My mother’s name was Jesse Mae Parker. Her married name was Futrell, but Bill Futrell wasn’t my father. My father was a beach bum my mother never married, and I never knew him. Bill married my mother when she was only fifteen and pregnant with me. He was pale and slight, a quiet, worried-looking man who loved to hold hands with her. He worked for the Highway Patrol, and when I was nine he was struck and killed along Highway 17 while writing out a speeding ticket. For years my mother cried every time she passed that spot in the northbound lane, just before the New River Bridge.
Bill Futrell’s parents never forgave him for marrying my mother. My mother’s parents never forgave her for getting pregnant in high school. Nobody in either family would talk to us. So my mother and I were on our own, and this was fine with me. It made us closer.
In the summer of 1971, my mother was thirty and I was fifteen. We lived in North Carolina and rented a trailer in a field owned by Miss Lottie Bird and Mr. Tommy Bird. In back of the field was the Bird graveyard, which was surrounded by trees and covered in clover and vines. Some of the markers were so old they were made of wood. In summer the bees were thick in the clover, and if you lay on the ground, the bees would land on your face and crawl over your mouth. I’d heard once that bees built their hives in dead things, and I used to think maybe the bees came out of the graves. I went to the Bird graveyard to read and think. Sometimes I’d just lie very still and shut my eyes and wait for the bees to walk across my lips. If you were very still, they wouldn’t sting you.
The Birds didn’t have much money, but they didn’t seem to need a lot. Miss Lottie had three, maybe four thin print dresses, all wash-and-wear — mostly wear, for they were oftentimes sweaty and stained. She kept a vegetable garden and a yard full of brown chickens, which she called “reds.” They laid eggs with rich, golden yolks, not like the kind found in supermarket eggs. For meat she threw a little fatback into the vegetables or sometimes killed one of the chickens. They were beautiful animals, especially the roosters, which had large, showy tails that reminded me of the rooster on the cornflakes box. The roosters were always fighting each other for the right to mate with the hens. Miss Lottie called this her “barnyard drama.” She said sometimes one rooster would kill another, but that was nature’s way. Only the strong survive to make more chickens.
Mr. Tommy couldn’t walk, because he’d tipped his tractor over in a ditch, damaging several of his organs. He stayed in his bed all the time. Miss Lottie tended him while tipsy on cheap wine she bought at Shelby’s Variety Store, right beside her property.
My mother had once been a party girl, but that was “all over now,” she used to say. She was a high-school dropout and worked six days a week at Shelby’s, the evening shift. During the school year, before she went to Shelby’s, she sat with me while I did my homework. She continued doing this even after the assignments became too advanced for her. I worked at Shelby’s, too, a couple of hours on weekday afternoons. I wasn’t old enough to be legally employed, but nobody cared. I never worked weekends. There would be plenty of time to work on the weekends when I was grown, my mother said. So I spent my Saturdays and Sundays however I wished.
I wasn’t a party girl like my mother had been. I spent the money I earned on movie magazines. I liked actors, but not the most popular ones. In the summer of 1971 my favorite actor was Pete Duel, who was in a weekly TV western called Alias Smith and Jones with Ben Murphy. Pete was the dark one. I always liked the dark ones. A minor star, Pete Duel needed my adoration, and I needed to be needed, so it all worked out. I bought any magazine that had an article about him, and I taped pictures of him on the knotty-pine paneling of my bedroom walls. He said he wanted to fight pollution, injustice, and war. He also drank too much and was slightly obsessed with guns. So he had a unique combination of positive and negative traits. He was imperfect, and his imperfections fueled my Pygmalion dreams of making him a better man.
I didn’t take down my pictures of Pete Duel for a long time after he shot himself. I’d look at them and wonder what had made him stop wanting to be a survivor, like the character he played on TV. It had to have had something to do with love. Didn’t everything?
I missed my mother when she was working. I always stayed up late, waiting for her to return home. I imagined every tick of the clock brought her closer to me. I’d visualize her moving toward me in jerky, mechanical motions: tick, tick, tick, nearer, nearer, nearer. As soon as she got off work, we made Jolly Time popcorn and watched Johnny Carson. On Fridays we watched Red-Eye Cinema all night and laughed and cried until we heard Miss Lottie’s roosters crowing just before dawn. Their ancient sound coming to us through the darkness was sad, like an ending.
It was early June when Al MacAlister started working at Shelby’s. Al was a Northerner, and he fascinated me. I had little interest in Southern boys who’d end up being auto mechanics and farmers like their fathers. Al had been in the army two years but had somehow avoided being sent to Vietnam, getting stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, instead, which was not so far from us. He rode to work on a black Yamaha motorcycle with scratches and dents on the gas tank. He looked like Pete Duel.
Al wasn’t much taller than I was. I wondered what it would be like to kiss a man without having to tilt my face up. The only men I had ever imagined kissing were tall leading men in the movies. I considered Al’s stature for a couple of days, deciding at last that kissing him would be more intimate than kissing a tall man. For one thing, all our body parts would be aligned.
On his first day at work, Al told me he liked North Carolina because of the beaches.
“What do you mean?” I said. “Don’t you have beaches up north?”
He said where he was from, the beaches were crowded, trashy, and old.
“How can a beach be old?” I asked.
He smiled and studied me. I thought maybe he was flirting. I hoped he was.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Merry,” I told him.
“Mary? Like in the Virgin Mary?”
“No, Merry, like in Christmas.”
“Really? Or are you just kidding?”
No, I wasn’t kidding, I said, and I told him everybody always asked me that. I was slightly disappointed that he was so unoriginal, but I decided to look past it. One needed to be flexible in one’s expectations, I thought.
He asked how old I was, and I told him, hastening to add that I would be sixteen in January.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, like one would say, Holy Toledo, “and sweet sixteen, too!”
Al said that in North Carolina, the beaches were pure and untouched, just like the women. Just like Christmas. He winked at me.
It was the same wink he’d give me many times, whenever he’d sneak a pack of Lucky Strikes out of the carton while sweeping behind the counter. He would put the Luckys into the chest pocket of his long-sleeved paisley shirt, the sleeves folded up so that they fell just below the elbow. All his shirts fit snugly. You could see the lines of his body. Al had nice muscles in his arms that hardened even when he made small moves, like pocketing a pack of Luckys or pushing his dark hair behind his pretty ears, which were shiny and clean. He took karate lessons, but he wasn’t obsessive about it. He wasn’t obsessive about anything. He was a beautiful loafer, with no plans and no direction. I looked for a Pete Duel kind of social consciousness in him, but I never found it. That didn’t keep me from dreaming about his winks, though, and searching for their hidden meanings.
There was one other trailer next to ours in Miss Lottie’s field, and it belonged to Porter Deets and his mother. My mother and I used to sit in Porter’s little trailer and listen to his stories. Porter had been a master sergeant in the marines and had once asked my mother to marry him. I think she’d considered it. She wanted somebody to protect her, somebody older and in uniform, like Bill Futrell. But my mother never married again.
Porter Deets was the only one on the Bird property who owned a car, a Cadillac in a peculiar color called “wisteria.” It had to be special-ordered, he said. He’d gotten it because he wanted to drive his mother around in style, even though Old Mother hated cars. Porter called her “Old Mother,” so that’s what we called her, too. The way Porter said “Old Mother” was sweet and fine, in a voice that crumbled around the edges like good fudge. Old Mother lived her life “inwardly,” she used to say. The only place she really liked to go was crabbing in the New River. She and Porter would load buckets and an ice chest into the Cadillac’s trunk, which Porter would first have carefully lined with plastic and newspapers. They would spend all day out on a rotten dock, crabbing with chicken scraps tied to strings.
Old Mother had survived two Oklahoma tornadoes, which had destroyed two different houses she’d lived in. Her treadle sewing machine was all she had salvaged from the last one, and her foot pumped the machine’s pedal several hours a day. She often sorted through the trash outside Shelby’s, looking for discarded clothes to cut apart for her projects. Porter had newspaper clippings about the two tornadoes, and he showed them to my mother and me. Old Mother liked to tell about the saddle she had placed on a porch banister just before one of the tornadoes. One of the stirrups flew up and broke a window, causing the suction that flattened Old Mother’s house. At the end of each telling, Old Mother would repeat the lesson she’d learned: that you should put things away properly after you have used them; that if she’d put the saddle into the barn like she should have, then her house might still be standing today, and she wouldn’t be a homeless old woman trespassing in her son’s life. I’d be disappointed by the lesson each time, because I thought you should learn something more important from a tornado than to put up your things. Old Mother had a drab way of looking at the world, and so did Porter, and I never wanted to be like them.
I say Porter Deets and Old Mother were drab, but they loved each other with a fierce love. Porter Deets kissed Old Mother on the lips whenever he left her. It didn’t seem strange for him to do this. He and his mother protected each other from a world that didn’t understand them.
On the Fourth of July a customer at Shelby’s asked for help retrieving a pair of flip-flops from a high shelf. My mother got a ladder and was standing on it when Al, materializing from one of his many smoke breaks, saw her and called out, “Let me, Jesse Mae.”
But she wouldn’t come down from the ladder, so he went over and held her legs as though to steady her, and when she stepped down with the flip-flops, Al’s hands followed the curves of her body. She didn’t stop him. I knew then that he’d touched her this way before.
My mother was pretty, small and blond, a tight package of muscle and tawny skin. She wore her hair in a pixie cut, and she was bright like a pixie, with lively green eyes. I looked more like my father, she said: brown haired and freckled, loose, like a fragment of string.
Not long after I saw Al help my mother with the flip-flops, I noticed the two of them walking toward the Birds’ graveyard, and I knew my mother went there to lie with him in the clover. She went there to close her eyes while purple-tufted flowers trembled around her, while bees trembled on her lips.
One day my mother asked me if I still had a “crush” on Al, and I knew then they’d talked about me. I lied and told her I didn’t care about Al. He was a friend; that was all. She acted relieved, but at the same time I don’t think she believed me. I couldn’t hide anything from her. We both knew I was too young for what Al MacAlister wanted, but I still wished he’d seen something beautiful in me.
It didn’t occur to me until recently that if I’d seen my mother and Al going to the graveyard, then Miss Lottie had seen them too. Anyway, one day Miss Lottie called me “trash.” I was ringing up her wine, Mogen David 20/20. People call it “Mad Dog.” It’s cheap and strong, and Miss Lottie bought it at least three times a week. She called me “trash,” and then she gave me her money, pulling bills out of a worn government envelope she kept stuffed down the front of her dress. Her fingernails were long, yellowed, and dirty from digging in her garden. She was smiling in a way that frightened me. Miss Lottie was a snuff dipper, and when she smiled, her mouth looked soft and brown, like decomposing fruit. She might have been an old drunk, but she was our landlady, and she dangled her power over me like a sword.
Miss Lottie stared at me silently while I counted out her change. She was never much for conversation. Sometimes, if you caught her in the right mood, she’d tell you how she and Mr. Tommy had met, how she’d competed for his affections against prettier, richer girls. While she talked, Mr. Tommy would lie in bed like a neatly dressed corpse, his hollow eyes taking it all in. But if you got interested in her story, if you asked any questions, she went silent and kept the best parts of the story to herself.
I handed Miss Lottie her change. She put the coins into the envelope, folded it along a dirty crease, and stuffed it back into her dress. Then she took the wine bottle and laid it across her arm as if it were a baby, a gesture that made her seem less like the drunk she was. She went out the door that way.
“What did she call me?” I asked no one in particular.
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Merry Christmas,” Al said, coming by with his push broom, his eye on a carton of Luckys.
My mother didn’t seem bothered either. She said that was how people talked when they drank.
Summers accelerate life. Whole generations of creatures are born and die. Feelings are heightened, and disappointments are worse, because you realize how temporary everything is.
By August Al had quit his job at Shelby’s and moved to the beach with a woman who was younger than my mother but older than me. My mother took up smoking for a time. Luckys, of course. And she experimented with cosmetics. She’d never worn makeup before — didn’t need it — but now she’d paint her face and ask me how I thought she looked. Once, I told her the makeup was a waste of time, and she burst out crying and called me a liar. After that I wouldn’t talk to her about it anymore. I started going to bed early, before she came home from work, and I’d lie in the dark wondering what exactly had changed.
Just before the new school year started, Al showed up in a red Volkswagen Beetle. My mother and I stepped outside as soon as we heard the horn. He got out of the car wearing flowered bathing trunks and a Surf City T-shirt, a pack of Luckys in the breast pocket. I wondered where he was getting his cigarettes now.
My mother’s eyes went dark when she looked at him, as if a light inside her had gone out. “A bug,” she said.
“Hello, Jesse Mae,” he said. “Hello, Merry Christmas.”
My mother and I didn’t say anything. I looked at the Beetle.
“Do you like it?” he said. He was standing in his bare feet, which I’d never seen before. They were handsome, not especially large, but wider than normal, and very tan, so that the arch was delicate and white. “They’re fun cars,” Al said. “Easy to drive.”
Everything was easy for Al MacAlister, and he probably couldn’t understand why my mother was making things so hard.
“What do you want?” my mother said.
Al squinted at the sky. The clouds were high and motionless. It wasn’t like a real sky at all, just a picture plastered above us. “I thought we’d go to the beach,” he said.
“The beach!” my mother said, as if she couldn’t believe it.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s all go to Fort Macon.”
Fort Macon was a Civil War fort at Atlantic Beach, sixty or so miles from us. My mother and I had never been there. Al had always told us he’d take us as soon as he could borrow a car, but he’d never gotten his hands on one, until now.
Al leaned against the Beetle. “How about it, Merry?” he said.
“You’re kidding,” my mother said.
“Come on, Jesse Mae.” Al lifted his weight from the car, as if buoyed by my mother’s voice, and winked at me. Then he opened the door, gesturing for my mother and me to get in. “Let’s go!” he said.
“To look at a fort?” my mother said. “Someplace where people murdered each other?”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” Al said. “There’s also a restaurant I want to take you to. You and Merry. It’s the best seafood in the state.”
“Everybody says that,” my mother said.
“Naw,” Al drawled. “I doubt that.”
My mother’s arms, which had been crossed defensively across her chest, now went to her hips: her most defiant gesture. “The point is,” my mother said, “everybody lies.”
Al leaned confidently on the hood of the Beetle. “It’s not a lie if it’s the truth,” he said, grinning.
I sat in the front seat, because my mother wouldn’t. So there wasn’t anything to obscure my view as we drove up to the fort. It sat on a high dune — or rather was sunk into the dune, hiding. My mother wasn’t impressed. Al told her to wait, that we weren’t even out of the car yet.
Beyond the dunes, the ocean looked rough. Gray water shot between a crude wall of rocks on the shore, then got sucked back through the barrier into the ocean. My mother spread out a towel and sat. She wouldn’t go inside the fort but said I should, because it might be educational.
“What are you going to do, Jesse Mae?” Al asked.
“I’m going to sit here and think,” my mother said.
“Maybe you should try it sometime,” she said, turning away from him. She held one arm in front of her face, the palm flat against the wind. “I’m not mad at you anymore,” she said unconvincingly. “I’m glad it worked out this way. I don’t want Merry thinking she’s being raised by trash.”
I knew my mother had made this comment about trash for my benefit. Al couldn’t have understood what it meant for a woman to be called “trash,” how the allegation is impossible to deny, how it won’t wash off in a lifetime. He wouldn’t have cared if he did. So I knew my mother hadn’t said it for him but for me, because she wanted me to feel good about myself. Her words had the opposite effect, though. Until then I’d never thought of us as being trash, but now I saw how others might think that. I thought about trash, about how Old Mother salvaged scraps from the trash, but she was odd, and the thought of her embarrassed me and also the thought of her strange son, who kissed her — his own mother — on the lips.
Walking toward the fort with Al, I pictured a wave raking my mother into the ocean. That sort of thing happened all the time. The earth slides and buckles. The water acts as it must. It was nothing personal.
The underground rooms of the fort were cool and dark, like catacombs. I walked through them with Al, shivering and thinking of bees: bees filling the rooms, climbing over us, building homes inside our heads, making honey until it flowed from our ears and mouths and covered the floor. The honey completely filled the spaces. We floated in amber. Far into the future, we would be found just this way.