“Redwoods,” Hammond said, “hold this earth together. They never lose the dirt.” He stomped. “Roots this wide—” He did a full arm wingspan from where he sat in the center of the living room in his big easy, meaning to encompass the all of our trailer. It was Sunday, his day off from pulpwooding in the dry-hot and when his wings turned calm, he concluded with the familiar promise, “A good life for a family out in the redwoods, Chick Pea.”
Our last name is Pea. As the smallest, I got nicknamed Chick, along with Knot on account of the tangles I sometimes get in my hair, and Sapling or Sapling Lulu. Depends on his inclination when he calls me to listen.
Momma said from the kitchen bar, “Not our family. We ain’t moving.” We live just out of Blountstown, which belongs to her. Hammond’s from western coal Kentuck.
“You know I’m a passerby, Chick.” Which I do. “Come down to lay road under sun.” He put a finger to heaven then, shook it. “Hit all the devil spots at night not caring to get tired. That’s how I met your momma at the Boobie Trap,” which is something she rather me not know, but this story, like the redwoods, is one he tells so often, I’ve got it recorded deep. I forget what I learn in school for there’s no mystery to words or numbers. They just sit in books like salted slugs. His stories, however, are words set loose into the air. All I have to do is reach out and pluck them to my bones.
“Hush,” Momma said. It was almost one and lunch finished. The three of us had found our afternoon place settings. Momma, the domain of the kitchen, where the cooked smell of onion wilted under the AC box, where fork tines got scrubbed into silver. Hammond and I, the living room, where he’d started to drink the Comfort. The alcohol in him was making him grin.
“They got wooden blocks on the tables at the Trap and that night, I picked up those blocks and drummed them like this—” He rapped my knuckles on the nail keg he used for a food tray. “I got so rowdy, your mother strutted over to me to dance.”
“I like dancing,” I said.
He let go.
“Of course you do. You’re your mother’s child and a Sapling Chick Pea.”
No, I wanted to tell him, It’s not cause I’m the things you claim. It’s cause dancing reminds me of you. I’ve seen him tip-toe the trailer without realizing.
Momma dropped silverware to bar and did her best huff and jog until she stood in front of Hammond watching a commercial about the super fitness machine, the 1-800 flashing, the mute on. “If you don’t hush it,” she said cause she’s been the counter to his good buzz my whole life.
“The light from the tube and the sun off the blinds”—he sniffed the horizon in—“puts a shiny coat on you, Arnett, like the nothing you wore when stepping and sweating—”
“I said hush.” She turned the tv dark in one click. Then Momma stared hard at me for the fury in her had switched tracks. “Get out of the house,” she said. “Don’t waste a pretty day.” Momma did her famous head swoop, a cow hitting flies, to indicate where the door was—I knew where it was—and did not offer to send me to my room cause it’s next to the living room with walls hollow as a heart for listening.
Hammond said, “Hey, hey, baby, I just want to add you still got your figure.” He sat up in his big easy, then hunched down, then poured himself back up like he was riding a current of Big Creek. God, he was no help.
Momma stomped to where I was.
I jumped, but not in time to beat out the good slap she got on my back, which caused me to tumble-fall into the keg—the wide of our trailer is narrow—and his Comfort got spilled, soaked right into his jeans wetting him in sweet orange.
“Shit,” he said.
The floor groaned in protest. I was already up and out the door.
“Goddamn it, that’s my money wasted,” he said.
“Well you shouldn’t of been talking, Hammond.”
“My day off to live the way I want, and if you don’t like it, you can get on the devil’s road to hell before I do.”
I worried one day he’d put those words to me cause they dwelled in him like the redwoods of California. Talk of going was the truest part of Hammond—either he was or someone was. No matter how much spit Momma blew, she was a songbird. Hammond’s thunder in a cloud put in a man, and thunder like that can’t be held in for long.
I told my legs to spark.
They obliged and tilted me south through Mr. Castile’s forest.
We don’t have redwoods in Blountstown but we do have cedars, which appear like shaggy weeds below the sawtooths and red-white oaks, the gnarled trunk dogwoods that get blighted by summer and the sourwoods, sumacs. The sours and feathery macs aren’t as tall as I am even though I’m only a sapling of a girl. Hammond claims if you bend me wrong, I’ll straighten up just like one.
What I really am is a branch-breaker. I tear branches out of their sockets to mark my trails though sometimes the wood doesn’t give—too green and chewy in the armpit. Those branches I have to let go of to keep running. Meanwhile, the low grabbers and the briars snag at my ankles. They slow me down until I’m sore and have to buckle, which is what happened on that day.
I breathed and breathed, tried to catch breath, I pressed on my side, but my stomach wouldn’t unknot. I was in a round of sawtooths on the skirt of Cherty Ridge. When the wind finally feathered through, it cradled me, and my trembling passed, which meant the thunder in Hammond had passed. I straightened myself up.
“Spark, Sapling Lulu, spark,” I gave the order until my legs did what I said and followed the broken branches the way I come.
I didn’t go directly in. I’ve learned better than to step into the hornet’s nest. Instead I hid out in the hickory with its leafed camouflage—the one at the edge of the yard. I climbed, my palms gumming with sap. Below, Momma popped from one yellow window to the next for the pretty day was over and night overtaking. Then she got as low as the crickets busy with something on the floor I couldn’t see.
It was almost fall, the much waited on cool down about to happen. This was when crickets rubbed their wings into sails, hoping to catch the wind south before a hard freeze snapped them in two.
I stayed in the hickory clocking time by Momma’s bopping. No Hammond though his truck was here so he hadn’t gone for more Comfort or gone to The Boobie Trap.
I find him there sometimes after he’s done with work, after he’s thundered at Momma, or when he can’t get tired and I want to be near where he is. I’ve gotten lost, he claims, so lost, cause I’ve asked him why he goes and this is what he tells me. The Trap is less than a mile east through Mr. Castile’s.
Hammond tells the one story about Momma. That’s what I know of it along with what I’ve seen from the outside—a block building painted white with blacked out windows, with inside music loud enough to shake every parked truck mirror. And hot rod cars waxed shiny, waiting for their men that could be my father. Occasionally, painted girls. They appear with more makeup than my mother would ever wear or allow me to. On their bodies, less than a dress. Dancers.
I’ve looked at Momma to see if any of the painted ones could’ve been her at one time, but I don’t see it. And though I said to Hammond I like dancing, really I’m a branch-breaker. Dancing is silly. If he didn’t like it so much, I’d tell him the truth.
I will say some of the girls ain’t girls. They’re women as old as Momma, coming out front to smoke cigarettes. The difference being—the girls have bright phones to fidget with and smile into and say Hey, my baby, hey to some far off someone. The painted women lean on the building to gain rest, their arms crossed except when taking in smoke.
But his Ford with the square grill was in the yard, not at The Trap, so he had to be drunk asleep.
I was red-scratched, clinging to the branches when my cat Russel clawed up the bark next to me and meowed his long curling complaint—the jig was up—and I grumped down the hickory, slugged through the crickets, readying myself for the punishment of being out after dark. School was tomorrow.
I did have a defense—Momma said for me to get. I done as told. There.
But in the middle of slipping through the screen door, she flung open the white main. She looked at me in such a way I did not recognize her as my mother. The light coming from behind her filled the dark with a gulf of yellow dust I was afraid she’d fall into. I grabbed the railing in case she did.
“What’s a matter?”
“Your father’s gone,” she said.
I thumbed behind me. “The truck.”
“He took the road walking. Said he’d hitch. Said the truck was for us girls now.” That’s when she put her hand on my shoulder as if she’d figured out the path of what to say and do and now she could be herself again. My heart ticked up the ladder.
“He’ll be back,” I said. The man had never left us for long, and he wasn’t big on walking since he spent six days a week on his legs to clear timber. Walking for just walking-sake was my domain.
Momma burst out a cry. She leaned on me and I stiffened my sapling back to hold her. Soon I began to wiggle as saplings do under the weight of a heavy fallen branch caught. We got to the blue rug on the floor—didn’t make it to the sofa—and lay in the cat hair cloud and orange spice of the comfort together. I let the blue rug do the holding until we got sleepy and went to bed.
Next morning when Jack F came round to collect my daddy for pulpwooding, Momma greeted him. “Hammond’s to California. You know how he’s always talking about them redwoods. Said he’s done with everything here, including me and Chick.”
Momma started to cry again—the woman can be a blubberer. Me, I felt sucker-punched. Every time she made the claim he was gone, I had to fight it.
Jack F switched off his engine, squeaked his door open. It was unlike the smooth swish of Hammond’s. The pebbles under Jack F’s boots rolled, and I got to my window, turned the lace curtain from the edge. In that frame, he held up my mother where I’d failed to last night. Jack F didn’t say a thing or grunt. Then, after he’d given enough time to solace, he peeled her off, squeaked himself back inside the cab and drove around a jut of pines the sun was trying to get over.
She was still out when the school bus whaled into the yard.
“Chick’s got a bug,” she said to the driver.
My legs stiffened, ready to do a huff and jog to prove her wrong.
“Ma’am,” he said, this driver who uttered so little I didn’t know his name. I knew the back of his head—curls of brown, thick not thinning—and he kept the interior of his bus at freezer levels. I knew that, felt that, which irritated me but I respected his quiet. Quiet was a trait you hoped to find in a person.
He pulled the door handle and my classmates pressed their mouths and eyes to the foggy windows. Then the bus roughed into gear and humpbacked out, a ride-along-jail going away before I could make good on my threat.
Hooky sounds like fun, and I did smile when I saw those kids pressed up like tree frogs on glass, but in general I don’t prefer spending time alone with Momma. Hammond’s the one with a sense of humor—he makes the sky lighter. Even if I can’t dance, I think the way he talks and moves is like stepping to time—he’s the dancer of us. Just a lightness to him.
My mother is a thud-rock. I guess she’s got more shape than a rock—the way Hammond sees her anyway—but she’s all about chores and being productive, spending time so busy you don’t have to think, which is unlike my father who thinks often of redwoods. When he talks of them, how they’re stronger than any man or anything man has made, tall, so damn tall, telling how we could live as a family among the redwoods and survive on our wits alone, my mother’s brain is cued in to the oven timer, the squash casserole browning and the leg quarters broiling. Or she’s looking past him to the exercise machine commercial that plays on a loop. The screen-people move back and forth on bendable iron chairs for what looks like hours of torture, even if they’re smiling carefree, their bodies, the hands of clocks spinning out of whack. Sometimes Momma follows the edges of windows, where they meet up to miter, then to where the sun comes through the center. It blinds, so she has to open and shut her eyes until it gets dark enough not to. My parents’ relationship has always been this one-way. Hammond talks. Momma shuts and opens her eyes. She doesn’t listen to him anymore, though I’m not sure she ever did. I’m the listener. I’m not saying she’s simple cause that wouldn’t be fair, but I will say she’s holding onto this life where the oven timer is guaranteed at some point to ding to a stop just so she can be reset.
We kept busy—dusting, sweeping, washing, clothes-lining, going to Blountstown Mercantile for supplies. I had to scrub the oven clean.
“But it’s a self-cleaner,” I said in protest.
“That’s the easy way out,” she said. “And for us girls nothing’s easy.”
This us girls business was starting to chafe.
1. I was a daddy’s girl through and through and she knew it. I loved Momma out of duty only. She was a thud-rock with a shape made for his hands, not mine, and I didn’t want to be around a thud, fall-to-the-ground, rock.
2. She’d never said us girls before. She said it as if she had empirical knowledge he wouldn’t be back. I believed Hammond would.
But knowledge always wins out over want.
For a week I was forced to play hooky so we could scrub the trailer raw. I’ve never missed the parts of speech so much. I didn’t miss my frog-eyed classmates. We hadn’t remade our blood-pacts lost over the summer. Besides, I don’t make friends until they prove they’re worth it.
Then on the following Sunday after his disappearance, Momma’s family drove up in the floating caddy—Grandma Tug, Aunt Otha Wayne, Aunt Patricia, and Aunt Clytie. The uncles had gone out to hunt with Grandpa Lute. Momma’s family were like the positive and negative wires on a circuit. The men all ran together on one line, the women on the opposite other. Rarely did you spot them together except Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July—the two sacred be-together days.
Now that I was almost an adult, I got stuck with the aunts, especially during moments of grief. Grief was the domain of the family women for they had suffered. Aunt Otha had lost two husbands—one to tetanus, one to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. We were surprised when someone else asked her to take up vows. She was jinxed. Aunt Pat’s first husband cut off her left thumb after she undercooked his frozen duck and got him sick. The uncles ran that one out of town. High blood pressure was the circulating curse of Aunt Clytie. When the pressure got salted and stacked, she stabbed herself in the leg to bleed the pressure away. Momma always put knives under the sink when Clytie visits. And, she’d never married. Lonesomeness of that kind was unbearable for everyone but me on the sacred be-together days.
The men liked to go hunting to get away from grief. They got enough of it at home, they said, chuckling. When I was young, I got sent off with them. They thought it cute edifying me about outdoor living, but none of them—let me be clear—the uncles or the aunts, have once wanted to know what I like about nature. I can say for sure, it’s nothing to do with cute. If they did ask, I’d tell them the woods are where I feel safe, where I take Hammond’s stories so I can speak them out loud just to hear myself in his words while the trees make a cradle for the wind—this is what calms me.
I keep bottled up to everyone, and though Momma stays bottled up, too—I get it honest—her glass breaks when family pulls into the yard.
It was Sunday. Aunt Otha Wayne brought pie.
“Can’t have grief without pie,” she said in welcome.
Aunt Clytie brought her famous pecan salad and there was a rotisserie chicken from the store and candied turnips, sausage rolls—foods I cannot be around without tearing up. I feel guilty and empty and knotty like my nickname suggests even if there’s no actual grief for the essence of that food is sorrow, and to eat it is to bear it inside you.
The table in the kitchen was a foldup card, too small to sit around, so we let it hold the food. We fixed our plates, stood quietly to devour in the window sun, then stacked our plates on the table for washing later. We took to the living room chairs where the air was Pine-Sol clean. We made the circle.
“Your man’s not coming back, you sure?” Aunt Otha said looking for crumbs to dust off her paisley church dress. She sat closest to Momma, who was in the big easy. Aunt Otha was closest to Momma in all ways. Only eleven months separated them—Irish twins.
Momma nodded her head. She was crying so hard, I was getting worried. The crying had rolled in with a whimpering power I wasn’t used to, then rolled out, only to come back stronger with the moon getting bigger, and she wasn’t one to drink lots of fluids. If she didn’t stop, she would dehydrate.
“Well, good riddance,” Aunt Clytie said who was my favorite even if a spinster. She was the youngest. By the fault of her age and loneliness, Clytie understood me better than the rest of them. Her saying good riddance, however, was a deep strike.
“Amen,” Grandma Tug added. “Something was crazy about Hammond. Lute said so.” She was the only one who dared put on a man’s beater and jeans.
“Didn’t know how to love you right was all,” was what Aunt Patricia said who’d taken vows into the unhappiest of marriages. Uncle Tick wasn’t a finger cutter, but Aunt Pat had told the circle more than once, Tick doesn’t affect me. Carried that on her face—makeup couldn’t bury it. She was always looking for someone to be unhappy with.
“Amen,” everyone said reverent as cows except me for I loved Hammond and the longer he stayed gone the more fierce that love grew. Though he could be a yell-hellion, he was a hard worker, a proud pulpwooder—A job, he noted, most people spit on—just to get our food, to put the roof above, and he loved me, was good to me, kind, he made the sky lighter. Do you know how hard that is to do? I’ve tried and can’t. It’s not part of my disposition. But it is in him and that alone in a person makes them good enough to have around. But I didn’t dare say any of that. I was outnumbered.
The ceiling of the trailer sagged from the extra family weight and the Pine-Sol caused my tongue to go numb when Momma made a rattle so loud my ears panged with hurt. Aunt Patricia got up and she and Aunt Otha held Momma together, two bookend splints, saying, “It’s going to be all right. You with us now. You going to be all right.” Grandma Tug said amen.
“Are you okay, Chick?” Aunt Clytie’s voice sliced through the blubbering, but when she flapped her shawl arm to put me under wing, I smelled the musk of long suffering and got out.
“He’s coming back,” I whispered into the gap between us. I couldn’t hold my fierceness in any longer, though after I’d spoken, that whisper was all I was willing to make against Momma’s rattle.
“Of course he is,” she said. Aunt Clytie gathered herself into her shawl until she was more cloth than aunt, but it wasn’t that cool in the trailer, even with the AC box running max. Outside, the sun made the trailer’s aluminum walls snap at the rivets.
Grandma Tug scritched her chair legs across the floor. She lay hands on Momma’s head and brushed fingers through hair. Tug said, “Shhh, now baby,” and brushed, “Shhh, my baby girl,” and brushed. Even though it was my mom’s hair, all the ache in me stopped, and everyone in that room got quiet in the gulf.
But knowledge always wins out over want.
I was well into my next hooky week when Momma said she was going out one night.
I stood in front of the white main with arms crossed. I made the point, “It’s us girls, remember?” for she smelled the kind of sickly good that made you want to take a lick, and licking my momma was the last thing I wanted. Grape. She smelled like grape, which is my favorite. I’ll sit near a patch of kudzu in the worst heat just to smell the grape of its bloom.
“We need money,” she said, scrubwashed pink and dressed in a dress so flimsy you could tear it off with a finger. “One of us girls has to be a woman. Don’t you go anywhere.”
I had spent all day in the Castile searching for a redwood. If Hammond was going anyplace, it was for one of them. Prettiest trees, he told me often. You can put a car through the trunk. He had a picture. A postcard of a big yellow sedan inside a hollowed out redwood. The guy and his family sat on the bumper smiling like this was the greatest day of their lives. Going to see one one day. He smiled like the man in the postcard, did a jig in his big easy, and I let it wash over me, tickled to see him so happy. You know how it is when someone’s good feeling rubs off on you? Later, I dreamed of driving along until stopping inside a redwood where I fell asleep and it grew round, becoming a house so pithy I stowed away in it forever.
“Whatever,” I said. Momma slapped my cheek bee sting hot. Whatever wasn’t a word she liked.
“Don’t make me hit you again.”
The pink in her cheeks fisted red. “Get out of my way, Knot.”
“You going to the Boobie Trap.” It wasn’t a question. Something about Momma was what Hammond told in his story. The same look of the painted women I’d seen outside leaning with smoke, needing rest, wearing the same bits of sorrow my aunts wore.
Hammond had a certain smell when he was going there. Not like the rabbit boots of my uncles when hunting, but something similar—an intent. And yet, intent of his kind was just one of the sides needed to make the coin spin.
“Not letting you,” I told Momma. She pushed me to the big easy. It wobbled but held, and Momma hurried through the door afraid of I don’t know what. She was too big for me to take down. Afraid of herself, I guessed. First time I come across that fear, so I let her get away. I listened until the drive belt whinny became a tiny hum, then stepped into the yard as far as the trailer’s yellow light dared to go. Russel the cat skidded out from under me.
Couldn’t smell the grape, but I could smell the gas leak from the tank, which always happened when the wind blew down from north, which it was doing—a front out of Canada had dropped, tangling and untangling the moon from the pines. If Hammond were here, I’d tell him about the smell and he’d get the ratchet to fix it. Momma wasn’t good with tools. Gone anyway, so I had to be the one, Miss Self-Sufficient.
I got the ratchet but the battery was dead in the flashlight. Went on to the tank anyway, lifted the top button, sniffed around. No leak. Followed the gas line under the trailer with my hand, the wind doing a teakettle whistle, dying back, whistle, until I had my knees atop a rattle of tin that slid sideways. Underneath was Hammond, his mouth open like he was about to say one more thing. Small black bugs crawled out of him. In places, his skin was so blue and tight, it cracked. His hands were spurred in his jean pockets like he was in a casket proper, but he was on the ground smelling of gas, not buried, no mark, no pooled blood on his clothes or the dirt or metal of the tin I could touch or see.
I did not call him up from the dead. I did not cry—enough tears had come from Momma already. But how did she do it? Kill him? Did she?
I brushed the bugs off.
Maybe he did it to himself.
The only one who knew was her.
I broke branches, stomped saplings, and whenever a green tender popped back up, I smushed it down more. All I could think, I was proud of myself for not crying when I saw Hammond. It meant I had something tough. And all I could think, I hated myself cause it meant I had something tough. How one thing can make you feel separate ways—I was split in two—but I kept running full spark until I found the square grill of his truck with all the others, the radiator fluid leaking warm.
“Bitch,” I said and walked up to the door where the big man was. He was always just in or just out under the door light. It would’ve taken two of my daddies to make one of him, and he must’ve seen it on my face, what I come for, cause he said, “No.”
“I got someone in there,” I said.
He looked away.
“I’m not asking permission,” I said to make things clear.
“Doesn’t matter. You too young.”
I rooted my shoes in and we stuck that way, the inside music putting the parking lot in a tremor. Then the music quit. There was whooping, clapping. The big man said, “Look, if you tell me his name, maybe I can get him to let go his chair and come out here to you. It’s against the rules, but youngins keep showing up for their daddies more than I can stomach.”
I almost said Hammond Pea. Stopped myself cause I had a worry. Might spook Momma to hear the dead called up in her presence and she’d stay in the hole. Almost said her name. Still she’d probably stay. Momma was cowardly, that was proven, which meant I had to catch her unawares.
“It’s all right. I’ve got it,” I said to the big man. “I’ll just catch him later,” and I shrugged and headed into the woods to a back door I knew of from when I walked the perimeter. Though less people used it to come outside, when they did, they paired up to do things in the dark. I preferred to watch the faces of the women in front take smoke, but the back door was another way in. So I hid in the noise of cicadas making the whipcall, the crickets putting up sails, and the wind teakettle whistling faster than I could ever run until a man and his girl rushed out laughing. When he pinned the door open to the wall, I bolted.
They were too busy becoming crickets to catch me, and I got in, but another man stepped into the hallway smoke. There, the two of us caught the freeze. Behind him a light turned blue like the moon and everyone started making a beat with their wooden blocks. That racket chipped at my bones. The man, he spaded his hands into his pockets cause I could’ve been his daughter, him figuring out something he didn’t like about himself quick. He was shaped like an overripe plum, and I stared him down until his shame got fixed onto a square on the floor. Then a new song curled out the speakers overwhelming the blocks of slapping wood, and the plum man shuffled into the bathroom as apology.
I headed to the moon. Which, turns out, was a stage with dangling colored lights, some of them flashing. On that stage, my mother. She danced how she cooked with small steps from cupboard to oven to fridge, from trash to sink—she was a ghost caught in a box, trying to be what she hadn’t in a long time. Even if she didn’t realize it, she was gone from this place just like she was gone from me, no smile on her and her eyes had no flash. They were dull stone centerpieces in mascara. She took off her flimsy dress and there was nothing careful about the way she did it. She let that grape go. To be clear, I’d witnessed my mother naked, just not in front of a bunch of men.
They sat at the tables in work shirts and duckbilled caps, turning the heads of their beer. They were buddied so thick, I couldn’t make out the corners of them, couldn’t tell if they were laughing at Momma or laughing out of pity.
I slipped my foot to the side to slough off the pity I was bearing, and yet come all this way to fight and not fight—that wasn’t something in me I was willing to give away. The sweat of my skin cooled and rosined up. I knew too much of the world like my aunts when they set food out for grief. One day their task would be mine. The weight of that future split me further until unstitched, I stumbled. The dark, I tell you, how fast it gets wide. But my arms they made a truss, and my hands gripped my shoulders. Some things you don’t have to do, my nails dug in. Some things you haven’t done.
I hadn’t run through redwoods either, hadn’t caught my breath in a nest of them, hadn’t kept quiet with them until I found words to pluck out of the sky, fill my bones, then call the redwoods to listen. That’s what I would do.
But first I had a duty to grief.
I told my legs to spark. Told my hands to swipe wood from a table where someone’s leather jacket sat drooping off a chair. Then through the haze of smoke, the music-talk and men, the lights curving round my mother’s body, I got up to the moon stage and stood square with its lip. I smoothed one edge of the wood down with a finger, cocked it by my ear, and held my body so still, looking for the switch in her to go off when she could see me clearly.
James Braziel lives on a ridge that is part of the Cumberland Plateau in Alabama. Together, he and his wife, poet Tina Mozelle Braziel, are building a glass cabin by hand while living in it. His novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road look at a future dust bowl where the South is ravaged by an environmental disaster. “The Boobie Trap” was completed while he held a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
“The Boobie Trap” appears in TLR: Granary