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