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WHAT irked me most about Maddie was how much she reminded me of Alexandra. She had the same fair skin and blotched, purple lips. When Alex was little, she’d burn before I could blink. Those days we didn’t slather kids in Coppertone. A little color on the cheeks never hurt a child as far as I could see.

Mr. Sanders, her daddy, didn’t approve of little girls running loose in the neighborhood. The time she caught her skate in a storm drain, her knees and hands bearing the brunt of it, he was so angry he couldn’t even look at me. When I woke Mr. Sanders from his hard Saturday nap, he mumbled how he was starting to understand Job the redeemer. He swatted the air and went after her shirtless. When he came back with her in his arms and blood smeared across his chest, he pushed past me to the bathroom where he dropped her in the tub, skates and all, and turned the shower on. Poor Alex like a beat dog, whimpering and wet, still trying to hold her back stiff in defiance, but failing miserably. She was just a girl.

These gals next door, Maddie and Janine, though, I just don’t know. They sit out in the back yard in bathing suits, drinking beer, playing hoodlum music. Maddie all done up in cherry red and a kerchief on her head. They lay on those plastic tri-fold chairs next to the garden beds, put lotion on each other’s backs. Makes you sick.

I got the word. When I saw her turning up the earth for peonies, it was like those clumps of hard red clay were speaking to me. Those spindly arms of hers with tattoos down to her elbows begged for someone with a hearty dose of Luke, Matthew, and Paul.

She gets out there with short shorts on and I can just see Mr. Sanders turning over in his grave; my husband couldn’t stand a tart. God love and keep his soul. He sure was a decent man—never tried much with me after my Alexandra was born. Maybe on our anniversary. I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom with a full-size bed to myself. He slept on the porch most of the year and in the front room where I did hair when it got too cold. I kept a day bed in there with daisy linens and bolster pillows for waiting clients. It wasn’t much. He complained about the pillows and the industrial dryer, but when it came time to contribute to the mortgage, he didn’t seem to mind my studio so much. He liked saving money on haircuts, too. I kept his clipped close. Short hair and neat nails. And call him Mr. Sanders not Jack.

“What are you at, Rachel? You look like you’re going to come out of your rocker staring dimes into that girl,” Lucille said.

“I’m just rocking. Don’t worry about me.”

“What did she do to you anyway? She’s just hoeing the garden. I reckon she’s keeping it up for Hardy while he’s away,” Lucille said as she stood to stretch and crack her neck.

“I don’t guess he’ll be back now that he’s gone down to Myrtle Beach. He’s got to get on with it,” I said, unbuttoning my pants, letting my stomach breathe. “Doesn’t she know what she looks like, with that trash on her arms and those shorts up her rear end? I’d have a heart attack if Alexandra did something like that to herself.”

“She’s got more than what’s on her arms. Cardinals on her back—they’re kind of pretty with that bright red.”

“Maybe you think it is, but it’s still a sin.”

“You and your Bible talk. Keep on and I’ll stop coming over. Who is she anyway?”

“Her name’s Maddie. She keeps with that daughter of Hardy’s. She’s a lesbian, you know.”

“Well, Rachel, I don’t reckon that’s any of our business. That’s not the same girl that used to come around with Janine when she was little, is it?”

“If it is, she got uglier. Devil’s done come up with the weeds. You can’t stop the dandelions. Used to drive Mr. Sanders wild.”

“Mr. Sanders? Mr. Sanders? I’m so tired of hearing about the dearly departed. Jack’s been dead eight years.”

“He was a good one.”

“A good one? I’d say that’s one loon’s opinion, dear. You were satisfied well enough being the preacher’s wife. Where’s the attention now? Where’s all that Christianity? Look,” she said, “There’s a dandelion under your dogwood.”

“Shouldn’t you be getting home?”

“You’re not getting rid of me that easy. We have dinner plans and I aim to keep you from doing whatever it is you have in your head to do to Janine and Maddie. Leave those girls alone.”

I got quiet after that, let Lucille pick at the leaves on my clematis vine. We were like that—the two of us had been friends so long we didn’t have to say much though she’d only gotten quiet after her son JJ died. We’d just chew on our lips and know what the other was thinking. She moved into the neighborhood in 1961, just like I did. Just like Hardy’s mama and daddy. After JJ passed, Emerson, Lucille, William and Sue would come over every Sunday evening for supper. Little Hardy and Lucille took it the hardest. Since he’d lost his best friend, we all thought spending time with Alexandra might help. He always had a little racecar with him, even in church. He was a quiet boy, though, so it didn’t bother anyone.

One evening at supper, Hardy dropped the thing and went crawling under everyone’s legs, vrooming up and down our limbs. Alexandra got under there with him, took his spare Corvette. She flicked the back end, crashing it into the wall. They got along well down at our feet. It made Mr. Sanders giggle something awful and the incident flicked the fire in him that wanted a son. But he got diagnosed with diabetes shortly after our daughter was born, and they say that makes sperm bad so Mr. Sanders never fathered a boy.

I was fine with just Alexandra and didn’t want to go through the mess of labor again anyway. I don’t remember much, but I know it nearly killed me. They tell me I turned white and rolled off the gurney, almost bled out, but I still remember her sleepy almond eyes and knowing her name was Alexandra. We slept there, breath on breath, her tiny hot body on my chest for what seemed like days.

Part of me had hoped maybe one day Alex and Hardy would wind up together.

Alexandra was not the scholar Mr. Sanders hoped for. He wanted a boy to wrestle with in body and theology. The thing that disappointed him most was how she failed to question things. “Very few women have the intellect,” he always said. He looked at her with distrust. He never believed girls could be obedient. Maybe because all those sins he listened to perpetually swarmed in his head. He took on some of the burden of them, I know. What he found troublesome is what I loved best about our daughter. That obedience and simple gaiety of hers made me know I’d have someone with me at the end, no matter what.

I suppose she proved Mr. Sanders right when she moved to Atlanta and left me here. Her timing wasn’t great. She told me the same day I lost Mr. Sanders on the other side of town when he had wandered away from me in the grocery store. By the time I paid for the groceries, he was gone. We found him in the Payless two streets over trying on tennis shoes. He had quit preaching by then and had started walking to try to keep up his strength. He’d walk to the end of the street and back, taking the same route Alexandra had as a child in skates. It was when she helped me pull off his new Nikes and tuck him in that she told me.

“Darling?” he said to Alexandra. “Do you remember that time I found you dancing, covered in cake flour and we made love on the floor?”

“I would think not, Dad.”

“Shame,” he said, drifting off.

“What’s that about?”

“I have no idea. He’s out of it. What did you need to talk to me about?”

That’s when she spilled it. Her husband’s new job in Atlanta. They’d known a while but didn’t know how to tell me. I will never understand what hornets nest in people that makes them want to run when we need them most. Anyway, Bruce isn’t much of a Christian, but Alexandra is and she keeps quiet, cares for her man, takes the kids to Sunday School and fellowship on Wednesdays. She calls me when Bruce is out. When we speak, I can hear her hand over the receiver, the click of a lighter.

Kids don’t turn out how you picture them.

Alexandra and Hardy were good kids. Hardy never did a thing wrong until he ran off with that drunk he met in school. I thought it would break Alexandra’s heart, but she never showed it. She never asked about him or even looked his direction. That mother of Janine’s had hair that must have been a good eighteen inches long. I was happy when I found out Loretta left him. I thought it was the best thing for him and Janine, but now that Janine’s turned out a gay, I can’t say for sure. Maybe if her mother had been around she would have turned out regular. Maybe if they’d gone to church after the divorce. Maybe if I’d prayed harder for all of us.

The door slammed shut, but I kept rocking. Lucille tired of me easily these days, said I was about as much company as a stump. A breeze came up, spun my ferns.

Maddie was still out in the yard, leaning on the hoe and pulling her bra strap up. It was coming and I didn’t intend to curb myself. I tell it like it is. It’s why Lucille was about the only one that could stand me and she spent half the time over here in the den watching trashy movies or cooking since I didn’t do much of that anymore. I don’t see much point. I can eat a can of soup without all the fuss of having to wash and chop vegetables. God doesn’t care if I take advantage of Campbell’s now that I don’t have family. I thank Him, even for that simple ability to turn the can opener and pour. Some people can’t even do that. I count my blessings.

When I was twenty and my husband’s daddy got down, I testified to him. He couldn’t speak since the cancer had eaten up his voice box. I laid my hands on his head, stroked the few wisps of hair back, and said, “Hush, now. Jesus is going to carry you home. All you have to do is ask.” He turned his head from me at first, but I kept at it, turning to hymns. I spoke words from the classics. Words about twilight, darkness deepening, and breaking day. Everlasting light and life.

“Hope is God, you know. It’s only the Almighty’s voice takes up that dark veil.”

His nurse said later he’d died with his finger in the hymnal, marking the page I’d read him. My father-in-law may not have been able to say it, but I know by the way he squeezed my hand that he heard. He went to Jesus. He’d been a drunk all his life. I take full responsibility for turning him at the last minute, before he hit the wall and dropped from the morphine haze into fire. I wonder if you can be a good man and a drunk. Ever since then, I try to testify when I see fit. I felt it coming with these girls. I prayed on it. Prayed over Alexandra and Hardy. Prayed over Lucille. Prayed for myself.

Inside, I found Lucille in my easy chair, smoking Mr. Sanders’s pipe and watching The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

“Heavens, Lucille, You couldn’t be more like Mr. Sanders right now if I’d cut you from cardboard and pinned you to that recliner.” Lucille bit the pipe as she leaned the chair almost horizontal. “All you’re missing is a book light and a Bible.”

“I’ll bet Mr. Sanders never sat here thinking what I’m thinking about Clint Eastwood in those pants.”

“Don’t be vulgar.” Though I had to admit to myself there was something in the creases around his eyes that warmed me.

“What can I say, I love a cowboy. Come on in and put your feet up, you must be exhausted from thinking about the heathens next door.”

“I was praying. It’s not funny. I don’t want them dragging down the neighborhood. It’s my duty to save them. My Christian duty. They can’t see.”

“My ass. Sit down. I’m going to get in there and make dinner in a minute. Just let me finish this pipe,” Lucille said.

We watched television in silence, the room filling with smoke. I plotted how to help these girls. Maybe I could take them tomato seedlings. I’d spend some time with the Lord and ask for scriptures to share, that way I could mark the pages with Post-its. Maybe I could even write an outline for them. I hated to picture what went on in that house. I thought maybe I’d send a letter to Hardy, let him know what was happening next door just in case he didn’t know Janine was living with another woman.

Lucille got up and banged around in the kitchen with my cast iron. She turned the flame up high for bacon. When it was done, she laid the strips out on paper towels and poured cornbread batter in the grease. It was the same way Mama would have done it. The same way I did it when Alexandra was still young. I wondered if Alexandra made cornbread for her kids. If Janine made it or Maddie, if either of them cooked. I couldn’t picture them in the kitchen.

As we nibbled bacon and cornbread with honey butter for supper, I was grateful for Lucille. I missed the way Mr. Sanders crumbled the cornbread and poured milk over it, saying “Lord have mercy, you can cook.” I missed the black spots in his nails he got from working on the car or the way he sat with his glasses on his head, squinting down at the Bible, saying “uh huh” to himself and biting his pencil.

He wasn’t like most preachers, had more brains than pomp. His voice built and swayed like weeping willow branches. I always begged him to get loud with it, but he wouldn’t. “The Lord doesn’t need raised voices,” he’d say, “He can hear a whisper.”

“Go get my hymnal, Lucille. I feel like singing.”

“I’d sooner go home and watch Bridget Jones’s Diary,” she said, raising the chair. “I like that British fella who got caught with a prostitute a while back.”

“You can watch it here. Stay.”

While Blondie was drinking and cussing her way around London and dressing up like a hooker, I cleaned the kitchen and thought about when we found out Mr. Sanders had lung cancer on top of diabetes—how hard we prayed for grace, for recovery, for hope. Alexandra and I there in his sanctuary, on our knees, holding hands, staring at the brass cross.

We lost him within a year.

Now Lucille sits where he’s supposed to, laughing at the sight of Bridget’s rear end falling toward a camera. I don’t know why she watches such mess.

I polished the scuffs out of my porcelain sink thinking about Alexandra somewhere in the Atlanta suburbs living the life in her 4,000-square-foot house with a three-car garage and kids in private school. When she was a baby, I used to hang her cloth diapers on a line—little rectangles marching up and down the back yard, some still stained even though I’d soaked them in bleach water. When I hung the sheets, she’d run around under them while they were still wet. “Mama,” she’d yell. “This smells like some place I could get comfortable.” Quirky, yes, but it seems fitting now that I know her house has heated floors. Imagine life without cold feet.

I look over at Lucille’s feet, swollen and calloused. “Maybe we should treat ourselves to pedicures. What do you say, gorilla foot?”

“What are you talking about? My dogs look good.”

“At least you don’t have a bunched up face like that one,” I said, pointing at the television.

“At least there’s that. Listen, I’ve been thinking.”

“Lord, help us.”

“Shut up and listen. I want to hear your plan for talking to the girls next door. I know I can’t stop you, so maybe you should let me in on your master plan.”

“I was trying to come up with some excuse to go over there. I think Hardy might have shears. Or I could take them seedlings. The tomato plants are ready. Past ready. I’ve just been lazy about planting. Hardy plowed me a spot. I hoped he’d plant them before he left.”

“You need to come up with some kind of conversation other than Jesus talk. If I was them, and you jumped straight into that, I’d slam the door in your hag face.”

“Hey, my face still looks pretty good. The good Lord kept me from having jowls at least. You might want to think on what you did to deserve those flaps of yours.”

“Lady, you’re something else. If Jack… I’m sorry. I mean, if Mr. Sanders could see you now.” She rubbed her jaw. “I could bake a pound cake. We could take that and lemonade. Tomorrow’s supposed to be over eighty.”

“What kind of pound cake do you think girls like that like?”

“Does it really matter? Chocolate. Plain. What’s the difference?” Lucille said.

“I bet girls like that eat lemon pound cake. Glazed. And we should take tea instead, but that sounds good. Maybe we’ll just take them half if it turns out. I’ll look through scriptures tonight.”

“Just don’t give them any fire and brimstone. It turns people off. Even Mr. Sanders knew that.”

“Maybe I should just write Hardy that letter.”

“No, just be neighborly. Let’s take them some cake and see what the story is.”

Nothing’s more satisfying than good crust on a pound cake and the one we baked the next day cracked just right. I had my Bible under my arm, Proverbs marked. When we got there, Janine came to the door. Maddie was off with her boyfriend. Turns out, she’s not that way. Just Janine is. We fed her and listened to stories about the house, how there’d been termite damage—how I might want to call the bug people to get my property inspected.

“I can take a look at the perimeter to see if there’s any damage to the door frames,” Janine said, trying not to look at my Bible. A pair of bluebirds landed on the dogwood out front. “I’ve been meaning to get a house for them,” she said, looking at her empty feeder. “Miss Rachel?”


“Can I ask you something?”

“I suppose.”

“What was my daddy like when he was young?”

Lucille spoke first. “He and my son and Rachel’s girl were close.”

“I didn’t know you had a son, Lucille. Dad never mentioned it. He talked about Alexandra some. Said she taught him to dance.”

“JJ died when they were little,” I said. “Horrible accident over at the old Whitley place, but I guess they tore that down before you were born.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, touching Lucille’s knee.

“Your daddy always carried around matchbox cars. Had a lunchbox full of them. He grew up to be a fine young man,” I said, wishing I hadn’t overdone it with my hand lotion, my fingers sticky in the heat.

“And what about my mama? Did you know her back in the day?”

When I saw a lifetime of rejection on her face, I lost my nerve for trying to save her soul.

It was in the way she held herself, her countenance. She was good. It surprised me. You could tell that she worried about her friend just as much as I worried about Alexandra. She talked about this new guy and said she wasn’t sure Maddie always made the best choices; she was self-destructive. Janine felt like she had to take care of everyone. She neglected herself. I could understand that.

“We only knew your mother from the few times she came to supper with your daddy. That was before they got married, see. After that, she wouldn’t come over here much. Hardy mostly visited your grandparents on his own. One time she came drunk. Spent most of the time in the bathroom. Mr. Sanders knocked at the door because we only have the one and we all had to go. When she didn’t answer, he tried the knob and found her sitting on the floor, her arms over her head. I remember being furious, asking them to leave, telling Hardy I’d pray for them. He said he didn’t think it’d do much good, but to have at it. You were still an infant—asleep in your bassinet in the living room with this hubbub going on, a stuffed elephant next to you. Your hair was wavy even then.”

“I still have that elephant,” she said, looking off toward the curve in the street, toward the entrance of the neighborhood. “You know, Maddie and I have been friends since before Mama left. That’s who she is, just so there’s no mistaking anything. She’s staying with me so I don’t have to live in this big house all by myself. I’m sort of lost since I broke up with my girlfriend and moved from my old place. Maybe it’s this house. I don’t know.”

I crossed my legs, caught off guard by her candor and surprised that I’d had it so wrong. About that time, Lucille leaned over and shoved a piece of cake in my mouth. “Have another piece of pound cake, Rachel.”

I couldn’t do anything but chew and listen. “We’ll have to have you two over for dinner, just like the old days,” Lucille said.

I swallowed hard. “Yes. You and Maddie come on over anytime. I have some seedlings I need to bring y’all for your garden. Your daddy always grew tomatoes. I figured you’d want to set some out, too. But don’t put them in with the peonies, that’s where he put them last year. I’d say you’re strong enough to run his plow over a spot out back, at the top of the hill.”

“Here’s Maddie, now.”

I muttered a prayer with my mouth shut and my eyes open. Alexandra would be at the park with the kids today, out running errands, or maybe planting impatiens. She always liked white flowers because of their glow in darkness. She was still here, on this driveway, spinning around the flagpole, her hand outstretched.

When I looked up the road, all I could see was a black man on a Harley-Davidson. I didn’t notice Maddie’s arms wrapped around his waist until they pulled in. The glare off his bald head was something else. As he turned the bike off, the air seemed to suck up into the machine for a moment. I choked on my tea, and spit it out in my lap. I moved my hands over the wet spot.

“What’s this—a tea party for Jesus freaks?” Maddie asked, looking down at the Bible beside me.

Liquor stink hit me. Lucille cackled and dropped her fork. “I like her. That’s some spunk.”

They sat down on the glider and introduced themselves. It seemed they’d been for a ride out to Rock Hill and back. There are a lot of bikers down there, and they don’t have helmet laws. Maddie’s hair was clumped. She pulled it back into a high bun, lit a cigarette, and exhaled big. “I’ve been wondering when you two would come over.”

“Pleased to meet you. Brought you some cake. Lord knows we can’t eat it all. Well, we need to get on, but don’t forget I have tomato plants if you all want them.”

“Thanks, we’ll take you up on that,” Janine said.

Maddie took her sunglasses off and wiped the makeup from the sides of her nose. Her eyes on me felt like roots shifting concrete.

“We really should be getting on.” I felt a pang in my elbow and numbness in my temple. “Just bring the dishes back when you finish,” I said over my shoulder.

It didn’t go at all how I pictured.

When I got home, I changed into my nightshirt and spent some more time with the Lord. I sat by the window in the front room, but a glare so awful came in I had to take off my glasses. Squinting, I ran my fingers over His words. Maybe I hadn’t received a word after all. I looked over at my vanity. The hair gels and permanent chemicals, the spooled cotton, the combs and scissors in a jar of blue. I took a rag and some oil to a pair of my scissors. I held them up to my hair, grabbing two fingers full, trying to hold it straight as I cut four inches off. Mr. Sanders wouldn’t care for it at all.


Beth Gilstrap’s debut story collection, I AM BARBARELLA, is available now from Twelve Winters Press. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of Atticus Review. Her work has appeared in Quiddity, Ambit, The Minnesota Review, Superstition Review, and Literary Orphans, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting.

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LF #082 © 2015 Beth Gilstrap. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, May 2015.


girls like that
eat lemon pound cake

by beth gilstrap