When I was seven years old, I had a jet-black rooster. I’d raised it and three others just as dark from baby chicks for a school project. Although he was born with some delicate distinction I could never put my finger on, I soon discovered I could tell him apart from the others by picking him up and looking him square in the eyes. There was a dash of white smack-dab in the middle of the left lens. I tied a piece of blue string around one of his legs so I could more easily identify him from a distance.
Entering the pen at feeding time one day, I noticed, to my horror, a shriveled leg next to the food bin. My second-grade mind had failed to deduce that a young rooster’s leg will continue to grow, string or no string. And if said string is never loosened, the results could prove catastrophic. My blemish-eyed rooster wobbled confusedly next to my work boot, weak, staggering, and possibly near death. I called to my mother, who was gathering bed sheets from the clothesline.
“My goodness,” she said, entering the pen and kneeling next to the ailing bird. Brushing the palm of her hand over the back of its head, she gathered the woozy rooster in her arms and exited the coop, disappearing into a dense patch of cedars.
An anguished hour passed before I heard the familiar strains of “Bringing in the Sheaves.” My mother came into view on the other side of the garden shed, my beloved rooster following close on her heels as if he’d been born with only one leg. “We shall come rejoicing,” my mother sang as she went into the pen, crouching with her back to me. She whispered words of such secrecy I could only make out a faint “de-vine.”
Patting the rooster on the plume of its tail, she left the pen, closed the gate behind her, and guided me up the path. I looked over my shoulder at my rooster chasing the others away from the fresh pile of scratch my mother had left. I watched her closely as she stooped to retrieve the basket of laundry, the words of the hymn still nimbly on her lips. Ignoring my plea for any scrap of information on what had transpired between the two of them, she kicked open the door of the wrought iron gate and continued on to the house.
Trying to keep up in the wake of recent events, I seriously pondered what a sheave was, and why rejoicing always followed the bringing in of them.
The day I got the call my nonsmoking mother was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer began with a trip to buy bras. Frances Newman was one of the rottenest stars in movies, and I was her chief executive assistant, which just meant I kissed more ass than anyone else for the same amount of money.
“Oh, hi, Phillip. You must be here for Ms. Newman’s—”
The pasty-faced bra ladies in the Beverly Hills boutique ask the same thing every time, even though I’ve never bought anything here butbras.
The skinny bra lady always has something wildly inappropriate to say, as if all us lowly ass-kissers should be able to let it all hang out over the counter. “So, is she an even bigger bitch now that she’s won the Oscar?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” I say with a strained smile, handing over Frances’s black Amex, checking my imaginary watch like I had somewhere to be yesterday.
“How’s the acting—or was it writing—thing going?” the heavy bra lady asks me. She had actually seen a terrible play I’d written for a none-too-reputable theatre company in the Valley.
“Oh, it’s going,” I say briskly as I gather the bags. Ducking into the blast of a Santa Ana pushing its way through rush hour traffic, I am suddenly overcome with the suspicion that the present nettlesome moment won’t hold a candle to what’s coming next.
“Us Weeklyis here and Frances is pissed.” Piper, Frances’s nauseatingly frisky junior assistant, greets me as I enter the front door of the manse. “Did you get the…” she says, peeking inside the glimmering bag of bras. “—Thank God. What about the corgi?”
Frances was known in her circle as the Queen of Gifting. When you work for the Hollywood elite, much of your time is spent finding the perfect gift for the person who has everything. Your days become a never-ending quest for something no one in their right mind would ever wish for.
“What do you mean, no corgis?”
“I mean there’s not a chocolate-covered corgi anywhere in L.A. Chocolate-covered pugs, yes. Dachshunds, yes. I was told by Merva at Sweet Chic that most consider corgis too British.”
“Too British?For what?”
“Or Irish. Hell, I don’t remember. All I know is I’m done looking for chocolate dogs.” It takes an effort for a control freak like me to admit defeat, but there you have it.
“Is there anything I can report to her about the chastity belt?”
Frances’s best friend, Jules, got knocked up every time she went to Paris. So, Frances thought it would be a riot to find one of the original chastity belts. “Like Anne Boleyn, or somebody like that, had to wear,” she had said. This way, not only would it be a great gag, but it would be a gag worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“I finally heard from Jake at Trinity. After some digging, he found there never really were chastity belts.”
“What? Of course there were. There hadto be!”
“They only appeared in drawings in the sixteenth century. Like in cartoons. Chastity belts were a myth.”
“Holy shit. We’re dead.”
Nearing forty and already packing enough botulism to give her the skewed smile of a stroke victim, Frances swoops through the foyer and grabs me by the shoulders. “There is a shithole magazine here.”
“Yeah,” I say flatly.
“Why don’t I know this?” she hisses like a saw-scaled viper.
“I told you yesterday, and it’s on your phone. It’s also on the Things to Do Today list,” I say, pointing to the hot pink pad on the foyer table.
Frances studies the short, dumpy reporter standing alone in the living room, picks at one of her overgrown lips, and looms close enough to French me. “Did you get the bras?”
I brandish the bag with a big, fake smile.
Frances grabs me in a big, brittle hug. “If you run my life forever, I will give you a big fat fucking raise every fucking year!” she squeals before she dashes away to greet the reporter in a key three octaves higher than her normal speaking voice. “Heeeey, I’m Frances.”
The cell phone vibrates in my shirt pocket—Burberry button-down, a gift from Frances for remembering to bring double dressing for her salad from the Ivy on my first day of work.
“Hi, it’s Cynthia,” my agent’s assistant says through the faulty headgear that always makes her sound like she’s in the can. “Could you come over when you get a sec?”
In the living room, Frances blabs away at the reporter. “I’m just so thankful I get paid to do what I love.”
“What do you mean, you’re letting me go?” I say.
Cynthia, an unpleasant, ruddy-faced woman in her twenties, pops a thick rubber band on her wrist. “It’s just business. And besides, it wasn’t my decision. It was Gary’s.”
I can hear my agent’s tired, pinched voice making deals through the closed plywood door. “Per diem” something something and “contracts no later than.” I clutch a man purse to my chest like a bulletproof vest, something I do when I have to talk with someone who uses phrases like “contracts no later than.” The bag is made of rattlesnake skin, a gift from an old girlfriend who worked as a producer on a soap opera and threw up every morning before she left for work. In the bag is a writing pad for taking notes, a Montblanc pen given me by said girlfriend, and an empty tin of Sucrets. Tucked in the side pocket is a headshot and résumé, although I haven’t worked as an actor since 1997 when I had a six-day stint on Days Of Our Livesplaying a waiter who died in a hospital explosion.
“But he just signed a two-year contract with me, and that was only two months ago,” I whine, sounding more like a four-year-old who shit his pants.
“He decided he didn’t have the time to build a career for someone who—” She stops herself self-consciously and pops the rubber band.
I lean forward. “Someone who what?”
“Well, someone who’s not so young anymore. Someone who’s not so young anymore and hasn’t yet gotten their big break.”
I wait to see if she’s gonna say it again, just in case I failed to hear it the first two times. “Why didn’t Gary tell me?”
“He’s got a lot going on.” Cynthia pops her wrist with the rubber band, and I notice dried blood around the ragged cuticles of her gargantuan, ape-like thumbs.
Gary’s voice trumpets a “Fair enough!” from underneath the door.
“Oh, and before I forget…” Cynthia rummages around a desk drawer before she forks over a well-worn DVD of a film Frances made when she was less than nobody. “I’ve been meaning to ask if could you could get Frances to sign this for my niece. She’s a fan.”
A Big Blue Bus craps a load of blue-black smoke in my face as my cell sings Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” and I fold into my car. I answer without checking who it is. “Yup.”
Like burning acid on my face. “Bo Skeet?” My childhood nickname. From my father. “It’s me. Sis.” Born Hannah. Again, my father’s work.
“Oh. Hey, Sis. Listen, can I call you back?”
“No. You’ll get busy, and I won’t hear back from you for a week.” The gentle hum of the potbellied filter tells me she’s pacing by the pool at my parents’ place.
“Not true,” I mumble. “I’ll call you in, like, later.” I let down the window, the old roll-down kind, cursing myself for deciding it was too costly to fix the air conditioner.
“It’s Tina,” she exhales, like someone on a Brazilian soap opera.
“What about Tina?”
“She has cancer.”
I stick a finger in my other ear to hear over Wilshire Boulevard traffic. “What??”
“Lung cancer.” I can hear Sis exhaling her Carlton 100 as I light up one of my own.
“Lung cancer? Come on, Tina doesn’t smoke.”
“It’s stage four, and it doesn’t look good.”
My mother had smoked one cigarette in her entire life. She had planned taking up the habit to take off a few postnatal pounds, but the day she chose to start wound up being the same day the surgeon general’s first report on the dangers of smoking came out.
I hunker down in the car seat, trying to disappear. “So—come on, here—stage four. What does that mean?”
I can hear the tip of the Carlton fire as Sis takes another drag. “It means it’s inoperable. They’ll do chemo and radiation and hope it buys her a little time. Maybe three months.”
“Three…” I say, fingering the tattered leather on the steering wheel cover.
“You’d never know it to look at her. Dot Grant followed us out of the Delchamps the other day. ‘Lookin’ at y’all is like lookin’ at the Judds, which one’s the mother, which one’s the daughter?’ And that fat-ass son of hers with the weird eye lookin’ at me like I’m some sort of chocolate fudge Popsicle.”
“Okay, stay with me here, Sis. How is she?”
“Don’t you wanna know how I’m doing?”
I take a deep breath and try to make my stomach poke out the way they do in the yoga class I haven’t been to in four years. “Of course. How are you?”
“I’ve been throwing up nonstop,” Sis says, blowing her nose. “I’ve never felt so terrible in all—”
“I’m sorry you’re throwing up.”
“She wants to talk to you.”
My back stiffens in panic.
“Hi.” Tina’s calm plantation dialect washes away Sis’s anguished storm warning.
“Hi,” I answer, quick, breezy.
“She’s single again,” she whispers. I can feel her turn her back to Sis. “She’s just left that lovely girl she’s been with for what, four years?”
Sis dated guys until she went off to college, then switched to girls. Before she switched back to guys. Then back to girls. This is a thing with the Stalworths. It’s a wonder the family tree grew. None of the many wild cards in the tribe felt strongly enough about one sex or the other to identify as one or the other. This made outsiders crazy. And terrified me. Who wants to exist without an orientation? Although I’d dabbled with men a time or two, I was damned if I would make the end of the Stalworth line all my fault. My parents had worked too long and too hard to miss out on at least one wedding and one grandchild.
Tina’s voice took me out of my wandering head. “She’s up here every weekend to see your father to talk about whatever theytalk about. I thought she had to work all the time. One would think you would have to in the real estate business. Well, maybe they don’t have to work so hard in Pensacola.”
I imagine my mother walking up the stairs to the sun porch, staring out over the hollow below her, the hardwoods tinged with the callow buds of springtime. I’m pulling lean, rickety words out of thin air. “Listen, how—”
“Are you coming home?”
A question I knew was coming.
“You know I risked my life to have you.” Tina stops herself. “Sorry. You know I’m not that kind of person. I would never. It’s just, your sister won’t stop crying. And Fanny cleans any room I’m not in so she won’t have to look at me. And don’t even get me started on your father. Will you come home, just for a couple of days,” she says, lowering her voice again, “so I can look at somebody who’s not stark-raving mad?” She offers up a tiny laugh. “Do you catch the irony in this whole thing? I spend half my life in the looney box, and now Ihave to be the one who holds everybody together. A daunting task, to say the least.”
I silently curse the click of my call waiting as Tina will think she’s keeping me.
She clears her throat. “Is everything okay?”
I feel like I’m five years old. I desperately want someone to make it all okay, turn back the clock so I’m not old enough to have a parent die of anything beyond a bloody car wreck. “It’s…Yes. I’m fine.” An older tourist couple poses for a snapshot in front of Van Cleef & Arpels. I instantly hate them both for looking the picture of health.
“Your father just walked out here. He and Sis are trying to outpace each other. Just look at them, pulling their weeds. Two peas in a pod.”
I picture my father standing on the bank of the creek like he always does when he has some difficult task before him, hands on his hips, shoulders straight, picking his teeth with something he’s snatched off the ground. Then he joins Sis in another round of weeding. Father and daughter can cover a lawn the size of a football field like two gophers on holiday.
Tina’s voice packs more urgency. “I need my buddy.”
I can hear a car door slam through the receiver and Tina says “Hi” in a mock cheery tone to an unnamed visitor. My call waiting intrudes again, and I quickly blurt out, “I’ll be home quick as I can.” I feel myself slipping effortlessly back into control freak mode. “I’ll do some research, see what I can find.” I can tell Tina’s attention is all on me and not on the visitor. “Okay?”
“That’s really good news.” I can tell she’s smiling.
I would later learn both Sis and I would smoke the last cigarettes of our lives today.
I hang up, wondering how in four hot, fiery hells I can make this happen.
I make my way past the laundry room in the gloomy parking garage of my apartment building and hold my nose against the cloying scent of the Garcias’ grape-flavored detergent. The two-bedroom place I’ve had since I graduated college still falls under the rent control laws of the People’s Republic of Santa Monica. Most days it feels like I may wind up like the other inhabitants of the crumbling abode: seniors whose withered hands will have to be pried from their cheap rental thresholds by the casket makers of the gentrified beachside community.
But a strange purpose is in my step as I dial Frances’s number, an act that smacks of spontaneity and freedom, two things that never factor into my existence, as I never take vacations and always do as I am told.
“Piper, hey, it’s Phillip. Didn’t you have some friend who had cancer but ate some sort of Peruvian tree bark and got better?” Mrs. Garcia waves and smiles as she passes with another basket of fruit-flavored laundry. “Well, could you get me any and all phone numbers, websites, and email addresses?” I say, walking straight past the mailboxes since I know Tuesdays are supermarket circular day. “Oh. It’s my mother. Listen. Has Frances had her vodka yet? Great. Could you put her on, please?”
Agnes Roach has been my landlady since I first moved to L.A. Somewhere near eighty, she wears floral house dresses that snap up the front and slip-on house shoes made out of the same brushed corduroy as the slip-on arm protectors she keeps on her aging sofa.
The culprit, a hot pink Brother sewing machine, is stationed in the hall. Agnes smokes unfiltered Lucky Strikes and drinks Busch beer from a can and cats are everywhere, stalking, hissing, and napping on countertops, windowsills, and china cabinets. She cooks dinner for me every Sunday night: trout, mashed potatoes, green salad with iceberg lettuce and Wishbone dressing. Afterward, we drink ice-cold beer and watch Touched by An Angelon her prehistoric Magnavox.
As today, Friday, is the day of my departure, Agnes insists I have my last supper with her. Presently, I am finishing off a piece of Marie Callender’s strawberry pie while Agnes pours Diet Squirt from a noisy plastic bottle into my Flintstones jelly glass. Agnes has always liked the fact that I feel comfortable enough to conduct business from her dinner table. Although tonight would be no different than any other at first glance, the alternative medicine book on the empty chair next to me tells a different story.
“Wait. Piper. So, is it like a spa or what?” My mind momentarily shuts down as I shoo a mewing Siamese kitten from my plate. “No, I’m at my landlady’s. No, it’s just a cat of some sort,” I say, logging more info on my laptop.
Agnes sits in a chair at the other end of the table and plants her beer on the brushed blue corduroy tablecloth. “If your flight’s at eleven, I need to go fire up the Nova.” Agnes expels a breathy “Who? Me?” at the tinny bingof the doorbell.
“Want me to get it?” It’s a tad late for visitors.
“You stay put.” Agnes lumbers over to the door and calls through the peephole like a mob boss. “Who’s there?”
A familiar female voice comes from the other side. “It’s me, Agnes.”
Agnes stands firm. “Well, I don’t know who ‘me’ is.”
“Caroline with a long ‘i’?”
Agnes’s voice softens. “Lord,” she says, opening the door. The yellow porch lightbulb illuminates the girl I’ve been seeing now for six years. “Land sakes,” Agnes says, embracing Caroline, “come on in here.” Caroline follows Agnes into the living room and pushes a thick strand of her long, stunning mane over one ear. Agnes grabs Caroline by the forearm and turns her to me like she’s the next item up for auction. “I thought y’all was busted up.”
Truth was, we were. “Well…”
Caroline smiles at Agnes, then at me. “I thought if you still needed a ride to the airport…”
“Oh, goodness,” Agnes barks, “you know I am loathto drive after dark. Specially since those fuckers who did my laser surgery murderedmy night vision.”
I nod thankfully at the only girl I’d ever dated who insisted on keeping the lights on the first time we made love. I was afraid she’d ditch me as soon as she saw the love handles I had no trouble hiding when the guys started wearing their shirttails out. I close the medicine book in front of me, recalling how I pulled away when she orgasmed so I could see the look on her face.
I collect the rest of my things from the table and shove them in my carry-on, moved by the fact that a rumor of death could temporarily rejoin those whom life had torn asunder. Hoisting the bag over my shoulder, I walk across the room and kiss Caroline lightly on the cheek.
Fighting back tears, Agnes cuts her eyes at the white Persian eating a lime-crusted turd from the nearby cat box. She slaps a rolled-up newspaper against the palm of her hand. “Shoo, you.”
Taking another sip of my fifteen-dollar chardonnay in the tiki bar near Gate 57, I leave my nose in the glass two seconds longer to avoid the ammonia scent coming from the men’s room. “Crap. I forgot my toothbrush.”
“I’m sure your mother will have an extra. I mean, don’t all Southern mothers have an extra everything?”
I nod, certain Caroline’s right. She’s never met my mother, nor anyone else in my family. Probably because that would make it too official. “So. Gary dropped me from his roster. I’m no longer a Forefront client.”
“Oh God, Phillip, no.”
It took me ages to figure out the reason for my breakup with Caroline was I stayed too angry and depressed from enduring one career setback after another. I’m sure I dropped this Gary bomb as a reminder, in case she’d forgotten the ceaseless keg of nails I’d already pounded into the lid of our relationship coffin.
“This will be the final boarding call for Flight 193 to Atlanta.”
“Final? I never heard the first one,” I say, standing and taking one last swig from the plastic glass, cringing as I remember there are no such things as nonstops to Mobile. The joke back home is that even when you go to heaven, you still have to change planes in Atlanta. I absentmindedly attempt to figure out how to pull up the handle on the carry-on I’ve had for eons.
“Here, let me.” Caroline kneels next to me and studies the bag, another selfless gesture from someone trying their best to say and do all the right things at a time when everything in my universe, once again, feels as if it’s teetering on calamity.
“I’ll carry it,” I say with a grunt, balancing it in front of me like I’m moving furniture. “I mean, it’s a carry-on, right?”
Caroline looks at me for a moment and kisses me on the cheek. “You be careful back there. It’s all gonna—” She stops for a second. “You know, I thought about stowing away in your knapsack on your flight to Tennessee Williams–land.”
“That’s sweet,” I say. “You’re sweet.” I put the suitcase down and bury my head in her bosom like a youngster panicked on the first day of school. Caroline-with-the-long-“i” pats my back like she’s soothing a colicky baby. “I remember the time when I wanted to live right here,” I moan. She lets me be for a few seconds before she pulls away and points me toward the gate.
I step out of the tiki bar and merge onto the busy concourse below. Looking over my shoulder, I see her wiping away a tear with the sleeve of her UCLA sweatshirt. I pretend I don’t see it. Instead, I try to lighten the mood by fastening an imaginary noose above my head, my face bulging in comic desperation as I make my way backward to my tenuous future.
Briefly colliding with a bustling flight attendant, I straighten up, looking for one last reassuring glimpse from Caroline, but she’s already gone.
The speaker above my head crackles to life. “This is the final call.”
I come from a county on the Gulf Coast of Alabama bordering the Florida panhandle. Winston Gant, the pugnacious attorney who sold my father the lot on which he built our first house, claimed to sleep with his head in the Heart of Dixie and his butt in the Sunshine State, a report no one felt compelled to disprove.
Brewton was a colony of middle- to upper-middle-class homes built on Murder Creek, a tributary of the Conecuh River. The place got its name from a tale about a party of Royalists traveling in the 1700s from South Carolina to Pensacola who were savagely slaughtered by a roaming band of traders. Centuries later, the football teams of Brewton’s T.R. Miller High School and East Brewton’s W.S. Neal face off each October in a bloody combat that makes that fracas pale in comparison.
In the 1960s and 70s, the town claimed to have more millionaires than any other Southern town of its size, a fact proven by the still-standing mansions built by the early lumber barons, many of them occupied by their descendants. That tidbit, combined with the cold hard-ish fact that the area, known as the blueberry capital of the south, had also been declared one of the one hundred best small towns in America by some Yankee journalist, lent its citizens the impression they weren’t adrift in a sea of paucity and ignorance.
In any case, we had all been informed at a very early age we should be damned grateful we lived in Alabama. After all, it could be much worse. We could live in Mississippi, a place I passed through twice growing up without ever finding out what made it worse than the state we already lived in.
Some idiot once said God never gives you any more than you can handle, but the way I always saw it, all you have to do is glance in any graveyard, back alley bar, or skid row refrigerator box to find those who got just that.
Tina Kimbrough, a Baptist preacher’s daughter, was a product of the fifties. Homecoming queen two years in a row, she married my father, Garrett Stalworth, her high school sweetheart. Abandoning her dreams of becoming an art teacher so she could raise a family, Tina suffered three nervous breakdowns because she couldn’t speak up for herself.
My father, on the other hand, chose pharmaceuticals as his profession, adjusted his blinders, and took off running. Tina developed a lifelong tell—a shallow clearing of her throat every time one of her requests to my father to take the garbage out, let the dog in, or lower the volume on the TV was ignored. “Aheeem,” she’d say, completing the task herself without another word.
“Did you want something, baby?” Garrett would yell from another part of the house five minutes later.
“No,” my mother would whisper, slamming the screen door, shoving a chair roughly under the table, or clanging a glass noisily in the dish drain.
When Tina was in labor with my sister, both of them almost died. The doctors forbade her to have another, instructions my mother thankfully took to heart for only a short time. According to most accounts, Sis came out of the womb bawling like a burn victim and offered those around her no relief in sight for years.
My great-aunt Violet told my mother to let her cry, advice she had gleaned from an article in Ladies Home Journal. But day after day, a naïvely hopeful Tina would dress Sis up in her frilly pink finest, pretending this time would be different. And day after day, the ladies of the town would nod nervously as mother and child approached, Tina offering them another opportunity to peep into the inviting confines of the carriage before they were forced to excuse themselves over another one of Sis’s bloodcurdling bawls.
Aunt Violet used to tell Tina there was only so much shit a person could take before they took the reins of their life into their own hands. And although Violet drank herself to an early death because God had given her more than shecould handle, I probably owe my life to that gin-soaked observation.
“You’ve got another one yet,” she told my mother as they sat on opposite ends of the Formica table in our little white house on Dawson Street.
“But the doctors—”
Violet patted Tina’s hand. “You’ve got a boy. Worth the trouble. Not like this first one. Easy labor. A happy, grateful child.”
Aunt Violet was gifted with two uncanny abilities: telling the future and removing a person’s wart by rubbing it with her thumbs, an art that had its roots in our ancestors’ native Germany and perfected in backwoods Appalachia. Sometimes she even read the subject’s fortune through the designs on the wart. On this particular day, she was removing a callus from the bottom of one of Tina’s aching feet.
While Tina sipped her tea, she calmly took in her aunt’s old world divination, ignoring Sis’s fiery screams from the nursery upstairs.
“You should get someone to help with the other,” Aunt Violet said, tilting her head in the direction of Sis’s cries. She stepped on the lid release of the trash can before dropping the remains of the callus on an empty bag of English peas.
When my sister was three and a half, Tina had reached the end of her rope. Returning to the car in tears from yet another humiliating scene in the A&P, when she had actually been asked to remove Sis from the premises, Tina saw an ad for Dewey’s Sweet & Soft Laundry Detergent playing on ten identical televisions in the storefront window of Horton’s TV & Hi-Fi. In the ad, the stunning, happy mother held her giddy, handsome baby boy playfully above her head in soft, loving focus. Stuffing a still-sobbing Sis into the back seat of the Falcon, Tina’s focus drifted back to the carefree scene of mother and son before her.
I swam out—like a fish—nine months later, arriving on the heels of a storm that stole springtime blooms from gardens as far north as Birmingham. For the first time in history, the Azalea Trail, a pageant where debutants paraded in hoop skirt regalia by antebellum homes like the Civil War had only been a tale told to bad children, had to be called off.
The delivery nurse said it was the easiest birth she’d ever attended.