The air conditioner hummed and rattled and dripped. Marlie stepped out of the cool, dark interior of her aunt’s house into the blaring heat and sunlight of a Georgia July day. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and nobody but animals and children out of school went outside. Lyda Thompson’s little ginger and white mutt-dog Waylon ran up to the fence: Hey! Hey! I’m a big dog! Marlie thought, No you’re not. Hush.
Marlie had finished the sixth grade but was not grown up enough to want to stay inside. She scooted around the house to where she’d set a milk jug full of water in the shade under the side porch. She picked it up; it felt cool and heavy in her hand.
The front doorknob turned and squeaked. Marlie ducked around the oak tree that shaded and shielded the yard. Aunt Louisa stood in the door with the air conditioner blowing. “Marlie! Marlieeeee! You come back inside and put on some decent clothes. I got things for you to do.” No answer. Marlie leaned against the tree bark and kept still, the cool weight of water in plastic on her belly. Screen door, an aluminum click, then the inside door, squeak and thump. Marlie waited; sometimes Louisa got crafty and looked out the window.
Marlie knocked a little black ant off her shirttail. She pushed away from the tree and launched down the sidewalk, switching the heavy jug from one hand to the other when her fingers started to hurt. She walked along Meredith Street until she reached the city limit sign where the street quit having a name. She stopped to look at Parker’s, what her aunt called the dime store, but did not go in. She put her hand in her pocket: two pennies, a nickel, twine, and a couple of straws pulled out of her aunt’s broom. Seven cents would not buy her a paintbrush that was any better than the ones she already had. Marlie kicked a piece of gravel which went skittering over the pavement. A bitter smell rose up with the heat.
She turned the corner to walk along the two-lane highway. It had been the tourist route to Florida until the Interstate had been built and traffic went elsewhere. Marlie jumped the ditch, swinging the water so she wouldn’t drop it, and walked through weeds and brambles up to her own house. She tried to remember how it looked when she lived in it, but from the outside it was derelict: window boards and flaking paint and gray weathered wood.
The house was built plain and severe, a farmer’s house for a farmer’s family. What grace it had came from careful, sturdy thrift. High narrow windows, tight joins, every board and ten-penny nail precise and meticulous, a home built by people who saved everything.
Marlie tapped each step with a red canvas sneaker before she put her full weight on it, and her soles squeaked on the gray boards of the broad front porch. She pulled the padlock on the door. It was locked and she knew it, but she made sure every time.
She pulled the twine out of her pocket, then sat down and threaded it through the jug handle before tying it in a doubled loop big enough to go over her shoulder. A big magnolia tree grew so close to the side of the house that branches and glossy leaves fell onto the porch roof, and she could climb ladder branches straight up one at a time. The magnolia bark was slick and sometimes came off in chunks, and the branches weren’t strong. The big white flowers smelled like lemonade and attracted fat bees who did not bother her, but a paper wasp had stung her one time as she clambered onto the roof. There was nowhere to run, so she gritted her teeth and stood it. Tears rolled down her face and her head spun but she didn’t let go.
Marlie climbed, one careful limb after another, slow and smooth so the swinging weight of water wouldn’t pull her down, up beyond the height of the porch. Her feet touched the porch roof, toes and then heels. One window, hidden by the hulk of magnolia, was un-boarded and unlocked. Marlie braced her legs sideways on the porch roof and leaned in to raise the window. She held onto the window frame and scooted in, dragging the milk jug until she could set it on the sill, putting her feet down on the floor of her parents’ bedroom.
It was bare and grimy. The smell of cobwebs and mildew hung in the air with motes of dust. Marlie would sometimes imagine the room as it ought to be, the four-poster bed with its soft chenille bedspread to her right, the dresser against the opposite wall, her mother’s ceramic-backed hand mirror set neatly on top of it, a spinning wheel in the corner refinished and put there for show. Marlie’s mother used to find old chests, chifforobes, tables, hand-me-downs, pieces of junk, and clean them up into treasures. Marlie could remember the sharp smell of solvents and paint, the intriguing mess spread over newspapers on the back porch, the process of shabby and broken becoming new. All those things were gone, dragged across the careful finish on the floor and sold. The rest of the house was empty and grimy and marred like the bedroom, but Marlie could remember every detail of what it had looked like. Some days she would sit and imagine the dark wood furniture, the braided rugs, the pictures on the wall, the thump of her father’s heavy feet, and the smell and clatter of her mother cooking supper. On those days, she might leave without ever looking.
Today she hurried across the room to the door, water in her hand. She brushed her fingers along the gritty wall as she descended narrow stairs which creaked under her feet. In a corner at the foot of the stairs was a small wooden cabinet left there when the rest of the furniture was hauled out. Marlie opened it and surveyed her treasure. Plastic trays of watercolors, crayons, chalk, brushes, little jars of tempera, a charcoal pencil, and wrinkled tubes of acrylic paint. Marlie gathered up two brushes, red, white, yellow, and black tubes of paint, and a teacup with the handle broken off which she had fished out of Aunt Louisa’s trashcan. She carried them all into the dining room, where there was a little light.
Two walls were covered with a fantastic mural, pictures of anything and everything — what Marlie saw, what she imagined, what she remembered. When she first came, she painted what made her happy: families, houses, fat yellow suns, portraits of dogs, cats, and flowers. Aunt Louisa did not appear. As time went on, she made clearer and clearer depictions of horses, snakes, rainbows, streams with waterfalls, mysterious holes in the ground with eyes gleaming out of them, and other interesting things. Cows in a field full of improbable daisies, an old car with rounded fenders and a flat roof, a little black salamander with white irregular spots. In one corner was a painting of her mother brushing her red-auburn hair. There was something awkward about the elbows, and the face was half-obscured. Marlie had no photograph to draw from, so she made her mother’s face shadowy rather than get it wrong.
Her newest painting was of a fox she’d seen in the woods behind the house. She opened up her tubes of acrylics, put dabs on a board she used for a palette, and poured a little water into the teacup. She used a wide soft brush for the fox’s coat, orange, brown, streaks of black in the fur and on the legs, nose, tail tip and ear tips, white underneath. A smaller brush made the eyes knowing yellow. The fox was poised on three slim feet, its full black-tipped auburn tail held out behind it and its muzzle uplifted. It looked ready to disappear into the grass she painted behind it, but Marlie was not happy. For the fox to look alive, its eyes must glitter with the reflection of life. White paint disappeared quickest, and she still had some but didn’t have a paintbrush small enough. She pulled a straw out of her pocket and put another tiny dab of white paint on the board; she dipped the straw into the paint and added gleam to the fox’s eyes one thin stroke at a time.
The slats of light coming in through gaps in the window boards had crept across the floor, and it was late afternoon. Marlie poured water from the teacup into a bucket, rinsed the teacup with a little more water, cleaned her brushes, and put everything away. She went up the stairs, climbed out the window, and left her house.
When Marlie came in through the kitchen door, Aunt Louisa was wiping her hands on her apron. “Where have you been all this time? I’ve told you and told you not to run off when I need you. Set that table, it’s almost time to eat.” Marlie put dishes and utensils on the table, thinking about fox fur. Louisa looked at the clock and got two dollars out of her big brown and tan pocketbook. “Run down to the store and get a gallon of milk. I’ll have supper on the table by the time you get back, so don’t hang around looking at comic books. Scoot, now.” Marlie accepted the two dollars and went out the door.
At the grocery store she marched directly to the dairy products with only a passing glance at School Supplies, where there were no paintbrushes. She picked up the first gallon of milk that came to hand and made her way towards the cash register, detouring past the magazine rack where she spotted the yellow border and white letters of National Geographic. The cover said “Exploring the Mind of Ice Age Man.” It was an article about the cave paintings at Lascaux. She stood hipshot with the heel of one red sneaker resting on the arch of the other foot as she flipped through the pages for every detail of the finely drawn portraits of bison, elk, and wild horses. On the way to her house she had seen a horse running with its ears and tail up. With reddish brown and white chalk and some charcoal, she could make a drawing like the ones in the magazine.
Marlie finally put National Geographic back, paid for the milk, and pocketed a dime of the change with her nickel and two pennies. On the way back, she looked for the fox. Maybe she could get some fur and see what it looked like up close. She wondered if you could make a paint brush from fox fur and a stick. Back in her aunt’s kitchen, she handed over the gallon jug and the change, minus a dime, to her aunt. “Took you long enough. Supper’s ready.”
Aunt Louisa ladled out vegetable soup she had been making by stages all afternoon. “I don’t know why it is you have to run around in rags all the time, when you got clothes hanging up in your closet only get worn one time before they’re too small.” Marlie looked at her soup. She liked to wear her old clothes because they didn’t give away where she’d been. New clothes were tattletales; they showed when she went scrambling unladylike through woods and other interesting places, while one rip more or less in her old things was not admissible as evidence.
“Go put on something decent to sit down at the table in at least. That pink outfit would be nice.”
Pink is a baby color, thought Marlie. Nonetheless she got up and went to her bedroom. She passed through what her aunt called “the parlor” where the smell of cigarette smoke hung in the air.
Marlie hurried into the recommended flowered pink blouse and solid pink skirt. “And brush your hair!”
Marlie ran her fingers through her hair and went back into the kitchen. She sat down in the patched vinyl chair opposite her aunt and proceeded to eat her soup and biscuits. After the last drop of soup had been coaxed out of the bowl, she looked at her aunt. “What’s that smell in there?”
“A man came today to talk about buying the old house on the highway. He offered a good price for it. He wants to buy up all that property along there and put in a subdivision.”
Marlie froze. She thought the house was her own secret, like the pictures she painted or the play-acting that her family still lived there. She jumped up from the table. “No! No! No! No!”
“Young lady, you listen here. I work hard as I can, but I want you to go to college after you get out of high school, and I can’t save up enough for that. That house is just sitting there rotting to pieces, no good to nobody, and Mr. Greer offered me a good price for it and the land that goes with it.” There was a pause, and Louisa heaved a sigh. “Honey, it breaks my heart to think of tearing that house down. I was born in that house, did you know that? Just like your daddy. But I can’t keep it up, and nobody around here wants to buy it or live in it. So Mr. Greer it is.”
Marlie stood as still as her painted fox, staring at her aunt. Then she turned and vanished into her room.
Louisa sat listening to the clock tick and the air conditioner hum. She began to clear the table, wash the dishes and put them away. It was Marlie’s job, but tonight Louisa declined to flush Marlie out of her room just to get the chores done.
She signed the papers for the sale of the house as Marlie’s guardian. She put the check she received in a bank account in Marlie’s name. Marlie stayed gone as much as she could, haunting the grocery store, listening to gossip, visiting the house every day she got the chance. She sidled in one day to find Aunt Louisa talking to Lyda Thompson in the kitchen.
“Go comb your hair, Marlie, and wash your face. And put something else on. You look like you rolled in the briar patch.” Marlie retreated, but her aunt’s voice carried. “That child. Nice clothes hanging in the closet, and she looks like somebody just found her in the woods and brought her home. Where’d all them scratches come from?”
“Law, she’s that age. She’ll start caring soon enough. Clothes and makeup and boys and perfume. Hair rollers and high-heeled shoes. She’ll run you crazy, Louisa, and you’ll be wishing she didn’t care for none of it.”
“Hm. I wish she’d say two words to anybody, boy or not. She don’t misbehave, don’t get me wrong, but her mind is always up in the clouds. What am I supposed to do about that? Get on to her for being too quiet?”
“She looks just like her mama.”
Marlie took to hiding her favorite clothes under her “good” clothes. She would change in the woods then change back before Louisa saw her, combing the leaves out of her foxy hair with her fingers. She grew even more adept at skulking and listening, until she learned the day her house would be torn down.
She crept out before dawn with a paper sack, the kind with handles. She went a different way this time, cutting straight through the woods, and climbed the magnolia tree in foggy dim morning light, feeling her way by touch and habit through the bedroom and downstairs to the cabinet. She put her paints and brushes and chalk and the teacup in the bag, then hurried up the stairs. She was cautious descending the tree but slipped the last few feet, skinned her hands and dropped the bag. The contents spilled out and the teacup bounced on the ground. Marlie picked it all up and made for the woods where she hid the bag in a stump then circled back to the thicket where the fox had been to crouch there under the tangle of vines and bushes.
Presently trucks and men with tools appeared and set about destruction. Mr. Greer paced and smoked. “Don’t waste time salvaging lumber. If the fire marshall’d let me, I’d just burn the place.” When they found the mural, the men exclaimed and laughed over it, then shrugged under Mr. Greer’s watchful eye and pulled it down. Underneath the sheetrock were fragments of paper over wooden boards, the bare bones of the house. Most of the pictures became bent jigsaw pieces with ragged edges, thrown into trucks with the rest of the house to be hauled away and dumped. One of the men saved the fox picture, almost entirely whole, and set it aside. “I like it,” he said. “Looks just like a fox.”
Soon there was nothing but foundation, a rubble of pipes, and debris. Mr. Greer said, “I’ll bring in a bulldozer tomorrow to clear that out.”
Marlie sat for a long time, until the men and trucks were well gone. She stood up finally and edged out to poke through the rubble, looking but not finding anything. Soon she turned back and scrambled through the brush deeper into the woods. She knew she’d be in trouble when she got back to Aunt Louisa’s house, so she decided not to go back just yet. She crossed trails she knew and parts she didn’t looking for the fox, hoping to find a cave, where she could draw on the walls and it would last 10,000 years.
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