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Authors: Carolyn Wall

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BOOK: Playing With Matches
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“The girl doesn’t want,” Mama said, wiggling her feet into spiky-heeled shoes, and as I scooted down the steps, she aimed a kick at my backside with one pointy toe.

“Light me a damn cigarette,” I heard her say to the guard.

On that particular night, Auntie stood in the yard with her hands on her hips. “How many times you got to hear it, girl? How many thrashings it gonna take? Don’t go near that place! You ain’t come back yet without bruises to show.”

And she set off through the grass to stand tall against my mother.

Mississippi women could display gentility, but they were physical too, and purebred tough. Always, Auntie’d return with her hair disarranged and her eyes wide, and breathing hard. Then she’d sit in the parlor, wooden rockers screaming while she shot back and forth. I’d climb on her lap and curl into a ball, and she’d hold my sad self with her two strong arms.

When I felt truly lost—which was most of the time—I went out to the narrow lot and sat down in the weeds. From there I could observe both houses. After all, I had two eyes, didn’t I? Two nostrils, two arms, two knobby knees.

The trouble was, I had only one heart.

One of Mama’s customers carried a yellow valise.

Mama waggled her fingers at me. “Come on in here, girlie girl, and meet this young man.”

I’d held back in the dark kitchen, but now I stepped forward.

“You work at the Farm?” I said conversationally, meaning the prison.

“Not anymore. I am not givin’ this state another day of my labor.”

“But—you’re an ex-con? You’ve seen it inside?”

I had an inordinate curiosity about the Stuart P. Havellion State Penitentiary. It was one old plantation house and a tight bundle of outbuildings, all set on concrete blocks and surrounded by chain-link and razor wire. In the beginning it was a river-backed home, with four square miles of cotton fields that flooded every year. Piece by piece, they sold it off. Now the prison and its remaining land were called Hell’s Farm.

Further, Webster defined ex-con as
freedom from conviction
.

“Guess I’ll be gettin’ on,” the young man said. “They told me the bus comes through False River.”

“On Saturdays and Sundays,” I said. “You got three days to wait.”

He shrugged into his thin coat. “Well, then, how far away’s the next town?”

“Hour or two, if you got a car. We got a railroad station in False River, but my Uncle Cunny says trains haven’t run here in twenty years.”

“You know a lot,” he said.

“It’s a fact, I do.”

The young man pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket. “They give me two a’ these this morning.” He handed the bill to my mama. “The other one’s got to do me till I get home.”

“I’ll walk with you a ways,” I said when we went out. I pointed down the dusty road.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a kind of bark. “I been the other way. Now I’m headin’ for Memphis. You heard of that?”

“Tennessee. On the Mississippi River.”

“Well, now,” he said.

“You got a mama and a daddy up there?”

“I got a daddy.”

“He know you been here?”

“You ask a lot of questions, missy. And no, ma’am,” he said softly. “My daddy don’t know I been here.”

My heart ached for this former convict who could turn out to be a fountain of information. I wanted to know if what I’d heard was true—that the state swooped in and broke the whole house into cells. That a central basement had been dug underneath and fitted with instruments of torture.

It was commonly known that at Hell’s Farm, the walls ran with moisture while the prisoners alternately baked with the heat and then came down sick with the damp.

“What did you do?” I asked him. “What was your crime?”

He looked down at me. “You don’t want to know about that.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, ma’am, you don’t. Nobody goes to prison for anything good.” He jerked a thumb to our right. “I guess that there’s the actual False River?”

“You haven’t
seen
it before?”

“No, ma’am. Not in the whole ten years. We didn’t have windows where we stayed.”

“Well,” I said. “There’s a creek on the other side of the farm. It’s got real steep sides, and it’s heaped with jagged boulders, and it floods in spring.”

“Yes, ma’am, we sure know about flooding.”

Personally, I thought it was a good place for a prison. The creek on one side and the river on the other would make it near impossible to escape. “Did you ever think about escaping?” I said.

“That’s all we ever thought about,” he said.

I kicked up more dust. “Did you ever try?”

“I did not. Nobody wants to be set upon by prison dogs—they got bad tempers and real sharp teeth.”

“Did you have visitors?”

Everybody knew the assigned hours at Hell’s Farm. On Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, junky cars puttered up and down the road, or families walked with brown-paper packages under their arms.

“No, ma’am.”

“If I’d known you were there, I’d have come to see you.”

“I reckon your mama wouldn’t a’ let you.”

In that moment, I longed to deny the existence of my own mama. I recalled the Best Reverend Ollie telling us how Peter denied Jesus three times—and all before the cock crowed in the morning! Still, I was nothing like Peter, and my mama was not Jesus.

“It’s what Aunt Jerusha says that counts,” I told him. “She’s real friendly. And smart. You ought to talk to her. You’ve got no place to stay and no money to speak of.”

I was on fire with an idea. Nothing else could crowd into my head. He would stay with us and tell me everything, and I would write it all down so as not to forget.

“Missy,” he said. “I ain’t traveling back on this road for nothing.”

“But you need a bed to sleep in, and a job of work so you can make some money and get home to your family in Tennessee—”

A car motor coughed. I looked around and saw Miss Shookie chugging down the road, heading toward us in her Chevrolet. Bitsy was beside her, and both were hunch-necked and squinty-eyed with curiosity. Miss Shookie leaned out a side window that hadn’t rolled up since 1967.

“What y’all doin’ here, girl? You take up with strangers, your aunt whup you alive.”

“Miss Shookie, this man’s starting a new life, and I was offering him a stay at our house till he gets on his feet —”

“He is on his feets, looks to me,” she said. “Now, you git in this car, I’ll take you home. Jerusha let you run so goddamn wild—”

But my own feet were planted solid in the dirt. “No, ma’am, Miss Shookie. This young man needs a firm chance, and anyway, I’m not getting in that smelly old thing.”

“Don’t make me get outa this car, girl,” she said, looking pained. “All day, my knees been talkin’ to me—”

She turned her attention to my companion. “So you fresh outa the joint, hey, boy? They give y’all’s clothes back to you, do they?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I told my gal Bitsy, here, they used them to stoke the fires of hell. You gone and made a liar outa me.”

My jaw slacked. “Miss Shookie, the Christian thing to do—”

Miss Shookie’s fat jiggled and rolled around. “Ain’t no Christians at Hell’s Farm, Clea June, and I know he’s broke as a church mouse already. By the time these mens set out on this road, they money’s spent.

“And everybody knows where.”

5

I
waited for the ax to fall. But, to my amazement, Uncle Cunny helped that young man up in his truck and drove him clear to Jackson. There, he told us later, he bought him a grilled cheese at a soda fountain and saw him off on a bus.

The weekend came around.

As always, I wore one of Bitsy’s colorless castoffs to church. Those dresses hung on me but were ruffled and made of organdy, and that, Auntie said, counted for something.

After church on Sundays, I learned more than I did at any other time in my life.

That day, Miss Shookie was working alongside Auntie, cooking and sweating till their faces shone and their sweetly oiled hair was further kinked and matted to their shapely heads.

The night before, Auntie had simmered greens with butter, vinegar, ham hocks, and black pepper. Over those pots of steaming collards and thick custards, the bickering grew worse, and before long they were stomping around the hot kitchen, hip-shoving and wagging fingers and rubber spatulas. The subject turned to the chicken circus. I took a quiet seat at the table. This was a subject I ached to know more about.

It was said that Auntie had run away, when she was younger, and joined a traveling show. I could not imagine my steadfast Auntie doing such a thing, let alone what chicken circuses must entail. I visualized the dozen brainless guineas that belonged to the much-feared Miz Millicent Poole, down the road. I wondered if these were the same sort of fowl that had
also
joined the circus, and how in the world you made them
mind
, let alone do tricks. Auntie sometimes hinted there’d been trapeze artists, too, and midgets on stilts.

Although I often begged for more information, both misses would turn on me.
“You’re not old enough to hear such things.”

At the table, today, they poured hot sauce on their chicken while their arguments and bellows rose to flat-out howls.

Even Uncle Cunny, who’d been mopping up his creamed corn, could not break up the ruckus. He lifted a slice of meringue pie from the dish, and hid behind it.

Bitsy said nothing. She was not my real cousin, of course, but was Miss Shookie’s own, and Aunt Jerusha’s true niece. Sweat always formed shiny on her face and neck. Even the backs of her hands were slick.

I hated Bitsy; she was pushy and rude and smirky, and whined constantly. She had ashy elbows and knees and coppery spots on her face, and looked to be made from inner tubes. A day never saw light when she and her mama agreed on anything, and they brought their fussing to our dinner table. Today Bitsy sat, shoving in biscuits and peppery soppings.

Ol’ Bitsy was a whiz at eating with her fingers and thick lips and big teeth, and not bad with a fork. In two minutes flat she could work through three helpings of sausage and dirty rice. She fisted chicken and pork chops and ham hocks till the juice ran down her arms and dripped from her elbows. Her eyes, which
seldom lifted from bowls of food on the table, were squinty in their surrounding flesh, and her hair was a Brillo pad.

If she hadn’t been such a mix of irritations and disgusting things, I might have felt sorry for her. Instead, every Sunday, I endured her whining and tried not to watch her pull her dress from her crack. When it looked like Bitsy was about to make a comment, Miss Shookie backhanded her, smack in the face, no matter that she had a mouthful of mushrooms and cream sauce. Thus, it was normal for Bitsy to make one unholy mess, and she ate with a dish towel tied around her neck.

“Sister,” Auntie said, “are you aware that your daughter stinks to high heaven?”

Miss Shookie lifted her chin and replied, “What you are smelling is those damn prison pig farms ’round here.”

“Shit,” said Auntie.

“Exactly,” said Miss Shookie. “Have you know my baby girl uses my homemade deodorant.”

“Lord, that’s right,” Auntie said. “Damn stuff simmers on your back burner till it rots.”

Aunt Shookie’s deodorant was made from sheep’s fat, melted to a wax that was applied directly to the skin.

“Everybody knows,” Miss Shookie said, “that deodorant is only meant to block the sweat glands.”

“Bullshit, sister,” Auntie said.

Miss Shookie wound up. She waved a large serving spoon and demanded to know—
now that they were comin’ to speaking of it—
why Auntie had never wedded and bedded some upstanding church man.

Auntie said they
weren’t
coming to speaking of it, but now that Shookie mentioned it, why hadn’t she up and married Bitsy’s father?

Then Auntie looked embarrassed, and to ease the tension, Uncle Cunny told a joke—a good one about three horses, a piece of string, and a beer. Bitsy laughed so hard she peed her pants, and Miz Shookie had to suds them at the sink. She carried on about what a small bladder her daughter had, but she laid into that washboard and was mad as hell.

BOOK: Playing With Matches
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