After Mozelle died, I never went back to Corinth. The tire plant closed in ’78, took the town with it—but she wouldn’t budge. Wouldn’t hear of it, even with the old place falling in and no money to fix it. Besides, she said, I was the only one left to guard her secrets. Only one left to lay them to rest, along with her bones, when the time came. I kept my promise.
Maybe I should have stayed gone. It don’t matter now. But I watched, and served, and waited thirty years for the end. Soon as it come, soon as she was in the ground good, I done like she asked and lit the house afire. Told me she could see better with the bright light. It’d keep her warm, too. Hell was gonna be dark and cold, she always said, not fiery-hot like them foot-washing fools down the road believe.
When I heard the hollow roar, when I seen Poppa’s bedroom bathed in liquid flame and the roof drop through the rafters in melted pieces like flesh off a ribcage, I turned and walked in the ditch all the way to Mobile. And like she asked, I didn’t look back. Not once.
February’s thirteen years. She’s at Mount Olive Church, where I can visit if I want but never do. I kept my promise.
Well, mostly. Sometimes a man’s got to go back on his word. Lord knows I don’t want to. But I got to tell what she couldn’t—how they robbed her of everything she ever coulda been proud of, how they took the life from her eyes one good deed at a time. I got to tell. Else I might bust wide open.
Mozelle is my mama.
My daddy was her daddy.
That’s the happy part. You might ought to sit down for the rest.
© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)
When she heard the familiar squeaky fan belt out in the yard, Eula had already peeled off girdle and slip and was walking about in her gown-tails. Eight-thirty was no time for visitors, least of all those who didn’t even have the decency to call ahead. She stepped to the door, gathering her summer housecoat around her waist. Damned if she’d put on a clean dress this late in the evening.
As he swung his legs out of the car, Corvus saw her shadow behind the weathered screen, and grinned. Eula did not. She grasped the solid comfort of the steel pipe that she always kept behind the wide front door, and spoke without a greeting.
“Your letter said you didn’t want folks to know. Said you didn’t want to have to answer any questions about who you been courtin’.” The cool, smooth pine beneath her feet reminded her just how awake she was. “So, no, I didn’t stop or speak yesterday when you saw me on the square. I thought I’d wait. Maybe see what you’re made of.”
He warmed all over. She would be his again in a matter of minutes. “What am I made of?”
“Oh, the usual. Snakes, snails. A few puppy-dog tails. But mostly chicken shit.”
His broad, tan face turned coleslaw-pale.
She smiled. Her words had hit their mark—bull’s-eye. “No questions: that’s what you wanted. Now you got it.”
Eula stared into his icy blue right eye, the good one. Too bad she couldn’t gouge it out, grip the living jelly with her fingers, leave him screaming as she snatched the bloody orb from its socket. Maybe she’d keep it in her purse for her very own good luck charm. Maybe she’d tote it to work, send the Davis brats shrieking with the dried grayish-blue lump, and for once hang their mama’s drawers on the line in peace. Knowing that his eyeball dangled from her key chain would hurt him far worse than blindness.
“Get out of my yard.”
He took a shaky step and set his mind to the screen door handle. Pulling it open would take strength he wasn’t sure he had. “Eula, I didn’t—people were just—”
“I said: Get out of my yard.”
In the wide front seat of the Pontiac lay an armful of tiger lilies and Queen Anne’s lace, her favorite flowers. He’d picked them in a ditch outside Eckersley. Next to them sat a deluxe box of the cordial cherries she loved, the ones that made her kisses even sweeter. His voice wavered in a way neither of them had ever heard. “Please, Eula. I—I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I—well. All that’s in the past. Let’s make up.”
“Let’s make up. Just like that?” She snapped thumb and forefinger to emphasize this last.
“I know. It’s been a while. But I had to let it all die down. Had to lay low.”
“Lay low for what? Two years ago, you were ready to tell everyone.” Eula wiped the sweat that beaded her brow. “The world’s changed, you said. Didn’t matter that I’m colored, you said. But then you ran for office.”
“You’re not colored, baby—not enough for it to matter. C’mon.”
“Not enough for it to matter?” Fury rose from her soles clear to the top of her head, clean and cold and pure. “Show your face around here again, and I will lay you bare.”
He stood as if his hip might be welded to the car. His eyes widened. For a split second, he resembled a forlorn hood ornament.
Eula straightened herself against the edge of the door. “Surrounded yourself with yes-men and crooks. They’ve got you believing your own piddling little press releases. But step out past that courthouse a ways. Ask around. Nobody in this county is a big enough fool to believe you anymore.” She wiped her brow again with one cherry-print housecoat sleeve. “God knows I used to be.”
He buckled slightly at the knees. At least he could lean against the fender, play it off a little, while he squinted at her through the house plants lined up against the screen. “Aww, you know me. I just like to stay off the gossip circuit.”
For a moment, she thought she would never stop laughing. “‘Stay off the gossip circuit!’ Oh, now that is precious. I’m gonna use that one.” She shook her head. “Corvus Eugene Watson, you are County Commissioner. You’re on the gossip circuit whether you want to be or not.”
“And what your yes-men have failed to tell you,” she continued, “is that it’s the way you treat the people at the edge of your world that’s so important. It’s how you treat people like me—people you use and throw away once you get what you want from them—that keeps the gossip circuit running. How you conduct yourself with those who can do the least for you—that, Mister Commissioner, is what they will always, always talk about.”
In the evening light, the mighty red oaks stretched mute and watchful over the sandy, clean-swept yard. Eula saw his proud figure turn shabby and wounded. His pant cuffs made sad blue seersucker poufs atop his dirty brogans. The ribbon bow tie hung in jaunty, defeated loops. Even the expensive Stetson on his head was soaked clean through with flop sweat and reckoning.
He was trying, and failing. “Please, Eula. Please.” His mouth bent at one corner.
In the loam-scented shadows of the porch, she closed her eyes, forced her thoughts back to the cold galvanized steel in her hand. “I haven’t hit a man in fourteen years. Don’t make this the day I break my streak.”
Corvus turned so she couldn’t watch his face crumple. He slid back into the Bonneville, fired it up, and was gone.
She let the pipe fall ringing behind the door, and steadied herself—she’d forgotten to breathe. Inhaling big, she stepped onto the porch and watched the dust cloud at the mailbox swirl, swirl, swirl, then settle. At the edge of the yard, Hyatt stood before the boxwood hedge, his redbone hound leg raised in urinary bliss. He hadn’t so much as whimpered when Corvus pulled up. Sorry-ass dog.
Once she was in her favorite chair, she realized she could not stop shaking. She fumbled in the half-empty tissue box for an emergency cigarette. No, she would never, never have struck that man. Or would she?
Her fingers answered her question and refused to work. Both lighter and pack clattered onto the porch floorboards. Across the road, the last magenta remnants of daylight flared, then dimmed, just beyond the hog pen where the sows already lay dreaming.
Until it was time to go to bed, Eula just sat there, and sobbed, and wished it wasn’t so goddamn hard to hate and love at the same time.
© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)