Knox Thompson first crossed paths with the man who would…
I’ll have that little man.
That’s what Mama said to me the first time she caught sight of Bill, standing there in a grubby Food Lion in North Raleigh, overripe fruit smells wafting all around. I hefted a jug of laundry detergent into the cart and turned to look and there Bill was. Price-checking dish soap, getting up real close to the tags to see the difference per ounce. He went with the store brand, nodded, lifted his chin and saw us.
First glance, Bill looked raggedy-ass to me. Not the greatest head of hair but not bald either—close-cropped, fuzzy, color of damp sand where it wasn’t gray. Looked like his styling technique involved rubbing both palms hard against his scalp. Pleated chinos two sizes too big, Hawaiian-print polo shirt apparently tucked in after he’d cinched his belt down tight, aviator-style glasses magnifying his eyes. Bright green eyes, though. Green like moss after rain.
Rough as Bill looked to me, I guess Mama saw potential. A project, maybe. She saw a compact man, jaw square and sharp as a table edge. She saw that he might look almost refined if you coaxed him out of the pleats and the palm frond patterns and the glasses like chem-lab safety goggles, if you found him some clothes that fit. She cleared her throat, sucked her flat belly concave and pushed her tits out. All to Bill’s apparent delight.
Hello ladies, he said. Dipped his head an inch, like tipping a top hat. Mama shifted weight onto her left hip. To make it jut, make her waist bend.
Well hello there, she said. Where did you find that festive shirt?
Bill said, Oh I got this one visiting family down in Florida. He stared down the front of it as if he needed to double check that he’d referenced the right one.
They introduced themselves and Mama made her voice go whispery to say he looked mighty handsome in that shirt. Said it even though it did him no favors. He blushed, staring right into her cleavage squeezed up nearly to her chin.
Mama always made a habit of flinging out breathy compliments much too soon, which I’m sure had everything to do with the caliber of boyfriend she’d brought home all those years. Did it like a nervous tic, like if she didn’t start the flow of compliments immediately there’d be none flowing back to her.
Bill stuttered out something about her perfume smelling like cookies and Mama sidled closer, brushed her fingers against his arm and said, Well aren’t you sweet. Vanilla’s my favorite scent.
I may as well have been a hundred miles away. Rest of the world a blur to them, it seemed. Standing on the outside, I sensed the electricity. Not the dangerous kind that’ll sting you, though. The dreamy kind makes even grown folks stare and grin and giggle.
Bill did finally notice I was there. Looked over at my sixteen-year-old self and asked if Mama and I were sisters. She squealed and I rolled my eyes way up in my head, unable to abide that tired old line again.
We are not, I said.
Mama stepped back and elbowed me and whispered, You better quit that.
So I quit it and smiled real sweet at yet another strange man about to attempt the troubling calculus required to figure Mama and me out. I knew what to expect. It’d been the same routine for years. Dude sizing Mama up, the angles and curves of her. Levi’s 512s like a vice grip, same ones she’d worn for twenty years. Hair bleached near-white, teased up and set crunchy, face all symmetry and openness and light and spider-heavy mascara. Dude looking over at me in my tank top and man-sized flannel shirt and black jeans and green Doc Martens with the laces frayed, looking at my dark hair hanging long, my molars clenched down hard and fierce, eyes staring deadly right through him. Then—the best part—dude looking squint-eyed back at Mama, his face a series of questions.
A conundrum. That’s what we’ve presented to new folks ever since eighth grade when my body reshaped itself in Mama’s image but I refused to follow suit in any other department.
And yet, Bill didn’t look at us like the rest. More like he was trying not to look. He didn’t even squint back at Mama at the end, just smiled and stuck his hand out toward me and said, I’m Bill. And you are? I shook his hand, said my name, felt myself soften without meaning to. Tried to regain some kind of edge by setting my jaw again, but couldn’t ignore the flitting thought that such a softening might very well mean something. I let the thought go, decided to play it cool until I saw whether Mama went for him in earnest.
Not ten minutes later, those two paraded out the sliding doors with parallel carts into the stagnant heat of mid-August, phone numbers scribbled in spaces between receipt-back carwash coupons. I brought up the rear, scuffing my heels on the asphalt all the way to the car, wondering what in hell had just happened.
They made eyes, promised to call, parted ways.
Mama hummed all the way home with the windows down, warm breeze on our faces. Took me a while to place it, but then I realized she was humming Dolly’s “Green Eyed Boy.” Oh the sigh I let out. Mama that’s a sad song, I thought. Don’t jump to that part yet. But jumping two-footed is the only way Mama’s ever known to do things. Every new man she met, she’d start off humming some old Dolly song. But always, eventually, there she’d be playing “Jolene” on repeat when things fell apart.
She hummed the sad song happy, I guess because it fit Bill on the surface—the green eyes part, not the boy part. Hummed it like she loved looking into that green, letting herself fall way down in it. She wholly ignored the many melancholy words about lost love, about regret. How like Mama—forever cutting those gray eyes away from anything unpleasant.
I shook my head and turned on the radio. Dixie Chicks singing “Ready to Run.”
Goddamnit, I thought, not this either.
I spun the sound way down, took a breath and prepared myself for the inevitable—me watching Mama fall for another one, then swooping in a few weeks or months later to pick up the pieces of her sweet broken heart, holding onto her and saying yet again, Mama it’s gonna be alright. We’re gonna be alright.
But that’s not what happened at all. After years of misfires, Mama finally hit the target she’d been aiming at. Waltzed into that Food Lion, filled her shopping cart, marched out with a bonus future husband in tow.
Wasn’t the first time her life changed in a grocery store, either. April Fool’s Day of 1985—just a couple weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, Mama’s water broke a month early, mid-shift at the Piggly-Wiggly up in Creedmoor. She scanned the barcode on some old man’s honey ham and then—whoosh. Late morning sunlight glinting off the puddle at her feet, man looking away, gagging and fanning himself with a thick stack of rumpled fives and ones.
Just two hours later, I shot wailing into the blinding lights of the maternity ward at Rex Hospital in Raleigh. Tiny thing, red as a skinned squirrel in the photos, Mama’s eyes wide and her mouth a hard line looking down at me, just a scrunched squalling thing balanced in the crook of her arm.
She’d gotten pregnant the summer before her senior year of high school, dropped out because she didn’t want the world to see the former head cheerleader big as a house, lumbering through the halls. Also because when her mother Jane found out, she kicked Mama out. Which meant that working enough hours to afford Spaghetti-Os and Pampers became more immediately crucial to her than retaking Algebra II or memorizing the military history of our great nation.
Mama’s grandmother, Grammy, had given up on her daughter Jane years before and gladly took in my child-mother. Helped raise me. Grammy was seventy-nine when I arrived, yet there’s a whole pile of pictures of her tending to me in those early days like some young grandma. She’s patting my ruddy infant back to burp me, wiping Gerber mush out of my white wispy hair, hooking a finger over the back of my diaper to check its contents and frowning at what she’s found.
I’ve never known my father. Abiding truth of my life though it may be, it’s still a hard thing to think about with any clarity. Always sounds like an admission of guilt, even in my own head. Mama told me she tried to get him involved. Showed him the stick she’d peed on, went right along with it when he said they ought to name me Krystal because he’d been to a Krystal Burger outside Knoxville once and thought it looked cool spelled like that. Named me after goddamn steamed miniature hamburgers and then took off the minute Mama started to show.
Hoping he might come back but figuring he wouldn’t, Mama told the lady in the hospital to write down Krystal Elizabeth Robinson on all my forms. Smart move, giving me her own last name. She borrowed my middle name from Grammy, who had the further wisdom to suggest they go ahead and call me Lizzie instead of Krystal.
There may have been a span of time when I didn’t yet realize I’d been missing a daddy, but I don’t recall the feeling. I do have a hazy memory of asking Mama why the other kids at daycare got to have daddies. She made this sad whimpery noise in her throat, pulled me on her lap and tucked my head under her chin. Didn’t say anything for a while. But how do you explain to a three-year-old that her teenage daddy ran away once things stopped being fun? You don’t. Or at least Mama didn’t. All she said was, Baby I don’t know.
It became her mantra whenever I asked about him.
Where’s my daddy?
Baby I don’t know.
What’s my daddy like?
Baby I don’t know.
Mama eventually got clever, told me I should make up my own story about where he’d disappeared to. I took to that idea real fast. First I made him an astronaut on a mission to Mars. His rocket ship had broken but what he did all day in that lonely red desert was carve Burdy and Lizzie into giant alien rocks and devise outlandish plans to get himself home. Then I made him a treasure hunter, lost in a faraway land like in my favorite book—all exotic plants and dangerous animals with gnashing teeth and sharp claws. A place there was little chance he’d ever escape but gosh I could always hope.
All sorts of stories filled my mind about where that man was, not one of them remotely close to the truth.
I was brutally skeptical of Bill to begin with, partly because Mama and I were still on pretty shaky ground with each other right then, but also because I’d learned long before to be the questioning force in all her relationships. She’d sure never borne that burden herself.
But Bill turned out to be a different kind of man than I’d ever been around. The kind of man sits in his car to update his checkbook register before driving home to put the groceries away. Kind of man reads Ann Landers and Dear Abby for his own personal edification. Frugal man, but generous. Kind of man willing to unhinge his chest and bare his beating heart from day one, willing to help provide for us because it makes that heart beat stronger in him, willing to help me pay for Duke when I’d been crossing my fingers that I’d be able to afford community college.
Bill’s also the kind of man who—six months before the wedding, seven months before freshman move-in day—hardly blinks when he learns that Mama’s got thirty-grand owed across eight credit cards. Debts she’d kept secret from the world, including me. All eight of those cards paid minimum each month, Mama scribbling checks late at night at the kitchen counter, me asleep and dreaming. Unaware.
Bill’s the kind of man says, New plan. Let’s wait to buy a house. Let’s work on that debt and get Lizzie started at school and reassess in a couple years. In the interim I’ll quit renting and move in here. If you’ll have me.
Kind of man pats the back of Mama’s shaky hand while she nods a wordless answer. Kind of man looks solemn at the worry etched across my face and says, Don’t you dare think of it Lizzie. Says it before I can even open my mouth to apologize for what I’m costing him. Sees my eyes fill up and says, Sweetheart don’t you know by now that I’d rather help you pay for college and help your mother clear this debt than buy some silly house?
Yes Bill. I know.
By move in here, Bill meant our double-wide out on what’s left of the old family farm, where I’ve lived my whole life. Mama drilled it into my head early and often to be proud of what we had. Grateful too, since the trailer was Grammy’s and we were her guests until the summer after I turned five. That’s when she made use of her stocks and bonds and careful savings, bought an apartment at the old folks home. Springmoor, name full of youth and hope, place where Grammy could hop on her new Jazzy scooter and blow through the halls to play bridge.
The trailer sits pressed up against woods, just the width of the dirt driveway between it and the farmhouse Grammy grew up in. She lived in that farmhouse until the mid-seventies when its needs became more than she could handle on her own. Her siblings had all passed by then, Grammy being the family’s surprise child, born a decade after the last of the main herd. Imagine—six brothers and sisters born in the nineteenth century, and you the modern girl born five years into the twentieth.
As a last-ditch effort, she offered the house to her daughter Jane, Mama’s mama. But Jane was too full of spite to care about anything but her many grudges. One of which was her smoldering anger that Grammy openly hated Jane’s no-good, gambling, violent husband Bo. Jane couldn’t even think clear enough to realize Grammy was offering a free house so Jane and Bo and Mama and Mama’s little sister Sandy could finally move out of the musty apartment they’d been in for a decade. But Bo wouldn’t have it, so Jane wouldn’t have it.
Mama’s daddy was about as bad as they come, from what I’ve heard all my life. I guess Grammy once had real high hopes for her darling daughter Jane. Hopes that didn’t include Jane taking up with a guy whose idea of a fun Friday night was driving around with a cooler full of cheap beer in the truck bed, steering one-fingered with his left elbow propped in the open window, his right hand squeezed down between Jane’s thighs. And Jane just gazing at him like a fool.
Or at least that’s how Mama said Grammy used to tell it. I assume Grammy wasn’t there for any of those joy rides, though, so the accuracy of her detailed description seems dubious.
Mama didn’t talk much about her parents until Bill first came around. Then she opened up like a big old flower, sharing bits and pieces I’d never heard before.
Once Mama said, I guess my daddy was a real fun party boy back when he and my mama dated. They eloped when they were sixteen. Had to drive down to South Carolina where you could get married that young without a note from your parents. After I was born my daddy quit being able to hold down a job more than a few months at a time. Gambled away every penny he could get his hands on. The drunker he was the more he pushed my mother around. Slamming her into the kitchen counters. Bruising up her hips.
Bill shook his head and closed his eyes.
He pushed me and Sandy around too, Mama said. Over the years my mama got more and more resentful of her life but she refused to believe my daddy was the problem. Took his side whenever he got rough with me and Sandy. Just stood there smoking a Virginia Slim real aggressive, telling Sandy and me what little shits we both were.
Mama mimicked her mother smoking—hunch-shouldered, cheeks sucked way in, lips puckered, distinct tremor in that smoking hand.
I knew the rest of the story. Knew that when Mama got knocked up and kicked out, Grammy was glad to take her in, but wished she could’ve gotten ahold of Sandy too. Grammy told me once she couldn’t bear thinking of little Sandy alone in that house with that monster of a daddy, but there just wasn’t much she could do. I guess if you’re a mama and grandmama who’s taking in kids but still trying to be polite, and if your aim is not to get your daughter beat up or worse, you can only go so far.
Still. It never seemed fair to me that Mama got out and Sandy didn’t. But I guess that’s why Sandy scooted her skinny ass across the whole expanse of the country the minute she finished high school. Made a home for herself in Seattle far from anyone she’d ever known.
Faced with all that—daughter refusing a generous offer, house fixing to fall down around her—Grammy finally bought the trailer. Had the delivery man park it where she could keep one watchful eye on the old home place, its once-blue paint fading to gray, floorboards of the huge wraparound porch sagging closer to the ground each year. A couple of upstairs windows still had curtains in them, gauzy in their gradual disintegration. In a stiff breeze, they moved just enough to give the impression of the house blinking.
Could’ve been a scary place to grow up next to, I guess, but it never did bother me. Grammy showed me old pictures of the place that made it seem like a grand and ancient monument to the lives of my ancestors. I can see those hazy black-and-whites so clear, without even needing to dig them out of Grammy’s old shoebox of jumbled tiny photos. One in particular feels like a memory—like I was there for its making. In it you see the farmhouse head-on. The oaks to the left were smaller then, but they already rose almost to the roof, casting shade on the house and the yard and on Grammy’s parents rocking on the porch—four ghost-white eyes peering out, two pale paper fans blurring through the long exposure.
First time I saw that one, Grammy held the picture between thumb and forefinger right at the corner and said, That porch was the coolest place in Raleigh on a summer afternoon. We didn’t have air conditioning back then you know. Just had to sit out there waiting for the breeze to come.
They were farmers and most of the original forty-some acres of land were planted in alfalfa and corn and tomatoes. Grammy’s mother cooked a giant breakfast every morning for the whole family. The men and boys would fill up on sausage and big biscuits and eggs just laid by the chickens in the yard, then go work in the fields all day. Come in at dusk all dark and dirty, the glow of sweat on their skin. They planted in spring, harvested all summer, canned in the fall and waited out the winter, year after year. Feels special, living and walking on the same ground where my people’ve lived and walked since way back. Different world, same ground.
Before kindergarten started, it seemed to me that we had it all—clean comfortable home, fridge and pantry full of food, Mama and Grammy loving on me all the time. And we did, in that regard. But when school started, I got glimpses of what we lacked, felt the sting of kids mobbing together, turning on me, picking apart the differences.
No matter what, though, Mama’s always been unwaveringly proud of that double-wide. Proud of how tidy she kept it, how good it always looked. When I was three, she worked out a deal with her handy boyfriend Jason to fix it up. He put in snap-together wood floors and replaced the standard issue shiny linoleum in the kitchen and bathrooms. Still linoleum, but the good kind. Grammy got into it and declared that she wanted something real snazzy for the kitchen floor, picked out those black-and-white checkerboard tiles you see in old diners.
Jason’s biggest accomplishment, though, was the front porch. Built it deep and wide enough to hold four long beach chairs, the kind that flop flat so you can nap on them like a cot. He stained the porch dark and added flourish with beveled railings and built-in flower boxes.
A tall man, Jason. So tall he had to duck going through doorways to keep his hair from brushing against the jamb. He’d swoop me up and set me on his bony shoulders and we’d walk out through the back field, Mama beside us with one hand clutched tight in his, blade of grass pressed between his lips bobbing with every step.
Sweet as he’d been, Jason finished renovating and promptly realized he wasn’t yet interested in family life. He and Mama weren’t but twenty-one, so I suppose you can’t blame him too much. Still, I’m sure it was a hard thing for Mama—second man in a row to walk away from her. I watched her cry day after day, sitting hunched and cross-legged on one of the porch beach chairs. All I knew to do was climb into the scoop of her lap, rest my cheek on her shoulder and say, Mama don’t cry.
One Saturday morning, probably fed up with Mama’s lengthy breakup funk, Grammy marched out of her bedroom and flipped off the cartoons we’d been watching. She said, I’ve got an idea. Let’s put in a salad garden. Need to get it done this weekend or it’ll be too late.
Dogwoods were blooming, so I guess I’d just turned four.
We piled in Grammy’s car and rode up to the Southern States in Creedmoor to get supplies—two-by-sixes, seeds, bagged-up mix of soil and composted manure to darken and soften the red clay we had to work with.
A couple blocks of low glass-front brick buildings line both sides of Main Street in Creedmoor, then after another block or two, town and Main Street both end abruptly at a Y-intersection. Back then Southern States sat nestled into the crotch between roads—big old whitewashed building, wood siding, grey shingled roof.
We walked in and I was struck by the sweet dusty smell of the place, the high ceiling with its exposed beams criss-crossing so far above me that they blurred behind atmospheric haze, floorboards worn smooth and shiny underfoot by decades of scuffing work boots.
I heard a nervous whispery cheep-cheep and followed it until I found baby chicks bumping against each other by the dozen at the bottom of galvanized tubs, downy yellow feathers fluffed up, tiny clawed feet just barely crunching pine bedding, heat lamps clamped to the tubs casting warm red puddles in one corner of the dim room.
I watched the chicks, mesmerized, wanting to reach and gather them chirping and flapping in my arms, but I knew not to, knew I couldn’t be gentle enough. Even now, I feel that lofty building all around my little self, smell the unfamiliar feed and farm aromas, see those baby chicks so soft and delicate and disoriented. I feel the wanting of them, the ache of restraint.
Mama and Grammy dug and planted our new garden right across the driveway, at the back corner of the farmhouse. They both got serious about growing things, tending to the garden they’d made together, babying the vegetables and the flowers equally. Flowers everywhere, too—in the boxes on the porch rail, in beds running the front length of the trailer, in cracking terra cotta pots over by the old house, in baskets hanging from anything that would hold them, some even swinging from oak and poplar branches.
Tomatoes and squash and sometimes a watermelon or two grew each summer in our little garden. Got to where Grammy’s knees and back hurt her if she did the bending and stooping and reaching required, so Mama gradually took over the bulk of the work. On weekend mornings she’d toss her hair up in a rough ponytail with loose pieces curling down the back of her neck, slip on her big movie star sunglasses and proceed to spend hours weeding and pruning and watering, teaching me the same things Grammy had once taught her.
I especially liked it when Mama talked to the plants, as if they’d grow and bloom and fruit without the expense of fertilizer if she encouraged them sweet enough. She even sang to them sometimes, her voice soft and high. I thought if I were a plant I sure would try extra hard for her.
One muggy Sunday morning right before Grammy moved, she and Mama showed me how to sucker a tomato plant, pinching off the little shoots sent out between bigger stalks. Grammy stood watching us with a hand on her hip.
Mama said, If you don’t pluck the suckers all the energy goes to making leaves instead of tomatoes. Isn’t that right Grammy?
Grammy nodded and said, Mm-hm.
Mama said, Now Mr. Tomato Plant I’m gonna get this sucker real quick. Just a little pinch. There you go.
I tried a few, Mama’s hands guiding mine. Grammy standing a few feet away smiling down on me. Both women saying what a good job I had done. I sniffed at my fingers the whole rest of the day, breathing in that earthy green tomato stalk smell, so proud of what I’d learned.
Mama was just thirty-four when we met Bill. He was fifty-two. And I was sixteen. He’d recently retired from a twenty-five-year career out in Research Triangle Park, doing computer-oriented work I still don’t fully understand. Something with coding. Algorithms. He still tries to explain sometimes but he gets bogged down in technical jargon and my eyes glaze over, hard as I try to stop them.
In that quarter century of work he made a comfortable pile of money, always saved more than he spent, nested it up and sat on it like a mama bird. Things got dicey for a minute during his divorce, but the law came down on his side, saved him from the financial ruin his first wife GeorgeAnn had hoped for him. Just two years after their wedding.
What Bill didn’t avoid was the personal ruin, the heartbreak that kept him living alone in a bare beige apartment in North Raleigh for five years storing up his paychecks and investing wisely. Going with the Food Lion store brand every damn time. Losing all the pounds old GeorgeAnn had packed on him with her starchy cooking, until all his clothes fit floppy on him.
And then he met us.
When Mama stumbled into him tits first, she inadvertently shone a light on all his darkness. Lit him right up. From day one Bill found my crazy-ass mother fascinating. Her big blonde hair and big fake nails but mostly her big loving heart, her infectious enthusiasm.
Those first months with him, Mama stayed fired up. Always ready to go and do.
Let’s go out and do something Billy. I just wanna go do something, she’d say.
Said it pressed up tight to him, red acrylics tickling his chin, one thigh lodged between his legs, Bill going all pink in the face with his eyes roving the house in search of anything to land on but me.
I wanted to say, Seen it before Billy.
But I never wanted to break his heart so I’d just keep my head down and let him ever-so-gingerly peel Mama off him, readjust his glasses and say, Where to Miss Burdy?
They’d hop in his white Volvo—in impeccable shape even at the ripe old age of twelve—and ride toward town for lunch. Or he’d take her to Stuff ‘n’ Such, her favorite store, bright shiny knick-knacks forever jam-packed from floor to ceiling, scents of a thousand different candles mingled together so strong it made your eyes water to walk in. He’d buy her something little just to watch her clap her pretty hands together, hear those stacked bracelets clank and jingle.
Bill took an immediate liking to me. Unnerved, I gave him considerable heat, tried to push him far far away. Wasn’t about to let myself get into a third shitty situation, grown man reaching and pawing at a child. But once I realized Bill was entirely different from the previous couple dudes, wasn’t the least bit interested in smacking my ass or worse, I cooled off and watched him desperately attempt to be a father figure. Surprised me when he did a damn good job of it.
The generosity he offered right off the bat still boggles the mind. I’d been sitting alone under the blinking lights of the school library to type up my hand-written paper drafts the first couple years of high school, so Bill gave me a boxy gray laptop to celebrate the beginning of my senior year. Wrapped the box himself, paper loose and askew, one side taped down with the green plaid tag at the end of the Scotch roll still attached. He went on and on about what a revelation Windows 2000 would be.
Not long after that, he said he’d help with a down payment on a used car if I’d make monthly payments with my earnings from my gig as waffle cone artist at the Cow and Bucket Creamery. Bill took me car shopping and we found an ‘82 Volvo 240, bright red like a ripe strawberry.
These things are tanks, he said. We want you as safe as can be.
I love that damn car, that series of rectangles stuck together.
I sold for parts the Sentra Mama’d paid too much for. Old green clunker, back bumper duct taped on, front axle replaced after the original broke and sent me careening into a ditch just three weeks after Mama bought the damn thing to apologize after yet another boyfriend of hers angled for me, laid hands on me while she wasn’t looking.
I still smile to imagine that car torn apart, crushed, melted down.
Pretty quick, Bill started to seem like a fairy godmother. One who snorted when he laughed and insisted on explaining the inner workings of computers in terms I couldn’t wrap my mind around. But I listened anyway, in awe of his ability and willingness to sweep into our lives, picking up the slack and some of the broken pieces too.
Saturday in early October, us three bumming around the trailer, Bill proceeded to change my whole world. He asked if I had college plans and I said, I’m aiming to be a teacher. I’ll see about community colleges. Wake Tech probably. Someplace that won’t leave me eating Ramen for the rest of my life.
Bill nodded slow and said, I knew a kid in college who ate nothing but dried Ramen for an entire school year. He went home for the summer feeling crappy and his doctor diagnosed him with scurvy.
Oh yes. So we need to avoid the all-Ramen diet for you at all cost, he said. He chuckled and slapped his knee. When he finished laughing at himself, he stood.
Alright girls. I’m going to get some paperwork done. You two relax.
He and Mama were newly engaged and he’d all but moved in with us, both developments I had tried objecting to on principle, but I came up short on hard-enough evidence to truly question the arrangement. I was as crazy for Bill as Mama was. As crazy as he was for us.
Apparently satisfied with my college ambitions, Bill hitched his pants up and disappeared into Mama’s bedroom, where he’d stashed a box of recent bank statements and dividend reports and tax returns.
We were having a heat wave, heat like July almost. Sky cloudless and pale blue, sun a white-hot ball beaming down on us. Utterly relentless. Mama and I put our hair up and headed out front to pick the last few straggler cherry tomatoes clinging to the vines. We grabbed at weeds as we went and gathered about five little tomatoes in a bowl.
May as well eat these now, Mama said.
Works for me.
I plucked a big basil leaf and wrapped it around one tomato and Mama said, Ooh lemme get a couple of those.
Still chewing, she grabbed up the pile of weeds we’d made and walked across the dirt driveway to toss them at the base of a scraggly pine.
Eventual fertilizer, she said, swiping her palms against each other.
I went inside and poured two tall glasses of tea from the pitcher in the fridge and we sat sipping on the porch, sun on our bare legs, tea glasses sweating and us sweating too until the sun finally fell behind the house and Mama said, Lord baby look at the time. Let’s go see what we can fix for dinner.
Bill emerged from the bedroom to find our two heads stuck in the fridge. He cleared his throat and we both jumped, knocking skulls. Mama and I each patted palm to scalp in unison and when we caught sight of each other we erupted into giggles.
Look at us, Mama said.
Hey can you rub your stomach at the same time? I asked.
Hell no, she said. She tried anyway and ended up smacking the soft part of her lower belly, which sent her into a folded-over guffaw, which in turn sent her ass crashing into a cabinet. We laughed until we made no sound.
Bill cleared his throat again and said, If I didn’t know any better I might think I’d wandered into a crazy house. You two are wild tonight.
Mama said, Billy baby you did wander into a crazy house.
Okay ladies, Bill said. I want to talk to you both about something. I’ve been doing some calculating in there and I’m pleased to report that if you’ll apply for as many scholarships as you can find I’ll probably be able to cover what’s left. But I want you to set your sights high.
I stared at him until he said, For college. At worst you’ll need a small loan.
Mama and I went right on staring at him until he nodded the nod that means he’s said his final word on a generous offer. Mama began boohooing, jumping up and down. I dove to hug him saying, Thank you thank you thank you.
All this before they were even married. Engaged, but still.
They had the wedding the following summer, just before I headed off to Duke. Mama’s dress was cotton candy pink and a little puffier than was probably advisable but my god she looked good. Approaching elegant, somehow. True to our life together, Mama had me be her maid of honor and give her away.
When she asked me she said, Baby I need your blessing to bring Billy into our little family for good. I know I’ve not got the best track record but they say sometimes you just know. I never believed that until I met Bill.
She looked me in the eye—searching, hopeful, maybe a little afraid.
Mama y’all have my blessing, I said. You’ve had it a while now.
And it wasn’t because Bill paid for stuff. It was because I could tell how strong he believed that we’d all three had it hard in our own ways, that we deserved something new, deserved the family we were trying so hard to become.
So there I was, balancing on that cliff that is the end of childhood, suddenly with something approximating a daddy.