Though barely on the cusp of middle-age, one sticky June afternoon when he was forty-two, my stepfather, Houston Webb, threw himself a funeral. He believed that funerals were just wasted on the dead. Why, it was a shame, he told us, that people didn’t get to attend their own final rites, didn’t get to enjoy the music or see who came. But his funeral that summer, the details of which he would oversee, would be attendant with roses, a motif he adhered to as faithfully as to the theme of a prom. There would be a rose-draped casket; a selection of live songs, religious and secular, whose lyrics all involved some variety of rose; and Houston’s five brothers as pall bearers, all with rose boutonnieres. When, during these arrangements, one of his brothers objected or expressed chagrin that such a young man would execute and attend his own funeral, Houston, outraged, would shout, “I’ll die when I want to.” The funeral would be held at a local fairground. Houston even arranged for a hearse. He would ride in the passenger seat of the hearse as it paraded once around the track, then ceremoniously join his family on the funereal grandstand. “Give me roses while I live,” he was fond of saying.
When my mother, Lana, had been introduced to Houston two years before, she never guessed he might be the kind of man who would want to attend his own funeral. When they met, Mom was a lonely divorcée with two kids living in a housing project in Dayton, Ohio. Mom’s first husband, my father, was a shell-shocked World War II veteran she’d met on a blind date. After their divorce, she found us the apartment in Parkside Homes, rows and rows of oblong brick buildings divided into townhouse apartments and crisscrossed by alleys.
Novella, our neighbor, used to lecture Mom about going out and having fun. Novella dated a policeman, and when his empty cruiser was parked in the alley in front of our building, we kids would gather round, prop our bicycles against the sedan, and listen to the static of the police radio barking out incomprehensible bulletins, which nevertheless held for us the gravity of life and death.
One day while Mom was outside hanging clothes Novella introduced her boyfriend’s pal, Houston Webb, and amidst flapping sheets that smelled like wind, he and Mom shook hands. Like almost everyone else we knew, Houston was from the Kentucky mountains and had come to Ohio to find work. Part Cherokee, he had high cheekbones, a pockmarked face, and slanted blue eyes. Short-sleeved shirts showcased his muscles. He was a drywall hanger. His arms were well defined from holding boards above his head all day, his left arm tanned cinnamon brown, several shades darker than the right, because that’s the arm he rested on the car window as he drove. Houston owned a two-toned ’57 Chevy, which he proudly kept waxed and shined.
On their first date Mom and Houston doubled with Novella and the policeman. They went to a country-and-western bar, where Mom made a big show of ordering a Coke. She was a Baptist preacher’s daughter, after all, and had never even been in a barroom. Houston thought that was cute. Who’d have thought he’d ever be dating a preacher’s daughter? He glided her across the floor to the lament of a steel guitar. After they dropped Novella and her boyfriend off, Houston took Mom to a strip joint, something she would tell for years, how the dancer swung her gold-tasseled breasts in opposite directions until the tassels were shiny blurs. When he brought her home he pressed her hard up against the kitchen door and kissed her.
Mom met Houston in the fall. Often that winter my younger brother Mark and I would awaken in the early hours before dawn and peek out the upstairs window of our bedroom at Houston’s Chevy parked in the alley under the streetlight. In the swirling snow the white and candy-green car looked like a paperweight you’d pick up and shake.
Not long after they started dating, Houston began spending weekends with us. He’d bring over his tools and work under the hood of his Chevy for hours in the alley in front of our building, while Mark hovered over his shoulder, for Mark couldn’t remember when our father had lived with us, and he was fascinated by the vestments of a man’s world. He kept Houston’s old spark plugs and rings in a corner of our concrete stoop. Houston was so good with kids, Mom said, because he was also divorced with a nine-year-old boy of his own up in Marion, Ohio, a small town some hours away.
As Houston spent more time with us, I noticed that his grammar was bad. He said, “them thar” and “you’s,” and “taters” for potatoes. When I mentioned this to Mother, in private, she explained that Houston’s father had been a mean man who’d made him quit school in the sixth grade to help support their big family. Houston had wanted an education, but he didn’t get the chance. Before he quit, he’d walked five miles each way, across a mountain, to get to a one-room schoolhouse where he wrote on a slate, just like Abraham Lincoln. Why, wasn’t that amazing?
Houston moved over some of his belongings from the boardinghouse where he lived to our place. Because he’d had terrible acne as a boy, he was self-conscious about his face, so he kept a tub of clear blue antiseptic gel in our bathroom, along with a special face cloth that we were instructed never to touch with our germy kids’ hands. He also brought over several volumes of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Sometimes he carried a kitchen chair out to our small patch of yard and read in the sun, propping his feet up on a wooden milk crate. On warm fall days he even took his shirt off. He was still new to us. When I glanced outside and saw his broad, freckled back, I felt shy. “See,” Mom pointed out, “he loves books.”
I had leafed though these catalogues of amazing facts, which were accompanied by black-and-white illustrations. In them I discovered an African chieftain who wore seventy copper rings around his wildly elongated neck. Then there was the cucumber shaped like the Eiffel Tower. But the drawing that haunted me was the beautiful cherub in 18th-century Belgium who had been born with only one eye right in the middle of her forehead. The girl was depicted with a lush bow mouth, a heart-shaped face, and that one eye fringed with feathery lashes, which I always felt staring back at me when I lingered too long at that page.
Houston passed entire afternoons reading these accounts. When he was particularly struck by some miracle or natural wonder, he would call in to Mother, “Believe it or not: Man born with fish gills can survive underwater. Sleeps submerged in a pond behind his house.” Or “Believe it or not: Emperor in Tang Dynasty China buried with 792 wives. And all of the women were entombed alive!”
At Houston’s exclamations, Mom always stopped whatever she was doing, fanned out the screen door, and called, “Well, Heavens!”
When Houston repeated the story about the boy born without legs who walked everywhere on his hands and even participated in foot races, Mark claimed that he could get around that way if he had to, and proceeded to perform handstands in the yard, his t-shirt bunching around his neck, while Mom and Houston laughed and clapped.
Perhaps it was during these afternoons that Houston came up with the idea to orchestrate his own funeral. Perhaps reading about spectacle ignited a desire to be immortalized in grainy newsprint as the man who attended his own requiem of roses. I don’t know. All that came later.
During the week, Houston had to work, but he sometimes mailed Mother purple wisteria that he collected in the woods surrounding the construction sites where he hung drywall. The wisteria arrived in white payroll envelopes, so that even when they were sealed, you could see the purple blossoms through the clear cellophane window. The envelopes were addressed in Houston’s script, an odd assortment of lower-case and capital letters, some printed, some in cursive. When Mother tore them open, the dried flowers tumbled into her hand, wisteria the only message. She kept the twigs and blossoms in a clear jelly glass on the kitchen counter. At noon Houston would call and let the phone ring twice, the signal he was thinking of her. I always pictured him in a phone booth, powdered from head to toe in white drywall dust, like a six-foot ghost.
Because Novella had fixed Mom and Houston up, she kept tabs on their romance. Novella waitressed at the Gatehouse, an aluminum diner about a quarter of a mile down the street, and she often stopped by on her way home from the night shift.
Most mornings when I woke up and wandered into the kitchen Novella was already there in her turquoise uniform and thick-soled waitress shoes, drinking coffee at our table. Novella wore her hair in a style known as love locks, lacquered curls swept up at the crown of her head. She was never in a hurry to go home to her own townhouse apartment, which was identical to ours but four doors down, because it was chaotic with children.—Though she wasn’t lazy. Novella was a crackerjack waitress. The pockets of her lace-trimmed apron were always heavy with coins and jangled when she walked.
When Mom began dating Houston, she was thirty-nine. I was ten. My mother was as pale as flour, but even at that early hour of the morning she sported red lipstick. In fact, Mark and I were always coming upon Mother’s lipstick prints in the house. She blotted on the backs of electric bills, in the margins of our report cards, the scalloped borders of old snapshots. No blank paper surface was spared.
While I ate my cereal, Mom and Novella drank cup after cup of black coffee and smoked Salems, sharing a clear glass ashtray between them. Sometimes they painted each other’s nails with colors like Raven Red and Fire and Ice. I would put my small hand, palm flat, on the table, and if I held very still, they painted mine, too.
One morning Mom confided in Novella the thrilling news: Houston had told her that he loved her. She was the finest person he’d ever known, the only woman he thought to be truly as good as his mother. Houston had opened up, too, about his ex-wife, Maryjane, a nag, who sassed him something terrible. Maryjane, apparently, would not let a man be a man. She was nothing like Mom. Furthermore, Houston regarded my mother as pure. My father was such a lunatic, that marriage didn’t count. It was just like she’d never been married.
“Why, honey,” Novella pronounced, “that man has fallen for you like a blind man off a cliff.” Novella was impressed, but not surprised, that Houston held Mother in awe. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that Mom was the daughter of the Reverend Roscoe Douglas—famous in Harlan County, Kentucky, for his fiery sermons—and that made her a little like royalty.
(Once, Novella solicited Mother’s view of the afterlife. “Well, in Heaven,” Mom told her, “we’ll have Celestial bodies. And,” she added, “I hope mine is a long, skinny one.”)
One Saturday, soon after he and Mom hooked up, Houston folded a dollar bill in my pocket and sent me on a secret mission to the North Star Shopping Center across the street. At the record store in the arcade I asked for two 45’s, “Blue Velvet” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” then carefully delivered them home in their paper sleeves, because these Mom and Houston had named “their songs.” You’d have thought Mother was receiving the Hope diamond—when Houston presented her with these records she threw her arms around his neck and made a trail of lipstick kisses on his cheek.
After their first few dates they mostly spent time at home. Evenings, they’d carry my and Mark’s record player downstairs, push the kitchen table against the wall, and dance to those tunes, transforming our kitchen into a nightclub.
As a girl in Kentucky Mom had been a jitterbug queen, the best dancer in her high school. She could sweep, dip and swing in spike heels, the only sound her snapping fingers as she kept time. In motion, she was a whirling dervish in black. During the streak of time when Mom had gotten ambitious for us to live off more than my father’s child-support checks, she had worked as a salesgirl at Lerner’s, where the standard uniform was a black dress. That’s how Mom acquired a closet full of raven-colored frocks. I used to help her get ready for these dates and this is what she had to choose from: black, black, and black.
Houston was more awkward. After the music started, he stood immobile for a few minutes in the middle of the floor. Then, abruptly, he began his dance, flailing his arms and taking big scissor steps to a rhythm all his own. The next minute he’d make rigid little baby steps in a circle. He loped around the linoleum with no rhyme or reason. It was like a crazy game of Mother-May-I.
At any rate, they were a mismatched set. Houston was six feet tall. On official documents Mom always claimed she was five feet tall, but really she was four-eleven and three-quarters.
Mostly, Mother danced as if with an invisible partner, touching his hands with her fingertips, until it was time for him to twirl her. Then she’d pick up his heavy arm and duck under.
Houston brought over his collection of squirrels’ tails, mementos of his hunting trips to Kentucky. He nailed the bushy tails over the door between our kitchen and pantry. One was speckled, another rust-colored, one gray-striped. Houston was so tall that, as he demonstrated for us, they brushed the top of his head as he passed in and out of the pantry. I didn’t like to look at them. All I could think of were the squirrels to which they had once been attached. They seemed to me like dead things. But Mark loved them. While Mom and Houston jitterbugged in the kitchen, Mark would pick up the broom and swish the squirrels’ tails around, making them dance too.
When she was home alone, Mom played the 45’s over and over, until they were scratchy and skipping. The minute I came in from school she would extend her hands and coax me to dance with her. We took turns twirling each other. Eventually, as fall advanced into winter, “Don’t Think Twice” got chipped, so you could only play the song from middle to end. One day she left “Blue Velvet” on the windowsill in the sun and it warped. Mark thought it was neat because a strip of bubbles rose across the black vinyl like small volcanoes. Mom and I just laughed. We could sing it by heart anyway. We knew the words.
Out of Mark’s earshot, Mom said, “I’ll tell you something, if you won’t tell anybody. Promise?”
Someone would have to torture me to get it out of me, I swore. For Novella might be her best friend, but I was the keeper of my mother’s secrets.
While Mark was playing with the deformed record, we slipped upstairs to Mom’s bedroom. We knelt at the small chest at the foot of her bed. Solemnly, she unearthed from beneath folded sheets and towels a tea-length sheath. Mom let me run my hand along the eyelet panel at the midriff. Then she unwrapped some tissue paper and took out a pink veil with a slim velvet crown, thin as a pipe cleaner. This was her wedding outfit, she whispered. She couldn’t wear white this time round, so she’d gotten pink. “Houston and I are going to be married,” she predicted. “I’m sure. I had a dream last night about salt and blue ribbons.”
There, in the hush of that small room, I thought I knew everything about my mother. What she didn’t tell me was that she was already pregnant with Houston’s child. It would be years before I would unravel the chronology of all that followed. Then I knew only that my mother lifted the champagne-colored dress above our heads and made it dance.
That year we had a mild December—only a few light snows—but Mark and I kept hoping for a big storm. Houston told us that when he was a little boy in the mountains, the blizzards had sometimes lasted for days, so that everything was draped in snow—the trees, their cabin, the outhouse. The very sky was white, like the world had been bleached. Great snowdrifts blocked the few roads, so he and his brothers could only get around in snowshoes. For weeks at a time you never even saw a boot print, just their netted tracks, as though the mountain was populated not by men, but by spirits with big, webbed feet (“haints,” Houston called them, which I knew meant haunts).
Houston had taken to greeting Mom by pressing his palm lightly against her stomach, even before he kissed her. I registered this gesture fleetingly. Mark and I usually turned away and busied ourselves elsewhere when they hugged and kissed, or demonstrated anything we considered “lovey dovey.”
As it turned out, Houston had acted thrilled when Mother announced she was pregnant. But he cautioned her: this was a special time, when the baby was so tiny it belonged only to them, the gem of their love, floating in the dark, like a lantern in a coal mine. They’d just get through Christmas before they told anyone. Anyway, he had some business to take care of in Marion first. After the holidays they’d make their plans.
At any rate, Mom was anxious for Christmas. This was going to be a real family celebration, and, we were to remember, that now included Houston. As an aside, she assured me that after they were married, if we wanted to, Mark and I could change our names. We made our traditional pilgrimage to the shopping center, where a variety of fir and spruce trees were corralled in a corner of the parking lot. We bought a short, squat spruce, which we dragged across the street and wrestled through the front door. To keep it fresh we placed it in a bucket of water in the pantry. I was a little disappointed at the tree’s midget stature, but Mom appreciated its fullness.
Houston worked long hours, even the week before Christmas. He was glad for the mild winter, because that meant there were plenty of construction projects around. In fact, around dusk that Friday he showed up at our door in his work clothes, which were caked with white dust, a rare occurrence. Usually we saw him dressed up in a snazzy sport shirt, his black hair glistening with Brylcream.
Houston touched Mom in hello, leaving a white smear at her waist. She tried to steer him over to the pantry to see the fat tree in a bucket, but he wasn’t interested. He moored himself on a kitchen chair. He’d come to talk to her about something important, he said. So she sent us kids outside to play.
Years later, when Mother recounted that December evening, she would recall that Houston poured sugar into the coffee that she sat before him from a spouted box and stirred it with his finger. But at that moment she was aware only of the rapture of his talk. He had a high voice for such a big man, but it had a resonance, like fiddle music.
Things had been on his mind, he said. He felt like she needed to know why he’d left Marion and come to Dayton. The first thing was he didn’t want her to think he was a liar. He did hold up Honest Abe Lincoln as his idol. Houston didn’t consider that he had lied. He’d just kept quiet about certain things. For instance, he was not really divorced from his wife, Maryjane. He had cleared out of Marion so fast, he hadn’t had a chance to go through any formalities. He’d been in jail too, but that wasn’t his fault.
At first Mom regarded Houston blankly, like he was reciting from the telephone book. Then she began to cry.
Houston wagged his sweet finger at her. “Now, Lana, don’t do it. Don’t you do it.” If she blubbered and carried on, he would take this as a sign that she didn’t believe in him. He would march right out the door.
He was strict about this. Poised stiffly on the edge of his chair, he kept his gaze trained on her while she dabbed at her face with her sleeve. Each time her eyes watered up, he cautioned her with his singsong, “Don’t, don’t,” until she was able to compose herself. Then he told the rest.
It was Maryjane and her brother, the sheriff in Marion, who had cooked up the scheme to get him thrown in jail. Houston had become sweet on the girl who babysat his and Maryjane’s little boy and, after some slipping around, he’d gotten the girl pregnant. When Maryjane found out, she had her brother toss Houston in jail on some trumped-up allegation. The idea was to keep him there until it was too late to do anything about the girl, to break them up. Houston languished in jail for four months without charges. All that time he sat in his cell, plotting revenge.
When he was finally released he put his wife and son in the Chevy and drove them to a country gorge. There, he pulled his wife out of the car, pinned her arms behind her back, and dragged her to the bluff’s edge. All the while their little boy followed behind, begging his daddy not to hurt his mother. Only the boy’s pleas made Houston change his mind and let her go.
That’s when he’d packed up and moved to Dayton and got a job hanging sheetrock. He just wanted peace. He didn’t want any more trouble. Last Christmas at this time he’d been sitting in a jail cell and that son-of-a-bitch sheriff hadn’t even offered him so much as an extra slice of bread.
His voice was calm now, soothing. All he needed was a little time to get his divorce, he assured her. But to go through with that he needed her faith. He couldn’t take any pestering questions or soap-opera tears. He wanted things to work out, he really did. But it was all up to her.
So though she wore ridiculous streaks of mascara, like the pretend war paint we smeared on at Halloween, Mother sat up straight and kept her face still, so he would see that she had faith. They sat there like that, the only sounds Houston’s occasional slurping sips of coffee, which was cold by now, until Mark and I came in from playing without being called, chased inside by the dark.
The next day Mom mooned around in her nightgown all morning, poker-faced and quiet. Though our house now smelled like spruce, she made no move in the direction of our bare tree, which was starting to look sad. Mark and I were worried that she’d forgotten her promise to take us to the drugstore to buy presents with our allowance. We kept one eye on our Saturday morning cartoons and one eye on her. Every time a commercial came on, we’d dash into the kitchen and spur her on, “Come on, Mom, you said. You said.”
Finally, she rallied, threw on a coat, and ushered us out the door, although our mother was so distracted she did not reach down to take our hands before we crossed the street. So, on each side of her, we placed our hands in hers and nestled close. It was a small adjustment. We didn’t mind.
At Gallahers Mom dreamily turned her back while we selected something for her: a pink plastic poodle filled with bubble bath. For Houston I picked out a bottle of cologne shaped like a horse’s head with a silver ring through its nose, which, Mom agreed, looked masculine. Mark chose a pack of baseball cards that included a sheet of bubble gum. He insisted that this was what Houston would like, so Mom let him buy it.
When we got home Mother took her station on the sofa, lit up a Salem, and pondered the swirls of smoke. It was clear she wasn’t anxious to help us wrap our presents. So I quietly retrieved the shopping bag from the back of the closet, where we kept the rolls of holiday paper and ribbon. After cutting out a generous square of paper around each gift, I let Mark fold and tape the corners, although in his hands the paper waved and buckled. Finally, we ripped open a package of shiny bows with pointy tips and stuck a crown of three on every package.
Maybe there was something about the bright wrapping that cheered Mom, because, suddenly, in a burst of inspiration, she was on her feet.
Did we know that sometimes people didn’t believe that you loved them just because you said so. Sometimes, she declared, you had to show them. She went into the pantry for the spruce. How would we like to help trim a real old-fashioned Christmas tree as a surprise for Houston, she asked, unfurling the branches. Yeah, okay, we said, glad to have her in charge once more.
Long ago, she told us, way back in the mountains, people didn’t know what store-bought decorations were. They didn’t even have electricity. They adorned their trees with strings of cranberries and popcorn.
We didn’t have any cranberries on hand, but we did have Jiffy Pop. Mark and I took turns shaking the aluminum pan over the flame, paying extravagant attention to the swelling bubble of foil. After it had cooled, Mom sat on the living room floor and with needle and thread patiently strung white ropes of garland, while we kids festooned the tree with whatever we could think of that was “old-timey” enough—miniature candy canes and snowflake cutouts we’d made in school. When we were finished we stood back to admire our masterpiece, which, granted, was a little pale. Mom put her arms around us. Who needed lights and ornaments, she asked.
On Christmas Eve Mom met Houston at the door in a black dress, but on this occasion she’d added a sheer green holiday apron and a corsage of tiny gold Styrofoam bells. Her smile was so bright I thought it must hurt her face.
Houston made over our-old fashioned tree. Why these could be the same dad-burned decorations his mother had fashioned, the same dad-burned decorations. He couldn’t get over it.
In a festive mood, he’d arrived bearing a paper sack brimming with walnuts that he’d gathered on his last trip to Kentucky, and a nutcracker. He told us that when he and his brothers were boys they were so poor that sometimes that’s all they got for Christmas, that and maybe an orange apiece. He instructed Mark how to hold the nutcracker and press down with all his might, like a circus strong man.
Then Houston pulled out the real prize, a stark white bushy tail from an albino squirrel he’d shot one time. Albino squirrels were rare in the mountains. You’d see one streaking through the woods every ten years or so. This was his pride, he said, as he ceremoniously nailed it up in the doorway between the pantry and kitchen, to Mark’s joy.
“What do you say?” Mom nudged my brother with her elbow.
“Thank you,” he exclaimed, his eyes full of wonder.
Houston had explained to Mom that he could only be with us for a few hours on Christmas Eve. Then he’d have to drive up to Marion. He really felt like he should be with his son when he woke up on Christmas morning, even if it meant he had to endure the evil Maryjane. Mom understood. She praised him for being a good father. Wasn’t it wonderful, she asked us, that he was so attentive to that little boy?
Houston seemed pleased with his gifts. He dabbed on my cologne and said he’d smell sweeter than a field full of bluebonnets. He tucked the baseball cards carefully into his shirt pocket for safekeeping.
Then, because Mom wanted Houston to have Christmas with us, we were invited to do something we’d never been allowed before: to open our presents on Christmas Eve. At first, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We dove in. Paper and ribbon flew as we reveled in the surprise of a transistor radio for me, and an extension-ladder fire truck for Mark. But each time we tore open another package, Mom shrieked and whooped louder than we did, embarrassing us. Even we knew she was trying too hard, so we quieted down, and after a few more presents, it was easy to persuade us to park our toys under the tree and think about bed.
Houston had to get on the road. Before he left he complimented our tree again. It was maybe the prettiest tree he’d ever seen. After Christmas, he was going to get everything righted, straightened out. In the meantime, Mother had given him the grandest present he could imagine. He touched her stomach, his fingers the five points of a star, but Mom shushed him and pulled away, nodding over to us.
They stepped into the pantry to say good-bye. Mark and I giggled, because we knew they were kissing. In a few minutes Mom switched on the porch light for him. We heard him call from the sidewalk that he’s just be gone the day.
Then Houston disappeared.
When Mom didn’t hear from him on the twenty-sixth, she imagined he must be tired from all that driving, but after a few more days passed she got worried. She tried to call the boardinghouse, where there was a common phone in the hallway. The phone rang and rang. Finally, the landlady picked up. She couldn’t recall having seen Houston lately, but then she couldn’t keep up with everybody.
By New Year’s Day Mom was frantic. She cried, on and off, all day. Novella dropped by to find Mom a crumpled mess. Mother shared with her that Houston wasn’t divorced yet. Novella had no idea, and she felt terrible, just terrible. Mom told her about Houston’s time in jail, and about his plan for revenge. Well, was it any wonder, Novella offered, a man like Houston, who had been raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains running free? It was in his nature to be wild. Of course he’d go crazy cooped up in a cell like that. Who could blame him?
But Mom was inconsolable.
Novella made an emergency call to her boyfriend at the police station in the middle of his shift. When he arrived, in uniform, and heard the story, including the part about Houston still being married, he looked sheepish. Although he claimed to have no idea in the world where Houston was, he was happy to help them investigate. So Novella and the policeman bundled Mother into the cruiser and drove her to the boardinghouse.
There, Mother got out of the car and went in by herself. In the front hall was a metal mailbox; on the wall above a dozen men’s names were written in ink and grease pencil, some of them crossed out. Mom was relieved to find Houston’s signature, in that odd script, intact. She climbed the stairs, wandered down the corridor, and pressed her ear to the door of room number five, her knock like a whisper. Then she banged harder, calling, “Houston? Honey?”
Mother came back out looking forlorn. By now it was evening. Novella and the policeman sat with her for quite a while in the cruiser across the street from the boardinghouse to see if any lights came on in Houston’s room. But the window remained dark.
Their nighttime surveillance had come to nothing. Mom needed something to hold onto, so it was not difficult on the ride home to let her friends convince her that Houston was away on a hunting trip. “It’s squirrel season,” Novella reminded her. “He isn’t necessarily with the wife at all. Maybe he just took a notion to go hunting.” Mother remembered Houston’s warning, It was all up to her. She pulled faith around her like a shawl. What else could she do, there in the back of a police cruiser, but settle into her waiting.
Each day she expected his return. She made a smiling promise to us kids that though Houston would be away a little while longer, we could keep the old-fashioned tree up until he got back. But soon Christmas vacation was over; the dried out spruce shed its needles and had to be pitched. As if in tacit agreement, we took no note of this passage. We simply wrapped our pale decorations in newspaper and packed them away.
Still Mother had told no one she was pregnant. But now she was queasy in the mornings. Her breasts ached. The sheer effort of waiting exhausted her.
Mom began sleeping through the mornings and into the late afternoons, when she would rise to stand at the window and watch for us to come home from school. Often she greeted us with a pillow crease on her cheek, although we didn’t find this particularly odd. For us, the line between rest and wakefulness was hazy. After all, we were a family of sleepwalkers.
For us, the shadowy world of slumber was a great adventure. In our house, dreamers sometimes went strolling in the middle of the night. Fast asleep, I’d steal downstairs and make my way to the Kleenex box on the telephone stand, where I’d pluck a pastel tissue, then let it float out of my hand to the floor. On occasion, my brother found himself standing at the open door of the refrigerator in his underwear, awakened by a cold blast of air. If Mark or I got out of bed to go to the bathroom, we might discover Mom sitting in the upstairs hallway folding invisible laundry, her hands making neat corners in the air. We never went far in our nocturnal wanderings.
After we got home from school those January afternoons Mark would get warmed up inside, then slip back into his wool jacket and head outdoors. But Mom would bribe me. If I’d stay in with her, we could make clothes for my Barbie doll. We’d cut up an old crinoline, a frayed sash. And even though Mom couldn’t really sew—her stitches were thumb sized—what a thrill to watch her fashion a miniature prom dress with a bouffant skirt. We used the coffee table as a work bench. As we scissored, measured, and hemmed, Mom would ask me, Didn’t I think Houston loved us? Didn’t I think he wanted us all to be a family? And to see my mother smile, I brightly answered, yes.
At night Mom let us stay up and watch TV with her way past our bedtime. The three of us snuggled on the sofa amidst a mountain peak of covers, the flickering blue TV the only light in the house. Mother reclined, and Mark and I took turns rubbing her feet, which were calloused at the edges and rough to the touch. That close to Mom, I remember being aware of the rock hardness of her belly, but it was just there, a fact, like her callouses. I thought nothing of it. Sometimes we’d fall asleep on the couch wrapped around each other in funny pretzel positions, a stray foot here, a leg jutting out there, and wake up later in our clothes, with cricks in our necks, a geometric test pattern on the TV screen and that awful buzz filling the room.
With the advent of February it began to seem like Houston had never been there at all. As if for confirmation, Mother fingered the squirrels’ tails, the tub of blue gel, the thick Ripley’s volumes.
Then late one afternoon while washing dishes, elbow deep in sudsy water, she happened to glance out our kitchen window, and there was the white and candy-green Chevy parked in the alley, a plume of exhaust rising into the winter sky.
Houston let the car idle for a while, as if deciding whether or not to stay. At last he cut the motor, sauntered up the sidewalk, and came in. Mother just stared. In the six weeks he’d been gone he’d grown a salt-and-pepper beard. He grinned and touched his face. “A little snow in the beard,” he laughed. Mom kept her place at the sink. And not until Houston walked over and kissed her cheek did she break into a quiet weeping. For once, he didn’t chide her. He stood at arm’s length and stiffly patted her, whispering, “okay, okay” until she got it all out. He explained. He had indeed been hunting. With all that had happened he’d decided to go to Kentucky, visit his mother, and spend some time in the woods. When Mark and I, who had heard Houston’s voice from upstairs, came tumbling into the kitchen, he swung us up into the air one at a time and said that we had grown.
Then it was holiday time all over again. Houston said he had to unpack some things from the car. First, he carried in a pink chenille housecoat adorned with a multicolored peacock on its back, tail feathers spread like a rising sun. Though the robe was a good four inches too long and the hem swept the floor, Mom dutifully modeled it by promenading between the kitchen and living room. (On our trips back and forth to Harlan I had seen those housecoats at the souvenir stands which lined the new Interstate. Among the offerings were nickel-plated ashtrays in the shape of the state of Kentucky, great crystal-ball lawn ornaments, and, in the former land of the Cherokees, headdresses of dyed chicken feathers. Also displayed were paintings on velvet, Lord’s suppers and pastoral scenes, propped outside against the rickety buildings. But the real glory was the chenille housecoats, with matching bedspreads and throw rugs, in blue, pink, purple, yellow, all embellished with sunrise peacocks. These the vendors pinned on clotheslines strung along the highway, where they royally billowed in the wind as cars whizzed by.)
What else did Houston bring us? Several packages of squirrel meat, which he had packed on ice in his trunk. These would fry up nice, he promised. From his mother’s cellar, two jars of blackberry preserves in Mason jars sealed with wax; a jar of “chow chow,” a hot relish mix of cabbage, sweet peppers and corn; and a dozen skinny strings of dried shuck beans called Kentucky Wonders, which felt papery to the touch. Finally, his work thermos filled with spring water from the hollow where he was raised—this we had to try, he insisted, for it still held some of the cold of the mountains. He gave Mark and me each a sip before we went to bed and we made faces because it had a coppery taste, like the pennies we’d put in our mouths when we were younger.
Only after they were alone did Houston tell Mother about his trip. He had gone to Kentucky feeling hemmed in. He’d needed the mountains, where you could tramp around all day with your .22 and never see another man. Honestly, he told her, he’d very nearly not come back, but something had made him return. Now he’d gotten his divorce underway. But these things took time. In the meanwhile, he wouldn’t be hounded. He felt like he’d already been hounded to death. Until he got straightened out Mother wasn’t to mention the divorce or the baby—he just couldn’t hear about the baby right now.
For her part, Mom was so glad to have him back and so afraid of saying the wrong thing, she kept quiet. As he talked she wrapped the squirrel in wax paper for freezing, shelved the Mason jars of preserves and relish, untangled the strings of dried beans and hung them in the pantry. Anyway, Houston told her, he still wasn’t certain her love for him was pure, as pure as spring water, but he was studying on it.
After Houston returned to us with his new, grey-flecked beard, he kept his friendly distance. Days went by without his telephoning (Mom fearful always that he had taken off again). There was no more jitterbugging in the kitchen, no more telephone signals, no more purple wisteria in payroll envelopes. Occasionally, after work, he stopped by for a quick cup of coffee. We kids would come in from playing and note his dusty white footprints on the linoleum and Mother’s face looking pinched and know he’d been there. When we asked Mom why Houston never came by to see us anymore, she explained that Houston was a special kind of man who couldn’t be crowded. He had things he was studying on. I thought of the poem we were learning in fifth grade, how our teacher would stand in front of the class, jut her arms out, and bellow, “‘Give me elbow room,’ cried Daniel Boone.”
By now Mom was almost five months pregnant. She had started to show. About that time she stopped attending choir practice and prayer meeting and begged off her Skyview Baptist ladies bowling league. She did come to our school Valentine’s play, but sat in the hot auditorium for two hours without taking her coat off, smile fixed, a shimmer of sweat on her upper lip.
It would be no exaggeration, then, to say she was astonished when one Friday in early March Houston just showed up with his freshly minted divorce papers and announced they were driving across the Indiana border that night, where there was no wait, to be married.
Mom enlisted Novella to babysit, under the ruse that she and Houston were going to a movie, then she prepared for her wedding. And it was not the way she had imagined it. The champagne-colored sheath she had wished upon was much too tight. Mom shimmied in and out of every black dress she owned, but regardless of how she strained, none of them would fasten, and she was left with a huge pile of somber frocks at her feet. Finally, she settled upon the roomiest black dress, managing to hold it together with three safety pins, which left little red welts at her midriff. A swing coat camouflaged her blossoming belly.
Mom and Houston were wed by an Indiana Justice of the Peace they had roused from bed, who still had the hoarseness of sleep in his voice and performed the nuptials in a foghorn timbre. The only awkward moment came when Houston was called upon to place the ring on his bride’s finger and realized he had forgotten to buy a wedding band. Graciously, the J.P.’s wife, acting as witness in a quilted robe, loaned them her ring for the ceremony.
On the long drive home Houston informed Mother that their marriage vows did not mean he had any intention of residing in Parkside Homes. He’d only just gotten himself untangled from one domestic situation. Still, he’d felt like they really ought to give the baby a name. And he would see her as he could, but he wasn’t about to give up his freedom.
When they got back to Dayton, Mom’s new husband deposited her at our door and brushed her forehead lightly with his lips. Then he returned to the boardinghouse.
And so on the night of her wedding Mother removed the swing coat, the three safety pins, her Lerner’s dress, slip, and underthings. She left the clothes in a heap on the floor and fell into a transparent sleep. She dreamt about white dresses floating on a river, dozens of them spread from bank to bank, drifting slowly with the current.
When she woke up she remembered, for the first time in years, the morning of her river baptism. She had waited patiently on the muddy riverbank that Sunday. At sixteen, she was, as usual, the shortest, and therefore the first in line. It had been a frigid spring and ice floes still bobbed on the water. Her daddy sent his deacons wading out into the river with sledge hammers to break up the ice so that the newly saved souls, of whom Lana was one, might be immersed. As the men labored, she abided, shivering, her skin goose flesh. Finally, she was led into the shallows where the long, flowing sleeves of her dress billowed like white wings on the water as she was lowered into the icy river, then raised again.
Mom began her day with new conviction. She would be as patient with Houston as she had been on that long ago riverbank, waiting for the ice floes to break. Mother vowed to make him see their marriage could work. She found the shiny ring I’d won at a Guess-Your-Weight booth at the county fair, at the bottom of a swan-shaped vase where it had rested with broken crayons and loose change, put it on her left ring finger, and called it “her diamond.” All morning she sat at the kitchen table and on one of our lined school tablets practiced writing her new name with curlicues and big loops, Lana Webb, Mrs. Lana Webb, Mrs. Houston Webb.
Houston continued to reside at the boardinghouse and still only visited occasionally. Of course, Mother was embarrassed he wasn’t living with us. The story she told was that they had been wed since the fall, but were waiting to move in together until they found a bigger apartment. In Parkside Homes there were so many makeshift families and dubious situations, no one was likely to question a little waffling of dates.
Mom sweet-talked Houston into at least joining us for Sunday dinners. Most Sundays he showed up, his black hair slicked back, and so freshly shaven he still had tiny dots of shaving cream on his neck. Our reluctant guest, he sat stiffly at the head of the table. If my brother or I tried to show him a magic trick we’d learned, he’d just mutter, “uh-huh” and look glazed over.
Those meals were a production. Mother defrosted the squirrel Houston had brought back from his hunting trip, dredged it in flour and cut out dumplings with a canning jar lid, soaked the shuck beans overnight and seasoned them with streaked bacon. There were bowls of peas, fried potatoes, lettuce and onions “killed” in grease. She browned cornbread in an iron skillet, and made sure there was a jar of blackstrap molasses on the table which Houston liked to pour over his cornbread. For the centerpiece she fashioned a bouquet of Queen Anne’s Lace she had gathered along a Kentucky road, then dried and dusted with orange chalk the color of flame.
And Mother. We had begun to note the new globes and spheres of her body. She draped her new, swollen shape in maternity smocks and traded her high heels for flats. The only time you couldn’t tell that she was expanding was when she was seated. If anything, the bigger she got, the brighter her lipstick. She favored Cherries in the Snow. And when Houston was around she was flirtatious and sunny. I thought sometimes about what my grandfather used to say of her: “When Lana smiles she’s all dimples.”
Those dinners continued for a time until one Sunday Mom got brave enough to ask Houston when he thought he might move in. At first it was like always. We kids tuned out the adult conversation, which was mere background music to us. Then Mom’s voice changed in a way that made us still and quiet. We heard one word: When? Seconds later two full plates sailed past us in a cyclone of dishes and food, crashing against the refrigerator. We looked up at Houston, the hurler of plates, who loomed above us, making stiff karate chops in the air. Dadburn, dadburn, he shouted. He worked hard all week nailing up boards in rich people’s houses. He didn’t come over here to be aggravated. He’d gotten rid of one woman who plagued him. He didn’t need another one. Houston picked up Mark’s and my plates and pitched them across the kitchen too. We watched cornbread nuggets and threads of molasses slide down the wall. For the grand finale he threw the vase of Queen Anne’s lace, which went flying so close to my ear I heard the whoosh. Then he slammed out the door and went to sit in his Chevy, leaving us in a silence more startling than his yelling.
Mother, petrified that Houston would drive away and never come back, stood a little to the side of the kitchen window, parting the curtains slightly. She could see him out there in his Chevy, lighting up a cigarette, fiddling with the radio.
Our refrigerator and walls looked like somebody had done a colossal fingerpainting with streaks of grease. Without being told, my brother and I got down on our hands and knees and picked up the shards of smashed plates carefully, the way we’d been taught to handle broken glass. We used most of a roll of paper towels to wipe up the lumps of food, including the cold dumplings we hadn’t even taken a bite out of.
After about forty minutes Houston turned the car off and came back inside. He said he hadn’t meant to lose his temper. Mom had driven him to it. He and Mother made up then. They both said they were sorry and retired to the couch to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. We were all relieved. Mark and I made a game of collecting roving peas, which had rolled under the table and into the pantry, until Houston called us into the living room to see Topo Gigo, the talking mouse.
The next day, with a sponge and Pine Sol, Mom made the kitchen walls and linoleum sparkling clean, mastering the job that Mark and I had only started. We just pretended that Houston’s fit had never happened. But for weeks afterward we found little dried up peas everywhere, inside the radiator vent, stuck to a bicycle wheel, in the fringe of a scatter rug.
At any rate, after that episode Mother resigned herself to their living situation.
I had noticed the changes in my mother’s body and, in my childish way, I suspect I knew she was pregnant, although we had never talked about it. Until one afternoon she was bathing and I was rooting around in my bedroom closet, tiptoeing for something, feeling along the top shelf. I found a package of diapers. I carried the bundle into the bathroom where my mother sat in the tub, the round shapes of her body soapy and glistening. Her nipples were darker now, the areolas like small saucers.
“Mom,” I asked, holding up the diapers, “are you going to have a baby?”
“Come in and shut the door, sweetie,” she said.
She ran the wash cloth over her shoulders and arms as I arranged myself Indian-style on the lid of the toilet seat. Traditionally, the bathroom was the place where our most private conversations were held.
“Guess what?” she sang. “You’re going to have a new little brother or sister.” She looked at me closely. “Are you excited?”
I was still trying to puzzle all this out. Even I knew you were supposed to be married first.
“Well, when did you get married?”
“Don’t you remember? I told you how Houston and I eloped last fall. How I wore the pink dress with eyelet lace and the pink veil, and the Justice of the Peace and his wife threw rice at us, so we even had rice in our ears.”
“Oh yeah.” I remembered the story.
Mom closed her eyes. “You know, Susie, Houston is the most romantic soul ever was. When he proposed, he got down on one knee.” She leaned further back into the soapy water.
That was enough of an explanation for me. I went tearing out of the bathroom in search of Mark, to tell him the news.
We really didn’t have much time to get used to the idea before our baby brother, Rand, was born in July. It always seemed to Mark and me that one day he was simply there, like a miracle. When Mother brought him home from the hospital and put him in the bassinette in the living room, I laid my arm, palm open, beside him. His body measured precisely the length from my elbow to my fingertip. Rand looked exactly like Houston, except with Mother’s dimples. That summer when Mark and I brought our friends in to view the sleeping baby, we shushed them into reverent silence, and insisted they leave their jangling skates at the door.
To everyone’s surprise, Houston was smitten with his son, who he called “the little fella.” Now, every day after work, Houston came by. He didn’t even go to the boardinghouse to change first. He’d traipse through the kitchen in his work boots, tracking up the linoleum, sweep Rand into his lap, and, over Mom’s protests, let the baby suck on a peppermint stick he’d stowed in his lunch box. “Some sweetness won’t hurt the little fella,” he’d say.
When Houston was around he wouldn’t allow the baby to stay in his playpen or highchair. He held him constantly. Even as an infant, Rand had thick black hair, and Houston liked to take his comb and pomade and fuss with it. Sometimes he’d give him a side part, and sometimes he’d slick it back so the baby had a Brylcream wave that rivaled his daddy’s.
On the day his son was born Houston declared he would never have a bedtime. This child, he said, was going to be his pet. On weekends he and Mom enjoyed keeping the baby up with them while they watched the late movie.
Houston’s favorite TV program was a country and western music review called The Porter Wagoner Show, on Saturday evening. At the appointed hour Mark and I were expected to plop ourselves in front of the TV, lips buttoned. Houston didn’t like any noise during Porter Wagoner.
Porter, a Grand Old Opry star, sported a blonde pompadour and custom-designed white suits adorned with giant sequined wagon wheels, horseshoes, and cacti. His singing partner and sidekick, Dolly Parton, was then just a Tennessee mountain girl with a beautiful voice. I thought they looked good together during their duets because they both had bouffant hairdos. (Some time later I found out they actually made a point of dying their hair the same shade of white-blonde.)
Dolly did the Duz detergent commercials, the laundry soap with the free wash cloth in every box. She’d open a package, unfurl a towel, and exclaim, “Looky here, Porter!” This always sent Mark and me into fits of giggles, but Mom shot us dirty looks, so we covered our mouths with our hands.
Each week Dolly performed a spotlight solo, such as her song about being a poor country girl reduced to wearing a coat of many colors, a cloak of rags that her mother had stitched together from scraps. These selections made Houston sentimental. He’d sit there with Rand on his lap, wiping at his wet eyes.
So enamored was he of his young son, his mirror image, that by the time Rand was four months old, Houston was a constant presence in our house, and what happened next seemed only natural.
One rainy afternoon that fall Mark and I had run all the way home from school, trying to beat a thundershower. We burst into the front door to find the living room crammed with dozens of cardboard boxes, a stack of suitcases and a duffel bag, the sum total of Houston’s worldly goods. He had finally decided to move in with us.
Before he set to unpacking, Mom said she’d at least like to clear a path through the living room. The baby was napping, so Houston offered to take Mark and me for a spin while she got organized.
In celebration, Houston treated my brother and me to an early supper at Burger Chef. We drove to the tiny triangular-shaped building with 15¢ flashing above its pinnacle, where we picked up our feast of hamburgers wrapped in white crinkly paper. Houston gave me the money and said I could go in to get the food. As an afterthought he fished some extra change out of his pocket. “And get you a Co-Cola apiece.” We really wanted french fries too, but were too timid to ask. We hadn’t been alone with Houston before, just him and us.
The fall air was cool after the brief, hard rain, but Houston kept the car heater on so we could eat in the Chevy. In the distance we heard the blast of company whistles from the factories that ringed Dayton. The whistles blew five times. It was time for a change of shift. Clouds of soot from the smokestacks rolled over the sky, like masses of dark hair. Houston said he was glad he worked outdoors and not in one of those factories. He pointed to the smoke-streaked sky, “Why, look at that nasty stuff blowing all over creation.” Mark and I were in the backseat. Houston patted the space beside him. “Why don’t you kids come up here with me?”
With elaborate care we handed over our Cokes first—we knew he didn’t want anything spilled on his white upholstery—then climbed over the seat.
The three of us sat in a row, the lights from the 15¢ sign blinking on our faces.
“Well,” Houston said, “looks like I’m going to be your new step-daddy. What do you have to say about that?”
We didn’t know what to say. We sipped harder on our straws like we were dying of thirst, and grinned.
“Y’all have to mind me, do what I tell you.”
We said we would.
“Maybe next summer we’ll go to Kentucky. We’ll take Rand to Mommy’s and show him off. Now Mommy will probably want us to go to church with her, and that little church is way back in a holler. You have to cross a swinging bridge to get there. I bet you city kids never even been on a swinging bridge.”
I had seen one, I said, at my grandfather’s. I knew they were made of grape vines and rope and began to sway as you stepped out onto them, swinging wider as you walked out over the water.
“That’s right, and I’ll get you both out on that old bridge, teach you what it’s like to live in the mountains,” he promised.
The restrooms at Burger Chef were all the way around the back. I had to go. “Hurry up,” Houston called, as I dashed around the corner of the building. When I came out, there was the Chevy, its tail fins gleaming, right outside the Ladies Room door. He had pulled around to fetch me. As I bounded toward the car, it occurred to me that now, in a way, I would have a father. Strolling out of school with my girlfriends, I might see his Chevy and remark to them, as they often did to me, “Oh, there’s my dad. He’s picking me up.”
When we got home Houston was anxious to get settled. The first item he unpacked was a girlie calendar from a body shop featuring a different voluptuous beauty for each month. He hung the calendar in the pantry. Mom had set up the ironing board in there to press Houston’s clothes, which had been wrinkled in transport, and every time she looked up from her ironing to put a shirt on a hanger, she came face to face with Miss November, posed in a fur-trimmed bikini, hair swept up in her hands.
As he sorted through his cartons, deciding what to store and what to make a place for, Houston discovered a shoe box of old pictures. “Well, I haven’t looked at these in a coon’s age,” he said. He tossed the shoe box on the coffee table, inviting us to look too. “These are my people,” he said somewhat shyly. “These is all Webbs.”
I picked up a photo of his parents, Myrtle and John. The mother looked like a full-blooded Cherokee. This woman, he claimed, was the finest soul who ever lived. Houston made his daddy out to be a mean tempered bully. For forty-five years, he said, Myrtle had stoically borne John’s insults and wild accusations. Once he even accused her of wanting to have an affair with John F. Kennedy. “Imagine,” Houston said, “and her sixty-five years old.”
There was a grade-school picture of Houston, his bangs jagged and uneven. We passed around a recent snapshot of him with his five brothers, their arms draped around one another, a cornfield in the background. Mom pointed to one of the Webb boys and shrieked, “Why, that’s Rand made over.”
Houston gave Mark and me the job of sorting through a stack of old license plates. As we classified them by year, we passed over the slogan KENTUCKY THE BLUEGRASS STATE, and chuckled every time we came to OHIO THE BUCKEYE STATE. People from Ohio were known as “buckeyes,” after the state tree that produced an inedible glossy brown nut; and, in these parts, folks who hailed from Kentucky, like us, were known as “briars,” or sometimes “those dumb briars.” We had heard lots of briar jokes. But we also knew the riddle that served as a comeback.
While Houston lugged boxes from the living room to the pantry, Mark trailed after him, brandishing an Ohio plate. “What’s a buckeye? What’s a buckeye?” he kept asking. They had played this game before. Houston was supposed to answer, “A worthless nut!” But about that time Rand started to fuss in his playpen, which had been set up in the kitchen.
In a shot Houston picked the baby up. He looked down at Mark. “What did you do to him?”
“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head vigorously.
Mom wiped her hands on her apron. She’d been washing out thermoses. “Mark wasn’t even near the baby. He’s just cranky.”
“Don’t tell me,” he insisted. “He’s done something to aggravate him.” Houston bounced Rand, talking baby talk to him, “Upsetting the little fella. He ought not act that-a-way.”
Houston jerked the turquoise license plate out of Mark’s hand and flung it across the room, where it landed softly on the couch. “Can’t you keep him from hanging on me all the time?” he asked Mom. “He’s on my heels every minute. I can’t answer all his dadburned questions. I’m not his daddy,” he reminded her. “If I was, I’d be ashamed to tell it. I’ve never seen such a sissified boy. But I reckon it isn’t his fault. It’s how you’re raising him.”
Backing away from the words thrown at him, my brother put on a tough smirk like I don’t care, but I could see his face twitch and the tears start.
Long after we were grown, Mark told me that was when he first understood Houston didn’t want him. And after that night, when Houston was around, Mark made himself scarce. If Houston was home on a Saturday, Mark would take off early in the morning, for the day, just disappear. He once confided in me that he and his friends used to play in the sewer tunnels under the city. He liked exploring the miles of tunnels, warm in the winter and cool in the summer, where he could pretend to be an astronaut circling the earth, or a knight doing battle, anywhere but in that apartment with us. Mom didn’t keep the tight rein on him she kept on me. It was considered that sometimes boys just took off. Often, on Saturdays, we wouldn’t see him until evening when he’d reappear, filthy and reeking, his face and arms all scratched up. He looked like he’d been working in the coal mines.
But that night, stripped of the turquoise license plate, Mark couldn’t help but cry.
“Look at him, “ Houston said, “All he knows how to do is boo-hoo. He never owns up to anything. Just send this sissy to bed right now.”
“Oh, honey,” Mom appealed to him. “It’s only 6:30.”
Now he was yelling. “Don’t start sassing me, Lana. Don’t you go against me.”
But Mark was already scrambling up the stairs. I knew he was embarrassed because he had cried.
“We never go to bed this early,” I protested. “He didn’t even do anything.”
“Fine, Miss Priss,” Houston said, “you can get up there too.” So I was also banished.
Mom started after me. “I better see if Mark’s okay.”
Houston, still holding the baby, put his body between her and the stairwell. “You don’t need to run up after him. That’s what’s wrong with him now. He can put hisself to bed. He’s not hog-tied or waterbound.”
So I continued upstairs by myself.
Mark and I got into our twin beds. It was still light out, too early for sleep. My brother wrapped himself up in sheets like a mummy, turned his face to the wall, and wouldn’t talk to me. For the longest time we listened to the kickball game going on in the alley beneath our window, the thump of the ball, the kids shouting as they rounded the bases and argued over scores, until they were summoned indoors. The squares of our window went from violet to gray. The street lights popped on. I called over, “Mark?” but I could tell from his breathing he was asleep. I thought, This will not be good, Houston with us. But I had no one to tell, so I whispered, “This will not be good.” Then all I could hear were the grown-ups downstairs, the murmur of their voices as they moved from room to room.
Mom told me later that when I came padding downstairs after midnight, she knew I was asleep because I was wearing only a tee shirt and panties, and even at eleven I was too modest to parade in front of Houston in my underwear. She said I floated past them where they were sitting on the couch—like they weren’t even there—and headed straight for the kitchen.
It was Houston who had the idea they should wake me up—he wanted to see what I would do—although Mom was afraid because she read once that you should never rouse a sleepwalker. Houston waved his hand in front of my face, and called my name, but I didn’t respond. I simply paused at the telephone stand, and, in spite of the fact there was no Kleenex box there, went through the motion of plucking a tissue. Houston came right behind me and with an exaggerated flourish acted like he was taking a tissue too. He looked back at Mom and grinned, trying to get her to laugh. As I slowly circled the kitchen table, Houston followed close behind, staggering like he was drunk, like Crazy Guggenheim on TV, grinning at Mom the whole time.
Then he got serious. Houston took out the jar of spring water he kept in the refrigerator. Mother held her breath as he flicked the ice water onto my face. I started awake.
Dazed, I found myself in the kitchen. I peered at the linoleum under my feet. The blue starburst pattern looked like a field of wavy water. I swayed. I had sea legs. Houston steadied me.
“She’s punch drunk,” he laughed.
My stepfather led me into the living room and I leaned heavily upon him, blinking furiously to keep my eyes open.
Houston didn’t want a family of sleepwalkers. He wanted an audience.
“Come in here with me and your mother. We were just talking about the funeral of the man who wasn’t dead yet.”
Houston sat me down on an upturned suitcase and knelt beside me. Apparently, he and Mom had discovered more old pictures among his belongings. He held up a black page that looked like it had been torn out of an album. Affixed there was a sepia-tinted photograph of an old man seated beside a coffin. The coffin, tilted upright, and propped against a cane chair, was draped with wild roses.
“This is my Grandpa Millard,” Houston said. “Back in 1917 he decided just to go ahead and have his funeral while he was still on this earth, so he could hear all the nice things people said about him before he went to his Heavenly reward.”
“Isn’t that interesting?” Mother encouraged me. She came and stood behind me for support, her arms around my shoulders.
I tried to focus on the old-timey picture. The image of the coffin was sharp and crisp, but the old man with his white hair and beard was blurry, like dandelion fluff. Houston explained it took a long time to snap a picture in those days. If you didn’t sit absolutely still you came out blurry.
He pointed to the caption written in white ink, Millard Dee Webb, Born 1867, Died 1930. Funeral, June 1917.
“Grandpa was almost seven feet tall.” Houston told us, “His sons made him an extra long coffin out of pine boards, just to do right by their daddy. The Saturday before the funeral he wanted to have his picture made, so his boys hauled him and his coffin over those mountain roads all the way to the portrait studio in Pikeville.”
I had never heard of anyone going to his own funeral, so I kept my place on the wobbly suitcase, and leaned back against my mother standing behind me, as Houston held forth.
“It was spring time. Mommy had just married my daddy, John, Millard’s oldest boy, and she said that church was packed. People had heard tell of it three counties away. They laid out that coffin real nice, decorated it with dozens of wild white roses Millard’s girls had picked, for that was their daddy’s favorite flower. Millard sat in the front pew with his folks, and them all in black. The preacher got up and told what a big cut-up Millard was, how everybody enjoyed him. He testified that Grandpa was a good man.”
“I bet they had some pretty singing,” Mom said.
“Law, yes, my aunt Mae stood up and sang ‘In the Sweet By and By. Mommy said that was some of the prettiest singing she’d ever heard in her life. People just cried and carried on.”
“Well, did he have another service when he finally passed on?” Mom asked.
“Naw, he was true to his word. Jesus called him home thirteen years later. On his deathbed he told his family, ‘Just put me in the ground and say a little prayer over me, for I’ve had my big to-do.’”
“Now my daddy, John, he always planned to have his funeral while he was still among us.” Houston shook his head sadly. “But he waited too long.”
“Isn’t that a shame,” Mother offered.
The next morning when I got up for school I was still half asleep. Even so, I knew I hadn’t dreamt the story of the funeral of the man who wasn’t dead yet. Houston had propped the portrait of Grandpa Millard and his white-rose covered coffin up against the swan vase on the kitchen counter. So, for weeks, at every meal, I studied the strange old man some more.
Julia Thacker’s fiction has appeared in Anteaus, The Boston Globe Magazine, AGNI, New Directions, The Pushcart Prize series, and others. She teaches creative writing in the Radcliffe Seminars.