Love Letters to the South
When I was little, I used to count the chickens like stars or sheep. There were at least fifty on the wallpaper border, lined up in a single-file row that pointed west. The kitchen towels counted for four, because there were two on each, facing each other like that optical illusion that can either be two faces or a vase, depending on how aware you are of negative space. There were probably twenty chickens on the shelves and fireplace mantle in the living room, but most of them congregated in the kitchen. I found that ironic, now that I was older.
Each number on the clock was represented by a different chicken with different autumn-colored feathers that let out its own squawk when the hour hand landed on it. This was how you remembered time was passing.
“How many has it been since the Click-Cluck?”
“That was two chickens ago.”
“No, three. The last one was Stepped-On.”
“I thought it was Cock-a-Doodle.”
“You didn't hear it. You were in the bathroom.”
My cousins and I made up stories about them. The flat iron sculpture with the blood-red beak, the one on top of the refrigerator, was king of the chickens. It was the only one with a name. We called it Lionel, though no one remembered why.
Now, Aunt Betty's house was the same as ever, almost like stepping into a recurring dream, into deja-vu. Furniture had moved, maybe. There were a few new chickens, and a painting of a fox hanging above the laundry machine.
In the sunlit kitchen, Aunt Betty had her hair rolled into curlers and covered with a floral silk scarf, looking like a 1950’s advertisement. She set another plate, buttermilk biscuits, at the kitchen table, and adjusted the knot in her bathrobe.
My feet made sticky noises on the brown linoleum. “Good morning,” I said, with a hesitant smile.
“Oh, you’re awake!” Aunt Betty beamed, “Just in time for breakfast.”
“It looks delicious,” I said, pulling out a chair and sitting down.
“Do you want sweet tea or orange juice, dear?”
“Orange juice is fine.” I said, as she pulled a pitcher from the fridge and poured it into a glass. She set it on the table in front of me, and poured a glass of cold sweet tea for herself. I took a sip that was thick with fleshy pulp.
“There’s scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy,” she said, setting down a plate of bacon wrapped in an oily paper towel, then taking the seat across from me, “I imagine you haven’t had a real southern breakfast in quite a while.” She smiled.
“I guess not,” I said, trying to smile.
“What do they eat for breakfast in England?”
“Um, ham, or bacon…” I said, “but they put baked beans on their toast.” I was conscious of saying they only after I said it, like I hadn’t been doing the same thing for over a year. Like I hadn’t actually been one of them.
“Well, imagine that,” she laughed.
I reached for a biscuit and felt strain from the crick in my neck. I’d like to have blamed it on jetlag. I glanced at my cell phone, placed next to my fork at the table. I resisted the urge to press the button, but did it anyway. The screen lit up. No new messages, just the time. What time was it in London? I stopped myself from doing the math, turned back to the food, good country food--which actually, I realized, I may have missed a little. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this hungry.
I pooled a spoonful of salsa over my scrambled eggs. On one of our first dates—actual dates where we went out as a couple, although we had been together or something like it for months before those began—Jack took me to a Mexican restaurant in London. One of his colleagues told him it was supposed to be very good, but the salsa was sweet and had carrots in it. My mother often said you could judge a restaurant’s quality by the quality of its salsa. Jack laughed when I told him that. Before he met me, he thought barbeque counted as Mexican food.
Through the lace eyelet curtains I saw an elderly man wearing a blue cloth bathrobe, pacing in the sun in his driveway across the street. He zigzagged in erratic patterns, if you could call them patterns, before walking to the mailbox and picking up the rolled newspaper that sat in the gutter underneath. Then he walked back up the driveway, and plopped down in the front lawn. His stark white legs emerged from under his robe, crossed at the ankle, the curly hairs sticking in blades of grass. He held the newspaper in his lap and gazed around at nothing in particular.
Aunt Betty saw me looking. “Is Doctor Schwartz out there again?” she pulled the curtain back like a veil, peeking outside.
“What’s he doing?” I asked.
“Something strange, no doubt…” she sat back down and lowered her voice to the tone people use when they gossip, although there was no one else in the house to hear us.
“He’s much older, you know, and he’s been having some troubles, mentally. I heard from Addie Turner that he got fired from practicing medicine. Said he’s been prescribing poems to heal his patients. Wouldn’t give them real medicine, just told them to go read something. Addie Turner’s brother-in-law went to see him about a tumor in his shoulder, and the Doctor wrote something down, handed it to him, and he left. Well, when he got to the parking lot he looked down and realized he had just written down three lines of poetry by some guy named Merwin, or Merlin, or something. What’s that about?”
“Does seem like there’s something going on,” I said, glancing out the window again to see that he had disappeared from the lawn. I didn’t know if I actually believed it, but then again, the story seemed to fit into the life of the old man across the street, or what little I had just seen of it. Maybe I wanted to believe that the Doctor really thought poetry could heal sickness and tumors. Maybe I wanted to believe in something like that, something a little dangerous and hopeful.
“I’ll say,” Aunt Betty returned to her biscuits and gravy. “The people in this town are going bonkers, let me tell ya.”
I laughed, and she raised her eyebrows, the blue eyeshadow crinkling across her eyelids.
“I’m serious,” she said, “Do you remember Carla Mendoza next door?”
“I’m not sure…” I thought, trying to place the name.
“Mrs. Mendoza. She had the two older girls, Eliza and Jamie? She used to babysit you sometimes when you came down with your mom.”
“Didn’t she have a baby?” I said, mentally feeling out the faded corners of an image from childhood, of bare feet on a scratchy concrete driveway, and a lady with long dark hair bouncing a child on her hip, a playpen in the front yard.
“Yes!” Aunt Betty said brightly, “A little boy. Samuel.”
“I think I remember,” I said. “Whatever happened to her?”
“I’ll tell you what happened to her,” she said, leaning across the table, “she has gone loco.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I began to feel impatient, hoping this was worth the emphatic anticipation Aunt Betty felt it was.
Jack had a way of talking like that, too, and it drove me mad: pausing for dramatic effect, even when what came after wasn’t worthy of it. I teased him about the “scientist voice” he used to explain things he perceived as interesting or complicated.
Anyway, it wasn’t important anymore, those details. I think at first I found it endearing. I admired his professionalism and focus. I liked the sound of his voice, with any affectation. When he wasn’t my teacher anymore, it just became patronizing.
I checked my phone again, placed behind my glass of orange juice so as to not catch Aunt Betty’s attention. The time flashed big and bright on the screen. Minutes had passed, and nothing else.
Not that I would know what to say to him if he called. Dear Jack, how’s the weather in England, still raining, then? Do potholes and cows still exist?
Dear Jack, it’s summer now and I’m throwing my life away, but at least the food is good.
When I was younger I had spent so long dreaming of living in another country, of leaving the heat and complacency of Texas. I wish I could say that it wasn’t everything I had imagined, but it was. It was freezing beaches and chilly rain and cobblestone streets. Everything ancient and cozy, every day there another small adventure.
And it was him. It was a train through the countryside in September, the skyline swaying with our bodies. He was looking out the window and I was looking at him, at his eyes: wide and disinterested and ten thousand shades of blue at once. Like windows into a city of snow. Southbound to a cheap hotel in Paris, with a mattress on the floor and paint cracking at the baseboards.
The kitchen stilled, waiting for Aunt Betty to speak, but instead she got up from the table and walked over to the counter. She slid a chicken-shaped cookie jar away from the wall and placed her hand over the top, looking serious, conflicted.
“Rebecca, I haven’t shown this to anyone yet. Wasn’t sure if I should.” She pulled the chicken’s head off and set it on the counter. I got up from the table and walked over to see what was inside. From inside the cookie jar, filled with loose change, pencils and spools of thread, she pulled a slip of paper.
“So a few months ago, Carla Mendoza put her house up for sale, bought an RV, disappeared. She didn’t say why, just that she was going to travel to ‘every state under the Mason-Dixon Line.’ Her words. Fifteen years she lived next door! And then, I was doing some gardening, and found this buried in her front yard.”
Aunt Betty handed me the piece of paper, which looked to be streaked with red dirt. I unfolded it.
It was a plain piece of white paper that read, in someone’s thin cursive handwriting:
Texas is warmth in every sense of the word.
“What does it mean?” I said.
“I have no idea,” Aunt Betty said.
I fingered the dirty paper. “Can I keep this?” I think that surprised her. It surprised me. I didn’t
know why I wanted to hold on to it, just that I did. At that moment, I felt glad for Mrs. Mendoza, imagining her traveling the country, writing and burying these inexplicable love letters to the South. I folded the letter back up, and the weight of it sat well in my hand.
“Sure. I don’t see why not.”
A crescendo of bells broke out in the kitchen, startling us.
“Oh, that’s just my phone,” I said, walking over and picking it up from the table.
“I should take this. I’ll be right back,” I told Aunt Betty.
I stepped outside onto the porch, and the sudden warmth enveloped me. Beneath my feet, the worn white-washed boards squeaked.
Across the street, Doctor Schwartz was standing in his driveway barefoot, wrapped in a navy blue bathrobe. Bald and bewildered, he gazed out into the road. He looked happy. He looked like he had spent his life searching and had finally uncovered something honest, and I can’t think of anything more honest than defeat, except maybe love, which is also a kind of defeat.
About the Author:
Erin Slaughter is a Texan, feminist, and human container for pizza and existential angst. After a brief rendezvous with publishing in the Pacific Northwest, she is currently an MFA candidate at Western Kentucky University. You can find her work in The Harpoon Review, The North Texas Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and 101 Words, among others.