A FLASH OF GOLD in the green. Whippoorwills called. Steam rose from a carpet of ferns. The ferns brushed Hailey’s calves. They tickled; they clung damply to her socks. She held a plastic Walmart bag. Its handle had roughened her palms so that she felt very little at the points where the edges cut into her skin. She pulled a stalk from the ground. A globe of red dirt clung to its base, and she let that stay, because the soil would keep the bloom fresh. She was collecting wildflowers for a wreath and the flowers would need to keep for a day and a half. Long enough to rest in the bag while she walked, hold firm while she wove them, and still glow with color on Jefferson Davis’ memorial stone. The things we do for family, she thought.
Hailey and her grandmother sat in the parlor. Gran was storytelling. Words washed over Hailey’s shoulders. She poured vodka into a punch pitcher. The pitcher sat snug between her thighs, balanced on the sofa cushion; she did not have a table to set it on because she had just moved back with Gran. Moving furniture had been the least of her concerns at the time.
“When Jefferson Davis was inaugurated,” Gran began, “his wife wanted to arrive to the city in style. She asked her coachman to plan a procession. Something dignified, she wanted.”“Jefferson Davis stories, again?” Hailey protested. She stirred the pitcher.
“I’m talking about his wife,Varina,” Gran continued. “She went separate from him.”
“Why would they do that?”
“He went to Montgomery first. She followed a few weeks later.”
“Richmond, you mean.”
“No.” Grandmother reached behind her head and adjusted a hairpin. “Montgomery was the capital first. You think I’m senile, Hailey, you think I make mistakes. But this I know better than you. It was Montgomery.”
Her grandmother’s hair looked like a toddler’s. It was pinned off her face but tangled and unruly at the nape of her neck. Thin silver pins punctuated her skullcap. She yanked an errant pin down and shoved it back in place, but fixed nothing. Split ends still bristled outward. Hailey thought about offering to fix it, but decided against it. Best to let her think she still looked tidy.
“She rode in her carriage through the streets of Montgomery,” Grandmother continued. “Montgomery, Alabama. Rockets shot above her head and the crowd tossed strings of wildflowers. Four Negroes walked beside the carriage. They wore black suits and white gloves and walked two to each side.”
“You can’t say Negroes, Gran.”
“Black people, then. Her coachman slowed the carriage to match their walking pace. They were moving slow as molasses, and Varina couldn’t take it in the summer heat. Stifling in that coach. She asked the coachman, ‘Who are these Negroes and can’t they light a fire under it and move faster?’
‘You asked for a fancy procession,’ the coachman said. ‘A dignified one. Such as they do here.’
‘They hire on slow-moving men for their parades?’
‘These here are men such as you would find for funerals.’ The coachman had hired on professional mourners! Mrs. Davis dismissed them immediately, of course.”
Hailey thought of the coachman and the escorts, dark skin glowing against white gloves, escorting Mrs. Davis to the Inauguration. Escorting her as though to her grave.
“I’m telling you this story,” Grandmother continued, “because my mother told it to me, and I told it to your mother. And it’s important. The slave coachman, when he was asked to arrange something dignified, modeled the procession after the only dignified thing he had ever seen: a funeral. People are limited by their experience, Hailey. Don’t expect more than that.”
Hailey said, “My mother never told me that story.”
Hailey sat in her den with her son Jayden. They ate dinner, beef ravioli, on the sofa. Jayden snuggled beside her. She scrolled through ads on her phone. She wanted to buy a kitchen table. Something traditional, with four chairs and a removable leaf. One ad looked promising: oak laminate from a nonsmoking home. Sixty-five dollars. Pick up only.
Hailey replied and offered fifty. She waited a few minutes – no response. “More milk,” Jayden asked.
He balanced his cup on the back of the sofa. It wobbled and threatened to spill. She lifted it and looked inside. “Finish what you have,” she said.
“It’s warm,” he said.
“It’s still got calories.”
Jayden sulked and picked at some fluff that poked from a hole in a throw pillow. He whined. He was getting old enough to remember things. She didn’t want him to remember eating dinner out of plastic bowls on a sofa.
Hailey took care of her grandmother in return for living expenses and a monthly wage. Her father and brother ran the accounts. The money came out of her grandmother’s investments – it was depleting her principal, but Grandmother was not to be told that. She still believed she was preserving the family wealth for the next generation. She had about enough money to pay for a caretaker for the next ten years or so. Longer than anyone expected her to live. Everyone preferred that the caretaker be family. And since Hailey was struggling, she seemed the logical candidate.
“He isn’t any good,” Hailey said. She was eating pizza with Grandmother on a fold out card table and talking about her husband Randy. He had moved out three years ago but they never did the paperwork. She needed money for Jayden. She didn’t want to ask him. The pizza box leaked oil on the pitted gray tabletop. “He’s not going to be a help.”
Gran blotted her mouth with a paper napkin. Coral lipstick feathered around her mouth. She had not yet eaten anything. The napkin came back clean. “It’s worth asking, no?” Gran said.“He’s hassled, he doesn’t want to hear it.” Jayden was building a cannon out of legos on the carpet beneath them. Pizza grease smudged the plastic blocks. She hated to talk about money in front of him.
“That isn’t your problem.” Gran picked a mushroom off of her slice and took a tentative bite.
“It is by default, I guess.”
“It’s peaceful now,” Hailey said. Grandmother chewed thoroughly. “We’re civil. I like that.”
“I want to you listen to me. Very carefully. You have a child. But you are afraid to piss off your husband, for the sake of your child. You would rather your child do without, than think your husband doesn’t like you. Do you know what that is?”
“Worse. It’s stupid. It is absolutely, unforgivably stupid. Because he already doesn’t like you. You’re trying to anchor a ship that has already sailed away. Don’t be dim.”
Hailey sat with her feet in the creek. Cold water bit through her skin. The current churned mightily but made only the slightest whisper of a sound — a “hush, hush, hush” that washed over her ears.
Jayden was the product of a store-brand ovulation prediction kit. Hailey had wanted badly to get pregnant and she was on a tight timetable. She didn’t want to leave her Grandmother alone in the winter, so the baby needed to come in the spring. Deliver at the start of April, take a few weeks off when the weather was mild and Gran would be okay by herself — it could work perfectly. She just needed everyone’s bodies to cooperate, is all. Randy’s seminal fluid, her cervical fluid, the blastocyst. If they all worked together, they could pull it off.
She urinated on the ovulation strip each morning before her coffee. She dipped her hand beneath her bottom and held the paper in the flow. Hot droplets spattered her hand. It felt like bacon grease jumping off the pan. The first time she knew she ovulated, she had just shaved her pubic hair. Thick brown clumps fell around the shower drain. She scooped them up with a wad of toilet paper; it broke and dumped the wet curls all over. She sprayed orange cleanser over the floor, and in the tub for good measure, and she scrubbed with the thick white shop towel that she saved for heavy jobs. The cleanser was orange and it left pastel streaks on the shop towel. Like a watercolor sunset. She retched as she cleaned. She told herself her pregnant stomach was sensitive to the chemicals; she wasn’t pregnant yet, she hadn’t had sex with Randy in days, but that was irrelevant. A messy, biological detail. The lines said she was ovulating; she would have sex with Randy soon; and his sperm would meet her egg. When sperm meets egg, pregnancy occurs. It was basic mechanics.
That night she let Randy settle on the sofa with a couple of beers, then stuck her hand down his pants without warning. He rolled his head to hers, bleary-eyed. He shoved his bottle in between the sofa cushions and let her tug at him, and then straddle him. His belly was clammy and hairy where it bulged between his shirt and the crease of his hip. Cervical fluid smeared his thighs; she was hot and slimy and had a charley horse in her right calf. She ground into him as efficiently as possible. She imagined her body like a vacuum hose, extracting his semen and leaving behind a clean, dry surface. A surface to be stained anew another day, with more potential, until she cleaned it up again.
She didn’t get pregnant that night. It happened eight months later and Jayden was a January baby. She had stopped caring about schedules; she just wanted the thing to be done with.
They stood at the barn door, three of them: Hailey, Jayden, and Grandmother. Hailey and Gran stayed in the threshold. Jayden ran up the steps inside. His neon blue shoes kicked tracks through hay dust. Sun shot through the slats in the walls and spilled in rectangular blocks. The shadows smelled like old rainwater.
Gran had thought that there might be a table out at the old barn. Maybe a good one. So they had hiked the half mile to the Callow Point barn, bringing Jayden to help sift through detritus that hadn’t been touched in a half century: rusted barrel molds, a wicker rocker with a slashed and gapped seat, beetle husks. Jayden stomped on the gray planks above them. The sound was like the back of a fingernail rubbing a cotton ball; it made Hailey wince. Gran yelled up: “Watch the hatch.” There was a black square cut out of the upper platform to drop hay down to the stall below. It had no rail or guard or anything to mark it – it was just a hole, through which things could fall.
Hailey climbed the steps. “Look where you’re running,” she hollered. Jayden paused and squatted in an upper corner. He poked at an ancient machine made of wire and mud-caked two-by-fours. It had a yoke, as though for a horse, and a warped metal wheel at its point.
“What is that rusty old thing?” Hailey asked Gran. “Should he be touching it?”
“Probably any germs or such are dead by now,” she said. “And I don’t know what it is. Something Grandpa picked up at auction, I guess.”
Gran laughed dryly, then coughed and held her hand over her mouth. She leaned heavily on her walking stick. “Doubtful,” she said. “Something cheap, more like.”
When Hailey wove her wreaths, she thought about how much easier it must have been for Ladies. It was wrong to think that, she knew, but sometimes ideas crept out of her brain unsupervised. Women like that could ring a bell for water and tell a nanny to mind their children; they could ask the housemaid to fix their Grandmother’s hair and send a field hand to the barns to move furniture. So of course they had time to wreathe graves with homemade pennants and remember the dead, and of course they chose to remember their Great Confederate Men. They had nothing but time; nothing but opportunity to shape and misshape memories.
Jayden slid into the yoke of the rusted contraption in the barn. Hailey imagined horse dung and dead things, harboring long-dormant diseases, reinvigorated by his young sweat and climbing up his fingers.
“Come out of there!” she called. “It’s probably fine,” Gran said. “It’s dry up there. Nothing grows, nothing rots. Safer to be under there than running around the hatch.”
Hailey pulled at her earlobe, impatient, aggravated by her grandmother’s contradictions. “It’s not fine,” she said. “It’s an old, nasty, rusty thing and I don’t want him in it.” She climbed up the steps and marched to it. “Did you hear me?” she yelled. She was sure he had heard her. “Out. Now.”
“Blasters engage!” Jayden called. He ignored her. He held an iron rod to his eye like the scope of a rifle. “Boom boom!” He slid underneath a beam. A piece of denim flashed between the wood planks, then the white sole of his shoe.
“Mind your mother.” Gran’s voice was hollow and spent. A flush rose up Hailey’s chest. He should mind her. She should control him. How embarrassing.
She kicked the crossbeam and it shuddered. The contraption groaned and slid an inch sideways. Jayden shot out from under it and ran towards the stairs where Gran stood, five steps below them, leaning on her walking stick.
“Careful!” Hailey yelled, worried about the hatch, and then she realized that he was skirting the edge of the hatch — wasn’t going anywhere near it at all — and was instead running straight towards the steps. Running to leap into Grandmother’s arms, assuming that she could catch him in the air. She would never be able to. Grandma’s eyes opened wide and panicky.
Hailey barked, “No!” Jayden jumped. He flung his arms out like scissor blades. Gran’s legs buckled. Her walking stick fell to the side. Jayden tackled her from the air and twined his legs around her.
Grandmother swayed back on her heels, then found the muscle to stand straight, rooting herself to the grit-covered floorboards. She wrapped one arm around Jayden, the another. A line of shadow fell across their merged bodies. For a moment they trembled, together.
Hailey ran down two steps at once. She dug her hands under Jayden’s armpits, lifted him off of her grandmother, and set him on the ground. He whined. His legs were lead. She dropped him the last few feet and he crumpled to the floor. He lifted Gran’s cane and handed it back to her. She leaned on it heavily.
“My back,” she said. “That sprung my back.”
“I’m sorry,” Hailey said. “I’m so sorry. He shouldn’t have done that.”
Jayden’s eyes were deep and the corners of his mouth puckered as he listened.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t mind you,” Gran said. “He should really mind you better.”
Hailey gave Jayden the flowers to strew at the cemetery. Virginia Bluebells in damp clumps, snowy white strings of Trailing Arbutus, and a clutch of Indian Paintbrush for the red in her makeshift stars and bars. Then a photo on her phone, to show Grandmother that the dead had been honored. Jayden sifted the blooms over three stone markers: flat ones for her Great-Grandfather William and her Great-Uncle James, both resting underneath the melted limestone, and an upright slab for Jefferson Davis, whose body lay elsewhere but who had a memorial marker in every small church cemetery in this corner of Virginia so that women, like Hailey, could lay their garlands in remembrance of him on Confederate Memorial Day.
“Stand still.” She grabbed Jayden roughly by the shoulders and moved him in front of William’s grave. “Say a prayer.”Jayden wiggled from side to side and pushed air through the corners of his mouth. “Why now?” he asked.
“Because today is the day we remember,” she said.
Hailey used to think her Grandmother had the date wrong. She humored her, and came anyway at the end of April when Grandmother told her to, but she thought the War had ended on April 9 when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. “Lee’s surrender was embarrassing,” her Grandmother had explained. “We weren’t ready for it. Him sitting there in a common parlor in his peacock blue finery, with his jeweled sidearm, and Grant sitting across from him in muddy boots. It wasn’t official anyway. The boys kept fighting – they wanted to. They scattered into the mountains. April 26th, that was the official surrender. The one we had time to prepare for. The one we did with grace.”
They wouldn’t do this once Grandmother had passed, Hailey realized. Hailey might intend to, but she probably would not follow through. And Jayden would be politically aware enough to stay away.
“Are we remembering the bad things or the good things?” Jayden asked.
“We are remembering the things we choose to remember,” Hailey said. “And we are choosing how others will remember them as well.”
Return to Fall 2018 Volume 10.1
KAY SOBJACK received her B.Mus and B.A. from Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music, and her M.Ed. from The Ohio State University. She lives and works in Central Ohio with her two children, and has work forthcoming in Glint Literary Journal.