Face

We hope this friendliness will guarantee a future without details.

This is the part where we become not exactly friends, but friendly, or, rather, we enact friendliness. This enacting is some way of having a face for each other that is not the face we have for each other. That face doesn’t know what to do. Or, rather, that face knows things to do but those things are too unseemly or unruly to be done.

This face—the face of our friendliness–knows what to do because it knows nothing. It’s rather like the face one of us had when one of us found out, the open face with a door closing behind it, or the face that pulls some sort of amnesia along behind it, keeping its luggage with it at all times and not agreeing to carry something in it for a perfect stranger.

In retrospect, it’s astonishing how alike those faces are—the face of the one finding out, the face of the one being found out. Though, of course, the one being found out had been wearing that face for some time, a rather long time in fact.

This friendliness itself is a tacit agreement, a step-down, a pact without details. We hope this friendliness will guarantee a future without details.

If one of us thinks this friendliness is a truce, one of us doesn’t understand. If one of us thinks it’s like let’s do lunch, one of us doesn’t understand. If one of us in the future thinks help me move my furniture, one of us doesn’t understand. If one of us in the future thinks take care of the cat while I’m in the hospital, one of us doesn’t understand.

If one of us keeps mementos of a past us and the other one of us discovers the thumbed box, the thumbed photos, the thumbed postcard from twenty years ago, the lock of hair, that one, the discovering one, will be alarmed.

If one of us just happens to be passing by some trash receptacle in which the other of us has deposited, say, something that had formerly been valued—apparently valued—as a shared object—that perfectly good painting, for example–that one of us just passing by and just noticing might also be alarmed. This is why friendliness must be enacted in public where it will bear no resemblance to evisceration.

Violations of this friendliness will require the invocation of busy-ness and absence, so friendliness establishes busy-ness and absence in advance, a general kind of busy-ness and absence, a future state of things already beyond one’s control that insures the stateless state of the present.

The face of this friendliness is like a mirror that doesn’t reflect anything. It is something that cannot be studied or searched for anything other than its general look of interest or goodwill. It is the face from behind which one can say things like you poor thing how terrible! or that’s great news! that’s really wonderful!

It’s a face one thought oneself incapable of, there’s always so much cheerful sweeping up behind it.

Conjure

This is the part in which you are strolling with the conjure woman in a garden filled with inexplicably scary or scarily inexplicable prehistoric looking plants, gigantic things, dwarfing, one supposes, the mere humans in the middle distance and reminding us of the, oh, the ephemerality of it all. Of course, the reason you’re with the conjure woman is that you thought she could do something about the ephemerality of things, specific things–fading, fleeting, gone already, in the kind of past that really is over. She is saying to you or maybe to me “I tol’ you and tol’ you so” or, perhaps, “I tol’ you so-and-so” or perhaps she is just nodding her head in that tired you-wouldn’t-listen way.

No matter. What she told you before that you wouldn’t listen to is this: if you have to make a charm for someone to love you, you have to take whatever kind of love you get from it, but you also have to take whatever kind of love it makes you give. Or, rather, you have to take the person you become when what you want to have for love is something that the person you want it from really doesn’t want to give you. In other words, in the scene from the past that may be appearing in a thought bubble in your vicinity, you asked for a mojo hand to make something happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise, and she warned you.

She warned you then in that other part that you are now remembering in this part—by the way, she’s not wearing a head-rag or a voluminous colonial skirt, she looks rather like a successful businesswoman, like really successful, like the clothes are understated and exquisite, and if you keep thinking about this you are going to get a fair idea of exactly how much business she does, even though it’s of basically three types: get and re-get and un-get. At any rate, she warned you that the outcome of the thing she could make for you and the let’s-bake-a-weird cake things you’ll have to do with it that these things are unpredictable–maybe help, maybe harm, that’s what she said. And then she gave you what you wanted, which has amounted to simultaneously giving you what you want and punishing you for thinking it was something you could have.

Which is why you’re here now after begging her to meet you. And now instead of asking her to undo it, you are asking her to do more to it, and you know it’s like that time you agreed to cut your girlfriend’s hair and your attempts to correct your mistakes and then to correct your corrections ended up with her having a more or less skinned head. And, of course, how do you think Miss Conjure got those fine clothes that you could never in a million years afford, if not by giving people what they deserve when they think they deserve something else?

She’s answering her phone now and giving you the cellphone finger. You wander down the path like a kid headed home after being shut out of a game. Or maybe you’re just starting to give in to the next outrageous thing that’s going to come out of your mouth. You realize now that you’re in the arboretum not some mystical garden though there is in fact a kind of mystical slant of late afternoon light coming in from somewhere, big stripes of it across the path full of what looks like extremely fine gold dust and you could just crawl up under that tree where shade has given things clear edges.

And then she’s saying she won’t do what you want, and you shouldn’t want it done [three-beat pause], but she knows someone who will. Suddenly she’s gone and you are standing there looking at the back of one of her business cards on which she’s written a phone number and a name. But you won’t pause to consider whether you should explore possibilities other than calling Madame Virginie and taking that taxi that’s going to miraculously appear when you get out to the street. Or at least you’re going to think of it as miraculously appearing, along with other things you’ll interpret as presaging in a happy sort of way the world you’re going to be living in when you are defined by the love that you are thinking of yourself as merely nudging along.

Listen: cicadas, that sound that winds around everything until there’s nothing else.

Tol’ you so.

Stand

This is the part where someone doesn’t stand up for someone. Or doesn’t stand up to someone. But that’s not the kind of standing up this part needs.

Maybe someone simply stands up, to go to another room, to go into the bar, to walk to a corner store, turns back as if compelled to say something that gets forgotten right there on the spot.

After he’s been gone for months, maybe for years, she’s still driving herself crazy with it: what was he going to say? She’s got this feeling there’s something she should’ve known even if he didn’t say it, or just that there was something she didn’t know, that he was going to tell her something she needed to know. Life becomes impossible, there’s something she doesn’t know that she needs to know, for what, to avoid danger, to pursue delight.

Sometimes it’s like something she’s circling, sometimes it’s like something circling her, getting tighter in, making it hard to breathe. Sometimes it’s as if she’s living there where it is whatever it is, that that is where she has her life, or where her life has gone, but she has no access to it. This life she’s in now, the one she does have access to, this life feels like an approximation of something. She’s not looking for something in this life. She’s looking for it in whatever life she might have had if he had said whatever it was he was going to say.

He Kept His Gloves On

He kept his gloves on when he removed his 
head. I know that probably shouldn’t have been 
the thing I noticed, shouldn’t have been the 
thing that bothered me. I guess the gloves could be viewed as a formal or even 
respectful touch, but they made the act a kind of sideshow affair. They were 
cheap gloves, and dirty, and they put his head down on the coffee table with a graceless sort of thunk after which he made rude noises. “Put it 
back on,” I said. “Put it back on, put it back on” he said, as if to say I’d been whining. I looked over at his body, sitting 
with his hands held out like some robot doll. 
”You’re really in a fix now,” I said, “how are you 
going to put it back on?” “I can read your mind,” 
he said, “you think I’ll put it back on just to prove 
I can.” “It worked last time,” I said, “and I hate 
those creepy fucking gloves.”

Stella Ridley: The Chapter That Can Never Have a Number or a Name

In retrospect, I realize that something Mamaw Rennie said to me once–apropos of nothing, of course–was never far from my mind for all the long months I sat with Matu when she was sick and then when she was dying: “woe to the mother who dies before her children have reached the age of appreciation.”  Having obsessive and superstitious tendencies of thought, I often wished that Mamaw had not said it and I had not heard it, for it would often just plop onto the racetrack of my mind and zip round and round.  How can woe come to a dead person, I would wonder–were we not supposed by our religious teachers to enter into a state free of the sufferings of life?  Then I would wonder with the kind of delicious horror with which one wonders such things whether instead we entered a bad-joke afterlife when we died, an afterlife in which all the things we try so hard to evade or recover from in life would settle in permanently, an eternity of woe or loss or psychic injury, the kind of injury, say, that betrayal inflicts when it not only destroys whatever present happiness you have but also eats backwards eradicating a past which has become a lie anyway, but I digress. Continue reading

Stella Ridley: Too Much Electricity (Another Chapter with No Number)

Too Much Electricity

The day came when Papaw had a series of strokes that left him not quite himself, though we still thought of him as being there primarily to love us and entertain us. He could still communicate a bit with words and gestures, though that was a long way from the brio he had brought to every interaction with us—even the smallest interactions—in the past. And he was stuck with an utterance: “Too much electricity.” That’s what Papaw said about everything, in every situation, in the long decline that would take him to his grave several years later. I’ve heard of stroke victims left with only a word or phrase who manage somehow to deliver it with various pronunciations and emphases as if trying it out to see if it could somehow be made to mean various things.

But whatever had got at Papaw’s mind didn’t leave him with a repertoire of intonation and emphasis that might have allowed him to communicate more than he could, even if that would have been merely to communicate that he was trying to communicate, which we already knew, of course. No, he always said “too much electricity” in the same way—with a small, rueful, knowing smile and in a tone that said “there’s nothing to be done about it: there’s just too much electricity.” I suppose being left with “too much electricity” was better than being left with “cigarette, goddamn” like Maisie Darling’s old mother or “shit, shit” like the auntie of our sometime friend Connie Donner.

Molly and I found all utterances involving curse words thrilling as if they had the power to do something like bring the moon down and roll it around in the river. They were forbidden words, so for us hearing them or even thinking them had a kind of magic to it. Continue reading

Stella Ridley–Looked After (A Chapter with No Number)

Looked After

Apparently Papaw Ridley’s dementia was the slowly evolving type that seems to sever permanently–but only one at a time–all the little threads that connect us to what we like to think of as a shared reality. Even near the end, he looked like a perfectly sane man in photographs, grizzled in a noble-looking way, though in person he often had the look on his face of someone on the verge of recalling something alarming, that peculiar look of otherworldly concentration that you also see on the face of half-trained children who need to visit the bathroom but have no intention of doing so.

Well, now that I think about it, during my lifetime, one never had to converse with him for very long to know that he had entered the land of make-believe in a rather permanent way. But no other adult (except our neighbor Mr. Wanly) ever conversed with him that long or paid much attention to what he said, and we children had a shifting, sometimes disappearing line between what was real and what was not. We were also addicted to thrilling information of the sort that comes from people who thrill themselves with their own thoughts.

Matu was a loving, vigilant, and efficient mother, but she had her own life, and when she was away from home, we were often “looked after” by Papaw Ridley. He had a beautiful voice, had, in fact, The Voice that seemed to have jumped over to my other grandparents’ house because Deena had it too. When I am alone and conjure up the voices of other people, I hear an amalgam of their speaking voices, but when I listen through the past to hear Papaw, I hear many different voices, and my mind is like a thick forest in which the various birds of his voice are singing or crying out. He could sing—low and almost whispery as if merely a part of the sounds of the day or as if possessed by bawdy exuberance. His lullabies held us or soothed us to sleep when we were infants as often as Matu’s did, and later his singing a song of his choosing was the price he paid for us to lie down for naps so he could watch his soap operas on TV.

He was addicted to soap operas and watched them with the kind of barely blinking awestruck gaze one imagines on the faces of people who are witnessing a visitation by the holy mother or aliens emerging from a spaceship that has just landed in the backyard. When he bought soap opera time by singing to us, I suppose that he was singing us the ballads of his youth or show tunes. The lyrics made no sense to us, seemed to come from another world, though we loved sometimes to repeat phrases from his songs over and over, such charms did they hold for us. We did so a bit more discreetly after Molly and I entertained the minister with “Get Out Your Garters, Gertie.”

But what we loved most about Papaw was not his singing but his repertoire of fantasies about how the political world of adults was going to intersect with our young lives when no adults were looking. “The Communists will come and take away your dancing shoes,” he would say very seriously, leaning a bit forward as if imparting information for our ears only. “But Mama won’t let them,” Molly would say. Papaw would then say, “But the Communists will kill your mother and eat her hands.” At that point, ever eager for details of any sort, I would ask how exactly they would cook Matu’s hands, and Molly would poke me. “But someone will help us,” Molly would say. “No,” he would say, shaking his head sadly, “No, there will be no one left to help.” “OK, then,” one of us would say, “What kind of clothes will they wear?”

And then the call and response on the subject of the Communist invasion would begin. Papaw would pretend not to want to tell us because it was all just too awful, but we would press, and he would give in and tell us that they would kill all the adults and burn our piano, that they would give us only bones to eat, that they would throw all the Sunday clothes in town into a pile and burn them and make us rub the ashes all over our faces. Yes, the arrival of machete-wielding Communist mobs dressed in crisp uniforms (while they would make us wear rags) would put an end once and for all to lollipop eating, bike riding, and playing dress-up. Among other things. “Where are they?” we would ask. “Oh,” Papaw would say, “Closer and closer.”

Matu must have had no idea; in fact, I am sure that she didn’t. And we didn’t want her to have any idea about this imminent change in our lives. We never spoke of it even with each other because it riveted us so with fear and shameful delight. We thought what he told us was true because it had engaged our imaginations, and there’s nothing quite like imagination to construct a truth. But for Matu’s sake, we still hoped that this particular future would not come to pass, and we protected her in that way that children protect those who protect, or should protect, them: by not breathing a word, by pretending that nothing had happened or would ever happen.

Later on, Adela and Bobby would fly to Molly or me to report Papaw’s latest installment of the Communist Invasion, and we would assure them that it was just a story but not to tell Matu. And so we protected Papaw too. Of course, by the time Papaw became babysitter for Adela and Bobby, his capacity to hold forth in a frightening way was rather diminished by the lengthy pauses occasioned by his search for words that seemed to escape him and by his attempts to rearrange his false teeth. In fact, for Adela and Bobby, Papaw was just an amusing cartoon character whose performances engaged their developing sense of word play. When Papaw regaled them with tales of impending doom, “Communists” became “severe fishes,” “piano” was “plates,” “shoes” became “supper,” and “kill” became “con.” Evidence of the nightmare dictionary that Papaw had in his head even became a topic for Molly and me at bedtime, and we would laugh till we choked up when one of us, imitating Papaw’s hieratic voice, would say “They will con your mother and cut off her pots” or “They won’t let you play refrescos when they doom” or “There’ll be no more farty tresses for you, little Missy.” From time to time, Papaw appeared in my dreams as a disheveled Moses figure pacing a barren mountaintop and pausing periodically to simply sputter.

We adored Papaw and loved every minute we spent with him. We felt sorry for him when he had to leave our house to go home for dinner because as he left he often said, “Well, I have to go home now and eat crow.” Molly and I agreed that if someone tried to force us upon pain of death to eat meat we might waver in our vegetarian resolve over a little chicken or ham, but we would never eat crow, we would rather die. That was where we drew the line. But Papaw’s eating crow was another matter. We asked him once if he ate crow just to please Mamaw and because he loved her so, and we thought he just would not stop laughing until he started to cry, and then we thought he would not stop doing that either. This was, in fact, one of the most frightening moments of my life at the time. I’m not sure why, but at that time, I was not yet accustomed to the fact that they were usually out of control whether or not they looked it.

When we went to Mamaw Ridley’s house (and we always thought of it as her house), we were always on the lookout for some tell-tale blue-black feather that might have escaped Mamaw’s fanatical cleaning by disguising itself as part of a pattern in the carpet, or even just some bit of black fluff stirred up into the air by the swinging door that seemed always to be on the move between the kitchen and the dining room. But it would have been hard to espy such a thing, for Mamaw Ridley’s house was always dark, or rather, it seemed always to be dark in the way that a dominant impression will often override reality. I never liked to spend time in Mamaw Ridley’s house—dark, symmetrical, and smooth like a lady’s tightly laced-up boot. I have already commented, more than once, I believe, on my acute abhorrence of confinement.

From time to time, Mamaw Ridley would pack herself and Papaw up and go off on a cruise or some such for whole months at a time. And while she and Papaw, we imagined, ate crow for dinner every night with a flaming perfectly flat sunset sea in the background, we were at home being “looked after” (how appropriate that phrase is) by Romana, a giantess who wore colorful turbans and always carried a little bag of salt with her so she could cast it about her person if she felt a haunting spell coming on. Many many years later, I had occasion to see Romana’s birth certificate, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that her given name was “Grande Romane.” Romana’s storytelling, unlike Papaw Ridley’s storytelling, usually involved sex, though we were a bit uncertain about what that was at the time, and she rivaled the Brothers Grimm in all manner of gory detail.

She swore that she had personally known the most beautiful girl in the world who had made the mistake of rebuffing advances from a grotesque hermit who then sneaked up on her in her sleep and cut her legs off and cut her tongue out and carried her off to his hovel where he did as he would with her day and night. Of course, Molly and I imagined that what he would do with her was make her scoot out on her stumps to fetch water from a well and so forth—we had never actually seen a man doing any work, so we assumed that women did everything. Romana also told us about two young sisters about our age whose punishment for not taking naps was to be awake forever no matter how tired they were.

Romana had a special relationship with Wolf, my savior and protector. He never barked at her or behaved aggressively in any way, but he would sometimes make a low humming sound when he saw her, and his presence always prompted a great deal of salt-tossing on her part. One day when Molly was confined to our room with the mumps and I was smugly stretching myself out all over the place, Romana snatched my arm up and hissed in my face, said, “I know who you are with your witchy eyes and that devil dog. Don’t you think you can cast on me, girl. I got my mojo and you still just a little switch of thang. Tamp it down when I’m around or I’ll make your backbone sprout those horns you got inside.”

People have mistaken me for someone else all my life. When Romana said those things to me, I felt that I just happened to be in the way of the person for whom she really intended them. I gave her a wide berth from then on. But I also discovered that if I hesitated just the slightest bit when she told me to do something, fear would flash across her face like heat lightning, and I could then choose whether to do as she said or not and she would not say a thing to me. If I could find the person that people have always mistaken me for, I would study at her feet, for she is surely someone with power, more specifically with the power to harm and break hearts and turn water into blood and make an old conjure woman throw salt around at the sight of a harmless dog..

Of course, Romana had both direct and sidelong ways of getting to us.  I don’t think she liked children very much.. Over the course of a few years until we were too old to be looked after and the other children fell into the clutches of Papaw and Romana, Romana would pull out stories of transgression and punishment from a seemingly endless supply. Without exception, these were stories about girls who had “gone with” men or refused to go with men—it seemed to be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing—and were then punished out of all proportion, often by giving birth to monsters that required constant feeding and special clothes.

Molly and I would sit transfixed as Romana told us these things, though I quickly learned that Molly’s rapt gaze was merely the result of her trying not to laugh at Romana. I never would have laughed at Romana. However, I did not tell a whole truth when I said that I gave her a wide berth. After all, just by looking at her a second too long, I could make her cross herself and rub salt into her forehead. On several occasions, I incited Molly to hide with me around a corner or in a closet and then to jump out at Romana when she was looking for us, and this incited Romana to actually chase us around the house, which we rather enjoyed. And once, Molly and I put flour all over our faces and arms and sat down zombie-like on either side of Romana on the couch just as she had settled in and turned the TV on. When she looked at us, she jumped up so hard and high that she hit her head on the ceiling and then just fell out trembling on the floor. We had to put cool rags on her forehead and dose her liberally with something from the liquor cabinet to get her upright by the time Matu got home.

Stella Ridley Eighteen

18

Dreams

After that summer, I often dreamed of the Strange Man incident—in fact, I still dream about it from time to time—but the focus of my dreams is not the shock of first seeing the Strange Man or the nauseous dismay I felt when he reappeared from the kitchen with a larger knife that I knew to be sharp as a razor or the fear that lifted me from the ground on the way from the house to his jalopy. Rather, most of these dreams were, are, of seeing Miz Minnie’s boy Rupert bound and gagged in the back seat of the car.

But these dreams quickly transform, in that kaleidoscopic way that dreams have, into dreams that are more terrifying even than that, dreams in which I was—I am—Miz Minnie’s boy—terrified, unable to move or cry out, unable to do anything to save myself.

The End
of part one

Stella Ridley Seventeen

17

Oh Really Now

Still in my adrenaline lag, and having no real experience of the world, I wanted to play out the role of victim and witness, preferably in a breathtaking way in a courtroom—I knew just which dress I’d wear. But the drama was already over. The Strange man was captured quickly—he was not a very experienced or skillful criminal. From the weekly publication of crimes, we learned that his name was Barrett Billy. I overheard Deena having heated telephone conversations with Rodney, who apparently viewed the crime against Deena as another opportunity to bother her with requests for dates, and then Matu was on the phone, and then Rodney again.

I yearned for Molly’s company then so that the two of us could sort out or invent what was going on as we had so often in the past, but Molly was away at that idiotic cheerleading camp. I cursed the invention of cheerleading. I knew that our relationship had changed in some essential way, maybe a small way in the long view, but at that moment something that caused me genuine grief.

You would think that after the Strange Man comes into one’s life the rest of life would be different because of it in immediately noticeable ways, but things went on just as usual. Later in the summer, Matu came out to pick corn. I loved the smell of it and its green, the swollen ears like flower buds, the fine silks, the rows of cornstalks like corridors of giant green grasshoppers standing at attention. In a cornfield, you could have the illusion of being alone even though other people were just a few feet away. I loved, too, the work of it. Our pace was leisurely, of course, and the younger children insisted on helping so there was always some occupational difficulty or dispute to resolve. Deena and Matu chatted, but there were long moments of quiet when everyone was focused on the task.

It was while we were pulling corn that I caught the tail-end of a conversation between Matu and Deena, a conversation that I would fruitlessly ponder and forget until many years later when I knew personally what it meant. Speaking in a voice I had never heard before, Matu was saying, “What life is is making one big mistake that you cannot forgive yourself for and then trying repeatedly to rectify it. Or pretend it didn’t happen. Or forget it. Or escape it.”

Deena said, “Oh surely you don’t really believe that.”

“Oh, but I do,” Matu said.

Deena laughed and after a pause said, “I can’t think of anything in my life that I feel that way about.”

“Well,” Matu said, “maybe you haven’t made your particular mistake yet. Or maybe you’ve made it and just don’t know it yet.”

Deena said, “Oh really now.”

Stella Ridley Sixteen

16

Move

Suddenly Deena pulled me around in front of her facing the door and whispered one word loudly in my ear: “Move.”

And I moved toward the open front door and moved even faster once I hit the first step of the porch—it felt as if my knees were jerking up to my chin with every step. I don’t know what Deena had planned to do once we got out of the house—we were both in pajamas and barefoot—but once we hit the porch, it was clear what we would do, for there was the Strange Man’s car, still loudly running in its sputtering last-gasp way, but fortunately not being watched over by some accomplice. Suddenly we were out on the main road and Deena was driving very fast even though she was having trouble managing the steering because it had so much play in it. Everything about our escape seemed to involve exaggerated movements—I felt as if I had suddenly found myself in a cartoon.

We were driving inside a great roar, the car shaking and shimmying and clanking, and in the midst of all that racket, we heard a muffled cry and exchanged a glance of horror. I looked in the backseat and saw a bound and gagged figure lying sideways on the seat. “It’s Miz Minnie’s boy!” I said.

“Holy Jesus!” Deena said and then shouted “Well help him, Tella! Don’t just sit there!” I clambered over the seat. Now those were the days before criminals had discovered the infinite uses of duct tape: the Strange Man had stuffed a sock in Miz Minnie’s boy’s mouth and tied what was apparently one of Miz Minnie’s silk scarves around his head. As I was untying this, I looked deep into Rupert’s eyes and saw despair and relief, but he couldn’t talk and began coughing a dry convulsive, racking sort of cough that made it hard to undo the rough boat rope he had been hog-tied with.

Deena started looking back into the backseat and the car was swerving all over the road. “Don’t you worry, honey! Don’t you worry!” she shouted. “I’ll take care of you!” At first I thought that she was talking to me. Deena slowed down but we were still flying and there was a sound coming from behind us that sounded like screaming, and then the sirens were just right on top of us. I guess the police could be forgiven for being sure that the criminal would emerge from the car when they—and they really did this—hollered “Get out of the car with your hands up!” Of course we obeyed. It was actually a bit thrilling to feel like a criminal for just a minute.

The sheriff came to Deena’s house, along with highway patrolman Rodney Altere, who asked Deena if she was really all right so many times she told him to stop it or she’d scream. The final outrage of the night for me was that I was not allowed to participate in their discussion but was sent to bed with a measly glass of cold chocolate milk. I lost no time in feeling dissatisfied with the fact that no one solicited my observations or opinions, though I was much more irritated that I could find no truly suitable place from which to eavesdrop. But when I got to my room, I just fell into my bed, overwhelmed with a kind of weariness unfamiliar to me then.

When I woke up later, the whole house was dark. I kept trying to go back to sleep but I kept thinking that I could hear someone down in the kitchen throwing things around, or strange cars stealthily pulling up to the house, or the whole house gathering itself up as if preparing to shout or shudder. When I held my breath and listened, though, all I could hear was my own heart beating in my ears. Still, I thought perhaps that Deena couldn’t sleep and had gone downstairs, so I got out of bed and went down. Deena wasn’t there, but there was a strange car parked in the driveway—a highway patrol car. In the vague light, I could see that Rodney was sitting in it, just sitting there. I went upstairs to Deena’s room and moved Monkey over and got in bed with her. Deena opened her eyes, I could see that she hadn’t been able to sleep either. I snuggled up to her and she put her arm around me from behind, and we talked quietly in that way that people who are about to go to sleep do—with long intervals of silence between sentences and words.

“We’re safe now, honey,” she said: “He won’t come back.”

“If Wolf had been here,” I said. And then I started sobbing uncontrollably. Deena just held me and let me cry. She didn’t say any of the things that others had said that made me angry—didn’t tell me not to cry (“there-there, now: it’s not the end of the world”), didn’t tell me that Wolf was in heaven, didn’t tell me that Wolf was old in human years and that it was his time to go, didn’t tell me—and this was the most insulting, outrageous thing that anyone had said to me—that I should cheer up because I could get another dog. I wept for a long time, so long that Deena just fell asleep, and I wept not just for Wolf but for a whole world that seemed to have gone with him, wept for myself and for Miz Minnie’s boy, wept because of things large and small, wept until the grief seemed gone out of me and in its place was a tight knot of anger and despair.

Stella Ridley Fifteen

15

The Strange Man

One night after a particularly spectacular thunderstorm had subsided into a steady rain tapping its million fingers on the tin roof of the house, we heard an odd noise as we were on our way to bed. We both paused at the bottom of the stairs. It sounded briefly as if some very large creature was thrashing and lashing about in the mud, then we heard a tiny thud, and then the front door flew open and he was suddenly there five feet in front of us, the deranged tufts of his hair oddly backlit by the lights of the car he had driven through the flowerbeds right up to the front of the house. (Stealth was not, apparently, part of his plan.)

He wasn’t a tall man, probably only slightly taller than Aunt Deena, and he was dripping wet, standing at the terminus of the muddy, wet tracks he had made into the house. I looked at him as if I had all the time in the world, Continue reading

Stella Ridley Fourteen

Mississippi sky summer 2010

14

Summer

Summer came. Molly was going to cheerleader camp, of all things, and then spending the rest of the summer with a friend on a working ranch. Matu wanted to take me to the coast where she, Adela, Bobby, and Sara would spend a month and a half before Uncle Robber joined them for a few more weeks and a trip to some extravagant and hyperhappy theme park. If I didn’t want to do that, why, she told me more than once, I could go to a wonderful camp in the mountains where I would meet bright, charming children from all over the world now wouldn’t that be nice?

One day, Deena was visiting and overheard one of the conversations about all this that Matu was having with herself in my presence and said, “Darling, why don’t you just let Tella come spend the summer with me at Mama’s place? She won’t have to do anything except what she wants to do there. She won’t even have to see anyone, except Miss Monkey, and well, me.” Deena turned to ask me how I would like that, but Matu cut her off. Later, when they thought they were out of earshot of me, they had a heated discussion, almost an argument.

Like all—well, many– people who are incapable of imagining a null emotional state, Matu thought that depression was an imaginary affliction usually born of idleness, which she strongly disapproved of. Matu, God bless her, was one of those “you’d-feel- so-much-better-if you’d-just” people and was always ready to tell you what would make her feel better if she were you. She would not let go of her opinion that what she thought of as cheerful distractions would “get me out of myself,” and Deena, who was just as stubborn, would not let go of her opinion that what Matu considered cheerful distractions were in themselves depressing and that my “problem” wasn’t boredom or self-involvement but “naked grief” (those words conjured up quite a sight in my beleaguered brain) that I had every reason to feel.

I couldn’t understand much of what they said, and, in fact, I was eavesdropping only out of habit, for I didn’t really care what they said or did. Well, that’s not exactly true. I did have some whiffy kind of feelings that helping Matu take care of Adela, Bobby, and Sara for a few months might be impossibly burdensome, even if it was in the most beautiful place on earth. Moreover, I have always found theme parks perverse and grotesque and even frightening—particularly the people who dress up as animated characters and just won’t leave you alone.

Anyhow, Matu finally gave in, and I went to spend the summer with Deena out at Mamaw and Papaw Rennie’s farm, a place where I had not spent much time that I remembered and which hadn’t really been a working farm since long before I was even born. However, although the cows, horses, mules, pigs, and chickens were long gone, the place had many of the requisites of farm-ness and out-there-ness that I needed: a pond, a garden, fields and woods, at two-story tin-roofed farmhouse with verandahs and a sleeping porch upstairs on the back. The nearest neighbors were three miles away, and though a main road ran past its long, graveled driveway, you couldn’t really hear the sounds of any world except the country world—birds, wind in the huge old oaks and hickories and sweetgums, the lowing of cattle or cocks crowing on the neighboring farm, cicadas, the faint rustle of graveyard grasshoppers, walking sticks, my very first praying mantis, fireflies, snakes. Occasionally, we could hear a train from far away, and sometimes crop dusters flew over, though the poison they spread in great hanging clouds did not smell nearly as wonderful as that of the mosquito truck.

Summer was and is still my favorite season. I love wilting heat and violent thunderstorms, and we had plenty of both that year. Deena’s cantankerous cat, Miss Monkey, became my close friend and often slept at the foot of my bed. The only drawback to this sleeping arrangement was that Monkey became a fierce, pouncing tiger whenever anything in the bed—one’s feet, for example—moved.

Deena had told me that there wasn’t anything much to do, but there was plenty to do, and all of it by its very nature was particularly attractive to me at that moment of my life. I helped Deena mount new specimens for her personal collection of insects and moths, and helped her go through whatever was caught in the insect trap she had set in the garden (“just to see what’s passing through,” she said). I learned how to tap a hard-boiled egg all over with the back of a spoon and then roll it twice between my palms till the shell loosened and could be pulled off in one large mosaiced piece that we later crushed and scattered around the flower beds to kill snails in a rather gruesome way. I read whatever I wanted to read in Deena’s library—Dickens, Sterne, Austen, Poe, poetry anthologies, fascinating and incomprehensible entomological tracts with enticing drawings that sometimes gave me nightmares.

And the garden required daily attention—sometimes I just walked through it to smell its dirty greenness, but I also helped Deena tend the corn and tomatoes and peppers there. I learned how to hoe, how to let the hoe do its work and to work in a steady rhythm instead of hacking away with it in that bulldog way that I had. I learned to focus that summer, and what it meant, to wait, to watch, to be still, to do even small things right. And for the first time, I felt something better than happiness, something that we don’t even recognize until we are pained by its absence: peace. And for a while, it was a lasting peace, and my soul was a smooth, shining lake.