The Mouth on Her
Orlinda is a cramped and itchy place to live. That’s what she has always told me. Cross Plains has all the schools, and all the jobs are across the highway in Portland. North of here is the Kentucky line. Drive south an hour and you hit Nashville, where you can find work and music, but along with all that you get liars and cheats and righteous fools. She hated it down there and swore never to go back. So for now we live here.
She says Orlinda may be a small place to live, but it’s an even smaller place to be from. She tells me I was lucky to be born far from here, on the shores of a Great Lake. For forever I thought that meant I was born right there on the shore, like I came out of her right onto the sand or some rocks. But now I know that it happened to us at a hospital, just like anybody.
I don’t remember living anywhere else, but she says I’m lucky all the same. She carried me—first inside her belly, then afterward wrapped tight in a quilted sling—down the long shores of those Great Lakes. The sharp cold winds would whip at her. She would open her mouth to let the freezing air burn her tongue, her throat, her lungs. In all those towns where she tried to live, before I came, she says that she was only ever trying to get right there, to whatever those walks—and those winds off the water—had done for her, or to her. When she tells the story, she might say it either way.
For now, we rent a two-room outbuilding behind the Russells’ farmhouse. Long rows of tobacco stretch out from our house on three sides, and on the fourth side is a long sloping field. You can walk down a good way through that high grass before you reach the neighbors’ pasture, where you can make faces and moo at the dairy cows.
When we first moved into this place, I walked the Russells’ tobacco rows like I imagine that she walked those shores, the wind waving the crops up and down like I guessed it would do to the water. But then I would come dragging back toward our house, my lungs rasping and my throat swelling. Then she would have to grab me up, toss me into the car, and speed into Cross Plains, where she’d yell and pound on Dr. Murphy’s front door until he came out and worked fast to fix me, to pry open my throat in time.
This kept happening until she struck up a deal with Cal—the only crop duster whose territory covers Orlinda—to call us at home whenever he’s fixing to buzz any acreage near the Russell place.
“Bring her inside, Rhonna,” I can hear him say whenever his big voice booms through the phone mounted on the wall above our kitchen table. Her voice changes then, when she hears that it’s Cal. Her voice drops into a rough-sounding purr. She teases him: how inconsiderate, this crazy pilot schedule of his. Doesn’t he understand that we have some serious sunbathing to do today? That now she’ll have to shut her girl up indoors and lie out there all by her lonesome? That, right now as they are speaking, she has already changed into her bikini? So she might as well go on out by herself, she says. And he might could spot her down there on the ground when he flies low over the house. If he cared to look for her, she could not stop him.
We moved out here as an experiment. Mr. Russell needed extra cash so he rigged up this place to rent. Our house is only two rooms. Really, it’s one room split down the middle and the corner of one side—the side where we sleep—boxed in to hide a bathroom. Because Mr. Russell fixed up our house himself, it’s arranged differently than you might be picturing. He would enjoy telling you how he did his own wiring. He put all our outlets in a row down the center wall, and the phone jack, too. Whenever she takes a call that she doesn’t want me to hear, she’ll stretch the long curlicued yellow cord (a double-length one she found at Portland Hardware) straight across the center of the kitchen and outside, shutting the cord in the doorjamb. She leans her back against our front door, chatting away, and we both pretend I can’t hear a word she says.
One section of the phone cord is stretched out permanently now, flattened where the doorjamb presses it. That flattened part is the exact width of my hand. When she and I sit at our table by the fridge, eating our egg-free noodles or our bowls of soup, the cord always dangles off my side. She can’t see below the table where I like to hold hands with the cord, that stretched part just my size.
When she talks to someone a long time, she drags a folding picnic chair right up beside the door and settles in. Then the cord is stretched across the middle of the room. I have a great time with that cord. I hum Limbo Rock and scoot myself underneath it, my spine arched way back and eyes up to the ceiling. Or I try to get the cord spinning round and round like a jump rope, but the loop it makes is never big enough for me to jump through and I wipe out every time. Or if it’s stretched right at the height of my face, I might chew the cord a little—it tastes cool and rubbery, and it has just the right amount of give under my teeth.
Same goes for the cord to our stereo headphones. But sometimes she pulls the whole system outdoors, and we set up the speakers facing away from the Russells’ house and toward the long flat field rows. She likes to dance but says our house is too small. She also says that a good night sky should never be wasted. So we turn off all the house lights and crank up the speaker volume, and we shake our shimmies in the tobacco.
One time our dancing made a bad mess of some of the plants. We blamed it on coyotes that came out from nowhere to feast on some hamburger we left outside overnight. Mr. Russell just nodded, and we never talked about it again. That dancing night she’d gotten hold of a new record so important that the date when she could finally buy it was written on a note held to our fridge by magnet. After we’d danced to this record in the fields and she’d listened to it nonstop for a week, she added scribbled-on bits of notebook paper up there below that first note. Hold my life, I recognized as the title of a song. Until I’m ready to use it. Our fridge has a lot of magnets on it because we have a lot of things we need to remember.
But on top of the fridge, way out of my reach, she keeps her most prized, secret, and dangerous stuff—things that are hers alone and not for me to touch, ever. Up there near the ceiling she keeps her cigarettes and lighter, bottles of poison for rats and bugs, a locked metal box of papers that can prove who we are, a coffee canister stuffed with her Shoney’s tips, a pair of blue-glass wine goblets that she bought herself long ago in Chicago. Then there’s the collection of things that other people have given her. Gold earrings and necklace from her mother. Letters that her grandparents wrote each other during the war. A box of fancy ribbon candy that Cal brought her as a peace offering after he took his wife on a cruise. And up there she keeps the foods that most people would never think twice about eating but if I try, they can kill me.
One morning I am heading down the unplanted side of the Russell property, on my way to see the neighbors’ cows, when I hear someone behind me yell my name. The Russells’ grandson, Ethan, is running to catch up with me. Because he is their only grandchild and because their only son gave up the farm to become a lawyer in Nashville, the Russells say his name, Ethan, like it is some kind of sacred charm. He’s got a city person name, and the way he always talks to me when he visits makes me think he knows it, too.
“Where are you going?” Ethan asks, still breathing loud from running.
“To the cows,” I say. “I think they miss me when I don’t come. I think they don’t know what to do with themselves. If I stopped coming, they might start a riot. No, a stampede.”
“Do you milk them or something?”
“I talk with them across the fence. I don’t pet them. I used to try, but my eyes always swelled shut.”
Ethan frowns and nods like he is my doctor. “There’s a lot you can’t do.”
“I do everything.”
We are approaching a giant oak tree that marks the halfway point between our house and the cow pasture. An old black iron fence surrounds this tree, and inside that fence is a tiny graveyard. We open the rusted fence gate and walk around the headstones. They all lean a little, some forward, some backward. This graveyard is my favorite place to be, even better than the cow fence.
“I’m the last son of all these dead people,” Ethan says, plopping his palm onto one of the stones with a loud slap. “Someday I’ll own all their bones.”
I kneel down in front of one of the headstones—Odell Farley Russell. I push against Odell’s forward-leaning stone, trying to set it upright. It doesn’t budge.
Ethan changes the subject. “Is it true that you and your mom had to move way out here because everywhere you go, you almost die?”
I squint up at him. The sun over his shoulder blinds me, and I turn back to Odell and his stone. “I go where I want.”
“But there’s a lot you can’t eat, right?”
“Some stuff. Eggs. Nuts. Strawberries. Shrimps. Sugar cane.”
“You mean candy cane,” he says. “They’re called candy canes.”
I act like I don’t listen to Ethan, but secretly I memorize every word he says. Ethan has ridden in airplanes. He wears a necktie every day to his private school. At home he has cable in his bedroom, even the pay stations. So I do listen. I’m no fool.
When I get back to our house, I disappear under the kitchen table. She may keep her treasures out of reach above the fridge, but I keep mine below. In a cookie tin crammed between the fridge and the wall, I store the things I most want to remember. Sometimes I think they are ghosts that already haunt the future. They know what they will mean, even if I don’t yet. A stone I dug out from the tobacco rows. An empty inhaler. A pink spongy curler, strands of her hair caught in its plastic clasp. And now the quarter that I watched fall onto the ground as Ethan drew his hand out of his pocket.
I line each one of them up on the floor, tiny ghosts in a parade. They are leading me somewhere, I know.
Whenever Cal flies over us, I press my face against the windows. He flies his plane—yellow, with blue stripes—lower than you might be thinking is possible to do without crashing into the ground. Cal doesn’t crash. He dips low, spraying the tobacco rows, then swoops up into thrilling turns. One day earlier this summer, I couldn’t take it anymore—being shut up inside while he dipped and then soared right over our roof. I took off out the door, chasing the shadow of the plane racing in front of me on the ground. You know what happened. She was working lunch shift at Shoney’s that day, so Mrs. Russell was the one who rushed me off to Dr. Murphy in time.
That night, Cal dropped by our house in his green pickup. He had seen me down there, but by then it was too late—the spray was already released into the air. He couldn’t stand knowing that while I was chasing his plane I was chasing poison too.
“She looked just like Cary Grant down there,” he said, making her laugh when she had been looking almost as pale and shaken up as I did. The swelling in one of my eyes had gone down enough that I could spy his hand curled firm around her upper arm, like it fit there, like he could hold her upright just on the strength of that grip.
When she was living so far away, and home was just something to speak of late at night while sitting with friends on the rooftops of bars, naming me Orlinda was romantic, hopeful. Once we returned, though, that choice seemed a little pathetic. So I’m Orli now.
Soon after we moved out here, she started at the bottom of one wall, putting up a fold-out state map of Tennessee. Then, from there, the middle of the country climbed upward and outward—Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. Then Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. She cut up this bunch of full-size state maps and tried to make them fit together, forming the whole Midwest, stretching up almost to the ceiling. The Great Lakes spread out as vast and real to us as any of the states were. For those, we cut out each Lake’s shape from light-blue paper—the kind of tissue paper you’d stuff into a gift for a baby boy. You can’t get the true color of their water from construction paper. She says those lakes are oceans. We need to get them right.
When I ask her to point on our map where she used to live, her pointer finger lands again and again, tracing how she had traveled, a hopscotch moving north first and then west to east. She had crashed on acquaintances’ floors for months until she found the best job in the world—at a record store in St. Paul. She moved into a room above the store and spent every night, all night, spinning any record she wanted, belting out songs until she went hoarse. But then the store closed, and other things in that town went sour for her, mostly at club shows. There were fights. These days, she will own up to starting them—to yelling the wrong thing, yes, but no different from the things she’d heard the men at clubs yell at each other all the time and just shrug off. Until they’d make her leave, she would dance and yell and rage. Those nights took her somewhere, she says, like the frozen air slicing at her off the lakes took her, too. I ask her where, and she can’t say.
She moved on from the record store, waitressing and bartending, sleeping sometimes in her car during the warmer months and after that, on her co-workers’ Cheeto-smelling couches. By the time she reached Cleveland and Lake Erie, I was around. With me, she had too much to keep carrying, so she packed up her memories and came home. Our people all worked in the Portland strawberry canneries. She likes to tell me about rolling back into town and bringing me straight to the annual Strawberry Festival, ready to show everyone what she’d made while she was away. That day, under one of the striped festival awnings, my mouth first turned inside out, swelling fast and angry red. I couldn’t eat our native fruit.
Even though Mr. Russell did his best, our place doesn’t really work for a house yet. But she says not to complain. If we complain about the heat or cold, or the little burnt smell that comes off the row of outlets sometimes, or the leaks from the peak of the roof when storms get too heavy, then the Russells might toss us out, or else they might fix the problems and then decide to raise our rent. I picture Ethan at our door, shaking his head no. What we need now above all, she says, is a place where we can stash ourselves for pennies until we find out what comes next.
She says she likes her new job at the Portland Pharmacy and is weaning off the Shoney’s shifts. They’re nice to her at the Pharmacy, and from there, you can find out all kinds of things—things you could never find out any other way—about all kinds of people.
These secrets give her power like she hasn’t felt in a long time. Gives her currency of a kind that she never had when she lived here growing up. At first she couldn’t help giving customers lip—people who don’t understand her, or others who never did. Some people still think they’re better than her because she skipped town but came back, broke with a baby. But she has power now because she sees the secret things they buy—for their crotches and their bad gas and their pregnancy scares and all kinds of problems. So she finds ways to let them know that she knows. One time she used the store intercom, but that was for someone who had it coming from a long way back. Now she keeps these moments quiet, which feels more useful. That feeling makes it easier for her to wait. To store up every secret for the day when she’ll know the time has come to spill.
We get the call from Cal. I am surprised because it’s late in the day, and the sun has already half set past the neighbors’ tree line. But she gives me the speech all over again about not stepping outside for any reason, not even for a minute. And I nod, though she knows that I know this already and never try to run outside anymore. She tells me she’s got to go out herself, somewhere, but her words are breaking up like staticky radio. I don’t catch much. She rummages in her chest of drawers, strips off her shirt for a clean one, and then she’s gone out the door.
For a while, I wait by the window. I look out toward the pink and orange sky, until the colors start to drain, and not much light is left. There’s no sight of Cal’s plane, no sound of it either. And didn’t Cal tell me that ag pilot season was slowing way down by now, as the weather cools? Only a few minutes of daylight are left, and I decide to use them.
I sneak out through the front door. I don’t see anyone anywhere. I decide the cows could probably use my company, so after another quick look around, I take off down the path toward the unplowed field.
I come up on the halfway point of the path, rounding the sloped curve that leads into the field’s tall ragged grass. Down by the far tree line, I spot a green pickup. Cal’s. I have only seconds between the instant I see it and when I hear a rise in their voices nearby, sudden and strange, telling me where I can find them. I dive into the high grass so fast that I forget to shut my open mouth, and my chin bumps the ground. I pull a long dry blade of glass out from underneath my loose tooth.
I go as quiet and still as I can, but heartbeats pound in my temples. I can hear their voices—a low laugh, a cleared throat—and I begin to crawl forward, hands and knees. I am invisible in the grass, and when I crawl right to the edge of the iron fence, so close to them, they can’t see me. They can only see each other because they are lying together on the dirt and stray grass between the Russell family headstones. Her jeans are undone and pushed down to her knees, and his hand is moving inside her underwear. He hovers above her, his shirt unbuttoned, and she is at his chest, her tongue on his hairy nipple. I squeeze my jaws too hard and tight, and the loose tooth jams the wrong way. I taste blood and let out a yelp before I can stop.
But they don’t look up and I am still invisible. I crawl backward in the grass, away from them, and then I’m rising to stand and then I’m running home.
I shut myself inside the house and crawl under the kitchen table. I open up my tin and spill out all the ghosts. I need to make a new parade, one to tell me what will happen. The acorn ghost, the thimble ghost, the tampon ghost, the coin ghost. But they aren’t enough. I need something new. I duck my head out from under the table and look up toward the top of the fridge. My parade needs a big finish, something no one would see coming.
I drag a kitchen chair over to the fridge and step up on it. On my tiptoes, I can just reach over the edge to the top. I fumble around up there until I get hold of what I want—her box of ribbon candy.
I rip the fancy, shrink-wrapped packaging and open the box, and there they are, each piece nestled in its own plastic cubbyhole. Shimmery, bright-colored waves of sugar. I stand each one upright and then longways. I hold one up to the light. Its purple, blue, and orange stripes glow so unlike any candy I’ve ever seen that I can’t believe they’re from this world at all. They shimmer from another world I want to visit. I turn the box over and dump this pile of alien ghosts onto the table. I grab them up one after another, licking them all, testing their flavor.
I line them up and make them march in my parade. My hands are sticky now, so I keep licking them, and all the ghosts stick to me more. And I feel myself begin to change. I am changing in a way I know well but also in a way that takes me somewhere new, always. It pulls me into blurry confusion and strangeness, not into any place familiar. I am strange to myself but calm inside my fear. The hot weird prickling starts inside my lips, at the back of my throat and my tongue, along my gums, buzzing the root of my loose tooth. The heat inside me rises with the fear. I start to take the bigger and deeper breaths I know my lungs need me to take, while I wait for what comes.
Emily Choate is the Fiction Editor of Peauxdunque Review. Her fiction appears in Mississippi Review, Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Peatsmoke, and elsewhere. She writes regularly for Chapter 16, and other nonfiction appears in Atticus Review, Late Night Library, Bayou Magazine Online, and Nashville Scene, among others. Emily holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at Sewanee Writers Conference. She lives near Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.