Needlework, The Novel
Julie completed the first draft of her novel, Needlework, in 1997. After discussions with her agent and a publisher, she began revising that draft until her illness made it impossible to continue. I have compiled the latest versions of Needlework I found in her files.
I am publishing that compilation of her novel, a chapter at a time in serial fashion, on AllanShowalter.com. All posted portions of Needlework can be accessed at Needlework – With Links To Published Portions.
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
Needlework – Chapter 9: PDF Download
To download a PDF version of Chapter 9 of Needlework by Julie Showalter, go to Needlework: Chapter 9 – PDF
Needlework – Chapter 9: Manuscript
Needlework – Chapter 9
The Wilson Brothers Funeral Home was a single story white brick building which shared a parking lot with the Piggly Wiggly. Giant white columns and a covered drive-through had been added for dignity. From a distance, it looked silly — white columns ending at a flat gray-shingled roof next to a building with a smiling pig wearing a grocery hat. But once you got close enough to lose sight of the roof, you felt like you were approaching Tara.
We drove over at two in Aunt Baby’s car. Daddy’s car was already in the parking lot. Pauline sat inside smoking with all the windows rolled up. When she saw us she got out and ground out her cigarette. “Mom was here,” she told Aunt Baby, “but she wanted to leave before Grandmother Hopewell got here. I didn’t want to stay in there by myself.”
Daddy helped Granno out of the car, then put his arm around Pauline.
The air inside the funeral home was cool and smelled like carnations. The dimness was soothing after the harsh glare of the afternoon sun. Organ music came out of boxes on the wall — “The Old Rugged Cross.” We walked on the rose-patterned carpet past two viewing rooms. The names of the deceased were written in perfect calligraphy on heavy note cards placed in slots on the doors. Just outside each door was a guest book to sign, white leather for a woman, burgundy leather for a man. The third door held the card, “Cletus Rufus Hopewell.” A memory — Uncle Clete joking, “I’m Cletus Rufus and this is my wife, Lila Rufus.” I thought he’d made up both names. I didn’t even know his name was really Cletus. Daddy’s real name was Jimmy Ray, not James Raymond.
I stayed at the door while everyone else walked into the room. About twenty folding chairs had been set up facing an elevated platform. The three hundred dollar coffin looked as cheap as Aunt Baby had said. From where I was standing, I could see part of Uncle Clete’s nose, maybe his forehead. The music switched. Tennessee Ernie Ford singing “In the Garden.” A cross hung on the wall behind the coffin. On either side were the Christian flag and the American flag.
I stepped back and looked at the guest book. Instead of the leather I’d seen outside the other rooms, Uncle Clete had a paperbound book, like the nicest notebook you could buy in Woolworth’s school supply section. I swallowed and looked at the ceiling. There was no reason to get upset. Uncle Clete wouldn’t know about it. Uncle Clete was dead.
Should I sign the book? Did relatives sign? No one else had signed it yet. I didn’t want to be the first.
Granno came out. She slumped down in the chair beside me, fanning herself. “It’s too much,” she said. “It’s all just too much. Why did the Lord choose to put so many burdens on an old widow woman?”
I walked into the viewing room and sat down in the row farthest from the casket. I looked at the ceiling, the flags, the carpet, anywhere but at Uncle Clete. Granno came in leaning on Aunt Maureen. They walked to the front and studied Uncle Clete. Then Granno straightened and turned to me. “Come here, Jaynice. Come look at your Uncle.” I walked to the front and stood beside her. She clutched at my arm. “Doesn’t he look wonderful? It’s a joy to see him look so good.”
I had never looked at a dead body before. When I was twelve and Mother’s Uncle Frank died, I waited in the hall at the funeral home. They had a closed casket when Lemmie Johnson, a boy in my class, was killed by a drunk driver. Other funerals I’d been to, I managed not to look. If you sit low enough and far back enough, you don’t have to see anything. Then at the end, when you have to walk by, you just look at your feet.
But Granno had me by the arm. “See. Doesn’t he look good?”
Surprisingly, she was right. He did look good. Pink and rouged, but good. The pain was gone from his face. And they gave him a smile. It wasn’t quite that sly, shy handsome Hopewell boy smile, but it was close.
I closed my eyes. I’d rather remember Uncle Clete in the hospital with tubes in his nose. At least he was still himself then. Better yet, I thought of him coming through the swinging doors at the restaurant, white shirt sleeves rolled up, open collar, a white apron high around his waist, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, squinting from the smoke, smiling to see me.
“He looks so peaceful,” Granno said. “Don’t you think?”
I wanted to say, “No. He looks dead,” but I couldn’t. She was eighty-five years old, looking at a man who was her baby once. “Yes, Granno, he looks peaceful,” I said. “He doesn’t hurt any more.” I studied him like she wanted me to, but I didn’t look at his face. After a minute I said, “He looks nice in a suit.”
“He got this when Pauline got married. He only wore it three or four times in all. It’s a shame, a good suit like that going to waste. Maybe it could be made over for Jimmy.” Her voice faltered, became distant. “Still, I guess we have to bury him in something. I just hate to waste a good suit like that.”
His hands were folded left over right so the ruby ring showed. Someone would have to take it off him later. Granno asked me, “Did you bring a camera?” I shook my head. “No one else thought to either. I want pictures of him. Don’t you want your picture taken with him?”
I went back out into the hallway, relieved Granno hadn’t made me touch him. She had touched him, patted his cheek like you’d pat a little boy who was too big to let his mother hug him. I cried quietly, for Granno’s loss, for everybody’s loss, not just mine.
Daddy walked through and went out the back door. I followed after a couple of minutes and found him leaning against a wall across from the hearse. When he saw me, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I hate doing this on the cheap,” he said. “Clete always liked nice things. He wouldn’t like some kind of cardboard coffin.”
“Do you really think it would bother him?” I asked. “I mean, it’s not like he’s here to see it.”
“Yes, I do. Clete never drove a Chevy if he could afford a Buick. He liked things to be nice. Like that ring. He’d never settle for a little ring. Either a ring like he wanted, or none at all. Now he’s being buried in a cardboard box and everyone in town will know he died broke.” He ground his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe. “Yeah, that would bother him.”
“Could we make it nicer?”
“No, your Aunt Baby’s right. We’re all going to have to split this up, and nobody can afford more. Maureen and Henry, maybe, but you can’t ask them to pay more than their share. And Pauline doesn’t have any money.” He shook his head. “I just wish the coffin didn’t look so cheap.”
“Maybe it’s not as bad as you think,” I said. “Nobody will notice.” I sounded like a two- bit Pollyanna. People would notice. They would judge Uncle Clete’s life as sub-par on a standard that was important to him. My words hung in the air. I tried again, thinking before I spoke this time. “It’s too bad we can’t give him a fancier funeral. But I think the main thing is that no matter what things look like, we know he wasn’t a failure.”
How could I say that? By every reasonable standard, Uncle Clete had failed. But I look back and think of him standing tall and proud, think of how much my daddy and Aunt Baby loved him. Think of an eight-year old boy brave enough to tackle a mean dog. Remember him handing me my doll and saying, “We’ll sure miss you.” There was weakness in my uncle, but there was also goodness and strength. He was not a failure to those of us he loved and tried to protect.
Daddy put his arm around my head and held me in a kind of hammerlock. “That’s my good girl,” he said.
When we walked back into the viewing room, a man in a black suit was trying to give Pauline some papers. “What’s going on?” Daddy asked.
“Nothing, nothing. Just a formality. We like for the next-of-kin to sign a demand note outlining when we can expect payment.”
“Is this your usual practice?” Daddy asked.
“Well, it’s not unusual. Especially in cases where the next-of-kin live out of state.”
Aunt Baby stepped in. “He’s asking her to sign something that says she’ll pay $1,600 in ten days.”
“Oh, no, no,” Mr. Wilson said. “She doesn’t have to pay it in ten days. She just has to secure a bank loan or sign over significant collateral in ten days.”
Sixteen hundred dollars! Nobody in our family had $1,600 sitting around.
Aunt Baby’s voice was calm. “I’ll take care of it. You’ll get your money right after the funeral on Saturday, all of it.”
“Fine, Mrs. Henderson,” Mr. Wilson turned his attention to the one who offered to pay. “So, would you just sign here.”
“No, I will not sign. I am a Hopewell and if that’s not enough, I’m a Henderson. I have never had a bad debt in my life.”
“Yes. Well. I think your word will be satisfactory, Mrs. Henderson. There’s no need for these formalities among people who respect each other.”
As soon as he left the room, Daddy asked, “Baby, do you have $1,600?”
“Well, not on me, Jimmy.” She tried to hold her high tone, but she cracked a smile. Then she shrugged “No, I don’t have the money, but I can borrow against my profit sharing.” She shook her head. “I just wanted to bring him down a peg. We can’t have him worrying Pauline like this.” She patted Pauline’s arm. “You don’t need to thank me. Just don’t let that mortician near me, and somebody make sure we get every single thing we’ve paid for.”
We got back to Granno’s a little after 5:00. How could a day be so long? This morning, only fourteen hours ago, Uncle Clete was alive. Now we’d all seen him dead and laid out. And even with Granno’s early bed time, there was still at least four hours left in the day.
Daddy said, “Jan, your mother will be getting in sometime during the night. Why don’t you and Pauline take my car and head over to Lila’s. You sleep there and bring the car back in the morning.”
Don’t let him out of your sight. Daddy had two ways to start drinking. One was to capitalize on a holiday or a celebration: “It’s Christmas Eve. Can’t we relax on Christmas Eve?” The other was to get everybody out of the way and go off by himself. Those were the worst times, when we didn’t know where he was.
“You’re sure you don’t need me?”
He considered my question, didn’t jump to answer or snap like he was trying to get rid of me. “No, can’t think of anything. You go sleep in a real bed tonight, get away from this house.” He put his hand on my neck. “Try to relax.” He would be OK. I was sure he’d be OK.
Pauline and I stepped out on the porch as a red pickup pulled up in front. The helpful nurse got out, still wearing her tight jeans. She carried a plate of what looked like green straw. Pauline felt me stiffen. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“We met her at the hospital. That is, Daddy met her in the hospital.” “Oh.”
By then the nurse had reached us. “I was so touched by your family’s tragedy. When I got off my shift today, I rushed right home and made up these coconut surprises.” She looked past us to the screen door. “Is the rest of the family here?”
“Most are gone. Or resting,” I said. “I’ll take these in. Is your name on the plate? It was so nice of you to think of us.”
Just then Daddy walked out on the porch. He smiled when he saw her. “Well. Thanks for coming by. Want to sit on the porch with me while I smoke?” To Pauline and me, he said, “You girls run on now. Lila will wonder what’s happened to you.”
Once we were in the car, Pauline said, “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen. He’s got too much on his mind right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jimmy’s not going to go off with that woman. I’ve been watching him and Daddy all my life. I know when a woman’s got her hooks into one of them. And this one doesn’t.
Jimmy’s preoccupied.” She shrugged. “Anyway, she’s probably too nice. They don’t get involved with nice women. When they whore around, they pick whores.”
My eyes widened. Women I knew didn’t talk like this. “Do you understand them?”
“I can figure out the when, but I’ve never understood the why.” She thought for a minute, “I don’t know. It seems like Jimmy and Daddy are like big sexy babies that women want to take care of. And just like babies, they’ll suck any tit that’s put in their face.”
I looked out the window so she wouldn’t see me blush. “Did you ever wonder why our mothers put up with it?”
“Yeah A lot of the time when I was growing up I thought Mother was a real sap. I couldn’t understand why she kept taking him back. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t going to have a marriage like that. I wasn’t going to marry a man with a sweet smile that melted every woman he turned it on.”
“I feel that way too,” I said tentatively.
“Watch out, though.” Pauline laughed, a quick bark. “I got what I wanted, but the joke’s on me. I found out that there are worse things than a man who likes women.”
I thought about the bruises on her arm, the way Fred had pulled her head back and kissed her, and realized what she was saying. I’d never known a woman who was beaten by her husband. I’d always thought my father and Uncle Clete were the worst kinds of husbands, but Pauline was right. There are worse things than a man who likes women.
“How about you?” Pauline asked.
“Fine. It’s worked out fine. Richard doesn’t notice other girls. He camps and hunts,” I said. “My competition is a bunch of guys who think it’s fun to smear fox urine all over themselves and go sit in the woods waiting for a deer to wander by.” I’d meant it as a joke, but it didn’t sound like one and Pauline didn’t laugh.
When we got to Aunt Lila’s there was a pickup parked out front. Pauline pulled into the driveway and we walked through the dark kitchen into the living room.
I’d gone a few hours without thinking about David Baxter, so I was caught off guard to see him in my aunt’s living room. He rose from the couch and smiled at me when we came in. I did better at holding his gaze this time. Looked him right in the eye and smiled back.
“Well little David,” Pauline said. “I might not have known you, all growed up and haired out. You gonna give me a hug?” It was David’s turn to blush as Pauline put her arms around his neck. He stood with his arms at his side, then patted her on the back like you’d test an iron.
Through the front screen we saw another pickup pull to the curb. “It’s more of Clete’s friends,” Aunt Lila said. “Come on, Pauline, let’s let ‘em maul us.” They walked to the front porch and I was alone with David.
“Would you like a Coke? Or something?” I asked.
He followed me into the kitchen and sat at the table watching me while I scouted around for glasses and Cokes. By the time I sat down across from him, I had thought of something to say. “So, vet school. You must really like animals.”
“Well I do, but that’s only part of it. If this war ended, I might decide a B.S. was enough education for the likes of me. But,” he drank his Coke, “the way it’s looking, another three years in school may not be long enough.”
The draft. In high school nobody knew yet we were in a war. Boys in ROTC marched around in uniforms not knowing that little more than a year later it wouldn’t be pretend. At Winchester, boys were worried about their grades and keeping their student deferments. I hadn’t thought much about the war. It was just something else that Richard and I were safe from. He had a funny kind of heart beat, something kind of like a murmur. We’d already had all the inconvenience that Viet Nam would cause us. In May Richard was called to Kansas City to take a physical. Rode the bus all the way with boys from Athens and Monett just to have a doctor spend five seconds listening to his heart and tell him to wait on a bench until the bus was ready to take him home.
David smiled at me. “Yep. That Viet Nam conflict is going to gain the world one fine professional man.”
I laughed, looked him in the eye, and relaxed. He was just a normal guy, not even spectacularly handsome. And it wasn’t like he knew that I’d used his picture and his name. David could be my first grown up male friend. I wasn’t quite sure how you made friends with a man. Boys I was friendly with had always fallen into three groups: the ones my friends were dating, Richard’s friends, and Richard. It would be a sign of maturity if I could make friends with David.
“So what would you do instead if you could choose what you wanted?” I asked.
He leaned back, tilting the front legs of his chair off the ground. “You know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to take a year off and just wander around. Go to California and see what all that’s about out there. See England. Go to Europe — kids are going all the time now. They get one of these train passes and they go everywhere. It doesn’t cost much. I’ve got the money — I’ve worked every summer and after school since I was twelve. It’d be fun to just say ‘to hell with it all’ and take off. Shit, I’ve never even been out of Texas except to Oklahoma.”
“I’m one up on you,” I said. “I’ve been in three states — Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.”
“That’s what I don’t understand,” he said. “You could do anything. You girls have all the freedom. And you tie yourself down the first chance you get.” I was speechless at the notion that I had more freedom than a boy. At Winchester, freshman women had an eight o’clock curfew on week nights. The boys would bring the girls back to the dorms at eight then take off to wherever they wanted to go. “I look at you and Pauline,” David said. “She had all the fire and craziness and you — you’re supposed to be the smartest thing on two legs — and you both came up with the same answer. I’m serious. I don’t mean to offend you, but why are you doing it? Why are you getting married when there’s so many other things to do?”
“I love Richard.” I stammered and it came out as kind of a question.
“I’m sorry, but why does that mean you marry the guy right now? I mean it’s not like you have to be married to have sex anymore.” I probably went beyond blushing to looking like I’d had a stroke. “Oh my God. You don’t still believe that do you?”
It was the first time I’d ever had to defend myself for having moral thoughts. “No,” I swallowed hard. “You don’t have to be married to have sex.” I smiled at the table like Daddy would. This could get me in trouble. “But it helps if you’re engaged.”
David hooted, and I laughed too, proud that I’d told a risqué joke. I wished Pauline had heard it. Mother would be horrified. Richard, I knew, wouldn’t see the joke. He would think it was a reasonable statement.
From the time Richard and I started having sex my junior year, he’d assumed we’d be married someday. Richard was nice about sex — always concerned about hurting me and did I really want to do it. I usually did really want to, even if I couldn’t say I’d ever been overcome by passion. We’d just cuddled and cuddled in his parked car for months and finally it seemed the next thing to do. The books that the preacher gave me said that passion developed after marriage. I was looking forward to it.
Aunt Lila’s voice in the living room was hearty. “If you boys don’t mind, I’m going to kick you out now. I haven’t had much time with these girls.” She came through the swinging door into the kitchen. “That means you too, David. I’m going to scoot you out. Us gals need to let our hair down.”
David picked up his hat, cocked his finger at me and said, “I’m not letting you off the hook. The next time I see you I want an answer to my question.” He gave me a wink that set off a tingle in the pit of my stomach. No, to be honest, it was lower and it was more than a tingle. Maybe I wasn’t grown up enough to be talking and joking about sex after all. I didn’t feel the way I thought an engaged woman should feel.
Pauline, Aunt Lila, and I stood on the porch watching all the callers drive away.
“Those ole’ boys don’t know where or how to pay their respects,” Aunt Lila said. “They always got Clete in trouble since they were boys. They know your grandmother will yell at them if they go over there. So they showed up here to cry in their beers.” She laughed. “And that’s no joke. Look what they brought for the grieving widow — a bag of Fritos, a jar of jalapeños, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Oh, and a six pack of Lone Star, but there’s only three of those left. Yes sir, girls, we are fixed for a party tonight.”
She hugged us both, pulling Pauline’s hair back from her face and looking at her closely, “How you doing?”
“I’m fine, Mama.” Pauline lowered her head quickly and walked into the house.
“I’ll tell you what,” Aunt Lila said closing the door behind her. “I’ve about cried enough over Clete Hopewell for one lifetime. Or at least for one day. What say we unwind a little.” She moved on into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door still talking to us. “Now I don’t think this is a sin. I’ve heard Catholics have a big party when somebody dies. And they’re real religious, always praying on their knees.” She rummaged around inside, “I know you’ve been eating funeral food all day. How about a hot tamale dip? And I’ve got the fixin’s for margaritas. Or we got three bottles of beer. Or we got Jack Daniel’s. Or we got Tab. Or we got Jack Daniel’s and Tab. What’ll it be, ladies?”
“I never had a margarita,” I said. My experience with alcohol was limited to a beer every so often with Richard. A margarita sounded like the kind of drink a sophisticated woman who made risqué jokes would have.
I’ll have Tab,” Pauline said.
Aunt Lila straightened up and looked at her, “OK, then it’s margaritas for you and me, Jan. Here, get the juicer and start squeezing these limes.”
I’d been worried about Daddy, but I was the one who got drunk that night. Not falling- down, throwing-up drunk, but slur-your-words, everything’s-funny drunk. Drunk enough to put my sadness over Uncle Clete in the back of my mind, drunk enough not to recognize the importance of the things I saw and heard.
We stretched out on the sofa and the floor and we talked about Uncle Clete, his courtship of Aunt Lila, his wild ways. Talking about Uncle Clete meant talking about Daddy too. “That Jimmy,” Aunt Lila said. “When Clete and I got married, he was in high school. I’ve never seen a boy that age so silly about his big brother. As soon as we opened the first cafe of our own Clete hired Jimmy to wash dishes. Then before you knew it, he was helping us cook.” She laughed. “Of course, he used us for excuses. He’d go out with his buddies and get drunk and tell your grandmother that he spent the night with us.”
She picked up her stemmed glass, checked to see if she’d left a circle on the mahogany table, and licked salt from the rim. “It was like that for three years. Jimmy was kind of half-brother, half-kid at our house. Pauline, you were toddling then. Being the baby of the family, Jimmy had never been around little ones much, and he fell for you like a ton of bricks.” She chuckled. “And you were Jimmy’s girl from the git-go. He would play with you for hours. You said ‘Chimmy’ before you said ‘daddy.’”
She brought the pitcher of margaritas from the kitchen and refilled our glasses. “Sure you don’t want some?” she asked Pauline.
“No, I think I’ll just go freshen up my Tab.” Aunt Lila reached for Pauline’s glass, but Pauline said, “I’ll do it. You stay here and talk to Jan.”
Aunt Lila settled back down. She put a cigarette into a long black holder. “This thing’s supposed to help me stop smoking. You keep turning this dial so you get less and less smoke through it. All it’s doing is training me to suck like a vacuum cleaner.” She threw back her head and laughed. “Clete would have loved that — he’d say, ‘good skill for a wife to have.’ I can see him grinning and saying that.”
I didn’t know if my head was reeling from the alcohol or from the things I was hearing. Did my mother talk like this with other women? Did Aunt Baby?
“Oh, to hell with it,” Aunt Lila said, and she threw the cigarette holder toward the wastepaper basket in the corner. On her way back into the room, Pauline bent and picked it up in slow motion, bracing herself against the wall.
“Anyway,” Aunt Lila said, “those were good years. The War was going on so everyone had money again. The Hopewell boys had about every exemption from the draft you could think of — Othel and Ralph were too old, Clete had that bad leg. And, Jan, your grandmother agitated and wrote letters and was just plain obstreperous and mean until she got Jimmy deferred for being the last son taking care of aged parents on a family farm — total horse crap, but she got it. I think the chairman of the draft board decided he’d rather go fight Germans himself than try to send Leona Hopewell’s baby boy.”
I sat cross-legged like at Girl Scout at a camp out. Aunt Lila told great stories and I wanted to keep her going. “Nobody ever told me any of this. Mother acts like she doesn’t know anything about the Hopewells, and you know how much Daddy talks.” I reached for a cigarette just to see how it felt to hold one. I might take up smoking every now and then just for something different to do. “So what happened? How did Daddy end up in the Navy?”
“Well, your daddy stood it for two years after high school, but by ‘44 he got crazy thinking the war was going to end without him seeing it. He drove over to the Navy recruiter in Hale Center and signed up. Your granddaddy and all the boys were pretty proud of him, but your grandmother pitched a fit. She couldn’t get the Navy to back down, but she didn’t give up easy. She started having heart spells.
“When Jimmy came home on leave that last time before shipping out, she pulled such a good one that Dr. McCarthy put her in the hospital. When your daddy left to go fight the Japanese, one of the last pictures he had of this place was of his mother saying, ‘My baby boy’s killing me.’” Aunt Lila snorted. “Fine way to send a young man off to war.”
I followed her into the kitchen where she put me to squeezing more limes. “What about my mother?” I asked. “Did you know her then?”
She paused with her hand on the open freezer door. “No. We knew he’d met a girl where he was training at the college over in Canyon, but he never brought her home. The first we knew for sure about your mother was when he wrote from California that he was going to marry Mildred Hailey. We didn’t even know it was the same girl at first.” She pulled out a tray of ice cubes and dumped them onto a kitchen towel. “Your mother’s folks went to San Diego for the wedding, I guess, but none of us could make it on short notice. For a while we didn’t hear from Jimmy much because he was in battle.” I tried to clear my head.
Something didn’t fit with story Mother told about the wedding.
Aunt Lila paused, ready to crush the ice with a meat mallet. “A couple of months later, he wrote that Mildred was expecting. We already knew then that I couldn’t have any more kids. He said, ‘Tell Pauline her Chimmy might bring her home a little sister.’ He always seemed sure you’d be a girl.”
She hit the ice five hard cracks and dumped it in the blender. “Then all of a sudden the war in Europe was over, then the bombs dropped, and then the Japanese gave up. You were born about a month later. Once you and your mother were strong enough to travel, you all came home to Eunice.” The end of Mother’s story — The magic was that everything happened almost all at once.
“We met your mother and you at the same time.” Aunt Lila stopped her work and leaned against the counter. “Clete was so excited that Jimmy was coming home that he could barely stand it. He kept saying, ‘That boy’s a hero.’ That’s the closest I ever saw a Hopewell come to bragging about one of their own. And then he’d just smile — you know the way those boys smile. Clete didn’t let on, but it bothered him a lot that he couldn’t fight. It especially bothered him that his little brother was in danger and there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
“Clete even made a big sign on your grandparents’ porch to welcome your daddy. I can see it like it was yesterday.” She stopped her work, lost in the thought of Uncle Clete at twenty-five. “Anyway, the car drove up and Clete went running around and lifted your daddy out of the driver’s side. Never saw two Hopewell men do more than shake hands except that day.
“Your mother got out holding you. She was so beautiful, it kind of took everybody back for a minute. She didn’t have red hair then. It was dark brown, really striking against her pale skin. Then we realized that she was pale because she was about to faint. The long drive had been too much for her. We got her inside and put her to bed, but she wouldn’t let anyone else take care of the baby. Wouldn’t let you out of her sight.
“That was kind of the end of the big party we’d planned. First your mother got sick. Then the next thing I knew Clete was sick too. Some kind of flu that came over him all of a sudden.”
I could close my eyes and picture the whole scene. Everybody young like they were in the picture taken after Granddaddy’s funeral. Mother hanging onto me even if she was sick. The party for Daddy forgotten in the commotion.
“So did Pauline like having me as a little sister?”
“Well, that didn’t quite work out. Your mother was kind of protective, and she didn’t want a four-year old holding you. And it seemed to make her mad if people said you looked like Pauline. She didn’t want you compared to anybody but her family. She’d say, ‘Jan looks just like the Haileys,’ or ‘Jan looks just like my baby pictures.’ I guess since you were the only grandchild on that side it was important to her.”
Aunt Lila poured the lime juice and several liquids from different bottles into the blender. “Secret recipe.” She made Groucho eyebrows at me.”
When the blender slowed to a whir, she said, “Maybe the maddest I ever saw your mother, was when your grandmother said you had red hair just like Pauline’s. Mildred grabbed you and said, ‘She doesn’t have red hair at all. Her hair’s the same color as mine.’ I guess since it wasn’t, she dyed hers the color of yours. She’s been a redhead ever since.” She poured the drinks.
I tried blinking hard to clear my head. So much information. So much tequila. So much Jack Daniel’s. The bottle was behind the canisters. “Aunt Lila,” I said as I picked it up, “you forgot to put in the Jack Daniel’s.”
“You don’t use Jack Daniel’s in margaritas,” she said. The bottle, brand new earlier that evening, was now less than half full. Aunt Lila’s head dropped and she seemed to collapse inside herself. “Shit,” she said, shaking her head, “Fred said she was drinking bad, but I didn’t want to believe it.”
In the living room, Pauline was asleep face-up on the couch. She snored softly in small wet bubbles. Aunt Lila shook her gently. “Pauline,” she said, “time to go to bed. Come on, Sweetie, it’s late.”
Pauline opened her eyes and sat up quickly. “I’m O.K., Mother,” she said, shrugging away Aunt Lila’s hand. She stood and staggered, steadying herself against the sofa. Aunt Lila reached for her, but Pauline pushed her away. “I just stood up too quick. I’m going to bed.”
When she was out of the room, Aunt Lila picked up the glass she’d been drinking from and sniffed it. “Maybe some Tab in it,” she said, “maybe.” She leaned back and looked at the ceiling. “I didn’t want to believe it, and I sure didn’t want to face it today. Fred came by here around noon and told me she’s been drinking every day, said, ‘Good luck on having her sober at the funeral.’ He’s said mean things about her almost from the day they were married. I thought maybe this was just mean talk.”
“Maybe it is,” I said. “We all had more than we should tonight. It’s been a rough day, and she must be tired from the drive and all.” But that didn’t explain why she hid her drinking. “Maybe Fred’s got her so scared to take a drink, she thinks she has to hide it even when he’s not around.”
“I hope you’re right.” She stood and picked up the dishes on the coffee table. “Looks like the party’s over. I’ve got you sleeping in with Pauline. You go on to bed and I’ll clean this mess up. No. Go on. Pauline might talk to you.”
I tiptoed into the room and undressed in the dark. I climbed into bed beside Pauline, and she said, “I’m awake. I’m just lying here thinking.”
“About exactly when the last minute was I could have gotten out of the trap I set myself.”
My heart almost stopped for a minute. It felt like she was talking about me. “What do you mean? Pauline, what do you mean?”
The only answer was Pauline’s snoring.