Still Soft, Still Whole
I wore stargazer lilies in my hair the day me and Beau got married. Dee had separated my hair into six ponytails, three on each side of the part right down the middle. I remember saying maybe we should leave it, that way my hair would look as wonky as I felt. But she twisted each set of three together and fastened them under the opposite ear. It was so tight I thought it must’ve taken a couple years off the worry lines on my forehead. But then she tucked the lilies in and I stared at a pretty little creature in the mirror I didn’t hardly recognize. The glitter. The makeup. It was all too much.
“All you’re missing is your wings,” Dee said.
When I baby stepped it down the aisle in my mermaid dress, I tried to focus on sweet Beau’s green eyes and long lashes, what we’d done in the back of my truck two nights back, Taylor Swift playing on the radio, the chilled wind on my knees. But my hair was a halo of smells reminding me of Daddy’s midsummer funeral. Sprays of lilies wilting in the heat and all of us hungover from sitting up with him in Mama’s front parlor. Daddy was a fighting mixture born to Irish immigrants who’d settled in Appalachia. All of them washed in the blood of the lamb and whatnot. Worn out hymnals and a hand-me-down King James. Jesus’s words in red. It might seem weird to outsiders to have a wake in the house, but Daddy wanted what Daddy wanted. Wrote it down. Had it notarized. Put the coffin next to the piano. You might have to move it to the right a tad, but it’ll fit. I measured the thing myself. I should have known it would all go to hell because when me and Beau were lighting our eternal flame candle, all I could think of was Daddy’s waxen fingers and the smudgy rouge on his dead cheeks.
Me and Beau had a quick courtship. Not a year after Daddy died, my previous sweetheart fell for my sister. He and Dee ran off to Los Angeles, the city she described “like warm watery light but you know, not afraid to get down and dirty either.” She liked the grime. “Nobody wants to be a damn saint,” she said. Long as she stayed home, wasn’t nothing else she could be and Charlie, he understood. She figured that’s why they was meant to be. Fated. It bothered me more that Dee had found her ticket out than the sticky circumstances of her departure with my boyfriend. Charlie didn’t do much for me anyhow. Those overlapping front teeth of his would’ve driven me away in the long run. He didn’t say much the day he came for his things, but I put my hand on his shoulder, wished him well, and asked him if he knew what he was getting himself into. With Dee. With Los Angeles. The fatalism running through both. As he packed, I turned the word ‘underbelly’ over and over in my mind, but kept it to myself. Charlie’s little paunch. A cluster of scars on his hip from road rash. The half-rancid smell of the pomade he used to slick his hair back. His affection for brown liquor. He turned his head as he wrapped his electric toothbrush in bubble wrap, “I can’t help myself. I reckon it’ll end in tears, but I got to see it through.” And ain’t that the way of it for most of us? I met Beau a week later at Home Depot buying annuals for my flowerbeds.
I’d already loaded up two bags of mushroom compost and two bags of organic topsoil on my pallet and pulled the orange thing behind me up and down the aisles, the sun hot on my head. Dark-headed people know what I’m talking about. A hundred scalp burns in a lifetime. I’d stopped in front of a pot of pink and purple hyacinth. I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath through my nose, savoring the heavy perfume in the air which took me back to my parents’ house in March. Muddy and gray save for the splash of color and sweetness from Mama’s bulbs. “We may not have much,” she’d say, “But that don’t mean we can’t make what we got pretty.”
“I hate to tell you, but it’s too late to plant hyacinth. The blooms will be spent in a week and you’ll have to wait a year to see your handiwork,” a man said too close to my ear. The prickles started along my neck and traveled. Shoulder. Valley. Ribcage. Like a fuzzy caterpillar crawling right down into my heart and I hadn’t even turned around yet.
Of course, I jumped back and knocked my elbow on the pallet handle so the first words out of my mouth to this pretty man were, “Son of a bitch.”
He laughed. “So sorry, hon. Didn’t mean to scare you. Here, let me see how bad it is.” He cradled my arm in his hand, turning it this way and that. The heat of his fingers. Lord, I was in trouble but good. “Gonna be one hell of a bruise.” He looked me over. “But I suppose you’ll live,” he said.
“So, is this your thing—sneaking up on women in the flower section of Home Depot? Am I going to have to drive across town to Lowe’s or do you frequent their garden department, too? How bout Wal-Mart?” I continued walking backwards out of his reach.
“Well, ma’am. Not until this moment have I considered garden departments a good place to meet women, but maybe I’ll take it up. Leave the bars and online dating and God-awful fix-ups my brother’s wife keeps putting me through behind. Load up my cart with all sorts of burly man things like this tiller here and chicken wire and lie in wait for some good-looking woman to close her eyes.” He puckered his lips in a smirk and raised his eyebrows, daring me to say who-knows-what. But I found myself unable to rattle off a quick comeback as I normally would so I stood there nursing my elbow and looking at him like I might punch him any second.
“Can I buy you a Coke and a hot dog?” he asked. “We can push our carts over here to the side. I’ll tell the lady up front we’re coming back. Please,” he said. “Let me make it up to you.”
“Fine,” I said. “But it better be a damn good dog. And they better have barbecue chips.” I followed him like I’d been following him my whole life. My legs equally long. Our strides matched. I wanted to slip my fingers through his belt loops. By the time we made it across the parking lot to the wiener cart, sweat ran down my back and for a second, I felt insecure, but the high was supposed to be in the mid-nineties so there wasn’t a thing either one of us could do. The wet stripe above his stomach stretched by the minute. They had glass-bottle Cokes and as soon as he handed me one, I held it to my neck like I’d done a thousand times before but I could see the effect it had on him when he dropped his change so I just took a swig and held it at my side, trying not to do anything else to encourage him so quickly.
“Your dog, ma’am. They’re fresh out of barbecue, I’m afraid. It’ll have to be plain or sour cream & onion.” A bead of sweat ran down his neck.
“Which are you having?” This was not going to be easy.
“Sour cream & onion, of course.” He took two bags from the basket on the counter and motioned to a crepe myrtle over at the edge of the parking lot with a little patch of grass. I nodded. I took a whole bunch of extra paper towels from the roll and balanced my food as best I could. Lucky for me he carried my chips. He sat on the curb and crossed his ankles, placing his lunch beside him. “Here,” he said, reaching up. “Hand me yours until you get situated.”
I didn’t quite know what to do with myself so I sat, pulled my shorts down a little so they didn’t hike up too much and crossed my ankles just the same as he had. When I twisted around to crack my back, I didn’t even notice the big breath I let out. Being comfortable with someone I’d just met was unheard of for me, but his stature and easy manner was a balm to my high-strung constitution. To hell with not encouraging him. It’d been a long time since I’d met someone as sweet as him. Since I’d met someone who was even interested.
“Sounds like a meal will do you good. The heat and all.”
“It’s hard to remember to feed yourself when it gets this blasted hot. And you’ll faint sure as Christmas if you don’t.”
I took a bite, a glop of mustard and ketchup falling in the grass just next to my leg. “Oops.”
He dribbled when he took a bite, too.
“Who are you?” I asked. “What kind of man startles a woman with her eyes closed and then goes and buys her a hot dog for goodness’ sakes? And at Home Depot no less. I’m not convinced you aren’t some hardware store creep.”
“My name’s Beau. I just bought a house down on Flamingo. I come here to hunt for cheap ways to fix up the place so I can sell it for more than I paid for it.”
“Down where they’re tearing all the old houses down and building McMansions? Tell me you’re not Mr. McMansion,” I said, crunching up the hot dog wrapper. But I could tell he wasn’t. The Mr. McMansions of the world didn’t wear work boots splattered in paint or have hair so sun-bleached. Nor did they have big knuckles and the kind of calluses you’d remember when his hands ran down your back. This man could build things. Whole worlds even.
“No, I’m renovating. But I don’t want to alter the integrity of the place. It has the original windows. I like the way the world looks from behind the bubbled glass.”
“Bubbled glass, huh?” I wiped a last bit of ketchup off his chin. “I’m Layla.”
“Like the Clapton song.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Best not to forget it. But I should say something that’s finally come to me now that I’m over the shock of a strange green-eyed man whispering in my ear. And now the hunger and heat in my brain’s calmed down some. You were saying how it’s too late to plant hyacinth to enjoy this year, but thing is, I know all about hyacinth, I do. I bet I know more than you. And I was just thinking on my Mama is why I stopped next to them. The way she told it, the flowers are native to Anatolia—modern Turkey and all along the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. I like to think about that. The ancestry of little things. She used to say they grew from the blood of a boy Apollo didn’t mean to kill. Imagine that. An oops of a manslaughter and just because the god who did it feels rotten about it, you get a flower for eternity. I don’t know. It’s just—there’s a lot more to those flowers than you could tell from me closing my eyes and breathing them in. Who are you to assume I don’t know?”
“Layla, indeed,” he said, standing.
I wiped my face and hands one more time, but the mustard had worked its way under my fingernails. “I need to go wash my hands,” I said, showing him the yellow lines.
“Go on, then. I’ll meet you in the flowers.”
He headed back to the garden department and I took the main entrance in to clean up. Half way to the door, the wind shifted and hit me with the smell of a hard rain coming. Sure enough, the whirligigs, pinwheels, and flags started whipping and twirling by the time I got to the door. The sky darkened at my back. Storms were always worse when they came from the southwest. It was like every now and then the Gulf took a big ass breath and blew everything it had our way to prove we weren’t any more solid on higher ground.
In the bathroom, the automatic faucets kept turning off. No matter how much foam I lathered, there wasn’t enough water pressure to get the mustard out so I stuck my hands under the industrial-strength dryer and watched my skin ripple, wondering if my hands would look like that in a few decades. Most likely not as both Mama and Mee-Maw’s hands bruised so much in old age they were perpetually the color of eggplant. What was I fussing over anyway? This man obviously didn’t care about a bit of mess. A man like that had to be good.
Beau had already loaded up his cart with ornamental grasses. Pampas for privacy. Feather Reed Grass for texture and a billow of movement on rainy days like today. Fountain Grass for winter interest. Because deer won’t eat it. Because he liked the way it looked short and bushy in contrast to the others. Trying to imagine what the different varietals would feel like if I plucked a single stalk of each and brushed them on my cheek, I must’ve closed my eyes again.
“Where’d you go?” He leaned over and tickled my nose with a piece of Feather Reed Grass. “Back to your grandma’s?”
“Stop it. One more move like that and you’re gonna get yourself hit,” I said, pulling his cart backward up the aisle. Thunder grumbled. The storm wasn’t far off now. “Look, I’m a certain kind of woman and I can tell you right now it’s not the kind you can tease. And don’t even think about pulling pranks if we get into anything here,” she said, realizing she hadn’t gone back for her own cart yet.
“Get into anything? Does that mean I have a shot at dinner or a drink? He pushed his pallet toward me.
“So long as we understand each other,” I said, crossing my arms, looking over my shoulder at the darkening sky. “Help me get some Pink Lemonade Lantana, white Geraniums, and marigolds so I can be on my way and I might give you my number.”
“I can do that,” he said, backing away. “I saw the Lantana back here. Geraniums and Marigolds are out front.”
“Let me go get my cart,” I said and before I turned, “Don’t do it again.”
Scratching the scruff on his chin, he said, “Yes, ma’am.”
On our first date, he took me to the house on Flamingo. I’d primped for hours before he picked me up. I expected a shi-shi dinner, at least. Now I know better than to have expectations about how a woman should be wooed proper, but back then, I was still hoping all the shit I’d seen in movies would hold up somehow. It had for Dee, minus the sister she threw over. But then what did that matter when it was fate? Anyhow, I was more concerned with my makeup and hair falling victim to the humidity than anything. The house of his didn’t look like anything much. All his talk about integrity and he’d gutted everything except a few bedroom walls and his precious windows. The place where the sink would go had dripped a puddle on the plywood subfloor. He’d brought a picnic for us and as much as I could tell he wanted to call one of his subcontractors to yell about the mess, he took a deep breath and led me out the French doors to the patio.
A lady had loved this space.
She’d arranged slate in a circle with a path leading up to the back steps. Though they were overgrown now, the rosebushes on either side of the walkway had been well-tended once. A white Knockout bloomed quicker than the rest with a few buds just opening. A mint-green glider and a trellis crowned the center of the patio. In the middle of the glider, a basket and on top, a purple hyacinth in a vase.
After my initial skepticism, I had to admit the man knew how to date. We talked about Charlie and Dee. How Los Angeles might not be good for her. Our childhood was dark enough, but no, I didn’t want to get into our traumas just yet. I wanted to live in the flowers. In the haze. In the sway of weeping willows. See what he saw behind bubble glass. Drink sugary pink wine. Get it on in the back of his truck under a glittering sky. You can’t blame a girl for getting married so quickly. If we’d met any time but late spring, I don’t know if I’d have taken to him with such ease.
After the wedding, we moved into the house on Flamingo. It wasn’t as finished as I hoped it would be. Beau and his buddy Gene had worked the whole week to get the cabinets installed, but we had no countertops. I’d come in from the grocery store with bread, peanut butter and jam, or salted ham and just plop the stuff that didn’t have to be refrigerated right in the openings where the stone should be. Beau was waiting on the perfect piece of granite. He’d describe his vision of the finished kitchen to me while tracing my belly button and if I’m honest, I should have paid more attention to how much he talked and how little got done. I tried not to think about the grit between my toes because the whole place still needed floors. Even the bathrooms didn’t have doors. The only doors were the ones leading outside. Lack of privacy, particularly in a marriage, will cause chronic distress like roiled up muck at the bottom of the river when the rains keep coming all summer.
I set the bedroom up as best I could, draping tulle over the canopy I’d brought from my place. I painted two end tables I got from the unfinished furniture shop downtown. Mint-green like the glider. I placed ten taper candles in iron holders on the mantel. The fireplace hadn’t worked in years, but Beau had framed a piece of stained glass and fastened it to the brick and painted the trim white. The bedroom looked good. But that was me and Beau in the beginning. The bedroom always looked good.
A few months after we moved in, Beau and Gene went in on another flip house at the riverfront. After a year, our house remained identical to the day we moved in. We’d browse all the junk shops and hardware stores for fifty miles, but we never bought anything. The truth was he’d spent all my inheritance and any money he had on the new place. He thought he was keeping our money troubles hidden. So, he’d make a show of haggling. Of course, it wouldn’t go well and Beau would turn stingy and mean, walking off leaving me to smooth things over half the time. At an artists’ colony outside Asheville, a short woman with asymmetrical hair and pentagram tattoo in the center of her chest was so off put by Beau’s energy when he wanted to buy a truck bed repurposed into a bench for the front hall, she asked us to leave after watching us for only a few short minutes. Beau knocked over a whole table of blown glass ornaments on the way out.
“Let me help you clean up,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“You have no cause to apologize to me, ma’am. I’m afraid it’s you that needs help cleaning up. I don't know how to say this except to come straight out with it.”
“Say what you need to say,” I said, trying to memorize the shape of the shattered glass.
“When I look at him, I see black tar where his teeth should be,” she said before she turned her back on me, kneeling to sweep up the mess. “Go,” she said. “He won’t be happy if you keep him waiting.”
I barely had the door closed when he peeled out, flinging gravel everywhere without a second thought toward the family walking by with two children and a golden retriever panting at their side. By the time we got home, he behaved as if the whole incident had never happened He opened the door for me and led me out of the car and into the house. Once again, we came home empty-handed.
“Baby,” he said. “Can’t you see it? The kitchen shiny with granite and crystal. Salvaged brass. Just as shiny as you. That’s what I want.”
Not wanting to break his mood, I replied as I had a thousand times before, “It sounds like a dream.” My feet hurt from walking in flats on gravel so I swapped my shoes for the slippers I kept by the front door and turned to go upstairs.
“You going to lie down?” he asked.
“Yes, the heat and all that walking. I’m exhausted.”
“Maybe I’ll join you.”
“I thought you were meeting up with Gene,” I said, running my hand along the guardrail—one of the few projects he’d finished. The woodgrain’s luster wasn’t lost on me. “This morning you were going on about it.”
“We could get some work done, if you’re okay with it,” he said, kissing my hand.
“Have fun,” I said.
And so, I had the evening to myself. When I woke the first time, the sun had already set and the boat-like motion of my dreams had left me feeling ill. I sat up so I could rub my arches for a spell and get a glass of ice water, but before I could get downstairs, Beau turned up the drive and headlights blinded me for longer than they should’ve. He took his time getting out of the car. A song I could’ve recognized if it had been a bit louder made my heart hurt. But it didn’t take much for my heart to hurt these days. I settled for sink water and went back to bed.
Eventually, Beau came to bed. “I’m home,” he said. “You awake?”
He smelled like campfire, cheap whiskey, and faintly of cinnamon. His hand on my hip. A long silence passed. Then, his foot slid up my calf. A signal I knew well, but I grew weary with the house. It consumed him. I rolled away from his foot, squinching up my pillow between my legs. My back hadn’t been right since we moved in. He grew frustrated by my lack of reciprocation and let his foot drop. His hand stayed still. Evening light hit the stained glass washing the plywood with shades of blue and green, bringing it to life. “I don’t know anymore, Beau. Do you even know what you’re doing with this place?”
My breath quickened.
He shoved me with the same force he’d tossed the display table. Though I caught myself on the edge of the bed, my body knew bruises were already forming. Blood under skin. “I don’t know why I thought a redneck bitch like you would understand,” he said. “I’m sleeping downstairs.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, reaching for him as he put a pillow under each arm.
When Daddy died, it was sudden. There was no lengthy illness. No anticipatory grief or praying for his suffering to end. There was a last day like any other. He came home from the fields, took his boots off, ate a turkey TV dinner Mama fixed for him and died in his easy chair sometime in the night, Bob Ross painting in the background. The coroner said it must’ve been a stroke or a heart attack since the tray was on the floor and his can of Pepsi spilled on his pants. I had a feeling they lied about the Pepsi. No one wants to tell a wife and a daughter that the man they knew and loved peed himself as he died. But it happens. It’s almost never peaceful or pretty. Years ago, Daddy found his sister Jo in her den—ass to the sky and purple-faced—with her two little dogs running in circles around her, yapping at him. They were hungry and scared and covered in their own filth. He and his sisters had argued about what to do for services, what to do with the remains, who got what. I guess that’s another reason Daddy put all his wishes on paper.
In the night, I woke crampy and bleeding. Without turning on any lights, I cleaned myself, changed my gown, and stripped the sheets. It had been storming all night and finally seemed to be letting up, so I sprayed the stains, dropped them in the washer, and wrote myself a note to wash them after breakfast. The streetlight shone through the glass on the back door, making it glow, making it seem cool and clean and born of a different world so I walked over and turned the knob as quietly as I could, but old houses speak. The patio was still my favorite part of the house—the best part of me and Beau. It had quit raining but steam rose from the ground and the frogs had started talking again. A quiet meep came from a nest in the top corner of the trellis. For weeks, I’d waited for them to hatch, and watched them long enough to see their down come in. When I sat on the glider, water soaked through my gown, so I went ahead and leaned back, kicking off my slippers and pushing the ground with my bare feet. If only Beau weren’t under so much pressure. If only he hadn’t bought that second house. His beeper and phone went off constantly. If we had floors, maybe I wouldn’t be so wounded. Linoleum. Bamboo. Heart of Pine. Plush carpet. Ceramic tile. Smooth and cool. Textured and warm. Soft. Clean. The scent of Murphy’s Oil Soap.
I almost fell asleep again out in the wet haze. But the mist and steam turned back into rain, so I headed for cover. When I stepped up on the back steps, I turned back to look at the glider one more time. The spot where I’d lain now pooling water. The dying Scuppernong vines on the trellis. As I looked closer, an unnatural black silhouette jutted up out of the bird’s nest. I ran over, my feet slapping against the wet slate. A snake with a marked bulge in its belly had enveloped the nest. When the truth of what I saw hit me, I screamed and fell to my knees.
Within seconds, Beau ran toward me in his shorts with an ax in his hand. “Baby? What? What is it?”
“Snake. Snake got the birds,” I said, pointing.
Beau looked at me confused and started to turn, but when he couldn’t get me up off the ground, when he couldn’t stop my sobbing with his touch, he pulled the thing down from its tail. It landed with a thud. Before I knew it, he’d hacked the poor snake’s head off. The slate darkened. My green-eyed, long lashed husband tossed the head in the yard and asked me if I was happy now. “It’s dead,” he said, pushing his hair back, leaving a streak of blood on his forehead. “Don’t that make you happy at least?” When I kept crying, he picked up the carcass and pulled out three birds, and dropped them on my lap. “There,” he said. “Now it’s over. Bury them and clean yourself up.”
I pulled my gown up, making a hammock for them, wondering where their parents were, if they’d watched, or if they were used to that sort of thing. Maybe nature was just nature and the birds felt nothing and would start building a new nest at first light after they fed themselves, but I would never believe such a thing, so I dug in the wet earth with my hands until I thought I had a hole big enough for all three of them next to the white Knockout roses. I didn’t want them to be lonely. When I was satisfied with the grave, I placed them on the grass above—still soft, still whole—and pulled my gown over my head, put them in the middle of it at the waist ribbon, and folded the garment as small as I could, laying them to rest just as the rain let up. When I finished singing Amazing Grace for the birds, I put the snake carcass around my neck and went off to search for its discarded head.