Tennessee

Fiction by Constance Sayers


I had let the seeking of me go on a little too long for everyone’s comfort. My name echoed through the yard like a foghorn. The cousins peered up at trees and squeezed themselves under the shrubs attempting to zero in on my hiding place with the precision of a dull-witted infantry armed only with melting popsicles.

Crunched in the backseat of my parents ’71 Impala, I ignored them and turned my attention to the book in my hands. While the paper dustcover claimed it to be Homer, it was actually the Harold Robbins novel hidden underneath that had me transfixed. I had finished the real Homer by the time we reached Cincinnati, and it was now under the floor mat.

Another summer in Tennessee. My father explained he needed to spend time with his family. My mother’s side of the family didn’t seem to need such keeping. Quietly, she had given up her role as Maggie in the summer regional playhouse production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to be with us. The Playhouse responded quickly by changing their posters with the face of another actress wearing what had been my mother’s white slip. As I peered down the hill at the old farmhouse, I thought she had somehow gotten the raw end of the deal.

My book was getting good when I saw two dirty-blond pigtails appear at the car window. I knew they belonged to my cousin, Gertie. Gertie had one of those potbellies that children sometimes have. She was also messy, which meant she was forever spilling things, and her potbelly was catching them. Today, I could tell from the stains on her white tanktop she’d been drinking strawberry Kool-Aid. She put her chin on the open car window and looked at me.

“I found you,” she stated.

“Yep.” I didn’t look up.

“Why are you sitting in here? We were looking for you.”

“I’m reading,” I said.

“Marcus got tired of looking for you.” She paused. “Mom says we have to ask you to play with us.”

“I don’t want to play. I’m reading now.” I knew with the arrival of Gertie that what little peace I had enjoyed in the car was about to end. My cousins Marcus, Sara, and Nan swarmed the car, opening all the doors and crawling about the seats like wasps.

“She doesn’t want to play,” Gertie announced.

“She can’t play,” snapped Marcus. “She’s a big baby.” He squirmed in his seat and turned to Sara who was positioned at the wheel of the car. “I don’t like my seat,” he said. “I should drive. Girls can’t drive.” Marcus had gotten fat since I had seen him last summer. His face was red, and a thin layer of shiny sweat covered his smooth skin. He looked a little like a whale covered in a thin T-shirt.

“Shut up,” said Sara, coolly. She began moving the steering wheel back and forth like she was driving. Her brown, Carol Brady shag haircut oddly never moved.

My family didn’t live in Tennessee year-round, and this fact bothered Sara. Instead, I arrived every summer, and my grandmother spent more time with me than with the other kids. I’m sure the arrangement seemed equitable to my grandmother since she saw the other kids all year, but it didn’t sit well with Sara.

Sara was the self-appointed leader of my cousins’ social circle. She was the leader mostly because she would say things the other kid’s wouldn’t, and this raw nerve gave her power. Thinking back on it, I’m sure my cousins were just as afraid that her cruel streak would be turned on them, so they kept her pointed like a dagger right at me.

Not this summer. I was turning twelve, and something had changed in me. Back home in Cleveland, I had started smoking behind the drugstore with my friend, Vera. Vera had hair the color of black licorice that was cut into a sharp bob around her chin. She also went to Catholic school — a mysterious place for a Methodist like me — and her olive legs and yellow plaid school uniform looked downright exotic next to my public-school clothes and pasty, chubby legs.

I didn’t enjoy the cigarettes much because I couldn’t shake the coughing, so I just gave up and faked it. It was as though I had awakened to the fact I had been assembled and carved out of the sooty streets of Cleveland. As Vera and I stood in the alley with our Virginia Slims between our fingers, I could hear the brakes of the buses grinding and releasing and the screen door of the adjacent diner stretching on its rusty hinges and smacking shut against its frame.

So, this summer, I was more confident than ever that I could handle Sara. I chose my words carefully. “I can do whatever the hell I want to do,” I replied.

Sara smiled. She was a master of subtlety. “You swore,” she said. “I’m telling Grandma.”

I hadn’t counted on that comeback, but I couldn’t back down now. “Hell if I care,” I added.

“Say you’re sorry for swearing,” Sara demanded from the front seat. “Tell Jesus you’re sorry!” She tugged at the steering wheel with both hands. Her head bobbed from side to side like a metronome.

“Yeah,” added Marcus. His voice squeaked for a moment, “Say you’re sorry.” He’d flunked two grades. His mother, my Aunt Betty, liked to say he didn’t apply himself in school, but the simple fact was that Marcus was just dumb.

I said nothing.

Finally, Sara spoke. “I’m going to tell Grandma and your mother that you’re swearing, and then you’ll really get in trouble,” she said. Sara and I were now locked in a war of wills. Soon, she recruited one more for her side. “I’ll tell Grandma, won’t I, Nan?”

Nan knew her cue. Gertie’s older sister was normally pleasant, but like some bizarre chemical combination, Nan mixed with Sara produced a treacherous compound. “If Sara won’t tell, then I will.” Nan folded her arms in front of her.

“My mother won’t give a damn,” I said.

“That’s it. I’m telling.” Sara slammed the car door and peered into the back seat. Then she ran full speed to my grandmother’s house with Marcus, Nan, and Gertie following closely behind her.

I had wanted to stay in Cleveland. I had wanted to walk to the drugstore with Vera and fill up a candy bag filled with Swedish Fish and pumpkin seeds and eat them out of the tiny paper bags at the candy aisle. I hated spending the summer in Tennessee because I’d return in August to find that everything in Cleveland had changed. Vera would have picked up some other vice with a new friend because I never seemed to stay in one place long enough.

Within minutes, I watched my mother walk toward the car. Although her arms swung casually at her side and swept her hips, as a stage actress there was nothing carefree about her walk. I had seen her performance twice during the spring run. She looked different on set with the hot lights and auburn hair dye. She was the only mother I knew who still had long hair. She opened the driver’s side door and sat in the seat most recently occupied by Sara.

“She told on me,” I began. “I knew it.”

“What did you expect?” she said. She turned around to face me and her arm draped the front seat. She looked as though she were about to go on a leisurely drive. “You know they’re a bunch of Holy Rollers. Jesus, Maggie.”

“They hate me,” I replied.

“No, they don’t.”

I was about to protest when I noticed my mother looking at my book. It dawned on me that the thin Homer dustcover didn’t exactly fit her clunky Harold Robbins novel.

“Is that Harold Robbins? What are you doing reading that filth?”

“It’s yours,” I replied, as if that would matter.

She leaned forward to peel the book from my hand. “Go play with your cousins.”

“I finished Homer,” I said. I wanted her to know that I had done what she’d asked.

My mother’s face was stern. “You never finish reading someone as great as Homer,” she said. “Read him again.”

I didn’t want to read Homer again. That was something my father did. He didn’t care for the newest writers, the popular artists and musicians that my mother knew. He reread all the books he had read in college. While my mother’s book collection expanded to the point she had novels stacked in front of the bookcases, my father’s shelf never changed; it simply rotated.

My father taught English. This summer, he had decided to research Tennessee’s own short story writer, Peter Taylor, at Sewanee. I tried to act interested in his research because I hoped he’d take me along so I wouldn’t get stuck playing with my cousins, but by Kentucky, he’d changed his mind.

My mother fussed with her lipstick in the rearview mirror.

“I’d rather stay here and read,” I said.

She sighed deeply and slid her sunglasses down into position on her nose. I sensed a sudden change in her as she looked around the farm. “Margaret, we all have to do things we don’t want to do in life. It’s about time you got used to it. You need to grow up.”

“When are we going home?” I pressed. I meant our Tennessee home, the little cabin about five miles from my grandmother’s house. I wouldn’t have minded going back to our Cleveland bungalow, either. I tried a new strategy. I would stall her. “Did Tennessee Williams live here?”

She got a wide smile on her face. “No. He grew up in Mississippi, but Noel says his family was from here originally. Just like your father’s.” She looked directly at me when she spoke her last sentence.

“Will the similarities between us never end?” I rolled my eyes and sunk further into my pleather seat.

My mother smiled, and I knew I had softened her. I had noticed recently that she was dropping a new name — “Noel” — into her conversations as if it were a spice she was adding to a dish. This particular “Noel” was the director of the Cleveland Playhouse Theatre where she had worked. He had come to the house for one of her parties at Christmas. He was a wiry chain-smoker with a gravelly voice that he seemed to like to hear, but my mother seemed to find everything he said either “charming” or “fascinating.”

We’d all run into Noel at the Playhouse when my mother went to pick up her last paycheck. Noel looked nervous and twitchy when he saw us. He was chewing on a toothpick and kept pulling it out of his mouth and flailing it about like a conductor when he spoke.

“Noel has written a play about Trotsky. Isn’t that just fascinating, Gerald?” She poked at my father who was studying the poster of the new actress posing exactly like my mother on the theater sign for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

“Uh huh,” said my father like he’d gotten caught sleeping in class.

My mother glared at him. “Trotsky.” And then she sighed. “That is so fascinating.”

Now, I let the ‘l’ of Noel roll off of my tongue dramatically. “Did he find another actress to replace you?” As soon as I said it, I could see that she was stung by my question.

“Yes, he did.” She slid out of the car and brushed herself off.

“Can we go home now?” I was aware that she was upset about something and that it had to do with Noel and the part of Maggie that she had left back home.

“Not until after we eat. She motioned for me to come out of the car, and we headed down the hill toward the house. As we walked, she pulled me in close to her and then released me.

My grandmother’s farm had one of those rare Mail Pouch barns on it. The barn had begun to lean, and she talked a lot about razing it that summer. A moat of lush, purple impatiens surrounded her white farmhouse and extended out around the mailbox to the water well. I could see my grandmother folding a yellow tablecloth over the picnic table as my cousin, Marcus, kicked an orange ball in the field behind the barn. The field was littered with occasional haystacks, not the neat squares we saw in the farms around Cleveland, but the untidy bales that came from old equipment. The red tractor — a relic with a rusted seat — sat next to the doghouse. The dog ran back and forth on a long chain trying to catch Marcus’ fly balls.

When I sat down at the table next to my mother, my Aunt Betty was exclaiming how much Nan looked like my mother. I wanted to protest that a resemblance was impossible because my beautiful mother was not even related to Nan by blood, but I ate my hot dog instead and suffered the indignation as Nan preened. In truth, I was hurt that no one thought I looked like my mother. I felt entitled to the resemblance.

My mother smiled sweetly, but I knew she was playing a part. She no more wanted to be in Tennessee than I did.

“So,” said my Aunt Betty. “Earl tells me you’re acting again.” The comment hung in the air for some reason I didn’t understand.

My mother looked down at the table and folded her napkin. “I was offered a lead in another Tennessee Williams play directed by a friend of mine,” she said. “I turned it down.”

“You should be here,” said Aunt Betty. “Mother can hardly get around anymore.”

My mother smiled at her and picked up my plate, stacking it on top of her own. She walked past Father’s empty plate. I watched him duck pitifully to the side for a moment, expecting her to reach around him and pick up his plate, but she never did.

That night, at our rented house, I sat with my mother on the porch swing. I brought out my little blue suitcase packed with my books and papers. My suitcase was the smallest in the set my parents owned. It was a miniature like the ones they carried, and I liked it because it made me feel like I belonged to them.

My mother smiled when she saw that I had packed her old plays. I liked them because they were torn and folded as though a great deal of attention had been paid to them. I sifted through the pile of papers and handed my mother her version of Sweet Bird of Youth. It was a ritual we had. My mother would assume the role of Princess Kosmonopolis and would read her lines with a thick accent. Sometimes, if he wasn’t busy, my father would play Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was much more dramatic than mother — his performance comical and forced — to entertain me. My mother’s performance was different. For her it was the real thing — even to an audience of one.

Back in Cleveland, my mother threw parties, and her friends would drink and start reciting Shakespeare, their booming stage voices becoming louder with every martini and cigarette. This was the first year my mother hadn’t put me to bed before a party. In past years, I often sat on the stairs watching, but this year I hoped if I made myself useful, she would let me stay up, so I cleaned and polished and tried to look busy all day. She relented and let me dress up. All the cleaning had left me so tired that I was dead asleep on the chair in the study by 11:00 p.m.

Before nodding off, I remember a blond woman asking my mother about Tennessee Williams being in the audience when she played Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire in Chicago. The blonde asked her what he had said to her about her performance. My mother was looking at me when she answered, “He didn’t say anything.” And then she covered me with a blanket.

After the party, I began to dream of Tennessee Williams. In my dreams, he sat in one of the thinly worn crushed-velvet seats in the front row of an ornate theater. He always wore a white, wrap robe with a gold logo on the breast pocket, like the kind you get in better hotels. I’d read the lines to him as my mother did, not committing too much of myself to the dialog, holding something back. “Always hold something back,” my mother cautioned me. She said this kept the audience wanting more.

After I said my lines, Tennessee would speak to me from his seat. “You’re positively marvelous, Margaret.”

I’d curtsy like my mother taught me with my hands crossed and resting on my lap.

“Margaret,” he would say.

“Yes?” I’d ask.

“You look just like your mother.”

The next morning I told my mother I had decided to write a play. I’d ask my cousins to act in it.

My mother was preoccupied on the phone, but she put her hand over the receiver. “It’s good to see you playing with your cousins. Someday you’ll see that they aren’t so bad.” She handed me a pencil and motioned for me to go to the porch so she could finish her conversation. I figured it must be a friend from Cleveland because I heard her talking about The Playhouse. “I can’t,” I heard her say. She was twirling the phone cord like a teenager. She sat on the chair and stretched her pale legs out, her toes touching the kitchen counter. “Of course I do.” We never took calls at the summer house. Long-distance calls were expensive and reserved for special occasions only, plus half of the houses had party lines. I gathered my pencil and paper in my hands and flashed her an impatient look. “Noel … no.” I heard her ‘shushing’ him. I walked out to the porch letting the screen door slam loudly behind me, but she never looked at me.

It took me a week or so to write my fifteen-page play. I scrawled the dialogue on several pieces of my father’s old notebooks. After he saw I was serious, he gave me his manual typewriter — an old, black Underwood and some purple carbon paper to make copies.

“Here,” he said, expertly swinging the carbon paper in the drum of the typewriter and slapping the metal bar into place. “Is the seat high enough?” He pulled at the old chair, and I went up and down until he found a spot that seemed perfect to him. He slid me into place in front of the typewriter.

“What do I do?” I looked up. The purple paper and the typewriter seemed to loom.

He sat on the desk next to me and looked down. “Is this too much?”

“I don’t know.” I looked up. “Maybe.” I suddenly felt small in his office, sitting at his desk and in his chair with my fingers positioned on the cold keys and no idea of what to do next.

“Have you written it down on paper yet?”

I shook my head.

“Oh.” He looked serious for a moment and put his fingers to his lips like he was concentrating. He went over to his briefcase and brought me a long, yellow pad of paper. He ripped off two sheets. “Start with these first, and when you fill them, you can read them to me and we can type them onto the carbon paper.”

I nodded obediently and took a pencil from the cup. When I looked up a minute later, he was gone.

By contrast to my mother who never did anything without a flair for the dramatic, my father moved through the house quietly. That was just the way he was. He was also a recovering alcoholic, and while my mother talked about plays and writers, I would hear my father often talk about the recovery process with his friends who were also recovering. Finally, I got up the courage one day to ask when he was going to be fully recovered. He looked at me with a bit of amazement.

“Never.” He walked away from me and turned back for emphasis. “Never.”

I couldn’t imagine “never.”

At dinner that evening, he brought up my play. “You should study some of the greats,” he added. “Sartre, Ionesco, O’Neill …”

My mother snorted at his suggestion.

He seemed wounded. “What on Earth could possibly be wrong with that?”

“We have enough people in this house with their heads in books, don’t you think?” She smiled and stabbed her broccoli floret.

“What does that mean?”

She looked down at her plate. “I’m just saying that you shouldn’t stifle her by theorizing everything. She doesn’t have to study anything or anyone. Just let her write her goddamned play, Gerald. That’s all.” She wiped her mouth with her napkin like she had eaten something distasteful.

There was no more talk of the great playwrights. Both of my parents focused intently on their chicken cutlets until my mother changed the subject and asked about the weather. After dinner, Father shut the door to his office. Soon, the typewriter began ticking.

My mother watched him shut the door, walked over to the record player, and put on an old Patsy Cline record. She turned up the volume until the ticking sound on the typewriter was drowned out. After gathering her long hair into a ponytail, she started singing along to “Walkin’ after Midnight” while she filled the sink with dirty dishes. I went to help her, but she shook her head.

“Go ahead and write. I’ll handle these.” She smiled at me and began plunking cups into a steamy pool of soapy, blue water. I turned back to see her hips swaying underneath a blue sundress and thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.

I went out and sat on the porch. The air was crisp, and everything was quiet except for a June bug that kept smacking into the screen door.

At the end of the week, my father and I went to the library, and the head librarian made five copies of my play and returned them to me stapled. When she slid the stack over the counter to me, it looked real, like something Tennessee Williams would have written.

I sprang out of bed the next morning ready to perform my play. My father had promised to drive me down early to set up the stage area under the willow tree. I bounded out into the kitchen to find it empty. A quick inspection of all the rooms seemed to find everything neat and orderly and empty. I stepped onto the front porch to find Uncle Earl’s truck pulling up in the driveway and my mother and father standing close just beyond the steps. For a moment, from the angle they were standing, I thought they were kissing, and then my mother turned her head and I saw that they were fighting. My father walked off down the path to the back of the house.

And that was when I spied it: the lone, large blue suitcase — the largest one of ours — sitting next to the driveway. It was the big one that held my mother’s clothes and all of her shoes. My spirits jumped for a moment because I thought that maybe my wish had come true and that we were going back to Cleveland.

My mother hadn’t noticed me and walked over to talk to Uncle Earl. She pointed to the suitcase. I wondered if the rest of the set was in the house and if somehow I had missed them. My mother looked beautiful in a crisp white shirt, checked scarf, black pants, and tortoise sunglasses. Her hair was gathered at the back of her neck in a ponytail, and her lipstick was one shade brighter than her hair. I remember this image of her vividly because it was the last one I would have of her for nearly a year.

She spied me and walked over to the porch. “I was just coming to find you.” She motioned for one minute to Uncle Earl who nodded and climbed back into the truck. “Sit down for a minute.” She pointed to the porch swing. “I got a great part in a play back home,” she said. “It’s too good to pass up. You understand, don’t you?”

“I thought you had turned it down.”

“I did at first.” My mother sighed deeply.

“Which play?” I asked.

“It’s a new one. Noel has written it himself. It’s called Revolution at Dawn, and it’s fabulous. Really, it is! No one has ever offered me a part like this.”

“Not another Tennessee Williams play?” I asked.

“No. I’m getting a little tired of those to be honest.” She laughed. “This is something new. Noel is also directing it,” she said. “You remember Noel, don’t you?”

I ignored the concept of Noel. “Am I going with you?” I asked, eying her lone suitcase.

“No. I think it’s best that you stay here with your father,” she said. “I’m going to be rehearsing a lot, and the hours will be long, and there is talk that it could end up off-Broadway. Isn’t that exciting?” She was performing for me. I had seen it before.

I wondered why my father wasn’t here with her, assuring me that we would all be together again at the end of the summer. I wanted to hurt her for both my father and myself, so I chose my words carefully. “I guess you were right.”

She looked puzzled. “About what?”

“It’s time for me to grow up. I guess that starts today, huh?”

She looked disoriented for a moment and put her hands on her hips and stood up. She went to turn and then faced me and leaned down and gathered me in her arms. My face went into the soft spot of her neck where she sprayed her perfume.

“I love you,” she said. She sniffled, but I didn’t see if she was crying behind her sunglasses. “You remember that I love you.”

I stood there stiff like I was made of wood. I was determined that I would hold something back of myself. Just like she had taught me. I heard Uncle Earl’s truck start. She stood there with me, sniffling slightly until Uncle Earl yelled that she would miss her bus if she didn’t hurry.

“You wrote a good play, Margaret,” she said as she turned toward the truck.

I stood there and watched her leave. I should correct that; I walked to the middle of the road and watched her leave. I was hoping that she would turn and tell me to get out of the middle of the road and come back and realize that, without her, something terrible might happen to me. I wanted to hint at it, so I stood defiantly there on the yellow line on the dangerous curve around our rented house. The same road I was told to never — ever — go near. Maybe I was half hoping a truck would come and splat me all over the place, and she would see it all from the rearview mirror.

She and Uncle Earl had driven down the road about a mile when I felt a hand touch my shoulder. It was my father. “You’re standing in the middle of the road, you know. Kind of dramatic, don’t you think?”

I nodded. “Yeah, but I’m pretty pissed off.”

“Me, too.” He led me off the yellow lines and onto the yard. “I’m proud of you,” he said. “Your play is good.” He sat down on the top step of the porch. “I was thinking that you and I could go to Sewanee together. You could help me with my research if you wanted.”

“I could study some of the great playwrights.” My body heaved slightly as I fought the first tear. I rubbed my eyes hard. I hoped he’d think it was pollen. My mother always told me not to rub my eyes, but my father didn’t know the things you say to a child. He had relied on my mother for such things.

We sat outside for twenty minutes in silence. He tried to speak to me, but gave up several times.

“She isn’t coming back, is she?” I asked finally. I think I meant to Tennessee, but I think I knew that something larger was happening to my father and me that day.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “I don’t think so.”

I knew my father wouldn’t recover from this, either. I finally understood that there were some things you just never get over.

“Come on,” he said.

I smiled at him and watched him walk away. He was a tall man, and I liked the way his pants hung on his thin frame. He always wore wonderful clothes. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why my mother had loved him.


The 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
FIFTH PLACE

We are pleased to announce this story as the Fifth Place winner for The 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.


CONSTANCE SAYERS received her master of arts in English from George Mason University and graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts in writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She attended The Bread Loaf Writers Conference where she studied with Charles Baxter and Lauren Groff. Her short stories have appeared in Souvenir and Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women.

A media executive at Atlantic Media (publisher of The Atlantic), she’s twice been named one of the “Top 100 Media People in America” by Folio and was included in their list of “Top Women in Media.” She has completed a rural noir novel, Rustic Mournings.