She supposed Matt Spruill had found Aunt Grace’s number in the phone book—or gotten it from his own parents, who still lived in Mawatuck. Because he graduated too late for a Southeast Asia tour, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, training recruits. From Fayetteville, Matt Spruill, anyone with a car, could reach Mawatuck in a few hours’ time.
On the telephone, by way of reintroduction, he said: “Hi, Beth. It’s Matt Spruill. I saw you at the bank last time I was home.”
She thought he’d said that. Matt Spruill’s voice was a murmur. It sounded farther away than it was.
“I guess you don’t remember me.”
“I don’t, no.”
“That’s okay,” he said, absolving her when she hadn’t asked to be absolved.
When he invited her to go to the movies the following weekend, inexperienced in the etiquette of accepting or declining dates, she committed the first of many errors by failing to say no instantly. Her hesitation he interpreted as consent.
Face to face, he seemed younger than any Army-enlisted guy should be. The severe crew cut showed every freckle on his scalp; where several freckles ran together, the cluster resembled a birthmark.
As a civilian he slouched, apologized for the weather, the traffic—nothing within his control, nothing that was his fault. During the film he bought her a box of popcorn she didn’t want, also a soda. After leaving Jackson City, they rode around Mawatuck. She pointed out the new ABC store. He asked about the demolition of Bodie’s Tackle. Back at Aunt Grace’s house, beneath the blue-white porch light, he solemnly asked permission to kiss her goodnight. Again, she hesitated. Brushing against hers, his lips felt sticky. Her hand on the doorknob, he asked: “Do you like surf fishing?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’ve never tried it.”
Hesitation and honesty—neither her lucky charm.
The next morning he showed up with ham sandwiches, Oreo cookies, bait and two of his father’s stainless steel fishing rods.
Persistent, Matt Spruill.
Whatever else the Army had toughened, it wasn’t skin. He’d been standing less than an hour in the surf when his nose, his cheeks, his shoulders and the backs of his knees turned a vibrant pink. He looked a little like Archie, the comic strip character.
How could anyone take seriously courtship by Archie?
Despite his fishing attempts, their only catch of the day came deep-fried and decorated with parsley, served in the restaurant attached to the pier, the restaurant’s walls strung with crab netting that trapped conchs and starfish. Each time a wave crashed and pounded the pilings below, their table swayed. As the sun dropped, he ate his slice of pecan pie and hers. She ordered a third beer.
Then he suggested they adjourn to the roller rink.
Holding to the rail she inched forward, and he inched close behind. Rank amateurs among a crowd who skated hard and fast, they plodded into the whirling mass and when she fell, attempting to help, he fell also, taking her down a second time.
Something of a surprise, his klutziness.
She’d assumed Basic Training required a certain amount of coordination as well as stamina. But what did Matt Spruill’s klutziness matter to her? She wasn’t his girlfriend; he wasn’t her boyfriend. They weren’t destined to embarrass each other in public every weekend for the rest of their lives.
Done with skating, they wandered behind the rink to sit before breaking waves and stare idly at two blues, sky and ocean. Serenaded by rink music, they scrupulously avoided discussing the military or her bank teller job, a vacuum that got filled with commentary on nature and natural disasters. He talked about fishing, the skiff he’d built with his uncle. She talked about hurricanes.
They’d been toddlers when Diane struck, but both retained a hazy recollection of its effects. Mawatuck parents, guardians, elders in general, made a habit of loading up the family and driving to the scene of destruction. Air where there had been structure, water where there had been shore. A few years after Diane, Donna downed power lines four counties inland, ruined corn crops, killed livestock and people. When the tides of Donna receded, they left a brown waterline on the walls of the beach church she attended with Aunt Grace. In that building, every Sunday, the Aunt Grace she knew, overtaken by a riotous Spirit, transformed into Aunt Grace Elated. The hurricane waters of Donna also transformed what was into something else. Despite clean-up efforts, for months the sanctuary continued to smell like the bottom of the sea.
Most recently Agnes had blown through, taking with it the underpinnings of the old Coast Guard station. For a few hours, the structure had waffled in its allegiance between land and water, then toppled into the currents. The bingo hut, the carousel, a cluster of pink cottages built in the 1920s—all vanished. Up and down the radically narrowed beach, property owners, scavengers and gawkers like herself walked among stranded bathtubs, mattresses weighted by kitchen sinks, couches, toilets, washing machines and window frames dry-docked in queer configurations of ruin, a beachscape that combined absence and chaos.
The owners of the spared Trading Post had hung a photograph beside the cash register: a telephoto view of a gargantuan wave momentarily suspended above a cottage. It seemed impossible that a photograph could be more unnerving than the 3-D version she’d walked, but it was. The cottage was doomed. To look at the photograph was to see the end coming and stand helpless before that finality.
The ocean that stretched in front of her and Matt Spruill denied its force with a soothing wash of surf, the smallest ripple of waves, the kind of ocean that served as backdrop in romantic tearjerkers.
He asked her to smear his sunburned back with Noxema. When she finished, he detained her hand. She thought it must hurt, that burn scraped by sand, but he didn’t complain. Sex was quick, awkward. Since it wasn’t thrilling for her, why would it have been for him?
When she missed her period, she told no one. Aunt Grace would have been shocked and ashamed. Matt Spruill, a virtual stranger, would have insisted they marry.
The majority of Mawatuck women waited for a husband to change residences, but she hadn’t waited for, or wanted, a husband. She’d moved out of Aunt Grace’s house into the trailer because she wanted her baby to be born and raised in a home that belonged solely to her. Even on a bank teller’s salary, she could afford to rent the trailer.
It rented furnished. A substandard-sized couch, two-person dinette, Venetian blinds speckled with fly wings. A battered chest of drawers. A bed so low to the floor that when she sat on it her shoulders were closer to her knees than her knees to her ankles. Electric heat, electric stove. A refrigerator she planned on covering with her daughter’s artwork.
She’d always assumed she carried a daughter. A daughter she would have carried piggyback around the fields. A daughter she would have taught to play poker, pitch a strike. A daughter she would have sat beside on the trailer steps, counting falling stars as night drew in around them. She would have named her Leeta, in honor of Leeta “Senior.” When her daughter was old enough to understand, she’d explain. Leeta Porter hadn’t been her friend—much less her best friend—in the second grade, but that hadn’t stopped Leeta from saving her from Jerry Banks.
When Jerry and his buddies first cornered her on the playground, she’d had no idea why.
“Roll, Holy Roller. Roll,” Jerry shouted, wrenching her arm while his pals tossed bits of gravel and oyster shell in her direction to encourage the performance. Inexpert marksman, the bunch. Jerry remained her prime concern. Boys showing off for other boys lost what conscience they had.
As the pain shot from her wrist to her shoulder, to prevent begging for release, she bit down hard on her tongue. The first ambush lasted as long as it lasted. When Jerry lost interest that round, her arm hurt but wasn’t broken. She was on her knees but hadn’t torn her dress.
Mostly thereafter at recess she rode the giant strides and merry-go-round, jumped rope and played jacks like everybody else. But if she made the mistake of straying too far from the pack, Jerry’s pack circled in.
The day Leeta happened upon their knot of tension, she’d eaten grit but still hadn’t rolled.
“Hey!” Leeta shouted, ponytail twisted, shoes already scuffed. “Cut that out!”
When Jerry ignored the order, Leeta leapt on his back and started kicking. To free himself from Leeta, Jerry had to let go of his hostage.
Jerry fought dirty, but not nearly as dirty as Leeta. Before he could get hold of Leeta’s ponytail, she spat a wad that landed just north of his mouth. He had his attacker by the throat, but she never stopped swinging. To escape a punch, he reared back, stumbled, fell and just like that Leeta was on top of him, holding him down. By pinning his arms with her knees, she freed her hands to pinch his ears.
He jerked his head no, fingers still attached to his earlobes.
“This minute!” Leeta warned, drawing blood.
Certifiably wounded, he yelped and surrendered.
After Leeta brushed off her socks, realigned her ponytail and set off, she trailed her liberator to the water fountain.
“You don’t have to thank me,” Leeta insisted, dribbling water. “I love to fight.”
Leeta never asked and she never told why Jerry Banks demanded she roll—not at the water fountain that day or anywhere else, anytime since. But the night of Leeta’s rescue, she had prayed hard to her Holy Roller God.
Please let Leeta Porter be my friend. Forever and ever. No matter what. No matter what.
For a God who could do anything, it seemed a minor request.
God only wants good. He wants his followers rich and healthy. It’s the Devil who wants sickness, poverty and despair. Embrace God’s goodness. Hold it to your heart. If you believe with all your mind and soul in the goodness of God, He will grant you health and happiness and riches. Only by lack of faith can the reception of God’s riches be thwarted.
She stopped praying for or about anything and anyone soon enough, but she’d logged too much time in the sandblasted church to shed God entirely. At first her substitute version seemed an improvement. Black eyes, sharp nose. Slicked-back black hair that glistened.
Glamorous, in a cynical sort of way.
Because she’d wanted Him to resemble in no fashion His Pentecostal predecessor, she dressed her version in a tux, made sure he scorned the flailing, writhing Pentecostal “dance,” the speaking in tongues.
“Dreadful choreography,” she had Him denounce. “Appallingly acted. A dismal production, start to finish.”
His shoes, also black, were shiny, pointy. More often than not, while visiting, He smoked, legs crossed. The cigarette holder had been an afterthought but once in His hand she couldn’t imagine Him without the prop.
Because she believed she had conjured Him, she assumed He could be dismissed. The night she tired of His company—poof, He’d vanish. But when that hour arrived and she bid Him farewell, He laughed, teeth glinting along with His shoes.
“Dearest darling Elizabeth,” He chided. “Aspire not to be ridiculous. For both our sakes.”
As if to prove the point, the Saturday she moved into the trailer He appeared just as Leeta was saying: “I can understand wanting to get away from wacky Grace. But a trailer? In a cornfield?”
“What’s wrong with a trailer in a cornfield?” she parried, turning her back on both visitors. The true reason she’d picked the trailer she kept to herself: anyone who came looking for her had to, first, know the way. When the corn was high, the trailer couldn’t be seen at all from the secondary road. Once the corn had been picked, there was still a hedge of overgrown bay bushes to hide behind.
“As if you could hide from me!” He snorted, settling himself on an unopened box.
As visible in daylight as in darkness, He adjusted His cufflinks, crossed His legs, jiggled one shiny black shoe, started to hum.
She must have blanched.
“What’s wrong?” Leeta demanded. “Is it my hair? Is it sticking up? Do I need to…”
“Get her to talk God,” He insisted. “Go on. You know you want to.”
“No,” she said.
“No, it’s not sticking up or no it’s not my hair?” Leeta quizzed.
“Oh? You’d prefer I sing? Come my love and be with me, Little Liza Jane. And I’ll take good care of thee, Little Liza Jane. Ohhhh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane…”
To cut him off, she’d blurted: “Leeta! How do you picture God?”
“What do you mean ‘picture God’?”
“The God in your head…”
“I don’t have a god in my head.”
“But when you think about God,” she rushed on. “What’s he…like?”
Leeta frowned and kept frowning. “Why are we even talking about this?”
“Just tell me!”
“Okay, okay! Talks loud. Maybe with an echo.”
“Methodists!” He sniffed. “Such feeble imaginations.”
Leeta whirled around, checked behind her, whirled back. “What do you keep staring at?”
“Try again, Elizabeth,” He directed. “You can do better and so can she.”
“That’s what he sounds like. What does he look like?”
Leeta’s God had a big head. Carried a calculator and a slide rule. Wore a baseball cap, carpenter’s pants and gloves.
“What kind of gloves?”
“I don’t know,” Leeta moaned, fed up. “Leather, maybe?”
“Why the gloves?”
“To hide his blistered fingers, I guess???”
“You’re not describing God, you’re describing the devil.”
Leeta shrugged. “I kinda get them confused.”
On what grounds could she legitimately protest? Her tux version was a mishmash. A little bit God, a little bit Devil.
“A little of everything, Elizabeth,” as He often chided. “Hence: God.”
Once Leeta left, she set about disinfecting the trailer. Although her baby wouldn’t be exposed to air or germs for months and months, she wanted to prepare in advance.
Balanced on a dinette chair, cleaning the upper shelves with ammonia, she felt the room tilt. Carefully, carefully, she climbed down and stretched out on the floor. In that position she came nose to nose with dust bunnies, bread crumbs black as raisins, hives of mold. But when she saw the upturned thumbtack, she immediately reached for it, its danger the most obvious of the surrounding treacheries. Thumbtack in one hand, other hand cupping her stomach, she tried to stay positive, think positive, but couldn’t help herself. With each wave of queasiness she more and more feared what lay ahead: labor and its (possible) complications. If vertigo derailed her, how would she manage the pain of childbirth? Mothers were supposed to endure all grades of suffering for their children. Could she?
“We’ll see,” He said.
From her angle on the floor, He looked thinner but no less bored.
By the time her stomach settled and she felt steady enough to rise, she decided to postpone further cleaning. Instead she unboxed a set of new Pyrex dishes and four yellow canisters. The canisters hogged all by a thread of counter space. Preparing a meal around them would be a challenge. But she’d manage, she told herself. They’d manage.
The visitor who remained neither agreed nor disagreed.
In the bedroom, she stored the yellow baby bonnet and sweater, wrapped in tissue paper, in the dresser’s bottom drawer.
Until the baby arrived.
When she returned to a kitchen, it was empty of gods—hers or anyone’s. To make sure of that conclusion, she turned off the lights and waited by the sink. He didn’t reappear. Probably He’d had His fill of Elizabeth Jane Anderson, her nausea and her fear.
Two weeks later, she woke with cramps, held her belly, forced herself to breathe slowly, to lie very, very still. But the sheets beneath her were already bloody. She’d miscarried her baby before her baby looked like a baby. She’d failed as a mother before officially becoming one.
Now whenever she fell asleep, she dreamed of her body deflating, of grabbing for something that wasn’t there. So she tried not to sleep. Awake, on the couch, she drank, her reason for not drinking no longer in play.
Tonight He joined her a little past midnight but kept His distance. Although she should have been too drunk to notice such distinctions, she noticed He looked more slovenly than usual. Dandruff on His lapels, shoes less shiny. A strand of black hair had escaped its companions and hung low on His forehead.
In their early years together, His reactions and commentary had been more amused than critical, His mockery gentler. On His last few visits, He’d led off with cattiness, followed up with maliciousness, no longer bothering to rein in His nasty side. Once He dropped the veneer of civility, His judgments, she realized, were as harsh and uncompromising as those of the Pentecostal God before Him.
Not new, tonight’s attack. Simply a variation on theme.
“All you had to do was sit back, grow fat and lazy. The most natural of assignments—yet you couldn’t follow through.”
Against such a charge, she had no defense. None. What he said was absolutely true. She’d been unable to protect and defend her baby’s life, had proved useless, a total incompetent. She deserved the abuse. Drunk, she embraced it.