My mother was an award-winning magazine writer but her favorite stories were those she wrote about her own childhood. Today, on the fourth anniversary of her death, I want to share one with you. Descended from a long line of southern tale-tellers, she was the only person I have ever known who could gracefully include homemade biscuits and a shooting in the same story, with every word still completely true. Enjoy.
By Margaret-Ann Allison
“The trolley’s late today.”
She sat on the porch, shelling peas into her apron. The damp blanket of August heat pulled small curls down on her forehead from her tightly wound bun. Sixty years had added little gray to the dark brown mantle that fell around her shoulders and touched the floor when she brushed it. A promise made at the age of 12 was never broken. My grandfather had asked that she never cut her hair and only once, to snip the end of a curl to go in his watch with her picture, had scissors ever touched it.
My grandmother’s small hands, gnarled by hard work, split the pods and popped the peas into her lap faster than I could hand them to her. We had been sitting there on the glider all morning. We hadn’t talked — there had been no need for words. The metal swing kept up a squeaky cadence as we worked and bees, visiting the flower box, hummed along. The confederate jasmine was in bloom and the heavy, sweet odor washed us in perfume carried on an occasional South Carolina breeze.
“Fetch me the pot on the pie safe,” she said. “We’re nearly done shelling and Pa will be on the next trolley, ready for his lunch.”
I was glad for an excuse to go inside. It was dark and cool in the house. The drapes had been drawn against the sun and oppressive heat, but I liked the feel of the rooms. Their high ceilings and long windows made me feel like Alice in Wonderland: very small, and surrounded by wonderful things to explore. Mysterious things that had been used by my father when he was a boy. There was an empty table and seat I could climb into and pretend I was in a cave, a crystal chandelier in the dining room that sent fireflies dancing onto the walls when the swinging door to the kitchen opened just so, and the big hump-backed trunk in the closet. I had never looked in the big trunk, but I was sure it held untold treasures.
As I burst through the swinging door to the kitchen, I was hit with the aroma of an apple-cinnamon-crisp heat wave. Alma was cutting biscuits with the lid of a jelly jar on an enamel-topped table covered with flour. A rotating fan stood in the corner, moving the hot air around and sending flour drifting to the floor like snowflakes in hell.
“The trolley’s late,” I announced.
“Just as well. Biscuits ain’t done yet,” she replied, as she popped them in the oven and turned to look at me. “You look a sight! You been sweatin’ and wipin’ your face with them dirty hands. Go wash up.”
“But I’m supposed to take that pot to…”
“Never you mind. I’ll see to it while the bread’s bakin’. You run on now, and get ready for your granddaddy.”
I hurried into my least favorite room, the bathroom. The tub was too deep. I could barely see over the side, and at bath time I had to climb into it with a stool. I used the same stool to reach the tall, white sink as I washed my hands. I never figured out how to turn the round handles marked HOT and COLD without leaving dirty soap rings on them.
With face and hands reasonably clean, I decided to explore before lunch. Entering my grandparents’ closet, I walked back to the far corner where the big hump-backed trunk stood, tempting me as a Siren tempts a sailor. Thick leather straps were belted over the top, and a metal plate stared at me through its Cyclops keyhole. I pulled hard and the plate snapped open. The lid was big and heavy, but I was determined to see inside.
Pushing with all my might, I opened the lid to a storehouse of surprises. There were old books with my father’s name scratched on the covers, two dolls which must have belonged to my aunts, and tin soldiers with my uncle’s name on the box. I carefully lifted the items out and peered into the bottom of the wonderful trunk. There was another box with buckles around it. I took it out and opened it. It was lined in green velveteen gone shiny with age. Nestled in the soft fabric was a toy gun. It must have belonged to one of my uncles also.
As I stood holding the gun, my grandfather and uncle arrived for lunch. Uncle Lee was my father’s youngest brother. I was excited as he walked into the bedroom.
“Hi, Snookums. The trolley was late,” he said, as he came to see what I was playing with.
“I found some of your toys,” I said.
The gun was long and heavy. The force of the explosion pulled it down toward the floor and I dropped it and ran. I heard Uncle Lee yell, and my grandparents came racing in from the porch, but I kept running. I ran out the back door, down the steps, into the basement and up under the house to the crawlspace.
There was talking and running upstairs. I wondered what they did to people who shot someone. Alma’s boyfriend was in prison because he cut another man in a fight, but shooting was worse than cutting and I had shot my uncle. Crying and shaking, I wondered if the police would come with their sirens screaming and all the neighbors would look out their windows and see me go off to prison.
A gentle hand patted my arm. I turned to see the concerned face of my grandfather.
“It’s all right. You can come out. No one got hurt. Lee was just frightened when he yelled. The bullet went into the floor and if you want to, we can go and look up and see if we can find the spot. Come on, now. I’ll help you.”
As my grandfather backed his six-foot-two body out from under the house, he kept saying, “It’s all right. Don’t be afraid. It’s the trolley’s fault. If it had been on time we would have been at the table, so don’t you worry. It wasn’t your fault.”
Thirty years later, I was visiting my Uncle Lee on a trip back to South Carolina. As I pulled out of his driveway to leave, I accidentally backed into his mailbox and knocked it down. He walked over to my car window.
“I guess,” he said, “you’re going to tell me that damned trolley was late again.”