Cleveland SOHO Media

Attempted Living

by Shannon Dickey

In the back room, surrounded by my grandmother's collectibles, my sister and I lie on our bellies in front of a little TV. The set is black and white, gets only two channels, and we have to change it with my mother's eyebrow tweezers, but we don't care. We strain to hear the punch lines and laugh tracks floating out from the tiny speaker; we can't turn it up because our mother is resting. She does this while she weeps behind the wall that separates us. My eyes, adjusted to the low light, scan the sea of images which hang in rosewood frames under thick glass across the faded wallpaper. My great-grandparents stare back at the room, looking suspicious and lean in their Sunday best. Me, my sister and my cousins eat watermelon in cotton gowns on an endless green lawn, and my mother, disguised as a girl, stands barefoot by the Alabama River. The photo is faded and small, and I like it best. She's smiling, hands on skinny hips, and I imagine her hair bright as new copper ! pennies, shiny as the wet red clay she stands on.

Lightning flashes through the late afternoon into the room and I turn to count with my sister. "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi--" It takes until seven for the thunder to break and when it does, we jump and shriek. "Hush up," my grandmother hisses from the doorway where she has suddenly appeared, bony fingers laced through the handle of a wicker basket. Her words are scarce and in her hard, strong accent so different from my mother's soft, dreamy sound, she tells me my task. I am the oldest and to me fall chores like fetching clothes in before the storm. My sister sticks out her pink tongue at me and turns back toward the television.

Barefoot, I walk softly past my mother's room and smell the menthol cigarettes she smokes now, one after the other. She has stopped crying and I hold my breath as I pass through the heavy silence. Silver sleigh bells hang forgotten on the handle of the sliding glass door, and they sound as loud as church bells when i open it. I shut it fast behind me, and the air outside the house is sweet and alive. It runs up my skin and through my hair. I close my eyes to feel it better. When I look again, heat lightning fires and shatters just beyond the clothesline in cobwebbed patterns that stretch down to the ground.

I shift my focus to the clothesline. The sheets are so white against the dark sky, I forget the world is in color. Hoping to smell the musky Spanish soap my mother brought back from California, I press a pillowcase to my face but only breathe in the bleach my grandmother uses to take out hard stains. I don't unpin the towels like she showed me, but instead I pull until the fabric snaps free, satisfied by the way the wooden clothespins hiss then spin in a fury. I blink then and try to find my breath when I see my mother's favorite slip, the one with the tiny blue flowers embroidered around the neck, dancing ghostlike in front of me. Taking down one thin strap, I trace faint bits of blood still visible around the lace. My tears salt the yard without my permission as I fumble with the second pin. It won't come loose and I begin to panic. I pull on the slip but when it lets loose, the mean wind snatches the silk's edge and sends it floating up, up, up into the sky. For a! minute, I think it will keep going until it disappears forever. Instead it falls like it is made of lead and lands in the blackberry field covering the abandoned lot bordering the property. I look back at the house, but there is no face staring out, angry and openmouthed, and so I hurry to the fence, wondering if I could climb it and run get the thing before my grandmother sees me.

It is then that the sky cracks open and all the water in the world falls on me at once. I begin to spin in circles, laughing. My grandmother is at the back door, angry, but I don't care. I can't hear her and if I keep spinning I can't see her either. She is only there for a second then she disappears into the rain. The more I spin, the more I laugh, and the harder it rains, and I begin to believe it is all because of me. Suddenly my mother is there and she is spinning with me, around and around. She is barefoot and we are holding hands, calling down the rain. The clean clothes are drenched and ours cling to our bodies. My grandmother is furious now, blocking my sister's way, shouting and waving her arms but my mother and I keep spinning until we fall into the mud.

Later, my mother runs a bubble bath for me and sings to my sister as she brushes her hair. Together we hide out from my grandmother, the three of us sleeping in my mother's little bed. I dream about bluebirds hanging clothes on streaks of lightning...

I remember all this in an instant twenty years later, sitting at my sister's kitchen table. I have driven down from Atlanta after a month of relentless phone calls promising home-cooked meals and quiet evenings on her front porch swing. She leans in over the sink, washing dishes, watching the storm clouds gather.

"Remember the summer before Mama died? Remember? All those blackberries we picked out behind Grandmama's house...I swear we ate so many our mouths were purple till Christmas." "Yes," I said. "I remember. Blackberry's still my favorite pie." With her perfect timing she kisses my cheek, and slides a fresh-baked piece in front of me. "I remember too," she whispers.

It is raining now, and she stands at the back door, watching her children with the copper-colored hair playing for just a minute before she kicks off her shoes and joins them. They hold hands in a circle stomping and yelling while I eat my pie. My nephew calls into me to watch how hard they can make it rain.

This is an excerpt from a book of memoirs of my childhood in Alabama.