Saturday, September 3, 2011
excerpt from novel in progress " Miss Kate" (I'm not good with titles...)
The child sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, balanced on the wicker seating of ladder back kitchen chair. Her name was Sara. More a young woman than child. Just on the tottering rim of adulthood. In the kitchen corner, hunched over a stove that tottered on a slight downward slope, stood a stooped, ancient woman with gray wisps of hair tenderly escaping a thinning bun. She worked wordlessly; patting flour, Crisco, and buttermilk into a kneady mass. Trickles of glistening sweat dotted the skin of her crepe neck and the faded cotton housedress stuck to her underarms where wetness bloomed like roses. The sounds of a pig snorting and the smell of chicken shit drifted through the lone rusted screen covered window.
The old woman, Miss Kate, pressed the flour mixture in the bowl, while Sara watched silently waiting. The old woman was the only friend she had in the small
town. A month ago her mother has packed a few of their belongings in three large black suitcases in the dead of the night while Sara’s father had slept . Her mother had called for a cab, and they had taken the Amtrak all the way from Georgia to this dusty sleepy town where her mother’s “people” were from. Texas
Miss Kate stopped working the dough, and squinted at Sara. “What you want, girl? A story? Lord, child, you the most story starved person I ever seen. Why don’t you watch the T.V like other young’uns?” The old woman sighed, turned back to the comforting, mindless work of pressing dough and began to speak.
“I been in this here house for over seventy years. Been sitting on my front porch all that time too. That’s on and off. I mean, I don’t stay out there on the porch all the time, just when the weather is good and the sun is warm on these old bones of mine. Yessir, I reckon I done rocked a million miles already and if the Lord be willing, I’ll rock a million more. Might be I’m the oldest person in these parts. I’ve seen a lot of going ons in all my years. Things people don’t even know I see. But I see, yessir, I see, and I keep my mouth shut. I don’t truck none with all them flap gum women in town who tell everything they know, and some they don’t know. Take a bit of advice from me, young’un: Gossip is like an ole biddy hen that will eat corn out of your hand one minute and peck you on the ass the next. I’m too old to be pecked, so I keep things to myself.
Most people think I’m deaf as a doorknob, but I ain’t. I hear right good, only I don’t let them know it. I heard you when you walked up today didn’t I? Use to be, when people thought I could still hear they’d come around at all hours of the day and night for advice. I reckon they thought since I’m just about as old as God, I might have some answers for them. I don’t. So I just started pretending I couldn’t hear ‘em and directly they stopped coming around. I like my peace and quiet”.
Miss Kate looked back. She waggled a dough encrusted finger in Sara’s direction. “I’ve always kept the dirt in my yard nice and swept. That’s something I take pride in. No matter how old I get, that yard’s gonna be swept good each morning. That’s what I was doing the day Davey Masterson and his new bride moved in next door”.
Sara squirmed. “Who were they, Miss Kate?”
Miss Kate let out a loud sigh. “That’s the trouble with you young’uns. Always interrupting. Can’t learn much until you first learn how to listen. Want me to finish this story or not?”
Sara didn’t answer. Only pulled her arms tighter over her legs and promised herself she wouldn’t interrupt again.
“They weren’t nothing but young’uns. Not much older then you,
. Davey was all of eighteen and that little Velma weren’t but sixteen. Davey worked over at the mill on the night shift. He’d come home each morning around 7:15 covered in lint ‘cause he worked the loom room. He was a sweet boy, even if he did seem to be thick as a brick in the head. That first morning after they moved in, I was out sweeping my yard and he walked right up to the fence and handed me a little paper bag. Texas
“I seen you dipping your snuff Miss Kate and since I go by Walt’s store on the way home I thought you might like this.”
He was shuffling his feet in the dirt. I opened that bag up and there tucked inside was a red and white tin of C&C snuff. My brand, alright. I told that boy that I appreciated it, and told him how hard it was for me to walk down to Walt’s sometimes.
‘Weren’t nothing Miss Kate. I use to buy it for my grandma all the time.’
I told him, ‘Let me pay you’, but he only shook his head and said, ‘Oh, no ma’am. This one’s on me. You can next time.’
And that’s just what I done. Every Monday morning Davey would walk up to the fence and tell me how good the yard was looking and hand me that little paper bag. I always had the money ready in my apron pocket. He was a good boy. That’s about the only time I ever saw Davey. Didn’t see his little wife much. She kept in the house and didn’t never sweep her yard. I can only imagine what the house must have looked like inside. Never smelt no side meat, cornbread, or turnip greens cooking. I don’t think she was much in the way for housekeeping. She was pretty though. Had hair the color of golden corn and the bluest eyes you ever did see. Not that old blue that looks all milky and weak, but blue the color of violets. Deep, deep blue. She was a little bitty thing. Didn’t weigh no more than 100 pounds soaking wet. She wasn’t skinny though. Had good birthing hips on her for such a tiny girl. When she walked it was like the air parted for her.
She was delicate but you could tell that underneath there was a distractibility to her that Davey didn’t see. She never spoke to me, even though I called out “Hey” over the fence a time or two when I’d see her carrying in groceries or whatever. No, Davey never did see the other side in her until it was too late. He was devoted to his little Velma. Always came home straight after work and always handed her his paycheck on Friday. He didn’t go out drinking all weekend either. Whenever there was overtime at the mill, Davey was the first to volunteer. Told me one time that he wanted to save up so he could buy Velma a little house in town with a white fence and blue gingham curtains in the window. He loved that girl. I didn’t doubt it then and I don’t doubt it now.”
Miss Kate paused, spit a dribbling stream of snuff into a tissue stuffed can placed decisively on the kitchen counter and then continued, “After about two years, I started noticing things. I’d sit and rock, take a dip, spit in my cup, and watch. Not much changed on the outside. Not much that anybody else would notice, but I did. First there was the music. Davey had bought Velma a little radio. She didn’t play it much in the daytime when Davey was sleeping, but at night after he had left for work, lord that radio would go on all night long! I can’t tell you how many times I sat on my front porch and watched as she sashayed around like one of them dancing girls in her living room. Her windows would be wide open and that music would float out like that sweet perfume from the wisteria does. Velma liked that country music. She was always singing along to one of them radio singers. She had a pretty good voice too. I’d see her whirling around that living room while she sang her little heart out. I remember the words to one of them songs. Let’s see now. ‘It was just one of those things. Just one of those crazy flings”. Of course, she sang it better. Velma sounded so lonely when she was singing, even when it was a snappy song. Maybe she was just lonesome for her kin. She was from up around
and didn’t get to see her people much. But lonesome don’t account for that low down Ben Watson that she took to sneaking into the house after Davey had gone to work. Guess that little radio wasn’t enough company for her. Maybe it was all them cheatin’ songs she had been hearing on the radio that made it seem alright. Atlanta
Ben Watson was a snake. He was a hard drinking man who had that bad boy charm that young girls find hard to resist sometimes. He had hair like coal tar and was tall. So tall! Must of been 6’5”. He had a pretty smile with white even teeth, that is when he took a notion to smile. And talk! That man could of talked a hog into the chitlin’ pot. He drove a brand new Chevy that he bought from Harold’s Chevy place out near
. I heard them commercials on the radio. Ben made decent money working for the D.O.T. Heard one time he was also running moonshine for Cap Adams and his boys. Macon
One time I seen Ben threatening Miss Marshall ‘cause she was behind on her furniture payment with Brusters Furniture Co. He made an extra buck or two sometimes running down delinquent bills for the local businesses who didn’t have the gumption to do it themselves. I seen him clear as day that morning standing on the porch, yelling at poor Miss Marshall that if she didn’t have the payment by next Thursday there weren’t no telling what kind of fox might get in her hen house and have himself a high ole feast. Miss Marshall’s hen house was the only income she had in the whole wide world. She sold eggs and fryers to Grathams’ Grocery. Them hens had caught some kind of spell and hadn’t been laying for about two weeks.
Miss Marshal was crying and begging Ben to give her another week. Said she was expecting some money to come in the mail from her boy up in
‘Just don’t hurt my hens,’ she cried. Ben just glared at her and looked innocent all of a sudden. Miss Marshall told me later that Ben had siddled up real close to her and whispered with his hot breath in her ear, ‘Why, Miss Marshall, I’d never hurt your ole hens. I was just saying that I heard there was an egg eating fox on the loose. I was just warning you to watch out.”
Then he winked at her and strolled away. Winked, I tell ya! Don’t know about a man who would threaten the means of an old widow woman, but that was Ben for you. I heard tell that before he went to work for the D.O.T that he had spent time in Jackson for armed robbery, but I couldn’t ever get the story straight enough to say if I believed it or not. Probably true. Like I said, he was a snake. And that old snake got into Davey’s house before you could say boo!
I seen Ben the first time he come sniffing around Velma. She was carrying groceries up the walk and he pulled that shiny Chevy up by the curb, throwing dust every which a way, and hollered out the window, ‘What’s a pretty thing like you doing carrying them heavy bags?’ Velma turned white as a sheet and hurried on in the house like a wasp had gotten into her bloomers. That car took to driving by the house after Davey had gone to work. Ben would stop in front of Velma’s house and rev that motor up loud. It’d be so loud it’d scare Miss Marshall’s chickens to death and they’d start squawking. Velma would peek through the curtains and Ben would wave and rev that car up more. Then when he was satisfied that Velma had gotten her eyes full he’d scream off down the street burning rubber from here to the mill. Pretty soon, Velma got where she’d come out to the porch and wave back. Stupid girl! No more sense then a flea bitten bitch in heat.
Wish I could of warned her but she didn’t take to me and maybe wouldn’t have listened. Many time at night before I fall asleep I wish I had of at least tried to warn her. Maybe things would have turned out different. About two weeks later I saw them together. Velma was getting out of Ben’s car and he was carrying her bags up to the door for her. She kept looking around to see who might be watching. She looked guilty as Eve, but I don’t think at that time she had anything to feel guilty about. That didn’t come `til later.
I did notice something that day though that was real out of the ordinary. You see, Velma didn’t go in much for bright colors. All her dresses was light blue, light yellow, or some other pale color. That day though, she had a bright orange and red silk scarf tight around her neck. It looked kind of ridiculous. Didn’t go at all with her little pink and white checkered dress. The next week I went into the hospital with pleurisy and when I got home, six days later, ole Ben was set up like stink on shit with that pretty little Velma. Don’t know what all happened while I was in the hospital getting poked and prodded, but whatever it was, Ben had worked his charm and was using that girl just like he used all his women. Only this time, he had tangled himself up with a married woman. A married woman with a crazy in love husband. I always said you have to watch out for the quiet ones like Davey.
It was getting on summertime and I’d sit out on the porch and try and catch a breeze or two in the late evenings. I’d burn rags in an old oil barrel to keep the mosquitoes and gnats away. Didn’t always work though. Being summer time, it didn’t get dark `til about nine or so, and the street was always full of young’uns playing kick the can or riding ole chinaberry branches pretending to be Tom Mix. Davey got to where he’d come over to the fence to say hey before he went to work at the mill. Started seeming to me like Davey’s heart wasn’t into going to work. He never said nothing, not to me anyways, but there was a sadness in his eyes. One morning, as he was coming from work, he stopped at my gate.
He asked me, ‘You ever been married Miss Kate?’.
I told him, ‘Sure was, Davey. For thirty years, up until I lost him ten years ago. Me and Jasper had some good times together, but marriage can be hard, Davey.’
He got a right peculiar look on his face and asked me. ‘Why’s it got to be hard?’
I thought a moment and told him. ‘Don’t know. Maybe God is just playing with us, boy’.”
“Davey turned to go, but not before he said, ‘I wish to hell he’d stop playing with me.’ That’s the only thing he ever said that gave a notion to the fact that he knew what was going on between Velma and Ben. Maybe he knew it was Ben, and maybe he didn’t, but he knew something was up. You see, that Velma had got right bold. She had the fever bad for Ben. Davey wouldn’t no sooner be gone for the night shift and I’d hear that new Chevy pulling up behind Velma’s house. Not long after that the back door would slam and the lights in the house would go off. Thought they was being sneaky. They thought nobody knew. Some nights my head gets all swimmy and I can’t sleep. On those nights I go out on the porch take a dip of snuff and sit in the dark and rock and spit. One night I heard laughter coming from next door and saw Ben coming around the house buck ass naked with Velma hot on his trail. Her hair tied up in that bright orange and red scarf. They was playing like young’ uns. Another night they fought and Velma followed him out on the porch begging him to come back. Said she wouldn’t ask no more questions. About what I don’t know. He told her to shush before they woke the whole damn street, and then he followed her back in the house. I didn’t hear nothing else from them that night.
In the morning, I went over to ask Velma if she had a cup of flour so I could make some hoe cakes for breakfast and when she answered the door I saw she had a bruise on her cheek. She mumbled something about running into the door. I knew that weren’t true, but I didn’t say nothing, just took my flour, went home, cooked up them hoe cakes, soaked ‘em in cane syrup, and minded my own business.
Velma started coming and going more in the daytime when Davey was sleeping. I knew she weren’t doing her grocery shopping ‘cause I never saw her with no groceries in her arms when she came home. She always came home about an hour before Davey got up. She’d come home either dancing down the street or looking like her world had ended. Talk was starting to get around, too. I heard them talking in the Piggly Wiggly and the Post Office about Velma. People in town was saying some right ugly things about Velma, but you’d have thought it would have been Ben they was saying ugly things about, but it weren’t. The man don’t ever get the blame when it comes to town talk. Why you reckon it’s that way?”
Sara shifted. “I don’t know, Miss Kate”.
“Well I don’t neither” She cocked her head and listened with intensity, “Lord that ole pig out there’s gonna root himself straight to
”. Miss Kate laughed. China
Sara unfolded her legs, pushed out of the chair, walked over to the window, and peered out into the dirt yard. Sure enough Daisy was digging up a nice piece of the yard with her snout and front hoofs.
Sara turned back around and leaned against the window.
Miss Kate’s hands stopped working the dough, and her eyes focused beyond the faded blue pattern of the kitchen wallpaper. “I don’t know if Velma had many friends and those she did have kind of quit coming around. She was so wrapped up in Ben Watson, she couldn’t have seen the sun if she hadn’t felt it shining directly on her face.
I think that Velma and Ben was planning on running off together. That’s what the rest of the town thought too. I’d been overhearing talk at church and at the Piggly Wiggly. With all that talk, it was only a matter of time before Davey found out. Three months had gone by and I got to noticing that Velma wasn’t hanging out as many of her underclothes at mid month like she always done. Usually around the fifteenth of the month that clothesline would be full of her white step-ins flapping in the wind.”
Sara interrupted, “Miss Kate, what do underclothes have to do with anything?”
“Lord, child, underclothes has a lot to do with a lot. You see, most women still wore them bulky pads during their monthlies. We didn’t have no Tampons , like you got today, and if we did, nobody bought them much. Them pads back then were bad about not catching everything, if you know what I mean, and when a woman had her monthly, naturally her underclothes got messed up a bit. Well, of course, this meant more clothes to wash. More underclothes hanging on the line. Know what I’m talking about?”
Sara nodded, “Yes’m. Velma was pregnant. Whose was it? Davey’s or Ben’s?”
Miss Kate shook her head, “Guess we’ll never know. Guess we’ll never know for certain if she was even with child, but it was mighty peculiar about the mid-month wash.”
“What happened, then?” Sara asked.
“Well, I got a bad toothache one night. Couldn’t sleep to save my soul. Got up and crushed up some aspirin to put on my tooth. It was a Monday night too. I remember because Davey had brought over my snuff that morning before he went in to bed. I seen him leave for work about nine thirty that night ‘cause I was outside on the porch talking to Miss Marshall. She was having a time with that son of hers. He had come back from
and was causing all kinds of problems. Didn’t a month go by but that Miss Marshall wasn’t calling the Sheriff to cart that boy off to the jail to sleep off a drunk.” Miss Kate shook her head at the memory. Detroit
She scooped up another handful of dough out of the bowl, rolled it into a neat ball and placed the dough ball on a beat up aluminum pizza pan. She spit into the snuff can, wiped her hands on the rag tied around her waist, and continued with the story.
“Davey walked out of gate that night, stooped and looked back at his house all mournful like. He didn’t even call out good evening to me the way he usually did before he set off to work. Just stared at that house of his, put his head down, tucked his lunch sack under his arm, and walked off slowly towards the mill. It was a nice summer night. I remember that. I sat out until about ten o’clock with Miss Marshal, then she said she had to get home. She had brought me a jar of that blackberry jelly she used to make. I went to bed right after that but got up again around three in the morning because that toothache struck, so I went back out on the porch to sit ‘til it wore off. There wasn’t no body in sight. All the houses on the mill was dark. Every once in a while I’d hear a cat fighting or a hoot owl hooting from the trees by the river. It got so quiet that you could hear the humming of the street lamps. My tooth had just started easing of a little when I heard Ben’s car pull up behind in the alley way. Velma’s back door slammed shut. That snake had slithered back, alright. I heard a dog bark down the block, then another, and another. That don’t happen unless someone’s walking the street after everyone has gone in for the night. I thought I saw a shadow of a man creep up on the side of Davey’s house. I got kinda scared. Thought maybe I ought to try and make my way across the street to Miss Marshall’s house and call the police from her phone. I didn’t have no telephone. The windows was wide open at Davey’s so the night breeze could travel through. The back door slammed again and I heard Ben’s voice from inside the house and then, to my surprise, Davey’s. He only spoke one word real loud, and I knowed it was him. He said, ‘Why?’. That’s all. Just that one word. But that one word carried more weight and sorrow in it than any I had ever heard. Velma started crying a little. Not loud sobs, just little girl whimpers. Ben hollered out one time, Velma screamed, but then it’s like the scream just died off before it really got started. Then it all grew quiet again. It all happened so fast that if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought I imagined it all. Davey came out on his porch, sat on the steps and cried like a baby. He never knew I was sitting in the shadows on my porch, not more then seventy feet away from him. That boy’s hurt traveled all the way across my yard and hit me right in the marrow of my bones. Directly, he got up and went into the house. The back door slammed four times, then the sound of a trunk being closed by someone who thought they was being quiet, and then the engine on Ben’s Chevy roared. I heard the car take off. About two hours later, I saw Davey walking down the street. By this time, the sun was casting the beginnings of pink wake up rays on the street. Davey walked up to his porch and went inside, but not before he turned my way and said, ‘Good morning, Miss Kate. How you doing?’. I told him I was doing fine, thank you, and he went into the house. The next night Davey got up as usual, got dressed and walked down to the mill for the night shift. All was normal for about a week and then one day the Sheriff pulls up at Davey’s. Before he went to talk to Davey, he sauntered up to my house with that gun slung low on his hip like he thought he was Bat Masterson or something. ‘Hello, Miss Kate,’ he said to me, ‘I need to ask you something.’ I was out in the yard planting that wisteria you see wrapped around that oak tree there. ‘You seen Velma lately?’ he asked.
I pretended to think for a minute.
“Well, not lately. I did see her one day last week when she was hanging out wash. Come to think of it I haven’t heard her radio playing in a while either.”, I told him.
The Sheriff squinted down the road and then lit up a cigarette. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Finally he spoke.
‘Thanks for your help.’
He started to leave but I stopped him.
I asked him, ‘Sheriff what’s the matter?’
He chewed on a toothpick in his mouth for a second and then told me, ‘Oh, probably ain’t nothing,’ he said, ‘Her folks called from Forsyth and said they hadn’t heard from her. They’re just a little concerned. They talked to Davey on the phone, but they wanted me to come by the house and check on things. Davey told them he hadn’t seen her. I wouldn’t worry about it none, Miss Kate. You know how things go sometimes.’
I told him I sure did know and to let me know if there was anything I could do to help.
He told me to just call the station if I happened to see anything, but he also said he didn’t thinking I would.
The sheriff left and walked over to Davey’s. I don’t know what he and Davey talked about, but whatever it was, it must have satisfied that Sheriff ‘cause he didn’t come around no more. A few days later at the Piggly Wiggly I heard Miss Juanita tell Betty Ann Miller that Velma and Ben had run off together and wasn’t it sad about poor old Davey?
Davey worked at the mill for another two years, then he met a girl from around
that he ended up marrying. Last I heard he was running her daddy’s auto parts store and doing pretty good. Nobody ever saw nor heard from Ben and Velma again. My money says that if you were to go to the old sawmill and dig around where they use to pile the saw mill shavings you’d find two bleached out skeletons, and that one of them would still be wearing a tattered orange and red silk scarf around its neck. That’s just what I think though. But I’m just an old woman, so what do I know?” Augusta
Sara was silent for a long time. Miss Kate didn’t say a word either.
“Why didn’t you tell? Sara asked. “I mean that’s murder. That’s wrong. You should have told somebody what you heard that night”.
Miss Kate looked at her a long time then quietly said, . “I don’t know. I don’t know why I never told. I should have, I reckon. Life’s full of a lot of should haves. Too late now.”
“But why didn’t you tell the Sheriff what you had heard?”, Sara asked again.
“I don’t know, child! Lord. It wasn’t something that I thought about. When that Sheriff came up and asked me, I didn’t know what to say. And afterwards… well. And I did like Davey. Still and all, Davey probably killed Velma and Ben. Later, after I thought about it, it just seemed better to let sleeping dogs sleep. Reckon when I go sit at Judgment Day, God will have a thing or two to say to me about it.”
“Married people don’t really do that anymore, do they?”
Miss Kate laughed, “Yes, but they do it in court now. They drag all their dirty laundry out, use the young’uns as weapons, and take each other for everything they can. Some people can be civilized about it, but not all. Worse than killing someone, I reckon.”
“Think my mamma and daddy will be civiilized if they get a divorce? They barely speak to each other now.”
“Well, if they ain’t civilized, you just call Miss Kate and I’ll straighten them out.”
“They never even look at each other anymore”
Miss Kate reached out her hand and ran it through Sara’s lank brown hair.” Well,
, your mama and daddy sound like they got some troubles that don’t have nothing to do with you. Things’ll work out. Don’t you worry. Just let them decide what’s best for them, and then it’ll get better for you too.” Texas
“I know, Mama told me that right before we came out here.”
“Then believe it. Believe it and do the best you can. At least they won’t end up doing something crazy like Davey done. Things were so different back then. Times have changed a little. I always thought that if Davey had felt like the town wouldn’t have labeled him a coward, he would have just let Velma and Ben run off together and wished them good riddance. Back then though a man had to think about his reputation. Davey didn’t want anyone’s pity, so he took the only way out that he knew and then started over. There’s a mite fine line between love and hate.”
Sara sighed. “That’s sad what happened to Davey and Velma.”
Miss Kate bowed her head, closing her eyes for a brief moment in what looked to Sara like prayer. After a moment the old woman turned back to the dough and finished rolling it into half a dozen little soft balls. She placed them haphazardly on the cookie sheet, opened the oven door, and placed the pan inside. She wedged a dishcloth just inside the oven door before she closed it.
“Oven don’t close like it used to. I guess a lot of us don’t”.
Sara went home that night and dreamt about white rounded clouds, sad songs, lies, and doors wedged shut with pretend smiles.
Posted by Liti