by Diana Joseph
It’s the middle of the day, the middle of the week, early June 1982, and a girl named Kate Mangerelli is riding shotgun through West Virginia backcountry with my uncle Tommy Prine. Kate is eighteen, six years older than me, and though she’s what I’ll later realize is white trash trampy, right now I think she’s beautiful. Her dark hair hangs wild and loose around her face, her skin is tan and soft, she’s wearing gobs of mascara and black eyeliner and blue eyeshadow, and her lipstick is dark red, thickly applied—more like Egyptian princess than slutty dago girl from Pittsburgh.
Kate’s wearing white pants tight enough to outline her vulva; she’s wearing spiky pink heels that match her tight pink top. Her breasts are enormous, almost the size of my grandmother’s. Kate has a belly as big and round and white as the moon, she’s six months pregnant with her first child. The baby isn’t my uncle’s, but Tommy will pretend like it is and the rest of us will do the same. Oh, it looks just like the Prines, Great-Aunt Jane will say, and her sister Great-Aunt Geraldine will agree. Especially around the eyes. Cousin Kathleen will say, Look at the forehead. That’s Prine.
* * *
The Prines of Reynold’s Creek, West Virginia are my mother’s people.
You’ll stay there a spell, my father told me. He had plans of his own: follow I-95 south until he found my mother, though she’d made her feelings clear in the poem she left. Don’t try to find me, she wrote. Like the wind, I cannot be found. My father told my grandfather she was probably on her way to Florida. Why she gets like this I don’t know. The girl has always had imagination, said my grandfather. She’s stubborn, too. Like her mother.
I imagined my mother hiding in a swamp, her body submerged in mud and muck, and only her eyes and the top of her head showing, like an alligator.
My father said more likely she was at a truck stop, sitting in a corner booth, smoking menthol cigarettes, drinking coffee and shredding her napkin. I am not a compass, my mother had written. She told me once she was more honest about her feelings when she put them in a poem. My life is not a map for you to stick pins into.
Wiser to let a wife leave, my grandmother said, so the coming home is her own idea. My father agreed but said my mother was too high strung a woman for him to risk it.
* * *
In Tommy’s red pick-up Kate Mangerelli slides a little closer to Tommy. He takes her hand. Trees stand in thick clusters, bowing into a canopy over the dirt road. Gnats hover like clouds over muddy green creek water, while blue-green dragonflies skim the surface. Light breaks through branches. The air is yellow, there’s no breeze. It’s hot, getting hotter, humid.
I’m twelve years old, a girl who still needs told wash-your-face-brush-your-teeth, a girl in love with a forbidden love. What will I do in its name?
It’s never been hard for me to imagine my uncle and his girl. As he drives, Tommy places Kate’s hand on his lap. He’s pressing his hand hard over hers, and neither of them speaks. The windows are probably down. The beer is probably warm. The radio is probably on—something loud, hard, too much bass. Kate Mangerelli is trying not to giggle.
It’s the beer. It’s the bumping around on dirt roads in the boonies—it’s enough to start her into labor. It’s this baby, whipping its tail against her bladder so she has to pee. It’s this boy, her thigh against his, her hand pressing against the thump in his pants, all his crazy talk of marrying her. Tomorrow, he says. Let’s get married tomorrow. Kate is watching the road as it moves towards them—patches of shade and patches of light—so I don’t know how she misses seeing the turtle, as big as it is, bigger than a dinner plate, bigger than a platter.
But Tommy spots it, and he slams on the brakes. He lifts the turtle, then hoists it over his head, showing off, in love with the way his own muscles flex. He’s hoping Kate notices too, which of course she does. She leans out the window for a kiss before Tommy heaves that turtle into the back of his pick-up.
* * *
Wayne Prine, my grandfather, sits in his rocking chair in the front yard, a floppy-ear howling little dog on each side of him. He and my grandmother Esmerelda just came back from town where my grandfather saw the doctor. He is chewing on a cinnamon stick because the doctor says it will help satiate his desires. The doctor says he shows early signs of emphysema.
My grandfather didn’t like the way the nurse said, Doctor will see you now and Doctor will be with you shortly. When he told her the doctor was full of shit, but Nurse sure has herself some long pretty legs, Nurse got squirmy and red and said, Mr. Prine! You’d better watch your Ps and Qs.
Oh, was your grandmother mad at me! he tells me. Your grandmother is the jealous type.
My grandfather never laughs and never smiles; his face is round with deep lines across his forehead. My mother told me that he was a bad father, that he used to get drunk and crash cars into the ditch, that he used to run around with tramps and sluts and whores and not come home for days, that he once beat her for spilling her milk. He probably wouldn’t mind if you spilled your milk, she said. They both think you’re just great.
Your grandmother would cut off my pecker if she could, my grandfather is saying. She’d tie a ribbon around it and hang it on the front door. She’d make a front door knocker out of it.
My grandmother tells me she thought the doctor was comical—the thick gold band around the man’s wrist, like a woman! The way his little bottom twitched when he walked! And when he shook her hand, his was as white and soft as baby butt! I got a tickle out of him, she says, but she counted out the $28.85 to pay for the office visit, so it’s settled: Wayne’s cough is bad, and he is going to give up cigarettes, and he will chew on cinnamon sticks instead like Doctor told him to.
I do like long pretty legs, my grandfather says.
The nurse, Esmerelda adds, didn’t not have long pretty legs. That woman was sixty if she was a day, and her legs were like tree stumps. Her ankles were thick and she had chubby knees. Your grandfather, Esmerelda says, must be blind.
My grandfather is waiting for Esmerelda to bring his ham sandwich, his glass of iced tea, his strawberry shortcake with whipped cream. He is a small-boned and wiry man except for the band of bloat that appears around his belly when he sits. He’s still wearing his town clothes: a yellow and green striped shirt tucked into pale blue slacks, a brown leather belt and shiny black shoes. My grandfather dyes his hair black as shoe polish, and when he sees there’s a girl in the truck with Tommy, he sweeps a few sparse strands back from his forehead and clears his throat.
* * *
Tommy carries the turtle inside. He sets it upside down on Esmerelda’s kitchen table. The turtle pulls its head inside its shell, but its legs move.
What am I suppose to do with that thing? Esmerelda wants to know.
My uncle Tommy is twenty-two years old, skinny as bale twine and sweetly handsome. He’s the youngest of eight children, the only son. My aunts still talk about how Tommy was the kind of boy who brought home creatures in his pockets: little snakes, field mice no bigger than hair curlers, a baby raccoon that turned into a thief, swiping the ice cubes out of your tea and slipping the cellophane off your cigarettes.
Tommy turned into the kind of man who lets women know his favorite things. Kate Mangerelli met him at the racetrack in Wheeling not over a week ago, but she already knows the supper Tommy likes best is his mother’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. Tommy’s favorite way to spend a Saturday night is drunk on bourbon at the movies with his arm around a pretty girl’s waist and his nose in her hair. Tommy prefers fishing over hunting, archery over rifle, his mother over his father. The words my uncle says with the greatest conviction are Good work if you can get it.
My mother says Tommy has been ruined by the fuss and bother of too many women. He mostly ignores his sisters except when he flirts with them. Hello ladies, he says, and ten dollar bills float out of Suzannah’s pocketbook and Patty-Ann’s purse; a roll of quarters rises out of Louise’s hand. I want, Tommy’s says, and Darla is lighting a cigarette in her own mouth, then pushing it in his. Tommy says I need, and Raelyn and Joanne are arguing over who will put gas in his tank, who will mend the tear in his shirt, who will pay his ticket for speeding.
There was a time when Tommy said these words—If only—and my mother answered him. If only you had a job? she said. She’s twelve years older and says she spent her girlhood wiping Tommy’s nose and his behind. If only you had a bottle of beer and a song on the radio?
Midget—that’s what Tommy calls me, though I am rather tall for my age. Midget, she’s my sister, so I have to love her, but let me tell you this: your mother is one mean woman.
* * *
I love him, Tommy Prine, Thomas Arthur Prine, my uncle. His lips are pouty red as a girl’s. His eyes are deep brown. Tommy’s hair is a wavy dark mop with a blaze of white at his temple. Tommy is slightly bow-legged, there’s a swagger to his walk. He’s so helpless in the kitchen you have to take him by the shoulders and sit him at the table. Let me, you say, and he’ll pretend to tip his hat. Thank you, Ma’am, he’ll say, and he has such deep dimples and such long eyelashes. I am madly in love with him; so is my grandmother.
So is Kate Mangerelli.
It’s there for anyone to see. That girl loves touching all of Tommy’s places: the dark moles at the base of his throat; the dark curly hair on his chest; his chipped front tooth. She loves the navy blue tee-shirt Tommy wears, his favorite, the one with a pocket for his cigarettes, a bleach stain on the left arm, and a hole in the chest.
Sometimes, Tommy’s Kate will hook her finger through that hole and pull my uncle closer. Sometimes, she’ll stick the tip of her tongue through it, leaving the frayed edges wet and dark. The hole will get bigger.
My grandmother is vain as a bride.
Esmerelda Watson Prine was born and raised here, in this hollow in West Virginia, called Reynold’s Creek, though how a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-headed baby girl from Reynold’s Creek, West Virginia, came to be named Esmerelda remains a family mystery. When her youngest child, her only son, presented her with that turtle, Esmerelda Watson Prine knew exactly what to do: she lined strips of bacon across a cast iron skillet.
Bacon grease is popping, bacon is crisping as Esmerelda peers through the kitchen curtains to get a look at this girl Tommy brought home, a girl who’s had some fun judging by the bun-in-her-oven, and she’s all painted up like a clown and dressed slutty as a streetwalker.
From the kitchen window, my grandmother can’t see my grandfather, but she can hear him. He’s talking to that girl, teasing her. He’s calling her Meatball, only he’s saying Momma mia, meat-a ball-a like this is Italy and he’s an Italian. Then he’s hacking up phlegm.
* * *
I spent the morning in Tommy’s Bedroom, sprawled across Tommy’s bed. I ran my hands up and down his bed sheets, I pressed my nose and mouth against his pillow. I hugged his pillow against my body, straddled one leg over it, and said, Oh, Tommy, oh Tom, oh Thomas! How I adore you! I long for you, Uncle Tommy. I know my love is wrong, but when is love ever right?
I love you both, my mother wrote in her poem. I loved you yesterday, I love you today, and I’ll love you in the land of sweet tomorrow. I am the river, the wind, the rock! I am flames licking the corners!
I licked Tommy’s pillow. I am fevered, flushed, pink-cheeked. I am trembling, fumbling with my hands.
I follow my uncle outside as he carries that turtle behind Esmerelda’s shed. Hey there Midget, he says to me. Hello Professor, I say to him because that’s what my grandfather calls him ever since Tommy dropped out of high school never to graduate. I’m there when Tommy tells Kate to turn her head if she’s squeamish, which she does, but I watch my uncle chop off that turtle’s head, and I don’t flinch, proud of myself for being the toughest girl here.
I look to Tommy, but he’s watching Kate Mangerelli step along the perimeter of the yard, gazing down at Esmerelda’s pansies and peonies and petunias, her rhododendrons that win second and third but never first place at the Doddridge County Fair. Kate’s belly sticks out under that pink top; her stomach is so big and round that her belly button, once an innie, is now stretched flat. My grandmother’s horses hook their heads over the fence. They nicker, inviting Kate to come scratch their velvety noses. Lovers have painted their initials in red nail polish across the turtle’s top shell. D.J. + A.L. The turtle’s bottom shell lifts off like a can lid.
The turtle is full of eggs. Its eggs are as round as ping pong balls, and they bounce just as high. If you throw one of those eggs on the ground, Esmerelda’s dog catches it as it bounces back up. Then the dog eats it.
Outside of its body, in the palm of Kate’s hand, the turtle’s heart continues to beat. Thump. Thump. Severed from its neck, the turtle’s head sits on top of the picnic table. Its mouth opens and closes.
It’s clearly a sight that makes a girl like Kate feel unsettled. She stares at it, her mouth slightly open. Tommy puts down his beer to pick up a stick, and Esmerelda’s dog sits at his feet, tongue lolling, tail thumping, body tense, waiting for Tommy to throw it.
Instead, Tommy places the stick in the turtle’s mouth, and the turtle’s mouth clamps down on it. One of its eyes closes, and there it is: the bald and bumpy head of a turtle on a picnic table with one eye closed, smoking a stick like a cigar.
My uncle smiles, shrugs, suddenly shy. Esmerelda’s dog darts towards the turtle’s head, barking, then backs away, still barking. Kate lowers her hand to show the dog the turtle’s heart, and the dog eats that, too. I’m watching the dog so I don’t see Kate throw her arms around my uncle’s neck.
She’s going to get fat. She’s gained forty-eight pounds so far, and in the next three months, she’ll gain seventeen more. Kate Mangerelli is going to stay fat, and get fatter yet with the born of each child, three more—Rose-Katherine, Watson, and Wayne.
But Tommy loves her, he won’t care. He’ll say isn’t she pretty, my wife?
I watch him run his hands along Kate Mangerelli’s hips, across her back, over her big white belly. He twirls her around, and they’re trampling Esmerelda’s flowers. I must be watching them hard because I don’t hear my grandfather calling for me until a small smooth stone lands at my feet. Come on over here, Midget, he shouts. He coughs up a long string from his lungs. He says he wants to tell me something.
My grandmother comes outside to see what all the fuss is about. Old Mr. Turtle’ll chomp on that stick until the sun goes down, she says, and when Tommy’s Kate asks her why the turtle would do that, Esmerelda shrugs and says he just will. Then she tells Kate it’s time to plant when there’s enough blue in the sky to cut your husband a pair of britches. You know how to stitch a seam, girl?
My grandmother is being a bully. She can snap a chicken’s neck, skin a buck, feed a preacher, midwife a baby, and fetch a husband home from the beer joint, but she cannot sew a straight line. My grandfather says it’s because she has a crooked mind. My grandmother’s hair is frizzy white and growing out of the home perm she gave herself last fall. Her body is broad and muscled, her arms thick and strong. Her skin is a tan that will last all winter.
Great-Aunt Jane told me there was a time when Esmerelda Watson was something pretty to look at. Something lovely, agreed Cousin Kathleen. Great-Aunt Geraldine said one day after church she saw Wayne Prine staring hard at Esmerelda Watson, and it was because he could see through the material of her pale green dress when the sun was behind her.
Right now my grandmother is wearing a yellow sweatshirt, lavender sweatpants, dirty white tennis shoes. Esmerelda looks like a harmless old lady. She’s not. She says her mind is crooked but no worse than her heart. She trained her dog to love no one but her. He’s truer than any man will be, she likes to say, and she keeps her eyes on my grandfather’s face when she says it. She calls the dog her handsome man, her blessed boy, her sweet fellow. He nudges his nose under her hand, he wedges himself in the space between her feet. The dog has a long pointy snout, big pointy ears, sharp white teeth, coarse red hair. He growls at people who hug my grandmother. Sometimes, when she isn’t looking, my grandfather chucks rocks at it.
* * *
Hey Midget, he calls. The cinnamon stick dangles out of his mouth. Come on over here. I want to tell you something. It’s important.
Maybe my grandfather wants to say he got that scar on his chin because my grandmother socked him with a pipe wrench for noticing a girl with big brown eyes and long pretty legs or maybe he’ll say he got it in a knife fight because the governor’s son asked my grandmother to dance. Or maybe he’ll tell me about the time five boys hung upside down from that sugar maple over there and refused to come down until my mother decided which one she wanted. Maybe he’ll confide that Tommy was adopted at birth and is therefore not blood and thus not wrong for me to love.
Instead he says what’s the name of Tommy’s girl.
I tell him I don’t know.
Well, he says, why don’t you see if she’s got some cigarettes tucked away in her purse, which is still in Tommy’s truck.
Don’t tell your grandmother, he adds.
Kate’s purse is the same pink as her shoes and her halter top, and in it, there’s a pack of menthol cigarettes of which I take two—they’re Salems, same as my mother smokes—and there’s also a roll of cherry Life Savers and a handful of loose change, an acron, a dark red lipstick, and one of Kate’s high school graduation photos in which she’s smiling over her shoulder, and on the back of which are the words Don’t fuck up your life.
I give my grandfather a cigarette.
The other cigarette goes in my pocket. I mean to smoke it myself while looking in the mirror. I mean to conjure up my mother’s face looking back.
* * *
My grandmother has parboiled the turtle; now she’s frying it sliced in bacon grease. Tastes like chicken, Meatball, my grandfather tells Tommy’s Kate. Would I lie to you?
But the old man is being sly. In the years to come, my grandfather will tell this girl more untruths about things tasting like chicken: the government canned meat shaped into patties then fried, the breaded and fried squirrel’s leg Tommy’s Kate will think is chicken until putting it in her mouth.
Kate doesn’t want to eat the turtle, but she’s a girl with good manners. She’s also smart. She doesn’t want to be the worst thing Esmerelda Watson Prine thinks a girl her age can be: fussy. Tommy’s Kate still cares what Tommy’s mother thinks of her. So she takes a bite and chews, she takes a bite and chews some more. Tommy’s been drinking beer all day; now he’s drinking bourbon. He stretches out his legs under the table and mistakes my lap for Kate’s.
I don’t dare move.
My grandmother recently painted her kitchen pale green. Even the cabinets are pale green, even the ceiling and the insides of drawers. In the drawers, there are old plastic margarine tubs and used sheets of tin foil she wiped clean, smoothed flat and folded neatly. In the living room, there’s a wall of frame photographs—her eight children, thirty-seven grandchildren, nineteen great-grandchildren. There’s an armoire in the bedroom she and my grandfather share where babies slept in drawers. There’s a deep freeze in the shed, and in it, after my grandmother dies, the aunts will find turkeys dated 1977, 1979, 1981.
My grandmother’s death is three years away. It will be quick and unexpected, a heart attack she won’t wake up from. That night, beside her in bed, my grandfather doesn’t tell her he loves her, but he does say, Good night, wife. He takes her hand and presses it against his chest.
See you tomorrow, she says.
Her funeral will stir in my mother such grief, heighten my mother’s stress and anxiety, wrap my mother in such sadness that she rifles through Cousin Kathleen’s purse until she finds the keys to Kathleen’s Buick. My mother will be sitting in a bar in Jacksonville, Florida, licking the salt from around the rim of a strawberry daiquiri and telling a stranger that her mother never really loved her when my father finds her two weeks later.
But right now, as I sit at my grandmother’s table with a pile of fried turtle on my plate and my uncle’s foot in my lap, my mother is in Sarasota, Florida, and my father is just minutes from finding her. My mother wrote, I’m milkweed blowing in the wind, I’m dandelion fluff floating in the breeze. I scatter myself through meadows and fields.
Time away is fine, my father told my grandfather. If she needs time away from Laura and me, I don’t like it, but I accept it. But your daughter saying she’s scattering herself is something I won’t stand for.
My grandfather said you knew how she was when you married her, and my father agreed he did know. But you married her anyways, my grandfather said. My father said it’s true.
I push my plate away. Are you feeling poorly, Laura, honey? My grandmother says.
Maybe Midget’s got emphysema, my grandfather said. Give the girl a cinnamon stick.
Tommy’s Kate is still using her very best manners: back straight, napkin spread across her lap, knife carefully balanced along the top of her plate. Kate breaks her bread before she butters it. I watch as she eats without fuss what’s been served to her, and as she’s been taught, Kate leaves a bite to indicate the meal has been sufficient. Tommy pushes his foot between my knees, he wiggles his toes, and I hold up my head with my hands, shift a little in my seat.
But my grandmother thinks Kate Mangerelli has been putting on airs. What, you don’t clean up your plate? You don’t like your food? Fussy, fussy!
I watch Tommy’s Kate put that last bite in her mouth. My grandmother pats Kate’s shoulder. There’s a good girl, she says.
When Kate’s baby—a boy they’ll name T.J., short for Tommy Junior—comes wailing out, it will be Esmerelda holding Kate’s hand. She will say Meatball did a fine job, she didn’t hardly make any fuss at all, and doesn’t that baby look just like a Prine? My grandmother will think, but never say, doesn’t seem fair that girl had such a fast easy time of birth, hardly any fuss at all.
Kate chews and chews that last bite. I watch her push it around in her mouth, rolling it from one cheek to the other. She isn’t going to swallow it. She excuses herself from the table.
Kate is standing, she’s walking away, and it takes a minute, but when Tommy comes to understand those are my thighs he’s eased his foot between, he kicks me, hard. What’s the matter with you, he says. He glances at my grandfather, but the old man has his eyes closed and his hands folded across his belly. You little pervert, Tommy hisses. Don’t think I don’t know! You stay out of my room.
I rub my leg without looking at him; instead, I look out the window at Kate spitting out that last chunk. Tommy hiccups, then again. Then again. Hold your breath, Esmerelda says. I’ll fetch a paper sack.
But Tommy ignores her. He wipes his arm across his mouth and wanders outside to where Kate is scuffing dirt over that last bite of turtle. She notices the turtle’s head isn’t on the picnic table. It’s on the ground, between the dog’s paws. The stick is still pointing out of the turtle’s mouth, and Esmerelda’s dog is standing over it, gnawing on the other end. When the dog notices Kate looking at him, he growls. Then he picks up the turtle’s head, holding it lightly between his white teeth, and he trots off into the woods.
Kate Mangerelli is wondering about where she is, she’s wondering who are these people she’s with until Tommy touches her shoulder, and the thought passes.
* * *
Tommy slides his hand under Kate’s hair, and just as he whispers something in her ear, my father is pulling into a gas station in Sarasota, Florida, where he spots my mother. She’s holding back a yawn as she fills up her tank. She’s been thinking about home, about her husband, and me, her daughter. My mother has been thinking about coming home, but when she sees my father, she gets in the car and pulls away, gas pump still hanging from the tank. Then she stops. She looks at my father in the rearview mirror. He’s not doing anything, he’s just standing in an asphalt parking lot in Sarasota, Florida.
What do you want? my mother calls at the same moment my grandfather is telling my grandmother he wants dessert. Is there any strawberry shortcake or do he and Midget not deserve dessert? Esmerelda says better not to contemplate what he does or does not deserve. We all deserve something sweet now and then, Wayne tells her, and Esmerelda says she has something sweet for him all right so keep your pants on, old man.
In Sarasota, Florida, there’s a breeze and the smell of salt in the air. I was thinking about coming home tomorrow, my mother shouts. I swear I was. Why not come home today, my father shouts back.
In Reynold’s Creek, West Virginia, my grandmother fills the kitchen sink with water so hot nobody but her can put hands in it. My grandfather and I lift forkfuls of strawberry shortcake to our mouths. When I finish this piece, I’ll want another.
Outside the kitchen window, there’s birdsong and honeysuckle, sweaty humid air and Tommy is still whispering to Kate. What’s he saying? Maybe something like I-will-love-you-forever. I look at my grandfather, cinnamon stick in his mouth but cigarette smoke on his breath, and at my grandmother sweeping up crumbs from the floor around him, and I wonder how long it will be until I see my mother again. There’s a crushed menthol cigarette in my pocket and loose tobacco. I want to know how long will my heart stay broken.
In twenty-three years, the man to whom I’m married will reveal he doesn’t love me, maybe he never loved me, and I’ll find out just how long a heart will stay broken. But until then, I watch out the window to where Uncle Tommy is pressing his lips against Kate’s neck, he’s touching her belly, he’s holding her hand, and now Kate Mangerelli is the one whispering. She’s asking, do you promise?
Diana Joseph is the author of the story collection Happy or Otherwise (Carnegie Mellon 2003) and the memoir I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man and Dog (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam 2009.) Her work has appeared in River Teeth, Willow Springs, Marie Claire, Country Living, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere and she's been listed in Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and the Pushcart Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.