About the Feature
Photo by Intricate Explorer
Minnie walks out along the lip of the falls. Halfway between the riverbanks she pauses and lets the cold water push against her feet and calves.
The sun is sinking behind the mill upstream. The shadow spreads toward her like a blue solution poured into the current. (“I guess that’s Naomi Mills,” she said when they arrived, and Ezra, sheepish, as though recognizing the unseemliness of naming every commercial venture in town after the poor murdered girl, admitted yes, that is its name.)
He hollers at her from the bank. Birches hang over the water, bone white beneath their flayed barks, dragging their fingers in the current, tangled with old fishing lures. He stands under them with his hands on his hips, grinning heroically. He’s laid out lunch on the quilt.
A scum of pollen froths in the rocky pool below her. She tries to figure how bad the damage will be if she gives up her footing and tumbles down. It won’t kill her, but will it be enough?
He hollers again—her name a blank cry over the rush of the falls. Worry spreads across his face, but she doesn’t answer. She wants to see: Will he take his shoes off? Will he come out where she is?
That morning she had lain on his thin bed with his head on her belly, gazing at his ceiling, cracked and narrow, and she’d felt, for a dazed moment, satisfied. Through the window where she’d climbed in, a breeze pushed in and cooled the film of sweat on her thighs and carried to her an April fragrance of wisteria and trash fires. Down the lane, children squawked, playing or fighting. They were headed for the mill: doffers with scabby little hands, little lintheads.
“I know that one,” he said.
“You know that one what,” she said.
“Tune you humming.”
She hadn’t realized she was. She hummed another line to fish the words up. Get up behind me Omie, to Squire Ellis we’ll go.
He said, “Every soul grew up Randolph County knows ‘Poor Naomi Wise.’” His voice resounded in her belly. She picked a quill of lint from his scalp and smoothed his rye-colored hair and once again tried to imagine sharing a cottage with him. A mill-village house like Clarence and Ruth’s, so small you had to go outside to have a good idea. She’d always be after him to pick up his clothes, bring in his dishes, don’t you track that mud across my floor—all the things her sister-in-law Ruth was after her about now.
Ezra sang the lines about kissing her and hugging her and pushing her in deep water where he knew she would drown. Minnie cringed at his tunelessness. He said, “Supposedly my great-granddaddy was there when they pulled her out. My brothers and me used to go fishing right up there where he done it.”
“Where who done what? Pulled who out? Make some sense.”
“Where John Lewis killed Naomi. We used to hook catfish down there in the millpond.”
From the hall a startlement of opening and closing doors and men’s weary voices filled the house, and their boots grumbled over the floor; Minnie’s unbelonging there edged up against her—her unbelonging in this boardinghouse and in this mill village where she’d lived three years already—and the sourness churned in her belly. But soon the men cleared out, and their muttering drifted in the window as they went up the lane to the mill, the way the children had gone, and the house settled.
“That’s just a myth,” said Minnie. “Wasn’t no real John Lewis. And wasn’t no Omie Wise.”
“Well, all right. But don’t tell no Randleman folks that. They named half the town for her.”
She wiggled out of his embrace. “Maybe they did do,” she said. “That don’t make it a true story. It’s just a old ballad the forebears brought across—”
A knock rattled the door and an anxious voice called, “Ezra? You up and going?”
Minnie yanked the sheet across her belly. The mattress creaked; he held his hand above her face to still her. “I’m up, ma’am, but I ain’t decent.”
“I’m fixing to clear lunch.”
“Ain’t hungry, ma’am.”
After a pause: “You going to be late.”
“I’m off this afternoon, Miss Hicks. Got short-timed again.”
Wily Ezra—how easily the lie came to him. She swallowed against the rising sourness. On the wall above the bed hung a novelty photo captured by Ezra’s now-dead father: apple-faced Ezra and his eight brothers standing in a wagon, tallest to shortest. Ezra, the youngest, was third shortest and the handsomest by far. Their mother stood ahead of the wagon bearing a mule’s yoke. The boys grinned triumphantly at the camera, but she with her long gray face looked over her shoulder and beyond her sons as though ruing the distance they’d driven her. Minnie said, “Is she gone? That nosey spinster—”
Ezra pressed his fingers to her mouth.
“Ezra? You ain’t got one of your girlfriends in there, have you?”
“No ma’am.” He flashed Minnie a barely sheepish grimace. “Just me and my lonesome.”
All three waited: the two inside the room and the one without. Down the lane a baby squealed like a loom needing grease. At last Miss Hicks said, “I’ll see you at supper.”
When she was gone Ezra said, “You got to be a little quieter. You going to get me turned out of here.”
Sooner or later, everyone tried to hush her. “One of your girlfriends.” She kicked his legs away.
“She must have got me confused with one of my brothers.”
But Minnie wasn’t really worried about that. “Now you listen here. My papa taught me all the old ballads and how to sing them before I learned to walk. Them songs are a thousand years old. Ain’t no real Omie Wise ever drew a breath on this earth.”
“If you say so.” He put his hands behind his head. “But your myth’s got a gravestone. I seen where it’s planted.”
She hovered to get a look at him; he flashed her his foolish, gallant grin. He’d never been anything less than sweet to her. When he lied it was always with a twinkle that seemed to admit he knew (and knew that she knew) he couldn’t fool her. The coppery hair in his armpits gave off a gamey tang and stirred her with renewed want, but the next moment her belly churned and the sourness frothed into her throat. She shut her eyes. She lay back and breathed through the queasy wave. He stroked her hair.
She almost told him right then.
But he said, “I can show you where she was drowned. Hell, I can show you the spot by the road where she mounted Lewis’s ride and rode off with the son of a bitch.”
Up the lane the start whistle shrilled. The sound echoed between the rows of cottages. They were both missing their shifts, neither for the first time. Probably this was the worst possible moment in their lives to get shitcanned. But if Poor Omie was real and buried nearby, Minnie wanted to see, though the thought of it raised dread in her.
“Show me,” she said. “Today. Right now.”
The coal camp in east Virginia where she was raised, that dingy hamlet hemmed in by the hills, its little schoolhouse, her grief-mad parents in their hovel—they couldn’t pen her. Her brother and his wife could never shame or hush her or keep her home at night.
But this trap she found herself in, she’d climbed right in the window.
She’d been out with a couple of town boys, shop owners’ sons with new cars and fragrant hair who, though they went after mill girls, were no more interested in marrying a linthead than she was. Fine: it wasn’t any need for marriage that kept her up, kicking at her sheets, sweating through a February night. They’d take her dancing, pour her full of gin, park on a creek bank, but then were cowed by her enthusiasm. Not having to swindle or force what they wanted from her seemed to take all the savor out of the act.
She’d heard the girls in the spin room talking about him. Strong-shouldered Ezra. Pretty-eyed Ezra. So one Sunday evening she went up to the mill-league team’s practice. A dozen other girls gazed down at him from the bleachers. He kicked at the sandy turf and stretched his limbs. He laughed with his buddies and punched their arms. The girls’ breathing ceased when he stepped up to bat. When he snapped the ball into the green corn, they cooed and swore. He could hit anything. His hits cut languid arcs through the lilac sky. He rounded the bases unhurriedly, never watching where the ball came down. He grinned as though his inexhaustible luck astonished him. He trotted across home plate as if it were his bedroom threshold.
By what she’d heard, he went for spindly girls, whereas Minnie was growing stouter as she bloomed. Her old-fashioned figure could not be contained. She’d bought herself a flattening corset and wore it to a foxtrot dance and lasted an hour before she ran to the shithouse to unhitch the malignant thing. Shame at her body came unnaturally to her, and she rebelled against the shame, but in the bumptious grace with which she swung her hips burned a coal of embarrassment at the fullness of those hips.
Yet among all those willowy girls who blew sighs at Ezra from the bleachers, only Minnie had the flint in her veins to turn the hunt around and go after him. She walked him home from the ballpark. He grinned his luck-startled grin. “Let me hold that thing,” she said, and took his bat. She swung it and nearly hit him. When he offered to show her how to swing right, she said she’d figure it out. She wanted him as proof to everyone that her destiny lay in her own chubby hands, not in the hands of the shift bosses nor the time-study men nor the Rawlings Mills superintendent—nor Ezra Lamb, either.
But after a couple months of fun, she found he had hollowed a space in her. He’d planted the memory of his touch in her the way a cuckoo sneaks her eggs into another bird’s nest. In the mornings his laugh arced over the clamor and carried to her clear in the spinning room. His arrival relieved some pressure that seemed always to be building in her. If he missed a shift, she grew irritated and distracted, fell behind on her count, and the boss gave her hell. She wanted to see Ezra more and more often, and when she couldn’t, she turned hateful toward the world, as though the children shouting in the lane and the filthy alley cats and the clouds and the budding dogwoods had all conspired to cheat her.
One night after two, as she walked home from his boardinghouse against a cool mist of rain, singing to herself, she passed a lighted window. Inside this house a woman in a dishwater-gray gown, she was about Clarence’s age, slumped in a cane chair. She held an empty peach can with the end of a spoon sticking out. She stared at a photograph tacked to the wall as though willing herself into it. The photograph was some landscape, Minnie couldn’t tell what kind, but obviously it was no photograph of the peeling shack where she lived or of the mill where she’d start her shift in a few hours.
Minnie decided she’d better cut herself loose of Ezra Lamb sooner than later. She went alone up the dark lane. The drizzle thickened. It coarsened her clothes against her skin.
Oh, but not this week. Not with his birthday coming.
(As if to lose her would strand him so terribly, who surely kept a spare—but then the thought of him passing his birthday with another girl, some knobby linthead from her own spin room, infuriated her.)
So she put it off.
Then the missed monthly, the sourness, her breasts tender to the touch. She knew the signs from other girls’ stories.
She was born Minerva Jane Pepper in Uneasy Valley, Virginia, in 1906, during a wildwood blaze that raged for a week on the far side of Uneasy Mountain, a hearth fire gone out of control. She was the youngest of four and the only girl. When she was three years old, the two middle boys were struck and killed by the locomotive that ran a stretch of siding through the homestead on its way to the Holland sawmill. The grief scrambled her mother’s mind; her father, in his helplessness, shrank into desiccated silence. That year in July they abandoned the old home and moved down to the coal camp at Welch’s Fork.
Minnie’s surviving brother, Clarence, went off to the war, and for years they heard nothing from him. Her mother grew mountainous with grief. Her grief, like a monstrous balloon, pressed Minnie to the inside walls. In the evenings Minnie read to her father out of books she’d stolen from school, the Bible (he liked the Lamentations) and The Adventures of Ulysses. Her favorite passage to read was about Ulysses escaping Polyphemus, hollering at him, “If any ask thee who imposed on thee that unsightly blemish in thine eye, say it was Ulysses.” But her father always wanted to hear about the Underworld: “The dead flocked as thick as bats, hovering around, and cuffing at his head.”
Then one day in the fall of 1920, Clarence reappeared, with a wife, a banged-up ’18 Chandler sedan, and a limp to his gait like a wagon with one egg-shaped wheel. He showed the family a handbill advertising steady, well-paying textile work for all comers in a place called Spray.
Their father, Hand, from his chair in the corner, said, “What I know about textiles you could carry in a bottlecap.”
Minnie sat on the stool beside her father, listening, waiting like a stalking cat for her moment.
Clarence said, “They teach you all that right there in the mill.”
Beside Clarence on the sofa perched Ruth, straight-backed, hair piled high, a cameo pinned against her throat. She possessed a fine prettiness unseen among coal-camp girls. She avoided everyone’s eyes, as though contact would dirty her.
Ada entered with a tray of coffee and wedges of cornbread and a jar of her strawberry preserves. Clarence’s shoulders sagged.
“Mama, I told you we wasn’t staying.”
“You’ll stay the night,” Ada said, bending with effort to set the tray down. “It’s suppertime. Your room is still—”
“Now, Mama.” Clarence rose, and his hat fell to his feet. His hands trembled as he bowed to pick it up. “I only come to see if you all was interested in leaving.”
“I’m interested,” Minnie said. “I’m going with.”
Ada said, “Nobody’s going anywhere. Not today.”
“Come on,” Clarence said to Ruth.
An animal grunt erupted from Ada’s throat. She took a cup and hurled it at Clarence—it sailed past him and clapped against the window, splashing a dark stain across the wall.
Clarence gave his hand to Ruth: let’s go. She rose. Ada threw a wedge of cornbread at her. It hit Ruth’s lap and crumbled, leaving a smear of preserves on her eggshell skirt.
“Mama,” Clarence shouted.
Ada fled the room. From behind the wall her earthy moaning rose.
“You see?” Clarence said to Ruth.
“All is vanity,” said Hand. “Vexation of spirit.”
Clarence pulled Ruth to the door. “I’ll wire you, Papa.”
Minnie sprang to her cedar chest in the corner and threw open the lid. She dug out two of her better dresses and balled them under her arm. Whatever else she needed, the world would provide, for all this was destined to be. “I’ll leave my books,” she told Hand.
“Might just as well take them. Won’t be nobody left can read them.”
She was halfway across the room, but his words plucked a string in her guts and she paused. Ada’s weeping thickened the air. Ruth and Clarence had gone out, but to follow them seemed, for a moment, impossible. Lord, how easy it would be to stay. Like going back to sleep on a rainy morning instead of getting up for school. How easy to settle for good in this deathly camp, to read aloud every night from the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
“Vanity,” said Hand.
“I’ll write you,” she said, though of course this promise was vanity too, for—as he’d just reminded her—neither of her parents could read.
Two days later, she and Clarence and Ruth arrived at the mill outside Spray, North Carolina. They found a crowd of pickets blocking the gate. Dozens hived in the red mud, signs on stakes jabbing at the sky: NO MORE HARD RULES. TRUTH IS ON OUR SIDE.
“Lord,” Minnie said. “What kind of mess you driving us into?”
“Hush,” said Clarence.
“What are we to do?” Ruth asked with a flatness that suggested she’d warned him of something like this.
He killed the engine. “You all stay here.”
But Minnie jumped out after him, heedless of the mud that oozed between her toes. It hadn’t taken more than a day in the car for freedom to begin feeling like the inside of a coffin. She followed him into the mass of ragged men, but the twang of a guitar chord drew her attention—distracted her for just a moment—and she lost him in the crowd.
The pickets swayed around her, chanting listlessly. Behind them the redbrick wall of the mill loomed. Five stories high, its many-paned windows dark, its chimneys unsmoking. She didn’t know what she’d imagined, but this place seemed doomed, already falling into decay.
A girl about her age, rawboned with small, haughty eyes, worked her way up the line, carrying a bucket from which she dispensed to the pickets green apples, boiled eggs, and biscuits like river stones. As she passed, she gripped Minnie’s forearm and stared into her face and said, “Scabs are rats.”
Minnie understood she was being accused, but not of what. “I don’t know you,” she said.
“That’s right you don’t. This ain’t your place.” She released Minnie’s arm like a scrap of trash. “Whatever plans you think you got, you better get some others.”
Within the crowd, the guitar she’d heard thrummed once more, a gritty rumble like something spit up from the mud. Minnie slipped into the forest of signs and chants and shabby coats. Deep in the crowd she came to a clearing. At its center stood a woman, broad-shouldered and tall as any of the men, her work boots planted wide as though buttressed against assault. She wore a silt-colored men’s wool coat and a flat cap. She held the guitar braced across her chest like a rifle, oily brown, wide and audaciously hipped. She struck a plectrum downward: a craggy chord broke forth. She bellowed from the depths of her girth, and Minnie felt the voice in her knees. The woman belted out a hard, squarish tune with verses about slaving for the bosses, leaving children to cry alone, wages unpaid, bills due, starvation. Her voice steamed in the air. The crowd stilled. When she struck the chorus, the men’s voices lifted under hers in a single, strong voice. When she marched, the crowd parted, and they closed ranks when she’d passed. Minnie followed, feet muddy, skirt spattered, the song rising on every side, her voice or the voice of the crowd filling her chest.
In the midst of this spell a hand gripped her wrist. It was Clarence, looking grim and queasy, even more than usual—he yanked her out of the current. He didn’t speak, dragging her behind him. She strained to get another glimpse of the woman whose song still rumbled in the air, but the wall of men had closed between them. Clarence tossed her into the back seat and shut her in. He got in the front.
“Did you see her with—”
“Minnie, hush,” said Ruth.
The song seemed to rise into the car from the dirt below. It vibrated the wheels, the windows, the springs in the seat.
“What did you find out?” Ruth asked.
Clarence started the engine and backed away.
For weeks they chased rumors of work. They followed the railroads that crisscrossed the piedmont, the river bottoms, the sand hills. Everywhere they went, Minnie looked for the woman with the guitar. She was no Spray millhand, that was clear. She wouldn’t be tied to any one place. She went where she pleased, where she was needed. Her girth, her deep voice. Her big hands striking those chords like John Henry, driving those pickets like Moses. She hadn’t followed her brother or anyone else to get where she was meant to go. Wherever she was going, she was driving herself.
Minnie wanted to drive Ezra’s car and he said all right. She wasn’t the best driver, but he was patient with her. When she veered toward something that caught her eye—a family of deer in a meadow or a train crawling in the distance—and another car headed toward them in the opposite lane, he said, “Hey, Min?” and she corrected her aim.
The windows were down and the smells of April lathered against her face. The smutty aromas of lilac and gardenia turned up in the meadows and opened to wanton bees that arced from bloom to bloom. The gutters, fields, and far-off woods were a brassy mess of urges—it dazed her, so that south of Greensboro, when they came to the fork and Ezra told her to keep to the right, she went off instead to the left.
“We got to get over there,” he said, meaning they should backtrack. But she cut the wheel to the right and bounced the car into the high grass and down the ditch, splashing muddy water onto the windshield. When she jumped the bank onto the Randleman road, the front right tire hissed and dragged.
They stopped and Ezra jacked the car up and squatted with his kit beside the flat. She crouched in the gravel and watched him work. She was irritated in expectation of his soreness, but when he realized she was eyeing him, he grinned at her over his shoulder and said, “Adams’s Spring lays just yonder.”
She took a few steps in that direction, the old verse rising to mind—He told her to meet him at Adams’s Spring—and before she had recognized the need, she bowed double and puked bile into the ditch. Behind her, Ezra paused at his work. After she had finished, she stayed bent, hands on her knees, waiting for her stomach to unknot. In the ditch a few yards off lay the carcass of a shaggy yellow cat. The fur of its belly was matted with blood, and in the wound’s stiffened shag, honeybees were lighting and launching. Minnie shut her eyes. The spell faded. Ezra offered her a pocket bottle of rye. “Little hair of the dog?” She swished the spicy liquor and spat into the gravel, and the next sip she swallowed.
“Mind if I drive?” he asked.
Down the road they came to a springhouse, set back and sheathed in weeds. Ezra killed the engine. “Used to be a sign nailed to the boards that called it Naomi Spring, but everyone still calls it Adams’s.” It was a worm-eaten shack, ordinary and ugly as a coal-camp shithouse. It would have looked at home among the dozens of derelict shacks in Uneasy Valley. It could have been the icehouse where the bodies of her brothers were said to have cooled after the accident. (She had no memory of the accident. In fact she had no memory of the boys at all, though their dying had laid the tracks for her life.) Ezra said, “We can look inside if you want.” In the empty doorframe bees wheeled over ledges of sunlight. She tried to imagine Omie Wise in there, waiting among the bees, holding her grip in which she had fearfully, hopefully, hurriedly stuffed dresses from her cedar chest. Listening for John Lewis’s horse. Wondering would the life that lay ahead with him turn out better than what she’d abandoned. In the song he promised her money and jewels, but he needn’t have promised riches to lure her from safety. Not in the condition he’d gotten her into.
Ezra said, “In three months I never heard you hold so long a spell of silence.”
Once again she nearly told him. But she knew that once she’d opened that window, the predicament would no longer be hers to solve alone. She’d be bound to his company and his opinions. And if he didn’t run off right away, he might just as easily run off later, when she’d come to rely on him.
“I’m hungry” was all she said.
They crossed the Deep River on a narrow bridge, timbers creaking beneath them. They turned onto a Naomi Street. At a bend, behind a sickly oak, stood a Methodist chapel called Naomi Church. They stopped at a Naomi Grocery, and Minnie bought boiled eggs, bologna, tomatoes, sandwich bread, and cold Coca-Colas. Ezra wound the car down a narrow lane into the shadows and parked on the Deep’s southern bank. He tossed a quilt beside the mill pool near the peak of a thrumming, man-made waterfall three times Minnie’s height. “Some folks call this Naomi Falls,” he said. “I always just called it the falls. Right downstream there is where he done it.”
Though the sun was falling, the afternoon was warm. Sweat prickled the backs of her knees. She took off her stockings and dropped them on the blanket in filmy tangles. While Ezra made sandwiches she walked the bank. Cold grit oozed between her toes. She climbed onto a brick column that bookended the waterfall’s ledge. To her left, in the pool that fed the falls, a school of minnows darted together, in one direction and another, toward the edge and away, guided by their mysterious shared will. She walked out along the lip of the falls. The water’s thrum pulsed in her feet, up her legs, through her womb, and into her chest. She gazed downstream at the marbled shoals, the boulders and frothing eddies.
Ezra hollered for her and she looked. He was smiling.
Right downstream there is where he done it.
If Poor Omie was real, what about Pretty Polly? What about Little Sadie, Poor Ellen Smith, Poor Laurie Foster, all those girls made famous and then swallowed by myth for having been murdered by their men?
He hollered for her again. Worry showed on his face.
She had heard spin room talk about doctors in Charlotte and Richmond who’d help a girl for a few hundred dollars. Or you could mail-order pills ostensibly for the regulation of monthlies. But spinners had little money to spare, and what they had they wanted to spend on fun, so they’d drink grannywoman teas, the wrong mixture of which could kill you. Or they’d flush their wombs with iodine. Scrape themselves out with darning hooks. One girl’s cousin had jumped from a barn loft: the jolt had done the job and shattered her hips too.
His hand on her arm startled her.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey.” He usually seemed so effortless in his grace, but out here on the falls, barefoot, pants cuffed at his knees, he was bulky and unsure. “You fixing to jump?” he asked, joking. But there was a strained note in his voice. Sweat sparkled under his bronze tangle of hair.
Handsome Ezra. She didn’t speak, but their eyes locked. She saw the truth pass from her eyes to his, and his understanding passed through the damp air from his eyes to hers. Maybe the bit of him that had rooted inside her had opened a channel between their minds. Anyway, now he knew. His throat bobbed, sluggishly, as though he were trying to swallow a whole egg.
At last he said, “Come on.” He gave her his hand. Looking back at this moment, she would remember it first as a choice. Here is where I came to the railroad switch; here is where I decided—this and not that. But sometimes, looking back, she’d go on to wonder: Had she really seen two ways and chosen one? Hadn’t she followed him to the shore because no other way seemed possible?
They ate their sandwiches and lay together on the quilt, surrounded by spatters of red clover and purple-blossoming ground-ivy. In the white streak of sky above the river, hawks cut perfect round arcs, as though tethered to an invisible center.
She said, “You know why John Lewis did Poor Omie that way?”
Ezra stroked her back. “How some folks around here tell it—this ain’t in the ballads—but some folks tell it that Naomi wasn’t no young girl but already had three, four kids. All by different fellows. Some folks tell it that she snared him into knocking her up so he’d have to take care of them.”
“Ezra Lamb, that is just the wrong thing to say to me right now.”
A verse bubbled into her mind: Out of the strong came forth sweetness. She couldn’t think of where it came from. It didn’t sound like Jeremiah.
She said, “In all the old ballads, all them girls—Poor Omie and Pretty Polly, all of them—right before their man kills them, they beg for their life and for the life of their baby.”
He didn’t say anything.
She said, “I am not going to beg for my life.”
Now he started to speak, but she went on.
“I am not simple or easily contented like the other spin room girls. Keeping house or raising up your family won’t do it for me. I am bound for something. Today I think it’s playing music, but maybe it’s something else. All I know is it’s something out there for me. I’m only afraid that you won’t understand it when the day comes.”
He lay behind her. His breathing feathered her back in soft gusts. The connection between them had gone quiet, his thinking once more a secret. He said, “I was the last of my brothers to leave the farm. I watched them one by one light out for Asheboro and Saxapahaw. They’d visit home to bring Mama some money. They’d bring me whiskey and tell me about the electrified world, the dance halls, the fast girls. Then one by one I watched them step into the bear trap. Wife, a mess of kids, you know what I mean.”
“But not one of them played ball like I can pay ball. So I thought, maybe, maybe maybe, one day there’s a job in it for me. Well, every boy dreams of getting paid to play ball. But then not many can hit like I hit. When the ball comes at me and my eyes lock on it—you have to decide in a blink should you swing.” His arm lay across her arm. His hand gripped her forearm. “You feel the answer in your arms and your shoulders. It’s like getting electrified. Now. Right now. SWING.”
“Yes,” she said. Her breath came shallower.
“Well, last summer these scouts come down from Boston, and they heard about my hitting, so they turned up to a game and watched me play a couple of innings. I hit about as good that night as I do most nights. That was going on ten months ago now. By now, I guess, I don’t expect ever to hear nothing.”
“But if they turned up here tomorrow,” she said, “you’d go.”
“Sure I would.”
“Or next year, or the year after, you’d go with them.”
“I guess I’d have to.”
“No matter who all you were leaving behind.”
He thought about it for not more than a moment. “I’d be crazy not to, right?”
She rolled over and pushed him onto his back and climbed on top of him. How confusing it all was, that all his wrong answers felt exactly right. That what she feared from him was just what she seemed to want. Her heart was strumming inside her. In the weeds she saw a cat crouch and wiggle its haunches, stalking some invisible mark.
She pinned his wrists to the quilt.
Ezra’s brother Clay, who is chief accountant at the rayon hosiery in Burlington, gets Ezra in as a shift manager. The company puts them into a two-room cottage at the edge of the mill village. Every night there are brawls, knifings, gunplay in the lanes. A dedicated team of revenue men can’t stanch the inflow of beer and whiskey. Unionizers gain no traction—the wages are too good. Any hour of day or night, music can be heard spooling out of some neighbor’s house or one of the pool rooms at the four corners.
Weeknights Minnie and Ezra drive downtown, where there is a big terraced house that hosts picture shows, repertory revues, and off-circuit vaudeville outfits. Saturday nights, before she gets too big for it, Minnie squeezes into a frock and drives with Ezra to a roadhouse in the country, where for hours they dance to string-and-brass bands. Or they fire up the radio and shake the shimmy across their parlor.
Freed from the spin room, Minnie teaches herself the guitar and joins a brother-sister act called the Creek Family. She sings soprano. Their repertoire includes old ballads, Tin Pan Alley tunes pretending to be old ballads, and Creek Family originals that also pretend to be old ballads. During their act, Brother George and Sister Annie trade cartoon mountaineer banter and read the songs, even those they’ve written, off of printed pages, all of which Minnie finds contemptible. But they’ve already played one showcase at WRCO, and they expect to be asked back.
At night she lies with her back to Ezra. He lays his hands on her belly. When the baby kicks he says, “Feels like a first baseman to me.”
If she is unsatisfied, even sometimes unhappy, she can only blame her own impatience. Whatever is to happen next, she always wishes it would hurry up and come.
Sundays she and Ezra take long drives around the piedmont. Everywhere smokestacks loom. It is a world of mills. One Sunday they stop at a Catawba River fish camp called the Oconee Bell. The proprietor is a grim-faced man named Sammy Greene who, it turns out, fought in the Philippines alongside Ezra’s father.
“We can’t go nowhere,” Minnie says, “without Ezra running into some old flame or family acquaintance.”
Mindlessly adept with a knife, Sammy fillets four catfish, dips each in whipped egg and dredges it in cornmeal and flour. He drops the breaded cutlets into an enamel pot of hot grease. The smell of frying fills the lunchroom. Sammy is seventy years old, bald, with a sagging white mustache. He tells Ezra his wife died two years ago in January; the TB finally outran her. Ezra says his mother will be sad to hear it. Sammy tells how he lost his first son, Percy, in Belgium, and his younger boy, William, at an army camp in Missouri, to the flu; he tells how the hard rules in the mills were killing him, the pneumonia coming on harder and more often every year. So when Camille died, after a lifetime in textiles he finally walked way. He chops okra as he talks, dredges the oozing rings, and drops them into another pot of oil. “I don’t know that you ever knew my daddy,” he says.
Ezra says he wishes he had.
Sammy’s father was a blacksmith who forged horseshoes, spades, plows; his father forged steel swords for officers of the Army of Virginia. The Greenes were all blacksmiths, going back to Scotland. But Sammy hated the acrid smoke, the grime, the suffocating heat. The taste of metal always on the tongue. “Seemed to me getting into a mill was the smartest, future-lookingest choice a fellow could make.”
“Less and less smiths around all the time,” Ezra says.
“Smiths are going,” Sammy says. “Livery stables are going. It’s all heading toward autos and electrification. Past that, God knows what.”
“But folks always going to want to eat a good catfish dinner,” says Ezra.
“And listen to good music,” says Minnie.
“It’s nice to think so,” Sammy says. “The longer I been around, the less I believe I can see anything that’s coming.” He lifts the basket from the hot oil and watches the fillets drain. “You take this woman singer they shot down, out in Waxhaw.”
Minnie feels it, as if she herself has taken a blast to the chest. But she asks, “What woman singer?”
“Oh, that big-hipped Bolshevik, always stirring up the pickets. Pinkertons was after her for years. Local lawmen, vigilantes always gunning for her. Mattie Greaves—that’s her name. Always stirring some pot or other. If she wasn’t agitating for the unions, it was family limitation, desegregation. Maybe it was the Klan did it.”
“How did it happen.” Minnie’s voice has gone papery.
Whoever it was caught Mattie Greaves driving up from Rock Hill. They might have known her; they seemed to have known she was coming. They stopped her on the state line. A farmer found her in his corn stubble between two young men, one white and one black. All had been shot in the back at long range. Their car sat on the road, the doors open. Sammy drains the okra. He lays the catfish on the plates beside cobs of boiled sweetcorn onto which he scrapes scabs of butter.
“Never imagined such times as these,” he says.
Minnie goes out to the patio. Ezra calls after her, “Min?” but she lets the screen door slap shut between them. She lowers herself onto a bench. It’s fall; the air is rich and astringent with leaf smoke. In the west the foothills are swallowing the sun. Up there in the hills, where she came from, they’ll be stripping cane for molasses. Men and women slashing at the stalks with machetes while an old-timer sits alongside with his banjo tuned to the season’s crooked mode. Out of that crooked tuning, he’ll turn loose the ancient murder ballads, cold as snakes.
The baby turns and kicks. Minnie lays her hands on her belly. It occurs to her, maybe for the first time, that this thing pushing out against her will one day grow to the same age she is now. He’ll have to stand alone in the world and, without path or guidance, make some terrible choice that is no choice at all.
Or it might be a girl.
Whatever plans you think you got, you better get some others.
She ought to have given up her footing. She ought to have tumbled down the falls, against the rocks, should have released the tiny life into that eddy of pollen scum. Not for any imagined freedom of her own but for the sake of the child, who will be a girl—she’s sure of it, sure as she’s ever been of anything—who will be forced to face all this once more. To find her own way through this world full of those who would love her and those who would harm her, one or the other or both.
About the Author
Brendan McKennedy’s stories have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Epoch, and elsewhere. He lives in South Korea.