HomeSouthern VoiceThe Collector

The Collector

by Terri Wallace 

Granny Enid didn’t want to take me in at first. The social worker really had to work at her to get her to agree to it. I thought it was me — maybe she thought I was bad luck or jinxed or something, seein’ how Mama died and all. But it wasn’t me; it was just one of those secrets that I didn’t know about until much later. Granny was right, though. It would’ve been better if I’d stayed away.

When I first arrived at Granny Enid’s, Crankston’s Landing was finishin’ off the driest summer on record. The white sedan that the social worker drove was covered in a thick red film from the Oklahoma dirt which seemed to cover everything that year. A white cat sat on the rail of the porch, and when it stretched out I could see the red-stained fur matted on its underbelly. No matter how much that cat licked and cleaned, the stain never came off.

No one answered the door when I knocked. I looked back at the social worker, her dark hair clipped back with a fake pearl barrette, sittin’ in her air-conditioned car, and she motioned for me to try around back. I clutched the plastic grocery bag that held my spare socks and underwear in my sweaty palm, and I followed the path to a gate that was half rotten. It might’ve been painted white once; but now it just shared the same reddish tint as the cat. The hinges squeaked when I shoved the gate open enough to slip through it.

I wish I could say that on the other side of the fence it was a lush green paradise, but it wasn’t. Everything in that backyard was dead — the yellowed grass, the withered honeysuckle, the pile of rotting kitchen scraps, and the remains of a tiny kitten left near the trash cans. The smell made me throw up the apple cinnamon waffles that I ate at the Waffle Barn just off the interstate. The social worker bought them for me, and she even let me have extra syrup. When I cleared every last crumb off my plate, she had pushed her plate across the table. “Eat it,” she said. “Go on – I’m full.” So I did. But now it was spewed all over the ground.

“Junie?” a voice called from the back porch, and I turned to see a hunched figure limping towards me. “That you, Junie Rae?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered, being extra polite like the social worker told me.

“Come. Let me have a look at you,” she said. She pushed my scruffy blonde bangs out of my face and squeezed my shoulder. “Kinda scrawny, ain’t you?”

“I’m strong,” I said, jutting my chin out. “And I can work hard. And the lady in the car said you’re my blood so you gotta take me in.”

“She did, did she?” Granny asked, clickin’ her dentures and rockin’ back and forth. “Well, you got a bit of fire in you. That’ll count for something’.” She turned and made her way up the sagging back steps to the back door. “Well, come on then.”

I nodded, relieved that we’d come to an understandin.’ I inched around the kitten’s carcass and the chunks of half-chewed waffles, and Granny cackled. “You ain’t afraid of dead things are you?” When I didn’t answer, she shrugged. “We already have one cat. It keeps the mice away just fine. No need for another mouth to feed.” I wondered if my mouth would prove too much of a burden to feed, but I didn’t dare ask. Instead, I followed her into the house, my plastic bag thumpin’ against my leg as I climbed the steps.

Granny put me to work right away. She said if she had to feed me and patch my clothes I’d better earn my keep. I remembered the kitten, and I took her at her word. Every day I was expected to make breakfast, wash the dishes, and make the beds. I helped with laundry and ran it through the wringer. I had to get the clothes on the line before the sun was overhead. Granny hated doin’ laundry. She said the soap made her eyes water.

My afternoons were spent trying to coax life out of the powder-dry soil. I scratched up whatever withered potatoes or carrots I could from the garden, then I helped with supper. The bulk of the chores fell to me, because Granny was tending to Papa Joe.

Papa Joe wasn’t really my papa, and I’m not even sure his name was Joe, but that was what everyone called him. Papa Joe came around a few years before. Granny hired him to patch a hole in the roof, and he never left. At first he stayed in his car. After a while, he moved into room over the garage. By the time I came around, he was stayin’ in Granny’s room.

Papa Joe walked around in his undershirt and picked at his teeth with a toothpick then chewed on it the soggy bit of wood for hours afterwards. Granny said he was a “man’s man,” but I just thought he was lazy and had bad breath and stared at me so much it made my skin crawl. I didn’t much care, though, so long as he stayed away from me. And he did, for a while.

Granny went into town a couple times a month. She didn’t drive much, so if the weather was bad she had to catch a ride with Mrs. Reynolds from down the road. Mrs. Reynolds always smelled of lavender, and she kept lemon drops in her purse and passed a few to me each time she came for a visit. She never came over when Papa Joe was around, though.

Granny said they were like oil and water and only a fool would waste time trying to get ’em to mix.

Mrs. Reynolds came around on Sundays on her way home from church. Papa Joe went down to The TeePee Lounge on Sundays. The sign said “closed,” but the regulars knew that the backdoor was left unlocked. They’d slip in and throw back a couple of drinks and wash away their false sense of sanctity before heading home.

One Sunday, about a month after I’d arrived, Mrs. Reynolds came around for her normal visit. Granny went in to make some iced tea and told me to entertain our company, so I was doin’ my best by pickin’ out songs with two fingers on Granny’s old upright.

After I had finished a song or two, Mrs. Reynolds called me over. “Child,” she said, “I gotta ask you something, and I want to keep this all just between us, do you hear?” I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and nodded. She dug in her purse and pulled out a handkerchief with pale pink needlework around the edge. I didn’t want to blow my nose and spoil the crisp white cloth, but Mrs. Reynolds was watchin’ and waitin,’ so it only seemed polite.

“There now,” she said with a smile. “That’s better.” Then she passed me a few lemon drops. I counted them out and put one in my mouth and four in my pocket.

“Honey,” she said as she glanced at the kitchen door, “has your Papa Joe ever … said anything to you? Maybe touched you? Or scared you?”

I looked at her kind blue eyes and tried to decide what she wanted to hear. When I didn’t answer right away, she pursed her lips and tried again. “Has he ever … done anything? Or tried to do anything? You can tell me.”

I wanted to answer but nothing seemed to come out. My mind went blank under those blue eyes. All I could think of was lavender and lemon drops, and the longer I waited to answer, the bluer her eyes seemed to get. She leaned closer to me, and her breath seemed to catch. I opened my mouth to try to speak. She nodded her head up and down just a little. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a hint or to reassure me, but I was about to nod back at her when Granny walked in.

“Everything okay in here?” she asked.

“Oh, fine. Just fine. Junie was just keeping’ me company,” Mrs. Reynolds said, and a smile broke across her face like sunshine. “Oh, my! That tea looks refreshing, Enid. On a hot day like this, it’s a treat.”

And the moment was gone. Mrs. Reynolds and Granny started talkin’ about the weather, and how the prices down at Claude’s Food Mart were criminal, and how Mrs. Swineholler was an old pig herself — the way she was carryin’ on with Mr. Kinderson and thinkin’ no one noticed. And among all their chatter, no one noticed me. No one noticed when I slipped out and into the backyard to get away from their clickin’ dentures and sweat beaded brows. They didn’t notice that Papa Joe was back early from the TeePee.

I didn’t notice either. He must’ve been watchin’ me for a few minutes, though. Long enough for me to pet that mangy old mama cat that hung around and ate the field mice, and long enough for me to wonder why Mrs. Reynolds seemed all nervous and whispery when she asked me about Papa Joe. I was thinkin’ so hard that I never saw him standin’ in the shadows by the garage–not until he grabbed me from behind and pulled me inside. I should’ve done anything other than let him drag me into that garage. Once he got me in the shadows, he pushed me up against the old steamer trunks stacked against the wall so hard that the lid bounced open and closed, lettin’ out a waft of stale air that reeked of mildew.

In his eagerness, his sweaty palm kept slippin’ from my mouth, but I still didn’t scream. For a second, I wondered if this was how Mama felt — that day in the motel before she died — with that sweaty man on top of her breathin’ heavy. He didn’t even notice that she was cryin’. He was too busy rockin’ back and forth and gruntin’ like a pig.

Papa Joe didn’t notice I was cryin’ either. In fact, I didn’t really notice it until later. I should’ve been trying to figure out how to make him stop, but instead I kept thinkin’ about Mama. I didn’t mean to do that to Papa Joe, but I try to stop it, either. It was all over with before I even had time to think straight — just like at the motel. One minute Papa Joe was gropin’ at me, tuggin’ at my shorts, breathin’ real loud in my ear, and the next minute he was crumpled on the floor with a knot on the back of his head the size of an egg. When he put his hands on me, he flew back and hit the wall then slid down limp and bloodied—crumpled up like that kitten by the trashcan.

Papa Joe rubbed at his oozing scalp and winced. “Keep your mouth shut and maybe I won’t tell your Granny you got the demon in you.” He struggled to his feet, but kept his distance, the way you keep away from a dog that nipped at you. “I don’t know what kind of monster you are, child, but they don’t take kindly to demons and devils ’round here. ‘Specially your Granny. She’s a God-fearing woman.”

I just wished he would shut up so I could think, so I could try to understand how he ended up bloodied on the floor and how come my skin felt jittery and my hair was standin’ on end, and why it all seemed so … familiar.

“Keep your mouth shut, and maybe you can stay,” he said, inching closer. I closed my eyes to try to stop the poundin’ that was growin’ in my head. I could feel him drawin’ closer, I could feel where he was — just like I could feel a shadow when it blocked the sun — and when Papa Joe came too close, his voice still jabberin’ and pricklin’ at my throbbin’ head, I yelled, “Stop!”

He didn’t though. I guess he thought a ten year old wasn’t much of a threat. Maybe whatever urge made him want to pull down my pants was stronger than the urge to keep himself safe. Or maybe he just thought I looked small and scared, like that little kitten, and when I thought of its crumbled body I felt the anger swell again and I felt all jittery.

Then the shadow was gone.

When I opened my eyes, Papa Joe was flat on his back. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth; his eyes were closed.

I walked closer. I wondered if he was fakin’ — if this was some trick. But the bloody tooth on the ground next to him told me that he wasn’t foolin.’ I crept forward and snatched it, wiped it on my shorts, then tucked it in my pocket with the lemon drops — my hands still shakin.’ I thought it would be best if I left before he woke up.

Mrs. Reynolds was gone when I went inside. Granny was mutterin’ under her breath and peelin’ potatoes at the kitchen table and getting nearly as many peelings on the floor as in the trashcan.

“People need to mind their own business,” she said, wavin’ her paring knife at me. “What goes on in a person’s house ain’t no one else’s business. They best tend their own garden before they come around tellin’ me how to tend mine.”

Granny didn’t ask why my shorts were smeared with blood, and I didn’t offer. Lookin’ back, this must have been the start of things. The start of the lies — and of my collectin.’

When I slipped in the tiny bedroom under the attic where I slept, I pulled the tooth out of my pocket. It was yellowing and had a dark hole bore into it, but it was my first souvenir so I wanted to keep it safe. I tugged a sock from the bottom drawer of my bureau and slipped the tooth inside, then I balled the sock back up before tuckin’ it towards the back of the drawer.

Papa Joe never told Granny Enid why he showed up on the back steps bloody that day, and she never asked. She must’ve figured he had a scuffle over at the TeePee. At any rate, Papa Joe didn’t come near me again for a while.

 

The next day was Monday, which meant a long walk into town to get groceries. Mrs. Reynolds couldn’t drive us ’cause she was off doin’ some kind of work with some girls that got themselves in some kinda trouble. Granny had a car, but she didn’t get a chance to drive it much — Papa Joe always kept the car for himself. He said he needed it to look for a job, but the only lookin’ he did was for his next drink. He’s drive down to the TeePee and drink until it was time to come home for supper. Granny never said a word though, not even today when the clouds were heavy with rain and the thunder grumbled. She called it “holding her tongue.”

I could tell by the way she clicked her dentures that holding her tongue didn’t come real natural to her, but that day Granny held her tongue tighter than she held my hand as she pulled me along the red dirt road that winded towards town. My worn shoes kicked up a cloud of rust colored dust as I struggled to keep up with her, but she was too busy eying the heavy clouds to notice.

I would’ve asked her to slow down, but it was too muggy to even talk. The heat sucked the words right out of your head before your mouth could even form them. So we walked on, cutting through the thick, humid air.

The click of her dentures matched the pattering of our feet as we tried to beat the storm. I wished Granny would stop at Claude’s Food Mart, just this once, instead of walkin’ the extra half mile to Reyn-Rite Grocery. She wouldn’t though. I knew because, the one time I dared ask, she said she’d rather waste a few steps than waste her money at a store run by a no-good philanderer. So, I didn’t bother to ask again.

When we finally turned onto Main Street, the first heavy drops of water plopped onto the hard earth and swelled up into rusty beads of moisture. They reminded me of the drops of blood that Papa Joe left on the garage floor yesterday. I shivered a little when I thought about it. I might’ve thought about it more, but a low rumble shook the ground, followed by a crash of lightning that shook me out of my thoughts. Granny let go of my hand, raised her pocket book over her head, and abandoned me for the promise of shelter.

I caught up with her just as she tugged open the door to Reyn-Rite. The bell overhead jangled, but it was drowned out by a screech of laughter.

“Land sakes, Johnny,” a familiar voice crooned, “I had no idea that you were so clever!” I left Granny’s side and followed the velvety voice deeper into the store, eager to see who would dare address Mr. Reynolds in such a familiar way. I had never even heard Mrs. Reynolds call him anything other than “Mr. Reynolds” or “my husband.”

But it wasn’t Mrs. Reynolds. I could tell that even from behind. She would never wear a skirt so short, or peroxide her hair, or allow someone to touch her like that. No, Mrs. Reynolds was a proper lady. Dottie Swineholler, though, she wasn’t proper. Grannie and Mrs. Reynolds whispered about that nearly every time they had coffee together. They were right.

Mrs. Swineholler and Mr. Reynolds were standin’ near the candy counter just smilin’ and laughin’ so much that they never even noticed us. Giant jars of sweets surrounded them, every temptation imaginable, and behind them was the treat that Mrs. Reynolds’s passed me when no one was lookin’ — bright yellow lemon drops.

Just the sight of Mr. Reynolds’s hand on the swell of that ugly cow’s hip made me shake. My heart felt too tight, and it thumped hard and fast in my chest. My hair stood on end and crackled like it did when I brushed it too much when the air was dry. My fingers felt full and swollen, and everything around me got dark until all I could see was Mr. Reynolds leaning forward to whisper something in Mrs. Swineholler’s ear. She pulled back, actin’ all shy, which was a big lie and — just then — thunder cracked, and lightning must have struck close by because the whole room lit up.

I guess I fell backwards, ’cause when I sat up I was surrounded by lemon drops rollin’ around on the floor. Mr. Reynolds’s was screamin’ and clawin’ at his face with his hands. He clawed so hard that he knocked his glasses clean off his face, and they slid across the floor and sent more lemon drops rolling.

At first, Mrs. Swineholler didn’t say a word though, she was just starin’ at the splatters of red all over her fancy white dress. She didn’t even seem to notice the bits of glass stickin’ out of her cheek. “My dress! My dress!” she finally screamed. Like anyone gave a rat’s fart about her dress.

Granny rounded the corner of the aisle and nearly slid on the lemon drops, but she righted herself. She reached a hand down and jerked me off the floor, glancin’ over me. “You hurt, child?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” I said, shakin’ my head. I still wasn’t sure quite what happened, but something made me want to be very polite so I could go back to bein’ ignored.

Granny stared at the giant jar of lemon drops — or what was left of it. Big shards of glass were stuck in the wall, and tiny bits glittered on the dusty wood floor like diamonds. Other jagged bits had found their way into the soft flesh of Mr. Reynolds and Mrs. Swineholler. Served ’em right, if you ask me.

Granny must’ve thought so too, because once she saw the smear of Mrs. Swineholler’s bright pink lip stick on Mr. Reynolds’s cheek, right next to the red splatters, she turned and marched from the store.

“Junie Rae, we gotta find ourselves a new store. This one ain’t fit for proper people,” she said, and I started to follow her. Mrs. Swineholler called after us — first askin’ for help, then callin’ us some names that I wasn’t allowed to repeat, but none of it swayed Granny’s heart. I stopped though. The crunch of glass under my feet fell silent, and all that was left was their snifflin’ and cryin.’

Then I crouched down and picked up the broken pair of glasses, and I tucked them into my pocket before catchin’ up with Granny.

I don’t know if Granny ever told Mrs. Reynolds what we saw or not. Mrs. Reynolds still came around the house, but she didn’t offer me any more lemon drops after that. Truth is, I kinda lost my taste for them.

 

After what happened at the store, Granny seemed to have a lot more chores for me around the house, so I didn’t get to go into town much. Sometimes I caught her lookin’ at me funny then turnin’ away real fast.

Mrs. Reynolds still came by for coffee, though, so I didn’t get too lonely. It was during one of her visits that I learned the start of a secret that would change everything.

“I was over at the Curl & Cut getting my hair set, and Virginia Hershell said that they had a new lodger check in. Said she was real pretty. Young, too,” she said as she added a splash of milk to her coffee. Then she frowned. “You can bet Mr. Reynolds will be around to welcome her. Might be best if we head over to greet her soon — tip her off — for her own good, you know.”

Granny’s brows scrunched together and she nodded. “Hate for her to get off on the wrong foot, being new to the town and all. Did Virginia give you her name?”

“No, but she said that the lady was some sort of social worker — here on a home visit, or some such.”

I wondered if it was the same lady who drove me here and bought me waffles. I quit pickin’ at my fingers and looked over at Granny, but I didn’t dare ask. Granny looked pale and nervous, but Mrs. Reynolds didn’t seem to notice, she just kept talkin’ and sippin’ her coffee. “Virginia said she only paid for a couple of days. ‘Course that’s plenty enough time for Mr. Reynolds to get into —”

“Land sakes, look at the time!” Granny said, cutting Mrs. Reynolds off. “I best get supper on before Papa Joe gets home.”

“Oh, dear. Look at me, just carryin’ on. I’ll come around tomorrow, and we can drive into town and drop by Virginia’s place. Maybe get us a cherry coke while we are there,” Mrs. Reynolds said, walking towards the door.

“That’ll be real fine,” Granny said, rushing around Mrs. Reynolds to get the door for her. “You have yourself a good evenin’ now.”

Granny seemed distracted afterwards. I wanted to ask why the social worker had come back, but Granny kept givin’ me chores to do. Turns out, I didn’t have to wait long.

Granny had just put the pot roast on when there was a knock at the front door. Granny wiped her hands on her apron, then untied it and hung it on a hook by the stove before makin’ her way to the front door. She waved me away, then she opened the door with a smile bigger than any I’d ever seen her face make before.

Well, I wasn’t gonna miss out on that, so I tucked myself behind Papa Joe’s recliner just as Granny pushed open the squeaky screen. I tried to make my breathing quieter, but then my heart just seemed to beat louder. So I held my breath as long as I could, so I’d catch every word.

“Come on in then, Miss Jones,” Granny said. “I heard you were in town.”

“I’m afraid so,” she said. “I got word that there have been some troubles around here.”

“Troubles? I don’t know nothin’ about no troubles. Everything’s been just fine. Right as rain,” Granny said, clickin’ her teeth. “Have a seat. Can I get you some coffee?” Granny didn’t bother to sit down.

Miss Jones passed over Papa Joe’s sweat stained recliner and took Granny’s rocker nearer to the door. “Nothing for me, thanks. I should just get right to it. When we brought June here, we had hoped that things would be kept … discreet,”

Miss Jones said, her voice crisp and sharp — not all smooth and soft like when she delivered me here. “That is why we are paying you such a handsome sum — for your discretion.”

“Well, I ain’t said a word to no one,” Granny replied, her voice rising. “And you best not be havin’ ideas about goin’ back on our agreement.”

“As I recall,” Miss Jones replied, “our agreement was for you to keep the child out of trouble and out of sight. We know of at least one public incident, which — experience shows — means there’ve been more. It’s simply not acceptable. She’ll have to be placed with another foster. I’m here to collect her.”

“Junie’s blendin’ in real nice here. She ain’t done nothin’ wrong, so you can just turn your fancy car around and go back where you came from. You won’t be collectin’ no one,” Granny said, marchin’ over and openin’ the door real wide.

“Where is she?” Miss Jones asked. “I’ll gather her things and we’ll be out of here. You’ll be compensated for your troubles, of course. You’re lucky, really. You should have seen what the girl did to her mother before we took charge of her. There is a reason people like that can’t be running wild — we have to protect normal folk.”

“Out!” Granny said, her voice quivering.

“Just hand her over, you old fool!” Miss Jones said, grabbing Granny by the arm and shaking her.

Then suddenly, everything seemed to be shaking, and my hair crackled and rose around me like the halos I saw in the Bible at church. I didn’t feel like an angel, though. I felt angry and mighty, and I wanted to hurt that lady that was makin’ Granny cry. I wanted to hurt her like I hurt Papa Joe when he grabbed me, like I hurt that man who was on top of Mama makin’ her cry in the hotel room.

So I did.

I closed my eyes, and I shared my secret.

When I opened my eyes, all that was left of Miss Jones was a dark shadow on the wall, and a bent hair pin — dark and charred — on the floor. Seemed I’d gotten better at sharin’ my secret than I was that day at the hotel. I closed my eyes and tried not to remember. Some things are best locked away. That’s what they told me when they collected me the first time.

Granny came over and helped me up, smoothed down my singed hair, and led me into the kitchen. Then she tied on her apron, filled a bucket with water, grabbed an old rag, and disappeared into the living room for a while. When she came back, the water was nearly black and her hands were covered in soot. She untied her apron and passed it to me as she nodded towards the laundry basket on the table.

I patted the apron pockets down, just like Granny taught me to do, before I added it to the pile of dirty clothes. Inside the folds of the apron was a dark twisted bit of metal with melted plastic pearls. The hair pin. I slid it in my pocket then turned back towards Granny.

She washed up without a word, but her hands shook as she checked on the pot roast. “This never happened. Do you hear me, Junie Rae? This is our secret.”

I nodded my head, and she smiled, then she rummaged in the cabinet and dug out a stale cookie from a tin of leftover Christmas cookies. I took it from her before she changed her mind.

“We should take a trip to town tomorrow,” Granny said, settling herself at the kitchen table. “I reckon its time someone visited Dottie Swineholler and set her straight on a few things. Might stop and see Mr. Reynolds, too, while we are at it. He has some things to account for as well.” She rattled off a list of names for a good long while, and the shadows snuck in while she talked, but she didn’t bother to turn on the lights. I figured that was as good a time as any to help myself to a few more cookies.

We were still sittin’ at the kitchen table when Papa Joe came home. The pot roast was cooked to a dry lump, and the sun had long since sunk beneath the red-tinged hills. He always seemed to stumble in smellin’ of cigarettes and beer and cheap perfume, and I figured tonight wouldn’t be any exception. My nose crinkled in anticipation.

Granny stood up when she heard him clammerin’ up the back steps. She clicked her teeth and folded her arms. Papa Joe slammed open the backdoor. He brought with him the smell of sweat, and beer, and unwashed bedding. He didn’t seem to notice me. He stumbled right towards Granny. He buried his face in her neck and breathed in the smell of her while she tried to untangle herself from him, but he wouldn’t let go. He just kept tellin’ her how she looked mighty fine and how nothin’ else meant anything, really. Then he shoved her against the cabinet and pushed himself up against her.

It reminded me of what happened to Mama in the hotel room, and it made my hair crackle and my heart gallop. I looked up at Granny, expectin’ her to shake her head, or holler at me to go away. But instead she just smiled at me, kinda sad like.

Then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pushed at Papa Joe with all her might. “Wait, Joe. Hold on — Junie has a secret to share with you …”
Papa Joe stumbled backwards, his arms spread wide like an invitation.

Granny nodded her head. I opened my hand and let the last of the Christmas cookie fall to the floor, and I added him to my collection.

Terri Wallace lives in Oklahoma, which she calls the red-headed stepchild of the South. Her grandmother was a true Southern belle, and “her quirky stories of the South must have seeped into my DNA,” she says. Her work has appeared in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Vol. IV and at Cordelia Calls it Quits, and her short story “A Call for Courage” was featured at Page & Spine. “The Collector” is a Southern Gothic piece tinged with horror (the likes of which aren’t discussed in polite company), is available on Amazon and will soon be released as a full-length novel.

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1 COMMENT
  • DroseW / January 16, 2015

    Good! Love it!!

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