Burden of Summons
The three of us crouched motionlessly in the kneehole of the old
mahogany desk in the storage room next to the kitchen. Maudie and Ruby
Grace drew up their knees, pressing them against their chins. Wedged
between them, I could hardly let go of a breath.
We heard his footsteps in the kitchen and knew only a tall man had such
a long stride between his steps. Maudie and Ruby Grace shushed me,
although I wasn’t making any noise. The sound of his footsteps
stopped, and we knew he had paused at the back door.
Maudie and Ruby Grace had closed their eyes, clenched them tightly as if
not seeing would keep him from us. “Or maybe they were praying,” I
thought, “praying our mother had gotten out of the house, and he would
not find us.”
We sat under the desk, refusing to move long after we could no longer
hear the sound of his steps. For endless minutes we sat there, crouched
in the tiny, airless space. Silent. Stunned. Not looking at one another,
not believing he was gone. Believing he had discovered us and was just
waiting on the back porch for us to reappear.
With my face pressed hard into my drawn-up knees, I felt my locked hands
soaked with perspiration. My fear changed to anger. Nothing made sense.
We, not our mother, were the ones who were scared senseless of him.
Mother drew back from him one minute and provoked him the next minute,
always leaving us to live in terror of his rage when he couldn’t find
her or when he started to think he was losing control of her.
It was late and especially quiet in the house that night. My 12-year-old
brother, Robert Joseph, and nine-year-old sister, Elda Kate, were
already in their beds asleep.
What started as a peaceful night had turned into an event that resembled
a dream with no escape. I was working on a letter to the editor of
theMaynard Bald Press voicing my opposition to strip mining around Egan
and the absurdity of a proposal to “reclaim” centuries-old trees.
Ruby Grace was busy, covering buttons with tweed fabric to match a newly
sewn coat, and our cousin, Maudie, who came to live with us a few months
before Elda Kate’s birth, was trying to tease her hair into an
outrageous “do,” similar to the big hair that cost Ova Gay two full
cans of Aqua Net.
My father came home and found Mother gone, and plainly, because of her
absence without his knowing, the night was ending with the three of us
cowering under a desk like three house mice.
At first, we thought he would calm down when Mother walked in, just
fifteen minutes after he arrived. When she refused to tell him where
she’d been, saying “Joe, you don’t need to know where I am and
what I’m doing every minute of the day,” we knew it was time to
leave the room. We listened from the other side of the wall in the next
room and heard the screen door slam. I hoped the kids couldn’t hear.
Their rooms were on the far end of the house. “Good, he’s
leaving,” I thought. Two minutes later, we heard the screen door
again. Mother cried, “No, Joe, don’t.” Already, the three of us
were crying. I bolted into the kitchen. Maudie and Ruby Grace were
behind me. There we saw Daddy holding a piece of broken neon glass to
her right temple.
“You’re much too pretty, Helen,” he said, slowly, lightly pulling
the jagged glass across her cheek, “such a pretty mouth.” Mother’s
body stiffened trying not to move her head. But her shaking was
uncontrollable. A thin line of tiny beads of blood formed under her
right cheek and near the corner of her mouth. She shook harder. Then, he
let go and pushed her toward the door. “Go on, get out,” he said,
“get out of my sight.” Mother eased toward the door as if letting
her go was a tease, and that he would jerk her back. “She can make it
to Mrs. Pruitt’s to call someone,” I thought.
Daddy hadn’t noticed that Maudie, Ruby Grace, and I had disappeared
into the storage room. He wasn’t sure if we had run next door to Mrs.
Pruitt’s. He called my name.
I knew it was true—what was whispered about my father around Maynard
Bald when no one thought I could hear. My father had always had the
reputation of being a mean man. He worked hard to uphold that image and
even took pride in it.
It was under the mahogany desk on August 29, 1962, that I made up my
mind; on that night reason kicked in. I had to find a way to get out of
these mountains, away from this place and this insane family. But,
before my escape, I had to find a way to keep my father from killing my
mother. Even though I hoped it was not true—what they said about my
father, I knew something unthinkable was about to happen. I could feel
it—a feeling as present as my own heartbeat.
But first, a plan had to be set into motion to keep Mother alive.
“Coming up with a plan that will work won’t be easy,” Maudie and
Ruby Grace warned in unison, looking at me and casting two deciding
votes that the solution would fall to me. Deep down, all three of us
knew, that for a problem as serious as dealing with a man like my
father, we would have to discuss it with my mother’s mama, Grandmother
Evers, who would then talk it over with her five boys. They would know
what to do, and they weren’t afraid of my father or anyone, for that
“Lunda Rose,” he called out.
Ruby Grace and Maudie stiffened like corpses, their eyes and lips
squeezed tightly, as if they, if touched, would explode like punctured
balloons. I pressed harder into my knees trying not to exhale, not to
bellow, letting go of unrecognizable sounds.
“Why’s he calling my name?” I thought, as I covered my ears and
curled my body even tighter into the kneehole of the desk. Ruby Grace
and Maudie were older, but he always turned to me with his questions,
which usually turned to interrogation. I had just turned fifteen in
early August, but it had been this way since before Elda Kate was born:
my older sister and live-in cousin baling out and leaving me in the line
of fire. He chose me to question because Maudie and Ruby Grace avoided
him. Maudie purposely stayed away from the house most of the time with
a part-time job and a boyfriend. Ruby Grace had made her escape, a clean
break, last December when she married David Martinelli. And now, for
Heaven’s sake, she was back in Maynard Bald and stayed at our house
more than her own. When they were here, they stayed in the room they
shared at the far east end of the house, coming out only when they knew
they wouldn’t cross paths with Daddy.
“You’re the only one of us he likes anyway,” Ruby Grace snapped.
“That isn’t true,” I argued. “He doesn’t like anyone, and he
only talks to me because I’m at home most of the time, since I can’t
drive, and he figures I will know everybody’s whereabouts and their
business, who called, and who came by. Of course, the one he’s really
interested in is Mother. He questions me because he knows I’m too
scared to lie for her. The only other times he talks to me are when I
show an interest in his neon signs or in watching him draw pictures.”
Again, we heard his long steps fade from the kitchen and the back porch.
We remained in the kneehole of the mahogany desk for another hour,
feeling the air around our ears reclaim its place as it does after a
tornado cell passes.
For the rest of the night, Ruby Grace and I sat in the front room near
the big window staring at one another. We would see the headlights if
Daddy returned. Maudie slept on the couch and looked more like she was
in a coma than sleeping.
Despite their differences and alternating periods of provocation and
making amends, Mother and Daddy would sometimes go for months, once even
a full year, of seeming to be perfectly fine. Most of the time they gave
the impression of deeply loving one another, of being unable to live
without the other. During the times when we managed to live in the same
house for more than a few months, their fondness for one another led us
to believe that peace between them could be lasting. There was never a
warning of when or why my father would come home, start breaking up the
furniture, or jerking the phone cord out of the jack. Once he even
unscrewed the receivers of the telephones, removed the transmitters, and
put them in his pocket, so if Mother called, we could hear her, but she
couldn’t hear us. I was sure he thought that after she heard the
receiver being lifted, and after “hello, hello, Lunda Rose, are you
there,” there would be some tell-tale sound in the background that
would tell him where she was. Or without thinking, she might even say it
herself, not knowing that he was listening on the extension. Of course
he’d thought this over, knowing she would not stay away from us,
especially the two younger ones, for long periods, although Maudie, Ruby
Grace, and I were perfectly capable of looking after them. That, after
all, was the deciding factor for having Maudie come to live with us. At
first, she was supposed to help mother when she was pregnant and after
Elda Kate’s birth. But now, almost ten years later, it was clear
Maudie was here to stay.
Following varied and usually short stretches of peace between them, and,
for no apparent reason, at least to us, the chaos would start
again—the threats, the arguments, the battles, the fear, the crying,
the leaving. For several months after Elda Kate’s birth, my father
seemed calmer; we thought that peace between them might be permanent;
that this might be the golden period we’d all hoped for. But then, the
arguments and fights started again. Lately, my father’s rage and
unpredictability had crossed the boundaries of sound judgment and
sanity. When one of us would ask Mother why he was mad, she would shrug
it off. Once she slipped and said that he didn’t like her spying on
him or meddling in his business.
His absences were longer, and all three of us, Maudie, Ruby Grace, and
I, slept every night wearing our clothes, dressed to quickly escape his
rampaging or to run to the neighbors for help.
That night the three of us huddled in the room Maudie and Ruby Grace
shared, where we wouldn’t be heard making our plan. In case Mother or
Daddy came in without us hearing, Maudie turned on her radio and
instructed me to stand outside the bedroom door listening to see if she
and Ruby Grace could be heard from the other side of the wall.
The three of us decided that night in the secrecy of Maudie’s and Ruby
Grace’s room that the uncles must be told, and they must be told the
whole truth. Mother could not know of our plan for she surely would not
allow it; saying that if her brothers came, someone would get hurt.
* * *
Only two things could scramble my mother’s five brothers down from
Morley Mountain: a summons from their mother or a plea, no matter how
minor, from any one of their three sisters. In fact, all it really took
for these women to call the uncles together was a single word.
We were never quite sure how word reached them, since the only phone in
Morley was at the very back of the Bottoms Store, our name for the
company store owned by the Morley Coal Company. When a call came in,
news of it and what was said to Mr. Merlin Messer, the only person
allowed to answer the phone, flashed across the Bottoms and through
Morley, reaching even those on the far side of the train tunnel and
across the mountains in Anthras, Tackett Creek, Cotula, Habersham, or
Egan, in under twelve minutes. Bad news or a help-needed call could ring
through the hollows in less than ten minutes, depending on the bleakness
of the situation.
We also decided that night that a mere call to the uncles would not do.
They would never talk on the telephone at the Bottoms Store. They seldom
talked at all, much less into a telephone. And if the uncles came to
Mother, she would cry and plead with them not to hurt my father. She
would lie and swear that she was fine and in no danger whatsoever,
knowing full well, that on this very night, he had threatened to shoot
her and anyone she might call for help.
No. This conversation had to take place face-to-face. Eye contact. One
of us would be required to travel 32 miles to Morley to tell our
grandmother and the uncles of the situation. Maudie and Ruby Grace said
I should be the one to go. Of the three of us, I had spent the most time
there and was most at ease with the uncles and them with me, and Mother
wouldn’t be suspicious if I asked to go. I was sure it was Maudie’s
idea to elect me to be the one. She had bossed me around since she came
to live with us after her mother, Elease, died. Neither Maudie nor Ruby
Grace ever seemed to be as scared or concerned as I was about the state
of this mess. I figured it was because they were older and could leave
at any time. I knew, however, that they were not concerned for
themselves, but for Mother.
It was taking longer than we expected to work out all the details of our
plan. We emptied our purses onto Ruby Grace’s bed. Among the three of
us, we had enough money for me to take the 7:45 a.m. Greyhound bus that
left from the Cumberland Diner and Coffee Shop bound for Jellico and
stopped only briefly at the Morley turnoff to discharge or take on
passengers. It would be daylight when I arrived at the Morley junction,
and there was still the long walk to the Bottoms, which was perfectly
safe. Ruby Grace wouldn’t hear of it, shaking her head, clenching her
eyes closed and contorting her face trying to come up with other ideas.
We decided to call Mr. Merlin Messer at the Bottoms Store to have him
send a message to Grandmother Evers. The message should say: SEND ONE OF
THE UNCLES TO MAYNARD BALD TO COLLECT NIECE, LUNDA ROSE. 10:00 a.m.,
TUESDAY. IMPORTANT BUT NOT AN EMERGENCY.
Not one of the uncles had ever owned a car. The five of them shared a
1949 Studebaker pickup truck with wood rails surrounding the bed. Weir
had bought it for nearly nothing from a junkyard on Highway 25W near the
Kentucky line. Most of the time it sat in the barn at Grandmother’s
house, and when on rare occasions it was needed, it never started. All
five of the uncles would end up surrounding it like bullies in a brawl,
circling it, studying it, cursing it, kicking its grill, lifting its
hood, looking sideways at one another, each expecting that by some
miracle, one of the others would be able to jolt its dead battery.
Three days after the argument, neither Mother nor Daddy had returned. I
waited on the front porch for the sound of Weir’s truck, hoping he’d
arrive and we’d be off without Mother or Daddy showing up or neighbors
noticing. Soon I saw the truck crest the hill. When Weir stopped in
front of the house, he shut the engine off, but I knew he would stay in
the truck. As I walked toward the pickup, he stared straight ahead and
didn’t speak. When I opened the passenger door, Weir didn’t turn to
look at me nor did he say a single word. He cranked the engine; we were
moving before I closed the door.
When we’d traveled less than a quarter mile, I felt the silence lay
heavily across us, and I wondered how I would survive for 32 miles. But,
riding in total silence would give me a chance to think about how I
would tell Grandmother. I looked at Weir’s profile and thought about
how much he looked like my mother—black hair with a hint of auburn and
sharp, angular features. I wondered if he suspected that something was
wrong. He’d never been summoned to Maynard Bald before. Inside my
head, I rehearsed just coming right out with it, “Weir, I’m worried
about my mother.” Then I imagined he might wreck the truck, so I
didn’t say it.
By the time we turned onto Jellico Highway, I was already thinking about
the three days since the argument. I wanted to come right out with it,
to blurt out to him, “I’m afraid he’s going to kill her. How long
before he’s dragging a jagged piece of neon glass across her face? How
long before he kills her?”
No. I had to tell Grandmother first. And she would tell the uncles. She
knew what to say to them and how to say it. She knew how to keep the
five of them reined in.
Excerpted from "Tethered to Wanting" by Constance Huddleston Anderson. Copyright © 2016 by Constance Huddleston Anderson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.