The Dry Grass of August

The Dry Grass of August

Anna Jean Mayhew



for Jean-Michel

and

for Laurel





In the midnight hour

When you need some power

When your heart is heavy

Steal away, steal away home

I ain’t got long to stay here.

—African-American spiritual





CHAPTER 1

In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about. It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair. But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead. And Mary would still be with us.

Stell and I carried the last of the suitcases to the driveway. The sky was a wide far blue above the willow oaks that line Queens Road West, with no promise of rain to break the heat. I put Mary’s flowered cloth bag in the trunk and Daddy took it out. “Always start with the biggest piece.” He picked up Mama’s Pullman and grunted. “She packed like she’s never coming back.” He hefted it into the trunk. “Okay, girls, what’s next?”

Stell tapped her suitcase with the toe of her size six penny loafer.

“That’s the ticket.” Daddy put Stell’s bag in the trunk beside Mama’s. He looked at the luggage still sitting by the car and ran his hand through his hair, which was oily with Brylcreem and sweat. “Ninety-five, and not even ten o’clock.” He wiped his face with his pocket handkerchief and pushed his wire-rimmed glasses back in place. His hands were tan from playing golf, thick and square, with blunt fingers. On his right pinkie he wore a ring that had been his father’s—gold, with a flat red stone.

The cowbell rang as Mary shut the kitchen door behind her. She came down the back walk, Davie on her hip. Puddin stumbled along beside them, struggling with the small suitcase she’d gotten for Christmas.

Daddy said to Mama, “Don’t let Mary ride up front.”

“I’d never do such a fool thing,” Mama said. “Everybody use the bathroom one last time.”

Stell stepped into the shade of the garage. “I don’t need to.”

I ran to the breezeway, touching Mary’s arm when I passed her, letting the screen door slap shut behind me. Daddy’s bathroom smelled like cigarettes and poop. I cranked open the window and sat on his toilet to pee. In the full-length mirror on the back of the door, I could see the awful welts on my thighs. I stood and yanked up my pedal pushers.

Daddy was rearranging the luggage, making one more square inch of room in the trunk. Stell Ann stood by the car, shiny in her readiness, from her silky hair to her clear lip gloss to her pale-pink nails. Polished like I could never be.

A horn honked. Aunt Rita’s green Coupe deVille skidded into our driveway, stopping beside the Packard. She rolled down her window. “I found the picnic basket.”

Mama said, “Great!” She asked Daddy, “Can we make room for it?”

He groaned, looking into the crammed trunk.

Aunt Rita passed the basket out the window to Mama. “It’s packed with dishes, glasses, utensils. The ones in the paper bag are for Mary.” She lowered her voice. “There’s talk of the Klan in Georgia.”

Mama handed the basket to Daddy. “We’ll be fine.”

“I hope so.” Aunt Rita waved as she pulled out of the driveway.

Mama jingled her car keys. “Say good-bye to your father.”

Daddy hugged Puddin with one arm and reached for Stell with the other, but she held herself stiffly away from him. He brushed my forehead with a kiss. “Be good, Junebug. You know you’re Daddy’s girl, right?”

His head blocked the morning sun and I couldn’t see his face.

Mary stood in the driveway, holding Davie. Daddy poked Davie’s tummy. “Say bye-bye.”

Davie waved.

“Take care of my boy for me,” Daddy said to Mary.

“Yes, sir.” Mary didn’t look at Daddy when she spoke.

We all got in the car, Mama and Stell Ann in front, Davie between them in his canvas baby seat. Puddin and I were in the back with Mary, who sat behind the driver’s seat, tall and straight, her dark face already damp with sweat. She patted my leg to let me know she liked sitting next to me.

Mama’s hair was curled and hanging loose, flashing red and gold. She handed me her sun hat, scarf, and gloves to put on the ledge in the back window. “Fold my gloves and put them under my hat, then cover my hat with the scarf.” She watched me in the rearview mirror, making sure I did what she said.

She started the car. “Is everyone ready?”

“Ready, Freddy,” I said. Stell sniffed. Slang was beneath her now that she was sixteen, was in Young Life, and had been saved.

Daddy leaned in Mama’s window to kiss her on the cheek. “I’ll see you at Pawleys, okay?” Mama bent to move her purse and he kissed her shoulder instead. “Keep it in the road,” he said.

She put the car in reverse. Had she felt his kiss on her shoulder?

Daddy waved from the garage, looking alone already, and I remembered what he’d said to Uncle Stamos, his older brother. “While they’re gone, I’m going to play golf every afternoon and get stinking drunk whenever I want.” I wondered how he’d feel, coming home to a quiet house, nobody on the phone, no supper in the oven. No one to yell at when he got mad.

Mama turned onto Queens Road West, into the shady green tree tunnels formed by the towering oaks. “I hope there’s not much traffic between here and the highway.”

On the way out of Charlotte we passed Municipal Pool, and I saw Richard Daniels poised on the new high dive while another kid did a cannonball from the low board. Nobody was a better diver than Richard. Next time I talked to him, I’d ask him to give me lessons.

When Daddy and Uncle Stamos won the contract to build those diving boards, they had hunkered for weeks over blueprints spread on the dining room table. Huge papers that smelled like ether and had WATTS CONCRETE FABRICATIONS, INC. in a box on every page, with a caption: CHARLOTTE MUNICIPAL SWIMMING POOL, and subheadings: DECK. BASE FOR THREE-METER BOARD. BASE FOR ONE-METER BOARD.

Daddy showed me how to read the drawings. “Always check the scale. An inch can equal a foot or ten feet.” He held the papers flat to keep them from curling. “If you don’t know the scale, you won’t understand the drawings.” I learned about blueprints as I breathed in his smell of tobacco and Old Spice.

He liked teaching me things. When I was in first grade he gave me a miniature toolbox with painted wooden tools, which Mama thought was ridiculous. “That kind of thing is for boys,” she’d said.

“I don’t have any,” Daddy had told her. “Yet.” He patted her bottom. “And girls need to know the business end of a hammer.”

If Daddy wanted help, I grabbed my toolbox and ran to him, but he hadn’t asked for my help in a long time. Thirteen was too old for make-believe tools.

Puddin wriggled on the seat next to me. “I want to be in front when we get to Florida so I can see the ocean first.”

“That won’t be till tomorrow afternoon,” I told her.

She put her head against my shoulder. “I can wait.” Then she sat up again. “Do my braids so I look Dutch.” I knotted her skimpy braids on top of her head, knowing they wouldn’t stay, as fine as her hair was.

“Do I look Dutch?”

“You look like Puddin-tane with her braids tied up.” Silky blonde wisps fell behind her ears.

Davie started to fuss and Mama asked Stell to check his diaper. He was almost two but wasn’t taking to potty training, so Mama had him in diapers for the trip. Stell lifted him free of the car seat and asked, “Are you ever going to let me drive?”

“Yes.”

“His diaper’s okay. Take him for a while, Mary.” She helped Davie climb over the seat. Mary reached for him and he beamed at her, spreading his arms.

Stell asked Mama, “When?”

“At Taylor’s, but not on the highway. Not yet.”

“I’m qualified.” Stell was pushing her luck. Mama didn’t answer.

We were going first to Pensacola, Florida, to see Mama’s brother Taylor Bentley, who was divorced. His graduation photo from Annapolis was in our living room in a brass frame, taken when he was twenty-one, handsome in his white uniform, his hat held under his arm. When he kicked Aunt Lily out, a judge said their daughter would stay with Uncle Taylor. I heard Mama on the phone. “Lily Bentley is a slut.” My dictionary cleared up the mystery enough for me to suppose that Aunt Lily must have been caught in an affair, a word that made me long for details I was hopeless to know.

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