Kith and Kin

1

According to the calendar, spring had arrived. Our weather was milder, but the hillsides surrounding Winkler remained an ugly black tangle of trees and brush, our streets and houses were gray and gritty with soot, and in place of the glitter and cleansing curves of winter’s covering of white we had gray skies, rain, piles of black snow, and mud. Even so, we saw fresh glimpses of color and new life—pale green shoots of wild onions in the poor soil of our yards, tiny leaves on bramble branches, and pretty girls in their fresh Easter dresses.KK.300x450

I was especially taken by the blooming beauty of the girls closest to my heart, Wanda’s daughter Evie, and Luzanna’s Alma. Evie had her father’s red hair and her mother’s stature, and at 16, was taller than 19-year-old Alma, who was petite with black hair and lovely brown eyes. They sat together in church that Easter, for though they’d grown apart, separated by Alma’s college and work in Richmond, they’d been each other’s first friend in our early Winkler days.

The weather that day felt more like winter, but the service was marked not only by greater than usual attendance but also by lighter dresses and shirts for the children, either new or made-over. My friend and helper Luzanna was not much of a church-goer, but she usually attended on Easter with her own observance for the season: a pair of new gloves and a fresh ribbon in her summer straw hat. Later I wished she hadn’t been there that day because of the spectacle caused by her daughter.

Our preacher was good at dramatizing and personalizing the horror of crucifixion, the pain of the spikes, how it would feel to hang by our own flesh there on the cross, the sun scorching our nearly naked bodies. And it was our fault, he said, because our sins were keeping Jesus on the cross, perpetually in agony. We’d heard this frequently, for it was one of his favorite themes. Barlow and I privately agreed our preacher’s interpretations were often extreme. Surely if Jesus was seated at the right hand of the father he was not still being tortured on the cross.

The preacher’s other favorite theme was Hell, specifically flames, demons, and other evil creatures that kept sinners in eternal agony. He also had an explanation for unanswered prayers: either we were more sinful than we acknowledged, or we hadn’t completely devoted our lives to God. In the year he’d been here, attendance numbers had dropped off. Barlow, who’d read his Bible front to back many times, said people might be like himself, tired of being battered by the same sermon each Sunday. Everyone needed to be uplifted occasionally, especially when lives were already hard and troubled. The preacher had a few loyal followers, however, and I often wondered if those most sensitive and least sinful were the very ones most susceptible to fits of guilt.

Seizing the opportunity to convert those whose attendance was limited to Christmas and Easter, that morning the preacher gave a highly emotional plea for repentance. In the quiet of prayer following the sermon, someone began to cry, great deep gut-wrenching sobs. Opening my eyes and lifting my head to sneak a look, I saw that Luzanna and others were also looking around, either curious or disturbed by the outburst.

Alma and Evie sat close to the front, several rows down from where Barlow and I sat with Luzanna and her younger two children. The bowed heads gave us a better view of what was happening down in front. Luzanna and I exchanged a troubled glance. A woman beside Alma had put her arm around her, and one behind had reached forward to pat her on the shoulder. The one sobbing was Alma.

When the congregation rose to sing the next hymn, Alma slid out of the pew and knelt at the altar. This practice was not unusual in our church, and the preacher often let us know he didn’t think he’d done his job unless someone came forward to repent. Immediately Luzanna’s daughter was joined at the altar by two women, the same ones who ended every service on their knees.

The three remained at the altar when the hymn ended, and everyone else remained standing. Like most people in our small society, I was uncomfortable in the presence of public displays of emotion, whether excessive affection or distress, which could be as unnerving as witnessing a mental breakdown or painful death. All of that was best kept at home, we believed. Now here was Luzanna’s lovely young daughter, making herself the object of everyone’s attention, as shocking to her mother, I was sure, as if she’d taken off her clothes. At the altar, the preacher bent over her, saying something. Then he took her hand and helped her to her feet.

The service had been excessively long, and now a few families with cranky children edged out of their pews and moved toward the exit. Instead of waiting for her friend, Evie left too, flashing me a frown as she passed toward the doors, as though saying, “What’s wrong with that girl?”

I was equally perplexed. Alma was so helpful and so new to life, what terrible sin could she have committed? Barely into her teens when we’d met her family on our journey to Winkler, she’d done her best to help me manage her small dying stepsister. When poverty had separated her from her mother, she’d stayed with me, and had faithfully sat at my bedside through my episode of Typhoid fever. The same winter she’d fallen into a ruined basement, attempting to rescue her brother and sister. I would never forget the chill in my feet and hands as Luzanna and I had stooped amid the wreckage, holding her face out of the icy water while our friends struggled to free her. I loved Alma like my own.

Luzanna, Barlow and I stayed in our pew through the final hymn and benediction, frozen by courtesy and tradition. However, we’d left chicken baking in the oven for Sunday dinner, so we did not wait for Alma or linger outside the church to greet others, but hurried away toward home. There, Luzanna displayed her annoyance by complaining about everything—the mud tracked from the back porch, potatoes that defied all effort to mash without lumps, water that was barely lukewarm—how was she going to clean the greasy pans, and what was wrong with the water boiler? We said nothing about what we’d witnessed in church.

If Alma had been someone else’s pretty daughter, we’d have been curious and probably sympathetic, and maybe we’d have spoken about her in confidential tones. But because she was our Alma and we felt shocked, hurt, and a little afraid, it took a while for us to speak of what we’d witnessed. Luzanna brought it up after dinner as we were scrubbing the pots and pans. “She hasn’t said a word to me. About nothing.”

Why Alma had suddenly left her teaching position and come home from Richmond, she meant, why the girl who’d gone away with confidence had returned so nervous, and what guilt had driven her to the altar. The usual trespasses came to mind, distasteful events and situations we could not bear to connect to Alma. We spoke no more of her that day.

~

Our kitchen was truly the heart of the house, proved by its six doors—one to the outside, others to the laundry, basement, back stairs, hall, and dining room. With guests passing through to the laundry room, our part-time watchmen sitting down for meals, Luzanna’s children popping in after school, delivery men setting their produce on the worktable and often three of us preparing meals or cleaning up, the kitchen at times seemed as busy as the store. It was also the place for exchanging news.

Tuesday morning when I brought the children to the kitchen for breakfast, I was surprised to find Alma there, washing dishes as fast as Luzanna set them in the sink. “She doesn’t expect to be paid,” Luzanna said. “She just wants to keep busy.”

Luzanna knew I couldn’t afford to pay additional help. I was already paying Emmy, Alma’s younger sister, to watch my children when she wasn’t in school.

“Alma, you know you’re always welcome here,” I said. The children put their hands together for our prayer and Freddy mumbled the words with me.

“Amen,” Alma said.

Luzanna gave me a weary look. I could see she wanted to talk.

I didn’t get time for a private conversation with Luzanna then, but later when I was alone with Alma, she revealed something about my family I didn’t know. Thinking she might benefit from company nearer her age, I’d asked if she was seeing any of her former friends, like Evie.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Evie’s too busy to have time for me. And she’s mad. When I told her what people are saying she stuck her nose in the air and told me to keep my notions to myself.”

I was standing on tip-toe, reaching a heavy platter to the top shelf of the wall cupboard. I wobbled and nearly dropped it. “About Evie? What are people saying?”

“She’s keeping bad company.”

“Boy? Girl?”

“Boy, of course.”

About anyone else, this bit of news might have been intriguing. I slid the platter into its place. “Who’s the boy? And how bad is he?”

At that moment, Luzanna came from the dining room and Alma shook her head. We went on with dinner preparations as if nothing had been said. I couldn’t stop wondering about Evie and her bad company.

Gossip about who was fighting, who was sick, and who was in love was a main source of entertainment for women in our town, and maybe for men too, though I didn’t let myself wonder what men talked about. I had good reason to dislike gossip, but like everyone else, I never tired of talk about a new romance and its potential for bliss or disappointment. If the stories ended happily at the altar, we were happy too, whether we knew the lovers or not. If a girl was jilted or her entanglement led to disgrace, her story served as good warning, and I frowned and shook my head like all the old grannies. Most love stories centered on the young, and everyone, including our teachers, knew which boys and girls were pairing off and which ones might be up to no good.

I wondered how Alma knew about Evie and if she’d told her mother. I asked Luzanna later, when Alma went to the washroom. “Has Alma said anything about Evie?”

Alma’s help had lightened our duties, but Luzanna looked as tired as if she’d spent the day scrubbing miners’ work clothes on a washboard. “Like what?”

“A boyfriend? She said Evie’s keeping bad company.”

“Yeah, that,” Luzanna said. “She’ll of heard that from her sister.”

“You knew?”

“It’s not my business. The kids brought that tale home from school. And I heard one of the teachers say something.”

“One of our teachers is talking about Evie? I wish people would tell me these things!”

“I thought probably you’d heard. I didn’t want to bring it up.”

Our talk was cut short because the butter and egg man appeared at the back door and I had to go to the office for money to pay him, then there was a new guest to register.

When finally we had a private moment, I said, “Who’s the boy?”

Luzanna answered as though our conversation had not been interrupted. “Maybe talk with Wanda.” That meant she didn’t want to repeat what she’d heard.

The store closed at six, and I could count on Barlow arriving home half an hour later. I asked Luzanna’s younger daughter, Emmy, to have dinner with the children so Barlow could eat with the guests while I paid a quick visit to Wanda’s house.

~

Wanda was currently in her fifth month of pregnancy, spotting and cramping and ordered to bed by Will, whose doctors had ordered him to stop practicing medicine for the sake of his heart. It seemed a bad time for Evie to give them grief. She’d always been a sweet, compliant girl, but I knew how girls changed when they got interested in boys.

“Junior Doddy’s a nice one,” Wanda said. She was propped up in her bed, working knitting needles like her life depended on it, a stack of “funny papers” from the Richmond Times Dispatch on the bed beside her. She had always been uninterested in both needlework and reading but did not know how to be idle.

The room was small and dark, though its windows were open and someone had tied back the curtains to bring in additional light. Wanda’s Granny Lucie sat in the corner, weaving one of her grapevine baskets and letting chaff fall to the floor. I was glad to see Wanda was following doctor’s orders. She’d helped with enough births to know her baby was in danger, maybe herself too.

Junior Doddy was the boy. I sat on the chair beside the bed. “Nice? Says who? Evie?”

“Says his teacher,” Wanda said. “Evie told me. Junior Doddy’s a nice boy and the smartest in his class. He’d like to be a teacher.”

“Doddy?” Lucie leaned forward, cupping her hand to her ear. “What’s that about a Doddy?”

“Evie’s boyfriend,” Wanda shouted. “Junior Doddy.”

“You’ll have to put a stop to that,” Lucie said. “We’re not getting mixed up with no Doddys.”

“Evie says he’s a nice boy,” Wanda repeated.

Lucie Bosell reminded me of one of those winter garden weeds, pale and withered but with roots too strong and deep to be pulled from the ground. She opened a large pair of shears over a vine’s knobby end. “He won’t be nice for long if he’s from that Sweeny-Doddy clan,” she said, squeezing the shears and letting the knob fall to the floor.

Wanda’s ancestors had lived in the hills near Winkler long before it was a town, and though Lucie couldn’t remember what she’d said a minute ago, she had a detailed recall of her people’s history.

“The Sweeny sisters was around the same age as your aunts and your ma,” Lucie said. “They’s our distant cousins. They might of been all right at one time but they made bad choices for husbands—ever last one o’them married a Doddy. Maybe because their father was a bad’n, and that was the only kind of man they knew. He died when he fell off his horse into a creek, too drunk to know he was drownding, and after that the girls married off pretty quick. The Doddy men is known to chase women and drink like there’s no tomorrow.”

I waited to see if Wanda would disagree with her granny, as she did half the time, or ignore her, as she did the other half.

“Good can come out of any bad family,” Wanda said.

“Well, maybe,” Lucie said. “As far as I know, not one of them Doddys ever lifted his hand to his woman in fury. Folks say they beat their wives for pleasure.” She paused, eyeing Wanda and me like she wanted to be sure we were appropriately impressed. “There’s two kinds of girls in that family–the kind that’s sassy and sneaky, and the kind that says nary a peep. The boys, well, the boys got no choice but to give as much as they get. They’s bootleggers to this day, and that business has got dangerous. They’s all nice looking, though.”

I’d heard enough. If Lucie said the family was bad, it was bad. She’d been a moonshiner herself, though never in profitable times like now, and her family had never been high in respectability.

Wanda laid aside her tight, crooked knitting. “Evie’s 16. That’s almost grown up.”

“A perfect age for bad decisions,” I said.

“I married her pa when I was 15.”

“We all knew Homer. He was like family.”

“I know how Evie feels.”

I understood that too. I hoped Evie and Wanda were right about Junior Doddy.

“Don’t say anything to Will,” she said.

We agreed we should do nothing to disturb her husband’s new peaceful life. No one said, but it had to be hard for him to stop serving as the region’s doctor, leader of the school board, representative to the coal association, and manager of several properties in town. He now spent every daylight hour undisturbed in his workshop, thinking only of the emerging qualities of the wood under his knife.

“I’ll have another talk with Evie,” Wanda said. “The boy might do better if he gets away from his family. Now you tell me—what’s this about Alma going around telling folks they need to be saved?”

“Who’s Alma?” Lucie screeched. “We’re talking about Evie. We gotta get her away from them Doddys.”

End of this sample.

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