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Authors: Billie Letts

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BOOK: Where the Heart Is
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“I just talked to Certain on the phone. She told me our Americus has become a doctor. Seems Forney went out, took her a present. A doctor’s kit. So Certain makes her a little white jacket and embroiders

‘Doctor Nation’ on it. And Moses fixes her a shingle and hangs it on the door of her room . . . and she’s in business.

“Certain said she’s doctoring everything that moves—Moses, chickens, dogs. And today . . . cows.”

Novalee smiled as she adjusted the sheet across Sister’s chest.

“Anyway, Moses took her with him this morning, out to the barn, and while he was milking, Americus was doctoring. He said she hunkered down beside their old Holstein, the one Americus named Polly.”

Novalee took a tissue from the table beside the bed and dabbed at spittle in the corner of Sister’s mouth.

“He said Americus was fussing at Polly while she examined her, told her to hold still, to take a deep breath. Then, after Americus listened through her stethoscope to Polly’s udders, she shook her head and said, ‘Well, Polly, you have to go on a diet ’cause your titties are too big.’”

Novalee laughed and pretended Sister was laughing, too.

Sometimes Novalee was so good at make-believe that she really thought she could see Sister smile,

home gives you something no other place can . . . your history

. . . home is where your history begins or hear her sing,

cheer up, my brother, come live in the sunshine we’ll understand it all by and by

or feel the curl of her fingers as they held hands while Sister prayed, and we ask forgiveness, Lord, for the fornication that Mr.

Sprock and me have committed again But those were the bad times, the times when Novalee had to work harder to shut herself down, so when it was over, when they unplugged Sister and let her go, Novalee could gather up Sister’s yellow rayon dress and her Timex watch, put them into a paper sack . . .

and walk away.

After the funeral, Novalee went to Moses and Certain’s, to a pine room with a feather bed and soft yellow sheets where she slept for eighteen hours. She might have slept longer, but Americus came tiptoeing in at two the next afternoon, carrying a small black bag.

“Hi, sweetheart,” Novalee said.

“Memaw Certain said Mommy sleeping.”

“I was just waiting for you to come in here and give me a kiss.”

Americus held her arms up and Novalee lifted her onto the bed.

They kissed, then Americus fumbled with the catch on the bag.

“What have you got there?”

“Doctor bag.” Americus took out her medical instruments—a plastic stethoscope and a wooden tongue depressor. “Mommy sick.”

After a bit of struggle, she fastened the ear pieces to her cheeks, then listened to Novalee’s chest.

“What’s wrong with me, Doc?”

“Pepaw Moses said Mommy’s heart was breaked.”

Novalee managed a smile she couldn’t feel as Americus concentrated on her examination. After she poked Novalee’s mouth with the wooden stick, she nodded wisely, put the instruments back in the bag and took out a package of M&Ms. She fished out two.

“Take this and you be all well.”

“What is it, Dr. Nation?”

“Biotics.” She put one of the M&Ms into Novalee’s mouth and one into her own. Then she said, “I have a breaked heart, too.”

For the next week, Novalee dragged through the days and nights, the consequence, she reasoned, of a breaked heart.

When she slept, her dreams were ravaged by voices calling to her from flattened duplexes and twisted trailers, live wires hissing in broken trees, flashlights slicing through darkness to reveal cats impaled on splintered fence posts and beheaded chickens flopping down cellar steps.

Awake, she struggled to fill the hours until she could sleep again.

But nothing she did made her feel whole. If she ate, she didn’t taste the food. If she read, she couldn’t remember the words. If she rested, she still felt tired.

Everyone around her wanted to help. Forney came out each evening, bringing some new book he thought she’d like. Lexie called twice asking her to come to dinner. Moses put his Rollei out on the kitchen table where she’d be sure to see it and Americus continued Where the Heart Is

to give her medical care. Only Certain offered no enticements, for she knew nothing could ease the pain. Not books or photography or food. Not even love.

The Whitecotton phone never seemed to quit ringing. Mr. Sprock called two or three times a day, but he broke down each time he tried to say Sister’s name. Mrs. Ortiz phoned to let Novalee know they had been able to salvage a few things from the trailer before it had been cleared away.

Dixie Mullins called twice to report conversations with her dead husband, conversations with rather vague references to Sister Husband.

In the beginning, Novalee tried to speak to everyone who called.

She accepted their condolences, listened to their advice, laughed with them and cried with them, shared their memories and their pain.

But she had enough pain of her own and, little by little, she began to find ways to avoid the phone. When she’d hear it ring, she would duck outside or slip into the bathroom, discover dishes to be washed, laundry to be done, a child to be scrubbed.

It seemed everyone in town knew where Novalee was, so Certain became practiced at telling “sugar lies,” and taking down messages.

She wrote the calls on slips of pink paper that soon filled an unused ashtray beside the phone. The director of the funeral home called with some unfinished business and so did a woman with Paradise Cemetery. Two florists phoned to get directions to the Whitecotton place and the electric company got in touch to see about reestablishing service. Someone with the Social Security Office called wanting Novalee to return Sister’s last check and a hospital records clerk needed to see where to send the final bill.

Some of the callers were people Novalee had never heard of—a woman named Grace, a boy called Ted, an attorney named Ray who phoned twice. But Novalee guessed they were members of AA because Certain said they all started their conversations the same way. “Hi, my name’s Grace . . . Hi, my name is Ted . . . Hi, my name’s Ray.”

Several Wal-Mart employees called, each of them worried about their jobs. The store had been practically destroyed in the tornado.

Most of the roof was gone, walls flattened, the stockroom gutted, merchandise scattered all over the county.

No one knew for sure what was going on, but everyone had heard a rumor. Snooks Lancaster said she heard that Sam Walton was coming to town to inspect the damage himself. Betty Tenkiller said the employees were going to get disaster bonuses. And Ralph Scoggins said the city manager told him Wal-Mart was going to buy the old National Guard Armory, refurbish it and reopen the store within the month.

But not one of them could have anticipated what was really going to happen. Not one of them had the least idea.

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” Reggie Lewis said. “What do you want to hear first?”

What Novalee wanted to do was hang up the phone, but she said,

“I guess I’ll hear the bad stuff first.”

“Okay. Here it is. Wal-Mart’s not going to rebuild here. They’re pulling out.”

“What?”

“I just got the word from the head office. Woman on the big man’s staff in Bentonville called me not more than an hour ago.”

“No. That can’t be.”

“Our store would have to be completely rebuilt. From the ground up. They had a couple of engineers in here for three days going over what’s left out there and they said, ‘No way!’ There’s just too much structural damage, Novalee. Wal-Mart’s out of here.”

“If you’ve got some good news, then . . .”

“I do. They’ve decided to build a Super Center over in Poteau.”

“Poteau!”

“One of those gigantic buildings. I don’t know . . . a hundred thousand square feet. Groceries, pharmacy, optical, bakery. Whole damned shooting match. Over fifty checkouts.”

“I thought you said this was good news.”

“It is! Now listen. We’re all guaranteed jobs there.”

“Reggie, Poteau’s fifty miles from here.”

“Fifty-four. But they’re going to pay moving expenses and half-pay until the store’s up and open.”

“We have to move to Poteau?”

“Well, it’d be a long way to commute, wouldn’t it?”

“But this is home. I can’t just move.”

“If you want to keep your job with Wal-Mart, you will.”

The news of Wal-Mart’s closing was followed by a new round of calls to the Whitecottons’ and within an hour, Forney was ricocheting around their living room, as agitated as the first day Novalee saw him in the library. He darted from the fireplace to the picture window, raced toward it as if he might crash right through it, then, at the last second, he spun and lunged toward Certain’s china cabinet where her collection of tiny porcelain cats trembled with each thunderous step he took.

“What else can I do, Forney?”

“Do? Find another job. There’s work here, Novalee.”

“Right.” Novalee picked up the paper, already opened and folded to the help wanted section. “Drivers to pull mobile homes,” she read.

“Live-in needed for disabled man. Address envelopes at home. Make money selling nationally advertised product.”

“But people do find decent jobs here.”

“Where?” She held the paper out to him. “Show me.”

“Novalee . . .”

“You think I want to leave? Do you? This is my home, Forney. The people I care about are here.”

“Yes!”

“But I have a job at Wal-Mart. The pay’s decent. I have sick leave, health insurance for Americus.”

“You can live with me!” Forney’s face reddened. “And my sister,”

he added quickly. “Live with us in the library.”

“Forney.” Novalee shook her head.

“I know that’s not the best solution, not the best place for Americus, but we could work it out. Maybe . . .”

“Forney, having a place to stay isn’t the problem. Moses and Certain asked me to live with them . . .”

“Then . . .”

“But I can’t do that.”

“Why? Why not?”

“I’ve had people taking me in since I was seven years old, Forney.

I can’t do that again.”

“Novalee, I wish you, uh . . . I want you, you and Americus . . .”

Forney threw his hand in the air, a magician’s gesture, but there was no dove, no bouquet, no white rabbit.

Mr. Ortiz drove out that evening with the few odds and ends he had retrieved from the trailer—some wheat pennies, a few pictures, a ceramic vase . . . and Sister’s Bible.

That night, after Novalee gave up on sleep, she turned on her light and took the Bible from the bedside table. She turned the first few pages until she came to the family record where names and dates had been recorded, written by different hands. Some in old-fashioned Where the Heart Is

script with intricate curls and flourishes, some in print, plain block letters, studied and carefully drawn.

Novalee read the entries, dates of births and deaths—Sister’s mother and father, a brother who died in infancy, a brother dead at fourteen, two aunts, an uncle, some cousins—and Sister’s last brother, Brother Husband, who died in 1978.

The most recent entry was the one Sister had written four years earlier.

Americus Nation, born on May 14, 1987

Then Novalee got a pen from her purse, You’re gonna die. But your name’s not. No. It’s gonna be written in somebody’s Bible . . .

placed the Bible in her lap

See, that name has a history. And that history is gonna be there even when you’re not.

and made one more entry.

Thelma Idean Husband, born October 9, 1922

died May 6, 1991

When Novalee finished, she closed the Bible. And that’s when she knew it was time . . . it was finally time to cry.

Chapter Twenty-Five

"HURRY, MOMMY.”

Americus squirmed as Novalee brushed a tangle from her hair.

They were going to meet Lexie and the children for lunch at McDonald’s, and Americus, eager to be turned loose in Playland with the other kids, had been antsy all morning.

“Okay, let’s go.”

Certain was in the kitchen folding a basket of fresh laundry. “Oh, don’t you look nice,” she said, bending to give Americus a hug.

“Mommy brushed my hair.”

“And it’s beautiful.”

“We should be back by two-thirty or three,” Novalee said. “Need anything from town?”

“Well, why don’t you pick up three or four lemons. And a can of black pepper. Get the big can. Let’s see, I’m out of vanilla extract, too.”

“Is that all?”

“I think so. You want me to write those down?”

“We can remember.”

“That’s what Moses always says, then he ends up calling me from the store.”

“Where is he?”

“Outside messing with that tractor. Doing whatever he can to keep his mind off you two moving away. Breaking his heart to think of that.”

Certain shook her head at the sorrow of it. “Be more’n one breaking heart, that’s for sure. I saw the look on Forney’s face when he left here yesterday.”

“You know I don’t want to leave, but . . .”

“Come on, Mommy,” Americus said as she tugged at Novalee’s skirt.

“Okay.”

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Certain said. “That man named Ray called again.”

“Did he say what he wanted?”

“No, but he left his number this time.”

“I’ll give him a call.” Then, with Americus pushing her through the door, she added, “When we get back from town.”

Moses was half buried under the hood of an old John Deere tractor, but he looked up when he heard Americus calling.

“Pepaw Moses!”

“I hear you’re going to town, Miss Americus.”

“Going to Playland. With Praline and Brownie and Baby Ruth . . .

uh-oh.” Americus slapped her forehead, a gesture she’d copied from TV. “Forgot my doctor bag,” she said as she wheeled and ran for the house.

“Now why in the world you need to take your doctor bag to McDonald’s?” Moses called after her, but she had already darted through the back door.

Moses grinned, then dug in a toolbox and pulled out a wrench.

“You okay, honey?” he asked.

BOOK: Where the Heart Is
12.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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