It's as we're driving away from the funeral that I realize that Richard doesn't quite understand.
"Tell me," he says; his eyes go from the side window to the front windshield and back again. "Which house is yours?" His eyes search the white colonial houses, the expensive suburban houses, the picture perfect houses.
I give him a smile that doesn't feel quite right. "I'll tell you when," I stall. These houses, they have bright green lawns and budding gardens in front of the windows. These houses, they have shiny new cars in the driveways. These houses, they were the dream-gilded palaces of my childhood. My stomach tightens.
All those white-picket-fence houses give way to the poorer side of town. The houses droop, dilapidated. The paint is curled and graying. The lawns consist of out-of-control weeds. The few cars are falling apart. This…now this is the home I remember. From the corner of my eye, I see Richard grimace. He glances over to me, brows furrowed, but he says nothing. At the first trailer park, I sigh and go, "Turn here."
Richard does so, the car slowing down significantly. His eyes are looking over each and every silvered trailer. It's here that the clean lines of his pressed suit, the aristocratic angles of his face, the power in this rented car all stand out. It's here that I remember that he is Richard Daniel Mitchells III. My teeth sink into my lower lip and I feel the tingling of blood rushing to the surface.
It's as we're passing a particularly broken-down trailer that I say, "Pull in here." The motion of Richard's hands is smooth as he turns the wheel, as he directs the car into the tiny driveway. That grimace is trying to take over his expression, but he valiantly goes for a smile.
His eyes are on the peeling paint of the rickety stairs, the patchy, weedy grass, the dull silver metal, when he says, "You should probably talk with your family alone. I mean…you probably have a lot to catch up on. And. Well. I don't think it's a good time to introduce me." He looks over at me. "I'll just go to the hotel for a little bit and you can call me when you're done…," he clears his throat, "catching up."
"Yeah," I say. "Sure."
When I get out of the car, he hesitates a moment before pulling out of the driveway and heading down the road we came. It's only now that my suit feels too big, too warm, too itchy. Sweat trails down the back of my neck, tickling me. I shift from foot to foot. This place is as familiar and hated as the twisted scar around my ankle from the time I had gotten caught in barbed wire at the playground when I was eight. The stairs creak ominously under my weight when I walk up to the porch; when I bang on the screen door, it shudders pathetically.
The hinges whine when the front door opens. A round, pale face comes around the door; the tired brown eyes go down and then come back up. "Bethie?" the woman hazards.
I grimace. My boss and colleagues, they call me Eliza. My friends, they call me Liz. Richard, he calls me Lizzy. It's only here that it's "Bethie". I attempt a smile. "Hello, Mary."
Mary, my oldest sister, lets out a squeal and swings the door open to gather me in a bear hug. However, Mary is once again filled to the brim with baby and her hug is impeded by her rather large stomach. She pulls back from me and raises one fluttering hand to pat at the frothy blonde bubble of hair. "Oh, Bethie," she gushes, "I just didn't know if you'd show up. Oh, come in, come in, Mama's here and so is Jo Anne and they'll both be so happy to see you."
I walk into the trailer and it's as if I'm eighteen all over again. It's all the same: the worn, drooping furniture, the loud, static-enhanced television set, the dirty, dingy carpet. I take in a breath to settle the urge to turn right around and run away as fast as possible, but instead I nearly choke on the hazy fog of cigarette smoke.
Two pudgy munchkins run up to hide behind Mary's skirt and peer at me with wide, solemn eyes. Mary places a hand on each downy head and dimples at me. "This is Timmy and Dale." She takes one hand and spreads her fingers widely over her protruding stomach. "And this will be our sixth." She's smiling, but her voice sounds strained.
"Sixth," I echo. Mary barely graduated high school, her robes ballooned by her baby-belly, thanks to her then high school sweetheart, now husband, Randall.
One child tugs on her skirt. "Mama," he whines. "I'm hungry."
The second child tugs on the other side of her skirt. "I'm bored," he moans.
Red spots bloom in Mary's cheeks. "Go play with your brothers." The boys pout at her, but a few more clucks of Mary's mother henning has them running back into the kitchen. She gives me a thin-lipped smile and smoothes a hand over her belly. "Randall couldn't watch them today. He was meeting with some buddies."
Before I can get a word in edgewise about how Randall is still a scumbag, she turns and goes, "Jo, come'n greet your baby sister."
The skeleton on the couch just removes the cigarette from the horrifically red mouth. Jo Anne presses the glowing cherry into the overflowing ashtray and says, "Heya, Bethie."
The clothes she's wearing now look like the ones she wore at sixteen: itty-bitty skirt and tiny top, although they are now black instead of bright purple or neon green. From a twelve-year-old's viewpoint, she had been beautiful and invincible but so, so strange for going to boy to boy to boy. At fourteen, though, she had seemed so stupid, dropping out of school at sixteen to hang with the barely-clothed workers on the corner. At twenty-eight, I'm seeing her scratch at the scarred flesh of the inside of her elbow with her red claws and I'm thinking she should be in a rehab clinic of some kind. These words are heavy on my tongue, but Mary is beaming at me and her eyes, like everyone else's, are blind.
There's the familiar rattle of a hacking cough in the hallway. Then there's the scornful drawl of, "Why, it's lil' miss Bethie, down offa her high horse."
The infuriated "Mama!" that comes from me is unthinkingly done. I wince. Richard always called the regal lady I've met twice, "Mother." In the bustling city, I've always referred to this woman as, "Mom." Here, in Gainsville, Mississippi, it's Mama. I try again. "Mom," sounds funny, but she moves from the hallway to the main room and glances over me. She's been taking lessons from Jo, because she's not the bulging, fat woman from ten years ago; like Jo, she looks like a skeleton, yellowing skin stretched tight. "I'm here for Daddy's funeral."
Mama goes, "That man was a drunk 'til the day he died."
My fingernails dig into the palm of my hand and the bite pushes back my curses. A deep breath in and I'm going, "I didn't see you at the service."
She scoffs. "No way I'd go to that man's funeral." She pulls a crushed pack of cigarettes out of her back pocket and pulls one out. Placing it in her mouth, she goes, "I'm glad he's gone." She exchanges the pack of cigarettes for a lighter. Her eyes are scornful as the flame flickers to life. "He deserved to die."
Mary flutters into action with, "Mama, you shouldn't be smokin'. The doctor said—"
Mama bares her teeth at her oldest daughter and retorts, "That doctor don't know nothin'. I'm just fine." Mary shrinks back.
"Doctor?" I question.
Mama lifts one bony shoulder in a shrug. She sucks on the cigarette and blows out a stream of smoke. "He says cancer. I say he don't know jack-shit."
Mary tries again, "Mama, you should listen to him. You really need to—"
Jo laughs mockingly. "You really think the Doc actually knows what he's talkin' about? He once treated one of the girls for the clap, but he had it completely wrong. The boss wouldn't let her work 'til she went to the city to get it cleaned up."
Mama points the cigarette at Jo in victory and grins. Mary gives me a wan smile, but it's not a plea for help. It's a what-can-you-do-? smile and I know Mary only presents this argument because it's a worn and familiar rut.
I want to shake Mama and order her to the hospital for tests, exams, treatments, but her mouth is set in a stubborn line. Defiantly, she brings the cigarette back to her mouth and inhales. My stomach twists itself into a knot.
There's a knock at the front door. Mary bustles over to it while Mama and Jo just stare blankly. Mary greets one Cheryl Thatcher and they both enter. It's Cheri as I remember her, only an expanded edition: the pink velour jumpsuit, the bleached-blonde hair, the too wide smile. She comes bearing a tinfoil-covered pan and her smile jumps to megawatts when she spots me. She passes the pan off to Mary and comes to gather me in a hug as if we're best buddies. Really, we just went through all our school years together, but it seems as if it's a good enough reason for her.
"Why, Bethie Hicks, is that really you?" Her voice goes high on the last word. Her expression rearranges so she looks mournful. "Now, I'm really sorry about your daddy, but well." She gives me an ingratiating smile and leans a little closer. "We all know he was an al-co-hol-ic," she says, mincing each syllable. She leans back a little and scrunches her nose as she smiles. "Now, what about you, honey-pie? I know you went an' left here for college, but what happened then?"
When I had mentioned I was leaving Gainsville and going to Chicago for college, I had only gotten blank stares and hollow sentiments from almost everybody. There had only been two people in this whole town that had actually felt something about me leaving. I shrug. "Nothing really," I reply.
Cheri pouts at me. "Nothing at all? I mean, you did go away. You didn't even find man or nothing?"
Richard is sitting at the hotel right now. Maybe he's on the phone with his mother. Maybe he's reporting all the sordid details of my less than perfect past. Maybe he's describing how the town here is just so grimy and miserable, Mother, just a regular backwater town in the middle of nowhere.
I don't know. Maybe's he's watching TV or something.
I swallow. "No, not really," I answer.
Cheri sighs and goes, "Well, sugar, I brought some food. It's Dinah's fried chicken. You remember it, right?" She snatches the pan from Mary and peels the foil back. My mouth waters in anticipation of the bile crawling up my throat. I count backwards. One, two, three… Yeah, ten years since I've last had fried chicken of any sort, due to Dinah's cheap and greasy specialty. It had been breakfast, lunch, and dinner for almost every day of my childhood. Cheri continues, "I thought that'd be the perfect comfort food and now you'll get a taste before you leave." Her face brightens. "Unless, you know, you're staying here?"
Both Mary and Jo are watching me now. The cherry of Mama's cigarette glows bright redorange when she breathes. "I'm not sure," I hedge. "I do have a great job where I'm at."
Cheri's smile falters and my sisters look away. "Oh, be sure and stop at Dinah's before you do leave. There're all the people from school there." Her smile turns thin and sly. "There's even Chad." Her eyebrows rise. "He's still single, you know."
There had only been two people in this whole town that had actually felt something about me leaving for college. My boyfriend of two years, Chad Lepinski, had asked, Are we breaking up? And I had gone, Well, yeah, I'm leaving here for Chicago. Chad's face had gone shuttered and angry. He had chased me halfway across town with a broken beer bottle before I could run to Daddy's place. Although half asleep and half drunk, Daddy had grabbed his shotgun and had a talk with Chad about how to treat Elizabeth Gina Hicks.
"Thanks, Cheri," I force out. "But, really, no thanks."
Cheri hands the fried chicken back to Mary and shifts her expression to something mimicking grief. "I have to be going now. My condolences about your daddy," she says and Mary waddles her back to the door.
Mary heads to the kitchen to put the chicken away. Mama snuffs out her cigarette and goes, "Well, what now, lil' miss Bethie?"
I lick my dry lips and say, "I want Daddy's button-up. The plaid one he always wore."
Mama frowns. "Miss Bethie, that ain't for you. That's going to the garage sale, just like all his other stuff. I need to get some money out of him since I didn't get any in the divorce."
After Daddy had given that talk to Chad, he had come back in and placed the shotgun back in the closet. Daddy had been a tall, unsmiling man with broad shoulders and a beer gut. That night, the plaid button-up he always wore had reeked of whisky and smoke and it had been scratchy against my cheek as I cried into his shoulder. One big, clumsy, callused hand had pushed my hair away from my face as I had stuttered out the words to explain that I had broken up with Chad and I was going to college in Chicago and I was getting out of this damn town no matter what it took. Daddy had said nothing and let me cry.
"You'll get enough money from the rest of his stuff. I just want that shirt, Mama," I say, but her mouth is in a thin line and her eyebrows are furrowed together. "Even if you do sell it, you'll only get pennies for it. It's worthless."
She bares her teeth at me in a curling sneer. "If it's so worthless, then why do you want it?" She stabs a boney finger at me. "That man done nothing for you. You should take the smart road like your old lady and forget he ever existed."
That next morning, wide-awake and for once sober, Daddy had asked me about the college I had mentioned. He had made egg omelets and coffee for the both of us and asked me about the subject I wanted to major in. We had washed dishes together as he fumblingly offered to help pay for any tuition. I had smiled, hugged him, and explained to him about the academic scholarships I had gotten which would pay for everything. Daddy had smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder. He had said, Elizabeth, I'm damn proud of you; you're better than this town, kiddo.
"I'm not going to forget him. You have your issues with him, but he was good to me," I try.
Mama's face flushes a violent red. "That man was no good for nobody, Bethie. All he was was a leech and an alchie. Remember that, girl," she orders sternly.
I remember the warmth of his arms around me, the rough fabric on my skin, as I cried. "He was the only one who encouraged me with college, Mama. I'm going to get that shirt even if I have to find it myself." My voice rises to a shout on the last word.
Jo and Mary are staring wide-eyed at us. Mama rears back, pale. Regaining her rhythm, she scowls at me. "You're just not gonna quit, are you?"
Her eyes are narrowed and scornful now, but I resist the urge to cower. I shake my head defiantly. "No. I want that shirt," I insist.
There's a glance up and down at me. "Something's different about you, lil' miss Bethie." Her tone is low, biting; these words, they are not a compliment. "If you really want the damn thing that much…," she finally surrenders.
"Yes," I jump. "I do."
She stares at me for one long moment, as if waiting for me to take back the words, before she turns and disappears from the main room.
Jo smirks at me, but there is something unfeeling about it. "I never thought you'd be the one to haul back and yell at Mama like that." When her eyes focus on me, her expression is hollow.
Mary's twisting her hands together, wan smile trembling. "Maybe you should be a bit kinder on her, Bethie. She's sick, you know."
I frown at Mary. I want to order her to sit down, take a break, but I know she'll only shake her head at me and continue on her way. I sigh and decide not to point out that Mama's still smoking despite the doctor's diagnosis.
Mama comes back, the plaid shirt in her stick-thin hands, and tosses it at me. I barely catch it in time. "There. Take it."
I clutch the plaid shirt close to me. Even after Daddy's death, the plaid still reeks of whisky. "Thanks, Mama."
She raises her eyebrows and pulls a cigarette from the pack in her pocket to place in her mouth. It moves with her words. "That it, Bethie? You got offa your high horse to see how we were doin'. You got that damn shirt." Her chin juts out stubbornly. "I know you don't wanna hang around her, lil' miss."
Jo Anne looks blankly at me. Even Mary, who had been so happy at first to see me, looks tired of all of this. Ten years, after all, is a long distance to bridge. "I'm glad to see you all again," I try, but there's no change in their expressions. The plaid feels rough and itchy against my palms. Daddy's words are imprinted on the back of each thought of homecoming and family reunions and home sweet home. In a quiet voice, I say goodbye and that I'll keep in touch; I'm not sure if they catch the lie in my words. Even if they do, I'm not sure they mind.
I'm clutching the plaid shirt in one hand as I walk out of the trailer. My other hand is digging in my pocket and pulling out my cell phone. I pull up Richard's number. When he answers the phone, I tell him to pick me up right now and get me the hell out of here.