“Reckon I’ll still fill these flower boxes when we’re eighty?” Clara and Gerald sat on the front porch, each in a dirty white rocking chair, rocking.
Rocking and rolling, Clara thought, remembering how the twentysomething spoke of being on Ecstasy. Rolling.
“I reckon so,” Gerald said, “You love to garden.”
“But, I don’t,” Clara burst out laughing. “I hate it.”
“What? But all the ferns—” Gerald gestured to the flowerbox spilling over with spindly fronds, the yard with ferns encircling the base of the old oaks, the hanging ones overhead, overgrown, limbs outreaching, fingers of green dangling to tickle unsuspecting forehead or scalp.
“I hate the ferns.” Clara Mae laughed too long, a freeing laugh, a laugh of confession, a laugh awkward and infectious until tears streamed down both of their faces. “I hate the goddamn ferns.”
“Really? All these years?” Gerald asked.
“Well, they were Mama’s, you know. And Mama collected them from folks over the years, just about all of ‘ems dead by now. That one over yonder was a shoot from Great Aunt Jean, this one—closest to us—was a shoot from Miss Lydia, the church organist when I was a kid. The shame, Mama would say while watering it, her life cut so short. So what am I gonna do? I water them, tote them inside when it turns cold so they don’t catch frost. And if a leaf turns yellow, I worry. Like I’m killing Miss Lydia all over again. So I’ll plant another Miss Lydia shoot just in case. And that,” Clara gestured broadly to the yard, “is why we have all of this.”
“Like a hoarder—but of the dead,” Gerald said.
“Yeah,” Clara laughed again. “I ‘spose.”
“Clara?” Her husband stopped rocking and looked at her.
“You can’t save everybody.”
“I guess not,” she said, “but I can’t stop myself from trying.”
Gerald chuckled, “And I can’t stop you, neither.” He took his wife’s hand and they resumed rocking in unison. He started to hum while they rocked, a low bass hum—
Rock of ages, cleft for me—
And it was startling to Clara because his church choir days were long behind him. But she listened to his hum and rocked to the rhythm—
Let me hide myself in thee.
Gerald wasn’t just holding her hand, now he was stroking it, stroking against her thinned skin, stroking along the prominent vein and up her forearm. It felt tingly, like a tickle but familiar, without the surprise, without the need to push away.
It felt good.
As her husband unbuttoned her blouse and slid a hand against her chest, feeling the quickness of her heart beat, feeling her breast, Clara wondered why the hymn from him? Was it stream of consciousness: rocking chairs and rock of ages?
Or did he think he would find his way back: to wife and God and home in his old age?
In her right mind she would have just asked. In her right mind she would have stopped, articulated worry, sought his comfort until she drove him again away. But today she was distracted by the warmth of his fingers and the depth of his voice, and together they reached inside of her, soothing. Before she had the impulse to wriggle away he knelt at her side, hands on thigh, against crease, releasing closures, down her leg and calf and removing sock and shoe and she was dimly aware of
dimly aware that he was at her feet, passing his fingers between the lean of her toes, rubbing the knot of the bunion-knuckle, opening joints and releasing the pain like he knew where it was, like the pain was his and not hers at all. The part of her that wanted to hide them and herself was quieted by the song that had gone from hum to vocalized song—
“Rock of ages, cleft for me—”
And Clara was thankful for ferns for the first time—for their coverage as her husband lay her down against the cold of the porch’s cement floor, beneath the shadow of Miss Lydia, and as he covered her chest with his, he looked inside her eyes and sang:
“Let me hide myself in thee.”
Clara awoke to a banging on their screen door.
In time with the pounding of her head:
Clara Mae knew that the only people who came to her front door were the postman, strangers, or the law, and she fretted that it was the latter coming to take her down for The Drugs. Maybe the twentysomething had turned her in, ratted her out—
So she untangled herself from the side of her husband who was now lying in her bed, drooling on her pillowcase, snoring. Clara smoothed her hair and tried to compose herself, tried to blink away the bloodshot of her eyes, the wet tip of a finger trying to tidy the smudge of makeup gone astray as she made her way to the door.
She braced herself and opened it. It was neither the law, nor the postman, nor a stranger.
It was Kathy.
Before words passed between them Clara saw the look of delight in Kathy’s eyes at seeing her disheveled, suffering. Clara wasn’t sure if it was delight of the upper hand or the reverse empathy of sadism, but it made her little piggy face look rosy, glowing, happy. Later Clara didn’t remember the words they had spoken, or signing the trailer over to her (though she knew that she had); she just remembered that face—that joyous piggy face—and really needing a cigarette.
When Clara’s eyes opened the next day to the dark of early morning, she headed right to the kitchen window to see if the girls had come back during the night. The trailer lights were out, but the car was there—THE CAR WAS THERE. And through one window Clara thought she could see the flicker of the light of a TV left on. Signs of life, she thought, and breathed a sigh of measured relief.
Her head was still hurting, and she brewed herself a cup of strong coffee. She knew she shouldn’t have done it—
she had deceived her husband, harmed their bodies. What she had done was illegal and just plain wrong. But it felt—
Right as rain—
it felt really right on the other hand, and as she drowned her pulsing headache in the black of coffee and the white of Goody’s headache powder together in her mouth she imagined them mixing into a surge of grey, a healing murky grey of neither wrong nor right, a muddy in-between color that opened up her heart and head and blood—neither healing nor hurting, yet temporarily assuaging the pain. It felt right to make love to her husband again, felt right to have him spooning her in the night while stealing all her covers, felt right to let thirty years of collected responsibility and inhibitions and black-and-white morality fall away in favor of just being.
Felt right to have her smell on him—instead of Aunt Helen’s.
It would be hours before the girls woke up, and as Clara drove in to the store she tried to distract herself by playing the radio too loudly. They were back home, right? Probably should’ve tried to peek in a window before I left.
She’d left her husband in her bed: entangled in quilt, drooling, snoring. Clara didn’t want to wake him, in part out of consideration for him (and the hangover she induced), in part because something in her just didn’t want him to leave—her or her bed—ever. But even as she parked the car at the Kountry Korner her finger hovered over his contact in her cell phone. He could check on the girls.
She waited. She counted the register. She counted the coupons. She counted the food stamps. She even swept a bit, the inside mat and the outside mat, then a little bit by the bathroom. But as daylight began to break the thought of waiting all day to know if they were there—if her family was there, if the girls were there, if Jennie was there—was just too much.
She knew she couldn’t make a call outright from her post behind the counter. After Dan passed they discovered the Kountry Korner had a security camera. Not a security camera trained on the entrance or product, but instead on the sad-sack employee left to mind the store. So she made her call covertly, switching her phone to speaker mode inside her purse while removing some Chap-Stick, pushing her husband’s quick-dial, then feigning eye contact with a non-existent customer on the other side of the counter so she could speak without arousing her boss’s suspicion.
It was a crap shoot how grumpy her husband would be this early in the morning, and she knew it.
“Fuck all. What time is it?” Gerald answered after several rings.
“Sorry, I didn’t want to wake you. I even drove myself in—” Clara said.
“Well, you did wake me up, didn’t you? What the hell you need?” Gerald said.
“The girls,” Clara blurted. “I think the girls came back last night. I saw Kathy’s car out back. But I ain’t seen them.”
“The girls are back? But you ain’t for sure.” Clara could hear her husband’s voice soften, his hangover-fogged brain piecing it together. “Damn my head—”
“I left a pot of coffee and two Aspirin in the kitchen. Could you go up there and peek out the window to see if you see something?”
“She better have brought them back. After all we done for her,” Gerald grumbled, and Clara could hear him scaling the stairs. “Car’s still there. Nobody’s at the bus stop, neither.”
“Are the lights on?” Clara asked.
“Not that I can see,” Clara was surprised to hear her husband sound like her co-conspirator. “Reckon I should go over there?”
“Naw, I don’t want to spook ‘em,” Clara said. “Can you just keep an eye out?”
She could hear coffee pouring “Hey, thanks for this,” Gerald said. “How’d you know I’d wake up feeling like ass, anyway?”
“You were talking about it in your sleep. I figured that’s as bad a headache as it gets.” As she spoke Clara felt a boil on her tongue and remembered what Mama used to call them: lie bumps. She knew it was an old wives tale, but still she couldn’t help but feel that the stinging wart was earned.
After they hung up she waited for him to call back. She was eager to hear about the girls, but also eager to hear from him again. Was she just caught up in so much hokum, or did he sound happy to hear her voice? Even through the early morning waking? And the worry for the girls? And the throbbing head? Her head see-sawed like a teenager plucking petals: he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Had the conjuring worked?
It took him nearly twenty five minutes to call her back, but when he did he had news. Kathy’s car left in a hurry—just the right time to be trying to make school, her husband reported. “I couldn’t make out heads in the back seat,” Gerald said, and Clara could tell from his voice that he was trying to please her, “but I bet they were in there.”
The rest of the workday passed slow as molasses, the usual flow of customers and niceties and change-for-a-dollars turning minute after painful minute into 3:00. When the twentysomething showed up—slightly late as always—Clara was poised at the door with coat on, keys and purse in hand, ready to see her girls.
When the bus arrived she and Gerald did see them: the girls spilling from folding yellow door, the familiar slap of backpack against backs, and adolescent hair wilding in the wind. The girls ran with abandon, ran down the street and up the drive and to the porch, ran to Clara and Gerald who dropped their linked hands only for a flurry of hugs from their granddaughters.
For dinner that night, Gerald and fired up the grill for burgers and dogs—like old times. Jennie and Sarah bundled up from the chill of the warm southern end-of-winter; the two played and ate while Gerald made way too many burgers than the five of them could ever hope to eat. Her husband would smile at her like he used to and pour a Miller High Life on the flame to make it flare, dazzling the girls (at a safe distance) with the height of the fire—and dazzling his wife a bit as well.
Behind the rest of the family, Kathy sat on her step, alternately eating a plain dog and smoking at the same time while talking on her cell. Clara—who’s stomach still burned a bit to think of the trailer—walked her over the pack of super-long Virginia Slims she bought for her earlier at the store. Though Kathy didn’t thank her, Clara looked at the girls and thought they were thanks enough.