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Nancy Culpepper: Storiesby Bobbie Ann Mason
When Nancy received her parents’ letter saying they were moving her grandmother to a nursing home, she said to her husband, “I really should go help them out. And I’ve got to save Granny’s photographs. They might get lost.” Jack did not try to discourage her, and she left for Kentucky soon after the letter came.
Nancy has been vaguely wanting to move to Kentucky, and she has persuaded Jack to think about relocating his photography business. They live in the country, near a small town an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. Their son, Robert, who is eight, has fits when they talk about moving. He does not want to leave his room or his playmates. Once, he asked, “What about our chickens?”
“They have chickens in Kentucky,” Nancy explained. “Don’t worry. We’re not going yet.”
Later he asked, “But what about the fish in the pond?”
“I don’t know,” said Nancy. “I guess we’ll have to rent a U-Haul.”
When Nancy arrives at her parents’ farm in western Kentucky, her mother says, “Your daddy and me’s both got inner ear and nerves. And we couldn’t lift Granny, or anything, if we had to all of a sudden.”
“The flu settled in my ears,” Daddy says, cocking his head at an angle.
“Mine’s still popping,” says Mom.
In a few days they plan to move Granny, and they will return to their own house, which they have been renting out. For nine years, they have lived next door, in Granny’s house, in order to care for her. There Mom has had to cook on an ancient gas range, with her mother-in-law hovering over her, supervising. Granny used only lye soap on dishes, and it was five years before Nancy’s mother defied her and bought some Joy. By then, Granny was confined to her bed, crippled with arthritis. Now she is ninety-three.
“You didn’t have to come back,” Daddy says to Nancy at the dinner table. “We could manage.”
“I want to help you move,” Nancy says. “And I want to make sure Granny’s pictures don’t get lost. Nobody cares about them but me, and I’m afraid somebody will throw them away.”
Nancy wants to find out if Granny has a picture of a great-great-aunt named Nancy Culpepper. No one in the family seems to know anything about her, but Nancy is excited by the thought of an ancestor with the same name as hers. Since she found out about her, Nancy has been going by her maiden name, but she has given up trying to explain this to her mother, who persists in addressing letters to “Mr. and Mrs. Jack Cleveland.”
“There’s some pictures hid behind Granny’s closet wall,” Daddy tells Nancy. “When we hooked up the coal-oil stove through the fireplace a few years ago, they got walled in.”
“That’s ridiculous! Why would you do that?”
“They were in the way.” He stands up and puts on his cap, preparing to go out to feed his calves.
“Will Granny care if I tear the wall down?” Nancy asks, joking.
Daddy laughs, acting as though he understood, but Nancy knows he is pretending. He seems tired, and his billed cap looks absurdly small perched on his head.
When Nancy and Jack were married, years ago, in Massachusetts, Nancy did not want her parents to come to the wedding. She urged them not to make the long trip. “It’s no big deal,” she told them on the telephone. “It’ll last ten minutes. We’re not even going on a honeymoon right away, because we both have exams Monday.”
Nancy was in graduate school, and Jack was finishing his B.A. For almost a year they had been renting a large old house on a lake. The house had a field-rock fireplace with a heart-shaped stone centered above the mantel. Jack, who was studying design, thought the heart was tasteless, and he covered it with a Peter Max poster.
At the ceremony, Jack’s dog, Grover, was present, and instead of organ music, a stereo played Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was 1967. Nancy was astonished by the minister’s white robe and his beard and by the fact that he chain-smoked. The preachers she remembered from childhood would have called him a heathen, she thought. Most of the wedding pictures, taken by a friend of Jack’s, turned out to be trick photography—blurred faces and double exposures.
The party afterwards lasted all night. Jack blew up two hundred balloons and kept the fire going. They drank too much wine–and–
7-Up punch. Guests went in and out, popping balloons with cigarettes, taking walks by the lake. Everyone was looking for the northern lights, which were supposed to be visible that evening. Holding on to Jack, Nancy searched the murky sky, feeling that the two of them were lone travelers on the edge of some outer-space adventure. At the same time, she kept thinking of her parents at home, probably watching Gunsmoke.
“I saw them once,” Jack said. “They were fantastic.”
“What was it like?”
“Really? That’s amazing.”
“Luminescent shower curtains.”
“I’m shivering,” Nancy said. The sky was blank.
“Let’s go in. It’s too cloudy anyway. Someday we’ll see them. I promise.”
Someone had taken down the poster above the fireplace and put up the picture of Sgt. Pepper—the cutout that came with the album. Sgt. Pepper overlooked the room like a stern father.
“What’s the matter?” a man asked Nancy. He was Dr. Doyle,
her American History 1861–1865 professor. “This is your wedding. Loosen up.” He burst a balloon and Nancy jumped.
When someone offered her a joint, she refused, then wondered why. The house was filled with strangers, and the Beatles album played over and over. Jack and Nancy danced, hugging each other in a slow two-step that was all wrong for the music. They drifted past the wedding presents, lined up on a table Jack had fashioned from a door—hand-dipped candles, a silver roach clip, Joy of Cooking, signed pottery in nonfunctional shapes. Nancy wondered what her parents had eaten for supper. Possibly fried steak, two kinds of peas, biscuits, blackberry pie. The music shifted and the songs merged together; Jack and Nancy kept dancing.
“There aren’t any stopping places,” Nancy said. She was crying. “Songs used to have stopping places in between.”
“Let’s just keep on dancing,” Jack said.
Nancy was thinking of the blackberry bushes at the farm in Kentucky, which spread so wildly they had to be burned down every few years. They grew on the banks of the creek, which in summer shrank to still, small occasional pools. After a while Nancy realized that Jack was talking to her. He was explaining how he could predict exactly when the last, dying chord on the album was about to end.
“Listen,” he said. “There. Right there.”
Nancy’s parents had met Jack a few months before the wedding, during spring break, when Jack and Nancy stopped in Kentucky on their way to Denver to see an old friend of Jack’s. The visit involved some elaborate lies about their sleeping arrangements on the trip.
At the supper table, Mom and Daddy passed bowls of food self-consciously. The table was set with some napkins left over from Christmas. The vegetables were soaked in bacon grease, and Jack took small helpings. Nancy sat rigidly, watching every movement, like a cat stationed near a bird feeder. Mom had gathered poke, because it was spring, and she said to Jack, “I bet you don’t eat poke salet up there.”
“It’s weeds,” said Nancy.
“I’ve never heard of it,” Jack said. He hesitated, then took a small serving.
“It’s poison if it gets too big,” Daddy said. He turned to Nancy’s mother. “I think you picked this too big. You’re going to poison us all.”
“He’s teasing,” Nancy said.
“The berries is what’s poison,” said Mom, laughing. “Wouldn’t that be something? They’ll say up there I tried to poison your boyfriend the minute I met him!”
Everyone laughed. Jack’s face was red. He was wearing an embroidered shirt. Nancy watched him trim the fat from his ham as precisely as if he were using an X-Acto knife on mat board.
“How’s Granny?” asked Nancy. Her grandmother was then living alone in her own house.
“Tolerable well,” said Daddy.
“We’ll go see her,” Jack said. “Nancy told me all about her.”
“She cooks her egg in her oats to keep from washing a extry dish,” Mom said.
Nancy played with her food. She was looking at the pink dining room wall and the plastic flowers in the window. On the afternoon Jack and Nancy first met, he took her to a junk shop, where he bought a stained-glass window for his bathroom. Nancy would never have thought of going to a junk shop. It would not have occurred to her to put a stained-glass window in a bathroom.
“What do you aim to be when you graduate?” Daddy asked Jack abruptly, staring at him. Jack’s hair looked oddly like an Irish setter’s ears, Nancy thought suddenly.
“Won’t you have to go in the Army?” Mom asked.
“I’ll apply for an assistantship if my grades are good enough,” Jack said. “Anything to avoid the draft.”
Nancy’s father was leaning into his plate, as though he were concentrating deeply on each bite.
“He makes good grades,” Nancy said.
“Nancy always made all A’s,” Daddy said to Jack.
“We gave her a dollar for ever’ one,” said Mom. “She kept us broke.”
“In graduate school they don’t give A’s,” said Nancy. “They just give S’s and U’s.”
Jack wadded up his napkin. Then Mom served fried pies with white sauce. “Nancy always loved these better than anything,” she said.
After supper, Nancy showed Jack the farm. As they walked through the fields, Nancy felt that he was seeing peaceful landscapes—arrangements of picturesque cows, an old red barn. She had never thought of the place this way before; it reminded her of prints in a dime store.
While her mother washes the dishes, Nancy takes Granny’s dinner to her, and sits in a rocking chair while Granny eats in bed. The food is on an old TV-dinner tray. The compartments hold chicken and dressing, mashed potatoes, field peas, green beans, and vinegar slaw. The servings are tiny—six green beans, a spoonful of peas.
Granny’s teeth no longer fit, and she has to bite sideways, like a cat. She wears the lower teeth only during meals, but she will not get new ones. She says it would be wasteful to be buried with a new three-hundred-dollar set of teeth. In between bites, Granny guzzles iced tea from a Kentucky Lakes mug. “That slaw don’t have enough sugar in it,” she says. “It makes my mouth draw up.” She smacks her lips.
Nancy says, “I’ve heard the food is really good at the Orchard Acres Rest Home.”
Granny does not reply for a moment. She is working on a chicken gristle, which causes her teeth to clatter. Then she says, “I ain’t going nowhere.”
“Mom and Daddy are moving back into their house. You don’t want to stay here by yourself, do you?” Nancy’s voice sounds hollow to her.
“I’ll be all right. I can do for myself.”
When Granny swallows, it sounds like water spilling from a bucket into a cistern. After Nancy’s parents moved in, they covered Granny’s old cistern, but Nancy still remembers drawing the bucket up from below. The chains made a sound like crying.
Granny pushes her food with a piece of bread, cleaning her tray. “I can do a little cooking,” she says. “I can sweep.”
“Try this boiled custard, Granny. I made it just for you. Just the way you used to make it.”
“It ain’t yaller enough,” says Granny, tasting the custard. “Store-bought eggs.”
When she finishes, she removes her lower teeth and sloshes them in a plastic tumbler on the bedside table. Nancy looks away. On the wall are Nancy’s high school graduation photograph and a picture of Jesus. Nancy looks sassy; her graduation hat resembles a tilted lid. Jesus has a halo, set at about the same angle.
Now Nancy ventures a question about the pictures hidden behind the closet wall. At first Granny is puzzled. Then she seems to remember.
“They’re behind the stovepipe,” she says. Grimacing with pain, she stretches her legs out slowly, and then, holding her head, she sinks back into her pillows and draws the quilt over her shoulders. “I’ll look for them one of these days—when I’m able.”
Jack photographs weeds, twigs, pond reflections, silhouettes of Robert against the sun with his arms flung out like a scarecrow’s. Sometimes he works in the evenings in his studio at home, drinking tequila sunrises and composing bizarre still lifes with lightbulbs, wine bottles, Tinkertoys, Lucite cubes. He makes arrangements of gourds look like breasts.
On the day Nancy tried to explain to Jack about her need to save Granny’s pictures, a hailstorm interrupted her. It was the only hailstorm she had ever seen in the North, and she had forgotten all about them. Granny always said a hailstorm meant that God was cleaning out his icebox. Nancy stood against a white Masonite wall mounted with a new series of photographs and looked out the window at tulips being smashed. The ice pellets littered the ground like shattered glass. Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the hailstorm was over.
“Pictures didn’t used to be so common,” Nancy said. Jack’s trash can was stuffed with rejected prints, and Robert’s face was crumpled on top. “I want to keep Granny’s pictures as reminders.”
“If you think that will solve anything,” said Jack, squinting at a negative he was holding against the light.
“I want to see if she has one of Nancy Culpepper.”
“There was another one. She was a great-great-aunt or something, on my daddy’s side. She had the same name as mine.”
“There’s another one of you?” Jack said with mock disbelief.
“I’m a reincarnation,” she said, playing along.
“There’s nobody else like you. You’re one of a kind.”
Nancy turned away and stared deliberately at Jack’s pictures, which were held up by clear-headed pushpins, like translucent eyes dotting the wall. She examined them one by one, moving methodically down the row—stumps, puffballs, tree roots, close-ups of cat feet.
Nancy first learned about her ancestor on a summer Sunday a few years before, when she took her grandmother to visit the Culpepper graveyard, beside an oak grove off the Paducah highway. The old oaks had spread their limbs until they shaded the entire cemetery, and the tombstones poked through weeds like freak mushrooms. Nancy wandered among the graves, while Granny stayed beside her husband’s gravestone. It had her own name on it too, with a blank space for the date.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2006 by Bobbie Ann Mason
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