Burnice

After my grandfather died, when I was in high school, my grandmother moved to a ground-floor apartment in a building where my father and mother had lived after they got married, just before I was born. Besides being in an old building a fraction of the size of her house, my grandmother smoked, so everything about my memory of her time there has a low-light sepia tint to it, as well as a worn smell of cigarettes that seemed soaked into the foundation. I began going over there in the afternoons to read after I graduated from college. I planned on becoming a writer and saw these afternoons of reading as essential, but I was mainly just getting out of my parents’ house. I’d had a brain-stem stroke the summer after my sophomore year, and my parents had understandably become hoverers.

O’mama would take her two fingers of bourbon and Coca-Cola into the small den to watch Judge Judy while I sat at the dining room table and lost track of time. She occasionally came out for more fingers and to report on the latest case, always idiotic and easily simplified by Judy, and to ask if I needed anything. As the afternoon wore on, she would pull out a chair (hesitantly at first) and sit down to tell me stories from her past, usually without context. Sometimes her stories were clearly figments of her imagination, as when she told me a welder in the family who’d worked for NASA was a chief engineer for the Apollo rocket. Sometimes her stories, for instance, the one about the time Dizzy Dean accidentally knocked her down as he ran from the parking lot to the field at the St. Louis Cardinals baseball stadium, sounded made-up but turned out to be true.

One day as she set her stained disposable cup on the table before sitting, she said, “When I married George I already knew about his sister, but I was shocked when I met her. Lela was only a couple of years younger than me. She wasn’t flat-out retarded like my nephew Bill. Lela was like a wild animal in her fits, and at other times she was like a little girl in a grown body. The first thing she did after George introduced us was take me to see their refrigerator. This was during the Depression, but we’d had a refrigerator out home for years. It was a Frigidaire with the works up top, just like ours, and she was so proud.” O’mama paused to make me think she was debating something. “And if you ever tell anybody what I’m about to tell you, I’ll deny it.” O’mama smiled like a little girl.

“When your mama was just a baby, George was on the road for the gas company all the time. We lived in Birmingham by then, but when he was gone, sometimes for nine and ten days at a stretch, I would go back to Schrock and stay with my mama. After Daddy died, she never remarried, so it was just her and Wirt Jr. out there in that big house. He was in high school at the time, sixteen or seventeen years old. Because I had your mama with me, he said he’d come pick us up and drive us back when George returned. To get to Schrock, you went right by Reform, where George’s folks lived, so on the way back we stopped for the night. Your mama and I were in one room, and Wirt Jr. was in another. In the middle of the night, Lela went into his room, took off her nightgown, and tried to get in the bed with him. I heard him calling my name, not loud enough to wake everybody up, but urgent, scared. It must have scared her too, because she ran off, but then he came and got in the bed with me. We left early the next morning, so we didn’t see her again. He never went back, either. Of course, he didn’t say anything to George.” O’mama shook her head. “It’s pitiful, really.”

I asked if she ever told Granddaddy, and she looked at me like she didn’t understand. Then she held up her hands and hunched her shoulders like she did when she hadn’t heard something, and I didn’t repeat myself. Instead, I wondered aloud if there wasn’t anything his parents could’ve done for Lela.

“They put her in Bryce’s Mental Hospital for periods of time, but then they’d bring her right back home. That was a mistake. She needed to be somewhere permanently. And she only got worse as she got older. Luckily, Lela didn’t live much longer after the episode with Wirt Jr. She started jumping off the roof of their barn into piles of hay. George’s parents were sure they were going to find her one day hanging from the rafters. Some of the cows started dying too, and by the time they figured out Lela was sneaking out at night and strangling them, half the herd was gone. When she was twenty-eight, she was doing one of her stretches at Bryce’s, and she drowned herself in the bathtub. It was ruled an accident, but I’m sure it was on purpose. Anyhow, they stopped letting the patients take baths afterward—only showers.”

“How do you know?”

“Because they removed the tubs.”

“No. Why are you sure it was on purpose?”

“E-god,” she said, “can you imagine living like that?”

Because of its reliability, the mail had become paramount in O’mama’s life. She treated it all equally too, dutifully reading Publishers Clearing House ads with the same concern she gave to bills and letters. She and her sister Ninny in Mississippi wrote each other every day since the time O’mama had married, over fifty years before, and when Ninny died, her daughter, also in Mississippi, took over the reins. So on days when the mail wasn’t delivered, she became more self-conscious than usual.

One day when the mail hadn’t come before I got there, she said, “Is today a holiday? I wonder if Wanda’s mad at me for something? I’m usually the first stop on her route.”

“I think today is Presidents’ Day. I know the schools are closed. So probably no mail, either.”

“I just hate it when they do that. Now Jan’s not going to get my card until after her birthday.”

“You haven’t always been this way about the mail, have you? You weren’t like this when you and Granddaddy lived on Clairmont. I don’t remember it, anyway.” I’d started to rack up short story rejections and had become as dutiful about the mail as O’mama was, which scared me.

“I was just a girl when Schrock first got on a route. Alec Owlsley, our cousin, used to bring in the mail every day from Goodman. He drove a wagon that was pulled by two horses, not just one. Everybody had a box set up in front of the store, probably twelve of us, and we’d all be there when he came. He’d sometimes make an extra trip in the evening after some boy dropped off a note he wrote me. They knew he’d do it, because Daddy always gave him a drink.”

“I thought alcohol was illegal then. When was this?”

“It must have been ’25 or ’26. But Daddy made his own there at Schrock. Alec died not long after, from undulant fever.” O’mama had no idea what that was, but she would latch onto obscure memories like that, usually a word or a line of poetry she once had to memorize and now recalled solely by rhythmic sound.

Eventually, my visits became nothing more than an opportunity for her to talk. I brought books with me less and less. The television remained off, and except for when she would stand ten feet away to smoke cigarettes, the entire visit took place at the dining room table. Often she started talking right as I came in the door, and I knew she’d been “remembering” since the last time I was there. The stories all circled around each other, so clarification became less of an issue. I began to see O’mama’s exasperation with context, especially when she would confuse names and generations. Whenever she went blank, I’d ask a question as if it were a continuation from before, even if it wasn’t, and that usually started the ball rolling again.

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