The lowly roads of grit and stone brought Actress home. She surrendered her Jeep near the highway, parked it beside a dense imbroglio of pokeweed and gutted cardboard. Daybreak percolated below a broad swath of Kwanzan cherry trees, scattering immaculate light across Cornelius Lancaster’s tobacco field.
She left this place wearing river-soaked Nike knockoffs forty years earlier, and so it seemed proper that she return in the same manner: the clothes on her back, with an over-sized purse for the necessaries. Instead of the lick-and-stick tattoos she once adored, she now wore the real things, intricate etchings she collected from downtown parlors and off-ramp strip malls.
Her mother: You have no common sense, girl. You’re confusing chickens with horses again.
– I wish I hadn’t mentioned Ellie to you. I wish you never met her.
She did all right for herself. You can ask her, she’s right here.
– No, Ma. That was a long time ago. I knew there were stories, and I closed my ears to them.
Stories? Ask her, she’ll tell you. She’s tired of waiting, tired of wanting. You had her phone number in your change purse for twenty-three years, long enough for the ink to bleed into the lining. That scrap of paper smelled like old pennies when you were done with it. An anthropologist couldn’t have read those words.
– There were no words, Ma, just her number.
Of course, there were words. I bet you still have that piece of paper squirreled away somewhere, maybe folded in the back of an old copy of Mademoiselle, or between those fancy garter belts you used to hide, scuppered under a layer of cotton panties. I knew about those, you know. I wasn’t snooping, but Lord Jesus Christ, girl. You kept that scrap because of what she wrote. I’m guessing there were just a few words. I don’t know what they were, but they were probably the heaviest things you ever carried. Sure, you memorized them, of course you did, recited them in front of a hundred sleazy bathroom mirrors, maybe had them tattooed on your hip, the one that gives you so much trouble. What does it matter now, they were only the words of a young girl. So go ahead and ask her, little Actress. Ask your girl Eloise how the years have been since you left. I’m sure she has more than a few words straining to get out.
– Ma, talking to you is like staring into five loaded chambers. I’m tired.
Well, come on, then. I’ll be waiting.
The road was more compact than Actress remembered; it was diminished, really. The gravel was shallow and meager, randomly scraped down to the gray dirt. Rhododendron shrubs pushed against the road from both sides, drooping from humidity, pale lavender flowers in states of decay and disarray, scentless, ridiculously excessive. A thin daylight moon hung overhead, a scimitar blade ready to carve out old wounds.
– Old wounds, indeed.
Hello, Missus. Good morning to you.
Actress saw Preacher Eli standing in the doorway of the Embury Methodist Church. He was an old man back then, surely in his sixties, and she could still remember his blue-veined Old Testament hands. He stood in profile, but she saw his hair had turned from nicotine yellow to Just For Men brown. It was unkempt and drifted below the ratty collar of a t-shirt commemorating The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls Tour. He was sweeping carpenter ants off the concrete walkway.
Have you yet been saved, dear?
– Hello, Preacher. Yes, I have, but I’m not sure for what. Amusement, probably.
Bless you, girl, but I can’t hear. Can you come closer? Are you new? Do I know you?
– No, you don’t know me, but I’m not new. I’m Actress.
Is this a joke? What kind of name is that?
– A real one, given to me by my mother.
I once knew someone… long ago. Or perhaps it was a dream, a foretelling of God’s Plan. Your mother must have been very confused to give you such a name.
– Yes. Or she had low expectations of me ever becoming a real person.
I’m sorry, please come closer. My ears are not so good. Do you have family nearby?
– Yes. Just down the road. My mother.
And does she have the love of Jesus running through her veins? The rich, dark blood of his sacrifice, and not the puerile, watery piss of unbelievers. Does she?
– You’d have to ask her, I guess.
Would you kneel with me, child? You see, I have swept all the ants away. They keep coming back, and I shall sweep them away every time. Will you kneel with me in prayer?
– If you used a magnifying glass, you could burn them away. They wouldn’t come back.
Do I know you, girl? There’s something about you.
– I have quite a ways to go yet, Preacher, and the day is warming up.
It is warming up for all of us, child. One day, only a few of us will be plucked from the furnace. I hope that you’ll be one of them.
– Goodbye, Preacher Eli.
And you know my name? Praise God!
Will you kneel with me? Acknowledge your sins to Him? And to me?
– Goodbye, Preacher. Remember that I never did you any harm. Remember that, should anyone ever ask. Just say, ‘Actress never hurt a soul, but I still condemned her when she was 17 years old and had nowhere else to go.’ I don’t hold a grudge, but if you could say that to someone sometime, it would mean a lot. I don’t expect you to oblige, but I’m glad I had the chance to mention it.
What are you talking about? I don’t know–
– Just somewhere down the road, that would be fine.
Damn you, girl. Get thee behind me, Adversary.
– Yes, you’ve said those words to me before.
The churchyard cemetery seemed unchanged, its gravestones thinly illuminated by lemony morning light; it was a conspicuous luminance, one she thought she could very nearly peel from the granite like paint. The flatness of the yard, impeccably groomed, seemed contrived, like an embroidered wall-hanging. It was something Margaret Kempenaar would frame in her sunroom, above tempera-painted milk cans or surrounded by sprigs of fresh lilac.
There was wine, you know, and you know I don’t like the taste, Actress, especially the purple kind, the strong Old World kind. I made a face and I told her so, and that was when she brought out the good gin, the Old Tom gin, from a tiny cupboard above the stove. It was like a secret compartment. And I told her that. ‘Margaret,’ I said, ‘ that is so clever, having a secret compartment in the one place your husband would never think to look, right there above the stove.’ She grinned that big toothy grin of hers, lipstick on her teeth — the exact color that a whore would wear, by the way — and she said, ‘Welcome to the Mom’s Club, sweetie.’
– Ma, you know I don’t care about Mrs. Kempenaar. She’s running a divorcees’ daycare over there.
She’s my good friend, Actress. We talk about all kinds of things.
– Custody battles, alimony payments, sordid tales of late-night waitress-boinking.
Don’t be crude. We talk about… the arts… current events….
– Name that Gin?
You’ve got a mouth on you, girl. Did you finish your studies?
– Yes. You finish yours? How to make the perfect Gin Rickey?
How do you know about these things? Do you drink now?
– I know a boy who likes me and I’m practically legal.
It figures. Some 21-year-old ponytail who still lives at home?
– Ma, I’m seventeen. You can’t tell me who I can accept liquor from.
What happened to that girl of yours? I thought she was more your type. I thought that was what you preferred, that what’s-her-name, Eloise? Ellie? What happened to her?
– I don’t want to talk about her.
Would you feel better talking to Margaret? She likes older boys, too. She might understand.
– We just can’t have a conversation anymore, can we, Ma?
This was the peripheral road, long since succumbed to weeds. Actress hoped to hear the tintinnabulation of a Private Property sign bumping against chain links, but there was only a queasy silence. The old fence post was rotted cartilage now, and the sign had disappeared, likely somewhere beneath layers of dirt. The kudzu had flourished, green had ransacked green, and the stink of mangled growth was heavy with fertile heat.
Manny, the Proprietor: Hey, Actress, you know these Mexican kids ain’t old enough, right? Their ID’s ain’t shit. These kids won’t be shaving for another five-six years, you lose your brains? I know it’s only Budweiser, but use some common sense, huh?
The road — really, just a pair of tractor tire ruts worn into the grass — led to Aquila’s Depot, a fancy name for a tin and tarpaper shack that sold sundry items to the locals, specializing in cold beer and filtered cigarettes. If you stood still for longer than a minute, you could hear the Sequatchie River talk behind your back.
Girl, take the broom to these kids, would ya? Look at that kid, does he look like Marlon Brando to you? No? Never mind, ask your mother. Goddamn Army brats, kids are hawking the ID’s from their big brothers’ wallets. Get ‘em outta here before anyone sees.
She worked at Aquila’s in her sixteenth summer, a couple of hours every afternoon, and was paid with a pack of Benson & Hedges 100’s and a twenty-dollar bill every Friday. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t really work. She got to yell at kids and smoke cigarettes behind the shed. She might see six or seven people all day, mostly boys who tried to distract her from the beer cooler.
— That was where I met you. You came to buy cigarettes for your stepfather. I wanted to brush your hair, read you Jane Eyre or something, walk with you to the river, teach you the lyrics to “Come To The Sunshine”: ‘Now comes the morning / Wet with the kiss of midnight’. I’d know right away if you liked Joni Mitchell. That would tell me everything. I wanted to know everything. God, I was so young, so foolish. So young.
Her mother: You’re spending a lot of time with that girl, aren’t you? You know, people will start to–
— Never mind, you don’t know her. You don’t know me.
Look at you, almost 17 and you’re suddenly a mystery. How could I be so ignorant?
— Never mind.
Bring her by for supper. If you’re such pals, she won’t care.
— Maybe I should, just to confuse you.
You should, but honey, you ain’t confusing anyone.
It was only a creased wooden fence post, its decay swathed in morning glory vines. Her sixteen-year-old hands touched it almost every night when she would unhook the heavy chain that extended across the path. She would drop its bulk into a spill of weeds, and she and Ellie would walk the quarter-mile to Aquila’s in the dark.
— No, Ma, the heaviest thing I ever carried was that chain back to its post when Ellie ran off. But you wouldn’t know about that, would you?
She stood barefoot in the hallway, blouse and jeans soaking wet, hair a spiral veil dripping down her back, eyes dark and blurred. Ma stood in the kitchen, staring back.
I didn’t think it was raining that hard.
— I have to leave here tonight, Ma. I have to.
She ran away from you, huh? Did you expect any different? No, you stay here the night. I can see you’re in no mood to talk. Sleep on it. You’re not as frail as you think.
Ma was barefoot too, wearing an uncomfortably short nightgown, veins in her legs plainly visible, hair done up in spiky curlers, a smoldering cigarette between her fingers, studying Actress, watching her try to form words in her mouth. Actress could see a small spill — toe-sized, of watered-down gin, probably — on the kitchen floor by her mother’s foot.
— I just tried to drown myself, Ma, but the river wasn’t deep enough.
Come on in here and get out of your wet things. You want a drink? No harm in it now, I guess. The towels in the bathroom are fresh enough.
— I have to leave here tonight.
You need to settle down, girl, no need for theatrics.
— Ma, do you even know me?
Oh, grow up, Actress. You’re just not that special, you’re only seventeen. Tried to drown yourself, did you? Lord Jesus Christ, you really are an actress, aren’t you? Guess I named you right.
— The preacher. He yelled at me, too. Turned his back on me, same as you’re doing now. But you’re my mother. You should know me. All this time, you should know me better!
Towels are clean, Actress. Dry off, get to bed. We’ll talk about this in the morning.
— No, I think I—
— I have never tried harder to be someone, Ellie.
What, Actress? Oh, hey, it’s starting to rain.
A mist of rain and a gleam of moon cast a fine emulsion between them, separating them like a curtain. Actress wanted to be near her, to talk to her in the rain, just wanted to be near her for another minute.
Can we leave now? We’re getting soaked. I don’t see the point.
— I thought we could…. Do you know how much? I love you, Ellie. How much I want to be with you? Before you say anything, please just listen—
Oh, Actress, no….
The old place was just down the road, half a mile, maybe, but her memory was treacherous. The road didn’t look very different, other than how small it was. Diminished, really. What if her mother was gone, the house was gone, all of it was gone? What if Ma was just a ghost? Forty years was a long time. What if she was the ghost?
“Andrea, you’ve finally come home,” she heard a voice cry from down the road. “I knew you would. I knew you would come back eventually.”