by Joanna Beth Tweedy
“I often forget where I live.”
The day had only started and already the latitude was closing in on her. All week she’d been craving pickled okra. Her stomach persistently at odds with her geography, she often forgot where she lived.
It was this figurative state of affairs she’d been attempting to communicate after scouring the aisles in search of pickled anything-but-cucumbers, except her response to the stockboy’s not just helpful but also cheerful “The pickles are right here, ma’am” left the young man puzzled, as is wont to occur when 16 years are confronted with sarcasm ten years their senior. “Um, well, maybe you remember your name?” he tried, reaching out and gently placing four fingers on the fossa side of her elbow. He was skinny and smelled like her first kiss.
“Oh, for the love of Pete, I am not cold-duck cockamamie.” She threw off his hand, “I just want some pickled effing okra!” The outburst surprised them both. Of the boisterous brood with whom she shared childhood and kinship, she was the least so, and unlike more than most of them, she could physically count using only three fingers each and once the number of times she had cursed—to her, effing counted—out loud, though in her head it happened more frequently, and when it did, it did not sound like a second-language speaker trying out a new word as her friend Evie had teased on those occasions. In fact, the cursing that remained inside her didn’t sound at all but rather felt.
And it felt nothing like the rig-driving champ-of-a-mouth Evie challenged her to aspire to; it felt like release, like plunging from the bluffs above the rivers’ mixing point, bare-feet first and screaming into the kudzu-choked swamp-bottom sludge-waters, mindless of copperheads and cottonmouths and all such, knowing only the nothing and everything contained in the viscous blackness below, filling her slowly, snaking its way through her veins, its thickness halting her heart for a single, stretched-out beat just as the whole world starts to make sense, slowing time to turn a waterbug’s single skim across the slime above her into an impossible infinite moment in which she dies, dies to the beat of her heart and wakes to the rhythm of earth’s pulse, wakes seeing and knowing the all and mighty of the world through a hairline insect slit in the earth’s scum, wakes inside its guts, its richest and most blessed treasure where the whole of life seeks purification but somehow mistakes it, by fallenness perhaps—that most sacred of original excuses—as nothing more than a cesspool of watershed hopes.
Security came swiftly and rotundly, so swiftly that later she marveled the suddenness, their round, unexpected, and abrupt appearance, as though spying through jars of capers from the next aisle over, a bizarre undercover design that might explain their disguise as giant rolly-pollys with badges. Had they manhandled her when they showed her to the automatic door, what had they said as they escorted her out of Dominick’s, were those guns in holsters at their sides or just walkie-talkies, and holy Christ in diapers had she really been kicked out of a goddam grocery store? And what kind of a name is Dominick’s, anyway, she wondered—as though reservations are needed at the meat counter; a patisserie chef directs the bakery; and a speedy fleet of whimsically-vested boys awaits to steer carts through the barrage of beeping, scanning, and bagging, eager for tips from those who stand a cool distance from the fray with naught to do but finger the eagerly anticipated bills in their pocket and hope their tomatoes remain polished and unbruised. Give her Kroger, IGA, Piggly Wiggly. The clerks in those places knew that pickle also existed as a verb.
“No. It’s okay.” The stockboy swooped to her defense. “She just doesn’t know who she is. She didn’t cuss at me or anything. She only . . . like . . . spelled it out. ‘For crying out loud’ was the worst thing she said. Well, maybe ‘cock.’ But she’s just looking for pickles.”
Even though in later moments she would change her mind, in that one—in that particular moment, standing amid condiments and things that passed for hors d'oeuvres on lesser tables than her mama’s—she was convinced this feral teenaged boy, looking slight and ridiculous in a logoed cap and smock—was the kindest person she’d ever met. She opened her mouth to tell him this, but “I didn’t say ‘for crying out loud’ and I am not looking for fucking—yes, fucking—” she felt it: they all felt it; and she stopped to savor the moment, “pickles” was what came out instead.
Between the security meatballs and before the scrawny stockboy she stood, stunned, pleased, pitied, and held in contempt, making a mental note to call both Evie and her red-haired brother and relay the incident to them, verbatim.
Evie would be so excited she’d spend the whole day driving up with as many of the girls she could assemble on no moment’s notice, just to toast the occasion in the flesh. This thought convinced Texas not to call, for when Evie learned of the curse’s true impetus, it would be all Texas could do to keep her friend from seditious acts in the city streets on Texas’s behalf.
Her brother would laugh with her, buoy her, and then tell her what he always told her: come home. Unlike other members of her family, he was keenly disturbed by her stories about the oddities of life where she chose to live it. If cities were supposed to be so full of opportunity and choice, then why was his soft, gentle, beautiful sister living in one of the hardest, meanest, and ugliest areas he’d ever seen—and without access to pickled Brussels sprouts at that?
It was her dissertation on cicada mutations and ground contaminants that landed her the job in the city, which he thought ironic considering there was precious little ground left in a city from which a cicada could emerge, and it was the last place you’d expect to hear one. Cities had long ago made themselves deaf and blind to the nightide, shutting out the timbre of nature, even extinguishing the stars.
When folks asked after his sister, he’d reply that she was still working to make the world a safe place for loud night critters, but what he kept silent was how it saddened him to think she never heard them anymore, that she was left only with their lifeless altered forms, to examine and explain the spectacle, hoping to help plead their case to chemical-company ringleaders who cared only that the big-tent operation was profitable to them, minding very little the cost to the circus’s freak-shows.
He would certainly share her indignation about a place where the word pickle existed solely as a noun. Like beets—which she thought mildly ironic, considering one could only get beets north of the 38th Parallel if they were pickled—but no one called them pickled because pickled things didn’t exist at this latitude. Buttermilk suffered the same obscure reality.
There had always been those fleeting glimmers of hope—like the cashier who’d recalled stories of his great-grandfather having a glass of buttermilk every evening with a cupcake, or was it every morning with a muffin? And the well-manicured woman buying well-groomed stuffed shrimp who’d definitely and distastefully heard of pickled pig’s feet and other unspeakable animal-part varieties.
What bumfuzzled her most about these episodes was the reminiscent manner in which the information was delivered: countless people had “recalled” and “heard of” such things—as though buttermilk belonged to the collective consciousness and the term pickled as a modifier existed solely in books featuring croppers with tumbledown shacks and bad manners who played poker and never won, or charming women with lacy parts and high boots who played whist and never lost.
More than most of the time these recollections, volunteered in response to her overheard queries, were accompanied by a phrase like “Where’re you from, Honey?” As with most twangs, hers tended to swindle the good sense of many good people into assuming her IQ was significantly lower than theirs.
And as with most twangs, hers carried that mysterious element of inclination that caused these same good people to suddenly adopt a twang upon encountering one. Whether or not she realized this, the involuntary twangers usually did right after committing their artificial twang, almost always eliciting from them an immediate measure of residual awkwardness that kept them from continuing familiarity. This was perhaps the reason she’d reflexively grown to temper her twang, forcing the fullness of sound from the back of her mouth to its front, flattening the exquisitely rounded vowels of her hills beyond indigenous recognition.
This was probably also the reason why—during her year-long graduate internship at the lab, which had been continuously renewed to total four years of servitude in the city—the only genuine, twang-true interaction she allowed occurred on the final day of her life north of 38 degrees and with her mailman, a circumstance her neighbors would wonder at but a subject they would never broach (with her).
So while she took pleasure in relationships with co-workers and friends she genuinely enjoyed, even a love interest or two, she never truly let anyone inside, into the fullness of her silence. Instead she silenced only her accent and left them to wonder, shrug, or smile at the odd-sounding elongated phonemes that every so often inadvertently found their way into her conversation. Except with the mailman.
The mailman knew where she worked, as he delivered her paychecks and had smiled on more than one occasion at Apartment C’s apparent resistance to direct deposit. What he didn’t know was the hope held close by the occupant of that apartment—a belief that her work would make a difference, that the underfunded lab’s research would prove invaluable even though the perforated print-out she cashed every two weeks indicated precisely the opposite. She knew the fruit of her four years’ devotion well surpassed the value of any salary she might ever and would never attain there.
Until the morning she said fucking pickles and got kicked out of Dominick’s.
It was the same morning she’d received news that the senior researchers had decided to redirect the focus of the operations on account of “unsettling results.” She realized straight away what this meant, for the results were indeed disturbing. And if those who controlled the purse strings considered this threat enough to end the project, she had been indentured to the antithesis of her ethos.
“Just bring your six-eyed frogs home to take ‘em apart.” Her brother had told her after she’d climbed out the window and onto the apartment house’s roof with her static-afflicted tag-sale phone to relay the morning’s events. “I’ll build you a nice operating room in the cellar for all your little Frankensteins.”
“Punk, I don’t dissect frogs. I develop alternatives to the chemicals that are threatening the habitats of particular amphibian species.” She smiled along about the word “habitats” as he chimed in and finished the oft-repeated sentence with her. And then frowned, realizing that was only what she’d been made to believe.
“By-god, I don’t see anything wrong with frogs having extra legs. I’m telling you, bring ‘em on down here and we’ll have us a helluva fry-up with those bastards. And I’m not talking about the frogs. Godamn politician bastards. Hell, bring the frogs too and we’ll fry ‘em up alongside the bastards.” He listened for her reply and read the silence. “Jesus H, Tex, get rid of that half-ass phone. Sounds like I’m hearing your end of things through a goddamn gramophone on a 33.” He sounded just like Grandpa Jelly, and she smiled at his grown-up voice, searching her memory for the sound of their youth and longing for the smell of her sister’s hair across the pillow they’d shared for the first half of life.
Measured in miles, her present residence wasn’t that far from her home soil, but measured in things like cortege-courtesy and porch-swings, the two places were too far apart to share map-pages. On her visits down home, the grief her red-haired brother gave about her apparent citification intensified. He blamed her watered-down accent for any misunderstandings they held between them, spoken or not. And even though he was sure he’d forgiven her for encouraging their sister Sass’s cockamamie idea to purchase a one-way ticket to Europe instead of moving home after graduation to run the orchard with him—a plan the twins had agreed upon the day they set out in separate directions for college, a plan he had counted on, needed, yet a plan Sass hadn’t counted on him needing—it was a loss his Siamese heart could never make whole. So when he mocked and called his big sister “citified,” probably neither of them realized the extent of its cut.
“Sis, you know the only thing you liked about up there was that damn job. Bastards. Now I know there’s no such jobs like that here, but maybe you could make one up for yourself. You know all about what you’re doing, and we got amphibians out the ass down here. Chemicals, too. I just sprayed the orchard this week.”
She cringed, trying to reconcile the glorious taste of July peaches with the hideous effects of compounds that kept bugs and disease from tree-ripe bounty so it could get to that point. She was glad he’d taken charge of the orchard alongside their dad and pictured him now, taking a break to receive her phone call, shading himself on the slatted back porch.
He reached a tanned muscular arm to receive a jar of tea from the ever-patient Kathleen, his college sweetheart who didn’t mind that he still hadn’t told her his real name. She had a laugh as big and piercing as she was small and soft, and she playfully ruffed his wild curls with one hand and tickled his taut belly with the other, winking to let him know what was in store after tea.
Turning from him, before Kathleen could swing the summer door to enter, his mama came through it with an exit that made both lovers sure she’d seen their wink, and the daily Rosary she was off to say beside Granny’s grave was sure to hear about it. Although his mama hadn’t raised an eyebrow about the way Kathleen’s post-graduation visit had turned into a season-long residency with no signs of fading alongside its cicadasong, he knew she consulted the beads about it daily. He blushed as Kathleen winked toward him again, but not at all because his mama had seen the first one.
Kathleen had grown up in a three-story, wood-framed house in the Vermont countryside. Knowing naught about how a bonafide farmhouse actually operated, she was enthralled by the MacTerptin homestead and had entered it with her heart wide open. Grandpa Jelly took an instant liking to the “slip of a girl with a slap of a laugh,” recognizing her ignorance for what it was instead of mistaking it for condescension as most of Sharp Rock seemed intent on.
Texas was saying something about returning to grad school in Arizona, finishing the two semesters she’d had left before accepting the ill-fated four-year servitude in the city, when he interrupted, “You could bring all your greenhouse smarts down here and maybe do some good for all those bullfrogs this hayseed is causing to glow and whatnot.”
His sister knew the tease well—the weed was always accusing the wildflower of hothouse notions—but she also heard the underneath parts of his words and cautioned them. Hothouses were lovely places but so closed, their air so thick with scent as to dizzy everything inside into forgetting the winds that once carried their seed and the waters that grew their buds to a blossom. Greenhouse soil was rich and the showers temperate, dependable. But there was no earth-breath, no freeze, no flood, no life not regulated or contained. The sun’s rays allowed, but only obliquely. Moonshine neither gleamed nor intoxicated. Hothouse honeysuckle could out-glam grain sorghum every day the weeklong, but the former survived no tempest, didn’t even know it from a breeze—and the latter was sweeter besides. Her mama’s own fence depended on its roots to hold sway.
“Just think, Miss Citydrawers, you could make me organic.” She heard ice cubes and then his swallow. “Hell, you’ve got a monthly lease for that booth you call an apartment. Call it up and load down that rattletrap of yours with all your earthly belongings like I know you can do in six seconds flat and drive down home for a spell. Damnsure you won’t make any money down here but you don’t make any money now.” He took another drink. “And by-god, maybe you just might could make some money after all. We could test out some of your highfalutin ideas on some of the older trees, and then whatever seems to be working best, well then we’ll just use it on ‘em all and become a model for the rest of the bushel-pushers around here.”
She could hear Montana, Alabama, Michigan, Delaware, and Nevada in the background, all suddenly having a come-a-part over something or other. With Montana home for the summer and Alabama leaving at its end, her red-haired brother had insisted on a road-trip a visit a few weeks past, the whole sibling tribe, plus Kathleen and minus Sass, sleeping on the floor of her studio, using the length of her air mattress as a single, colossal pillow. Delaware, with Michigan’s experienced assistance, was finally old enough to notice the city as an entity and had been fascinated by its pulse—not just the El trains and impossible height of the buildings downtown like on her first trip a few years’ back. Nevada just wondered aloud where all the grass was.
Texas knew then she didn’t want greenhouse-grown kids, wanted them born in breezes, knowing a zephyr from a bluster and feeling everything in between. They could plow all they wanted into the ways of conservatory concepts and sprinkler sentiments but she wanted them to feel inside their bones the very wilds of the winds and waters that made them whole.
She knew it would be this feeling that would make her return for good someday, despite her passion for the work she might do here if she could, despite the thrill of the city that burned bright all night, successfully competing with every single star except the one that hailed dawn. Whether standing in her mama’s wide and full-to-bursting kitchen or at the hotpot that passed for a stove in her studio, her feet would forever be firmly planted in the bluff-edged footprints of generations amid the swell of a river where she would hold close a mess of their secrets, listen in between the space of wind and breath for their songs, feel in her blood the wake of their memories, and know in her heart the all of their might.
“What do you think, Sis?”
“I think an idea like that just might could run the orchard to ruin.”
“Better it than you. Come home.”
The mailman knew almost every song that ever once had echoed from the Cumberland to the Ozarks. She’d discovered this following the conversation with her brother, after she’d climbed down to swap the tag-sale phone for her Grandpa Jelly’s mandolin along with a trash bag filled with ice and four of the Stechers her brother had brought from home on his visit. She aimed not to come down until she’d drunk them all.
She climbed atop the dormer and straddled the apartment’s roof with the mandolin responding well to her calloused fingertips. When the mailman recognized the tune, she started at the unexpected voice below and accidentally knocked over the side the Stechers she’d wedged into the cross-hip behind her. She lunged impulsively forward in a futile attempt to catch the fugitive bottle and caught sight of the mailman below.
“I’m so sorry,” she vowelled with the fullness of her roots. Upon hearing her voice he nearly ran off without his skin—not because she’d spoken but because the tune had been so at home in his heart yet out of place in his environment, he’d assumed it was playing through the speakers of a radio show or television documentary somewhere inside the apartment house’s open windows. The last thing he expected when he started singing the tune out loud was to be accosted by a beer bottle from above.
He quickly collected himself and the bottle, recognizing the label. Stunning herself, she responded by inviting him up for one.
He told her that accepting the offer was like to get him fired, and the twang with which he replied was bona fide. The freckles on the tops of her cheeks rose closer to her lower lashes in a playful smile. She scooted forward to swing her bare feet over the eave, and he understood at once the challenge beneath the gesture.
He’d lived on the edge a time or two hundred, but the girl with the big freckles and small ankles dangling above him made him want to stay far from the edge of everything and anything that might keep him from her. It was a foreign feeling for a man who on several occasions had double-dog-dared life to kill him. He wanted to ask permission to sit beside her wherever she chose to dangle herself for the rest of her life. “Where’d you learn to play like that?” was what he asked instead.
“I have a grandpa named Jelly,” as though that explained it.
“That so? What’s Jelly’s granddaughter’s name?”
“The one I aim to come sit beside.”
“Thought that meant a firing.”
“I’ve been thinking I ought to quit.”
“Me too. Why you?”
“I’d rather trim trees. Why do you think I ought to quit?”
“I meant that I should quit my—”and then she smiled, realizing he’d known what she meant. She drew up one eyebrow and both ankles, moving toward the window. “Go on in. Head up the stairs. First door on your right. I’ll meet you on the other side of its lock.”
He had only a moment to notice the “C” adhered to the door before it swung open. “So you’re Texas,” he grinned widely. “I had you pictured…well…differently.” He tried his best not to up-and-down her and hoped she hadn’t noticed if he had. He had.
She noticed. “My parents had a cockamamie notion to name all of us after states.”
“How many are you?”
“Too. And I don’t mean the numeral. But not enough to run out of choices, unfortunately. If it’d been the days of the week they’d taken a shine to, we’d be plumb out by now. As it goes, I think Rhode Island and Utah are still up for grabs.”
He considered the apparent attraction between her mother and father, and it caught him off guard as he began pondering how sublime the thought of spending the rest of his years continuing the tradition with the next generation before him. It was alien territory for a man who’d spent nine years finishing college in four different places. That he’d spent the next three in a single location owed only to the grad school he’d devoted them to, turning over most of his paycheck to the university for tuition and housing, and spending the rest on books, booze, and failed relationships, searching each for a feeling whose existence he’d always suspected—the very feeling that had delivered itself moments ago when he’d looked up to discover a pair of ankles and a spray of freckles and inherently the woman to whom they belonged was embraced by his heart, as though the reason for its original beat, the motive for its last, and the celebration of each in between.
She moved toward the window and gestured him to follow. He noticed the room for the first time. The space was tiny and as he glimpsed the air mattress in the corner he couldn’t help picturing himself there, next to her, naked; and then, strangely, he felt an overwhelming urge to pummel himself just like he’d want to pummel any man who might picture himself like that with her. Befuddled, he went back to the daydream, placing his lips gently upon her flesh, working his way from one end of her body to the other, unsure if he should start with her freckles or her ankles.
That day, he did neither. He sat on her roof instead, leaning his back against a gable’s slope, listening to her, watching her mouth as she spoke, grateful to be breathing in the same space with her, hoping it would always be so. She was leaving, she’d decided. His heart willingly gave over to her desire and panicked just the same.
When they’d each finished a bottle, she handed him the one remaining and rose to retrieve another for herself. He stopped her, taking her hand and calling her to him. She sat beside him, the gentle pitch of the roof inclining her against him. He started by asking permission to die with her when she did, in case he hadn’t already done so, then asked if she might also acquiesce to him sharing space with her while they lived.
She studied his eyes for a long while before replying. “You should know that I’ve been barred from a reputable grocery-store chain.”
“Then you should know that I hope you always will be, and that I’ll never do anything to sully your good name.”
“Well, alright then. You should also know that if ever I reckon we might could try sharing a piece of this life, I don’t want to be held accountable for yours ending.”
“That would be impossible, considering you just saved it.”
She smiled and leaned past him to tame the vine behind his ear. He turned, plucked a leaf, and placed it in her hand. “Have you ever seen it flower?”
“You know kudzu?”
“Enough to know its presence here is unlikely, that cultivated kudzu will mind its place for only so long, that its northernmost reported stretch is just a few miles from here, and that the best way to plant it is to throw it over your shoulder and run like hell.”
“Have you ever seen it smother a whole field—house, barn, and trees included?”
“Ever seen it choke a swamp?”
He shook his head. “But I’d like to.” He placed his hand over the leaf in hers.
She removed her hand from his and with index finger and thumb spun the leaf by its stem. “I’m leaving tomorrow. I aim to have everything packed tonight.”
“As soon as possible is precisely what I was thinking.”
“If we leave in the morning we can be there by sundown, but you’ll have to follow. I’m not coming back.”
“My God am I in love with you.” He was floored, and wondered if he’d really just spoken the words aloud.
Her brows were furrowed. “What about the mail?”
She hadn’t jumped when he’d last spoken so he felt safe to continue, “Texas, I don’t love the mail. It means nothing to me,” on a lighter note this time.
“So am I. Rain, sleet, or snow has nothing on the hurricane right here,” he gestured toward his heart with the hand that had been holding hers.
“Do you even have a car?”
They shared the remaining bottle and then set the sun in perfect silence, each a part of the others’ shifting latitude.
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