THESE DAMP STONES, Installment 14

THESE DAMP STONES, a novel-in-progress by Sheryl Monks

 

The words were strangely soothing, a darksome lullaby. She thought of her baby, and a sudden urge to go home came over her. Back to Johnnycake. She wanted to go right now, but Art would be mad if she wasn’t home in time for work. She couldn’t go back to that awful place. That awful woman. She wouldn’t go back.

When she reached the foot of the mountain, she checked the watch on her wrist. Nearly one o’clock. She was tired and hungry, and she still needed cigarettes so she went on to the hamburger joint as she’d planned to and ordered something to eat.

The smell of grease and cigarette smoke met her at the door, and she covered her nose with her hand. “You got anything without meat on it?” she asked the waitress. “I couldn’t eat a bite of meat to save my life right now.”

“Grilled cheese sandwich,” the waitress said. She wore glasses and a blue gingham dress with a white apron. Sudie admired the fabric, the starched white collar. Maybe she could get a job as a waitress back home.

“Just a plain cheese sandwich,” she said. “Don’t fry it. And a glass of pop. You got ice?”

The waitress nodded.

“Plenty of ice, if you can spare it.”

“What kind of pop?”

“Orange Crush?”

“You want fries?”

Sudie waved her hand, no. “But make it two cheese sandwiches, would you? And could you put a little lettuce on it?”

The woman looked at her in a peculiar way, and now Sudie could see that one lens of her eyeglasses was smoked black. She wondered if maybe she had a glass eye behind that dark lens. Or maybe no eye at all. “There ain’t nothing to them things,” she said casually. “I could eat my fill of them.”

“Sure, honey,” the waitress said, making her rounds.

 

Two boys went a’ fishing on a fine summer day

They saw Little Omie go floating away

They threw their net around her and pulled her to the shore

The body of Little Omie was searched for no more

 

Sudie ate one of the sandwiches and half of the other and then smoked her last cigarette. “Y’all sell smokes here?” she asked the waitress when she came to refill her pop.

“Cigarettes?”

“Yeah,” Sudie said. “Kools if you got them.”

“No, but I got a couple you can borry.” The waitress pulled a pack of Larks from her apron and shook two out. “They’re not menthols, but –”

“That don’t matter,” Sudie said. “I thank you.” She stacked her dishes neatly and wiped the crumbs from the table with her hand and dumped them in the plate. Then she flipped open her lighter and struck it, but it produced no fire.

THESE DAMP STONES, Installment 13

THESE DAMP STONES, a novel-in-progress by Sheryl Monks

 

She heard a coal truck climbing the steep grade coming toward her. When it crested the hill, its driver hollered out the window and whistled at her. “I love you, Little Omie!” he exclaimed, and she turned around in the road, walking backwards and smiling big as she waved at the man. He was just a baby, eighteen years old. A Red Hat at the number four mine.

“I love you right back, Donnie Surrat!”

The boy tapped the truck’s horn and an Ooga-ooga sang back at her, and she laughed and shook her head as she went on her way.

 

Then fool-like she met him at Adams’ spring

No money he brought her, nor other fine thing

No money, no money to flatter the case

We’ll go and get married, they’ll be no disgrace

 

Her mind drifted to the boy she had thought she loved long ago. It had been nine years now. T.J. Mullins. What would he be doing right now, she wondered. His people had been clannish, or he would have married her; she knew he would.

 

John Lewis, John Lewis, please tell me your mind

Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind

Little Omie, Little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind

My mind is to drown you and leave you behind

Please pity our baby and spare me my life

I’ll go home a beggar and won’t be your wife

He hugged her, he kissed her, he turned her around

He threw her in deep water where he knew she would drown

He jumped on his pony and away he did ride

The screams of Little Omie went down by his side

 

The temperature was much warmer now and she heard a single tree cricket, what her mommy and others called locusts, singing nearby. The sound, Sudie always thought, was like a giant rattlesnake. In a month, the whole mountain would be consumed with their deafening song. She stopped walking to attend a stitch in her side. The steep grade of the road had propelled her forward faster than she realized, and she doubled over to ease the pain. She spun herself upright and dug a hand into her side to massage away the knot. After a while, she caught her breath and the pain eased. She set off again, this time slower than before.

Behind her came the rumble of the dump truck she’d seen in the yard. She glanced over her shoulder at it but kept walking. The driver slowed and lowered the gears, but when it came up beside her, it kept going on with no offer of a ride. She might’ve liked a ride about now, but she was almost at the foot of the mountain and that eased her mind some. The song was stuck in her head and not singing it began to irritate her.

 

It was on last Wednesday morning, the rain was pouring down

The people searched for Omie but she could not be found

THESE DAMP STONES, Installment 12

THESE DAMP STONES, a novel-in-progress by Sheryl Monks

 

 

I’ll tell you a story of Little Omie Wise                                    

How she became deluded by John Lewis’s lies

 

Outside, she heard the whine of the dump bed lifting and then the gravel raining down into the yard. When she reached the end of the upstairs hallway, she straightened upright and rubbed a fist at the small of her back. There was no wax for polishing, but while the water still stood on the tiles, the old floor gleamed and glinted in the light.

She picked up the pail of dirty water by the handle and made her way toward the back staircase, proceeding toward the crude little kitchen downstairs, which Art had fashioned for the girls. There was running water in the house, and she placed the mop in the sink while she opened the back door and pitched out the dirty water.

 

He told her to meet him down by Adams’ spring

Some money he’d bring her and other fine things

 

She rinsed the pail in the sink and set it on the floor. The sour mop turned her stomach, but she took it up anyway and ran it under water as hot as her hands could stand. When the water ran clear, she turned off the spigot and divided the mop into thirds and commenced to wringing out each section by hand. There was a split forming at the first joint of her middle finger, and it pained her to twist so on the mop, but it had to be done. When the mop was clean, she shook it out and stood it on its end outside on the porch to dry, taking in a deep breath of fresh air that settled her stomach some. She came back inside and washed her hands and dried them on an old flour sack she used as a dish towel.

There wasn’t anything else to do, so she thought she’d walk into town for a pack of cigarettes. She only had four left, and she had plenty of time before the men started showing up from the mines. She’d saved quite a bit of money, more than Art would’ve liked, and thought she might go see a show at the matinee – there was still time if she hurried – and maybe eat at that little hamburger joint. She would look and see if there were any pretty outfits at the Five and Ten. Art liked for them to spend their money on clothes and make-up. For a while, she’d been ordering nice wigs from a catalogue at the feed store, but the woman there didn’t like her coming around and told Art that Sudie better not step foot in there again. Art liked the wigs, too, though and sometimes he’d place the order and pick up Sudie’s packages himself, and the woman didn’t seem to object to that.

Sudie kept her money in one back pocket of her jeans, her cigarettes and lighter in the other. It was a warm sunny day, nearly June already, and she stepped outside barefoot. Once she’d hobbled over the gravel to the paved road, she lit up a cigarette and hummed the tune again. From the top of Warrior Ridge, she could see out over the whole town and the valley beyond. She was walking off the mountain, so the trip into town was an easy one. It was coming back that would be hard.

THESE DAMP STONES, Installment 11

THESE DAMP STONES, a novel-in-progress by Sheryl Monks

 

Sudie would be filled with a deep shame for having kept her mother from water. She would not drink for days except for what she caught in her hands at the spring on her way to or coming back from the garden. Or what she called the garden. It was really a big field at the head of the holler. Sudie was afraid to even touch the pan until finally her mother would tell her to take it to the stream and refill it. They did not drink from the well; they drank from the stream.

She thought about her baby sometimes and guessed her daddy was looking after it, mostly. He was gentle as a boll of cotton, and she liked thinking of the baby with him. It was easy not to think about her baby too much at the opera house, though, because the men there told her how pretty she was and that helped her to forget. There was just something about pretty things that made everything better, so she didn’t mind the men because they liked pretty things just like she did.

She watched the man outside and wondered if she could make him look at her again. She drew the curtain aside and let down her hair from its ponytail, and that was all it took. The man looked up again.

Artemis had been mean-acting when she’d first come, but he grew sweet on her after a while. She kept the place looking nice, and even the other girls looked prettier when she did up their hair or fixed up their black eyes with make-up so no one could see. She knew he was a mean old man, though. She’d seen him glom men right by their faces and beat them unmerciful while his gun thugs stood by ready to do whatever heavy lifting Art couldn’t take care of himself.

But as far as she knew, Art had never laid a hand on any of the girls. He left them to the care of a heavyset woman named Barbry Ellen. Sudie didn’t know any of the other girls’ real names. Art gave them all new names, told them to forget about who they used to be. Sudie was called Little Omie Wise now, after the song. All the girls were named after songs, love ballads, Art called them, but murder ballads was what they really were. Songs about girls drowned in rivers or buried in shallow graves.

Still, she liked the songs. They were pretty, in a sad way, and she liked how her song went.

Even so, not everything was nice at the opera house. Not even in a sad way. Some of the girls got pregnant, even though that was the last thing anybody wanted. More than a few of the men were perverse, and once in a while a fellow wouldn’t wear a rubber no matter what a girl promised for him. They were big-wigs, most often, buddies of Art’s who ran things in town. They liked the idea of knocking up strange young women, Sudie guessed, and Art obliged it though he did not like it. As long as Barbry Ellen could take care of it when the time came.

Barbry Ellen had been a midwife when her husband was crushed in the mines and laid up for nearly two years. He finally died, and some people claimed she had helped him along. Now she helped along unborn babies, down in the basement of the opera house, the only place Sudie would not venture to clean.

She placed her open palm on the window and held it there, the glass cool to her touch, and the man in the yard walked away, toward the dump truck and climbed inside. She watched as he sat for a minute, gripping the steering wheel, and staring up at her. She looked for a while longer. Then she went back to mopping the floor, humming as she swayed with the calming rhythm of her labor.

Exciting New Projects

I’m about to head out to the beach for my annual writers’ group retreat, which is always exciting in and of itself. But this year, I’m taking along with me a couple of new projects that I’m super excited about: a possible nonfiction book project and a new literary journal I’m working on. We haven’t officially announced the new journal yet, but it’s already underway and you’ll be hearing more from me around the first of November. Polish up those short stories, poems, and memoir pieces. They may be a good fit for us! It’s still too early to tell if the book project will pan out, but I’m crossing my fingers because this is a project close to my heart. I’ll keep you posted!

Hope you’re all well out there in webby land and writing your cotton-pickin’ hearts out.

xo,

~ sheryl