Jessie-belle Atterson (she had cropped the "-belle" from her name after she'd started earning her own income) sat inside a bitter fog of cigarette smoke, waiting for the tobacco to burn down to the butt before she made a decision. She had not planned to ever come back to Red Clay, Alabama and she felt that if she stepped out of her car and her membrane of cigarette smoke, the resentment in the air would be free to cling to her insides and smother her.
When she finished her cigarette and the curtain of the smoke fog start to lift and dissolve, she decided that she would wait until the song on the radio was over.
She played this game with herself and when she finally finished and got out of the car, it was after another round of a cigarette and a song on the radio. She locked the car door and closed it, and was played by a symphony of crickets on the violins of their legs to the front door of the house she had grown up in. This as well as the crunch of gravel under her boots, the clear and warm swipe of thick summer air on her cheek, reminded her of sneaking back into the house one night. She had been fifteen and in the kind of love that exists only when one is fifteen, which involves the infatuation with being in love more than it does any deep emotional connection to another human being.
Jessie had taken such pride in her cleverness about slipping out unnoticed that she'd neglected to conceal much about her escape, such as her empty bed and the ladder under her bedroom window.
The fury of her mother would have fallen much heavier on Jessie had her teenage daughter once again outsmarted her. But the ladder had given Jessie's mother a confidence in her authority, and that confidence made her anger less focused on simply punishing and humiliating Jessie in revenge.
"Jessie-belle Atterson!" she had roared, lioness-like, from deep within her belly, because she had felt more powerful and like an adult than she had since Jessie had been small and too young to outwit her. Soon enough, though, like most creatures that stumble upon unexpected sovereignty, she used this new power to outlet her anger. The pulse had traveled down the vein to the root, and even though Jessie hadn't planted it, her throat had been there for the limbs to wind around.
"You whore! You're the reason your father left, you know! Left me to put up with your tramp ways!"
Jessie had never forgiven her.
She had come back to Red Clay for her sister, Anna-Rae, not her mother.
Anna-Rae answered the door before Jessie could knock and Jessie was promptly disappointed.
Anna-Rae had never been ugly. She had the kind of even, features that were coveted— a straight nose with proportional nostrils, full lips, high cheekbones, and round eyes. These features were somehow not beautiful all together, though, and were boringly symmetrical, even. Jessie had always thought Anna-Rae would look better with one of them slightly distorted, to break the monotony of her face.
Now, it was as if they had all dropped in altitude and faded like clothes that had been washed too many times. The small lenses of her glasses seemed a weak shield for her brown eyes, padded in a grim, gray mush, her cheeks sloping sickeningly and colorless. With her dark hair, she looked even paler and Jessie had to consciously strangle off an initial expression of appalled pity.
"Hey! Didn't think you'd show up!" Anna-Rae said, beaming cheerfully despite all this, her smile a morbid mockery of the expression, a ballet performed by a puppet. She was so oblivious to her state that it suddenly stung Jessie and she wanted to hug her sister or simply stand where she was and cry. Before Jessie could consider either of these seriously, though, Anna-Rae opened the door and stood to the side to invite her in.
For now, with just Anna-Rae, it was pleasant, as it had always been when it had been just her and Anna-Rae. Jessie assumed that this was what the reunion was supposed to be like, void of the dread that seeing her mother again evoked. Anna-Rae was all the goodness of her childhood. Jessie had been secretly proud of her, even when she was occasionally overcome with periods of jealousy toward her older sister. Anna-Rae had been the Da Vinci of the family, her attention and ambitions jumping from art to writing to math to science and acting and theater as she promptly excelled in all, so fast sometimes that she barely had time to accomplish something in one of them before she was interested in another. She could have been a master at any of these things but she had stayed home, returning from college to take care of Mama. Jessie suddenly realized what exactly it was about Anna-Rae's appearance, her simple presence in their childhood home, which irritated her so. It was the fact that Mama had kept Anna-Rae from all of this, all her talent and from the entire world, trapped in a ditch of Red Clay on the side of the road of the world. Mama had drained Anna-Rae of her potential and Jessie was almost delighted to have a new reason to hate her, to have new fuel for the fire she would need in order to see her again.
"Well, I'm here," Jessie said, stuffing her hands in her back jean pockets and looking around. The only thing different about the house was that it now smelled as old as her mother must be. It had that musky bittersweet (mostly bitter) scent like rotting lace. Jessie's presence in it, though, had a worldly effect, as if all the little pieces of the places Jessie had been had traveled with her and were disentangling from her now to float about the rooms like the smell of cigarettes on her clothes.
There were still ceramic angels and porcelain Jesus figures crowding every stretch of open space on every table and dresser and shelf, and Jessie felt the familiar discomfort and guilt that these religious statues used to evoke in her when she was a teenager and just beginning to rebel against Christianity.
Anna-Rae inhaled and smiled, trying to refresh her willowy existence and show Jessie something worth traveling so far for.
"You look good," she said brightly. "You want something to eat or drink? Musta been a long trip."
Jessie had expected Anna-Rae to grow out of her accent, as she'd thought she herself had, but the sing-song stretch of her words was as unchanged as everything else.
"No, I'm fine. I have to get going soon. Mack's expecting me home before long." Jessie said, turning after her investigation of the living room to face Anna-Rae, who stood, inhabiting the kitchen like something built into it, a faded flower-design on the yellow wallpaper. Jessie pressed mauve lips together and crossed her arms, punctuating her observation of the house.
"Well, Mama'll be glad to see you. All she's been talkin' 'bout is what she's gonna do and say when you get here, and she had me fix the house all up nice," Anna-Rae smiled, peeling dark hair from her clammy face.
"Mmm...," Jessie nodded. She was disgusted that Anna-Rae sounded like an old woman with nothing to do, with nothing to show for her life except a clean house, and thought that if she said much more this disgust would manifest itself in her voice.
"Do you still write and draw and things like that?" Jessie asked, voice lifting a little in hopefulness.
Anna-Rae looked surprised for a moment, then smiled as if it had only been a memory of a good thing that had once happened to her. "Oh... no," she answered, then added a soft laugh and a rueful shake of her head as she realized she'd have to gently disappoint Jessie in answering.
"Oh well," Jessie muttered, almost accusingly.
"Well, you wanna see Mama?" Anna-Rae piped. "She's just in her bedroom resting."
"How old is she now, sixty something?"
"Fifty-nine," Anna-Rae answered, somewhat discouraged by Jessie's unenthusiastic response. Anna-Rae had always secretly hoped that Jessie didn't realize she had escaped and her sister hadn't, but now she realized how much of the truth Jessie knew. She began to speak not as idealistically, facing the fact that Jessie was not here to suddenly brighten her mother's life up.
"She looks older than she is," Anna-Rae said. "Cancer does that to you. Just tell her she looks nice, okay? It's not gonna be like before. She's changed. I guess she's aware of what she has and doesn't have now."
Jessie nodded. They both realized that this homecoming meant more to Anna-Rae than it did to Jessie and were trying to blend their intentions as closely as possible.
"Well," Anna-Rae said with a breath of finality, "c'mon, then." She led Jessie to the bedroom in the back corner of the house.
Jessie expected her to be strapped to machines and tubes, but she was just resting placidly in the middle of the bed with the pastel pink covers like a wilted flower. Jessie waited for her to speak first.
"Well, look what the cat drug in," Mama said, and her smile was pleasantly gentle in its weakness. She hadn't the strength for big, fake, flashy, plastic smiles anymore.
"Hey Mama," Jessie answered carefully.
"C'mere, lemme see you." Mama beckoned with a frail, twig-like, witchy hand. Jessie, not taking her hands from her back jeans pockets, elbows jutting like protective instruments on either side of her, stepped to the edge of the mattress.
"Well, well...," Mama mused, looking Jessie over with feeble, watery brown eyes. She smiled for a while and Jessie started to consider coming from behind her curtain of hesitancy, but then Mama asked casually, "What in the world're you wearin'?"
Jessie looked down at her own outfit – jeans and a black fitting shirt that exposed a brown mid-drift and sloped down to show bare shoulders. There were days when she felt too old to wear such outfits and days when she wore it like a magic armor of youth.
"What about what I'm wearing?" Jessie asked, her old defenses returning to her – one of the few things that had strengthened with her aging.
"You look like a prostitute," Mama said casually, as if she had expected Jessie to either laugh or smile and nod, quietly accepting it.
"Well, you look ninety, Mama," Jessie responded. Then, giving the bite of that statement time to sink in, she added, "I'm a grown woman – I can wear what I want."
Anna-Rae tightened her pale lips in a thin line of defeated disappointment, as if swallowing her heart as it sank.
Mama looked at Jessie in disbelief, as if Jessie's attack hadn't been warranted, as if she had expected the quick whip-cracks of her daughter's reactions to have slowed in time, or to have disappeared altogether.
Jessie refused to relent to either of their expressions. She set her features stonily and gave them a look that told them they should have expected this to happen.
"Well...," Mama said softly, defiant but sheepish, trying to decide whether to crumble or snap back in response. Her limbs started to quiver like tree branches ruffled in a cold night breeze and she looked to Anna-Rae for help.
"Jessie...," Anna-Rae started.
"Well!" Jessie announced with sarcastic cheerfulness, slapping her hands together with a silvery clatter of the jewelry on her wrists and fingers. "That's that! I'm going home now." She rounded the bed, pushing past Anna-Rae, who stood in the doorway not to block but hopefully to discourage.
Jessie stopped and turned to her sister when she was safe at the bottom of the stairs, outside.
Anna-Rae deflated in a sigh. "Don't leave like this, okay? Be patient-"
Jessie shook her head, throwing her hands up to push Anna-Rae's plea away. "No, I don't have to do this anymore – I don't have to deal with it. If I wanted to, I would have stayed."
Anna-Rae's face pinched in frustration, her features shrinking up in a shriveled expression that made her look even older.
"She's your mother, you cain't just let her...," Anna-Rae trailed off, not wanting to speak the word "die" out loud. She searched for a moment for an alternative, then gave up, shoulders falling, pinched expression loosening and collapsing.
Jessie shook her head more passionately. "Yes, I can. Because she never acted like my mother. I'm not obligated to love her."
"Yes, you are, that's what family is!" Anna-Rae said desperately.
The divide between them ripped like a fault across the moist summer grass, and then sucked up the silence in its black depth.
When she saw the expression gloss over Anna-Rae's features, pulling them into a white sheet of defeat and acceptance, Jessie turned and went back to her car.
Anna-Rae watched the tail-lights wink out like the red embers of cigarettes being pinched out after a smoke on the porch.