by Robyn Wilde
a story about childhood and the devil.
I shall call myself Winter. That might not exactly be my name, which is Winifred, but it is the timbre of my name. It is the soul of it, for I remember it as my favorite time of year when a child. The world came into me as the season reflected my inner days and shone the hope of my stark nights. Yes, earth transformed into a silent, secretive place where magic lurked, and so may as well have giants and ogres and other mundane things. Winter dusted everything with gloom, and oh that gloom was bright with light as sharp as the light of my mind. I still remember the hickory smell of the ornamented woods behind our house, clad with splashes of color where the crabapple trees grew...bright red fruit too sour to eat, some of summer yellow. Those yellow crabapple trees looked old to me, and stodgy. I thought they must be ancient, surely the oldest trees by far in the ornamented woods. I swear those trees remembered the first sunrise that ever rose over the hills and dales of Chatham County. They remembered the sacred orchard where the partridge played with the unicorn. They brought summer, my cousin Sandy said when she came to visit us. They stored it in their roots all winter and let it run like sap in the spring when the trees flower. Then came the summer. In Chatham County, anything could happen in the summer.
Anything at all.
Now the summer belongs to the Devil, as any southerner can tell you. He comes to visit in the spring and sits himself down on a porch swing and watches the traffic. Then as the summer starts to roll around, he gets out his pocket watch and goes to call on folks. Then it's high time to worm the kids and out comes the tonic water. At least, it did in my day. Every season had its cures, its headaches and its heartaches. I knew all of them. In my day, people still got childhood diseases like measles, mumps, chicken pox. I got all these, plus scarlet fever and mononucleosis. Seemed every time my mother turned around, I was sick again. People talked about how the air carried disease, and children wore long sleeves, even in the wilting season. My brother Willy and I got shots for diptheria, malaria, typhoid and tetanus. Jonas Salk invented a cure for polio to be handed out in sugar cubes in public schools across the country. The common cold struck, a possible byproduct of germ warfare with the communists, some thought. It was followed by the flu. Both diseases had been thought wiped out. The American Medical Association announced that there was no cure for the common cold. Every year introduced a new strain of flu. Cancer fatalities rose at an alarming rate.
People talked about the Devil. It was all the work of the Devil.
I believed, and I feared the shadows hanging on the back of my closet door in the night.
Now the Devil likes the heat. Summers sweat heat in the South and speak with weather. You never know where the wind comes from that time of year. It just comes suddenly, as does the lightning, and then is gone. My paternal grandmother's temperament was much the same. I remember her as a gracious lady from the Deep South, Mississippi, to be exact. Memories of her linger still in quiet corners of my mind and always will. I may have forgotten a great deal in my life. I may have left myself behind in shadows, in cobwebs and dark closets, in cellars or attics, my memory gone, seemingly forever at one time. My grandmother, I never did forget.
Bess, they called her, a woman of quiet dignity, iron will, and firm insistence on propriety. The times I spent with her while growing up, I knew as comforting. Bess reminded me of the old hymn How Firm a Foundation. She once told me it was her favorite hymn. I thought her made of iron. When I learned that such a thing as steel existed, I thought of my grandmother. Bess was not made of steel, I knew, but she would be if she could. Me? Not even iron. As I told Grandmother one day, I wasn't even tough enough to grow up normal.
"Yes, you are," Bess insisted, spluttering over her hot tea. "Don't you tell me you're a wounded bird. I'm not going to have a wounded bird in this family. If you're not tough enough, then you'd better just get that way. It's a big world out there. What are you going to do? Hide from it all your life?"
"Probably," I said, munching on a cucumber sandwich. "I'm not tough at all, Bess. I'll have to hide. Would you please never die, so I can stay here with you?"
"Oh nonsense." Bess waved her napkin in the air and spilled her tea. "Don't put ideas in my head. I'll actually try to do it. You know I can't live forever. It would be against the law. We'd never get away with it. I have to be old and die, even God says so."
I clenched my fists in my lap, well hidden under the dining table, and blinked back tears. It wouldn't do to cry now. She'd think I was a baby. Nor did Bess tolerate any weaknesses exhibited by morbid displays of tawdry emotion. I opened my mouth to say something mature, and a whine came out. "Please don't die. What will I do? Will you leave me a lot of money so I can hide?" I felt my face flush red. She gave me such a look that I knew it a sensible matter to be humiliated by myself.
"No I'm not going to leave you a lot of money," she said. "I know what I'll do. I'll help you toughen up."
The crystal goblets Bess had set out for our water shook as my foot thumped against the table leg. "How?"
Bess gripped the table with both hands like a helmsman at the wheel of a ship. "I'll think of a way. God will help. Do you believe?"
I nodded my head in the affirmative.
"Good. So do I." With a grim look and a glitter in her eye, Bess stepped into her small kitchen and returned with a cold bottle of soda pop. "Would you mind cleaning up my spilt tea? You can have this to drink when you're through. I have a little headache, and I think God is trying to tell me it's time for a talk. So I'm going to go lie down for awhile before your grandfather comes home."
I cleaned up the spilled tea and stacked the lunch dishes by the sink. The pop tasted sweet and bubbly and came in a green bottle. I pretended I drank champagne straight out of the bottle and wondered what it would be like to be drunk. I'd seen my parents that way a few times, and they always looked happier then, not something to tell Bess, I knew. I debated whether or not I should wash the dishes. I didn't feel lazy, exactly. I didn't feel well. I never felt well. She isn't blessed with health, the doctor had said about me, but I can't find anything particular wrong with her either.
The debate became ferocious in my head, and I worried myself and my stomach into a state, until Bess returned. "Oh Winnie," she said, her slow drawl tight with disapproval. "You didn't wash the dishes."
"I know, Grandmother," I said, hating the whine that crept into my voice. "I was afraid I'd break something."
"Your cousin Sandy would have had the dishes done in a jiffy, and we'd sit and talk and talk." Bess sighed and waved her hands in the air. "Never mind. I'll do it."
As we stood side by side over a sink full of soap suds, I looked up at Bess and smiled weakly. "Am I a disappointment?"
"Yes, child," she murmured. "You're a disappointment."
Now some will tell you the Devil's a Black Man. I'll tell you that back then in the early 60s he hadn't grown up yet, and that Black boy suddenly standing beside me in the kitchen whispered, "No time like the present to cry...lazy."
"This ain't none of your business," I replied with my silent mind. Bess was giving me a sidelong look. She could have eyes like a falcon.
"Who are you," I asked, "and what are you doing here in a white kitchen?"
"It ain't the kitchen that's white, stupid, it's you."
"I'm not stupid."
A plate slipped between my fingers, and I caught it. The wet porcelain squeaked under my skin as I took a towel to dry it. "I'm sorry I'm a disappointment, Grandmother. I just didn't know what would make you mad."
"You shouldn't worry about what will make people angry," Bess said as she placed the cups in the draining rack. "And don't say mad. Say angry. You should make people happy."
I looked around and that Black youth was sitting at the little table in the kitchen where Grandfather liked to eat his breakfast. "How come I can see you?"
"Because you want to," he said.
"No I don't."
"Yes you do, or you wouldn't."
"How do I know you're there? I mean how do I know you're not my imagination?" "You don't. I know you're there. So you see me."
"Are you colored, or are you the Devil?" He laughed, swept a cap off his head and bowed. "I will leave you to wonder, but I'm really the devil." "Winter..." It was Bess' voice pulling at me, drawing me back into the outer world where she and all the hard people lived. She looked down at me with a look on her face that disgusted me, like she wanted to pick at my naked bones. "Do you ever hear voices, like people talking in your head, or outside your head?"
I felt my mouth slip open and my tongue slide across my teeth. My throat went dry. "No, ma'am," I said. "That would be wrong."
"Well, I don't know that it would be wrong, if you couldn't help it. Now, if you could help it, of course, you would be beholden to. We mustn't invite the spirits to tamper with our lives. Life brings enough trouble without that. Spiritism it's called. It's nothin' but that, and you can find yourself talkin' to all kinds of trash. You just cut it out, Winter. And that's enough of this silly nickname. Winifred is your name, and Winifred you shall be. Tell your little invisible friends to go away. You can't play, and you are never going to play again. Oh Winnie, real life is so much more important than hiding out with evil spirits. Good things can happen. You got to believe that. Give life a chance. Chase the voices away. Let the sunshine in."
She led me out of the kitchen with her knowing look and her inscrutable smile.
"How do you make people happy?" I asked, following her down the hall. I thought the question would appease her.
"You give them a reason to be," she said, and settled into her chair in the parlor. I sat in Grandfather's chair, and we both got out our knitting. "Just think how happy your Grandfather would be," she said, "if you were to dedicate yourself and your time to real life, instead of these spirits of yours."
"I can't make people happy. I've never been happy."
Grandmother's glasses hung on a chain round her neck, and she placed them on her nose. "Then try being unselfish and make others happy anyhow."
"I don't know what happy is."
"You can look it up in the dictionary. It means to feel good about something."
"I know what the dictionary says. It's an elated or euphoric feeling, a sense of well being, but those are just black and white words. I have never had a sense of well being and do not know what elation or euphoria would be like. I cannot conceive of these things and have no inkling of how to give these feelings to others."
"Child, you're saying you've never known a happy moment? You literally do not know what happiness is?" Bess put down her knitting and stared at me.
"Tell me, Grandmother. Tell me what happiness is." "Now you are being mean on purpose," she snapped. "It is not nice to mock your grandmother. I am sorry I said you are a disappointment. I didn't mean for you to take it so hard. I say that sort of thing to Sandy all the time, and she doesn't take it seriously at all."
"I bet she does," I shouted. "I can't make people happy like Sandy does. I can't make you happy either. I don't know how. I'm not like other people. I'm not normal. I want to be normal."
"Winifred, don't talk like this. You go in the other room and play."
I choked on a stray sob that had wondered up from my chest to the back of my mouth. "You got a secret," I said, low and soft. "Everybody's got a secret about me. I want to know what it is." I realized my outburst had worked perfectly for this. Everything led up to this golden opportunity so beautifully, I must have planned it in my sleep. "I need to know, Grandmother. Why don't I have any memory? I need to know."
The Devil, that lanky Black youth, appeared behind Bess. He folded his arms and looked at me. "I'm impressed. "
Bess went white, looking at me. Her body went limp where she sat in her own shadow. Her mouth opened, and she stared at me with her watery hazel eyes. "I know, child. Oh I know, but I can't." She pointed to a pendulum clock on the wall. "Hear that clock ticking? You just calm down and listen to that clock now. Oh, darling I'd do anything for you to help you, I would, but your parents wouldn't approve, and they got a court order. My hands are tied, no matter how much I disapprove of what's been done to your life. I can't tell you a thing, or I'd go to jail. I've endangered myself just telling you that much, so you just listen to the clock now. Here, sit down, and I'll go get your jacks."
"I don't want to sit down." I balled my hands into fists and tried to stop my lip from quivering. "No jacks. No jacks."
"Now you listen to me, and you remember I said this, and if you forget it, you remember it again someday. You hear me? You remember it again someday. Your words can be sharp and can do harm, but your actions are kind. At heart, you are an exceptionally gentle child, especially considering the way you are handled. Nor would you ever even harm a housefly. I told them that myself. I want you to know your grandfather and I spent two nights in jail over you. But we did not win. We did not win."
Bess raised her chin, and her lip quivered too. "So let's not cry about it."
The jacks weren't far. I knew what to do as I took the red, rubber ball in my hand...to forget.
Now the Devil speaks po' white talk real good, as anybody in the South can. I reckon bout anyone can tell you that. If you catch him at it you're doin' pretty fine. He'll be a little shifty, but He'll be honest with you if you're honest with him. I sometimes think the Devil got a bum rap. We're always blamin' him for everything. The Devil made me do it, people'd say when I was growin' up. I was tempted by the Devil, some preacher'd say, and 'amen' everybody would say. And it would be the Devil's fault, and the entire congregation would be 'white as snow'.
The Devil and me, we got along just fine. I too always got blamed for everything.
Every Sunday, I sat in church with those people who were 'white as snow' and knew they had been 'washed in the blood of Jesus". It left them stainless and made of steel. Some old man even told me that. I sat in a cold pew and practiced good posture, and the Devil sat beside me. That Black youth grew the dark shadow of a Black man. He looked at me and said, "You know you're a nigger, don't you?" "I know I'm a nigger," I said in my silent mind.
"Do you like bein' a nigger?" "No I don't like bein' a nigger. I'm white. I'm not supposed to be one, but I'd rather be a nigger than one of these people."
"I'd rather you were one of these people," he said. "I could hate you real good, then." Tears stung my eyes. Gettin' hated just never came easy to me. "Why do you want to hate me?" "Coz it's personal." He stared off, maybe at Miss Maple's hat with the dead birds on it.
"But you're the Devil. You're the same with everybody."
"Oh no, sweetie. I'm the Lord. I hate you because I gotta damn you."
I could almost taste my heart as it pounded in my mouth. "But I don't want to be damned. I'm already in hell."
"Yeah, you're in hell all right," he said. "You're in hell. I'm in hell. Everybody's in hell. At least you know it. Only the blind call it earth." Then he was up and stalking up the aisle toward the exit. He waved a panama hat at me like some used car salesman on the way to a picnic. He wasn't what I thought the Lord should be like at all, nothing nearly like he should bee, and I felt appalled.
"How do I get out of hell?" I yelled in my mind.
"Oh don't worry," he said. "I gotta damn everybody. As for gettin' out of hell, that's a good question you might ought to ask yourself when you're older. You remember to do that now. If you find the way out, tell me about it. Why I been lookin' for a way out myself. Damned if I ain't stuck here." And that Black man pushed his way on out the doors.
"That was not the Lord," I told myself in disgust. "That was just Old Scratch bein' shifty."
One thing for certain, though, I suffered in hell, and whoever had gone up that aisle had let me know I was going to have to do something about it myself.
I worried about that a great deal. What bothered me was whether or not I had to die to get out of hell. And what if I didn't get out when I died? Damned. I'd be damned for sure.
I had work to do.
The Black man in the panama hat stuck his head back in the auditorium as the preacher bowed his head for the closing prayer. A hush fell over the congregation. "Honey," the Black man said. "I'm glad to see you took it to heart."
"I don't have a heart," I said. "The Devil cut it out, and that's you."
"Now you don't know who I am, do you? I could be the archangel Gabriel standing here, and you wouldn't know it, would you?"
"No you're not," I whispered. "You're the Devil."
Miss Maple looked back with gleaming eyes, and my mother tapped my hand in disapproval.
"Now don't go and break my heart Miss Winnie," the Devil said. "Don't you want to go to Heaven?"
"NO." I made an awful face. "I don't want to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. I don't like blood."
:"I ought to hug you for that," the Black man said. "but I'm gonna leave you in hell instead, and I'm gonna tell you just one thing. He didn't either. He didn't like blood."
I heard a door slam as the Black man left.
Now what the hell did that mean, I asked myself.
The congregation began to sing, the final hymn...The Old Rugged Cross.
He didn't like blood either.
"Welcome," a quiet voice said. I looked and that Black youth sat beside me. I blinked my eyes at him. "Welcome," he said, still real quiet, like a snake, "to the Great Tribulation."
"You mean, it's time?"
He showed the cusp of a tooth. "It's always time."
"What's it about?" "You, Winter. It's all about you."
"Are you the Devil?"
He laughed. "Why? You want my autograph?" I considered then that maybe the Devil was more dangerous than I had realized. Maybe hell did go on forever. Maybe it was your whole life, and your life could be all there was to hell. I turned and faced the podium. As I started singing, horror clawed at my chest. Had God just let me know that the rest of my life would be hell? Yes, I knew. Without ceremony, I had been flung into my own tribulation. I would run the race, I decided, just like St. Paul.
"Oh everybody runs the race," a voice rattled in my head, "but nobody wins it. In the end, nobody wants to." Tragic laughter screamed out overhead. "You wait and see. You won't be any different. Then again, maybe you will. Someone important is betting on you. See you in the future, kid."
I smelled the Sunday dust of many hymnals as people put them away, and I faced the aisle where they gathered. So what was the race?
"It's the race for eternal life," a voice answered, high and urgent. "Do you want it?"
I shrugged and chewed on my lip, two things I wasn't supposed to do. Something bothered me. I didn't want to answer that question. How frightening to know an answer was expected. Not wanting to give one, I set my mind to work. How to get out of it...givin' an answer to that question about eternal life, and keepin' out of hell, wasn't that what life was all about?
I'll tell you something I ain't never told anybody...they say Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden, and we been sinners ever since. Well, I've known old folk who'd tell you the original apple tree was the crabapple tree. So it must have been the tree in the Garden, and it's fruit turned sour when we sinned. That loving old tree left the Garden with us, and it bears fruit even in the winter. It's still here, you see...all this time. Maybe some things are meant to last forever. I reckon I'm okay as long as there are crabapple trees, making flowers in the spring and bearing fruit into winter.
It was later that night I thought to give consideration to that question of eternal life. See, I dreamed of crabapple trees in the winter, red and white and pink...ancient beyond bearing. I was laughing.
I knew a secret.
You want to live forever? I did that night I slept in Grandmother's guest room and watched headlights from the street query the darkness. I thought it just might be possible.
Green, wet and lazy, summers are lush affairs in the South. Let it rain on an extra hot day, and steam rises from the ground. You know the Devil is angry. The Devil's wife is makin' soap, I used to say to no one in particular. Talking to thin air was a bad habit of mine, but you never knew who might be listening. The invisible world pressed upon me with seeming no end, even though Bess swore it would shorten my life. If you listened to Bess, spiritists came to no good end.
One blazing afternoon, the sky as clear as crystal, I walked the seventeen blocks to my grandparents' apartment, my friend Hank in tow. You might have said Hank wasn't the best lookin' person you ever saw, with his wild hair stickin' out all over. But back in that day, I'd have told you he was worth more than the president and had a bigger heart. His last name was Terrier. He wore a brown coat everywhere he went, and he couldn't take it off no matter how hot it got or how angry the Devil. So Hank, he had his cross to bear, and his tongue was always hanging out. He stood thirteen inches tall and had a stubby tail that had been docked, because my mother slammed the car door on it when he was a puppy. Oh Hank, how you suffered.
Hank was not one of Bess' favorite people. She merely tolerated him, and subjected him to disapproving looks throughout the afternoon as she treated me to tea, served with bite-sized cakes she called petit fours. I sat straight in my chair and used my best manners. Supping with Bess was like supping with the Queen, and one could imagine grandeur at its haughtiest. Hank sat by my leg with a paw on my foot, eyes moving from hand to mouth, as I learned that you must never eat more than two petit fours. It would be most piggish. Just one would be preferred for a lady.
I ate two.
"Now this is green tea," Bess told me as she poured my cup. "Not as much flavor as orange pekoe, I don't think, but it's becoming popular these days. They say it's good for you. I thought I'd try it. I don't really like it, though. What do you think?"
My eyes shone.
"Well, I see you like it. I'll give you the rest of this box. You can take it home and share it with your mother." She put down her cup and let it grow cold as the shadows of the day lengthened. "Now spiritists never come to a good end, Winter. I had a friend when I was a girl, not all that much older than you...Ida Mae Cunningham. She was a spiritist. She took real pride in it, Ida did. She was always hearing voices, night and day. The spirits wouldn't leave her alone for a minute. Why, Ida knew all sorts of things, with no way of knowing them, so's you'd think she was a genius. I know I thought so. I thought she was a genius. Then one day, Ida went mad. The spirits drove her that way, don't you know? They drove her mad, with all those voices and those visions.
:"They have a new word for it these days, a big, ugly word...schizophrenia. You ever hear that word? From your mother or your father? From anyone else?"
I shook my head. I'd heard the word before, but I couldn't remember where.
"They say it's a mental illness," Bess shoved her teacup aside. "But it's spiritism, plain as that, and it does drive some people mad...the gifted ones, the geniuses. It's like a fire that consumes them. It burns up their souls, and it can carry them, mad, off into other realms." She took her spoon and stirred the dregs of her cup. "If you go away, Winter, what are you going to do?"
I stood and stretched, seeing the sun slip behind the upper clouds beyond the gauzy lining of the drapes. "Write books," I said.
"Write books?" Bess huffed a disdainful breath. "Oh come now, Winifred, surely you can find better to do with yourself than put words on paper and create trashy novels. Writers are like prostitutes. They sell themselves on every page. You are not going to whore yourself in this family."
I spluttered. Had my grandmother called me a whore? Did she think so little of me? Quick, I had to say something intelligent. I had to prove writers to be superior. "So maybe I'll want to write nonfiction?" I inwardly cringed. Nonfiction bored me.
Bess chuckled. "Nonfiction? Why that never did anybody any good. That stuff is all lies. It's all 10% lies and 90% ego. That's what your grandfather always says."
"T-that's n-not true," I said, furious that my face was burning. My eyes stung.
"Well what are you going to write about? You don't know anything," Bess said.
"I can learn, can't I?" I shouted.
"No shouting in my house." Bess raised a warning finger, her index finger of iron. "And what are you going to learn about?"
"I could learn about schizophrenia."
"I'm afraid you are learning about schizophrenia, and the hard way."
"Grandmother..." I picked at the tablecloth, until Bess' disapproving stare stopped me. "Why am I schizophrenic?"
"Who says you are?" she replied. "Don't you go telling your parents I'm calling you schizophrenic. I've done no such thing. As for spiritism, some people just attract the spirits. No one knows why, I don't believe. Maybe they like pretty souls. Ida Mae was pretty and very feminine."
"I think it's pain," I said in my blunt, matter of fact way. "I think pain attracts them."
Bess sighed and picked up her teacup. "If you want to write about schizophrenia, go ahead and do so, but you won't make much money at it." She set the cup down and picked up her napkin to dab at her chin. "I do believe I am having one of my dizzy spells. You sit here in your grandfather's chair in case I need you. I best go lay down for a little while, Winter darling. When I arise, I'll drive you and Hank there home. I don't want you to miss supper."
Hank had more to him than the average dog. I could tell that by his eyes, so dark and so full of personality. Those eyes knew things. More'n that, those eyes thought about things, things most dogs only touched on in dreams and then forgot. I told him everything. For years, I told him everything, and he watched me with deep regard. He watched every fleeting expression that crossed my face, from time to time, with such perceptiveness that he could be almost scary he looked so smart. Even my mother said Hank had a winning personality, and she didn't like dogs. He was always cheerful, even when he had a broken heart, just in case you needed him. And when I sat lost in my spirit world, those eyes, they watched, and that mind, it thought deep thoughts. Sometimes, I thought maybe Hank heard voices too.
"You think I'm mentally ill?" I asked Hank one day as we sat on a fallen log in the ornamented woods behind our house. "I think that's a crazy thing to be," I said, and I let a little dry laughter slip out my throat. It sounded bitter. I realized how very bitter I felt. Perhaps bitterness was all there was. Perhaps some people just got so bitter they got sick in the head compared to normal people, and they were the mentally ill. I didn't like that I was more bitter than normal people.
I had brought my lunch box with me. It opened, and Hank eagerly accepted the knuckle bone my mother wrapped in it for him. I unwrapped a pimento cheese sandwich. We dined in style. "I got it figured, Hank," I said between bites. "Ain't nobody livin' like we do. Now, Grandmother Bess, she's kind of a friend and kind of not a friend. She wants us to be normal, but I been thinkin', and I don't know if I can be. That makes her kind of not a friend, because I don't think she approves of people who are not normal. Are you normal, Hank?" I squinted one eye and lowered my eyebrow over it.
He made a throaty sound over his bone.
"Now to some people, Hank, we're just a couple of schizophrenics, a couple of mentally ill people who are going to go mad some day."
He made his worrisome noise over his bone and didn't seem to be listening, but I knew he was. I knew he was listening hard and taking this very serious.
"To Bess," I continued, "it's a matter of the spirits. We attract the spiritual world. In which case, I ain't mentally ill, Hank. I'm just in Hell. I am more tuned in to the way of the spirit than most people. I should take this matter of The Great Tribulation seriously and either save my soul or lose it." I looked down at Hank, almost expecting an answer. "Maybe I got to lose it to save it."
Salvation, a big, long word...everybody knew it. Everybody swore they had it. All they had to do was believe in a name, and something like a miracle happened. "Then they never get drunk," I muttered, and my eyes shifted in my head. "Or do they, Hank? No not them, not the white as snow people. The snow whites never go out drinking or sneak booze in the back closet. Just what is salvation anyway? What's it good for...a free pass?" I pulled my thermos out of my lunch box and twisted the cup off the top. "Look Hank. I got apple wine. Let's get drunk. I poured the golden liquid into my cup and grinned. "Never you mind. You're too young. I'll just have to drink it all. It's good anyway, tastes like apple cider."
Sin burned under my skin as I drank the wine that day. Never before had I done such a thing. It weren't such a bad thing to do, I told myself. Anything that tasted like apple cider couldn't be that bad for you. I drank it with shaky hands, though, and even the Devil disapproved. That lanky youth appeared by an old tree and watched me, his arms folded over his chest. A blue jay sat on his shoulder. You hardly see them anymore. I don't know where they've all gone. When I was a girl, blue jays were pests. Too many of them, people said.
"You shouldn't be doin' that," the Black youth said, and a shadow passed over his face.
"It's all right," I replied. "People like my parents do it. They ain't too grown up for it. This is kid stuff."
"No it isn't," he said. "It's suicide."
"I think I'll forget you said that." An odd, swimming feeling reeled around in my head.
"You better go home before you fall off a log," he said.
I guzzled down the last of the wine and wiped my mouth like some cowboy on a western movie. "I want to talk," I said.
"See this blue jay," he replied. "It's dead. It's just a spirit, and so am I. Think I died. Think I died from drinking. You do the same, you stupid ass."
I found myself alone, except for Hank, who gave me an impertinent look. "What are you lookin' at, Hank? You know what I think? I don't think that's the Devil after all. There's just too many comin's and goin's around here. So who was that Black man in church, the one with the hat...the one who said he was the Lord? Lordy, Hank, you don't suppose...?" I needed to relieve myself, and not just in a little way, in an awful way. "I don't think I can make it to the house." With Hank standing guard, I used the nearby undergrowth. "I sure hope this ain't poison oak." Hank took his sentry duty so seriously he raised the alarm at a squirrel on a nearby branch, and I tumbled over onto my backside. "I bet you think this is funny, don't you?"
I still cared enough about him to clean ants off his bone.. "You see, I got it figured, Hank," I said, as he lay at my feet, his nose on his paws. "The snow whites are in just as much trouble as we are. And we are in trouble if this is The Great Tribulation. Damned, Hank. We're all gonna be damned." Hank whined and fixed his big browns on me as I held his bone up over him. "And here's heaven, up over our heads, just out of reach, like bird bait." Lifting a finger of my other hand, I could not draw away his attention from the meaty bone except for a lip-lickin' moment. "Now the Book says only 144,000 get to go to heaven. So what about all the rest of us? We gotta have a plan. Good Lord offers everybody heaven, but for a rich man, it's like trying to pass through the eye of a needle. I guess that's pretty damn impossible. He was just sayin' no way you gonna be able to do it. And a po' man, heck, he can't afford it. Heaven's got streets paved with gold and jewels. Shoot, I bet they don't even have a McDonald's. You think a po' man is gonna be able to get in? And no scruffy little dog like you is goin' to be walkin' on the grass. We're losers, Hank, but all a loser needs is a winning plan."
Before Hank could move quick enough to protest, I packed his bone in my lunch box. It locked tight, and we headed toward the house. My steps unsteady and a buzzing in my ears, I thumped my chest with my fist. "I'm gonna make a plan."
We climbed a rise onto the lawn, and I saw him. That lanky Black youth stood looking out the window of the back door. I slowed to a stop and dropped my lunch box. Hank did a dance on it.
"I'll be here in the shadows," the youth said, "watching you."
"I'm not gonna do it," I said. "I'm not gonna wonder who you are. I know you want me to, but I'm not gonna." I looked around, shivering in the sweltering heat. "I'm gonna be normal."
I knew then, knew I could get lost, like following a road and coming to a crossroads without any signs. Sure, you could keep on going straight, but what if that road just kept going on and on and on and never went anywhere. You could turn to one side, and what if you saw some interesting things, but nothing ever happened. You could turn around and go back, but what if you got stoned. You'd stay lost without signposts. You'd never know your way, and you'd be condemned to wander in circles, not knowing what to do. "It's the not knowin' what to do that'd drive me mad," I told Hank. "I ain't gonna listen." It can't be that hard to be normal, I told myself. Most people are. Sure, I could do it in a pinch.
If I had known then how hard it could be for me to ever be normal in my life, I think I would have, right then and there, drank up all the apple wine in Chatham County.