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

 

THESE DAMP STONES, Installment 10

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

 

Life at the opera house hadn’t been all that bad. Even as a girl she’d been fast, she supposed, she and her cousins walking the old holler roads where they lived, searching for boys with cars to go riding in. She liked kissing and fooling around. Going to the drive-in. Eating popcorn. Drinking big cold Co-Colas with those crunchy little chunks of ice. Laughing. Smoking cigarettes.

Better than the monotony of hoeing weeds like some brute mule for days on end, which is all her mommy ever wanted from her. She wasn’t cut out for the sun or work like that, she tried to explain, and sometimes her mommy would let her clean the house. She liked running bedspreads through the wringer washing machine, turning all the chairs upside down on the kitchen table and mopping the nicked and dimpled old Congoleum vinyl. She’d scrub the floor so hard that every cigarette burn would stand out against the faded yellow background. That’s when she’d known she’d done a good job, and knowing that, she could almost not see the burn holes. They would begin to grow fainter, melt away into the faded floor, and the drafty little house would seem to glow with a soft clean haze if not a crystal clear shimmer.

She would set her transistor radio up in one of the little corner shadow boxes her daddy had made and go to town stripping down the beds and shaking out the throw rugs. She’d draw up buckets of water from the well, get a big kettle-full boiling on the cook stove so she could wash up the dishes in good hot water. Nothing in the world felt better than good hot water. She might wilt in the sun, but she could take a beating indoors. She worked hard, turning the mattresses and rearranging the furniture, carrying in wood and coal, picking up cigarette butts and sweeping the front yard clean. But it was worth it because the beauty she made from nothing but her own labor renewed her strength and filled her with a kind of peace.

Her mommy would come home from the field and Sudie would want to pamper her, thank her for letting her stay home. “Here, Mommy,” she would say. “Let me wash your face. Set down. Let me fix your hair.” She liked to fix hair better than anything, but she didn’t have anyone’s to fix except her own or maybe one of her girl cousins when she saw them. Her mommy would slap her hands away and go straight to the pan of water on the table and drink from the dipper. She’d just about drink the whole pan dry, and Sudie would be glad for that at least. She kept the water fresh and when her mommy wasn’t looking, she emptied the pan and washed it as well as the dipper in a large basin of hot soapy water. Her mother said never to wash the pan or dipper because the water came from the top of the mountain and it was so clean there was no need to. Sharing the dipper with family and friends couldn’t taint it, but soap spoiled the flavor.

“You warshed this da-gum pan again, didn’t you?” her mother would say. She could always tell. Always, always.

“No, Mommy. I ain’t touched it.”

“I can’t stand a liar, and you’re standing here lying right in my face. I’ve worked like a dog all day in the sun and now I ain’t got no water to drink.”

“That water’s good, Mommy. Look here.” And Sudie would drink from the dipper, water rolling down both sides of her mouth, and hand the ladle to her mother. But she would only turn and walk into the other room to the easy chair. It was her daddy’s chair, but he never sat in it. “Leave it for Mother,” he would say. “She’ll be tarred when she comes indoors.” Her mother would go to the chair and sit with her eyes closed, never stretching out but sitting upright in a slump like a sack of potatoes.

THESE DAMP STONES, Installment 9

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

 

CHAPTER TWO

May 1965

 

            The other whores were asleep. And having had only the company of two coal miners and a rail yard worker the night before, Sudie rose now to scrub the floors of the opera house. The others laughed at her and often took advantage, spilling beer or crushing out cigarettes on the old mosaic tiles. Leaving clothes discarded by anxious customers strewn over poker tables or dropped to the floor right where they’d stood.

Sudie didn’t mind. Not really. Although she did wish the others would let the old house stand, just for a minute or two, in the order she put it in. Sometimes she could almost see what it had once been. Coiled double staircases in the front hall. A balcony that wrapped three sides of the main room where there once had been a stage and rows and rows of velvet-covered chairs. Long heavy curtains like spun gold. There would have been a big chandelier in the vestibule. The high ceiling still held the memory of a stencil, hand-painted in a soft robin’s egg blue she loved. Like a pretty doily way up high where you wouldn’t expect it.

Famous people had been here, she knew, though she couldn’t name any. Artemis Looney owned the place now, and whatever he remembered of the opera house from his youth, he kept to himself, offering instead a new history of the place, a history of his own fashioning. No one remembered the original name of the opera house, but unofficially Art called it the Devil’s Tea Table, after the rock formation nearby. There was no sign outside; he wasn’t advertising anything. As far as anyone in Clinch knew, it was just a derelict old building where he took in wayward girls whose parents had shunned them after some kind of trouble they’d gotten into. Pregnancies, most often. That’s what had brought Sudie there. She’d been fifteen years old, and the baby had looked so much like her own mother that her mother agreed to keep it. A swap-out, she called it. A chance to do better next time, not make the same mistakes they’d made with Sudie. Then she’d turned her own daughter out of her house. Hard-hearted, the woman was.

For a while, Sudie had lived with an aunt and uncle over in Johnnycake, but when she turned sixteen and the boy who’d knocked her up still hadn’t proposed to marry her, they too sent her away. They’d been kind though. Mostly.

Sudie heard men talking outside and peered down into the driveway from one of the only windows that had not been boarded up in the house. It wasn’t quite noon, and there was a dump truck in the yard bringing another load of gravel, a “gift” from Bascom Estep while he figured out how to pay off his gambling debts. She lit a cigarette and watched the men, two fellas from the crash program and one of Art’s thugs, until the one asking where to unload the truck glanced up and saw her. She didn’t know why his noticing her would make her jump – men noticed her all the time – but it did. She let the sheer curtain fall between them and leaned back, though after a while, she eased forward again and studied the man. She’d never seen him before. He was rightly good-looking, but she liked men and looked for things that were pretty in what was otherwise unattractive. She didn’t mind baldness if a man had pretty eyes or strong hands. She liked what was different about men, the scratch of their faces, their uncombed heads, the smell of smoke on their skin. One man she’d known had had a goiter, but that wasn’t any worse than the ones with yellow toenails that stank or the ones with missing digits or limbs. She hadn’t met a man yet who didn’t have something he’d rather hide out of sight. Sudie’s job, as she saw it, was to make them forget those things, to look past them to what they wanted people to see. Their better angels, as one of her teachers used to say when Sudie was in school.