by Jennifer Cie
BWR 47.2 Fiction Contest ruuner-up
Soft snores and the glare of headlights from across the margin buoyed the sound of waves sloshing along the plastic walls of the canisters in the trunk.
We left Brooklyn at four-thirty in the afternoon. Hand tapping on the dashboard, occasionally slipping out of form to snap photos of me when traffic fell into a crawl, about forty minutes in, Ava dug Private Dancer out of the glovebox, our amulet. She pressed her lips against my ear and demanded a duet to “Let’s Stay Together” when it was time to flip the cassette over. The excitement of it—leaning out of the window, screaming along to the sound of Tina Turner, and jerking my hand around like a microphone—ended too soon. She kissed the tip of my nose with a whisper of, “Don’t let me sleep too long,” before curling into the passenger seat and falling asleep.
Too afraid to turn on the radio and ruin the sight of whatever dream had her smiling like she won the lotto, I told the waves about Granny—Hattie Mae if you knew her back in the day. She was Blackity- Black. I mean Black Black—always capitalized. Would hit you with, “Do you have specific questions,” after waxing polemics on the Watts Riots, Bloody Sunday, Tulsa Massacre, and how they prophesized the MOVE bombing—while wearing an “ASSATA Welcome Here” button, skin greased smooth with shea and cocoa butter—if you asked about “Inner-city church and police relations” type of Black. She laughed the first time I told her I’d make the trip. When I doubled down with a map and highlighted the route to each stop four days later, she kissed my hands in tears and said, “Take your time baby—it’ll be there.”
Nose scrunched up at the smell of gasoline wafting inside the car—Ava woke up when we were a little outside of Vera, Virginia. Road empty, the horizon seeped into a fog of trees. She flung her seat buckle against the door and crawled behind the seats—slithering into the trunk to yawn and stick her tongue out at me. I should’ve kissed her then, but I went for tickling her sides.
She didn’t give. She squirmed out of my embrace, yelled something about holding it in, before slipping into the fog. I’d almost gotten things in the trunk back in order when I heard her slide across the hood of the car, mumbling about the cold.
Hazard flashers still on, she fished Rhythm Nation 1814 out of the glove box and turned the volume all the way up. She wouldn’t let me take my turn in the passenger side until I did my best Janet Jackson impression. Two songs later, I fell asleep to the sound of her giggling about rickety ankles and being offbeat.
The grooves of the emergency lane woke me before Ava had the chance. She’d pulled over in front of the “Welcome to Tennessee” sign: blue and red lettering gleaming against the car’s headlights. I dug around the trunk for the duffle bag stuffed with cameras after draining one of the three red canisters strapped outside the trunk into the gas tank. We filled the roll with silly faces and candid shots of me failing to climb the sign before getting back into the car. She kept her eyes open for a few minutes, mumbling about potholes, before drifting into sleep.
I didn’t see any magnolia trees on the drive down.
I’d wanted the road to tear open at the Mason Dixon line, drop us into a cask of sweet tea, “Bless your heart,” fried okra, and whiskey. Fields of tall greens, cracked asphalt horizons, tamed horses, and bored state troopers dotted the highway. I was glad she missed it.
Four hours later I pulled into the motel’s gravel lot. Third floor, room 307, in the middle of a queen-size bed, arms and legs tucked in at the sides like a swaddled newborn, on top of the covers, I left her there. Said I’d walk for a bit, then take a cab the rest of the way. I wanted to see it before the afternoon sunlight hit—before the tour guide had settled into their coffee and believed the spiel. When I left the car keys on the corner of the bed Ava mewled out something that sounded like a “Be safe” or “Be late.”
Shoes in hand, duffle bag draped across my shoulder, I let the asphalt burn the soles of my feet the first hour. I left the grass alone, to grow tall without treading on it, bit down on the corner of my lip until I reached a shopping center.
Out there nobody cared enough to pay attention. My skin too freckly and pale for second glances. I ambled around the parking lot thinking of her.
Granny would always say Tennessee, before noon, was magic in the fall—stomping on crunchy leaves, sneaking into the pond for quick dips, getting little candies from the store if you guessed the weight of the flour bag your momma filled right. Kicking around loose gravel with my toes as the wind pressed its tentacles through my hair, I pulled out a disposable camera from my bag, snapped photos of the lot, a behemoth of painted squares with a few flat tire rust buckets taking up slots. When the clicker locked at fifty photos, I went inside the closest store and called a cab.
A muddied black Oldsmobile with the words “CITY TAXI” etched in yellow across the doors picked me up ten minutes later. The driver looked about sixty—like he’d spent his whole life wheeling around people, pretending to relish the small talk he was making. Where you from? Why you going there? Make sure you get some decent food while you’re out here. That New York is showing—no waiting in your bones. Before I could get lost in the view outside of the window, see if it was the same as before, the car jerked to a stop. I shoved four five-dollar bills into his hand, told him to keep the change.
Brandon was outside. Sandy blonde hair coiffed at a left angle, pimple-riddled neckbeard, khaki pants starched to a crease and white polo shirt with a navy trim along the collar, his voice softer than what I remembered from over the phone. I didn’t walk up to him, just stuck my hand out with a smile—the only way to make the ground seem neutral.
He didn’t hesitate. No second look to notice the sweat bubbling on the back of my neck, the softness of my palm, or how my jaw had been clinched since I stepped out the car. After making a show of slinging the duffle bag over my shoulder, giving it an extra shake so the cameras inside would knock together, he spread his arms out wide and said, Well, this is it.
Ten windows. White curtains open coyly behind each of them. Three stories of house peered down like a stranger. I asked for a full tour—told him my partner would want to explore on their own.
Hands now rested in his pockets, he turned towards the house, still giddy, and dove into it: a clunky dump of historical facts, often muffled by wheezy strides, as we shuffled along three floors of steps—the basement was closed to the public for renovation.
It was once two-thousand acres, cobblestone path leading the way to the front door—a reputation for fair, lower prices inside. The floors still had some of the original hardwood; renovations every five years—heavy on varnish and polyurethane—brought out the color. Tripping his way up the steps to the second floor, thrilled to show off the balcony, he started embellishing. Not lying to you. I may have seen the missus’s lost diary. Can’t say that for sure, on record though.
Granny would’ve run her fingers along the wood grain of the staircase to see if the touch felt the same. I don’t think it did, the polish was too fresh, not that it would’ve mattered; she always strayed from talking about house relics. Little bits of oral history in exchange for talking about the things she missed. Like the Pope in ‘65. She’d always go on about wanting to see him walking around in one of those cloaks. She wanted to get close enough to touch it—feel if it was anointed.
As I stood out along the balcony, taking in the two acres of manicured lawn, he went on about horses trotting up the brick entryway path, the hassle of needing to bring in extra workers for upkeep. His voice turned dry and gruff as he spun on about how the owner had seen a three-column design on homes in Natchez and decided to have four so as not to be outdone.
Inside, he only allowed a peek into the attic, more focused on rambling about the water fountain that was—allegedly—once in the center of the front yard, a marble cherub-type thing. The story goes that the missus, Adelicia, hated it so much she had it sent out to the house in Angola, Louisiana, knowing it would be stolen or destroyed in the war. She thanked God it was gone when she arrived there months later, on a mission to sell the 2,800 bales of cotton kept in storage.
Her husband, Isaac, the original owner of the estate, had died of a stomach virus years before that trade. Alone, writhing in pain, out protecting their investments in Angola, Brandon said there was no reason to suspect foul play. He was always a gentleman, even with the workers. Stepping back onto the first floor, he went on about how her second husband, Joseph, died in Louisiana too. He wasn’t as seasoned, but they built a beauty of a mansion over in Nashville. Had the first public zoo init. I didn’t tell him I knew that tidbit, how I’d already taken in the famed gazebo gardens, remnants of the art house, and Italian Villa architecture in person—or that it would all be gone soon.
Tripod in hand, brows raised tight in discomfort, duffle bag hanging off her shoulder, Ava slid in through the front door just as Brandon angled himself towards the kitchen, litany of recipes and elaborate best guesses on the types of company they hosted for holiday dinners forgotten. Lips sealed shut in alarm over her presence, I did not introduce them or push for handshake gestures.
Not one full minute inside the house, she cursed, fumbled up the steps, and slipped into the second-floor bathroom.
No skinning and grinning needed. I told Brandon that she was strange but the best for the job, slipping a fifty-dollar bill into the palm of his hand. He said he’d give us some privacy and be back around nine-thirty to lock up, but the unlimited access excluded the basement and attic. They’re dangerous—we’re still doing reno on those rooms.
“You’re sure? No lingering doubts?”
We were in the bathtub, legs dangling over a ridge of porcelain, elbows kissing in a puddle of spilled moonshine. She’d stripped down—knee-length pleated skort gently folded, placed on the vanity counter, camisole and leather jacket just as neat on top. The window was cracked open. There were no ominous gushes of wind batting down at the glass or whistling into the room. It was calm outside.
“Ava, I know it’s a lot, but Granny always wanted this. The balcony, pillars, never-ending front lawn, big-ass staircases. All of it. The works. You never said anything before.”
She had her hair in box braids. Gold metal brackets along the strands glistened in the mirror across the way. It was a newer thing—nothing like the press and curl that smelled like smoke and Lottabody during our college days.
I hadn’t had to beg her to come. Hotel, snacks, and at least three fancy dinners promised, as if she wasn’t already committed. Ava snorted when I said it’d just be us.
She leaned over—blunt teetering on the tub spout—cupped my chin in her hands, glaring, and cackled into teary hiccups.
“Why can’t you be this—” Tap. Tatap. Tap.
The door sprung open. No cracked lips, droning voice, or khaki pants. It was not Brandon. Swaying on the balls of their feet, wearing a red button-down, black pencil skirt, and heels, the intruder made a show of inhaling the air.
“Do I need to call the police?”
“No. We have permission to be here.”
“Keratin,” Ava cooed, taking a sip from the flask resting at her side. “Ava now is not—”
“Yeah. Started my treatments in college—s‘posed to be healthier than a relaxer,” our intruder whispered.
“You want in?”
People sunk into her like that—all principled and authoritative one minute, stripping down and molding into her space the next. Squished in the middle, knees pushed up against her chest—Jasmine, was a twenty-year-old part-time hire for the evening shift. She shook in the tub until her third hit.
“Y’all getting married here, sis?” Jasmine whispered, before cupping the flask in her hand and swigging like first Sunday communion.
It felt like a brass knuckle to the cheek. The way they did it so easily. Before Ava, I was never invited into that space, only allowed to eavesdrop. I think it was the only way my folks knew to keep me passing.
“Jasmine. Honey. Do I look like the type?” “Skinfolk ain’t always kinfolk.”
“Working here is okay though,” I asked knowing she wouldn’t answer, that she hadn’t seen the truth of me.
The flask was almost gone when Ava started huffing and twisting the knobs of the faucet—said her back was burning. Nothing spewed out but sounds of gurgled constipation in the pipes. I thought of my great-grandmother Coffey’s house—a little shack near Belmont up in Nashville. It didn’t have a toilet, but there was an outhouse thirty steps from the back door. It was wide enough for two people, with a little window that couldn’t stay open on its own, and a tree carved on the door inside. She lost it before Granny turned six—long after my great-grandfather died. Twenty borrowed dollars to her name, she pushed their lives into three rucksacks, left the front door unlocked, spurned the advice to go to Chicago—move in with a friend of a friend’s uncle until she found work—and taught Granny how to pass, sneaking on trains headed West—feigning a husband falling ill or lost pocketbook every step of the way.
“I’ve got a little bottle in my purse—we’re almost out.”
“You always drink on the job?” Ava crooned while bringing the blunt to her lips.
“Yeah, it’s a fucking graveyard.”
I don’t know what made them stop in Baton Rouge, or how long after that Granny decided to head off to San Diego, turn Methodist, then, meet my grandfather and turn Catholic.
I just know that’s where it started.
The paper-bag test will only get you so far with names like Coffey and Hattie Mae. They couldn’t get any other kind of work once people heard them talk—so it was cleaning houses on the weekends and sneaking through the back door of the dry cleaners to soak fading clothes in bins of indigo during the week. That’s why it happened: washing her hands and the dye not coming off. She called them sunspots at first. Said she was just old until I was thirteen, picking out navy slacks and a red tie for prep school.
“Wood? Who told you that?”
I don’t want to touch him—or any of them. I never got into Granny’s obsession with popes and my momma has only ever been a sometimes Catholic. I liked getting the ash on my forehead though. I was small enough to be greedy back then. They didn’t say anything when I’d climb up momma’s back, reach out, and touch the glass.
Sometimes it felt carved, but the newer church’s windows were always smooth, like they came hot, pressed off a machine.
“Everybody! Ava? Everybody knows this.”
“Baby girl, he didn’t have a tray of wood in his mouth—those were slave teeth. That cherry tree thing is garbage too. Come on now. You know better.”
Ava never minds when I sink into the past and slip out of the now.
She just tilts her head with a little grin and asks if it was a nice trip. Back in college, the second time it happened around her, she decided to paint my nails—test if I’d snap out of it or wanted a “quieter” color. I kept my nails neon green for a month.
When I stopped getting spacey, pushing my fingers in and out of a fist, looking to see if the dye had seeped into my bloodstream—become genetic, I knew Ava had her. From the way her fingers twirled the mouth of the flask in a slow circle, I knew she’d laid down the right drops of honey. She only talked about Washington when she was deciding on allies. Still, the ease in her voice let me know that we’d be using the dishrag and small bottle of isoflurane in the car.
“That doesn’t make y’all coming here right.”
“Are you putting your little minimum-wage job over us? Sweet girl, that’d make you an uncle.”
Knees cramped, I pressed my palms down flat at the bottom of the tub, took in a deep breath through my nose, then, pushed out. Over the tub’s ridge, face first onto the floor, I didn’t wait for the pain or looks of concern to settle.
“Go on. Unload the car. We’ll wait here.”
Powder blue—almost silver, swatches of dried mud on the back bumper, she inherited her uncle’s 1974 Honda Civic our sophomore year of college. Ava was so stressed from classes she thought she was pregnant—would’ve been the second immaculate conception. I convinced her to take it out for a road trip on Spring Break. I’d planned to drive us down to Orange Beach in Mississippi since my parents were too tied up in California after Granny had died.
I had made nothing but wrong turns the moment she fell asleep. Mouth tipped open, drool crusted at the corner of her lips and arms crossed with her feet on top of the dashboard, I couldn’t bring myself to wake her to ask for the map back. That’s how I found it the first time. Low on gas, tired of driving through endless fields—I pulled over to the side of the road. A thirty-minute walk north later, and Fairvue was there.
Paint chipped on along the edges of the columns, grass sick with yellow spots, it must have been in the middle of a renovation.
A vision in her white tank top and denim cutoffs, legs wrapped around my waist, she kissed the corner of my ear when I told her about Granny’s wish.
We started keeping two canisters of gasoline in the car after that trip. I didn’t want to be stranded, walking eight miles because I couldn’t bear to wake her or stop and ask for directions before running out of gas. This trip was different. Homemade moonshine was filled to the brim of six of ten red canisters, not gasoline. I hauled four of the moonshine canisters out of the trunk, ready to work.
There was smoke wafting out the bathroom door when I managed to get them all inside.
“Relax. It’s cigarettes—girl’s a stress smoker. It’s almost eight. We need to get it going.”
“She understands, knows they won’t blame her. Take the stairs and basement—we’re almost done with the balconies and attic.”
It was soothing. The smell of cigarette smoke pecking at the walls, digging under the floorboards as I stuffed bits of cotton into the crooks of the stairs, then soaked them with moonshine. A new old baptism.
When I reached the last step, I felt the basement hollowing, voices pushing out. I felt the weight of my great-grandmother, her hands squeezing my shoulders and pinching my cheeks. Her lips pressed on my forehead. I told Grandma Coffey about how Granny had given me the secrets. How she’d planted them in my ears from her bed, with the TV buzzing in the background: who the family line had been sold to, where they’d shriveled in the heat, how they ran North or swung.
I imagined them down there in chains. Saw how they’d squint their eyes, frown at my skin’s paleness, sharp nose, and hair.
They’d fix me with the same look Granny would give when the light didn’t play along with our tricks. They’d laugh something close to relief. Her mother’s mother had told them to expect me.
When the basement door locks wouldn’t budge, I kicked a hole in the wall underneath the steps. I didn’t scour around looking for stairs, suck in the full aroma of freshly bleached mold, or call out the names I knew. Mouth curled into prayer, I felt her skin on my skin crack open, itch with something like warm caresses turned hot whips and iron brand along my forearm, as the canister emptied, flooding the pit.
Outside Ava patted down the lingering embers, careful of the soft tissues that sluiced off my arm, clumping onto the ground, and whispered, “Look up,” as the rest hardened—black gobs against the yellow sheen of blubbery muscle-draped bone.
The pyre burned blue.
She pushed her arms underneath mine, held me up as Jasmine lay peacefully unconscious in the grass—soaked dishrag plopped on the center of her chest. Soft kisses pressed along my jawline. I fell into her as my knees buckled.
Gentle breeze flapping at our backs, the roof collapsed in on itself—I felt them again, unleashed from the basement, breaking the foundation’s roots.
“I wish she could’ve seen it.”
“I know. Let’s get in the car—we’ll take pictures at the next one.”
Jennifer Cie is a southern writer that embeds pop culture throughout her work to preserve the histories of marginalized peoples and examine the idea of place beyond physical location. Cie received an MFA in fiction from Portland State University, where she was awarded the Tom and Phyllis Burnam Graduate Poetry Scholarship and Tom Doulis Graduate Fiction Writing Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Empty Mirror, New South Journal, Philadelphia Printworks, and elsewhere.