Brenda Wilson Wooley: “The Poem”
“Lily had a spell last night,” Granny said.
“Oh, no,” Momma said, “A bad one?”
It was an unseasonably warm November morning. Momma and Granny were in the living room and I was on the back porch going through a bushel basket of Golden Delicious apples. Granny had brought them over that morning and I was trying to find the biggest one. But I stopped and crept to the door when they mentioned Lily Worthington. They always lowered their voices when they talked about her, and I wanted to know why.
Granny nodded. “James might have to take her to Memphis. He said she made three cakes last night and two the night before.”
Lily was known for her delicious cakes. She made lots of them and gave them to friends and neighbors. Once she gave Momma a great big three-layer devil’s food with mounds of seven-minute icing that stood in peaks. But I never got one bite. Momma threw it out.
“Poor James,” Momma said, “It’s a shame, with that little boy and all.” Suddenly, she spotted me. “Suzanne, what are you doing in here on a nice day like this? Go on outside and play.”
Every time they discussed stuff like that, Momma sent me out to play. And I resented it. I was not a baby; I was almost eleven years old. Besides, what was wrong with making cakes?
The next day at recess I saw Lily’s son and I wondered if he knew his mother might be taken to Memphis. James Junior was two years older than me and cute. I had a crush on him and I think he had a crush on me. He always smiled at me on the bus and when he met me in the hall. Sometimes he said hi.
The first week in December, it came a big snow. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I woke up that morning. There was snow up to the windows and drifts everywhere. I couldn’t wait for the bus to come; I was looking forward to getting out in the snow with my friends and having a big old time.
Mr. Ford was late, and when he finally drove up there wasn’t another soul on that bus. We nosed in and out of drifts, the engine whining and groaning, and we almost got stuck twice. But I didn’t care. I was busy gazing at the glittering trees and sparkling snow. It was like a winter wonderland.
As we got to the Worthington farm, I wondered if James Junior would be going. It would be exciting if only he and I were on the bus. Maybe he would sit by me. I got butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it.
Suddenly, we began slipping and sliding. Mr. Ford put on his brakes to turn into the lane, but we just slid right on by. And then we started zigzagging. “Hold on!” he called, turning the steering wheel this way and that. For a minute I thought he was going to get it back on the road, but all of the sudden there was a big bump and everything stopped.
I looked out the back window and almost let out a scream. The only thing keeping the bus from sliding down the steep embankment was a tiny tree. And it was bent way over.
Mr. Ford jumped out of his seat and ran down the aisle. “Come on, quick!” He grabbed my hand and pulled me to the door, and then he jumped and motioned for me to do the same. I hesitated, took a deep breath, and landed in a drift up to my waist.
Suddenly, we heard someone yelling and Lily Worthington appeared. She was wrapped up in a big red blanket and running down the lane so fast that her hair was flying every which way. She stopped a few feet from us. “Come on, Suzanne,” she said, “Just run right on through; it’s not as deep up here.”
I took another deep breath and ran through it quicker than you could skin a cat. My whole body was shaking and my teeth were chattering, but before I knew it I was out of the drift and in Lily’s arms.
She hugged me real tight and turned to Mr. Ford, “Are you okay?”
He nodded. “I’m going on up to the Bishop place and have Arthur pull me out with his tractor.”
She smiled at me. “And I’m going to take Suzanne on up to my house where it’s warm and call her momma.”
Mr. Ford headed down the lane, leaving great big footprints in the snow, and Lily and I began plowing through the drifts toward the house. They were so deep that Lily was almost carrying me. The red blanket was around us both, and her plump body was nice and warm. She felt like Momma.
“We’re almost there, hon, we’ll make it,” she said, her breath making white puffs in the air, “James Junior went with his daddy, so it’s just you and me.”
I felt kind of funny. I would be alone with Lily in that big old house and I didn’t really know her. Oh, I had known her all my life, but now everything had changed. She’d had a spell. And might be taken to Memphis.
A fire crackled in the big stone fireplace, and the living room was toasty warm. A blue-flowered couch sat on one side of the room; two blue easy chairs on the other. A coffee table, piled high with books, was crouched in between. Family pictures stood on the mantle; several of James Junior and one of Lily and James on their wedding day. Lily was thin and smiling and pretty and I wondered how on earth she could have changed so much.
“Get in here and get warm, Suzanne,” she said, “You don’t want to catch cold.” She pulled the red blanket off and threw it over a chair. “You just make yourself at home while I get my clothes on, and then I’ll call your momma.”
While Lily was in the bedroom, I looked into the kitchen. There was a big bowl of gravy on the table, a platter of bacon, eggs. And one plate of food was untouched, probably Lily’s. She had left her breakfast to see about us.
“Well, if that doesn’t beat all,” Lily said, hurrying out of the bedroom, “The phone’s out.” She gave me another hug. “Don’t you worry about it, honey. You can just stay right here with me until the roads clear. In the meantime, you can help me make a fruitcake.”
Cake? My stomach did a flip-flop.
“Come on in the kitchen and pull yourself up a chair,” she said, “You can start chopping up the dates and I’ll chop the nuts.”
She opened a cabinet door and pulled out dates, pecans, figs, candied cherries and I don’t know what all. She poured brown and white sugars into a big mixing bowl and broke a bunch of eggs on top. Then she turned on the mixer.
“This is so nice, Suzanne,” she said, mixer whirring, “I never had a daughter, but I always wanted one.” She turned the mixer off and gazed at me. “I can’t have any more babies.”
I didn’t know what to say. Besides, I was having trouble cutting up the dates. They kept sticking to the knife.
“I didn’t want to have my tubes tied, but James told me I had to do it.” She pushed a strand of hair out of her face and picked up a bucket of pecans and a hammer. “I don’t need those treatments either!” She raised the hammer high in the air, poised a pecan on the counter, and smashed it as flat as a pancake.
I just about jumped out of my skin.
“They strap you down and put those things on you…” She suddenly stopped and looked at me. “Oh, I’m sorry, honey,” she said, dropping the hammer, “I didn’t mean to scare the daylights out of you; It’s just that I get so frustrated, sitting around this house all day, waiting for James to get home from work and James Junior to get home from school and James never talks to me or takes me anywhere. Except to church. And I don’t even want to go to church!”
She picked up the hammer and gently tapped a pecan. The shell dropped away and she pulled out two perfect halves. She did it again and the same thing happened.
After I finished chopping the dates, Lily handed me a bag of figs. “You’re such a good hand to help, Suzanne,” she said, “You love baking, don’t you?”
I suddenly realized I did love baking. I had always wanted to make something, but Momma wouldn’t let me. She said I would make too big of a mess.
“Isn’t it funny how a person can mix all this stuff and come up with something so magnificent?” she went on, “I feel like I’ve really created something when I look at a big beautiful cake I’ve made.” She stopped and looked at me. “Creativity, to me, is making cakes. Is there anything wrong with that?”
I was getting a little upset myself. The figs were even harder to chop than the dates. I scraped some pieces off the knife and finally decided to lay them on the table and slice across them.
She picked up a handful of raisins and tossed them into the bowl. “I told James I’d like to open a bakery right here in the house. And you know what he said? He said, ‘That’s crazy. You’re my wife and your job is cooking and cleaning and taking care of me and James Junior. Period!’”
“I’m through,” I said, pointing to my pile of figs.
“Well, I declare, Suzanne,” she said, “Just look at those perfectly chopped figs. You’re really something!” She wiped her hands. “Now you rest a while, honey, and I’ll fix us some lunch.”
She made potato soup and topped it with cheese and pieces of leftover breakfast bacon, big chunks of potatoes and chopped onion floating around in it. It tasted real good. And her homemade yeast rolls were just as good as Momma’s.
As we were finishing up our second bowls, she jumped up. “Bet you didn’t know I write poetry.” She hurried into the living room and came back with a piece of paper. “Here,” she said, “Read this.”
I took it from her, but before I could unfold it, Lily had jumped up again. She looked out the window and began cracking her knuckles. I hated that sound; the boys at school were always cracking their knuckles and horsing around. I had never seen a grown woman do it.
“We’d better get busy,” she said, “It’s almost two o’clock, and James and James Junior will be home soon.”
I didn’t know what to do with the poem, so I stuck it in the pocket of my corduroy jumper and got busy.
We worked hard, but it was fun. I ran the mixer and Lily threw in the ingredients, telling me when to slow down and when to turn it on high. “Slow her down!” she said, “Crank her up!”
“You’re really a smart little girl, Suzanne,” she said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Write stories,” I said. I was surprised at myself; I had never told anyone my dream.
“Well, you can do it, hon. Just don’t let anything or anybody stand in your way. If you can dream it, you can become it.”
We had a big time playing Old Maid cards while the cake was baking. We almost forgot about the cake, we were having so much fun. But Lily thought of it just in time.
“Now,” she said, “We’ve got to wrap it in a wine-soaked cloth.” She pulled a big brown bottle from the cabinet. “Darn!” she said, pulling the cork, “James found it. I tried to hide it, but any time I have wine for cooking, he finds it and guzzles it up.”
I was dumbfounded. James was a deacon at New Hope Baptist. And Brother Stair was always preaching against drinking. Just last Sunday he had pranced up and down in front of the pulpit carrying on about liquor being the devil’s brew.
Lily bent down, throwing her big rear end high in the air, moving bottles and cans around in the cabinet below the sink. Finally, she hauled out another bottle, pulled the cork and sniffed. “This blackberry brandy will do just as well,” she said, bringing it to the table. “I bought it quite a while ago, and I sure did a good job of hiding it from James.” She grinned and winked at me.
After dousing a big clean dish towel with the brandy, she wrapped the cake in it and carefully placed it in the pantry. “That’s it,” she said, “It just needs to soak for about three weeks and it’ll be ready just in time for Christmas. When it’s ready, I’ll bring it over to your house and tell your momma and papa you created a lovely work of art.”
I was real proud of myself. Since I helped make it, I hoped Momma wouldn’t throw it out.
Lily wiped her hands on her apron and began cracking her knuckles again. She walked to the window and looked out. “Won’t be long until James and James Junior get home,” she said. Then her face brightened. “I tell you what. Let’s make a snow man.”
A snow man! I couldn’t imagine anything I’d like better.
Lily buttoned my coat to my chin and pulled a big sock cap down over my ears. After helping me with my mittens, she pulled on one of James’s old coats and we were off.
I never had as much fun in my life. We rolled two big balls of snow for the body and head, and Lily got a cap from the house and some coal out of the coal pile in the back yard for the face and buttons.
As we were admiring our creation, we heard roaring and sputtering sounds, and James’s big old farm truck came slipping and sliding up the lane. I was afraid it would go off the road like the bus did, but it just kept on coming. Lily stood there, cracking her knuckles, as the truck ground to a stop and they jumped out.
As soon as James saw us he began running toward us, his fat belly bouncing up and down. “What the hell are you doing, woman?” he spat, grabbing her arm.
I looked at James Junior, but he just stood there.
“Get your ass back in that house!” James yelled, pulling her across the yard.
I was shaking like a leaf, waiting for James Junior to do something. But he just looked down and moved his feet around and around in the snow.
Lily was fighting and trying to get away, but she was no match for James. He dragged her all the way across the yard and up the steps. James Junior, hands in his pockets, followed them. I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed him.
In the house, James pushed Lily onto the couch and then he stomped into the kitchen. “God damn!” he yelled, pounding the table, “Just look at this mess!” He stormed back into the living room and planted his big fat body in front of Lily. He crossed his arms and glared at her a second or two and then he squatted and stuck his face real close to hers, “You’re crazy! You know that? You’re crazy!”
Lily began wailing and moaning and cracking her knuckles. I wanted to go to her, but I was afraid of what James might do. He was not the James Worthington I had seen in church for as long as I could remember; the man who always had a smile on his face, the man who passed the collection plate around, prayed for people’s lost souls.
“That does it!” he said, “You’re going!”
She jumped up and touched his arm, “No, Thomas, please.”
He grabbed her arm and slung her against the wall. “And this time you’re gonna get as many of them shock treatments as it takes!”
“Oh, no, no, Thomas, please!”
“Shut your fuckin’ mouth!” he said, pacing back and forth across the room, big stomach jiggling. He turned to say something else, but Lily was already out the door and taking off across the yard. “Get back here, bitch!” he screamed, rushing out the door.
Suddenly, we heard a car door slam. James Junior and I ran out on the porch as Momma and Papa were getting out of the car.
I was never as glad to see anyone in my whole life.
As Momma hugged me, I could see Lily over her shoulder, crouched in the yard, plump body silhouetted against the darkening sky. When she saw Papa and James coming after her, she got up and started running toward the woods. But they caught up with her, and by the time they got her back to the house, she was quiet. And pale as a ghost.
“It’s okay,” James said, plopping down beside her on the couch, “It’s okay, honey. He patted her shoulder and kissed her cheek, and then he turned to Momma and Papa. “Thank y’all so much,” he said, “Don’t know what I’d do without good friends and neighbors like y’all.”
On our way home, Momma shook her head, “It’s such a shame. James has so much on his shoulders, with that little boy and Lily and all her problems.”
I slid to the edge of my seat. “We had fun,” I said.
“Yes,” Papa said, “James has a hard row to hoe.”
“We made us a fruitcake.”
Momma sighed. “I just don’t know what James is going to do about her.”
“James treated her mean. He talked nasty.”
They didn’t say anything else, so I slid back in the seat and jammed my hand into my jumper pocket, suddenly realizing the poem was still there. I smoothed it out and read it:
As the sun sets and shadows fall,
I walk in purple dusk,
The rest of the school year, James Junior ignored me. He wouldn’t look at me when he met me in the hall and he wouldn’t look at me when we were on the bus, even when the bus was crowded and he had to sit next to me. He just fiddled with his yo-yo or stuck his hands in his pockets and jiggled his marbles around or gazed out the window. And every now and then, he cracked his knuckles.