By Lori Lansens
Published by Little Brown & Co
May 2002; 0-316-06902-7; 416 pages
It stinks of piss in the room. Sharla Cody breathes it in, thinking it's a sweet stink. Reminds her of the little white flowers Mum Addy planted instead of grass on the square out front of her trailer. They keep coming up, those little flowers, year after year. Sharla likes the notion of seeing them each spring, like an expected but unreliable guest.
Sharla forgets the name of that piss-stink flower. Alyssum, Mum Addy had told her, and said though it was not technically a perennial it would surely come back, and it did. Mum Addy said that's nature. Some flowers self-seed and that's just what is. Only a fool would take the time to wonder about what is.
Once Sharla made a bride's bouquet out of the white flowers. Mum Addy shook a yellowed curtain from her mending bin and fastened it to Sharla's hair with wooden clothespins. They walked down the mud lane like Sharla was the princess bride and Mum Addy was the lady holding her train, doing that step then stop, step then stop, like brides do. Mum Addy sang some pretty love song Sharla never heard before or since.
At five years old Sharla still pissed the bed when she got lonely. Mum Addy'd cluck her tongue but never smack her. Both of them half asleep, she'd wipe down Sharla's parts with a scratchy wet rag that used to be a brown sock, then she'd take her back down the skinny hall to her own musky bed to sleep the rest of the night.
Mum Addy wasn't Sharla's Mum. She wasn't even a relation. She was an old, cigarette-smoking colored lady from the mud lane of the Lakeview trailer park, twenty miles outside of Chatham, Ontario. Sharla was sent to live with the old woman when Emilio moved in with her real Mum, Collette. Emilio said if Sharla gave him a thimble more grief he'd set her fat ass on the stove. After that, Collette walked over to the mud lane and started knocking on doors. At the third place she tried, old Addy Shadd said she'd take the child in if Collette would give her a few dollars for food and such.
They never did get to the Kmart for new summer sandals like Collette had promised. Collette stuffed a white plastic bag with Sharla's bunched-up shorts and a couple of tops, a too-small swimsuit, and the pajamas with the kitten on it. Collette said, "Mothers send their kids to camp, don't they? And boarding school if they got the money. No difference, so."
"Yeah, but it ain't camp," her neighbor friend Krystal said.
"I could give a shit, Krystal. Anyways, it's only till September and Emilio's car accident money runs out."
Sharla knew her numbers, so there was no good reason why Collette had to walk her all the way over to Addy Shadd's. If she wasn't retarded, though Emilio suspected she was, she'd find number four on the mud lane. Besides, Emilio couldn't wait to fuck Collette on that green velveteen La-Z-Boy in the living room without worrying Sharla'd walk in on them again.
Collette lived off welfare and whatever boyfriend.You'd guess her about seventeen if you didn't know she was twenty-two. She was shapely, with creamy white skin, dyed blond hair, and rare-colored eyes that men said things about sincerely. She fucked Emilio good after she found out how much he'd be getting from the settlement. Emilio knew he'd be gone when his money was gone. He didn't care. Just looking at her mouth made him throb.
When it was time to leave for Addy Shadd's, Emilio hustled Sharla out the door."Have fun swinging with them porch monkeys."
Sharla was confused because she hadn't been told there'd be monkeys. Collette waved, whispering sad things about sending off her baby girl. Emilio patted her shoulder and pretended he didn't think she was full of shit.
In spite of the name of the place, there was no view of Lake Erie from the trailer park. And in spite of the claims, no way you could see across the lake to Cleveland on the American side, even on the clearest of days. Addy Shadd had settled at the trailer park in the late fifties because it was as close to the water as she could get on the money she had. She thought it'd just be a temporary address, but after twenty years at the park she accepted that she'd never have a real lake view.
The weather'd been dry. Sun baked the mud lane where Mum Addy and most of the other colored people lived and formed it into rivulets of hard earth. Hurt to walk on in bare feet and no good for a bicycle tire. Between the evenly spaced white and silver trailers, tomato and cucumber plants got ready to choke up cages of rusty chicken wire. On most of the squares in front there were old wood chairs and dented trashcans, a patch of crabgrass or nothing. But Mum Addy grew those tiny, white, piss-smelling flowers on her square and felt the better for beautifying her neighborhood.
Sharla was squatting on her haunches, picking up kernels of hard Indian corn from a pile near a shabby trailer somewhere on the way to Addy Shadd's. She knew she was stealing the makings of some child's necklace because each red or purple or golden kernel already had a neat hole in the middle from a needle pierce. She wanted the kernels and meant to make her own pretty necklace, maybe for Collette.
As Sharla pinched the corn gems out of the dust and dropped them into her white plastic bag, she imagined her necklace and how it'd be admired. She saw the shadow, but not soon enough. The foot caught her in the small of her back and drove her into the ground. She turned around to see who'd kicked her, blocking the sun with her hand. "What, Fawn?"
Fawn Trochaud was seven years old and lived with her Aunt Krystal in the trailer across from Sharla and Collette. Fawn had curly yellow hair and cloud white skin and big blue eyes like a picture-Bible angel. Sharla knew the Indian corn didn't belong to Fawn. She also knew it didn't matter.
Sharla got up, clutching the white plastic bag, watching Fawn. She didn't dare speak. Fawn took a step closer, kicking dust at Sharla with her dog-chewed flip-flops. Sharla flinched, thinking Fawn meant to hit her. But Fawn didn't strike again. She just ripped the plastic bag from Sharla's clutches and ran away.
A couple of bored mutts started a fight on the road. Sharla watched them, thinking she'd feel better and know what to do next if she could cry. But Sharla didn't cry, ever, and she had no sense of why.
Collette knew why. It happened when Sharla was almost two years old. She'd been an early walker but didn't get out of her crib much so she'd lost her head start. She had a few words: Mummy, bottle, stinky, lighter, juice. Collette's boyfriend at the time, Wally, was a huge man with shoulders so wide he had to duck and go sideways to fit through the trailer door. Sharla recalled him coming into her tiny baby room, filling it up like water in a glass, with his yeasty breath and cigarette hair.
It was a late fall day, smelling of McIntosh apples and maple leaf fire. Baby Sharla shuffled to the back of the crib, grinding the nipple of her empty bottle with her tiny white teeth. Wally'd come to get something from the room. He stumbled in, in all his bigness, and banged his shin hard on the edge of the old crib. He screamed, Jesus Fuck, Collette!, raised his leg and kicked the rickety crib like he wanted to send it through the wall.
Little Sharla'd been steadying herself with her hand on the edge of the crib, and when Wally kicked it, her chubby brown fingers got slammed between the crib and the wall. Collette came in, fierce about the noise and the screaming. "Shit, Wally! You fucking asshole! Why'd you get her going?!"
"I never laid a finger! I never fucking touched her!" Collette threw a "Shh" Sharla's way and pushed Wally out of the room, banging the door shut behind her.
Baby Sharla screamed and tried to pull her mashed fingers out from between the wall and the crib. She used her words. "Mummy. Hand. Mummy. Hand. Mummy. Mummy! Mummy! Mum-my!"
Collette only came back into the room to yell, "Shut up! Shut up and go to sleep!"
An hour passed while Sharla cried. She puked up sour milk and Chef Boyardee supper, chewed the rubber nipple off her empty bottle and cried some more. The sound of the television in the living room went up, then off. There was no sound, then a click-click and banging metal noise. Baby Sharla knew her mother and Wally'd gone out the door and there was no one left to hear her. She stopped crying then and never did again for a long, long time.
After a while, Sharla's fingers went numb. The quiet made her sleepy. She wanted to sink down into her sour, puked-on blanket but she couldn't sink down because of her hand being jammed, so she rested her forehead on the soft part of her arm and closed her puffy eyes.
In the morning, Collette was sick from too much Southern Comfort, grateful that Sharla was quiet and letting her sleep in. Around noon she thought she better go check though because her daughter had never slept that late before. Baby Sharla was standing up in the crib, her head turned to the window, runny shit spilling out the edges of her diaper. She acted like she didn't hear her mother open the door. Collette knew Sharla was mad about last night and going to be a brat all day to make her pay for it.
The smell in the room made Collette gag, then she saw the puke on the blankets and decided Sharla was going to get a smack so she'd learn. Collette reached into the crib with her fingernails. She took Sharla by the armpits to lift her out but she was stuck. That's when Collette saw the arm, purple and blue up to the elbow, the smashed fingers swollen like sausages. Collette said, "Shit," and pulled the crib from the wall. Sharla didn't move her hand. She couldn't. Collette said, "Shit" again and called for Wally.
Wally was gone forever the next day. Collette took care to change the bandage on Sharla's hand and let her have a bottle whenever she wanted. She let her out of her crib more too, with Wally gone and being lonely for company. Collette even brought Sharla a present-a fat, mewling, orange and white kitten from the box under Krystal's porch. Collette called the kitten Trixie and thought of getting her fixed but never did. Sharla fell on Trixie twice the first day, pulled her tail and fed her Cracker Jacks. Trixie learned early to make herself scarce.
When a few weeks passed and Sharla could pick up a banana with the mashed fingers, Collette felt satisfied she was healed and that was the end of it. They never saw much of Trixie, though the bowls of cat food kept disappearing. Collette was sorry she brought the cat home at all, because now she had to put up with Trixie's heat screaming in the middle of the night and all the Toms squirting on her broken screen door.
And so Sharla stood now in the hot sun somewhere on the way to the stranger Addy Shadd's, wishing she could cry and that someone would tell her what to do. There was no point in going after Fawn and the white plastic bag. The only thing she missed out of it was the Indian corn anyway. But she felt funny showing up at Addy Shadd's without her bag of summer clothes and didn't want to be asked questions about why Collette would send her empty-handed.
Sharla started walking toward the mud lane hoping some idea would jump in her head, and when she saw some ladies' clothes hanging from a clothesline, one did. Sharla could hear the TV on in the trailer beside the clothesline so she snuck over quietly and pulled off three things fast-a pair of big underpants, a shiny triangle-print blouse, and a blue-flower housedress with square pockets on the front.
There was something churning in Sharla's stomach. Maybe it was her shame at stealing the clothes, maybe it was because she was getting closer to Addy Shadd's trailer, or maybe it was that she hadn't had any breakfast. Sharla made a bundle out of the ladies' clothes and squinted at the sun. She kicked up dust to amuse herself but wished she hadn't because of the way it stuck to her damp shins. Her shoes made scuffa scuffa sounds as she went along.
Except for the fact it wasn't paved, the mud lane was pretty much like the rest of the park, lined with white and silver trailers, most permanent, some ready to hitch and go. Little space to play or have a catch except the road. Cars, some better, some worse, parked everywhere. Sharla started at the bottom of the lane, looking up at the numbers, knowing that twenty-eight was a lot bigger than four. Up ahead, she could see two colored children she knew. Nedda was the girl and Lionel Chase was the boy.
Nedda looked up at Sharla and smalled her eyes. "What do you want?"
Sharla clutched the clothes in her hands and said, "Hi, Lionel." Lionel looked up and said nothing. Lionel Chase hardly ever said anything and Sharla liked him best of all the children in the trailer park. He had eyelashes nearly as long as Fawn's, and his lips smiled even when he wasn't happy or thinking something's funny.
Sharla pointed at the bouquet of yellow dandelions in Nedda's hand and said, "Know what?"
Nedda sneered. "What?"
"Know how you can tell if you like your butter?"
Nedda was curious. "How?"
"You put a dandelion here, under your chin, and if it shines yellow, you like your butter. If it don't shine nothing you like your margereen."
Nedda put the dandelion under her chin and turned to Lionel, asking in a furry purry way, "Do I like my butter?" Lionel didn't say anything. Nedda shrugged and dropped the dandelion bouquet, dragging Lionel Chase away from Sharla Cody.
Her stomach was empty and her legs were achy, so Sharla thought she better sit on the big pink rock out front of the slick silver trailer no one lived in. Sharla liked to sit on the pink rock when she came down the mud lane. It was shaped like a catcher's mitt and her bum felt good nestled against the hot smooth stone. She could sit there all day if nobody chased her off.
She might have fallen asleep because of the sun and the smooth pink rock. Maybe she didn't sleep at all and she'd only blinked, but she thought the sun had moved in the sky and she felt shivery when she opened her eyes and saw Lionel Chase standing there with his long lashes and smiling lips. Lionel looked different though, a big welt on the side of his head like he'd recently got a smack. He turned to look up the road, and Sharla looked too.
There was a big old colored lady moving toward them, huffing and wheezing and smoking and blowing. Addy Shadd, Sharla said in her head. Lionel stood in front of Sharla, both of them watching the lady get closer and closer, no one saying anything till the lady reached the pink rock.
Sharla looked up and smiled but the lady didn't smile back. Instead she reached down, yanked the clothes bundle away with one hand and raised the other to give Sharla a slap. The little girl cowered. Lionel said just one thing: "Don't."
The big smoking lady put her hand down. Then just like that she started back down the lane with the clothes, blowing her smoke and shaking her head.
Sharla looked at Lionel, but before she could ask, "That Addy Shadd?" he turned and walked away.
Sharla was afraid. What if Addy Shadd was going to tell Emilio and Collette that no little clothes thief was going to live with her now or ever? She ran, fast as her splayed legs would allow, all the way back to Collette's trailer. She didn't know what to do when she got there though. Hide, was all she could think.
Sharla crouched in the trash shed behind the trailer, waving fat black flies off the rusty pail beside her. There was a broken chair that came from the kitchen set, some old bushel baskets for apples in the fall, a busted-up suitcase, and a push lawnmower she never saw get used before. Sharla kept the shed door open a crack so she could see if Addy Shadd was gonna come smoking down the road and go tell Collette what she'd done.
Careful and quiet, Sharla opened the metal door a little more, to see better and to let out the garbage smell. She could hear Emilio fart inside the trailer and a more distant sound of Collette banging pots and dishes. She jolted when she heard Emilio shout, "Fucking thing! You fucking cocksmoking thing!" He kicked something hard. Whatever it was he kicked, she hoped he broke his toe.
After a while Sharla knew it must be suppertime because she started to smell fried bologna and potatoes and orange cheese from Kraft Dinner. She thought of her last meal, the end of the groceries so they just had cream of mushroom soup from a can. She wished she had a little of that gluey soup now. The push lawnmower was digging into her back. Sharla moved the thing away, leaned up against the garbage can, and shut her eyes.
When she woke up it was night and quiet. At first Sharla didn't know where she was. She knew she'd had a bad dream but she didn't know she'd missed a storm, thunder and lightning but hardly any rain, that took out the power at the trailer park. The moon shone full and silvery through the cracked-open door and fell on the garbage pail. That's when Sharla realized she was still in the shed.
It was just a little red boot, but when she saw it in the moonlight, stuck between the bushel baskets and the broken chair, Sharla felt like laughing. She hadn't seen the boot there before, and to see something in the dark that you didn't see in the light was magic. She picked up the rubber boot and held it like a doll while she looked around for its mate. There was no second red boot to be found, but that didn't matter because Sharla's feet were too big now and she couldn't wear them anyway. She pulled out the busted-up suitcase, opened it, and put the boot inside. The little red boot gave her courage. She opened the shed door and stepped into the night. Emilio's big gray van was gone from the driveway but it was just as well if he and Collette were out. Sharla'd already decided she couldn't ask to come home.
She knew it had rained. She could smell the dampness in the air, and as she dragged her suitcase with the red boot down the mud lane, her feet sank a little and there was no dust left to kick up on her shins. There was no television sound and no radio sound and no lights in any of the trailers. It made Sharla feel like she was in a dream. She wondered if she'd wake up and still be smelling garbage in the shed.
She was counting the trailer numbers in her head, number seven, number six, number five, and right then a breeze snuck up behind her and she smelled that sweet piss smell. She didn't know it was the little white flowers. She thought it was a dog, or maybe a trailer tank was broken because that happened sometimes. She even put her fingers to her own parts to see if she'd pissed herself and just didn't know it.
The moon pushed aside a cloud and it was suddenly so bright it might have been day if it weren't night. The moonglow pointed out Addy Shadd's long white trailer, number four, and the prim square of white flowers in front. Sharla looked at the trailer, hoping it was real.
There were three metal mesh steps up to the door, and Sharla could see them clearly in the bright night. She parked her suitcase on the ground and counted as she climbed, one, two, three. She put her ear up against the door. There was no sound at all. Sharla'd been told never to knock when a grown-up was sleeping, so she settled on the top mesh step, thinking how it'd mark a pattern on her thighs. She looked at the night sky and breathed in the piss smell she was already starting to feel fond of. She noticed the trailer beside, smaller than this one with torn sheets for curtains and a rusty old stove outside that kids kept plastic toys inside.
That old stove made her think of Emilio and the first time he came to the trailer. It was only a few months ago, Easter Sunday, but it seemed longer. The groundhog had lied because there was enough snow on the ground to make an angel and more flakes coming down. Collette was mad because her new shoes were white sandals and she'd taken the time to paint her toenails with the Reckless Red polish her friend Krystal scoffed for her at the drugstore.
Collette washed her hair with fruity shampoo, painted stripes of pink on her cheeks, and drew blue on her eyelids. Sharla thought her mother looked like a clown but didn't say so. She watched Collette pull on her soft purple sweater with the wide-open neck. Her mother said, "Fuck Fuck Fuck," when she squeezed into the blue jeans she used to wear before she had Sharla.
Krystal Trochaud came over from across the road to see how Collette looked. Krystal liked to be the boss and acted more like Collette's mother than her friend. She'd had a baby of her own last year but it died in the night. She called it "my crib death baby" and didn't seem as sad as you might expect.
Krystal looked Collette up and down as she puffed a Kool. "Them jeans give you camel toe."
Collette looked between her legs at the way the seam split her pussy lips like a cloven hoof and knew what Krystal meant. She went to change into a different pair, but put on her new sandals because they were just going to stay in the house all day anyway. Her heels went click-clickety-click on the linoleum.
Sharla was watching TV and eating chocolate malt balls shaped like Easter eggs. Krystal sat down beside her on the couch. She said, "Emilio's got a good job. Got a van too. Wouldn't that make a difference for getting groceries and whatever?"
Sharla pressed a malt ball to the roof of her mouth. "You better be nice to him, Sharla. Your butt's gonna be at foster care if Collette loses this trailer."
Sharla didn't want to be at foster care, so she sat up straight on the couch and stopped eating the malt balls, deciding she should give the rest to Collette's new boyfriend with the van.
The inside part of the oven was on and that was unusual because Collette mostly used the burners. It made the trailer hot, and when Sharla complained, Collette set her teeth and said, "Go put your fucking shorts on then."
Emilio was late. The trailer got hotter and hotter. Whatever was inside the oven was still pink. Sharla'd never seen it before but it smelled good, like something cooked in one of the red brick houses in Chatham. Sharla hoped they wouldn't have to wait till dark to eat the meat because the only thing in her stomach were a few chocolate malt balls.
There was no knock at the door. It scared Sharla when Emilio just walked right in and stood on the mat looking at her like she shouldn't be there. Emilio wasn't short but neither did he have to duck to get in the door. His head was shiny black waves and his face was a good one with round dark eyes and a not-too-big nose and thick red lips you might see on a pretty girl. Sharla liked the look of him, but he didn't like the look of her and she knew it.
Sharla made room for him on the sofa, and when he sat down, she gave him what was left of her malt balls, only four or five melty ones because she'd gotten so hungry waiting. Emilio looked in the bag and scratched his head, and he didn't say thank you or wasn't that thoughtful. He called, "Collette?! Hey, Collette, you know your kid's out here dressed like an idiot? There's snow on the ground and she's in goddamned summer shorts!"
When Collette came down the hall, Emilio got up off the couch. There was a mean look on his face but Collette didn't look scared. She kissed his mouth and said she was glad he was getting to know Sharla a little. Emilio and Collette kept on kissing, and when Emilio's tongue wormed out between his lips, Sharla turned away.
All the sudden, after waiting all day, that pink meat was coming out of the oven and set on the table with nothing else. Sharla was hungry. "We gonna eat?"
Collette's cheeks were red under the pink stripes. She hardly looked at her daughter. "Have a little ham to tide you over.We'll be back in a bit."
Sharla watched Emilio go down the long hall to Collette's bedroom and waited till the door closed. She turned the channel on the television, wishing for cartoons but there was only sports and news. She sat down at the table and tore at the ham with her fingers, loving the sweet burnt taste of it.
Sharla didn't know how long she'd been sitting there on Addy Shadd's step when the metal door screeched open behind her. She held her breath. She couldn't see any person in the trailer, but a voice came through the screen, deep as a man's and like she'd just swallowed pudding.
"You Sharla Cody?" was all the voice said before it opened the screen door to let her in. Sharla rose, but her legs buckled because of sitting so still and quiet for so long. She felt queasy, but the feeling eased up when she stepped inside.
The trailer was dark, but warm and thick with some smell Sharla didn't know. Sharla heard the sound of a match being struck and then there was a flame on a candle and a big shadow on the wall. The candle was set on the table and a chair dragged across the floor. The lady who sat down in the chair was not the one whose clothes she'd stolen from the line, and Sharla felt relieved.
Addy Shadd leaned her face toward the light and lit a long slim cigarette on the candle, saying, "You don't look atall like your Mama."
"I got a Dad. He just don't live with us" was all Sharla could think to respond.
The old lady crooked her finger at a chair across from her and said, "Sit down, Honey," in that thick pudding voice. Sharla took the chair and stared.
Addy Shadd's skin was the color of root beer, so wrinkled and stretched it looked like there was enough of it to cover two people. Her hair was sparkly white and unpinned to make a halo around her long face. On each side of that halo was the well of her ears, which were not just enormous, but stuck out from her head like wings. Her eyes were hooded and rheumy. Her nose was broad, with round nostrils that made flute sounds when she breathed out. The lines around her lips puckered like a bum when she smoked her cigarette.
Sharla liked the looks of Addy Shadd and thought how no one ever called her Honey before. She felt like she'd like to pat down Addy Shadd's sparkly white hair. She felt like she'd like to kiss Addy Shadd's pucker bum mouth and to sit in her skinny lap and bury her nose in the folds of her neck.
Addy Shadd took a long puff and blew the words out with the smoke. "Where you been, Honey?"
Sharla was puzzled by the question because Addy Shadd had just seen her sitting on the top step of the porch. Maybe the question was a trick. Sharla knew about tricks and getting smacked for the wrong answer. "Out there on the porch?"
Addy Shadd couldn't tell if Sharla was sassing but suspected she was so she didn't say Honey this time."Where you been before that?"
Sharla recalled slowly. "The shed?"
"You suppose to come this afternoon."
"I figured you'd be coming along tomorrow. I'd have called if I had a telephone."
"We don't got no telephone too."
Sharla nodded. "We're getting it back though."
"Where's your Mama?"
Sharla shrugged. "In Emilio's van?"
"Who brung you here?"
"She said I could go by myself."
"All by yourself ?"
"I know my numbers."
"That may be, but I never knew a Mama to send a child out in the middle of the night like that, did I?"
Sharla didn't answer because she didn't know what all Addy Shadd knew of mothers and their children. The old woman brought her cigarette to her mouth but a wracking cough stopped her from sucking on it.
Sharla allowed her eyes to leave the candle glow on the face of Addy Shadd and roam around the trailer. The walls were paneled in gray barn board and there were pictures here and there but she couldn't make them out in the dim light. There was a skinny hallway, not as long as Collette's, that led to a bathroom and back bedroom. The living room was up front, the kitchen in the middle, and that was about it.
On the shelf that separated the kitchen from the living room, there was a collection of salt'n'pepper shakers-cornstalks and green apples and red lobsters and entwined dolphins and Mounted Police and dancing ladies and pairs of everything under the sun. Sharla noticed the pullout couch with a big soft pillow and blue plaid blanket. She said out loud with a marvel Addy Shadd didn't quite catch, "I'm gonna live here."
"Did your Mama give you the envelope?"
Sharla thought of what Collette put inside the white plastic bag. "I don't think so."
"You're suppose to have an envelope for me."
"I don't have no envelope."
Addy Shadd suspected she was being played and didn't care for that, especially not at half past midnight when she'd waited and worried and wondered all day. She was not at all sure she wanted this fat sassy child living in her home.
"Well, you was suppose to bring an envelope with money for your food and your whatnot."
Sharla shrugged and tried to recall if Collette put a money envelope in that white plastic bag, and if she did, Fawn Trochaud was rich.
Addy Shadd coiled her lips around her cigarette. "Where's your things, Child?"
Addy Shadd's patience was used up. "Your things. Your things. Don't you have no suitcase, Miss Sassafrass?"
Sharla felt sick again. It took a full minute for her to remember she left her suitcase outside. She stood up and started out the door but came right back because she had to know, "You gonna let me back in though?"
Addy Shadd truly did not know what to make of this child and decided she was either simple or strange. Then she supposed simple or strange was all right as long as she wasn't sassy. She stood at the door and watched Sharla in the moonlight.
The child was school age, five or six. Addy couldn't quite recall what that white trash mother told her when she came knocking on her door just a few days ago. Collette sat down in the chair, crossed her pretty legs, folded her arms under her substantial bosom, and told Addy Shadd all about herself and her foreigner boyfriend but little about the child she wished to lodge. She said her boyfriend had been busted up in a car accident and needed time to recover. She said, "I just can't have Sharla around making noise all day when alls Emilio needs to do is sleep."
Looking at the young woman sitting across from her, Addy had a sudden, staggering recollection of her own youth. She remembered her own pretty legs and ample bosom and the certain way she'd walk to show herself off. How long had it been, she wondered, since she'd been admired, or done the admiring herself? "I understand," Addy'd said about Collette's situation, though she was naturally suspicious of the woman and her intentions.
Collette said, "I can give you a hundred dollars for two summer months. That's my baby bonus plus. Emilio's got his rugby Sundays so I can take her then, but not overnight."
"Rugby? How can your man play rugby if he's all busted up?" Collette fumbled, "Oh. Yeah. Well, he's just scorekeeping now. Anyways, it's just till Sharla starts school and I promise she won't bother you. Give her a bag of chips and send her outside."
All Addy Shadd could think is what kind of Mama asks a stranger to take care of her own baby girl? Collette knew what she was thinking, and she put her eyes on the floor. "I don't have family to go to or I would. My Mum died when I was nine years old and last time I saw my Dad he got the hose out after me, so."
"Why'd he get the hose out after you?"
"Him and Delia said I stole twenty dollars from the flour jar, which I did not."
Collette glanced at her watch and knew Emilio was waiting to go look for packing boxes. "I could probably find another fifteen dollars being there's still a few days left in June. I was hoping to move her over just as soon as you say. I could probably find another twenty."
Addy Shadd had already decided to take the child, and though it's true she could use the money, mostly she saw the child as a gift. She was seventy years old and had been alone for decades. She liked the idea of having a sweet little thing running in and out of her trailer.
But, Addy Shadd thought looking at her now, Sharla Cody was no sweet little thing. She was tall for her age with a funny shape to her. Her fat legs touched at the top and splayed out at her feet. She had a big rolly stomach and shorter-than-usual arms that stuck out instead of hanging from her shoulders. Her heavy head was propped up by a short thick neck, and her small eyes hid in a cave of lid and cheek. There was no sign of sweetness whatever in her expression. The one thing you might say was cute on Sharla was her nose, a little round button set just right over her plush crooked lips.
Collette never mentioned to Addy Shadd what Sharla looked like and it never occurred to her to ask. Collette also never mentioned that Sharla was mixed, but there was no question her Daddy was colored. Sharla's caramel skin didn't come from Collette, and neither did her tight coils of black hair. Addy Shadd knew firsthand about half-and-half children.
Sharla got her suitcase from where she parked it on the ground, and Addy Shadd watched her turn around in the moonlight and start back up the stairs. Sharla swayed on her legs. She had bubbles of sweat on her lip and was feeling all the hotter because she just came in from a breeze. She set the suitcase down and it fell over on its side. "Shit."
Addy Shadd felt her smacking hand itch. "Didn't your Mama teach you not to cuss?"
Sharla shook her head but it made her feel dizzy and confused. The old woman pointed at the suitcase. "Open it up, Child. Likely your Mama put my envelope in there." Sharla shook her head. "There ain't no envelope in there."
Addy Shadd got serious. "If you did something with that money and you are lying to me now, you're going straight back to your Mama and that boyfriend of hers and I won't never think of you again. You understand?"
Sharla said nothing, so Addy Shadd lifted the suitcase up to the table, unbuckled the strap and opened it up. She looked at the red rubber boot and she looked at Sharla and back at the boot. Collette Cody was either simple or just dog mean. "That's all she sent you with? That's all you brung? One dirty old red boot?"
Sharla was much too tired to explain about the white plastic bag and the clothesline and the smoking lady. She hadn't eaten a thing all day and she could feel her kneecaps shifting on her leg bones. She looked at Addy Shadd's foggy eyes in the candlelight and opened her mouth to speak, but she must have blown the candle out because everything went dark.
Addy Shadd didn't have the quickness in her old body to catch the little girl before she fell unconscious and hit her head on the salt'n'pepper shaker shelf. She cursed Collette for knocking on her door and cursed herself for thinking a stranger's child could bring her anything but grief. She nearly cursed Sharla too, but when she saw the little girl's head was bleeding, she winched herself up on her lean old legs.
It was just a habit that Addy Shadd flipped the switch in the tiny bathroom, but when the light came on she realized the power was back and it felt like a miracle. She grabbed a soft, embroidered hand towel from under the sink, then opened the medicine cabinet and found a box of bandages and the orange iodine.
Back in the kitchen the old woman turned on the light and saw that her Mountie pepper shaker, her wheatsheaf salt, and her dolphin pair were all broken on the ground near Sharla's head. She got to her knees, took Sharla's little brown hand, and was relieved to find a strong steady pulse.
Addy Shadd guided the big head of springy curls onto her own narrow lap, not caring about the blood on her thin nightdress. She tunneled through the thick coils with her nicotine fingers and stopped when she found a goose egg. There was a gash on the swell, small but deep. She held the edge of her good towel there until the bleeding stopped, then she dabbed some orange iodine and tried to cover it with a medium-size bandage that wouldn't stick.
Addy Shadd stayed on the floor, absently stroking Sharla's soft cheek. She thought of her whole long life and all the times she'd seen a person go unconscious and tried to remember what all got done for them. She recalled when her brother Leam got kicked in the head by that ugly horse on Mr. Kenny's farm in Rusholme. He slept two days straight then woke up smelling asparagus, which wasn't even in season. She recalled when she fell out of the apple tree in the backyard and lost her sense of words for a full day. She also recalled, though she wished she hadn't, what happened at the river with Chester Monk. She quickly pushed Chester Monk and Rusholme from her mind and focused on the child.
Sharla's wound wasn't too serious but she shouldn't be moved, was the conclusion Addy came to. The other conclusion was that she was taking Sharla Cody back to her mother in the morning. She'd been crazy to accept responsibility for the child, and she could see now it would never work.
Addy Shadd rose again, and with all the up and down tonight, she was glad she'd gotten the winter rust out of her bones working her little garden out back and tending her white flowers in the square out front. She gathered up the blue plaid blanket and the soft pillow from the pullout couch and brought them to where Sharla lay still and quiet on the kitchen floor. She tucked the pillow under Sharla's head and put the blanket over her.
As Addy Shadd was set to rise, Sharla opened her eyes."Mum?"
"Shh. Close your eyes now."
"I know. Close your eyes, Honey."
"Smells like Ivory soap."
"Shh now, Honey. Shh."
Sharla looked at the old woman directly. "I wish you was my Mum."
"You got a Mama, little girl."
"You could be my Mum though. Mum." Sharla closed her eyes, and because it felt good rolling off her sleepy tongue, said it once more, "Mum."
Addy Shadd cleaned the broken china pieces from beside Sharla's slumbering head. When she was finished, the old woman pushed herself up and sat down in a hardback kitchen chair. She watched the big little girl sleeping on the floor, and though she knew she might regret it, she allowed her thoughts to return to Rusholme.
© 2002 Lori Lansens
A dazzling and heartbreaking debut about two unlikely people who change each other's lives forever.
When Addy Shadd was a young girl living in Rusholme, she was taught the history of her town, which was settled by fugitive slaves in the 1800s. It was told to her like a storybook legend-and although Addy is forced to leave her beloved home as a teenager, the place will call to her for the rest of her life. She thinks of it as a commandment: "Rush home, Addy Shadd. Thou shalt rush home." But the stories and memories of Addy's past have been buried deep in her seventy-year-old heart-memories that are by turns dark and poignant, erotic and mysterious.
When five-year-old Sharla Cody is abandoned on Addy's trailer-park doorstep, the old woman doesn't know if she is up to the task of mothering the willful, curious child. But she takes the little girl into her home, and Sharla opens a door to Addy's pastto memories of the strawberry fields, the church graveyard, and the tender crust of her Mama Laisa's apple pies. Addy remembers the bootleggers, and life in Detroit City, and the shocking encounter she witnessed in the shadows one unforgettable night. She remembers her childhood sweetheart Chester Monk, and the three-layered white cake decorated with candy rosebuds that she made for her little girl, Chick. The past returns to Addy Shadd, and as she sits in her trailer she can close her eyes and "see the county farms and city streets and recall each season of death and rebirth." Somehow, Sharla Cody helps Addy make sense of her long and hard life so she can find forgiveness-and finally make the journey home again.
Lyrically written and brilliantly structured, Rush Home Road is an unforgettable story about the redeeming power of love and memory.
Amazon readers rating: from 1 review(back to top)
was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, and is now a screenwriter living
in Toronto with her husband and child.
Bibliography (with links to Amazon.com):