“Don’t you ‘what’ me. I’ll make you the right size for your britches missy.”
Ladonna and Mary Lee were having a shootout in the valley at Drowning Ford Road. Mary Lee had allowed her scrawny self, all bony joints and new budding breasts, to be drawn to the top of the narrow stairwell, but she refused to lean in where her mother could see her. Too much black eyeliner ringed her pale eyes, stamping them into her clean, freckled face like blocked words— For Export, and, Fragile: Handle With Care. Most mothers did not like this. Certainly not hers.
Behind her, Kendra was cool as spring water, poured onto the floor and across the short hallway with her bare feet on the wall. She had actually walked out of her house with all her eyeliner on, a quarter-inch all the way around.
“What ma’am?” Mary Lee said.
“My foot itches,” Ladonna said.
Silence fell in the stairwell for a second, until Mary Lee fired two, one-syllable bullets into the space: “God Mom!”
“I’m serious Mary Lee. My foot itches. Right in that spot that means— ”
“We’re fine Mom. Me and Kendra’s not going to get ourselves killed playin’ around in my bedroom.”
“We been warned.”
“We know Mom.”
Ladonna scooted her wide hips around on the foot that did not itch, rubbing the bottom of the one that did on her supporting ankle. Her brown hair was a mushroom cap that barely covered her ears. Holding the banister with one hand, she surveyed the kitchen, the den and her bedroom all at once. The old bungalow smelled like mildew, and the sock-worn pine floors shone in scuffs where there were no tufts of hair and dust. Where had she been when the summer rain quit battering their metal roof, quick as it had begun? What had she been doing when the noise eased and she remembered again, the two girls shuffling around upstairs?
“Iswearahmightie,” she said under her breath, trying to choose between half-done jobs.
Fresh-washed sunlight was heating up two black bags of trash she had dropped by the screen door when the downpour started. They’d start to stink soon, and until she moved them she wouldn’t be able to pull open the freezer drawer. Or step over them to get out the door. The bags needed to go in the trunk, if not all the way to the county dump. But the Hoover also waited near the green tweed couch, occupied by three long-haired cats that made their disdain clear. Still too wet, they conveyed in unison and in no uncertain terms, for them to be chased outside by the noise.
The infernal dusting then, or clear some junk out from the coffee table in front of the TV? One day off to get things done between nightshifts made it hard to think.
While she tried, the balance in a paper lunch bag on the counter shifted. Like a logged tree, the bag swooned in slow motion at first, then keeled, bouncing oranges in every direction. Ladonna jumped and stifled a yelp; she raised a hand to her chest and pressed hard, willing her heart to stop pounding. The bag of surplus from Jenny, her boss, had been sitting on the counter since she came home from work at four that morning — why would it fall now?
She thought of the lashing their rusted metal roof had just taken.
Oh, Ladonna was tired. “Any rain come in?”
“It’s bad luck when the rain comes from the north—”
“No rain came in, Ma.”
She looked toward the upstairs bedroom again and longed to be there, for the comfort of laying eyes on her daughter. Cat hair furred both sides of the narrow stair treads and God only knew what the attic bedroom looked like. Ladonna’s knees might carry her weight up the stairs, if she pulled hard enough on the rail, but they would not lock her upright to get her safely back down. She frowned to think of the plastic shower an uncle had stuffed into a corner up there, at some point when the family was expanding. For years it had been a closet full of junk until Ladonna and Mary Lee moved back home. She sent bottles of bathroom cleaner up all the time, but never saw them come down again, empty or full.
“Go do something Mom. Everything is all right up here. I’m not even alone. Jeez.”
Ladonna fought the inertia of her heft and took the ten steps to the kitchen. She would clear the trash bags from the screen door and then return to deal with the spill of fruit. Maybe that had been the sign of the cascading oranges — that the kitchen should be done first. She bent over the trash bags, never overfilled for the sake of her knees, when her daughter and the neighbor girl streaked past her blind spot, through the impossibly narrow space between Ladonna’s rump and the wall. Escaped at the pass.
The screen door slammed before Ladonna was upright. She watched the girls’ backsides skitter away. “Girls—” she called.
“We’ll be within hollering distance Mom!”
Kendra was turning a series of fast cartwheels, exposing the flash of bellybutton ring that drew all attention right to the center of her slim, young waist. The grass still sparkled from the rain, in sunlight that was making its first moves to sink behind the knobs. Ladonna wrung her fluttering hands. She wished for the extended family that had once lived in every little house that dotted the small Drowning Ford Road valley, with its one narrow gravel road that dead-ended at the river. Her Great Uncles Jerry and Justus in the two-story clapboard that Ladonna’s great-grandparents had built. Posted like a sentry at the valley’s entrance, it was vacant now, weathered gray without a trace of paint. Falling down. She wished for her grandmother in the white farmhouse in the copse of trees to the northwest, turned just so, so Granny could see every house in the valley, the comings and goings of every car. The house itself still seemed to hold Granny’s gaze. She wished for the childless widow Aunt Smitty, who lived in the only red brick split-level, with the real poured driveway and her porch lined with concrete planters full of petunias. Aunt Smitty, who wore her hair curled around her shoulders, even though it was white as snow, to the day she died. She wished for Uncle Bob and Aunt Joan and their passel of kids, who put in the two matching log cabins by the river, one for themselves and one to rent to passing fishermen. Their grandchildren and their babies had stayed in the spare, not so long ago. Two unrelated families lived in them now. Kendra’s had been the latest newcomers to bear no relation, by blood or by marriage.
And Ladonna wished for her own mother, of course, the “Mary” in “Mary Lee,” the first to live in this house, and the most recent to be laid to rest in the valley. She could see the family cemetery, too. She held her breath for a long moment, so that she wouldn’t inhale the spirits she might have called by thinking of them.
The girls ran behind the shed, where they could be free of a mother’s prying eyes. The knobs to the west cast long shadows, stretching out to divide the entire valley into light and dark. The shed itself cast a shadow that seemed more to scale for her great-grandparents’ two-story clapboard, tall and rail-thin as the old bachelor brothers who died there. Behind the shed, the girls’ shadows stretched out to reveal their secrets. Play fighting, tickling, one pressing the other against the shed wall. Kissing?
Ladonna whirled at the feel of a jab in her back, the collective finger of so many ghosts of the people who had gone before her. She loved them so. Their hands had raised her up, and then welcomed her and a 3-year-old Mary Lee back here when her life outside the valley crumbled. They had all been exactly right, she “lit out like her cart was afire and then hightailed it right back home.” The ghosts were afraid now, of what was happening outside. Pushing panic buttons with all their might. Go go go, they said. Stop this sinful play now!
But something came over Ladonna. Exhaustion, and something more, though she hardly had the words to explain. The long shadows of her own secret childhood reached her at that moment, covering her in a dark quiet. She felt a calm she had not known since burying her mother.
Had her childish ways been so terrible?
She understood finally. She was the mother in the valley now.
“Not this time,” she said aloud to the ghosts. She backed into the kitchen from the porch, softly closing the screen door so that it would not slam. She turned to vacuum the couch, and wait for the sun to set on a peaceful valley at Drowning Ford Road.