The year I started third grade we moved to Olney, Texas, a town where a big twister had come through and killed twenty people. After that everybody got busy digging storm cellars to hide in when the next twister came along, but the last one had been ten years before we got there. The unused storm cellars had given over to spider webs and roll-em-up bugs.
We rented the back part of a house owned by a chiropractor. It was a pretty frame house with a front door and a long hall to our apartment in the rear. There was an octagon bay in front where the doctor had his practice. Most interesting to a kid were the two Magnolia trees, and the storm cellar in the backyard. Forbidden to go into the storm cellar, I often played around it.
The rectangular concrete entrance was shaped like a grave above ground in Louisiana, but it was tilted with one end rising up higher than the other. There was a door to the cellar with a door handle. That door scared me. I would never have gone down into it willingly.
In Louisiana, where we come from, there is service to and communion with the dead. Each year on All Saints Day I'd go with my grandmother to the cemetery where I'd pull grass out of the cracks while she whitewashed the tomb. The easy, comfortable talk my grandmother had with her dead was something I grew accustomed to, although I never heard them answer her back, not my grandfather or the assorted children, who had died in infancy or were still-born. She carried on both sides of the conversation, just the way my mother talked with her cat, Eurydice.
My grandfather always looked refreshed and happy after we cleaned the graves, but that was Louisiana and Catholic. The dead people in Olney were mostly Baptists or Methodists buried flat out in the ground. I had a feeling you could get below much faster if you opened the door to the storm cellar. My best friend was a girl named Amarillo, after the Texas city of that name, not the Spanish word for yellow. Her father was a rodeo cowboy and she said her mother used to ride the barrel races. Why they were living there I don't know; they didn't have any people in Olney, and her father was not working when I met her.
Swathed in white bandages wrapped around his chest, he was on the beige couch drinking whiskey whenever I went to get Amarillo. Amarillo was a fancy dresser; she wore white socks with lace around the ankles, and Mary Jane patent leather shoes with taps on them. She'd break into shuffle, ball, change, step, whenever she heard music and sometimes when she didn't. Amarillo and her mother went to the movies a lot, they had worked out some pretty elaborate deals with the manager to get in free. Amarillo's regular reading material was Photoplay movie magazine, and she talked a lot about her future career, which would be tap dancing like Ann Miller in the movies.
* * *
Our landlord, Dr. Eklund, was all blond and white hands. Whatever he said was oily and heavy like peanut butter, he had a hard time getting words off the roof of his mouth and out in the open. Unlike most of the men in town, he always wore a suit and a Panama hat. The weather in Olney, as I remember it, was always summer. I don't know where Dr. Eklund came from, and I don't know where he went after, but he had been there three years when we came to know him.
The Olney Progress advertised Dr. Eklund's clinic: "Female disorders cured through manipulation." I seldom read the Progress, there wasn't much to it. My passionate summer reading was National Geographic. I was a full-fledged member of the National Geographic Society with my name engraved on a certificate. My aunt had sent me a subscription for my birthday. Most of the people in the color pictures were from foreign lands, many were women who wore no brassieres, or for that matter, blouses. The men, too, were naked most of the time except for a strategic scrap of hide that looked like a pistol holster worn in front.
My father was looking for oil around Olney, that's what he did, surveyed for oil for the Independent Exploration Company . The other people who worked for that company were Germans. We'd come into town before the oil crew and he'd pick out possible drill sites. My father was good at most things he did. A great hunter, in the course of his surveying , he wiped out hundreds, maybe thousands, of doves and frogs. There were bull frogs in the ponds around Olney. My mother cleaned frog legs and doves daily.
When anyone who had never eaten frog legs inquired what frog tasted like my mother would say, "Chicken - frog legs taste just like chicken." To this day when someone says something tastes like chicken, I get this cold, fishy taste in my mouth and can't eat. Personally, I would like to have had a chicken now and again. The only time we got fried chicken was when we went home to Louisiana. My grandmother cooked fried chicken every Sunday. My mother and I would both try to sweet talk my grandmother out of the liver with its crisp brown crust and pink, succulent inside. Most of the time she'd cut it in two, but once she gave me the whole thing, and my mother was smiling at me like she didn't mind.
In Olney it was frog legs, dove, or steak. My father, who was born in Texas, was reared on bad food. Unlike many Texans he seemed to know the difference except when it came to steak. He would eat steak anywhere including Lena Belle's Post Office Cafe where they fried steak in lard until you could have cut it, strung it with laces, and worn it for shoes.
Yesterday on National Public Radio I heard them talking about the annual One-Armed Dove Shoot, which is probably what brought all this to mind. My ninth year was the first year of the first One-Armed Dove Shoot. My father, being such a good shot, was invited to be a judge. He really wanted to compete, but if you had two good arms you couldn't compete. That was the rule.
Geophysical crews, at that time, exploded dynamite in the ground to produce sound waves. The seismic waves were reproduced on photographic paper to show where the oil might be located. Men on the crews customarily carried dynamite around in their trucks. My father suffered from dynamite headaches, which caused him to drink excessive amounts of whiskey to dull the pain.
Dynamite explosions were loud, smoky, and huge. I never saw an actual explosion, but my father had a Brownie and took pictures of them: Enormous tornado shapes of black smoke. Sometimes men on the crew got hurt, legs blown off, arms. My mother and I worried about my father. One night he came home with his right arm in a sling, which made her worry. I could tell it wasn't too bad, because he had a big grin on his face.
Within the week he had resigned as judge of the Olney One-Armed Dove Shoot and, with a special dispensation from some guy called Dusty Rhodes, my Daddy was on the official roster to compete. His only real competition was a one-armed bricklayer from Abilene whose good arm was his right arm. My Daddy competed with his left arm, spinning the rifle like John Wayne, he acted like he shot left-handed everyday. Flocks of doves were decimated by the contestants, and my father won the trophy. Luckily, the competition was a community affair so my mother didn't have to clean the kill.
My culinary education came, as did my sexual education, from the pages of National Geographic. Every afternoon after school, Amarillo and I would sit on the glider under the magnolia tree, reading the latest issue until we found a native scenario with which we could identify. We then proceeded to act it out with suitable costumes or lack of costume. Sometimes we were Native Americans, on which occasion we wore brown blankets my mother kept in a trunk at the foot of the bed. With dove feathers in our hair, and reeking of mothballs, we smoked "peace" butts from Dr. Eklund's waiting room, while taking turns reading aloud from an article called "People of the Plains."
Our totem was a sick crow my father had brought home from one of his hunting expeditions. "Only winged it," he explained. The crow, confined in an inverted milk bottle box, sat hunched in one corner well away from the water and dead mouse my father had so thoughtfully provided. Through the metal mesh we could see the crow and he could see us, if he'd ever cared to look.
"Oh, Ancient Crow, " we chanted, "we entreat your Great Spirit to enter our bodies and fly us to your ancient lands."
For endless summer days we waited for the crow to answer. My father, in his boundless optimism, had told us how crows were like parrots -- how this one, as soon as he recovered from his wound, could be taught to speak, would launch into intelligible conversation based upon the words we taught him. Instead the crow moped, growing weaker and splattering the dirt floor with a limed diarrhea resembling the excretions of a sick chicken my grandmother had once kept in a box by the stove.
But Chicken Biddy had suffered from the pip. He recovered, became a great pet, had the run of the house, and died of old age. The crow was not so lucky. One day he fell over stiff-legged and soiled, still confined to the box. My father, disappointed with his bird, went out and killed thirty-two doves. They were piled four deep on the kitchen counter. There was a feathery, musty smell around the kitchen, not unlike the smell from the crow's cage.
One morning I was waiting on the front steps holding a magnolia with thick velvety petals and a stamen as big around as my thumb to give to my mother. Amarillo's mother, Marsha Guyuski, came up the front walk. She was going to work for the chiropractor. When she saw the Magnolia, she let out a little scream in that breathless way she had.
"Oh, Lorraine, that is the most beautiful flower I have ever seen. Are you going to give it to your mother?"
"Yes, Ma'am, I am. " I said with some satisfaction.
"Well, I wish I had a little girl like you to bring me a flower."
I lit up like a Christmas tree and said, "Mrs. Guyuski, I promise I'll get you a magnolia just as pretty as this."
"I bet you will," she said and staggered off into the office in her high-heeled cowboy boots and buckskin fringe. Mrs. Guyuski walked as if her bones were not permanently attached to each other. She looked disconnected, fragile.
* * *
Perhaps National Geographic sharpened our powers of observation. It was on that same day that Amarillo and I noticed that on Tuesday afternoons, from twelve to two, no female patients came or went. Amarillo's mother and Dr. Eklund sequestered themselves in a treatment room for the better part of those two hours, and we heard music we'd never heard before. It started out slow and insistent like drums rolling, but moving up in intensity and volume to a Spanish crescendo, building at last into a flurry of horns and conflicting emotions. We whirled ourselves dizzy on the front gallery until the music ended suddenly, and we threw ourselves down on the grass panting like a couple of dogs.
There was a problem with the promise I made to Mrs. Guyuski. The flower I had picked for my mother hung unusually low and heavy on the tree. It had been easy to pick. All the others were too high. I quit reading National Geographic. I quit playing with Amarillo. All I did was try to find a magnolia low enough to pick for Mrs. Guyuski. I tried leaning off the roof of the back shed, but the slope dipped down too far from the tree. Amarillo helped me carry an eight-foot wooden ladder from her house to my yard. The last step of the ladder was still a good two feet from the lowest blossom and a mile from the crotch of the tree.
Amarillo showed no real interest in this endeavor. A sulky look, which expressed itself as a flattening of the forehead, had settled on her face.
She said, "I don't want to play Magnolia anymore."
After three days of frantic hanging and climbing on everything, the magnolias still hung on the tree like so many moons drawing tides. My mother seemed oblivious to this activity on the part of the children. It was as if we lived in a different but coexistent dimension with the adults.
My mother was fixated on her cat, Eurydice. The cat was old and disdainful of everyone but my mother. She peed in shoes, threw up on my favorite book, or anything else made of paper: money, a birth certificate, and, once, a signed report card.
As the cat's ultimate act of aggression, she heaved a massive, gooey hairball on the the trigger of my father's favorite shotgun. I thought she was dead for sure. He pointed the gun right between her eyes. The blast would have taken her head off, but she stared him down, and the gun failed to fire. Cat slime had fouled the firing mechanism.
My father called the cat some word I'd never heard before, and my mother called him "a murderous son-of-a-bitch." Words I could not have imagined falling from her lips. He slunk out like a dog that's been shot by a skunk.
My mother was mad at the cat too. She ignored Eurydice for about a week. Fed her but didn't talk to her or pet her. The cat could ignore my mother anytime she felt like it, but like most of us she couldn't stand getting her own treatment. Eurydice took sick. By the time my mother made up with my father and noticed, the cat was sick to death. This brought Dr. Eklund into the picture. My mother seldom had time for the chiropractor, but when her cat got sick she called upon him for medical advice.
She would never have taken Eurydice, whom she considered a superior being, to a veterinarian. It so happened that Mrs. Guyuski was absent from work that day. My mother carried the cat into Dr. Eklund's office. Eurydice's fur was so flat black it looked like a bad paint job on a used car.
Dr. Eklund wasted no time. He lifted the cat from my mother's arms and propped her up over a long, chrome metal bar in front of a fluoroscope. When my mother saw her cat's skeleton on the fluoroscope she began to sob. Dr. Eklund put his puffy, white hand with its pinky ring and square-cut, shiny fingernails on the back of my mother's neck to smooth the light hair there.
"There, there, dear," he said. "Don't cry, I'm here."
Amarillo said, "Hey, Lorraine, let's go read National Geographic."
We ran out of there, back to the glider, but the glider wasn't safe either. Magnolias hung over us like the Milky Way. I had trouble focusing on the Mexican women cooking tortillas on iron griddles in National Geographic. Amarillo said she was going to show the recipe for chicken mole to her mother and ran off with the magazine.
There was a trash fire by the storm cellar. I sat there staring at it. There was no regular garbage pickup in Olney, even my mother threw anything that might be incinerated onto the fire. The only trash we saved were the cans and bottle my father took out to the dump where he'd go to shoot rats.
In Olney's full summer the heated air is distorted like a fun house mirror. The trash fire, too, changed the way things looked. As I studied the fire I renewed my pledge. I had told Mrs. Guyuski I was going to give her a magnolia and I intended to do it. My mother was spending a lot of time with Dr. Eklund as they tried to save Eurydice. Like any long illness, Eurydice's sickness brought out the worst in everyone.
My mother's cool, darkened bedroom was like the bottom of the sea where I was out of my depth, but I opened her present drawer anyway and took out a piece of fine, white tissue paper. Then I went into the kitchen where the magnolia rested in its red coffee can. I picked up the blossom, carefully dried the stem with a dishcloth, wrapped it as florist would, and ran off to Amarillo's house.
At the front door I could hear lifted voices; her parents were arguing. I knocked on the door. Amarillo's father answered looking mad.
He said, "Go away, Lorraine, Amarillo can't play today."
"I have something for Mrs. Guyuski," I said, and held out the flower.
He said, "What's this?"
"It's a magnolia for Mrs. Guyuski from an admirer."
He took it and slammed the door.
* * *
My mother sat in the kitchen in her old rocker. Eurydice was right at hand on a down pillow covered by a blue flannel sheet blanket in a cardboard box . Eurydice's eyes were glazed, her breath shallow. I noticed specks of dirt on the blanket, but the specks were crawling through the loose weave of the blanket. You could see the fleas leaving.
My mother said, "Nobody knows me but Eurydice."
Tears were seeping down her face like a slow leak in a levee. When the river broke through, it was the flower that did it.
Dr. Eklund had visited our apartment at least twice a day since the cat got sick. He'd pat my mother's hand and tend to the poor old cat. He didn't trot in a kitty life support system, but that's about all he didn't do. I could see it was just to get close to my mother, he didn't care about the cat.
In her grief-ridden state, my mother couldn't keep up with the doves or the frogs. There were dishpans of dead things everywhere, they smelled bad, and they never stopped coming.
Dirty with pond scum, blood, and feathers, my father's frisky bird dog Lady rushed into the kitchen. Daddy, carrying his shotgun, came in after, and hung a string of quail up by the sink. The sight of the shotgun was enough to send Dr. Eklund back to his office.
"Just looking in on the missus," he said. Lady rushed over to the death bed, tail wagging, and mouthed Eurydice's whole head. She picked that cat up by her bony old middle and retrieved her like a dead duck. My mother and I couldn't move.
My father said, "Lady, drop it. Drop it." Lady dropped Eurydice by his right boot.
"Good dog," he said. "Good dog."
My mother didn't think so. All she said was "No more birds. No more frogs." Dad and Lady left, but still Eurydice hung on. My mother sat with the cat's wet head in her hand. She looked up at me and said, "Baby, where's my flower? I want to look at my flower."
I said, "I took it outside to get some sun."
"It's not growing anymore, Lorraine. It doesn't need sun. Bring it here so I can look at it."
Stalling for time, I said, "I'll go get it."
The kitchen counter was full of dead birds, and so was the big cracker can by the back door. I picked up the cracker can and took it with me. As I stood on the back steps, the summer heat hit my face like a blast furnace. The trash fire by the storm cellar smelled of burnt food and ashes. The air above it looked like a wavy glass window in an old house. "What I need to do is cook something," I said to Amarillo, who was standing there watching the fire.
A blue enamel dishpan from under the house made a fine griddle. I threw on some birds, beaks, guts, and feathers intact. Amarillo gathered some bricks to balance the pan. I held up the edge of the griddle with a stick and she shoved them under, but then when the fire burned through the big wood the birds dropped down into the ashes. We fished them out and threw them back on to cook some more.
The fire had been burning a long time and the coals were gray and red. Just the way a barbecue fire is supposed to look. The smoke flowing around us smelled like hair burning. It could have been my hair; I'd been hanging over the fire for hours, sweaty hair stuck to my face, smoke and stink rising.
Amarillo said, "Are we supposed to eat this?"
"I will," I said. "You don't just kill something and leave it to rot. Good sportsmen eat what they kill."
"I didn't kill them birds and you didn't kill them birds," Amarillo said. "There's something wrong here. I want to go back to Fort Worth."
"What's in Fort Worth?"
"My grandmother. She's got good sense. They done yet?"
"No. They've got to cook all day."
It was late afternoon. We kept cooking. Amarillo's mother came by.
She said, "That's so cute. You girls are going to make some man happy. Thank you, Lorraine, for my beautiful flower."
Since I'd been busy cooking I'd forgotten about the flower.
I said, "Wait a minute, Mrs. Guyuski, I've got to get that flower back."
She wrinkled her forehead and said, "Don't be silly, Lorraine. You don't want to be an Indian giver."
"I've been an Indian all day and it was fine," I said. "I've got to get that flower back."
"Indian giver, Indian giver. Hominy grits and calves' liver," she said, and went inside .
"I could have told you she wouldn't give it back," Amarillo said.
"I have to give it back. You can get it for me while she's gone to work."
"If I get my hands on it, I'll tear it into little bittie pieces," Amarillo said, her forehead looking flat.
"Don't do that. It belongs to my Mama."
Finally, Amarillo gave in and we went over to her house. I stood outside. Her Daddy was asleep on the couch; all I could see were nipples, hair, and a big scar. He looked like Torso Man on the freak poster at The Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, the time I got water blisters on my heels from walking in new shoes. To this day, whenever my feet hurt, I think of freaks. I was thinking about freaks when I heard a crash. Torso Man jumped up and disappeared. I disappeared too. Back home I sat on the glider under the magnolia tree.
Pretty soon Torso Man came by with a shirt on, holding Amarillo tight by the upper arm. In his free hand, he had my mother's magnolia. He marched Amarillo right into Dr. Eklund's office and I heard him yelling, "A damned thief in my own house."
My mother called to me, but not from our back door -- from Eklund's office. Inside, she was standing by a white porcelain examining table. Eurydice's corpse was laid out on the table. Eklund had on his "don't get upset" expression, and Mrs. Guyuski was there, holding my mother's magnolia, which had turned brown. Guyuski was crying big mascara tears. I could see from Amarillo's set face she hadn't told anybody anything.
My mother gave me the look. She said, "Baby, why did you give Mrs. Guyuski my flower?"
"Because I promised."
She said, "Lorraine, you know better than to make promises you can't keep," and she gave Mrs. Guyuski the flower. The Guyuskis went home still yelling at each other and they took Amarillo with them. My mother and I went home in silence, and that's the way it was all day. I had to go to my room and take a nap, and my Daddy came home birdless and frogless for a change.
But there were the birds still out on the griddle. I'd forgotten them. By the time I remembered, they had cooked down to greasy, charred lumps. They smelled awful when I tried to pry them off the pan.
As I was working on the birds, Amarillo came running up like the Calvary was at her back. She was all dressed up in a peach dress and new black patent leather shoes with taps on them. She broke into shuffle, ball, change, step on the walkway. It sounded like gunfire.
She said, "My daddy and Mama are sorry they called me a thief. They bought me new clothes to make up . Now they want me to go to the revival at the Baptist church and testify. Damned if I'll do it."
"That sure is a pretty dress," I lied.
She was poking the white coals with a chinaberry stick. "Thief's dress," she said.
"You deserve a nice dress."
"Thieves don't get paid. Thieves go to the electric chair."
"No," I said, "just murderers."
"I'm going to burn it up," she said, and before I knew it, she jumped into the fire with both feet. A little ash stirred up out of the white coals and her frilly nylon skirt smoked and curled around the edges. Amarillo stood there shivering like she had a chill.
At first I couldn't move. When I reached for her the heat from the coals was too hot for my hands. It was her skirt I finally got hold of, and I pulled as hard as I could. She just walked out on her own like she was walking on ice cubes. Not screaming or crying, she was calm, and her shoes were charred, but the lace around her socks hadn't burned.
"Mama --Mama," I screamed. "Mama."
I came screaming into the kitchen as my mother was running in the front door yelling, "Baby, baby, where are you?"
She grabbed me before I could run out into the street. I tried to tell her, but the more I tried, all I could say was, "burned, burned," and my mother was looking all over me for the burned place. When I finally got it out--"Amarillo"-- she ran out the back door and I ran with her. The coals were pink and white and there was a trail of coals and ashes, but Amarillo was gone like she'd gone up in smoke.
It took all the neighbors, my daddy, her parents, the sheriff and his deputies all day and the next to find her, and then it was my daddy's bird dog Lady who found her.
Lady started scratching at the storm cellar door, until somebody found the key, and when Amarillo's daddy carried her out, I thought she was dead. Her eyes were stuck shut like she had conjunctivitis, but she never cried. She was in the hospital for about a year. They said her skin came off her feet like socks.
I went to see her one time. Mrs. Jenkins, her nurse, was my mother's friend and she let me in, although I wasn't old enough to be there. There were some real pretty paper dolls an old lady had given me--skinny twenties-looking flappers with Marcel led hair, whose paper clothes were antebellum hoop skirts. Nothing about those paper dolls matched.
They were the kind of thing Amarillo used to get a kick out of, but when I gave them to her, she didn't laugh or say much. By this time she'd had gangrene and lost a couple of toes.
The only thing she did say was: "Lorraine, I've decided I'm going to be a singer instead of a tap dancer when I go to Hollywood."
Originally published in a different version in The Hawaii Review.