I hate this house and how sad it makes you in the morning that I am hoping never comes…Lydia, Laugh Before you Grin.
If you don’t know history you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree… Michael Crichton, Timeline.
She drives up in the Trans Am one bright cold December morning, hair loose in the wind, blowing around her face, shadowed by the hard bright sunshine.
I let her in and hang up her coat. She says, Will the car be safe here?
If you locked it. We can keep an eye on it from the living room.
We sit on the sofa and I smile and say, This is how the other half lives.
Is that why you brought me here?
I’ve been practically living in your house. You’ve never even been in mine. It’s only been a few months since they died and when i’m alone here I get moody and strange. I always wanted you to meet grandma but she would’ve called you a whore.
Why would she have called me that?
Nothing personal. It’s just that nobody would’ve been good enough for her little Michael. I hated it that she was like that. If anybody who liked me was a whore, that must mean no girl with any class would want anything to do with me. I always wondered if she’d like you but I didn’t want you insulted.
You’re in a strange mood, she says.
It’s the place, the memories.
You grew up here?
Yes. And I’m going to have to sell it. I cant live here and I cant keep the house up. And i’ll get soaked on the capital gains.
You’re not old enough to sell a house.
That’s a formality. My name’s on the deed.
Daddy will help you with that.
I owe Frank enough favors already, I say. I decide to change the subject and point to a framed picture on the coffee table. That’s my grandmother, I say.
Mattie. What a life she had. She was a nurse at Grady. Knew all the high powered specialists. When I was newborn they found out I had an allergy to milk, any kind of milk. I nearly starved. Then one of those doctors told her to give me rice water. That saved my life. I wanted Mattie to meet you because I wanted her to know that if I need a keeper, which I apparently do, that you could take over and she could die knowing I wasn’t alone.
I nearly died but didn’t because of her. I nearly died but didn’t because of you.
This is strange, she says.
I’m sorry, I say, shaking my head to clear it. I get this way when i’m surrounded by all these old things.
There is an awful sadness in my voice and I have to fight back the tears.
I say, One early memory of Mattie is a summer when we were sitting on that screened in porch out there. Squarehead, Mattie’s mortal enemy next door, was sitting out on her screened in porch, spying on us. Squarehead cant read and she was holding a newspaper in front of her upside down pretending to read it. Mattie yelled, ‘Hey Squarehead! You got the paper bottomside uppards!’ Then Squarehead turned the paper around and her husband walked out onto the porch. Mattie called him Hickeybob. Mattie said, “Well, looky. There’s Hickeybob. Why, why he’s so ugly Squarehead has to put a towel over his face when she fucks him.’
Your grandmother said that in front of you? How old were you?
Eight, I think. Mattie rarely used that word but when she did it was calculated for maximum impact. I think Mattie was born about 1930 but didn’t have my mother until she was pushing 35. I guess she heard some clock ticking. When that picture of her was taken she was about 40. She was walking across the Peters Street viaduct that was over some old RR tracks in what they called underground Atlanta. It’s a posed picture, see? Those black men smiling and waving at the camera? See how Mattie walks across that bridge like she owns it and the city and all the people in it? She was like that. I don’t think anybody could do anything with her when she was that young.
You usually don’t talk this much, Michael, Sherry says.
Well, today I am so please listen. It’s important because…well, it just is, I say, wringing my hands in agitation.
I think Mattie was in senior high during WWII. She was living somewhere there was a seaport and there were all kinds of sailors there. She actually dated a Russian sailor for a while. Let me show you something.
I open a desk drawer and take out a plastic baggie. There’s a small piece of jewelry in the baggie. I remove it and say, Look at this.
There’s a little bit of metal and it glints in the sun coming through the window. It’s a pin. The red hammer, star and sickle of the old USSR.
She handles it delicately. She says, Michael, this is…
It’s an antique or collectible or something. It’s just cheap plastic but it’s irreplaceable.
She gives it back and I put it away. I say, Mattie treasured that pin and so do I. She told me how carefully she hid it during the McCarthy thing. She was afraid they’d lock her up and lose the key. She was a Democrat, a flaming liberal. Back then everybody in the south was a Democrat.
I take a deep breath and go on. I say, there was this prime time call-in radio show called The People Speak. Mattie called in regularly. They never screened the calls back then. There was this guest on the show that worked for Nixon, right before he ran for president against Kennedy. So Mattie called in and said, ‘Do you work for Richard Nixon?’ And he said, ‘Why yes ma’am.’ And Mattie said, ‘Well, your boss is a damn crook.’ They cut her off. She called back and they wouldn’t put her on the air. So she has her husband call and they don’t recognize his voice so they put him on the air. When they put him on she takes the phone and says, ‘By God don’t you ever cut me off like that again. You’re all damn crooks.’ And she hung up on them.
I don’t believe this, she says.
I wasn’t around but Mom and Grandpa told me the same thing. They were all sooo embarrassed. Hey you cant make this up. Did you get the print of that picture I asked for?
Right here, she says and gives it to me.
I love this picture, I say.
About a week ago we’d gone farting around and ended up staying the night at a bed and breakfast up in Deliverance country. Rabun County. It’s a picture of us sitting on a boulder in front of a split rail fence. Beyond the fence was a pasture and horses and behind that looms the mountains. It was bright and bitter that day. She was leaning against me and I had my arm around her and my head to hers and she was smiling sweetly as the wind fluffed out her black, straight hair. We are so cute in this picture it makes you want to take a baseball bat to both of us. America’s sweethearts.
Remember that old hillbilly woman that took this picture, Sherry? She said ‘Yore wife has purty hair.’ She assumed we were married. She didn’t care. Life up there is so harsh those people don’t give a shit. Here, honey. Write something nice on it.
You want me to autograph it?
Yeah. Be creative.
She writes something with a marker and gives it back to me. She drew an old fashioned heart pierced by an arrow and the words ‘All my love, Sherry.’ I get a frame and put the picture in it and set it next to Mattie’s picture. Then I start coughing and choking and the room goes out of focus for a moment.
RU alright, Michael?
Yeah. Not sure what’s wrong. I feel like I’m on the rag or something.
Do you have that pin you were wearing at the airport?
Got it right here, she says, digs it out of her purse and gives it to me. It says ‘My heart belongs to Michael.’
May I keep this? I say.
I stick it on the curtain over the window behind where we’re sitting. She laughs. I say, What’s funny?
You are. The way you look at me sometimes.
Forgive me. Sometimes I cant believe you’re real. You’ve always been too good to be true. Thank you.
The picture and the pin.
As I say this the room blanks out and comes back and I stagger and catch myself on the edge of the desk. I am hyperventilating and feel like the world is coming to an end.
Don’t fall, honey. I cant…
I’m alright. Let’s go to the kitchen. Want to show you something.
I point to a spot on the kitchen wall and say, See that? My grandfather had been dead ten minutes in the Grady ER when Aunt Marie strides in the house and starts cleaning the wall-just moving grease around, really. In the days before the funeral Marie kept trying to provoke my mother. Mom wasn’t very strong or stable to begin with and she’d just lost her father. And Mattie was incapacitated with grief. It must’ve seemed so easy. After a few days my mother snapped and went after Marie with a butcher knife. I just did get to Mom in time and took the knife away from her. Marie was so convinced Mom was yellow she bared her neck at Mom and dared her. Stupid bitch. She didn’t know homicidal rage when she saw it.
I am dizzy again and have to sit. I get a kitchen chair and sit on it ass backwards.
Sherry sits on a chair and takes my hand and says, I’m glad you told me, honey. I had no idea it was like this.
It was always like this, I say with abject sadness. I look at the back door and say, One night here after they died and I was alone I was so stressed I forgot to lock the back door. Middle of the night I hear something and get up and find this black boy about ten going through the trash. I almost shot him.
What did you do?
What could I do? I cooked him a meal, gave him what food I had, and sent him home.
I feel sentimental again thinking about the night we spent at the bed and breakfast up in the hills. I say, Remember that bed and breakfast in the mountains? The horses they had in back? You could ride one for five dollars.
You wouldn’t get on one, she says.
I was afraid it’d throw me and I’d break my neck. You looked great on that horse, Sherry. Wish I’d taken a picture.
She had looked stylish and elegant and a little stuck up. And oh, so hot. And I think, Honey I wish you’d get on me and ride me like that. All night. And I hyperventilate and get dizzy.
I’ve never seen you act like this, MIchael.
Me either, I say. I grab the chair and sit back down.
Now what, she says.
Nothing. Just a dizzy spell.
I think I know what is wrong with me. Panic Disorder. Nothing for it but to stand here and let it happen.
Stay with me tonight, I say.
Don’t worry. The bed’s clean. You wont get crabs.
She laughs and says, I’m not worried about that. Will the car be safe?
Well, okay. You’re such a baby.