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The windows of the diner were smudged. Lou caught her reflection as she passed, one eye blurred and the other hidden underneath a display of the menu. In the doorway, bluegrass music floated in the shadows, the fingers of the old timers on strings agile. They’d play in the corner of the diner from one in the afternoon until the sun went down every Tuesday and Friday. When Lou was little, she’d beg her momma to take her to the diner to sit and listen to the music. She always get two scoops of chocolate ice cream. Mary Ann, the woman who owned the diner would give her extra chocolate syrup.
Mary Ann always said that Lou needed extra to ‘sweeten her up’. They said Lou had a fire that couldn’t be put out by harsh words or a spanking. Whenever Lou was forced to brush her hair when she was younger, she’d throw a hissy fit so dramatic, it was a wonder the neighbors didn’t call the police. As Lou grew older, her fire stayed the same. Her momma gave up some years back and when Lou’s daddy tried to say something, Lou’s momma just said that it was the nature of things, that they should let her be. Lou’s momma left the taming up to God, saying every time Lou stormed out of the house that some day her fire would get her into a mess of trouble and then Lou would learn her lesson.
When Lou entered the diner the band was playing ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’. The banjos slowed when the old timers saw her come in and the song lost its tune before picking back up again. The air in the diner was thick with the smell of butter and on the walls were crocheted passages of the bible in handmade frames.
Lou sat at the counter and gazed at the wall, her anger running slow her veins. Next to her elbow was a newspaper with the picture of President Kennedy, newly elected and speaking with his wife looking on. The girls at school had sung his name in-between classes, putting his picture in their locker. In Lou’s opinion, he was just another man with too many things to say.
Mary Ann came out of the kitchen and when she saw Lou she took a long pause before moving to the counter. Her thick body was coated in a huge, thinly quilted apron with flour stains spotting the front. In her right hand she held a dirty spatula.
“Lou, honey, what can I get for you?” Mary Ann asked, looking somewhere past Lou when she spoke. Lou wished Mary Ann was thinking about cleaning the windows and not just finding something to distract herself with.
“You just gotta hate me too, Mary Ann?” Lou said, her voice low, drifting between the soft banjo.
“I don’t hate you, honey. I’m just a little tired right now.” Mary Ann shifted her gaze from the back windows and down the spatula in her hand. Lou studied Mary Ann’s tightly drawn brows and lips, her expression hard.
“Aw Mary Ann, out of everybody in this town I thought you’d at least be the one to smile at me.” Lou felt her chest tighten and there were tears itching underneath her lashed. “I just need someone to smile at me.” The band had stopped playing and Lou’s soft words reached the dusty corners of the cafe.
“C’mon dyke, get outta here,” An old timer said, his voice aged and scratchy. Lou recognized him from career fairs they had at her middle school. He had worked at the bank before he retired.
Lou’s shoulders tensed and her mind went numb. She’d gotten used to the words over the past two weeks. They’d find her in the grocery store, at work when she stocked shelves at the Dollar General, and on sidewalks when she walked back to her truck in the evenings after work.
Lou turned around and stood up, turning towards the wrinkled faces of the old timers. The one who had spoken nodded at Lou and said, “You heard me.”
Lou turned back to Mary Anne, but her eyes were fixed on the spatula. “Get on, honey,” she whispered. Lou pressed her lips tight. The anger froze her lungs and there was a hollow that was slowly grinding its way into the space between Lou’s ribs. The clock on the wall clicked and one of the old timers started to tune his banjo, his eyes low. The retired banker took a step towards Lou. Lou shook her head. She thought to herself that if she burned down the town, she’d still feel the eyes of these people on her. These people that had wished her good morning every day when she was little and told her that she would grow into a beautiful young woman.
Before Lou slammed the door of the cafe, she snatched a salt shaker and threw it at the smudged window, leaving a scratch. She heard yelling when she turned the corner at the end of the street, but she kept her head low with her hair covering the side of her face. She brushed her hand across the rough stone of the hardware store and then the railing of the bridge, the concrete cool underneath her shaking fingertips. The trickle of the creek broke the hum that had narrowed her mind, that had made her throw the pepper, that had made her want to set fire to the instruments of the old timers and toss the ashes in the faces of all the people who had forgotten to smile when they saw her.
Harleys rushed through town behind her, their deep hum bouncing on the tops of the ridge lines of the mountains that held the town in its palm. Overhead a pair of hawks whistled, testing the breeze with slight tilts of their long feathers. Down the creek, Lou could make out the white rhododendron blossoms peeking through the skeletons of hemlocks, trunks gutted by blight. When she was little, Lou used to wander through the hemlock graveyards that stood out behind her family’s farm. She’d tap on the hollow trunks and the echoes would ring through the hollers and mingle with the chatter of squirrels and songbirds. The tips of the hemlocks were white, the fungus fuzzy and when it touched skin, it felt damp. The sunlight was hazy through the twisted limbs, the tops of the hemlocks still intact and casting shadow. Lou’s favorite spot was a pond that had gathered in a low swing of a valley, blocking the path of a cold mountain creek. The water was cooler than open windows in the heart of December.
On their third date, Vinnie had dared Lou to strip down and dive into the water. Vinnie said that Lou had to do something crazy to remember her time as a child, since Lou’s eighteenth birthday was the following week. Vinnie was already eighteen and had managed to get Lou hooked on cigarettes. Sometimes Vinnie had joked that Lou only loved her because Vinnie could buy her Marlboros.
They’d dated for four months, during the hot part of the summer and fall, when the humidity made the paint melt off the wall. Lou would sneak out after work and meet Vinnie down at the pond. Their skin grew sticky and sweat gathered in the low places of their curled bodies. For her eighteenth birthday, Vinnie gave Lou a photography book with pictures from around the world. Vinnie said that that way Lou could travel the world if she wanted to, that she wouldn’t even have to leave town.
There was one picture of a young girl lying curled up in the middle of an empty road. The land was open and dry and to the left of the girl there was barren tree with sun bleached limbs. The pavement beneath her was cracked and the lines faded. When Lou told Vinnie that it was her favorite one, Vinnie said ‘well ain’t that sad.’
Lou steadied her fingers on the concrete of the bridge and watched the rushing water below. She turned to look down the street where the old magnolia towered in an abandoned plot. There were beer bottles tangled in the roots and a ragged chain link fence marked the border of the plot. Two weeks ago Lou and Vinnie had sat on the ancient limbs that kissed the grass and curved back up to support blossoms the size of hubcaps. The smell of magnolia was soft and thick as though it was sitting on Lou’s shoulders. Lou had picked at the limbs, the rough bark cutting under her nails as Vinnie told Lou that she wanted out before things got serious, that her time with Lou had been fun but she would only ever be into guys. Before Vinnie had a chance to turn away, Lou had pulled her back and kissed her hard. Some high school boys were just brushing aside the thick leaves when they saw Lou and Vinnie. They hollered after them, their shouts following Lou as she ran for shadow. She watched Vinnie bolt down her street, her short hair bouncing and long skirt tangled between her knees.
When Lou got home, the house smelled like yeast and pulled pork. The words of the old timer at the diner still bounced through her mind. The door of her daddy’s study was closed and she could hear the click of his typewriter. In her mind she saw the endless array of newspaper clippings plastered to the walls of his study. Sometimes she would sneak in there when he wasn’t at home and learn about various stories that he covered for the local newspaper. Her favorite one was about a train that had tipped into the river. Apparently it had been carrying huge catfish that had grown so big in the river that they were the size of whales.
“Lou, will you come in here.” Her daddy’s deep voice found Lou in the narrow hallway that connected their six room house. In the parlor, the air was tense. The portrait of Lou’s great grandmother seemed even more somber, her downturned lips painted with deep creases in the sides of her mouth. Lou’s daddy sat with his hand clasped around a half-full glass of whiskey. Lou’s momma sat perched on a small cushioned chair by the window, her cheeks pale.
“Aunt Silva came by about an hour ago. She said something about a rumor going around town..that you and another girl were…” His voice cracked slightly and he took a sip of his whiskey. The numbness in Lou’s mind spread to her hips and then to the backs of her knees. She waited for the shock, the realization that her daddy knew, that her momma couldn’t meet her gaze. It lingered somewhere on her tongue and when she swallowed, it faded.
“Lou, is this true?” Lou noticed that there were droplets of whiskey on the front of her daddy’s shirt. Both of his shoes were untied, the laces tangled in the ends of the rug. Her momma’s face was trapped. Her gaze was fixed on the glass windowpane. The fading sunlight was a burnt orange that painted the tops of the pines that lined the boundary of their farm.
Lou shook her head. Her daddy looked back down at his whiskey and said nothing. An anger began to seep into Lou’s thoughts. She moved towards the door slowly, waiting for her daddy to speak, for her momma to turn her gaze, but they remained still, lips downturned, matching the portrait on the wall.
The air was clear when she opened the screen door and Lou took a deep breath. She sat down on the porch. There was an old, cracked mirror propped up next to the doorframe. When Lou caught sight of her reflection she looked away. She had been looking away for two weeks now, unable to see herself. She started listening for the words people whispered about her when she passed instead of pretending not to hear them. At night she had begun to say them to herself, wondering that if she said them enough, she’d forget what they meant.
She heard her father in the living room, his slurred speech. He was saying something about how they should send Lou to a religious camp during the summer. That maybe the people there could help her work things out, that they could get their little girl back.
Out across the fields there were birds dipping over the long golden grass and the cicadas had begun to hum. The leaves had started to turn and patches of orange, yellow, and red pushed back the green on the oaks and poplars. An ant crept along an edge of the top step, antennae searching. Lou flicked the ant and it arched into the grass.
She thought of the girl in the photography book, curled on the pavement. She wondered that if she curled up like that, whether she’d just fade out. But the anger made her want to strip down naked and scream in the middle of the road that ran through town. She wanted to paint her body red and dance under the midday sun so that people would laugh at her, point at her until her shame rose and consumed her, until she felt its presence through her entire body. Then she would lie down on the warm asphalt and fall away into the scratchy black surface, swallowed slowly until only a faint outline of her body remained.
The hinges of the screen door moaned, making Lou jump. The smell of creamy perfume filled the porch. Lou’s momma stood behind Lou, balancing two cups of tea.
“Let’s go for a walk.” Lou’s momma said. Lou followed her momma down the path. Her lips were dry and she licked them, feeling the cracked skin beneath her tongue. They reached a stand of pines that were gathered alone in the middle of the western field. The sun had fallen below the mountains and the shadows stretched their fingers across the valley where the farm was nestled. Lou’s momma sat at the base of a pine, stretching her legs. Tendrils fell loose from her tight bun and wrapped around her shoulders. Her long, beige skirt seemed out of place in the dried grass and pine needles.
Lou sat across from her momma and watched the valley drift into darkness. The windows of the house remained unlit and Lou pictured her daddy sitting alone on the couch, his glass of whiskey empty and the droplets on his shirt now dry. Lou held the mug of tea close to her face and let the steam turn her skin red.
“Lou, I don’t know what you’ve done exactly. Or if you’ve done anything at all. Aunt Silva is known for her exaggerations.” Lou’s Momma looked at Lou and her face softened. “Honey, listen to me, it’s not an easy world to live in. There might be places somewhere far off where a person can do what they please anytime, but it ain’t here.”
Lou shook her head and felt a cool breeze on her bare legs. Her momma had her head cocked and her brows raised as she always had when Lou was little and being stubborn. Lou wished she could tell her momma about Mary Ann, about the way the old timer had spoken to her. But her momma had always been distant, hidden when she was sad and never laughed at Lou’s jokes, only smiled. Lou’s momma shifted against the rough bark and re-adjusted her long skirt. Her blouse was rumpled and little flecks of bark lined her shoulders. She was looking off at the tree line, her gaze intent as though she were waiting for something to emerge. Then she looked at Lou and sighed, glancing down at her tea.
“Honey, I was in love with a woman ten years ago.” There was a sharp pain in Lou’s stomach and she looked up so fast to meet her momma’s eyes, she spilled tea down the front of her blouse.
“Momma…” Lou said, trying to make out her momma’s jawline in the fading light.
“I never told anybody of course. She was a mother of one of the other kids in your elementary school. She worked downtown in the post office, and sometimes I’d go down there with the excuse to buy stamps. I still have stacks of those stamps hidden away.” Her voice caught, and Lou noticed how there was one grey hair that had fallen loose from its pinnings. Lou felt her hands moving towards her momma, wanting to hold her close and wanting to tell her that she loved her, but Lou kept her back firmly against the bark of the tree.
“Lord, I was so ashamed of myself.” Lou’s momma laughed faintly and then sighed, picking at the dead grass beneath her. “Every Sunday I thought the roof would just fall down on top of me or when the preacher made pauses and looked at everybody, I would get the sweats for fear he would look at me and say ‘Caroline, I know what you have done.’ But I never told anybody, not even her. I promised myself that if I kept this all inside, that in a couple of years I’d laugh and think that it was all a bad dream. But I couldn’t even get close enough to face her, unless I was buying stamps and then I turned beat red and started shaking all over.
“The first time I saw her was when I was dropping you off at school. We’d stood next to each other in line to meet the teachers for the third grade and she started talking to me about problems in the school district. You were off somewhere with a friend and her little girl was playing with a book, ripping the corners of the pages and reading certain words aloud. I couldn’t stop looking at her eyes, even when she stopped talking. Her hair was cut short so that it framed her face and her voice was so light and she laughed every time I made a joke.
“I kept thinking to myself that I was being silly, that whatever I had eaten for breakfast that morning was upsetting my stomach. But when I saw her eyes when I fell asleep at night for three weeks, I knew I had a problem.” Lou’s momma laughed again and she drained her mug. Lou sat frozen, the moonlight beginning to wash over the valley. Lou wondered if her daddy was on the porch looking for them. Lou looked at her momma and wondered how she had missed this, if there had been any hints over the years, maybe in the way she talked or how she fixed her hair. Lou wondered if her daddy knew, if Lou’s momma had ever pictured her daddy’s eyes before she fell asleep.
“Momma, you don’t have to tell me this.” Lou said, crossing her arms. She looked up at the full moon, half hidden behind the mountains.
“Honey, you’re the only soul in this world I’d tell and I’d appreciate it if we kept this between you and me,” Lou’s momma said, her voice soft, but Lou could hear the hardness, the fire that had kept her momma upright all these years. The cicadas were humming so loud, they beat back Lou’s thoughts and made her head nod with the lulls.
“I won’t tell anyone.” Lou said. Lou’s momma folded her legs and she studied Lou.
“Lou, this is a closed town for people like you and me. We hold everything inside and the only solace is closing our eyes in hot showers and praying that we aren’t alone. I thought about leaving so many times. I felt so ashamed I could hardly look at myself. But I had your daddy and I had you and I couldn’t leave you. But there were so many times that I was alone at home and I had a bag packed and I sat behind the wheel of the truck, sometimes for an hour or more and just stared down the road.
“Honey, what I’m trying to say is that nobody can help you here. You’re a woman now and you’re strong, lord there were so many times that I prayed to have your strength. I can’t help you, I can’t even take care of myself.” Lou saw a silver tear trail down her momma’s cheek and Lou swallowed. She stood and sat next to her momma, putting an arm around her thin shoulders. Her momma sat stiff, her back straight, but Lou noticed that her jaw had softened and that a small smile was playing at her lips.
“I want you to leave, Lou. Find something to make you happy.” Lou looked up at the night and saw the north star peaking through wispy clouds. An owl hooted somewhere far off and she heard a deer snort behind her. She looked down to find her momma’s hand over hers, closer than they’d been in ten years. Lou stayed silent, glancing at her momma’s tangled skirt like Vinnie’s had been that night, the last night Lou had seen Vinnie. Vinnie had gone off to college the next week. When they’d been together, she’d told Lou that she was going to major in classical literature. Lou had planned on going to college a semester late. She’d needed to work for a while longer to get the money.
But now she had enough money to get her to another town, somewhere up north maybe where there was more than one stoplight in a town. Somewhere that when you went into a restaurant you didn’t have to say hello to everyone there and ask about their families and how their mother was. Somewhere where she didn’t know everyone’s last name, and they didn’t know that she had been tongue tied up until she was five.
Lou turned to her momma and nodded. Another tear fell down her momma’s cheek and she smiled, a broad smile that made Lou want to keep nodding. The breeze picked up and left a trail of goosebumps down Lou’s arms.
“C’mon, let’s go inside and get you some food.” Lou’s momma stood up, the mugs in one hand. She was shorter than Lou remembered and there were circles underneath her eyes that Lou had always figured for shadows. The moonlight was scattered across the swaying field and the white house glowed amongst the shadows. When they reached the porch, the moon had risen so that it shone directly down on the valley. The cicadas were humming in the tree branches and a bat flitted past. Lou’s daddy had left two plates to warm in the oven and a note saying that he had gone to the bar in town, that he’d be back in a while.
Lou’s momma went inside to heat up the beans and cornbread. Soon the thick smell of butter washed through the house and out into the field. Lou leaned against the beams of the porch and wrapped her arms around herself. The road that led towards town was empty. The dry dirt of the road was cracked, two lines of bare earth and a strip down the middle of crabgrass and clover. Lou’s truck sat facing the road, the green paint peeling and the back bumper dented slightly.
She saw herself rising in the night, packing the things she needed. A few changes of underwear and a toothbrush. She’d find the photography book and rip out the picture of the girl lying on the empty road and tear it in half. She’d leave the pieces on her unmade bed. Then she’d tuck the book under her arm, shut the screen door carefully so that it didn’t slam shut, and put her bag in the passenger seat of her truck. She’d sit with her hands on the wheel and look down the road and feel the fire in her fingers, a fire that her momma said would always get her in trouble. She’d light a cigarette and keep her eyes on the road. Then she’d roll down the windows and let the cool breeze wash over her, carrying her out and across the mountains.