May 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

After my mom died, I took a trip to New York because Jeff had a photography show. At the opening, I was still in a fog. It was a happy occasion and I tried to smile, but I was still so deeply sad. I never was good at smiling on command. My friend Angie showed up with her beautiful baby, Caroline, who was maybe six months old.  “Can I hold her?” I asked. Suddenly, it was the only thing in New York I wanted to do. “I brought her for you, “ Angie said.  Holding that baby, her perfect skin, her toothless smile, I burst into tears– for once not because I was sad, but because I found something I couldn’t resist being happy about.  It was a relief. My arms finally got tired and I gave Caroline to her father, but something had changed.

 In November, I called my sister. “I want to do a marathon in Miami,” I said. “Why don’t you do the half?” “I can’t, she said. I’m pregnant.”  This was the first truly happy news in my family in a long time. I checked in with her throughout the pregnancy. Everything was going well. When the due date neared, I checked in with her almost every day. “I wish Dad was here,” she said. “Me too,” I said. Dad was an OBGYN. We could always avoid going to the doctor, or figure out if we really needed to by calling him. He would slip into doctor mode, as if a switch had been flipped.  He would speak to us in clinical terms and give an objective analysis of the problem. But now he was gone, so that left us to speculate about things on our own. My sister actually had to go to the doctor to confirm things.

Finally, the baby, Mimi, was born beautiful and healthy. I went to help my sister for a few days, to meet the baby, to help change diapers, to keep my six-year-old nephew occupied. These are things my mother might have done. When I met Mimi, I did not get an overwhelming desire to have another baby—reliving the nighttime feeding schedule confirmed that. Still, holding her calmed something in me, just like holding Caroline had. Her tiny feet, her distinct eyebrows, the face shaped somehow like my mother’s, her sweet smiles that were probably just gas–all of this focused my attention on the moment, on the possibilities for happiness for this sweet new person. My parents will never see Mimi, but she is a reminder of them too, proof that they will never truly disappear, and that there are still good things to come. 


Mmmm, Soup Beans!

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first time I remember being ashamed of my mother was in third grade. I had left my yellow Snoopy lunchbox at home on the kitchen counter. I was so proud of that thing. It was plastic, not metal, and shaped like Snoopy’s doghouse.  The sides were covered with peanuts characters. It was not, like most everything I “owned” a hand-me down. Still, I was eight, so I forgot it.

This was the era of stoplights in the lunchroom to gauge students’ volume. Our principal, Gordon Pope, rode to school on his motorcycle in a burgundy polyester leisure suit with zip up boots. He seduced a fourth grade teacher, who mysteriously became “Mrs. Pope” over night. He enforced the rules at school with a paddle. When the stoplight turned red from too much volume, he called for silent lunches. All he had to say was, “Let’s have a no talk” and the lunchroom fell silent. It was during one such “no talk” that my mom arrived.

If I had to guess, she was wearing jeans, a down jacket over a t-shirt, and Ugly boots, the pre-cursors to Uggs. Her hair was frosted, but not at the roots, which would be about an inch long and medium brown. I was one of those kids, long hair neatly slicked back with ribbon barrettes, who had firm ideas of what she would and would not eat. I did not eat school lunch. I weighed maybe fifty pounds. My mom came into the silence of the lunchroom in a commotion. I slid down into my seat as far as I could without hitting the floor. She held out my bright yellow lunch box, triumphant. I imagine now that she had rearranged several obligations to my four sisters and broke a couple of traffic laws to get me the lunch box, but I didn’t consider that then. Since I had forgotten my lunch, the teacher had made me get a tray of pinto beans, corn bread, and some kind of mystery meat.

“Mmm, Soup beans!” my mom called out, looking at my tray. Her words echoed off the cinder block walls. Before the horror could register on my face, she had grabbed my spoon and taken a huge bite. Chris Cash, the troublemaker who would put soup beans in my long hair during lunch a year or two later, grinned wide. “Soup beans!” he said.  He would repeat this to me for years, in my mom’s enthusiastic tone. Soup beans, you see, were what mountain people ate. I didn’t know that I was supposed to be ashamed of that, the poverty of the place my family came from. I just knew my mom was so loud! And she ate the food no one at the table would touch,not because she had to, but because she loved it.

My mom grew up in Eastern Kentucky, but she never learned how to cook mountain food. When I grew up and moved to the mountains and learned to cook, I made her collards and soup beans and corn bread and all the other comforts she had denied herself in trying to look sophisticated among adults.  She just couldn’t contain her joy that day, finding a comfort of home in the lunchroom.

My mom embarrassed me, shamed me plenty later in life. She was always “the life of the party,” meaning she’d get wasted and dance at every graduation, every holiday party, every evening for that matter. I can hear her laugh fill a quiet room–a cackle really, with a couple of bars, the first octave low, then on up the scale, then breathless.  Still, when I think of her now, I think of the joy of her twirls on the dance floor, the easy wide smile, the way she never met a stranger. It makes me want soup beans.





The Quick Stop (short story published in the 2012 Anthology of Appalachian Writers)

May 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve been working at the Quick Stop since it opened bright and colorful last July and I make pretty good money, especially for somebody my age with no kids. Everybody says I’m lucky and I only got the job because Daddy’s on the City Council, has a desk job for the state, and knows Denny Brown, who owns most of the county, but that’s not true. I’m friendly and call everybody by name, even if they have to dig in the floorboard of their car for change and can only buy $1.23 in gas, enough to get their car up Pine Mountain, but not enough to get it back to town. I still call them sir or ma’am and they know that I am not saying it just to shame them.

When a kid I know comes in, I sell them beer, as long as they have a fake ID and speak to me at school. When Hunter Holcomb come in Tuesday, I just stared at him until he pointed above me to the cigarette display and asked could he get a hard pack of Marlboro Reds. I couldn’t help myself, even though I knew I should’ve pretended I was busy stocking gum. He touched my hand a little when he took the pack and said. “You’re in the marching band, right?”

“No,” I said, “Just the pep club. My brother’s in the band. Jordan Hensley?”

“Don’t know him. I’m Hunter.” His smile showed tiny, perfectly shaped teeth, like seashells polished by sand. He had icy blue eyes, with dark eyelashes that looked like he might have on eye makeup, but I knew he was not that type.

“I know,” I said, “I’m Nema.”  I blushed to match my red polo shirt with Quick Stop and a lightning bolt embroidered on the chest. I could feel my ears warming up, so I just give Hunter his change and acted like I had something to do, which I didn’t. After he left, I re-cleaned the glass on the beer cases, arranged the candy bars, just so, then stared out the window, making bets with myself whether the cars would turn left or right at the red light.

In middle school, I played basketball for the Lady Jackets, so Daddy built me a hoop in the driveway. I still shoot the prettiest left handed lay-up, everybody says so, and still hold the free throw record for Harlan county, girls or boys. Sometimes I still imagine what it would be like to play for UK in Rupp Arena, 25,000 pairs of eyes all looking at me, not a sound while they watch to see if my shot goes in and it does. In my mind the crowd always goes wild and I cut down the net. Now I can add Hunter Holcomb to the picture: he brings me my warm ups and hugs me so tight he picks me up and he don’t care that I’m sweaty because I won the game and he’s proud.

“Come on, Nema!” Brianna said. I don’t even like football, but that really isn’t the point. You have to go to the games if you want a social life. She grabbed my hand and pulled me through the crowd on the bleachers. We went to the very top aluminum step, so we could see everything. The booster club had just paid for new lights, but one still flickered like it wasn’t wired right. Still, it looked professional, like something you’d see in a college game. Never mind that the toilets in the school never flushed right, we looked good on the field. Everybody came to the games, no matter how old they were. Where else would you go on a Friday night?

The marching band took the field in the shape of a giant yellow jacket. The drums were at the antenna; tubas were at the stinger. The wasp formation broke into little flower shapes. Drumbeats echoed off the mountains huddled around the field.

“Look!” Brianna said, “there’s Jordan.”

Jordan was the thinnest of the trumpeters. He didn’t take after the Hensleys like me. Mama and Daddy still babied him because he was a preemie; he got away with everything. Jordan waved his horn back and forth to the music.

“Do they have to do that wiggle thing?”

“It’s cute,” Brianna said. The crowd stood to cheer and the majorettes held their pose. Brianna jumped off the back of the bleachers.
“Come on!” she said.

“I’ll meet you.” I jumped off the side halfway down.

“Chicken,” Brianna said. I was scared of a lot of things. Falling to my death was one of them. Being embarrassed was another. Brianna heard there was a party on the strip job and she had us a ride. In the parking lot, we squeezed into the back of a shiny black jeep with four guys. Paul Johnson put his arm around Brianna. His muscles almost hid her popsicle stick body from view. I wedged my round hips against the door, so I would not have to sit part way on Andy Gatling’s lap and squash him. Hunter Holcomb was driving. All I would have to do is reach out my hand and I could touch his wavy hair, but I didn’t. He looked in the rearview mirror and winked at me. Hunter drove through the parking lot field like the Grand Marshall of a parade. He cranked up the music and we sang, Hey Shorty, it’s your birthday….

Hunter’s jeep snaked up the mountain, toward the Golden Oak strip mine. A coal truck flew past us on its way down. Dime-sized bits of coal flew out and pecked the roof of the car.

“Asshole!” Hunter yelled.

The fire burned neon orange, oily smoke rose from the burning tire pile. Kids gathered around it blowing smoke, maybe just their breath, in the cool night. Tailgates were open, like giant mouths saying, “ahhh.” Kids sat in them, drinking and laughing. The blue glowing stadium lights and golden porch lights shined up from town. It was flat and scrubby here, like the moon. The lights went dark and revealed more stars.

“Want a drink?” Hunter said.

“Ok,” My tongue had swollen to fill my mouth. “You got any whiskey?”

I drank whatever he give me and inhaled the joint floating around the fire. He wrapped his arms around me. I was so close to the clouds.

Brianna went into the woods with Paul Johnson to do it with him right then and there. She thinks it will make her popular, but I know he’llll call her a slut later. Thank God Jordan had taken off his band uniform and put on a Yellow Jackets hoodie. Hunter rubbed his hands over the roll of skin rising like biscuit dough over the waistband of my jeans. I  moved his hands, but he said, “No, I like it.” I let him slide his hand into my jeans. Everybody was too drunk to notice.

I remember going back to the jeep with him sliding across the tan vinyl seats kissing him zippers the weight of his body I couldn’t breathe I said no no stop but he did it anyway he was stronger than me but I am not weak it hurt he said you like it you know you do the light on the roof of the car was on he hadn’t closed the car door good it got blurry I’m not sure if it was alcohol or tears. Finally he quit.

It was not beautiful. I went to the car with Hunter, so everybody would say it was what I wanted when it wasn’t. I just wanted him to wrap his arms around me and kiss me and ask me would I go to homecoming, that’s all. Now I didn’t even want that. We climbed into the front seats of the jeep because it was only us now and I didn’t say a word, just looked at the last sparks and smoke from the tire fire.

He said, “I better take you home,” it did not even occur to him to say sorry or how was it for you or nothing.

In the morning, I woke to the smell of bacon and eggs and cigarettes, Daddy was cooking. I looked in the mirror, expecting to see a whore, but I looked the same, just a little hung over.  Jordan opened the door to my room and yelled,” Nema, breakfast!” I was not hungry, just wanted a cup of coffee and a shower to wash myself clean. I went downstairs with my hair wet and my skin smelling like lotion. Daddy kissed me on the top of my head

“Did you have fun at the party last night?”

“Sure.” He scooped me out some scrambled eggs and bacon, cooked just the way I like it, but it made my stomach turn.

“What time do you go in to work?”

I had forgotten about work. The last thing I wanted was to smile and tell people have a nice day. I knew I’d see somebody from the party, maybe Hunter himself.

“Ten to four.”

Jordan come in around noon with his buddies and brought six bottles of decongestant to the counter. I sold it to them, even though I knew they were going to drink it all, just out of boredom. Jordan would get away with it because he’s charmed. Even though he a sophomore and plays the trumpet, people respect him.

“You OK?” he asked.

“Fine. What do you care?”

“I guess I don’t,” he said.

Watching cars on the highway can make you sick to your stomach if that’s all you do and nobody comes into the store. I looked at the display cases, made fresh coffee, swept the floor to keep my food down. Lights that marked the Quick Stop made everything greenish and bright, even my skin.

Travelers drove in off the highway and left without buying a thing. Brianna come into the store with Paul Johnson and bought chips, a couple of candy bars, a pack of condoms, and a six-pack of beer. They were going on a sort of picnic in the woods behind the high school. It was kind of romantic, even though he was just using her. I hoped he would at least take her to homecoming.

Mr. Anderson started his shift before the end of mine. He’s a retired miner, so he’s stooped and has grey skin. You never really can wash all the coal out. I’m pretty sure he’ll die soon, and they’ll probably make me manager. I wiped down the counter for him and told him have a good evening.

On my way home, I stopped by Fashion Spot to look at a dress I’d buy if I got asked to homecoming. It didn’t come in my size, but Rena Lewis said she could make a pattern from it if I ripped out the seams and sewed it back. Wouldn’t nobody be the wiser. It was baby blue with silver sequins across the chest. It would show off my legs and my cleavage, but hide my middle. I put the dress back. I didn’t need no homecoming; all I wanted was to go home. I walked past boarded up stores and the new courthouse building toward the house.

Jordan was asleep on the couch, with the game on TV. I searched his room for something to smoke. He must have smelled pot, even though I had the bathroom fan on, and had sprayed some air freshener, just to be sure. He knocked on the door.

“Come on, Nema. That ain’t fair.”

“What are you gonna do? Tell Mama I stole your pot?”

I opened the door, blew smoke in his face, and give him the rest of the bag.

“I heard about you and Hunter,” he said.

“I hate the asshole.”

“Sure didn’t look like hate to me.”

“Is now.” Jordan left it alone.

Mama said to get that dress, I could wear it to church, but I’m not going to church no more.

“William,” she said to Daddy, like he was supposed to make me go, but he looked at me and knew I wouldn’t. He straightened his tie in the mirror.

“Leave her be, Judy. She’ll go next week.” He might be the only man I will ever love.

Instead of church, I shot baskets and played against the Lady Vols in my mind. I hit 80%.  If somebody was guarding me, in real life, I’d win. Hunter tried to call me once, but Jordan told him I was sleeping. Brianna said I had just been a bet with Hunter’s friends to see could he sleep with me. They said I was fat and a prude, but Hunter won. I wondered if he had to make himself do it, or did he want to?

Mama came home full of news. “We saw the Holcombs. They’re planning a youth ministry camping trip. You should go,” she said.  I’d rather burn in the deepest firey pit of hell than go camping with Hunter.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

I took a shift after school for Shelly Jacobs because her daycare fell through for her two little babies. Her husband works in Knoxville and only comes home weekends. I don’t know what I’d tell a baby when it grew up and all there was in this town was old people, me and a Quick Stop. Still, I love the way the roads follow the creeks, the sun eases its way into the sky, and the people I love answer if I shout loud enough—I’d like to give somebody that.

I spend most of my shifts talking to Mr. Anderson who tells me stories about the coal boom when everybody had a job and a new Camaro and the mountains hadn’t been stripped yet.

I was watching cars at the red light, counting out of state tags, when I seen the black jeep and heard the music blasting. I waited, but Hunter didn’t come into the store. He was doing pay-at-the-pump. I was mad enough to spit, so I got on the speaker we use to tell somebody OK, pump ten on number six, and said, “Hunter Holcomb is a rapist,” calm as I could. He didn’t look up, just slammed the nozzle into the pump and drove off.

Brianna’s going to apply at the Quick Stop and I think she’ll get it. I put in a word with Mr. Anderson. He likes me and says, “Nema, you could make a teacher if you went to college.” But I don’t know what I would do in a college where anything could happen and nobody would know who I am. Jordan will go. By the time I graduate, I will be manager and Brianna will settle down and marry Paul Johnson, who, I am proud to say, seems to love her.

Where Am I?

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