Chapter 7

A car stops on the road, pulls into an empty space in front of the church. Lou Ann gets out, coming towards us, still wearing jeans and the black t-shirt, but she seems different. It’s in the way she looks at me as she approaches the picnic table.

“Sally Taylor’s staying with Mama,” she says. “Preacher Clyde called me and told me what you done.” She shakes her head as she turns to Martha. “Martha, is that Wilbur Thompson really gonna take Callie to jail?”

Martha sighs. “I reckon. That’s what he says.”

Lou Ann is almost cheerful as she looks from Martha to me again. “Callie Jane, I can’t believe you’re going to jail. What am I gonna tell Mama.”

“How about telling her my name’s Calamity Jane now,” I say, wondering what’s come over her.

“Don’t know what she’s gonna say ‘bout her favorite daughter landing in the pokey.” Lou Ann’s eyes glitter.

“Lou Ann! Mama never favored me!”

“Can’t prove it by me. All she talks ‘bout to everbody, how her Callie is a career woman in the big city, wears clothes like a model and everthing.” Her eyes rake over my wrinkled black dress, as if she knows how much it cost.

“That doesn’t mean anything. She brags about you too, about how good you are to her, how you take care of things. Makes me feel guilty, being so far away.” My voice falters.

I bite back the childish temper I’d learned to curb. Give it to me, Lou Ann; it’s mine. No, it ain’t; I seen it first. Give her the stick, Lou Ann, says Mama. Callie’s younger than you. Give the stick to your little sister. I’ll give it to you, says Lou Ann, out behind the house. Mama, Lou Ann beat me with the stick. You get a whupping, Lou Ann, now go and get your switch.

It’s the way of the hills, the older looking after the younger, giving in because the younger one “don’t know no better.” Has Mama really favored me over Lou Ann? I don’t think so, but my sister feels the pain of her own thoughts.

“I’m sorry Lou Ann,” I say.

“Don’t make no difference to me,” she shrugs. “Just the way things is. I ain’t never worried about it none.” She looks off towards the creek. “Wonder if they done found Luther yet.” She says it like she doesn’t care but I see her shoulders held in an invisible brace and I know different.

I’m reminded of that day when she was twelve. Walking past Joe Ray and me where we played in the bottom. Taking funny short sideways steps as if trying to hurry while holding herself together. Her dress was torn and she was crying. I saw blood smeared on her legs below the hem of her dress and realized she was hurt. Joe Ray and I ran after her. “What’s the matter, Lou Ann. What happened? Are you hurt, Lou Ann? Did you know you’ve got blood on your legs? Lou Ann, Lou Ann, Lou Ann.”

“Go way,” she said. “Just go way, now; I gotta see Mama. Just go way now. Leave me be.”

“Mama, Lou Ann’s hurt. What’s wrong with Lou Ann, Mama.” Behind the closed door to mine and Lou Ann’s room, Mama was crying. “O Lord, O Lord, Lou Ann. Who done this to you, baby.” “Mama, what’s the matter with Lou Ann. What happened?” “Go away, younguns’,” she said. “Go play now. She’ll be alright, Lou Ann will, just go play now.”

The door opened. Mama’s eyes were red. She shooed us away. “Go play now. I gotta take care of Lou Ann. I gotta get some water, clean her up.” She came out and I saw Lou Ann curled up in a ball on the bed, her arms clenched around her bloody legs as she lay there crying.

Later, when I understood, I figured it was the reason she never went with anybody, never married. After high school, she worked in town for a spell, until the factory opened up on the highway. Now she lives in a trailer with two cats, a black one and a calico, and goes to see the fortuneteller at the head of Bear Branch, somebody said. If she still goes. I don’t know.

My only sister and I don’t know.

My head aches and I feel nauseated. I wish I could lie down on the bed Lou Ann used to share with me, pull the old quilt up around my face and fall asleep.

“Lou Ann,” I say. “I think I’m sick.”

She turns around, her expression changing to one of concern. “Do you hafta throw up?” she says.

I give a quick nod, leaning over the edge of the table. She holds me as I heave into the grass. Martha hurries over from the crowd that’s watching us, taking off her apron to wipe my face, and I realize she’d left while we were talking. She runs into the church and brings me a glass of water. I rinse my mouth out, spit in the grass, take a small sip and then swallow.

Folks are beginning to wander into the yard from the creek bank, looking at me, muttering amongst themselves. “She’s sick, she oughta be home in bed,” someone says.

Still holding me, Lou Ann tells them, “Wilbur knows where Mama’s house is at. I’m taking her home.” Nobody tries to stop us as she helps me off the table and leads me to her car. I hold onto her arm, feeling lightheaded.

I lay my head back against the torn vinyl and close my eyes while Lou Ann drives us home. I hear a click and smell the smoke from her cigarette, hear her roll down the window, feel the damp air on my face.

“Can you make it across the bridge?” She says when we get there, bringing a sharp memory of a time when we were children, holding hands as we crossed the creek together on a log. We’d almost reached the other side when the log suddenly shifted. Thinking I was going to fall in the creek and pull her in with me, I’d released her hand and tried to jump to the far bank, but had missed the bank and fallen back into the cold water. Why’d you do that, she’d said when she pulled me out. When I’d told her, she’d answered that if I’d held onto her hand, she would’ve kept me from falling in.

As she leads me across the bridge to the bottom, her hand holds tightly onto mine.

Sally sits on the sofa crocheting. “Your Mama’s sleeping,” she says in a low voice. Her eyes take in my wrinkled clothes and mussed-up hair.

“Callie got sick,” Lou Ann says. “I’m gonna put her to bed now. I’ll be back in a minute.”

She helps me off with my damp dress, pulls the gown I’d laid on the foot of the bed this morning over my head, and tucks me in. After pulling the quilt up to my chin, she stands looking down at me, and then hesitates a moment before saying, “I’m right proud of you, too, Callie, for getting away, making something outa yourself. So don’t pay me no mind.”

I’m crying as I shake my head, the need to say just how I feel building up inside me, but I’d have to start at the beginning and tell it all, and there’s not time enough. “That is not what I meant at all,” I finally say. “That’s not it, at all.”

Lou Ann pats my arm. “Can I get you something, before I go talk to Sally?”

I shake my head no.

“You try to sleep now. Make you feel better. Don’t worry none ‘bout Wilbur cause anybody woulda done what you done. I woulda done it myself if it’d been me, just didn’t ‘spect you to.” She grins a little then and leaves the room.

As I close my eyes, I hear the lurching roar of a train on the mountain. It runs down the tracks above the house, into the crowd of blue Sweet Williams lifting their heads above the clearing. The lumbering steel darkens the sky, black petals falling wet like rain against my face.

As I drift off to sleep the ghost of the old dilemma crowds my mind. Again. Should I go or should I stay?

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