Ballantine Reader's Circle: Before Women Had Wings (Excerpt)
Back in 1965, on a day so hot that God Almighty should have been writhing with sick-to-the-stomach guilt over driving His children out of the cool green of Eden, my daddy walked into our general store, held a revolver to his head, told my mama that he couldn't take any more and that because of her harsh ways and his many sins he was going to blow his brains out.
Seconds earlier, when it had been just Mama and I in that dusty old store, I'd been thinking about food. Sweets, to be exact. I used to suffer craving spells. Still do when I get to thinking about things. I don't know what spurred the want back then, a want for sugar that was so strong I would grind my teeth flat until my needs were met. Could it be that my deep yearning was caused by a sadness bred in the womb, a dark past we're helpless to undo or make right, a history we have no memory of once we're birthed into this world? Are there events so ancient and awful that our fresh lives are spoiled even before the cord is cut, so we keep craving?
These are questions for which I haven't a single answer. In fact, answers aren't part of my nature. Details are what I'm about--stacks and stacks of details--the bones of my family, calcified vessels, the marrow chock-full of wishes and regrets. In my mind I pick up the bones one by one--a leg bone, a hip, then a spine that looks like a witch's ladder. Before you know it, this skeleton made of memories is rattling me.
I was six years old, dressed in my yellow shorts set--it had white rickrack tacked around the neck--standing in front of the pine bins that were full to overflowing with sweets, trying my hand at whistling in an attempt to get my mama's attention, hoping that she would look up from the black ledger book and its long columns of numbers that evidently foretold our future, wanting her to smile and say it was okay to eat a honey bun--my favorite food in the entire world--betting that she would not snarl at me to get the hell away from the sweet bins because didn't I know it was almost lunchtime, when Daddy staggered in through the front screen door and, without saying hello, proceeded on with that revolver. Held it down by his side and let his arm dangle back and forth, as if the gun were nothing more than a toy, something he might throw across the room.
My mama, whose name was Glory Marie, looked up from her work. Her face slid from distraction to annoyance, and I prayed that my guardian angel, who so far in my life had proven to be an elusive helper, would materialize in front of the counter with its clutter of jars filled with pig's feet, beef jerky sticks, BC Powder packets, bug spray, pickled eggs. Prayerful words welled up inside me, whirled through my head: Please, angel, whisk me away. Take me to your house in the clouds, just for a little while, just for today.
I looked at the black muzzle of the gun and my daddy's freckled fingers wrapped around its handle like five pale, unsteady snakes. Come on, angel, come on.
Mama said something under her breath--probably a curse word, she knew a lot of those. Then she picked up her perfectly sharpened pencil, pointed it at Daddy, dartlike, and said, "Billy, put down the gun. You're scaring the children," although he could not have been scaring my big sister, Phoebe, because Mama had sent her down the road to Mrs. Bryson's to deliver the lard and flour she'd ordered.
My daddy's blue eyes were crazy--thunderhead wild, my mama always called them--you know, that look of madness as if a person's knotted-up, Devil-haunted soul has been forced into the small space inside the sockets, flashing despair, anger, and hurt like a warning light: Do not enter; do not cross; do not attempt to soothe.
"Glory, I mean it. I'm sick and tired to trying to make it in this godforsaken world. You and the girls will be happier with me gone." Daddy's voice was loud, trembly. He was crying.
I shut my eyes, and on the backs of my eyelids I saw Mama get up from behind the desk and put her arms around Daddy and coo, "Everything is going to be fine. Yes, baby, I love you. Your daughters love you." If I'd been her, I would have done that.
But my daydream did not come true. When I looked again, Mama was still sitting, thumping that pencil against the coffee-stained pages of the ledger. When she spoke, her words pounded into me as if she were a fancy-footworking prize-fighter: "Jesus, Billy, you're behaving like a fool."
A shadow passed over my daddy's eyes. His lips curled into a grimace, then a grin that was all heartache and threat. He looked past my mama at nothing in particular, and I feared he might be staring into the unknowable face of Our Lord and Savior.
Daddy raised the revolver to his temple, and for a split second the gun seemed alive, a blackbird flapping. In a voice too steady for the circumstances, he said, "I swear to sweet Jesus, you're gonna be sorry, Glory Marie."
Then he slipped the weapon into the waistband of his pants--an eerie satisfaction bouncing across his face--and he stormed back out the front screen door.
I expected the door to bang shut, but instead it only whispered because my big sister caught it on her way in. She was sweaty, red-face, looked as if she'd just stumbled through a mess of stinging nettles--always did when there was trouble at home, which was almost all the time. I heard Daddy's car engine turn over and rev. Phoebe asked, "Mama, where's Daddy going with that gun?"
"Shush, girl," Mama said as she faced the window and watched Daddy peel out of the driveway. She picked up the phone. Its heavy black receiver looked too much like the revolver. Crows outside in the pecan tree started cackling. I ran over to Phoebe and threw my arms around her.
Mama's voice spilled over me: "Yes, Chuck, this is Glory Marie. Billy's got a gun. Says he's going to shoot himself. Can you send an officer after him? He's headed north, toward town. Try Moccasin Branch. He's threatened before that if he ever killed himself it would be by the river. And can you please send a cruiser over for the girls and me?"
After a series of okay's and I think so's, she hung up the phone, gathered her pocketbook and cigarettes, and told us to go outside and wait for the police. But I couldn't move. My muscles and bones turned to rubber. So I stayed put, clinging to Phoebe. She wasn't going anywhere either.
Mama was a pretty woman. I didn't look a thing like her. She had black hair and black eyes, and I figured her to have been Indian although she never confessed to such a thing. I was redheaded-near-to-blonde, with my daddy's thunderhead-blue eyes, and I'd blister under the sun before you could say squat. Phoebe looked like Mama's child with all that darkness--skin and hair and eyes and all--but even shared looks didn't make the two of them close. No, she wasn't a woman you could get close to on a regular basis.
Mama pushed her chair away from the desk, smoothed her dress as she stood, then walked over to the counter. She took a wad of folding money out of the cash drawer.
I squeezed Phoebe's arm tight as I watched Mama run her thumb over the stacked corners of the paper money, silently adding. Then she glanced up, saw us standing there like a couple of stunned deer. "I said go out there, now! I've got to shut things down."
Phoebe took me by the hand and steered us toward the door.
Mama called to me as she locked the cash drawer, "Quit that foolish crying, Bird."
I wasn't crying, but her scolding words pushed me over the edge. Phoebe hustled me outside, where we stood in the glare of the noontime summer heat. The sun, the sandy road, and the palmetto scrub leading to palm trees and oaks blurred into a smear of bright light tinged in greens and browns as my tears broke loose and freely flowed. I cried because my mama had told me not to. I cried because I didn't know what else to do.
Mama walked out onto the porched and locked the door. Her thin and lovely hands shook as she lit a cigarette with a lighter Daddy had given her on her birthday just three weeks before. The lid was cherry red, but the bottom part was crystal clear so that you could see the lady in a pink swimsuit skiing in a sea of fire-triggering fluid.
We uttered not a word. Just stared into that scorched distance. A fear grew up inside me that maybe Daddy was already dead. I tried to reason away the rising doom: Nothing was kicking me down to my liver, no angelic voices screeching, "He's in heaven." That's right,
I thought, I'll hear the revolver fire. I'll feel the bullet ripping through my own cheekbones when Daddy's life slips into that boiling sky.
"Where in the hell is the crusier?" Mama's voice broke our silence, and as she spoke a dust devil appeared far in the distance on the unpaved Prince of Peace Citrus Highway, the road our store was on.
"That must be him," Mama said. She tossed her cigarette on the ground and smashed it with the pointed toe of her gray pumps. Mama dressed nice when she worked in the store, but didn't go in for fads--no miniskirts, no sunglasses the color of limes.
The policeman stopped the car so fast it bucked. A skinny man with an Adam's apple nearly the size of my fist, he got out and nodded at Mama, his long face scraping the humid air.
If Mama's heart was turning itself inside out with worry, she did not show it. With hands on hips, that pocketbook dangling off her arm, she looked like a woman determined not to become unhinged. "Hello, Jack. Thanks for picking us up."
"No problem at all, Glory Marie." He opened the backseat door for us. His arms were so long, looked like they'd been stretched in a torture chamber.
"Get in, girls," Mama ordered.
Jack touched Mama on the shoulder. "Glory," he said in a concerned tone, "everything is going to be all right. Chester Smith is on his way to Moccasin Branch Bridge right now."
Mama nodded, her lipsticked mouth sealed like a knife slash across her dark face. Phoebe was already in the car, but I resisted. If people saw me speeding by in a copmobile, they would think I was going to jail. "No!" I screamed.
"Goddamn it, Bird, get in the goddamn car," Mama yelled.
I wanted to zip past her and into the store and run my hands over piles of penny candy in their cellophane wrappers, candy so pretty they looked like glass. I took a quick step in the direction of the front door, but Officer Stringbean Jack blocked my way, spurring me in a differnt idea: I would stand my ground by turning as still and unmovable as a garden statue.
But my mama, she would have none of that. She grabbed my arm, right where I'd been vaccinated, her face flying in a thousand directions, and she shook me. "What's wrong with you, you little hellion!"
I opened my mouth, tried to explain, but fear and panic snatched my words, ferried them to a place I could not go.
Mama shoved me into the cagelike backseat, and as she did she banged my head hard into the car door. "Ow!" I screamed. Please don't hurt me.
"Get in there, you bitch. Don't you dare fight me!"
She did not say sorry or check if I was bleeding, which I wasn't. But if I'd been that statue, my gray face would have been dropping into the dirt, a thousand broken pieces.
I scooted over next to Phoebe, and Mama got in next to me, her hands clutching the pocketbook as if she might start slugging me with it. I buried my face in my sister's lap. It was a good way to sit--Mama couldn't hit me full in the face, and nobody would see me as we sped toward Lily, a town named in praise of the resurrection of Jesus, and the river that marked its edge.
For the next few minutes, I attempted to hide and to hear beyond the siren and to hold my breath because the back of the police car smelled like piss. I gritted my teeth, readying myself for the sound of a gunshot or a sudden pain inside my head caused by Daddy's passing. I thought about my angel who never came and I cursed her: Goddamn you, angel, straight to hell.
My whole body turned hot, then ice-block cold. I thought I might throw up or pass out. Did I feel sick because of my breath-holding, the bump on my head, my blood connection to Daddy? I didn't know, but I needed air bad, so I sat up, looked at Phoebe, studied her nettled face. Figured she could use some kind words. So I leaned into her: "He ain't dead."
Then I scrunched down into the seat, but not so low that I couldn't see out. The countryside whipped by fast. It felt like I was watching a moving picture. We streaked past farms and groves and signs that touted fresh citrus and the power of God. As we neared Moccasin Branch Bridge, I grew amazed, for it appeared as if every man, woman, child, and dog in Lily had gathered along the western bank. How they knew to be there, how they knew Billy Jackson was going to attempt to take his life right there on the slim white shoreline of that brown-water river, was a mystery to me. I hadn't yet learned that in a small town everybody knows everything instantly.
I eyed those busybody folks and was seized by a funny thought: It would be a good time to rob the bank.
Then my heart stumbled a beat, as if it had gotten caught on one of the cypress snags in Moccasin Branch, and I searched that crowd for my daddy. But I did not see him. I looked to Phoebe, whose cinnamon skin was flushed and clammy. Her dark eyes were dry, which was a terrible thing to see. My mama always said the Devil steals tears--keeps them in a box with your name on it so that when you go to hell you will spend eternity crying the stored-up teardrops of a lifetime.
Mama struggled and cursed as she tried to get out of the police cruiser, but you can't open the back door of a cop car if you're on the inside, so the three of us were trapped. I felt a fit coming on, one of those leg-kicking, arm-flailing, wailing fits, when Mama had one of her own. She let loose with a string of cussing so potent it caused Jack the policeman, who was standing outside talking with another of his own kind, to blush.
He opened the door and said, "Sorry, Glory, I just need to make sure what was what. We've got Billy in custody. He's okay."
Jack nodded in the direction of another police car, and I craned my neck to see, but there were so many people milling about that my view was blocked. "You want that we take him in, or that you carry him home?"
Mama stared straight ahead, her eyes hard as steel. She said, "Take the son-of-a-bitch in."
Then she gathered her pocketbook into the crook of her arm and took me by the hand. I slipped my other one in Phoebe's. Pretending we were women of grace, wearing our pride like long black veils, we slipped out of the cruiser and threaded our way through the gawking crowd--friends and acquaintances all. Some said, "Glory, can we help?" but my mama responded to no one. She fixed her granite gaze on the storm clouds rising upon the horizon and pulled us right along behind her.
We got in Daddy's white Impala. Under the sun's glare not yet shadowed by the approaching clouds, the Impala seemed only a glimmer, a ghost car that would ramble through the Florida scrub toward a future thick with questions and grief.
Mama drove us home. She kept her lips sealed, and through instinct and experience, Phoebe and I knew to keep our own traps shut.
We had a shotgun house on a lake no one had ever bothered to name, in the middle of a citrus grove owned by Mr. Bailey T. Watson, a rich man who lived a lifetime north of us in a mansion that overlooked Lake Panasoffkee. We rented our house from him, and it was okay. The grove was a good place to hide.
As we walked up the front porch steps, Mama, who looked whipped but stubborn, said, "You girls play Chinese checkers or something. Do anything but fight."
My sister said, "Can we have a Co'-Cola?"
"Yes, you may, but don't drink too much."
Then Mama and Phoebe went into the kitchen, and I stayed on the porch and looked through the cracks in the wooden floor slats and said, "Here, kitty, kitty," because there was a wild cat that sometimes stayed under there and I wanted to tame her, thought that would be a fun thing to do.
Phoebe tired to catch the screen door with her foot as she came out with two Co'-Colas, but she wasn't fast enough. It made a popgun sound. From somewhere inside the house Mama yelled, "Damn you, young'uns!"
I took my cold drink. "Why do you think she's making Daddy stay in jail?"
Phoebe ran her finger down the long crest of her nose. "Try to teach him a lesson, I guess."
I took three big swallows, and as the soothing fluid rushed down my throat I wondered what kind of lesson could he possibly learn--not to play with guns, not to make Mama angry, not to do anything to attract attention? That must be it--I acted poorly whenever I desired sweet attention. Maybe all my daddy needed, more than anything in this world, was for my mama to be Jesus-like, all-forgiving, and gentle to little animals.
Phoebe looked out toward the grove. Its straight, orderly rows of citrus trees were shaddy and often cool. She swatted a fly off her forehead and said, "I wish the rain would come soon."
I liked the way I sounded when I agreed with her. I thought I came off as a grown up, trying on my big sister's words and ideas rather than my mama's high heels and beads, which always landed me in trouble. I blew on the lip of the Co'-Cola bottle, coaxing from it a long, sad whistle. Daddy could whistle like nobody's business. Was he in that jail cell all alone, or had they thrown him in with a bunch of robbers and murderers? Was he wearing one of those striped prison outfits? Was he safe? I didn't have any answers. "Sister." I patted her leg. "Will you play me one game?"
Phoebe looked down at me as if I was a pest, but then her sharp black eyes softened and she said, "Yeah, Bird, I'll play you a game."
We sat on the porch, Indian-style, placing the marbles on the Chinese checkers board. Mama came out, pocketbook on arm, paper sack in hand. She'd put on fresh makeup and had changed out of that nice linen dress and high heels she'd been wearing earlier and into a blue wraparound skirt, a white cotton blouse, and flats. Despite the dark circles under her eyes, she looked comfortable, newly scrubbed.
"There's egg salad in the refrigerator," she said. "Phoebe, fix you and your sister a sandwich while I'm gone."
Phoebe didn't look at Mama, just kept on with those marbles, glaring at them as if they were being unruly and she was trying to make them obey. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"To take your daddy something to eat." Mama bit down on her bottom lip. I saw her whole face start to tremble and then pull itself back together. She took a deep breath, stared over our heads, and in a justifying tone of voice--as if we were accusing her of something--she said, "He's probably hungry by now."
"I guess so," Phoebe said.
A mockingbird started singing, and in some faraway field a tractor droned to life. A wisp of hair fell in Mama's eyes. "I've got to go," she said. Then she hurried down the steps, settled into the car, fiddled with the keys. Had to try three times before that heap of wheels and metal would start, but once she got it going, she hollered, "You two behave while I'm away. Bird, don't give your sister a hard time. If your head hurts, put some ice on it."
Then Mama was gone, disappeared down the road in the white Impala. A clap of thunder cracked the heavens, and a flock of sparrows flew from the live oak that overhung our tin roof, taking cover in the grove.
Phoebe seemed unmoved by the rumbling sky. Just kept her eyes on the Chinese checkers game board and its perfect triangles filled with marbles of such luscious colors I wanted to eat them. But they wouldn't be sweet, no they wouldn't. Sister, she looked beautiful, staring down at the board, her face framed in shadows and cloud-spangled light. I thought, She would make the most perfect angel.
I watched as she stretched over the board to flick off a fallen leaf. Underneath her thin cotton shell, I saw how fragile the bones in her back were, far too sliver-prone, far too light to support a pair of wings.
Something tickled my arm. I looked down; a ladybug walked among my many freckles. My hairs must have seemed like a forest to a creature so small. I brought my arm close to my lips and softly blew, my breath a gust of wind to send the ladybug on her way. She flew off to another world, maybe a blade of grass, maybe a flower with a pool of water cupped in its petals. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, stared into the heat. "Do you think she's gonna yell at Daddy; do you think he still has that gun?"
My wingless sister moved a red marble. I thought I heard the cartilage holding her skeleton together snap as she said, "Who cares, Bird. Who the hell really cares."
Excerpted from Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler. Copyright © 1997 by Connie May Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.