YANKEE DOODLE DIXIE (Chapter One)
It doesn’t take a wizard to figure out the last thing a girl should do is go running hundreds of miles away from home to Vermont just because a man asks her to do so. It also doesn’t take a pretty girl with pigtails and a pooch named Toto to tell you that there is absolutely, positively, no place like home.
Just thinking about wizards and terriers makes me wish I were Dorothy—sleepily opening my eyes to Auntie Em placing a cold rag on my forehead. In my case it would be Kissie sitting at my bedside with a jumbo cold compress. “Wake up, baby,” she’d say. “You’ve just had a bad bad dream.”
It was a dream all right, it just wasn’t mine.
Fourteen months and a mound of heartache later, my compass is pointing south again, and my speedometer is creeping toward eighty. Despite having three unlikely Vermont comrades helping me to find the road back, an old German wicked witch named Helga hindered that road, making it rockier than the Appalachian Trail not twenty miles from the front door of my Vermont inn. Not only did she swindle me out of both my business and my marriage, she despised my own terrier—a small, helpless Yorkie by the name of Princess Grace Kelly. Gracie couldn’t stand Helga, either; probably one of the reasons her little heart finally pooped out. Even though she’s forever buried up in the freezing cold North, I’ve got the cross from her grave sitting right here on the passenger’s seat next to me on our way back home.
I can see home in the distance. The parallelogram of Tennessee on the welcome sign slowly emerges the closer I get. The February sun is setting to the right of it and as I roll over the state line my heart rate seems to slow down. A calm washes over me like a warm shot of Grand Marnier, sliding down my throat and coating my insides. It’s been over a year since I’ve been home and I wouldn’t doubt it if I’ve given myself early high blood pressure.
We’ve been driving for three days—my two little girls and me—1,473 miles due south. Sarah and Isabella are in the backseat and I steal another peek at them in my rearview mirror. Their little heads are resting against the sides of their car seats, the monotony of the boundless pavement finally lulling them to sleep. For the first time all day it’s quiet.
Since leaving Vermont, in one heck of a nor’easter I might add, I’ve paid equal attention to the traffic and my heartstrings. It is a wonder we haven’t rear-ended anyone, and an even bigger one that my sultry grin isn’t yet a permanent fixture on my face. Between New York and Pennsylvania all I’ve thought about is the man who stole my heart—and who, only hours ago, sealed our months of longing with a not-so-chaste kiss in George Clark’s gas station parking lot. Peter Owen saved my restaurant and my pride when my husband left me for a blond bombshell with a face and bosoms only money could—and did—buy. Helga is the one responsible for their meeting, just one of the many “wicked witch” maneuvers she employed as part of her nasty scheme to repossess our inn.
The rest stops between Pennsylvania and Virginia were punctuation marks in my romantic recollecting. A stream of consciousness brewed in my mind: when Peter and I danced to Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” the first time I tasted his white chocolate mousse, and the moment in the kitchen after my inn’s grand opening when we both knew the sparks flying weren’t just from the faulty stove.
And now, in Tennessee, some seventy-two hours have passed but I’m reduced to schoolgirl antics, playing our sole kiss over and over in my mind. I’ve run that kiss through my head, every minute detail, a thousand times already. How he tasted, how his lips felt against mine, the way his tongue moved slowly around my mouth, and how my heart swirled and danced under his touch. I suppose I’ll have to live on that memory until the first time he comes to town. Memphis in May, perhaps? That’s the perfect time of year. He’ll arrive for the Beale Street Music Festival and stay for the whole month. After all, May means Mud Season back in Vermont. And Mud Season, or “The Thaw” as the Vermonters call it, means there won’t be any work for him there. Heck, the whole state practically shuts down during that time.
Springtime in Memphis, however, is glorious. We’ll go to the Memphis in May Barbecue Festival and the Sunset Symphony together. We’ll watch the ducks walk the red carpet at the Peabody Hotel and we’ll hang out with Virginia and John, Mary Jule and Al, Alice and Richard, and we’ll … the girls will die when I show up unannounced. I cannot wait to see the look on Virginia Murphey’s face when I pull up in her driveway in oh, about eight more hours. I figure it’ll probably be that late by the time my daughters and I go to a drive-through for dinner and take at least three more tee-tee breaks. She and John will be sound asleep but I’ll call her cell and she’ll answer anyway. It won’t be the first time I’ve dialed her at one in the morning.
Of course Alice, the bossiest of the three, will wonder why in the world I didn’t come to her house. Mary Jule might be disappointed, too, but she would never question any decision I make. It’s hard having to choose between three best friends. The only reason I’m driving to Virginia’s house is because, well, honestly, she knows me the best. You can’t room with someone all four years of college, and every summer in between, and not know everything there is to know about each other. Virginia knows that I wax my bikini line, and I know about the few little hairs that grow around her nipples and how she sometimes lets them grow too long and forgets to shave them. Modesty goes out the window when you’re living with someone you’ve known since the age of five.
Alice and Mary Jule know plenty of my secrets, too, but there’s just something about Virginia that soothes me. She’s got a calming effect on my soul. Perhaps that’s because she’s never one time judged me about anything, or maybe it’s just as plain and simple as the fact that we’ve never been interested in the same man. Our types are completely opposite. She likes more of a girl’s guy and I’ve always been attracted to the guy’s guy. John is perfectly happy to shop with her all day long. He’s also the type to wear a Lily tie or lime-green shorts. I prefer the rugged look. I’ll take a man who wears a Henley shirt over an argyle sweater, any day of the week.
Virgy—that’s what I call her—and I just flat-out love one another. To this day, we’ve never been in a single fight. Actually, that’s not quite true. The closest Virginia has come to scolding me in our twenty-nine-year friendship was when I let my husband talk me into moving to Vermont in the first place. And now, truth be told, she had every right.
I got the idea from Mama. She had always told me that being a good wife meant following your husband. She claimed she didn’t really want to move to Memphis, either, away from Greenwood, Mississippi, but she did it because it’s what Daddy wanted her to do. “It would have been one thing,” she used to say, “to move to Jackson. Several of my best friends from Ole Miss lived there.” Kissie told me that she had once overheard a phone conversation between Mama and one of her friends. Said my grandfather told Daddy that he’d teach him to be a great farmer if he’d just dig his heels into the Mississippi Delta and not move to Memphis. He told Daddy that all the cotton land stretched out as far as the eye could see could be his, if he’d just lay his roots down in Mississippi and leave Mama right where she belonged, in her own hometown. Like me, Mama was an only child.
But Daddy’s roots couldn’t be planted in the middle of a cotton field. Daddy told him, “Mr. Grov’a, I appreciate the off’a, but I don’t need your cotton fields. I’ve got a cotton family business waiting on me two hours naw’th of here and I won’t have to get dirt under my finga’nails. I’ll buy your cotton and won’t ever have to break a sweat.” Daddy wasn’t the farmer type. He’d rather work out of his old warehouse on Front Street, or Cotton Row as they call it, right in the middle of all the buying and selling.
I was raised in a stand-by-your-man household, and I also happened to fall head-over-heels in love with a football quarterback I first saw in the tenth grade. Even though my red-and-blue cheerleading skirt barely covered my backside, Baker Satterfield never looked my way, all because my chest was flat. That all changed, though, the summer before my senior year. When I ran out onto the football field that fall, pom-poms raised high above my head, my bosoms had blossomed into a natural size D, almost overnight. That man took notice of me then, and after swapping class rings, numerous road trips from Ole Miss to UT, horrendous long-distance telephone bills, and a proposal that would make even Scarlett O’Hara swoon, we finally tied the knot a couple of years after we both graduated from college. We had, at least at first, what I would call a wonderful marriage: two beautiful daughters, a gorgeous home in Memphis, lifelong friends, great sex, and a social life that involved peach daiquiris and other succulent activities. So when my true love told me of his lifelong desire to open an inn in Vermont—well, I had to follow my man.
Turns out my man followed something of his own and left our barely opened B&B, our girls, and our dog, not to mention our dream life, in my (then) manicured hands. Leaving my beloved Memphis had been nearly heartbreaking—so when Baker fell into the arms of a ski resort owner whose cleavage rivaled her black diamonds—I nearly ran right home. But Peter, and a host of Vermonters who saved me from vampire bugs, nor’easter snowstorms, and a Mud Season that was worse than a kudzu jungle, convinced me to finally stand on my own two feet … and I did.
The Peach Blossom Inn became Willingham, Vermont’s hot spot for tourists, skiers, leaf peepers, and anyone who wanted to try Peter’s famous shrimp dijonaisse. But when an outside offer came along to buy the operation from my frazzled and overworked arms, it was an honest-to-goodness relief. I may have worn my L.L. Bean duck boots with the best of them, but my heart was always in Dixie. In just two days, I packed up like we’d never even been there and prepared to drive south to return home in surprise fashion. The only thing to temper my utter joy was the fact that I’d be leaving Peter—a man who could wear flannel shirts and jeans and look as dashing as any Southern gentleman in coat and tails I’d ever seen. In between saving my restaurant and nudging me toward restoring my self-worth, he’d become a dear friend and eventually someone I started caring about more than I was prepared for.
Even though I tried to dash away as quickly as possible, an attempt at quickly severing our ties to Vermont, on the way out of town Peter finally made the move I’d both yearned for and dreaded—and that darn kiss just made departing seem so wrong. For as many times as I’d studied his mouth with his full, perfectly sculpted cherry lips, I hadn’t anticipated our kiss would happen when it did. Or that it would be so romantic or have the lingering effect it’s had as I’ve crossed state line after state line.
As if to prove my point, a loud horn brings me back to reality and the fact that Peter’s kiss has both stolen my heart and, apparently, my ability to drive in a straight line.
I adjust the wheel and my elbow hits a solid object—oh, Gracie’s cross from her grave marker wedged in between a pillow and my cosmetic case. If it weren’t for me she’d be lying right here in my lap, licking the saltiness off my hands. She no more wanted to move up to Vermont than the man in the moon. I didn’t either but I figured it was my place. My responsibilty to Baker.
I can’t help but beat myself up for bringing Princess Grace Kelly up to the frigid North, where I had to leave her body for all of eternity. I know she was old and all, fifteen to be exact, but I’m told Yorkies sometimes live to be eighteen or even twenty. I think her body gave out because her blood froze to death. I know mine did, but I’m a lot younger than she was, if you figure she was 105 in people years.
Frankly, I ought to be blaming Baker. He’s the one who moved us up there in the first place. I used to be the biggest doormat in America but I am not anymore. I know, I know, I have my own mind, and nobody, not to mention a Southern woman, should do anything just because someone else wants them to. That’s called codependency. Stupid’s more like it. I will never let a man make my decisions for me again. Never. Well, I haven’t been put to the test yet, but that’s my plan.
Virginia’s house is totally dark when I pull up in her driveway. Nary a light in sight. Sarah lifts her brunette head when I turn off the engine. “Where are we?”
“Virginia’s house,” I whisper, trying hard not to wake Isabella. Digging into my purse, I fumble for my cell. After dialing her number by heart, the call goes straight to voice mail. What? She never turns off her cell phone at night. I can’t ring the doorbell and take a chance on waking up all three of her young children, so I call back, just in case. Same thing. After sitting in the cold only a minute I decide to go ahead and call the home phone anyhow. It rings just four times before I get the same result and pretty soon I’m starting to wonder what in the heck I’m going to do. “Well, shoot. Now what?” I say.
“Who are you calling, Mama?” Sarah asks.
“Virginia, but I guess she’s asleep.” I’m annoyed and Sarah knows it.
“It is one o’clock in the morning.” She’s pointing to the red illuminated digital clock next to the radio. My six-year-old, the voice of reason.
I think about trying the windows and doors but no one in Memphis goes to sleep with their doors unlocked, not to mention without setting the alarm. The last thing I need to do is scare them. John, Virginia’s husband, doesn’t seem like the type to own a gun, but who knows these days? The crime in Memphis seems to be getting worse and worse every year.
I try calling a few times more before finally giving up. Leaving her a message would ruin the surprise so I press the end button, toss the phone back in my purse, and back our mud-coated old BMW down the driveway, turning my car in the opposite direction.
Twenty minutes later, when I pull up in Kissie’s driveway, I turn off my headlights so they won’t illuminate her bedroom. At eighty-one years old the last thing she needs is to feel frightened. I don’t know why I didn’t plan on coming here in the first place. After all, she’s the closest thing to a mother I’ve got. Six weeks after I was born, the baby nurse that Daddy hired, in keeping with the standards of Memphis society, placed me in the arms of my white mother, only to be passed over to the arms of my black mother, so Mama could get her beauty rest. Just thinking about snuggling up in Kissie’s cushiony arms again soothes me and I open my car door.
Sarah unhinges the belt on her car seat and slides over the console in between the front seats. I step out of the car and she reaches out for me to pick her up. At six, her arms and legs can wrap all the way around me but she still likes the security of my arms. As we walk toward the front porch I notice the black iron on the front door and the windows that have been freshly painted. There’s a black urn planted with pansies in front of the stoop and two black iron chairs sit on the small porch in front of the picture window. Kissie sits there during the late afternoons so she can wave to her neighbors when they come home from work. Although her house is tiny, it’s made of smooth, uniform red brick and the yard, by far the best groomed on the street, is perfectly clipped and trimmed. Her old Plymouth Fury sits under a small attached carport.
Any rap on the door would be a futile attempt at rousing her elderly ears so I go ahead and ring the doorbell. Several minutes pass before I hear a rumbling on the other side of the front door. Kissie barely pulls back the heavy beige curtains covering the picture window and peeks outside. I hear the dead bolt click. The door opens slightly and her face appears just above the four-inch brass chain, which adds further protection from anyone who doesn’t belong.
“Is that you, baby?” Although it’s pitch black outside, the crescent moon has illuminated our silhouettes.
“I’m home, Kissie.”
She unhinges the chain and opens the first door, the sash on her pink fuzzy bathrobe loosely wrapped around her large middle. The keys on her keychain jingle as she turns the last dead bolt to open the heavy iron storm door. “Lawd, have mercy alive. Who is this?” A big smile spreads across her face as she stretches out her arms. “Come give Kissie some sugar.” Sarah and I melt into her huge bosoms. When I reach up to kiss her cheek, it’s greasy from Vaseline, her moisturizer of choice. “Where is Isabella?” she asks.
“In the car,” I say, not wanting to budge from her embrace.
She snatches her arm back and nudges me away. “You better git her inside, ’fore she freezes or gets nabbed.”
“You have no idea what it’s like to freeze, Kiss,” I say over my shoulder, halfway back to my car.
Kissie’s neighborhood isn’t the safest place in town. Located just off Elvis Presley Boulevard, on a tiny little cove street with about nine other modest homes, her house is the pinnacle of the block. Despite the precariousness of the location, it still feels like a second home to me. She’s lived there as long as I can remember and this is not the first late-night visit from me, to say the least.
Daddy paid off her mortgage right after Mama died. All fifteen thousand dollars of it. I’m sure he figured it might be an incentive for all the extra hours she’d be investing in me. The ones she’s deposited in my life already should have bought her a mansion in Midtown as far as I’m concerned. If I understand the Bible correctly, her mansion’s coming when she leaves here. Not to mention a crown the size of Texas.
I lift Isabella out of the car and her little cheek is red and lined from the last few hours it spent burrowed into the rough-hewn material of the car seat. She wraps her arms around my neck, her legs around my waist, and glances around in the darkness. Her voice is scratchy. “Where are we?”
“Kissie’s house,” I say, and rush back to the warmth.
When we step inside, Kissie reaches out for Issie who gladly goes straight to her. “How’s Kissie’s lil’ baby doin’? Is she all right this evenin’?” Kissie uses her baby voice whenever she speaks to Issie who, at the moment, is a big mess of strawberry-blond curly hair swirling every which a way around her face. Kissie tucks it behind her ears and heads straight down the hall with Issie on her hip. I know what she’s doing. She’s looking for a rubber band. She did the exact same thing to me as far back as I can remember when my hair became a muss. Issie and I could pass for twins if you compare our baby pictures. Not so much for Sarah. She’s a Satterfield through and through. No one in my family has thick straight brunette hair and eyes as blue as a Hawaiian lagoon.
Ponytail holders are something Kissie keeps a plenty of around her house. That’s because her hair still hangs down her back. She always wears it in a braided bun, or “plat” as she calls it, on top of her head during the day, so most people have no idea her hair is that long. Kissie refers to her color as “butterscotch.” She’s part black, part white. Maybe even fifty-fifty. The truth is, sixty years ago, in Memphis, Tennessee, she would never have been accepted by the whites, so she had no choice but to live as a black. I mean that with no judgment. Black folks treated me with more love than some of the people in my own family.
Kissie married a black man named Frank and gave birth to a little girl they christened Josephine or Josie for short. That poor baby died of pneumonia when she was only three years old. Kissie doesn’t talk about it all that much but there’s a picture of Josie in a large ornate frame hung above the couch in the living room, in between one of her mother and another of me. She kicked Frank out years ago. He preferred spending his paycheck at the dog track over in West Memphis rather than on her or their monthly bills.
To me, she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known and she treats me just like I’m her own child. Her real name is Kristine “Krissie” Phillips King. When I was little I couldn’t pronounce my Rs so I started calling her Kissie. Now everyone she knows calls her Kissie, all because of me. Even her own brother calls her by her nickname.
It would be impossible to guess her age. Between her flawless complexion and her razor-sharp mind, not to mention an agility that would rival someone half her age, Kissie is as healthy as I am. In fact, I’ve never known her to be sick a day in my life. She’ll talk about her “sugar” every now and then but I can’t remember the last time she’s even complained of a cold. And speaking of complaining, that word doesn’t even belong in her vocabulary.
Sarah heads straight for the cut-glass candy jar in the tiny living room. I try to stop her but Kissie’s already got the top in her hands. When I clear my throat, Sarah’s arm has disappeared from sight. She looks back at me, pleading, “Please. I’m hungry.”
“It’s one in the morning, sweet girl. The backseat of my car is covered in Goldfish, and you had a big dinner.”
She shrugs her shoulders, tilts her head back and shoots Kissie a wily grin. Kissie is absolutely no help. “Cain’t she have one piece, baby?” I roll my eyes in defeat, which tickles Kissie to no end and she bursts out laughing.
No one on earth has a belly laugh like hers. It comes from deep, down in her gut. When you’re least expecting it, she’ll let it out and it’s the most contagious sound on earth. I can’t think of another laugh that gets me going as fast as hers—and like clockwork, despite the late hour and exhaustion, I’m chuckling and smiling along with Kissie and Sarah.
The candy jar sings as Kissie replaces the lid. That jar has been stuffed to the brim with a mixture of Brach’s hard candy and Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses since I was wearing pigtails, a hairdo Kissie thought more of than Mama did. After Kissie had spent a half hour “platting” my hair just so, Mama would undo the pigtails. “That’s so common,” she’d say, in her thick Mississippi drawl. “A high ponytail looks much more refined.”
Now Kissie disappears into the kitchen and I can hear her pulling food out of the fridge. Her fondest expression of love is cooking for the ones she cares about most and before I know it the smell of bacon is wafting through the house. People in Memphis have known about her culinary skills for years. That’s actually how my grandmother came to hire her. She was catering a party once and when Grandmama put one of Kissie’s cheese dreams in her mouth, she begged her to come cook for Granddaddy and her. That was back in the early fifties and she’s never worked for another family a day in her life.
She has this little noise she makes while she’s cooking. It’s a soft grunting actually, with a hm, hm, hm sound that she repeats in threes over and over. It’s quite endearing, most of the time, unless she’s disgusted with something or someone. Then it turns into an irritated chant. I’ve been on the other side of that peeved hm, hm, hm a time or two and my preference is to stay this side of it—lest I find myself in line for a big talking to.
Like the time Virgy and I tiptoed home at four in the morning shortly after we got back from Ole Miss one summer. Daddy was out of town and Kissie always stayed at our house when he was gone. Even though we were twenty-one years old, Kissie thought it highly inappropriate for a girl to get home at that hour. The beep of the burglar alarm alerted her that we were back and here she comes huffing and puffing down the hall, wearing her favorite pink nightgown. She didn’t even bother throwing on her housecoat. Her hair was hanging down her back and she smelled like Jergens lotion and Vaseline. “Where you been, chile? Hm, hm, hm. Hm, hm, hm. Hm, hm, hm.”
Virginia and I looked at each other and tried our best to keep from giggling. We were slaphappy and quite toasted from the Long Island iced teas we consumed at Bob Wilder’s booth at the Memphis in May Barbecue Festival. There was no hiding it. She could smell it on us a mile away.
“You think you can git away with such drunken foolishness?” she said, madder than a hornet’s nest. “What do you think those men are gonna do when they see you like this? Huh? They’ll be takin’ advantage of you is what they’re gonna do. Hm, hm, hm.”
Virgy said, “No, Kissie. We’re not those kinds of girls. We just kiss.” She pinched my arm behind my elbow where Kissie couldn’t see her.
“You just kiss? And then what? You think they don’t want a feel? Those men will be tryin’ to git whatever they can. They’re just like a dawg. They git off one and then git on another. You young ladies needs to be comin’ on home at a decent hour. Hm, hm, hm. Hm, hm, hm. Hm, hm, hm.”
“Don’t be mad at us,” I told her. “There were lots of girls at the party. We weren’t the only ones.”
“Till four A.M.? Nice girls don’t do that. You hear? You lucky your Daddy ain’t here, Leelee.”
Back then, Virginia and I dismissed her as being old-fashioned. Now that I’m a mother, I know she was exactly right.
* * *
It’s after three in the morning by the time I slip under the covers in Kissie’s spare bedroom. As is always customary with Kissie, we stayed up talking and rehashing the events of yesteryear until I could hardly hold my eyes open another second. I heard for the three hundredth time the details of my grandmother’s, as Kissie calls it, “beautiful death.” “I fetched your Grandmama a fresh gown when I knew she was goin’ down fast,” Kissie always explains. “She was layin’ there like an angel. Nary a wrinkle on her face.” We talked about Daddy’s death, and started to discuss Mama’s, too, but I just couldn’t bear to go there again. Breast cancer took her when I was only eighteen. Not a very good way to start college.
For a second I think I’m in my bed in Vermont; the sheets feel like a continental glacier. After a decade sleeping next to a hot-blooded man, I’m still not used to facing the ocean of a bed alone. Baker is gone forever.… Peter is gone for … I curl into a ball for warmth and relax into the mattress. I’m asleep before my weary mind can usher in another thought.
YANKEE DOODLE DIXIE Copyright 2011 by Lisa Patton