Southern Legitimacy Statement: My hometown straddles the bleeding northern edge of the South. The Mason-Dixon line runs directly through it; on the map, that line is a rut carved jagged in the earth. Step to one side, you’re in the North. Step to the other, you’re in the South. Directly on it, you’re neither place and both at the same time, caught in the force of two cultures clashing, mixing, swirling. Some people it slows, dulls. Other people get crazy, demented, mean. Almost everyone it captures like a mouse in a sticky trap, tiny feet glued to paper. After a while, most people give in, stand stock-still, wait to die. Some people pull against it, tug at it, but they can’t get momentum to escape. If they overcome it, they spend years trying to lose the shadow that follows them everywhere, dogging them. Many fight it all their lives. Many more succumb, leaving for years, decades, but later returning, settling, tired from the struggle.
It’s the tattered hem of the caul that blankets the South, the one that gets heavier, more inescapable the farther South you go. In the deep South, along the gulf coast, you can hardly breathe for it. You can try, here, to escape that caul, but the loose threads trail north for miles. People from the South wouldn’t recognize it, much. It’s in the way people talk, downhome, with a twang. It’s the way they like their food, fried and salted and drenched in salad dressing. It’s the way the place is swarming with ghosts.
Shopping Day and U.F.O.
I wake to the thump-thump-thump of the off-balance washing machine, followed by the squeak of the basement steps as my mom hurries down to redistribute the laundry. The smell of bacon frying reminds me it’s Saturday—Mom and I get to go grocery shopping today. I monitor the sounds in the house for a while before I leave my room. A Willie Nelson album is playing. Mom is back in the kitchen, opening and closing drawers and cabinets, turning the faucet on and off. The toilet flushes and Harlan clomps from the bathroom into the dining room. Other than that, it’s quiet.
My stomach is cramping and kind of sticking out. My jeans have felt tight the past couple of days. I go to get my loosest jeans, which are in the basket of clean laundry in Mom and Harlan’s bedroom. I open their door cautiously because of the gun. Harlan hangs his .44 in its holster over the back of the door. When I have to open or close the door, I imagine the holster slipping off and onto the floor, causing the gun to go off. Harlan says a .44 will blow a hole the size of a softball clean through a man. The picture I get in my head when he says this is of a flat paper doll man with a circle cut out of his middle, no blood or guts hanging out. I know it wouldn’t really be like that, but it’s all I can think of. I’ve never known anyone with a gun besides Harlan.
After I get dressed I go to the kitchen to get some breakfast so Mom and I can leave for the grocery store soon. I know she’s ready to go, too, because her purse and car keys are already on the table next to the front door. Harlan is at the dining room table, pouring Jim Beam into his mug of coffee. He is wearing a short gold terry cloth robe and cowboy boots. Before Mom married Harlan, I never knew that you could drink whiskey and coffee at the same time or that you could wear a bathrobe and cowboy boots at the same time. Still, I try to act like it’s normal. Harlan tells me how good I look in my new jeans, and how he can see that I’m going to fill out nicely one of these days. I feel both proud and sick to my stomach. I know Mom heard this from the kitchen because her back raises and stiffens like a cat’s as she spoons grease over the eggs she’s frying for Harlan’s breakfast. I don’t know what to say to Harlan other than “um, thanks.”
Now my stomach is cramping really hard. I don’t want to tell Mom because she might not let me go to the grocery store with her if she thinks I’m getting sick. I go back in the bathroom but I don’t have the runs. Instead, there’s a little bit of pink stuff on the toilet paper. When Susan Ford’s mom, who’s a nurse, came to talk to the sixth grade girls about starting our periods, this is one thing she said to look for. I guess I have to tell Mom because I can’t find her supplies anywhere. If she’s all out of them, we can get more at the store.
I go back into the kitchen, where Mom is pulling a plate for Harlan’s eggs and bacon out of the cabinet. I open my mouth to tell her about the pink stuff, but I’m so nervous about maybe having started that my stomach is churning like the washing machine below us and I’m trying not to talk too loud because I don’t want Harlan to hear, so no sound comes out. Mom puts the bacon and eggs on the plate and carries it past me to Harlan in the dining room.
I get out the bread and peanut butter to make peanut butter toast. Mom asks if I want her to fix me some bacon and eggs. I say, “No, that’s okay, Mom, peanut butter toast is fine.” We both know the toast won’t take as long to fix as more bacon and eggs will, but we don’t say it out loud.
I hear Harlan’s boots in the kitchen behind me. “Worst eggs I ever had.” His voice is much lower than it was just a few minutes ago, like it’s coming from inside a big barrel. The toast pops up and the noise makes me jump. I turn my head to see the eggs slip off of Harlan’s plate into the trashcan. I feel adrenalin billow into the openness of my insides like ink from a squid.
“You could have at least given them to the dogs,” Mom bluffs so maybe Harlan won’t know how hurt and scared she is. “What a waste of food.”
“Not good enough for the goddamn dogs.”
Harlan sits back down at the dining room table, lights a cigarette, and rubs his bloodshot eyes, silently racking his brain for a reason to start the marathon fight he so obviously wants to have today. The eggs are a pitiful way to pick a fight and he knows it. Mom sighs, sits down at the table opposite Harlan. Her poker face slides into place and locks into position. They both stare at the table like they are waiting for some signal to begin. As if on cue, the washing machine buzzes.
I can tell by the way the silence has set up, solid as cement, that we’re not going grocery shopping today.
I go back to my room, close the door, and sit on the edge of the bed until the blood seeps through my jeans and onto the bedspread.
When I walk in the door I just about trip on the throw rug. It’s a flimsy little rag rug, the kind that won’t stay put. Why would you lay a rug like that at the front door, anyway? I push it behind the door, out of the way, and holler to let them know I’m here. Roberta’s girl, Margaret, comes rushing at me, all legs. “Looky what I won, Grandma White,” she says. I don’t know why she wants to call me that; I’m not her grandma by blood. She shows me a decanter of whiskey and a case of cosmetics. Inside the case is two plastic trays. One tray has three rows of all different colors of rouge, and the other one has eye paint, greens and blues and browns. This is what they give an 11-year-old in a church raffle. We’ve never been churchgoers, but we’re all Baptist. Except for Roberta. She’s Catholic. I don’t know how Harlan stands it. Gambling and drinking at the church social, Saturday night services so they don’t have to go Sunday, now this. My land.
I say to the girl, “What are you doing with that? It belongs in the trash.”
Her mouth falls open like she can’t believe what she just heard. There’s a string of spittle running between her top and bottom lips. She says, “Mom said I could wear the makeup on special occasions.”
Never in my life, I think to myself. “And Harlan already had some whiskey,” she says. She shakes the bottle so I can hear it’s not full. Last time I was here, right after they got married, it was daddy this, daddy that. Now all of a sudden he’s Harlan again.
I have to sit down on the rocker to catch my breath. “Now you are lying, missy,” I tell her. “Harlan hardly ever drinks.”
Her eyes get real wide and she makes a snorting sound. She runs in the kitchen and puts the whiskey on the dinette, next to the salt-and-pepper shakers. What a place to put it. The cosmetics she takes to the back of the house. I fan myself with a piece of the newspaper that’s on the floor next to the rocker. It’s burning up in here. They won’t put the air on even though it’s 80 degrees out. Instead they’ve got all the windows thrown wide open. I go in the other room to make myself a glass of tea. I put some of my own in a jar before I left the house. The one time I had Roberta’s tea, I couldn’t stand the bitter taste.
I’m watching the girl tonight. Normally one of Roberta’s bunch watches her. But this afternoon Roberta calls me up. That in itself was unusual. When I picked up the phone, I could hear the two of them going at it. Roberta was holding her hand over the mouthpiece so I couldn’t hear, but I heard. Harlan said, “I don’t want her ….” Roberta shushed him, whispered, “I’m already on the phone with her.” I don’t know what that was all about. So help me, if this woman tries to turn Harlan against me like the last one did. She told me they put her brother in the hospital for some tests and she wanted to run up there this evening. Harlan couldn’t watch the girl; he’s got a political dinner. So I dropped what I was doing to drive clear across town to sit with the girl while they’re gone.
I open up every cupboard and drawer in that kitchen and I still can’t find any Sweet and Low. The one thing I do find is there’s a shot glass drying on the dish rack. I suspect this Roberta is a drinker, just like Harlan’s first wife. I imagine that’s why I was never asked over to the house much. Pure embarrassment.
The sugar bowl is in on the kitchen table, next to where the girl put the whiskey. I don’t care for real sugar in my tea, but it looks like they don’t keep substitute in the house. I’m in there measuring out sugar for my tea when I hear car keys and voices. It’s Harlan and the girl. “Son,” I yell. The door slams, just about takes the roof off. Out in the driveway the van starts up and pulls out. I go to the window and watch it back into the street. From the side Harlan looks just like his father—long, slender nose and a headful of sandy blond hair that makes a pompadour without any help. He would have come in the room to say goodbye if Roberta would have waited here with the girl instead of running up to the hospital in such a hurry. This dinner Harlan had is very important. Two hundred dollars a plate. My son’s a card-carrying Republican—that’s who’s in charge of the city right now, the Republicans. He just got himself promoted from the hose house to a desk job. I heard this from my neighbor Bea. Her boy’s just got on at the department—he’s the one that told her. I had to let on like Harlan had called me with the news. I didn’t want Bea to think badly of Harlan. Between taking on that new job and all of Roberta’s troubles, he’s got no time for anything anymore. Bea wouldn’t understand—her boy Mike has no life of his own, over there for dinner every night of the week he’s not working.
The girl comes back in the living room and leans on the rocker I’m sitting on. I nearly spill my ice tea. “Watch it, now,” I say. “You almost spilt my tea.”
“Sorry, Grandma White,” she says. She stands there, twirling her hair in her fingers, waiting for something. I set my tea down on the end table and find the t.v. guide under the cushion.
I put on my reading glasses and switch on the lamp behind the chair. “Harlan gone?” I ask her.
“Yeah, he had to go.”
“Didn’t want to be late, I reckon.”
She picks at her cuticles. “Yeah, he didn’t want to be late.”
I go back to my t.v. guide. The listings aren’t right. They’re all old episodes. According to the cover, it’s last week’s guide. “Don’t anybody ever clean up around here?” I say. The girl doesn’t answer. She’s got a game in her hand, something with a little red light that bounces around. The game beeps halfhearted, like it might need a new battery. I reach down farther under the cushion and find this week’s guide. I see in the listings there’s a movie on I haven’t seen in years, with John Wayne. “Where’s the changer?” I say. The girl just looks at me with those sleepy-looking black eyes. “The changer,” I say again. I make a clicking motion with my thumb.
“Oh,” she says. She drops the game on the couch and puts her hands on top of her head. “We don’t have one of those.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a changer? Harlan’s had a changer since they come out with them.” Then I remember Bev took the t.v. with the changer. Took most of what Harlan had worked so hard for all those years. Now this one comes along to take some more. This must be the set that Roberta brought with her, a black and white. If she’d put that girl in public school, maybe she could afford a color set. “Well, then, get me channel 7,” I say. After she gets the station, she sits down cross-legged on the floor, next to my chair. “Don’t you have studying to do?”
She’s drawing with her finger on the condensation on my tea glass. “A little,” she says.
“Leave that glass alone,” I tell her. “You’re going to knock it over.” Her lip quivers like she’s going to cry. All I need, for Roberta to come home and see the girl crying. “Here now, I didn’t mean nothing by that,” I tell her. She sniffs and wipes her nose on her chunky little arm. I find a tissue in my purse and hand it to her. “Use this.”
She dabs at her nose, balls up the tissue and leaves it on the floor. She’s still pouting. “Stop that pouting,” I say. “You finish your homework, and you can come back in here and watch t.v. with me until time for bed.”
“Cool,” she says. She runs off and comes back with a sheet of paper and a pencil. She sits down at the dining room table and leans over the paper, making marks on it and looking over at me the whole time. I think maybe I’ll have some peace and quiet now, but it’s all of five minutes before she’s back in the room with me.
“You finished already?” I ask her. She nods her head. “All of it?”
“Yep,” she says. She holds the paper up in front of me. Math problems, looks like, all filled out.
I let her sit with me and watch the movie for a little while. When a commercial comes on I tell her, “It’s bedtime now.”
She lets out a big sigh. “Okay,” she says. She drags her feet on the way out of the room, putting on a show for me. “Benny,” she screams. The dog comes crawling out from behind the couch and limps into the kitchen.
“Girl, what are you doing? It’s time for bed.” I get up out of the chair and raise the t.v. volume so I can hear when the show’s back on.
“I always let Benny out before I go to bed,” she says. She kneels down to pet the dog. It’s got salt-and-pepper-colored fur, one black eye and one blue eye. Ugly as sin. “Don’t worry, Benny, I won’t hurt you,” the girl says to it. She scratches behind its ears. It tucks its tail between its legs and ducks into the scratching.
“You just don’t want to go to bed,” I tell her.
She stands up and unlocks the screen door. Her mouth starts to quiver again. “If I don’t let him out and he pees on the floor at night, I’ll get in trouble,” she says.
I don’t feel much like arguing. What does it matter to me when she gets to bed? “All right,” I say, “just hurry it up. I need to get back to my show.” I wait there in the kitchen while she steps out in the yard with the dog. I can hear my show come back on. I go over to the back door to see what’s taking so long. Can’t see a thing, it’s so dark out. “Quit your dawdling,” I say through the screen.
The girl whispers, “Grandma White, come look.”
“Now what is it?” I turn on the porch light. She’s way in the back of the yard looking off in the distance.
“Turn the light off,” she says. “You can’t see it with the light on.” I switch off the light and step out onto the walk. It smells out here, like dog doo and wet leaves. Brings up something nasty in my throat. I find a tissue in the pocket of my housecoat and spit into it. There’s no moon tonight and there’s no streetlights close by. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark. She’s pointing at the sky and she’s got her hand over her mouth. There’s just a few clouds, wispy and thin. That’s all there is. The girl is wasting time, playing silly games.
“You listen here,” I say to her, “your mama is going to be home any minute now, and what’s she going to say if she finds you out here playing around when you’re supposed to be in bed asleep?” The bugs are starting to bite. I slap at one on my neck.
She takes her hand off her mouth, points at the sky, says, “There it is.” I look to where she’s pointing at, above the trees in the field back behind the house. There is something there, in the sky. It’s white, oval shaped. Like an upside down dinner plate, only it’s see-through. It’s moving real slow in a big, wide circle. For a second or two it disappears behind the trees, but then it comes back just as quick, again and again.
“What in the world is that?” I say.
“It’s a U.F.O.,” she whispers.
It moves like it’s on a track, the same path every time.
“A flying saucer?” I say. “It can’t be. There’s no such thing.”
“Is, too. Harlan says they’re real. He’s got books about them.”
“He does?” For a few seconds the thing disappears. It’s behind a big thick cloud. Harlan was never a reader. I saw a shelf of books in the living room, thought they might belong to Roberta or the girl. The cloud floats on past and the white thing darts out.
“You ever seen that show on Sunday nights? Project UFO?” she says. “It looks just like the ones on there, doesn’t it?” I take my glasses off so I can see better. It loops around real steady, like it knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. It does look just like the ones on t.v.
“It’s definitely a U.F.O.,” she whispers.
“I just can’t believe it,” I say. From here it’s about as big as my pinky, above the trees about a quarter of a mile away. I step out into the grass to get a closer look.
“If it’s not a U.F.O., then what is it?” she says.
Makes me think of a ghost, the way you can see clear through it, and yet it’s still there. But I can’t say what it is. “For the life of me, I don’t know,” I tell her.
She kneels down and starts pulling up fistfuls of grass. We watch the thing shoot back and forth above the trees. We can’t take our eyes off it. “Harlan says they’ve been watching us for a long time, picking who they want to take back with them,” she says. “Lots of people have disappeared already.”
All at once I feel the need to sit down, but I can’t see if there’s any chairs out here. I go back up to the house and lean against it. I’m feeling a little short of breath out in this humid air, and a little sick at my stomach.
“I know what it’s doing,” she says. She stands up and folds her arms across her chest. “It’s going to land in that field.” She heads towards the door. The dog lopes along behind her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I ask her. I have to hurry to keep up with her. The wet grass has soaked my shoes and stockings.
“I’m going to call the police.” She doesn’t hold the door for me, just lets it slam.
“Wait just a minute, now,” I say. By the time I get to the kitchen she’s hanging up the phone and running down the hallway.
She yells, “I forgot, that one’s broken.”
I pick up the receiver and hold it to my ear. There isn’t any dial tone. I push the hook up and down a few times, but that don’t help. The cord looks like it’s been ripped out of the wall. “Jesus, help us,” I say. I go around and turn on every light I can find. When I come back in the kitchen I see a note taped to the wall next to the phone. It says, “call phone company”. I’ve gotten as carried away as the girl. I find her in Harlan’s bedroom, where’s there’s a second phone. “Don’t you call the police, now,” I say to her. She’s turned off the light and is at the window, holding back the drape and pressing her face to the glass.
“It’s still out there,” she says. “It’ll land before the police would get here, anyway. They always take forever.” She runs back out into the hallway.
Where she gets this stuff, I’ll never know. There’s no telling what kind of life this girl had before her mother snagged Harlan. I follow the girl as fast as I’m able, but all this excitement is wearing me down. “What are up to now?” I say.
“I’m going to get Harlan’s gun,” she says. She opens the closet door and starts rummaging around behind the jackets and the sweeper.
“Gun? Harlan’s never kept guns,” I say. Next thing I know she’s pulled a gun out. I don’t know guns, but this one is big, with a long barrel and a thick handle. I step back from it. I don’t know what Harlan is doing with a gun like this. It’s not for hunting, I’ll tell you that much. “You put that back where you found it,” I say. She stands there holding it away from her, like she’s got a poison snake by the tail. Her hair is so sweaty it sticks to her face. “Right now. Just put it down on the floor,” I say. She looks at me. “Careful,” I tell her. She squats down and lays the gun on the floor of the closet.
She stays squatting and looks at the hardwood floor. It’s dull, needs mopping. “I’m scared,” she says.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” I say. “We’ll lock all the doors and windows. We’ll be safe.”
She shakes her head. “They’ll figure out a way to get in,” she says.
I start shutting the windows and locking them. “Come on, now, help me with these windows.”
She squints her eyes and says, “No, wait. We should go in the basement, like when there’s a tornado warning.” She’s off again, running through the house, making a racket.
“You better settle down,” I yell after her. When I catch up to her she’s already at the basement door with a flashlight. She opens the door and starts down the stairs. The basement stinks of mildew. What does that Roberta do around here all day?
“Aren’t you coming?” the girl asks me.
“I’ve got to take stairs slow,” I tell her. “One at a time.” When I get right behind her she stops short and smacks her hand over her mouth. “Now what?” I say.
“I forgot,” she says, “I’m not supposed to go in the basement.”
“Well, why in the Sam Hill not?” I say.
She shakes her head and looks away. “I just can’t,” she says. She pushes past me and stomps back up the steps. “Come on.”
“Don’t you boss me, little girl,” I say. I go down another step and take a look around. In the corner there’s a washing machine and a dryer. Across from it there’s something dark and shiny, all over the concrete floor.
“Grandma White,” she says, “there’s still some windows open upstairs. We better close them.”
“I’m coming,” I say. I go down the rest of the way, to where the shiny things are laying, and pull the string on the light bulb that’s hanging over them. Out of the corner of my eye I see a black bug crawl into a crack in the wall. Then I see what’s all over the floor. It’s stacks and stacks of dirty magazines. Pictures of naked girls on the covers, staring out at you with those hard-lined eyes and bleach blond hair. That Roberta would allow that in this house, with her own child, is beyond me. I turn off the bulb and make my way to the stairs. The girl is standing at the top of them, trying her best not to look me in the eye. When I get upstairs she closes the door and hooks the latch. “Shame,” I say.
She raises the blinds on the back door window and shades her eyes with her hand so she can see out. The back of her t-shirt is damp with sweat. “Oh my god, I’m such a stupidhead,” she says. She goes over to the kitchen table and starts rifling through the newspaper. On the back page there’s a big ad for a grand opening of a bar, someplace called Smitty’s. She points at the ad and laughs. “That’s what it is,” she screams.
“What are you talking about, now, girl?” I say.
“It’s a spotlight,” she says. “A stupid spotlight.” She’s shaking so hard I think maybe she’s having some kind of a fit. I can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying. “A U.F.O.,” she yells. “I’m so sure.” Now she’s bent over on the kitchen floor, tears rolling down her face. She slaps herself on the forehead. “I can’t believe I thought it was actually a U.F.O.”
I grab her by the arm. “Pipe down, girl,” I say. “I been trying to tell you there’s no such thing as a flying saucer.” She pulls away from me.
“Stop it,” she yells, “you’re hurting me.” I let go her arm. She lays her head on her knees. “You did not say that, either. You thought it was one, too.”
The dog comes into kitchen. It laps at its water and then lies down on its side.
The girl’s made a mess of the newspaper. I fold it up right. “I’ve had just about enough out of you, missy,” I say. “It’s time you got to bed.” She just sits there sniffling, making faces at her reflection in the metal table leg. “Suit yourself,” I tell her. I switch off the kitchen light. Out of the blue there’s a flash on the windows and the walls and a rumbling from the side of the house. I hear a thud and then footsteps.
The girl raises her head and stares at the back door. Her eyes get real wide. “It’s them,” she says.
My chest feels tight. I put my hand across it to feel my heart pounding. “Oh, Lord, help us,” I say.
“I’m only joking!” the girl squeals. “It’s just Harlan.” She lays her head back down on her knees and starts humming, picking at a scab on her shin. Every light in the house but this one in the kitchen is turned on. Must look like it’s lit up for Christmas from the street. You can hear the t.v. all through the house. It’s like an oven in here with all the windows closed and no air on. My stockings are dark all the way up my ankles, from standing in that overgrown wet grass. This is the last time I come into this crazy house. First of all, that girl is in need of help. Looks to me like Roberta’s not much better. For Harlan’s sake, I’ll make out like I didn’t see any of it.
When he walks in the kitchen he throws his cigarettes and a book of matches on the table. The girl grabs the matches, looks at the ad printed on them. “Look, Smitty’s,” she says, waving the matches in the air.
I hold out my hand and tell her, “Give those here and get back in bed.” She drops them on the table and prances off.
“How was your dinner, son?” I say.