BACK IN THOSE DAYS every one of my veins was a secret and I was earnest as a just-slaughtered lamb whose blood still trickled down the altar stones for I was a freshman with a full-ride scholarship in a private college situated in eastern Tennessee in “the hills of Appalachia pointing to the sky.” The school in question was a Presbyterian college begun just after the Civil War and I was so Mississippi-Baptist at the time that being Tennessean and Presbyterian felt strangely freeing—transgressive even (one professor even daring to suggest that the Book of Job was poetry versus historical fact!). That’s not to say I ever strayed too far. I attended church every Sunday at Weaver Union (Presbyterian-Methodist “combined to the glory of God” as the bulletin proudly stated) but other than that, I endlessly studied. You might even say it was my calling card, all the effort I put into school. Neither my grandparents nor parents had ever been to college but there I was, nonetheless, for despite my quote-unquote “situation,” I was said to possess an exceptionally fine mind.
Even though I hailed from out of state, my admissions counselor informed me more than once that my excellent entrance essay (which had somehow found a way to combine Daniel Boone, courage, and my father’s campus visit to see his baseball playing cousin Roger one April afternoon when the Dogwoods were all in bloom)—had caught the committee’s selective eye. My composition fondly recounted the trip my father took, leaving Soddy-Daisy early one Saturday morning to come walk around the oval, visit Liston Hall, then watch Roger score the last home run which broke the tie! In that moment on the sideline, cheering with the other students, my father had felt a special belonging he’d never experienced anywhere else; in the years that followed, he’d spoken often about this unique, almost other-worldly, feeling—telling my brother and me to keep working hard in school even as he valiantly fought an unsuccessful battle against leukemia.
Though I’d felt no special hope mailing my application off in the manila envelope, my passionate entreaties and stolen memories seemed to have done the trick. Just like Daniel, just like my father before me, they thought I had uncommon pluck and were therefore prepared to offer me an uncommon opportunity. Even before orientation began, I arrived determined to prove myself worthy of the helping hand extending its gracious palm down unto me. I did my homework in the library whenever it was open, sitting directly underneath the glowering portrait of our current president wearing his (admittedly somewhat sallow looking) trademark gold tie. I never took a second helping of Froot Loops in the dining hall or additional ice cream cone from the soft serve machine; when I was assigned a student-work study in the Physical Plant, I scoured the toilets clean more than once a week, scrubbed every splat of tobacco from the wall behind Eddie’s desk (he said he barely recognized the place!), and carefully entered then checked and re-checked water consumption measurements on the computer my boss kept under a framed picture of General Lee kneeling to pray in a forest beside his horse Traveller (my venison-loving boss: what people don’t understand is that Lee wasn’t for slavery so much as he was for states’ rights).
As far as becoming acquainted with any other fine southern gentlemen, let’s just say that at the time I was far too busy studying to show myself approved. Plus no one seemed that interested. Looking back I think it’s fair to say that the most highly attractive (and athletic) girls on campus always seemed to hail from Charlotte or Asheville. So many capable blondes hoofing it over from North Carolina to steal the show! I had zero dates over those four years but I believe that number reflects my own anxiety, terror, rather lackluster husk (my eyebrows needed a vigorous plucking), and overall social inabilities versus the usual courtship habits of eastern Tennessee college age Presbyterians.
However, I did have the good fortune to make two invaluable friends. One of them, Esther, wanted to go to medical school, worked at a Christian bookstore, and was a volunteer at a Hospice on the Virginia side of town not only for her resume but because she truly wanted to comfort people. In fact, she was so relentlessly kind to everyone she encountered I can only think of one negative even after all these years: over-conscientious about weight and time, she often opted for apples and a bag of popcorn in her dorm room over the cafeteria. Whenever I paused before the whiteboard on her closed door and smelled the faint whiff of burnt kernel I knew I had one less person to sit beside—a dwindling my already meager social reserves could barely afford. Thankfully our other friend Wendy (a French major from Sanford, FL) took most of her meals in the cafeteria and was there on campus most all the times Esther wasn’t.
Since Wendy was also relatively far from home, she regularly walked with me to the green mailbox in the woods we’d decided upon as a proper turning point the first few times we’d gone on a walk through a nearby neighborhood. In the beginning I was a possible History major, Bible minor, so as we strolled Wendy patiently listened to me complain about my American Religious Experience professor and how he never gave out A’s on our weekly response papers (my one about the Millerites was particularly insightful and I thought my one on Sylvester Graham and his almost Levitical-type obsession with dietary cleanliness was even more provocative yet, though the mark I received indicated I was the only one who thought so).
Before being teachers at a Christian high school, Wendy’s parents had been missionaries. God had apparently led them to each other when they were preparing for the field then ordered them to Brazil where Wendy and her three siblings were born. Wendy’s father always joked that “God’s retirement plan was out of this world” which meant that they wouldn’t see the check anytime soon. Hand me downs were the rule as well as lots of peanut butter and beans. Because of my friend’s modest background, I eventually found myself confiding in her that after my father had died we had to sell our house to help pay the hospital bills and then had lived in a variety of run-down apartments in parts of town that probably wouldn’t be deemed safe, the worst one being two doors down from someone who turned out to be dealing drugs.
Wendy also came to know that when my grandfather finally passed away from lung cancer, my grandmother had invited us to move into their trailer park in Tremont the very next day. A chain-smoking grump, my grandfather and his cruel nicotine singed tongue had terrified us all. Once he was gone, a natural light broke out across my grandmother’s long-suffering face and I believed I could almost see how she must have looked when she was a girl. Three days after his funeral was the first time I ever heard her laugh, not just a polite ha-ha but from a wonderful raucous place deep in her belly. When she said I could put up my Steven Curtis Chapman Great Adventure Poster and Eiffel Tower poster and anything else I fancied in her old sewing room with its bright yellow curtains, she didn’t mind tacks in the walls, I sat on the bed after she went down the hall and closed my eyes: thank you God thank you. Help me be worthy.
Though I was thrilled to be at college, I missed hearing my grandmother talking to my mother in the living room late at night and going to the Itawamba Welcome Center where my grandmother worked, pretending its gracious columns led into my own future home; inside, I would sit down in one of the rocking chairs with a proprietorial air, nodding approvingly as I watched my grandmother circling items in brochures, assuring one concerned visitor wearing an orange Clemson fanny-pack with a big paw smack in its middle, “It’s alright that you only can recall ‘Stand-by-Your-Man.’ Miss Wynette would be thrilled to hear it! When you really start to think of it most people aren’t known for anything at all!”
As we walked, Wendy confessed that she missed home too. She missed her mother humming in the kitchen as she made her father’s sack lunch and drew a smiley face with a wink on the brown bag even on days when she was mad at him (because she understood that even though he was a dedicated servant of God, in many ways he was little more than a needy child) and she missed the sweet potatoes her horrified-to-have-a-missionary-son Unitarian grandmother served as well as early morning autumn jogs through a nearby park with her youngest brother Jackson who was still in high school. After they ran, they always went to the edge of the marsh and looked for startling logs—their special term for alligators.
As we walked, we bemoaned our family bathrooms, modest, but private, describing to each other our respective shower curtains (mine grey with mauve stripes, hers clear with a pale blue starfish border). It’s funny but I think we tended to talk about these things the most when we were passing near the factory behind Food City that made coffins. I suppose the smell of freshly-sawed pine planks tended to stir up all that we, fortunate and young as we were, had already lost.
Without Wendy, I never would have met Jorgie. Now I’m not saying Jorgie and I were ever intimates. Hardly. She was a senior when I was only a sophomore. As you might imagine, it was a real privilege to have someone two years above you reach out across the distance and say hello so you can be sure when she did I looked up from my paper about Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to extend my hand. By some strange reckoning, Wendy and Jorgie had ended up as roommates for one year in Tadlock. There was a great deal to admire about her. She had smooth caramel colored hair and a cute little blip of a nose versus my block of one that seemed stolen off one of the more outside presidents on Mount Rushmore. There was also a graciousness and an ease in her movements I dearly longed to emulate: she seemed equally comfortable talking to Peggy, the older almost-blind woman who scanned our cafeteria cards; Mike, the handsome, guitar-strumming campus soccer star from Chattanooga; Dr. Lindsay, the somewhat odd Poli-Sci teacher who strutted around carrying unwieldy stacks of papers versus notebooks; and Julia, the sullen flannel-innumerable, safety-pin-wearing atheist from Morristown who only came here because her pious, worried parents wouldn’t pay for anywhere else.
Unlike Esther, Wendy, and I, Jorgie had a boyfriend, a real one named Timothy who pleasantly smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg and the dark pine trees at the edge of the golf course adjacent to the college. A Bible major who had fairly mastered rudimentary Hebrew and Greek, this promising young man was a minister-to-be from Roanoke, VA; he and his serious gray eyes had courted Jorgie reverently and ardently since they were both freshmen. The pair studied together, worked out together, ate together, and even drove across the state line to the Wal-mart by 81 to replenish their assorted toiletries; despite the fact their respective dental flosses might have already co-mingled in the same plastic basket, they still had not slept together. As I understood it. But that was all going to change one month after they graduated. Hoods in May. Then rice in June and carnal knowledge to add to their calligraphy-splashed degrees.
Before all that, however, celebrations were in order, such as the wedding shower at her family’s home which I received an invitation for, opening the card right there in the mailroom only to find I’d scattered silver and gold bell and dove confetti all over the black and white checkerboard tiles. I was so pleased to be invited that when I went to Belk to acquire some items off Jorgie’s registry I even took some of the money my grandma had given me for Christmas and bought myself a grey wool turtleneck dress and a turquoise faux-leather belt. If Jorgie’s family was half as stylish as her, I’d need to do my best to up my game.
The Saturday of the date of the shower finally arrived. Wendy had a bad cold and couldn’t attend, but I still purposed to make my way to the event alone. Even though I was a nervous driver, I didn’t have far to go, just a few miles in fact, for though Jorgie had briefly thought about going to school in Elizabethton, she’d ended up deciding on her own backyard. In the three-and-a-half weeks between the invitation and the actual event, I conjured up visions of Jorgie’s family home: perhaps a stately white double-story house with a grand porch with pristine wooden Cracker Barrel rockers on it. Maybe it was even near the famed Pemberton Oak my American History (up to 1865) Professor Stade told all his sleepy eight am students they should go find before it fell down. I had even allowed myself to picture a herringbone brick wall around some old gnarled lilac trees that had been planted by Jorgie’s great-great-grandparents shortly after the War and beyond that enclosed space, a yard so large and gracious it looked more like a field (her dad needed a riding mower to tackle it). Imagine my surprise then when I pulled my deceased grandfather’s old Toyota pickup into a patch of gravel and mud off the highway that leads to Holston Dam and saw nothing more than a row of five automobiles in various states of decline and just behind them to the left, a modest white trailer with a brown stripe wearing a rather askew skirt made of nothing more than some broken rectangles of weathered wood latticework.
Instead of a circular driveway lined with oaks or maples, a piece of plywood had been hastily thrown down in front of the cement block steps where the ground still looked especially muddy from all the recent rain. Thinking there must be some mistake, I re-checked the directions I’d scribbled on the back of a Valentine’s card from my grandmother. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see any numbers on the trailer and before long, a dog started barking. I sat in the truck a little longer, unsure what to do until a maroon Dodge Shadow pulled up beside me and a woman in a long skirt with orchids got out, opening the door to her backseat to grab a foil-covered cookie sheet and a small plastic see-through coffin with a carnation corsage inside. I opened my door and jumped out, rearranging my turtleneck, grabbing at my belt which seemed to have popped up too high and grabbing my present (a plastic cutting board and some silver measuring spoons), a nervousness in my throat, trying to figure out what to say when—
“Are you here for the shower, darling? I’m Jorgie’s Aunt Eileen. You come along with me now.”
Relieved, I happily let her lead me past the tethered but barking pit bull and into the trailer proper which smelled of litter boxes and bacon grease and corn chips, a small, wavering cinnamon candle doing its pitiful best to cloak the stench.
Jorgie wasn’t there yet, so once I’d set my gift on a table by the window where some bags already sat, Aunt Eileen sat me on the couch and quickly filled me in. While I stared in wonder at the Christmas fern pot hanging from its wooden bead-flecked macramé sling, I learned Jorgie’s father worked maintenance at the Kodak Eastman plant and had for years with her own husband, Ned. Jorgie’s mother had worked there as well for several years in the office doing billing but now she was a homemaker suffering from severe diabetes. Two of her toes even had to come off a few years ago due to a nasty infection, but a specialist had helped her order a special shoe made just for her and she was doing really well with it. Aunt Eileen also informed me that Jorgie being an only child wasn’t the way her parents had planned it; however, that’s what God decreed: anyway, everyone in the family loved Jorgie so much it was probably for the best no one had to be born only to wither away in her shadow. She was special wasn’t she? Wouldn’t she make a fantastic minister’s wife? I heartily agreed.
As the living room kept filling up with guests, Aunt Eileen made a special point to introduce me to her own mother Nanny Joe: “This here is Jorgie’s grandmother!” After one of her other granddaughters helped her take a seat in a recliner, the elderly woman sighed then winked right at me, saying that yesterday she wasn’t sure she was going to be here because she had the runs. It may have been the fried chicken steak gravy where she lived. The meat had tasted chalky and strange but she hadn’t wanted to say anything then dearly paid for it. She was doing much better today, however. So far. She then asked me if I liked chicken steak (I did) and did I know what the weather tomorrow would be. She then said she liked my bright belt; it was clear I was trying, and talked to me about a pair of sandals one of her daughters wanted her to wear to help her bunions. The daughter had said they were in a medical catalogue and Dr. Scholl approved but she wasn’t going to pay that much for shoes with holes in them, not after her father worked two jobs all his life to make sure none of his children ever suffered that fate. Now did I go to a church where they actually said the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday? Too many folks didn’t know it anymore or only knew patches and mumbled for longer and longer stretches til they finally hit upon something they knew again.
I enjoyed talking with Nana Joe so much that I didn’t even notice when Jorgie first came in. With her hair freshly trimmed and an extra sparkle in her eye, she appeared even more radiant than usual, hugging everyone including me as Aunt Eileen trailed her trying to get her to stop hugging long enough to pin the corsage of pink carnations somewhere it would hold. When everyone was still chattering and Aunt Eileen had gone to help look for a ladle for the punch, one last knock came on the door. Jorgie opened it to reveal a tall, slender woman in a pristine powder-blue linen suit with perfectly coiffed auburn hair who seemed horrified to see us.
“Hello!” Jorgie opened the door wider. “I’m so glad you could come, Mrs. Knight. Please come in and meet my family.” As the woman tentatively stepped across the threshold then took the prime seat she was offered in a duct tape-streaked easy chair right next to Jorgie’s chair (showing admirable hospitality, Jorgie’s cousin Brianna had all but darted out of it), the bride-to-be told us all that Mrs. Knight was her fiancé’s aunt who had come here today all the way from Richmond. Seeing as how she had the floor the woman stiffly nodded, curtly announcing that her sister sent her best wishes—she had been planning to attend, of course, but her first grandchild had just been born two days ago and she had gone to McClean to help out her daughter.
“That’s her first grandbaby but I bet there will be another one dropping right out before you blink!” Nana Joe called out, causing Jorgie to blush and Aunt Eileen to dutifully remind her of the proper order: “Mom! We have to have the wedding shower first.”
Timothy’s aunt appeared so uncomfortable at that moment that an odd silence briefly fell over the room, almost as if the rest of us (Jorgie’s grandmother excepted) could intuit that someone fancy, someone “other” was now with us. Studying the rigid woman’s demeanor and her elegant high heels, I thought I discerned the same puzzlement I’d originally felt upon pulling up to the trailer: how is it possible Jorgie comes from this?
Thankfully Jorgie’s mother brought us out of our collective reveries and doubts, clapping her hands together briskly: now that everyone was here or here in spirit it was high time to eat and chat. Aunt Eileen had finally found the ladle in the drawer with the oven mitts, so we could all partake of the lime-sherbert punch and ice ring floating in the plastic punch bowl. All of us, that is, except Timothy’s aunt who refused a paper plate. After pulling a bottle of Evian water out of her purse, she untwisted the lid and took a minuscule sip: she pursed her lips and refused to make more than the barest of small talk, though some of the other women present did their best to try and engage her. She’d recently retired from her job in Richmond approving mortgage loans—she didn’t know what she and her husband would do with all her free time. They had some travel plans, but in the end, they were still deciding. Yes. Yes. Italy maybe. Spain. Barcelona. Madrid. But nothing was certain.
Since I’d missed lunch, I took all the food Timothy’s stand-offish aunt didn’t, piling my paper plate high. There were Cheetos and fancy crackers and carrots and apple wedges and white icing cupcakes from Food City, a little silver bell atop each. To complete the look, a familiar insinsinslooking gold and silver confetti had been scattered around the paper tablecloth (leftover bells and doves from the invitations no doubt!). Once everyone else had a paper plate and cup of punch the gifts commenced: cookware and pots and pans and pillowcases and toasters and muffin tins, as well as a smattering of tasteful lingerie alluding to the EXCITING FUTURE OF HAVING SEX FINALLY AFTER ALL THIS TIME OF NO NO NO GOD SAYS NO HINT OF SEXUAL IMMORALITY ALLOWED IF YOU EVER WANT TO EVEN THINK ABOUT ENTERING THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.
Saint Paul needn’t have feared a thing when it came to Jorgie; she was a lady through and through. Whenever she realized she was opening something intimate, she didn’t take it out of the box, instead gently nudging the tissue aside so she could hold it up and show us a sliver of salmon-colored silk or baby-blue lace. When Jorgie opened my gift, she gushed about it as if I had bought her an expensive blender or coffee maker and I blushed, basking in her praise until I caught the Richmond Aunt’s eye: she wasn’t impressed with my gift and now that she had seen it, she knew exactly where to rank me despite my new dress and belt.
After I caught her ‘that’s just what I thought you would give’ glance, I felt strangely let down, which made me realize I had been making my little clever comments and jokes about Socrates and Meriwether Lewis and Jane Austen secretly hoping she would notice I wasn’t exactly like everyone else in the room and that she—a person of some funds and importance—would somehow be able to divine I was different, just as the entrance essay committee had. It had impressed me, I admit, the fact she used to decide what people got loans, as I was hoping to take out a student loan in the spring for a special three-week study abroad trip to Jerusalem and Cairo taught by the melted-butter-tie president of the college himself! Perhaps if I was going to get one she was the type of person I would first need to win over. Her own gift, coming on the heels of Brianna’s handmade Scotch-thistle oven mitt and pot holders, was a sleek blue Kitchen-Aid mixer and a wooden cutting board: “No, that’s from Williams-Sonoma,” she made sure to tell us after Jorgie’s Great Aunt Mary said she thought she’d seen something almost just like that at Big Lots recently but hadn’t seen it the next time she went back.
After the last present was opened (a rolling pin and apron with red and purple tulips on it from the organist at her church), Jorgie’s mother pushed up the sleeves of her mauve sweater and announced that a SCAVENGER HUNT would soon ensue, causing me to glance around in surprise. Yes Jorgie had a few cousins there, but since I’d turned out to be the only college friend at what was mostly a shower for Jorgie’s older relatives and acquaintances, the median age in the room was probably around sixty years old. Were these ladies in skirts and flowery wispy dresses and heavy brown shoes really going to traipse around in the woods behind the trailer, shimmying up trees or diving under damp cold logs? When she heard the announcement Timothy’s aunt looked like she might choke on one of the mini-carrot stubs on the paper plate Aunt Eileen had insisted on bringing her despite her self-imposed fast.
But it was not to be that kind of hunt. As Jorgie’s cousin Rachel started handing out sheets of paper and pencils, I eventually realized the search would all take place inside the confines of everyone’s individual bags. I frowned. Since I used my backpack everywhere I went, I didn’t even own a purse at the time. In fact, all I had in my possession that afternoon was the key to my car and my dorm building on a silver ring attached to a plastic case which held my driver’s license, library card, student card, and chapel punch card. Thanks to top-notch attendance at revival week in January, I only needed to attend seven more chapels for the whole semester even though it was only February! The best chapel of all may have been when some local entrepreneur came and talked about how he invented paper mats to put in cars after a cleaning and car wash and his wife—who obviously didn’t need to worry about her card being punched—stood outside in her fur coat the whole time grumpily smoking a cigarette while her husband droned on. However long his speech may have been, I don’t think he even once tried to tie his success to God in any way which I found strangely refreshing—at one point cheerfully remarking that ever since he was a boy, good ideas just came to him.
Paper in hand, I quickly scanned the scavenger hunt checklist: family photos, lip gloss, blush, mascara, breath mints, checkbook, notepad, pen, pencil, measuring tape, pills, tissue, deposit slips, tape, needle, thread, tweezers, postage stamps, comb, aspirin, dental floss, scissors. As the other ladies smiled and nodded knowingly, swiftly checking item after item off, I sat there and read the list again, this time more slowly, wondering how much leeway or liberty I should take. For example, I could check “family photos” if I claimed my dour face from the driver’s license and student ID card as kin and I could check “tissue” if I counted the faintly used few squares of scratchy toilet paper from the bathroom near the cafeteria I’d stuffed in my pocket earlier in the day. In the end, I allowed myself the family photo but not the tissue then sat with my almost empty list and waited while the others chortled and dug around in their own private Bristol caverns, pulling out treasures, dumping them onto the brown shag carpet, some even sorting then re-sorting their worldly possessions in neat piles.
After a while, I realized that I wasn’t the only one mostly observing. Though she periodically peeked inside her big black bag with a fancy gold MK circle on it, brushing at the tassels, Timothy’s aunt held her purse close to her chest as if she thought someone might snatch it even as she kept stealing stunned glances at her niece-to-be Jorgie, in her crème sweater and navy slacks. She remained smiling, calm, and involved, looking regal and in no way ridiculous in the slap-dash bridal veil her quiet cousin Brianna had made on the fly using all the ribbons and bows from the gifts. Jorgie may not have had a purse the size of the Tri-Cities area but her smart beige leather purse with its brass buckle and tasteful length fringe was at least the size of Kingsport, just the size it should have been for an education major senior with a fiancée who’d already student-taught kindergarten. I figured Timothy’s aunt must have at least a few items in her bag (that’s where the water bottle had come from, after all!), but if so, she wasn’t going to let any of us see. Since I was sitting there doing nothing and so was she, I tried to catch her eye and give a conspiratorial I wonder how much longer we’ll be at this look but the one time our eyes met she quickly looked away, grabbing for her water bottle and another small sip.
In the end, second prize went to Nanny Joe, who had quite a few items checked, but an asterisk was put beside her victory on account of her having pulled many things out of the seat on her walker which opened and closed. The elderly lady argued it functioned as an extension of the small canvas purse sitting beside her beige orthopedics, but even after deference to age and station, Jorgie’s mom and fairly taciturn cousin Rachel couldn’t quite be convinced. In the end Nanny Joe was given a wooden backscratcher wrapped in a purple ribbon and a small package of Walker’s shortbreads, but the main prize went to Jorgie’s Aunt Lisa (Brianna’s mother) who beamed as she accepted a Beth Moore devotional book, extremely large white vanilla candle in a glass jar, and a cellophane sack of pink bath salts.
As the event was ending and Brianna was proudly handing out tiny “thank you for attending” sachets of mints, I went and scooped off my coat from the peach-colored comforter on the bed in Jorgie’s old room. When I noticed she still had a hot pink mesh net holding stuffed animals in one corner, containing a small grey seal with upturned whiskers virtually identical to one I’d once had, I felt a sudden rush of warmth. I lingered a while more, chatting to Aunt Eileen as I put on my denim jacket, appreciative of the faint smell of lavender Jorgie’s comforter (or someone else’s coat) must have infused it with. When I went up to thank Jorgie for inviting me one last time, she hugged me tightly again then leaned in close, looking hesitant for a moment before she finally whispered, “Wendy told me you’d fit right in!”
As she winked, I felt a sudden dread, a great unease. I had never talked to Jorgie directly about my family’s circumstances after my father’s death or how many times we’d had to move before my grandmother had taken us in. What had Wendy told her? My mind started hurtling forward. Jorgie was having another shower for the girls from Tadlock, Lower Liston, and Parks in a few weeks at K.P. Duty with its cute striped awnings down on State Street. I was invited to that one too, but (Wendy aside) why had I alone been invited to this one? It wasn’t as if Jorgie and I were that close. So was there another reason she’d singled me out? Maybe I should have let it be, but I had to know.
“What do you mean?” I softly touched the bride-to-be’s shoulder after her cousin Brianna had left us to go retrieve a foil covered plate of leftover Ritz crackers and apple wedges for Nanny Joe who was about to leave back for her retirement home Iris Place and its dubious cuts of meat. “When you said you knew I’d fit right in?” My voice trembled as I asked it. Maybe in the end Wendy hadn’t said anything at all, but Jorgie could just tell I would belong because she came from almost exactly the same situation I came from and could smell it on me. The smell I’d been trying my hardest to scrub off every inch of my skin for the last two years.
“Oh!” Jorgie seemed surprised, putting her delicate hands to her clavicle and fluttering her fingers for a few beats. “Well…” As she paused, I steadied myself for the worst, “Wendy said that…that…you were…really excellent at talking to older people. And she was right! I think my Nanny Joe wants to adopt you. She already told me that next Christmas-time she wants you to come with us to see the lights at the Speedway.”
How quickly I leapt to believe her! If it wasn’t exactly the truth, I still appreciate her graciousness. Though I’d never heard her talk much about them at school, it was clear during the shower that Jorgie wasn’t ashamed of her family one bit—at least that I could tell. When Timothy’s aunt arrived, she hadn’t started acting any differently than she had before. Perhaps I had been projecting. I accepted the two extra cupcakes Jorgie’s mother offered on a pastel pink plate, happily received one last goodbye hug from Aunt Eileen, then almost made it through the door unscathed. Almost. Right when I reached the threshold, Timothy’s aunt, who I thought had already left, was standing there, a regal sentinel in a linen pantsuit, addressing me directly, coldly, clinically: “I heard that you attend school with Jorgie but you’re not from around here.”
“Yes, I’m from Mississippi. From Tremont. It’s the birthplace of Tammy Wynette, actually, but it’s not that a big town so you probably haven’t heard of it before.”
“Why are you here then? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper for you and your family if you had stayed in-state?”
“Well I… well,” I fought to find words, “I guess you could say I ended up here because of my father.”
“Was this his alma mater?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she looked at me as if I was an idiot, “Did your father attend school here?”
“Yes, yes he did,” I finally replied, wishing Nana Joe and Aunt Eileen and Jorgie hadn’t been looking right at me when I said it.
“I see,” Timothy’s aunt eventually nodded; when it became clear she didn’t care enough to ask anything further, I smiled a fake smile and dashed out, hurrying past the line of cars where some man who was standing out there smoking waved his butt in the air in my general direction without looking up: a farewell of sorts. Hands shaking, I missed the ignition the first time I tried it with my grandfather’s key, then sped back to school and the parking lot behind my dorm, Lower Liston, so I could finish my paper on Turner’s thesis.
Since Esther was gone for the weekend and Wendy was sick, my original plan had been to eat the first cupcake once I’d reworked my penultimate paragraph and the second cupcake after I’d checked and rechecked every source on my works cited page, but while I did still work on my paper versus going to dinner, the two cupcakes and their twin silver bells remained on the plate untouched. In the end, I took them down the hall and offered them to Clara and her roommate Anna who were watching The Sound of Music, since Anna, from Nairobi, had never seen it before.
When I returned to my room, I went over to the bookshelf above my desk, staring at the framed photo of my father and brother and me posing outside Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo when I was about six and my brother was four. My father looked so happy and young, wearing denim cut-offs and an orange Ocean Pacific tank-top. In the photo we were all pretending to stoop down and enter the thimble house, hamming it up for my mother’s disposable camera. We didn’t have the money to go in (a fact I realized years later), but at the time, he just told us the house was so small they didn’t have anything in there to see but one little blue suede baby bib, and we believed him. I briefly touched his tan handsome cheek with my right pointer finger. Dad. I’m so sorry.
That night I had a curious dream. Frederick Jackson Turner was there as the sky started collapsing and prairies started rolling up, yelling, “no more will there be a place to stand” and I cried, “I must have a place to stand!” for I was weak, but Jackson Turner only chuckled and said he had another thesis to write, waving goodbye as I kept tumbling down, eventually landing on a small paper mat I gratefully hugged until the man from chapel appeared, a cheerful Horatio Alger who bent down and said he needed the scrap for his wife’s Cadillac, and anyway it was time another new idea was had: why didn’t I get busy thinking of one even if I was just a poor white trash girl from Mississippi?
As he yanked the paper away I fell, then fell some more until I finally saw a fine brick building, Williamsburg style, with several imposing pillars, and I smiled as I realized where I was, hurrying down the sidewalk then flinging open the front doors on my grandmother in a purple blouse carefully wiping up the cloud of coffee creamer particles from the can, changing the filter in the coffee pot; as soon as I touched her shoulder, however, she reared back so violently I knew she knew about my behavior in the tiny trailer with the brown stripe and the lie I had told about her one and only son. She turned around and slapped me hard on the cheek, flinging burnt grounds at my feet: depart from me, I know ye not, as I ran back out of the building, my face burning with freedom and despair.
Jenn Blair’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Rattle, Atticus Review, Montreal Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, New South, The Tulane Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Appalachian Heritage, among others. Her poetry book Malcontent is out from Press America, and her poetry chapbook The Sheep Stealer is out from Hyacinth Girl Press. She is from Yakima, WA.