“Won’t be much longer now, Chloe.”
Daddy’s voice snapped me to the present. My mind had been far away, back in West Memphis where Mama was buried.
As soon as her funeral had ended that morning—attended only by Daddy, me, and the preacher—Daddy had loaded our suitcases in the car, and we headed west out of the Mississippi River delta country. We were going to live with Grandma.
When I asked why we couldn’t continue living where we were, Daddy had said I needed someone to look out for me when he was on the road. Since I had been taking care of Mama and myself most of my life, I didn’t think I needed someone looking out for me now. But I didn’t say so to Daddy.
He had called his mother before the funeral and told her about Mama. Grandma had said for him to come back home, that she would welcome the company since she was all alone.
I had never met my grandma. When I was younger, I had once asked Mama why we didn’t visit her. Mama had thrown a conniption fit, ranting and raving about what a vicious old bitch Grandma was, and that she hated her.
I never brought it up again.
Mama had no one but Daddy and me to grieve her passing. She was an only child, and her parents had died in a house fire before I was born. Daddy told me she might have died too if she hadn’t been out on a date with him that night.
Now she was gone, and Daddy and I had crossed the state to live with a woman who was a stranger to me, a woman Mama had despised. I wondered if I would hate Grandma too. I wondered what she would think of me.
“Look up the road yonder,” Daddy said. “There she is, the great city of Pineville where your daddy was born and raised.”
We passed through in seconds, leaving behind a small cinder-block church, a listing post office, and a slightly newer, combination grocery store and service station. Just a wide spot in the road.
“When me and your mama left here, I figured I’d never see this place again.”
Daddy turned left off the blacktop onto a narrow dirt road. He rolled to a stop and put the gearshift in park, letting it idle. Hands gripping the steering wheel, he stared out the windshield, “Well, girl, we’re almost there. I believe this calls for a drink.” He reached under the car seat and pulled out a pint of whiskey. He screwed off the cap, tipped the bottle to his mouth, and downed a generous swallow.
This was the first time I had seen him drink since Mama died. I’d hoped he wouldn’t ever again, for I didn’t like the person he became when he drank. But I’d learned a long time ago that you don’t always get what you want.
Daddy took another drink and replaced the bottle. “Welcome home, David Walker,” he said softly, then put the car in gear and eased on down the bumpy road.
Tree-trunks crowded up close, their tops forming a green canopy above us that blocked out the mid-day sun’s glare, creating an artificial twilight. Not even a hint of a breeze ruffled the drooping leaves. The inside of the car grew hot and sticky. I swiped the sweat beads off my forehead.
After about fifteen minutes of wallowing through rocks and ruts, the leafy tunnel opened onto a small valley. At the bottom, an old, single-lane bridge spanned a wide creek. Rusting iron beams formed its side rails and arched up over the top. Boards laid end to end composed the bottom. Underneath, four concrete pilings served as support. Shallow water lapped their bases. In places, the creek bed was exposed, forming gravel bars between pools of water.
“That’s Eddy Creek.” Daddy steered the car down the short hill, and out onto the bridge. “If it ain’t washed full by now, there’s a dandy swimming hole just a little ways on downstream.”
On the other side, the road forked. Daddy turned down the left one, and we plunged back into the dense, dark woods.
“Where does that other road go?” I asked.
Irritation narrowing his eyes, Daddy glanced at me, then turned his attention back to the road. At first, I thought he wasn’t going to answer; but after a minute, he spoke again. “Used to be, an old Indian and his squaw and their boy lived out there. When the boy got big, he married up with a white girl. Never did understand how Karen could stoop so low as to take up with an Indian. Anyhow, Karen had a half-breed brat, then died of cancer about five years later. Guess that was God’s punishment for her not sticking to her own kind.” He drew a deep breath. When he spoke again, there was a hard edge in his voice. “I want you to get this straight right now, Chloe—they ain’t the kind of people I want you hanging around. We don’t mess with niggers and blanket-asses. If they still live out there, you stay away from them—you understand?
“You make sure you do. You may be fifteen, but you ain’t too old for me to whip your ass.” He had a little of that mean look in his eyes he got when he was drinking.
“I’ll remember, Daddy. I promise.”
“Good girl—hey, here we are now.”
On the left-hand side of the road, perched on a gently rounded knoll, sat a large house that had seen its best days many years ago. A porch ran the length of the front, its roof supported by rotting wooden columns. Bisecting the middle of the house, a breezeway ran from front to back. Rough board siding a weather-beaten gray covered the whole affair. Carefully tended flower beds and fat shrubs surrounded the old house, softening its dilapidated state.
On the far side of the yard beyond a riotously growing vegetable garden, I noticed a tiny, ramshackle building. “Daddy, what’s that little house over there?” I asked, pointing its way.
His eyes followed my finger. “That’s the outhouse—the bathroom.”
“The bathroom? Outside?” I though outhouses were extinct, like dinosaurs.
He chuckled. “When I was a boy, we didn’t have indoor plumbing, and I doubt it’s any different now. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
I would get used to it? I wasn’t so sure about that. I wondered how many other unpleasant surprises were in store for me.
Daddy pulled the car into the driveway, which curled around to the back of the house. As he turned off the key, the screen door opened, and a gnarled old woman stepped out.
Her gray hair was pulled back in an unkempt bun, a few wispy strands falling onto her seamed face. She wore dirty pink house slippers and a shapeless green dress.
Daddy opened the door and got out. As the woman shuffled down the path between the flower beds toward us, he stood by the car, watching her approach.
She stopped in front of Daddy, her eyes wide and the beginnings of a smile on her face. One of her hands reached toward him, then ice met ice as their eyes locked, and her hand shot back down to twine with the other in front of her stained, yellow apron.
“The gal’s in the car?” she asked, her voice surprisingly strong coming as it did from such a small, withered body. Not waiting for an answer, she leaned over and peered in the driver’s window. “I don’t bite. Come on outta there and let me have a gander at you.” Her bright eyes followed me as I stepped from the car and circled it to stand beside Daddy.
She clasped my jaw in a gentle grip, and wrinkled lips pursed, turned my head, first to one side then the other. “Looks a lot like Melanie,” she said to Daddy.
“Yeah, I know she does, Ma, but she ain’t like her.” He took my arm and steered me toward the house.
“Well, thank the good Lord for that,” she muttered, following behind us. Then louder, “She’s a little thing, but she looks strong. I could use some help around here. This old body ain’t what it used to be.”
We entered the kitchen, its dim coolness a welcome relief from the blistering, afternoon sun. After my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, I was shocked by what I saw. The outside appearance of the house should have prepared me for the shabby inside, but it hadn’t.
Walls the same weathered gray as the exterior contained an assortment of furniture too decrepit for a resale shop. A wood table, its surface scarred from years of use, dominated the center of the room. Two free-standing cabinets housing dishes and foodstuff lined the wall to the left, while on the opposite wall, an ancient wood cook stove crouched. A battered white refrigerator stood near the back door.
Daddy pulled out a rickety chair from the table and pushed me down in it. “I’ll get the bags.” He ducked back out the door.
“You want some ice tea?” My brand-new grandma asked, taking a frosty pitcher from the refrigerator. “I just brewed a fresh batch.” At my nod, she took three glasses from one of the cabinets and brought them and the tea to the table. She filled the glasses, then, with a sigh, sank into the chair across from mine. “Sure is hot and sticky for this early in the summer. Feels more like July fourth than June fourth.”
“Yes ma’am,” I agreed.
“I ain’t no ma’am. I’m your granny.”
Daddy came through the back door and placed my two suitcases on the worn linoleum.
“Come get a glass of tea, Son,” Grandma said. “It sure is mighty tasty on a day like this.”
“I’ve got to get back on the road, Ma. I’ve got a load to take to California waiting for me in West Memphis.”
I lurched to my feet. “You’re not leaving already, are you, Daddy? We just got here. Can’t you stay for a little while?”
He looked my way, but didn’t quite meet my eyes. “I can’t, Chloe, but I’ll be back quicker than you know it. As soon as I make this run and get things settled, I’ll be back—two weeks tops.”
First Mama and now Daddy. I felt as if I were being abandoned. By no stretch of the imagination would Daddy be considered a good parent, but still, he was all I had. It was too much. Scalding tears filled my eyes.
Daddy pulled me close, his hand stroked my hair. When he wasn’t drunk, I didn’t get those scary feelings; instead, he made me feel safe.
“I’ll be back soon, angel. You’ll be all right here, I promise.” He set me away from him and stared at my face, his eyes sort of sad. Then he dropped a quick kiss on my cheek. “I just wish . . .” Then, without another word, he turned and went out the screen door, letting it bang shut behind him.
The sound of the car’s engine faded in the distance.
He’s gone, I thought. He’s gone, leaving me alone with this strange old woman—my grandma. I swiped my eyes, then glanced at her.
“He’s right, you know,” she said. “Things will be all right. Your old granny will see t’that, Chloe—ain’t it?”
“Polite little thing, ain’t you?” She flashed a wide gap-toothed grin. “But I ain’t no ma’am to you, I’m just plain old Granny.”
“Yes, ma’am—I mean Granny.” I managed a small smile.
“I reckon you’re plumb tuckered out from that drive. Come on, I’ll show you your room.”
I followed her from the kitchen toward the front of the house. We passed through a small dark bedroom, which I assumed from the lived-in look was hers, into the front room. A large, stone fireplace dominated the left wall. Two wooden rockers sat on the hearth facing it. A nondescript couch and chair, with a small table holding a black telephone and an antique radio perched between them. That was the extent of the furniture.
We went out a door on the right and stepped into the breezeway. Two doors stood ajar on the opposite side of the wide, open hallway.
“I’ve been airing ’em out since your daddy called and said y’all were coming. These rooms ain’t been used in years, not since your daddy and Joshua were still home.” She paused, seeming lost in thought.
“Granny?” I asked, my voice hesitant.
Her eyes cleared, and she focused on me. “Yes, child, what is it?”
A frown crossed her wrinkled face. “Your daddy didn’t tell you?” I shook my head. “Joshua was your daddy’s older brother.”
“I have an uncle?” A flesh and blood relative! “Where is he?”
Sadness filled her eyes. “He’s been gone a long time now, since before you was born. He was kilt in that Korean War back in fifty-two.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have asked . . .”
“It’s all right, you didn’t hurt nothing,” she said. “So your daddy never said anything about his brother?”
“No. He never said anything about any of his family.”
“Well, I reckon it don’t matter much no more. Me and him’s all that’s left anyhow . . . and you.” She turned away and entered the first bedroom. I trailed behind. “This here was Joshua’s, but now it’s yours. Hope you like it.”
The room was spacious but sparsely furnished, containing a dresser and three-quarter bed sporting an iron-rail headboard. In one corner, a pole was nailed up catty-cornered, a few bare hangers dangling from it. My closet? A well-worn patchwork quilt covered the bed. A Mason jar filled with flowers sat on the peeling dresser, their bright, cheery colors reflected in the mirror. A row of windows that looked out upon the garden ran the length of the room. All were open. A gentle breeze wafted in, spreading the pleasant scent of the flowers throughout the room.
“It’s nice . . . Granny,” I said, not exactly lying, just fudging the truth a little. “It’s a lot bigger than I had at home.
“You lay down now and rest for a spell, then we’ll round up some supper.” She paused in the doorway. “It’s been a long time since I’ve lived with anyone, and I’ve got set in my ways. But I think you’n me’ll get along just fine—long as you ain’t like your mama. I don’t cotton to speaking ill of the dead, but Melanie Henderson was a bad seed, nice to look at on the outside, but not so inside. You look a lot like her, but I don’t think you are where it counts—under the skin. I’ll be praying to the good Lord I’m right.” She left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.
Taken aback, I sat down hard on the edge of the bed. My mama a bad seed? What had Granny meant by that? And why had Mama hated Granny so? What had happened to cause their mutual animosity?
I kicked off my sneakers and stretched out on top of the quilt, my thoughts spinning round and round in my head. Just a few short days ago, I’d had a mama and daddy and a familiar home; now I was in a strange place living with a strange old woman. But at least she was kind and seemed to like me.
“Granny . . .” I said the word aloud, relishing the sound of it. Maybe she would grow to love me.
To be continued . . .