Pamela Duncan is the author of the novels Moon Women, Plant Life, and The Big Beautiful. She is the winner of the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award (North Carolina's highest honor for fiction) and the James Still Award for Special Achievement given by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. A native of North Carolina, she lives in Cullowhee, North Carolina and teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University.
On the Inside Looking Out
After supper, Daddy goes back to work and I sit at the table reading Little Women in my lap so Mama won't see. It's the fourth time I've read it, and it just gets better. The baby won't quit crying, so Mama slaps her a little bit to let her know she means business. But Sarah just cries louder. Uncle Jim says, oh yeah, real smart Linda, so Mama slaps him too. He slaps her back, just playing, and then he starts whooping and laughing when she grabs the greasy skillet and chases him out the back door. Uncle Jim's supposed to be helping Daddy in the barns, but Mama said she needed help washing windows. They still look dirty to me.
I can see Mama's laughing now. That Uncle Jim, he's got her on the ground tickling her. He don't know that if you tickle Mama too long she wets her pants. But I'm glad to see her laughing for a change. She's been in a real bad mood for a while.
I take the baby to the front room and change her diaper, then set her on my lap to watch a rerun of Hogan's Heroes. She just laughs whenever Colonel Klink comes on. I think she likes him cause he looks like Pappaw, except Pappaw wears an American uniform. He’s shell shocked and crazy as a loon. He sits over in his chair all day and talks to himself. He probably used to talk to Mama and Granny, but Granny's dead and Mama don't listen no more. I'll listen to him when I get the time, but it don't never make sense. There's a rat in my foxhole, he'll say, or my ears are full of blood and so are my boots, Captain.
Diane comes in with her stupid boyfriend Earl Coggins. Sarah looks up and says, Di-AN-a, Di-AN-a.
"Elaine, I told you to quit teaching her to call me that. My name is Diane. Get it? Di-ane."
"But Diana's so much more musical, like Anne of Green Gables' best friend."
"Well, you ain't Anne of Green Gables and I ain't your best friend, so shut up!" And she thumps me upside the head real hard with one of her long old fingernails. Then her and Earl laugh and go upstairs to her room to play records. If I wasn't so nice, I'd tell Earl them are Lee Press-On Nails, and that Diane has been talking to another boy on the phone for a week. When she talks to Earl, she yawns a lot, but with the new boy, she giggles and says, oh Larry, you're so funny!
I like to call my sister Diana because she has a small imagination and can't get expanded enough to see she could be a Diana if she wanted to. All she has to do is believe it hard enough. Like me. I'm sometimes Anne Shirley and live on Prince Edward Island, or P.E.I., as it says on the map of Canada at school. Then again, sometimes I'm Jo March of Little Women, eating apples and writing stories in my garrett, or what I call the attic. I'm also fond of Joan of Arc, except for the burning at the stake part, which I think she could've got out of with a little imagination.
But my dearest favorite is Helen Keller. She suffered so, but she didn't let it get her down. I used to give myself a choice: if I could be deaf or blind or mute, which would I choose? Of course, I can't even bear the idea of blindness for more than a few minutes. When I tried walking around the house blindfolded, I got scared of the dark. Last year I said mute, because I never talk much anyway. But now I believe I would have to go with deaf. To be deaf might be magical, all silent and hushed and still, watching people's mouths moving and nothing coming out. Mama would hate for me to be deaf cause then I couldn't hear her hollering for me to feed the baby or clean out the bathtub or some such.
Even though I'd love to learn something as mysterious and secret as sign language, I'd miss some things terribly if I was deaf. I'd miss the crickets singing in the evening, like now, all chirpy and joyful. I'd miss the gold and browny-blue sound of songs from Daddy's guitar, all about railroads and rivers and roads out into the world, lonesome and also full of the truth. I'd miss the sound of my own voice when I sing harmony with him, and we sound better than Kenny and Dolly even. I always sing the high part. I'd even miss the sound of baby Sarah's voice saying Di-AN-a, Di-AN-a.
"Elaine, get your little self in here and wash these dishes now!" Mama's back to her old self again.
I put the baby in her bed and give her a toy. Laney, she says and holds her fat little arms up. She can't say my name right yet. If she didn't always smile at me so sweet, I might get mad at her for being such a burden. But she's too pretty to be mad at, like Diane, like Mama. Nobody ever stays mad at them for long, cause they ain't near as pretty when they're mad. Sometimes I can't help but regret that I take after Daddy, because the Moseley looks don't suit a girl. Granny used to say I was lucky to be plain cause people would be attracted to me for the right reasons, but Diane says I'm a ugly little troll Mama and Daddy found under a stump. I don't get mad no more, though, not since I read Jane Eyre last year. I just think of her and Mr. Rochester and I feel better.
The kitchen is empty by the time I get there and I'm glad. After I stack the dishes and fill up the sink with bubbles and warm water, I turn off the kitchen light. I want to watch the sun set over behind the tobacco barns, and then the stars come out on the horizon and get brighter and brighter like the sparkles in the snow on a sunny day. I'm the only one I know can get dishes clean in the dark. It's easy. When the sandy-feeling cornbread and dried up pinto juice is washed off, I run my fingers across the plates and they're smooth and slick as a wet window pane.
The pinky-yellow sky fires up to glowing red-orange and then down to purple-black while I'm rinsing the glasses. I wish I could have those colors in my room all the time. When I look at them, the feeling makes a tight fist in my chest so I can’t hardly breathe or even feel myself no more. Once I broke a glass watching the sunset, and my hand bled in the sink. Mama whipped me over that glass, but I didn't care. I'll always have the little scar on my thumb to remind me of that glory feeling.
The cold air outside makes everything sharp and clear, so if I squint, I believe I could almost see France. Joan of Arc lived in France, and I plan to visit there some day and write about what I feel in places like Paris and Orleans. I'll travel to P.E.I. to see Anne Shirley's White Way of Delight with my own eyes, and I'll stand in the cold night winds on the moors of England and imagine a powerful black horse and rider pounding toward me. Diane says I live in a dream world. Maybe she'll believe me if I send postcards.
Daddy’s home early. He don’t usually come back till way past bedtime. Granny couldn’t never go to sleep till she heard him come in, and now I can’t neither. Daddy's headlights swing around the driveway and he gets out and kicks the tire when the truck backfires. He's not drunk, but he's mad. That's good. I can stand him to be one or the other, but both together spell trouble. My hands slip around the sink and pick up the forks to wash. You have to pull the rag in between all the little fingers on the forks to get the food out. Mama's eye is still purply from when Daddy found dried-up egg on his fork. I don't think that's really what the fight was about though.
He goes to the barn first. He's got him a bottle of something hid out there, cause Granny didn’t let him drink in the house, and even though she's been dead nearly a year, he still won't. But she allowed him to be drunk in the house, so I say, why don't he bring it on in and save himself some trouble? But maybe he likes having a secret about something.
If I hurry, I can finish the dishes in time to go to my hideout before bedtime. It's in the oak tree next to the back of the house. Daddy nailed some boards to the trunk so I could reach the low limbs and climb into the tree. It's my favorite thing he ever done for me. He called me out back that day and said, look here Elaine, you been wanting to climb that tree, well go at it. When I got to the top, the little branches would just hold me, and I could see bout all of Jones County from up there. I can't go that high no more, though, cause I weigh sixty-two now.
Granny used to always tell me I'd dry up and blow away if I didn't eat. But I'm just naturally petite, Mama says, like her. She told Granny to mind her own damn business and quit trying to boss somebody else's children. But Granny didn't mean to boss me.
It makes me sad to have to sleep all alone in our room. Granny was so fat and soft and warm, and she’d always tickle my back and tell me about her girlhood days in the mountains when there was panthers and bears running loose. I think they come in my room now Granny ain't there. I see shadows and hear creaky things I never noticed before. Mama says they've been there all along and nothing ever happened to me, so I should hush and go to sleep.
I turn the kitchen light on again so Daddy can see to get to the house, then I put on my coat and step outside. When I suck the air deep in my nose, it burns cold all through my head, and I know there's no cleaner smell in the world than January. I climb to my favorite arm of the tree, which is wide and the perfect size for me, and lay on my back. The stars I see through the dark black limbs wink at me, and sometimes seem to move.
I think about secrets. Diane has told me one, and she says if I tell Mama or Daddy, she'll scoop out my eyeballs with a tablespoon and feed em to the goats. The goats’ll eat em too; they'll eat anything. Diane's secret is that she's going to have a baby. It'll come in July. She says she loves Earl Coggins and wants to marry him.
I will never fall in love if it makes people act such a fool. Diane always says, oh yes you will, and giggles like a monkey. She says when you meet a boy you like, you'll do anything for him. The way she says anything makes me sick.
I think Diane's taste is all in her mouth if she'd do anything for Earl Coggins. I don't like that boy. He has a bunch of faults, but the worst is he’s cruel to animals. Once he put a firecracker in his own dog's butt and lit it. And he used to pop toads with his BB gun just to see them explode. Old Earl Coggins will get what's due him, though. When Daddy finds out Diane's pregnant, he's gonna set fire to Earl's backside with some buckshot
I bet they're in Diane's room having sex right now. That's why the tape player's so loud, I know, to cover up Diane moaning and groaning like Lucinda when she had her calf. I don't like that music they play, that Bon Jovi. He's way too loud. Me and Granny and Pappaw always used to listen to Big Band. That's cause Granny and Pappaw met at the Crystal Ballroom in Goldsboro during the war. They danced the night away, and in the morning they got married. Then Pappaw had to go off to war. Granny said about the time the doctors took Daddy out of her, the Germans was bombing all of Pappaw's sense out of him. I don't think Pappaw likes listening to his records now Granny's gone. He used to get real quiet, but now he hollers so you can't hear the music. I miss Glenn Miller myself, especially "Pardon Me Boy, Is That the Chattanooga ChooChoo?"
Mama's bedroom light comes on, and I know it's time for me to go on in. Daddy's room looks dark, so he must still be in the barn. I sit up to shake the cold out of my legs so I can climb down when I see Uncle Jim in Mama's room. She never pulls the shade down like a lady, even though there ain't no neighbors to see her naked. She's almost naked now, except for her panties and her bra. I know I should quit watching and go to my room, but my legs feel too wiggly.
Uncle Jim grins at Mama over the record player. He plugs it in and puts an album on, and then he wraps his arms around her. "Moonlight Serenade" fills up the air around us all while they laugh and twirl. Granny and Pappaw fell in love dancing to that song. I think Uncle Jim must be in love with Mama, cause he's kissing her like Daddy used to before Granny died, before baby Sarah was born, I guess even way back before Uncle Jim come to live with us.
I squeeze my eyes shut hard, then open em again. Mama and Uncle Jim are still kissing. I hear the screen door slam and I know Daddy's in the house. I think I can hear Pappaw hollering something about bombs, and then the light in Daddy's room comes on, and I watch his shadow move around behind the shade. After a few minutes, his light goes out again. Daddy's going to bed
My breath whooshes out in a big foggy cloud, and I let go of the little tree limb I must've broken off. It drops to the ground, and I can just see it there on top of the pile of leaves below me. There's no moon tonight, only stars and the light from Mama's room.
When I look up to Mama's window again, Daddy is there too. His shotgun looks long and dark, like one of the limbs of my oak tree. Uncle Jim is hollering something. His arms are waving and I can see his mouth moving, but I can't hear what he's saying over the music, "Pennsylvania 6-5000", Daddy's favorite song when he was a little boy. I hear Pappaw screaming, but I can't make out the words, and now Mama's lips are moving too.
Here is the best part of the song. The singers shout Pennsylvania 6-5-oh-oh-oh, but this time the oh's sound louder than they're supposed to.
Something's wrong. There's smoke around Daddy, and I can't see Mama or Uncle Jim anymore. All I see is Daddy looking right at me. He's crying just like the night we went to see Granny at the funeral home.
The cold has got inside my coat because I'm shivering hard. If I'm not careful, I'll shake myself right out of this tree. I lay back on my limb and look at the stars some more. I decide to think about another girl just like me on one of those stars, and what she might be thinking about. Does she have books to read? Does she know about Anne of Green Gables and Joan of Arc and Jane Eyre? I would like to discuss Helen Keller with that girl. I would like to ask her would she choose deaf or blind or mute? I would like to tell her I think Helen Keller was lucky because she didn't have to choose.