The only thing of mine to survive the fire was a picture of Holly Hobbie Mommy made before Jude was born. I remember her standing in her sister’s kitchen, frosted hair cut in a shag like Jane Fonda’s in the picture on the Frigidaire. Her long-sleeved oxford shirt, a man’s going-to-church-shirt, hung over a swollen belly and down to the hem of a pair of cutoff jean shorts. She and my aunt Leigh were barefoot, their toes bright red jewels half-buried in brown shag carpet.
I sat at a linoleum table printed in orange mushrooms and drew butterflies as Mommy and Leigh decoupaged pictures cut from magazines onto pieces of wood. The chemical smell of Modge Podge was heavy, like the odor of the perms they gave each other, and blended with the musky scent of pot.
I can still smell the sweet smoke curling above emerald ashtrays near the kitchen sink where they dipped pictures in water before lifting them to drip. When I held the ash tray to the sun, it glowed through the bubbles forever frozen in glass. My aunt Leigh brought the joint to her lips, squinting, before she passed it to Mommy. Abba sang from the dark wood of the stereo cabinet in the corner of the living room, their words drifting, sailing in the hazy air. I tried to eavesdrop on Mommy and Leigh talking in the softest parts of the songs.
“Drunk again?” That’s Leigh. “How many times does that make this week?”
Mommy lifted the picture of Holly Hobbie from a pan of water, held it until the drips slowed.
“I don’t know. I don’t keep count.”
Leigh scrubbed a piece of cedar with steel wool. She rinsed it and handed it to Mommy, who draped Holly Hobbie over the face of the wood and centered it. Leigh picked up the joint and toked again, exhaled with a long sigh. “You can move in with me. Bill won’t care a bit.”
My first memory of Bill, my aunt’s boyfriend, is holding his hand as I balanced on new, plastic roller skates at the playground near Leigh’s trailer park where she lived for a while after she moved out of the apartment. She did not live there long, because Bill was “self-made,” she always told me, “in the money.” He had inherited his dad’s tire business, then bought a funeral home. The same funeral home where daddy’s body would be laid in a closed casket, Jude in his arms. A month later, it would be filled to the ceiling with rank river water in the flood of ’77, which washed everything downstream: mattresses, insulation, milk crates, dead animals. The river swallowed everything inside the Cas Walker’s, which sat right on its banks, then hurried across the road and flooded the radio station to the second floor. The water would fill up the first floor of Leigh’s apartment building, and climb the stairs to the foot of her door, but no further. They would be pulling trash from the river and the trees along its banks for years after that.
I have brittle, yellowed newspapers from that week in ‘77. I’ve saved them not because of the flood, because of the pictures of Daddy at the top of a utility pole, working to get the electricity back on. It took weeks, they said. Leigh told me he didn’t sleep for days at a time because there was so much damage, so many people without their “juice” as they called it. He was haunted by some of the things he saw from so high up, washing downriver. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Down in the valley cemeteries, caskets were pulled from the ground like corks. When the waters receded, they found the caskets lodged in the arms of trees. The linemen were asked to help get them out. Some of them had opened. I have that newspaper, too, with the picture of daddy in the tree, fastening cables around a casket. “Local Linemen Help With Recovery Effort.” His face is turned away.
But in this memory of Leigh and my mother, the flood is still weeks away and it is the last time I will feel safe and secure. The smells in Leigh’s apartment stayed with me for the next thirty years like a security blanket. Years later, I would seek them out, like a moth to light. I would sit in beauty salons, pretending to read a magazine as I’m inhaling, drowning in my past. I’d smoke pot because that smell is the closest I can get to her.
Mommy laughed. It was her polite laugh, short and subtle, not her genuine laugh that bubbled up from the belly. A macramé owl hanger with two big eyes blocked part of her face from my view. It held a potted vine that fell gracefully to the floor where it had begun to coil. She stroked the picture with a sponge, erasing the bubbles and imperfections until the surface was smooth.
“If this one’s a boy,” Mommy said, “he’ll be a fool for it.”
Holly Hobbie hung in my room, framed in the glow of the security light where bats swooped and dived for bugs. She stood in profile, holding wildflowers, her face hidden by her enormous bonnet. Her head was bowed as if she were praying-or maybe crying- like she knew what was to come.
The night Jude was born I waited with my Granny Bobbie, Daddy’s mother, who smoked Vantage while we watched “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” on her rabbit-eared set. I sat on blankets spread on the floor eating cheese crackers. Granny Bobbie had a red lava lamp, light shining through star-shaped holes in its base. We were bathed in the blue of the television set, perched on a cart with wheels, and surrounded by the amber glow of lava bubbles the color of blood as they merged and split. I was mesmerized, casting my gaze between the oozing, red lava and the greenish Grinch. That was as close as Granny Bobbie got to a Christmas tree.
The aqua blue telephone next to her chair rang after I had fallen asleep on the floor, and it jarred me awake. Bobbie had covered me with one of her afghans, loosely crocheted in variegated yarn in several shades of brown and cream. Nearly everything in her house was brown, except the phone and the lava lamp.
“Does he have a head full of hair?” she said, pulling on her cigarette. I could hear my dad’s voice in murmurs. Bobbie chuckled. “Hit won’t stay that color. Ava do alright?” Daddy’s voice again. I heard a high “Yeah,” then his deep voice fell on a sigh. I imagined him with the pay phone to his ear, strands of hair falling below a baseball cap, two fingers on his skinny hip holding a cigarette.
The lava curled and oozed through a veil of smoke, and I drifted back toward sleep as Bobbie put the phone back on the cradle, settling with a clack. Through heavy-lidded eyes I gazed at the lamp. I’d once seen a picture on PBS of lava shooting from a volcano. I asked Daddy why it was red. “Hot as a thousand suns,” Daddy said. “Burns everything in its path.”
“Be a good girl,” Bobbie said in a voice full of gravel, “and you can have that lamp when I’m dead.” In our mountain tongue, the vowels in lamp sounded like those in rain. I don’t know if I made her nervous, or if she was a kidder, but Bobbie promised I could have something when she died, every time I came to her house. I figured by the time it happened I’d be rich. I once found a bracelet in the bathroom near an ornate liquor bottle where she kept her mouthwash. I carried the bracelet to her, wordless, presented it as if to ask if this, too, could go on the death-gift wish list. She looked up from the book she was reading, Dallas, and she nodded. The cigarette between her lips bobbed as she said, “When I’m dead.”
I still think back on that offer, wondering if she felt badly for me since the baby meant I’d be getting less attention, wondering if it was her way of softening the blow. But I never felt jealous of Jude, not that I can remember.
She would see her son and grandson buried four months from that night, but she wouldn’t follow them to the grave for twenty-two more years. I wonder, when the telephone rang on the day they died, whether she imagined it was my jealousy that fed the fire, or the awkward fumblings of a six year-old who only wanted to throw a paper towel into the woodstove like the grown-ups.
I see Jude in a dream, every now and then, but he’s old enough to be walking, as if he’s grown in death. When I was six, Jude was just months into his life, sleeping in the back bedroom between two pillows on a purple chintz bedspread, his fist tucked near his neck. I’d watch him nap, study his little crabapple chin move as if he were trying to talk in his sleep, his eyelashes a series of commas against his cheeks.
Daddy was sleeping, too, his body too long for the couch. Daddy was long all over, long neck, long nose, long fingers, long feet that hung over the bed or propped on the arm of the couch, like a V. “It’s the Carter build,” Granny Bobbie would say. “Your boy’ll be a picker or a baseball player.” I remember Daddy’s arm hooked over his head, both hands curled into fists like his baby son’s, the one he wanted so bad but not bad enough to stop his drinking, which is why he was asleep at four o’clock in the afternoon.
I was always the last off the bus, no matter how fast Terry, the driver, hooked it around the curves in our holler. He had grown up there, too, Terry and all seven of his brothers and sisters. They had gone to school with Daddy, so he knew how fast he could go, knew every dip and washboard on that dirt road. I think about Terry sometimes, and wonder if he pretended he was the pilot he’d always wanted to be, a sky jockey, soaring as if the rises and dips in our road were clouds, pockets of air that made it rumble. My school was only four miles away but his route took us clear to the border of the next county and back through a maze of winding roads until the bus coughed me up at the end of the driveway in a cloud of dust.
It was my first year of school. Kindergarten.
Mommy took off work on my first day so she could be there when I got off the bus, one of my last memories of her. She and Leigh sat in lawn chairs in the front yard, breaking green beans and drinking Tab. Just beyond their lawn chairs there was a garden, and just beyond that, a tobacco field where the stalks had grown taller than Daddy. Somebody else would have to sucker, cure, grade, and sell our tobacco that year. Strange, the things my mind holds onto, like pieces of thread, like stray mints at the bottom of a purse. I remember Mommy’s tank top, how the straps had shifted, the white lines of her skin cutting through the sunburn that crept across her collarbone and shoulders on one side. She always smelled like baby oil. Baby oil and Tab. She wasn’t home the day Jude and Daddy died. I was. But I was only six. That’s what people have said to me over the years. Leigh and Bill, therapists, boyfriends. You were only six, as if being older would have made me more accountable, as if I could have grabbed Daddy by those long feet and dragged him off the couch and down the porch steps, or carried Jude like the baby doll I pretended he was and placed him safely in the grass. Away from the choking smoke that everyone says took his life before the fire reached him.
As if that makes it easier.
But I don’t feel traumatized, or carry this heavy guilt, not really. “How do your dreams about Jude make you feel?” All the therapists ask me that. I go to them because of the dreams, mostly, because I want to figure them out.
“Disrupted,” I always say. Like a hiccup that I can’t get rid of. Seeing Jude is unsettling in an otherwise settled life. When he appears he can be a child, occasionally a teenager, and once he looked as if he were 30. His eyes are still blue but that dark hair is grown out thick and curly, his arms and legs are long and lean like Daddy’s. As a teenager, Jude has a ponytail like one of the guys I was dating when I dreamed of him. Mommy joked when he was born that the dark hair was the Cherokee coming out in him, and Daddy huffed that the Carters were Scots-Irish so he doubted that.
I imagine a sketch artist living in the basement of my subconscious mind, hunched over, hand sweeping a canvas, drawing these pictures of Jude.
“Do you think,” one therapist asked-because they always ask, as if I’m the one with all the answers though they are posing their own answers as questions-“Jude appears at the same age you are at the time of the dream?”
And I know what that question means. “Do you feel guilty about being alive at 10, 20, 30 because Jude could not live to be those ages?”
“Why?” I say. “Because I was the one who burned down the house?”
The chin lowers, the head angles with empathy, eyes look at me over the tops of glasses. You were only six. I anticipate it and my lips move with theirs. “Only six.”
At six, my head was big and my arms and legs were Pixie sticks, so birdlike Terry called me Chicken Little. “How’s it goin’ Chicken Little?” he’d say around the wad of tobacco he kept in his left cheek, one thick hand on the bus door lever. I could barely lift Jude, and I wasn’t allowed to try unless Mommy or Daddy was there but I did it once without their permission because I wanted to feel his heft in my arms. I stole into the bedroom where he slept, always in the middle of the bed because he wouldn’t sleep in the crib, and I slid my tiny forearms beneath twelve pounds of him and felt him roll toward me. What I remember is how warm he was and how much heavier than I expected. I tried to shift him onto my shoulder the way Mommy carried him but the blanket fell away and then tangled itself around my arm and I struggled under his weight, his head dangling to one side, then backward.
“What are you doing?” I heard Mommy in the bedroom doorway. She sounded amused, not at all angry. I froze, clinging to a still-sleeping Jude and waiting for her to rescue him from whatever grown-up thing I’d been trying to do with my six year-old pixie arms. Like trying to throw a paper towel into a wood stove, only to have it blow back onto the carpet in flames.
I sat between Uncle Bill and Aunt Leigh at the funeral, as if they had already adopted me, as if they knew Mommy would not recover from the state she was in the way she walked aimlessly from room to room at night like she was searching for Jude. The way her eyes stared, glassy, at his casket when I tried to talk to her. “It’s the drugs they give her,” I heard somebody behind us say.
The casket was silver, covered in white roses. I think back on that now and wonder if white was a deliberate choice. Anything but the color of fire. Of embers.
The funeral home was small, paneled in dark wood and lit by fluorescent lights that buzzed over our heads. Thin, green carpet covered floors that creaked. The casket was flanked by a cross made of flowers on one side and a wreath made of flowers on the other, a lamb nestled in its center.
Leigh didn’t set me beside Mommy. She sat beside her, one arm around her shoulders, the other holding her hand. Mommy kept her eyes fixed on her lap during the organ music, during the obituary reading, during prayer. A tissue was balled in her fist. I remember that my feet did not reach the floor and so I swung them back and forth. I heard weeping throughout the room, a cough. I felt stares press the back of my head, and I wished for it all to be over.
A preacher took the podium, his Bible in hand, dark hair greased and combed to one side. He began to read and talk, and at some point during his sermon his voice rose and Mommy began to rock back and forth. Leigh tightened her arm around her shoulders and murmured in her ear. Granny Bobbie, who sat on the other side of Mommy, put her arm around her, too.
The preacher’s shouting hurt my ears. I tugged on Bill’s jacket and told him I needed to pee. He took my hand and we walked toward a door that slid into the wall. A man in a suit opened it for us. The floor groaned with every step, and a thousand eyes seemed to follow us. I heard a loud moan behind me.
I used the bathroom and then waited while Bill went outside to smoke. I looked up at a picture of Jesus with his soft wavy hair, high cheekbones and long, thin, gently bearded face, his eyes tender and gazing upward. When I moved to the right or to the left, Jesus’ face melted into another image: his emaciated body hanging on a cross in the midst of a storm. If I stepped one way or the other, lightning zig-zagged in the sky above the cross. I shuffled to the left and back to the right in a little dance, the floor covered in thin, pea-green carpet protesting under my feet, my stare fixated on the hologram where the cross with Jesus’ dead body morphed into his alive, kind face and back again. How awful, to see the face of a man with such tender, hopeful eyes followed by his murdered body, hanging in a most undignified way, not surrounded by flowers and organ music and loving family. Inside the room where the doors slid into the brown, paneled walls, the preacher hollered, his voice piercing the air. I was used to preachers yelling about what had been done to this man. But the hologram gave me a whole new perspective.
Later on, in a new bed in Leigh and Bill’s house with a bedspread printed in tiny rainbows, I’d dream about the picture at the funeral home, too. But in this dream, when I step to the right or left, Jesus’ face becomes Jude’s. Jude at thirty-something, gazing at me in sorrow, because he has to die so many times.