Gods In Alabama
Warner BooksCopyright © 2005 Joshilyn Jackson
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-446-52419-0
THERE ARE GODS in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches.
I made a deal with God two years before I left there. At the time, I thought He made out pretty well. I offered Him a three-for-one-deal: All He had to do was perform a miracle. He fulfilled His end of the bargain, so I kept my three promises faithfully, no matter what the cost. I held our deal as sacred for twelve solid years. But that was before God let Rose Mae Lolley show up on my doorstep, dragging my ghosts and her own considerable baggage with her.
It was the week before summer vacation began, and my uncle Bruster was getting ready to retire. He'd been schlepping the mail up and down Route 19 for thirty years and now, finally, he was going to get a gold watch, a shitty pension, and the federal government's official permission to die. His retirement party was looming, and my aunt Florence was using it as the catalyst for her latest campaign to get me home. She launched these crusades three or four times a year, usually prompted by major holidays or family events.
I had already explained multiple times to Mama that I wasn't coming. I shouldn't have had to explain it at all. I had not gone back to Possett since I graduated from high school in '87. I had stayed in Chicago for nine Christmas vacations, had not come home for nine spring breaks, had faithfully signed up to take or teach classes every summer quarter for ten years. I had avoided weekend fly-downs for the births, graduation ceremonies, and weddings of various cousins and second cousins. I had even claimed exemption from attending the funerals of my asshole grampa and his wife, Saint Granny.
At this point, I figured I had firmly established that I would not be coming home, even if all of Chicago was scheduled to be consumed by the holy flames of a vengeful Old Testament-style Lord. "Thanks for the invite, Mama," I would say, "but I have plans to be burned up in a fire that weekend." Mama, however, could wipe a conversation out of her mind an infinite number of times and come back to the topic fresh as a daisy the next time we spoke.
Burr had his feet propped up on my battered coffee table and was reading a legal thriller he had picked up at the grocery store. In between an early movie and a late supper, we had dropped by my place to intercept Florence's eight o'clock call. Missing it was not an option. I called Aunt Florence every Sunday after church, and every Wednesday night, Flo parked my mother by the phone and dialed my number. I wouldn't put it past Florence to hire a team of redneck ninjas to fly up to Chicago and take me down if she ever got my answering machine.
Florence had not yet mentioned my uncle's retirement to me directly, although she had prepped Mama to ask me if I was coming home for it through six weeks' worth of calls now. With only ten days left before the party, it was time for Aunt Florence to personally enter the fray. Mama was so malleable she was practically an invertebrate, but Florence had giant man hands on the ends of her bony wrists, and she could squeeze me with them till I couldn't get any breath to say no. Even over the phone she could do it.
Burr watched me over the top of his book as I paced the room. I was too nervous about my upcoming martyrdom on the stainless-steel cross of Florence to sit down with him. He was sunk hip deep into my sofa. My apartment was decorated in garage-sale chic, the default decorating choice for every graduate student. The sofa had curlicues of moss-colored velvet running all over its sage-green hide, and it was so deflated and aslant that Burr swore he only ever kissed me the first time because of it. We sat down on it at the same time, and it sucked us down and pressed us up against each other in its sagging middle. He had to kiss me, he claimed, to be polite.
"About how long do you think this is going to take?" Burr asked now. "I'm starving."
I shrugged. "Just the usual Wednesday-night conversation with Mama."
"Okay," said Burr.
"And then I have to have a fight with Aunt Florence about whether or not I'm going down for Uncle Bruster's party."
"In that case," said Burr, and he levered himself out of the depths of the sofa and walked the five steps to my kitchenette. He opened the cabinet and started rummaging around for something to tide himself over.
"It's not going to take that long," I said.
"Sure, baby," he said, and took a pack of peanut-butter crackers back over to the sofa. He sat down with his book but didn't open it for a moment. "Try to keep it under four hours," he said. "I need to talk to you about something at dinner."
I stopped pacing around. "Is it bad?" I asked, nervous because he'd said it in such a serious tone of voice. He could mean he wanted to break up again or he could mean he was going to propose to me. We'd broken up last year over Christmas and both hated it so much that we'd found ourselves drifting back together casually, without even really talking about it. We'd been coasting along easy for a few months now, but Burr would not coast forever. We had to be going somewhere, and if he thought we weren't, then that would be it for him.
I said, "You know I hate that. You have to give me a hint."
Burr grinned at me, and his brown eyes were warm. "Don't panic."
"Okay," I said. I felt something flutter down low in my stomach, excitement or fear, I wasn't sure which, and then the phone rang.
"Dammit," I said. The phone was on a crate full of books at the other end of the ugly sofa. I sat down next to Burr and picked it up. "Hello?"
"Arlene, honey! You remember Clarice?"
Clarice was my first cousin, and we were raised in the same house, practically as sisters. Mama was possibly the only person on earth who could have asked this question sans sarcasm to a daughter who had not been home in almost a decade. Aunt Florence would have gotten a lot of miles out of it, and in fact I couldn't help but wonder if Aunt Florence hadn't somehow planted the question in the fertile minefields of my mother's mind.
It was not unlike the Christmas card Mama had sent me for the last five years. It had a red phone on it, and it said, in bright red curling text, "Daughter! Do you remember that man I introduced you to the day you were born? Why don't you give him a call? I know he never hears from you, and today's his birthday." Open it up and there, in giant candy-striped letters, was a one-word explanation for the terminally stupid: "Jesus," it said. Three exclamation points.
Mama got those abominations from the Baptist Women's League for Plaguing Your Own Children to Death in the Name of the Lord or whatever her service club was called. My aunt Florence was, of course, the president. And my aunt Florence, of course, bought Mama's cards for her, held them out for her to sign, licked the envelopes, got stamps from Uncle Bruster, and mailed them for her. In Florence's eyes, I was on the high road to apostasy because my church was American Baptist, not Southern Baptist.
But all I said was "Obviously I know Clarice, Mama."
"Well, Clarice wants to know if you can drive over to the home and pick up your great-great-aunt Mag on Friday next. Mag needs someone to carry her over to the Quincy's for your uncle Bruster's party."
I said, "Are you seriously telling me that Clarice wants to know if I'll drive fourteen hours down from Chicago, and then go another hour to Vinegar Park, where by the way Clarice lives, and pick up Aunt Mag, who will no doubt piss in my rental car, and then backtrack forty-five minutes to Quincy's?"
"Yes, but please don't say 'piss,' it isn't nice," my mother said, deadly earnest. "Also, Clarice and Bud moved on in to Fruiton. So it's a good forty minutes for her to go get Mag now."
"Oh, well then. Why don't you tell Aunt Florence-I mean Clarice-that I will be sure to go pick up Mag. Right after Aunt Flo drops by hell and picks up the devil."
Burr was jammed deep into the sofa with his book open, but his eyes had stopped moving over the text. He was too busy trying to laugh silently without choking to death on his peanut-butter cracker.
"Arlene, I am not repeating blasphemy," said my mother mildly. "Florence can ask Fat Agnes to get Mag, and you can drive me."
Oh, Aunt Florence was crafty. Asking my mother to have this conversation with me was tantamount to taping a hair-trigger pistol to a kitten's paw. The kitten, quite naturally, shakes its fluffy leg, and bullets go flying everywhere; a few are bound to hit something. I was, after all, talking with my mama about whether or not I would pick up Mag, not whether or not I was coming. A cheap trap worthy of Burr's legal thriller, and I had bounced right into it.
"I can't drive you, Mama," I said gently. Why shoot the messenger? "I won't be there."
"Oh, Arleney," my mother said, sounding vaguely sad. "Aren't you ever coming home for a visit?"
"Not this time, Mama," I said.
Mama made a pensive little noise and then said, in a cheerier voice, "Oh well, I will just look double forward to Christmas, then!" That I hadn't been home for the last nine Christmases was not a factor in Mama's fogbound equations. Before I could even try a quick "Love you, bye" and escape, I heard Aunt Florence's voice barking in the background, and then Mama said, "Here's Aunt Flo's turn!"
I heard the rustle of the phone changing hands, and then Aunt Florence's muffled voice asking Mama to please go check the Bundt cake. There was a brief pause where my mother presumably wafted out of the room, and then Aunt Florence took her hand off the mouthpiece and said in a disarmingly affectionate tone, "Hello, serpent."
"Hi, Aunt Florence," I said.
"Do you know why I am calling you 'serpent,' serpent?"
"I couldn't begin to guess, Aunt Florence," I said.
"I am referencing a Bible verse. Do they have the Bible at that American Baptist church?"
"I believe I may have seen one there once," I said. "No doubt it fled the moment it realized where it was. As I recall, it had a lot of serpents in it, and I am sure I could justly be called many of them."
Burr was still amused. I busted him looking at me, and I gestured at his book. He stifled his grin and turned his eyes virtuously back to the pages.
Aunt Florence, adopting a low and holy voice, intoned, "How like a serpent you have nestled to your bosom is a thankless child."
"That's not the Bible, Aunt Florence. You're misquoting King Lear."
"Do you realize that the women in our service group at church all sit around nattering like biddy hens about what horrors your poor mama-and me-must have inflicted on your head to make her only girl-child flee the state, never to return? Do you realize the vicious things those biddies say about your poor, poor mama? And me?"
"No, Aunt Florence, I didn't realize," I said, but Aunt Florence wasn't listening. She barked on and on into my ear, etc. etc. you-a culpa with breast beating and a side of guilt. Who did I think had put bread in my mouth? Uncle Bruster and his mail route. And now all he wanted was for his family to gather and eat buffet dinner at the Quincy's in his honor. I countered by asking Florence to please pass Bruster the phone so I could tell him how proud of him I was right this second.
Florence wasn't about to give up the phone, not even to her husband. She shifted gears abruptly, dropping her voice to a reverent whisper as she segued into the "Your mama will probably be dead by next year" theme, asking sorrowfully how I would feel if I missed this last chance to see her. I pointed out that she'd used that argument for nine years running and Mama hadn't died yet.
Burr set his book down and reached across me to grab the pad and pencil I kept on the crate by the phone. He scrawled something down on the top page and then tore it off and passed it to me. The note said "Say yes to the trip and let's go eat."
I crumpled it up and bounced it off his chest, sticking my tongue out at him.
"You don't know how bad off she is, Arlene," Florence said. "She's failing bad. She looks like the walking dead. She's been to the hospital to stay twice this year."
"The real hospital?" I said. "Or the place in Deer Park?"
"It's a real hospital," said Florence defensively.
"Real hospitals don't have padded walls in the card room," I countered. Burr uncrumpled the piece of paper and held it up like a sign, pointing to the words one at a time, in order. I shook my head at him and then dropped my head forward to hide behind my long dark hair. "It isn't just that I am not coming. I can't come. I don't have the money to make the trip down right this second."
I peeked up at Burr. He narrowed his eyes at me and touched two fingers to his chin. This was code, lifted from his mock-trial days back in law school. It meant "I am in possession of two contradictory facts." I knew what he was referencing. Fact one: Burr knew that as of last week I had almost three thousand in savings. Fact two: Burr knew I didn't tell lies. Ever. I pointed at him, then touched my chin with one finger, signaling that there was no paradox; one of his facts was off.
Aunt Florence talked about wire transfers and loans and me getting off my butt and taking a part-time job while Burr thought it through. After a moment a light dawned, and he got up and walked towards my front door, looking at me with his eyebrows raised. I braced the phone against my shoulder and clutched my arms around my middle, pantomiming that I was freezing. I realized there was silence on the other end of the line, and I hurried to fill it.
"Aunt Florence, you know I won't take your money-"
"Oh no, just the food off my table and a bed in my house your whole childhood."
Burr reversed direction and went to my kitchenette. I pretended I was even colder, wrapping an imaginary blanket around myself.
"The school pays me a stipend and a housing allowance, plus my tuition," I said into the phone. "It's not like I'm on welfare."
Burr walked the four steps past my kitchenette, back to the doorway into the walk-in closet my Yankee landlord called a bedroom. I mopped imaginary sweat from my brow and threw the invisible blanket off, then fanned myself. He disappeared through the doorway, and I could hear him rummaging around, feet padding on the scuffed hardwood as he searched.
"No," I said into the phone, "I don't think this rates a special collection at church."
But maybe it did. Florence was getting to me a little. She always could. I thought of my uncle Bruster, with his wispy blond tufts combed over his bald spot, his big belly, his broad sloping shoulders. Bruster looked like what would happen if the bear got over on the mountain and they had a baby. He had the Lukey blue eyes, large and powder blue and a little moist-looking, and when I was eleven, he had been my date to the Possett First Baptist Father-Daughter Pancake Brunch.