The following excerpts are from the novel Glorybound, forthcoming from WordFarm Press in 2012.
THE LEMLEY SISTERS had decided they would drive to the prison on the first Monday in August, but on that morning, Aimee woke with bad pain. It was still dark, not yet five. She peeled off her blanket and top sheet, rolled to her side and drew up her body. She pulled her knees to her chin like a child, her cotton nightgown worn sheer.
Aimee wondered, would she be able to go through with it? And if she did, if she stood before him like some shy sweet thing in the doorway, what would she say? She felt her hair, the black waves just long enough to fall onto her lips as she lay there. Would he say something about it being cut short? Would he say anything at all?
Aimee unbent herself and rose from bed, walked barefoot down the hallway laid with yellow linoleum. She splashed her face at the kitchen sink, since you could hear the bathroom faucet rattle the pipes from any room in the doublewide and she didn’t want to wake Crystal yet, or their mom, Dotte. She touched her abdomen, hot through the gown, where the pain lazed into her with bitterness. A cramp that would set in. She ate a slice of American cheese and left the wrapper, started coffee. She put her hand to the warped window screen above the sink, trying to feel a breeze that would not come. These endless days of drought seemed to Aimee like a punishment, for though the sky was burdened with rain, it refused relief. If that thick air could somehow be gathered like a dishrag, then she—Aimee Jo Lemley—would wring the rain from it, would bring on more rain than had flooded the Donnie Manse River in 1985.
A car passed on the road, throwing its lights against her. In the flash, Aimee looked to the back of her hand, trailed her eyes up her arm, then down to her breasts, to her belly rising with breath under the thin cotton, that pink-white skin showing through. She fixed her eyes on her flesh in the brief light, memorizing what she saw like it was scripture. Then it went dark.
Crystal came into the kitchen through that long-chute hallway, silent as a ghost in the doorframe. Color-poor and mannish. She had already dressed in their daddy’s old work jeans, same as the day before, and a throwaway blouse with a soiled front, missing the fifth button.
“Shouldn’t go to such trouble to dress up,” Aimee said to her, meaner than she meant. Behind Crystal, she could see a smoky light float out from under Dotte’s door at the end of the hall, but nobody came out.
Aimee drove the white pickup north on Route 50 and carried on her usual one-sided conversation. Crystal hadn’t spoken in ten years, and silence had changed her; for the most part, she moved more like other people’s shadows than like her own self. They had never seen the Cuzzert Correctional Facility, but they knew where it was. A big sign marked the turnoff, but even without the sign, you could tell when you were getting close because the pavement on the road in was all new, starting right around King’s Service Station. Pitch black asphalt and perfect, like no other road in the county. When Cuzzert people talked about the prison, they talked about the road that got paved, not the facility itself. In truth, hardly any of them had seen it—it was a country, or maybe a whole world, apart.
“Aubrey ain’t there yet,” Aimee said. “He don’t teach till nine. Should probably wait till he’s there so he can set up everything. We go this early and we gonna sit and wait it out. Too damn early, fore work like this. Crys, you bring cigarettes? I need a damn cigarette.” She rolled down the window and propped her arm up to feel the wind. When Aimee swore, she still sounded new at it. She said only a few words—damn, shit, hell. She never swore to God or said goddamn or even for Christ’s sake; she’d say for Pete’s sake, for goodness’ sake, which put her swearing off-kilter. But she’d heard once that taking the Lord’s name in vain was a new nail in Jesus’s palm, and, besides Crystal, and maybe Aubrey Falls, Jesus was the one Aimee adored and protected. She knew Crystal hated filthy talk, and she knew Crystal had no Pall Malls. She also knew—because Crystal sat with her left hand in an absolute, unyielding fist like a knot of pine—that it would not be easy to turn around and drive right back home, which she very much meant to do.
“Hershel Dunmire come into the shop the other day, give me grape Bubble Tape. That stuff’ll cost a buck fifty at the Family Dollar. Well, I chewed it all morning, and it turned to paste on my teeth, so I look at him pouty, you know, and give it back to him. ‘I can’t have this,’ I told him. ‘It’ll make my teeth ugly.’ He looked about to bawl, but he took it back. Sat in his chair the rest the day holding it. His poor mind’s so balled up, Crys. He don’t always wash, you know. He shit his pants that once, but I act like I don’t know nothing. Can’t do nothing else. I done told his sister-in-law who keeps him, but she’s up in her seventies like him, so she can’t do him no better.”
Aimee bounced her hand on the gearshift as she talked. Crystal was looking out the window, toward the fence posts along the road, their rusted barbed wire lost to thicket. She nodded to Aimee now and again, seeming not to affirm any one part of the monologue, but it was clear she listened. Even more than that, she suffered Aimee’s meandering and heard the deepest tones beneath, like the unsung harmonies of a hymn. Aimee never thought Crystal vacant. But that didn’t mean she didn’t feel lonely in the truck cab with her sister’s silence and her fist, with that calm way she slipped her yellow hair behind her ear.
“Hershel’s stuck on me like a fly on barn tape,” Aimee chattered on, “and Jimmy don’t care if he’s there cause he’s back in the garage all day. None of them guys mind him. They think he’s a piece of furniture, cept for Aubrey. Sweet Aubrey Falls buys him a Coke every time he comes in, opens the damn can for him. If Aubrey ain’t showed up to teach, then we probably can’t get in anyhow. Probably need permission from some guard. Whole world’s drying up, seems like. Hotter than the hubs of hell and it ain’t even six yet. Shit, Crys, this ain’t getting no better, my stomach’s killing me.”
Crystal looked over at her, and Aimee thought she saw something give, a small flow of pity spurting forth that would surely grow to a gushing and allow her to turn the truck around. But Crystal’s fist stayed tight on her thigh. She looked past Aimee then, out the driver-side window. Aimee followed her gaze to the Cuzzert Pike sign as they passed it, to the turnoff down a gravel road overhung with the shaggy gray of barren crabapple trees. To the goldenrod dying of thirst but almost pretty, lining the pike’s ditch. To Glorybound Holiness Tabernacle where they knew it sat, six miles down the gravel road, out of sight. And beyond that, to the strip mine. After the Cuzzert Pike junction, the only breaks in the fencerow, with its attending brier bushes, were the occasional dirt drives and a few right-of-way swaths for power lines.
Aimee kept quiet for awhile and tugged at the collar of her long-sleeved top. She’d taken it from Dotte’s closet the night before, along with a skirt to her ankles. Her mom wouldn’t miss the clothes since she’d grown too broad to wear them.
Aimee had no dresses of her own that would suit a prison visit. She no longer kept the high collars and long skirts. Dotte used to make all the girls’ dresses, stiff calico prints, blouses buttoned to the top or hooked into an eye in back, close to the neck as a choker chain. Aimee’s dresses were flimsy now, not like the hand-sewn ones. She’d just bought a mint sundress, cut low, almost to her navel. She safety-pinned it some, but that made little difference in what it showed off. Her dresses were mint now, dark indigo; they fell mid-thigh in a ruffle. They were red-ribboned, like a bleeding fish in water. In the truck cab, she pulled at her collar and flipped the visor down, then up, traced the circle of the steering wheel round and round. Crystal kept looking out the window. Her cornsilk hair, tied back, lay limp across her left shoulder. Beside Crystal’s drab stillness, beside the fist she kept firm in her lap, Aimee’s constant hand movements, with her nails painted red, were wild and frantic, as though she were trying to get unstuck from a web of wet spider thread. Flamboyant. Even her despair was flamboyant.
As soon as the road looked smooth up ahead, Aimee held her breath long enough to hear the tires hit the seam in the asphalt where the new paving started. Then she saw the steel sign grow from the berm as they rounded the bend: Cuzzert Correctional Facility for Men, 15 Miles. So strange and foreign, bright heavy letters coming out of nowhere like that. The old wood fence posts bowed low before the sign.
Aimee took an immediate left and pulled into the lot at King’s Service Station. She let the engine idle then stall, and she didn’t start it again. In service to the King, read the awning over the single gas pump. And beside the pump, on a new sign staked in the gravel: Year 2000 Coming Soon—R U Ready 4 Jesus? in big black letters. At one time, a sign like that would have pricked Aimee like a thorn and made her anxious. But this morning she read it with a stone face and squinted at the service station window, looking for the poster that announced the price of cigarettes. She adored Jesus, but she felt he would take his good old time coming back to this world. And she wasn’t too sure he’d be looking for her when he came.
King’s wasn’t open yet. The sky was barely turning light, but the August heat already brought sweat to Aimee’s underarms. She propped her left arm on the door again to let herself breathe.
“You know the prison people bought the Sisler farm for like half of what they shoulda paid? Aubrey told me that. I don’t know how he found it out. He just knows things cause he’s college educated. It was still a shitload of money though. Was Ronnie Sisler between us in school? I think he was. Remember how foul he was fore he got saved? That boy liked to butcher with his daddy when they did the broilers. Pushed on their bellies to make em squawk through their windpipe, when they didn’t have no heads. He brought a chicken head to school one time, I remember that. Then his daddy died and he met the Lord. Just like that—gentle as a pup.”
Aimee looked out the window as Agnes Felton pulled into the lot. Agnes took her time gathering herself and her purse from the car, plucking at her perfect crown of black curls before unlocking the front door of the station. The lights came on and the Open sign burned bright green. Aimee wanted to buy a pack of Pall Malls, but she didn’t get out.
“Ronnie quit school when we did—or did he finish? I think he finished maybe, fore his mom shipped him out. He learned that church guitar quick, after he got saved, had that sweet voice. You two was right much the songbirds.” She looked hard at Crystal, harder than she meant. It was cruel to speak of Ronnie, but she needed Crystal to break apart, to let their old pickup turn back toward home and let that prison stay fifteen miles out, a world unto itself.
“You know, you never wore no filthy blouse like that when he was around, and them big jeans. You almost twenty-six years old and you dressing like a damn hobo.” Crystal didn’t look over, but she held her fist in her other hand, cradled it. “Ronnie done went down to the city, right? Down Charleston? I remember Mom said he took up snakes down there—down in the city! Doing strychnine and everything, copperheads. It’s the damn nineties for Pete’s sake. They living in the dark ages. And people say we’re backward holy-rollers and shit. I never thought Ronnie’d turn like that, too soft. I expect he’s probably dead—you know if he’s dead?”
Crystal unlatched her door and got out of the truck. She stood facing Route 50, her fist at her side like she was ready to take a swing, and Aimee suddenly wanted to feel that fist hit her mouth. She clutched the steering wheel and felt mean and sank down into the meanness, not sure how else to be, the way she sank down onto her pile of cheap dresses on the floor of her room, all these dresses she heaped around herself like costumes, none of them fitting right. Even though she picked them off the store racks herself, somebody else was pulling them onto her doll-pretty body. Aimee knew Crystal knew everything she did about Ronnie Sisler, and more besides. And they’d both heard the stories Dotte had told from inside her cloud of smoke, her new glory—a Pall Mall glory, in her cardigan sweater tied with a skirt belt over her nightgown. Dotte had just started dressing like that when this Ronnie Sisler episode came across the church prayer chain over the phone, a call from Miriam Louks. The way their mom told it, with her yellowed eyes, put it in Aimee’s mind like a movie scene, and she dreamt about Ronnie that night, his neck lined with a coil of innumerable snakes, and he was singing “Victory in Jesus.” She never told Crystal that dream because she was afraid it was a prophecy, and she knew Crystal loved him.
“I do wonder if Ronnie Sisler’s dead,” Aimee said to herself. “Might as well be. People that up and leave us, they might as well be dead.” She got out of the truck, went around the front end to where her sister faced the road.
“You really wanna go?” Aimee asked.
Crystal kept her eyes fixed on the road, on where it disappeared around a bend up ahead, black and wavy like thick oil.
“If you wanna go, you can walk from here.”
Crystal didn’t budge.
“If you want to go, say so, dammit!” Aimee laughed a dry laugh then sent her voice into a deeper pitch, loud like a preacher’s, like their daddy’s preaching voice.
“See here, sister, I see signs that it ain’t yet time,” and she made a big mocking sweep with her arm toward Route 50, as though showing Crystal the breadth of the given signs. “No, it ain’t yet time.”
Aimee laughed again, softer, and let her voice slide back into a plainer register. “I for one ain’t ready, Crys. I ain’t ready to look at Daddy’s face through a piece of damn glass and say who the hell knows what.”
Crystal finally looked at her then, and Aimee felt see-through and let herself stay that way for as long as Crystal looked. When she looked back at the road again, Aimee whispered, “Please. Can’t we just wait till tomorrow? I promise I’ll go tomorrow.” She went back to the truck and got in the driver’s seat.
Crystal turned from the road and climbed back into the other side of the cab. She put her hands in her lap, her fist relaxing, opening upward in a pale cup. When Aimee saw it, she felt the submission, and she turned the key. They were two weak sticks, bent, then stepped on. They cracked so easy. It took such little weight.
But it was going to be hard to explain to Aubrey why they hadn’t shown. He would be watching for them, a boy too sweet for his own good. He’d be eager for the reunion of the daughters with their convict daddy, pretty as a picture.
“You see that heat lightning, Crys? Just now? Weird in the morning like that. Course it won’t rain, though.” She shifted into first and pulled out, taking a right, back the way they’d come.
“We dying for the rain. But I got wash to do anyhow. I’m so cramped up, I’ll call Jimmy and take off sick. And I’ll do the wash.”
Ride a passenger train.
It was written in pencil in the crooked cursive of Aimee’s twelve-year-old hand.
The next line on the page: Go see the ocean, in Crystal’s more somber letters, the slow careful writing she’d done at fourteen. Back and forth it went, from one penciled line to the next, their list of things to do before the rapture of the saints. Before Jesus caught them up for glory and the Overjordan.
Aimee: Save enough money in my bloodhound bank to buy June a dress.
Crystal: Find Janey Close and pray her through.
Aimee: Take a boat down the Donnie Manse.
Crystal: Write a song with Ronnie.
Aimee: Have a baby girl, name her Jenni.
Crystal: Have a baby girl, name her Naomi.
Aimee: Make Jenni and Naomi a tree house (they will be close cousins).
Crystal: Buy N and J locket necklaces with the face of the Lord inside.
The list was in Crystal’s black notebook that she’d taken out from under the corner of carpet in her bedroom. It was Tuesday, near noon. She had seen Ronnie’s cross of sixteen-penny nails there, too, beneath the notebook, the cross wound with copper wire. She touched it and thought about what Aimee had told her the night before, about seeing Ronnie. So he was alive. After five years without so much as a postcard. And it was true he handled snakes and charged three dollars to folks sitting in folding chairs, eager to see him get bit.
She had left the cross in its place and carried the notebook to her bed.
It still had a few blank pages, and she planned to write Aimee a note. She hadn’t written much since she’d gone silent; she didn’t need the noise of words on paper to ease the silence. She didn’t want her silence eased.
Now, she held a pen, but wasn’t sure how to begin. What she wanted to say was that she would go see their daddy on her own. To spare you pain, that was the phrase she wanted to use. She would go with Aubrey, and Aimee wouldn’t have to. She could go next time.
They had slept late, or had lain there sleepless, waiting for the other one to get up first. The night before, Aimee had taken Crystal’s blouse with the missing button, had promised to fix it in the morning, then they could go. That’s when they would be ready—good and ready, Aimee had said—and she had insisted Crystal have all her buttons if she planned to wear that old blouse again.
But now, close to noon, Aimee was still at work on the blouse, having disappeared into the back room that used to be Cord’s study but was now filled with junk and all his clothes and all Dotte’s old sewing things.
Crystal had climbed slow out of a dream when she waked that morning, a dream of blackbirds so real they had called to her, their eyes crusted with clay-dirt. They’d been slick and cold and circling. She had gulped in the air stirring from their flapping wings, then found that it was just the wind blowing through her open window, its screen duct-taped but loose.
It had begun to rain, in the real drought-ridden world of Tuesday in Painted Rocks. One of the dream-birds looked as though it somehow felt the wet rain on its face. Then it faded from her mind.
Her breath was short. She gulped the wet air and the sadness and the doubt of the small one-windowed room, of the Tuesday itself, and did not murmur it away. She did not shake it loose with any utterance, like a hand on an apron shaking loose a house spider. Not even a hum, a prayer, or a whisper to her sister through the thin particle board, louder and louder till Aimee would hear.
Crystal lay there thinking of her daddy who had lain once in the patchy hay field strewn with old popcorn cups and Midway ticket stubs, the day of that electrical storm: a pile of black clothes in the field, that dark bird circling but she had not known which kind. It had been too high.
Would he be old now?
She felt ancient at twenty-six.
She sat up into the weird light coming through beneath the timid rain and the hot clouds still assembling. It was a piercing light, and it made her sight blank, like a bright light does. But her silence, in that moment, seemed the opposite of blankness.
One time at Glorybound, Cord had preached from the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. And everyone in that place had tried to see, eyes closed, Crystal’s too, to see God in the Tabernacle. They’d taken it to be a test of their purity. Cord had whispered loud for them to look and look, peer deep down for God; he’d put his hands to the sides of his head like blinders on a horse. But he evidently could not see because, then, amid the humming and the low wailing of Chloe Shrout and the oldest Felton daughter who’d just moved home to care for her mother, amid the looking and looking, he’d broken like a hypnotized man from a trance and asked for a hymn. He’d muttered something about how even Moses got God’s back and not his face.
“God, spare us the pain of the vision of thy face of fire,” he’d prayed then, as Ronnie started in lightly with the acoustic guitar. Cord had seemed to pray it in anger.
To be pure in heart. It had kept her captive as a teenager. Washing her body in the tub at night, she would pray, “My soul, too, Lord Jesus. My soul, too.” But her silence now was not concerned with purity, though it may have begun that way. The first year had been the worst because she could not wipe herself clean with words. Then that nagging ended. There had been a letting-go. After ten years, her silence had become soiled, filthy like her blouse, unable to fend off what was thrown at it. It soaked everything in, even this rain starting on the roof like a tentative typing machine.
The rain would bring some relief from the heat. And she loved hearing it come. It might release them, let something loose that they could not loose themselves. She rose with the sure purpose of going to the prison that afternoon.
Crystal dressed and sat back down on the bed to write the note to Aimee. She leafed through the notebook, through her years of recording her daddy’s sign-reading, and found again this list she had made with Aimee before Cord had left, even before the lightning had struck as the cruelest sign. They had written it together, out on the back screen-porch, knees drawn up, air coming in under their skirts to cool the parts of them that were dark and wet.
Save a soul, in Crystal’s solemn hand. Then, in the same hand: Ride a motorcycle. She smiled at that.
Drive all the way to California, Aimee had written, in a car with no roof.
Help Mom read better, with a lopsided star drawn after it, which meant they both shared that one.
And Crystal remembered how they had sat thinking then, not sure what other dreams they had. Or, for her part, sure of the dreams but not sure which ones to share with Aimee, for the girls let each other have private dreams now and then. Aimee had turned her face from Crystal, her jawline like a chiseled marble edge, her sheet of black hair like the kind of drape they must use in museums for marble things. Aimee’s dreams seemed to scatter through the million tiny holes of the porch’s screen, and Crystal watched them go out, invisible among the deerflies butting the screen mesh.
“Can I tell you something, Crys?” Aimee’s soft-butter voice had surprised her. They’d been making their list in quiet for the most part, giggles here and there.
“What?” Crystal said.
Aimee set her pencil in the folds of her yellow dress where her torso met her legs, and she hugged her knees to herself. She said, “I’m not sure I’ll get to go.”
“Go where? To California?”
“No. To heaven and the Overjordan. When the rapture comes.”
“Course you’re going. You believed in your heart and confessed with your mouth.”
“But how do you know? I ain’t never got the gift of tongues yet.”
“But you got healed that time from the stomach flu. That’s sign enough, Aimee. You’re saved and dunk-baptized. Jesus don’t lose no sheep. You just need to pray.”
“I been praying.” Aimee studied the yellow fabric of the dress that covered her knees, seemed to stare through the threads. “But what if there’s things to keep me from it? From heaven?” She started to cry without noise. Crystal started crying then, too, mostly for Aimee, but also for herself and for the dense, hot thoughts of Ronnie Sisler that she thought in bed while she smelled the new particle-board partition between her and Aimee’s rooms. Crystal looked down, in her notebook, at the roofless car that would go all the way to California. She had sometimes thought in secret that Aimee was the chosen one and she was not—as though it were God’s favor that made a girl pretty, made her a gift. She felt guilty for that thought now.
“Well, I just won’t go without you,” Crystal said. “And if we get separated in that time, when the rapture comes or the tribulations, we’ll need a place to meet. We’ll meet at the cemetery, at the tall pretty cross where Janey’s baby is buried. You know the one. The one the flood didn’t touch.”
“Yeah, I know the one.” Aimee looked back at her knees.
“That’s where we’ll meet. Let’s promise.” And she set out her fist on her lap until Aimee tapped it. Fist on fist, like they’d seen the Dixon boys do to seal a pact.
“Now, let’s make our own private lists,” Crystal went on. “Here’s paper for you.” She ripped a sheet from her notebook because she knew Aimee didn’t keep a notebook of her own. Aimee’s thoughts just skipped and fell without record.
“I don’t have nowhere to keep it.”
“Use this.” Crystal picked up her pencil sharpener from the porch floor. It was plastic, the shape of a two-inch Bible, He Lives in blue letters on the top. She swiveled out the middle, the sharpener part, and emptied their pencil shavings. “You can fold up your paper small and hide it in here.” The gesture helped ease her guilty feeling.
Aimee took it and pulled out the middle part a few times. She stood up, no longer crying. Then, thoughtfully, she squatted back down beside Crystal. “Don’t forget me,” she said, “when you get taken up.” She pointed to the notebook page in Crystal’s hands, a few inches beneath their resolve to help Dotte read better, with its penciled star. “Write it there in your book, to not forget me.”
“I done said we’d meet at the baby’s cross.”
“Just write it.”
Crystal felt Aimee’s breath on her cheek as she spoke, squatting there in her long yellow dress, insistent. So she wrote, in slow cursive, Do not forget dear Aimee Jo Lemley.
Aimee had stood then, walked into the trailer with her pencil, her blank sheet of paper, and the Bible pencil sharpener.
Crystal had stayed on the porch. She had meant to write a private list, how she wanted to write a book one day, and also to marry Ronnie Sisler. But she had written nothing.
Now, almost noon, Crystal looked over the old list and down the yellowed page to the last thing she’d written in her fourteen-year-old hand—that admonition to remember her sister. And she decided again to write nothing.
She would just go, without leaving a note. Because what does it really mean to spare someone pain? It was not in her power to do that. The words made no sense to her. Pain falls wherever it wants, she thought, like so many drops of rain. Ain’t nobody spared that. Can’t no soul go without.
Inside her, another letting-go: she pictured herself moving out underneath the drizzle, then the downpour, on Route 50, on foot, the warm rain like a second baptism. She was not going to the Overjordan today, holding hands with her sister among the saints, in all manner of light. She was going to the Cuzzert Correctional Facility for Men to see if her daddy had grown old. She would go on foot and she would leave Aimee behind.
Crystal walked the linoleum toward the kitchen, wearing the same jeans and Jesus Saves T-shirt. She left her hair loose, falling in thin locks down her back, like sparse clumps of grass. She could feel a slight ripple in it where her ponytail had gathered the day before.
“It might amount to something.” Dotte startled her from the kitchen table, looking out the screen door. Crystal hadn’t expected to see her mom. Though this was the usual time Dotte came out of her room for her cold coffee and cheese, Crystal had lost a sense of the rhythms of the household.
“It might amount to something,” Dotte repeated. Crystal knew she meant the rain. She looked at her mom and saw her own pale hair and poorly ordered teeth.
“You keep dry,” Dotte went on. “It’s good you’re going in to work.”
Crystal nodded. It would in fact be good to go to work, even though she didn’t plan to. She thought briefly of the petting-zoo donkey at the diner and hoped he found the grassy patch in back and left the potted junipers alone.
“You know where Aimee went?” Dotte asked. “Jimmy called, asked is she coming in. I thought she was there, I said to him.” Crystal shook her head no. She didn’t remember hearing the phone ring. Aimee must have been too quiet for Dotte to hear, still in the back room that was most often shut up unto itself.
“Well,” her mom said. She shifted her heavy body in her chair, pulled her black sweater together so the front parts almost touched. Her nightgown underneath looked like sallow skin but for the three greenish-silver snap buttons unfastened at the top.
The girls had kept Cord’s whereabouts hidden. Did Dotte somehow know anyway? Had he sent her word in secret these past ten years? Crystal knew of only one parcel that came within the first year he was gone, but Dotte had opened it in her bedroom with the door closed.
She squinted at her mom, tried to see inside her. If you had to be pure in heart to see God, what did it take to see inside another person?
She squinted to see Dotte as the young woman who would come to the tub where Crystal bathed her little-girl body. She would come in to wash Crystal’s hair. Another baptism. Dotte would fill a big plastic Pepsi cup and pour water over Crystal’s forehead. Crystal would tip her head back and sing in a low register with her vocal chords pinched so her singing would come out frail.
She squinted to see the figure of her mom before it had grown so wide, back when her hands had been quick, trim, and careful. Her mind had always been simple, but her hands had been fastidious. Crystal remembered a favorite housedress her mom had sewn for herself, how it zipped up the back, red with white flowers all over. She remembered Dotte hating the doublewide but laying clean rag rugs and washing them every Monday, and keeping her sewing things tidy in the living room.
After Cord had left, Dotte’s hands had stilled. She had traveled someplace inside herself where nobody could see. Away from her flesh, her body a condemned sack. Set on the kitchen chair to get big. She sat yellowing inside loose skin.
“Keep dry,” Dotte said again, but Crystal was already out the screen door. She walked quick past the white truck and let it sit, heading toward town on foot again. It was too much, all the years swelling up their trailer with stale life, all the voices she heard and soaked in—Arlene at Cool Springs going on about the money Ronnie stole; Aimee jittery over Ronnie and the snakes; Aubrey with the helpless way he loved her sister; Aimee digging through buttons right then, looking for one to put on a blouse fit for a ghost; Dotte saying when Crystal was small, “We do like he says, now. You got to allow for him. He’s God’s hands and feet. He’s a minister of the Word.” Crystal gathered in the voices and memories, gathered them like the rain gauge she saw now on the fencepost, measuring rainfall. Only Crystal measured everybody’s pain.
And that cross of sixteen-penny nails, coiled round with copper wire and lying restless under her carpet. Ronnie was alive. Up ahead at the fairgrounds. He was in a black tent with a writhing snake and she would pass him by on her way into town. She could not stop. She could not speak, to him, to anyone. She meant to seek out her daddy and see if he had grown old and grown sore where that lightning had left the bruise in the shape of a fern.
She broke into a run and the rain came hard.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.