Stars in Hattiesburg
I’m splitting a blade of grass in my front yard. This moment I know is real: the itch of the St. Augustine against my bare thighs, the sure knowledge that my mother is inside, cooking pork chops and sunshine squash. We are now in the time my mother will call upwardly mobile, but I don’t know those words yet, and I can’t explain our descent when we leave. We live near University Place; this is years before our eviction, before I keep my eyes on the scuffed parts of my sneakers, counting to one before I blink, to one before I blink, to one before I blink. My mother is inside, and my father will be home, he will scoop me up into his arms, and then he might tickle me hard, until I beg him to stop, and he won’t, and I’ll beg some more, until my mother will say softly, his name, in just the right way so that he does stop before I wet myself. He’ll lift me up high to the ceiling and I’ll press my fingertips against the glitter in the plaster. I look into the blade of grass. I’m six. “I will always and forever remember this moment,” I hear the words in my head, clear as any sound. My father comes out, lifts me up towards the smudged clouds, and my hands are wide. I’m so proud to be loved this way. His hands are tight against my ribcage, but I don’t say it, I gasp, learning how to make joy out of joy when it is necessary.
* * *
Thirty-six years later I am watching my son in the front of the house my professor rents me on the cheap; it is the tiniest, prettiest little cottage imaginable—that’s how I will describe it, that’s how I remember it, with love. In the spring, it teems with life, with fire ants, caterpillars, so many caterpillars we have to be careful not to squash. Later, rats, but I’ll call them rodents when I talk about them to him. I’ll move him into my room until the rats are dealt with; I’ll move him into my room when the stalker follows us. That’s how I think of him, the stalker, like some shadowy figure from a late-night movie, I can’t think of his name, which I’ve seen again and again, the first and last, on my screen. He took a Greyhound bus down to find me. I’ve stopped reading the messages. I don’t tell my son, he is too young to tell, but I won’t let him play outside anymore. I’d practically pushed him out the door to play before then, imagining we were in this town, this little college town. I could live in this town with almost nothing, nothing at all. Even the U-HAUL was twenty-five dollars, the Winn-Dixie banana boxes free, the fellow graduate students, all of them younger, stronger, who helped us unload, about as free as can be; I made a big pot of Ragu Spaghetti and poured paper cups full of cheap red. I had been so happy that day, watching him play outside, making a fort out of the boxes. I’d lie down with him, looking up at the tall tall Mississippi pines, squinting into the sun, imagining how he’d remember this, like some beautiful independent film filled with honey-light. We’d dig up a garden in back and plant the cucumbers and squash too close together; I would name them cusquash. Some were delicious, some awful, and all the combinations varied. Oh! What joy. I would give my son joy, I decided. We made mummy pizzas out of Bisquick, Ragu, and string cheese. “I like living in a town,” I’d tell friends on Facebook, “where the pediatrician’s office is only ten minutes away.” Even the hard stuff was a story, a story for him to grow up and talk about when he told stories about his magic childhood. Like the one about the license plates. A kindly man at the service station told me he’d change my plates for free. His voice, I remember, was deep and lovely, my idea of all the best rich notes in Mississippi. “Well Ma’am,” he’d tell me, looking at the Texas license plates, “I don’t know what possessed you to move from there to here, but whatever it was, I sure do hope it gets better for you.”
I love this age. Five. I can teach him all about magic and it almost makes me believe, too. It does. When the child support stops coming, I’m scared at first. But then, it isn’t really so bad. He’s a smart kid; Sacred Heart puts him on free lunch, agrees to a scholarship. Eagle dining, I’ve learned, will usually let him in for free. Every Sunday is omelet day; we line up for the omelet man, the same old man who makes it just right every time, in a cast iron skillet. There will be so many hard things about Mississippi, but my son will remind me, years later, how good the breakfasts always were.
And then the stalker. The doctor at the clinic urges medication. You need to sleep, she tells me, or you can’t take care of your son. You have to take care of yourself to take care of him. I talk about the stalker in spurts, and sometimes the grad students walk away. I can see it’s better not to say much. The pages and pages he writes me, how could he fill the space with all these words? I don’t read them, I delete. Please leave me alone, I say firmly, politely, as the police said to do. I’m told not to read them, get them out of my head. I’m told to save them; the threats are evidence.
My ex says if I don’t pay the taxes he tells me to pay, he will not send any support. H&R Block says if I pay the taxes, they will turn me in to the IRS.
I’m sitting outside, in my old Ford, staring up at the pine trees cutting into the sky. Tall tall trees over little little cottage. You know, I could take him. I could take him any time I want, my ex is saying. My son is asleep in the back, sucking fingers. When we are done, I feel the air tight around me, and a ragged breath escapes. I need my son near, at all times. “Have you had intimate conversation with this man?” the Hattiesburg police had asked me a week ago, and when I sighed, everyone left the room but the female officer. I felt the same shame, the feeling I’ve had since I can remember, as if the warm release of urine will soon leak down my legs. And now this; my son’s father. I could take him any time I want. The knowledge, the force of that knowledge, leaves me gasping without noise. He has money. And here I am, a woman who had intimate conversation with a homeless man who more than likely is living in a classroom less than a mile away, taking dumps in the garbage can, coming for me, ready to claim me and my son, because of the tangled late-night emails I sent over two nights of spiked hot Lipton tea.
I carry my son inside. I tuck him in. I don’t take a pill. The fear is a tightening in my chest, warm snotty breath against my neck, imagining his eyes on the backs of my knees. There is a high window from the bathroom that opens out over the garden. Is he out there, sleeping with the cusquash, eating the squash? The next morning, I’ll count the squash and some will be missing. I will know it to be ridiculous, my belief that he was there to take the vegetables away when it could have been any number of animals. More than likely, it was animals.
I sleep with my fingers wrapped around my flip phone, my son pressed against the wall beside me. For years, my son will ask me if I’ve locked the door as soon as we come inside.
My fault, this. I think of the week we first moved in, the room I chose for him, with its light peach walls, my kind professor and her partner planting a peach tree, and how I presented the golden key to him with a flourish. That night I turned on all the lights and walked into the front with him, standing under the peach tree, looking at our pretty place, all lit like a house from out of a Little Golden Book. “See that?” I told him. “That’s home.”
* * *
Here’s a moon big and bright and no higher than a streetlamp. My father carries me in and I open my eyes, just a sliver, enough to see but to seem to be sleeping. Is this when I loved him? It was easy to love him, this one, not the one my mother told me was someone else. That one, she would say, “That wasn’t your father.”
But there he is, I see him now, he is ready to come out when my father is on some bright edge, driving us into a sunrise, windows down, singing, stopping, starting.
If he’s too happy, it can be dangerous.
My mother will remember this. Your father always had such a sense of adventure. He took us places. Why can’t you remember the good? You always remember the bad.
When is it that I see he is not, literally, two men? That this is the same man, and his eyes glitter with glee whether he is ready to strike or ready to embrace. He’ll bury his head in her lap, and she’ll stroke his sweaty hair. She loves his hair, how it forms a widow’s peak, and she’ll hold his head against her breast in such a way I’ve never seen her do with me, or my brother. He’ll say her name, like a prayer, again and again.
I’ll remember that, and how, hours after he’s shaken me, threatened, ripped open my Baby Tenderlove, I’ll taste my own tears and they will be salty, delicious. I’ll pick at the scab now, and he will be sorry. You know I love you don’t you? You are my baby girl. He’ll wait for me to say, yes, I love you too. They will both tell me, again, in many ways, how he loves me. And she will wake early, make me Malt-O-Meal, stir in powdered milk and what’s left of the honey. I will love her fiercely as she does this, I’ll lick the bowl, and I will say, yummm. Thank you. This is delicious. So there is that. That’s some of the good.
* * *
“I know why you and my Daddy got a divorce,” my son says. Actually he says, “a divorced.” He is that cute. I’m not sure what to say. I think I know what I should say, something reassuring, something I must have read before about why mommies and daddies get divorced. “You had a fight.”
The fight was because of a scream inside the car. I remember that fight, I’m sure I know the one, and there were so many. But that was the night my son smiled, his eyes glazed over like marbles. I asked his father to please, drive home. Something was wrong, very wrong. And he did, finally. I carried him inside, and he was still there, dazed. I checked to see if his eyes were dilated.
“Honey,” I said to him, “are you okay?”
“I’m happy, Mommy. I’m okay. I’m happy.”
“You did this to him, bitch,” his father said from somewhere outside us. His voice was flat, and outside the darkness leaned in like a light. And then I remember: it was me. I screamed. It rose up out of me until it wasn’t me, a scream, and I can’t remember ever screaming this way, although my mother would tell me, years later, it was why my father broke at times. He couldn’t take the screaming.
Should I tell him? I didn’t. I tell him, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have fought like that.
“It wasn’t you, Mom. It was the sound.”
* * *
As he grew, my son had questions, and I answered them. I tried to tell him what I could, without burdening him. I tell him the story about the Omelet Man, and I wonder, does he remember or is it the story I am telling? And then he will tell me something else, something I’ve forgotten, but then it is there, shiny and found. “Remember the time you told me you could only go to Chuck E. Cheese if you were invited to a birthday party, Mom? Remember that?”
“Really? Did I say that? Now I didn’t say that.”
“You did! You said it was just for birthday parties.” He laughs, as if this is something to admire in me, as if it is evidence of a clever ruse.
“You had birthdays at Ghatti Town.”
“Mom, I didn’t mean it like that.”
Pray, pray, kiss in the morning, early morning drives with frost on the window, imagining the places we’d go when I graduated. I have never been all that good at making money, though. Will he forgive me? Will he say, we didn’t have heat. Or will he say, “I remember the time my mother brought home a space heater that looked like a fake fireplace, and we sipped hot cocoa, and she took me outside to count the stars. You could see a lot of stars in Hattiesburg. City lights didn’t blot them out.”
~ ~ ~
Claudia Smith's stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Rumpus, LitHub, Norton's The New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, Lone Star Noir (Akashic/Cinco Puntos), and forthcoming in Norton's The New Microfictions. She is the author of two flash fiction collections, The Sky Is A Well and Other Shorts (Rose Metal Press) and Put Your Head in My Lap (Future Tense Books), as well as a short story collection, Quarry Light (Magic Helicopter Press). She attended the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi, and now works as a lecturer at the University of Houston-Downtown. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her children William and Meihua, and her husband, Xuesong Chen.
This is a very personal piece. I wrote it after a long and busy day. My son is thirteen now, and it seems all of a sudden his comprehension of the past and present has changed. It’s both wonderful and terrible, and I can’t believe he’s as tall as I am now.
Anyway, I was driving to work and The Pretenders’ I’ll Stand By You came on the radio. This is a bit corny but that song always makes me think of my son. Late that night, after everyone was in bed, I sat down to write and the song was still with me. I’d been thinking on and off about my own childhood, and how much I wanted his to be magical when he was small. It struck me that my own childhood memories are in constant revision, and it’s impossible to separate them from who I am now, yet those memories formed me. I started with the memory of the blade of grass, which is a true memory I told my son about when he was small. It’s such an ordinary and solitary moment, and the first time I heard him telling a friend about it I was surprised. For a couple of years, when he was little, he’d sometimes say, let’s say we will always remember this so we won’t forget it ever. Of course I’m sure we’ve both forgotten some of those moments. I started with the blade of glass, then a memory of my father carrying me on his shoulders. My grandparents had a plastered ceiling coated with glitter, and I used to reach up and press my fingertips against the ceiling when he put me on his shoulders. We called it "catching the stars."
When I was small, the world was what my parents told me it was, and then I grew and my perspective shifted. I thought about my son, how he might remember his own early childhood, and it all sort of unfolded from there. I probably returned to the stars in Hattiesburg because of the glittery ceiling. I love my grandparents’ house; my father never lost his temper or became violent when we were there. It was a safe place. I can remember it better than the numerous places I've lived since. I would hesitate to call this piece creative nonfiction even though I was using the landscape of my childhood for it, and his, because all of it is not "true" or factual.
What is your favorite dietary pleasure?
I'm the sort who goes through cravings; I listen to the same song over and over again, or decide to wear the same cowgirl boots all season until I can't look at them anymore. I do this with food also. One winter break I sipped mulled wine at night and binged-watched every Vampire television series I could find on Netflix. Frito pie. Scrambled eggs with mayonnaise, the way my grandmother used to make them, with jalapeño preserves on dry toast. I'll go through a whole season craving something, eating it daily, and then the weather will change and that craving is gone. But coffee is the one constant craving. Coffee with cinnamon and Kerry Gold butter, Coffee with a little vanilla, coconut milk and coffee, any kind of frothy fancy coffee drink, black coffee with brown sugar. I just will never stop needing and wanting coffee.
You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?
Truthfully, I'd probably enlist my children in this, and there would be a big debate, and would try to talk my daughter down from a name like Pink Princess Marshmallow Toes. We have a water snail named Elsa Blue. That's rather pretty.
Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?
Fall. And this is odd, because I think just about every terrible thing that ever happened to me happened in the fall, or the end of summer. Maybe that's part of it. But I love it. I love cardigans, getting new light-up shoes for the kids, and all the mustering up I do before the beginning of the new semester. I love the end of a long, lethargic summer. Fall is cozy boots and flannel, but not too cold, not death yet. Also, it's the best time to read Wuthering Heights, watch horror films, wear the color mustard, or be in love.