During their panel discussion titled “Voice Lessons” at the 2015…
An excerpt from The Nine Lives of Loody Tibbett, a novel in progress
Iron. Sodium. Lightning. Wind. Stars.
There’s a flap and roll to it, the kind of soft thunder you hear when you hang sheets on the line and a strong wind comes while you’re in the middle of it all and the sheets and pillow cases, all that slick damp cotton, slaps and whips and furls about you. Fresh cotton slides across my bare skin. It smells like sunshine but there’s no color.
I believe I might have died. Am I dead?
It’s all here, wherever I am. The songs slide and hum in the valleys and hills of this roiling cotton. I feel history as I felt it then, before it was history. I’m an old woman floating like a rock between life and death. I was once young and danced between death and life. I had hoped I could forget all that.
My brain pops popcorn all the time now. Pop, pop, pop, it goes. Some firecracker kernel goes off and there’s a piece of it. It can be a day, or a week, or a month—whole, fully blossomed from the heat of my brain trying to find its way. Maybe it’s an hour, just an hour that comes at me hot and fast, as I sprawl here frozen. Sometimes it’s more like a freight train zinging at me so hard and heavy, I think it could kill me, but I don’t move, don’t jump back. I can’t move, goddamnit.
Pop. I’d just finished helping Mavis milk eighteen cows in two hours time. Then she put me to shucking a barrel full of corn for the hogs, shucking out the ears so the cows could have the shucks. That’s how it is when you’re a sharecropper’s daughter. You got to use it up, even the dirt under your fingernails. You work for food if there’s nothing else to work for.
Daddy hired me out after I botched the marriage to the preacher. Hank was in the Navy by then, and he sent what money he could to help out. We both tried to make it up to Daddy, but he had eight other children to feed. Even after I was married, everybody called me “Pink’s oldest girl.” Like that was my name, like I didn’t have no name of my own. Even after I was grown, folks called me “Pink’s grown girl.”
It didn’t take long after Hank left for Daddy to come find me and give me to old Mavis Lupin and her husband Joe. Three of the young’uns Mama left when she died weren’t big enough to work, not even to make biscuits, so it was up to me to help him keep up. If I hadn’t known what a bad spot he was in, I’d have told him Joe beat me with a strop when he was drinking, finding some thing I’d done what displeased him. And then Mavis wouldn’t look at me, afraid she’d get the strop next, after Joe was done with me. Daddy wouldn’t have put up with that. He never laid a hand on none of us, not a time. It was Mama that spanked if need be. But Daddy might kill Joe Lupin for laying into me with leather, and then what shape would we all be in? So I took the stripes and kept on working. Besides, it wasn’t Joe I was most afraid of, and Mavis was most likely afraid of me.
Wally was the one made me wary. But you can’t hardly work on a farm with no more than three other people and not find yourself alone. You got to get it done—get it done before breakfast, get it done before lunch, get it done before supper, get it done before dark, get it done before bed. You got to get the cows milked and get the corn shucked and get the beans picked and get the tomatoes skinned and in the steaming jars, and get the eggs from the nest, and hunt the laid eggs from the ones that refuse to set a nest no matter how much wire you put up. There’s washing and hanging the wash and taking it down and sprinkling the clothes and balling them up and standing over a hot iron on a July day with the smell of homemade starch in your nostrils and the starch itself making your hands tacky and your back hurting so bad you can’t take a good breath. If you do,the hot air just makes you want water, and your water bottle’s all empty ‘cause you’ve used it to sprinkle them clothes. And it just starts over every day, every hour of daylight. So that shucking corn behind the barn is almost like taking a break. Sitting on some upturned bucket, pulling back on the pale green husks over and over so that letting your back stretch out over your bones turns to some kind of relief. Then you forget not to be alone. You forget to listen behind you ‘cause you’re in the rhythm of your toil, that song your body sings getting through its hard day, getting through to the time when you can lay your head down and go away from your hard life for a few hours, rest a little while ‘til that goddamn rooster crows and pulls you back into it while you kick and scream in your dreams to stay asleep.
Pop. Pop. Just let me sleep. If I don’t never find my way I’ll turn to dust remembering what work is. Just let me sleep.
My mind’s hot, grease-hot. I can pop sacks and sacks of corn. But my body’s cold and limp as a dead fish, a stacked stone pulled from the field, a thirsty pillar. There was a time my body moved like something born to the fire of motion. I never was one to sit still till I was bone tired. Hell, even my feet kept moving in my sleep, foot over foot over foot, sliding and pushing. Now only my mind can rush forward and run back.
Now that I know I’m alive, I have spells of wishing I’m not. Sometimes I dream I’m already in the grave. The dark opens over me and I hear Hub slide the last rock in place. Then I burst into a cloud of tiny lights. And the lights rise up through the earth, through Hub who covers me like a quilt, through the air of the blue sky, until black space with no lights at all, where I must have started. The darkness opens again and again and again and again.
Only my finger hops a little, like a frog when it knows it’s being watched and it’s trying to sneak away, but my finger always hops too late and nobody knows.
They ask me over and over what my name is, like I didn’t hear them the first time. I’ve got too many names in my head, too many to choose from, and I don’t know what to say, and if I did, I couldn’t speak it. I can’t hold onto any names long enough to put something in order. Nothing’s in order. Just pop, pop, pop. Corn clouds scatter about the hot skillet. Sometimes the pops wake me up. They are so short and angry, they’d make me jump if I could jump.
While I peeled back on one of those papery husks, Buck come up behind me, grabbed me just below my shoulders, pulled me up with my arms pinned under his, and then he threw me down in the dirt behind the barn. I tucked my chin into my chest to keep from hitting my head on the ground. All the same, my face slid in the brown pebbled slick that smelled of cow piss.
Just let me sleep. I’m hit by another freight train. Just let me sleep, goddamnit.
I see light on one side. Shadows shift. My eyes must be open.
“Loody, can you say ‘Loody’?” He’s staring at me, talking too loud and staring at me with his big brown eyes wide and a smile on his face as fake as a plastic duck’s. “Come on, try. L-l-l-l-l-l-o-o-o-o-o-d-d-dd- e-e-e. Make the L sound—l-l-l-l-l-u-u-u-u-l-l-l-l.” I want to ask him who he is, but my mouth’s like a wet dish rag. It won’t stand up to my words, won’t take a shape. “L-l-l-l-l-o-o-o-o-o-d-d-e-e-e,” he says. I know his face.
I pluck the name from his mouth and throw it in the skillet. It pops and skidders away like the rest. They’re swirling around my head like lights at a fair, the names. But I can’t reach up and grab a one of them, not even the one he called. Then it comes to me who he is.
After all this time, he’s the one beside me. His drops out of the cyclone of names flying around my head, and I try to laugh, but my rag just hangs there unwrung and heavy, like it holds a full bucket of old grey dishwater. I try moving my right arm but nothing happens. I try to move my left arm and it won’t do much better, like I’m tethered to the bed. The room is right dark and there’s whirring and beeping going on all the time. It gets on my nerves, so I let go of myself. Then the popcorn pops and spits and zings the corn clouds around again like they’re shot from some corn gun, a corn cannon, maybe.
“Something’s not quite right,” I hear him say to somebody. “Something’s wrong.”
Hank’s eyes are so blue. I remember thinking that in the dark. I remember thinking his eyes are the color of ocean water, and he’s a sailor bound for the blue Pacific—a place I never expect to see. I just wanted someone I chose. I didn’t think it mattered how long I’d have him. Just long enough. Those blue eyes. It’s no wonder he ended up on the ocean. In the ocean. Blue eyes. Blue. Blue. Blue.
The blue of his eyes makes me drop out of my body into a waterless float that tries to suck me down. This must be what it felt like to drown. This is what he felt.
Then somebody plugs me in like that lamp Fanny had in the waiting room, the one that was a white horse reared up under the shade and trimmed in gold filigree lines, and the shock rides through me just like a big white horse, its hooves stomping me from inside my chest, trying to climb out of me like I’m the deep mud hole it got stuck in. And then it tries again, its big head swinging, its chest rising, its mane slinging like feathers as light as his hooves are heavy. Then it’s finished. The big white horse climbs out of my chest and up through the ceiling of my room, and I hear the beeping again. The whir and the beep and the click, click, click, and it seems like a family of squirrels skitters and slides away across the floor pushing some big box on wheels and mumbling words about “blue,” something about a blue coast. Or a blue coat maybe. I slip off, close to the edge, the little noises only a mind’s touch away.