It was against the rules to go in after sunset, but at eight, rules are an exciting thing to break.
I was to bring marshmallows, and lemonade. Part of that was pride. My parents were poor and I was poorer, but I needed to contribute, and had counted out the money from the mason jar I hid under my bed. I had two dollars and eighty-six cents on that August night-after having bought the supplies at Hanson's-the sum account of my financial worth rested in a glass canning jar and consisted of pennies and nickels and some hard-won quarters.
We had chicken and rice for supper. The house was so hot, even with the fans going on high, that eating was a chore. But if there was a grain of rice on your plate, Daddy expected you to eat it and be grateful. Before supper there was grace. Depending on Daddy's mood it would last anywhere from five minutes to twenty, while the food sat going cold and your belly grumbled and the sweat ran down your back in nasty rivers.
My grandma used to say that when Hannibal Bodeen found God, even God tried to find another place to hide.
He was a big man, my father, and grew thick in the chest and arms. I've heard that he was once considered handsome. Years carve a man in different ways, and my father's years had carved him bitter. Bitter and stern with a meanness under it all. He wore his dark hair slicked back, and his face seemed to rise out of that dome like sharp-edged rocks out of a mountain. Rocks that would flay the skin off your bones at one careless misstep. His eyes were dark, too, a burning kind of dark I recognize now in the eyes of some television preachers and street people.
My mother feared him. I try to forgive her for that, for fearing him so much she never came to my side when he used his belt to whip his vengeful god into me.
That night I was quiet at supper. Chances were he'd take no notice of me if I was quiet and cleaned my plate. Inside me, the anticipation of the night was like a living thing, jittery and joyful. I kept my eyes down, trying to pace my eating so he wouldn't accuse me of dawdling over the food, or of bolting it. It was always a fine line to balance with Daddy.
I remember the sound of the fans whirling, and of forks scraping against plates. I remember the silence, the silence of souls hiding in fear that lived in my father's house.
When my mother offered him more chicken, he thanked her politely and took a second helping. The room seemed to breathe easier. It was a good sign. My mother, encouraged by this, made some mention of the tomatoes and corn coming in fine, and how she'd be canning for the next weeks. They'd be canning over at Beaux Reves, too, and did he think it was a good idea for her to help out there as she'd been asked.
She didn't mention the wage she'd earn. Even when Daddy's mood was mild, you were wise not to bring up the coin that the Lavelles would dole out for a service. He was the breadwinner in his house, and we were not permitted to forget this all-important point.
The room held its breath again. There were times just the mention of the Lavelles put the thunder in Daddy's dark eyes. But that night he allowed as that would be a sensible thing. As long as she didn't neglect any of her chores under the roof he was putting over her head.
This relatively pleasant response made her smile. I remember how her face softened up, and how it made her almost pretty again. Now and again, if I think very hard, I can remember Mama being pretty.
Han, she called him when she was smiling. Tory and I'll keep things going around here, don't you worry. I'll go on over and talk to Miss Lilah tomorrow and see about getting it all done. With the berries coming in, I'll be making jelly, too. I know I've got some paraffin around here, but I can't think where it's got to.
From Carolina Moon by Nora Roberts. (c) January, 2000, Nora Roberts used by permission.
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