Friday, August 29, 2008

Chapter Three -- Tina

They chose a diner not too far from the University, a place that had the stone-ground grits that Merri remembered from her college days. Every country restaurant in Athens had grits, but these were creamy and slow-cooked and flecked with gold bits of corn. When they were seated at the little booth in the corner, Merri picked up the menu and tucked her pentacle into her blouse.

Dwayne leaned forward. "You know you don't have to hide that around me," he said. "I don't care what kind of jewelry you like."

Merri didn't take her eyes off the menu. "I'm not sure the waitress is so open-minded."

"So what if she isn't? We're not in Sweetwater. Don't nobody know us here."

Merri cocked her chin at his pocket. "You're one to talk -- you tucked that badge away right fast, before we even got out of the car."

"I'm not on duty."

"And I'm not in circle."

Dwayne crooked his mouth at her this slow drawl of a smile. She resisted the urge to smile back. She was serious about this thing.

"Fine," he said. "On the count of three."

Merri put her hands to the pentacle. Dwayne reached under the table to where his shield was pinned to his belt.

"One. Two. Three."

Merri untucked the silver pentacle and let it swing free. Dwayne clipped the badge to the top of his shirt pocket. Not a single person glanced in their direction, not even the waitress, who brought their sweet teas without a glance at either of them.

Dwayne got a hamburger platter with grits instead of fries. Merri got a salad and a bowl of grits topped with red-eye gravy. Dwayne laughed at the bizarre combination -- she ignored him as best she could. He was hard to ignore sometimes, with that deep rich laugh that spread in a circle around him, catching people's ears. Grits and salad was what she wanted, though, and she'd eat it if he cackled at her all night.

"So why don't you want people to know you're a cop?" she asked.

"People start acting funny," Dwayne replied. "They do things like ride over with casseroles in their mama's car, then ask me impertinent questions."

Merri wiped her mouth. "Ah. Wondered when we'd get to that."

"You say that like you're surprised, like I'm the one with the agenda. You were the one suggested dinner out of town. I'm just being a gentleman."

"How do you reckon that?"

Dwayne looked at her like he hadn't expected the word "reckon" to fall out of her mouth. She knew he though her somewhat high-falutin', to use her mama's term. But such opinions were always buffered with a genuine concern for her and her family, and a gentleness that she'd always found . . . not surprising, that wasn't it. Just gruff. A gruff, bearish kindness. She knew that was the reason he'd become a detective -- so he could deliver that kindness part and parcel with truth and justice and all those other silver dollar ideals.

He sipped at his sweet tea. "I reckon I'm being gentlemanly 'cause I'm not telling you to mind your own sweet business about this whole mess."

Merri stiffened. Had she been thinking he was kind? He was obviously as rude as . . . as . . . She seethed as her metaphors failed her. In her mind, pictures flashed of surly busboys and banty roosters and that guy on Red Level Road who'd pulled his tractor in front of her and gone ten miles an hour . . .


"What?" she snapped.

"Kidding," he replied. "Sort of. Stop staring at me like that -- you look like a wet cat. What I'm trying to say is this -- Meema thinks what Meema will think, and it's my duty as her grandson to listen."

"What about your duty as an officer of the law?"

Dwayne signed. "You know that's ninety-five percent of my job. Listening. People just want to be heard, and Meema is no exception. Now, if I hear something that makes me think I need to start asking questions, then that's what I do. But until then, I just listen."

Merri shook her head. "I got all that, I really do. But my question for you is this -- are you listening to her as her good-boy grandson? Or are you listening to her as the law?"

He examined her, his jaw working, not replying right away. It was a good sign, because it meant he was taking her seriously. But then he frowned.

Not a good sign.

He pulled out his cell phone, and after a quick glance at the readout, answered it immediately. Also not a good sign. Dwayne was too well-mannered to chat on his phone at the table. But this was no chat, just a terse series of "yes" and "no" and "ah hell," which was as salty as his language got around a woman, even his high falutin' girl cousin who swore like a sailor.

Merri cocked an eyebrow at him. He snapped the phone shut.

"Forget the grits," he said. "You're coming with me."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chapter Two continued - Susanna

Dewayne’s neck ached and a heated flush covered his body. He could just catch the edge of a sick, putrid feeling–death nearby. But it wasn’t clear yet, just hazy blobs in his head he tried to arrange. He hated this part–knowing but unable to act. Vulnerable. Like inside the fun house at the fair, waiting for the scary barker fellow to pull the lever and the floor to start moving.

Three days ago, he had been combing the Bethel community, looking in every field and drainage pond for a seven year old girl, and then Meema goes and says Aunt Voila was killed.

Now Meema sat in her glider amid her collection of Virgin Marys, her head back, sucking long breaths, and saying silent prayers. Like years ago, when Joe Bridges went missing. There was signs with Joe’s face posted at the pharmacy and beauty parlors downtown but one no knew anything. One summer morning, the sheriff came out to Meema’s as Dewayne sat watching Scooby Doo in his pajamas. The sheriff had a yearbook opened to a black and white picture of Joe in shorts and a Panthers jersey. Joe’s long, skinny arms stretched to the Basketball rim for the hook. Meema told Dewayne to start praying. Then she, Dewayne, and the sheriff got into Grandpa’s big Oldsmobile with the green velvet seats and drove out to the abandoned black school on Old Thurman Highway. A spring had flooded the school’s basement with murky water and there was Joe’s bloated back and long arms floating amid the trash.

Dewayne and Meema didn’t say nothing, neither did the sheriff. Words didn’t make no sense.

Dewayne pulled the keys to grandpa’s tractor from the rows of keys hanging on Meema’s refrigerator and went out back to the barn. The grass cutter was already hitched up, so DeWayne turned the ignition and the old engine sputtered to life. The tractor vibrated fiercely under his body, humming so loud he couldn’t hear his thoughts. He drove it in straight lines, curving around the pecans trees, his head turned to watch the cutter blaze neat trails in the grass.

Coming up the road was his Cousin Della’s silver LS, a cloud of dust in its wake like a tail of a comet. Della wasn’t driving ‘cause she drove slow down the dirt roads, fearful one small rock would mar the paint job. Merri must be back in town. She slowed just enough to take the turn by the mailbox, then flew down the long drive. She didn’t wave or look at him; her eyes straight ahead, intent on some thought in her head. Guess that’s what them college professors do–see only the split infinitive and miss the entire essay.

He turned off the tractor and stepped down. Dirt dusted his skin. He removed his UGA hat and shook off the sweat.

She opened the car door and looked at him from over the car roof. Dark sunglasses concealed her eyes.

He waved, hearing his own sigh. Merri was one hard chick to deal with.

“Hey there, Merri. Thought you were back in Boston?”

She smiled–a fast, sassy city smile. “Mom said I needed to come back.”

“Ain’t you teachin’ up there?”

“In three months.”

Then they didn’t say nothing. Dewayne could see the sliver chain of the necklace Merri was hiding under her shirt. A pentacle like them mysterious Goth types. He had seen it slip out of her blouse at the funeral parlor last week.

“Listen, I hoped we could talk,” she said, taking her sunglass off. Her blue eyes squinted in the sun.

“You can always talk to me.”

“Somehow I think you say that to everyone.” He started to reply, but he wasn’t fast enough. She flicked her hand in a quick, dismissive wave. Inside the car, he could see a large thermos of coffee in the driver’s cup holder.

“Does Aunt Edna really believe someone killed Gram?”

He wasn’t about to explain nothing, especially to some skeptic professor type–pentacle or not. “Now, you know how Meema is. She gets idears in her head. Don’t you worry about it.”

She gave him a hard, accessing look. Dewayne went blank inside. He refused to give her what she was seeking.

She started again with a different tack. A soft smile lifted the edges of her lips–like she was still from the south. It looked uncomfortable on her face. “Maybe we could drive to Athens and get something to eat tonight?”

“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Dewayne said. He wished he could say no. But Merri was blood, even if she was a pain in the ass. Merri, her mother, and that whole side of the family always thought Meema weren’t right, ‘cept for Voila.

“Hey, I brought a potato casserole for Aunt Edna.”

“Well dang Merri, thanks for thinking us. I didn’t know you cooked? I bet you're one of them fancy-type cooks.” I bet you don’t where your kitchen is.

“Oh, mom made it.” She laughed all breezy-like.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chapter Two -- Tina

"It needs more cheese," Della Beaugarden said, making a squinchy face. When she did that, the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes deepened, making her look even more like her own recently departed mother. She had salt-and-pepper hair clipped at her nape in a silver barrette, and bifocals perched on her forehead. She was still wearing her Sunday dress, but had slipped into her bedroom shoes.

Meriweather put her hands on her hips. "Mama, that is a potato casserole. The main ingredient should be potato."

They were cooking in the enormous square kitchen that Meri had grown up in, wearing aprons that Gram herself had sewn, only Meri's covered up jeans and a black t-shirt. It was a formality, the apron, since Meri didn't actually participate in cooking. She'd skipped church, as always, and her mother was put out, as always

"Edna likes cheese," Della said, and went to the refrigerator, where she got out a block of red-waxed cheddar and took it to the grater for another go round.

Meri snorted. "She called me a turkey butt. Why should I care what she likes?"

"Don't be that way. You know how bad hospitals scare your aunt. You can't hold that against her."

"Tell that to the poor lab tech, the one she chucked the pudding at."

"He deserved it," her mother pronounced.

And he had, Meri admitted to herself. A careless oaf, he'd stuck her aunt's soft white arm with abrupt callousness. Edna had called him worse than turkey butt, then flung her chocolate pudding in his face, and Meri had laughed as the guy sputtered and fumed. But then she'd glimpsed the tears in her aunt's eyes, and she'd felt bad. Needles weren't funny, especially not inexpertly wielded ones.

Her mother was right about one thing, though -- Edna was scared, only it wasn't of the hospital. The hospital she could handle. The fear Meri had glimpsed that first night was bigger than ordinary fear, deeper too, and less containable. More like fear's feral cousin.

It had calmed under Dwayne's shushing and hand-holding, which had surprised Meri not one bit. Dwayne was the most solid person she knew, soft-spoken and sturdy. She told him once he was too normal to be a detective; detectives were quirky and eccentric and dark around the edges, she explained, like on TV or in the movies. Dwayne had laughed heartily at that.

Della tidied up the bright yellow haystack of cheese shreds and dumped them on top of the casserole, then popped it into the oven. Then she turned the light on and looked at it, like it was a naughty child she couldn't trust to behave. She'd been cooking since Gram's funeral, a totally unnecessary chore since the house was still full of sliced ham and macaroni salad and multiple baked goods. They'd had pineapple cake for breakfast, and there was still food coming, stews and casseroles and salads, all in containers with the owner's named taped to the bottom.

Grounding and centering, Meri knew. She did the same thing in ritual, with cakes and ale. Only she didn't bake them herself -- she got the nice lady at the bakery on the corner to do that. She thought about trying to bake her own sometimes, had even bought a cookbook. But she'd never opened it. It was as pointless as an apron in her world.

Looking at her mother, she wondered if perhaps the earthing quality of food came from someone actually getting their hands in the flour and sugar and butter. In the cheese, even.

Not Velvetta though. Meri was pretty sure Velvetta was an affront to the Goddess.

"Mama?" she said. "Did they ever figure out what Aunt Edna was talking about? When she kept saying Gram had been killed?"

Her mother frowned. "The doctors think her blood sugar went too low or something. Your grandmother wasn't killed -- she had a heart attack, pure and simple."

They didn't talk further, even though they both knew that Edna's sugar had been fine -- all her tests had been fine. Lucid as a summer day, Edna was. Dwayne had checked her out of the hospital that morning and taken her back to her house, this sprawling ramshackle place over by Lake Thurmond. He'd promised Meri and her mother he'd fill them in as soon as possible on what was going on. He said it with his eyes averted, which didn't mean that he was lying -- Dwayne never lied. It just meant he wasn't quite ready to share the truth.

Meri wiped her clean hands on her clean apron. She would have liked to have written the whole episode off as grief-related stress. But from the way Dwayne had gone all quiet as he listened to Edna's story, she knew that wasn't going to be the case, not this time.

"Have you heard from Dwayne?" she asked.

Della shook her head. "Have you?"

"No." Meri chewed her lip. "He's at Aunt Edna's, right?"


"So maybe I should give him a call? See if he's got this situation under control yet?"

Della pulled on a hot mitt and removed the potato casserole from the oven. "So maybe you should go over there and take this food with you. And then you can see for yourself."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

More Chapter One - Susanna

A full orange moon had crested over the lake when Edna drove home from Antioch Baptist church’s prayer circle. A Tupperware container of half-eaten broccoli salad (with bacon) and a bible covered in yellow quilted fabric lay beside Edna in the Buick.

It was an unlit, rural route with only the yellow line of the road and bugs drifting off the Lake Thurmond visible in the headlights. Edna slapped a mosquito on her neck, thinking how bad they were this year when a little girl appeared in the lights. The wind blew her brown hair, gathered in a white bow, so big on her head it looked like a cartoon sketch. Tiny bare feet poked out from her faded cotton dress. The highlights glared on her face, she didn’t flinch, her eyes were round and dilated and blue in the high beams. The only thing Edna could see was that blue, like the girl’s eyes had exploded inside Edna’s brain. Like when the Virgin Mary explodes inside her. Edna’s body heated and tingled.

She slammed the breaks, but the car flew through the girl, like she won’t there. Didn’t make no sound, just glided through her. The car skidded and spun, jolting Edna in her sit. Then all as still and quiet. She sat there, panting, old, out of shape.

She didn’t hear no bump she reminded herself. She didn’t hit nothin’, cause there was no bump. Her diabetes medicine was messin’ with her mind.

Then she saw the girl again, she weren’t hit but walking to the lake, right through the tall grass the county ain’t mowed in months.

Edna let the passenger’s window down two inches. “Honey you need some help?”

The girl turned and put her finger to her lips, then giggled, waving Edna towards her with a chubby hand. Just like at church camp sixty years before.

Esther grabbed the bible and slammed the gas, “Hep me Jesus, Hep me Jesus,” she prayed until the first sign of lights at the lonely Circle K. The Buick jumped the sidewalk and rammed the Polar ice freezer.

Edna rolled down the window. "Hep! Somebody done kilt my sister!" Then she fainted on the horn.

When she woke up, she recognized the white, cork-like tiles on the ceiling of the Greater Sweetwater Regional Hospital. That specialist woman who had helped Edna's late husband after his stroke pulled up a chair beside her. Against the wall, her country club niece sat in a chair, her leg bouncing impatiently over her knee. She had a tight tan face and blonde highlighted hair. Even in her pink floral shirt, she looked harsh, like her wrinkles had been tucked just a few times too many.

The specialist took Edna’s hand and pressed it like they do them frail, bony things over at the nursing home. “Edna, do you know the name of the President?”

Edna looked sharply at her niece. “You cain’t put me in a nursing home, you skinny turkey butt. Where’s my grandson?”

“Edna, do you know the name of the President?” The specialist asked again.

“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ until my grandson done gets here. Give me that phone. I’m gonna call Dewayne.”

The door opened and a tall, redheaded young man with sunburned freckled skin strode in. He wore khaki pants. His stomach protruded slightly through his white Tshirt with a big image of teeth-bared, droolin' bulldog -- the University of Georgia’s mascot. Clipped in his pants pocket was his detective’s badge.

He came to kneel beside Edna, his green eyes relaxed and unconcerned, cause he knew nothin’ was wrong with Edna. Her grandson could sniff trouble in folks like a dog to a squirrel.

“Mema, I’m so dang sorry. I’s in Athens at the game when they done called me on my cell.” He had that soft, slow voice, like a preacher coaxing rattlesnakes.

Edna clutched his hand, pulling him close to her mouth. “Dewayne. The gift came real hard. Somethin’s bad wrong.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Chapter One -- Tina

"Don't trust ghosts," Gram always said. "They're stupid. Can't even get being dead right."

Meriweather watched the clouds pass below, watched the silver wing spin contrails like will-o-wisps behind her. The man next to her snored robustly. At least she had this small slice of privacy -- a window and the great blue yonder ahead, with Sweetwater, Georgia far behind, far below.

"And don't truck with no middlin' spirits either," Gram warned. "That Ouija board nonsense. Any spirit that's got nothin' better to do than spell out stuff letter by letter is not a spirit with high quality information."

Meri smiled, then started to cry, then made herself stop. Gram would have pinched her for getting so sloppy about the funeral -- if Gram hadn't been the one in the casket.

"Dust," she would have said. "Fancy box full of dust. And only two people with sense enough to send plants with roots, and one of them your Aunt Edna, of course."

Score one for Edna, Meri thought. Her grandmother's sister had brought a spearmint plant to the funeral home, an explosion of tangled green tendrils that looked ridiculous amid the mums and roses and unnaturally pink carnations. But Gram would have loved the wild and weedy plant, even if Edna had stuck a ridiculous red bow on it. It was a real thing, a living thing, not a showy used-to-be thing that would wilt and go brown.

Meri sent a gardenia in a pot. Love, peace and healing.

But now it all was behind her -- black dresses and visitations and that sad dry grass at the cemetery -- and she was headed home, back to Boston, back to the crisp comfort of a real fall. She looked forward to sweaters again, to breathing air that wasn't heavy with moisture. To her book club, which was doing The Left Hand of Darkness at the new tea shop. And to her altar -- she missed her crystals and her candles and her tarot cards. It was a relief to wear her pentacle untucked from her blouse again, silver against her skin, obvious once more. She traced a finger over its contours.

So why did she have this tender achy spot, just below her breastbone, when she thought of home receding behind her? She rubbed the spot with her fingers, but it didn't abate. Squash casserole, she told herself. Too much Velveeta in it, which she shouldn't have had, not on top of the fried chicken and biscuits, not with such copious amounts of sweet tea.

Heartburn, she decided. Pure and simple.

Back in her apartment once again, she sat down her suitcase and stood in the dark. Such a relief, her apartment. All hers, all quiet. Tasteful and elegant, as befitting a newly hired English professor at a suddenly interesting university that US News and World report called "emerging." Well, soon enough anyway, she reminded herself, once spring semester started. Less than three months left to plan, to buy clothes, to finish decorating the large-ish closet that was to be her office . . .

She took a deep breath. There was time. Plenty of time.

The phone rang, startling her. Her palms tingled. She frowned and shook them violently, as if they'd fallen asleep, and picked up the telephone.

It was her mother. "You'd best get yourself back here," she said. "Your Aunt Edna's done gone off the deep end."