My grandmother’s green-checked dress is the same color as the kitchen curtains. She’s a big woman, six feet tall without her shoes. She has raised twelve children and buried her husband. A year from now she will be unresponsive and immobile, her independence distilled into dependency by a series of strokes; but that is still in her future. Now it is autumn, and her milk-blue eyes are smiling at me behind the black, cat’s eye frames of her glasses. She offers me sugar and cream, but I thank her and refuse. Like my parents, I drink my coffee black. It’s a rite of passage in my grandmother’s house. When she offers you coffee, you know you’re pretty much grown up, at least in her eyes.
“How’s your mommy and daddy?”
I shrug my shoulders and leave it at that. She already knows the answer. Her eyes drift to the window and focus on the black gum tree in the side yard, the one they planted before Granddaddy died. “Well,” she says, and leaves it at that. We understand one another. We hurt in different ways, for the same reason.
We sip our coffee and talk about the family. She tells me about my aunt in Florida and my uncle in South Carolina. I ask about my cousins. There are so many of us, twenty-nine in all. Some of them were grown and married before I was born. Some of them have children only a few years younger than me. I am number twenty-eight.
The two of us while away the morning together, until the cuckoo clock in the back room announces the passing of another hour. I get up and take my cup to the kitchen; turning, I see myself reflected in the mirror that hangs over the buffet. The mirror also reflects my grandmother’s back and her short, curly hair, still mostly dark even after so many years and so many heartaches. She gives me a shrewd glance. “You don’t have to go just yet,” she says. “Stay awhile longer. We’ll dig us some sweet potatoes.”
I shake my head, answering the question that she didn’t ask. “I wish they’d just get divorced,” I say, forgetting, until the words are said, that she doesn’t believe in divorce.
But she surprises me. “Honey, they might be happier if they did.” She hesitates before adding, “Maybe they stay together because your daddy has been divorced twice before, and doesn’t care to go there again.” Her quick eye catches the subtle shift in my face before I can hide it. “Your mother has told you about that, hasn’t she?”
“Yes ma’am.” The lie comes easily.
My grandmother lets go of a deep sigh. “I’m glad she told you. She told me right before they got married. I wasn’t real happy about it.”
I look at the tablecloth and keep the chaos in my mind from finding its way to my face. My grandmother’s statement makes a lot of things plain to me that had been unclear before – a glance exchanged by my elders, or simple words spoken in a complicated tone.
While I am still struggling to grasp the fact that my father (sober, upright, and God-fearing) has been divorced, my gentle grandmother delivers the second blow.
“Have you ever seen that girl of his?” While I am still struggling to breathe, she answers for me. “No, of course you haven’t. He’d rather die than let that happen. He doesn’t know that you know, does he?”
“No ma’am,” I say. “He has no idea.”
And that is the absolute truth.
Monday morning. I’m supposed to be in English class, reading Our Town and discussing Thornton Wilder. Instead, I’m sitting in a fire tower north of Ft. Blackmore with Jamie Laughlin. Jamie’s yellow VW sits on the dirt road below us. He’s playing his twelve-string, and I’m watching the wind stir the treetops beneath my feet. The fear of falling that will haunt my later years hasn’t surfaced yet, and I never think about how far it is between the soles of my Topsiders and the leaf-speckled ground below.
“I have a sister,” I say to the sky. This is no longer a secret floating in my grandmother’s coffee; it’s a cold, hard fact that I dragged out of my mother behind the bathroom door on Saturday afternoon. I had dragged my mother, too, leaving finger marks on her upper arm. She’s accustomed to hiding marks. She made me promise never, ever to let my father know I know, to lie about it if I have to. I’m accustomed to promising and lying.
“Why don’t you find out where she lives and go see her?” Jamie asks. He has the most beautiful green eyes I’ve ever seen. His fingers pick out an unfamiliar melody that seems to fit the sharp bite of the morning wind. It fits my mood, too.
I ignore his question. “What song is that?”
“One I wrote. It’s about Beth.”
“Oh.” Beth is – was – his wife. When Jamie hit bottom, Beth joined the Army and left him for someone else. Jamie, like my father, is an alcoholic, and (also like my father) has already been married and divorced at the ripe old age of twenty-five. He bags groceries at the Oakwood Market.
“So why don’t you try and find your sister?”
I lean back and cup my fingers around the edge of the hole in the floor, rubbing the rough plank boards. One part of my mind considers his question. The other part wonders how many babies have been made in this rickety shack above the trees, and how many people learned how to promise and how to lie because of those babies.
“Because I don’t want to,” I answer at last.
He slides his hand along the silken wood of the guitar and changes the song. “I’d want to. I can’t imagine not wanting to see my sister.”
“That’s because Libby is perfect.”
He flashes me a grin. “Yeah, she is,” he agrees.
“My half-sister probably isn’t so perfect.” The S-word sticks in my throat; adding the “half” makes it only a little easier to say. “Besides, she’s three years older than my mother.” The generation gap between my parents is twenty-one years and a million miles wide.
“Wow. That’s hard,” he says.
I glance at his profile and try to dissolve my sorrow in the curve of his chin and the way his blond hair feathers across his cheek. I am deeply, madly, irrationally in love, the kind of love that blows through one’s life at seventeen and never comes again. I’m pretty sure he likes me, too, but his heart belongs to Jesus and making music, in that order. The only time he’s touched me is when I almost fell into the Clinch River one afternoon in September. I was careless and the riverbank was slick; Jamie grabbed my arm to save me from an impromptu baptism. That was also the day he got me back to school too late to catch the bus and had to take me home. I told my father that Rick Darnell had brought me home in his mom’s car. My dad wouldn’t know Rick Darnell or his mother if they walked up and slapped him. I have no fear of getting caught.
“It’s the lie that gets me,” I tell him now. “My dad acts like divorce is such a big deal. If he knew I was hanging around a divorced guy, he’d lose it.”
“If your dad knew you weren’t sitting in English class right now, he’d lose it.” Jamie doesn’t look at me when he says this.
“Anyway, doesn’t that make him a hypocrite or something? He’s been married three times, for Christ’s sake.” I see the lines of a frown crease his forehead. “For Pete’s sake,” I amend.
His face relaxes, and his fingers coax the opening notes of a Led Zeppelin song from the bronzed strings. “Aren’t we all hypocrites?” He looks at me with eyes as green as autumn grass.
“Yeah, you,” he says, and smiles. My heart twists. I can’t be mad at that smile.
My thoughts snap back to my parents like an angry dog. All my life, I’ve been told that I should always tell the truth, that even the smallest lie can call years of truthfulness into question. The people who taught me this, the ones who punished me for lying about the broken lid on the sugar jar, have been lying to me for seventeen years. I am not an only child. I have a sister. She is older than my mother. She probably has kids. I probably have nieces and nephews. I might be somebody’s sister-in-law, or somebody’s aunt.
. . . a hawk dances in lazy circles, looking for his lunch. Sunshine plays across his bronze-tipped wings. Between two heartbeats, he catches a thermal and rises until he hangs motionless, almost close enough to touch. I hold my breath.
I lean forward and rest my head on the rusty metal railing. Between my feet and the treetops, a hawk dances in lazy circles, looking for his lunch. Sunshine plays across his bronze-tipped wings. Between two heartbeats, he catches a thermal and rises until he hangs motionless, almost close enough to touch. I hold my breath. We stare at each other. A longing to slip under the rail and onto the hawk’s back overwhelms me. The knowledge that I can’t makes me want to cry. We could fly away together, that bird and I. There are no lies, no promises, no nameless, faceless half-sisters where he goes. When the updraft carries him over the ridge and away from me, I breathe again and close my eyes. For a moment I see him on the inside of my eyelids, suspended between heaven and earth in that place of perfect peace. When I open my eyes, he is gone.
Suddenly I am aware that the guitar is silent. I turn away from the rail and look at Jamie, who sits cross-legged, his elbows on his knees, staring at me. “You know what we could do?” he says.
“We could climb down and get in the car, and go to Canada.”
The look he gives me leaves me weak. “Right now. We could probably be there before tomorrow. I’ve always wanted to go to Canada. I could find work in Toronto, something better than bagging groceries. We could form a duet and play bars and coffeehouses.”
Mosquitoes whine inside my head. “Are you serious?”
He tastes his words before he says them, and grins at me. “Yeah, I’m serious.”
It’s past noon when we put the top down on the VW and head back to the two-lane road that was the main highway to Kingsport when my mother was young. Neither of us speaks. The wind slaps our faces and whistles a shrill note through the crack in the driver’s side vent window. Leaving could be this easy, if I could only leave.
Jamie pulls into the parking lot of the high school, squeezing the VW into an empty spot between two pickup trucks. He shuts off the engine and lays his hand across the back of my seat. “Not too late to change your mind.” His mouth quirks in a half-smile. His eyes are dark, and strangely old.
A slide show of could-be’s with an acoustic guitar soundtrack plays through my head. Something in me soars toward the idea: to be free, to leave all the mess of my life rotting here in the tangled brush of these deeply-folded hills. It would be an exodus of sorts, a flight from sugar-coated lies into hardpan truths.
My fingers weave themselves together. Afternoon sun spills across my hands and makes the shadow of a hawk with folded wings on the dashboard. I can’t stand the look in Jamie’s eyes. I turn my head away.
“No. My dad would kill you. He’d kill me, too.” My voice is childish and frightened. I hate it. “He’d look under every rock between here and Canada until he found us, and then he’d shoot us both. He’d shoot you first, and make me watch. I want to, but I can’t.”
He takes his arm away and reaches for a cigarette. “Yeah,” he says. There’s nothing else to say. I want to lean across the gearshift and bury my face in his neck and tell him I love him, that I’ll go to the ends of the earth with him and work with him and sing with him. I want to cook his dinners and have his babies and share his adventures. I want to smack the part of me that just said I can’t. But I stay in my seat, watching the blue and white doors of the high school, and say nothing. My ears catch the faint sound of the dismissal bell. A heartbeat later, the doors give way before a surging tide of teenagers.
“I gotta go.”
Two steps from the car, Jamie’s voice calls me back. “Hey, want me to pick you up around seven on Sunday morning? We can go watch the sunrise on the river before church.”
I fake a smile for him. “Yeah, I’d like that.” No time for more. The bus won’t wait. I have to run. Valerie’s already there; I recognize her strawberry blonde head behind a dusty, half-opened window. She moves her books when she sees me coming.
“Miss Parkey said something today about you being out so much,” she whispers as I fall into the seat beside her. “You’re gonna get caught.”
I don’t answer. Between the thinning rows of pickup trucks, the VW is a fleeting glimpse of yellow, a butterfly among behemoths. The brake lights glow and fade as Jamie stops at the intersection and pulls out onto the four-lane. The best part of me is still in the passenger seat of that little yellow car.
Valerie waits for an answer to a question I didn’t hear. I lean my head against the window, and try to look wise and worldly. “Not me. I won’t get caught.”
She says something, but I’m not listening. I’m too busy putting everything – school, Jamie, Canada, my sister, my parents, Mrs. Parkey – into the deep, busy shadows behind my smile. I have just enough time to do that before the bus drops me at my front door.