Southern Legitimacy Statement: You can tell I’m from the South since I am obsessed with telling stories about about my parents and grandparents so that my nieces and nephews will at least have an idea of things that shaped the lives of my sisters and me.
Death Comes for Yertle
Steven clapped his hands and stomped on Yertle’s back. He laughed when he heard the crunch of Yertle’s gray shell breaking into three parts. He would have stomped again, but Willa, his grandmother, opened the screen door to see the guineas Mrs. Joiner (our grandmother) gave us.
My sister Linda’s heart broke. She did not want to see her Yertle die, so she placed him under a rock where he could rest in peace.
For Willa, the Twenties didn’t roar. Papa uprooted the family and moved to Fort Worth where they all took jobs—he found work at Swift & Co., and then found Willa and her sister Bessy jobs on the line twisting sausage meat into casings. When Mrs. Joiner had visions of my sisters and me playing tetherball in the back yard, Mother realized it was time to move her into their house and to clean out the house Mrs. Joiner bought next to the railroad tracks. We found letters Bonnie wrote to Mrs. Joiner.
Some times I want to move back to Stephenville, but we hafta staye here and work so we can improve our circomstanses. Papa tells us that, but what circomstanses do we hafta improve? We work all day, come home dead to the wrld only to go back and do it again the next day. I just want to sleep all weekend, but we can’t neglect our faith, else we’d be on the road to heatheness.
A week later she wrote,
That fortuneteller we sawe at the fair said I’d meet a tall dark man from up north and he might just be the one. She sat in her own urine, and Bessy couldn’t staye in the tent. I met a man from Indiana, no maybe it was Iowa. He disappointed my expectations. So I’m just about ready to give up on ever finding someone to love thru this worlde and the nexte.
Then at the end of the month, she predicted her new fortuneteller really did know what she was doing.
This new fortunteler looked at the lines on the palmes of my hands. She said luv was close at hand. Then that next weke their was a man at church with his beutaful daughter, she’s 5 yrs. old. We tooke to each other from the get go. His wife died in the flue epidemic, the poore man is bereft but he has to move forwarde for the good of his daughter Geneve, and I promised too helpe howsomever I can whene he’s at work on the trains.
By the year’s end they were married, and Willa settled into her life with Calvin and his young daughter. She and Calvin had three other girls and a boy, named Cal who was too handsome for his own good, according to Mother. They bought a house on the edge of Arlington Heights, where rich people built huge mansions. The girls married above their status, and Cal married and divorced three times. Their daughter Nita—Steven’s mother—married Richard, a man of local prominence, who too many times to count, went off the deep end when he tried to withdraw from his Thorazine and didn’t tell his psychiatrist.
When Nita married Richard, Mother was one of the seven bridesmaids at the big Methodist Church close to downtown. Linda and I sat with Daddy and Mrs. Joiner while Mother walked down the aisle in her bright shiny pink bridesmaid’s gown. Linda had a cold that night, and Daddy tenderly wiped her nose with the extra Kleenexes he bought just in case.
In no time at all, their daughter SallyLynn was born. For a while they moved to Mississippi to follow the family’s oil drilling interests. When they moved back, Steven was two and Richard bought a mansion in Ridgmar Estates. We moved to the country because Daddy lusted to live close to the land, even though it meant he rode two-and-half hours to Hurst each day to work at Bell Helicopter.
While Daddy wanted to live close to the good earth, Richard turned a spacious upstairs bedroom into his game room. When we visited that one time, Mrs. Joiner drove her Dr. Pepper station wagon past the house at the bend in the road. We drove back and knocked on the door, prepared for someone to direct us to another house since we didn’t know exactly where we were supposed to go.
My sisters and I settled into the plush gold carpet that matched the playing surface of the pool table carpet and prepared ourselves to place our hands on our cheeks for three hours, Willa told Nita, “Kids don’t need to sit down here and be bored by adult talk when they can play upstairs—and Richard’s shiny white pool table is sure to keep them occupied.”
Nita shook her head from one side to the other, like she wanted to say something, but didn’t quite know how to put that something into words. We all trekked up the stairs to see what a real pool table looked like since we’d only seen one on TV, maybe The Andy Griffith Show when Andy and Barney drove from Mayberry to Raleigh on sheriff’s business.
“Now ain’t that something?” Willa asked. “Richard ordered this straight from the dealer.” She rubbed her fingers over the rich gold cloth playing surface, and touched the sleek shiny white Conolite rails.
“Mother, you know Richard is fussy about his possessions.”
“Yes, just like a youngun’ at Christmas is about his new toys.”
They agreed to leave us to our own devices while they went back downstairs to drink Dr. Peppers, which Willa always insisted on serving visitors even at her daughter’s house. We didn’t have a device to be left to since I had left at Mrs. Joiner’s house the latest Arrow Book Club story about a ready-made family—three urchins who floated around the court system waiting to find their forever home. I identified with the oldest girl, except she was lanky and awkward while I was short and almost pudgy. The youngest one was named Wendy, just like my sister. She had curly hair, so she could get away with almost anything.
SallyLynn shut the door as soon as the adults got to the bottom of the stairs. She and Steven grasped the railings on each side, and commanded as they hopped up and down in the middle of the table, “Come on up. You’ll have fun.”
They continued to chant while my sisters and I huddled on the floor. Wendy broke the huddle and bounced onto the gold cloth surface as they taunted us and chanted, “Scaredy-cats.” I told Wendy to get down, and still she jumped higher than Steven or SallyLynn.
“You’re going to get us all in trouble,” I warned.
The door cracked on its hinges, and Richard scuttled into the room like a crab on the ocean floor as he danced his thorazine shuffle. “You kiddoes get down. You know better than to do this!” He shouted like Daddy sometimes did when he thought since I was the oldest, I performed the role of the designated leader who should make my three sisters stay out of trouble. But there was no telling what Wendy might do.
A triangle-shaped tear in the gold felt caught my attention at the same time Richard ranted about how much he cherished the long slate playing surface that spanned the length of the table. “Now I will have to return this to the department store for them to repair a perfectly good slate table. All because you failed to realize its value.”
He mumbled disheveled words that sounded like he picked them out randomly from an advertisement: Levelite bed. Warranted five years, against warp. Lasting satisfaction. Against sag.
Later, years later, Willa told Mrs. Joiner, “Would you believe that slate top was made from asbestos. He hired someone to remove that table from his mansion on the hill. Remember that song by Hank Williams, Virtie?” I don’t know what Mrs. Joiner said, but Willa pronounced one last judgment that to her summed up the truth as she knew it. For me, it sounded like the end of one of the letters she sent to Mrs. Joiner. “That’s what happens when things are more important to you than people.”