Claim the Disappearing: Chapters 6-10
(I’ve been unrolling this novel on this blog one chapter at a time. Earlier, I gathered Chapters 1-5 for your convenience. Click here to read them if you want before reading Chapters 6-10 gathered below. Whether the blog offering will continue past these first 10 chapters is up in the air!)
CLAIM THE DISAPPEARING: 6
The first Bigmama did not believe babies were a blessing. She considered them a danger, a threat, an often-fatal condition to be survived at all costs. She felt this way for the same reason we all hold our opinions: life taught her this truth.
Bigmama’s one and only child was birthed after the siege of Vicksburg in the American Civil War. Bigmama spent months ignoring the thud of cannonballs as she baked biscuits, drew cool water from the cistern, and watched the moss slowly crisscross the brick-lined path to the stables. Occasionally, she looked up to see the ships positioning their guns, sighting for the living room. At that moment, the deep front porch seemed too shallow, and it was. In May of 1863, the siege arrived. Federal troops blockaded the city. Bigmama and her sister citizens waltzed from their homes into protective caves, dragging their platform rockers and turtle-top tables and flame mahogany secretaries behind them.
Nine months later, at the age of forty-six, Bigmama lay alone on her full-teester bed, her toes touching the footboard, her lips pressed against the cry of labor. She was a bad-ass. She cut her own umbilical cord, rose from the bed, and lit the wood she’d stacked in the fireplace to warm water for cleaning the baby. She crouched when the placenta slid onto the wide-planked floor.
She never disclosed the name of the baby’s father, because if her husband had visited her in the cave, it would have been treason. Any other explanation would have been worse treason. All for naught, really, as by the time she gave into the labor pains, the husband was long dead, a casualty of the Confederacy’s misguided war.
Here, my dad’s mother, my own Bigmama who was telling the tale, glared at me—daring me to acknowledge she was coming close to talking about sex. She jumped ahead to when the golden-haired baby could crawl and thus fend for herself. While the little girl poked her fat thumb into the cannonball divots in the living room wall, the first Bigmama pulled the cane-bottomed chair from the writing desk, sat, and wrote. For the next nineteen years, she kept herself and her baby alive by writing the first fiction of the Old South Confederacy.
She penned stories of fluffy white cotton picked by happy enslaved men; tales of sumptuous casseroles served in flowered bone china by happy enslaved women; narratives of beautiful babies cared for by happy enslaved young girls; and scenes of prancing stallions groomed by happy enslaved little boys.
Her fellow—and sister—southerners had lived the life. They had wielded the whip, worked the children in the hundred-degree fields as young as six years old. They knew the horror. Surely this deeply false fairy-tale Bigmama was weaving would make them at least fidget uncomfortably in their chairs.
It did not.
The novels were best sellers. Southerners couldn’t get enough of her fantasies. Northerners lapped them up, too, saying, see—we need to let this go. Each time she lifted her pen, she thought, this time I will be so outrageous, so egregious, readers will be forced to acknowledge: no, it was not so. She never succeeded, nor did she give up, with the consequence that my first Bigmama single-handedly created The Lost Cause myth, where the Old South was noble and brave and only concerned with preserving a genteel way of life. Her engrossing, imaginative, prolific tales supplanted the known truth, doing untold damage along the way.
Imagination. That was the gift passed to me from the first Bigmama. Imagination, if not a functioning moral compass.
I’m not going to troll through the begats of her family. Suffice it to say that, with one exception (when the conceited husband of a daughter taught his babygirl to say Grandmere), every grandmother down that line birthed only one child—just enough to keep the line going but no extraneous risk-taking—and each called her grandmother Bigmama.
My own Bigmama was tall as an oak tree with strong forearms for limbs and clomping boots—rain galoshes, barn muckers, and reinforced Redwings—for her roots. While my winters were filled with Tippy’s tales, my humid summers meant languid days at Bigmama’s Jackson mansion. Bigmama was obsessed with teaching me my matrilineal heritage (you wonder where I got it from.) She would recite stories about our first Bigmama, imprinting her stories by walking me in circles along a path in her back yard.
My Bigmama liked walking in circles in the yard.
It reminded her of the only comfort she had in prison.
I would tell you she was framed, that she didn’t actually libel half of Jackson with her scurrilous letters to the editor (which might have single-handedly killed the local paper), but I suspect that somehow, some way, the Saint is listening to what I tell you. One of her Letters to the Editor libeled the mayor, who didn’t laugh at her foolishness. In her defense, she claimed he deserved to have the truth told about him, even if she had to make up a lie to do it.
Bigmama learned her lesson: libel requires publication of your version of the truth. When she was released, she stayed away from the newspaper. She didn’t quit writing.
Each morning, after she’d finished her oatmeal, Bigmama would pry a spiral-bound notebook from the kitchen drawer. Seated at the boomerang Formica table, throughout the morning, she wrote letter after letter. Some went to childhood friends who she perceived as having done her wrong. Some went to companies offering shoddy service. The one she leaned into hard enough to tear the paper went to a little boy in my Sunday school class who had shoved me against the wall for beating him in a Bible drill. She tore the finished letters from her notebook with a rippppp, cleaned off the dangling paper ends, and stuffed the folded missives in gold-lined envelopes scrolled with her monogram: vitriol wrapped in beauty.
As she wrote, I went in and out of the kitchen. I played with the yellow-striped kittens wandering the back yard, hunting their own breakfast of skittish mice. I caught lizards among the pink potted geraniums and with a ripppp cleaned off their tails to see if they’d really grow new ones. I cawed to the crow, flapping my wings while the crow sat impassive, his beady eye unwavering. When Bigmama finished her daily dose of correspondence, she walked me around the yard, reciting. Then I was happy.
We wound past the wilting Impatiens, dipped our fingers in the mossy birdbath, kicked at the droopy headed zinnias. The sweat trickled down my neck and ran between my shoulder blades. Hot, it was always hot when I stayed at my Bigmama’s. At her house, I had a domain. Someone to hold my hand. Daring tales of strength and the will to survive. I felt destined.
So, yeah, from my two ancestors—the one on the left staircase and the one in the middle—I’ve been given an understanding of the need to kill and imagination with no morals.
That’s two out of the three, which as they say, ain’t bad.
CLAIM THE DISAPPEARING: 7
St. Claude lifted his palms from the marble top table and slow clapped. My chest warmed, pleased I’d impressed him.
Then he glanced at the darkening evening, calculating time. “You have one left. Make it quick. Which ancestor will you take with you to confront the Dauphine?”
I didn’t like it, him threatening me. Forcing me to tell you about the last one. It didn’t bode well in this fleur-de-lis city where everything comes at you in a trinity of threes. Bad enough I was in the foyer of a make-believe castle on the road from Chartres (Chart-ers, by the way) to Dauphine (Daupheen) via Royal then onto Burgundy (Bur-GUN-dy) to Rampart before hitting St. Claude. I could’ve as easily been three blocks over where Piety invariably flames Desire which leads to illicit Congress before forever squelching Independence. Don’t fuck with this city. Its wisdom is written in asphalt, its imagination drawn in the graffiti that bloomed from Katrina mold. Its secrets hide in lodges, clubs, and societies where men indulge their high school meanness. And castles, mostly castles.
I feared the city was trying to teach me a lesson: if I thought I could play this city, bring my poser mask over from Mississippi, I would be the one played. The city would expose me. A castle would appear at the end of my stroll, and a saint would twist my arm until I was forced to choose which of my damaged ancestors I would take to the knife fight that is life.
CLAIM THE DISAPPEARING: 8
My Elfy was plump as a pin cushion. She spoke in spurts and nibbled her fingers in between her words. She was my great-grandmother and lived with my Bigmama, her daughter-in-law. Elfy tended the house, always fussing and polishing and dusting. She rose late in the day, after Bigmama was finished at the kitchen table (I think she wanted deniability) and ate half a cantaloupe followed by pancakes and sausage patties spitting in an iron skillet. Each day she designated a room for cleaning. I followed her while she worked, and she told me of the first Elfy.
Our first Elfy married a man vouched for by her sister. After all, the man Gerald was her sister’s husband’s best friend. Well, the best friend the lawyer husband had made since he dragged her sister from refined Richmond to the new state of Mississippi. Given the sister’s stamp of approval, in 1853, Elfy consented to let Gerald visit her in Richmond. Gerald was a blacksmith turned jeweler who’d been elected to the Jackson City Council (yes, they had politics in the early 19th century). Gerald was going places in that new, foreign land and, unlike most who escaped to the territory to start over, he came from a good family up north. So Elfy accepted his proposal of marriage and followed him back to the state her sister had adopted as her own three years earlier.
Best-friend sisters marrying best-friend men. Elfy shouldn’t have done it. Never, ever try to mirror anything. The universe will break your jaw every time for trying that cutesy shit.
Though doctors warned Elfy, who stood less than five feet tall, that she was too diminutive to bear children, within the year of marriage, her first child arrived. The children came regularly after that. Elfy adored them, every one, as she did Gerald. Under his tutelage, she learned to inscribe the delicate initials his more wealthy jewelry clients preferred for their lockets and forks. She taught herself the sweeping letters of calligraphy and wrote them into the ledgers when she began to keep the business’s books. “There is no reason the utilitarian can’t be fanciful,” she told a bemused Gerald.
Five years into the marriage, the winds of Civil War blowing through Mississippi brought unrest. Elfy didn’t care. She was busy at the lovely home Gerald had ensconced her in. White columns fronted the most prestigious street in town, the latest Empire furniture graced the rooms, prisms danced light from beveled glass across the front room’s Persian rug. Elfy’s offspring had bloomed to four with a fifth one waiting to enter the world when Gerald chose to leave his pregnant wife and return to his native Connecticut for a visit and die.
Nothing shocking there. Sudden death happened then same as it does now. Unfortunately, though, the news of Gerald’s death arrived as Elfy’s labor pains crescendoed (you see why the women in my family view babies more of a crapshoot than gifts from God), but Elfy finished the birthing and named the baby Dolores, because Elfy was truly a sad lady widow. She dragged that sorrow behind her as she prepared the house for the wake, expecting her husband’s body to return to his (new) home any day. Instead, her brother-in-law bustled in waving a sheet of paper. Letters. Not the kind you write; the kind a court issues.
Gerald’s father had filed a will that purported to disinherit Gerald’s Mississippi family in favor of his “God-ordained” family in Connecticut. Elfy scanned the fancy language. Rage boiled when she understood she’d been betrayed by the forces of darkness, to wit, her scheming father-in-law. Seems the “good family,” like many, had fallen on hard times. Gerald’s rapacious father coveted the jewelry business, claimed his son had bequeathed him not only the inventory of the shop but Elfy’s monogramed forks, even her last demitasse spoon. Oh, she could see the evil father-in-law whispering in the ear of dying Gerald, his breath rancid from the sassafras root he chewed nonstop, insisting those down in Mississippi didn’t count as real family, badgering Gerald until he executed a new will.
“New,” thank you blessed baby Jesus, for that meant during his sanity Gerald had executed a prior will. When Elfy called her brother-in-law to the house the following day and pressed the true will into his hands, tears welling in her eyes, her delicate white hands trembling, her shoulders set in utter helplessness but proud determination—the theatrics were mere icing on the cake. Her brother-in-law would challenge the father’s upstart will in court. He would see to it that Elfy’s babies reaped the benefit of their father’s hard work. He would defeat the Devil hurling brimstone onto their heads from the conniving, greedy North.
The brother-in-law never looked at the will closely enough to see the ink so newly smudged on the last page. Nor did he compare the sweeping calligraphy of Gerald’s declaration with the fancy entries in the ledgers. He refused to admit the silver-polish scent of the linen paper—why would a man’s paper carry the scent of women’s work? He bought it, hook, line, and sinker.
As we cleaned and polished, Elfy and I explored all the aspects of this story—why did the weak Gerald give into his father? Why had he left home in the first place when a baby was so close to arriving? Did the brother-in-law maybe like Elfy better than his own wife? On Sundays, we rested from the cleaning and tale-telling. On Sundays, we moved to implements.
Elfy would jiggle open the drawer of the marble-topped dresser and show me the old engraving tools with the mushroom-shaped cap to give a good grip. She brandished the sterling calligraphy pen with its slick mother-of-pearl handle and urged me to finger the sharp tip. She led me upstairs and knelt before the long drawer in the bottom of the hall wardrobe where a stash of paper with curled-brown corners expired their silver polish scent. My puddingy Elfy wanted me to understand the tools of a woman’s trade.
A level head.
A willingness to fight.
An appreciation of deceit when necessary to ensure the good won.
Never once in that line of Elfys did the good mean anything but what each Elfy wanted. What they desired was—despite any evidence to the contrary—never evil.
Yes, I am poor white trash. I am also wealthy from the machinations of my Elfy. In Mississippi, if you weren’t poor white trash at some point in your life, you’re lying.
CLAIM THE DISAPPEARING: 9
The saint cleared his throat, urging me to get on with it. Outside the transom window, a tourist walked by in a tall jester’s hat. I yearned for my Tourist Bingo card (I’ve been needing to spy a green/purple/gold jester’s hat.) I won once, the October Tourist Bingo version (Witch Hat Bingo). The apartment management that encourages us to participate in New Orleans gave me a gift certificate to the coffeeshop on Port. I was good with hats. It’s okay to claim your talents when the world allows you so few.
I was wearing a hat the night I was attacked, a jaunty fedora that hid one eye, Fay Dunaway style. I should’ve been suspicious when the oldest ad agency in Jackson gave me and my Associate Degree a job. I attributed it to the Mississippi version of affirmative action: “I’ll take White Female Community College Grad for $100, Alex.” Plus, a part of me—shamefully—hoped the firm respected my family’s (very tattered) reputation. My Elfy had been somebody…before she and her ex-felon daughter-in-law became the city’s bat shit crazy old ladies.
When I found myself tussling in the grass, fighting the partner who had championed me since I slid my resume onto his shiny ebony desk, I knew the facts that should have sparked outrage—he was mentoring me; he’d invited me to his house for dinner; he gave me plum assignments that showed he believed in me professionally—would be twisted around and used against me.
I lost the tussle—he had me by at least one hundred and twenty pounds, plus his two fully-functioning feet. My face wound up smashed into the grass, my nose filled with the bitter stink of green pecan shells, my pinned arms unable to slap the mosquito steadily drawing blood from my poor cheekbone. I stopped thrashing. The movement might catch a party-goers attention. They wouldn’t call out or run for help, but, so help me God, when the asshole died mysteriously in a face plant on his ebony desk, they would reluctantly go to the police to report their suspicions of what they thought, officer, they might have seen under the pecan tree at the firm party. I never again wore that fedora. I did get my justice.
You’re wanting details, I can tell. Maybe a gory story about a late night at the office, a garbage sack for protection from blood spatter, a handy-dandy heavy object, a carefully planned and methodically executed killing. But I’m not into revenge porn.
I kept my job (to pay the rent) and dutifully went to his office when called, even if it was at the end of the working day when everyone else had gone home (because, as I said, it was my job). As he leaned over my proposed draft of a cat food campaign, his arm brushed mine. Instinctively, I used the move I’d learned in every self-defense course I’d ever taken (don’t incessantly teach women self-defense if you don’t want them to use it). I pressed into him and elbowed upward toward his jaw as hard as I could. The blow knocked him against the wall. Except it wasn’t the wall, but the bookshelves that displayed his do-gooder awards, including the Addy the firm had won for a particularly successful dental hygiene campaign.
All I can figure, my initial shove must have wobbled the crystal obelisk. My second shove—more emphatic—impaled him against its pointy top. The make-shift dagger entered his back with the squishy noise of sugar cane breaking apart: a fibrous, juicy sound. I hadn’t touched him, hadn’t touched the obelisk. He looked pretty dead to me, lying crumpled on the floor, but I didn’t check his pulse. I figured if he were alive and survived until the cleaning crew arrived, so be it. He could squeal on me, and I’d take my lumps. But if the Universe wanted him to die, I wasn’t going to involve myself in that. I left for the evening and kept my mouth shut during the hysteria that followed when the terrified partners believed jealous advertising competitors were out to kill them all, ala “Murder, She Wrote.”
These are the three gifts I inherited from the women standing at the bottom of the sweeping staircase.
From Tip-Top in her scratchy jacket belted with a length of frayed rope: a respect for the need to kill.
From Bigmama in her white collared, flat chested black dress: imagination without morals.
From Elfy in her girlish hoop skirt with its crinoline petticoat and green daisies: level-headed selfishness.
Three women, all living in the wilds of the new American southwest and all dead on the same Wednesday in 1883.
Gems, everyone of them.
Yet, the sanctimonious St. Claude expects me to pick only one. To choose between these priceless women to journey up the stairs to confront and/or save the Dauphine.
To hell with that.
Until you provide me with evidence the world fights fair with women, I’m not following any man’s made-up rules.
“I’m taking all three women with me,” I said out loud.
CLAIM THE DISAPPEARING: 10
Talking about the past is easy. The past is done. The only choice of the tale-teller is to pick through the events jumbled like beads on St. Charles after Endymion parades. Select the perfect bead—what makes the story comical or poignant or ironic—then string the remaining beads so the story finishes with a neat bow tied around your finger.
Telling the future is the same but opposite: tell it as if it begins from where you stand (everything that comes after you is the future) and make up some hooey that renders the beginning funny or sad or outrageously unjust.
But the present? There is no ending or beginning in the present. No two dots to connect, no crooked lines to draw. Only what’s happening right now. You can’t take the present and twist it into what you want it to be. Which makes it much harder.
When I fled Mississippi, I ran to this city because the city had spent the last few years same as me: rocking a romanticized past until a giant storm rolled in and blew that myth apart, leaving scars and a shaky grip on the future. Only thing, I landed in the difficult no-man’s-land of the present.
The city and I would figure this out together.