(Waterfall in front of cave, Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Winston County, Alabama)
Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post yesterday. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.
Beginning of September 2004
The next morning, Allie was was up before Myra, sitting at the table looking through their folder of paper. Myra sat down dopily with her and said "Still trying to make sense of it?"
"Sleeping on it helped" said Allie. "Sure wish I could ask her some questions, though." Myra knew which "her" she meant.
"I guess this isn't quite what you mean when you said you wanted to find out about your people" said Myra. It wasn't really a joke, though Allie smiled tightly in response.
"Makes me glad to be as dark as I am" said Allie.
They were at breakfast at the Bluetick when Myra's cell rang. It was Edwina, asking to be connected to Allie. Allie turned over a sheet of paper and took notes during the call. When she hung up, she glanced at her watch and said "She's up awful early."
"Hard to sleep without you, I bet" said Myra. "What's she dug up?"
"She say there's a few Choctaw words could be a place name. I tried to write 'em as she spelled 'em out, but they's diacritical marks and what-all that, well, I haven't picked up yet from her" said Allie, handing the paper to Myra. "I went phonetic. Anyhow, one or two of them may give us geographic clues."
"Opa = owl; chinto = to be the biggest; chiinika = to be carried. Biggest owl or carried by an owl?
Paspokchakko = blue cornbread dumplings
Paachanahki = backbone, spinal column
Pataaka = to be flat, be laid out, be spread out"
She looked up at Allie and said "I like the blue cornbread dumplings one." As the waitress brought them their plates, she said "Do ya'll have cornbread or corn muffins on the side?"
"Yes ma'am" said the still unfriendly woman.
"Will you bring us a basket of them? And a glass of milk" said Myra. The woman didn't utter a word in reply.
"I'm taking the extra in the car, for good luck" said Myra after the waitress left.
Allie said "To me, the backbone or spread out one seems more likely to be a place name."
"Bless her heart. It's killing her to not be here with you" said Myra.
"I'm gonna come back and bring her with me" said Allie. Myra was experiencing a sensory rush from her red-eye gravy and only nodded in reply.
At the funeral home, they were allowed into the back office to do their own copying from the cemetery books. Myra was insisting that any version of the three surnames they knew about -- Billups, Rasco/e, and Allie's grandmother's maiden name Davis -- be copied, because of the possibility of transcription error. At the last minute, she added Moffatt to the list. Allie's lips tightened into a narrow line but she didn't argue.
They stopped at a convenience store to fill up with gas, buying a cooler, ice, and an assortment of drinks and snacks, as well as yet another map for the region. Myra bought sunglasses and bug spray, too. When they returned to the car, Allie said "I'll drive" and slid behind the wheel. Myra felt a rush of pride.
"Don't take off yet, but turn over the engine, I need the AC. Okay, here's the county land map we got, and here's the plots I know some of your great-grandparents' siblings worked as sharecroppers. Ellick Rascoe, he didn't show up in the deeds enough to make a living as a farmer, what did he do?"
Allie laughed ironically. "He carved headstones. They famous for their limestone here, and he'd learned stonecarving from his daddy. Nana said having a trade made him a more valuable slave, that's why Ellick's parents didn't get split up. They was together before freedom, got legally married soon as they could after. Ellick was the first child born after they was married."
"So did that mean Ellick had a steady income through the Depression?"
"Mostly. Nana said he got paid in scrip for several years, which they could only cash in for groceries. Which meant they got cheated, I'm sure, just like miners at the company store. But Nedrick told me it explained how come they didn't leave Franklin County, having a job and a trade like that. He say before emancipation, Franklin County was almost half black. Less than 5% black now."
"Damn, Allie, that's one hell of an exodus. I mean, I know about the Great Migration, but that's way more than usual."
"Tells you something about what it mean to be black here" said Allie grimly.
"Is that why your Nana hauled you two to Birmingham?"
Allie sighed. "Well, now I got to wonder if they wasn't personal stuff going on, too. But what she always said was the schools was way better there, and Linda's family was already living there. Not that they had a lot to do with us." Allie trailed off into thinking about the reasons for that for a minute. "Anyhow, we moved right before I started school. I remember we had to check with in the child welfare department about it; I had to get interviewed by a busybody white lady. Nana told me she had to swear she wasn't going to let Mama have me back, or see me without supervision."
There was a long silence, with only the fluttering of the map edges in the fan from the AC. Myra, looking straight at Allie, said "I've never asked you...do you remember it? Before you came to live with Nana, I mean."
Allie's face was expressionless. "Some. Mostly it's -- a sense memory, you know? Not words and not, like, a connected story."
"I know what you mean" said Myra. They kept looking at each other: Over 25 years of friendship, and some details had never been shared.
Allie said "I slept with Nana until I was 12. I had nightmares. Wet the bed until I was 10."
"Do you...hell, Allie, you can just tell me to shut up whenever you want, you know that, right? Well, now I'm wondering if your mama -- if she got messed with. If that's why she didn't have any will to protect you. If..."
"You mean that old white man who was her daddy, was he diddlin' her, too? I got the same doubts now. I mean, Nana didn't live with him until Papa died, which was after Mama left home, so that argues against it. But, in this town, how folks are and what they likely knew, Mama feeling like shit and trapped to boot, then getting pregnant at 15 and Alvin running out on her as fast as he found out -- I've always thought I must have looked like part of what was keeping her down, to her. Aside from the drugs and alcohol, which, as you know, don't lead to coherent thought."
"Your Nana never drank?"
"Not a drop. Not even egg nog. And the only time I thought she might actually pick up something and hit me with it was when she found the whiskey in my dresser drawer. I'd been in line to be valedictorian, you know, until my senior year. It would have meant a scholarship, even here, even then: A good black college would have paid my way. But my grades went to shit, and she searched my room after I went to school. When I got home, she told me I either quit or she was throwing me out."
"So you went undercover" said Myra. She knew this part.
"Till I graduated. Anyhow, let's get on the road and see what we can find. What's your point about the map?"
"Well, families tended to settle near each other and to migrate from the same direction. So let's head toward where we know Ellick's aunts and uncles lived; it's down here in the southeast corner of Franklin County, and a few miles away is Winston. Plus, look at the line of hills and the creeks. Geographically it looks better than trying to suss out a complete county right off."
Allie put the Buick in gear. "You tell me when to turn."
Once they got off the main road, it was astonishing to Myra how rural it felt. There really weren't many places left in the country with so few signs of human development. Where there was a house or farm buildings, they were in bad shape. Twice they passed houses where a person was visible, on the porch or in a field. Myra waved, her Texan impulses coming to the fore, but nobody waved back.
They found fields which, if Myra's map-reading was accurate, had once been worked by Allie's collateral ancestors. Allie took a photo of one, full of late-season cotton. Right outside the almost non-existent small town of Dime, they saw a barbecue joint with a walk-up window. Allie pulled into the gravel lot without asking. They got chopped beef sandwiches with a pickle-filled potato salad put directly into the sandwich, between the buns -- "How they do it here" said Allie. It was so good, they got seconds. Myra also bought two of the peach fried pies to eat later, out of sight of Allie.
From here they headed east and south on a dirt road, searching for a cemetery marked on a topo map but not named. They never did find it, but eventually the road turned into a two-lane blacktop and a sign informed them they were in a national forest. The terrain became increasingly hilly and the forest thickened. Myra was flipping between the topo map and the crude map which had Apochanko marked on it, trying to interpret terrain. Finally she asked Allie to pull over and confer with her.
They decided the next main creek they crossed would be the Sipsey Fork, and if that was right, then about five miles beyond would be a long valley rimmed by bluffs which, if the shape matched the old map, might be Apochanko. Myra could hear her pulse in her ears as Allie got back on the road.
The creek was marked, and it was Sipsey. Allie checked the mileage indicator, and Myra used her inhaler. Three and a half miles later, they crested a hill and below them, running from the northwest to the southeast, was a bluff-rimmed valley.
"It's flat down in there" breathed Myra. "Flat enough to grow things, and you wouldn't be observed unless someone rode through these hills."
"Look at the line of rocks on that outcropping to the right" said Allie. "What that look like to you?"
Myra met her eyes. "The vertebra of a spine" she whispered.
But there was no road down into the valley, not in sight and not on the maps.
Finally they found a place to park and left the car to seek a better vantage point. As soon as they stepped out into the still heat, mosquitoes swarmed them. Myra grabbed the bug spray and they fogged themselves. Allie said "I'm nervous about trespassing."
"Then we won't. We'll just get to where we can see clear."
They found a vantage point atop a bluff a few hundred yards from the road. Myra felt apprehensive in a way she couldn't define. She wasn't particularly afraid of snakes, or of most wild animals, so she didn't think it was that. She was glad to get out in the clear again.
Allie said "Damn, I wish I had binoculars."
"Let's sit down and let our eyes adjust" said Myra. "Anything made of logs will have crumpled by now, will be an overgrown mound a little too square in shape."
Slowly, they were able to pick out a number of overhangs that looked like shallow caves. They argued about whether the forest growth on the flats was appreciably younger than that on the slopes, or if the difference was an optical illusion. Myra wanted proof, she wanted this to be the place. Allie was more wary.
"What are you feeling here? In your gut?" asked Myra.
"Honestly? I feel a sense of desolation. But..."
"Here, give me the camera. I'll photograph it from one end to the other, and maybe we can blow them up and look at them with a magnifying glass back at home." Allie sat, her hands on her knees, while Myra used up the roll of film.
"Let's go, Myra" said Allie in a bleak voice.
"Okay. You want to go to the county seat here and see if we can find another Nedrick at their library?"
"No. I want to go home."
Myra was caught off guard. "Really?"
"Yeah. I do want to know more, I'm not calling off the hunt. But I want to see Edwina, I want to remind myself how far I've come. Can you do more research online?"
"Yes. And at big libraries, interlibrary loan and such. If you want me to keep digging, I -- we can find out tons, Allie."
"I do want it. Just -- let's get out of here."
They walked back to the car, Myra wanting to check behind her and refusing to let herself look. Once in the car, with the engine running, Allie wiped her forehead and said "Grab me some juice, will you?"
After a couple of miles, Myra said "The way you wrote about Podinqo, as a small community of several families, that's how your grandmother told it?"
"As I remembered it. Through the filter of a kid's mind."
"Which must be how she heard it. No sense of threat or impending doom?"
"None. So either she edited that out for me, or it was edited out for her" said Allie. "I'm starting to realize how much she edited out. Not just the obvious, you know, growing up with Jim Crow and all."
"Did she keep her promise, about not letting your mother have access to you?"
Allie's fingers tightened on the steering wheel. "She was invited for my birthday and for Christmas. If she was sober. But she only came a handful of times. I always had presents that were supposedly from her, wrapped in the same paper Nana used. My father did send Christmas presents, ones that really were from him. When I was 11, it was a watercolor set. That was the best."
"You wanna research his line, too?"
Allie glanced at Myra. "Yeah. His name's Pride. His parents were E.B. and Amanda. I don't know what E.B. stood for." Myra pulled out a pen and added notes to the folder.
"Allie...you went back to Franklin County every year, after ya'll moved?"
"Yeah, two or three times a year. We didn't stay with -- Moffatt. Nana had a cousin and we'd sleep in her living room, Nana on the couch, me on the floor. We visited him, though. Except after I turned 12, I didn't have to go with her if I didn't want to. She let me stay home, and Aunt Linda would check in on me every day. I kept the doors and windows locked, but during the daytime, it was really fun to have the house to myself."
Myra was wondering if there was a reason why Allie's grandmother kept her away from Russellville once she entered puberty. Nothing felt safe here. She realized one thing that had been bothering her: This was the Deep South, yet except for Ruthann and Nedrick -- and the old man at the grocery store -- they'd seen almost no black people. Fewer than in Seattle. She suddenly wished she still carried a gun.
Allie continued, "We didn't have a car, so we always took the bus on a Friday after school. Nana packed pimento cheese sandwiches as a snack, and a bottle of water. I got to sit by the window, and I had to be completely quiet, more than usual. So I drew. I had an extra Big Chief tablet, and before we left I sharpened all my pencils at school -- I had two each of a #1, a #2 and a #3. My version of charcoals. I had an old metal pencil box that had belonged to one of my aunts or uncles, and I could keep the point on my pencils in that. Nana carried our lunch and travel stuff in a pasteboard box, heavy construction with a strap that buckled down, and once we were on the highway, she'd pull it out from other the seat so I could balance it on my lap and use it as a flat surface for my tablet. I drew the whole time, except for the one stop in that town I pointed out, where we could get out and use the restroom if we had to."
"Do you still have those tablets?"
"A couple, yeah. I'll show 'em to you some time."
The fact that Allie had never offered before was not lost on Myra. Their relationship, close as it had been, had taken a new turn. She thought about the vulnerability of an old black woman and a small girl, riding a bus across Bull Connors' Alabama in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how Allie helped enforce her own silence with a pencil and paper.
They didn't say anything for a while. They passed the barbecue joint, but neither of them were hungry.
Allie cleared her throat and said "I'm a little embarrassed to quote Oprah, but one thing she said that I like is 'Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.' It's a variation on your 'Proceed as the way opens'. And for me it sums up how we, my people, have accomplished anything at all, beginning as we did with jack shit. Not even our own names and memories. When I first heard that quote, I realized it was how Nana had lived."
"A good way to live" said Myra.
"I went to church, I liked the community and the way wimmins ran things, and the singing, but I didn't get the -- it didn't help me emotionally. Didn't take with me. Not like art did, or drinking. I didn't cry until I began drinking. I was a weepy drunk -- "
"I remember" said Myra. She and Allie smiled ruefully.
"And thank god once I gave up the sauce, I kept being able to cry. But that was one more way I didn't fit in my family. None of us cried, except at church. Or funerals. We was sitting on such a backlog, I guess..." Allie trailed off for a while. They turned onto a county road with shoulders and a few other cars in sight.
"I know we're conditioned as women, Myra, to not acknowledge our own power, to not take credit for what we actually do. And there's a similar kind of conditioning for po' folks, to not get fancy pants, as I heard it, to not think you're better than everyone else because we all gotta huddle together. That's there in being raised colored, but it's something else, too, something that black power tapped into, why it swept the country. Something about how if you take actual pride, with it comes the rage and grief that you maybe can't handle. I don't know if this is making sense -- "
"It is" said Myra.
"Anyhow, whatever Podinqo was, I'm living a life they could never have imagined. Never ever. And when I think about how that happened, I don't give myself, or Nana, all the credit for it. I think it luck. A lot of it luck. Your luck included in that."
"I agree, Allie. 'Course, I got some of the same conditioning you did, so I could be deluded, too."
"I don't think it's wrong to notice luck and be glad for it" said Allie. "I think maybe it helps ground you in what Colbert makes fun of as the reality-based community."
They laughed together. Myra asked slowly "Al, do you know that my luck in having you is ever bit as great as your luck in having me?"
Allie grinned sideways and said "Actually, I do. You lucky beyond words to have me keeping you on the road to glory."
Myra threw back her head to laugh, and began singing "I got a home in glory land that outshines the sun..." Allie joined her, and they came into Russellville still singing.
As they passed the car dealership where they'd rented the Buick, Allie said "I just realized, this car, we can't drive it to Birmingham to catch our plane there. No way for them to get it back."
"There's no real car rental place here in town" said Myra. "Shit, what will we do?"
"They's buses" said Allie. "At least, used to be."
They went to the motel and checked into bus lines. The nearest point to catch one was too far away. Stumped, Myra stared out the window for a minute.
"Well, this is where being rich comes in handy" she said suddenly. She opened the phone book again and found the local airfield. After half an hour, she'd secured passage for two on a small plane to Birmingham leaving at 6:00 that evening. They'd be in time to connect with an 8:30 flight to Seattle.
When she got off the phone, Allie said "I don't want to know how much that cost."
Myra grinned at her. "Pack. We have to clean the car before turning it back in. I'm calling Ginny, you want to use the land line to tell Edwina?"
It was Edwina who picked them up at SeaTac. Their flight had been delayed, so it was past midnight. On the drive to Capital Hill, Allie couldn't keep her hands off Edwina behind the wheel, her arm around her shoulder, touching her hair, watching her avidly. Myra remembered years before, coming back home with Chris after her book tour, how wild she'd been to see Ginny and the babies. Maybe she hadn't been gone long enough this time, or maybe she was older and more settled. She was glad to be home, really glad to be out of Russellville, but for her the search was still pending.
The house was dark. She scrambled to punch the alarm buttons before it went off, dropping her keys on the floor. It woke up Ginny, asleep on the couch. They embraced gratefully, Ginny kissing her half-asleep. She was at that stage of night when it was hardest for her to wake up. Myra told her to go on to bed, she'd be in soon.
Myra walked back to her study to put away her folder of papers. She hadn't meant to walk off with them -- Allie would want to show it all to Edwina. She looked in the new refrigerator and saw leftover salad from dinner. She made herself a plate: She was constipated from all her Bluetick meals. She sat down at the table to only the light from the kitchen, and when she bit into one of Ginny's perfect tomatoes, finally she was able to weep.
She got up the next morning to have breakfast with the kids. She gave them each a peach fried pie from the day before she'd never gotten around to eating. As Gillam wolfed his down, Margie asked "How is Allie? What did you find out?"
"She's okay. I -- I think I should leave the story of our journey to her, let her tell you."
"But did you find Podinqo?"
"I think so. Except it's not what we thought it was. Really, that's all I can say."
Margie said, "Just tell me, is what you found out good or bad?"
Myra hesitated, long enough for Margie to say "Bad, then."
Ginny looked at her as inquiringly as Margie was. Margie said "We're supposed to leave for Olympia tomorrow after school, so will you please ask Allie to come over tonight, so we can talk with her before we go?"
"Yeah" said Myra. After the kids left, Myra said "I'm going back to bed, I'm behind on rest."
"I'm going with you" said Ginny. "Daddy, I don't mean to abandon you -- "
"That's all right" he said. "I'll be painting, I'm happy."
Ginny pulled off her clothes and closed the blind, in that order. Myra said "I really do have to sleep. But I'd like to make love, and, equally urgently, I need to talk with you."
"Same here" said Ginny, sliding in next to Myra with a happy sigh.
Myra fell asleep after an extra-long, extra-sweet bout of lovemaking. When she woke up, Ginny was pressed against her back and sleeping as well. Myra rolled over gently and Ginny woke, too.
"I have genuinely shitty nights without you here" said Ginny. "I'm way dependent on you."
"Well, don't tell the 12-step posse, but I like that kind of dependency." They kissed and readjusted themselves in a close wrap.
"David's looking good. What's up with him and Helen?"
"She's not seeing her 'boyfriend' any more, and he's going to Al Anon meetings plus sessions with his therapist at least once a week. She won't agree to quit drinking or see a therapist herself, but she has gone once to talk with their rabbi, so Daddy's put the divorce on hold."
"Damn. Wonder what she told the rabbi?"
"Some self-serving load of crap" said Ginny bitterly. "Still, at least he's getting more of what he needs."
"What else should I caught up on?" asked Myra.
"Nothing big. I want to hear about Allie" said Ginny.
Myra told her everything she could remember, jumping around between episodes, frequently interrupted by Ginny's reactions. Eventually she and Ginny were both sitting up, facing each other, hands interlaced in a web of emotion. Ginny said, "Oh GOD, Myra. This means Allie is, what, one-fourth white?"
"At least. I mean, most African-Americans know there's white in their background. Just usually there's not a name and face attached."
"And here she is raising white kids."
"I know." Myra was relieved to hear Ginny give voice to this. "It keeps crossing my mind that maybe Allie's options are not completely open, either. I mean, her Nana made some choices that -- we can't judge. Allie and I saved each other. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her, and I know the reverse is true. But it's not completely equal, is it? Thank god she insisted we make family, not go to bed together, at least she was smart enough to keep us from that lie. Still..."
"That thing you say about how there's no real consent, you can't say yes if you can't say no without repercussions? Which throws most of heterosexuality into the tank, you know."
"Yeah, that's what I'm driving at, Ginny. We don't actually own black people any more, but we own their labor, still. Capitalism is built on ownership of labor, because you can't underpay people enough to make a profit if you don't own their labor, and when serfs were finally liberated from the gentry and land, it was only because they were bringing in slaves to take their place. To take a collapsed historical view of it."
"But Myra, all throughout, women stayed property, too. Women and children."
"I'm not arguing which is the bedrock oppression upon which all others are built, Gin. I don't care about that any more, because the only way out is for all of us to get free together. ALL of us."
"There goes your separatist membership card, up in smoke" grinned Ginny.
Myra grinned back, even as her brain tried to sort out a maelstrom of ideas and feelings. "I just -- I have this horrible fear that her connection with me is across as great a chasm as I see women having with men, how women lower their emotional standards in order to have intimacy with them because male conditioning is so toxic and most men are hopeless about even seeing it."
"Not all men, Myra. And not all women lower their standards. Some women are fighting the good fight, and have men doing their share."
"So is that what's going on with me and Allie? I don't think it's coincidence that she was finally able to start looking at her past in a new way now that she has Edwina."
"Of course Edwina makes the critical difference. But Allie got to Edwina by making a commitment with you, and eventually with us. It's not an either/or. And -- I know you want me to reassure you, but here's the best I can offer: If there's a rotten piece of how you and Allie are connecting, one of you will figure it out. If it's her first, she'll tell you, and you'll have your heart broken, then you'll get over it and change. That's how you two work. It's why you work."
Myra dropped back onto the bed, throwing her arms out in a mixture of apprehension and release. "Ahhh! Whoever said 'the unexamined life is not worth living' forgot to add that it's back-breaking work, all the same."
"They didn't have to add it. We all know it, which is why most people say 'No thanks, what's on American Idol?'" Ginny lay down beside Myra, pulling Myra's head onto her shoulder. "The place where my mind keeps going is 'How did they bear it?' Allie's people, I mean. How did they face raising children in those circumstances, how did they bear losing children to being sold, knowing they'd never see them again? I don't think I could live through that."
Myra leaned on her elbow to face Ginny, almost aggressively. "But you have to understand it, you have to find a way. Because what I hear, when you say you couldn't bear it, is that they must be some other kind of person because they did bear it. And in our culture, another kind of person translates into not quite human, not human like us. It's the same as all the folks who wonder how come Jews could let the Germans just come for them and haul them off to camps." Myra tempered her words by cupping Ginny's cheek lightly in her palm.
Ginny's eyes were wide. She closed them after a minute, and swallowed. When she opened them again, she said "Margie is asking for full disclosure, you know."
"I know. So is Gillam, in his silent way. We have to decide, are they old enough?"
"With all the upheaval of this year, all they are already dealing with..." said Ginny.
"They're dealing with this, too. Subterranean racism is no less real" said Myra.
"Maybe we can follow Allie's lead? Help them deal with what they hear, take that load off her shoulders?"
"I guess we all learn to bear the unbearable together" said Myra. They kissed again, and Ginny said "When we have to go into a nursing home, they'll have to let us have locked-door time so we can keep processing to the bitter end."
"Nursing home, hell. One of our kids is going to give up their lives to take care of us" grinned Myra. "They owe us, after the adolescence we're only just beginning to suffer through."
"You ready to face the day now?"
Myra got up and began pulling on clothes. In the kitchen, David was standing at the stove stirring a pot.
"I used some of your tomato puree to make bisque" he said, "but something's wrong, it doesn't taste right."
Myra grabbed the spoon and licked it. "It's all right, has to simmer another 15 minutes or so. While we're waiting, shall I make bean and cheese taquitos to go with it?"
"Yum" said Ginny, opening the fridge.
"I started a salad, too" said David.
"You get homemaker points for the day" said Myra, discreetly adding salt, pepper and garlic oil to the soup.
"And I steamed three ears of corn in the microwave, the way you showed me" said David, with growing pride.
"Excellent. We could strip off the kernels and add them to the taquito mix" suggested Myra.
"We'll do that" said Ginny, handing a cutting board and the corn to David. "You call Allie."
Myra walked around the breakfast bar and dialed. When Allie answered, Myra said "You up yet?"
"Hell yes" said Allie. "I been up since Edwina began getting ready for work. Listen, you've got my folder of papers."
"I know, I'm sorry about that. You can come get them and have lunch with us, or I can drop them off after lunch, or -- we're leaving town Friday, Margie and Gillam want you to come for dinner tonight and spill all. What do you think about that?"
Allie considered for a minute. "Yeah, I'm ready. We'll come over when Edwina gets done. But I have a request: After dinner, will you show me, well, both of us, how to start doing family research on your computer?"
"Sure thing. I've got paid access to census and other records, I'll give you my passwords and get you launched."
"That'll be our weekend, then."
"Allie, should I ask Chris and Sima to come tonight, too?"
Allie didn't hesitate. "Absolutely. They helped me and you get to here. I'll call Chris myself."
After she hung up, she mixed a can of vegetarian refried pintos with the peppers Ginny had chopped, while Ginny began grating queso fresco. David said "Ah, about tonight -- would you like me to make myself scarce? I mean, will Allie want me there?"
Myra looked at him, an old white man. Ginny said "Of course she'll want you there." Myra said "I -- I think if she doesn't, she'll say so. Especially right now. But if she doesn't object, I want you to be there. Only...I think it would be better if you didn't ask any questions. Not from her or Edwina. Save them for me later. Can you hang with that?"
Ginny looked upset. David, however, smiled and said "I'm honored to be included at all."
"I believe you, David. Just as I've been honored to be included in the Jewish part of your family's life."
"I think of my time at your table as my dine essen teg. I'm the Yeshiva student, getting fed in several ways at once" said David. Ginny's face relaxed. Myra said "In that case, boychik, what would be your first choice for the main course tonight?"
"Your fried chicken" said David without hesitation. Ginny began laughing wildly.
Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
(Waterfall in front of cave, Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Winston County, Alabama)
Friday, February 15, 2008
Almost all, if not entirely all, of the cultural and artistic references in my novel Ginny Bates are real. Most are drawn from lesbian-feminism. At some point, I'll write a post filling in those of you not "in the know" on references already published here. Right now, I want to mention one: Mara Smith. Mara is a nationally-famous sculptor in brick, one of only a few folks in the country who can do what she can do. She lives in Seattle, so I inserted her into the book: Her friezes, murals, columns, etc. are dotted throughout urban areas in the Pacific Northwest as well as nationally, and Ginny would certainly notice them, one highly skilled artist picking up on the unique work of another.
Which Ginny first did in the book on 13 April 1996, in the excerpt already posted as More Life With Two Bright Children. She refers to some of Mara's work around Seattle and indicates she's going to try to find out who the artist is.
I'm going to do a post soon on Mara, showing you some of her work over the decades. She is my oldest friend, has known me since I was 19 and we both lived in Denton, Texas. In the meantime, I'll publish (after the fold) the story of when Ginny finally locates Mara and they all meet for the first time.
If you are not yet a reader of Ginny Bates and need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.
July 1996 -- Margie is seven, Gillam is five
Ginny heard the Tukwila Farmer's Market had a bonanza of hazelnuts, so on Saturday after breakfast, the whole family piled into the Volvo and headed south. As they were about to enter Tukwila, Myra got off the freeway to ask directions to the Farmer's Market. Back on the frontage road, she was repeating the instructions she'd just been given to herself when Ginny suddenly shouted "Stop! Pull over, Myra!"
Fortunately, there was no car immediately behind them. After hitting the brakes hard, Myra pulled onto the grass and said "What's wrong, are you okay?"
Ginny had turned and was looking behind them. A couple of people were between the frontage road and the highway putting up something made of brick, like a low wall. Ginny said "That's the same artist!"
"What artist? Where?" said Myra, trying to see what Ginny saw. But Ginny had unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the car door. Myra said swiftly to Margie, on the driver's side, "Don't you dare open your door, not yet". Ginny shut her door and walked around the back of the car. Myra put on her hazard lights and rolled down her window, yelling "GINNY!"
Ginny finally stopped and looked at Myra. "The artist who does all those brick carvings in Seattle. They're erecting something else by her right over there." Ginny turned her gaze back on the two men with the brick wall and scurried across the frontage road in a gap between cars.
Myra sighed and said to Gillam "You can get out on your side, but stay next to the car over there until I tell you different." She checked her rear-view mirror, found it was safe to open her door because no cars were near on her side, and got out quickly. She opened Margie's door and said "Come on, go stand at the back of the car." She took each of her children by a hand and waited until the road was very clear in both directions, then marched them across quickly.
Once in the middle of the grassy zone, she unclenched her shoulders and they walked more slowly to where Ginny was already in conversation with what turned out to be a woman in worn jeans and a multicolored jacket. The other worker was a man, mixing mortar the color of dried blood and talking to himself as he did so.
The woman turned to stare at them as they approached, a wild crooked grin on her face. Ginny said "Myra, this is Mara Smith. She's the sculptor! Mara, this is my partner Myra and our children, Margie and Gillam."
Mara was several years older than Myra, with hand-rumpled short blonde hair and crinkly blue eyes that were deeply intelligent. Her face was lined with decades of outdoor exposure, and her hands were an artist's dream, powerful, square, and coated with brick dust.
Myra let go of Margie's hand to shake the hand Mara extended to her, but quickly said "Margie, don't touch a thing. I mean it." Gillam didn't pull away from her. His gaze was fixed on the otters and raccoons who seemed about to crawl out of the brick wall.
Ginny said "So who exactly hires you to do these murals?"
Mara, still grinning, said "Do you work for the city or something?"
"No, I'm a painter, I've just been noticing your art for years" said Ginny. Myra could imagine Mara's confusion. She spoke up "This is Ginny Josong-Bates, we live in Seattle."
Mara's face registered recognition at the full name. "Well, hell, I've seen some of your work" she said to Ginny, relaxing a little.
Ginny said "You do this before they're fired, right? Has to be." She was running her fingers along the bottom half of what appeared to be an entry gate. A rondel with three hazelnuts sat to the side of a partially-completed sculpture of a heron, along with raccoons and otters. The upper half still lay on plastic sheeting on the ground, including Tukwila carved in bold letters, all incised deeply into umber bricks.
But Mara's brain was working another line. Her face showed a second jolt of recognition, this one widening her grin, and she said to Myra "Are you the Myra Josong whatever it is who wrote the Skene book?"
Gillam said proudly "She sure is. She's my mama. They are both my mamas."
Mara took him in, her face softening even more. But Myra interrupted everyone by yelling "Marjorie Rose, what did I tell you?"
Margie had five fingers stuck palm-deep into the trough of rusty mortar. "He said I could" she argued.
"Here, I got a rag" said Mara, picking up a cloth from the ground and heading toward Margie. She deftly wiped Margie's hand and said "Wash up good before you eat anything or put your hand in your mouth, okay?"
Myra, joining them, said to Mara "You gotta be from Texas, the way you talk."
Mara grinned crookedly at her again and said "Grew up in Houston, but my people are from Carthage. You?"
"South of Santone" said Myra.
This was not going according to Ginny's expectations. She came up next to Myra and said "Can we invite you for dinner some night, so you and I can talk art? You and anybody you want to bring -- " she looked at the mortar guy.
"This here is Bob, he's my mason" said Mara. Bob nodded at them but didn't offer to shake -- his hands were as red as Margie's fingers. "I could bring Kris, my partner" continued Mara, "She loves your book, too."
Myra reached in her pocket and pulled out her wallet, extracting a card and handing it to Mara. Mara slid it into her back pocket, saying "I don't have one to give ya in return, I didn't expect to be networking out here today".
"Myra, put her phone number in your notebook" commanded Ginny. Mara gave a little snort of laughter, and Myra joined her but did as Ginny directed. Mara shook their hands again, gravely shaking Gillam's hand, too. "We'll call you tomorrow" said Ginny firmly, and Mara said "Well, allrightee, then." Ginny picked up Gillam and Myra took Margie's gory-appearing hand in hers to head back toward their car. "Nice to meetcha!" Myra called back over her shoulder.
"Same here" said Mara, hilarity in her voice.
We owe to the Middle Ages the two worst inventions of humanity: Romantic love and gunpowder. -- Andre Maurois
I don't celebrate Valentine's Day. I could write an essay about it, but I'll spare you. Besides, Myra and Ginny address it more humorously in a later chapter.
However, I read at Liza's blog See Saw tonight that she hearts hearts. So below, in an anti-valentine shout-out, are two heart images to share.
Me, I prefer spirals. Love them cochleas, vortices, double helices.
(Sand sculpture by Jim Denevan)
(Snail woodcut by Tugboat Printshop)
(Spiral by Alexander Calder)
(Paper art by Jen Stark)
(Navaro Rapids by Ando Hiroshige)
I also like yoni shapes, but that's another post.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
(Winston County, Alabama)
Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post yesterday. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.
30 August 2004
Allie was up early, and consequently so was Myra. They had breakfast at the coffeeshop attached to the motel, while Myra explained what kinds of records they'd be pursuing. They were at the courthouse five minutes after the county clerk office opened. When they walked in, Myra noticed a brief flare of surprise on the face of the 50-something, well-dressed black woman behind the counter. Her face went back to neutral, however, as Myra requested access to the deed indexes, the vital records, probate, divorce, and marriage licenses.
"All of the records before 1966 are in the archives" said the clerk, pointing to a set of stairs going down. "You'll have to request copies up here, we don't have a copier down there and we don't allow folks to do their own copying, anyhow."
"How far back do your records extend?" asked Myra.
"1890. Courthouse burned from a lightning strike" said the clerk. Myra's heart sank. She'd been hoping to go back at least to the Civil War. An extraordinary number of Southern courthouses had been burned during the war, either by Yankees or by locals who saw a chance to eliminate paper trails for nefarious reasons. But 1890 meant the records of Reconstruction, the first assemblage of a free life on the part of Allie's ancestors, was also lost to them.
Myra showed Allie the ropes, how things were organized: It was the same for every county in the South, seemed like. Allie wanted to begin with marriage records, which thankfully here had a bride as well as a groom index. But there were separate indexes for whites and "colored" prior to 1960. Allie's lips tightened again. Myra decided to take on the deeds, which tended to be tedious and full of bad handwriting to decipher.
It was peaceful in the basement. Full of lovely old paper and massive bound books, with light from an airwell at the side: Myra began to have fantasies of a study this sequestered and quiet. But, she noticed after using her inhaler a second time, it was also dusty and likely had a high degree of ambient mold.
"Al? I need to go up into the air, get something to drink, I think" she said.
"Is there a break room in the courthouse, you think?"
"Well, on the square near where we parked, by the corner, was a little grocery store -- looked like something from the fifties. I'll walk down there, you want to go with?"
"No. But bring me back some orange juice, and something to snack on" said Allie, her eyes glued to the index on the table in front of her.
Myra told the clerk on her way out "I'm going for a Co-Cola, back in a bit", noticing how she had pronounced the word. There was a cluster of cars near the tax assessor's office, and one in front of a discount store. Otherwise, the square was empty.
The grocery store had high stamped tin ceilings obscured in shadow. All of the dairy cases were behind thick glass doors. She got Allie's juice, then found a case containing chilled soft drinks in real glass bottles, including RC Cola in a bottle shape she hadn't seen in over a decade. She grabbed two.
The candy aisle, disappointingly, did not hold vintage favorites she had hoped for -- no little wax bottles full of colored liquid, or Blo-Pops. She got a bag of Tom's peanuts for herself, roasted cashews for Allie, and headed for the front.
There were only two registers, one empty and one with a teased-hair white woman at the register. Another customer was ahead of her, a frail-looking black man in faded slacks and neatly-pressed tan shirt, buttoned up to the collar and at the cuffs. His hair was a snowy frizz, and when looking at his skin, she instantly remembered the line from Zora Neale Hurston that Allie quoted often: "High yaller, yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown". Myra would guess him to be seal brown.
He had just done his shopping for at least a week, maybe two weeks. It was the 30th: Just got his Social Security check, she bet. With trembling, knot-knuckled hands he was carefully lifting items from a wire cart to the counter -- no conveyor belts here. A 10-pound bag of white rice, big can of Crisco, smaller can of blackstrap molasses, bag of chicken necks and backs, 5-lb bag of Gold Medal, bottle of light Karo (If he's got a pecan tree, that's a pie, thought Myra), baking soda, can of Maxwell house, quart of sweet milk, two cans of evaporated milk, pound of bacon, box of Spic'n'Span...No veggies or eggs, which means he's got a little bit of land, thought Myra.
She had been standing respectfully back and had apparently not been noticed by the woman at the register. When the old man asked for a can of snuff, however, the woman changed position enough to see Myra.
"Here, now" she called out sharply. "You come on up here, I'll check you out first."
Myra began to protest as the woman shoved aside the old man's last few items, saying "Oh, no, I'm not in a hurry and he's almost done -- "
But the old man shrunk even smaller into his already shrunken frame and stepped back from the counter, pressed into the corner. He didn't look up. Myra froze in horror.
"Give me what you've got there" commanded the woman, her voice not at all friendly. Myra's eyes were on the old man, willing him to make contact with her, as she numbly complied, dropping her bottles onto the counter. The woman voided her register with the push of a button and began punching in Myra's prices.
"I'm sorry" Myra said to the old man. He didn't acknowledge her at all.
"He can wait" said the woman shortly. She took Myra's money, counted out change, and bagged her items in impatient silence. Myra said "thank you" to her and then to the old man, but only the woman responded, saying "You're very welcome" before picking back up the Crisco and starting his checkout again.
Out on the sidewalk, Myra fought the impulse to vomit. She tried to find a way to believe that what had just occurred wasn't what she thought it was. She pulled out one of her RC's, only to discover she needed a churchkey to open the top. Well, she wasn't going back into that store, that's for sure. Maybe the car glovebox would have something to open her bottle.
No luck with the glovebox, but she had a dim memory from her teenage beer-drinking years that led her to find a leverage spot inside the open car door, popping off the cap on the second try. She drank down to the shoulder of the bottle, poured the peanuts into the neck, and sat down inside the car, closing the door as a kind of shield against the square itself. She glanced back at the store: The old man wasn't visible yet.
When he emerged, she could idle up and offer to give him a ride home. But she suspected that would send him into complete panic. She wasn't sure what the rules were, so how to intelligently break them was beyond her. She couldn't believe this was 2004, that his instant subservience could be still happening. If he was in his 70s, then he had been born maybe around 1930 -- well, if he lived through the Depression here, with his parents, that told her a lot.
She took slow sips, crunching a peanut or two with each drag, savoring the mix of syrup and salt. She didn't know how to go back in and face Allie. She had a strong urge to see Chris walk up: She could tell Chris about what had just happened, and if Chris chewed her out, got mad at her, it would help ease her guilt.
But that urge made her feel even more guilty. Leaning on one woman of color to deal with her guilt about another woman of color. Nope, she had to deal with this on her own. Well, and with Ginny, when she got that chance.
She finished her drink and put the empty bottle in the back floorboard, along with her second RC. She hid Allie's snack inside her pack and returned to the courthouse.
"I'll take this outside to eat" said Allie when Myra handed her the bag. "I'm going to take a metformin with this."
"How are you, are you okay?" asked Myra keenly.
"Yeah. My body's calm enough, it's my mind that's racing. I'll tell you about it when I get back."
Myra returned to her survey of deeds, going back and forth from grantor to grantee. Mostly very small transactions, liens against cotton crops, a meager trail but better than nothing at all. It would all tell a story eventually.
When Allie returned, smelling of oranges as she slid in close to Myra, she said in a near whisper, "I got done with the marriage certificates, and the death records, and began on the probate file. And lookie here -- my Nana is listed as the inheritor in the estate of Hulen Moffatt. His house and lot here in town went to her." Allie's face was excited.
"Who is that, some kin you didn't know about?"
"No, he's the old guy, old white guy, who she kept house for until we moved to Birmingham. We lived in the back of his house, this same house, one long room that had once been a porch. It had a divider between our bedroom and a little sitting area. Right off the kitchen, which is where we mostly hung out. Anyhow, I had no idea he left his house to her, and I'm not sure why he did. But that's where her money came from, the money I found in her account when she died, remember?"
Myra had come back with Allie to bury her grandmother, and she did remember Allie's shock at discovering almost $20,000 in her savings account. Money which had been split among her surviving children, including Allie's mother who had promptly spent it on drugs and alcohol.
Allie went on: "That's what she meant when she wrote me in Pensacola and tried to get me to go to school, she was offering to pay, not just trying to get me away from J.T. I wish I'da known that then."
"Would you have gone to school then?"
"I don't know. But it would've mattered to've had the choice" said Allie, her large brown eyes sad.
"Did he, this Moffatt guy, not have any other family?" asked Myra.
"I'm pretty sure he did. I remember fussy white folks, a daughter and her husband maybe, visiting at holidays. When they were there, I had to not come into the kitchen at all. If it wasn't too cold, I could go out to one part of the yard, behind the wellhouse, where I was allowed to play. The only view of it from the house was through the kitchen window, so Nana could watch me but I wouldn't bother the white folks. Had to be quiet, though."
Myra suddenly remembered how much Allie had enjoyed her children's raucous, screaming play, never shushing them or trying to calm them down. A privilege she'd not had growing up. Myra leaned over and kissed Allie's cheek, lingering there for a minute. Allie didn't ask why; they were communicating on another level at the moment. Allie said in a whisper "I can only imagine their reaction when they found out about his will. Another riddle to be answered, if we can."
A couple of hours later, they broke for a late lunch. Allie presented a list of certificates and documents she wanted copied, saying they'd pick them up at the end of the day if that was all right. The clerk who'd been helping them took Allie's credit card and began writing down the information on it, then looked up at Allie sharply. "Billups? They's Billups from here."
"Yes, ma'am" said Allie. "I was born here. My grandmother was Sarilda Billups."
The woman's expression was unreadable. "I knew her well. In fact, I knew Oneta and Alvin. We all went to high school together."
Allie was trying to control her excitement. "I'm their daughter."
"I thought you must be. Ya'll buried Oneta yesterday, I read in the paper. I'm sorry to hear about her passing."
"She's been living with me in Seattle the last year" said Allie. "Her death was sudden."
"So, if you don't mind my asking -- are you trying to find out matters related to her estate?" The woman's eyes were opaque.
"Oh, no, she didn't have an estate. I'm doing...family research. For myself" said Allie.
The clerk resumed copying numbers. After a minute, she said "You might check at the library. They's a fella there real good with our people hereabout. Name of Nedrick. Tell him Ruthann sent you."
Myra felt a frisson down her spine. Allie, her voice calm, said "I'll sure do that, Ruthann. I appreciate it. We're needing to find a good place to eat, you got a recommendation for that?"
Ruthann cast an eye over Myra before answering "Try the Bluetick Diner, two blocks east. Have the catfish." Myra wished they could go to whatever place Ruthann would recommend to Allie if she didn't have a white woman in tow.
"Thanks much" said Allie. "We'll be back after lunch to do a bit more."
"See ya'll later" said Ruthann.
They took a corner booth because the place was nearly emptied from lunch. After ordering, they spread out their notes and began looking for gaps that could be filled.
"I bet we finish up today, at least with what we know so far" said Myra.
"Tomorrow, Nedrick" said Allie firmly.
"Indeed. And maps, either from the library or the local county road office. Maps will be essential for tracking land and cemeteries. Oh my god, look at that chicken!" exclaimed Myra as their food was served.
Myra passed on the dizzying array of pies, out of solidarity for Allie. Allie hadn't been able to even have tea with her lunch because they didn't offer any that wasn't already sweetened. It had been one hell of a meal, nonetheless. They returned to the Bluetick for supper, clutching a folder full of documents and drawing every eye in the place. Strangers, lesbians, mixed race -- Myra wasn't sure what was so compelling about their appearance. It was hard to walk by the silent stares and slide into a booth.
Once they'd ordered, however, the room's interest in them diminished. Myra drew a new family tree, leaving lots of room around each name to fill in details they'd uncovered. It didn't push them back any farther but did flesh out the biographies of folks Allie knew about. The most exciting find was still the bequest her grandmother had received from the "old white guy".
After dinner -- Allie insisted Myra get a piece of pie for take-out -- they drove to the neighborhood where Allie had lived until she was five. After searching up and down a block three times, they realized the house Hulen Moffatt had owned was no longer there. The wellhouse was caved in but that's what finally enabled Allie to locate the lot. A dilapidated Silver Stream trailer occupied the site now.
Allie looked rattled. "Things do pass on" she said softly. "What bothers me most is Nana's garden, her lilacs and pepper plants, all gone."
"Well, no, those peppers are still in the cells of your body" said Myra.
"She made the best piccalilli I ever ate" said Allie with a grin.
When they returned to the motel, Allie said "I need me a good long talk with Edwina, see how she doing."
"Ditto with Ginny and the kids. I'll take my cell and go out to the car, you can have the room phone if that works for you. Just come wave at me when you're done" said Myra.
Myra's piece of peanut butter pie was still in the car along with a plastic spoon, and she began eating it as she dialed home. Margie answered and covered her disappointment that it wasn't one of her friends. She gave Myra a set of very brief answers about her day, managed to ask after Allie, then said "Here's Gillam" and vanished. Gillam was somewhat more communicative -- "We just got in the door, sure wish you were making us dinner, I could use a burger tonight" -- but didn't want to elaborate on his first day of school beyond "I told my art teacher about the Leica we found on EBay and she said I can use it for my photography section with her". The gladness in his voice was good to hear. Ginny was next, announcing that David had gotten in okay, they'd spent the afternoon grocery shopping and working in the garden. When Ginny said "I guess I should think about starting dinner for this crowd", Myra said "Uh...I kinda really need to talk. Could you find a quiet place and take some time with me?"
"Oh. Of course. Let me just -- Daddy, will you put in some potatoes to bake? And, I don't know, maybe marinate that halibut steak? Lime juice and chives will do fine. I'm going to be in my bedroom. Myra, I'm switching phones -- you still there? All right, honey, tell me what's up."
Feeling time pressure, Myra bypassed everything else and went straight to the grocery store encounter. She told it baldly, without adding in her feelings, licking the last of peanut flavor from her spoon at the end to create a pause.
Ginny said "Holy shit. I mean, that was racial, right? She wouldn't have done that if he'd been a white man, right?"
"That's what I'm thinking."
"Holy shit" Ginny said again. "And he didn't even look at you?"
"What did you do afterward? Did you wait out front to talk with him?"
"No. I went to our car and drank my RC. I didn't do anything, Ginny. Not a goddamned fucking thing." Myra's voice began choking up.
"Well, but Myra, what could you do? I mean, I'm really asking, what would have made sense in that situation?"
"That's the thing of it, Ginny. I don't know. I still don't know."
"What did Allie say about it?"
"I haven't told her, Gin. I don't think I can. I'm...humiliated."
"How's she doing, by the way?"
"She's better. Doing something, you know, gives you access to your own power. We had some luck today and an exciting lead tomorrow." Myra didn't want to leave behind her confession of humiliation so quickly.
Ginny, bless her, returned to it on her own. "Sweetheart, I don't think you've got anything to be ashamed of. I mean, you're dealing with entrenched cultural ways of living -- "
"I'm a revolutionary, Ginny, that's supposed to be my fucking bread and butter. I stopped thinking, and I'm still not thinking."
Ginny was silent for a minute. "Well, I don't know what I'd have done, either. But -- what do you think Margie would have done?"
"She'd not have stood for it" Myra said immediately. "She have said 'no way', and put her hands on that old man's arm, ushered him back to the counter. Clumsily and probably pissing off the woman at the register, but I can see her pulling it off."
"Yeah, I can too" said Ginny with a laugh. "And she's your daughter, Myra, she grew up with your lessons."
"Not just mine, or yours. Allie's" replied Myra.
"Well, but how made sure she had Allie as a mom?" asked Ginny. "Myra, okay, yes, you blew it. Your role as an ally means more than just being present for Allie, you have to stand in for white people everywhere. And sometimes you are going to blow it. You may not be from the Deep South but you're still Southern and white, you know where the landmines are and it's bound to be getting to you as much as it's affecting Allie. Cut yourself some slack."
"I need to not let her down, here" said Myra. "This really matters."
"And you're really there with her. She's no dummy, she picked you for this quest, she knows you're good for it. Unless you start wallowing in your sense of inadequacy to the point where you can't stand up any more" said Ginny.
The brutality of this last remark, lightly as it was said, made Myra laugh. "I guess you're saying to quit focusing on my own feelings about racism."
"Well, when you're with Allie, yes. I'm so sorry you had to experience what you did today, angel. I'm glad to hear about it" said Ginny, suddenly tender. Myra let herself cry few minutes, saying "I can't make up for what that man has lived through, I understand why people look away rather than take a good look." Her throat began to loosen, and her craving for the unopened RC in the back seat passed. Finally she said "Okay, I'm ready for what's next, I guess."
"I'm wondering where Edwina is, she promised to come here after work and eat with us" said Ginny.
"She's on the phone with Allie. I'm out in the car" said Myra.
"Oh. Good to know. Hang on, someone's knocking at the bedroom door -- Yes?"
Myra heard David's voice saying apologetically "The fish is done, a little overdone, I'm afraid, but the potatoes are still raw in the middle."
"You broiled it already? Listen, Myra, I need to go. Call me again later if you want to."
"I'll probably wait until tomorrow, I have the feeling I'll have more news then. Love you all there is, Ginny Bates."
"Same here. Kisses to Allie."
After showers, Allie and Myra curled up in bed and channel-surfed the motel's cable for a while. During a commercial, Allie said "Edwina's hot on the trail of Podinqo. Wherever it was is east of here, and she got hold of a Native lands map that shows east of here was Choctaw. So she think it might be a Choctaw word. She got access to online dictionaries, for Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee."
"Hot damn. When did she find time for all that today, I wonder?"
"She had her laptop with her, and she had time in class because she gave each of her classes a lengthy pop quiz, right off the bat. Told 'em it wouldn't count against their grade, but the questions she asks, it gives her a baseline to chart their progress as the term unfolds. Plus, it lets 'em know she's a hard-ass" chuckled Allie.
"Your hard-ass" said Myra.
In the middle of the night, Myra woke up to Allie's hand patting her rump. They were back to back, and Allie had reached behind her in her sleep to reassure herself that Edwina was there, Myra thought. She stifled her laughter and drifted back off.
They gave up on the coffeeshop entirely and instead headed for the Bluetick for breakfast, where Allie had a hard time holding herself back on their giant, fluffy biscuits. By this point, Myra anticipated that her habit of generous tipping would have won her friendliness from at least the woman who had waited on them two times out of three, but nope, the chill was still on. She was beginning to wonder what Nancy would have said about the energy of this town.
When they got to the small public library, there were only two staff members evident and it seemed abundantly clear that Nedrick must be the fat black man with pointed glasses reminiscent of Dame Edna Everedge. They went directly to him, Allie holding out her hand to say "Hi, I'm Allie and this is my friend Myra, we were doing genealogical research at the county clerk's office yesterday and Ruthann said we oughta check in with Nedrick here."
As soon as Nedrick opened his mouth, it became obvious he was, as Myra's brother Gil would have put it, queer as a three-dollar bill. Flamer, to be exact. All he needed was Mary Kay and a housecoat to make a dictionary definition. Myra missed the first few sentences exchanged between him and Allie because she was so distracted by wondering how on earth he survived here, how he kept from getting beat up, how he ever found men willing to be seen in his vicinity. The other librarian, an iron-jawed white woman who could have been a sister to the grocery store clerk of yesterday, ignored them utterly.
Myra zoned back in when she heard Allie say "number one goal would be to locate Podinqo."
Nedrick fluttered his hand: "Sorry? What's that word?"
"Podinqo. Alabama. A small town or village or enclave that was likely east of here -- " began Allie.
Nedrick began laughing merrily. "Oh, honey, that's a made-up place in a children's book, it doesn't really exist, at least not in Alabama."
Allie grinned. "Well, I based it on stories my grandmother told me about something that was a historical reality."
Nedrick stared at her, and a series of expression changes were easily charted on his open face. "Allie -- you are Allie Billups? Well, upon my word, as the gentleman says! What an honor! Could we impose upon you to maybe sign our copies of your books?" He began a hurried walk toward the children's shelves.
After dutifully signing a handful of books, Myra silently noting the titles so they could send them the volumes they were lacking, Allie returned to the topic of the real Podinqo. As she spelled out what she knew, including her grandmother's name and history, Nedrick showed sudden inspiration and said "Do you mean Apochanko?"
"What's that?" asked Allie.
"Oh, my dear, lots of folks think it's apocryphal but I've seen it on maps from the late 1800's. Similar to Nickajack. And it's not in Franklin County, it's in the Free State of Winston." Nedrick began scurrying toward a set of shelves on local and regional history.
As they followed him, Myra gave Allie a two sentence explanation of the Free State of Winston -- the county next door that had refused to go along with Alabama's secession from the Union and instead had tried to secede as a region from Alabama. "They were mostly poor whites who didn't own slaves and didn't aspire to, so they wanted no part of the war" she said.
"What's Nickajack?" asked Allie.
"That I don't know" said Myra. But Nedrick had a large book open on a table and answered "Nickajack refers to this mountainous area, Appalachian foothills, strung out here in Northeastern Alabama and into Tennessee. But it was also a town of refugees right after the Revolution, led by a freeman named Jack Civil. Runaways, renegades, white, black, Cherokee and Creek all gathered there, called themselves Chickamauga and were eventually rousted out by a military expedition." He pointed to a spot on an old map labeled "Nickajack Cave."
"Now, Apochanko was not so famous nor nearly had such a bad reputation. When the U.S. government began stealing Chickasaw and Choctaw lands in Alabama, they used a variety of quasi-legal methods. One was to grant treaties, then assign the worst sections of land to the native folks and open up the rest to white settlers. In a remote, bluff-filled area cut off by rivers and creeks in the northeast part of Winston County, one group of Choctaw families held on for grim death, somehow making a living. It wasn't land that was useful to the whites pouring in, so nobody messed with them for a generation or two. Occasionally runaway slaves would find a way there and hide out, living off the woods. It had the reputation of being a protected spot, but eventually one of the Choctaws would drop a hint in exchange for a small reward and the slaves would be hunted down, returned to bondage." Nedrick had found a second map, crude and not to scale, but among the hills and woods was a circled clearing labeled Apochanko.
"I dunno" said Allie doubtfully, getting her face close to the map to study it. "My Nana talked about it like her folks -- these would be her grandparents, now, Ellick and Feneda Rascoe -- they lived there a while. And they were free, not runaways."
"Could they have been Choctaw?" asked Nedrick.
"Nope. Don't believe so" said Allie. Myra was looking at her rough family tree, however, and said "Well, Al...Your Nana was born in 1901, right? Which means her daddy Asa Rascoe was likely born in the 1870s -- we don't have dates for him yet, but stands to reason."
"He was born free, I know that for a fact" said Allie stubbornly.
"Okay, I'm not arguing that. But -- his parents would not have been born free. In fact, they might not have gotten free until five or ten years before he was born. So..." Myra trailed off, letting Allie fill in the gaps.
"Maybe they were free because they ran away to Podinqo? I mean, Apochanko? But the stories were about whole generations" said Allie.
"Things get collapsed in family stories" said Myra gently. "The generations were real enough, just not all in one place, maybe."
"You mean, maybe they only had one year or so of freedom? And it became this legend?" Allie's eyes were dark with pain. "I can imagine that. Dammit to hell."
"Can we get copies of these maps?" Myra asked Nedrick as she put an arm over Allie's shoulders. "Any maps at all of this county and the next that you know about, we want copies."
"I'll pull everything I can think of and you can use the copier in the corner. We can make change for you at the counter if you need it." As he was looting the shelves for volumes, Nedrick added "You might also want to look through our old newspapers on microfilm. They're not indexed, unfortunately, but I can point you to the most fruitful sections in the paper and from there it's just ruining your eyes."
"I can do that" said Myra, adept at microfilm work. "You look through these and copy anything that might be useful, no matter how insignificant?" Allie nodded. She said to Nedrick, "Do you have high school yearbooks here for the 1940s and 50s?"
"Not all, but some" said Nedrick. "I'll bring them to this table for you."
They were not done by lunch. Nedrick promised to keep their stack untouched while they went to the Bluetick. It was blisteringly hot outside, with a steady drone of cicadas making the air seem electrified. They didn't talk much over the meal. Myra was glad to not have to concentrate on anything for an hour.
Allie completed her copying long before Myra was done, and there was only one microfilm machine, so Allie settled into a chair next to Nedrick's work area and talked with him for an hour. He was ten years their junior and hadn't known her family personally, but he did know a wealth of information about local black culture. Myra couldn't hear what they were saying, only the steady hushed laughter. She hoped Allie was taking notes.
When Myra finally reached the end of the rolls, her eyes were exhausted and her vision was blurry. She added her stack of print-outs to Allie's in the folder that was now bulging and they took a long, grateful farewell of Nedrick, exchanging e-mail addresses. At the car, Myra said "You should be the one to drive."
"Just fried. I need to eat, I need some caffeine, and I need to rest my eyes."
"Can do" said Allie. After that got back to the motel room, Myra checked the time and decided it was too early to have a decent talk with Ginny. "I think I'm going to sack out for a bit. Wake me up by 10:00 our time so I can call home, will you?"
"Okay if I talk to Edwina over here? I'll keep it low."
When Allie shook her gently hours later, the TV was on to local news. Myra hadn't woke up once. She dialed home and caught up on how things were going. Gillam wanted to set up a darkroom in the guest bath and Ginny wanted to take a community darkroom course with him during the fall. Myra suggested they talk with Chris about constructing a set-up that could be taken down easily for when guests were over and needed the bathroom temporarily. Margie talked about a new set of kids she was getting to know, "not quite nerds but brainy and political, but they also have a sense of fashion", and she sounded exuberant.
When she hung up, she went to brush her teeth. She called out to Allie, "How's Edwina?"
"She got the word Apochanko in her teeth like a terrier, say she'll tell us not only what language it from but what region of Africa the black folk who changed it to Podinqo are from, based on linguistic distortion, I believe was the term."
Myra returned to the room grinning. "Watch her knowing more about the place than we do by the time we get back."
Allie was slowly going through the stack of papers in their folder. Myra said "I'm still too fried to collate our findings today, can we do that over breakfast?"
"What's that, yearbook photos?" Myra got snared in spite of herself.
"My mama. And Alvin, my daddy."
"Wow, you really favor him, Allie. An extremely pretty boy, that Alvin."
Allie looked embarrassed but pleased. Myra said "So, tomorrow...Are we going to try to find Apochanko?"
"Funeral home first. Nedrick said they got a book listing every burial that has a legible headstone, for every known cemetery in the county. I'd rather make copies than walk around snaky ghost-fields."
"Especially in this heat. Okey-doke, I'm going to watch TV unless it'll bother you."
"Nope. I'm too worked up to sleep yet. Lotsa pieces here."
Myra found a cable special on crocodiles and settled under the covers happily. She was starting to get drowsy again when she heard Allie said "Holy fuck."
"What is it?" said Myra, sitting up. Allie looked at her with an amazed face.
"You copied the obituary for Hulen Moffatt. The old white guy we lived with when I was little."
"Yeah, Allie, by that time I was just pushing print without thinking much about it. What's wrong, what does it say?" She got out of bed and went to the table next to Allie.
"Look at him" said Allie hoarsely.
Myra stared down at the black-and-white image, grainy and smudged as newspaper photos tended to be, made worse by microfilm rendering. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to see.
Allie opened her dayrunner and pulled out a set of the photos of her mother that they had handed out at the funeral. She set one down beside the photo of Hulen Moffatt. Myra gasped. The skin color was different, but every facial feature, even the set of the eyes, was identical.
She looked at Allie, whose face was a mask of disbelief. "Your Nana..." began Myra, stopping herself.
Allie licked her lips, then said "I was his grandbaby. His own flesh and blood. And he treated me like I didn't exist."
Myra put both her hands into Allie's. "This is more wrong that I can hardly make sense of, Allie. My god...your mama must have known. And your poor Nana..."
Allie stood abruptly, her chair turning over behind her. "I fucking don't believe it. I'm left behind, to sort out this mess, his stinking mess. FUCK the legendary compassion of my stupid-ass people, this is too much!"
She strode toward the door, grabbing the car keys. Myra scrambled to intercept her.
"Where are you going?"
"For a drive. Over his grave, preferably" said Allie, her face livid.
"No, you're not" said Myra, blocking the door.
"Myra, you don't want to mess with this, you really don't" warned Allie.
"I know what this kind of rage feels like. Well, no, not this kind, of course I don't. But I can still hear it. Aim it at me if you have to, Allie. Get it out of you, I want to hear whatever it is."
Allie wheeled and kicked the side of the bed as hard as she could. The headboard slammed against the wall. It startled her a little. She looked around at Myra, then threw herself down on the bed, screaming into the crumpled covers. Myra lay beside her, giving her a pillow for added muffling. Allie screamed and thrashed like a two-year-old, her face becoming dark red, her lips swelling. After a few minutes, her screams abruptly switched to sobs. When she was finally done, the pillow was wet and had smears of snot on it. Allie leaned back to look at it, then Myra, her face puffy but clear.
"That's your pillow now" Myra said, sending them both into gales of laughter. Myra got a wet washcloth for Allie's face. As Allie rubbed herself clean, she said "I need to call Edwina again."
"You want privacy?"
"If you really don't mind" said Allie, giving her a kiss on the cheek.
"I'll go to the car. Come get me when you're done."
June bugs were buzzing stupidly in the dark, giving Myra a bad case of heebie-jeebies: She hated Junebugs. She rolled the car windows up and sat drenched in sweat until Allie opened the motel room door and waved at her.
"I need a shower" Myra said, heading for the bathroom.
"Let's go swimming instead" suggested Allie.
"It's after hours..."
"We'll be quiet as minnows" said Allie, pulling out her suit.
When they finally went to bed, they spooned sweetly and slept easily.
Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
(Untitled, Barragán House, #20, laserchrome print by Luisa Lambri, 2005)
Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post of February 5th. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.
A few days later, Myra got up to oatmeal already in the pot and Ginny at the table, sipping tea with a folder in front of her. Myra fixed herself a bowl with maple syrup and butter, added cottage cheese on the side, and sat down next to Ginny.
"What're you studying there?" she asked.
"Gillam said the washer didn't drain all the way from the load he put in last night" said Ginny.
"Again? I'll call the repair place after I eat" sighed Myra.
"Well, that's what I'm looking at. We've had it repaired three times in the last year and half, and once the year before that. We bought it new 17 years ago. I think it might be time to let it die" said Ginny.
Myra felt like she'd ambled off a dirt lane and discovered she was on a freeway. It felt too early to talk about the evils of "buying new" with Ginny. Before she could word an argument, Ginny went on.
"And when I started thinking about when we bought it, and the dryer, I realized that's also when we got the major kitchen appliances as well. You know, the freezer just plain quit six years ago, and they couldn't find a part to repair it, so we shelled out for a new one. But the freezer section in the fridge no longer keeps ice cream hard, and it's noisy, Myra -- listen to it right now, it's making a racket. We've gotten used to it, but that can't be normal."
Myra looked at her in growing disbelief. "So, what -- you want to buy all new appliances? Without any real need for it?"
"I think there comes a point where running old, sluggish machinery is more expensive and harder on the environment than energy-efficient models would be" said Ginny.
"If you are trying to play the one card you know will work with me -- " began Myra.
"I'm not playing anything, Myra. I'm just considering an unpopular idea. Listen, we have to buy Gillam a new bed this week, we always get beds spanking new. So...maybe we can get a deal at a furniture slash appliance store. But I refuse to be the villain here, the big spender. I want you to check out the pros and cons, and come up with a recommendation. Since the cost will come out of a joint account" said Ginny.
Me and my big mouth thought Myra. Out loud she said "Not my stove. No change to my stove."
"No, that's a work of art, as is what you produce from it" grinned Ginny. "I knew that was out of bounds." She shoved the folder over to Myra, stood up and kissed the top of her head, and added "There's no reason not to get Gillam a queen-size bed, Margie has one in her room left over from Hannah. I'll handle the desk and drafting table with him after school this week."
"I'm donating all the old stuff to Habitat or Goodwill" said Myra, as if scoring a point.
"Of course" said Ginny.
Over the next two days, Myra became a savant on the topic of energy ratings and appliance specs, droning on to whoever would listen. Margie was incensed at having to sit in a public laundromat with five loads because Gillam had to go shopping with Ginny and the washer still wasn't working. Eventually, selections were made and delivery was scheduled for Saturday morning. Ginny had agreed with Myra on a deep red for the new fridge and dishwasher, navy blue for the front-loading washer and dryer pair.
Chris came over on Saturday as well, to help finish the wall panels for Gillam's room. This meant it was up to Margie to clean out the fridge. When she was done, she stalked out to the deck where Myra and Chris were already covered in sawdust and announced "I'm leaving. Mall, movies, anywhere but this Extreme Home Makeover set."
Myra looked up and said "Appreciate your help. You okay for spending money?"
When Margie hesitated, torn between honesty and greed, Myra whispered "Don't tell Ginny, okay?" and pulled a fifty from her pocket. Margie slid the bill deftly into her bra and kissed Myra's grimy cheek. After she left, Chris could not stop laughing. "So much for imparting rational class values" she hooted.
"We're spending more than that on Gillam this week -- " began Myra, but she gave it up.
It was a long day. By the time Margie returned and was instructed to order pizza for their dinner, appliances had been installed, Gillam's ceiling and wall covering were up but his bed was still in the upstairs hall, leaned against the wall, and the deck was a mess. They ate hungrily, laughing often, and Margie was in such a good mood she offered to help Gillam set up his bed after dinner.
"When you're done with that, I have one last favor to ask" said Myra. She had them clear out the garden shed, stacking everything in the corner of the deck under the overhang, explaining "Chris and I are going to put linoleum down on the floor and hang some new organizers on the walls."
"Tonight?" said Margie. "It's dark."
"Yeah" said Myra cryptically. "We want to get it all finished today." She had Gillam haul in the bags of Sakrete from Chris's car, saying something about a new foundation for the shed. Gillam was happy to escape upstairs after that, lying on his new bed gazing at his new walls, done in colors that made Ginny shudder when she entered his room. Margie had three new CDs and shut herself up in her room as well.
Once they were presumed to be asleep, Myra got the waterproof flat safe from her and Ginny's closet and tucked it under the daybed in her study. They had the shed over on its side, blocking the view of their excavation from the only neighbors who could see what they were doing, the Limons. Ginny snorted and said "As if that sweet old couple are going to come rob us, Myra", but it was either that or work in darkness, Myra insisted, which Chris said was out of the question. Ginny went to bed at 11:00.
She didn't hear Myra join her, although she was glad to see Myra showered before getting under the sheets. The kitchen was littered with the remains of a fry-up, likely around dawn, Ginny thought. A note stated Chris was sacked out in the spare bedroom, and neither of them would be up before noon. Ginny made herself a cup of tea and walked outside to look quizzically at the shed. They'd repainted it to match the house, and a miniature weather station had been installed on its roof -- part of Myra's obsessive cover for their actions. She opened the door and looked at the floor. No sign of the trap door beneath, the concrete vault that now held $70,000 in gold and who knows what other contraband Myra had sneaked in there when Ginny wasn't looking.
Ginny sighed and shut the door tight. Narnia was snuffling everywhere curiously, which meant Margie had at least woke up long enough to open her bedroom door. Ginny turned to examine her garden. Small new zukes were epidemic, and enough ripe tomatoes to make at least a couple jars of preserves. She walked back into the house for her harvesting basket and snips -- this was a treasure she could appreciate.
24 August 2004
Allie came early to help Myra make dinner, saying Edwina would join them after work. Margie and Gillam were upstairs, and Ginny was in her studio. Allie had brought a bag of fresh okra from a farmer's market, and she and Myra bickered gently about whether to fry it or stew it -- Myra said stewed okra reminded her of chunky green snot. Her duck with orange sauce was already in the oven.
As they were slicing okra on two different cutting boards, planning to make it both ways, Myra began reminiscing about a girlfriend she'd once had who milked cows twice a day. "There was this muscle in her thumb that was really something to see" said Myra, looking with regret at her own poet-y hands. "Oh -- which reminds me -- "
She began walking back to her desk, motioning Allie to follow.
"You've studied a little anatomy, Al, right, for drawing classes? Come here, tell me what you think this muscle is." Myra opened a file on her computer and began shuffling through full-screen color close-ups of Natalie Coughlin.
"Whoa -- how many photos of her do you have?" said Allie, leaned over Myra's back.
"I dunno. So, see that bulge there? And it's not just when she's doing the butterfly, it's also when she's just raising her arm, like here. I mean, have you ever seen shoulders like this woman's got? What muscles has she developed to look this way?" Myra's tone was thick with reverence.
Allie suggested they find Gray's Anatomy online. Once they had, she got distracted by leg muscles and insisted Myra locate action shots of Jackie Joyner-Kersee as well. After several minutes of going back and forth between Natalie, Jackie and the anatomy text, Ginny poked her head around the corner and said coldly "I hate to interrupt your Olympic porn session, but it smells like dinner is burning."
"Oh, shit" said Myra, leaping to her feet. Allie followed her to the kitchen, helping Myra finish the okra. Ginny walked to Myra's computer and closed all the windows except the file labeled "Natalie", which she somehow, accidentally, deleted instead of closing. Those images were public JPEGs -- Myra could go hunt them down again, if she absolutely had to.
That night, as Myra and Ginny settled into bed, Ginny said "Daddy has tickets for next Monday, getting here around 11."
"How long is he staying?" asked Myra.
"He's leaving it open. He wants to help Gillam through the adjustment of being in a new school, without Carly, so he said he'd stay until he wasn't needed any more."
Myra muttered "Mary Poppins" and laughed.
"I'm thinking that first weekend after he's here, we should go to Olympia" continued Ginny.
"Why? I mean, won't that kinda rake up Gillam's missing Carly?" said Myra.
"Because Carly won't have a zayde there for him, I'm sure he's expected to just tough it out. Knowing that Gillam would be there at the end of that first week, someone to talk it over with, plus of course how much he treats Daddy like his own grandfather -- it'll give him a lifeline" said Ginny.
Myra felt ashamed that she hadn't thought of this herself. "Of course" she said. "We can hold off on the new school clothes expedition until then, go to the outlet mall, that'll make Margie happy, too."
"I'll tell Edwina tomorrow. I hate leaving her behind that weekend, it's her first week of teaching at Udub as well" said Ginny.
"Will it be that different from Reed, then?" wondered Myra. She could feel Ginny look at her in the darkness.
"Myra, she gave up tenure to come here and live with Allie. Not just all her friends, and the place she'd settled down in, but tenure. Academic freedom and economic security." Ginny tried to not sound critical, she knew this was one of the areas where Myra felt touchy about her ignorance.
"Wow. Is she having a hard time with it, then?"
"I think so. And she can't talk it over completely with Allie, because, well, you know how it is with new love, you don't want to make them feel bad" said Ginny. "Plus, I'm not sure Allie really understands what a commitment Edwina's made, either."
"Would it be all right if I talked with Allie about it?" asked Myra.
"It would be good" said Ginny.
"Will Edwina get tenure again, here I mean?" asked Myra.
"Probably, she's a hot commodity. But it's not just scholarship and teaching, there's a lot of political crap and white boy hostility she has to weather. And it will take a long time." Ginny sounded worried.
"Is it -- do you think she's gonna have second thoughts? About her choice?" Myra was getting worried, too.
"You mean about Allie? No. Edwina's never been in love like this, and we both know Allie's good for it, good for hitching your wagon to the rest of your life. But along with Allie came an extended family, a couple of teenagers, a crazy mother-in-law, most of us white, and, well, Edwina loves it, loves us, but it's like her version of a big fat dyke wedding" said Ginny.
"I'm glad she has your friendship" whispered Myra.
"I'm equally glad of hers" said Ginny. "She's older than all of us, you know, she's like the big sister to me that Cathy would've been if she hadn't had to fight her own battles in our house."
Ginny's voice was beginning to sound drowsy. Myra had been rubbing Ginny's back, moving from one shoulder to the other, and they were now completely relaxed.
"See you in our dreams" whispered Myra. "Mmm" said Ginny.
Two hours later, the phone rang. Myra got to it first, with Ginny saying "What? What is that?" in confusion.
Allie's voice said "Myra. My mama died."
"Oh fucking hell, Al, no."
"I'm at her place. They called me, said something was wrong but didn't tell me what until I got here." Allie's voice was rigid.
"What happened? You just saw her this morning, right?"
"They thinking heart attack. I have to say if I want an autopsy, not just the coroner report. What do you think?"
Myra covered the mouthpiece and looked at Ginny, who had managed to turn on the light and was staring at Myra anxiously. "Allie's mother died tonight" she said softly before returning to the call.
"Al, are you going to rest easy without an autopsy? I mean, the fact that you've even thought of it -- "
"I'd like to know what all she was contending with" said Allie slowly. "She's all the blood kin I got left, close in terms of biology..."
"Then yes, ask for one. It won't matter to your mama, she's gone from here now" said Myra. At that, she heard Allie sob. "I'm getting dressed, I'll be there in half an hour. Is Edwina with you?"
"Yeah. Okay, good. Come soon" said Allie, choking back tears.
As Myra pulled on clothes, she said "I hate leaving you behind. But you should sleep, if you can. It'll be a long day tomorrow."
"Give them all my love" pressed Ginny.
The request for an autopsy delayed other procedures, so that Ms. Billups was not cremated until Friday morning. They had a small service at the assisted living facility, for her friends and Allie's family in town. Allie had decided to bury her mother next to her grandmother, however, back in Alabama, so Friday evening the extended family, including Chris and Sima, boarded planes for Birmingham. They rented a minivan and went to a motel for the remainder of the night. Allie had cousins in Birmingham they planned to meet for breakfast. A funeral home in Russellville, where the burial was to occur, was arranging for pick-up of her mother's ashes.
Allie did very well, grieving easily and letting everyone else help her without objection, until they got to Alabama. There she suddenly became tense and tight-lipped. This persisted the next morning as they met her kin, the children and grandchildren of her mother's older sister Linda, now also dead. Margie introduced herself to them and led the way toward normalizing conversation. After eating, Margie asked Allie to show them where she had gone to school and lived from age six until she left home, and after hesitating, Allie agreed. The cousins begged off, saying they would meet up with them again in Russellville later that day.
Allie drove them to her high school first. School had already begun here, so they just circled the block while Margie peppered her with questions. Finally Allie said in a flat voice "I wasn't popular. I was considered a 'good girl', and that didn't mean good, not really. I made straight A's, I didn't date, I didn't have a lot of friends."
"You didn't date because you were a lesbian, right? Could you not be out then?" asked Gillam.
Allie said grimly "No, but I wasn't out to myself either, yet. I was -- in limbo. Until I was a senior."
"What happened then, you meet a girl?" asked Margie.
"I started drinking" said Allie. That shut up both kids for half a block. Myra was about to break the thick silence with some comment, any comment, when Margie asked "Well, when did you meet J.T.? She was your first girlfriend, right?" Margie looked at Edwina apologetically, as if Edwina could possibly be threatened by this.
"Not until I got to Pensacola" said Allie. With a sigh, to ward off the next question, she said "I went there with a guy right after graduation. Met her in a bar two weeks later."
"A guy?" exclaimed Gillam. "Not like a boyfriend?"
"A white man old enough to be my daddy" said Allie. "He had money, I needed to get out of town."
This was not news to Myra or Chris, or Edwina from the looks of it, but Ginny and the kids were gobsmacked. Margie looked at Allie with a considering expression on her face. Myra didn't want to hear what question might come from her next. She said "Al, your grade school is gonna be swarming with kids, too. You wanna show 'em the duplex you and your Nana lived in, and then we can hit the road."
The duplex was abandoned, the roof partially gone. Gillam and Margie insisted on going around to peek in all the windows, and Allie trailed after them, a disheartened expression on her face. Ginny stayed in the car with Myra, saying "What's going on with her? Delayed grief about her mother?"
Before Myra could answer, Chris said "She's scared. Being here scares her."
Edwina glanced at Chris and nodded. "It came up for her when we were here last November, but not this much."
"Well, her side is down one more" said Myra. "Plus -- Ginny, we need to head up teams, here. I know the kids are naturally curious, this is their first chance to find out details about their beloved Allie, but it's not leaving her a lot of room to have her own reactions. How about if I start answering their questions, as best I can, and you help them deal with their responses to that? So Allie is off the hook, parenting-wise."
"Deal" said Ginny. "Are you going to reassure Allie that we'll take care of her, she doesn't need to be scared?"
Myra blew in air over her lip. "We can't take care of what she's scared about. It's not necessarily present-time. And she doesn't need my reassurance. She just needs room to feel it, and if it's safe enough for her to do that, it's enough."
"More than enough" said Edwina softly.
When it came time to head for Russellville, after checking the route and verifying it was about two hours away, Allie jingled the keys in her hand for a minute before handing them to Myra.
"You better drive. I'll take shotgun, to direct you."
Myra gave Ginny a look. Once they were underway, she saw Ginny in the far back seat, between Gillam and Margie, explaining something to them quietly and assumed it the meaning of "driving while black". Later, when they passed through the center of one small town with a bus terminal on the main drag, Allie pointed to a dairy stand at the corner and said "That little joint used to have the best root beer ever. I think they maybe they mixed their own."
Gillam, who had been leaning over the back seat to talk with Chris, overheard this and asked "Can we stop, see if they still have it?" Allie shook her head abruptly, and Myra drove on. There were no "Colored Service" signs up at the stand now, of course; she'd explain it to her kids later.
In Russellville, they checked into the motel where Ginny had reserved a block of suites for Allie's relatives as well as them. Allie called the funeral home and checked in. As everyone gathered in Allie and Edwina's room to figure out where to eat lunch, a knock came at the door. Allie answered and yelled "You made it!" She came in with her arm around the neck of Vachel, her Uncle Boyd's only son. Her grin was ear to ear.
Vachel had visited them a few times in Seattle and was greeted as gladly by everyone else. A beautiful short man with hair he dyed red, his queeny accent came and went depending on his surroundings. He cast the deciding vote on their lunch location and they traipsed out to the cars, Allie and Edwina switching over to ride with Vachel.
Allie's tension eased considerably with Vachel's presence. After lunch they went back to the motel for a while, where the kids went swimming and Allie greeted family members as they arrived. Vachel was the only one of Boyd's children who came; the rest of them remained in New Orleans. The Birmingam group checked in, and an hour later, Chaney's oldest daughter, her husband and one of their daughters pulled in as well from Mobile. Allie's mother Oneta had been the youngest, by far, of four: Linda the oldest girl, Chaney and Boyd. Boyd had been the baby until Oneta was born when he was 12. All of the siblings were dead now. All Allie had left were cousins.
Cousins who did know Allie was a lesbian, apparently, but were taken aback by her white-plus-one-Indian family, not sure how to plug them into the kinship network. Margie kept grilling everyone for stories about Allie when she was little, which gave a comfortable topic for them all to fall back on. Even Allie enjoyed the tales that got told, most of them funny or about how smart she'd been, how well-behaved, how quiet.
Myra had gathered up all the photos they had of Allie's mother in Seattle and made multiple copies to give away to her family. These were pored over and slipped into pocketbooks. Everyone commented on how happy she looked, and their was faint relief in their voices: She'd had a hard run of it, but at least she was happy at the end. The most that poor people can hope for, thought Myra.
That night was the sitting at the funeral home, and Myra had arranged for it to be catered by a local restaurant, a buffet style dinner in a separate area at the back, with covered picnic tables. The platters of barbecue made Gillam's eyes bulge, and with diabetes stalking the family, Myra had gotten half the desserts made with artificial sweetener. Since there was no body to view, only an urn, most people stayed out with the food, talking in a nonstop, fluid flow. Liquor was coming from somewhere -- pocket flasks, Myra guessed. She could smell it on breaths and sense its social lubrication as the evening wore on.
She went back to the buffet for her third helping of links plus their amazing potato salad, which she was about to decide had a dash of cinnamon in it. Chris had joined her when they heard from the nearest table a woman saying "Well, but Oneta was spoiled rotten, being a change of life baby, you know."
A second voice said "That ain't all of why; Sarilda was always trying to make up to her for you know what."
Myra and Chris looked at each, then Chris glanced around to see if Allie was in earshot. She was not; Vachel, however, was nearby and came to stand behind them, whispering "Gossip on its toxic run."
"Do you know what they're talking about?" asked Myra. He nodded. "Does Allie?" He said "I think not."
"Then don't tell us" said Chris. "It doesn't matter now."
Finally people were ushered tactfully to their cars. Myra hoped the short drive back to the motel didn't result in any wrecks for the more enebriated. She finally located a missing Gillam at the catering truck, stuffing his pockets with cookies and protesting "They're gonna throw them out, Mama!"
Back at the motel, Allie went to the bathroom for a minute -- to take her injection, Myra thought -- and settled on her bed, leaning against the wall with Edwina beside her. Margie lay down on her stomach across the foot of the bed, and the rest of them, including Vachel, sat down to decompress.
"The man at the funeral home said if we meet there by 9:30, that be plenty of time to get to the cemetery" said Allie.
"I guess we should check out before then" said Sima. "Our flight leaves at 7 in Birmingham, right? So, lunch here, drive back, and kill time?"
Edwina nodded, but Allie seemed to be thinking something over. Finally she found Myra's eyes and said "I think I'm ready."
Myra understood instantly what she meant, then second-guessed herself and asked "For what?"
"To find out about my people. Can we do that from here?" Myra saw Edwina's hand in Allie's tighten.
"Yep. Get a good running start on it, anyhow, once the county records' office opens" said Myra. "Plus a lot of walking around cemeteries. You want to come back in a couple of weeks, let me check out census rolls first?"
"Well...I'm afraid if I leave, I won't never come back. Could you stay with me, next few days? This week?" asked Allie.
Myra looked at Edwina first. Edwina had to be back in Seattle on Monday morning to start teaching at Udub, no way out of that commitment. And her own kids were starting school, Gillam without Carly -- she looked at Ginny, who was startled but resigned. Ginny said "Daddy's coming in day after tomorrow, we'll be okay." She gave a brief nod in the direction of Edwina. Myra wasn't sure if that meant "We'll take care of Edwina" or "I don't know if Allie should abandon Edwina right now".
But Allie was looking deep into Edwina's eyes and they said something inaudible to each other. Edwina said "I think you should" and that carried through the room.
Myra said "All right. I'm in." She reached for her pack, pulled out a notebook and said "Let me get an outline of what we might find here in this county, in case there's questions we might have for your kin tomorrow. Your Nana's maiden name was Roscoe, right?"
"Rascoe" said Allie. "With an E at the end."
Vachel laughed sarcastically. "We was expected to take the massa's name, because it proved how good he'd been to us, but we couldn't spell it exactly like they did. So the white Rascos stayed plain Rasco, and all us former slaves had to add on the E."
They talked for another hour, until the strain of the day made Allie's eyes droop. Ginny hustled them all off to bed, leaving a wake-up call at the desk for 7:30.
The funeral was extremely Baptist and unnecessarily long, given how few people were there. The humidity was hard on everyone, and the strain of parting was eating at Myra. She was more worried about Edwina leaving without Allie than her own parting from Ginny.
After lunch at the coffeeshop and final goodbyes to cousins -- which might well be the last time Allie saw any of them except Vachel, Myra thought -- they managed to rent a car from a dealership that was open on Sunday afternoons. It was a used Buick, with a compass ball stuck on the inside windshield and crappy mileage, but it had AC and was theirs for the week, lucky to get it, thought Myra. They returned to the motel, to the room she and Allie had kept for themselves.
"I'll call you every night" whispered Myra, wrapped around Ginny.
"I wish I could stay here with you two. But I suspect she really needs it to be just you" answered Ginny.
"And Edwina. She'd rather have Edwina" said Myra.
Ginny looked doubtful, but didn't argue. "You have enough cash on you? The last of the traveler's checks I put in your pack, I can use the credit card for the rest of our trip."
When their van disappeared from view, Allie finally cried. It turned into a long bout of grief, and at the end of it, she slept half an hour while Myra held her. They got up and tracked down the place which had catered the day before, Myra ordering links and that potato salad again for her dinner. At the motel, Allie took her shot, showered, and went right to sleep, while Myra sat up making research logs to be filled in the next day.
Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.