There for a while, when something made me think of my dead cousin Colbert, I’d lose my breath and couldn’t catch it. Last time it happened, me and my great-aunt June were at Dairy Dot eating corn dogs. Two Mormon boys started witnessing to us, and where Colbert had come back from Utah right before he died, I had an association. I started panting. My eyes rolled back. I fell out of the booth, and passed out on the Dairy Dot floor. One missionary boy tried the Heimlich on me, and June had to stop him breaking my ribs.
Next day June took me to our doctor, who said my breathing was fine. Said it might be stress. Asked did I have any stress in my life. I said no. She give me allergy medicine and sent me home.
A week later, June took me to see Della and Homer, North Carolina kinfolks of my uncle Hubert I hadn’t met before. Homer and Della were making sorghum that weekend, which I was interested in because I want to be a chef when I get out of school. We travelled a chilly Friday night. The high school football fields in Virginia and Tennessee and North Carolina were halogen volcanoes, boiling over with cheers and band music and names of local boys on loudspeakers. I slept most of the way.
I woke up in the front bedroom of Homer and Della’s house, buried under quilts on a high bed, surrounded by ancient pictures of Hubert’s family. I got up and went in the kitchen. Della stood at the stove, pony tail out the back of her ball cap, her hands walnut-stained. Homer, up in his fifties, wife dead and gone, shirts plaid, eyes clear and cold enough for trout, had both hands burned and bandaged up. He sat at the table, red tips of his fingers drumming the red checked tablecloth, waiting for his daughter Della to cut his sausage into bites.
After breakfast, Della went to her boss job at the grocery store. Homer went out to a shed building at the far end of the yard. I sat on Homer and Della’s porch, June inside on the phone. I heard June’s voice get high and then crack. She was talking to Momma.
Della and Homer’s house was under one highway and beside another. Their house looked like ours but more permanent, pretty stone wall holding the road out of the yard, concrete path up to the front porch, flowerdy bushes all over the place like checkers on a board.
June got off the phone, come out, sighed and said we was going right then to make sorghum.
I’d fell in love with sorghum back in Canard, back up a creek in this broad bottom, place they call Plumdiddle. This boy Daddy knew drove a school bus and he’d took a school bus gas tank and made a furnace of it and fixed a pan on top. He’d grown a stand of cane, fashioned a mill to grind it, got a donkey to turn the mill. He run off a batch of sorghum down in Plumdiddle last year and I tasted of it and it was like a golden brown sweet song sung by the ground it grew in. Sorghum is so beautiful standing in a jar, like motor oil you can eat. Sorghum never loses its outside no matter how long you keep it in the house. I wanted to put it in everything. I wanted to make a pop of it. I needed to know how to make it. I’d seen it made in Plumdiddle. But only once. In the dark. With my daddy running his mouth about how my cousin Colbert died. Now we were going to see how they made it in North Carolina. See how North Carolina ways compared to Plumdiddle’s.
I told June to come get me. Said “I know where you’re at. And I know you have to come right through here.”
June said, “Dawn, I don’t know when we’re coming back.”
Which is what I did not need to hear.
I said, “June, they’re gonna kill me. These people crazy.”
June said, “What are you talking about? You was just telling me how mellow Tennessee is.” June said all she ever heard me say was how peaceful my trailer park was, how it was all nice families and old people, big willow trees, bubbling brooks and shit.
I said, “That’s right, but these Trumpy motherfuckers moved in across the way have lost their minds since the election.”
She said, “We’re going to make sorghum today.” Said it all Mr. Rogers sounding.
I said, “June, three Confederate flag jacknuts are out there right now going through every mailbox in this trailer park. Right back of my house. Act like they own the place. Like somebody give them an asshole license and they mean to wear it out.”
June said, “They can’t last long, can they? Carrying on like that.”
I said, “June, that aint the point.” Said, “Point is how bad they going to ruin things before they get thrown out.”
There was sales flyers and campaign literature in amongst the tree leaves tumbling in the breeze at the foot of the row of thirty mailboxes out back of my trailer, envelopes torn open, AARP magazines scattered. It was all them locusts left, that and people peeping out their blinds, hunched inside the tin can walls of their trailers, air conditioners still blowing up in November.
I said, “Nicolette needs to come home.”
There come a knock on the door.
I said, “Who is it?”
There come another knock and I said, “Who is it?” again.
I got the pepper spray Willett left me, put it in my pocket. Peeped out, seen it was them three men. Their rusted-out five-color Dodge truck set blowing exhaust. Truck had a tool box, but them three was day workers. They didn’t work steady. They weren’t prosperous. I could tell by looking at them they thought they were part of what they were working for, but the people they were working for didn’t want no part of them. They was just barely hanging on. They was sorry. Pure sorry. That’s what I thought of them. That’s what I put on the Internet.
I sat against the door. When they started kicking it, I felt it in my back.
June said, “What’s going on?”
I said, “The fall of man, June. Read your damn Bible.”
June said, “Dawn, are you all right?”
I said, “June, that’s what I’m telling you. I am not all right.”
June said, “Where’s Willett?”
I said, “His momma’s, I reckon.”
One of them dudes said, “Get your Hillary supporting bitch ass out here.”
I said, “Go away.” Said, “Aint you scared they gonna burn the cross without you?”
June said, “Dawn, what the hell is going on?”
I heard them three get in their truck.
I said, “Nothing.” Said, “Yall have your fun down there in paradise.” And I hung up the phone.
Homer come up to where me and June was sitting on the porch.
Homer said, “Hear you want to learn about sorghum.”
I said, “I do.”
Homer said, “Cant learn it sitting on the porch.”
I looked at June and she said, “You go ahead. I’ll be there later.”
Me and Homer went out to his shed building in the backyard. Where he couldn’t use his hands, he had me haul out a galvanized garbage can had a bunch of wood tools made for skimming and stirring the sorghum. There was a screen for filtering it, rags and scrubbers and old pieces of ceiling tile they used for insulation. I put all that and a shovel in the back of his Chevrolet truck.
Homer said, “Can you drive?”
I said, “I reckon.”
We went to the shiny store at the foot of the big road exit ramp. Shiny store had a beer cave had another two galvanized garbage cans with plastic bag liners, both full plumb to the top with snot green juice, the juice they squeezed from the cane.
The woman working the store had a gap tooth smile and high shoulders. She had a puffball of bangs and the rest of her hair was straight. She come and took one handle of the first garbage can, said, “Can you handle your end?”
I took hold of the garbage can and we walked it out to the truck, heaved first one then the other of them juice cans in the truck bed.
When we got the juice loaded, the woman worked in the store said, “This your new girl, Homer?”
Homer scratched his nose with the tip of his thumb, said, “Could be.”
Store woman said, “She seems a good hand.”
Homer said, “Seems so.”
Store woman said, “I sure wish I was going with you.”
Homer said, “Come on. They’ll be a gang.”
Store woman said, “Got to work.”
Homer said, “You want me to take the spent cane up to your place?”
Store woman smiled, said, “Lord, yes. Them goats’ll kiss your lips if you do.”
We left the store woman telling a man real sweet he couldn’t buy a Monster drink with his EBT card. We went back to the house, got Homer’s other truck, an old work truck had FARM USE tags, full of the crushed cane been run through the mill. We went to the store woman’s house. Homer give me a pair of work gloves.
Homer said, “That cane’ll cut you.”
Homer had me back the truck up to where it was almost touching the electric fence hemming in the goats, told me to get in the truck bed, rake the cane out to where the goats could get it. The goats come trotting, started grinding that cane in their sidewinding jaws. One boy goat, too slight for first dibs, set his square eyeballs on me, and my breath caught like it had at home, and my stomach seized, there standing in the back of Homer’s work truck.
Homer said, “Mind that wire. It’ll burn you up.”
I stepped back from the edge of the tailgate. Boy goat found his way to the fodder, and breath come again.
Homer said, “You all right?”
Homer closed the tailgate, and we went back to the house to swap out trucks.
Half-hour after my Trumpy neighbors got gone, here come my husband Willett. He’d been sleeping at his mother’s cause she was afraid somebody would break in on her. Afraid a tree might fall on her. Afraid a trick or treater might go serial on her. Afraid of something.
Willett brought me a Whitman’s Sampler of candy his mother gave to him. She don’t like Whitman Samplers. She don’t like not knowing what’s inside. Not knowing what you’d bit into until it’s too late. I started in on them chocolates like it was my job to eat them. One after another. Creams. Caramels. Didn’t matter.
Willett said, “What are you doing behind the chair?”
I wadded a handful of chocolate papers together, said, “Do you even have any idea where your daughter is, Willett?
He said, “Down there making sorghum with June, aint she?”
I rolled over on my hands and knees, stood up, said, “I’m raising that child by myself.”
He said, “Why you over there in the corner?”
I put the wad of chocolate papers in Willett’s hand, said, “Cause you’ve left me to the wolves, Willett.” Said, “They’re wolves at the door.”
Willett peeped out the blind, said, “They’s wolves?”
I said, “Not actual wolves, Willett.” Said, “That bunch of rednecks moved into the yellow trailer other side of Travis.”
He said, “Mad as you get when you get called a redneck, I don’t see how you can call somebody else that.”
I said, “It’s a figure of speech, Willett. These dogdicks don’t have necks.”
Willett said, “What’d they do?”
I said, “Come banging on the door telling me to get my ‘Hillary voting bitch ass out there.’”
Willett said, “They actually said that?”
I said, “Yeah, Willett. They actually did.”
He said, “Did you answer the door?”
I said, “Hell no, I didn’t answer the door.”
He said, “Did you have your pepper spray?”
I said, “Willett, you got me that dinky ass can of pepper spray aint going to do shit and left me out here in a ideological combat zone while you stay in the boosheeist safest neighborhood on earth with your paranoid booshee mother and ask did I get out my pepper spray?”
Willett said, “Did you?”
I pulled that pepper spray out, stuck it in his face, said, “Boy, you got some jacked up ideas about what being married is.”
His bottom lip trembled and his eyes welled up, standing there in his navy blue golfing shirt.
He said, “I don’t understand what gets into you, Dawn.”
I threw that pepper spray can, hit him across the bridge of the nose, said, “Boy, didn’t nothing get into me.” Said, “What you think? Think demonic possession enters into it?”
He said, “No. That’s not what I’m saying.”
I said, “The world’s got scary, Willett. It’s normal to be scared when things are actually scary.”
He rubbed the raw spot I’d knocked in his nose, said, “I aint never heard you say you was scared before.”
I said, “I aint scared, Willett.” Said, “I’m stressed out is what I am. Losing my mind is what I’m doing.”
He said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about it.” Then he said, “Maybe you need something to get you out of the house. Be good for your spirit. Get you some Vitamin D. Besides, Cora’s money gonna run out soon, aint it? I know you wanted to put some back for Nicolette’s college.”
I said, “Willett, this aint the time.”
Willett slid two fudge rounds out of the box sitting on the counter, said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry them guys come in on you like that.” Said, “Are they still here?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
Willett shoved in a fudge round, said, “Yeah.”
The sampler chocolate kicked in and the air in my head calmed.
I said, “Is your mother ok?”
He said, “I guess.”
Willett shoved in a second fudge round, said, “This political climate is disturbing.”
I said, “Tell me about it.”
Willett said, “Did you talk to Nicky?”
I said, “Talked to June.”
Willett come and put the top of his head against my shoulder. He said, “Did it sound like they was having a good time?”
I said, “Yeah. It did.”
Willett slurped his slobber back in, said, “That’s good.”
I bumped Willett’s head off my shoulder. I loved him, but I didn’t want him slobbering fudge round on my house shoes.
I said, “You gonna be here a while?”
He said, “Yeah. Til I have to go to work.”
I went back to bed. Since my lord and protector was on the premises.
When Dawn went to sleep, I walked to the yellow trailer where the Trumpy dudes lived. I went up the trailer steps, heard whooping and cussing. Shooting. Stuff crashing and blowing up. Metal music. They were playing a video game I knew. It was easy.
I knocked. The door didn’t open. One of them hollered, “Go to hell!”
I come down off the steps, and peeped in the window standing on a five-gallon bucket. A wet pair of pants hit the window from inside and cracked it. I fell backward off the bucket and hit my head against the edge of a picnic table. Before the stars got gone from my eyes, three guys stood over me. The bald one kicked me to get up.
I said, “Hey, fellas. How yall doing? Nice day, isn’t it? Sky so blue.” All of which was hard to say with that one putting the boot to the side of my head.
I finally stood up, said, “The wife said yall come over this morning. I thought maybe you needed help with something.”
The big red-bearded one said, “What the hell you talking about?”
I said, “Well, we live in that blue and white trailer over next to the mailboxes.”
The one with the one long eyebrow said, “Boy, you got us mixed up with somebody else.” Said, “We been in this trailer all day long.”
The bald one said, “Whether we was or wasn’t, you best be careful whose windows you’re peeping in.”
The red-bearded one said, “We don’t need no pervs.”
I said, “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just thought maybe you didn’t hear me knocking.” Then I said, “Hey! You fellers don’t need a pumpkin, do you? My mom got a whole bunch of pumpkins at the farmers market and she can’t use them all. You need one?”
The one with the one eyebrow said, “Where they at?”
I said, “Over at my vehicle. You want me to bring some over?”
The bald one said, “We’ll come get them.”
I come back over to our trailer and got in the trunk of my vehicle and got two pumpkins. I took them back and set them on them dudes’ porch. I walked back looking in the different piles of junk out front of people’s houses. Somebody had thrown out a green glass vase of plastic roses made me think of that song “Give them their flowers while they’re living” and of a Hare Krishna dude I seen one time in Knoxville in his orange and pink robes, shiny bald head with dark pinpoints where his black hair had been.
That Hare Krishna dude handed out flowers to show his transcendental ohm-cheesy-cheesy happiness and utter inner calm. I admired that, so I pulled one of them faded plastic roses from the bunch and closed my eyes and concentrated on making my spirit pure generosity and ego-less flowing goodness, kind of centered myself there on the gravel road run through the Willow Way trailer park. I took that faded plastic rose back to the yellow trailer and laid it on them dudes’ black Dodge pickup so they’d be reminded there was love in the world. I thought maybe my small act of kindness would melt the ice packed in around their hearts, that maybe they’d be changed men and not be robbing people’s mailboxes and hassling women who were already straining under the weight of the world, beset by the danger posed by fragile American manhood.
Me and Homer rode up the misty bottom along a trifling creek, houses on either side, fields recently shed of corn and sorghum, cabbage and beans. After a mile, we turned right and stopped at a house where the mill and fire pit set. The mule, church tall and solid, brayed and honked and the sound bounced off the sides of the holler. Three men stood by the mill talking and spitting. When they seen us, they cut down a sapling twelve foot long and stripped it. They fixed one end of the sapling pole to the top of the mill, which had two drums of steel set not an inch apart, attached to gears. They hooked the other end to the harness bar. They hitched the mule to the harness. Me and Homer set out his stuff by the pit. The men set the mule walking the raw dirt path that circled the mill.
I asked the youngest of the men, bearded in a trucker hat, how long they’d been making sorghum there.
He spit his tobacco, said, “Aint never not.”
A second man, had a silver moustache, said, “That aint entirely true.”
Three giants come in the back of a truck, their spindly daddy driving. They brung a stainless steel pan, four foot across and ten foot long, scorched black across the bottom, had baffles let you push the juice back and forth from the back of the pan to the front. Front end of the pan had a built in spout.
The fire pit was three cinderblocks high on either side. At one end was a chimney. The other end was open. The giants piled firewood in the pit, good dry oak. They lay beer cartons and junk mail on top of the wood. They set the pan on the pit, packed it in with red clay dirt left over from the pitchers mound at the high school ball field. They put a lighter to the paper and the fire caught and grew. They filled the pan with water. The water soon started bubbling. They poured the snot green cane juice in the end farthest from the chimney, a little at first. A handful of rags separated the juice from the water. The giants used the pile of rags to push the water forward, back and forth between the baffles. A whole row filled with juice, then a second, the water at the front of the pan boiling harder.
The men stood with their elbows against the shed. They stood with their hands in their pockets. They stared into the pan. They talked about what interested them. About nothing.
The youngest giant had been making money. “Been flipping trucks,” he said. “Buy them for five hundred, take them back to Granny’s, wash them, detail them, sell them for eight, twelve hundred.”
Man said, “Your granny still sell liquor?”
The youngest giant said, “People still drinking it?”
They pulled the wood plug at the front end of the pan, let the boiling water run out into a bucket. My job was to dump the steaming bucket at the edge of the woods. When half the pan was filled with juice, a scum rose to the surface of the juice, and we skimmed the scum with blocks of wood an inch thick and a bit narrower than the space between the baffles. We lay the wood blocks on the juice’s surface, and the scum stuck to it. We scraped the scum into another bucket.
Della came from work, tended the fire, kept it like Homer said to. The juice browned as it moved forward. When it browned too fast, Homer had one of them dip the juice out, move it back in with the cooler, greener juice. They would dip into the brown, move the juice back into the green, so the cooking stayed slow, so the browning came even.
While the juice cooked, the mule made its rounds. A woman and her two young daughters come in a van with two women with guitars and fiddles. The daughters lay the cut end of the cane next to the mill. The woman sat in a chair, her cheeks red as bathroom plungers, stuck the butts of the cane between the drums of the mill. The drums crushed the cane, and the juice drained through a screen into a tub. When the tub filled, the giants took it to the garbage can beside the pit and poured it into the can.
One of the men said something about seeing a truck broke down at the mouth of a holler called Muttertown. Said, “I sure feel sorry for him. Broke down in Muttertown. Good way to get killed.”
The giants’ spindly daddy said, “Nobody never had no trouble in Muttertown was minding their own business.”
June said, “You live in Muttertown?”
The spindly daddy spit, said, “Where you from?”
June said, “Canard County. Kentucky.”
The spindly daddy lit a cigarette, said, “I married into Muttertown.”
I said, “I’d like to go there some time.”
The spindly daddy said, “I been to Canard.”
June said, “That right?”
He said, “That was a rough place. Still that way?”
June smiled, said, “Not if you’re minding your business.”
He said, “My sister went to Berea to make a nurse. We was bringing her home Easter. Stopped in Canard for lunch. Somebody’d stole her suitcases out of the truck while we was eating.”
June said, “I’m sorry.”
He said, “Don’t reckon it was you.”
Another man spoke. “We went up there, to Canard, to play football one time. They was a man sat in the end zone with a shotgun across his lap dare you to score. They’d throw rocks at you when you was leaving. Had to wear your helmet on the bus.”
The men laughed. Della threw wood on the fire. Homer stood at the far end of the pan and directed me and the giants. June hadn’t told Della about Hubert killing Little Colbert while he was on top of me, trying to make a woman of me.
Make a woman of me. Way Little Colbert put it.
Homer told us how to stir the juice. He told us how to push the juice back and forth along the baffles. He hemmed and hawed at the men, beat his bandages against his hips. It killed him not to do it himself.
Homer said, “You aint in no hurry.”
It got warm, the sun full on us when the men got to talking about politics.
The middle giant said, “They need to build that wall. They’s too many of them. I don’t mind a few. But they’s getting to be too many.”
“Like the deer,” another said.
“Like the bear,” said the third.
Their spindly daddy said, “They need a longer season on them damn bear. Mexicans too.”
Nobody laughed. Nobody called bullshit either.
I was on the opposite side of the pan from the giants’ spindly daddy. The ridge above his head was covered with Christmas trees, all lined up in rows, like quotation marks without a word to say.
I watched the sorghum. I looked into Homer’s eyes.
“Frog eyes,” he said.
“Frog eyes,” I said back to him.
The spindly daddy looked out over the bottom to the mill. He said, “Used to be when we’d do this, you’d have two three hundred people here. Different musicians playing all night long. Kids running around. Look now. Bunch of old men standing out in the cold.”
I looked around. The giants was older than me, but they was still boys, and they got quiet, looked down, tried to seem older. Two young women sat on hay bales between us and the mill playing fiddle and guitar. The two young women sang “Bam a lam. Black Betty had a child. Bam a lam. Damn things gone wild.” They sang it country style. Then they laughed.
Spindly daddy said, “World’s gone to hell.”
Homer said, “Yellowjacket.” And scooped one out got caught in the juice.
Della looked up from the fire, said, “Abraham, how’s your mother doing?”
Spindly daddy said, “Hanging in there. Sure is. There every time the church doors open.”
Della said, “Good woman, your mother.”
Homer said, “Boys, I’m gonna take me a wiz.”
Young giant said, “One good thing about pissing in the woods. You don’t have to worry about lining up next to no homo in a dress.”
Another said, “Aint that a shame we have to make a law about the like.”
Third giant said, “I heard they might take the NBA All-Star game away from Charlotte over it.”
Spindly daddy said, “Good riddance.”
The sun dipped behind the ridge. The daughters made a fire for the women playing music at the hay bales. The women sang like birds in a high tree.
I wished my friend Pinky was there. My friend Pinky could sing. Pinky’s mother had been with every type of bad man there was. A Whitman’s sampler of shitbirds. One of them made Pinky and her mother sleep in the car in the dead of winter. Pinky got through ok, but her mother got bronchitis. They prescribed her Oxy. That’s how she got hooked on pills. She always held that against Pinky. More than one of Pinky’s mother’s men had taken it on theirselves to make a woman of Pinky.
If Hubert hadn’t stopped little Colbert from getting after me, I would know more how Pinky feels. What it is like to be Pinky.
Little Colbert’s face was already red when he was on top of me, red from fighting the forest fires. It got redder still as he tried to rape me. But the blood drained right out of his face when Hubert busted him with the skillet and killed him. He got right pale then.
That was the difference between me and Pinky. I knew who would kill somebody for me. Because they had.
When my breath locked up making sorghum, Della carried me away from the pit, to the edge of the woods, set me on a bed of pine needles. The sun come in on us straight, hard and warm, filled my eyes. Della took my hands, rubbed the top of them with her thumbs, told me I was ok, told me to focus on her hands on mine. Told me to keep my eyes closed. Told me I was a miracle.
Della said, “Baby, you’re a miracle. You’re a miracle.”
My breath caught. I opened my eyes. Della looked at me happy and surprised.
Della said, “You all right?”
I said yes.
Della left me on the pine needles. I lay my head back. I put my hands out on the needles. The mill kept turning. The men’s voices burbled and broke into laughter. I slept. When I woke, the sun had left the cove and shadows covered the sorghum works. The cane was ground. The mule stood tied by a long rope to a pine tree, eating grass, stamping his foot.
I went back to the pit. A man said, “Did we wear you out?”
I said I guessed so.
They poured new juice into the back end of the pan. Finished sorghum ran out the pipe at the other end near constantly.
I asked how much they’d made.
Homer said near ten gallons.
I asked was that good.
Homer said, “Pretty good.”
I went and stood beside Della.
One of the giants was about to pull the plug and let finished sorghum run into the bucket. Homer put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, told the boy to shine his phone’s light on the sorghum. He looked. He dipped his paddle into the sorghum, watched the drops run off.
He said, “Wait for it to come in sheets.”
The boy giant dipped again and watched the boiling sorghum run.
Homer said, “Take it.”
The giant boy hesitated.
Homer said, “Boy, you’re gonna scorch it,” reached across him, pulled the wooden plug with his fingertips. The sorghum poured golden through the flashlight, through the screen.
June said hey at my ear and put a blanket over my shoulders. I left it there a minute and then took it off, folded it, put it under my arm.
I said, “I think I’m ok to go.”
Homer stepped away from the pan, said, “Girl, come fish me out a cigarette.”
He leaned over and I took a pack of Winstons out of his shirt pocket and a lighter out of his pants pocket. I stuck the cigarette in his mouth and lit it.
Homer said, “I was gonna let you make the call on when this next batch is ready.”
I didn’t believe him. He hadn’t let nobody but Della do any thinking since they’d been there.
Homer said, “I see you watching. I know you got your ideas about how its done. You can’t know you can do it until you’ve done it.”
I said, “All right.”
Homer said, “You want the boil to look like frog eyes.”
I said, “They’s a temperature too, aint they?”
He said, “Two hundred and twenty-eight degrees.”
He handed me the thermometer.
He said, “Don’t let it touch bottom. Bottom hotter than the juice.”
There wasn’t steam coming off the sorghum when it got towards done. At the end, everything started going fast.
The oldest giant said, “Old dude, that’s mine she fixing. Don’t you let that youngun ruin my sorghum.”
Homer said in my ear, “Don’t listen to him.” Said to everybody, “She mess this up, I’ll give you the whole batch. All ten gallons.”
Oldest giant said, “Well all right, then.”
Homer said, “But if she gets it right, you give me all the pork meat I can pack off in one trip.”
Man said, “One trip?”
Homer said, “One trip.”
Della said, “Daddy, there aint no call for that.” Then to me she said, “Don’t listen to them, Nicky. You don’t have to be part of their foolishness.”
Homer said, “She aint scared. Are you, baby?”
I bent down over the pan. I had the thermometer in my hand, ready to dip it in. I leaned in, and I dropped it. The thermometer busted against the scum bucket.
One of the giants said, “Now she’s done it.”
The other said, “What are we gonna do with all that sorghum?”
Homer had his bandaged hand on me. The sorghum rolled in piles. I saw the sorghum-colored frog eyes, sure as if they were peeping out the water at pond’s edge.
I said, “Set that bucket.”
Giant said, “Are you sure?”
I took the pusher from Homer. Took a dip, let it run in sheets off the end. I moved the bucket myself. Pulled the plug, raked the sorghum into the screened bucket. Left a skim of juice to cover the pan, pulled the rags, let greener juice run over the place we’d just drained. Raked it all together. Stirred.
I said, “Della, squirt the fire, would you?”
She turned a hose on the wood, sprayed, hissed, cooled. I stirred. Exhaled.
Homer twisted a chunk of cane in the foam on the screen. He handed it to the mouthy giant.
Homer said, “Try that.”
The mouthy giant knocked Homer’s bandaged hand away.
Homer grinned, stuck that cane in his mouth, pulled it out sorghum clean.
Della handed me a foam-loaded chunk of cane. I tasted the sorghum, warm and full in my mouth.
I said, “MY GOD,” before I even thought.
Everybody but the giants and their spindly daddy laughed. June put her arm around me. My face felt sticky from standing over the sweet steam all day, but I felt better. I felt myself wanting to work.
The giants and their spindly daddy got their sorghum and left. We stayed until we ran the last drop. Fourteen gallons in all. We stayed until Della had drowned the fire, until the pan was scrubbed clean, until the sorghum was split up, until the tools were cleaned and loaded in the truck.
Back at Della and Homer’s, I took me a good long shower. When I come out, I smelled my smoky sweet jeans and hoodie. Felt strong. Slept right through the buzz of Pinky’s 4am text.
When Willett told me he’d lay the plastic rose of peace and harmony on the windshield of those Trumpy motherfuckers’ truck, I looked at him ice cold, said, “You and your Gandhi bullshit.”
He said, “We have to try.”
I said, “You know that bald one grabbed me by the snatch don’t you?”
Willett said, “Do what?”
I said, “Grabbed me right here. Right out there at the mailboxes. Me commando in a pair of ball shorts.”
Willett said, “Why?”
I said, “He said, ‘You better get used to it.’”
Willett said, “What did that mean?”
I said, “Willett, honey, now Trump’s president that kind of grabbing aint even gone be illegal.”
Willett said, “Yeah, it will.”
I said, “Baby, that’s presidential behavior now.”
He said, “Surely not in the Willow Way trailer park it aint.”
I said, “That’s America rising. That’s who we are now.”
He balled up like he was gonna cry.
I said, “Baby, what did you think?”
He said, “I didn’t think it was going to be everywhere.”
I had to walk away from him. I didn’t want to think it’d be everywhere either. Course it was. Always had been. But now the meanness was out and gone. Serving no master. Urge and urge and urge. Bow wow wow yippy yo yippy yay.
But I didn’t know how to tell Willett that. Lord love him. I drew him close, put him in a love headlock, said, “Come here, baby.”
We went out into the yard. I told him about a summer day when I was ten, out in Mamaw Cora’s yard on Long Ridge. It was evening and the light was bad liver yellow. I dropped my arm from around Willett’s neck, held his hand, walked him in my mind from Mamaw’s snowball bush to her hydrangeas to her Rose of Sharon, to her crepe myrtle to her weeping cherry, to her pink dogwood to her white dogwood. I walked him out Mamaw’s driveway. Yellow ginko leaves filled the driveway, gave way to hemlock shadow and needle fall. I led him into the public way, singing Aretha Franklin, into every life some rain must fall. I led him down the hill to Cora’s front yard.
I pointed to a spot. There was an oak, spread wide in the yard. There were two swings hanging from the tree. One for me, one for my lost brother Albert. Against the bank there was a fire. They was burning trash.
Ten year old me stood tangled in my swing. Short pants. White shirt. Hair stringy. My face pink and shiny as the inside of a dog’s mouth. The air was perfect, sweet as pop. Then the mosquitoes found me. Maybe it was just one. One gluttonous bug. Whatever it was it come fierce. Bit my ankles and elbows. Bit all up and down my leg. Had to be twenty bites.
I told Willett how there had been a restaurant in a stone building across from the place where them mosquitoes bit me, fix you pork chops so good and greasy. And after that went out, some friends of Hubert lived there, friends of Big Colbert.
Way the mountain was cut, from the front of that store, you could see the lights of Canard, cupped in the paw of Blue Bear. I saw myself a child, feet bare, an open buffet for mosquitos, the sky orange above the purple-gray ridge. A stranger sat at a white painted metal table beneath a mulberry tree front of that building. Stranger known to ten year old me, me sick from so many mosquito bites, my calf bit, between my toes bit, elbow bit. My knee bit. Me woozy from so many mosquito bites. Me neither here nor there.
If only I could see the mosquito.
Stranger got up from the white painted table, a man tall and wavy headed. Like I like. I dug at my mosquito bites. Seen him out the corner of my eye. Would have give anything to see him clear. Anything to get a clean smack at him. I bent over, staring at my legs, waiting for him, praying for him. He wouldn’t never. I couldn’t breathe. So many bites. I stood up, tangled in the backyard, my blood weary from bites. I stood up, tangled in the swing. I closed my eyes, rope wrapped around me. That man’s whiskey breath on me. He took me by the chin, kissed me square.
The mosquito bites quit itching. I started passing out. My eyes closed, him honeymoon kissing me, him trying to eat me. Just as I was letting go, letting him take me, there was a whack. A whack whack whack whack.
I opened my eyes. My granny Cora and my papaw Houston beat the shit out of that man. Houston with an orange broomstick, Cora with a red one. They wailed on that stranger man with the wavy hair—granny Cora like he was a snake, hammering down on him from above, like he was firewood she needed to burn, papaw Houston like he was a baseball, his bottom lip tucked between his teeth, slicing level at that man’s ribs.
And they didn’t never strike each other’s sticks. They were like two tree choppers, like they’d worked together in the log woods for a hundred years.
The stranger went down. I come untangled from the swing, stepped away, back towards the fire, watched Houston and Cora finish with that man. I set near the fire, not so many bugs.
I told Willett that story for the first time that day in the Willow Way Trailer Park, day of the Trumpy motherfuckers. By that time we were at a fire pit by the creek at the trailer park’s edge. I said, “Willett, why don’t you start a fire?” He did. First he ever started without help from me.
We set by it. Didn’t no bugs bother us.
The Trumpy dudes come back. They roared over to their trailer then in a minute come roaring back. The one with the one big eyebrow jumped out, took one of them pumpkins and smashed it against the front door of our trailer. Then he got the other one and threw it off the window of Willett’s car. Set off the car alarm. Then he got back in the truck and they drove off.
The car alarm went on and on. Nobody come out.
I said, “Willett, you got your key?”
He said, “Do what?”
I said, “Give me your key.”
He reached in his shorts and handed me the fob. I hit a red button on it. The alarm stopped.
On the way back to Canard, back to my granny Cora’s house on Long Ridge, June said the talk at the pit was hard to listen to. Said, “They didn’t used to be like that.”
I said, “We didn’t go to make friends.” But that sounded mean. So I also said, “I like Homer and Della.”
We stopped to see Pinky. There was a woolly dog chained in Pinky’s Trumpy cousin’s yard. Dirtiest dog I ever seen. There were robot toys lined up along the porch rail. Pinky was quilt-wrapped on the couch. Her Trumpy cousin petted on her. Their babies slept on the floor. There were snot-caked Kleenexes everywhere.
Pinky had given her shitbird baby daddy all the money she’d saved. Gave it to him to pay the bills but he’d spent it on RC cars and betting on video games. So she was at her cousin’s crying cause her juice and water had been cut off.
Me and Pinky went out on the porch. We talked a little, did a selfie.
I said, “I love you, Pinky.”
She said, “I love you more.”
Granny Cora’s house had lay empty since Cora died and Momma went to Tennessee. The flowerdy bushes in the yard had dropped their blooms and gone to dry bones. Granny’s herb pots were bare dirt. The cut tin planets and stars and beat flat forks of her chimes still tinkled.
Mom and Dad were in the front room. Momma sat on the couch with a white dollar store bag over her head.
Hubert was fixing chili in the kitchen. I set two quart jars of sorghum on the counter.
I said, “Met your kinfolks.”
Uncle Hubert said, “My kinfolks? You don’t claim them?”
I said, “I don’t know. Some.”
Hubert took the lid off one jar, stuck his pinky in. Tasted. Said, “Don’t work that way, Tinkerbell.”
I said, “Well.”
June said, “What do you think?”
Hubert said, “Purty fair.”
In the front room, June said, “How was your weekend?”
Baghead Momma gave us a thumbs-up.
June said, “Want us to cut you some eyeholes?”
Momma said, “No.”
Hubert came in with a bowl of chili. He said to my mother, “What’s the matter with you?”
My mother said, “There aint nothing the matter with me. What’s the matter with you?”
Dad said, “She has dicks at her trailer park.”
Hubert said, “That aint nothing new.”
Dad said, “One of them grabbed her by the privates.”
Hubert ate two bites of chili. Then he said, “You all right?”
Momma said, “I reckon.”
Hubert took another spoonful of chili. Wiped his beard.
Hubert said, “What shall we do?”
Momma said, “You could fix me something to eat. I’m starved.”
There came a freakish heavy snowstorm, snowed all night, stranded us. Hubert fixed an apple stack cake. He used sorghum I’d brought back from North Carolina. Took him the better part of a day to stew the dried apples he had hanging on strings in his attic, to bake the seven cake layers one at a time in the black skillet. He wouldn’t let us eat none of it for days. Said it had to sit.
Middle of the third night, after we’d all gone to bed, Momma threw the stack cake out in the yard. It went sailing, still on its plate, across the snow down towards the tree swing.
She was sitting on the porch swing next morning, still with the bag on her head, in a hoodie and flannel pants. I lost my temper at her because of all the work I’d put into making the sorghum and the work Hubert put in making the cake.
I shook the chain of the porch swing like I wanted to shake her. She didn’t budge. Didn’t act like I’d done a thing.
I said, “Why Momma?”
Momma said, “I was sitting out there on the porch and the moon rose up like a ghost, foggy and gauzy. The moon kept rising, and the gauze fell away. The moon hung high and naked in the sky. Bright white like a tax check washing machine.”
I said, “Momma, take that bag off your head.”
Momma said, “The lights on the ridge looked like embers, like fire dying. Like eyes staring at me staring at the naked moon.”
I said, “Momma.”
She said, “Now I know. Now I know who to learn off of. It’s the old people. But not just any old people. The old people full of love. The old people hard to see. That don’t show theirselves cause love’ll get you killed. Love is dangerous, Nicolette.”
I said, “I know, Momma.”
Momma stood. She went in the house. Lay down on the couch.
Pinky’s baby daddy Stevie come banging on the storm door. He pulled it open, was going to come in the house. I got in his way. Stevie said Pinky made a fire of all his RC cars, video games, wrestling figures, Pokemon cards. When he asked her why she said cause I said it was a good idea. He said me and Pinky was going to pay him back for all his shit.
I went into myself, tried to get centered, tried to calm myself, like Dad had taught me.
Pinky’s baby daddy pushed the storm door shut, banged me in the nose. A red broomstick fell from behind the door. I picked it up and backed Stevie into the yard and busted him across the knees. I was a ninja. He went down, and I was about to bust him across his face when Momma stopped me, that bag still over her head. She told Stevie he needed to go home.
When Stevie got gone, Momma said, “Them embers on the ridge was like men’s eyes. Watching that naked woman moon.”
I said, “I know, Momma.”
Momma took the bag off her head, said, “They aint gonna chase me off love. They aint gonna chase you off it, neither.”
I said, “OK, Momma.”
Hubert come around the side of the house and rescued his stack cake. I held the door while he set the lopsided cake on the counter, brushed the snow and grass off it, cut the cake into pieces.
Dad took the red broomstick from my hands, pulled an orange broomstick from behind the door and put them both in his vehicle. He come back in and we ate the stack cake. Hubert had made it moister and sweeter than the old people made it, so my dad would eat it. Kingsport stack cake he called it.
My phone pinged. The text from Pinky said, “Why am I even here?”
June had always had curly bobbed hair. But she’d gotten gray and her curls had give up the ghost and her hair was mostly straight. Her hands was still beautiful long but they’d got spotty and looked made of peanut brittle. June didn’t have no children but she was a granny by nature.
June said, “Don’t you let that Pinky break your heart.”
Hubert leaned on the kitchen counter sucking a sorghum lollypop. He pointed at the letters Granny Cora left hanging above the table. They was letters for celebrating birthdays, and for making us feel better about ourselves. They hung there always. Hubert smiled at me.
I asked Momma the other day if she remembered what them letters said.
She said, “Nicolette, honey, I have no idea.”
Robert Gipe. Harlan, Kentucky.
Call and Response is a photo-literary exploration devoted to the relationship between photographs and words. Using photographs from the Looking at Appalachia project, writers are encouraged to respond narratively to a single image in 1,000 words or less. We hope to use this platform to expand our community and encourage collaboration between photographers and writers. Learn more about how to submit here.