Necessary Lies

Necessary Lies

Janice Daugharty

January 2014 $11.95
ISBN: 9781611943320

Lost innocence. Betrayal. Smalltown secrets.

It all adds up to necessary lies.

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It always starts with the loss of innocence.

Life had plenty to offer beautiful seventeen-year-old Cliffie Flowers in 1953 backwoods Georgia before she got pregnant by a local lothario whose conquests also included her sister. Fearing the disappointment of her adoring father, Cliffie lies to conceal her downfall as the golden girl who might have been the hope of her poor family. But her deception leads to far worse trouble.

Janice Daugharty's 1997 novel, EARL IN THE YELLOW SHIRT (HarperCollins) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels and two short story collections. She serves as writer-in-residence at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia.

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"Janice Daugharty is a born story-teller. Her voice is a finely honed 'Southern' voice that is warm, vibrant, and original; her characters seem to leap from the page, fully imagined in a sentence or two. Best of all, her fiction is rich with surprises. Each story is like a wild, improvised ride that takes us to an unexpected destination." —Joyce Carol Oates

"Janice Daugharty is a natural-born writer." —Pat Conroy

"Daugharty once again has succeeded in creating a suspenseful, well-written narrative around an unusual plot line." —Library Journal


Chapter 1

ONE OF THE last to leave stopped at the door and shook the preacher's hand, going on about the sermon in a familiar wheedling tone, and Brother Leroy's cautious laugh wended back into the sanctuary, relief telling in the sound of a sigh. Then wearily he strolled toward the pulpit and, spying Cliffie, seemed surprised, but said only, "Cliffie!" head hung as in a recapitulation of believing that the long Sunday had ceased. He stopped at the altar and stared at her.

Shambling out between pews, she blurted, "I'm gonna have a baby," and watched for shock to register on his mercurial face. "Roy Harris's," she added. "He don't want to get married." She'd waited so long—it seemed years—for a way out to ripen with time, and now that her secret was said, she felt sapped.

Leaning against the altar table, Brother Leroy's whole body shrank like somebody dead whose soul is withdrawing with his breath. "Why, Cliffie!" he said in that detached squeak of a voice, always used when, even knowing better, he hoped to stave off a full confession, as though in not knowing all he might be spared, being not God but man and ultimately without that power they all believed him to possess.

She waited with him while his blue eyes glazed over and he thought her news through, or maybe banked it by the numerous possibilities adrift in that unsullied holy mind where the sins of others came and went and scarred: none of his, theirs, his cross. Like a dead man, waxen and bloodless, he seemed to tally up those possibilities and the futility of it all, to dredge deep for strength and answers, and finding none, reached back, as though with the hand of another—a hand not at all accustomed to dipping into the collection plate (he always insisted that one of the deacons collect the money, as he always insisted that each sister and brother confess to God instead of the preacher)—and took from the offering a couple of bills, which somehow ended up a ten and a five.

He stared at the bouquet of bills and appeared to be vowing not to think, but to act—alone, without God present—and handed it to Cliffie. Then bending, blue shirt brightening in a print of angel wings across his sweaty shoulder blades, he tore a scrap of paper from a sack of new red potatoes, an alternative offering. Nervously, he flattened the scrap on the table and scribbled, then passed it on to Cliffie, too.

"Go to her," he said, tapping the paper with his pen. "You can walk there, Cliffie—back behind the schoolhouse in the quarters. Go to her, first thing." He talked through his teeth and shuddered, holy, wan face alight with wonder at himself, and seemed to steel against an inner quaking from the Lord. "Oh, Lord, have mercy on us all!" He gazed up at the ceiling, where the old lanterns shed a heavenly white light on it all: the situation and possibilities, the weak human condition that spells itself in sin. "She'll take care of you."

All the time Cliffie had been standing there she'd been waiting for a solution and thought at first that he meant her to go to a doctor. But on the scrap of paper sack she read the name "Witch Seymour." Cliffie had heard of the Negro woman who'd earned the name "Witch" for her potions, which usually worked, but if they failed, she went in there. That's how the tobacco hands had put it, telling of Clorox dosing and douching, and as a last resort, a coat hanger.

Hot bile rising in her throat, Cliffie pinned the preacher with her eyes. She'd believed that surely, if he didn't fix things, he might offer some advice, as her Sunday-school book said. If not a miracle, anything but filching from the collection plate—an abomination—and offering the name of a butcher. She wadded the bills with the paper scrap and hurled it at his feet.

From the front stoop, she canvassed the open church grounds, where children spirited like untold demons in the dusk and grown-ups formed into puddle-like shadows, the smell of night coming thick and tart from the pine woods. She always hated that feeling of having been there before, of having looked out on the same scene a thousand and one Sundays, and to her absolute horror, this time she didn't. This time stood out. Time stopped.

Oh, God, she'd told Brother Leroy! Had she really expected him to make Roy Harris marry her, maybe ease the news to Pappy Ocain, who was so down on the daddy of her baby? She picked out Pappy Ocain and Maude, talking with another couple beneath the black gum tree by the pumphouse, then crept down the doorsteps. Forcing each step through on locked quivering knees, she kept her eyes on Pappy Ocain's battered green pickup. It was parked on the grass shoulder of the dirt lane that led from the woods road to the church. She didn't know how she'd make it that far, weak as she was, but the truck looked like home, a place to go inside and get it all back together again, but also like Pappy Ocain, tilted, wronged. His truck.

Yesterday, she'd discovered that she had outgrown them both. Following a two-day rain that burgeoned the creeks and ditches, she had gone out riding the dirt roads with Pappy Ocain, checking for fish, for places to set out his wire baskets. A long day in the tobacco-fumed truck, lost in her thoughts, with him eying her between stops in the dead flatwoods springing to life with reddening maples and greening gums.

He seemed to know, but what he knew was not what she knew, the real reason behind why she could no longer go out riding with him the way she used to. "What say we go on back to the house?" he'd said. "Big girl like you mought wanta be listening to the radio." Then he turned on the radio to crackling static and kept riding as if to show her he knew what he didn't know, what would change them forever when he did.

Night lights flickered on, beaming down from each corner of the church eaves, and glanced off the bug-frosted windshield of the truck, blinding the inside. Good—she could faint in private, if indeed she was about to faint. The ringing of locusts loaded the air, and her ears felt stopped up.

While tipping toward the truck, she listened hard to the burble of odd talk from groups about the yard to hear if anybody had noticed her. For balance, she focused on the grille of the truck, where a dead bird was bradded to the metal grid. Stiff, its wings molded to the surface, tiny round head backflung, resisting, beak and eyes rimmed a sour blue. The finest down under the black feathers trembled in the warm air. It smelled faintly of the first stages of rot, warm and milk-ripe, not yet foul but vulnerable.

Suddenly, she felt overcome with the need to cry, a warm fluid rush in her chest that gathered in her face. Poor bird! Poor baby! Poor Cliffie! She could look for that hypocrite preacher to march straight from the church and tell Pappy Ocain any minute now. She eased the truck door open and slid in and closed it with only a snib of the latch. A thin whine of mosquitoes wreathed her head, so she rolled up the window to keep more from collecting and to filter the siren of brats swooping from the dark cemetery behind the church to the lit sand of the front yard.

Cliffie hoped they'd play a long time; she hoped Pappy Ocain and Maude would talk a long time. Give her bleeding heart time to clot. Tears sprang to her eyeballs and just as quickly drained behind them. She had adopted that trick out of necessity; she had no privacy, and if anyone in her family should catch her crying, they wouldn't let up till they learned what was wrong. All of it.

Resting her head against the cool window glass, she watched Pappy Ocain shift feebly in the gutted shadows of the black gum. "Ain't the skeeters bad this evening?" he said and slapped his arm, hand raking down. His full-legged khakis made his frail legs look sturdy. But his white shins were sharp as a bar of whittled lye; Cliffie had seen them in summer when he sat on the porch with his pants legs rolled.

Would he kill Roy Harris? She tucked a foot beneath her and groaned. She didn't know. She had grown up disbelieving the rumor about Pappy Ocain's shooting off his own finger—his trigger finger—to keep from killing again after he got saved. It was something she lived with, the rumor, that he didn't know she knew. At times she did wonder about the rumor, having gone beyond that stage when she found the anomaly of that hand fascinating rather than freakish. She used to sit beside him on the porch and play with that stump of finger, a pinkish shirr of skin, that same finger she had held to when he would walk her up the lane from the house to Cornerville to show her off at the post office or the store.

And stretching her recall to before the loss of that finger, she could call up an image of that fiercer, slicker Ocain and his foxy retaliation on anybody who crossed him, and through Cliffie, him. He had stepped over that line from lost to saved, or so it seemed in her head, when she had turned six or seven, as evidenced by the sudden loss of that finger she'd gripped leaving the beauty contest at school. And she could still feel that finger wrapped in her small hand as they had left the darkened school grounds in the chirrup of frogs and the shrill of katydids, swirly shadows under the great live oaks. She in a cut-down silky purple dress of Maude's, with lipstick on her lips that made them feel sticky, and he in his best chinos with one pants leg stuffed in his black boot. A tiny girl with glossy blond curls and a hoop-skirted pink net dress had won the beauty contest because her daddy was on the board of education, and Pappy Ocain hated her. Or maybe her daddy. Cliffie wasn't sure, but she was sure that Pappy Ocain didn't hate her for losing.

His boots slapped hard on the dirt of the school grounds as he tugged her along, spitting and spouting about how' Cliffie was the prettiest, how by rights she should have won. Somebody had paid off the judges. That bunch at the courthouse. And at the school gate, he had turned toward town instead of home, and they were off to Cornerville, where lights burned dimly in the row of houses from the school to the courthouse, high, white, and leaning into the moonless night. And there she'd helped Pappy Ocain gather rocks and sticks to throw at the courthouse windows and listened to the chimes of shattering glass, him laughing and hooting like a mean man she'd dreamed in black and white.

He seemed so restrained now, as if something inside had been buried. Her mama, too: soft, silent, mechanical, spooning mashed green peas to the next-to-the-youngest's mouth. Nursing the baby—often alternating between babies—she'd nibble the tiny fingernails, her face furrowing, distant, content. Both she and Pappy Ocain close to sixty: farmed out, rutted out, numb, acquiescent.

Cliffie had never thought about going to her mama with her secret. Maude was the property of the baby, or babies, until they got old enough to wander off to school. That's when Pappy Ocain took over, quietly sitting aside on one end of the porch, chewing tobacco and spitting, cracking pointless remarks as the older children came and went, going about their own business, earning their own way when they tired of sweet potatoes, greens, and corn bread, side meat and grits.

"Y'all as welcome as the flowers in May to what we got, and thank the Lord above for it," he'd say. "With me ailing like I am . . ." Trailing off, he would gaze out over the broom-sage fields, as though he would if he could, and they never quite knew what he would do if he could, only that in the pushed-back past he had farmed and now did nothing. Worn-out foot propped on the porch post, he'd go on about how he'd walked many a mile behind a mule, breaking ground in the flatwoods that broke him.

He never mentioned the welfare checks that started in 1950, three years before, in support of his not working with a bad heart. Neither were the checks mentioned by the children, who brought them home from the post office in Cornerville, a half mile west of the house. Not that they feared mentioning the checks, they just understood his fierce, disjointed pride.

But Cliffie appreciated the unmentionable checks, because the churches would no longer feel compelled to take up love offerings for them every fifth Sunday. And although she still went to school at Swanoochee County High, eleventh grade, with those who attended the Cornerville Baptist Church, Pappy Ocain had moved their membership to the church in the flatwoods at Needmore, a shut-down sawmill town. Pappy Ocain believed in membership and moved theirs often.

It was from the church in the flatwoods that Cliffie first slipped off with Roy Harris Weeks. But she'd already got to know him from school, and knew of him before that. Like a slow heat building to a boil, Pappy Ocain had started warning Cliffie and her sisters to steer clear of Roy Harris Weeks, and as she and Mary Helen got bigger, filling out, he'd built up to daring them even to look that no-account's way. Why? Pappy Ocain never said, never had to say anything, just laid down the laws for them to go by. But it was no real mystery. Cliffie knew Roy Harris's bad side. (She was now seventeen and he was mysteriously older; she didn't know how much older, and his age seemed significant only in that it was a mystery.)

Attending school off and on, or as Roy Harris would say, "when the mood strikes me," he'd appeared to simply taper to more off-days than on during that last year. When he had gone, he was like a magnet dragged along the halls of the lofty old schoolhouse, attracting girls like roofing tacks. He was crusty and aloof, dashingly dastard.

Cliffie had known all along—and now could admit—that the girls Roy Harris attracted were not of the nice-girl class she aspired to. Also she had known—and now accepted as fact—that with or without her choice to associate with Roy Harris, she never would have fit in that class. She couldn't have made herself up enough, or altered the quality of her voice enough—though she tried—to meet their standards. Her face burned, recalling having tried to chum with Lanie Herndon, Cheryl Mosely, the others.

The very name "Cliffie," as with all the names in her family, revealed who she was and where she came from. She didn't even have a name until she was going on two. Her brother Scooter, who had named himself after a smart red scooter in the Sears catalog, had kept ragging her about her bangs sticking out like a cliff, and the name had stuck.

She thought about her four older brothers, who were seldom home, and how they'd steal from the house with their moon-pale hair slicked from long grave faces. They all looked down as they strolled up the lane, en route to somewhere that made up their lives. Oddly, they never went to church with Cliffie and the others, and she wondered if it was because there was not enough room in the truck, or because they didn't want to go, whether at some point the Flowers children became independent enough to simply refuse. Maybe Pappy Ocain's firm control over his children fizzled when they got to a certain size. Or maybe the boys did as they pleased because they were boys. (K.C., Cliffie's younger brother, still went to church, but wasn't under Pappy Ocain's rule like the girls.)

So many halfway marks in my world, Cliffie thought, thinking about the halfway mark of her age—neither woman nor child. And there certainly seemed to be a transitional midpoint between the boys and the girls in the family: ten divided by two. Five girls, all told, including the two babies, the older ones fairer and more passionate than the boys. Especially Cliffie. Her sisters had an innocuously coarse texture and not a trace of insight. They were quiet only when they sulked. Their mouths never closed; even at night they talked in their sleep, smacking overblown lips.

That irked Cliffie, who slightly resembled them, who possessed the best of their traits, the worst traits, she liked to think, almost refined out in her. She knew she must protect herself, must guard against those undesirable traits that could flourish and overtake her. All of them had a tendency toward stout hips and legs. So far, Cliffie's were nicely rounded. Too much fatback and dried limas and she'd be doomed.

She never allowed her long blonde hair the freedom to frizz. She learned to lightly tuck her lips. Her thick nose could be thinned by a process called "shadowing," which she'd read about in a fashion magazine in the school library. She'd also learned to shave her legs with Pappy Ocain's razor, which was stored in a filmy jelly glass on the back porch water shelf, from Seventeen magazine (they didn't tell how to conceal bloody, trickling nicks). She'd read the articles too, excavating more and more of those fascinating magazines, and learned that it was typical to be pouty. She fell in love with being typical, vowed she would always be. In love, too. You couldn't be a typical teen and not be in love. But the choice of boys was so slim in her little circle—church, the only place Pappy Ocain allowed them to go, except school, where the boys were dull and lacking, compared to Roy Harris. Any one of which Pappy Ocain would have picked instead.

She certainly couldn't go back to school in September in her shape. She would be in maternity clothes by then. She shuddered, picturing herself like Maude with the last baby, hard belly bound in a white elastic inset that showed beneath a flared smock, as she'd waddle along the halls, Cheryl Mosely and them giggling in a huddle.

Ever since she'd met Roy Harris, Cliffie had felt her ideals slipping away, passion taking over, her thoughts swapping sides. Even if she weren't pregnant, she probably would quit school, like her older brothers. State law permitted quitting at sixteen, but Cliffie had hung in there to keep from disappointing Pappy Ocain. But she'd thought a lot about quitting, during the last coast-along year, and how, symbolically, she would drift easterly to the flatwoods, like the cloud toward Canaan, where people with no more ambition than herself were scattered along dirt roads, throughout the pine woods, instead of trailing west to nearby Cornerville, where life was ordered. Still a little town, separating itself by the Alapaha River from the larger civilization of Georgia, Cornerville was ordered by institutions and calibrations, such as a school and a courthouse, a post office and a health department.

Cliffie twisted around on the truck seat, feet flat on the floor. She didn't really know what it would take to put her life on the right course, respectably married to Roy Harris Weeks and off with him to Fort Bragg. Though the word "respectable" didn't quite mesh with the role of Mrs. Roy Harris Weeks. Sometimes she wrote the name in the dirt at home, quickly erasing it so nobody would see. She would be amazed at how the love she'd felt for Roy Harris hadn't really lasted as long as she'd expected—forever. And how ironic that she was now in the throes of trying to piece together a lifetime with him. But she really didn't have all that many other choices: she could run away alone and without a dime, stay home and have the baby and end up like her mama, or go to Witch Seymour.

What she wished was she'd never gone all the way with Roy Harris. But she had, and now she had to go one step further. Single, she would be scandalized; married, she'd be saved. Even so, she really hated to disappoint Pappy Ocain, who'd always believed in her, had such high hopes. If only he'd get to know Roy Harris—well, maybe not. But she couldn't help feeling sorry for Roy Harris, stranded out there in the flatwoods with his foster mother and her afflicted children. Aunt Teat, as everybody called her, had taken Roy Harris in, according to him, because she needed the money to help out with her own three children. And sometimes he even helped tend them, but he was cynical, angry, determined to separate himself. Off to Fort Bragg.

Cliffie never blamed him for his distaste for Aunt Teat, who invited pity, even deserved it, had she not begged. Cliffie understood his attitude, being fifth in a family of ten children herself—deprived, responsible, handy. But in comparison to his family, her own dull-eyed brothers and sisters appeared healthy, her mama and daddy proud and presentable. Who could fault him for always threatening to hop the next freight train to switch tracks in Needmore? But she did fault him for trying to skip out on his own baby.

This morning, when she'd slipped from church to meet him at Aunt Teat's house in the woods, he'd put her off, scratched his head and said, "I don't know. I'm bound for Fort Bragg Monday week."

"But I . . ." Cliffie said aloud inside the truck, catching herself saying what she'd said that morning, what she'd been saying regularly for months, and cut it off. She bit her lip, hating Roy Harris, somewhere across the woods right now—with all her heart she hated him, right now, and wished Pappy Ocain and them would come on to the truck while she was good and mad.

Peering out the window at the buzzing huddle beneath the black gum, Cliffie recognized Mary Helen's thick, squarish silhouette, behind Pappy Ocain and Maude. And just when did she pop up there? And where was that blabbermouth while Cliffie was talking to Brother Leroy? The roots of her hair tightened.

She watched as Brother Leroy's wife, Sister Mary, appeared in the spill of light from the door of the Sunday-school wing, their two little boys hovering close. Herding them onward, she glided wraithlike behind, pausing to speak to one of the women beneath the black gum—their voices an attenuating song on the night—and on toward the parsonage, adjacent to the church.

Cliffie couldn't think of Sister Mary in any way but sick—the two boys too, predisposed to languishing. She'd stayed with them off and on all winter, free of charge, while they had flu, so Brother Leroy could get out and visit the sick and peddle his greens, eggs, and junk iron. Cliffie shuddered, recalling having spent a large part of her time last winter in that bleak place.

The parsonage, really nothing but a shanty, sat in the clearing of flatwoods, dense for miles around with pines and palmettos, scrub oaks and gums. Actually, the preacher's place was more mobile home than house, because the sprout of it was an Airstream travel trailer with silver rust retardant slapped over crazed metal. It had been built around and onto as labor and supplies permitted, as absolute necessity arose—somebody at the monthly business meeting might notice and bring it up, then later at church workings regret having opened his mouth.

Before the screened porch on the front had been leaned to, the children had slept in the little box bed with Brother Leroy and Sister Mary, wheezing and sneezing, allergic to even their own parents, it seemed, whose prayers throughout the long nights must have given off a warm and static incense like their sleep-softened bedding.

At first, Cliffie had begrudged going there to wait on Sister Mary and the boys while Brother Leroy was away. The raw winter wind whipped and wheeled in the clearing; the tall pines, surrounding, created a sound of rushing; the church itself desolate, godless, empty.

Standing on the porch, ducking low to keep from bumping her head on the plywood ceiling, she would look out over the patch of pewter-green collards at the church and shiver. For all the fervency at services, the amens and vigorous singing, God seemed absent. That's what Cliffie often thought, especially in winter, especially after having been stuck in the flatwoods clearing with the mute, sickly preacher's brood. Before Roy Harris.

Then she would clean the tiny brittle stove, whisk the broom across the peeling tiles, sending their righteous dust flying, and put the pure children down for naps on the jalousied porch. And she would head for the woods behind the church—one more time, always one more time—meeting Roy Harris halfway between Aunt Teat's shack and the church.

Their meetings had never been romantic, so Cliffie would have to invent stuff to keep going. She'd read just enough of her sister Mary Helen's True Confessions—every issue saved in a stack under their bed—to make a comparison. Roy Harris was rough and demanding, Cliffie withholding as long as she dared to keep him interested, though not too long for fear he might give up and go. back to his old girlfriend, Emmacee Mae, whom Cliffie had never discovered the equal of in those stories. Cliffie had found long ago that she had to block Emmacee from her mind or forget Roy Harris altogether. She couldn't stand to compare or connect him with batty Emmacee. Though everyone joked and called her silly, Cliffie knew she was crazy. During church services, she would fan fast, her white face a blur behind the fan, talking and mocking the amen-ing men. She was definitely abnormal, almost albino, and it pained Cliffie no end to have to equate herself with Emmacee, the scourge of the church. She'd never even been to school. For Cliffie, that alone testified to the fact that Emmacee was crazy instead of carefree, as Roy Harris claimed. Fun-loving, willing to try stuff.

"Like this," he had said on that first cold day, locking his arms around Cliffie's neck and thrusting his tarry tongue down her throat.

She felt the first tingling of pleasure, then waves of disgust, sitting, jarred by the whole new experience, on a mat of pine straw. Looking off through the thicket of pines that sheltered them from the wind, insulated by their soughing, she was tempted to wipe his tobaccoey kiss from her lips, already chapped. Then Pappy Ocain's dare popped to mind. She took it.

Her heart quickened, raced, and stilled itself by that sheer daring she never knew was inside, the same daring that helped her make it through the ultimate act, which he defined by a dirty word and she termed love: daring herself to complete surrender, love, rearranging what was actually happening until it fit snugly into the print of Mary Helen's True Confessions. It took a while.

"Well," he said, arms propped on his knees, and looked off as he chewed on a pine straw, "we ain't getting nowheres." He sighed, got up, and brushed the seat of his butt-tight dungarees.

"Roy Harris," Cliffie said, rising to her knees, "come back and set down."

He plopped beside her, staring stubbornly between his knees. A gust of wind above showered them with pine needles. A single russet straw stuck up in his black hair. She plucked the straw, hand passing along his back. "I just wanted us to get close first," she said, concentrating on the long strained muscles beneath his shirt.

"Well, sug, I just ain't the type to be messing around with no tease." He came out of his pout, brown eyes cutting to her quick.

"I'm not . . ."

"What the hell you call it then?"

Her heart raced; she stilled it, though his ultimatum echoed on the wind in the treetops. "I'm just too . . ." she began.

"Too good for me, Aunt Teat's foster baby!" He stood and kicked a drift of pine straw.

It covered her foot and she looked down, thinking he was hardly a baby and could leave when he liked, but said only, "No, no," so meekly she hardly recognized her own voice. She hugged his knees, felt him give, kneel, and crumple on top of her.

Fumbling with her skirt—her legs laid open and shivering—he bunched it at her waist and poked at that secret place she'd always thought of as her own until her wedding night, a spot saved, like some valuable, though not-so-rare trinket, for someone she'd love who was ordained by God before she was born, now plundered and spoiled.

As he rammed into her, leering and grunting foul words, his eyes rolled up powerlessly, and she thought of her own power over him and was glad to have sacrificed her virginity for that power. Now, he would never leave her. They were sealed, call it whatever. She gazed up at the sun-sparked pines and stayed with their soughing through the pain, excruciating, electrifying, done.

But it wasn't done.

She still had to traipse back through the cold, singing woods, with her dress matted to her thighs, and face the preacher and then Pappy Ocain.

That was the worst of it.

She had done something she shouldn't have—something nasty (she found she had to keep redefining things as she went) and yet important, because it separated her from them all, especially her sisters in their old-fashioned clothes. And though Cliffie seldom got anything new either, at least she knew how to wear clothes—little things that made a difference, such as pushing up the sleeves of her sweaters. None of them got new clothes, except Mary Helen, who would claw and cheat for a cheap dress from the Smart and Thrifty in Valdosta (Cliffie could glory in the fact that Maude hadn't given in to Mary Helen and ordered her those black ballerina shoes from Sears yet).

Because of their religion, Pappy Ocain wouldn't let them wear dungarees like the other girls at school. Cliffie noticed that he was good at taking a scripture, any scripture, and rearranging the meaning to okay their lack of money and not fitting in at school.

But it was there for the reading, and she'd read it, and besides none of them would dare quibble over possibly another meaning—except Mary Helen.

Coming out of the woods, Cliffie felt different, defiant, picking pine straw and leaves from the sleeves of her white sweater as she slipped into the clearing of the church grounds. Hidden behind a tree, she fluffed her skirt, heart rapping as it did when she used to squat outside Pappy Ocain's bedroom during one of his heart-fluttering spells.

The sun was bright against the white sand churchyard, where she half expected to see Pappy Ocain waiting for her, fuming with his folded belt. But only Brother Leroy was there, propped on his car in front of the parsonage, hand shielding his eyes in a salute. Wind howling around the church flapped his gray pants legs.

"Cliffie," he said in an edgy voice, "I didn't know where you got off to."

She hugged herself, shivering. "I just went out walking," she said, thinking that trying to fool him was a little like trying to fool God and wondered if Sister Mary was up, sick, cold, and pacing the stuffy house, silent except for the wind buffeting a loose board on one end of the porch.

"Well, I better be getting you on home before Brother Ocain gets to wondering." He laughed.

She knew he suspected something. Her face blazed as she got into the car that smelled of burnt oil and turnips, vinyl seat cold on her thighs. She thought of several things she ought to say, as he drove along the sun-streaked dirt road, out of the woods. None of them fit.

From the lane, the house looked empty, but black smoke spiraling from the chimney to the cold tin sky was a sign that they were all gathered in Pappy Ocain's room. Cliffie knew she should go straight to her own room, but then she'd probably be under the scrutiny of Mary Helen's curious eyes. Cliffie could usually count on her to be scrunched under quilts in the bed they shared, listening to the radio.

"I shore 'prechate it, Cliffie," said Brother Leroy, "you staying with Mary and the boys." Eyes straight ahead, he parked facing the house. (He always had to pump the brakes and pray that he stopped short of the porch.)

Two of the liver-and-black pied dogs jumped up on the sides of the car, and their claws raking down metal matched the effect of his words on Cliffie's nerves. She opened the rusted door, said good-bye, and got out.

While he backed the car, weaving among the dogs, she stooped to straighten one of her socks. A rubber band, used to support the worn sock elastic, had snapped and now curled between the folds like a fishing worm. She felt sure that the sagging sock would announce her romp in the pine straw with Roy Harris. Tugging the sock on her prickly calf, she stalled, gazing off at the woods, somber with dusk, at the fields of hazel broom sage, barely rippling and losing light, and the gray dirt yard, a desolate patch, where the dusk seemed to make up from. In winter, the dirt looked like concrete, bumpy gray and clean.

The dogs, bounding back from their chase up the lane, came nosing up to Cliffie, wet tongues lapping at her legs and arms, one jumping up to lick her face. She wiped her cheek on her sweater sleeve and cracked the dog on its cleft skull. It yelped and skulked off to join the others under the edge of the porch, where they all lay eying her from their bed of powdery dirt. Dirt never stirred by rain or wind, but by Kool-Aid bottles, tin cans, and loose sills, brickbats tossed at snakes flowing across the tiny funnel pits of ladybugs, or rats scurrying for the dim recesses, nibbling crumbs that sifted through the cracks. Sometimes a child squatted there in the magic of gray shifting shadows.

Cliffie considered going out back, to the outhouse, but was too tempted by the smoke pluming from the chimney. In the outhouse, she could find privacy, maybe clean herself up; in the house she could get warm. Choices.

Wrapping her arms around herself, she marched up the doorsteps, across the porch, and down the hall, and halted at the door, the last baffle between her and them. She opened it to a blast of racket and heat and milling children.

"I didn't hear you come up." Maude spoke from her chair before the fireplace full of sucking fire.

Pee-Jean scooted across one of the two beds set on each side of the tall room, and dragged a quilt to the floor. Quacker, wedged into the rocker with Maude, coughed like a puppy barking while Maude patiently hulled pecans into the lap of her apron. Each clean brown nutmeat was dropped into a fruit jar held between her knees.

In the next rocker, Aunt Teat sat slumped with her elbows on the chair arms. She pressed two pecans together, cracked them, and picked the hulls from the connected nut halves. The fire lit shiny patches on her ancient compressed face.

Cliffie knew that Roy Harris must have been left in charge of Aunt Teat's children or she wouldn't have come. She seldom left them, except for hog killings or pecan shellings, and of course for her weekly begging rounds. Then Tinion Culpepper would drive her in from the flatwoods, being, as Maude said, her closest neighbor with a way to go and good-hearted as they get. Poor old Teat, cooped up in the house all day long with a drove of crippled younguns and that boy too sorry to hit a lick at a snake. But sometimes, Maude would say, it don't look like I can hardly put up with her another minute, poor old Teat.

Aunt Teat mumbled and peered down into her working hands, oversized and rough, as tragic as her wrinkled crone's face.

"What was that, Teat?" Maude spoke up, her flat, freckled face jutting from the bog of Quacker, coughing on one side, and Pee-Jean, rocking on the chair arm. "You got to speak up, Teat, if you want something." Maude settled between the children, the jar of hulled pecans tumbling to the floor. "You younguns would try a saint."

Aunt Teat mumbled again.

Maude ignored her.

Cliffie was surprised to see Mary Helen perched on the scabby concrete hearth, smashing pecans with a hammer, a spreading mish-mash of brown. She glared at Cliffie, bits of chewed pecans stuck to her puffy lips. Her gray eyes roved over Cliffie as she eased closer to the hearth. "You done babysitting?" Mary Helen asked, smashing another rolling pecan.

"Yes," Cliffie said, ignoring her in hopes that she would do likewise: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

"Don't smash 'em, Mary Helen," Maude said, barely hearable in the racket picking up in the room. The smeary mullioned windows clattered as one of the children crashed to the floor where another had shoved him.

"Y'all cut it out!" Maude said, glancing back, then at Cliffie. "Where's Brother Leroy at?"

"He had to get on home."

"Sister Mary better?" Maude stood and dumped an apronful of hulls on the fire. It blazed and snapped.

"Yes 'um." Cliffie stepped away, then backed as the fire leveled and crackled.

"Them old allergies." Aunt Teat scattered a nest of hulls in her lap, then spat into the fire, between Cliffie and Mary Helen. The rattail streak of snuff on the logs seared and the dry smell spread over the room.

"I ain't never seen you so hush-mouthed," Mary Helen said, sucking on a pecan. She cracked it between her big teeth.

"Sister, bust 'em with the hammer," Maude begged. A dingy pillow flew through the air from the other end of the room and landed at Cliffie's feet. "Y'all quit that now!"

"Them younguns is gone set the house afire," Aunt Teat said, eyes rolling up in her feverish face. "Gone get the upper hand if you don't mind out."

"You younguns find something else to do sides chunk stuff." Maude wrenched around, careful not to dismount Pee-Jean, rocking on the chair arm. Then mumbled, "I might not know much, but I do know my own younguns."

The door flew open and she got up to shut it, wedging into the chair again as she saw that it was only Pappy Ocain coming in. He stopped before the two women with his back to the fire while they studied their laps.

Cliffie could smell cold on him, could feel it in his heavy green coat, as he slid an arm around her. She shivered.

"You ain't cold are you, sugar?" he teased. He took his handkerchief from his hip pocket and blew his nose, a tearing sound.

K.C., Cliffie's younger brother, raised the window over the scaffold, took two sticks of wood and slapped them on the fire. Sparks shot to the backs of Cliffie's legs. She stood still, though her legs burned. The smell of stale coffee grounds rose from the burning oak. She wiped her nose on her sweater sleeve and thought about what she had done and half wished she was little again and standing on the sweeps of Maude's rocker, behind her, while Maude sang "I'll Fly Away" in that needling whang with her head tilting back to touch Cliffie's chin with her soft ginger hair. But deep down Cliffie was glad she had done what she'd done with Roy Harris. Now she had something that none of them could touch and mess up. A secret. She had a secret that didn't pertain to them, like Pappy Ocain's secret of his missing finger. Pearls not to be cast before swine.

But recalling Roy Harris bent over her, that afternoon, fumbling with her panties, she suddenly felt a hot streak of embarrassment: He'd actually looked. An awful leer sharpening his already sharp features. She had always imagined, when in love, that a couple would kiss and meld without emphasis on the act. Smooth and blending, naturally. It had not been so. He'd not even kissed her while he did it.

Aunt Teat mumbled something.

Pappy Ocain bellowed, godlike, "What you say, Teat?"

"I say they's a sight of meanness out there," she spoke up. "If I was y'all, I'd keep a eye on my girl younguns."

Cliffie saw white.

Aunt Teat stared into the fire, hands going still in her lap.

Pappy Ocain cleared his throat.

"I look out for mine," Maude said. "It's somebody else's needs looking out for." She cracked another pecan, speaking low around the hard thwack. "World ain't no worser now than it's ever been."

Cliffie's face felt as hot as her calves, and she knew it was red. Were they talking in riddles about her and Roy Harris? Regardless, she knew that whatever they had in mind applied only to the oldest girls, herself and, she hoped, Mary Helen, who sat still at Cliffie's feet. The first time she'd ever hoped to be classed with her sister. Close company in tight places.

STILL WAITING IN the truck, Cliffie looked up and saw the circle beneath the black gum break—they're coming—then mend—no they're not. Mary Helen strayed from the tree, hands pocketed in her flared skirt. She gazed off dreamily at the moonlit mist over the woods, then wobbled playfully on the sides of her shoes toward the truck. She stopped halfway and began spinning, skirt twirling and arms out, watching her pinwheel shadow on the ground, while watching Pappy Ocain, who could mistake her play for dancing.

The light in the Sunday-school wing went out. The lights beneath the eaves were extinguished, and moonlight whitewashed the dirt among stamped eyelets of shadows.

Brother Leroy strolled through the side door and kept to the path between the pumphouse and the black gum. As he neared the huddle under the tree, Pappy Ocain called him over. He hung back, laughed, then drew futilely into the shadow. His frail, hunched shoulders rendered a soft drumming sound from Pappy Ocain's patting hand.

Maude lingered dully on the fringe of talk, shifted the baby on her shoulder, and cocked a knee for the biggest baby to clutch. The other children, reining in from the cemetery to the moonlit yard, surrounded her, then pranced about in the lacework of shadows. Rising and falling, their voices were hoarse and worn, fitting for the night.

Cliffie, hearing her name—hearing it clearly in Pappy Ocain's slow rolling drawl—perked and slid under the steering wheel, holding her breath. A mosquito pierced the mound of flesh on her right forearm. It made her want to grind her teeth. She didn't and she didn't stop the mosquito. Her face grew numb and flushed. She couldn't make out every word Pappy Ocain was saying, but knew the gist of it—his bragging on her. That feeling she hated of having been there before and having heard and seen it all a thousand and one Sundays rushed to her head. Don't do it, Pappy Ocain, she thought, don't do it.

"Cliffie's my favorite—I'll tell the world that," he said. "The rest of 'em ain't fit to kill . . . though Lord knows I love'em. Cliffie'll make something out of herself, in spite of my hard luck. All things work together for the good . . .

"I'm a good mind to take out that insurance the policy man told me about, so she can go to college in Valdosta soon as she gets out of school. Ain't but two dollars a month."

"Two dollars," Maude said—always said—"that'll go a long ways toward putting shoes on the littluns' feet come winter. She'll make a way if she's a mind to go." Maude smiled that broken-toothed smile. "Can't do for the one without doing for the others." At times, Maude seemed to rule everybody.

"Yessir," Pappy Ocain droned on, "that Cliffie's gone make something out of herself."

Though inert with listening, Cliffie couldn't hear the rest, but she knew what he was saying—what he always said—and she felt a white-hot implosion in her head.

Brother Leroy nodded, trying to go. Cliffie no longer worried about his telling; now she worried about his listening. Don't brag on me, Pappy Ocain, she felt like screaming, felt she actually was screaming through her closed mouth. Don't brag on me. Not to him, not now. She palmed the truck horn, a baleful, ongoing shriek shattering the stillness.

"Y'all come on now," called Mary Helen, coming numbly out of her pinwheel of shadows. "Cliffie's having a hissy fit to get home."

Chapter 2JARRED FROM A tunneling sleep, Cliffie spotted Pappy Ocain at her bedroom door.


"Who messed you up, gal?" he said, nothing about him in motion: not his left hand propped on the door jamb, not his feet planted wide apart. His mouth was the mouth of a ventriloquist.

Cliffie blinked against the light, stuttering when she spoke. "What—I don't know wh-what—" She wanted to ask who—who told? When and where? But the words fell apart as fuzz from the whole fabric of her undoing and were after all of little consequence. Pappy Ocain knew.

"You 'bout as well come clean," he said. "Were it Roy Harris Weeks, gal?"

She stalled, hooked on his dead-earnest face, that inevitable question. He would have an answer now. "Go do your talking to Brother Leroy Crosby," she blurted, opting to let the preacher tell, anything to loosen the grip of those yellow-spoked eyes. His changing look, from dead-earnest to deadly, warned that Roy Harris had had it.

"Load up on the truck and let's go," he said in a burned-out voice she'd never heard.

She stayed there stiff on the bed; if anyone had yanked the pillow from beneath her head, it would have remained sprung. But she never considered not doing what he said, gripped as she was by those activated eyes. The rumor about his missing trigger finger struck on her mind like a match.

"Load up on the truck and let's go," he said again—a replay in the thick-with-quiet room. Face stone gray, warning ringing on that still, foggy Saturday. House quiet for once.

Where had everybody gone? Since last Sunday night, following her confession to the preacher, Cliffie hadn't had a moment's peace, no time to mull things over. And now her sisters, everybody, had vanished. She could picture them like mice, eyes peeping through chinks in the old walls, where maybe they'd scattered at the first stamp of Pappy Ocain's foot. How had she slept through it all? What was it? How did he find out? Was this a nightmare? The calm, after a week of so much racket, felt like a nightmare. All moments of eventlessness seemed to have mounted up to now, an eventful horror. Her teeth felt sharp, her mind dull, the fog a cushion against energetic tactics.

When she got dressed and out to the truck, backed to the porch and pointed straight into the lane, he was sitting inside with the engine idling, smoke from the tail pipe raveling into the fog that softened the fields and obliterated the woods, the pine tops stamped on the sky, colorless as his face. She hated herself, this place.

He didn't look at her and he didn't speed away—she didn't know what she'd expected. He eased out of the gray dirt yard, shifting gears only once before he got to the barely-hanging gate, the bottom hinge loose and dangling so that you had to pick it up and walk it back. She didn't know why they even had a gate.

He got out and flipped the wooden slat, walking it over rank hills of grass. Through the fog the hinges screaked and carried to the truck where Cliffie waited, teeth tight against the racket. She looked back at the house, then ahead at the highway, suddenly wondering after so many years why the gate had been set midway the lane. Wondering: it was something to do while the hinges screaked, while Pappy Ocain cursed and kicked, while hating Mary Helen for telling.

It had to have been Mary Helen. Who else? And just as well her as anybody. Pappy Ocain would have found out sooner or later, and Cliffie couldn't love her sister less. Though they slept together, in winter snuggling for warmth, jointly breathing beneath the covers, they hated each other. But the least Mary Helen could have done was give Cliffie warning so she could prepare herself. She handled things better if she had time to rehearse what to say. Otherwise she stuttered.

Pappy Ocain used to try to make her feel better by saying that the stutters, like hiccups, were a sign of growing. Then later one of her teachers at school said stuttering resulted from a too-large family interrupting what the child was trying to tell. Well, all of them interrupted, interrupted each other, as Mary Helen for so long had interrupted her life. And who else stuttered but Cliffie?

Maude said she made up for it in being "right attractive." That's what she always said instead of pretty because pretty meant vanity and vanity was useless—she didn't call it a sin. And Pappy Ocain would butt in and say Cliffie was pretty as a picture, modifying the remark to keep on Maude's good side—not to dispute Maude but to make his point: "The spitting image of you, Maude gal, before you wore out a-having babies and got that tooth broke off."

Maude would cut her eyes at Pappy Ocain and laugh timidly and coop her top lip over the tooth, one rough hand flying to her mouth. The light in her eyes would extinguish; she looked like she was crying. She would look so powerless then that Cliffie would cringe. And yet somehow Maude had gained ground on Pappy Ocain with that piece of a tooth. Some strange sort of power that left him weak and stranded, and Cliffie would feel weak with him, the broken tooth evidence against him, like the evidence of her small mound of belly, the bad they could do.

Until this morning, she hadn't been able to imagine him mean beyond breaking out a few windows of the courthouse, had only suspected it. But if he was guilty, how could he bring up the tooth, drawing all the children's attention to Maude, who was generally regarded as no more than a sow? Cliffie never joined in because she sensed that the tooth topic was loaded with insinuation, shrouded in mystery, as were so many things about Pappy Ocain: relationships with his children, his kin, his friends. And more: the mystery of Pappy Ocain's past seemed covered, clean sand scattered over his sulfurous ghost.

She examined his gray strained face while he stamped back to the truck. Then she looked down at the notched stock of the shotgun between them, which jittered with the jittering truck. The door slammed. The gun jerked. She knew what the notches represented, heard Pappy Ocain's eager, rapid breath.

My God! He means to kill Roy Harris. She sat up straight and stared out the window at dewy spider webs tatted from palmettos to pines along the highway. Her lips tingled, her head spun: this was no dream, not even a nightmare. She sat dazed, no closer to knowing, really knowing anything—why she stuttered, whether Pappy Ocain was indeed capable of killing, or what he might do about the baby—no farther away from knowing.

"YOU HAD THINGS to do with my girl," Pappy Ocain announced, truck bumper-to-block with the Airstream's doorstep.

Brother Leroy halted at the screen door, then stumbled out the single crumbling step in his white socks, around the two frail children, who appeared to understand intuitively: sensitive, alert to trouble, having been nurtured by the flatwoods and a suspicious congregation. Gently, he nudged the boys back behind the patched screen, like squirrels in a cage. "Why, Brother Ocain, what . . . ?" His apologetic voice cracked. "That Cliffie with you?" He seemed actively pondering how to smooth things over, aware somehow of what things were, yet innocent, his fair hair, absurdly bright, pressed in a cowlick on his febrile forehead.

"Don't you come out here making up to me, boy!" Pappy Ocain said absolutely, prodding Brother Leroy's cocked arm with the barrel of the shotgun.

"What's wrong, honey?" called Sister Mary, gray-meshed and futile behind the screen door. Instantly, she was attuned to what had come round, one more trial and tribulation: that which she'd married him for, not wishing for but taking like a dose of castor oil, a sacrifice to the Lord for her inherent futility.

"Ain't nothing, hon," he said, not looking back, watching Pappy Ocain and Cliffie, the point between, windshield full of mirrored sky and trees. "Y'all want to let's go over yonder to the church house so we can set down and—"

"I ain't got nothing to say I can't say right here in front of God and everybody." Pappy Ocain's jaw locked and he branded the preacher with those yellow-spoked eyes. He spat.

"Pappy . . ." Cliffie started—she couldn't believe the turn things had taken—and leaned across the seat with an outstretched hand. "Look out for your bad heart." Habit speaking. She didn't know what badheart meant, could hear her mama's voice in saying it. He ignored her.

"Pappy Ocain?" On her knees now, she crawled across the seat to the open window. "You hear me, Pappy Ocain?" The truck door swung wide, carrying her along, and hit his back.

He never flinched; she stayed there at his ear. "Put the gun down, Pappy Ocain."

"See them woods yonder, brother?" he shouted, shattering the even morning stillness of the woods, the strained-for- placative tones bonding them all, a circle of silence suppressing his hard-put threats.

In obeisance, Brother Leroy stared off at the woods, where a promontory flat of cleared timber extended: totem poles of leafless cypresses projecting from a plane of crisscrossed pines, the flat, barren, and bleached, beckoning. Foreboding.

"You best be seeing can't you make it that far before I have to shoot you down here in front of your old lady and the babies—beg your pardon, Sister Mary." Pappy Ocain used the same tone, strung taut and emphatic.

Brother Leroy blanched, arms limp alongside, tempted to look behind where his mute wife clung to the door, bright in the open and squinting, disbelieving but accepting. Children wrapped in the folds of her skirt.

Cliffie felt her body stretch from seat to outswung door, experienced a blessed brief blurring, then gazed ahead to clearly see Brother Leroy stumble in his white socks across the hacked stubble of palmettos. His socks provided a focal point until she glanced at the raised shotgun, the stump of Pappy Ocain's trigger finger, a tremoring substitute atrophied by fungus. He lowered the gun, cursed—so unlike him—shoved her into the truck, and hopped in.

Slamming the shotgun between them, he started the truck, impatient with its familiar lag and sputter, and cursed again, "Sonofabitch!" The engine caught. He rammed the gear shift against the shotgun, forcing it hard against Cliffie's knee, his eyes riveted on Brother Leroy till he vanished into the woods beyond the cleared plot of trees. "Hot damn!" he said, and Cliffie thought how that was all right in his book because he hadn't used the name of the Lord God in vain.

Losing sight of Brother Leroy, she felt temporarily relieved. Too temporary. Her chest was quivering, eyes hot. Words popped to her mouth, but she was struck dumb. Had Pappy Ocain really taken what she'd said about talking to Brother Leroy to mean he was the daddy of her baby? It rang in her head, made no sense.

The minute she focused on something—a pine, a scrub oak along a fenceline—it spun away as Pappy Ocain jerked the truck from point to point, maneuvering between stumps, ramming one, charred black, backing up, then off again. "Hot amighty damn!" He added words as his verve stretched.

Watching his excited face, his rejuvenated body, Cliffie thought with a jolt that he couldn't really believe Brother Leroy was the daddy, he was just out to get the first man he came to who could be. Not her fault. Besides, he seemed to have forgotten the object of the chase. It was a hunt, a sport, the who and why nothing now.

Hanging on, she felt hypnotized, their objective lapsing in her mind also, and peered into his stretched, wild eyes, his too-big teeth clamped like the teeth of a steel trap. Why, he was even wearing his false teeth, usually saved for church! Now she knew him, really knew him, as he was before he got saved—his mysterious, before-salvation youth. Such grace in knowing and yet such pain. She felt responsible for his fall from grace. Could you fall from grace

"Pappy Ocain?" She spoke softly, checking his strutted profile. His hands locked on the steering wheel, turning with it. Those aged, lusterless eyes, irises rimmed an impure milky blue, flicked from tree to tree along the start of woods. Aware that he couldn't hear her, or wouldn't, Cliffie sat back and searched for Brother Leroy, clutching the open window to keep from knocking about.

Soon she spied his white socks picking up and putting down along a hedgerow of myrtle bushes and scrub oaks. She knew Pappy Ocain had spotted him, too, because he cut sharp and headed that way, the truck bucking over bleached broom sage and saplings. Her teeth rattled. She thought of what he was about to do, that maybe she could stop him, but if she did, Roy Harris would be the one running. Just as well to let Brother Leroy play decoy—God forgive her—let Pappy Ocain vent his heat. He wouldn't really hurt the preacher he loved like a brother. Besides, this just might work to stall him till Monday—two more days—when she'd be on that bus to Fort Bragg.

The truck stopped before a stand of cypresses, guarding the clearing, and beyond the opening, more woods—tytys, gallberries, and palmettos nestling pines. A hoop-skirted cypress ahead cast a shadow over Cliffie's side of the truck, warming sun all around.

Breathing harder, he snatched up the shotgun with his right hand, while opening the door with his left, slid out, and closed it without a lapse in motion. The way he closed the door, a whisper and click, reminded Cliffie of how he used to sneak out to hunt deer, Indian-style, leaving her in the truck. He would always come back with a big buck.

She watched him tip off through the brake and disappear into the brushy woods. Listening to the ticking of the engine, the absence of his breathing, the presence of her own, she scooted to the center of the seat to see better.

Above the clearing, the sun was dull, moonlike, behind the fog. She stared straight into it, awed that she could, and thought about the time. Judging from the angle of the sun, it was nearer noon than early morning.

"God, don't let him kill Brother Leroy," she said out loud, the hard punch of words fading into the truck's ticking, her sniffling. She could taste the salt of tears, smell her own desperation, something hot.

Two squirrels spiraled up the cypress ahead, their claws pck, pck, pck on the stringy bark, and the sound spread to the blueing sky, the spot where she watched above the barren flat. Sun rayed through the pines in a diffusion of fog, streaks of light like drifting moon haze. Expecting an explosion, she watched the sun, an irrepressible pressure building in her chest, her ears. Her lips murmured words that made no more sense than speaking in unknown tongues, a grievous outpouring from the heart.

Out of the soundless woods, a crow cawed, flying at a slant over the flat, where barkless pines lay crisscrossed like dried bones. The bird rose to the sun, blue-black wings spread and gliding, and lifted its voice in a raucous cry. At the height of its cawing, the shotgun blasted over the woods, then leveled off to ringing. Cliffie sank. Her heart thudded inside the truck, fog spraying all around, as from the blast, a phenomenon, a veritable end to things. To time. She lowered her head in the melt of sun and shame.

Then she heard both men mumbling over the woods and was reminded that Pappy Ocain's trigger finger was missing. Maybe he had aimed high—though the crow still flew—or maybe Brother Leroy was turning him back on Roy Harris. She should dash from the truck now, find Roy Harris and warn him. But she didn't move; she listened till the voices died and waited for Pappy Ocain to come striding through the clearing. Crossing foot over foot toward the truck, his face was the same stone gray and inscrutable. She expected him to come around to her side and drag her out, maybe whip her.

He got in, turned the key; the starter ground, stalled; he beat the gas pedal with his worn-out foot and the engine fired. Then he backed up, checking over his left shoulder, and drove on through the woods.

Oh, God, she thought, now it's Roy Harris's turn. Squeezing the door handle, she waited till they passed the turnoff to Aunt Teat's, then let go. What did they say to each other out there? What now? She started to itch. She wouldn't scratch and she wouldn't look at him for the rest of the ride home. Was she destined never to know things, destined never to witness endings, only beginnings?

BESIDE HERSELF, Cliffie kept thinking those words and how she must be. She had heard that old-timey saying so many times.

Either Pappy Ocain or Maude had said that about her last Sunday night when she got mad because Pappy Ocain was bragging on her to Brother Leroy. She's just beside herself from setting out here so long. Cliffie never knew precisely what it meant, and hearing it always irritated her. Now she thought she knew.

Sitting at the kitchen table, Saturday midnight, she felt as if she sat beside herself, handholding friends and fighting-mad enemies. One bad, one good. The good one, the hot one, on the left, still couldn't believe the turn things had taken. She hated herself because of Brother Leroy, Pappy Ocain, the whole mess, and felt like rising from the table and slamming open a window, but if she woke Pappy Ocain . . . Sweat scalded her neck, where strands of hair clung, and trickled to the small of her back, wicking into her white nightgown. The clingy rayon made her itch and she yearned to strip the gown away, but left it to cling in penance for her sin.

"Our Father, who art in Heaven . . ." she whispered, incapable in her misery of conjuring a prayer from the heart. She stopped, midprayer, got up, and raised the window, letting the breeze ride into the room. Glancing out at the starry sky, she unglued the gown and crept to the table again. Prayer dead on her lips. It was too late. She could taste the lie about Brother Leroy—a dirty coating on her tongue. Yes, I lied, she thought, giving herself no quarter as she recalled how she'd told Pappy Ocain to go talk to Brother Leroy—all in the tone. A lie by neglect of truth, a necessary lie to protect Roy Harris. But it was only a three-day he, not that long. The truth would come out when she was gone.

A sickening effluvium of fried mullet from supper permeated the unpainted walls of the kitchen. The floor sloped to the kerosene stove, reeking of grease and spattered with eggs and cornmeal, grits in shiny patches for roaches to feed on—Maude's scouring bouts had kept merging with mealtimes, till she'd given it up. The rust-streaked refrigerator was buckled in on one side from impact with the back door, in constant swing, but like Maude, it never ceased humming, sweating, enduring the pilfering of grubby hands.

The kitchen where they all stayed most of the time, fighting or eating, where Pappy Ocain would get strung out after supper on yarns of olden days. Not really that interesting and mostly repeats; for example, he'd told over and over how Maude, his "Alabama Gal," had traveled with her daddy's sawmill from Alabama to Georgia, how she'd met Ocain and stayed when her daddy moved on. (When Pappy Ocain mentioned Maude's having come from someplace else, his thinning skin would glow, as if he were bragging on his wife's accomplishments, what set her apart from the other women in Cornerville.) And while the other children would yawn and fidget under the stark overhead light that made the windows bite black, Cliffie would eye her mama, and Maude would smile that broken-toothed smile—thanks for listening. A sleeping baby would be draped, belly down, across her lap, and in the dwindling of Pappy Ocain's drone, Cliffie would drift off to that slow time after supper when she, too, had slept on Maude's lap.

When had it stopped? When had Cliffie quit being, not the center of Maude's attention, but an aside? As with Pappy Ocain's change, his crossover from lost to saved, Maude's change, her passing from warm to cold, where Cliffie was concerned, could be gauged by a specific event wrought from Cliffie's piddling experience.

Just eight, and already in charge of Maude's new baby, Cliffie had carried her new sister to her mama's bed to change her diaper, and while the infant squirmed with her lardy legs poking through the holes Cliffie'd just fashioned, she had taken Pappy Ocain's can of Prince Albert from the table between his bed and Maude's, taken a cigarette paper and shaken some tobacco into the tissue cuff, rolled it and lit the tip with a match. Scooping up the baby, Cliffie had turned, facing Maude, whose mouth was agape. Cliffie could feel the cigarette bobble between her lips, could taste a grain of tobacco bitter on her tongue, then Maude's hand on her right cheek, the aftersting more radiant than the smack.

Had Maude deduced that if Cliffie could smoke she was grown and on her own, that she no longer needed mamaing? She took a deep breath of air drifting through the window on a murmur of crickets. Dwelling on such couldn't be good for the baby. She surrounded it with her hands as she would a ball, awed and repulsed by the hard mound: it. At first, she couldn't get used to sleeping on her back, but sleeping on her stomach made her too aware of the baby hardening, changing, becoming noticeable. Now she slept on her back and thought about it, feeling the covers weigh heavier there. Alone with the baby, she could almost hear it sigh, as she sighed, hearing throughout the house sounds of them all sleeping, half rousing during the night: somebody mumbling in his sleep or up searching for the slop jar, then snoring around the settling of the house.

She'd always thought of herself as special and separate from them, except for Pappy Ocain, whom she loved so much she couldn't bring herself to dislike him. And the baby was special, too, really too fine for Mary Helen to even know about. Now that she knew, Cliffie found it impossible to lie there next to her, obliviously smacking in her sleep. Besides, Cliffie felt sure that Mary Helen had betrayed her.

The floorboards squeaked in Pappy Ocain's bedroom and the sound streaked like lightning through the hall. Sitting straight, Cliffie looked at the doorway and waited, each squeak announcing his coming and letting up as he stepped from rotting sills to sound spots of floor. She hoped maybe it was one of her brothers, who were always up and down, but knew better—she knew every panicky creak of the old house as well as her own body, now fighting back panic of its own.

Pappy Ocain, in dingy, bagging long johns, stepped to the doorway, looked in, and shambled on up the hall, body thinning out in the dark.

Stiff, she waited, then heard him peeing off the front porch, his wet tune trailing back. One more day, if they could get through just one more day without somebody getting killed, she'd be on that bus to Fort Bragg.

She would see Roy Harris tomorrow. Sunday. Church. Not that Roy Harris would go to church. He went only when he was scouting for mischief or to please Aunt Teat when he sensed she'd had enough of his stuff and might sic Tinion on him. She was all threat; she never did anything. But Tinion kept a close watch and had warned Roy Harris he'd skin his head if he didn't straighten up and fly right. He'd had it with Roy Harris slinging that curve in front of his house, that souped-up Mercury roaring and swerving ditch to ditch.

That's how Roy Harris had put it, leaving out why he tore up roads in the night. Cliffie knew he hauled moonshine, and he didn't care if she knew; he was proud of his high-speed chases and scrapes with the law. But the last time Tinion got on to him, Roy Harris got so mad he couldn't help telling somebody. Cliffie was handy.

She didn't tell him but she'd already heard the story—or overheard it—from Tinion, with a different slant. She knew Tinion's was more accurate. He'd told Pappy Ocain that he'd had a bait of Roy Harris showing out and worrying Aunt Teat to death and her already with her hands full. The least of it, from what Cliffie could gather, had been Roy Harris racing past Tinion's house and tearing up the roads. Evidently, they'd been at each other for some time. It was there in the grinding silence of the muffled report from Tinion to Pappy Ocain, a straining for control.

Roy Harris gave a different report.

Two weeks ago, he'd perched, slumped, on the long hood of his dusty maroon Mercury, flexing his legs as he glowered off at the woods. "Sonofabitch keeps messing with me, I'll have to fix him." His eyes gave off warning sparks. His hand shook as he dragged on a Camel from the pack laid out on the hood like a picnic between them. Smoke curling from his mouth, he seemed to relax and hopped down to pace along the road.

Cliffie felt like saying that he didn't have to hide his shame with her; she understood, and what she didn't agree with didn't matter. But she noticed that he had backed his car onto the ramp of a logging road, just off the dirt road that ran between his house and Tinion's, one of many ramps leading into the vine-draped woods, well away from Tinion's well-known property line—a fence across a clearing of cow pastures. For all Roy Harris's big talk, that act alone showed his wavering of indifference, even weakness. Cliffie preferred to think of him as vulnerable and needy rather than weak. He was nothing but a poor thrown-away boy needing love. She paced alongside him on the damp dirt road, away from Tinion's property line.

He hooked an arm around her neck, as she tried to match his stride. Her hair was caught, but she didn't dare free it for fear of cutting into their closeness. He needed her, and she needed to be needed by him. She felt light-headed and warm from their eventual blending. Much closer than when they made love.

"I told him it's a free country." Roy Harris spat. "He don't own this goddamn road!" He kicked at the dirt, dun clumps flew, and tightened the arm on her neck. Still rambling, he drew long on the cigarette, then pitched it into the dog fennels off the ditch.

She thought he might cry; she hugged him, felt his fevered body quiver.

"I got connections!" he spat. "If I wanted to have that sonofabitch knocked off, all I gotta do is say the word."

She knew he was scared, a little boy trying to make points. But, even hating Tinion with him, she also respected the old deacon, wished he could get Roy Harris to settle down—this could be a turning point. Roy Harris's tension scared her, but feeling his bony rib cage, his warm skin through his shirt, she thought how ridiculous that was. He was only talk, and he wouldn't even talk back to a slight slow-talking man like Tinion.

"He ain't got no right messing in my business!" Roy Harris snapped, and she knew by the way he looked straight ahead he wasn't talking to her. Floating toward them, a fine gray drizzle misted their faces and ticked on the leaves of the bordering woods.

"I love you," she said, saying it as though she loved him even if no one else did. He needed that, needed her. He didn't hear.

Tears welled in his stained eye whites. "I oughta go right now and blow his damned brains out!"

At first, she thought he might, feeling his anger, his almost turning, but she knew he was really afraid. He'd let off steam and let it go. So would Tinion. Their disputes didn't amount to anything. He hated Tinion; Tinion hated him. But neither wanted trouble.

About once a month, Tinion would come bellyaching about Roy Harris, his voice low and inflectionless, on the front porch after supper, and Cliffie would listen for news while Pappy Ocain groaned, raking a hand over his head as he did over discussions of war and depression and Aunt Teat. Poor old Aunt Teat. That's what those discussions were really about, how they always ended: Poor old Aunt Teat. Well, what about poor old Roy Harris? He was the one who had to put up with her and that houseful of crazy children.

Though Cliffie hadn't heard all of that last conversation between Pappy Ocain and Tinion, from her crouch in the hall corner, she'd heard enough to know that Pappy Ocain hadn't yet linked her with Roy Harris. Maybe Tinion had and maybe lie was hinting at just that and was sparing Pappy Ocain. Or maybe Pappy Ocain knew and was trying to figure out what to do.

Do what you got to, Pappy Ocain had said, voice leaden with restraint. He was sitting in his rocker, feet crossed and propped on the porch post, looking off at the dark-filling yard.

Tinion, leaning close from the other rocker, mumbled in a singsong blend with the crickets, ancient also, preaching and persuading, hand on Pappy Ocain's arm. He didn't mess in no man's business, but that rascal Roy Harris . . .

They didn't understand him. All he wanted was someone to love him the way she did. She could feel the mist, cold on her face. She pulled closer to Roy Harris, face pressed to his chest, and could hear his heart beating. She thought how he suffered, how they didn't understand, didn't practice what they preached: suffering with. All things work together for the good, she thought, leaving off the last part, ofthose who love the Lord, to them who are called according to his purpose. She couldn't quite see how the Lord fit into such as this, had to keep her mind on the urgency at hand, which had little to do with heavenly matters and everything to do with earthly matters, the literal ground swelling under her feet, the cold mist on her face, common need. Now he would marry her, and when they got to Fort Bragg, he'd settle down, make a fine soldier, and Pappy Ocain would be proud she'd picked him. He was just young and idle and wild, his bootlegging and cutting up part of that stage. To prove how she felt, she'd let him do what he wanted with her body while the mist ticked in the vines, cold and alert and attuned to the tension rising like vapors from his stiff, hot body. He seemed to forget as he shuddered and closed over her, taking the cold rain on his back.

PAPPY OCAIN wandered along the hall again, a musty odor preceding his laborious creaking. He stopped at the door, full on, and stared at Cliffie, blinking back the light.

She started to say that she was fixing to go to bed, waited for him to scold, "You up all night?" Neither of them spoke. His face was leached, almost transparent, fetal head sagging as he ambled off.

She waited for the streaking squawk of his bedroom floor before whispering, "Pappy Ocain, come back," and memorized the hurt in those hollowed-out eyes. Just talk to me, Pappy Ocain, we've always talked. But she didn't really want to talk. If she did she'd have to tell him she'd as good as lied this morning and eliminate Brother Leroy, and then Roy Harris would be as good as dead. Is this how it'll end, Pappy Ocain, close as we've been, me going off with Roy Harris, your last look on my mind?

She still had tomorrow, time to spend with Pappy Ocain, to make things right. But she couldn't undo what was done; no way back, but ahead, ahead with Roy Harris. She would sneak out of church and go to Aunt Teat's house, where Roy Harris would no doubt be left to mind the children for her to go to church.

NOBODY EVER gave the children's afflictions a name; they were just Aunt Teat's crippled babies. And though Cliffie didn't know their exact ages, she knew they were hardly babies, that the three boys had simply never matured beyond the baby stage. It seemed that ever since she could recall, somebody would pass the news around the table with the grits that Aunt Teat had had another baby. Cliffie had been shocked when she learned that Aunt Teat had never married—she'd heard that at school, not at home. What she heard at home about Aunt Teat was usually what she overheard, and precious little of any importance. Cliffie knew that the grown-ups knew where Aunt Teat came from, where the babies came from, but anything linked with Aunt Teat and why she was Aunt Teat was surrounded by pity so thick that where she came from didn't matter. She just was, but lots of people in Swanoochee County just were—existing, inheritors of each other and each other's persuasions and peculiarities. A bent old woman with three crippled children generated such pity that she ceased somewhere to link to anything, any time.

But Cliffie could count on Tinion for some scant history: "It's a shame and a disgrace the way John and them boys just dropped Teat from the family. And after her living out yonder in the Okefenoke Swamp all them years, cooking three square meals a day and keeping house for them no-accounts. John's own girl youngun. Called hisself a blacksmith, talked bad to them old crippled-up boys of his'n. Why, one morning, I drive clean out there to get him to fix a piece on my hare, and he got to kicking on the walls of his blacksmithing shop, what hooked onto the house, and cussed them old boys black and blue for sleeping late. Five in the morning. John couldn't get along with nobody." Tinion would get low, parenthetical. "Shore good of you, Ocain, to get Teat that Harris old place. Her with them crippled-up babies, another un on the way . . ."

Cliffie would feel repulsed wondering who'd got Aunt Teat pregnant and how, had even gone through pitying her and the children, so heartrending but removed. It was the longest time before Cliffie even saw them grown—not till she started sneaking over there to see Roy Harris—because Aunt Teat never took them anywhere. She owned one unbelievably small wheel chair, which sat on the porch, seat gathering mildew and wheels corroded with rust. She had no car, caught rides into Cornerville, and couldn't very well trundle them out in the chair to somebody else's backseat, them slavering and grunting over ten miles of rutted roads, another ten of paved, only to get there and bear them in her arms on rounds to beg.

But Aunt Teat had never been ashamed of the children: with each new baby she would cradle him in her short, stout arms, lifting a corner of the faded flannel blanket for anyone to look at the unfocused, angular face, a hint of smiling on her tight bluish lips. And anybody dropping by to unload clothes or food would find Aunt Teat just as dispassionately agreeable to inspection as when she went on rounds to beg. Unless they suggested getting help for the children. Then she would curse and throw them out, clothes, food, and all, and slam the cracked front door.

After Cliffie had heard Maude brag about Aunt Teat's everlasting pride at home, she would go to school and listen to everybody sniggering about old Aunt Teat. The best way to get back at somebody who'd done you some dirt was to call him Aunt Teat. If you didn't watch out, somebody might scribble your name on the blackboard next to hers.

Cliffie didn't make enemies the way Mary Helen did. Her name would frequently show up on the chalk-dulled blackboard next to Aunt Teat's, that name so common at home, so alien at school. And Mary Helen would rant and threaten whoever had written it. She would find out who if it took till the Rapture! Cliffie would creep along the halls and pretend not to know either Mary Helen or Aunt Teat, while praying her idiot sister wouldn't tell that the object of the joke often stopped by the house. Not that anyone Cliffie cared about ever came over—none of the girls from school—but what if they passed and saw Aunt Teat waddling up the doorsteps?

Tinion would drive her into town, to make her usual begging rounds, first stopping off to see Ocain and Maude and the "littluns."

Cliffie dreaded Aunt Teat's scrunched face, knew she'd have to bow anyway for the old lady to kiss. (Lately, Aunt Teat had quit pausing at Cliffie's hall corner, would waddle on by to kiss the others.) The smell of snuff always ghosted ahead and behind, like her spirit giving off from her stooped body. Her waist settled just below her breasts, where a snuff-streaked handkerchief peeped from the vee of one of two shirtwaists, both fashioned from the same pattern and pieced flour-sack prints, pink and yellow patchworks of Robin Hood in action. Carrying herself in a stealthy, unimpeded manner, she would cradle her arms under her drooped breasts: timid, introverted, but always wearing that small smile, face fringed by thinning gold hair, oddly girlish, splayed at her atrophied nape.

To Cliffie, her young hair and old body made her age as hard to guess as the ages of the children she'd maybe found under toadstools in the woods and now fretted over in the shotgun shanty, floors damp from their slavering. It was all so uncanny: their suffering, that hair, why Pappy Ocain and Maude put up with her.

Waddling, chin down, she peered up from calm blue eyes, mouth hinting at a half-smile, bottom lip managing a dip of snuff. She never said much, but when she spoke, it was garbled, half-sentenced.

"You got to speak up, Aunt Teat." Maude, who never shouted, would shout, kindness seeping around her impatience.

Cliffie had often heard Maude offer to do something with Aunt Teat's hair—a Toni, maybe. And Aunt Teat would almost smile. Pappy Ocain would invite her to stay and eat dinner. And she would almost smile. Then she'd shake her head and slump straight ahead through the open hall to collect Tinion, rocking on the porch.

"You ready, Aunt Teat?" he'd drawl and spit a brown glob of tobacco into the midst of the panicky chickens in the yard.

"‘Bout as well," she'd mew and ease out, clutching the guardrail of the doorsteps, with her young hair trying to shine through its need of washing.

"Look out," Tinion would say, keeping idle pace, green twill britches bagging in the seat like an empty satchel. Bald and stocky, green eyes glowing in his tan face, he'd hesitate at the truck, as if likewise confounded by Aunt Teat, his place, where best to grab her for a boost up.

Foot on the fender and heaving, she could never quite hoist herself up. Usually, Tinion would steady her by the elbow, squat and heave, stuff her in, and shut the door fast. Then, relieved, he'd go around the front of the old-but-kept blue pickup, pat the hood, and get in. And there they'd sit, mum as Sunday, while he patiently worked the key in the switch, listening to the engine putter and fall. When it caught, both their faces would shine—they'd had all faith that it would but were relieved that once again it had.

Out of the goodness of his heart—no relation—Tinion would drive her on her regular route, first, to the post office. Not to get her mail; the post office was just on her round.

As usual stoic, the postmistress, Miss Cleta, flat-faced and white from shunning the sun, would say in a loud voice, "How you, Aunt Teat?"

"'Bout as well as can be expected," Teat would mumble, nod, and shuffle in her holey canvas shoes.

"How 'bout the babies?"

"Same, 'bout the same," Teat would say in that wheeze of a voice, implying that aside from being on the point of perishing they were precious as always. "Thank you, ma'am."

"Y'all keeping warm?" Black eyes fixed on Teat's face, Miss Cleta would reach into a cigar box, pick out some coins, and drop them into Teat's hand, a hint of begrudging in those eyes, in the click of coins passing palms.

"They be beholding." Still and small in the shallow light, Aunt Teat would wait like a child to be sent out.

"Aunt Teat," Miss Cleta would say, "it don't look good, you hanging around here. We got rules to go by, now run on."

Aunt Teat would turn and trudge from the aged white clapboard appendage to the grocery store at the end of the connected shops.

"How you, Aunt Teat?" Hoot Walters would say in a booming voice. Sorting through a hamper of white potatoes, he tossed one into the cardboard box at her feet. "Rotten!" he scolded and straightened up, holding his back. "You don't want that, Aunt Teat!" Conveniently deaf, she continued picking up and brushing off potatoes and dropped them in her pink woven-plastic bag.

"Here." Battling against a sourness settling on his face, he hefted three good potatoes and offered them. "You needing anything else?"

"Just looking." She would browse the four dim, musty rows of shelved staples, canned goods, and enticements tucked between, offset from the produce hampers and checkout counter at the front, where plate glass, each side of the open door, admitted bothered squares of sunlight.

Softly plundering, she might heft a can of evaporated milk, examining first the vague blue price mark, then the picture of a cow on the label, and tuck it beneath the arm crossed on the rise under her bosom. With the hem of her dress, she might polish the dust from a pink plastic baby bottle molded in the shape of a smiling calf, and turning it, stiff-necked, to study the design, set it back on the shelf. And on, feet shuffling, paddle fan whirring above, to a table situated in the middle of the high, dim room with stacked loaves of white bread, sunbeam faces of blond- ringleted girls with pink cheeks.

At the cash register, where Hoot was arranging red and green suckers in a mahogany-trimmed case, she would stoop and peer at him through the glass. He'd peer back, straight-faced, mouth agape, studying. He'd nod and she'd nod, then turn and waddle toward the door.

"Be coming back, heah," Hoot would say, fishing in the candy case. "Aunt Teat, hold up a minute."

She'd halt, waiting as he came around.

"If it ain't too much bother, how 'bout taking them boys some of this here soft candy?"

"They be beholding." She'd turn, entire body, for him to drop four Zero candy bars into her bag on top of the potatoes, canned milk, and bread.

Tinion would be waiting, cross-legged, on the bench outside, facing the morning sun and the biscuit-white two-story courthouse, across the street at the intersection. "You going on over there, ain't you?" He picked his ground-down teeth with a broom straw.

Hoot would step into the frame of sun and say, "Tinion, make yourself right at home," then close the door.

Aunt Teat would nod and waddle off across the road, again turning her whole body to check for traffic, not once looking at the lone traffic light for permission.

At the entrance to the courthouse, facing the long, dim, hollow hall, she would stand a minute and whiff the dust and old paper and listen to the way-off whirring of a fan, feet shuffling, and typewriters cranking out what would and would not do in Swanoochee County, then begin working left to right, door to door, peeping in and mumbling, "'Bout as well as can be expected."

"How's them boys getting on, Aunt Teat?" the sheriff would call. "Here, how 'bout getting 'em a pretty for me." He'd reach across his desk and stuff a folded bill in the bag clutched to her bosom.

At the tax collector's office, she'd stop and frown, then spit, a glob of rusty spittle sliding down the kick-marked door, and waddle off. But hearing the door open, she'd stop, staring ahead.

"Aunt Teat," the tax collector would call. "I hate to keep after you, but we can't let you stay out there no more if you don't pay up your taxes. Two years we been letting it slide."

Aunt Teat would walk on. "They be beholding," she'd mumble, and shove through the door at the end of the hall.

As Tinion spied her exit through the rear of the courthouse, he'd stand and stretch. Then he'd tug his pants legs and sit again, watching her cross the side road to the one-room brick bank, amble in and out and on to the two-story hotel, taking some time to climb to the top floor and traipse through and out the back.

She'd cross the street and collect Tinion to drive her to the school lunchroom, a couple of blocks east. There she would rummage through the giant aluminum garbage cans stationed on a wood platform.

Miss Ruby, one of the lunchroom ladies, would call out for her to wait a minute. Ducking outside to speak and back into the lunchroom, Miss Ruby would slam the screen door, dispersing smells of warm milk and yeast along the narrow sidewalks on either side of the low red brick band of classrooms.

The children on the playground, clustered around teachers in chairs, would quit their games of marbles and tag and holler, "Hey, Aunt Teat, you find erything fitting to eat? You found ery daddy for your babies yet, you old heifer?" Sniggering, they'd scatter out to be reined back by the teacher to their sunny circle of dirt. Aunt Teat would wave and half smile.

The lunchroom door would clap again as Miss Ruby appeared, apron bulging with apples and oranges, government butter and cheese, her wise brown eyes squinting into the eleven o'clock heat, her woven gray and brown hair tucked under a halo of coppery hair netting.

"They be beholding," Teat would say, stretching her market bag for the angel of mercy to dump her apron.

After her rounds, without announcement or apology for having changed her mind, Aunt Teat would stop back by Maude and Ocain's to eat. After dinner, if Ocain was dipping the mangy fice dogs in the fifty-five-gallon drum of burnt motor oil and sulfur, she would stay awhile, kicking around in the dry dirt under the tin-topped shelter.

The squealing dogs would be tossed in brown and white spotted and emerge black and greasy, scampering over the lip of the drum, yelping and shaking. They would dash, gambol, and slide on the warmed gray dirt, flirting dust all the way to the middle of the lane and the long wire gate. They could have bellied under or shot around the posts, where the gaping fence attached, but like livestock, they turned back.

"Heah, boys!" Pappy Ocain would call, and they'd come running, brushing his khaki pants with oil. "Attaboy," he'd cackle.

Aunt Teat would reach down and scrub one of the dogs between the eyes with a knobby knuckle.

Pappy Ocain would extend his right hand for another dog to jump up to. He'd study the greased yellow dog with hovering messianic eyes. "Teat, go on and take that ere yeller dog to keep on your yard."

"Couldn't feed him if I had him." She'd keep on scrubbing the dog between its lit yellow eyes as it switched around her faded frock, blackening the hem.

Pappy Ocain's face would cloud over with guilt and pity, with disgust for the dogs groveling round him. "Me and Maude can let you have a couple of dollars."

"They be beholding."

DAY DONE, TINION would take her back to her shanty in the woods, where the three drooling children slithered like snakes inside the screen door. One might grab her ankle and she'd shake him loose, going on to the grease-dull kitchen with the children wallowing in her wake.

She would call them by name, knowing each self-same, expressionless face—one slightly longer than the others—all pasty complected, with hazed huckleberry eyes and fine brown hair splayed on their broad bowl foreheads.

When Cliffie went there, she couldn't bear to look at them—who knew but what they might mark the baby?—so she'd keep her back to the door, hear them creep, drop, and slither, feel them breathing through the screen, and smell their pee-steeped clothes.

At the shanty, Aunt Teat would treat her like a stranger, not as she did one of the "littluns" at Ocain and Maude's. The old woman would shuffle to the door, scowl, and trudge off, her grunting something awful and primal, marked by stern jabs that haunted the house.

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