Fiction by Frank Ard
It’s you and me and Emiline sitting on the back porch of the Armory Memorial Nursing Home in Selma, Alabama. We watch the sun get big and raspberry red as it drops close to the horizon. We don’t get to see the sun set completely because the pecan tree in the yard blocks the view. It’s December, so the leaves are curled and brown. Its shadow reaches across the yard like a big man’s arms.
Armory Memorial was built in memory of the Confederates in the 1800s sometime. They got one of the last Civil War cannons sitting out past the pecan tree. It’s got a black nose, so I think it’s been fired before. It points toward the fence, like if it was fired, the cannonball would bust through and land in the highway with all the cars.
“I wanna check our stash,” I say, wincing because my arthritis is keeping my fingers clenched tight today, “make sure Lester or one of the other coots didn’t figure out where it’s buried.”
You hug Emiline close like when you’re nervous. “We can’t go outtin the yard after sunset, Juanita. Skally’ll be out here to fetch us for supper.”
What you’re really saying is Sally, but your fake pearly whites don’t sit right, so you add Ks to some words. It’s kind of funny sometimes.
I’ve never told you this, but Emiline is really just a doll. You claim you raised her up since she was just a little thing when you found her on the bank of Icebox Creek, where someone left her still bloody and sticky from birthing. You say you were going down there to wash up some of Bobby’s clothes, and that’s when you found her. You took her home and raised her as your own. That explains why Emiline has firebrand hair and you’ve got fading blond, and why you’ve got diamond-colored eyes and Emiline has hazel, and also why you’ve got no freckles like she does.
Sometimes when I’m supposed to be sleeping, I look over and see you in a slice of moonlight. You’ll be sitting up, rocking Emiline way down low and back up again. You talk to her all the time too, not like a baby but like a real person. You say she talks back, but I’ve never heard her.
I yank your arm, and we almost fall backward because I’m not expecting you to give in so easy. I pull you behind me, your hand warm and soft between my pinched fingers. You clutch Emiline to your chest. We hobble down the steps and under the pecan tree, and the grass is cold under my bare feet.
Your brows turn down, making a crest above your eyes. “Skally’s gone call us for supper. Meatloaf night and she got that gravy with mush-mush-rooms, and when she catches us out here we won’t get no rolls to soak in our gravy. Juanita, them rolls are Emiline’s favorite.”
The rolls sure are the best part of supper, all puffed-up and slathered with butter. But we’re almost there. We move in baby-steps, and I see the ground bulging under the axle of the cannon. You breathe like a horse.
“We made it!”
I drop to my knees and you stand over me, twisting side-to-side with Emiline in your arms, your nightgown flapping against your legs. I push the chilly dirt with my knuckles, uncovering the top of the box. It’s an army box with yellow letters that shout MUNITIONS. I glance between you and the sliding glass door as I catch my pinkie underneath the latch and flip the top off.
The bills inside are crisp. Three hundred bucks with a picture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the front and Armory Memorial on the back.
“These are the color of oranges from Florida,” I say, which is where we’re headed with all these bonus bucks.
“Skally’s got rolls for Emiline.”
I point to the horizon. “We can get lots of rolls out there with all this cash.”
“Emiline loves rolls.”
The sliding glass door clicks open. I push the box back in the hole real quick, dust it over, and hoist myself up. Sally hollers at us.
Your face goes white and red like a candy cane. “No rolls for Emiline tonight,” you say.
Everyone who lives at Armory Memorial is in the dining room for supper. You and me and Sally, and Lester and Fred and Milly, and everyone else too. We got lots of folks at Armory Memorial, thirty probably.
You scowl at me over Emiline who’s sitting between us in a folding chair that’s too big for her. Sally dips squash onto Lester’s plate. He tops his buttered roll with it, then stuffs it in his mouth and chews like a cow. He winks at me, curling his whole face up. I think he has a crush on me, but you say all the time he’s sweet on Milly, who’s pecking at her peas like a parakeet on some seed.
While she’s busy with the peas, you snake your hand up to her plate and hover over her roll. It was supposed to be yours in the first place, due to her and Lester splitting our ration. As you clinch your fingers around the roll, Sally slaps the back of your hand. You jerk back, then start to cry like a baby.
“You two been bad gals today. No rolls if you don’t mind the rules. Can’t go out in the yard after dark.” Sally wags her finger, being an old mother hen. “You eat your meatloaf, and finish them vegetables too.”
With a mouthful of food, Lester starts on about how he’s got the biggest present under the Christmas tree. We all think it’s just socks in an oversized box, but he goes on about it like it’s a hunk of gold. The others talk about the family they got coming in tomorrow, because we have special visiting hours for Christmas Eve.
Lester’s twin boys, Rick and Rich, are coming from Troy. Milly’s got a sister from Texas, gonna bring her five grandbabies to play in the yard. Milly even thinks her sister might take her back to Houston to spend a week on her horse ranch. Fred’s got a boy and a girl. They come twice a month. They always bring some of that pulled pork his boy barbecues.
Sally must notice that I’m thinking about my son because she taps her spoon on my plate. “Johnny called. He won’t be making it up here, Juanita.”
I look down at my plate.
“But he said he’ll come round soon as he gets a chance. Must be really tight with the holidays and all. And it costs so much to travel these days.”
Lester starts in. “That boy don’t never come up here. I’m thinking he done forgot about this place.”
You pick at your plate, still looking at Milly’s roll with pouty eyes. “We don’t need no Johnny noways,” you say. “We got Emiline.”
Sally spoons us more peas. “Sarasota is a ways from here. And he’s so busy doing things to make you proud, running that business of his.”
“It’s not as far as all that,” I say.
Watching the moon shine through the lace curtains, I think about Johnny and his wife Marion down in Florida. About them and Johnny Jr. and my new grandbaby, Sarah. I haven’t seen them since Johnny Jr. was waist high. I remember Johnny leading him into our room. It was such a mess, clothes and magazines face down on the floor and our unicorn figurines turned sideways on the table between our beds. Johnny Jr. was so shy, but when I showed him the toy cars I’d bought for him at the bonus bucks store, he glowed.
And Sarah wasn’t even born yet. I’ve never seen Sarah except in the pictures I got pinned on the corkboard beside the window. Sometimes I stand there for a long, long time and just look at her. In that one picture, the one where she’s wearing the pale purple dress, she’s smiling and you can just make out a single tooth.
Johnny’s got a place on the water down in Sarasota. The waves roll up and crash against the house posts. It’s up high on stilts because of the hurricanes. Last time I visited, water washed up to my feet while I walked up the front steps. The air was salty and warm, and breathing in made me feel part of something real big. Sand squeaked between my toes, like when you spill sugar on the kitchen floor and I walk through it.
I know I’ve told you this story a hundred times, but you always listen quiet as can be, your blue eyes gazing at me in astonishment. You did that same thing when Johnny was here, sat there quiet and respectful, stroking Emiline’s hair because you were afraid she would cry with all the strangers in the room.
I could visit Johnny when I was able to use my hands. That was years ago. I was still helping at the polls in those days. I did that every election, whether it was local or for the President. Last one I helped at was Bush against Clinton. Now the arthritis keeps me all twisted up and Johnny’s afraid I’ll burn myself using the stove. I can use the stove, though. Really, I can.
I didn’t know you back then. You were up in Chicago with Bobby. That’s what you say, but your sister told me you lived with her. I don’t know. You worked in a sheet metal stamp factory during the Seventies and Eighties and before that you were a seamstress. Isn’t it funny that while I was explaining how to use polling machines in town, you were working in a factory that made the very campaign buttons I saw all those voters wearing?
When I’m lonely I’ll roll over and ask you about moving to Chicago. You’ll pull the twill blanket close to your chin, and soon as I think you haven’t heard me, you’ll say you lived in the South as a child. You’ll say you swam in the Gulf as a youngin, and when you and Bobby were married, you two moved to Mississippi first and you didn’t like it so much as Alabama because there wasn’t any water nearby. In Mississippi you lived on the original Blues Highway where you crossed paths with B. B. King.
And then there’s this twinkle in your eye, this blue flash like the sky. Your face will brighten to all kinds of red. There’s something real special about Chicago, you’ll say. It’s got glass buildings taller than I can imagine. It’s got a fruit stands with exotic fruit that we don’t see here, like kiwi and papaya and mango and jujube fruit. You and Bobby lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Bobby worked as a welder on those skyscrapers, hundreds of feet in the air. I’ll listen with my mouth open. I’ve never been to a big city.
Tonight, I say to you as you’re rocking Emiline, “Tell me about Chicago, Dotty.” I roll the covers up to my neck and try not to squirm in my bed.
You don’t answer the way I’m expecting. You stop rocking Emiline and sit still, staring off into space. “There’s burglars up there. They steal everything you got, even the food from your cabinets. Won’t leave you nothin’ to eat. They always waiting, and you gotta make sure your babies get fed.” You stop and look sorta beyond me, squeezing Emiline. “They even steal your babies. You gotta lock your doors and keep your babies safe. Somebody steal your babies out there. You gotta watch your babies.”
Later, as I’m pretending to sleep, you give Emiline a voice, a squeak that I didn’t know you could make because you usually sound hoarse. “Is it safe out there, Momma?”
“It ain’t, child.”
“Do we have to go, Momma?”
You don’t answer her.
You drag me to the bonus bucks store today, which is just down the hall from our room. We got two dollars each because we helped Sally with the dishes when it was only our turn to fold laundry. The store has oak paneling like the kind I had in a house I lived in as a baby. It was a flaking-paint house beside a field where Momma and Daddy picked snap beans dawn till dusk in exchange for some of the crop each week. We ate beans for months.
Along the walls here they got grocery store shelves with body powder and face cream and mint toothpaste and other good stuff. Everything costs just one bonus buck. You make your way over to the lotion shelf with your lopsided wobble. You love to look at the different kinds, because they’re always changing. Sometimes they’ll have purple ones that smell like lilacs, and sometimes they have yellow bottles with mangoes and lemons on them that smell like sharp citrus, and sometimes they have creamy green ones that smell like watermelons, like watermelon pudding that you should never eat.
“I’m gonna get this one. This cherry one. It’s so sweet smelling.” In a second you have the bottle open. You put it up to my face.
I snap the lid closed while the bottle’s still in your hand. “We gotta save our money for our trip, Dotty. Best put it back.” I sniff the air. “Smells nice, though.”
Your face scrunches up. “But you said we could come to the bonus bucks store.”
“I said we could come for a few minutes. I didn’t say we could buy anything.”
“But I want it real bad.” You’re holding the bottle and Emiline like they’re both your babies.
“We need all our money,” I say.
Your face looks like a wrung dishrag. You close your eyes and then blink, blink, blink. “I’ll wrap it up and give it to Emiline for Christmas. I won’t use it myself. It’s for her.” Tears trickle from your eyes. “Emiline needs it,” you say in nervous gasps.
We pay for the lotion. Ms. Penny, the silver-haired lady who’s always at the counter, waves us goodbye.
Lester’s leaning against a tree trunk when we come out to pick up pecans. Sally always makes us a Christmas pie with the pecans we scrounge up, but this year we aren’t gathering pecans for baking. I think you’re a little sad about that.
Lester’s black boots glint in the noonday sun. He always looks like a rooster, hair flared back, green eyes darting and blinking all the time. His lips pinch together like a beak, and he has red circles under his eyes. “What you gals doin’ out here?” he says, head snapping back and forth.
You step in front of me. “We picking pecans to eat on our trip. We–“
“Just gathering pecans for us a Christmas pie, like always,” I say.
“But you said we was going to Florida with those bucks. That’s what you said.”
“Florida,” Lester cackles, “with bonus bucks?”
“Yep,” you say, elbowing me. “We gone leave this place for Christmas. We gone go to Sarasota, see Juanita’s Johnny. We gone have all kinds of rolls down there, and Emiline and me and Juanita gone eat and eat. Then we gone buy all kinds of things with our stash.”
“Dotty!” I put my finger to your lips. “Hush up now!”
Lester’s one-tooth-sandwiched-over-the-other mouth curls like a cow’s tail. “You ain’t thinkin’ you can use those monies out there, are ya?” He points a drooping finger toward the road. “And what you gonna feed that little baby there, Blondie, when you can’t buy no milk? Them bucks ain’t good nowheres but here, sisters. What you gonna do when you can’t afford no bus ride and you stuck out there on them cold streets? You best be planning on not coming back.”
“Shut up, Lester. You just don’t want to lose two pretty gals from your sight.” I grab your soft, cold hand. “Come on, Dotty, we got work to do.”
We go to the other side of the trunk where the pecans are scattered in the dead leaves like mockingbird eggs. Lester sits by himself for a while, then he heads back to the house, muttering about bonus bucks.
“Juanita, we coming back here, ain’t we?” You hold the bottom end of your blouse out like the flap of a tent. “After our trip?”
I bend down, fishing between the leaves. “We got lots of pecans to pick up, Dotty.”
It’s really late when I throw the sack of bucks over my back. You’ve got your blanket wadded up around your chin so only your head pokes out. You look like a child who hasn’t lost her baby fat.
“Dotty, it’s time to go,” I whisper.
Your eyelids flick and you shake your head, flipping your hair all over the place.
“It’s that time, Dotty.”
Your bed squeaks and groans like a wild boar as you rouse up and pat all over the bed for Emiline. “Where’s Emiline? Where she at?” She rests against your shoulder, and when you realize, you smile proud, a smile like the kind my momma had when I was a girl and she bought me a brand new dress for Sunday services.
“I got our stash, now let’s get out of here before anybody sees us.” With a tug of your hand, I’ve got you on your feet with Emiline in tow.
You wipe your eyes and pat Emiline while I’m pulling you step by impatient step. “It’s time for them rolls, Juanita? It’s time to go get some Christmas fixins? Where Emiline can play on the beach and we can eat that buttery bread all day long?”
I squeak the door open. It’s too loud. I stop to make sure nobody down the hall stirs, especially Sally. I cock my head back in your direction and squeeze your arm tight between my first finger and thumb. “Oh, Dotty, it sure is. Can’t you just taste that food already?”
We sneak in our slippers, past Milly’s room and then past Fred’s and then we’re at the stairs. As I lean against the bannister and take the first step down, I glance back at you. Your cheeks droop, but then you put on your happy face, the one you use when you’re smiling but something’s bothering you, the one where you don’t show any teeth.
Behind you, old Lester’s door is ajar. He’s sleeping snug and tight, hanging halfway off his military cot, holding the stuffed toy mastiff he calls Roy, snoring like a diesel engine.
Down the stairs we go. You always take the stairs real slow because Sally scared you into thinking you might fall. Each stair creaks from under the carpet runner Sally put down so nobody nicks a toe on the nail heads working up from the old planks.
We turn the corner into the activity room. The sliding glass door with the pine-cone wreath is across the room, past the cherry-wood piano and the card table and the dart board. Our pecans sit by the door frame in a denim bag that usually holds clothespins.
I tug on you like a kite string, but then I feel a tightening back, like when the wind takes hold of the kite and I imagine that it’ll lift me up off the ground and I’ll go sailing all across the world and see things only them Army men helicopters that fly over every Thursday get to see.
I hear you but I don’t hear you, because I’m focused on the foggy door and the twinkling Christmas lights.
“Juanita,” you say again.
We’re getting closer to feeling that chilly free air, that wind that whips the Sarasota waves.
“Lester says we ain’t gonna come back, Juanita.”
“Don’t you start letting him get to you,” I say.
“But he asked why we stacking up that money if we ain’t gone be down there but a day. And he says we ain’t gone be able to spend it noways.”
You stop, but I keep pulling. “Lester’s just trying to get under your skin,” I say. “He just wants us to stay with him forever, but two pretty girls like us can’t stay with an old coot like that for the rest of our lives. There’s a whole wide world out there for living.”
Your lips scrunch up. “We comin home, right? When we done livin?”
“Out there is home, Dotty.”
Your cheeks flush and your hands twine around the bottom of Emiline’s dress. “I don’t want Emiline gettin stuck out there.” I shake my head, but you keep on. “And what if Lester’s right and we can’t spend them bucks out there in that cold winter and we can’t pay no bus and nobody knows where we at and we can’t buy Emiline no food?”
“Come on, Dotty. We gotta go before they wake up!”
You’re like a stone in dried mud. “What we gone feed Emiline out there?”
“Dotty!” I snap, and the bonus bucks rustle on my back. “Come on, Dotty!” My muscles ache from pulling on you.
I hear movement upstairs, and you pull back like a youngin who’s seen a belt.
“Don’t want Emiline going without Christmas dinner.”
“She won’t go without dinner. Now, let’s go.”
“I don’t wanna go no more, Juanita. We can eat them rolls here when we’re good like Sally says. Emiline don’t need to catch sick, and Emiline don’t need to go hungry.”
“She can’t get sick and she can’t get hungry because she’s just a doll, Dotty! She ain’t nothing but a doll, never was nothing else.”
You snatch away from my grip. Flash-quick, my thumb and pinkie clamp onto Emiline’s waist seam. I hear fabric splitting, threads popping. You stop and your arms drop in slow motion. Emiline hangs limp in my hands, held together by just a flap of fabric. Her threads are ribboned around my seized fingers.
Your eyes get wild. You put your hand over your mouth and gasp like you can’t breathe.
“She’s okay, Dotty. She’s all right. She’s just fine, Dotty.” I say all kinds of words.
You’re all arms and elbows, flailing around. You slap the bag of bonus bucks from my other hand and the bills spill between our feet. Your eyes are wet, and slobber runs down your lips.
Freed threads and jagged scraps of fabric and Christmas-white filling dangle from Emiline. Her ginger-pink face, brown pin-button eyes, and red painted-on nose all look darker now.
“Emiline!” you scream between strangle-coughs. “Emiline!”
Thump, thump, thump goes the stairway. It’s Sally and Lester and Milly rushing down. Lester is still holding onto that stuffed dog. Milly’s all eyes, skinny as a guitar string, chewing on her bottom lip. Sally takes hold of your arm, and Lester runs over to help. They glance first at Emiline, her life gone in my hands, then down at the bonus bucks.
“What happened here?” Sally asks.
I can’t answer. My mouth won’t make any words.
You reach for Emiline, but they pull you away, take you upstairs. Then it’s just me holding her in the dim light.
I don’t sleep a wink. I rummage in the kitchen drawers while Sally and Milly calm you down. I hear you crying up in our room. You cry for a long time, until Milly comes down and makes you some warm milk. I can tell by Milly’s awkward way around me, her shaky hand in the cabinet, rattling jars, that she knows what we were up to, but she doesn’t say anything about it. She just looks at me with owl eyes.
She warms the milk on the stove and pours it in one of Sally’s oversized mugs. “She’ll be feeling better real soon,” Milly says. “You two won’t be a feuding once Christmas is here.” She creaks back up the stairs.
I push knickknacks around until I find a needle and silver thread. I sew Emiline’s neckline straight again, fumbling the needle between twisted fingers. I grab it between the nail on my ring finger and the fatty part of my thumb. I use my teeth to pull the needle through when my hand cramps and I can’t get another hold. I work all night to put the pieces back together again.
Christmas morning, I take Emiline upstairs to show you she’s all better, but you don’t wake up. You look so peaceful, dreaming a child’s dream, living out those things that we used to talk about when the night was quiet and the moon was bright: how one day we’d run through the trees together, our feet bare, the damp black dirt squeezing between our toes. Your white hair would twist in the wind, and neither of us could wait to get to Icebox Creek with tea-colored water.
I leave you and go down the stairs and out through the activity room. I hug Emiline, her fresh stitching against my palms. The smell of turkey drifts thick from the kitchen. Everyone is gathered around the Christmas tree, shaking green and gold presents like they’re all kids, like they never were nothing but kids who grew everywhere except their hearts.
Nobody sees me, really, except Sally. She’s sitting in her wood rocker, legs crossed, her robe pulled tight. She gives me her mole-dimpled it’ll-be-just-fine smile.
I don’t tell Sally any different. Instead, I go out the sliding door where the air is cool. The sun is rising behind the house, and there aren’t any cars beyond the fence because everyone is with their families. I sit in the plastic lawn chair and rock Emiline in the peace of daybreak. Her eyes are wet, and I wipe away the tears with my thumb. Her wounds will heal soon, and I’ll take those stitches out. Until then, I rock her way down low and back up again.
Frank Ard is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine and the Clarion West Writers Workshop. His fiction and poetry has been featured in Upender, Superficial Flesh, Suspense Magazine, Ideomancer, Kaleidotrope, The Future Fire, and other fine journals. He’s currently working on a novel about disaffected superheroes. Find him online at www.fictionbot.net.