Keeper of the House

From Part I

Sheriff Dawson and Lawyer Cunningham are already in the room before I get the candles going good. They don’t say a thing to me, of course, and I don’t change words with them either, just finish my work and leave. It’s not like they unfriendly, or me either—nothing personal, just how things are at Mizz Addie’s. “We observe the formalities,” she says, which comes down to me being not so much Minyon Manigault when I wait on them, as just a way things get done.

Before I start serving up that hot, fresh food Sarah spent the afternoon fixing, I got one more job. I stop in the hall by the full-length mirror, take a cloth out my skirt pocket, and dust the glass clean from top to bottom. Good luck, Ophelia taught me—stuff she someway knows about. “Every night, child—don’t fail. It’ll bring those girls luck, and us, too.” Fuck-luck, one of the hoes named it, some years back. Everybody calls it that now, and they all worry about will I forget. Which I surely won’t, on account of, how I see it, all our luck’s tied pretty much up together.

By the time I start serving, they’re all there, the ones Mizz Addie calls Jameston’s movers and shakers. Joining up with the first two’s three more—Mr. Lafayette Prevost, owns a big restaurant downtown and half the land in James County; Doc Thayer, takes care of the hoes every week plus Miss Addie when she needs it; and Mr. Billy Ray Bryan, who’s got the only car lot and finest white undertaking establishment in town. Sometimes we might have a special guest or two—big boys from Columbia or Charleston and every once in a while from Washington, D.C.. But this is what we got tonight.

Mizz Addie turns the phonograph on to play sweet slow music, no singing, no jazz. “Swing comes later, gentlemen,” she always promises, “classical is music to dine by.” Dine they surely do—these boys can eat. And under every one of their plates is some extra little something—don’t know how much, just see Mizz Addie slip it there, Saturday and Saturday. Except for the sheriff; he takes his extra in madam-skin. And after that comes dessert, which I don’t serve. The hoes take care of that part.

Insurance nights. Ground layings.

By midnight, the movers and shakers’s generally gone home to the bosom of their families and the girls get down to other business as usual. By four this night, I’ve done all I’m going to, crawl into my narrow bed and try to block the sounds of Faith, two rooms down, who swears she’s got to praise God and hollers hallelujah when she brings release to one of her customers. Scares some of them half to death from time to time, too. But she’s got the ecstasy, don’t you know, which ain’t the worse thing a hoe can have. At least it’s not generally catching.

Warm tonight. I curl up in a ball and feel my own sticky sweat where my body touches herself. Even so, I hold my old Gan-blanket close, for safekeeping.

Same thing happens every time I lay me down to sleep—visions come, one after the other. Folks I know, or used to. Can’t stop them, best thing’s just look straight at them and keep in mind they ain’t real, just visions. They can’t reach out and pull me into the dark. I’m just the watcher.

Private Parts

From "Seeds"

“You’re going to get worms, doing that.” That’s what Jimmy Lee says every time he catches me biting the dirt out from under my fingernails. To myself I think: Uh uh, Jimmy Lee, it’s the other way around, eventually. But I keep quiet on account of that’s the kind of observation gets on his nerves something awful.

Got plenty of the stuff under my nails this morning. Which makes Jimmy Lee say he feels like he’s married to a farm worker, though even he can’t deny how good the yard’s looking.

To me this dirt tastes bitter with a clean undertaste, which I reckon is a kind of funny contradiction, but true. And I could probably lie here on my bed half the day cleaning myself and trying not to think about yesterday, but eventually what I’m trying not to think about would push itself through, so I reckon I best get going.

My friend Charlie Simpson says dirty fingernails are the surest sign of a serious gardener. When I went down to his store the other day to get some plant food, Charlie said I looked like a little girl in my overalls. Said I was the cutest thing he’s seen all day. Mildred Pyncheon heard him, too. He didn’t lower his voice or anything, and I saw her eyes flick up and down at me like I was wearing hot pants and a halter top, heard her give a little humph under her breath.

Charlie’s always talking like that, but he doesn’t mean a thing by it. Everybody knows he’s faithful as a lapdog to Emmaline, whose daddy after all left him that feed-and-seed store where he’s made them a pretty good living the last 20 or so years. So it’s not like he doesn’t have a lot to be grateful for, though I once sat next to Emmaline at a Jaycees’ supper and was amazed at how stiff she was able to keep her back and how her top lip was so thin you sometimes couldn’t tell if she even had one. Hope she didn’t catch me staring, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away—for some reason I found it fascinating, that lip. It does kind of go with the rest of her face, come to think of it, what with that jaw cocked forward, like a bulldog with a certain mind-set.

Funny about Charlie Simpson. He doesn’t look romantic or anything. He’s some older than me, around 45, I guess, and he’s not but about five-eight or so. His body’s wiry, like the black hairs on his arms, which seem long enough to comb, almost. On the top of his head he’s missing a fair amount of hair, though that seems to be the only place, and he wears these little gold-rimmed glasses hat make him look like an accountant and mostly shade his eyes.

When you get to know him better, you see that Charlie’s eyes behind those glasses have silky, dark lashes and heavy lids like that Russian ballet dancer’s—lids that look like they’re half asleep, or hiding something. Ever since I noticed it, I been torn between wanting to ask him to open his eyes up wide and being afraid of what I might see if he did.

He does have one bad habit that I know of, which I try my best to overlook. He’s always moving his privates around, in front of whoever happens to be standing there. It’s not like he does it on purpose or even knows he’s doing it. He’ll just reach down and take a little dig or rearrange himself, holding a regular conversation all along. Maybe he used to play baseball. I don’t know. Tell you one thing, though: it’s hard to keep your eyes where they belong and your mind on the discussion at hand. No pun intended.

Charlie says I’m one of the best natural gardeners he ever saw. He can’t believe I’ve only been planting things in a big way like this for a year or so. Must of been hiding my light under a bushel, he says, and when he grins I swear his whole face changes, like electric lights blazing on sudden in the dead of night.

The Channel

The rising tide of these past lives washes over and through, swallows me whole. Sifting through years like cloudy sands, stirring this waking dream of voices, I can see Rose clear, a near half-century back. Fresh and sure enough of her mission in life: handmaid to the “freak”—his first, best apostle, the one who never would betray him.

The year Rose lost that baby girl of hers was the year I myself came into this life. If I walk down the hall of my old home right now, I can open the door to the room my parents slept in together. I was conceived right here, and—I know this minute like it just got whispered in my ear—born in here, too.

My mama, Vonda Lucile Bryan—herself born and raised in Red Hill, who married Clyde Gallivant when she was too young to know better and too in love to care and who then had me, some six months after they tied the knot, which counting of between-time is the kind of thing to mark a person forever in this town—my mama was not a well woman. Even if my daddy hadn’t turned out to be a drinker or her folks hadn’t written her off or I could’ve figured out how to be something other than a handful—even given the best of circumstances, she didn’t have a chance in hell at a decent life. Mama had a sickness in her head. And it kept getting worse along and along, instead of ever better.

Long as I could remember I’d heard her loud cries behind one closed door or another in this house. Or worse, she’d take one of those awful laughing fits that lit on her like an affliction, peal after peal, till I thought I might break into a million pieces if she didn’t quit. Daddy’d just walk out the door, those times, and head down the road. Then the house would go so quiet I’d of given anything for noise.

It’s not that I didn’t feel sorry for her; I was her daughter, her only child. When she’d get balled up in a corner, picking at her arms and moaning, I’d do my level best to hold her still, put my arms around her, be like a mama to her. But I was a little girl; I needed a mama myself.

I could describe for anybody who’d care to listen the way that woman’s body smelled when she hadn’t bathed for weeks and also when she’d done nothing else but—spent hour after hour in the bathtub, so that her skin puckered and then dried till it cracked and sometimes bled. I could tell, too, how it felt for her to hold me, every now and again, and cry, whispering in my ear: “I mean to be good, honey, I do; I mean to.”

She wasn’t though. And by the time I was ten, my daddy’d started slip-slipping away. Slow but steady he went; took to staying gone longer and longer, first overnight, then for days at a time, and finally, after he found himself that girlfriend over in Prosser’s Ferry, for weeks. Weeks, and then months. He was sorry, my daddy told me the day he left for good, breathing sour whiskey onto my cheek when he bent to kiss it. Couldn’t argue with that.

After Daddy left, it was just Mama and me and that craziness of hers to contend with ever-on, never knowing if a day’d be a good one or a bad and nobody to tell about it. I felt pretty well stuck with her, and if you want to know the truth, I might’ve hated the woman as much as loved her. More, maybe, since it was on her account Daddy’d run off, her fault my clothes were raggedy hand-me-downs, that we lived like trash, looked down on by anybody.

Sometimes she’d lie in her room and cry quiet into her pillow or stare up at the ceiling, hardly blinking. I’d fix a plate of food and half the time feed it to her by hand, talking her along. But we had ourselves other kinds of weeks, too, when she’d fill up with the energy of hellfire. She’d get tearing around the house, moving furniture, trying on clothes and throwing them in a heap, cooking food that generally ended up a charred lump, on account of she’d get caught up doing the next thing. Weeks like that, I took to wedging a chair against my bedroom door and climbing out my window to get to school without having to run up against her craziness.

I remember looking up one of those mornings, one leg out the window and the other fixing to follow, to see old Miss Dockett next door, staring from her side yard, mouth gaped open. Soon as our eyes met she bent her head towards the ground, like something down there needed tending. My head filled with redness. When I had both feet on the ground I hollered, “Morning, Miss Dockett!,” but she just stayed bent over her tulips. Heading down the road to school, I could hear her thinking, whispered clear as if it was inside my head: That’s a bad business, that one. And I reckoned not to make a liar of her.

Standing in this room now, I wonder: Did it ever ring with my mama and daddy’s laughter, or feel their desire? Do these walls hold pieces of secret, whispered dreams and wishes; did Vonda and Clyde, all those years back, hope to find some needed something in each other? When she opened her legs to him, did they smile into each other’s eyes? Or close them?—dreaming, hoping.

And when she wide-opened her legs for my arrival—was she joyful, my mama? Or already turning inward, seeing the madness to come? And Daddy—was he on his way towards the fury that took him when he couldn’t reckon how the girl he loved had got so lost or conjure how to fetch her back—that laughing, carefree girl he’d loved, married, carried to this place. And me the goat maybe, because after I arrived is when it all started, her changing.

Old whispers swirl thick as smoke around me; a soft laugh, a caught sigh; the slide of skin upon skin. I can feel her desire, my mama’s, inside me: a thrust of hips, the rhythm-rhythm-rhythm; legs spread, emptiness filled, and the giving back: pain large enough to fill the world; and the desire, the pushing desire that nothing on earth could stop.

So was I born and begun, and set on the road that would catch me up with Will and Rose, soon enough.

No Place Like Home

From “Egg Timer”

The ceiling fan spun lazily above. Outside the window of her bedroom in Aunt Cat’s house, birds sang in the branches of old oaks. It would be another scorcher, sticky and still. Ginnie turned over, picked up Exodus from the bedside table, and began to read.

As when she’d read that other Leon Uris book, Mila 18, Ginnie felt herself immersed in the Jews’ struggle. She was in the ghetto with heroic resisters. She reeled with their pain, their search for the place they belonged, the terrible injustice. Life was unfair; oh, she knew all about that. She wanted to fight alongside them, yearned to be Jewish—to belong utterly to something that mattered. She often imagined changing her name to Leah or Delilah—something Biblical and ancient. Anything but Virginia Lucile.

Who was Ginnie Lackland anyway? The wild girl her father fumed over in his early morning hours, the one busting out all over, with a swing to her walk and that sly smile that rocked him? The stealthy little eavesdropper, her mother’s night owl, hoarding the family’s secrets like treasures? Or the smart girl her teachers complimented—though she didn’t work too hard, did she, and then she had that smart-alecky streak. Or was she the girl her friends knew, who’d take almost any dare, climbing onto the back of a motorcycle behind a boy she’d just met on the beach or slugging back Southern Comfort and then sneaking dazed-faced into her bedroom through the window, which she’d been twice caught in the act of. Time for some time out, her mother had said, before depositing her at Aunt Cat’s. Her father wasn’t speaking to her. She was, she knew, a great disappointment and a bad role model for her little sister.

Despairing for the world and her place in it, Ginnie wept.

When Aunt Cat knocked and then opened the door without waiting for an answer, she found her niece awash. “Ah, sweetie,” she said. “It’s not so bad. We gone have us a fine time, you and me.” She held her arms out to Ginnie, who couldn’t figure out anything to do but fall into them. Her cheek lay against the rose-colored silk of her aunt’s peignoir; she had seven identical sets in different colors. For the last two days, she’d worn them till noon.

She stroked Ginnie’s hair. “Sometimes life is just hard, idn’t?”

Aunt Cat was a divorcée. Ginnie liked the sound of that, its whiff of decadence, especially here in Red Hill, where it was more often whispered than spoken. She’d heard her mother say Aunt Cat had had to give up committee work at First Presbyterian after she and Uncle Vern split up, even though he still got to be an elder. Aunt Cat had stopped going, Ginnie knew—which meant she didn’t have to either, for the next week. A relief—church had made her itchy ever since she’d discovered that she was an atheist, last year, in the middle of reading Atlas Shrugged. She never actually spoke the words to the Lord’s Prayer now, just mouthed them, and she refused to shut her eyes during prayers, preferring instead to study people’s faces when they weren’t looking. Her mother’s eyelids, for example, fluttered like she was dreaming, while her father’s face smoothed out and his chin lifted. When she tired of looking at them, she would stare at Mrs. Eleanor Townsend, the base chaplain’s wife—a born gossip, according to Ginnie’s mother—who looked in prayer like a blank-faced idiot, lips blabbing loosely even when talking to the Lord.

Looking now at her aunt’s face, Ginnie saw shadows under the eyes and in the hollow of cheekbones. Everybody in Red Hill knew what Ginnie’d known practically forever—that Uncle Vern had been stepping out on Aunt Cat for years and had three children by a white trash woman he’d finally set up house with. The youngest had been the final straw—a girl they’d named Vernelle. That was just throwing it in her face, Aunt Cat had wailed to Ginnie’s mother, the week she’d stayed with them when the breakup happened, almost a year ago. Uncle Vern still paid for Aunt Cat’s house and clothes and food—the least he could do, Ginnie’s mother said to her father, who hadn’t replied. Uncle Vern couldn’t be their friend anymore, and she knew her father missed him. He was surrounded by women, he sometimes joked. Or half-joked. 

The smell of cigarettes and perfume filled Ginnie’s head. Aunt Cat wore only Lanvin—Laaa-vaaa, she called it, squeezing out the syllables through her nose—from Paris, France, she would murmur when anybody commented on how nice she smelled.  

“We’re gone have us a time, sweetie,” her aunt repeated. “In fact,” she put one finger on her niece’s chin and tilted her head up; her eyes, Ginnie saw, shone almost to overflowing. “I have a surprise for you.” 

— finalist, 2020 Curt Johnson Prose Award in Fiction, december Magazine

From “Lost Weekend”

Sitting in the movie theater next to her best friend Susannah Beaufain, Ginnie Lackland wasn’t watching the screen, even though she’d pictured herself as Scout Finch a million times since reading To Kill a Mockingbird last year and here was Scout in the flesh, and her father Atticus, looking like Gregory Peck. Scout’s mother was dead and Atticus was a hero. Ginnie’s mother was alive but back in South Carolina right now, where her mother had died two weeks ago. Ginnie’s father flew planes for the air force and had maybe been a hero back in the war with Japan and Germany before Ginnie was born—which was funny since now they lived in Germany and had German friends. (Luckily, her father had bombed the Japanese.) Last year, before they’d moved to base housing, Ginnie’s family had been the only Americans living in a little village outside of Wiesbaden, and her father shared beers some afternoons with their neighbor, the village police chief. Ginnie had heard her father tell her mother one night that Hans, the policeman, had been an SS officer in the war. She knew Atticus Finch would never drink beer with a former Nazi, but her father did have black hair with streaks of silver and a deep voice that always sounded sure of itself, so there was that.

Ginnie couldn’t keep her mind on the movie. For one thing, seeing the hatefulness of the white people reminded her of that bad stuff in Montgomery a few years back, when they’d lived there. And it wasn’t over yet—lately it had been in the news, even in Germany, that white people had bombed a church and killed four Negro girls. Ginnie thought for a minute about her little sister Hannah being blown to bits; her mind lingered on it as she watched Atticus standing in front of the courthouse and Scout coming between him and the angry men, shaming them.

Next to her, Suz whispered, pointing, “Is that Sam, over there with Monique?” Ginnie squinted but couldn’t see through the dimness. The question made her think of Charlie Durant, her boyfriend of the past six months, who should be beside her tonight but wasn’t because—Ginnie glanced at Suz, the only person who knew this—because Ginnie was supposed to have had sex with Charlie three weeks ago but had at the last minute chickened out. He’d gotten right up, said he was tired of her giving him the blue balls, whatever that was, and left her there in the spare bedroom of Terry McGee’s house, where they’d snuck away from spin-the-bottle games and into what Charlie called their little pleasure palace. He hadn’t spoken to her since, even though she’d left messages with his mother twice. At school, when Charlie passed her in the hall, his blue eyes stayed fixed at a point above her head.

Every night that week, Ginnie had turned it over in her mind. She wanted to be Charlie’s girlfriend. He was the second most popular boy at Pershing Junior High, and she liked being seen with him at the rec dances and at school, him smiling down at her. He had honey-brown hair with a wave in the front; he was funny and smart, too, and played guitar. And it was more than that, even if Ginnie didn’t know how to put the rest into words—because it wasn’t about words; it was about something deeper, some foreign urge she couldn’t make sense of, rising inside her.

Ginnie and Charlie had gone this far, in this order: held hands in the movies (though Charlie would rather trace feather-light circles on her knee, which made her insides jump); kissed (first on the bus, going to Mannheim for a basketball game; twice in a cab coming back from the indoor pool on Mainzer Strasse; and for a dizzying hour last month when Suz’s parents had gone out for the night). Charlie had come over with Lucas, Suz’s boyfriend—that time they’d kissed lying down and Charlie had pressed himself into Ginnie’s leg, moaning enough to scare her; which Suz later said was good, normal; she suggested, in fact, that Ginnie moan a little too, and see what happened. Suz was the kind of girl who just knew things; she was bringing Ginnie along, she said.

In between being brought along, Ginnie started getting calls from Charlie every night after supper. She and her sisters had a strict time limit of five minutes, two calls a night. The phone was in the hall between Ginnie and Hannah’s bedroom and their parents’; people in the living room could hear just about every word, so Ginnie would pull the phone into the bedroom and sit on the floor while Charlie whispered words to her—what he wanted them to do—And then you’ll lie down and I’ll pull your shirt up over your head and I’ll look and look, would that be all right; would that be fine? And Ginnie would say, quietly, Yes, Charlie—that’s what he asked her to say: Yes, Charlie, and so she did. And can I push up your bra and touch you, just with the tip-tip-tip of one finger? Yes, Charlie; and Can I lift up your skirt and look and look? Yes, Charlie. And touch, he asked, his whispers like panting. She only breathed, and he said it again—and touch?—drawing out the cccchh sound. Ginnie could feel her own queasy rising then. Charlie would tell her: Say yes; say it, Ginnie. And she would, whispering in time to his can I and can I; and out of the blue her father’s voice would sound at the door—Young lady: time—and she wouldn’t have heard him coming at all. She would say, in a chirpy voice: ‘Kay, Susannah, see you. Charlie would moan. She would stay in her room till her father’s footsteps faded, then stare into the mirror to see if she looked different.

— published in Oxford American’s Best of the South 2009

From “A Safe, Secret Place”

One, two—Ginnie counted to herself the space between thunderbolt and lightning crack. “Run for it!” she hollered, noise and light exploding in her head, and the two of them fled through sheets of silver water. Ruth got there first, flinging open the back door and clambering in, Ginnie right behind. Dripping, breathless, they lay for a moment in the stillness of the car before the thunder struck again and the ground beneath and air above trembled and lit fire.

“Lord a mercy!” Ruth gasped, head bent towards the floorboards, water streaming from her tight-knit braids.

Ginnie leaned over, too, sluicing the rain from her legs with the flat of one hand. “We are so wet!” she said, grinning. “And we are safe!” A person could never get struck by lightning inside a car, anybody knew that. She had probably saved both their lives by her quick thinking when the storm had brewed up out of nowhere, ambushing them in their secret place, the alcove in the shrubbery between Gramma’s house and Miss Myrtle’s, next door.

From there, earlier, they had watched Ginnie’s grandmother hang clothes on the line. They’d seen Uncle Vern pick up Ginnie’s father to go fishing; they’d watched her older sister Kari slouch out in her jeans and long white shirt. Going to the rec center, she’d said, shrugging and sighing impatiently, when Ginnie’s mother had called out the window to ask. Her little sister Hannah was down for a nap, Mama reading beside her; Gramma, too, likely. In his room off the back porch, what Uncle Clarence did was mostly a mystery. She and Ruth liked to spy on him—maybe they could get a peek at him taking off his leg!—but they’d been caught peering into his windows twice today by Ruth’s mama, Sarah, who said she’d tan them if they did it again. Sarah had been washing up lunch dishes the last time they glimpsed her through the kitchen window, before the storm. Now she was probably tidying the front rooms in her quiet way, maybe listening to the radio turned low, crackling along to the lightning. Sarah worked for Gramma one day a week and for Aunt Cat the rest of the time. Ginnie’s grandmother couldn’t afford help, but Aunt Cat said she reckoned she could spare her girl once a week to help out her mama. She and Uncle Vern lived all by themselves in a big, fancy house across town.

Uncle Vern and Aunt Cat were just one of the seemingly endless clutch of kinfolk the Lacklands had in Red Hill, South Carolina. It was August, and Ginnie and her family were at the tail end of what her father called their annual RNR, always spent in this sleepy town her parents had been from before her father had joined back up in the Air Force, after the war. Now they were from nowhere.

The days when Sarah brought Ruth to Gramma’s were Ginnie’s favorites, especially when all her girl cousins were up in the mountains at church camp. She liked Ruth way better than any of them anyhow, though she could never say so.

A huge crack! shook the car. “I don’t know how all that safe we sitting,” said Ruth. “Might get us spun up inside a tornado, whirled some other else altogether.”

“Like Dorothy!” Ginnie agreed. The thought made her heart race in a crazy, happy way.

Ruth blinked, her face blank.

“In the Wizard of Oz?” Ginnie’d seen the movie on TV. It had carved a huge space in her mind in which mean monkeys flew, an ugly witch peered into a crystal ball, and a scared, lost girl found her way home. “You know.”

But Ruth didn’t. Ginnie tried to tell it, but could only recount what she remembered—bits of scene—the storm door shutting Dorothy out, the witch pedaling the bicycle, the ruby slippers. “The sands slipping through the hourglass!” she said. “Just like Gramma’s egg timer!” She shuddered when she thought of it; Ruth seemed unmoved.

“We can go look at the hourglass,” Ginnie offered up, “soon as the storm quits.” Lightning crackled through the air at that—ha!—so close they could smell singe.

“We got no TV,” Ruth said, shrugging. She was the one who usually got to tell the stories. For years, she’d spun tales for Ginnie—of haints and the Plat-eye, monsters that wanted little girls and would keep coming for them, even when they had no arms or legs, like the terrible Wish-plop, who would drag himself up the stairs of your house and take you while you slept. Ginnie dreamed of them; her nightmares were one reason she woke and roamed the house, one reason she knew who else was up then too—often her mother, on the couch, sometimes reading and sipping something smoky, sometimes breathing softly in the dark. But in the mornings she was always chipper, making Ginnie wonder if she’d dreamed the whole thing. She would hear her parents’ voices rise and fall, standing outside their bedroom door some nights: her mother’s murmur, her father’s firm, low rumble. She could hear Kari grind her teeth, Hannah’s soft, even breaths; the drip from the kitchen faucet. It seemed to Ginnie that in those dark wanderings she was all Listener: absorbent, sorting through the secret sounds of her night-time family, trying to shape sense of them. Trying, too, to hold off monsters that could swallow little girls whole.

Inside the car the windows had steamed up with the girls’ breath. The world outside had disappeared, only the boom!-crack!-slash! of storm to remind them of it.

Ruth lay her head back against the seat, sighing up at the roof like she might wish to rise through it. Ginnie sometimes sensed that in her friend—a sudden drop of interest, a desire to be away somewhere else. She recognized it—she felt the same with her little sister Hannah, also with her girl cousins, who just wanted to play with dolls and pretend stoves that made fake cookies. Baby stuff. She was glad they weren’t around. Ruth was a year older, and the gap between nine and ten seemed vast to Ginnie—double digits: she couldn’t wait to be that old.

“Want to play a game?” she asked.

“What kind?” said Ruth, not even turning her head.

“I don’t know.” She paused. “We’re in the car. Want to pretend we’re going somewhere and when we get there, we—”

“No.” Ruth shook her head.

Ginnie thought. “Sometimes we play the alphabet game. That’s where you—”

“Uh-uh,” said Ruth, wearily.

Ginnie remembered a game her older sister’s friends had played at Kari’s birthday party that year. One of the girls had suggested a talking game.

“I’ve got it!” said Ginnie. “ Let’s play Secrets!”

Ruth tipped her head. At least she had her attention.

“See, it’s a game where you tell each other stuff you’ve never told before.” She deepened her voice to a solemn pitch: “The deepest, darkest, truest secrets of our lives.” A one-two punch of thunder and lightning punctuated her words, and the air inside the car thickened. The hair on Ginnie’s arms prickled, like when Ruth told haint stories.

She waited for another humph. Instead Ruth said, softly: “You go first.”

— published in Modern Language Studies, 2014


“I want you to come to my church this Sunday.” The quiet voice on the telephone made Jorie’s head spin. She’d risen too quickly when Sallie had woken her, saying, “It’s Lije, calling you.”

She was speechless.

His steady voice on the phone: “Will you come, Miss Jorie?”

“Lije.” She could see him clear as if he stood before her, reaching out his hand. Expecting her to rise to what lay before them.

“Miss Jorie?”

“I’m afraid—I’m not—I don’t go to church, Lije.”

“You don’t go to church?” A silence. “Huh.”

“I have tried,” she said. “I’m afraid it’s not for me.”

“Oh.” He let the silence grow.

“What would your grandmother have to say about my coming to your church, Lije? Does she know you’ve asked me?”

“Well—I think she’d say the house of the Lord is open to everybody—I think.” A pause. “She’d say Jesus lives there.”

“Huh,” said Jorie. “Do white people come to your church, Lije?”

A beat. “Sometimes; some do.”

She thought about those double doors she’d driven past all these years without more than a glance at the marquee, with its community announcements and Bible verses. What would happen if she walked through them? Woman’s set on something bound to bring a world of trouble to one of ours, they might whisper. Got her pick of white-folk churches up and down this road: Why poke into ours? Would someone guide her to a back pew, or to the door? Stare straight ahead and pretend she wasn’t there, intruding on their sacred place?

“I’m afraid—I can’t, Lije.” Silence. “I don’t think your gran would like it.”

“Okay, well.” He took a breath. “It starts at 9:30 but you need to be there at 9:15 to find a parking place.”


“Oh, and Miss Jorie?”


“Do you have a hat?”

It was the hat Lije saw first from the front porch of New Faith. Red—and big. Really big. He recognized the car as it stopped and Mr. Sam came round to open her door. When he took her arm she kept looking down, so all Lije could see from his elevation was that scarlet circle as she bent, then straightened.

Lije sensed the stir on the porch, though nobody spoke. It was like they all held breath for the time it took him to get moving: down the steps, to the car, offering up his arm in place of Mr. Sam’s.

“Will you walk with me, Miss Jorie?”

She stared into his face.

“It’s 9:20. Fixing to shut the doors. Want to let’s go find our place?”

On the porch she saw the deacons in their black suits, white shirts, and red vestments, ushering in the last of the congregants.

Lije offered his arm.

From her seat up front with the other deaconesses, Mary scanned the crowded sanctuary. Where was the boy? She and Lije had come in together, but he wasn’t sitting in his spot next to Miss Loretta Gadsden. About time to start, too: deacons seating latecomers, church-goers trading gossip before having to hush and open themselves to the Lord’s gospel.

Mary saw the hat before she saw Lije. It was hard to miss, the swoop of it so wide and deep she registered her shock that anybody besides a deaconess would be daring a red hat. When she saw the face under it, her jaw dropped, but only for an instant. Gap-mouthed fool, she thought, grabbing up the program. Her face burned.

Into her church! With Lije! Wearing a red hat! Mary wished with all her being that she could reach up and remove her own red hat—or better yet, take a flying leap across the pews and snatch the offending one off that ridiculous woman, march her straight up the aisle and deposit her at the side of the road. Her eyes stung with fury.

The men’s chorus had been singing for ten minutes before Mary could still her trembling. She’d failed to stand, knees too weak with anger to hold her. Her fellow deaconess Beulah Drayton, seated behind her, pushed on her shoulder. Mary kept her head down. Beulah bent and whispered fiercely. “What’s in this world is wrong with you, Mary Murray Hutchins! Raise yourself, woman! Folks are looking!”

She didn’t budge. Beulah was a big woman—she bent her knees into Mary’s back, applying an unrelenting pressure. “Love lifted me!” she poured the words down upon Mary’s head. Voices everywhere resounded. Souls in danger, look above, they sang. Out of the angry waves. Voices rejoicing, knees in her back, Beulah’s bossy self—nothing could lift the red heat from her center. Be saved today, they sang—but Mary felt past saving. She fell into a red-hot trance.

“God said unto his people: ‘A new heart will I give you!’” Reverend Mikell’s proclamation pierced like an arrow. “A new heart.” He leaned forward and chuckled. “And we all understand about this next part, don’t we?” Amens chorused. “That’s right—we know it. Jesus—” and here came the reverend’s signature pause, the name making the whole congregation lean in for his next words—“is a heart-fixer!

Mary didn’t know how long he’d been preaching when she heard those words in his rich, round voice—the voice of God, some called it. Throughout the service, she’d continued to stare down into her lap, not standing for songs and prayers, not giving in to the pressure of Beulah’s knees. She’d not raised her eyes even when Reverend Mikell called the children up to the mourner’s bench to kneel, bowing their heads to pray. It was her favorite part of the service: those sweet faces; the preacher’s tender touch on their heads—the Future, he called them.

But she would not be moved.

The preacher’s heart-fixer words pierced, though, and she lifted her head to look at the pew where Lije had sat every Sunday of his life. There he was, precious boy, squeezed between Sister Loretta and that patch-eyed white woman in her ugly red hat. Those two women kept their eyes on the pulpit, but Lije was staring at her, gaze steady. Mary blinked against the heat of it. What did the child want?

Lije’s stare brought her to her feet, finally, for the last hymn: Some bright morning, when this world is over, I’ll fly away. There stood her last remaining child to raise, holding the book open for that white woman, her mouth wide with song: Hallelujah by and by. Mary found her own strong voice, finally. She could sing louder and truer—from the heart—what that white woman could never feel in the depths of hers.

Each time the I’ll fly away came back around, though, Mary’s whole being filled with fear. He will, a voice in her depths whispered, Lije will; she trembled in the face of it. He will fly. And you can’t stop it.