The kitchen air was wet and hot. Boiled tomatoes in scorching water to ripe perfection, bobbing around in an old, dented, five-gallon boiler pot, peeling paint on the all-but obsolete electric stove circa 1950’s littered with spots and spatters. Chicken, rooster, cow printed pot holders worn with tiny holes and faded designs hung from the painted wood cabinet doors, ceiling fan circling overhead, oscillating tripod caged fan in the corner on high. The porcelain sink was corked, warm water at the halfway point, dirty jar flats and rims from seasons past marinating in the wait to be scoured and scrubbed until new again.
We had a rhythm, Grandma Kate and me. Everything in its place. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Do unto others. The window theory. Waste not want not. Only take what you need. Pull your own weight. Leave it how you found it, if not, in better condition. Don’t buy on credit. If you sit too close to the television, the Russians will fry your brain. Never leave the house before your bed is made. Never go to bed angry. Honesty is the best policy. Never look into the offering plate when you’re passing it. No pantyhose, no dress. No drooping necklines. No eye rolling. No cussing. No yelling. Keep your cool. Empty it? Fill it up. Pour it out? Clean it up. Dirty it? Clean it. Open it? Close it. Shut the gate or the chickens get out. Take your shoes off at the front door. Do your best. And canning time happens every single first day of September, like clockwork.
“I know that Myrtle,” Kate Browning said, standing in her apron dress and black canvas sneakers, olive green wall phone up to her ear, crinkle cord stretched out across the radius of our little kitchen. “Yeah. I know that too.”
Mrs. Kate was a petite, salt and pepper haired woman who was known for being somewhat exacting. Proper. Upright. Neat. Trim. Sensible. Dependable. Careful. Although I wasn’t hers by genetics, I was hers by design. She shaped me in her image, and I didn’t stray far from her influence.
“Stir!” she said, waving her giant stainless steel ladle around at me with her free hand. “Kelsea Janette! Stir!”
The dishpan next to the sauce pot was turning black on the bottom. I rushed over to look for something to stir the stewed tomatoes with while the boiling whole ones bubbled next to them. Grandma Kate, a hostage to her own good manners, stood helpless waiting for Myrtle Duneberry to set her free from church gossip and updates on her sister, June’s hip replacement surgery.
We sweated, kludged, and slaved from early morning until well into the afternoon, only stopping to answer the phone, change the station on the AM radio, or eat a quick sandwich at lunchtime. By the time the evening paper delivery came knocking, the kitchen was cleaned and the only remaining sign of canning was the four crates of warm quart jars stacked up in the hall.
We lived in an old white shotgun shack, rectangular and narrow, front to back. White in color with a green tin roof, Mrs. Kate’s home didn’t look much different architecturally than any of the other homes on our street, except her front porch and entire yard was littered with a dozen different types of flowering bushes and trees, neat white picket fencing, perfectly trim grass, and several dozen makeshift flower pots and hanging baskets. The hosepipe rack mounted to the side of the porch hung in the same place for fifty plus years, the hose never tangled or strung out unless in use.
I rolled over in the middle of the night, smacked a glass of water off the nightstand, and punched my corded princess phone right off the dresser. After falling out of bed and crawling around on the floor to search by braille for the receiver, I eventually pushed it up to my ear and whispered soberly.
Grandma Kate would have never ever approved of incoming calls past 8pm. Luckily for all who were involved here, she slept like a log. The phone wouldn’t wake her up. An incoming freight train wouldn’t have woken her up.
“Kels,” a raspy-deep voice broke up through static and background noise sort of coughed. “Kelsea?”
I sighed against my long, dirty blond side braid, loose curls and strands escaping here and there, flying wild around my pale, oval-shaped face. Logan Kilgore. When the phone went off in the middle of the night, I could always bet on who it was and what he wanted.
“I told you last night,” I whispered. “I won’t do it again, Logan Kilgore. You’ll just have to find somebody else.”
“Kelsea,” he coughed. “Come on.”
I flattened my palm out against the hardwood.
The midnight highway stretched out for ages, bumpy, pothole riddled, lined on either side by acres of cotton fields. A lonely round moon hung high in a gray sky above. I kept both hands on the wheel and reached forward to end the incessant radio static.
The Red Moon was a sleazy dive bar on the outskirts of nowhere. I’d never known any respectable people to frequent the Red Moon. Logan Kilgore had been called all sorts of names, but respectable wasn’t normally one of them.
I followed the dark highway about thirty-five miles until a single orange neon light flickered on the right side of the road, in the distance. The gravel lot out front was empty, aside from a couple of motorcycles parked out by the dumpster. I pulled right up to the door in my little red car, got out and took my keys with me inside.
The pungent scent of stale cigarette smoke and desperation smacked me across my face. Stale air. Jukebox humming across the room. There was a boxy-black television mounted to the wall nearby, post-game wrap-up on an all-night sports channel.
Logan Kilgore sat at the bar, dirty Wranglers, steel toe boots, plain white T-shirt, and drunken smile across his face. He was average in height and build. Standard brown buzz cut. Mostly straight teeth a couple shades darker than his T-shirt, stained from tobacco and sweet tea, but only noticeable in just the right lighting.
“Come on,” I said, nodding toward the front door behind me.
He got up, picked up his filthy baseball cap from the bar in front of him, nodding at the bar tender, and stumbled toward me.
We traveled quietly back down the highway, toward the lifeless village of Blossom. He put down the window and drooped his face out. I adjusted the defogger and flipped my turn signal to ease off to the right directly after turning onto the main road.
Mud puddles. Tall weeds. Pitch black sky and a lonely moon hovered over above us.
I pulled up to the wood porch steps, journeyed through the tall grass, and held out my hand. He passed me his keys. I climbed up the steps, pulled open the broken storm door, and crammed his house key in.
Logan lived in a giant rectangular tunnel, a 1970’s model single-wide mobile home, up on blocks, no underpinning or trim around the bottom. He’d moved it in on his parents’ back lot, behind the cow pasture at the edge of the property, a year or so after high school, just as soon as he’d saved up a couple grand to haul the free-for-anyone-who’ll-move-it trailer across the county from a closed down trailer park eager to get rid of it.
The carpet was brown and stained, a weird sort of scroll design but with confetti-like orange and green mixed in. There was brown paneling on the walls. Popcorn ceiling. Windows with broken screens. Hand-me-down furniture circa 1980’s—cheap plastic, particle board, rubbery squares and circles.
I moved out of his way, gestured toward the interior of his home, and sighed. He stumbled up the steps, past me. I tossed his keys at him and started back down the steps toward the car, toward home.
Hattie Harper lived next door to us ever since she was born on the property back in the thirties. Her momma used to be the housekeeper of Mrs. Kate’s late-husband’s parents. I never knew how long Mrs. Hattie’s family had lived there before she came along, but as far as I understood, the Harpers had been around as long as any family in Blossom, founders, friends, and to Grandma Kate and me, family.
Hattie was a petite, pleasantly round, lady with smooth cocoa skin and salt and pepper beehive hair, I’d never once seen taken down or with a single strand out of place. She’d been married once to a railroad worker and church pastor, Dunbar Harper. He passed away when I was little. Mrs. Hattie took up doing hair to support herself, and ever since, she’d been running her beauty shop out of the back of her house.
Every Tuesday morning, Mrs. Hattie walked over, big red pocket book over her arm, in one of her good church dresses and her signature pink lipstick, to ride with Grandma Kate for their ladies prayer group meeting at the Congregational Holiness Church Campground in Periwinkle, on the other side of the county. Grandma Kate met Mrs. Hattie on the front porch, faded floral print dress and hose on, black canvas sneakers, big brown purse over her shoulder. They discussed which one would be driving. Then they rushed for Mrs. Kate’s boat of a Mercury parked at the curb in front of the oak tree.
I stood in the doorway, screen door bouncing back against my arm, waving, watching until they were in the car and backing out of the driveway. When all that was left but a swirl of dust was me and the chickens out front, I let myself inside, locked the door, and ventured down the hall to my bedroom.
I peeled out of my T-shirt, kicked my flip-flops at the bed, pulled my ponytail down, and walked over to my record player on the table by the door. Ashley Monroe spinning, box fan across the room on high, I pushed over to the bedroom door toward the hall. Sometimes, a girl just needs to walk around the house in her bra with her hair uncombed.
The mid-morning air was cool but stale. We had turnips and fish sticks for supper last night. Those sorts of scents tended to linger.
I pushed my legs up, propping my feet on the edge of the coffee table, nail polish in my right hand. Eight episodes into a Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman marathon, I got up and propped the nearest window open. A half hour later, last night’s supper was mostly a distant memory.
Air antenna static eventually set the television fuzzy. I got up in my stretchy cotton shorts and little lace bra, thumped the side of the TV, and waited. Then a tapping at the front door jolted my eyes over to the open window to the direct right of the front door.
I flattened myself out against the wall, parked my mouth against the coat rack hanging next to me, and looked over at the window, white lace curtains dancing in the early morning breeze. Probably, a salesman or solicitor of sorts. Didn’t matter who. All that mattered was I couldn’t and wouldn’t and be caught off guard in my altogether.
“Hello?” I called out.
The screen door creaked, either opening further or sliding back closed. The doorknob twisted but didn’t turn. I turned around and looked down at it. Then there was a sort of grumbling from the vicinity of the window.
“Why’s the door locked?” Porter Jackson yelled, pushing the curtains out of his way.
He climbed his big, goofy body in, knocked my manicure kit off the coffee table, and ended up in an awkward contortionist position on the floor at my feet. I covered my modest A-cups with my elbows and swelled up to yell.
“Porter Jackson, it’s the middle of the day!”
“Why are you nekkid?”
“At what?” he scoffed.
I grabbed the afghan from the back of the couch, wrapped up, and watched him climb up from the floor.
Porter Jackson had been my surrogate brother since we were in diapers. Our relationship was the most uncomplicated relationship between any two people, ever. Not friends. Not actual relatives. Definitely not more than friends. We just grew up across the street from each other and because his family was close to Mrs. Kate’s family, we behaved like family, for the most part.
Porter was tall with a pot belly, a mess of brown hair on his head, and peach fuzz on his upper lip which was by the way, always chapped. Goofy, lanky, athletic in a minimal way, he played sports in high school. Then we graduated. I went to work. He went to community college.
“What’s for breakfast?” he asked.
I went into my bedroom. He went into the bathroom. I put on a shirt and pulled my hair back. He came out of the bathroom, slinging his wet hands as if there wasn’t a hand towel right by the sink. We met in the kitchen at the table.
“How come you’re not at school?” I asked him, wandering over to the little white microwave on the counter to get his breakfast plate.
Porter attacked his cold bacon and scrambled eggs with the usual voracious abandon. Then he downed his juice, swiped his mouth with the back of his arm, and shoved back from the table. I waited until the crumbs from his T-shirt fell to the floor, then got up to clear his dishes.
“You were late for breakfast for the first time in twenty-two years,” I told him. “We assumed you were dead. I was searching the yellow pages for flower delivery.”
“Slept late,” he answered. “I seen you sneakin’ out late. Went to pick him up again? I told you to quit that. Leave him sittin’ there.”
I exercised my right to not respond. He shrugged, truly ambivalent. I watched him start for the door.
“Bye. Have a nice day, now,” I muttered.
“Yeah,” he murmured.
Then he was gone.
I stalked around the kitchen, cleaned up Porter’s mess, and checked the apple clock on the wall above the stove. An entire day of free time stretched out before me. No plans. No obligations.
Most days, the Browning household ran like a well-oiled machine. Everything was done the right way at the right time by the right person. Mrs. Kate ran a tight ship and I gladly kept up as best I could. But then some days, I managed to find a window or two of free time not scheduled away with busy work, and that had secretly become the best part of my week.
My day meandered on. Front porch swing, needlework. Long bubble bath. More retro television. I took a nap on the sofa. There was a package delivery just before lunch.
I drove down to the public library, a little brick building void of any windows or natural light. I sat at my table in the back and re-read the encyclopedia Ei-Ev. Then I drove back home and thawed out the meat for supper.
By the time Grandma Kate got back home, I’d lived a full twenty-four hours worth of day and it wasn’t even sunset.
The bedroom walls were antique white, painted clapboard and paneling. I had the words to a nursery rhyme stuck in my head, no idea why. By the time the phone rung, the cow had already leaped over the black sheep.
“No,” I whispered into the phone.
“Come on,” Logan said.
“Last time. I promise.”
I stared up at the ceiling fan.
In a matter of minutes, I was up, dressed, and sneaking out. By the time I made it to the end of the road, the radio static died down. I switched the station a couple of times and pointed my wheel toward the highway.
The next time I stopped to evaluate the situation, I was pushing his key into the lock. The door scraped the rug. I backed down the steps and motioned him inside.
“Come on,” he said.
“No,” I said.
I tossed his keys at him and started for the car, no time for further nonsense. As I backed out of the drive, I shook my head side to side and made myself a promise. No more.
The midnight yard was still and black. I got out of the car, dragged up the walk to the porch, sat down on the swing, and shut my eyes. Crickets and night crawlers played me a song. I kicked out of my shoes, fell back on my back, wiggled around to get comfy, and succumbed to the silence.
When I opened my eyes, the sun was up. The air was wet, foggy. I sat up, rubbed at the crick in my neck, and did some stretching. The screen door creaked open. Out walked Grandma Kate in her apron dress and house shoes.
“There you are,” she said.
She had a box of grits in one hand. The other hand was holding the door open. The paper boy, Chester Falmer charged by, hurled our paper at the steps, missed, and almost whacked Mrs. Kate’s foot. She gawked down at it. Chester issued a drive-by apology, yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Sorry, Mrs. Kate!” he screamed.
“Uh huh!” she yelled back. Then she scooped up the paper and dusted it off. “That little monster,” she muttered. “He doesn’t pay attention to where he’s going half the time. Half raised hoodlum. One of these days, he’ll plow into a parked car. That’s what.”
Porter Jackson tore across the blacktop, school books tucked under his arm. Grandma Kate stood at attention, taking in the typical scene. His hair was wet from the shower, shirt untucked, jeans wrinkled, his mother screaming out the front door from him to not forget to go by the market on his way home.
“Morning, Porter Jackson,” Mrs. Kate said, holding the door open for him to rush inside. “Breakfast is ready.”
When Porter was gone, Mrs. Kate glared over at me, curious and quiet. I got to my feet and collected my shoes from the porch floor. She motioned me inside.
“You too,” she said.