At the House on Trummel Lane
by Kalisha Buckhanon
I was a bad artist and not bad writer, so the latter became my predilection, if not redirection and bushy-tailed downfall. I wanted to be like her: Grace Contessa Spencer.
My father’s motorcycle was off limits to me, parked between boxes and furniture in the backyard wood shed, to rust and collect webs I tore off at the start of winters when the spiders started to dry up or die. Ricky Spencer’s helmets were gone, because a cousin took the collection without Mama’s permission. He further offended her he would still ride a motorcycle knowing her husband crashed on one. We heard my aunt pawned them. Daddy’s rescue rope, breathing apparatus, boots and vest stood or folded neatly on a shelf near his fishing poles and luggage full of the better clothes Mama never got to Goodwill.
She explained to me she was out there making “art”—on a Kmart easel, with Farm n’ Fleet house paint but real sable brushes, palette knives, flea market clay, an old kiln, and a pottery wheel her old community college gave away. She studied part-time to become an RN, but said an artist is what she was supposed to be and do, before she married and started at the water plant. My father kept hassling her to prove she could get pregnant. She did—once, as far as I know. She showed me how to run the wheel because I liked “Ghost.” I wanted to do that Demi Moore thing, too. She introduced me to decorative arts, with buttons and fake jewels. Single-serve booze bottles trolled the shed. Virginia Slims butts marked the floor. She came from the shed either crying to her room or obnoxious, stumbling and pointing at Grandma. A retired daycare assistant who looked like she would have been fast friends with Quasimodo, unafraid to sport orthopedics every day or sit with her legs open to slumped stockings, Grandma always won the case.
“I ain’t gonna argue with you, girl,” was the judge cracking the gavel, to adjourn us to separate ways until the next time.
Mama’s brother was always at the bar after work at the water plant, where he picked my mother up to work too. When I could get myself ready for school, he stopped coming in to say “Hi” to Grandma every morning—just honked from the curb. My mother saved up enough for a new Chevy more reliable to our rural roads. Then we never saw him at the house but on Mother’s Days. He brought a new woman with him every year. Aunt Mae was haggard with five kids, two jobs and one mysteriously-employed husband I gathered was worse than Mama having a zero. These siblings did not go to church and Grandma never went to hospitals, so they were of no use to us for rides. One, the youngest girl, was on “that shit.” Her two little sons lived with us once, before the state of Illinois came to monitor them back with my aunt. And they had no car so we glimpsed them only if they needed the favor of ours, or only in town at holidays. More often than their names, I heard my aunts called “them heiffers.” My uncle blanketed under the lowered expectations men enjoy. He was rarely mentioned unless he had called. My mother or grandmother would talk to him for hours and hours, nicer for it for days.
So my place was in the shed if my mother was not there, because she was gone or in the house. In it, I sat on top of the motorcycle and made the “Vroom vroom vroom” noise until I dribbled spit and fell out of breath. Then I climbed down to mark up the unused canvas and wet down clay with a flower pot to make shapes any little girl might: butterfly wings, unicorns, hearts and stars. I gave the shapes to Mama and Grandma at Christmas and on their birthdays, along with uprooted dandelions I eventually figured out became slimy stems and browned puffs just a night after I presented them.
No one else there—no friend, tagalong, or sister. Once in a blue moon, a shoved-off cat knew the direction of home but not the way, and so became my pet in a season.
I am a good student. I am quiet in church. I know my Easter speech. Yes, I brushed my teeth for real. Yes—ma’am—I washed off my feet before I got in the bed.
We three moved out of “town,” away, rifted and elusive in a wily threesome combined to one baby lotion, White Shoulders and Bengay scent sniffed at the porch step. The back kitchen rotated its smells: hot dogs and Salisbury steak t.v. dinners on Mama’s bad days, feasts of cakes and homemade chili and shiny hams on her good ones. Nobody ever stopped by for long, if Mama wasn’t giving something for Grandma or me. And the gatherings always started and ended in daylight. Most dispersed from the task to spend at least ten miles of gas money roundtrip to our two-story stucco house off sparsely lit roads with no street signs—just tiny white flagposts with black letters a driver had to turn on brights to see. Mama met her girlfriends from high school and community college at bars, basement parties, and garage barbecues in town. She went to the Y to swim, but wouldn’t take me; if my hair got wet it would ruin the crinkle or the straight she spent her Sundays on. Our neighbors were all white and a few Indian and Jewish, doctors and bankers and scientists at the plants. We recognized their children when it was time to trick or treat, knew some of their names. Otherwise, the seasons determined our relationships: waves and hellos when the temperatures revolved into times come to plant flowers, trim hedges, water lawns, rake leaves, clean windows, clear gutters, stretch tarp and shovel snow. Mr. Johnson, widowed into bigamy with his two girl German Shepherds now, came from across the street sometimes to help us if Mama and I struggled with shovels and the lawn mower, even though he was ancient with blue dots and green lines in his pink face, and we did it faster. But, he said “I’m a man.”
Mr. Murphy’s entrance into my life is fraught with presence but stiff with blocks in space, a sudden cutout in my storybook house. Mr. Murphy shifted the terms of our life. He handed an assessor and outside examiner to our private sign language and mundane domesticity: gentle bickering, brief silent treatments, rollers in our hair all day, open doors to the bathroom while we read on the toilet, shoes left here and there, dishes unwashed, the same tv channel on for days, toenails clipped out in the open, gas passing and no showers but quick wash-ups at the sink. Mr. Murphy retouched our life. He made us women: primped, pruned, on polished toes, dressed and never not busy.
He met a united front I know must have been there. Most often at first, he stood up in our house. He called my mother “Missus Spencer,” her married name still. He stuttered a bit when he presented prices for his wares: much better life insurance and burial insurance, at a special price just for us supposedly. We could even buy our caskets in advance. Grandma sat in the rocking chair in the dining room beside Mama. I was able to interrupt, for a change. He was “Mr. Murphy,” not “Cole.”
If he sat down he asked if he could sit, at first. He asked for everything: water, another piece of cake, more coffee, the telephone, the bathroom. Somewhere along the way they started to tease him: “Gone on ‘head” and “You know where it is” and “You know better now to get it yourself.” “Help yourself,” even. He was not married to another woman I knew, or in the family by way of kids who looked like us and called him “Daddy.” I never saw him at church. He was a friend, maybe—my father’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s ladies and gentlemen we planned our outfits to go meet at restaurants and special shows. And he went out with my mother without me, without Grandma, and maybe I was too young and she was too old to go. Mama began to disappear for a night. Grandma started the maroon blanket on one of them. When Mama came back, I would know they switched subject if I came in. I would have already heard his name though.
Grandma never explained or accounted the absences. I would have to ask: “Where’s Ma?” On days I wanted to provoke the pottery wheel or see what we were going to wear for the whole next week, to messy up the closets and drawers and put them back together again, my mother was not there. Grandma was brisk by day and a de-animated at night, with her housedresses open and the phone in her lap. The color drained from the big television; she watched The Honeymooners, Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock, I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show. So we, too, separated. I began to stretch over my homework and notebooks on Mama’s queen size bed, to absorb her in what we would have been flipping in color: Carol Burnett, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Laverne and Shirley. I would wake up to her next to me watching the news, sometimes in the morning. She did drink her Lipton’s, with no bottle next to it.
When Mr. Murphy started to set down his hat, she kept her door closed and I stopped going in. If we left home in the evenings, we took his car: mushy leather and not soft cloth seats, lights instead of dull dials on the dashboard, a phone with an antenna set in the middle console. The first dinner, together and not without me, was Red Lobster.
In all this time my name went from Autumn, as my mother named me, to Grandma’s new calling: “Get me my…” Pill case. Water. Plate. House shoes. Rubber bands. Socks. Robe. Cover. Crochet basket. Needles. Yarn. Flask. Grandma mentioned her locked knees and hands. She settled into indented space in the easy chair more hours of the night, then the day too. I settled outside more and more in the shed, at the kitchen table alone, or in the yard to wait for a kid I knew from school to step up to our grass. We would talk at the road until a passing car reminded us we were not good friends.
When I turned ten, and the tornado warning spoiled my Pizza Hut plans, and Mr. Murphy gave me the tall dolls on round bases, Mama and Grandma gave me cotton bras the next afternoon after he spent that first night. I pounded at my itchy chest all the time, for what they saw that I had not because it was so gradual in its coming. The knowing smiles and placid conversations about “your time” and “those boys” and “your little thing.” I was distraught about the pimples that came with my chest and behind. Three whole inches in one year, too. Grandma bought me Ultra Glow, to smooth round and round the black hyperpigmentation even the smallest little bump left behind.
Mr. Murphy was the one who told us I should go to the skyscraper—the ten floors of Hedgewood’s tallest office center building near the courthouse—to see the doctor there who was one of our neighbors. We never saw inside his house, but I stayed in his office: for creams, pills, shots, and burning peels to clear up my face. This seemed to make it worse, at first. But my complexion I recognized came back to me just in time for middle school. Mr. Murphy claimed I was so pretty now, all due to him.
By then, he lived at our place or Mama lived at his. I was told to call him “Cole.” Cole showed his round belly and flat wide arms in plain white t-shirts tucked into his night pants in the mornings, now, while he ate eggs and toast in the living room to watch sports. At night, he switched to Coors and the news station he liked better. If I wanted to watch The Golden Girls or A Different World, I had to ask. Cole shooed the strays away before we could name them by color and personality like we had before he showed up, stray in his own way it seemed, too ornery to toss out the scraps and bones I wanted to.
He was Mama’s “boyfriend.” I asked if that is what he was. I knew what it meant. Because he bought me gifts. He gave Grandma church hats. And he paid some bills. Plus he pulled out his wallet at the grocery counter before Mama reached for her purse. A couple of times he drove us to society stuff, in town. At them, heavy white tablecloths flowed under several spoons, forks for two plates and a bowl in front of each of us. And Grandma talked very, very proper through her dentures. She told people at the table all about Hedgewood when she was young, coming from the South, and black people couldn’t live here or there. Mama announced where she bought her earrings and her dress. I got to tell people what I just won in school.
“Call me Cole, darling,” Mr. Murphy said when Mama was upstairs or out back, and Grandma slept in the Lazy Boy to leave me with kitchen duty. I was old enough now.
I was in the house alone with Mr. Murphy sometimes, because he just showed up before they got back from the store but they knew he was coming, so it was okay. Or I did not want to go to church, and they ran late to come back to the dinner he thought would be ready by now. I went school shopping with him alone; Mama was sick, and I could not wear high waters for another day to still call myself her child. Mr. Murphy roamed the tools and electronics while I tried on pants, skirts and shirts in a cubicle dressing room in the middle of Kmart. He took me home from a funeral repast that went on well into the night. One of our great aunts died; the people from even colder weather than we had were in town for the first time in many years. Grandma wanted to visit as long as she could. Mama wanted to take pictures to mail to everybody later, after she made collages and frames to show them she was still doing her art. She snapped more and more the emptier the beer cartons and Boone’s Farm jugs fell. I did not know the people. Neither did Mr. Murphy—her “man” now. So he and I left. I went to the bathroom to wash my face and feet before bed as I always did, with no thoughts of this mainstay in my life I could not say I loved more than expected. I laughed at his jokes and stories because my mother and grandmother did. I did him favors—hung his coat, brought him a plate, moved over—because he was an elder and I should.
“Call me Cole, sweety,” he said, when he met me at a bus stop off the main street.
The roads branched long ways apart. It was raining. And he had flexibility at his work while Mama had to stay overtime if she was told to, even if her daughter would slosh home in thunder and lightning in the part of town without awnings to wait underneath until the worst rain sheets passed.
I could have walked. I liked the taps of pressure from the rain on my head under my rubbery pink hat when I bowed my umbrella. I liked to see what designs the puddles would flow out into when I stomped my galoshes in middle of them. A gray coating spanned the horizon to make every cornfield and house around it feel closer than usual. The pending drone of any car coming from far ahead or behind gave more certainty to life in the storms than sunnier days, Technicolor false. With rain, it was more quiet. But I knew the Cadillac driven past and pulled over was for me, so I shuffled ahead and got in.
Like the outside, our house was gray with the blinds tightened and a wet smell though the windows were closed. Mr. Murphy helped me shake out of the drenched coat, useless hat and clumsy boots. He came too close. Grandma was in the kitchen, with the wood doors on either side of it shut because she thought lightning could sneak inside.
After he came too close one time, next he hugged me “Goodbye” or “Goodnight.” I thought—but said nothing—about his big hard hand fit over my heart breast for seconds he pressed. I thought. But I knew I was getting big where I was once small, so maybe I got in his way. When I said nothing to anybody about that, he twice reached over to the dish rack to grab a beer mug or coffee cup from on the other side of me as I stood at the sink doing dishes. He could have just gone in front of the dish rack, because we had enough room in the eat-in kitchen with a wraparound counter too. But he stood on the left side of me. He reached all around to get across to my right, so he meshed into my body for seconds I could have counted had I seen them coming.
He came behind me in the pantry. I tottered on my tippy toes to reach the good Orville Redenbacher popcorn on the high top shelf where he put it because he bought it.
“I got it for you,” he told me, from across the kitchen I had not known he was in.
And I felt a thick long hard line in between my buttocks when he reached over me, for a long time that was not accidental now, because he never touched the popcorn box as he rubbed from side to side and side. I held the bottom shelf where we put the can goods that would kill us if they fell on our heads but only hurt us if they hit our feet.
A crooked smile it was, a little laugh arose from me like a burp. I said “Ummmm….” I couldn’t think of a good question to go along with it. For minutes maybe, I thought of raising my hand and a teacher calling on me when they asked for questions. I would have answered them one back to answer. I did not know what to ask.
I was 11.
We had Swedish meatballs, baked potatoes, canned asparagus under shredded cheese, and frozen biscuits I pulled apart in too-thin strips that night. They burned on the bottom, and nobody ate any but Mr. Murphy. Grandma and Mama teased I could not make the biscuits ever again. For a couple of days, he was gone away. When he came back he talked to me and came near me like normal, but I never saw his eyes.
Now I was getting phone calls and answering machine messages from extended cousins and classmates, all floundering in our own ways we never declared. We surfaced at famous upperclassmen, the next big movie, MTV and BET, hairstyles, and other kids’ secrets. I took it past “See you later.” I had a postscript: “Can I sleep over your house this weekend?” And Mama first hissed: “No, cause I don’t want to drop you off and then pick you up.” When I kept asking for these short getaways to another house and place in town, where I had girls my age for double-dutch and hairstyling and talking on the porch, rather than curt courtesies to the kids around me who could still afford the Catholic school, Grandma stood up for me. She said I was not a little girl anymore…I needed to get out of that house sitting up under them. Then, Mr. Murphy offered the favor. So, I changed my mind and stayed home unless I went with others straight after school, girls I wished were sisters. I came to the relatives’ and friends’ houses inspecting for their needs: yard work, help to clean out the garage, a new baby to sit, a senior to pick up prescriptions for. I could manage three nights a week I did not have to see Mr. Murphy, but only hear him snore later behind Mama’s door and thump down the steps out to his office in the day.
If I had no excuse to be away, he found ways to stand behind me and come close. He struck as I loaded clothes in the washer, took them from the dryer, stared in the fridge, organized groceries or put towels in the linen closet. I cursed him under my breath.
“Would you call him Cole, Autumn?” Mama started to say.
The days after, I sat in school tracing over ink at the space lines in my notebooks or over figures in textbooks I was to return at the end of the year. My papers got so much longer than everyone else’s that my English and Social Studies teacher announced them as “best.” I finished the math chapters quicker than the rest of the class too; I could go on by myself at my own pace, and finish the whole book. The librarian knew not just my face but my name; I checked out more books than any others, she said. When I doodled and drew, I lie on my belly. But when I read, I was on my back. If I stayed on my back, Mr. Murphy would stay off of it. So I watched my back as I moved around my house on Trummel Lane. Then I lie on it with a book when I was tired so needed to still. Mama said she was sad I grew out of making stuff in the shed.
She had a better recommendation from one of her YMCA swimming friends than a new insurance plan and the salesman who came along with it: camp, a military-style summer departure sequestered in Indiana cornfields. She begged Mr. Murphy to pay for it: for me to live with girls I made no permanent friends. I was more determined to march, salute, manage bows and arrows, swim as if my life depended on it, and most else but play in the riding halls where no pony could match my daddy’s motorcycle.
I first met Summer in the shed, then beside me in a camp bunk, finally waiting in my rocking chair when I came home. She looked like me, grumpier though. Same height, weight and notes in the face. More silent. And she knew, but liked me anyway. And as she came along beside me to block Cole, I knew she must have been there all along.
We turned 12.