The same note struck insistently can sound like a clock striking twelve or like Maw Maw's one decision, discussed every Friday and Saturday night: the Ponderosa or the Country Coliseum? I could hear her with Estelle, the bakelite phone pressed to her ear as she combed her stiff bouffant, antique white, teased high: "The one plays too darn much Hank Williams and I just can't take more 'Kalijah'! But the Ponderosa's out there in those blame peach orchards the other side of nowhere. All those Mexicans – I don't know why they let them in at the door!" She used a wire pick – a white lady's Afro comb – with pale blue poodles nose to nose on the handle.
She was right. The one was closer, a round building – hence coliseum – just off the highway to Gastonville. Take a right and it was there among the trees. (If you took a left you'd find an Abyssinian Bethel Church and its graveyard, each "resting place" marked with hot pink, aqua, and white gravel like those on the bottom of a goldfish bowl. Tombstones were simple crosses, sometimes just weathered boards painted with names and dates, repainted occasionally.
Under the hot sun the day-glo pebbles glittered like magma.)
My one decision was whether to go dancing with Maw Maw. I pulled my legs beneath me in Paw Paw's Laz-E-Boy recliner and considered: green TV (the other colors had puddled into a drab olive color) by myself until after midnight, when she'd pick me up for an early breakfast at the Shake Shop or the Waffle Iron with her friends. (It was like a Prom Breakfast: who they saw and who they didn't dance with and as somebody came through the sprung door, lots of elbowing and penciled eyebrows going up and down.) Or I could just come along, full grown but newly a teenager, in the backseat of Maw Maw's red Oldsmobile as she drove deeper into those rows of peach trees near the border of South Carolina, her pal Estelle beside her, one hand braced on the dash. When we reached the shadow of the water tower painted to resemble a peach (the gradations of color reminiscent of naked ass rather than ripe fruit): always, Estelle's anticipatory: "You think he'll be there?"
"Why, he said so!"
"That don't mean nothing."
"He told Magdalene that I was the most beautiful girl in the world!"
Girl, I thought, and snorted. She was near-sixty.
"Hey, you, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?" Estelle sang in a surprisingly robust soprano and Maw Maw giggled, her wrinkled hand straying to the short ringlets at the back of her head, slipping a finger inside a curl to restore its sausage shape. Her diamond engagement ring and wedding band glittered under the occasional street lamp. She never took them off, even after Paw Paw died. "I may not be married anymore," she said to people, "but I'm still Missus Richard Guffey."
What I hated about going – besides the band: Conway Twitty, junkyard angels, Charlie Rich covers; besides the overwhelming smell of rotten fruit mulching the trees outside and the tang of the damp pressed wood that formed the interior walls of the big rectangular dance floor; and the hint of something worse – shit, death – from when this was a chicken barn stinking for five miles all around, the thought of which – those cages stacked with birds born and dying with pallid claws that never scratched the earth, stuffed so fat their drumsticks couldn't support the weight of their breasts and giblets – a little like these gyrating millworkers and migrants scratching the floor with their glittery shoes. What I really hated was that men asked me to dance.
I took his tanned hand for the Texas Two-Step, him mock-bowing as we began the intricate pattern of in and out, twirling the length of his arm, behind and around to the front for the Promenade. He never looked me in the eye or pulled me too close into his Irish spring and tobacco-reeking shirt. But he sweated and I sweated in time with the electric guitar and amplified fiddle and I could smell his old-ness, and his quickening to me, ju—ust ripe. He was taking me for a ride, hoping, at the corners of his eyes, for a teeny bit of "maybe." If none came, he still looked a Man to his cronies, those tanned loafers with baffled wrinkles in their foreheads and at the corners of their eyes from squinting, those guys flicking a long ash to the cement floor. If none came, he still made like he would kiss my hand when the music stopped, and tickled my palm with his pinkie, a tiny knuckled tongue with a message.
If, when we were dancing, the fluorescent lights were cut and an ultra-violet light flicked on, I knew my small white bra glowed beneath my shirt. I just tried to pretend they couldn't see it, but I knew they slipped peeks. I scanned the crowd for Maw Maw's stacked hair, transparent as jelly. She always danced legs spraddled like she was riding a horse, one arm twirling an invisible lasso, the other fondling the pommel of her saddle. Her face, when she turned toward me, glowed in the purple haze: the plucked brows, the gaunt cheeks, rouged high, the false teeth white as pebbles. And her smile was an x-ray of pleasure.
Celia Bland's work has recently appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, Poetry International, Witness, and Anthem, and her collaboration with visual artist Dianne Kornberg, Madonna Comix, will be published by William James & Co. in spring 2014.