Hazel McCreary ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Dew on the Kudzu, a Journal of Southern Writing.)
We were lost again. We had a roadmap but didn’t seem to know how to use it. I had been driving earlier but now Drusus was driving. His wife, Pearline, sat between us, and I sat next to the window. Mama and Adele were in the back.
The seat wasn’t long enough for mama to stretch out all the way so when she needed to lie down she used Adele’s lap as a pillow. We were all a little worried about mama. We had to stop every now and then for her to get out and walk around. She was carsick and sometimes she vomited. I couldn’t help but notice one time that there was some blood coming up.
“Sing to me, honey,” mama said.
“Oh, mama, I’m too hot to sing,” Adele said. “And I need to rest my voice anyhow.”
“I know you’re going to win that radio contest,” Pearline said. “With your lovely voice, you just have to win.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of it,” Drusus said. “There’s hundreds of other people that think they’re going to win it too.”
“I have as much chance as anybody,” Adele said.
The old woman giving Adele singing lessons had taught her some opera, but she was best at popular tunes like “Makin’ Faces at the Man in the Moon” and “Love, You Funny Thing.” She could sing anything, though, even church music; that’s the kind of voice she had.
“We need to be realistic about our chances but also hopeful,” mama said. “We do our best and leave it in the hands of the Lord.”
“And I know that new specialist in the city is going to do wonders for your condition, Mrs. McCreary,” Pearline said. She and Drusus were so newly married that she still couldn’t bring herself to call her mother-in-law by her first name, which was Hazel.
“Well, we’ll see,” mama said. “There’s no guarantee that I’ll even be able to get in to see him. City doctors are not like the doctors we’re used to. They take care of hundreds of patients.” She had a coughing fit and when she stopped coughing she said to Adele, “You still got the name and telephone number of that doctor at that clinic in the city, don’t you, honey?”
“It’s in my bag,” Adele said. “You saw me put it in there.”
“Dr. Searle says he’s probably my best and only hope.”
“Don’t worry, mama,” Drusus said. “We’ll get that doctor to see you even if we have to hogtie him and kidnap him.”
We all laughed but mama groaned.
We came to a tiny town with a cutoff to a different highway. Drusus took the cutoff going a little too fast. Mama almost fell onto the floor and let out a little yelp. Pearline fell over against me and righted herself as if I was poison to the touch.
“Be careful, honey!” Pearline said.
“Well, this is it!” Drusus said. “This is the right way now. I just know it. We are officially not lost anymore.”
“Happy days are here again,” sang Adele. “The skies above are clear again. So, let us sing a song of cheer again. Happy days are here again!”
As if to confirm that we were finally going in the right direction, we passed a sign that you couldn’t miss if you were alive. “Only two hundred and thirty-seven more miles,” I said.
“Seems like we already came about a thousand miles,” Adele said.
“How about you, Wynn?” Drusus asked me. “Do you want to drive for a while?”
“No thanks,” I said. “You’re doing fine.”
I went to sleep with my head against the door and woke up when we had a blowout and Drusus pulled off the highway to change the tire.
We all got out of the car, including mama. She took a few steps and smoked a cigarette and said she was feeling a little better. She wanted to know what state we were in. When we told her, she laughed for some reason.
We took advantage of the unscheduled stop to have a drink of water and a bite to eat. We still had some bread left over, Vienna sausages, fruit, and other stuff. Mama didn’t want anything to eat but she drank a little bit of water and some coffee. Pearline spread a blanket on the ground for her and Adele to sit on. Mama sat for a while and then lay down and looked up into the trees.
“This is nice,” she said, “lying still on the ground and not having tires turning underneath me.”
“I think mama’s sicker than she lets on,” I said to Drusus when we were changing the tire.
“That doctor in the city will fix her up,” he said.
“She’s trying to put a good face on it for Adele’s sake. She doesn’t want to spoil her chance of singing on the radio.”
“Everything will be all right,” he said, as if trying to convince himself as much as me.
Mama went to sleep on the blanket and we had to wake her up to get her back in the car. I took over driving from there, even though I liked it better when Drusus drove and I could just sit and think.
We were all tired and we knew we were going to have to stop someplace for the night. We hadn’t made very good time, what with our getting lost and mama being sick and all.
At dusk we stopped at an auto court where, according to their sign, they had clean cabins and cheap. I went inside and engaged the room and then we drove around to our cabin, which was cabin number twelve in the back. With the shade trees, the two rows of trim white cabins, and the azalea bushes everywhere, it was a pretty place and plenty inviting.
We tried to get mama to eat something, but she just wanted to go to bed. Pearline and Adele helped to get her out of her clothes and into bed while Drusus and I sat on the front step and smoked.
“If Adele wins that prize money,” he said, “we can pay back Uncle Beezer the money he advanced us for this trip.”
“We can’t expect her to give up the prize money for that,” I said. “If she wins, the money is hers to do with as she pleases.”
“And what would she do with it, anyhow?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it would be her one chance to get away from home, out into the real world. She might get a real singing career going for herself.”
“Do you really think she has a chance?”
“You’ve heard her sing,” I said. “Isn’t she as good as anybody you’ve ever heard?”
“Yeah, she’s good,” he said.
“If she wins the money, it’s hers. We can’t touch it.”
“Maybe she’ll offer it. At least part of it.”
“We can’t ask her for it, though.”
After a couple of minutes in which neither of us spoke, Drusus said, “Pearline thinks she’s going to have a baby.”
“A baby!” I said. “That was fast work. You’ve only been married a month.”
“The curse of the married man,” he said.
“What do you mean? Don’t you want it?”
“We’re poor,” he said. “We don’t have anything. Even the car I’m driving belongs to somebody else.”
I laughed. “How do you think other people manage?” I asked. “How do you think mama and daddy managed? They were dirt poor and they had eight kids.”
“The poorer they are the more kids they have, and the more kids they have the poorer they are.”
“You’re not sorry you married Pearline, are you?” I asked.
“Well, no. Not exactly. I probably wouldn’t do it again, though, if I had it to do over.”
“I’ll be sure and tell Pearline you said that.”
“Don’t tell anybody any of this,” he said. “She doesn’t want anybody to know about the baby just yet, because it makes it look like we had a shotgun wedding. I swear the baby wasn’t on the way yet when we got married.”
“You don’t have to convince me of anything,” I said.
“Not a word to mama or Adele yet. Pearline wants to make sure about the baby before she tells anybody.”
“Mum’s the word,” I said.
Drusus and I had to sleep on the floor in the cabin but I didn’t mind. I was just glad to be able to stretch out and rest my weary bones. I laid down near the screen door where I could feel a cool breeze and hear the trees rustling. After being on the dusty road all day, it felt like heaven.
As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear Adele softly singing mama’s favorite song: “Deep night, stars in the sky above. Moonlight, lighting our place of love. Night winds seem to have gone to rest. Two eyes, brightly with love are gleaming. Come to my arms, my darling, my sweetheart, my own. Vow that you’ll love me always, be mine alone. Deep night, whispering trees above. Kind night, bringing you nearer, dearer and dearer. Deep night, deep in the arms of love...”
I woke up in the morning to the sound of the birds singing. I stood up to slip into my shirt and pants and that’s when I saw Adele and Pearline sitting quietly in chairs at the foot of the bed. Pearline was smoking a cigarette.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“We can’t wake mama,” Adele said.
“Is she breathing?”
“I don’t think so.”
“We’d better get a doctor,” I said.
Pearline looked at me and shook her head and that’s when I knew that mama was dead.
I shook Drusus gently by the shoulder to wake him up. When I told him what had happened, he, of course, had to see for himself. He went over to the bed and put his ear to mama’s chest. Hearing nothing but silence, he then held a mirror to her nose. He looked at the mirror and threw it down on the bed like a little boy with a toy gun that no longer works.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“I don’t want to go another mile farther from home,” Adele said.
“We’d better call somebody and tell them what happened,” Pearline said.
“No,” Drusus said. “We’re not calling anybody. They’ll ask us a lot of questions. They’ll hold us here until they know what happened. They’ll make Adele miss her chance to sing on the radio.”
“We can’t go off and leave mama here,” I said.
“Of course not,” he said. “We’re taking her with us.”
After Adele and Pearline got mama into her clothes, Drusus carried her out to the car in his arms. I opened the door for him and he slid mama into the corner of the back seat where she was propped up and her head was not lolling to the side. He then took a length of rope and tied it around mama’s chest so she would stay upright and not fall over from the movement of the car. Adele gave mama’s dark glasses to Drusus to put on her and we found a straw hat that belonged to Uncle Beezer in the trunk and put it on her head. With the hat and the glasses and in her regular clothes, she didn’t look like a dead person.
“I’m glad she died in a pretty place like this instead of on the road,” I said.
“We’ve come this far,” Drusus said. “She would want us to keep going as far as we can. She wouldn’t want Adele to miss her chance to sing on the radio because of her.”
We all got into the car and Drusus started her up. As we were pulling out of the place, the manager stopped us and leaned into the window and looked at all of us, including mama. He smiled in a friendly way and said he hoped we enjoyed our stay and God grant that we should come back that way again.
When we were on the highway again and going at full speed, Adele began singing mama’s favorite hymn: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of His spirit, washed in His blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long. Perfect submission, perfect delight, visions of rapture now burst on my sight; angels descending bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love…”
Nobody said anything for a long time after she finished singing. We all had the feeling, though, that nothing was going to stop us now. That old car of ours was sure burning up the miles.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp