She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her. She'd sit on the edge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed, shadows ebbing from the room and early light owing in through both windows. Her hair was as long as her story and she couldn't walk when her hair was not woven into dense braids and pinned around and atop her head. Otherwise her hair dragged the floor like the train of a medieval gown and she had to gather it into a sheaf and coil it about her forearm several times to walk the floor without stepping on herself. She'd been born a farm girl, then served as a maid for half a century, so she couldn't sleep past dawn to win a bet, and all the mornings I knew with her she'd sit in the first light and brush that witchy long hair, brush it in sections, over and over, stroking hair that had scarcely been touched by scissors for decades, hair she would not part with despite the extravagance of time it required at each dawn. The hair was mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page.
She spooked me awake daily that whole summer of my twelfth year, me awaking to see her with the dawn at her back, springs squeaking faintly, while a bone-handled brush slid along a length of hair that belonged in a fairy tale of some sort, and maybe not the happy kind. Her name was Alma and she did not care to be called Grandma or Mamaw, and might loose a slap if addressed as Granny. She was lonely, old and proud, and I'd been sent from my river town near St. Louis by my dad as a gesture of reconciliation. She was glad I'd been sent and concerned that I have a good time, a memorable summer, but she was not naturally given to much frolic; the last hours of play she'd known had been before World War I, some game now vanished from childhood that involved a rolling wooden hoop and a short stick. She tried taking me for long walks about the town of West Table, going to People's Park so she could watch me splash in the pool, let me pull weeds in the garden and throw a baseball against the toolshed door. It was the summer of 1965, but she still did not have a television, only a radio that seemed always to be announcing livestock prices and yield estimates.
There was a twang stretching every word Alma said, but for days and days she didn't say much. Then came a late afternoon when I was dramatically dispirited, moody and bored, foot idly kicking at things I'd been told not to kick, a sweltering day that turned dark as a sinister storm settled overhead, and we sat together on her small porch in a strong wind to watch those vivid actions break across the sky. Storm clouds were scored by bright lightning, and thunder boomed. Her dress was apping, her eyes narrowed and distant, and she cunningly chose that raging moment to begin telling me her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929, how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the Missouri Ozarks had perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering ames, and why it happened. This was more like it — an excitement of fire, so many fallen, so many suspects, so few facts, a great crime or colossal accident, an ongoing mystery she thought she'd solved. I knew this was a story my dad did not want me to hear from her lips, as it was a main source of their feud, so I was tickled and keen to hear more, more, and then more. Dozens were left maimed, broken in their parts, scorched until skin melted from bones. The screams from the rubble and flames never faded from the ears of those who heard them, the cries of burning neighbors, friends, lovers, and kinfolk like my great-aunt Ruby. So many young dead or ruined from a town of only four thousand raised a shocked, grievous howling for justice. Suspicions were given voice, threats shouted, mobs gathered, but there was no obvious target for all the summoned fury. Suspects and possible explanations for the blast were so numerous and diverse, unlinked by convincing evidence, that the public investigation spun feebly in a wide, sputtering circle, then was quietly closed.
No one was ever officially charged nor punished, and the twenty-eight unidentified dead were buried together beneath a monumental angel that stood ten feet tall and slowly turned black during year after year of cold and hot and slapping rain.
Alma yet lived in a small room with a small kitchen in the back portion of her last employer's house, and it was tight living. Her bed and the couch I slept on were five feet apart. Her sleep was chatty; she had one-way chats with people she'd once known or her sleep invented. She sometimes mumbled names I'd heard around the dinner table. She often wept without sound at night until tears shined her neck, and made dull daytime company for a boy unless she was adding wrinkles to her story. When in the telling mood she'd sit on the porch for hours staring toward the dry white creek bed out back while drinking tea to keep her voice slickened, leaving each used tea bag in the cup when adding a fresh one and more water, soaking every penny's worth of tea into her cup until she sipped bitter trickles between four or five derelict bags. She would at times leave the public horror and give me her quiet account of the sad and criminal love affair that took her sister Ruby away from us all, left us with only pain, many dark mysteries, and a woman's hat with a long feather in the band.
Alma had been allowed to stay in school to the completion of third grade, then was sent to work some years in her daddy's fields before finding her way to town and becoming a laundress, a cook, an all-purpose maid. She lost two sons along the way, her husband, her sister, and earned but little, always one dropped dish and a loud reprimand from complete and utter poverty. She lived scared and angry, a life full of permanent grievances, sharp animosities and cold memories for all who'd ever crossed us, any of us, ever. Alma DeGeer Dunahew, with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge, was the big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one
we keep secret and that sustains us.
It was years before I learned to love her.
Excerpt from The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Woodrell. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.