Short Fiction


This is a short story that first appeared in TriQuarterly issue 103. It's a decade older than my first novel, but I've included it here because Arlene Fleet, the main character in gods in Alabama, appears briefly in it. Little Dead Uglies devotes less than ten sentences to her, but I always knew that eventually she would spring up and stamp her feet and demand her own story. I was underestimating her---she had to have a whole novel. She was so fierce and willful and strong in my head, radiating indignation, ready to die on a hill. I think you can see flashes of her in this story, even through the filter of a narrator who dislikes her intensely.


Little Dead Uglies


Arlene could've got Aunt Mag just as easy, we both pass by the home on the way in to Possett, but no one was about to ask Arlene, what with the nose ring and her dragging home one long haired smokey boyfriend after another and anyway they all make such a deal about her being in college for seven years getting all those degrees about nothing, so never mind that she's three years older than me and never mind my sick baby, no, they ask me because no one is going to trouble Arlene's big old Northwestern brain with something as piss-ant Alabama little as picking Aunt Mag up for Gran's birthday, or the family reunion before that, or Susie's wedding before that, or any Christmas.


And of course when I tell Bud he gets all up in my face about it, asking why we have to do it every damn time and saying I can just forget about him even going for the damn birthday and I say I'm not dragging my sick baby and Mag around by myself the way she gets all crazied up in the car, not that he's ever been with me to help, and what with Owen coughing and his little chest all full of snot, and he says that's my fault anyway for dragging the damn kid out in the pollen, but I'd like to know what he thinks he's going to get to eat if I can't go to the Kroger, and him saying all the time we can't afford a sitter just so I can do things that normal women do all the time with ten kids, and if he is so set on sitting on his butt like a lump at home, ignoring my family just to be spiteful, that is just fine, but when did the sweet boy I married die and when the hell is his replacement getting out of my house?


Bud says fine, and he hates my family anyway, and then he goes into the whole long thing about how they think he don't take care of me and Owen good, and my Grandpa being such a holy F word, and he's right about my Grandpa, who hates everyone but God and at my mother's wedding said right out loud, looks like a nigra in that woodpile, when he saw my father's mom's dark eyes, and I don't like my Grandpa either but that's for me to say and not him because its my family so I just run off from his contentious self to me and Bud's bedroom to take him and Owen's things out of the overnight bag I already packed for going to Gran's, hollering back over my shoulder that Bud can stay home and drink beer and scratch himself the whole weekend, but he can darn well keep Owen home with him while he's doing it.


He laughs all nasty and hollers back that my f word Grandpa won't like that, keeping the only boy away, and I say Susie and LeeAnne won't want their girls around Owen's mess anyway no matter how many times I tell them you can't pass allergies, so Grandpa can just shut up and like it. Then Bud is yelling something else so I kick the door shut and Owen is squalling from the noise but Bud will just have to fix it because I am busy putting Bud's stuff back in the closet and taking all of Owen's little things out of my bag.


It's a two hour drive to get Aunt Mag, who is not really my Aunt, she's my great great Aunt, but Lord, the woman is past ninety, and if you tried to call her all that she'd be dead before you finished saying hello, and then an hours drive after that to get to Gran's. So I go get her, and there's this smell in her room, like medicine and old lady, and on top of that Aunt Mag's roommate's poop bag. And there is Mag in the rocker looking up at me with the lines around her mouth all crusty with snuff and already calling me Emma.


"Hey there, Mag, Now Aunt Mag, you know me. I'm Clarice, remember? Clarice? Emma's my Gran?" I say.


But Mag is already pushing up on out of her rocker and shuffling over with one hand out and as soon as she gets close enough to breathe her old lady jello breath in my face she's saying, "Emma, you come to get to get me out of here Emma, you gonna take me home Emma?" and digging her old bony hand into my shoulder and it's her death grip, she won't let go till we get to Gran's and she can attach to her.


I keep telling her I'm Clarice, Gladys' girl and Emma's grandgirl, but it doesn't do no good because of course she's senile and before that she was a retard, so I just get her hand bag and we go on out to the car. I already checked her out because the last time I came and got her out of her room before signing her out with the nurses she got all nervous at the nurses' station and peed all down herself and I was wearing these little cloth shoes with flowers on them I had just bought at Target and she was right behind me clutching on to my shoulder and I didn't know she was peeing herself until the puddle spread out and all of a sudden my foot was warm and wet and those shoes were just ruined and it took an hour to get her redressed and then I had to drive the whole way smelling my pissy foot.


The nurses station scares her because she's got this thought that the nurses are from the devil, but I don't think she really used to believe that. I think it was a trick to get my Gran to take her home, she can't stand to be away from Gran so she had all these tricks, she was pretty crafty for a retard, like saying the devil part in front of my Grandpa, who believes that doctors and nurses and even movies are infested by demons, was pretty smart, but he likes Mag even less than he likes Satan, so it didn't work, and then she got all senile and she probably believes that stuff about the nurses now.


We get back on the road and Aunt Mag is just talking on at me in this old whispery voice with her hand clamped on my shoulder just talking on, saying, "Emma, you got to get me out of there, you got to take me home with you Emma, you don't know what they act like there when you ain't around they hit me Emma they hit me with me a stick across my bottom, they lay me up on the bed and they pull up my night dress and they hit me with a stick, and they put things in me Emma, little dead things, they put things in the food, sick making things, I'm sick like a dog all the time, and my bottom is all over welts I can't even sit up on it sometimes, Emma, you got to get me home with you I want to be home with you."


I keep telling her I'm not Emma and just pay no mind to the other stuff because if a person even acts like they hear all that stuff Mag says about the home then Mag'll start doing things, like when Grace picked up Gran and Mag just for a day trip on Easter Sunday and met up with all us family at a real nice steak house, the kind that has the big salad bar with all kinds of things on it that aren't even salad like biscuits and hot potatoes and you can go back as many times as you want, and Mag started saying her piece about the beatings and the sicking up poison and Grace went all sanctified over it and started asking Gran how she could even leave poor defenseless old Mag in such a hell hole and Gran kept trying to shush Grace, but Lord, nobody can do that, Grace had to stick her big head all the way up in it and Gran kept saying, "Just leave it be," but Grace wouldn't of course until Gran finally had to come right out and say that it wasn't true, which just made Mag all the more stubborn - Mag is pure mule - and Mag stood up and yanked her skirts up and dropped her drawers and showed her butt right there in the steak house.


So there is Mag with her old puckery butt hanging out over Grace's salad plate, yelling, "See? See?" so that every person in the place looks and there's not a mark on her. Grace keeps saying, "Mag, Nothing is wrong with your butt, now put it away," but Mag won't, she keeps running her hands over her bare cheeks screaming that she can feel the welts and why won't Grace at least take a feel. Well, the manager came over and we had to leave and I had only got to visit that salad bar one time and you have to pay up front.


So I just keep telling who I am but it never stops her talking like I'm Emma, she always thinks I'm Emma, because I look like Gran in the eyes, and the red hair, and because she raised my Gran up from a baby because my Gran's parents were lampers and they was walking two hours each way to Dale's Eggs, which is still is business, Grace lamps and she has lines all up around her eyes big as spider webs from squinting, holding eggs up to the light looking for dead baby chicken bodies instead of a yolk and it?s an eight hour shift there, enough to drive a person blind, and then Gran's mamma and daddy sharecropped a little piece of land on the side so with the shift and the walk and the cotton they didn't have time to raise any baby, and so they gave my Gran to Mag to keep because Mag distracted too easy to be a good picker and Dale's Eggs wouldn't hire no retards back then because they didn't have no laws like about who you have to hire that Bud says made that black guy from up over to Leyton get that foreman job but I know its because Bud called in sick nine times and sat around under my feet driving me crazy.


Now if Mag couldn't keep her mind on picking how she was supposed to not lose a baby or kill it, one, I just don't know, but I do know I would never just pass Owen to a retard and go, but Mag got all crazy about my Gran and never did put her down somewhere, or bake her like this one retard did over to Flomaton.


Fact, my Gran didn't learn to walk, even, until she was past two because Mag never once set her down. Now, my Owen is just three months and he has these new little pink feet like little fat wads of nothing, just perfect little pig feet that've never been used, and my Gran had feet like that for going on three years.


Even after Mag let her touch the ground she barely let go of her. Mag was always that crazy over her, like when my Gran came to tell Mag that she was marrying my Grandpa who was twice her age and really just a lamper no matter how many times he screamed about hell for free down at First Southern Baptist who couldn't afford a real preacher and my Gran barely fourteen, Mag fell down on the ground screaming and biting at the dirt and she pulled out two big handfuls of hair and then tried to tear her own eyeballs out, until my Gran said, Mag, you can come live with us, and then Mag got up with her mouth all full of mud and grass and was fine.


She almost didn't get to live with them, though, because when my Grandpa saw that she had these two bald scabby patches on the top of her head from where she'd torn out the hair he thought she was from the devil and had got her horns clipped off to fool him.


Now I start watching Mag real careful the minute we turn onto Highway 41, it's just a little shit road that goes nowhere but Possett and then on to Leyton, and all Possett is is the Baptist church and a general feed store, and three tin sheds like you would put gardening tools in with a big board that goes across the top of all three with the words "Police Department Jail Fire House" painted in black, and Leyton ain't much bigger, but this road just gives her the screaming crazies for no earthly reason I can see. There's never no cars on the road, and the only thing to see on both sides is high summer cotton, but when we turn onto it she goes all quiet and her fingers kind of dig in my shoulder harder and I think this is going to be one of her times so I clench up tight on the wheel and I'm thanking the Lord I don't have Owen in the car this time but then she starts groping her free hand around for her snuff and starts up with the Emma Emma take me home, just droning on and working herself out a dip and with her just rattling and the road looking the same I start not paying as good of attention as I should, knowing how she gets and all, and I am just thinking about will Bud remember to give Owen his medicine when Mag suddenly crabs up and pounces faster than anyone almost a hundred should be allowed to move and she grabs the steering wheel and pulls right so hard and strong we bounce off 41 and the cotton closes all around us.


I slam on the brakes but just then the cotton in front of us give out and we hit a dirt road and start skidding and fish tailing so I have to ease up or we are going to slide right off the little road back into the field. The road is winding all over and I can't turn around on it without smashing some more of somebody's cash crop so I just keep going slow hoping the road will wind us back around to 41.


Mag has her hand back clamped to my shoulder and she is screeching and carrying on and I'm still sliding around on every turn when up ahead I see the man with his back to us walking down the road wearing that old fashioned broad brim, that same damn man except I could swear last time Mag pulled us off the road a good thirty miles west of here. Mag's voice stops like it's been cut out and I swerve to miss him and almost drive back into cotton as high as the car, and then I straighten out and we're past him and he's moving over to the side of the road almost in the cotton and this time I'm almost calm and can look back at him because Owen isn't in the car so I do look back but he's shading his eyes to look after us and I can't see his face for the hat and his hand, but Mag spits brown juice at him like she hates him and it goes dribbling down my window.


Well, we keep driving and the car says we're doing twenty but it feels like fifty but in slow motion with the cotton green and white all around us and the road is red dirt, and around the next bend coming towards us is that pretty wormy looking girl, like she don't have anything better to do but be walking on any piss-ant dirt track Mag pulls us off on, and she's got that woman walking behind her with one hand clamped down on her shoulder and then I see how they walk together, I forget about finding 41 and really see them how they walk and then I look at the girl's face and its my Gran's little girl face that I've seen in a brown picture that's been on the mantle at my mother's house since I was born.


Mag sees her too, and she starts hollering, "Emma, stop and get her, Emma," but the other two times I thought she was calling me Emma, but now I see how they walk together and the car is going really slow now and I just in that second know she is walking down that road, she is about to meet him, and he is twice her age and he will stop to preach and lamp in Possett after he sees her thin pretty face on this road and he will marry her when she turns fifteen and in nine years will give her four baby girls and seven little dead uglies who should have been boys, and he will tell my mother that she should have been one of the uglies who fell too early out of Gran into the toilet seven times, so that a boy could have made it all the way safe, and my mother will marry my daddy to get out of that house alive and I will be born, and I know all these things just in that second.


Mag is still screaming, "Emma, stop and get her, Emma, Emma," and it's like Mag can't even see herself behind my Gran's little skinny self, and I can't think or decide if we should stop and pick my Gran up and turn around and drive her past my Grandpa to wherever she is going and then maybe I would be dead or not born or some other person with hair not so red and who maybe went to college or went to Europe but then maybe no Owen, but no Bud either, and we are almost past and passing and Gran is turning to watch us go by and then I look back at her as we go by but she isn't there, just the empty fields and Highway 41 is just ahead and Mag is for once quiet, and she stays quiet all the way to the turn off for my Gran's farm, and then she starts up again at the beginning with the beatings and sticks and the take me home with you.


We get there pretty early, but I can see Arlene is already out in the yard cutting open a melon there and talking on in her new fake Yankee voice and trying to make everyone call her Lena, and she has a black guy with her with his hair in little braids all down his back and my Grandpa must be just shitting and I see the black guy has a gold hoop bigger then the ones Bud got me for our first anniversary, not that he ever takes me anywhere I could wear them.


I open the car door and Arlene walks up with Grace and before I even get out the first thing out of Grace's big mouth is, Lord, Clarice, you getting so big I could sit on your butt and ride to town, like I didn't just have a baby, and Arlene just stands there like a little slice of nothing in all black smoking at me and my Gran comes and gets Mag out of the car and then leans in to give me a kiss with Mag's hand already clamped down on her shoulder and I bet if you was to peel Gran's dress down off her shoulder you would see these dents that fit those fingers perfect.