Amanda Jo Slone
Sophie was in the kitchen waiting for the biscuits to brown when the first guests arrived. She heard the crunch of gravel, a chorus of car door thuds and hellos.
“Harm, honey, go on and see who’s here,” she called to her husband. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Harm had worked all day setting up the big church tent they borrowed and unfolding the flea market tables. She helped him take the kitchen chairs outside that afternoon and pull the high-back wickers from the front porch. He lifted himself off the sofa now with a groan, not of complaint, but of age. Harm never denied Sophie anything, and he never questioned her, not even when she called town meetings like this. She didn’t know how many people would show, especially since none of them, not even Harm, knew what she had in mind. She’d made two pans of biscuits in case they came hungry and set out her good strawberry preserves. Not many people in Marrowbone could resist Sophie’s cooking. If there was anything to be said about the preacher’s wife, it was that she loved God and her neighbors, and she knew her way around a kitchen.
The oven timer buzzed and she tugged a mitt over her hand. She pulled on the glass door and the heat rushed out and startled her with a thick layer of fog on her eyeglasses. She jerked and her arm grazed the hot top coil. She pulled the pan from the oven and dropped it on the stove top, flung her glasses on the counter. A bright red burn bloomed on her forearm, a thin line of rippled skin already forming a blister border around it. She put her arm up to her mouth and fit her lips around the burn, soaked it good in spit as she walked to the kitchen sink. She turned the tap and air sputtered in the spigot before water rushed out. She laid her arm along the bottom of the bowl and sighed.
This was why she called the meeting. In the week since Tan Ford had died, Sophie had been sidetracked and clumsy. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t even pray. Every single night she bent her knees and folded her fingers together, but every time she closed her eyes and tried to make herself still, she saw Carrie Ford in her mind. She saw the poor woman’s hair matted against hollow jaws, the blue-black circles under her eyes. She saw the shredded skin and dirt around split fingernails as Carrie closed her fist on Sophie’s arm. She heard the way the woman cried, her voice needled with sorrow when the men carried her husband’s cold, stiff body from the house and loaded him in the truck. Please don’t take him. Who will help me tend to my babies?
Sophie relived the whole pitiful scene over and over and she couldn’t even pray about it. Sophie never had a problem that prayer couldn’t fix before. There were plenty others in Marrowbone who relied on Sophie’s dedicated conversations with God, too. She spent many evenings answering calls from the prayer line and dropping to her knees as soon as she cradled the receiver. Everybody in Marrowbone knew Sophie’s faith was deep and her connection to God was strong. So on Wednesday evening, when she told the women at Bible Study she thought someone in town was in trouble, they all listened. Sophie didn’t tell them the source of the trouble. She only told them it weighed heavy on her heart and she felt called to help. By Sunday morning there was a prayer request for Sophie’s peace of mind and a plan to meet at the Tackett place on Monday evening.
Sophie turned the water off and dabbed her arm dry with a dish towel. The burn throbbed. She’d put some salve on it after the meeting. She pulled the lace curtains back from the kitchen window and looked out. Cars were lined along the drive way and some parked crooked on the creek bank. Every seat under the old church tent was full and some people stood in the yard. Sophie’s flower garden was in full bloom. The Knock-Out roses had sleek pink blossoms and the peonies were plump. That old church tent had been used for every revival, picnic, baby shower, and funeral in Marrowbone for as long as Sophie remembered. The stakes bent in the dirt and the green canvas frayed, but last summer the Vacation Bible School kids painted a picture of Jesus on one of the flaps and his face was still clear. Jesus looked out over Sophie’s garden and neighbors with a blessing in his blue eyes and Sophie knew she was doing the right thing. She turned the pans and plated her biscuits, set the plates and some napkins on a tray, and with it held out at her chest like an offering, she kicked open the screen door and let it bang shut behind her.
The crowd quieted their chatter and turned to look at her as she walked across the yard. Under her apron Sophie wore one of her best church dresses, the blue cotton shift with white flowers. She looked at her feet. She’d meant to change into good flats, but still wore the slippers she’d put on when she helped Harm get the yard ready. Damp grass tickled her feet through the thin material.
“Ain’t that a sight for sore eyes?” Deputy Sherriff Kendrick reached up to take the platter from her and placed it on the table. He grabbed a jar of the preserves and twisted the lid.
“Mmmhmm,” said one of the Dixon brothers, but nobody could tell which one. They all three sat hunched together, looking just like their daddy and each other. Most people could only tell them apart by their injuries. Allen walked with a limp because when they were twelve, he shot off three of his toes with a stolen pistol. At twenty, Moses lost half his right ear and Jesse his left ring finger in the same bar fight. Some people claim they were so drunk they did the damage to each other. It’s a wonder they ever made it to be forty. Many town meetings just like this one had been held on account of the brothers. Sophie could tell them apart, but she didn’t think either one of them had a lick of sense.
Sue Swiney was out there with her newborn son swaddled on her lap. Sue kept a blanket pulled up high around the baby’s face. She’d claim it was to keep the bugs off him or the light out of his eyes, but Sophie knew it was because the baby was born with a harelip and it broke Sue’s heart when people brought attention to it. She couldn’t stand the way people stared and asked, “Are you going to get it fixed?” Gena Farmer sat next to Sue. Gena was pushing fifty. She’d never married, claimed she didn’t want to be tied down when she was young, and saw no point now that she was old. Gena worked days at the diner and watched Sue’s baby while Sue pulled the night shift. Sophie figured Gena held on to that baby so much because she regretted not having her own. Brack Montgomery had closed the diner early this evening to allow them all to attend the meeting and he sat next to the women who were used to the deep fried smell of his uniform.
At the next table sat Glenn Knott. Sophie winced as she saw him wipe down the table top with one of the grease-stained rags he kept hanging out of his pockets. Glenn ran the only full service in town. The Gulf Mart might put him out of business before long, with their new gas pumps and full deli with coolers inside, but for now, most people in town still came to him. He pumped their gas, cleaned their windshields and mirrors, and gave them all a pack of Juicy Fruit as a thank-you for their loyalty.
Harm sat next to Glenn. Sophie loved to watch her husband in a crowd. People flocked to him, even outside of church. He had a calm face and deep brown eyes, and he always looked straight at a person when he talked to them, made them feel like they were the only one that mattered. He kept the seat next to him open for Sophie. He stood and pulled it out. Sophie stepped toward him, but her knees buckled and she froze. A suffocating warmth spread through her stomach and she felt couldn’t tell if it was love for Harm she felt, or if it was grief for Carrie and the love she had for Tan.
Before Tan died, Sophie had met Carrie only one other time. It was years ago, when Harm found two beagle pups up in the hills. The pups were puny and their fur clumped up in Harm’s hands when he petted them. Their yelps came out in raspy whispers. Harm wrapped them up in his flannel shirt and brought them home. That evening, Harm and Sophie took the pups to Tan. Tan Ford never was account for much. Most days he was drunk. He’d sit out on the Marrowbone Bridge and stare down at the ripples in the Big Sandy River. He’d turn to wave at every car that drove by. But even with liquor on his breath, Tan was an animal healer. He’d saved James Robinson’s hounds when they came down with Parvo so bad their ribs poked through their skin and they left bloody trails everywhere they dragged their hind legs. He’d delivered every calf and foal this side of Pike County. Sophie went with Harm up on the hill and carried one of the pups.
Carrie met them at the door of the Ford place. She leaned out around the door and hissed in their direction. Shhh. Don’t wake the babies. She wrapped her nervous hands in her hair and rocked on her feet until Tan placed a chubby hand on her back. He spoke low next to her ear. Come on, mommy. We’ll go check on the babies. He unwrapped Carrie’s fingers from her hair and led her to the wrought iron bed in the corner of the big front room, tiptoeing and putting on a quiet show with one finger pressed to his lips. Now look here. These babies are sound asleep. You’re such a fine mommy. Carrie sat down on the bed and Tan pulled a sheet up over a row of porcelain dolls, tucked it tight under their chins, and rubbed a hand over their glass eyes. Carrie smiled. Whatever it was inside Carrie’s muddled mind that made her think her dolls were alive, only Tan understood. His wife, like all the wild animals Tan tended to, soothed under his touch and became, if only for a moment, well.
“Sophie, you going to sit down?” Harm put his hand on Sophie’s arm. His fingers touched the tender burn and she jerked.
“You okay, Mrs. Tackett? You look a little pale.” Glenn Knott stood up and joined Harm beside her. “Maybe you ought to come on and sit. Let’s talk a little while.”
Sophie blushed, not because she knew everyone was staring at her, but with shame. What had she done but turned her back on that poor sick woman up on Jonican Hill? After that day with the beagle pups, Sophie didn’t go back to the Ford place. It was easy to pretend Carrie didn’t exist, easy to forget she was their neighbor, a living, feeling member of this town. Nobody at this meeting had thought of Carrie Ford and what might happen to her now that Tan was dead and gone. Sophie knew none of them cared. She steadied herself against the edge of one of tables and cleared her throat. The shake in her voice surprised her when she spoke.
“I don’t want to sit down,” she began. “I want to get this meeting started. I know you’re all wondering why I asked you to come here.”
Sophie’s ears filled with bloated silence. She couldn’t hear the ripple of the creek behind her or the frogs singing on the bank. All she could hear was the ragged sound of her own breath.
Harm and Glenn sat back down in their seats and Sophie saw a couple of people nod.
“I asked you here so we could talk about Carrie Ford. Something needs to be done for her now that Tan’s gone and I reckon we need to figure it out.” The words rushed and Sophie felt her burden lifting as soon as they were out of her mouth.
For a moment, everyone was quiet. Sophie’s ears filled with bloated silence. She couldn’t hear the ripple of the creek behind her or the frogs singing on the bank. All she could hear was the ragged sound of her own breath. Then someone shifted in their seat and the sounds came back to her, one at a time. Someone lit a cigarette, coughed. A sigh from behind the baby blanket. It was Stella Rogers who spoke first.
“I say we leave her be.” Stella had come to the meeting straight from her shift at the Beauty Palace and still wore a thin plastic apron over her blue jeans and cardigan. She sat back in her seat, a smirk on her lips. “She ain’t our business.”
A couple of people muttered low sounds of agreement.
“That poor woman can’t stay up there by herself. She’s sick.” Maggie Jones sat her mug down a little too hard and coffee sloshed over the rim. Sophie knew that those who sat closest to her probably caught a whiff of bourbon.
“So what are you proposing?” This was Elias Johnson, manager of the Marrowbone Bank. He straightened his tie and propped his elbows on the table. “Is there room for her at your supper table, Mrs. Tackett?”
Sophie started to speak, but the crowd took over. Voices blended and rose as her neighbors tried to speak above each other.
“Carrie Ford is sick.”
“She’s batshit crazy.”
“Truth will stand when the world’s on fire. What are we supposed to do about it?”
“We can’t just leave her out there. What if she hurts herself? What if she hurts somebody else?”
“You know good and well that Carrie Ford doesn’t bother anybody. She stays up on that hill and tends to her babies.”
“Babies! You’re just as crazy as she is.”
“She needs a doctor.”
“Doesn’t she have any family?”
An embarrassed hush fell over them. Nobody in that crowd knew if Carrie Ford had any family. If there was truth to be told, none of them, not even Sophie, knew anything about Carrie’s life before she married Tan Ford. Where she came from, who her people were, what it was that was really wrong her. Tan brought her to Marrowbone when she was just a child, barely seventeen somebody once said. There were rumors. Some people told that she’d run away from her family and Tan found her wandering along Jonican Hill. Somebody else said Tan won her from her drunk daddy in a poker game. Nobody ever asked.
Sophie broke the silence. “I think it’s our Christian duty to help our neighbors when they’re in need.” She looked to Harm, hoped he would stand up to support her. Harm hung his head, his dark brown eyes searching the grass.
Elias Johnson stood. “Is that what this is about, Mrs. Tackett, your Christian duty?” Elias’ voice was sharp. He’d only lived in Marrowbone for a little over a year, moved there from somewhere in western Kentucky. He tucked the edges of his crisp dress shirt into his pants. “Have you actually gone up to see Carrie Ford or do you just want it to be your idea?”
Anger rose in Sophie’s cheeks. Harm reached over to take her hand, but she pulled away. She looked at the faces of her neighbors, the people she’d prayed for and fed for most of their lives and she didn’t recognize a one of them. Before she realized what she was doing, Sophie turned from the table and ran. She could hear them behind her, a mixture of voices angry and confused. When she hit the driveway the gravels poked through her slippers and it slowed her, but she kept on, her head tucked down against her chest. Her calf muscles ached and her throat burned. She stopped at Marrowbone Bridge and leaned her body against the rail. The sun was going down and the river was dark with shadows. A hoot owl called out above her head. She hadn’t realized she was coming here when she took off running, but there was Jonican Hill spread out before her. Sophie thought of Carrie Ford up there, where it would be already dark. She wondered if the woman had eaten or if she had seen another human being in the week since Tan passed. Elias Johnson was right. They were all right. Carrie Ford lived up on this hill for years and none of them cared until now. Shame knotted Sophie’s stomach as she thought of the woman’s frail body rocking her dolls and crying, the only person who ever cared for her gone. Sophie wondered which was worse—crazy or alone.
Sophie started when she heard the men behind her. Their voices were low and the long reach of their flashlight beams spread across the ground at her feet. She turned and started up the hill.
The road was long and steep. One side was a sharp drop-off, and the other full of brush and weeds. Sophie could hear the Dixon brothers talking. She imagined they were re-telling the story of how they found Tan. It’d been those three, of all people, who’d gone to check on him. Too sorry to cut the weeds outside the home they shared, they’d bought a couple of billy goats, and wanted Tan to take a look at them. When they started asking around, people realized it had been several days, maybe even over a week, since anyone had seen Tan’s broad backside spread across the bridge rails. When they got to the Ford place, the door was open. Jesse knocked, but nobody answered. They pushed their way inside. Carrie was sleeping in the wrought iron bed, a crazy quilt bunched in fists under her chin. They almost didn’t wake her, so rare it was for her to be calm, still. They almost left her there, came close to shutting the door on the whole scene and walking back to town, telling everybody they never found Tan. They figured somebody else would go looking sooner or later, somebody willing to wake Carrie.
They turned to go, but before they reached the door, Carrie woke. Shhh. Don’t wake the babies. Carrie pushed her dirty hair from her face and swung two bony legs on to the floor. Her dingy nightgown hung off her skinny frame like a flowing dress. Allen told how he wretched when the smell hit him. Jesse fell down on his knees and started praying for the first time in his life. Carrie gave the quilt a shake and spread it back over the row of dolls and Tan, tucked it nice and tight under their chins. The skin around Tan’s open mouth sagged in deep wrinkles and his eyes were frozen in surprise, as glassy as the dolls that laid beside him. The brothers ran when Carrie spoke again. Shhh. The babies.
Neil Jackson, the coroner, had taken care of Tan free of charge. There was an old family cemetery hidden behind the tree line up on Jonican, and the town’s men dug the hole that evening. There was no funeral, but Harm did say a prayer as they covered him and Sophie had sat in the cabin with Carrie.
Sophie kept climbing despite the pain that now shot from her toes all the way up into her aging spine. She tried to make herself speed up, to stay ahead of the men, but she figured they were also trying to keep their distance behind her. Finally, she saw the Fords’ cabin. Even its shadows were small. She climbed the rickety wooden steps to the front porch. The rails were splintered and the boards creaked beneath her feet. The door was open. Sophie knocked.
“Carrie? You home?” The house was dark and the lingering smell of decay drifted out of the large front room. Sophie peaked around the door. The table was clear and the floor swept. In the corner the bed was empty. Carrie wasn’t there and neither were her babies.
Sophie heard the others outside. She stepped back on to the porch and there stood the Dixon brothers and Harm. The brothers hung their heads. Her husband’s eyes were full of ache. She put a nervous hand up to her sweaty hair, tucked the ends back into the bun that hung loose. Harm smiled.
Maggie Jones trailed the others through the yard. “Let’s look out here,” she called.
Harm took Sophie’s elbow in his hand and led her back down the steps. They walked around the cabin to the cemetery. Most of the graves were unmarked, but some of them had slender, hand-thrown headstones. The stones’ shadows stretched together along the ground. Sophie thought they looked like tall, skinny people, their heads pushed together in gossip.
Sophie’s eyes welled up when she saw Tan’s grave, the mound of dirt still fresh. There were the dolls. There were four of them, each wrapped in a blanket and arranged side by side on top of the grave. Beside them lay their mother, her stiff body wrapped in her crazy quilt and curved around her family as if to shield them from the prying gaze of the town.
Amanda Jo Slone is the editor of the literary journal, The Pikeville Review. Her work has appeared in journals such as Appalachian Heritage, The Louisville Review, Still: The Journal, Kudzu, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, as well as the anthology Seeking Its Own Level. In 2013 she was awarded an Emerging Artist Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She lives in Draffin, Kentucky.