Miss Dolly


I did not bring a casserole. Unable to concoct to exacting specification the ooze and string of cheese gluing warm egg noodles to bits of ham, bell pepper, I chose instead to come to her empty handed. Two days earlier, catching shallow life through a mask she told me about casseroles. Don’t ever make a good one, she steamed into the plastic, it will be the only thing they remember of you.

I took her walk. I stepped her route, wanting my feet to roll and plant precisely as hers did each afternoon. I memorized each uprooted sidewalk slab, noting the angle, the lift of the foot required to navigate, where to slow, to speed, noting fragment odors she used to find her way. She began and ended here where the ginkgo drops its slippery yellows and, later, the rocky seeds that smell like five-day garbage when crushed. Half blind, she ached for strong odors.

Who was it pinched the stray hairs tight into final finger waves? Would she have cared? So many times I saw her bent hard at the middle toward some too-thick patch of irises, pausing only to remove a paperclip from an apron pocket, stuffing clip and dirt and sweat into that hair. The object was not hair, but irises. She only wanted a clearer field of vision.

Dolly liked order, but only as neatly as she could control it in the yard and kitchen. She had an eye for symmetry, pruning her life and privet hedges closely. Personally, she was discreetly unkempt, as old women with faulty eyes become when they can no longer fasten their own pearls on Sunday morning. She did her best work outside, guarding always between those flattened breasts a rag, reached for delicately, used to wipe neck sweat– or child sweat, if a loose neighbor child wandered into the yard. The small and curious and were soon put to work, paid each time with one unsquandered nickel. Those empty breasts never suckled anything except one husband, Baptist, 36 years dead. He was a man who knew how to wear a hat, she said, but still a man.

The afternoon he was put to ground they said she gave away all his suits to the young music teacher who lived alone and sang unchristian arias like a woman. Afterwards Dolly ambled – then more briskly, steadily – the two miles to the Plymouth dealership. Still dressed in unchanged mourning, graveside dust settled into the woolen bend of her arm, she told the owner, Teach me how to drive. Two hours later she placed a roll of old bills in the man’s upturned hands and eased the black-finned Plymouth home, headlights off in the dark. The following morning she became a Methodist and never went to church again.

Dolly left an expanse of small things old women leave behind. Chipped china of irreplaceable pattern, forgotten blankets, a hundred clear Kerr jars lined up like armageddon on failing pantry shelves, a pale blue initialed vanity case, locked forever and certainly never used which bounced against my leg as I opened the gate from her backyard to mine.

Back home, I found a straw hat to guard against freckles. I slipped out behind the mourners to weed her dill and took note of the crabapples beginning to fall like rose-star bombs ready for the steam and smash of the jelly pot, stretched a newspaper rubber band from my wrist and knotted my hair behind me careless as Saturday morning. When I fell to my knees, it was for work.

(I’ve been pulling out old first-draft pieces to mess with, and this is one rough one. It’s all over the place. I’ll pull it to the forefront for a bit and see if I can’t make it do what I want it to do.)

Remembering Iva


It’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead. But Christmas is coming and we’ve been dragging out all the old photo albums, and there she is. Iva. Maw. My ex-grandmother-in-law and the meanest woman I ever met.

I honestly can’t remember a moment of kindness from that woman that wasn’t followed up by some horrific stab in the back. Or the eye. That was her M.O. – make you feel comfortable for an hour or so, then viciously attack the very thing you care about most. Iva talked about you behind your back and to your face, both with a cruelty that could take your breath away. And no one was spared. For Iva, truth was relative. If she thought about some imagined wrong done to her enough, then it really happened. The telling and retelling of the lie made it true enough to her to invoke a confrontation. Iva was a tornado dropping out of the sky, decimating everything in its path, then just as mysteriously lifting back into a harmless cloud.

From a distance, Iva was fascinating. I only knew her in bits and pieces, but what I know is that her mother was a cold, silent, stubborn Native American of various tribes, depending on who told the stories. Iva picked cotton and lived scarce, even when she married Ben Prouse (or Prowse – spelling was optional in that part of Faulkner County). Ben was a red-headed Irishman who must have been in the Navy at some point, but who ended up in Naylor, Arkansas with Iva. They had three children, the youngest dying as a child from a burst appendix. Ben died from a heart attack many years ago and the picture of him prone in the coffin at his funeral is still in a photo album somewhere. Iva took the picture. I’m still haunted by the image of a woman leaning over her husband’s casket with a Polaroid flashing. It’s unsettling.

My timeline’s a little fuzzy, but not long after Ben died, Iva retired. She’d worked at the Children’s Colony (now the Conway Human Development Center) for a number of years. I’m not sure I understand how she worked with mentally retarded children, because it didn’t suit her personality at all. At any rate, there was an accident at work involving a kiddie train ride that circled the Children’s Colony estate and Iva had been on the train with her charges. I’m not sure if or how badly she was injured, but the state paid her a nice settlement and she went home for the duration.

There, she made life a particular hell for her remaining son and daughter, as well as their spouses, children and ex-wives. Oh, the stories I could tell. I’ll leave everyone else out of this, though, because in the end, Iva is enough.

She dated a lot for a church-woman, danced every Saturday night in El Paso, and had men sleep over, much to the disgust of her relatives. She even married a couple of them. One in particular was a strange man with a metal plate in his head who sold some of her belongings at the Naylor Auction. He eventually shot himself in the head right there in her house. She was in her seventies, then.

Christmas in Naylor followed a predictable pattern. The celebration was always on Christmas Eve at my in-law’s home, and the house was festive, food and children everywhere. Just as predictable was Iva’s yearly Christmas tirade. She’d pick a target each year and hammer-down. After years of this, I quit trying to understand why she wanted to ruin everyone’s good time and simply counted the minutes until it happened.

Some Christmases ago, it was my daughter. Iva’s cruelty dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on Emily in the middle of her yearly Naylor Christmas Eve. She was seventeen. I understand the ensuing scrap between her father and “Maw” over the attack ended with Rick wishing “the old bitch would just die” and Iva’s furious stomp off across the road to her house to do just that.

When her son looked for her on Christmas morning, he found her on the toilet, dead from a heart attack.

If there’s a lesson here, I’d rather not attempt it. Out in the County, things are what they are. The family, extended and close, breathed a collective sigh of relief and buried her. I’m sure that like all good people, they try to remember the better parts of Iva.

I keep writing bits and pieces of her into my stories. She’s not the kind of character to write “as is,” though, because she was her own literary cliché. No one would believe her unless I made her a little kinder, so I’m giving her a sort of eulogistic synopsis here. In my stories, she’ll just have to be a little less Iva.