Attributes of a Proper Southern House

“I’d always wanted a daddy who spoke in pastel clouds instead of white-hot lightning.”

A lake in the mist

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Her house was wrapped in blue-gray shingles. A house of stiff ruffles and pleats. Three cement steps led to her front door. Shallow flowerbeds stretched from either side. Day lilies, orange and white. Nothing else. Staggered bricks bordered the lilies and provided shelter for hundreds of roly-poly families. It was my favorite place, the front of her house.

The man came to see her every Saturday afternoon when her bathroom still smelled like Pine-Sol, and her windows were open to air out her unused rooms. She had an air-conditioner that worked so I didn’t see why she would ever want to open her windows.

When I asked her about it, she told me that proper southern houses needed to be aired out weekly, weather permitting, of course.

The air in my house rushed out through every possible opening, torn screens, the busted slats in our attic fan, unsealed doors … more kept coming in to keep us alive and breathing. It was uncertain but predictable. One day, cool and calm. The next, humid and agitated. You could just wake up and tell how the day was going to go. It was already in the air before you took your first breath.

A bottle of champagne was always nestled in the crook of the man’s arm like a sleeping baby. He stopped and smiled at me once, told me it was real champagne, from France, not American sparkling wine, pretending to be champagne. I liked the kind way he smiled, how his words looped as if they were ribbons, spelling out his thoughts before my eyes. Violet, pink, and tangerine were the colors of his voice. He spoke in sunsets.

Every time the cork popped, Sam Cooke would start singing “Bring it on Home to Me.” Her bedroom curtains would flutter, white lace dancing above my head while I danced through the flower beds with handfuls of roly-poly partners, always careful not to trample her lilies.

Laughter and muffled voices would mix with the music and I would hold my hand in the air, whisper, “Cheers,” bring an invisible glass of champagne to my lips, and then toss my head back, my laughter silent, but my enjoyment of the party just as real as if they’d actually invited me in. Until later, when their other sounds drifted out to me. That’s when I would reset the bricks and go on home.

When I grew up, I was going to live in a proper southern house, and I’d turn off my air conditioner and let the air go out once a week, weather permitting, of course, but all the new air that came in would be just as nice as the air it replaced. And real champagne bubbles would flicker like fireflies in my fancy drinking glasses. I would have better flowers than plain old lilies, but there would definitely be bricks around them. Mine wouldn’t be so crooked.

One Saturday, when the weather would’ve graciously permitted, she didn’t open her windows. He didn’t pull his big car onto her oyster shell driveway, walk past me, cradling the real champagne, smile his nice smile, or send his radiant words across the warm breeze. Sam Cooke didn’t sing that afternoon.

When evening crept in, she came out of her house, wearing a yellow dress, and holding a square black purse on her arm. Her neck and shoulders were fixed like a statue.

“He didn’t come see you today,” I said. My hands carved a path for her through the roly-poly convention I’d assembled on her bottom step.

“Did someone hire you to mind my business?” She stepped past me.

“Are you going out to buy yourself some champagne?”

“Don’t be stupid, child. Go home.” She turned back to me before she got into her car. “Clean those bugs off my steps before you go. And quit coming over here messing up my damn flowerbeds, you disrespectful, little brat. Maybe you actually deserve all those whippings you get.”

I watched her drive away, and then I raised a brick and brought it down on the cement again and again and again, leaving behind clods of dirt, and a roly-poly massacre. Hot tears stung my eyes and I understood what had happened. The man stopped coming to see her because she had turned mean. I stood and let the brick fall, leaving it in broken chunks on top of the dirty bug guts.

Before I left, I upended another brick and hurled it through her bedroom window. I hoped the shattered glass had ripped her pretty lace curtains, and that the dirt would leave a permanent stain on her rug.

She took to glaring at me whenever she saw me after that, but she never said a word about what I did with her bricks.

I spent a whole summer of Saturdays sitting at the edge of my dirt patch of a yard, waiting for the smell of Pine-Sol to float my way. Sometimes, I would let my toes creep over into her grass and I’d wiggle them there just to spite her.

Once, I thought I saw his car coming down the road, and I jumped right up and brushed my shorts clean, but it wasn’t him.

She still played her records in the late afternoon. Otis Redding. Etta James. I’d cross my fingers for Sam Cooke every time, but she never played him anymore. That’s okay, I thought. Sam probably don’t like you anymore either, you mean old hag. I raised my hand in the air and brought an invisible glass to my lips. “Cheers,” I whispered, but I didn’t bother with the pretend laugh.

I yanked all her lilies out of the ground while she was at church one Sunday morning. I tossed them on our burn pile and I didn’t feel sorry about it, not one bit. Two days later, I went back while she was at work and I kicked over all her bricks. I took one home with me and put in my closet so when she restacked them, she’d come up short. I prayed that weeds would grow so fast in her flowerbeds she’d never be able to pull them all.

And I prayed her house wouldn’t get aired out right anymore, and it would stop being a proper southern house after all.

It was early fall and my toes were buried in her grass when the world’s loudest pop of a champagne cork snapped my spine straight. I hadn’t even realized she’d opened her windows yet. I sat up and sucked in a chest full of humidity and hope. Would this be the day she’d play Sam again? I crossed my fingers, squeezed my eyes shut, and whispered, “Bring it on home to, me. Please.”

Heck, if she was drinking champagne again, I figured things must be finally getting back to normal for her. Maybe they could get back to normal for me, too.

I ran inside to wash my face because I didn’t want to have sweaty dirt streaks on my cheeks when his beautiful words curled toward me. He would probably tell her they should invite me inside to toast with them this time, because he would want me there when he asked her to marry him.

And then he’d tell her that he’d always wanted a little girl. I wouldn’t even correct him and tell him I wasn’t exactly a little girl anymore, having just had my 10th birthday. I’d stay quiet because I’d always wanted a daddy who spoke in pastel clouds instead of white-hot lightning.

She’d be so happy that she would want me, too. She would forgive me for the window and the lilies. I would forgive her for all her meanness. She would show me my new bedroom and I would take a deep breath of pine-scented air. And then we would all laugh, and dance together. They might even give me a sip of champagne. I changed into my dress, just in case.

But Sam didn’t sing that day either. And the man didn’t come. It was two whole days before anyone came. A lady I’d never seen before kept banging on the door and yelling, “Rosalyn! Rosalyn, are in there?” She saw me sitting at the edge of the yard and she shouted, “When was the last time you saw Ms. Jacobs?”

I shrugged. And then the sirens came.

When her grown daughter arrived, it wasn’t to visit her mother. It was to take furniture out of the house. She brought two men with her and they took it all, even the record player. And a box marked: RECORDS. I wished I could’ve told her that her mom didn’t even like Sam Cooke anymore by the time she died. Maybe she would’ve given that one to me. But I couldn’t say anything, just sat there and watched, with my toes clenched around cool blades of her grass.

After they left, I walked across her yard and up the steps. The door was unlocked; nothing left to take so, why bother, I guess. I’d never been inside her house before. I opened all the windows so it could air out because I knew she would never want it to be so musty. Her daughter didn’t take the lace curtains. They weren’t even ripped. They were perfect. I jerked on them until the flimsy rod pulled away from the wall and fell into my arms.

On the kitchen windowsill, the sun glinted off the edges of a green, cut-glass vase, three-quarters of the way full with champagne corks. I took that, too.

Back in my room, I shoved the lace curtains to the bottom of my closet next to the brick, and dumped the corks out onto the floor.

I sat cross-legged and spread them out, rolling them under my hands, mixing them up like dominos. Shaking them bones, stopping every now and then to hold one up and wonder.

Was this the one that killed her?

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Comments

  1. Incredibly evocative short story, capturing so much Southern detail. Loved the subtlety of the ending. Great job!

  2. Ms. Cornelison, your writing has style by the mile; my goodness. “And real champagne bottles would flicker like fireflies in my fancy drinking glasses.”

    It’s an interesting story that has elements of 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” I recently caught on PBS. I can picture beautiful Elizabeth Taylor shouting “And quit coming over here messing up my damn flowerbeds, you disrespectful little brat!” This, to one her horrid nieces or nephews, then summoning Big Daddy for punishment assistance.

    Everyone, please add YOUR comments on this unique little story!

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