She turned to Levi Litvak, her face glowing. "You're some pianist. Beautiful piano hands. You sound sweet as a sugar muffin."
"You're the one who's sweet," said Daddy, and kissed her, right in front of Levi Litvak.
Months later, I thought it was all my fault. If only I hadn't answered the phone when Levi Litvak called about Mama's bookcase.
The Patron Saint of Red Chevys 5 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
Set in the deep south at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Patron Saint of Red Chevies is a wonderful read, and works on so many levels. It is first and foremost the story of Jubilee, a 13 year old girl from Biloxi whose mother is violently murdered in the first chapter. Together with her sister Charlene, Jubilee tries to find her mother's killer and both girls come across many characters along the way and have many experiences trying to reconcile their mother's death while the killer is still at large. All the injustices of the South and of society in general are brought to the forefront and anyone who grew up in the turbulent 60's will recognize all the unsavory aspects of our society at that time. Jubilee is young, however, and has a strength and fortitude that her mother instilled in her that helps her deal with all that happens to her. Escellent read!
More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I've read in a while. This is a coming of age/family drama that demonstrates how people deal with the loss of a loved one.
More than 1 year ago
This is a marvelous second novel, by the author of Worry Beads (1991). Set in Biloxi, Mississipi, during the early 1960s, when the Beatles were building their American audience and Elvis was beginning to step aside, Kay Sloan's Patron Saint is a novel that follows the coming of age of the novel's young protagonist and narrator, Jubilee Starling. Out of the horrific circumstances of her mother's murder, Jubilee negotiates a crew of characters, including her family, who seem to have walked right out of the red dust and swamps of the delta. Along the way she learns about the Klan, young love, anti-semitism, and madness, and catches the powerful fever of moving out and away from there that marks so much of great American literature. Yet for all that she leaves behind, she takes with her that beat up old red chevy and the legacy of the old south that hangs on like a recurrent dream. When she winds up on the West coast, at college, she becomes something of the 'real thing,' for suburban California wannabees who have heard about Mississipi blues but never lived it like Jubilee has. This is a novel drenched in music, with a fresh take on the rock and roll that once made the period seem new, at every turn a surprise that could change everything-prejudice, bigotry, envy and despair. And that's what makes this novel so fun and great, the imagination that insists, that well, it could be different - everything.