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HERE IS THE CHURCH, HERE IS THE STEEPLE.

All morning Taylor had been going in and out of the house to look at Uncle Winn in his hospital bed. The bed was just a rented one, from some medical supply place out on the highway, and set up most conveniently downstairs in the front parlor. The front parlor, though nice enough once, was now a room filled with assorted hospital accoutrements, along with the regular, decades-old, doily-covered parlor furniture.

This last time Taylor went in to take a look, she saw that Uncle Winn was sitting up in his hospital bed, Parkinson's disease and all, biting off a linoleum tile of chocolate from a rock-hard Eskimo Pie.

The thing she found while going through his things in the room where he lived <i>before</i> the hospital bed had changed forever how she saw him. Every time she went through people's things, it changed forever how she saw them, and this time was no different.

Under a sky of rumpled Reynolds Wrap tented over a voluminous meringue of lung-sucking heat, Taylor finally settled down outside on a slab of concrete. She shoved down the elastic shoulders of her peasant blouse and sat there flicking off grasshoppers--given that it was the summer of the grasshopper plague--and she flicked off each one like it was a spitball, aiming mostly for the spirea bush (which rhymed with diarrhea).

The reason they were living at Uncle Winn's farm was that her dad was in awe of the smarts and business wiles of this Uncle Winn, whom he loved way more than he had ever loved his own dad (who had mostly Indian blood, which made him bumble around in life and go broke because of that).

At some 3 a.m., at some dark hour of the soul, right out of the blue, her dad had decided to leave Memphis, leave Memphis altogether, and take all of them and move his ice cream manufacturing business north, all because of this Uncle Winn.

But the thing she had found while snooping around in Uncle Winn's drawers was really just a silly thing, a little startling maybe if you compared it with the other things that were in there, such as his Lion's Club pin, an old cracked leather wallet, a tie clip still in its J.C. Penney gift box. What it was, was a little naked Kewpie doll, like from the <i>Little Rascals</i> era, or the Jesse James era, and Taylor quickly figured out that it had a rubber hat that she could pry off and then fill the body up with tap water. She could then squeeze the body and make it go to the bathroom in water-fountain arcs out of its little plastic penis. As she sat there with this nutty thing, she took aim at the grasshoppers, at her scabby knees, at her hot neck, and after a while she just shot it up in the air to see if she could hit the spirea bush.

If she were back home in Memphis, the first thing she would have done upon finding such a thing would have been to show it to her best friend, Kathy Klyce. It was the kind of thing they would have gone "Heh, heh, heh" about, since they were then at the age where they had not yet gotten over the fact of penises.

They would probably take that doll with them to the movies at the Memphian and squirt people sitting in the rows in front of them, and go "Heh, heh, heh" to each other in the dark when the people swatted at their heads and shoulders.

But on second thought, none of that would have happened, because back in Memphis there were far better things to do than bother with stuff they might find going through people's private drawers. Back in Memphis, they would far more likely have been found riding horses at the polo fields out in Germantown, since Kathy's dad owned a whole string of those soft-mouthed ponies, and between polo matches they were there for the girls to ride to their hearts' content.

After a morning tearing up and down the polo fields, Taylor and Kathy Klyce would likely as not have made Kathy's big brother drive his Austin-Healey all the way out from Memphis on the rutted roads that ran for the most part through genuine cotton fields to collect them, and then he (Lamar Boyleston Klyce III) would have bucked and stick-shifted them back toward the Memphis Country Club, to deliver them around back to the swimming pool, which furled out behind the rambling clubhouse in an undulating aqueous aqua blue. And there the girls would settle belly up or belly down on m.c.c.-monogrammed pool towels and wait for the pool waiter to come by so they could order their club sandwiches--God's combination of mayonnaise, bacon, tomato, and sliced turkey--all as whistle-twirling lifeguards sharked around them cracking knock-knock jokes, waiting for the girls to turn into something they could sink their teeth into.

Well, none of that today, Jose, and not anytime soon, either, probably never again, Taylor suspected as she gauzily gazed out over the stalky fields of the farm, gazing past the barn where her brother had put up the Confederate flag on their first day here in the North. And then, shifting gears, she began thinking about how Uncle Winn had told them a couple of nights ago about how Jesse James and his gang (mostly brothers, along with a couple of cousins from time to time thrown in) used to cut through these very fields on their way home after a bloody bank heist or railroad robbery. Jesse James's mother--Uncle Winn told them her name was Mrs. James--would be waiting for them back at the house, right over as the crow flies in the town of Kearney, Missouri, anxious to find out if any of the boys had been shot, or, worse, had been brought home dead on the back of a horse. Uncle Winn said that he had seen the James gang time and time again, tearing right by him on their horses while he was plowing up some fresh furrows with his old mule. Taylor couldn't tell if Uncle Winn was telling this story because he wished he had ridden with the James gang rather than been the successful farmer he was, or because it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened around here, certainly more exciting than winning a Kewpie doll at the ring toss at a carnival or state fair or wherever he had gotten that thing.

Then she thought about how, if today had been back then, and Jesse James and his gang were heading home right now after a bank heist, Jesse would likely have spotted her sitting out by the spirea bush wearing her peasant blouse (in the Spanish way, with the shoulders pushed down), and what would have probably happened is he would have said to his boys, pulling up hard on his thunderous horse, "Hold on, boys. I have to go up to that house yonder and get that one right there. That is the one for me!"

And the boys would probably have said, "Now, don't take too long, Jesse. Just grab her up and let's go on home. Mama'll be having a kitten."

Then what would have happened next is he would have galloped up the yard, grasshoppers going bonkers, and grabbed her up by a slippery arm or a sweaty leg, and swung her up onto the front of his saddle and gripped her in place with his strong thighs, and off they would have headed toward the James homestead, her screaming, "Let me go, let me go! Stop this horse!"

Truthfully, scenarios such as these were about as far as Taylor's plans for her future went.

Just then, she heard her own mother clattering down the stairs, making the clatter made only by a pair of strappy Delman heels. When she came upon Taylor out on the back stoop, Taylor saw that she was wearing a cocktail dress encrusted with emerald-colored stones, one of the ones that her mom had been trying on to see if they still fit. She looked like she was ready to go do some business entertaining with Taylor's dad, but that wasn't possible, because her face was monochromatic with no makeup, and it was ten in the morning.

"What's all the commotion about?" said the mom, standing in front of Taylor. She had heard all the way upstairs the <i>Let me go, let me go</i>'s.

"Nothing," said Taylor, sliding the Kewpie doll under the spirea bush.

Then the mom took that opportunity to tell Taylor what the plans were for the day, which were that they would not be going anywhere--no lunch out at the gas station/lunch place up the road by the medical-supply place, not even a trip to a farm stand for some homegrown tomatoes, all because she <i>just had a feeling</i> that someone was going to come by today for a visit. It could be anybody, because her feelings, which floated up like little messages in a Magic 8-Ball, though pretty darned reliable, were more like a 9 out of 10.

The mom then clattered back upstairs, leaving Taylor to more of her own devices, but jeez Louise if it wasn't but a few minutes before a bolt of lightning Loch Ness Monstered up through Taylor's spine as, right then, a big red Oldsmobile station wagon with mud flaps and whitewall tires came bombing in off the highway, skidding to a gravel-spewing stop just short of taking out the barn.

Taylor could see that the driver's side was bashed in like a stepped-on can of Tab and that this big lady who was driving had to roll herself over to the passenger side just to find a door that would open just so she could get out. She then stood getting a load of their Confederate flag up on the barn, all the while idly unwedging her shorts with her free hand, looking to Taylor more like a school cafeteria worker than anything else. Finally this lady turned and started flip-flopping up the yard, their trusty grasshoppers braining themselves on her shins.

She waved, so Taylor had to wave back, but just as fast as she could, Taylor whirred her feet inside the house and on up the stairs to "my room, my room," which came out in her head like "zer-room, zer-room."

Whoever this lady was, Taylor didn't want to talk to her, since that always went the same way these days--"Yes, ma'am, just fine, ma'am, it's a southern accent, Memphis, yes, ma'am, I have seen Elvis, he is pretty fat, but Graceland is really something."

She thought she was safe in her room, with everything but a do not disturb sign hanging on the doorknob, and still this visiting lady had the gall to barge right in. "Guess who I am?" she said. "Ho, ho, ho, Green Giant!"

Taylor just sat there in the middle of her bed with her giant drawing book sitting on her lap.

"I am the one who sends you all of the little charms for your charm bracelet for your birthday!"

Just then, L'Heure Bleue perfume ball-gowned around the corner as the mom came clattering into the room, freshly scented and wearing a different dress than before, this one unjeweled but silkier, more swirly, and in her thrilled social voice said, "Why, Roney, hello, is that really you? I just had a <i>feeling</i> somebody was going to pop up today! Taylor, this is my sister Roney, your Aunt Roney. She is the one who sends you all the charms for your charm bracelet. Come on, let's all go downstairs and have a Coke. I'll just change out of this dress."

"That is some dress," said Aunt Roney about the dress the mom was wearing, which was a Galanos, bought at a Jimmy Galanos trunk show at the Helen Shop of Memphis right before their move, tea length, and with floppy bows on the shoulders, and if Taylor knew anything at all, it was that Jimmy Galanos designed the kinds of things that could take you <i>any</i> where, that steamed out perfectly on the shower rod at the Mark Hopkins or the Waldorf Astoria. Also, as anyone knew, anything Mr. Galanos designed was <i>tres chere</i>, but not so <i>chere</i> if you looked at each piece as an investment, which was the only way you could look at them and have it make any $ense.

"Taylor?" said Aunt Roney, wafting her own breakfast-frying-bacon scent while navigating the steep stairs with Taylor in tow. "Did you know that your mom and I used to trade clothes when we were your age? Now I have to go to Omar the Tentmaker. Isn't that a scream?"

The most Taylor knew of this whole Yankee branch of the family was that they were the ones she was made to write thank-you notes to. "Thanks, you all, for the Daughters of the American Revolution charm you sent me for my birthday. Stay good, Cousin Taylor. Memphis, Tennessee."

And also that Aunt Roney was a bitch on wheels, who had driven her husband to drink.

"How you doing, Roberta?" called out Aunt Roney to Roberta, the fine church lady they had hired on to help out with Uncle Winn.

Uncle Winn was sitting there, too, in his hospital bed with a fan going full force.

There was a rented BarcaLounger, too, along with a wheelchair and a rented Porta-Potty, and the BarcaLounger was piled high with ice-boxed and twisted-up clothes waiting to be ironed.

"Now you ladies," said Uncle Winn, trying to head this bunch of yammering women off at the pass, "nice to see you, Roney, but why don't you ladies just keep on going out to the front porch there to continue your cocktail party out there? I want to listen to the Farm Report."

"Hold on to your horses, Winn!" said Aunt Roney, standing her ground on the parlor rug. "How the heck are you? Bad? Good? Indifferent? Just hanging in?"

"He is getting better every day, aren't you, Mr. Winn?" said Roberta, ever positive about her charge's progress with the old Parkinson's. She was making a lot of screeching racket wrestling the ironing board over onto its side to get the lock to click into place.

The two sisters then bustled right out to the front porch, nothing really but a screen door separating them from Winn--Aunt Roney settling on a sofa glider liberal with rust, and the mom, now changed into a little B.H. Wragge day dress, settling on a springy metal porch chair.

Taylor, holding her giant drawing book, stayed in the parlor and looked around for where to set up camp, the only vacant spot being the many-levered wheelchair that sat next to the Porta-Potty.

"Listen here, girlie," said Uncle Winn. "I feel like sitting up in the wheelchair for a bit, so let's switch places. You can get up in my bed here. You like to motor it around to different positions, don't you?"

There was a lot of changing around of seating arrangements, with Roberta supporting Uncle Winn's elbows and pulling him around by one of his khaki pant legs, Taylor climbing up into the hospital bed, old-man smell puffing out as she settled in. She then got busy flipping pages in her giant drawing book to find where she had left off yesterday.

"Now tell me," said the mom to Aunt Roney, "how are the children? How is Big J. B.?" The ladies never asked about each other. They only asked about each other's families.

"All I do is run around like a chicken with its head cut off," said Aunt Roney.

"And then I drop in a heap and everybody has to walk over me." She crossed her legs and dangled a flip-flop off of one toe. They both looked at her feet.

"Can you ladies pipe down a little?" said Uncle Winn, who had walked the wheelchair over to the radio and was turning up the dial.

"Sorry, Winn," they both said.

"What in the world happened to your car?" said the mom, quieter now while looking out at the bashed-up Olds.

"Got hit. Isn't that the pits? My feet sure are gnarly, aren't they?"

"Well, I swan, Roney. Who hit you?" said the mom, in sympathetic amazement.

Uncle Winn couldn't resist this news and walked his wheelchair over by the window to check out the Olds as Taylor, wildly sketching pubic hair all around a penis she was working on, said, just to make conversation, "Are you sorry you never rode with the Jesse James gang?" "No, I am not sorry I didn't ride with the Jesse James gang," said Uncle Winn, shaking his head at the crying shame of the Olds.

"What do people do around here for fun? Hayrides? Church socials?" said Taylor.

"They work," said Uncle Winn.

Aunt Roney, from out on the porch, whapped a new pack of cigarettes she had just opened with one hand onto the palm of her other hand until several popped up, and said, "How is your new house coming along? When are you going to be moving in there and giving up the farm life?"

"And your car still drives?" said the mom, still incredulous over the bashed-up Olds.

"It has to. My big job in life is driving those kids all over to all of their activities. I am just living through my kids. Why do you have that Confederate flag up there on the barn?"

"Isn't that flag just the dickens? It's the kids," said the mom. "They haven't adjusted to the move yet."

"Where do people go swimming around here?" Taylor, now scribbling the hell out of her charcoal pencil on the pubic hair, asked Uncle Winn.

"See that pond out there under those weeping willows? It's full of cottonmouths and snapping turtles. You want to go out there and go swimming? I didn't think so." As he spoke, Uncle Winn did the <i>Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and there are the people</i> with his hands, something his doctor had taught him to combat the ravages of the old Parkinson's.

"Tell me some more about the Jesse James gang."

"They killed people and robbed banks," said Uncle Winn. "They burned barns down. Go get that Confederate flag off my barn before somebody burns the whole thing down."

"Well, I guess if my kids got interested in the Civil War," said Aunt Roney to the mom, "I guess I would let them put a Confederate flag up on the house, too. I am just living through my kids. That's my solution to the big problem of life."

"Oh, you don't mean it, Roney!" said the mom.

"Who are you living through, Mom?" said Taylor.

"Not you," said Uncle Winn.

"I am living through your father first, because husbands come first," said the mom. "Then your brother, since he was born before you and is my favorite of all the boys, and since you are my favorite of all of the girls, then you."

After that, everybody was quiet for a while, Uncle Winn doing the <i>Here is the church, here is the steeple</i> thing, Roberta pulling out the next garment to iron from the ironing pile.

Eventually Uncle Winn mumbled something to Taylor she didn't quite catch, but she thought maybe what he said was something like "What do you think happens after you die?"

"Why are you asking me?" said Taylor, given that "what happens after you die" ranked about last on Taylor's list of big issues right then.

Uncle Winn then said, really loud so everybody could hear him, "Here I am on my deathbed and this girl has been asking me what I do for fun. Did you all catch that?"

"What deathbed? This is your deathbed?" said Taylor, thrashing with her legs out of the sheets.

Roberta put her iron down and said, "Oh, hush up, Winn. Don't be criticizing my nursing skills now."

The two sisters out on the porch lit up new cigarettes while meaningfully raising their eyebrows at each other. Taylor looked straight through the screen at her mother, who jiggled her ice in her glass and coughed cigarette smoke a couple of times, then brightly said, "Taylor, it's his getting-well bed, not his deathbed."

"Of course it's my deathbed!" said Uncle Winn. "Why else do you think I'm sleeping down here in the front parlor? Otherwise I would be upstairs in my own bedroom protecting my belongings from the likes of you."

"Is this a deathbed or not?" said Taylor.

Uncle Winn said, "It sure is a deathbed. And lots of people have died in it, too. The rental people just move it on to the next person after it's vacated. You want to be next after me?"

"Winn, knock it off. That's no way to talk," ordered Aunt Roney, sounding to Taylor a bit like the bitch on wheels she was reputed to be.

Uncle Winn knocked it off.

After that, no one said much of anything for a while. As the morning wore on, Uncle Winn went to sleep, nodding off in his wheelchair, and Taylor learned from the ladies' chatting that her two girl cousins were doing ballet, acrobatics, tap, and baton twirling. For ballet they had to go all the way into downtown Kansas City, because that was where the best teacher was. (Ruth Ann Page. <i>Madame</i> Ruth Ann Page.) They also studied piano, clarinet, and the ukulele, which Aunt Roney practiced right along with them.

"That's wonderful, <i>quelle fantastique</i>," said the mom, ever positive about everything with everybody.

Taylor learned that her boy cousin, Ox, played the trumpet, like her brother did, and was on the high school football team. He was their star running back. And all three kids were on the swim team over in Leavenworth, where they belonged to the Leavenworth Country Club (where the big state penitentiary was--but there wasn't any danger, because you could see the prison guards with their machine guns from the high dive).

They had their own pony to ride, which they kept out in the backyard, because where they lived was unincorporated, and the girls even had modeling and charm-school classes, which were teaching them how to handle themselves for when they were married.

"It will give them a nice finish," said Aunt Roney, leaning back in the sofa glider while Ghostbustering a smoke ring around her head. Taylor could not help but imagine these girl cousins out in their backyard, maybe holding on to the clothesline pole, practicing plies and tour jetes, their free arms rounding up over their heads, making all the boys who were driving by in their Dodge Coronet Lancers out front want to marry them. The boys would be saying about either one of them, "There, look at that one there, now that is the one for me. She has such finish! Dibs on that one right there."

"Well, it will!" said the mom, her eyes wide with admiration at her sister's child-rearing abilities.

Then Aunt Roney let drop, "Big J. B. keeps grousing about how much the kids' activities cost, though."

"Costs can add up fast, I expect," said the mom, tapping the ash off her cigarette into the beanbag ashtray she held balanced on her knee.

"Well, as I said before, I'm just living through my kids," said Aunt Roney. "Now tell me, what all activities do you have Taylor in? I see that she's an artist." Aunt Roney smiled in at Taylor through the screen door.

"Oh, I think we're going to leave Taylor au naturel," the mom said. "We tried some French lessons, but those sure didn't take."

"I should look into French lessons for my girls."

"Roney, you don't mean it. What difference will any of it make? I don't think husbands want to be entertained after dinner with banjo concerts in French while they're trying to watch <i>Dragnet</i>."

"It's the ukulele," said Aunt Roney.

"I thought you just wanted them to have a little finish for when they're married, not set the world on fire. What do you think they're going to do? Marry Prince Aly Khan?"

"No. Rita Hayworth has him. People say Annie looks like Natalie Wood, and that's better than Rita Hayworth. In spades. I want her to be discovered," barreled on Aunt Roney.

"By who? That's priceless, Roney!" coughed the mom, crop-dusting her shoulder with smoke.

"Hey, Taylor Tater Tot!" called Aunt Roney, turning back toward Taylor. "Why don't you go and get Annie out of the car out there? She's in a summer reading contest over at the library and has had her nose stuck in some book all morning."

"On top of everything else?" said the mom. "Well, all I can say is that she must be a real brain. Taylor, go and get Cousin Annie out of that hot car right this minute."

"I don't feel like it," said Taylor, feeling suddenly dinky thinking that all she could do was ride polo ponies and draw penises. She didn't want to meet any cousin who looked like Natalie Wood and was a real brain.

"Maybe the girls will make some college money modeling over in Kansas City. I'm taking them to a modeling agency tomorrow," said Aunt Roney.

"Take me to the modeling agency!" said Taylor, really, really, really wanting to go to any modeling agency anywhere. Uncle Winn stirred a little from where he was snoring in his wheelchair. "I always wanted to go to a modeling agency. My whole life, that's all I've ever wanted. Take me to the modeling agency. What time are you going? I always wanted to be a model."

"You have <i>got</i> to be kidding me, Roney," said the mom. "Where did you find a modeling agency around here? Aren't all of the modeling agencies in New York City?"

"There are some very good ones over in Kansas City. Annie's charm-school teacher gave me a couple of names. Annie resembles Natalie Wood, you know. Did I already mention that?"

"I swan, Roney, the truth is that if anyone had what it takes to be a model, like Suzy Parker, say, Paris <i>Vogue</i>, or any <i>Vogue</i>, really, would find them even if they were just out there walking around in that cornfield. They have scouts everywhere."

"Well," said Aunt Roney, "I think you're going to be very sorry later that you didn't give Taylor more chances to develop herself when she marries some local drip and ends up in that trailer park down on the highway."

Taylor zigzagged her way down through the grasshoppers toward the Olds, the charm bracelet jangling on her wrist.

As she heaved open the car door that wasn't bashed in, immense heat mohaired up her nostrils, bristling her nose hairs. She had to jump her bare feet up off the dried-mud Sputniks that were all over the floor mats, and the plastic seat covers she slid in on were so hot she had to wad up an old property of the leavenworth country club towel just to sit down. Only then did she lazy-Susan herself around to get a load of this "real brain," this Natalie Wood look-alike, this Cousin Annie in the backseat who just sat there pond-still, reading, with the determination of someone who was making for herself a fabulous future.

No sympathetic welcoming sound came from her, no cordial remark, no howdy-do, yet in spite of that, Taylor did her well-mannered best to muscle the sides of her mouth back toward her ears in a big southern-style greeting.

"Hey! Cousin Annie! I'm your Cousin Taylor from Memphis, Tennessee. Thank you for the charms you all send me for my birthdays."

"What charms?" said Annie, barely flicking an eye at Taylor's wrist, with its little dog and Saint Christopher's medal and miniature Christmas tree and Statue of Liberty.

Jangle, jangle, jangle, Taylor jangled them in Annie's direction, buying time to recalibrate, because instead of feeling tiny and a failure and worthless and no good and useless and ugly as sin, she was slugged speechless with an instant and piercing sorrow from the instant of her first good look at this cousin Annie.

Not knowing what to do, she opened her mouth and started blathering, like her best friend Kathy Klyce would do back in Memphis when she was nervous, with all the words running together so you could barely understand what she was saying, but watching her really was the most adorable thing. "Hey, Cousin Annie, you know there was this one old time back in Memphis when my brother and Cousin Hank went swimming out at the pond at Big Henry's hunting lodge, and those boys got so sunburned that when they were dressed up that night in their white jackets for one of the cotillions they're always going to, their backs and shoulders had blistered up, and all night while they were dancing, the blisters were being slid over and popped open by their starched tux shirts, and then the watery stuff plastered the shirts like canvas right onto their backs and shoulders. Wallpapered the shirts right on. When my brother came home, my mom had to cut that shirt off of him with a pair of scissors! Put wet towels all over him first. There was a big commotion down the hall in the night and it woke me up, what with all the loud talk and all. Those boys never pay attention to the consequences of the sun. Your brother ever do that?"

Taylor took a breath, took another look back at Annie, and with a willed calmness thought, OK, that Annie might be considered pretty, depending on what you were looking for, and she did have dark hair a la Natalie Wood, pulled up into a little dancer's bun, but there was no way around the things that were <i>off</i>. The first problem was her widow's peak, one that planchetted particularly low on her forehead, almost grazing her eyebrows, and though she was dressed as perfectly as any ballet student could be expected to be, her scoop-necked Danskin leotard was forced to stretch mightily over roly-poly breasts ballooned into being by some early hormonal flood, blowing past the perky little breast-bud ballerina stage and stomping all the way to a couple of waist-grazing boobies.

Taylor thought that marrying some local drip and living in a trailer park up the road by the medical supply place was maybe aiming about right. If a bunch of boys came by in a Dodge Coronet about now, it would not be Annie they would be putting any dibs on.

"Yeah, I remember yelling from my bed," continued Taylor, "'What is going on? What the heck is going on out there? Either shut up so I can sleep or come in here and tell me what's going on.' My best friend Kathy Klyce said the next day, 'Where was I? Why wasn't I there?'"

"What?" said Annie, turning a page in her book, and Taylor just figured she was acting like she was barely interested but actually was hanging on every word.

Nothing happened after that except for the awful heat simmering them both like hot dogs in a pan of water. Taylor started looking around the car and saw that in the backseat beside Annie was a clarinet, a bottle of Kraft Blue Cheese Dressing, patent leather tap shoes, sat-upon sheet music, a giant box of Modess, a MoonPie wrapper, library books with the library book numbers painted on the spines in white paint.

Further back in the Olds, when she got up on her knees to gain some height, she could see a football, a pair of oxford shoes with cleats, a volleyball, and a jumbled-up sock monkey with a red butt.

"Now, how do you think you're related to Cousin Hank?"

Annie looked up for a moment to study Taylor, then she said evenly, "I don't understand a word you're saying. Are you speaking the English language?"

"It's a southern accent. What happened to your mom's station wagon?"

"What do you think? Try hard. Use your mint-julep brain for some thunking."

"Our two moms made me come out here. Wasn't my idea."

"Somebody rammed her in the parking lot at the fairgrounds."

"Why'd they do that?"

"It was my dad," said Annie with a knowing grin, as if Taylor would know about such things.

"She rammed him back. Didn't you see the front of the car? That's the second part of the story." Annie opened her mouth into an O and pressed an index finger into her cheek.

Out of Taylor's mint-julep brain popped, well, nothing, so she bored her eyes into Annie's eyes until they got good and glassy and finally said, "Oh, that's really clever. Maybe your dad is in Leavenworth prison. What do you thunk about that? Is that why you belong to the Leavenworth Country Club? So you can wave at your dad from the high dive?"

Holding the book open with her elbow, Annie reached up and redid the top knot on her head, then magically produced a bobby pin, then did that thing we all know how to do with our teeth with a bobby pin, and slid it back into her hair, then went back to reading, seemingly unfazed by much of anything, so Taylor just spread out the Leavenworth Country Club towel across the front seat and lay down and stuck her feet out the open window. Just then, a grasshopper hurled himself through the window and walked around on her leg with his tiny clawed feet. They locked eyes, recognizing each other as pests, as he spit a wad of tobacco on her knee. Taylor tweezed him up with her fingers and threw him into the backseat with Annie.

Suddenly Taylor sat up and said, "Cousin Annie! Let's get real here. Come on, you big rinky-dinky! Take a break from the reading contest. We have some ice cream sandwiches, Eskimo Pies, Fudgsicles in the freezer up there. We even have a few Dreamsicles. Come on with me inside right now so we can eat our brains out. Your own mother told me to tell you to come in. I'll tell you about when Elvis came to our school to give a talk."

Annie, turning a page, answered her in a mechanical voice like a robot, not a funny voice like Aunt Roney used when she said, "Ho, ho, ho, Green Giant," but a serious robot voice. "I am in a reading contest over at the library and I have to keep reading. This is the best book I have ever read. And anyway, Fats, I'm on a diet, because I'm going to the modeling agency tomorrow. I'm only eating iceberg lettuce with Kraft Blue Cheese Dressing. Yum."

"What are you reading?" asked Taylor, because there wasn't really anything else to say.

"<i>Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870</i>. It is the best book I have ever read."

"Oh. OK," said Taylor, and she lay back down on the front seat and started doing <i>Here is the church, here is the steeple</i> with her hands, for no reason, really, but then there it was, this thing pushing up through her consciousness like answers surfacing in a Magic 8-Ball. It was about the truth of this move--that they were there to help Uncle Winn die, to honor and pay witness to his passage because, as her dad said, his life had been a great one, against great odds. That was the kind of people she came from, and that was the kind of thing that they did, no matter what messed-up thing it would bring to the rest of their lives.

From there she was naturally pulled back down into what Uncle Winn wanted to know. "What do you think happens after you die?" she asked out into the ether of the sun and dust, grasshoppers, the smell of the fields and the heavy, hot air, sky bent over all like a sheet of reused Reynolds Wrap, her lying in the front seat of the bashed-up Olds with Annie in the back reading about life captured by the Indians, and like that they slid together and meshed, her hand reaching over the backseat to touch Annie's knowing, reaching hand, and their hearts, like their blood already was, melding.

They would be in each other's weddings when they were dibbed on.

"I'm going to the modeling agency with you tomorrow," Taylor said flatly as she got out of the car and headed toward the house and on upstairs (grabbing the Kewpie doll from under the spirea bush on her way) and into the room where Uncle Winn had lived before the hospital bed. She thought she would just put the Kewpie doll back in his drawer with his other things. Everybody had secret places and secret things and that had to be honored. She glanced out the window to where Jesse James and his gang had once torn through those fields, and as she did this shock to end all shocks ripped up through her as she saw what she then saw, which was Uncle Winn, Parkinson's disease and all, wrangling the ladder up against the barn. Shakily he started climbing up the rungs toward the Confederate flag, his droopy khakis and old work shirt fluttering lifelessly in a lifeless breeze. Taylor was standing smack-dab in his window in his old room, where his whole life he would look out first thing in the morning to see what the day looked like, how his fields were doing, what was up ahead.

"Will you just look at that now? He really is getting better," she heard from somewhere down below, before she saw her mom and Roberta standing together off to the side out in the yard by the spirea bush.

"He really is," said Roberta, her hands on her hips.

The mom said, "I sure didn't see that one coming, did you, Roberta? I guess I am really more like an 8 out of 10 than a 9 out of 10."

It was then that Taylor spotted Aunt Roney, holding the ladder steady, and as she listened she could hear her speaking with Winn--in between the <i>Be careful</i>s and the <i>Are you sure you should be doing this</i>?, there she was, giving it a shot, just giving a try to the thing everyone else wouldn't touch.

"OK. Now, Winn, here's how I see it," she said. "This is what makes sense to me, anyway, and believe it or not, I've given this a lot of thought. Do you really want to hear this? It starts with us each in the womb, you know, and us floating around in there for a good while, and one day all sorts of squeezing starts up. And that can't feel too good, as you must know, and must be frightening for any little life form, but then next thing you know, here we all of us popped out into this glorious world and were wrapped up in a soft, warm blanket and fed what newborns want and need. It's going to be like that, Winn, but in reverse. You following me? You'll think you are dying, but you're not dying at all. I mean, we call it dying, but you're just going someplace where I firmly believe you'll be wrapped up in some kind of soft blankets and held in loving arms, I really believe that."

"Well, now, Roney, I never really thought of it like that," said Uncle Winn, managing a couple more rungs on the ladder.

"Look up there. Maybe the blankets will be made out of those clouds. And you liked being in the womb, didn't you? You liked living out here all these years being a smart, successful farmer, didn't you? Then you'll like what comes next."

Taylor could hear Uncle Winn mumble something that sounded like "That makes good sense to me. That sure does. OK, Roney, I'm going to drop this flag now. You try and catch it, will you? Bombs away. Here it comes."

"My arms are wide-open," said Aunt Roney.
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Author:Lear, Patricia
Publication:Subtropics
Article Type:Short story
Date:Sep 22, 2016
Words:6796
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