Passover 2014

On the way to the "Bird Mound" at Poverty Point in Epps, Louisiana

On the way to the “Bird Mound” at Poverty Point in Epps, Louisiana

A day when lawn tractors rolled out from their sheds
and air conditioners, dormant for months, turned on,
the same evening before the first night of Passover,
when thunder tried to shake down oak trees for early acorns,
a few days after a visit to Poverty Point in Epps, Louisiana,
the oldest aboriginal settlement in North America.

I remembered standing in another storm
by the fire house near Hunts Point Avenue
watching rain ambush my face in a circle of bullets,
wondering who I would be if I’d never been born
leaped over concentric rings of darkness
until I could go no further
holding a jar of grasshoppers I’d collected
from the Bryant Avenue lot, punching nails for air holes
through the top tin lid, and after the street lights came on,
all I held was the honey of their death.

Here I am a Jew from northern urban centers—
New York City, Chicago, Oakland—
from the same sticking togetherness
that has joined my people for centuries under one G-d
to a place where Israel could call its own shots,
a wanderer who can’t totally assimilate
strings of Baptist churches that make cameo
appearances in commercials and billboards.

Who am I
without matzoh to break, without a cup to bring to my lips, an exile
listening to the purr of night—grasshoppers, frogs—my voice a password
to a time when I was picked over like damaged fruit,
sitting as still as a jar of water searching
for why power and money always hold the strongest hand—
and maybe it will be a promised land when values can run wild
and trump the Trumps everywhere.

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Begone, Fox Squirrel!

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 7.48.00 PMCity people, be warned. If you think country-living is laid back, easy-going, a ramble in the woods, you may be in for a surprise. There are creatures living in close proximity to our house on the shores of Bayou Bartholomew that make going outside during these spring days of low humidity, fraught with danger. What am I talking about? Not alligators, no—I’m talking about fox squirrels, those red-tailed denizens that create nests in oak trees, tearing across lawns and running vertically up tree trunks, coming back down again to plunder bird feeders for as much seed as they can pack into their fat little cheeks. Let me tell you about this one evening after dinner while it was still light, I’d gone outside to check on my newly planted tomatoes.

There was Cassie the Cat, also known as Mama Cass, rolling on the ground showing off her perfectly white belly. But sitting on the nearby oak tree, sat a fox squirrel. He was not impressed with Cassie’s free show, clicked his tongue, and thrashed his red tail. It was a scene from Gone with the Wind—“Frankly my darling…” He didn’t care how white her belly was. She was encroaching on his turf and he wanted her to move her fluffy feet fast.

“Be gone, varlet” I cried, coming to Cassie’s rescue. I chased the squirrel up the tree. Instead, he wrapped himself around the right side of the trunk and nattered at me. Once again, I heaved my arms up in the air. This time, the squirrel popped out on the left side of the trunk and hissed. Can you imagine? Never believe that through daily husbandry, the squirrel is kin to Johnny Appleseed, helping to distribute and plant trees throughout the land. The furry ball was taunting me, tolerating my presence in his backyard. But for how long? The squirrel disappeared wearing a patch over its one eye. In the meantime, Cassie had relocated further down the parking strip, once again shamelessly exposing her belly.

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Donna’s: My New Barber in Choudrant

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“Finding a good hair stylist is almost as difficult as finding a good mate. Much of it is about chemistry.”

Like most things, it started innocently.

Attending a talk hosted by the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the back of a woman’s head. I admired her haircut, sculpted into close waves that hugged her neck, a cascade of salt and pepper. It wasn’t the color so much as the cut. Since my arrival in these Louisiana parts, I had searched hard to find a good stylist—for what is a woman worth without someone to cut her hair (and for that matter, what is she worth without a good mechanic)?

I am not fussy. I only wish to wash and towel dry my hair and do little else. But to do so requires an excellent cut, actually, an outstanding cut. I had visited many locations recommended by local devotees: one was a storefront located a quarter of a mile down the road, but the stylist there had moved on to open her own place in New Orleans. (Obviously my source hadn’t had her hair cut there in some time.) Then there was the upscale location on an unlikely street called Finks Hideaway, hairdresser of choice for local beauty contestants, their framed photographs adorning the wall above the cash register with long blonde curls set off by identical rhinestone crowns. Definitely not me. Of course, there was a shop located in the Pecanland Mall near Kay’s Jewelers, but it also turned out to be disappointing. Finding a good hair stylist is almost as difficult as finding a good mate. Much of it is about chemistry.

So you can understand my excitement as I gazed at the back of this woman’s neck. “Do you get your hair cut locally?” I asked, and waited for her reply.

“Yes,” she said, and I felt like twirling my jacket and throwing it up to the light fixtures. “But the man I usually go to just died.” Her news erased the smile from my lips, another case of bad timing. “But now I go to Donna. She’s almost as good. She’s trained as a barber.” I copied down the phone number and called Donna the next day.

Her shop was located about twenty miles from where I lived, but figured it was worth it. Donna gave me directions, told me to get off the freeway around Calhoun and to go over the bridge, look for a tall gray building across the street from a bank. Then she said something that sounded like Shoes. I asked her to repeat herself and when I still couldn’t understand, she said, “It’s the exit just after Calhoun.”

“Do you have an address?” She really didn’t, but figured I’d find her anyway, no problem. On the appointed day, I found myself going back and forth. The exit past Calhoun brought me to a Huddle House restaurant and a gas station, but I saw no bank, no gray building, and definitely no Donna’s.

One minute to my appointment, I called. “I’m lost.” Turned out that on one of my exits, I hadn’t gone down far enough to a caution light where she was tucked away across from a small Community Bank outlet and in a small trailer size (to my eyes) building with a Choudrant Appliances sign (that was the Shoes). There were steps at one end of the building and I climbed them all the way up to her shop.

There was Donna clipping the hair of an older gent who looked like he had retired from the pages of Field & Stream magazine. His wife, Bertie, in jeans and a brown jacket, was sweeping his gray hair from the floor. “You don’t have to do that,” said Donna. Bertie said she didn’t mind; she needed something to do.

Shortly after Bertie had finished sweeping up, the couple left. It was my turn. I looked around—a single room with a sink and a bathroom that I had used immediately upon my arrival, a small television set sitting on a table with an air conditioner hogging a small window. A sweater and a camouflage cap hung from several hooks on the wall. Donna was about 5’8” with long brown hair down to her shoulders, maybe in her early forties, dressed in jeans and a red polo shirt. She wasted no time, spun me around to the sink and washed my hair, then back upright to sit in the chair.

I had brought along several pictures to show her what I wanted, a sort of asymmetrical cut.

“I can do that,” she nodded. And she did. It was a very good cut.

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Sisters

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For years I didn’t like either one of you,
felt I was returning the favor—
the baby, an annoyance, an inconvenience,
the one you dragged on the subway to go ice-skating,
left me holding the railing.

In a one-bedroom apartment, slept
on a twin bed in the corner of the room,
got up early on Saturday while you both snoozed,
turned on the TV low in the living room,
our parents heaped in snores and covers.

We tied scarves to our wrists,
necklaces of pop beads hung
from our necks, danced in front of the
dresser mirror, Bronx gypsies who sniffed
a forest from a cedar box.

Sometimes I watched
sparrows leap across the slats of a fire escape,
played in the Bryant Avenue lot
strained mica from sandstone on rusted screens
into soup cans, counted chicory
stalks and dandelions, climbed the ditch
to Lafayette Avenue and walked back again.

You both seemed so far away—
growing up and getting married,
a shadow play of choices on a wall outside of me.

Dickens’ Christmas Carol,
the ghost of things to come,
but if I reformed my Scrooge—
what I saw didn’t have to be.

2.
Sometimes in front of the moon
of a satellite dish I ask the waves
to cast me back, before they left so early,
our parents who live in a framed photograph.

Joined a generation,
healed myself in California
beneath redwood trees and tide pools
and manzanita

calling out sister, sister,
to see if I could hear you
from the other side of the Old World.

You rolled inside a barrel of work
and family and lived in a different time-zone,
waited for me to come to my senses.

I found my own epoch.
It took years.

3.
Driving back home from Baton Rouge
I pass egrets of plastic bags caught in grass,
houses tottering on stacks of red bricks,
windows with blackened eye lids.

Leveled by wrinkles,
we are close in age now,
no longer the beauties
of Orchard Beach doing birdies

in the air with our father
who held us there
until we found our own blue sky.

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Spring in Louisiana

Violets getting pushy on front lawns.

Redbud in the backyard

Redbud in the backyard


Redbud trees pink against winter’s bare branch.
Irises swell in bed, such proud mamas.
Butterweed give yellow a new name.
Thatches of loblolly surround bald land.
Wisteria is lace, the purple rain.
Couches of azalea watch the passing game.

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Date Night at the Half & Half: Rae-Ann (5)

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She looked at the clock. She was expecting him to come through the door at any moment. After all, it was getting close to 7:30 in the morning. Vernon was always on time. Earl had been the same way. But that’s not to say she hadn’t heard a lot of scuttlebutt—over the years people gossiped, called him an intolerant asshole, including her brother, Joe Nicholson, who hadn’t lasted long as his second in charge. He complained that Vernon was a micro-manager. Of course in his more generous moments, Joe admitted that Vernon was one of the best environmental safety officers around, but not a pleasant guy to work for by any stretch. Rae-Ann was attracted to Vernon’s youthful good looks with a head of hair and large hands that could pick up three cases of beer at one time. And she knew by the way he looked at her, his eyes traveling along her neckline to whatever he could see or imagine, that he was attracted to her as well. She was a fifty-three year old woman feeling something that she hadn’t experienced for a long time, something that resembled lust.

“Hi, Rae-Ann.”

“Morning, Vernon.”

“How you doing?”

“Clear to partly cloudy.” Vernon moved to the back of the store and waited for Rae-Ann to finish with a customer so he could talk more privately. He stalled and picked up a sugarless candy bar, several packs of gum, and eyed a bottle of energy drink to caffeinate him up the wazoo for the long day ahead. On second thought he put it down: his doctor had told him to keep away from the stuff—wasn’t good for his blood pressure.

Rae-Ann watched him. Now he was walking down Aisle 3 and heading back toward her, a stream of morning sun shining a spotlight on the whole wheat bread. He picked up a can of Vienna sausage with a pop-up aluminum top and placed it inside his shopping basket. “That’s it. Except for this.” He handed her his thermos, battered from years of use. “Fill ‘er up. I can drink this by the gallon.” She turned on the spigot of the coffee pot and kept her finger on the spout. “Also a pack of Marlboros, please.”

“Ever tried these?” Rae-Ann pointed to a pack of tobacco-less cigarettes.

“Fuck no.” He shouldn’t have said that. No way to talk to a lady. Rae-Ann handed over the Marlboros and a book of matches without looking at him. Outside a customer parked his car and pushed the door open.

“How’s that new grandbaby of yours?” Rae-Ann asked. “Didn’t you show me pictures? By the way, I was sorry about Shields. Real sorry. He’s been a pillar around here. I’m not sure what we’re going do without him.” She took a breath. Vernon’s face was clean-shaven and she could almost smell his after-shave. It wasn’t anything she sold in the store, a lemony fragrance. She hoped that she’d get a chance to ask him what it was. “I wanted to attend the funeral, but I couldn’t get away from the store.”

Vernon remembered when he had bought a Powerball ticket from Rae-Ann, the same night he had found out that Raymond Shields had been hospitalized with cancer. “He died at home. It could’ve been worse. Judy appreciated your card.” Another customer walked through the door and was walking up to the cashier. He had come to Rae-Ann’s this morning with one purpose. It was time to blurt it out. He squeezed his hands around the thermos. “I was wondering if you’d like to go to the VFW dance this weekend.” She leaned toward him. He could almost feel her hair brushing against his face.

“Pick me up Saturday around seven. You know where I live?”

He passed her house going back and forth from the mill all the time. “See you then.” Vernon left with his thermos. The next customer asked for an egg sandwich and a lottery ticket.

“Sorry,” said Rae-Ann. “I didn’t hear you. My mind was someplace else.”

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Vernon and Rae-Ann (4)

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One summer Domino did get covered with fleas and Rae-Ann did just what her auntie had told her. By the time Domino shook herself dry, the dog was clean and ran up to lick Rae-Ann’s hand. Not a single flea. But when Aunt Dee became sick, some kind of nerve damage that attacked her heart or maybe it had been the other way around–it didn’t matter–the family buried Aunt Dee in the Weeping Widow Cemetery at the edge of town, the same place where Rae-Ann had buried Earl last year.

She looked at the TV screen above the cash register. They broadcaster was still talking about cold weather except he was saying something like artic shifting latitude. And in that moment, she realized there would be no new businesses opening up in Hentsbury any time soon except for a funeral parlor. Maybe she should take up her youngest daughter’s offer and leave Hentsbury for good.

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Vernon was no stranger to the Weeping Widow Cemetery. He drove past the cemetery on his way to Rae-Ann’s place. It’s where they had buried Raymond Shields in a special plot reserved for the Shields family members next to Raymond’s wife, Rose. Members throughout the community had attended his funeral, people whom Raymond had helped at the mill, plus his fishing buddies who crossed their poles into a teepee formation over his gravesite during the pastor’s invocation, and members of the Citizens Committee for Environmental Justice, grateful to Raymond for asking several of the white mill workers to attend their meetings. He saw Kim and Deacon Turner there, both members. They shook hands.

And there was his daughter, Judy. She had her Grandfather Shields’ gravestone chiseled with a picture of an empty canoe and the words, Gone Fishin’. Judy thought he would like that. Standing at the gravesite after the last shovelful of dirt had been tossed, Vernon walked several hundred meters to find Dina beneath a small redbud tree. “How you doing, honey?” he asked. “Judy and the baby are fine.” Then as an after thought: “Her husband isn’t such a bad guy after all. His name is Mark.” Vernon didn’t have any other news; he turned around and walked toward his Tahoe. It had been more than twelve years since his wife had passed. Twelve years had been a long time, long enough for their daughter to grow up and have a baby and for him to develop regrets. But each time he saw Rae-Ann, he felt like he was coming alive again.

He had known her husband and liked him, but always thought of the Half & Half as Rae-Ann’s place. Didn’t know why. He just did. He was driving there now, saw hundreds of black birds prospecting for worms after a torrential week of rain, then fly into a black cloud overhead as he passed beneath them heading toward the highway where several trucks zoomed by carrying loblolly pine up to the mill, naked toothpicks of wood without a branch among them stacked and spilling over the back of a cab—tree trunks that were about to be reformed into paper products of every kind—paper that was indispensable to the lives of men and women—envelopes, stationery, newspaper, folders, books. Civilizations had been built on paper, never mind the necessities of toilet paper, boxes of cereal and tissues. Vernon had overseen that process, had been entrusted with making sure that the vats of chemicals, which could easily dissolve a man’s finger in a half second, were safe and protected, that is of course, until Dwayne had bullied his way into making Safety his own concern. Even so, Vernon had bigger catfish to fry. His job was to protect Rand-Atlantic—to make sure that the company did not receive unfavorable publicity from its release of mill effluents—chemical runoff into the land, air, and water. But after twenty years in Hentsbury, his job as head of the Environmental Division was testing Vernon’s last nerve. He didn’t understand why the company never seemed to budget enough money for maintenance or modernization. Instead, they invested in fences and redirecting county roads so no one could identify raw sewage that collected in green and black pools at the back of people’s houses, one emergency after another, always fighting fires, trying to wise up head honchoes to the danger that engulfed them; this latest H2S emission had not been the first, although Bryan Thurmond acted like it had been. He was still young. But it was those River Watcher types who irked him acting like he didn’t know where his dick was. What did they expect him to do anyway? But once Vernon got his hoped-for promotion and occupied a spot in Atlanta on the company’s national Environmental Safety Team, he’d initiate one small change at a time until Rand-Atlantic didn’t know what the fuck had hit them.

Vernon parked the Tahoe and got a thermos from his backpack. Every morning the same old shit floated through his head. Once he retired, maybe he’d move to Florida and sail a skiff around the Gulf. He loved the water; or maybe help raise his grandson, if his daughter, Judy, would let him.

He walked into the Half & Half, Rae-Ann’s place.

–to be continued

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Billy Goat Gruff: Rae-Ann (3)

Bill Goat Gruff paper cutting by Michael Lomax

Billy Goat Gruff paper cutting by Michael Lomax


But Eudora wasn’t the only one who shared their private business with Rae-Ann. Maybe it was because there was something in the way she presided over a sea of six-packs and zip-lock bags. Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the store was a frequent contributor to the town’s soccer and baseball teams, and that she took out a half-page ad every year for the town’s annual fishing tournament at the wildlife refuge, now less of a refuge and more like a campground for sportsmen. Whatever the reason, people told her things that she’d sometimes rather not know. Take Dwayne for example.

Earl had never liked Dwayne McCullor. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t like him but told Rae-Ann over dinner, “He’s not put together right. Can’t put my finger on it.” Dwayne came into the store at least once a week to buy a case of beer. He looked like any one of the mill workers wearing a wind-breaker and a Razor Backs cap. But he had strange eyes. When Rae-Ann rang up his bill at the cash register, his eyes darted back and forth as though they were having muscle spasms, almost like he was on the verge of a fit. Then he opened his wallet and said, “How much do I owe you,” in a tone of voice that almost dared her to answer.

It was a few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning. There were two other people in the store. They were getting milk and orange juice from the freezer and talking about car parts. One of the men was having problems with his starter and wanted to know where to get it fixed. A fan whirred overhead. A small TV on the counter was tuned to the weather channel with news of a cold front moving into the area by afternoon. “Are you feeling okay?” she asked.

He rested his beer on the counter. “He screwed me.”

“Huh?”

“That bastard, Randy.” Over the weekend, he had worked himself into frenzy about his meeting with Randy Crawford from the Arkansas Environmental Board, hardly sleeping and working his way through several packs of non-filters. “That stupid mother fucker. I recorded everything.” He slammed his change on the counter and pushed several quarters toward Rae-Ann. “Sure, I signed those documents. But he’s the one who asked. Can you imagine? Taxpayer money going to feed crooks.”

Rae-Ann didn’t answer. She swept his money into her palm and handed him his change. She didn’t know what to say. “Thanks, Dwayne. Hope you have a good day.” He picked up his packages and rushed through the door. The two guys from the back added packs of spearmint gum to their cartons of milk and orange juice. They shrugged. “What the fuck is eating him?” They watched him race out of the parking lot. Rae-Ann began to check her inventory before the next wave of customers entered. Dwayne always left a sour taste in her mouth. She wondered if he beat his wife, and began to arrange a display of corn chips at the front door.

Recently, there had been several closings along Highway 85, a fish and tackle and a beauty supply. She had talked to their owners. “We can’t afford to stay open.” They were apologetic. “Time to sell everything and pull up stakes.” As the unofficial head of the Merchant’s Association, Rae-Ann took this as a personal failure. This couldn’t be good. For fifty years, a whole half-century, her family had called Hentsbury home, a place that had grown up around one of the oldest paper mills in the south. The community had benefitted from Rand-Atlantic. Earl always had hoped that through their own dumb business luck, they would be in a position to help others thrive and build a community together, a place where families would buy homes and raise children. She loved Hentsbury. She had lived there for her entire life.

One of Rae-Ann’s favorite pastimes as a youngster had been to walk with her Aunt DeeDee over a bridge, its stone face always cool in summer. She would stand there holding her aunt’s hand looking down into the water, brown and steamy as it rushed beneath their feet; then her aunt told her the story of Billy Goat Gruff and how that was him, (right there, see?) a troll, creating a smelly steam cloud over the Mud River because he wanted to stop them from crossing his bridge (trip-trap-trip-trap).

“What’s a troll Aunt DeeDee?”

“An ugly selfish little man with scaly hands. He lives right down there.”

Rae-Ann peered inside the churning water. “Really?” Later on in life she found out that Aunt DeeDee’s husband had run away with an exercise instructor from Anytime Fitness, and afterward, had always referred to him as that troll.

“Uh-huh. And let me tell you something else.” Rae-Ann adored her aunt. She made her own chocolate-marshmallow ice cream every July Fourth and had crocheted Rae-Ann a hat for her birthday in her favorite color, blue. Her aunt lived on the Mud River in a small wood-shingled house with a fireplace and a garden of daisies. “If you listen carefully, you can hear the troll sing:

“Well, come along! I’ve got two spears,

And I’ll poke your eyeballs out at your ears;

I’ve got besides two curling-stones,

And I’ll crush you to bits, body and bones.

Her aunt sung the part of the troll in a high-pitched, scary voice. “And let me tell you something else…If Domino (that was her dog), ever gets covered with fleas during the summer, you bring her here and let her run around for a spell in the water. Want to know what will happen? Every one of those fleas will jump off because they’ll be afraid of the troll.” And then her aunt laughed a scary troll laugh: brah-hah-hah-hah.

–to be continued

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Rae-Ann, the Trusted One (2)

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Every morning after she had switched on the lights and turned up the thermostat of the Half & Half, she thanked Earl for taking care of her. He had been a good man; all the store regulars had mailed her condolence cards with bouquets on the front of silver and violet flowers that she arranged along the fireplace mantle and touched each one as she walked in circles from the living room to the kitchen in a mute daze in those first few months following his death. Some of her friends brought by baskets of fruit, a hand-crocheted blanket, a book of daily prayers. But her favorite gift was a kitten from her best friend Marie “so you won’t be alone.”

She named the kitten Whiskers which she knew wasn’t original, but she wasn’t feeling creative—the obvious would have to do. Whiskers was an orange and white tabby who liked to hide behind the kitchen curtains and attack her feet every time she walked by. “You little scamp,” she’d pick him up by the fur on his neck and scratch the white fur of his belly. “What am I going to do with you?” She always did the same thing—gave him a hug and placed him back on the ground until the kitten’s attention was distracted by a crumb rolling on the kitchen floor, or by some fly that had gotten past the screen door.

Whenever the phone rang, she jumped. “Hello, darling,” she’d tell her youngest who had called from Virginia where she was now living with her husband. “How’s everything?” Everything was fine, and her daughter gave her an up-to-date report about their latest purchase, a TV screen that took up almost an entire wall of their living room, but reminded her mother how their living room was really very small. “Congratulations,” said Rae-Ann. “I see lots of football games in your future.”

“Oh Mom. You’re such a card.”

The older girl was in Atlanta trying her hand at opening a free trade import-export business. Every few months Rae-Ann received a package from her in the mail, the latest being a bowl from a women-owned factory in Palestine decorated in symmetrical blue and green diamonds. If her daughter were anything like her daddy, she’d be a raving success. “Be patient. It takes time,” Rae-Ann would tell her. “Always listen to your customers.” She was sure the girls would do fine, which is what she always had told Earl. But after their father died, they wanted her to move so she would be closer. Her youngest said she had an extra room. “It’s not a problem. Just think about it, Mom. Please. You can move in.” As tempting as her offer was, Rae-Ann knew better than to weigh down her daughter and son-in-law at the start of their married lives together with her own baggage. No, she’d stay in Hentsbury. There was the Half & Half to keep going. Of course, a group of investors wanted to buy her out, but what else would she do? Besides, her customers needed her. Like this morning when she left the house extra early because there was a big shipment of beer coming in at 5:30am.

She felt her way through the darkness, colder in the winter months especially after an ice storm, slipped on her work shoes before switching on the light. Her other shoes from home hurt her feet, especially after standing on cement for ten hours. But she wasn’t alone by herself. A few people relieved her around lunch and after the first mill shift in the evening, the same people who had worked for Earl–Patsy who was getting close to retirement age and wanted to spend more time at home with her husband who had been diagnosed with diabetes. She talked to Rae-Ann about recipes for people with diabetes, had even convinced her to develop a section in the grocery filled with sugarless candies, cookies, and coffee cakes, which had become very popular. Confidentially, Patsy had told Rae-Anne that the doctor had a long talk with her husband, a consultation at the hospital, saying he had to stop drinking a pint of gin every day and if he didn’t, he’d probably end up with a liver problem in addition to everything else that was wrong.

People trusted Rae-Ann. She was good about keeping their secrets. She knew about the pastor’s wife, Eudora Franklin, who had cornered Rae-Ann at the back of the store one summer afternoon while Patsy was working the cash register. For some reason, Eudora blurted out how she had become pregnant at thirty-five years old with their fifth child, and never told her husband about the abortion. He was pastor of Living River, the largest Baptist church in town and also a staunch pro-lifer, but it’s not like she wasn’t one herself; she pressed Rae-Ann’s hand. “You have to understand, it’s not like I wanted to do that,” and bit her lower lip looking down at the display of Slim-Jims and raising her eyes back to Rae-Ann again. Eudora explained how she had been pregnant almost every two years since she had been twenty-four and was getting plum wore out—plus having kids was expensive and even though she believed that our Lord, Jesus Christ, would’ve helped her to find her way, the way he always did; she already had asked him for guidance on four separate occasions and was feeling greedy about being at the head of the line again while others were waiting patiently behind her. It wouldn’t be a Christian thing to hog all the attention just because she was the pastor’s wife. “Do you understand?” She asked, holding onto a cold bottle of ginger ale from the freezer to help settle her stomach, a woman as thin as a stalk of corn with the same color hair.

Rae-Ann thought that if Eudora actually had become pregnant with another baby, she might have disappeared altogether, or become a walking bubble of a belly. “Pastor Franklin can’t know nothing about this,” she said, realizing that she had spilled her guts to the owner of Earl’s Half & Half, a woman who had taken care of most of the church’s infants while they were growing up. “Nothing,” she whispered, clutching the frosted bottle to her side and giving Rae-Ann a hug. “If the church board found out, he might never be able to preach again.” With that, she spun around with her head held high, and walked to the cash register where Patsy rung her up for one dollar and fifty-seven cents.

–to be continued

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Portrait of Rae-Ann

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She got in the van and finished putting on her lipstick, something she rarely did in the car, but Mondays gave her an extra oomph. Of course, all her best friends shook their heads, “Just wait. Give it another year and you’ll wish you were back home again.” But it had been two years since Earl had died and still she wasn’t tired of running Earl’s Half & Half, the variety store her husband of thirty years had built up at the crossroads of two trucking routes. The store had begun as a coffee bar, a place for truckers to buy their morning cup and a pastry. She baked lemon, banana, and pumpkin breads, cutting them into thick slices at one dollar apiece. It was all the same recipe with the addition of different fruit and flavorings. They flew out of the store. Earl’s customer’s kept asking for more—gum, chips, cigarettes, magazines, then canned goods, sandwiches for the road, fried chicken wings, pizza, and of course, sodas to wash it all down. The store expanded. Earl carefully nursed the bottom-line until his big day came: he was able to afford a liquor license. Earl’s Half & Half was located on the border of Louisiana and Arkansas. The liquor half was in the state of Louisiana, the grocery half, in Arkansas. The big joke was you could go from one state to another in less time than it took to sign your name.

Since Hentsbury was located in a dry county, everyone heading up to Arkansas stopped at the Half & Half to buy beer. It was also a destination for people to do the same thing on the trip out. A man delivered beer every morning and stacked cases that almost reached to the light fixtures. The place was a goldmine. By closing time, the cases had been reduced from six to one deep. The store had allowed them to put both daughter’s through college and now the girls were grown and out of the house. But five years ago, Earl had been diagnosed with a rare blood disease. It wasn’t leukemia. At least that would’ve been treatable. Rae-Ann stood by his side and watched him sicken, die, and then leave a shell of himself on a white hospital bed. When she held his hand for the last time; it felt hollow.

She threw herself into the store. For Rae-Ann, work was an adventure, even fun. She never knew what was going to happen. But it was more than that. Her customers were family. They had been coming to the store for years. She enjoyed updates about their kids, and grandkids, invitations to church dinners and fishing tournaments. Apart from the regulars, there were always other people passing through, people from Wildlife and Fisheries checking on stands of loblolly pine, hunters and fisherman, nephews and grandnieces coming back to visit their families. She collected their reports and distributed them like bags of corn chips with whatever else they bought. Spending her day behind the cash register gave her energy. In all truthfulness, it was weekends she didn’t like, hanging around the house and being reminded of Earl: the leather recliner in the living room where he watched TV, his copy of Hawaii by James Michener, a place he took her once for a vacation, and the framed photographs with his arm draped around her shoulder.

Her friends had insisted that she get away for a girlfriend weekend and kidnapped her (we won’t take no for an answer) to Hot Springs, Arkansas where they rented a cabin and decided what to do each day: manicures, pedicures, and long soaks in the mineral waters that made her skin tingly. When she passed by a mirror in a dressing room, she was embarrassed by what she saw: an attractive woman who could’ve passed for ten years younger than her actual fifty-three, a fringe of bangs and shoulder-length hair that she dyed a light cocoa, her body plump but not out-of-shape, and still able to fill out a pair of jeans with dignity. Rae-Ann wondered if she should feel guilty about looking good only six months after Earl had passed; he had been thin and grey in his coffin, a man who in his prime had weighed three hundred pounds.

They had met in high school. He was a member of the football team and always surrounded by a gaggle of girls who reached up his waist. He was always a big man. She had sat next to him in Biology in her junior year. On the first day of class, they walked into Mrs. Connors’ room, looked at each other, and sat down. It was a comfort, an immediate ahhh without anything being said except, “Hi. What’s your name?”

“Rae-Ann.”

“Mine’s Earl.” And that was that. They went to church pancake breakfasts together, on special evenings went to the movies, and when Earl graduated and began running the front desk of his father’s storage facility, he asked her to get married. There was nothing to think about. She said yes. They bought a house on a main road leading into town. After the girls were born, she realized their house had a great location—many cars drove by their lawn every day to the mill.

She decided to open a day care to make extra money and also to be able to stay home with her girls. Her own mother didn’t live close by. Her parents had been divorced for years. She figured maybe some of the other moms in town were in the same situation. She put a large blue sign in her yard that said Day Care with a picture of Tinker Bell touching a sparkling wand to the word Care, and ran an advertisement for a few weekends in the Penny Saver. She ran her business out of the house for years, set up a screened area on the back porch where the babies could play in the summer, and when her girls got older, they helped to watch them in the afternoon so she could go to the Half & Half for a few hours and give Earl a hand.

But after twenty years of running the day care, she decided to start worrying about her own health—it seemed like she always had a cold or sore throat, catching whatever the toddlers had. Plus, snacks were getting more expensive and she didn’t think she could raise her rates once again to cover costs. Even so, all the moms cried. “We’ll never find another place like yours,” and for that, she felt grateful. She loved all her children, had watched them grow up, and loved to receive phone calls and their latest news.

She’d tell Earl over dinner, “I heard from Cynthia. Remember her?” But by the time Earl had become sick, she’d hadn’t worked for several years, had converted the patio into a greenhouse where she grew tuberous begonias with glossy green leaves and orange and pink blossoms. And even though most of her days were now spent at the Half & Half, she continued to look after them. They were her children as much as the babies had been.

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