M Y SISTER, SONDRA, stood on my porch smoking a cigarette, just like she does every Wednesday while her son practices soccer at the school three blocks from my house. “Alisa, you ever been around one of them savants? Like the one that was in that movie Rain Man?” Cigarette smoke rose and fought against the rotating blades of my ceiling fan. Sondra had started smoking when she was sixteen and now that we were in our early forties she had the wrinkles around her lips to prove it. While she talked about a mentally challenged man who comes into the CVS drugstore where she works, I looked over her shoulder and watched my neighbor start his riding lawnmower.
Mr. Gleason was out messing in his yard just like he does every afternoon before the mosquitoes get too bad. The sound of the mower sent a shiver down my spine. I shook my head, forced myself to look at Sondra and wondered if I was coming down with a summer cold.
“Well, this sumabitch I’m talking about comes in the store every Wednesday, every Wednesday when the Coca-Colas is two for one. He comes through that door yelling out his CVS rewards number. He knows that number the same as you and me know our phone number. Now I know you’re not supposed to make fun of slow people but it’s a sight.” Sondra flicked her cigarette at the lipstick-stained Styrofoam cup that she used for an ashtray. “There’s a girl who’s always with him. Pretty little thing. Not more than twenty. I don’t think there’s nothing to it. I figure she’s some of his people and drives him around and everything.”
“Probably,” I said and watched Mr. Gleason guide the lawnmower around the crepe myrtle he’d planted this past spring. New buds from the tree shook when the mower blade got too close. The engine’s roar seemed louder than it should, like the muffler might have been broken. I rubbed my arms and tried to focus back on Sondra. Her mouth was moving but I couldn’t follow what she was saying. All I could hear was that tractor roaring. A trickle of sweat slid down my sister’s sunburned neck. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she had the freckles that Mama had always warned her about.
When we were little and would play in the field behind Granny’s house, Mama made Granny keep a bottle of Coppertone lotion handy. It sat in the corner next to the back door that was decorated with a faded metal sign with burnt orange letters asking departing guests: Will You Be Ready When Jesus Calls?
After Granny had covered us in lotion, she’d send her son, Uncle Archie, out to play with us. Trapped inside his man’s body was a six-year-old boy who, while riding his bicycle, was struck by a car out in front of Granny’s house. “A miracle,” Granny always said. “Even if he’s brain damaged, if I say so myself, it was a miracle.” Daddy said she always blamed herself for not keeping a better eye on him and letting him get too close to the highway.
“I want to play bus driver,” Uncle Archie would always say whenever his brother, my daddy, was with us at Granny’s. He knew better than to try to play his game when it was just Sondra and me with him out in the field. Because when it was just us and I’d see him start walking toward that tractor that was parked underneath a molded tarp, I’d grab Sondra’s arm and run inside. But whenever there was an audience, Uncle Archie had us trapped.
“Alisa, quit being so aggravating,” Daddy said when I refused to get up on that tractor with Uncle Archie. “I fixed the speed. The thing won’t go faster than two maybe three mile an hour.”
Granny leaned down over me and rubbed my folded arms. The cross-shaped charm on her necklace tickled my neck, and she nudged me forward.
“Alisa, get up there,” Mama said. “I want to get a picture.” She clutched the new Instamatic camera that had just come out, itching to use it. “It’ll be cute.”
Daddy cupped his hand to his mouth and yelled, “Where are y’all going today, Archie?”
“Dallas. JR waiting for me to bring him a zillion dollars,” Uncle Archie said and grinned in that big-lipped way that always made me think of the calendar Daddy had in his office at the gas station. The one with monkeys dressed up in men’s clothes pretending to be plumbers or airplane pilots, smiling like they knew they were being cute. Everybody laughed except for Sondra and me.
Perched on his knees, we saw Granny, Mama, and Daddy fade away. They’d stand on the back porch waving and giggling. Once we had circled the vegetable garden and the porch was no longer in view, Archie sighed. I couldn’t hear it over the roar of the tractor but I could feel it in the way his stomach stretched out against me. He shifted the clutch into neutral and we idled there in front of that stained tarp that was meant to protect his tractor. I never looked over at Sondra. I never looked at anything except for a patch of grass that had been taken over by an anthill. I just sat there with the idling tractor causing me to gyrate on his knee.
Sondra made a noise that sounded like a half-cough, half-scream. When I tried to turn toward her, he gripped my arm until it burned. In my mind, I took my free hand and clawed him and used my belt to tie him up the way Wonder Woman would do on TV. I wondered, since Sondra was the same age in the brain as Uncle Archie, if that made it all right for her. But for me, I knew better. I knew better than to let this man-boy with his fingers that were still bloody from where he’d chewed on them the night before while we watched Charlie’s Angels rub me down there. He’d poke at me in a way that made me raw and caused me to sting whenever I took bubble baths. All the while, I’d bite my lip and look down at the mound of dirt on the ground, trying to count the number of ants marching to the safety of their home. That was the only time I’d shed a tear. I never cried out real loud, but it was enough to let Uncle Archie know that he was hurting me. He’d only sigh deeper and louder until he’d jerk and we’d jerk too, almost sliding off of the tractor. It wasn’t until I was twelve and really did fall off and break my arm that the tractor rides ended.
Until this day they all believed that I slipped off of that tractor. But there was no slipping to it. I jumped. Looking down at the thick-ribbed tires, I dove down the same way I would at the city swimming pool. I tried to convince myself that the pain would be nothing worse than the burn from a belly flop. I never guessed I’d end up in the emergency room and wearing a cast on my arm.
“I bad. I bad, bad, bad.” Uncle Archie was hitting himself on the head and walking in circles.
Granny was skipping behind him, reaching her arm out, chirping, “No, you’re not bad, sugar. It was just an accident. Just an accident.”
“We better get her seen after,” Daddy said as he studied the pink and light blue streaks that ran down my arm. Part of the bone stuck up from under the skin like it was excited over the attention I was getting.
Sondra cried louder than was necessary. “Alisa is going to be all right,” Mama kept assuring her. Mama kept her gaze on my arm. She never noticed that Sondra’s shorts were turned sideways.
My neighbor’s lawnmower backfired and I jumped high enough for Sondra to notice. She blew smoke from the corner of her mouth, wrinkled her brow, and laughed. “Damn, girl.”
“I’m freezing,” I said and yanked at the cord to the ceiling fan.
“Freezing? Here it is the dog days of August and you say you’re freezing?” She threw her car keys up in the air and caught them without ever spilling the ashes from her cup. “Well, let me go. I promised Uncle Archie I’d stop by the gas station on my way home and pick up his lottery ticket. Poor bastard. I keep telling him he’s throwing his money away but he won’t listen to me.”
Sondra never noticed me shaking my head, trying to make her feel like a whore. When she got into her car, she didn’t even notice Mr. Gleason and his lawnmower. Watching Sondra drive away toward the school where her son played soccer, I heard Mama call out in my mind, “Sondra drives a sports car with three kids crammed into it and you drive a station wagon with no kids to haul around. It beats all I’ve ever seen.” I never could make Mama understand that I drove an SUV, not a station wagon. She never did miss the chance to let me know that I was still single and childless.
While I changed from my work clothes, I glanced down at the dresser by my bed. The book that my boss, Dr. Hawkins, had given me was slanted sideways next to a bottle of moisturizer. An orange eyeball was painted on the cover of the book. It was by an Indian man and it talked a lot about the soul.
“I thought about you when I read the chapter on negative soul magnets,” Dr. Hawkins told me the day he gave me the book. “You know, about how you bought your grandmother a headstone and your family didn’t even bother to acknowledge it.” His manicured fingers brushed against mine the day he handed me the book. For a second I was embarrassed that I’d said anything to him about my poor granny lying out there in the graveyard for seven months underneath a flimsy bronze marker that had weathered until it looked liked over-baked aluminum foil. But Dr. Hawkins and I shared things that the others in the office didn’t know about. He had personally promoted me from receptionist to billing manager, causing the two office nurses to whisper by the drug sample closet that we were having an affair. Not that there was anything to it, but to play with their minds, I bought a two-carat cubic zirconia ring from Sam’s and wore it on my engagement finger.
Dr. Hawkins and I both got to the office early. Holding a mug that advertised Botox, he would stand at the doorframe of my office and talk about his bitch of a wife and how his teenage daughter told him she would never speak to him again if he left home. I talked about my crazy family and how try as I might, I couldn’t pull myself away from them.
It was not like I hadn’t ever tried to pull away. The framed associate’s degree that hung above my desk at Dr. Hawkins’s office proved it. Three years ago I up and quit my job as a bank teller, moved to Pensacola, and without ever saying a word to my family, enrolled at the community college. To make ends meet, I worked the night shift in admissions down at the hospital. But before I could finish up my bachelor’s at the University of West Florida, I got a call from my daddy. “Your granny needs us right now,” Daddy had said. “She’s et up with bone cancer.”
A week later, I’d broken the lease on my apartment and was back home lifting Granny out of bed to use the bathroom and darting around the house to avoid Uncle Archie, who by now had made himself a cute little cottage out of the old smokehouse that Granny had once used to cure hams. Curtains made from an old bedspread with the Peanuts cartoon characters hung in the windows.
Resting in bed after supper, I flipped the channels on the TV in my bedroom and paged through the book about the soul. In between watching a reality show about addicted celebrities and reading about the negative magnets that pull our souls away from our true purpose, I nodded off. When the woman from the Florida lottery came on TV and cranked the handle that caused those little white balls to swirl up into cages, I clicked my TV off, dog-eared the page in my book, and turned out the lights. I stopped thinking about my soul long enough to go to sleep.
The next morning the pot of coffee in the waiting room hadn’t even started brewing when my office phone rang. “The sumabitch has the winning ticket. I’m telling you right now, he won that lottery,” Sondra said.
Dr. Hawkins paused at my office door and raised his coffee mug.
“I just put a pot on,” I said, covering the phone receiver.
Dr. Hawkins nodded and moved on.
“He won that damn thing. I’m telling you right now. I know ’cause I’m the one who bought that ticket and everything.” Sondra inhaled real deep. She coughed and tried to talk all at the same time. “He plays the same numbers every week.”
“That fool ain’t won nothing,” I said. Whenever I wanted to get my point across, I’d let myself slip into the rednecky way that I used to talk. I figured it was okay as long as I knew the difference.
“All right. You wait and see,” Sondra said. “If Uncle Archie don’t go to Tallahassee and get that check then I’ll come up there and kiss your ass in front of that doctor and everybody.”
Sondra never did make good on her promise to humiliate me in front of Dr. Hawkins. Mama and Daddy took Uncle Archie to get his winning check. The photo of them standing next to him, clutching the ends of the gigantic check totaling four million dollars, ended up on top of their TV right next to the family photograph of us taken by an Olan Mills photographer. It’s the picture where Daddy is seated on a plastic log and I’m standing behind him with my arm, in a cast, propped on his shoulder.
“He’s going to wind up blowing his money,” I kept saying, but nobody listened to me. My family just sat back and let Uncle Archie take care of them. He bought Sondra a new house in a subdivision that used to be a peanut farm, paid off the note to Daddy’s service station, and even had a gold Lincoln Navigator delivered to Mama’s front door. It wasn’t until he hired a contractor to build a six-bedroom house next to the old smokehouse that I spoke up. When I protested at the Labor Day cookout that he better not tear down Granny’s house in the process, claiming my one-fourth ownership, Uncle Archie smiled that big-lipped, pouty smile. “Don’t worry Aliser.” (He never could pronounce my name right.) “I gonna make Mama house my summer house.” Everybody laughed. Even Sondra. So it’s no wonder that Sondra didn’t tell me when Uncle Archie purchased another headstone for Granny.
I found the headstone by accident. A patient had sent Dr. Hawkins a bouquet of yellow roses, and when I took them to his office he brushed them away without ever looking up from a patient file. “I don’t need anything else to clutter my office and I certainly don’t want to take them home,” he said and flipped a page. “The last thing I need is for you-know-who to think I give a damn. You take them.” On my way home, I remembered how Granny loved the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” She’d hum it while she sewed. Instead of turning toward my house, I kept driving past the city limits and down the dirt road that dead-ended at Druid Hills Church of Christ.
My granny’s people had helped build the church and now they lay scattered in a cemetery that was littered with dead, cracked oak branches and Mason jars filled with plastic flowers. The place made me feel unsettled by the past as much as by the present. Water sloshed from the vase I was carrying and I wondered what the Indian writer would say about the condition of my soul. I pictured it as a deformed shape, like a worn-out sponge with its parts weathered and torn away. I remembered coming to the church with Granny during summer revivals. While I lay in her lap and chewed the Big Red gum that she’d fished out of her pocketbook, I listened to the preacher rant against the demon of depression that caused his mother to take her life. He claimed the soul lived inside the center of our heads. Watching a spider dangling below the light fixture at the church, I’d rub my forehead. At the time I didn’t want to believe that my soul was anything but pure.
Wiping sweat from my face with my forearm, trying to balance the vase on my hip, I stumbled over something hard. A broken ceramic angel lay tangled among the weeds that overgrew the path. When I looked up, I felt just like somebody had punched me in the center of my being.
There next to the gray headstone I’d bought for Granny, the one that Mr. Turnstile, the funeral home owner, said was the classiest, sat a gigantic concrete tombstone that looked like it could have been a septic tank. A gash marked the spot where this ugly thing had bumped up against the headstone I’d purchased. The pristine marble I’d hand selected was now jagged at the corner, as if some wild animal had taken a chunk out of it. The new tombstone towered over mine. The words To Mama from Archie were etched across the top. “That asshole!” I screamed and dropped the vase of roses.
An old-fashioned rotary phone was chiseled into the murky-colored stone. The receiver dangled from its hook, like somebody had answered it and then all of a sudden dropped it. The phone cord dipped below Granny’s name. Two doves carried a banner that read, Jesus Called.
My hands were pure shaking by the time I made it to Mama and Daddy’s house. The vine-twined wreath shaped like a duck nearly swung from the back door when I opened it. Mama was standing in the kitchen peeling an onion. She didn’t even bother to turn around.
“How come y’all didn’t say anything about that headstone Archie put down at the cemetery?”
Mama began chopping the onion. “Talk to your daddy about it.”
“This is bullshit.”
She stopped chopping. “You might talk nasty with that high and mighty doctor you work for but you will not talk nasty in my house.” Mama turned around and the side of her lip turned up the way it always did whenever she was aggravated. “I said, go in there and talk to your daddy about it. I don’t know nothing. I’m just a dumb-dumb around here.”
In the den Daddy’s face seemed greenish from the glow of his big new plasma-screen TV. He held a cigarette in one hand and a remote in the other. When I protested about the headstone that they had purposely kept me in the dark about, Daddy held up his cigarette and pointed toward the TV. “Archie is her son. If he wants to buy his mama a tombstone, so be it. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”
I stomped my foot but he never seemed to notice. “I was the one who begged y’all to buy a headstone to start with. And not one of y’all said a word to me when I spent my own money to buy one. Didn’t say thank you…fuck yourself…nothing.”
“Nasty language…very nasty language,” Mama shouted from the kitchen.
I snatched that TV remote away from Daddy and slammed it across the room. “This is such bullshit!” I screamed. The remote landed against an oak cabinet, barely missing Mama’s collection of Scarlett O’Hara dolls. Her only comment before I walked out the door was, “You have to use your brain more when you don’t cuss.”
The next morning I was so upset that I was late for work. I didn’t have time to talk with Dr. Hawkins over coffee. I even forgot to lift the ends of my sentences to match that sing-song way that women of privilege who walked through our office doors were so accustomed to speaking. I even stopped holding up my hand with the cubic zirconia and flicking it whenever one of them tried to intimidate me. The full-fledged redneck that I’d spent so much time trying to bury was resurrecting herself.
“I am pissed. Do you understand me? Pissed.” I whispered the words into the phone receiver and tried to smile when the nurse appeared and handed me the file for the next patient.
“I don’t want to get in the middle of this,” Sondra said.
“What the hell kind of answer is that? You’re already in the middle.”
The nurse paused at my door and I gave her the best go-to-hell look that I knew how. She was wild-eyed as she walked away.
“It’s his mama, you know. The way I see it, we just can’t pick a fight over this. It’s not worth it.”
“Well, by God it’s worth it to me,” I said.
Sondra exhaled. I pictured a ring of cigarette smoke around the phone receiver. “You got to move on. Forgive and forget and everything.”
“What the….” The nurse pranced past my door again and raised her eyebrows. I smiled, then whispered to Sondra, “Look, I got another patient to check in. Let me go.”
A big-boned woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail walked into my office. It was all I could do to stand up and shake her hand. She met my grip. I rubbed my hand before opening up her chart. “I see you want a jowl implant. Some laser resurfacing and, let’s see…an eyelift. Is this correct?”
The woman planted her arm on my desk and almost knocked over the ceramic gator that Dr. Hawkins had given me the day I told him I’d pull for his Florida Gators in the SEC championship game. “What I want is to look ten years younger.”
I had heard the request from every pampered woman who walked through my door. My nerves were too raw to put up with it today. “Well, let’s see. As I said before, we can’t promise….”
“Before? I just walked in here. You’ve never seen me before. You haven’t told me anything.”
Her words jolted me, and I flicked the cubic zirconia, hoping that the woman would notice and be impressed like the ones in times past. Her eyes had the look of cat-eye marbles that had been rolled in the dirt one too many times.
Flipping through her chart, I searched for her insurance information and began to launch into my speech about not promising miracles with insurance coverage. It wasn’t the name of her insurance company that caught my eye. In fat block letters, her occupation jumped out at me. “I see you’re an attorney.” Dr. Hawkins had instructed me never to get into a patient’s personal business.
The woman dropped her chin and rolled those eyes up at me. “Gorrie, Pickering, and Steel. I’m the Gorrie.”
“Well,” I said. “I just bet you’re good at what you do.” A chill like the one I’d had over my neighbor’s lawnmower crawled over me. I’d worked my way up by doing exactly what Dr. Hawkins had told me to do and here I was breaking the rules.
The woman snorted when she laughed. “Sweetheart, why do you think I’m here? I’m not vain. I’m just competitive. They keep getting younger and younger. Experience used to count for something…. Well, whatever.”
Before Mary Gorrie had made it to the parking lot, I was already on Google searching her name to see if she was for real.
I didn’t tell anybody the day I paid for Granny’s headstone, and I didn’t tell anybody the day I had the headstone that Uncle Archie had bought removed from the cemetery. A flatbed truck with a rusty chain delivered it right to his new asphalt driveway. I pulled up behind the truck and by the time I’d made it to his front door, he was standing in the doorway. Half his shirttail was hanging outside of his pants. “What…what you doing with my marker?” His words tangled with a laundry detergent commercial playing on the big-screen TV that matched the one he’d bought for my daddy.
I handed him the papers that Mary Gorrie had drawn up.
He fingered them and then looked at me. “What this?”
“I’m suing you, you bastard. Quit playing simple with me.”
“I ain’t playing nothing.”
“I’m taking your ass to court and the truth is coming out. I’m making them all talk…. Sondra, Mama, all of them.”
Uncle Archie scratched his head and never even tried to catch one of the court papers that blew from his hands. “What this mean?”
“Stop it!” When I shoved him, he stumbled backward. The papers fanned out like cards against his chest. “Stop acting.”
“Aliser, I ain’t acting nothing.”
I didn’t want to cry. I had never planned on crying so the tears just made me scream louder. “You stupid piece of shit. You took that headstone away from me. You took it!”
Clawing at his shirt, I wanted to rip him wide open. The papers fell to the ground. He tried to pull my arm away. His touch sent that chill from so long ago right back into my soul. Mama’s words from those days roared in my mind. “Honey, he’s slow,” she said whenever I told her the truth about the tractor rides. I looked at Uncle Archie’s wayward right eye and saw the way my Mama’s eyes had widened at that long-ago revelation. The night we got home from the emergency room, while the cast on my arm was still damp, Mama sat on the edge of the bed and listened to me recount what really happened. “He didn’t mean to,” Mama said and patted my cast. “He don’t think nasty like that. He’s just a little boy trapped inside a man’s body. His hand probably just slipped off the steering wheel is all.”
Like something gone wild, I swung my fists at Uncle Archie. He yelped the same way a stray dog might and ran back inside, locking the door behind him.
“Hide, you fucking retard. Hide. But your ass is going before the judge. You hear me? You hear what I’m saying to you?”
Chains rattled as the men from the funeral home lowered the Jesus Called headstone onto the freshly sodded grass of Uncle Archie’s million-dollar home.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.