DISCLAIMER: This began as my NaNoWriMo 2016 project. I wanted to try something new.
In the Land of Sweetwater
Watching the World Burn
June of 1957 came in with a heat wave as bad as any I could remember. I had just turned sixteen and instead of preparing to finish high school, I found a job at the general store in town running the cash register for Frank Walters. I was quick with numbers and always had a smile, so he stuck me up front. At least, that's what he said. Truth is, I was never one to smile much.
The path to Walters' General Store was a familiar one I'd pedaled many times in the years since I won my bicycle in a local raffle. Mama took full advantage and wouldn't hesitate to send me down the road with enough change to get her a pack of smokes if needed. My daddy worked at the store too before he went off and died in the war when I was two years old. I was certain my daddy and not my smile was the reason Frank gave me a job in the first place. Either way, I was grateful to make that dollar an hour. With each shift I was closer to a new-to-me car so I could get to a city that offered better wages.
"Weather's looking like it's going to take a turn. Why don't you get on out of here early," Frank said as he closed the front door.
"Alright," I said. I had an hour left of my shift, but I was so bored and hot I didn't mind losing a dollar. "Hopefully the rain will cool things off."
"You're telling me. Few more months of this and the town'll melt," he said as he counted out five dollar bills from the register and handed them over to me.
"I'm leaving early. I should only get four dollars."
He laughed at me. "You're too honest for your own good, Izzy. Consider it payment for helping me sweep out the backroom earlier."
"Thank you, Frank."
"You're very welcome."
Frank was right. The wind was blowing something fierce by the time I crossed over Scuttle Creek, the halfway point home. Mama and I didn't have much at all in our four room house out in no man's land. While some girls at school were dreaming about a kiss from Elvis Presley, I was dreaming about having indoor plumbing someday. I wasn't the only one I knew who had to use an outhouse and hand pump water to boil for a bath, but it was still a sore spot for me. I wore poverty like a scarlet letter across my chest and I hated every second of it. Instead of moving us in town to a nicer place, Mama spent all the money she made on new dresses, cosmetics, and her running tab at the tavern. Everyone knew Renee Higginbotham was a loose war widow, much to my embarrassment.
Mama looked an awful lot like Grace Kelly, and at the age of thirty-two, she still had youth on her side. She always told me to stay out of the sun so I wouldn't lose my complexion, but I never listened. It wasn't quite summer yet and I already had a glow from my bicycle rides to work and back. Mama had a car, an old one, but it still ran just fine. She baked bread for a living when she wasn't drinking. She had many jobs over the years, but the bakery seemed to stick. I wouldn't have been surprised to learn she took that job because no one would have noticed her stale liquor smell with the ovens going all the time.
She didn't care when I told her I was giving up schooling to go to work. Mama simply told me it was about time I started pulling my weight around the house. Our house was little more than a shack, but it was a roof over my head no matter how ashamed of it I was. On nights it was too hot to sleep, I'd sit on the small front porch with a glass of tea and dream what it would be like to be one of those girls with their new clothes and private bathrooms in a big house. What it would be like to have one of those boys with slicked back hair and pressed pants buy me a malt like I saw in magazines.
My reality had its own cruel way of pulling me out of such foolish thoughts.
I let my scuffed shoes drag in the dirt as I neared our driveway. It was a little gravel road that bent around a big rock formation, so I was surprised when I came around the curve and saw a shiny black Cadillac parked near the porch next to my mama's old tin can Ford. My heart did a funny little twist seeing that car because I knew without a doubt it didn't belong to any of the regular men Mama kept company with. I'd seen it once about a week before along with the man who drove it when he stopped in at Walter's for a pack of Camels. I knew he was just passing through, probably on his way to Sweetwater I guessed from the suit and hat he wore.
"You need to get out of here before she gets home," I heard my mama hiss from the open front room window. Something told me to get out of sight, so I ducked down near Mama's car.
"Don't make me get the law involved, Renee."
"What good would that do? She's damn near grown no thanks to you!"
"I didn't know. All these damned lies."
"May she rest in peace, but your demon of a mother shooed me off the porch like I was a raccoon rooting through the garbage."
"Oh yes, she shooed you off the porch right after handing you an envelope of money."
"What else was I supposed to do, Charles? I was fifteen, alone, and in a family way. That money and marrying Phil are what kept me alive."
"What did you do with the money?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but I used it to get a car and for living expenses after Phil died. He didn't know about it."
"Why didn't you tell me? You didn't stop to think I'd want to know about my own child?"
"How was I supposed to get all the way over to Massachusetts when I could barely make it to Sweetwater?" Mama cried.
I heard a growl, the kind a grown man makes when he's at his wit's end. "You can't blame me for not being here when I had no idea. This isn't my fault and I don't think any judge is going to find me at fault, either. There's no excuse, Renee. None. A child isn't something to bargain with and no amount of money should have bought your silence. You'll be hearing from me again very soon and don't you dare think about running off with her."
"No, Renee. And do yourself a favor and lay off the bottle. I can smell you from over here. "
My heart was pounding and my stomach was flopping around like a fish out of water as I scrambled to hide behind the outhouse and the lilac bush that grew near it. I thought I'd been found out as the man, Charles, looked over to where I hid, but he scratched his thick black eyebrow and walked to his car without looking back.
It's like I couldn't take a breath deep enough to fill my lungs as my mind raced and my knees shook. How could my life turn on a dime like this? I knew my mama was barely sixteen when she had me, but she was married to my daddy. His name was the one on my birth certificate and it was him holding me with the biggest, happiest grin on his face in the family portrait Mama kept in her chest of drawers. So what that my hair and eyes were nearly black while him and Mama were fair-haired and blue-eyed. Not once in my life had I ever questioned what suddenly felt so obvious.
I gave myself a little time to think and for my heart to calm down before I decided this Charles could send all the judges in the state of Virginia my way if he so pleased. Philip Dwyer, though I didn't have a single memory of him, was my father and that was that.
I knew it had to be nearing the time I usually got home when I gathered the courage to leave my hiding spot and face my mother. I had a plan that wholly consisted of not yet saying a word about what I'd witnessed. I was quick to learn my plan was a bad one when I was met with my mother running to her car with her pocketbook in hand. "Mama?"
Her eyes were wide and her cheeks turned red when she looked at me. "What are you doing here?"
I shook my head. "I got home early."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm meeting up with Trudy."
It was completely normal for Mama to be on the go and meeting up with someone, but I felt so awkward with secret information tumbling around in my head. "Alright. Will you be home tonight?" Since I was in grade school, Mama sometimes wouldn't make it home until the next day.
"I'll be home when I get home. You're my daughter, not my mother."
Charles' visit certainly didn't improve her disposition. Mama looked a little pale and twitchy around the edges. I learned a long time ago that usually meant she hadn't had enough to drink for the day and that always made her particularly awful.
"Sorry," I said, because I'd also learned defending myself was useless when she was in one of her moods.
Mama had this way of pinning me down with a look and she did it then, her eyes bloodshot and shimmering with something I wasn't ready to understand. It was all right there on the tip of my tongue, how sick I felt inside because of what I overheard. I was going to say it and make it real for us both, not some vaporous thing floating around us, but she cupped my face in her hands forcefully, her teeth pressing so hard into her bottom lip I had a fleeting thought it would bleed.
"I wish," she started to say, but her voice cracked. I was too afraid to move, too shocked by her touch. After a deep breath she began again. "I wish I knew how to love you."
Her words didn't process in my head, but they sure made my chest cave in. I couldn't say a word as Mama turned away from me and got in her car, the engine heaving before it finally started. My fists were clenched tight at my sides as I stared down at the gravel and counted the pieces to keep myself from exploding. There was a hot lump in my throat and I wasn't sure if I'd sob or scream if I opened my mouth. Did she not love me at all? Is that what she meant?
One foot in front of the other, I walked toward the house as the sound of Mama's car got farther and farther away. The sky opened up as soon as I stepped through the front door of our house. It was all familiar... the constant static of the rain hitting the tin roof with its leaky spot in the back corner. The coal burning stove that made me cough all winter long. The worn out dining table littered with liquor bottles. The pantry that was never full. The big brass bed that was never made when Mama was home. Everything looked the same, but everything was different. I could feel it somehow, like what little life was in the house was sucked out, never to return.
I sat down at the table so I could rest my pounding head on my folded arms. My very existence was a lie and I was too damn tired to think about it. It was hard to want for better when surviving took up all my time and strength. At least I didn't have to wonder where I stood with Mama anymore. That's what I told myself before I noticed the pink envelope sitting on the table with my name written across it. It was stationary I saved up to buy her for her birthday last February. That was a good day. We ate cake she brought home from the bakery and she was a happy drunk that night as if eating all that sugar made her sweeter.
My fingers felt stiff as I opened up the envelope and pulled out a letter along with two dollar bills.
I was your age when I had you and I think I did a good job raising you up. It's my time now to live the life I always wanted to before you were born. Things happen sometimes beyond our control and we have to make do with what we are left.
When I was fifteen years old, I went into Sweetwater with my daddy while he was on a job. That's where I met Charles Swan. I'll spare you the details, but before I knew it Charles was off to Harvard and I found out I was going to be a mother. Phil worked with my daddy and was sweet on me, so I took the opportunity that was available and married him. He loved you despite knowing you were not his child.
Charles wants you. I don't know how he figured it out. His mama was the only one who knew about me and Charles and she hated me with a passion. I was alone and terrified, so I took her for her word when she offered money to me as long as I didn't ever come back with my bastard child. And I didn't.
Take a bus to Sweetwater and go to Swan House. It's the largest plantation in all of Sweetwater, maybe all of Virginia, so you won't be able to miss it. I suppose it is your birthright. I never considered Charles would want anything to do with his illegitimate child. We all make mistakes.
He wants you and you go ahead and tell him that he has my full permission to take you in. It's for the best.
I was certain I was going to throw up as the word "regards" bounced around inside my skull. There it was in writing, everything she'd never say to me directly. She wasn't meeting up with Trudy. She was making her getaway.
I laughed at her cowardice, but it sounded so mean, not like me. It didn't take a genius to figure out the two dollars she left was bus fare. I was staring at the backs of the bills when the lowest blow hit me right in the gut. On one of the bills in the upper left-hand corner was the number 183 written lightly in pencil. The same 183 I wrote on it when I added to my savings a few days before. "No, no, no," I chanted as I ran into the bedroom and dug my nails into the lip of the loose floorboard. It was on my side of the bed, just underneath the bed frame. Beneath was a wooden cigar box I'd saved from the trash at Walter's that I kept my savings in. My heart shattered completely when I opened it up to see it was empty.
That... that... bitch.
I screamed and crumpled up her letter in my fist and threw that old cigar box right into the mirror of Mama's vanity, cracking it straight down the middle. Anger like I'd never known threatened to swallow me up as I stood and swiped off every perfume bottle and trinket she had sitting pretty in a row on that vanity. Oh, how she loved her perfume bottles. Seeing them shattered all over the floor didn't do much to quell my rage. Thanks to me, she had plenty of money to buy whatever perfume she wanted.
There was nothing I could do with the storm wreaking havoc outside. Without a car or a telephone, not that I had anyone to call, I was stuck for the evening. Hell, I was stuck no matter what. What was I supposed to do – show up at some stranger's house and ask to move in? Tell some man I'd never met my own mother stole my life savings so she could abandon me?
With another flash of lightning the electricity flickered out and left me in the dark. I slid my back down the wall until I was sitting on the floor, the tears finally coming. It was all too much as my body bowed with the fierceness of my sobs. I cursed me ever having been born, God, my mama, Daddy Phil, but most of all I cursed Charles Swan for showing up and dropping a bomb right in the middle of my life. The destruction was too great to bear.