The Queen of Palmyra, page 1
The Queen of Palmyra
In memory of Eva Lee Miller, 1910-1968
I need you to understand how ordinary it all was.
That spring we’d gotten lucky when Mimi managed to get…
The second Saturday morning after we returned to Millwood, Mama…
To go into Zenie’s bathroom I had to push aside…
The next day was just another ordinary Friday at Mimi…
I woke up the next morning feeling jittery.
The hot sun had browsed halfway across the sky, but…
It’s hard to say what happened next. There’s always the…
When I woke up it was bright day. I was…
While Eva was fixing herself up, Zenie poured a glass…
My arms scabbed up after a week of burning and…
The next morning I felt different. It wasn’t the soreness.
There are peculiar days in June when the light turns…
What do you do when you turn the page and…
Some stories run for their lives. They zig and zag,…
When I got off the bus, it was dusk and…
I’d slept in the tub awhile, I don’t know how…
It was all so humdrum. The way he stopped the…
The next morning Mabel handed the Times-Picayune to Mimi over…
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I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. At night the phone would ring after supper. My father would say a few quiet words into the receiver. Sometimes he spoke in numbers. A three, he would say. Or a four. When he put down the phone, he’d turn and look right at me. There would be a strange pleasure in his look, a gladness. He would ask me to perform this one small task; he’d tell me to go fetch him his box. The hair on the back of my neck would rise up and I’d run down the stairs to the basement where the furnace was. The stairs were just planks nailed to boards, no backs or sides to them, and when I was younger I used to be afraid that I’d slip and fall through to the dark underneath. But I lost that fear over the years and would count the steps and the one landing to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine.” This little light of MINE. One two three four TURN. I’m going to let it SHINE. One two three four DOWN. DOWN being the bottom, the cellar floor, cornmeal scratchy but cool to my bare feet.
The box would be where it always was, on top of a stack of Daddy’s old Citizens’ Council magazines piled up on a table and so covered in dust you couldn’t even read the print. The table sat to the left of the stairs under the one small high window. The window was at ground level outside and so shrouded in spider webs inside and out that the incoming light seemed sifted through its own loss, like flour after you add the cocoa. The webs were dense and messy, the kind black widows make, though Mama had just read in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about a new spider in Mississippi, a brown one, discovered by a college girl writing a thesis at Ole Miss. She was a pretty girl with a ponytail and a country name. Peggy Rae Dorris. In the newspaper she’s holding a dead one between her fingers and she’s eyeballing it close up. “The Lady and the Spider,” the caption reads. She says this brown one is just as poisonous as the black widow but more dangerous because it’s lighter in color and harder to spot. Nearly invisible on some surfaces, like those banana boats from South America that went up the Mississippi River to Memphis. When the men on the boats found the strange brown spiders, they buried the bananas, but the spiders surfaced and started their travels south to our fair state, maybe trying to get back home. Loxosceles reclusa is the spider’s name. It lives under things, in hidden places. So watch out in basements.
The box seemed glad to see me coming. It was tired of waiting. I blew the dust away and snatched it up. When I was little, I had to struggle to lift it, but as I grew up, it became lighter, a pleasure to hold in the palms of my hands, a crown. I’d get a good grip on it and climb back up, my head stuck out to the side so that I could watch every step to make sure I didn’t lose my balance and fall backward into the quiet darkness. No “This Little Light of Mine” on the way up.
By the time I’d get back upstairs, Daddy would be standing by the front door, ready. He looked like a bell waiting to be rung. The commode would still be running from his having used it. He’d have thrown cold water on his face, which brought up the roses in his cheeks. His hair was dark and waxed where he’d slicked it with sweet oil. Fresh khakis too, the creases ironed by my mother, who now stands at the kitchen sink, her back frozen in place against the darkening sky. The little front room with its crisp white curtains now in shadow except for one lamp, Mama always watching the light bill. Soon the two of us, my mother and I, will be alone in the growing dark.
Tonight, when Daddy takes the box from my hands, I can see how he loves the exchange, the way I know how to bring him exactly what he wants. It’s the size of a lady’s dress box, maybe even a small coat box, one you might open with a smile on your face, knowing something familiar yet surprising lies waiting under the tissue paper, like reaching under a setting hen and coming out with an Easter egg. A deep red wood, maybe cherry, and a brass plate on it with Daddy’s granddaddy’s initials, which are also my father’s and his father’s before him: WLF for Winburn Lafayette Forrest the First, who made the box with his own two hands in the early times, when the trees around here were so big half a dozen men could stand around their trunks and their fingertips still not meet. Later on, when I learn to work with wood, I will come to understand how much sanding with the finest of sandpaper and lacquering with the thinnest of lacquers would be required for that kind of smoothness. Sand and lacquer, then sand again. What a pleasure it must have been to finish it all and have just the right plate engraved with one’s own initials, knowing it would be handed down to a son, then a grandson, who would polish the brass just to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, and every year rub some boiled linseed oil on the wood to make sure it didn’t dry out.
Of course the box had a lock. Not much of one, just a slit the size of a yellow jacket’s hole. How Daddy kept up with that key I still don’t know. I’d never seen it then, but knew from the size of the lock that the key to open it would have to be a tiny little thing. Doll sized, like the key to a girl’s secret diary book. Small enough to hold under your tongue. I’d wanted to see what was inside that box since I was a crawling baby. The first thing I remember about myself is playing patty-cake over the box with Daddy. It between us on the floor, him kneeling like a big bull on one side and me on the other. When Daddy went, “Roll it and pat it and mark with a B and put it in the oven for Baby and me,” I’d hit the box hard on the top, and Daddy’d laugh and say, “Lord, Sister, hit it one more time.” And I would. Whap. I loved the sound it made.
I don’t say a word, just hand Daddy the box. He takes it underhanded. He’s the waiter and it’s a tray with a nice piece of Mama’s famous caramel cake and a full glass of tea, all ready for some lucky one. I cannot see his hands be
Now he will hold the box to one side, kiss me hard on the top of the head, and slip through the front door into the night. As he glides through the doorway, his Cloroxed shirt a flash of light against the shadows behind him, I touch the spot where he marked me with his kiss. “I’m going to give you a kiss that’ll go straight down to your heart, Sister,” he said once, and now I know it does because I can feel it begin its journey like a little burrowing creature. Down through the middle of my skull, sliding down the gullet, behind the collarbone, tunneling left through blood and bone and flesh till it finds its own dear home. Now he says, “Bye-bye, Sister,” without turning around, and click goes the door behind him.
When the door shuts, Mama slams a pan into the sink. Then there is dead silence. I know she’s not washing the dishes yet. She’s standing there in her apron with the faded clusters of sweetheart roses, tied top and bottom nice and neat, looking out over the little backyard. Space enough for a clothesline, that’s it, and weeds galore, really nothing more than an alleyway, but we call it the backyard. What else can we call it?
This much I can see without even looking in her direction. Mama in her apron still standing at the sink and looking out the kitchen window into the dusky light. Her arms turned in over the sweetheart rose clumps like she’s about to gather them up from the front of her apron and make a pretty bouquet out of them to put on the kitchen table. But she’s not thinking roses. She’s thinking about Daddy’s box.
“Get that thing out of my sight,” she said to me one time. I had brought it up from the basement and left it on the table in the kitchen because Daddy was in the bathroom washing up. The table was little. When we ate, I’d have to sit at its corner so we’d have room enough for our plates. When Mama saw that box squatting dark and solid on her eating table like a big sassy roach, her mouth worked to one side and then the other the way it did when she tasted a bad egg in one of her batters. She reached down and gave the box a hard little shove so that it slid toward the edge of the table. Just as she did it and the box was sliding sliding and I was opening my mouth to say watch out, Daddy rounded the corner of the kitchen. You could tell he couldn’t believe his eyes. His precious box. Whap went one hand on its top, stopping it in the middle of its skid. The other hand flew out at Mama, hawk to rabbit. He took her bony little wrist and held it between his thumb and first finger. How he wanted to snap it!
He steadied the box, then put his first hand under Mama’s chin and clubbed her face up to his. “You better watch yourself. You better watch out.” Each word chipped from a block of ice. That’s all he said, but his hands did their work on her. The first squeezed tighter on the little wrist, the second pushed Mama’s head back and up so high she couldn’t move it. Her hazel yellow eyes flared down at me. She wanted me to go away, but I didn’t. I watched.
Then she squinched her eyes tight shut and just stood there, still as stone. Neither one of them said a word after that, they just stood there locked together. Mama’s neck pared back like a radish, so thinly white that you could almost see through it. Then after a while, he let her go and gathered his box into his arms like his own true child. She sagged, but stayed standing, her fingertips glued to the table’s edge to steady herself while he turned and slammed out the screen door.
The next morning, taped up on the icebox, was a cut-out cartoon, a picture of two pretty blond ladies talking over a fence. One had on a lacy apron and carried a covered basket. The other had on a Sunday dress and a hat with daisies around the brim. The one with the apron was saying to the other one, “My husband and I have joined our Citizens’ Council, have you all?” Hanging in the sky like a puffy white cloud over the two ladies’ heads were the words A GOOD IDEA! The cloud hung up there like God himself had spit out the words. I saw the cartoon first thing when I went to get my orange juice. Then Mama came into the kitchen and went for the milk. She stopped short with her hand on the icebox door and stuck her face forward to read the words and made a little sound in her throat. That was all. She didn’t say anything when Daddy came into the kitchen humming like he had a Christmas secret. She just cooked him some bacon and fried eggs on high heat so that the eggs were hard as plates and the bacon charred. She turned on the broiler in the stove and shoved in some buttered toast. She let it stay under the broiler so that the edges were black and the stove was starting to smoke. Then she slid the bacon and eggs and a river of grease onto his plate, dumped the burnt toast on top, shoved the plate down at him, and took one quick step back, as if she were feeding a mean dog. After that she went to washing up the skillet in the sink. He sat at the table and wolfed down his breakfast and read the paper. No paper chat. Nothing but chewing and swallowing. Once he looked up at her as she busied herself at the sink, his eyes flattened out, dark and dull as blacktop on the road. After he left for work, she pulled the two pretty ladies off the refrigerator and tore them into little bits and threw them in the garbage can.
My father had a way of vanishing into thin air when night fell. When he got all lit up for one of his meetings, he could walk out of the bathroom and take your breath away with his shine. Mama used to look at him like she was getting ready to lick his face before it melted into the night. Tonight I’m wishing he’d taken me along with his box out into the breathy dark, but in those early days of that long summer he never did. I always stayed with Mama.
After a while she turns on the water and I know she’s wanting me to dry.
My mother washed dishes in a peculiar way. She washed each dish under running water hotter than I could have stood. She’d rinse off the grease and then soap up her fingers with a bar of Ivory and wash the plate or bowl or whatever with her soapy thumb and two front fingers. No washcloth, no sponge. It looked dainty and languid. Years later I would see an old woman on the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico moving her thumb and forefingers in the same way to shape a pot out of clay the color of dried blood. The wrinkles in the woman’s cheeks were so deep that their insides looked like new scars the same dark red as the pots.
After washing the dish or pot to her complete satisfaction, Mama would rinse it a final time and set it to the side, or, if I wasn’t behind in the drying, hand it directly to me. There was no dish drainer. My mother didn’t believe in leaving dishes out. She said they would draw roaches, which was a pretty safe bet given Mama’s dishwashing methods. I wonder now whether her technique may have been partly adaptive, at least the running water part of it. She was always baking and having to wash the bowls and pans she made her cakes in so that she could use them over again to make some more. We had one shallow sink with porcelain stretching out in endless ridges on both sides so that the sink’s monstrous shelf took up a whole wall with its hard white flesh, while the functional part, the basin, looked like a small puddle of suds in the whiteness. So there was no soaking, unless it was some pesky pot or pan with hardened drippings or icings after everything else was done. For those stubborn ones Mama used a rusty wad of steel wool she kept in an open jelly jar on the sink, if her fingernails didn’t work.
It was my job to give back the dishes that Mama’s finger method didn’t get clean. Usually these were glasses, when her fingers didn’t reach deep enough, or cake pans, at the point where the top of the layer and pan met in one hard brown line. If I rubbed hard with the blue-and-white dish towel and still there was a bit or smear or glob of something, I’d hold it up, look at it seriously, and then push it back toward her. She’d look up from her washing, glare at the item I held out as if it had insulted her.
“What?” she’d belt out, as if this were some mean trick I was pulling on her. Then she’d sigh like she had received some terrible bit of news, the kind that kicks you in the stomach. Wipe her brow with the back of her soapy right hand, sometimes leaving a trail of suds across her flat-cut bangs. Reach out and grab the dirty glass or pan or whatever like she w
On this particular night it is 1963 and I am almost eleven years old, the first and last of my mother’s children, just as she was her own mother’s first and last, both of us remnants of a dreamed fabric. My name is Florence Irene Forrest, after the city in Italy, my grandmother Mimi, and my father in that order, my father always telling people that the Forrest has two r’s, as in the great Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. It’s May, early May because the regular children are still in school. In the mornings I sit on our front-porch stoop, hidden behind the thatching of the clematis vine, and watch them go by. I am wearing a pair of old shorts with an elastic waist and a crop top that shows my belly button. My hair is cut short. The regular girls’ shirts are tucked into their pleated skirts and they carry their books in neat stacks. Some of them tote little lunch boxes and satchels. Watching this parade of regular children on their way to school, I feel like a dead girl looking down from heaven on the trickles of the life she is missing out on. Only I don’t feel like I’m in heaven. I tell myself that this too will pass. In September I will be a regular child again. I am not one at the moment because we’ve just moved back home after a year on the lam, and Mama says I need summer tutoring to make up for all the school I’ve missed. No need to enroll in May when you’re Behind with a capital B. They will give tests at the end of the school year. I could get put back. Sometimes the things I would need to learn before going into the fifth grade stretched out before me like a rickety bridge over dark water, no land in sight. Vertebrates and clauses and phrases and quotation marks. The gross national product of Argentina. Where was Argentina anyhow? How many zeroes are in a million? It made me sweat to think of all I’d missed.