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July 15, 2009 by · 1 comment

Whitney Groves

Photo: erix!

As she rode down the highway at sixty miles an hour, Darla had no trouble believing that she was riding on air. Every time she opened her eyes to check, she was a little surprised to find herself in the back seat of Donny’s Delta 88. Mostly, she kept her eyes shut, however, because the colors were too excruciatingly beautiful.

She hadn’t realized how red the famous red clay of Georgia would be — the color of copper and rust and oxygenated blood. The clay sustained acres of dusty green tobacco plants that stretched all the way to the line of pines at the horizon.

A thin silver arm extended above the fields, spraying umbrellas of water onto the plants. Higher still, the breeze unraveled woolly clouds into tendrils that trailed against blue sky.

The white-powder ecstasy was still strong, but it had receded enough for Darla to formulate a thought: how outrageous, that life should come from dirt, even this luscious red clay. Dirt was an insult. It was all the grime and scum and dust that settled on her house every time she turned around.

How was it possible that dirt, the byword of nothingness, should provide the very substance God used to make Adam? And here were these tobacco fields as further proof. After a divine nudge, all life needed was dirt, light, water, air. So damn simple.

Unsettled by the coalescence of thought, Darla snorted one more half-pill, and her sigh was like air bubbling up through riverbed mud. With bliss flooding her body, she lit a cigarette and lay down across the vinyl seat. The smoke drifted against the cloth ceiling, mingling with the smoke from Donny’s lungs. She watched its ebb and flow for some time until her eyes closed of their own accord.

Later, the cigarette fell onto her right breast and burned a hole through her T-shirt, but she did not feel it. She didn’t feel Donny trying to slap her back to consciousness, or hear him cursing his luck. She didn’t feel him seize her arm, popping it from its socket as he dragged her from the back seat and rolled her into the ditch that drained the tobacco fields. Toward nightfall, her last breath rippled the water in the ditch, and clay began to merge with clay.


Seth Porter found his own body incredibly frustrating. At thirteen, he had just finished a six-month growth spurt that left him three inches taller and exactly the same weight as when it started. The only positive change was to his hair, which he had not cut in months. The dark-blond mop swept low over his eyes and curled frond-like on his collar. He was saving for contact lenses, hoping to rid himself of the glasses that made his eyes look owlish. Then, perhaps, he could convince girls that his rail-thin frame and long hair made him look like a rock star.

Seth hoped his mother would come home soon. He was not particularly fond of her; it was just that Jon, his twenty-year-old brother, cursed and cuffed him less when she was home. She had left four days ago, telling them only that she was going to Florida with Donny. She hadn’t told them where in Florida, or for how long, just that she was going to make some money.

In her absence, Seth had planned to avoid Jon by retreating to the pine grove behind the trailer, where he would read manga or play music. There, on the flat rock beside Loudon Pond, he could hear and see and think things that were impossible when he was cooped up in the double-wide with Mom and Jon and Mamaw.

But thanks to three straight days of rain, Seth had been stuck inside all weekend. On Sunday afternoon, he was perched on the edge of his bed, his skinny body curled around his guitar, trying to sing “Curtis Lowe” and cursing his cracking voice.

Around four o’clock, the phone rang. Seth heard Jon answer it in the kitchen. There were a couple of words in Jon’s flat tones, then a grinding, rending screech that reminded Seth of what the garbage disposal had sounded like, back when it worked.

Seth peered into the hallway and saw his brother stumbling out of the kitchen. His skin had flushed a ham-pink shade, and his eyes oozed water. Seth wondered if someone had broken in and maced Jon in the face. “What the hell, man?” he asked.
Jon stood still, heaving, panting, staring, arms spread like he wanted to hug him. “Mom.”
“What about Mom?”

Again the garbage disposal noise, and Seth understood: Jon was furious. He was also crying. When Seth started toward him, Jon’s slab of an arm swung out and punched Seth in the face.

When Mamaw returned from the sheriff’s office, Seth was kneeling on the orange fold-out couch in the living room, staring at the endless raindrops. He wore a blood mustache from where he had crammed the heel of his hand against his gushing nose and forgotten to wash his face.
To Seth, Mamaw had looked ancient ever since she moved in with them ten years ago. Now, she seemed to have aged another ten years in the last three hours. Her watery hazel eyes bulged and blinked like those of a landed fish, an impression strengthened by the rubbery O in which her mouth was set.

Jon answered her quavering call to come into the living room with her and Seth. “They showed me a picture of her from Georgia,” Mamaw said. “It’s her. It’s my Darla.”

“What about Donny? Where’s he?” Jon slumped into the easy chair with the stuffing coming out the back. He had etched the customary sneer around his mouth and eyes once again, and he was smoking a cigarette.

“Nobody knows. They found her in a ditch alongside a ‘baccer field. She’d most likely been there all night, they said. Looks like he give her the drugs and left her to die.” Tears followed the fissures of her wrinkles and dripped from her chin.

Jon grunted. “The whole fucking trip was her idea. To listen to her, you’d think Oxy grew on trees down there.” His voice strained into a high register and came out eerily like Darla’s. “’We’ll just drive down and go to a few clinics, then come back and sell it for twenty dollars a hit. We’ll be set for life.’” You’d think she coulda kept her nose out of it before she got it back up here, though.”

Seth spoke. “Where’s Mom now?”
“Valdosta. We got to find some way to go get her.”
“In what?” Jon snapped. “She and Donny took her car. And besides, I can’t take off work. Hell, I don’t want to take off work to go to Georgia and get her fat ass. She done it to herself, so I say, let her rot there.”

“She never wanted to end up like this,” Mamaw said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. “She was the sweetest, prettiest little thing. She just got in with the wrong people and wasn’t strong enough to get away. I wasn’t strong enough to get her away.” Her sniffles became sobs.

Jon’s eyes smoldered, but he kept his mouth shut. Mamaw then explained what it would cost to ship a body from Georgia, plus buy a casket, plus pay the funeral home for handling the remains. Seth’s owlish eyes widened.
“Did she have any Oxy on her?” Jon bit off the words. “Tell the funeral guy to sell it and keep the cash.”

“The morgue people said there’s one other thing we could do,” Mamaw murmured. Her head dropped, and Seth could see wax-white scalp through her hair. “Cremation.”
If anyone had asked Seth point-blank twenty-four hours ago, he would have said he didn’t much care what happened to bodies after they were dead, and the bodies didn’t either. Now they were talking about burning his mother. The thought knocked the breath from him.

“That’s gotta cost less,” Jon ventured.
“She said once, back when she was goin’ to church, she didn’t want to be cremated,” Mamaw replied. “She was worried about what would happen at the Rapture.”

“The Rapture?”
“When Jesus comes to take us to heaven. She worried what would happen to her if there weren’t no body to raise, just ashes.”
“I don’t think much of her chances of gettin’ into heaven, ashes or no ashes.”

“I don’t know; I just don’t know.” From the distance in Mamaw’s voice, Seth did not think this was a response to Jon’s comment. “It ain’t right to do the Lord’s creation that way — burn it up like it was trash. She’s my baby; she ain’t just a clod of dirt, no matter what she done.”

Seth brushed aside this talk of heaven, a place that had always sounded too good to be true. He had another reason for opposing cremation, and he caught himself just before he said it: Maybe she isn’t really dead. Jon would laugh his ass off at this, and Mamaw would hug him onto those floppy breasts of her and cry in his hair.

Still, how could Mom really be dead to him unless he saw her and touched her? Or maybe he would lay hands on her and feel what no one else could feel: a distant warmth burning within her, a gentle movement of air, like putting your hand on a thin blanket that covers a sleeping body. The blanket would be her flesh, and a tiny flame of life would be inside it, and only Seth would know it was there. If anyone could do it, he could. He was always the one who made things better.

“I can go get her,” he said, his voice breaking high as he spoke. “Your boyfriend’s still got his old Datsun, don’t he, Mamaw? That way, nobody has to take off work, and it don’t matter if I miss school.”

“The car’s a broken-down piece of shit,” Jon snapped. “Me and Lester put it up on blocks last month ‘cause its tires rotted through. And even if it worked, you don’t have your permit yet; there’d be cops on you before you hit the Tennessee line.”

“We’ll ask around, then. They take up donations at school when somebody’s sick or in the hospital.”

“I ain’t takin’ no charity.” Mamaw’s chin tightened up. “Any family worth a damn cares for its own.”

She rose and plodded into the kitchen, effectively ending the discussion. Seth followed her, hoping the solution would come to him. She filled the sink with water and squirted detergent until the suds swelled like clouds. Then, she washed every dish, pot, and pan in the room, including those that had been sitting untouched in the cupboards for weeks. When Mamaw kept ignoring his attempts to talk about his mother, Seth grabbed a rag and dried the dishes in silence.

At length, there was nothing left to wash, and Mamaw went to bed. In his own room, Seth tried to think about his mother and realized that he could not recall the details of her face. He went rummaging in a dresser drawer, past the dirty socks, past the small wad of cash he tried to conceal from Mom and Jon, until his fingers closed on the smooth edge of a picture frame. It contained a photo of his mother holding him when he was a toddler. He had shoved it in the drawer a year or so ago, when he became sick of the sight of her.

The picture did him no good; his baby head obscured half her face. He removed his glasses and jeans and lay down on the mattress. When he laced his fingers together across his chest, he could feel his ribs under his shirt. “You’re so skinny, you’d blow away in a stiff gust of wind”: that’s what Mom had always told him. He felt that way tonight, filmy and unmoored. When he was little, she had hugged him so hard he felt sometimes that she was trying to press him through her flesh back into her womb. Sometimes he had wanted her to succeed.

It was strange that he could remember her touch but not her face. Try as he might, he could not reproduce her features in his mind; the memory curled away from him like a pill bug the more he poked at it. At last, he cried, his lungs pressing moist sobs in and out of his body. He tried to weep softly so Jon wouldn’t hear.

The next morning, Seth got up when he heard Jon stirring. He followed his big brother into the kitchen, keeping his distance, and asked, “So what are we gonna do?”

Jon’s bloody red eyes indicated that he had kept company with a bottle of Black Velvet the previous night. “Do ’bout what?”

“About…” Seth blinked. “About Mom.”

“Mom’s dead, didn’t you hear? That means no more asshole boyfriends comin’ and goin’ at all hours. No more walkin’ in the door worryin’ she’s gonna be dead in her own puke. Nothin’ else to do about Mom.”

“Okay, not about Mom. About her body. Getting her – it – home.”
Jon shrugged. “Mamaw’ll handle it. And if she don’t, oh well.”

When Mamaw awoke around nine, she immediately began rooting in boxes and dressers and closets, unearthing a couple of shoeboxes. After a trip to the burn barrel outside, she returned to the fold-out couch carrying a single yellowed envelope. When she saw Seth staring at her, she patted the cushion beside her, and he sat down.

The envelope’s flap crackled as she opened it and drew out a stack of photographs. “Here’s Darla,” she said, as if introducing him to someone he’d never met. He sucked his breath in, so stunned was he that his wish to see her was to be granted. When he saw the photos, however, the breath sighed right back out of him.

They all depicted Darla the child, none Darla the mother. Mamaw was covering her mouth as she giggled; she had neglected to put in her teeth before she began her search. “Look at this one – Lord, ain’t she a mess?” Seth saw a toddler sitting in a mud puddle, wearing so much of the earth that he couldn’t tell if there were clothes under the mud. A wide, sticky ring was smeared around her mouth where she had sampled her own mud pie.

“You got any more recent than these?” Seth asked.

Mamaw turned wet, muzzy eyes upon him. There was something missing from them, as though he were looking into a dog’s eyes. “Not anymore.” She smiled, saliva strands webbing the corners of her mouth.

An hour or so later, after Mamaw had fallen asleep sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee growing cold beside her, the phone rang. Seth answered it, and at first he thought the speaker was some automated message because her voice was so soft, like the reeds that rustled around the pond out back. “I’m calling from the city morgue in Valdosta, Georgia,” she said. “May I speak with Inez Porter?”

“Mamaw!” called Seth. “It’s the morgue people.”

Without raising her head, Mamaw turned her face toward him, her flesh sagging to the side. “I just can’t deal with it,” she said. “I’ll call ‘em back later.”

After ascertaining that Seth was immediate family of the deceased, the morgue lady said, “I know how trying this is for Mrs. Porter, but please remind her that we will only be able to keep the body of Miss Darla Porter until Friday. If the body has not been claimed by then, we will cremate it and bury it locally.”

“Okay.” Seth hung up the phone. Then he realized that the woman may have been looking at his mother just then, where she lay cut open on one of those metal tables he saw on cop shows. Seth tried to imagine what she might look like dead, and it was easier than remembering her alive. On the afternoon before she left for Florida, she had gotten high and sprawled out on the couch.

With thick thighs and thick arms tapering to tiny hands and feet, she looked like a fat starfish abandoned by the tide, tamped onto the surface of the barren sand. He’d worried about her when it started to get dark, but before the light left entirely, she lumbered onto her feet, calling Seth to her, stroking the hair curling around his neck, and asking for a glass of water. He remembered something else about that incident: the whole time she had been lying there, he had hated her.

Seth’s guts chilled and squirmed, like they did when he picked a wrong note on his guitar, only the dissonance did not fade. Sure, Jon and Mom had fought a lot, and Mamaw tended to get on everyone’s nerves, but they were family. Seth had always assumed that they loved each other.

Sure, he knew that other families had fathers, or mothers who didn’t do drugs. But this had always been how they lived: Jon was angry, Mamaw was depressed, Mom was addicted, and Seth tried to make everybody happy. Now, with the balance of the elements disrupted, he had to wonder whether their lives were indeed linked by love, or by something else. In some ways, they operated like a kind of simple machine, an endless see-saw ride with Mom’s need and Jon’s anger at either end, while Seth crouched in the middle and Mamaw clutched him like grim death.

He wondered if he could shake the sense of wrongness that jarred his bones and rang in his ears by adopting Mamaw and Jon’s apathy. They were all the family he had now, and they were the adults to boot. They were the ones who were saying no to getting her back, no to mourning her, no even to remembering her. He, Seth, was nothing, he was thin air, and he had hated his mother when she died. He had no right even to want her back.

As the week passed, Seth answered four more phone calls from Valdosta. Each time, Mamaw was either asleep or promised to return the call later. Once when Seth was at school, Jon answered the phone drunk and asked if they could make any money by selling her organs.

On Friday, Seth called the morgue. He puffed out his chest and spoke slow, clipped words, scared his voice would crack and betray his minority and his powerlessness. Later, he found a brown paper bag and filled it with what he had collected at school over the previous days, plus what he had hidden in the back of his dresser drawer, plus what he had pilfered from Jon’s wallet and Mamaw’s purse. Finally, he wheedled Mamaw’s boyfriend Lester into driving him up to Arlo Coffey’s gas station, where he placed the bag on the counter and pointed to a yellow and brown sign.

Then, he waited for his mother to come home.


“Sign here to accept delivery.” The delivery man, peeved at having to drive up the muddy path to the trailer, barked the words at Seth.

Seth’s eyes locked on the cardboard box clasped between the man’s elbow and rib cage, attempting to picture its contents. The delivery man had to jab the thick brown keypad at Seth’s ribs to get him to look at it.
His family had instilled in him a mistrust of signatures, admissions, and official records, so he asked,

“Should I do that? I mean, I’m only thirteen.”
“You the only one here?”
Seth nodded, eyes sliding toward the cardboard box again.
“Then you’re old enough to accept it.”

Seth’s slender fingers closed on the plastic pen and scrawled on the keypad’s screen. The delivery man slung the box toward him. Seth’s hands jerked up; he touched it, flinched, and nearly dropped it. “Sorry, sorry,” he whispered, cradling the box against his chest.

Seth had thought out the whole process, but not what he would do when the process was completed. He briefly considered hiding the box under his bed. But last night, Jon had renewed his periodic searches for the weed he was sure Seth kept hidden from him. Seth imagined Jon standing in his room, holding the box, shaking it, sneering, “What’s this, retard?” Then, Jon’s vise-like fingers would shred the cardboard and see what he had done.

Seth also thought about taking the box with him when he went to school the next day, but that would only invite questions he didn’t want to answer. Besides, after the brief reappearance of the sun this afternoon, it was supposed to rain again tomorrow. He didn’t care to contemplate the box’s fate should it get wet.

Standing on the jury-rigged stoop of the trailer, Seth could not even articulate to himself why he had begged and stolen to get a cardboard box full of ashes. He had sort of loved his mother, but he had hated her just as much. And he hadn’t done it just to defy Mamaw and Jon; he would be just as happy if they secretly blamed each other for the missing cash and never found out that their money had paid for fire to consume flesh. For several moments, Seth wrestled with his emotions, trying to paste labels on them, but they dissipated like raindrops under the pressure of his words.

He would think better in his private space, in the woods around Loudon Pond. He pressed the box to his chest while crossing the puddle-pocked grass. As he entered the shadows cast by the stand of pine and maple, he realized that he was breaking his tradition: he had always refused to think about his family when he was at the pond. There, they didn’t exist.
In the muffled air of the grove, noises grew keen: bees buzzed, a wren sang from her nest, and a few yards in, frogs plopped into the pond. Directly above the water was a round slice of sky that the pine trees could not obscure, splitting the surrounding shadows.

Seth sat down on a rock and opened the box. Another box of anonymous brown cardboard lay inside. He removed the inner box and opened it, too. When he realized he had been holding his breath, he exhaled, puffing out a little dell in the ashes. Mamaw had said, “She ain’t just a clod of dirt,” but Seth didn’t believe her. This is all we are, he thought. It’s just that simple. It was this present life that was complicated and getting worse: surviving Jon’s rage and Mamaw’s depression, with no one else to deflect their fists and feelings. And, his burnt-up mother was sitting in his lap.
The problems were too big for him to fix; the dissonance was too strong. He was utterly alone.

Tears prickled his eyes at first, but then he thought it again: I am alone, and this time the words took on a different timbre. He had acted alone in getting his mother back, and while it was a safe bet that yelling and hitting would occur in the near future, something inside him, like a different sort of inner ear, was telling him he had done the right thing.

He might never know for sure if he had loved his mother, or if she had loved him. He was angry at her for the uncertainty, and he thought about throwing the box in the garbage to get revenge, as he knew Jon would if he found it. Or, he could try hiding the box somewhere, in the hope that its presence would magically help him resolve his feelings. He pictured himself talking to the ashes and cringed: that sounded like something Mamaw would do. He may have been formed of the same elements as his family, but he had to do something they could never do: he had to make peace.

A breeze ruffled Seth’s hair, and the cattails lining the muddy bank whispered together. Under the noon sun, the dark green water of the pond rippled, silver fingernails of light scratching its surface.

After several minutes, Seth stood up. He felt the way he did when, as a little boy, he had walked along the see-saw at the playground and stood in the dead center, his weight holding the plank parallel to the ground, motionless. He had savored this tiny, solitary act of perfection for as long as he could, until other children insisted he get off so that they could straddle the splintery board and jolt their spines.

Seth lowered his arm that held the box, then swung it above his head. The ashes exploded into the pine-rich air, a thick cloud unfurling into tendrils, drifting, riding on nothing. The ashes suffused the warm circle of light as they floated through the air. They settled at last onto the surface of the water, resting perfectly still for several moments, before vanishing into the depths.

Photo: erix!

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