Southern Legitimacy Statement: Aside from spending my growing up years in Mississippi, with the crooked letter crooked letter eye crooked letter crooked letter humpback humpback eye spelling taught me in first grade, I’ve been living in South Carolina my whole adult life. At 62, my psychiatrist says I’m the most “self-aware” person he’s met in years, I tell him it’s because I’m Southern. He’s from New Mexico and they must not know much about themselves out there in the West.
Local Girl Finds Glory
I knew I’d best get in the mail before I got dressed for Mama’s funeral. Sand burrs and beggar lice spank my Converse hightops as I wade through knee-high ditch weeds to get to Mama’s mailbox. They’re clinging to my legs like my lonely cousin Richie used to do when I had to go home. I stop walking and pick the razor-sharp sons of bitches out of my jeans. Damn things. Slicing my legs every time I take a step.
No doubt I’m back in the Great Dismal. The ticks swarming in front of my face, the sweat stream sliding down between my ass cheeks and puddling in my panties, the damn cicadas what sound like a thousand Richard Petty’s revving up in the pit. I grab for Mama’s mail and wade back to her house.
Only it’s not her house anymore. It’s mine.
Back inside, I throw the mail in the trash and get myself cleaned up for the funeral. My second cousin Theta wanders in just as I’m zipping up the old Sunday Go To Meeting dress I find in the spare bedroom closet. She’s the only family I got left here at the Crossroads. She tells me she will be a party of one today, the boys are at the Fish Camp with their daddy. The graveside service will be noticeably lacking participants. I didn’t put Mama’s passing notice in the paper, didn’t figure anyone would come to the service. Mama’s been pretty much of a loner for the last twenty years.
I didn’t have any money for flowers, I spent everything Mama had on her coffin. A real nice pine box with satin lining and an embroidered pillow.
Theta drives us to the graveyard. She’s discussing her boys and their shiftless father. I don’t say much and I nod my head when seems like she needs an answer. The service takes less than ten minutes. It’s just the two of us and the funeral parlor man. As we walk away from the gravesite, I can hear the crane picking up the coffin and putting it into the hole in the ground. But I don’t look back. It’s not something I want to see and remember.
I thank Theta for the ride and for attending the service as she pulls into Mama’s front yard. As I’m closing the car door, she tells me twenty years is a long time between visits.
I tell her she forgot something. Fifteen years ago, the Judge in Florida let me come home for Daddy’s funeral. Mama sent him the death certificate and asked for me to be let off house arrest to come home and bury him with her.
Oh, yeah, is all she says. Well, don’t be a stranger.
I laugh. She smiles. And we both know I ain’t coming back. She waves to me as she drives off toward town.
In Mama’s kitchen, I grab a Camel and lean down over her gas stove to light it. I forgot to ask Theta to stop so I could grab some matches or a lighter. Something starts to stink up the kitchen and I realize I set my hair on fire again. I remind myself to wear one of Daddy’s hats next time I light up.
I look around the house, wondering what to do with all Mama’s stuff. I can’t think in a dress, so I change back into my regular clothes, grab the nacho Doritos off the table and the six-pack from out of the fridge. I settle down on the couch with the kitchen trash can by my side. I’m pondering renting the house out to some of Mr. Cuthrell’s Mexicans. I don’t want to leave them anything of value. Not that I have a thing in this world against Mexicans, mind you, my third husband was from Catula, Texas. I just don’t believe in trusting folks to care for what is valuable to me.
I start in sorting out one of the piles of books and papers on the coffee table. First thing I find under the first book is a lighter. Better late than never, I tell myself. As I toss the 1975 Taos, New Mexico phone book toward the trash can; newspaper clippings and pieces of paper fall from between the pages. I catch a couple before they hit the floor. Here’s the clipping:
LOCAL GIRL FINDS GLORY IN BAKING
Velma P. Holliman is not a girl who gives up easily. Like becoming a state-champion apple pie maker. Velma, who attends Lismon High School in White Post, won the 32nd annual apple pie baking contest, held yesterday morning at Franklin D. Potsdam High School.
When she was only 13 years old, Velma entered the contest and that year was runner up from Arkansas. That was five years ago.
That’s where “not giving up” comes in. Velma was not content to be a runner-up. She perfected her apple pie and yesterday was declared the over-all winner, in the contest, which is held each year in conjunction with the Sparlton County Apple Blossom Festival. Velma’s home economics teacher, Miss Lula Kaye Boyd, was on hand to congratulate the winner. Miss Boyd carried a banner which read “If Velma can’t bake it, no one can.”
Students from the Lismon High Future Homemakers Club presented Velma with a bouquet immediately following the judging.
She is the daughter of Wanda Louise Palmer Holliman, homemaker and Elliot N. Holliman, mechanic. Following high school, Velma plans to attend Lawrence C. Carnady Community College and participate in the Home Economics and Excellence Program. Her sister, Reba, was the Lismon High All-Star forward on last year’s state champion Women Cougar’s Basketball Team.
The past flies smack off the page and hits me right between the eyes. I feel like I’ve been kicked in the forehead. Another piece of paper, this one worse than the first, lands next to it, face up on the floor. For years I’ve been protecting myself from thinking about my sister Velma. Looking up at me from the floor is a page from Velma’s college application. Another clipping:
- Miss Young America Sews, 1965 (National winner over nearly 10,000 applicants. Contest sponsored by National Association of Apparel Salesmen and Synthetic Fibers Marketing Company]
- Southwestern Regional Winner in “Miss Young America Sews”
- Who’s Who Among High School Students
- Outstanding Teenager in America Award
- Outstanding American High School Students Award
- Society of Outstanding American High School Students
- Best Arkansas Apple Pie Baker
- Youth Winner Arkansas State Fair in Home Economics Division [17 blues, 2 reds]
- First place in Northern Arkansas District Federation of Women’s Clubs Sewing and Fashion Contest
And there’s two more pages to that clipping — to the damn list of all her glories. Jesus H. Christ, there must have been a hundred things she was good at. The list makes me feel like shit and I throw the pages into the trash can and light another Camel. I’ve just buried Mama and I’m working on getting over that, now I got to be reminded of all the other tragedy what this world has done to my family. The tragedy about Velma, that is.
I sink down into the broken springs of the couch and slam down a beer. I’m thinking of how hard I have tried for twenty years to not think about Velma and how I’ve done a damn good job of it.
Mama’s cable works, so I flip to an Andy Griffith marathon, thanking myself for not disconnecting anything yet. Gomer is yelling at Barney, Citizen’s arrest, Citizen’s arrest. I’m thinking this is one hell of a day and I wish it was over. But it ain’t. I pop open another one, slide the room temperature beer down my throat without taking a breath. And I start tossing everything in the room into the trash can.
Phone books, Bibles, ten year old Life Magazines… moving around the room, I take curtains off the windows, pictures off the walls, and heave armloads into the almost over-flowing can. Holding onto the sideboard for balance, I get on top of the trash pile and jump up and down, trying to squash it down some. The load hardly budges. I don’t know if it’s cause I don’t weigh enough or what.
I go out to the barn and get the garbage can. The big plastic county-issued one with black wheels. Picking up the handle puts me in close contact with a family of slugs, so I throw it across the yard and hit the side of my Daddy’s rusted out tractor cab. The slugs go flying off everywhichway.
Dragging the can up the back steps, I pick shit up off the floor on the way to the living room and toss it in. After emptying the contents of Mama’s sideboard, I grab another beer and light another Camel. Holding the cigarette and beer in one hand, I pull the rest of the pictures off the wall with the other. I’ve cleared the room before I finish my cigarette. After stubbing it out, I walk toward the back door to see if there’s another can in the barn. Just before I get to the kitchen, I reach down and pick up another newspaper clipping from the floor. Shit. Here’s the worst clipping of all:
Local Family Reunion Turns Tragic
Velma P. Holliman, eighteen year old Lismon High School student, died as the result of a heartbreaking accident at her home yesterday. Velma, known throughout the state for her baking skills, was pronounced dead on arrival at Pittman Memorial Hospital after being struck in the head by a massive tree branch. The branch fell when Reba L. Holliman, the victim’s sister, lost control of a chainsaw she was using to clean up trees felled by last Friday’s storm…
I drop the newspaper clipping, walk out to the barn, and pick up the gasoline can off the ground next to the lawnmower. I start with the back porch, pouring the gasoline in a steady stream up the back steps, through the kitchen, the living room, and out the front door, onto the porch. I place the empty can next to the door.
My backpack is just inside the door. I grab it, my truck keys, the rest of my six-pack, my Camels and the lighter.
I walk onto the porch, reach down and flick my Bic. The gasoline takes flame real quick like. Before I can get to the side of the road where the truck’s parked, the fire spreads to the living room. I get in, and drive off, looking through the rear view mirror at the house. I’m less than a hundred yards down the road when the house explodes.
Mama told me once about how we had some nice folks what still lived in Arkansas. I’d best get on over there to meet them. Reckon it’s time. It’s my daddy’s family what is there. A bunch of cousins twice removed. I get a Christmas card from one of them every year. Her name’s Linda June. She always puts a hand-written note under her imprinted name, asking me to come visit. Says they’d love to meet me.