Authors: Dori Sanders
A NOVEL BY DORI SANDERS
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
To my family
for their patience and humor
To Nancy Shulman
who saw in me something
I did not see in myself
They dressed me in white for my daddy's funeral. White from my head to my toes. I had the black skirt I bought at the six-dollar store all laid out to wear. I'd even pulled the black grosgrain bows off my black patent leather shoes to wear in my hair. But they won't let me wear black.
I know deep down in my heart you're supposed to wear black to a funeral. I guess the reason my stepmother is not totally dressed in black is because she just plain doesn't know any better.
The sounds inside our house are hushed. A baby lets out a sharp birdlike cry. “Hush, hush, little baby,” someone whispers, “don't you cry.” There is the faint breathless purr of an electric fan plugged in to help out the air-conditioning, the hum of the refrigerator going on in the
kitchen, a house filled with mourners giving up happy talk for the quiet noise of sorrow.
We take the silence outside to waiting shiny black cars, quietly lined behind a shiny black hearse. Drivers in worn black suits, shiny from wear, move and speak quietly, their voices barely above a whisper. It seems they are afraid they might wake the sleeping dead. It's like the winds have even been invited. The winds are still.
One of the neighbors, Miss Katie, is standing in the front yard, watching the blue light on top of a county police car flash round and round. She is shaking her head and fanning the hot air with her hand. Biting, chewing, and swallowing dry, empty air. Her lips folding close like sunflowers at sundownâopening, like morning glories at dawn.
They asked Miss Katie to stay at the house. Folks in Round Hill, South Carolina, never go to someone's funeral and not leave somebody in their home. They say the poor departed soul just might have to come back for something or another, and you wouldn't want to lock them out.
My breath is steaming up the window of the family car. It's really cold inside. Someone walks to our driver and whispers something. I see a cousin rush from a car with what Grandpa would have called a passel of chaps. They leave our front door wide open. A hummingbird flies to
the open door and stands still in midair, trying to decide about entering, but quickly darts backward and away.
I press my face against the cold window. Only a few days back, my daddy, Gaten, walked out that very door, carrying a book. He headed toward the two big oak trees in the front yard and settled himself into the hammock that was stretched between them. And after a while, like always, he was sound asleep, with the open book face down across his chest.
My daddy looked small between those big trees. But then, he was small. Everybody says I'm small for a ten-year-old. I guess I'm going to be like my daddy. Funny, it's only the middle of the week, but it seems like it's Sunday.
They say I haven't shed a single tear since my daddy died. Not even when the doctor told me he was dead. I was just a scared, dry-eyed little girl gazing into the eyes of a doctor unable to hold back his own tears. I stood there, they said, humming some sad little tune. I don't remember all of that, but I sure do remember why I was down at the county hospital.
Things sure can happen fast. Just two days before yesterday, my aunt Everleen and I walked in and out of that door, too. Hurrying and trying to get everything in tip-top shape for Gaten's wedding supper.
Gaten didn't give Everleen much time. He just drove up
with this woman, Sara Kate, just like he did the first time I met her. Then up and said flat-out, “Sara Kate and I are going to get married. She is going to be your new stepmother, Clover.”
I almost burst out crying. I held it in, though. Gaten couldn't stand a crybaby. “A new stepmother,” I thought, “like I had an old one.” I guess Gaten had rubbed out his memory of my real mother like he would a wrong answer with a pencil eraser.
Everleen had been cooking at her house and our house all day long. My cousin Daniel and I have been running back and forth carrying stuff. I should have known something was up on account of all the new stuff we'd gotten. New curtains and dinette set for the kitchen. Everleen said, “The chair seats are covered in real patent-leather.” Gaten's room was really pretty. New rug and bedspread with matching drapes.
In spite of all the hard work Everleen was doing, she had so much anger all tied up inside her it was pitiful. She was slinging pots and pans all over the place. I didn't know why she thought the newlyweds would want to eat all that stuff she was cooking in the first place. Everybody knows that people in love can't eat nothing.
Even Jim Ed tried to tell her she was overdoing it. “It didn't make any sense,” her husband said, “to cook so much you had to use two kitchens.”
“I don't want the woman to say I wouldn't feed her,” Everleen pouted.
“I think Sara Kate is the woman's name, Everleen,” Jim Ed snapped.
Well, that set Everleen off like a lit firecracker. She planted her feet wide apart, like she was getting ready to fight. Beads of sweat poured down her back. The kitchen was so hot, it was hard to breathe.
Jim Ed gave his wife a hard look. “I hope you heard what I said.”
Everleen put her hands on her hips and started shaking them from side to side so fast, she looked like she was cranking up to takeoff. “I heard what you said, Jim Ed. Heard you loud and clear. What I want to know is, what you signifying?”
Everleen was so mad, she looked like she was going to have a stroke. “Let me tell you one thing. Get this through your thick skull and get it straight. You are not going to get in your head that just because some fancy woman is marrying into this family you can start talking down to me. You better pray to the Lord that you never, and I mean never, embarrass me in front of that woman. Because if you do, only the Lord will be able to help you.” She waved a heavy soup spoon in his face. “Another thing, Jim Ed Hill, I am not going to burn myself to a crisp in that hot peach orchard getting my skin all rough and tore up. I'm
sure all Miss Uppity-class will do is sit around, and play tennis or golf. One thing is the Lord's truth, she is not going to live off what our . . .” She stopped short. “I mean what your folks worked so hard to get. Everleen Boyd will not take anything off anybody no matter what color they may be. I've been in this family for a good many years, but I sure don't have to stay.”
My uncle looked at me. I guess he could see I was hurting. He put his arm around me. “Oh, baby, we ought to be ashamed, carrying on like this. We can't run Gaten's life for him. And we sure don't need to go out of our way to hurt him. Gaten told me out of his own mouth, he truly loves the woman he's going to marry. My brother deserves some happiness. You are going to have to help him, also, Clover. Getting a stepmother will be something new for you to get used to.”
Jim Ed turned to his wife. “You always say you put everything in the Lord's hands. I think you better put this there, too, and leave it there, Everleen.” Well, that quieted Everleen down. She never bucks too much on advice about the Lord.
Right then I couldn't even think about the stepmother bit. All I could think about was what Everleen said. Maybe she was thinking of leaving Jim Ed and getting a divorce. She called herself Boyd. I didn't think she wanted to be a Hill anymore. If she took her son Daniel and left me all
alone with that strange woman, I would die. I knew in my heart, I would surely die.
I was starting to not like my daddy very much. Not very much at all. Miss Katie says, “Women around Round Hill leave their husbands at the drop of a hat these days.” If Everleen leaves it will all be Gaten's fault, I thought. All because of his marriage plans.
Everleen pulled me from Jim Ed to her side. I buried my face against her sweaty arm, glad there was the sweat so she couldn't feel the tears streaming down my face. Her hot, sweaty smell, coated with Avon talcum powder, filled my nose. It was her own special smell. I felt safe.
Finally she pushed me away. “Let me dry them tears,” she said, dabbing at my eyes with the corner of her apron. I should have known, I couldn't fool her.
I don't know if it was what Jim Ed said about Gaten or the Lord that turned Everleen around. Probably what he said about the Lord, but it sure turned her around. After a few minutes she was her old self again.
“All right, little honey,” she said, “we better get a move on. We got us a marriage feast to cook. Now I'm going to put together the best wedding supper that's ever been cooked. Then I'm going to dress you up in the prettiest dress your daddy has ever laid eyes on.” She glanced at my hair. “Lord have mercy, Allie Nell's still got your hair to fix.”
Anyway, Everleen was still cooking and cleaning at the same time when the telephone rang. My daddy had been in a bad accident. Everleen snatched lemon meringue pies out of the oven and drove her pickup like crazy down to the hospital.
The sign in the waiting room said
but Uncle Jim Ed smoked anyway. He let long filter-tipped paper jobs dangle from his mouth and almost burn his lips before he remembered to take a draw.
There was an intercom system like the one at school. A voice was repeating, “Code blueâcode blue. Room number 192.” Nurses from everywhere hurried down the long hall.
Everleen stirred her hand around inside her pocketbook like she was stirring a pot of boiling grits. She pulled out a handful of candy without a piece of paper on it and divided it between me and Daniel. Daniel ate his. I didn't eat mine. I can't stand candy from Everleen's pocketbooks. It's the same as sucking down perfume.
It was getting later and later, and I still hadn't seen my daddy. The sun was setting. It had cast its last shadows for the day. Those long, lean shadows, they crept through the windows and clung to the clean hall floors, waiting for the darkness to swallow them up.
A state highway patrolman appeared in the doorway of
the waiting room. He inched forward slowlyâit seemed as if he was afraid to enter the room. He turned his hat around and around in his hands. My uncle Jim Ed knew him. He had gone to high school with my daddy.
“I was called to the scene of the accident,” he finally said.
Aunt Everleen didn't make it easy for the state trooper to tell us what had happened. Her body was shaking and drawing up like she was having spasms. Although she held Jim Ed's big white handkerchief all balled up in her fist, she did not use it. Most likely because he had blown his nose into it before he handed it to her. I guess with all that was going on, poor Jim Ed plumb forgot what he was doing.
So Everleen sat there, working her mouth back and forth to hold it back from screaming out loud. Tears flowed from her eyes too full to hold them any longer. They ran down her face and formed tiny streams around her neck, that was already dripping wet with sweat.
“Tell us what happened,” she would plead. Then in the next breath, cry out, “No, no, no. I don't want to hear. I can't bear knowing.” Then she'd turn right around and beg once again for him to tell her what happened.
The state trooper finally refused to listen any longer. With his hat still in his hand, he turned his back and said, “Gaten Hill's car was struck by a pickup truck when the driver ran a signal light at the intersection of North Main
Street and Highway 74. Police at the scene said alcohol is believed to have contributed to the accident which is under investigation.”
He shook his head. “The car was struck on the driver's side. Gaten was driving. It looks bad,” he said, “real bad.” The state trooper started shaking his head again.
I thought to myself, if the wreck was all that bad, perhaps my daddy needed me. As soon as he left, I sneaked from the waiting room.
It was suppertime. I could smell the food. My daddy is always hungry for supper. I've always helped get his supper. Something seemed to tell me he needs me. I have to find him. When no one was looking I slipped down the long hall.
When a nurse popped out of a room, I hid behind a tall stack of covered trays. The nurse stopped and faced the blank wall, for a long time, studying the blank wall, looking at it as though it was some kind of picture, as though she was trying to make out a face or something. Wide fancy framed eyeglasses dangled from a chain around her neck.
I peeped from behind the trays with the little round tins covering the plates, like an Easter bonnet pulled down too far on a child's head.