The Story of Sassy Sweetwater
Southern Fiction for Women
After thirteen years on the run Violet McLaughlin returns to Carter’s Crossing, South Carolina, in 1962, with her young daughter, Sassy. The Crossing is right outside of Beaufort and the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement will forever leave its scars on the young and impressionable girl.
As Sassy stands before the imposing white farmhouse for the first time, with no knowledge of her history but that the McLaughlin's are her kin, Sassy begins a journey that will tear her apart before it heals her.
Growing up among secrets that will forever damage her relationship with her mother, she attempts to make sense of her past. But will her passion for art and her love for Thomas Tierney be enough to sustain her future?
Will the journey she must take to discover the truth be worth it?
— scroll down to read book sample —
2012 ForeWord INDIE Book of the Year Finalist
“5 out of 5 Clarion Rating. The Story of Sassy Sweetwater is a sparkling debut novel…Cook has penned a sweeping coming-of-age saga that is sure to appeal to fans of romance and drama…an uplifting read.” —Jill Allen for ForeWord Reviews
“I love character-rich books, and The Story of Sassy Sweetwater did not disappoint…Vera Jane Cook has just joined my list of favorite authors.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
”This is a tale woven so carefully, so intricately and so completely, that there isn't a gap or a question as to what just happened or an unsatisfying moment in this story. This story flows along effortlessly. What a joy!” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“What a great read! A dysfunctional family with more skeletons than closet space! A story line that spans the time from hippies to republicans. It was a fun ride. Love it!” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“This book could only be called delightful. Every character is so well drawn that you can almost see them. I enjoyed every minute of reading it. I look forward to reading the next book by this talented author.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The first novel Vera ever wrote, Dancing Backward In Paradise, won an Eric Hoffer Award for publishing excellence and an Indie Excellence Award for notable new fiction, 2007. The Story of Sassy Sweetwater and Dancing Backward in Paradise received 5 Star ForeWord Clarion Reviews and The Story of Sassy Sweetwater has been named a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Awards.
SAMPLE FROM THE STORY OF SASSY SWEETWATER
Mama said I was born by a stream named Sweetwater. She called me Sassy the moment she realized I was a girl. Mama said girls should be sassy, gives them sex appeal. So I was named Sassy, after an attitude, and Sweetwater, after a stream. The year was 1949, and the place was a dirty, backroad shack in a dusty, little town in South Carolina. Mama never could remember the name of the town, but she told me that it might have been Cottageville or maybe even Ridgeville. Didn’t matter much what it was called, though. I never saw it again, and as far as I knew, Mama didn’t either.
Some people think a gray, tumultuous sky is an omen of discontent, especially if one’s entry into this world is shadowed by blustery clouds and thunder’s emphatic roar. But my mama said that heaven welcomed my birth with great horns blowing and mighty cymbals clashing and omens sent by mighty seers bring the blessings of miracles, not the doom of devils.
“Gave you its gray,” she said. “Passed it right on to you.”
I always knew she meant my eyes, gray as the weather on the day I was born, and sometimes showing up hazel when the sun confronts the gloom and demands I show some color.
“Gave you its temperament, too, and its mystery, girl. Women need a little mystery. That’s what turns a man’s head. Beauty has nothing to do with anything more than that.”
It always sounded like the great god Poseidon was my father the way my mama tells it. Where else could I have come from? No man had ever come forth and claimed me as his own. Not that I didn’t wonder who my father was, but when I asked I always got the same reply.
“You came from the sky, Sassy Sweetwater; clear as the stream I bathed you in, fierce as the wind that blew away the storm, the one that welcomed you here with great aplomb, and tender as the aftermath of nature’s roar.”
In other words, I was born an ambiguous bastard by a stream in South Carolina, and my seventeen-year-old mama was not about to tell me whose handsome smile had won her over. He was obviously too young or too old to pay for his mistake. I would find out one day, of course. When you ask as many questions as I did, the answers come at you, eventually. My birth was a riddle and I wanted my mama to connect me to some kind of heritage I could claim as my own, but she only gave me new conundrums to chase down. It should have been enough; there’s nothing wrong with chasing around after answers you don’t have, it’s how hard you’re hit with them when they fly back and knock you down.
Mama had traveled at least twenty miles east in Elvira’s old Chevy to give birth to me, screaming the whole way, or so I’ve been told. Elvira was Mama’s nineteen-year-old sister and I guess they’d planned the great cover-up, and the great escape, together. Out of a family of five girls, Elvira was the sanest, according to Mama.
Of course, I never knew how they covered up Mama’s pregnancy, but Mama said her family only had eyes for what they wanted to see and ears for nothing more than what they wanted to hear. In those days, abortions weren’t anything you could go to the doctor for and I’m sure, with Mama’s Catholic background, she would never have entertained that option, even if she could have.
I can’t imagine what she went through when she found out there was a baby in her belly before she even finished high school. And I sure don’t know what she would have done without her sister helping her through it. Elvira promised Mama she’d read every book on birthing babies she could get her hands on and she assured Mama that she had nothing to fear. Well, Elvira must have been pretty well versed in birthing ’cause there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with me that my mama’s milk wouldn’t cure. There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with Mama, either, except all the things you couldn’t see on the outside, all the hurt she must have been feeling; and I don’t mean just about having me bursting open her uterus, but the hurts inside her heart that she never spoke about. But if you knew my mama, you’d know the hurts were there. Mama had the saddest eyes, like a wounded dog on the side of the road that you really want so badly to help, but you can’t offer your services without the risk of being bitten.
Elvira went back home a few days after I was born. Mama and me didn’t go home for another thirteen years. Home for Elvira was fifteen miles outside of Charleston, while where me and Mama went was hundreds of miles southwest. I don’t know how we got there. Mama said we hitched all the way to Louisiana. She said wasn’t a person on the road that wouldn’t stop for a woman with a baby in her arms. I never knew why she’d decided to settle in Louisiana until I found out from Elvira, years later, that Mama had gotten an offer to wait tables in Baton Rouge from some man who’d passed through Carter’s Crossing and had taken a fancy to her. I always wondered if he was my father, but my Aunt Elvira said I’d be more likely kin to King Kong.
Can’t ever figure out why Mama left Baton Rouge and wound up settling in a place as remote as Glenmora. We didn’t stay in Baton Rouge ’cause Mama’s boyfriend turned out to be a shithead and it wasn’t long before some other guy caught her eye just long enough to talk her into following him to Glenmora, where he was assistant principal at the local high school. Of course, I don’t remember much about those years, but I can recall an apartment in the back of a small rooming house where we lived. I can just about capture the features of the woman who took care of me while Mama was working. Connie was her name and I guess she owned the place. Her bosom was large, always showing white freckled skin where the crease was. The memory is good when I think back on Connie, like the talcum powder she put in my underwear and the funny little children’s books she read me, taking on a different voice for each character and scaring me half to death when she spoke like the big bad wolf and kind of lurched forward like she was going to swallow me whole.
Connie was old in the ways that make being old a good thing, with a round, kind face and a voice as soft as silk lining. She made me hot cocoa before I went to sleep every night and tossed a little marshmallow right up on top that melted so nice in the back of my mouth. She picked me up after school every day too, ’cause Mama worked long hours at the Lobster Pot. Connie drove me over to the Lobster Pot for my dinner and Mama would try, as best she could, to help me figure out decimals and multiply fractions in between taking orders. I’d sit at the counter eating crawfish, not really giving a damn what one third times one eighth of anything could ever equal, and doubting if I ever would give a rat’s ass about anything I’d ever have to add, subtract, or multiply.
Mama and the assistant principal wound up breaking up shortly after we settled in Glenmora and not long after, Mama starting dating Guy Grissom, her boss at the Lobster Pot. Mama made me call him Uncle Guy for years, but I never liked him. He smelled feminine, like the cologne Mama wore, and he was always breathing heavy, like he was about to pass out. You might think he should have been real heavyset ’cause he was so short of breath all the time, but he wasn’t at all heavyset. He was tall, though, and big, like those football players with the phony shoulders. But Uncle Guy’s shoulders were naturally broad and then he narrowed so much at his waist, he could have worn Mama’s belts. I always thought he looked funny, sort of like a cartoon character, ’cause his face was square, but Mama thought he was so handsome he could have been up there on the big screen kissing blondes.
When Uncle Guy Grissom was around Mama didn’t act the same. She giggled too much and pretty much said yes to anything I asked her. I knew she barely heard what I’d said ’cause he was there, making himself at home in Mama’s bed. I was pretty much ignored, except of course, when Mama remembered that I was her precious little baby girl; then, all of a sudden, I became this fascinating child with the cutest dimples Guy Grissom had seen this side of Lafayette. “Wish I could adopt this child and make her my own,” he’d say. Of course I knew, even back then, that he was bullshitting me as much as he was bullshitting Mama. Said he was going to make Mama part owner of the Lobster Pot and divorce his wife soon as his youngest child was out of diapers, but of course that never happened.
Guy Grissom paid Connie to take care of me ’cause I saw him give her a white envelope every Friday. She’d hide all the bills in her top dresser drawer, all but a dollar that she’d stick inside her brassiere, right down the middle where the crease was. She’d take me to the park in good weather and buy us ice cream with that dollar or sometimes she’d keep me down at her apartment listening to The Jack Benny Show or sometimes we’d watch Dragnet ’cause Connie liked crime a whole lot. I’d come home late evening only to find Uncle Guy in his underwear eating Mama’s fried catfish, which might have smelled inviting were it not for his sweet cologne stinking up our room.
Uncle Guy got sick when I was about ten years old and he died three years later. We didn’t really see much of him after he was diagnosed with something Mama couldn’t pronounce. Mama had to stop working at the Lobster Pot, of course, and it was eventually sold. Mama couldn’t pay her bills anymore, so I guess Uncle Guy had been paying most of them. Guess he didn’t leave her anything in his will, though, ’cause if he did, I doubt we’d ever have seen the dusty back road of Carter’s Crossing or been desperate enough to claim the McLaughlins as blood relatives.
Right after Uncle Guy died, his wife barged into our apartment and called Mama wanton and loose, not one half hour after they put Uncle Guy in the ground. Mama cried and ordered her out, but the next thing I knew we were packing our bags and I was sitting on a bus and then I was sitting on a train and then there I was on another damn bus and Mama and I were getting off somewhere in the middle of nowhere with two suitcases and soon-to-be-sore feet after walking the two miles from the bus stop to Carter’s Crossing where Mama told me we had family.
Nothing about a bus is fun. Trains somehow have a romance to them that buses just can’t claim. I always felt like I could be going anywhere on earth sitting on a train, all the way across the world, listening to the whistle and catching speedy glimpses of old towns I’d never step foot in. But buses are too close to home. The towns all have a sameness to them and the roads are all too long, the destination too far. You can’t be anywhere on a bus but where you started from and I don’t care how many miles away you think you’ve gone. I’d grow up hating buses. Maybe ’cause they’d always remind me of our trip back home to South Carolina and that pathetic-looking, barren bus stop in the middle of nowhere. I’ll never forget stepping off that bus wondering how far was far when nothing stares back at you but road signs that signal you’re hundreds of miles from anywhere you’ve ever heard of.
Mama turned heads, sad eyes or not. She was tall and her hair was nearly black, but her eyes were the prettiest shade of blue I’d ever seen. It made me giggle to see how many men thought the same. I used to watch them eyeing her. Then I’d bat my eyes like Mama did, but they didn’t pay me any mind—just a smile or an acknowledgement and sometimes they’d pat my head. But it was Mama they were after and I knew it, even then. I was the convenient excuse to get to her. I saw more buttons disappear into white handkerchiefs and had my cheeks pinched by one too many hairy fingers and all the time they were showing me magic tricks and pretending to be so fond of children, they were ogling my mama. It made her smile, the way I’d copy her every move, bat my eyes and shake my crossed leg while these lovesick men vied for her attention and downright ignored my girlish flirtations. I always knew Mama wanted to laugh out loud, but she stopped herself.
“Time enough to turn men’s heads,” she’d say, holding me to her.
I guess she didn’t realize I wasn’t at all interested in turning men’s heads. I just wanted to be like her and to look like her and act like her. Hell, there wasn’t a little girl in the world that wouldn’t have wanted the same. But I wasn’t tall and blue-eyed and wispy-looking like Mama. I was skinny and Mama called me strawberry head, ’cause my hair was flaming red, like the hot part of the fire, something I never liked hearing ’cause strawberries gave me hives and fire made my eyes tear. I didn’t have Mama’s clear white skin either. I was a constant blush with pimples about as busy on my face as grass growing on the ground under my feet. Mama smeared me with this stuff called PhisoHex at night, but for every pimple down, three more had burst forth the next morning.
So be it. Mama said I was going to grow into my good looks; I held fast to that. Mama said when your eye lashes are light and thick like mine, shading my “overcast” color eyes, as Mama called them, then men were bound to fall at my feet. Mama said all men are fools for women, but for drop-dead gorgeous redheads, men are lame-brained idiots. Mama told me not to count all the wounded and brokenhearted men I was going to leave in my wake, but to just be prepared to have that effect on them.
Uncle Guy’s death changed things for us, that was for sure. For one, Mama insisted we had to go back home and make amends. I never could figure out what we were amending. For another, returning to South Carolina after Uncle Guy died, and walking up that road with my mama’s hand in mine, was the closet we were going to be for a long time. I always blamed the distances that came upon us due to circumstance or choice, didn’t matter, distance was the last thing I wanted from Mama. But we were coming back to too many bad memories, wanting to be enfolded by a family whose arms were too short to reach us. Walking up the road that day and heading toward Carter’s Crossing, I knew that everything was changing. I could feel Mama’s thoughts and the heaviness in her heart. She was passing it all onto me, the way she had given me the sky’s likeness. And I took it in like a great tide cleansing me and filling up my soul with my mama’s heart. I would cause the weariness she wore and I felt its weight. I carried everything that was inside of her inside of me and I always would. Everything that had hurt her, and everything that hadn’t, would always be a part of my every breath. In my mama, I would find my anchor, but as I held fast to the safety, so, too, I feared the drowning.
“Come along now, Sassy,” she said.
I had stopped just in front of the huge white farmhouse, staring at the unfamiliarity. Taking in the strangers that were getting up off their seats to stare back at us. Way in the distance, they stood up on a porch that should have looked inviting, but didn’t. The house sat at the top of a hill and everything around it was green and rolled out toward blue skies. I’d never seen so many beautiful trees stretching lazily and affectionately across the sky, like cats stretching out in the sun.
There was a sign on the white gate that read Carter’s Crossing. I realized then that as far as my eyes could see everything all around me seemed to be Carter’s Crossing and everything around me began and end-ed here at this house; Mama’s house. I wondered why suddenly finding out my mama was rich didn’t seem the least bit comforting.
“C’mon now, honey, give me your hand,” Mama said.
She was reaching out for me, standing in the daylight in her blue dress and her flat shoes with a wide-brimmed straw hat on her head, looking like someone important. That was the thing about Mama, she always looked like she was more important than anyone else, until she opened her mouth, then she sounded not much older than me.
The dress seemed to hug her from all sides, showing off her figure. And her dark hair was long, like soft cashmere wings flowing down her back.
“I don’t want to live in that house,” I said.
“C’mon now, Sassy. They’ve spotted us.”
I did not move, but the others did. The “others” being the strangers Mama said I was kin to. I think I had an early premonition, ’cause my stomach fell to my knees right then and there.
“We’re better off here than we are anywhere else,” I heard Mama say.
But I didn’t entirely believe her. I wanted to run in the opposite direction. But these people were walking down to where we were standing and you might say I was hypnotized by them. They seemed real tentative, like they just might change their minds and run back and drop the shades and slam the door on us. I didn’t know who looked more like stray dogs: them or me and Mama.
One person had remained on the porch and didn’t follow the others to the road; she held her hands up over her eyes squinting through the sun. I knew she was old, even then. The old were problematic. “Old opinions can kill you,” Mama used to say.
All too soon, there was a man wearing suspenders standing in front of me, thinner than any man should be. His hair was dark, like Mama’s, and his eyes so blue they startled me. Mama called him Seth.
“Violet?” he said, fighting with his sight through the sunlight. “Why, I’ll be. That really you, Vi?”
Mama nodded and the man stood still, his hands in his pockets, staring at Mama, but not holding out his arms, even to me as I walked near and looked up. “Why, who are you?” he said. “You have a child, Vi?”
“Sassy, this is your Uncle Seth.”
I had not stopped staring at him. He was lanky, like some old tree limb hanging by a prayer. His hands were long like his hair. When he smiled, I liked him better.
“You meet up somewhere with Aaron?” he asked. “Look at that hair, just like Aaron’s.”
“Richard Sweetwater is Sassy’s father. We lost him just a few months ago.” Mama sounded like she was reprimanding him for insinuating that my father was someone named Aaron, someone other than this phantom Richard Sweetwater.
I gave Mama an odd look, and she gave me one right back. The only father I’d ever known was the gray sky and the Sweetwater stream, but I sensed I shouldn’t go around mentioning that, so I didn’t. Far as I was concerned, everything Mama said made about as much sense as everything she didn’t say.
“We’re Irish, Seth, must be loads of redheads in our family. Sassy looks like Richard, yes, she truly does.”
“Okay, Vi, whatever you say.” Seth bent down and held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Sassy,” he said.
I stared at his cowboy boots. They were yellow and pointed and I wondered how his toes could sit right in them. His jeans hung low on his hip, and he smelled pleasing, like manure.
“Sassy, don’t be impolite, say hello to Uncle Seth.” Mama put her hands on her hips.
I didn’t get it. She hadn’t warned me about this. She hadn’t said a damn thing to me about these so-called kinfolk. She obviously hadn’t warned Seth either ’cause we were both looking at each other like some unknown species, but I knew when Mama put her hands on her hips it preceded something she was about to say that was either very bad or very good.
“Go on now, Sassy.” Mama pushed me so far forward I nearly knocked Seth off his feet. I had no choice but to acknowledge him.
“Hello,” I said to the ground.
“You look good,” I heard him say to Mama.
Then all of a sudden, someone was running up to us. She was yelling out Mama’s name and holding out her arms. They started hugging and it looked to me like they were dancing ’cause they didn’t stop holding hands and spinning around like tops.
“Elvira, oh I’ve missed you, honey.”
“I thought that was you. Oh my God, Vi, why didn’t you tell us you were coming home?” she asked. “Why, I would have sent Pike or Dudley down with the car to get you.”
Mama didn’t say a word; once she stopped spinning around with Elvira, she stood there glancing back at the house. She was still holding Elvira’s hand, but I knew she was looking at that old woman who wasn’t doing much of anything ’cept rocking back and forth.
“You are just as beautiful as ever,” Elvira said. “Oh, honey, I knew you’d be back, I prayed for it.”
I didn’t know Elvira then, but she knew me. When she finally broke herself away from Mama she pulled me to her breast like I’d just escaped being hit by a freight train. “Sassy,” she said through her tears.
I glanced over at my mama, who gave me a look that I interpreted as “make me proud and don’t act like a snitch,” but I was speechless. Mama had told me so little about where we were going and who I was and just how exactly I was related to these people.
“You are such a little doll,” Elvira said. “I’m your mama’s sister, Elvira, your Aunt El.”
She didn’t look like Mama at all. She looked like a boy, all skinny and flat-chested, and her hair was cut short, but it was long enough to blow back off her forehead in the soft Carolina breeze. If she’d actually been a boy, she would have been real handsome.
“Are you going to say hello to your Aunt Elvira?” Mama insisted.
I continued to stare at Seth and Elvira without saying a word. My eyes must have been round as half-dollars. I wished Mama had clued me in and given me some background on these people.
“Hello,” I managed to say quietly.
And then, another stranger came slowly toward me. He was running at first, but as he got closer he slowed down. Mama called him Kyle. He was young, maybe only fifteen. His eyes were sad, like Mama’s. Freckles popped up all over his face like flowers blooming and his hair was the same color as the sun. Quite spontaneously, I smiled at him. There was something about Kyle that just elicited a smile.
“Why, Kyle,” Mama said. “Last time I saw you, you were in diapers.”
“Really,” he said, shyly taking Mama in.
“Come on over here and give me a hug.”
I was beside myself watching Mama hug this boy. He was nearly as tall as she was. He looked awkward and embarrassed and the minute he could, he stepped out of her embrace, but Mama held his face in her hands and gently moved the hair that had fallen into his eyes.
“You look like you’ve got the devil in you,” she said.
Kyle stared at her like she was a movie queen. “No, ma’am,” he said. “More angel than devil.”
“Why I guess that remains to be seen.” Mama laughed and dropped her hands to her sides. Off in the distance, some dogs started barking.
“Did Gladys have puppies?” Mama asked. “I hear more than one dog yapping up a storm.”
Seth was the one that answered. I was looking around for the puppies, but not before noticing Kyle’s glance.
“Gladys been long gone, Vi,” Seth said, “but we got a whole litter full of her line.”
“Want to see?” Kyle piped up and took my hand. It seemed so unselfconscious, the way he was holding it and walking me off.
“Can I, Mama?” I asked, looking back at her.
After catching her nod, I ran toward the barn with Kyle. The old woman on the porch was watching me and I glanced her way. Something about her made me feel I’d be about as welcome in her house as carpenter ants.
I was suddenly aware of my dirty jeans and some old T-shirt of Uncle Guy’s that Mama had given me. I hadn’t wanted it ’cause maybe he had died in it and it gave me the creeps. I was hoping it didn’t stink.
“Cute, huh?” Kyle said as he led me to the puppies. But I was looking at him when I said, “Yes.”
He didn’t look like anybody else, but then again, neither did I. They all had real dark hair, nearly black, and light eyes that kind of took a person by surprise ‘cause they were unexpected. But if Mama said these people were kin, then I guess they were. Kyle’s yellow hair seemed an oddity and I wondered if he was just visiting. I guess he was thinking the same thing about me.
“Who are you?” he asked as I reached out to pet the puppies. There were five of them and I knew the breed right away ’cause of the mother, whose fur was soft as cotton. They were all Border collies, Mama’s favorite dog. She always said she wanted to get me a Border collie.
“I like this one,” I said. I pointed to a little black-and-white spotted dog, the obvious runt of the litter. The mother eyed me suspiciously as I reached in and scooped up one of her babies.
“You my niece or something?” Kyle asked.
I laughed. He looked too young to have a niece, especially one as old as me. “I’m Sassy Sweetwater,” I said.
I watched as he lay back on some hay. He was wearing overalls and brown shoes with broken laces.
“Sassy Sweetwater,” he said. “Never heard a name like that. Where you from?”
“Glenmora, Louisiana,” I said. “Where you from?”
“Right here,” he said and sat up.
It was then I noticed his right hand for the first time. Three fingers were missing. I looked away quickly. I didn’t want to stare, but it had shocked me.
He must have noticed my reaction but he pretended not to. “I’m not a real McLaughlin,” he said.
“McLaughlin? That’s Mama’s name,” I said.
“Yeah, your mama and everyone else’s here. You’re a Sweetwater?”
“Huh-huh. Where are your parents?” I asked him.
“Don’t know.” He shrugged. “I’ve been told I was left on the porch, and Grandma took pity on me. Picked me right up in her arms and raised me like her own.”
Now it was my turn to fall back on the hay. I laughed real hard. I didn’t want to say it, but it didn’t seem to me that that old lady was capable of taking pity on anyone, and I’d only seen her from a distance.
“Lucky baby,” I said. “I guess.”
By the time we left the barn, I had been promised the puppy with the black-and-white spots and I had named it June-bug ’cause it looked like it was covered with little black bugs and it was June. Kyle got a real kick out of that and laughed for a full minute.
“I guess that makes sense, Sassy,” he finally said when he got his breath.
“Of course it makes sense,” I said, even knowing that Kyle was going to name me stupid for calling a dog after a bug.
But he laughed again. Nothing seemed to bother him, at least not anything he wanted to let me know about.
“It’s yours,” he said. “Do what you want, but I think a girl dog wouldn’t want to be named after anything buggy.”
I followed him out of the barn renaming the puppy in my head. Maybe he had a point, but then I changed my mind.
“I like June-bug,” I shouted.
I watched Kyle leap up onto the porch. I watched him look back at me, just to make sure I saw that leap. He was tall and slender with firm muscles in his arms. He might have been the best-looking boy I’d ever seen.
My mama was standing up where the old woman was, but the old woman hadn’t moved from her chair. She was sitting straight as a line ruler and when she did move her head, she did it slowly; it made her look very sly to me.
Mama was leaning against the rail with Elvira’s arm over her shoulder. They were talking real softly and I doubt if anyone could have heard what they were saying. The old woman was looking off, like she wasn’t interested anyway. Seth was staring out into space with a drooping mouth. It seemed to me like he was listening to sad country music. When I walked up onto the porch, the old woman eyed me like I was the sour in the milk pail.
“Aaron ever marry?” I heard Mama ask.
“Never did,” Elvira said and smiled at Mama. “Nope, never did.”
I looked at Mama. “Kyle gave me one of the puppies,” I said. “Can I keep it?” I saw the old woman twitch and felt something in my heart that made it skip.
“He did, did he?” the old woman said. She reached out her arms and brought me to her so that I was standing there with nowhere to go, not unless I flung my arms up and disassociated myself from her reach forever, but I guess that might have appeared rude and Mama would have been furious.
“Don’t look like your mama,” she said. I gave her a hateful look and heard her laugh.
“Sassy, honey,” Mama said. “Say hello to your grandmother…and be nice. We’re going to be living here for a while, you hear?”
I looked all around me. Nothing made sense to me but Kyle. He was smiling. Everyone else looked like they’d tasted hot pepper after biting into a piece of chocolate candy, expecting sweetness and getting burned instead.
“Sassy, say hello to your grandmother,” I heard mama repeat.
But I couldn’t speak to that woman. She’d been punished by the good Lord. Mama always told me that the good Lord punishes evil by making sure it can’t hide. And I saw it plain as day in her face. She was staring at me like I was a freak let loose from the carnival and I knew that in that moment, as I stared back with my most disdainful sneer, that I had challenged her to either destroy me or to let me live.
“You want that puppy, you better say hello to me,” the old woman said, threatening like. I felt my blood run cold, but I knew I had no choice but to acknowledge the old bat.
“Hello,” I said, looking at her straight on for the first time. She wasn’t half bad-looking, but she was old. So many lines ran across her face, like mazes in a dirt field that never met up or led anywhere.
“Grandma Edna,” the old lady said. “You’ll be calling me Grandma Edna like a proper young girl that shows respect for her elders.”
I shot Mama a glance real quick and I saw her nod at me and I noticed that her expression was as fierce as the old lady’s.
“Hello, Grandma Edna,” I said, trying to smile but failing miserably.
“Here tell it like it is, girl.”
I realized she hadn’t let go of my arm. She studied my face.
“Dogs earn more love than people. You treat that dog well, and I’ll treat you the same.”
I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, but I’d soon learn you didn’t argue with Grandma Edna.
“You name it yet?” she asked.
“Named it June-bug,” I said. I heard Seth laugh, and even Mama giggled.
“June-bug, huh?” Grandma Edna said, studying me like I was a damn road map. “That’ll do.”
She looked up at Seth. “Get Pike to make that little June-bug puppy a bed and put it in the girl’s room with a nice blanket.”
“Thought you didn’t like dogs in the house, Mama,” Seth said.
“I got used to having dogs in my house.” Grandma Edna smiled.
Mama and Elvira laughed softly, but Seth didn’t respond at all. He just shook his head and looked away.
“You got to care for that puppy like your own, girl. You stop caring for it, it’ll turn on you like a natural child.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
I felt it when she let go of me, and it almost made me stumble ’cause I’d been resisting being held by her so much.
“Thank you, Grandma Edna’ is what you should be saying. I just gave you a puppy, child.”
“Want to feed the pups?” I heard Kyle ask. “It’s time,” he added.
“Yeah, sure do,” I said, avoiding having to thank the old woman as I jumped back off the porch, leaping just as high and as well as Kyle had. As I followed him back to the barn, I heard mama tell the old woman that I was usually very polite and I’d come around.
Come around to what, I wondered?