Pearl wondered exactly when it was that her mama had gone off the deep end. Was it that day she marched into Pearl's fourth-grade class and gave the teacher what for so bad the police came and took her away? Was it that night she cut her hair off with a Swiss Army knife just to show that so-called boyfriend of hers a thing or two? Or maybe it was just last week, when she told Pearl to pack her things 'cause they were leaving Tallahassee, Florida, never to return.
Pearl didn't know. But her Aunt Ivy seemed fairly sure of herself as she stood on the porch behind Pearl and said, "I hate to tell you this, honey, but your mama's done gone off the deep end."
Pearl squinted, staring down the dirt road, thinking maybe if she stared long enough she'd catch a glimpse of Mama's car coming back. Pearl was sure that any minute now she was going to see clouds of red dust. See Mama's dented-up old car bouncing up the bumpy road toward them.
Pearl jumped when Ivy touched the top of her head.
"Come on in now, sweetheart," Ivy said. "I'll fix us some breakfast."
Pearl leaned forward and squeezed her eyes tighter.
"I think there's a car down there," she said.
Ivy shielded her eyes from the early morning sun and stared down the road.
"Ain't no car coming, Pearl," she said, shaking her head. "Come on in now, honey. Let's eat something." She nudged Pearl. Her hand felt warm through Pearl's thin pajamas.
Pearl didn't move. Maybe Mama just went down to the 7-Eleven to get cigarettes.
"She mention anything about going to get cigarettes?" Pearl asked.
"She was gone when I got up, Pearl."
"She say anything last night after I went to bed?"
Ivy pulled her bathrobe tighter around her and gazed down the road. "It was kind of a surprise, you know, y'all showing up in the middle of the night like that," Ivy said. "I figured we'd have plenty of time totalk later. Figured Ruby'd explain herself after a good night's sleep." Ivy shifted from one foot to the other, making the old wooden porch creak. "I guess I should've known better."
Ivy sighed. Pearl heard the screen door slam behind her. In the distance, a dog barked. From somewhere nearby, chickens squawked. Pearl wondered if they were Ivy's chickens. The smell of bacon drifted through the open door, and Pearl realized she hadn't eaten since yesterday.
"This'll tide you over till we get to your Aunt Ivy's," Ruby had said, tossing a bag of potato chips into Pearl's lap. "That Ivy, she sure can cook," she had said. "You're just gonna love her, Pearl. You wait and see."
Pearl kept her eyes on the road. The dog barked again. Suddenly a chicken ran across the front yard, wings flapping furiously. Pearl jumped up onto the porch and watched the chicken disappear around the side of the house. Pearl wondered if this was a farm. Must be a farm if there's chickens.
She went inside. Ivy was taking biscuits out of the oven.
"This a farm?" Pearl asked.
Ivy chuckled. "Used to be, long time ago. Not much of one now, though. A coop full of mangy chickens and some dried-up ole peach trees." She heaped scrambled eggs onto a plate. "I had a couple of goats awhile back, but they didn't do nothing but look sorry. I give 'em to Nate Collins up the road."
Pearl's stomach rumbled. She eyed the steaming eggs.
"Go on." Ivy gestured toward the table. "Eat up."
Pearl dropped into a chair and grabbed a biscuit in one hand and shoveled eggs into her mouth with the other. The eggs were perfect. Not runny like Ruby's.
Ivy sat across from Pearl, sipping coffee.
"You all drive all the way up here from Florida?"
"Whereabouts in Florida?"
Pearl swallowed a mouthful of biscuit. "Tallahassee."
"Tallahassee," Ivy repeated. "Well, the woman gets around, don't she?"
Pearl looked up. "What woman?"
Pearl shrugged. Yeah, her mama gets around, but she didn't see where it was any of Ivy's business.
"How long you been in Florida?" Ivy asked.
Pearl sat back and looked at Ivy. "I thought you was her sister."
"Then how come you don't know nothing?"
Ivy chuckled again. "Well, I reckon that's a fairquestion." She pushed the plate of biscuits toward Pearl. Pearl took another one.
"Ruby and I ain't seen each other in a long time, Pearl."
"Your mama hightailed it out of here as soon as she had the chance and didn't never look back," Ivy said. "Sent home a Christmas card a couple of times. Even sent me a picture of you once, when you was a baby"
Pearl looked up from her plate. "She did?"
Ivy smiled. Her eyes crinkled up at the corners. Just like Mama's, Pearl thought.
"Your granddaddy liked to cried his eyes out at the sight of that picture," Ivy said.
Ivy scraped eggs out of the pan into a bowl on the floor. Two cats appeared from the front room and licked the plate clean.
"I bet Ruby'll be back soon," Ivy said. "Y'all got in so late last night. Maybe she wanted to check out things in town. I expect it's changed a lot since she was here. Why don't you get dressed and we'll go feed the chickens while we wait."
"Mama told me she didn't have a daddy 'cause he died when she was a baby," Pearl said. "But I knew she was lying, 'cause she always lies."
Ivy's face dropped. The corners of her mouth twitched as she fixed a smile on her face.
"Well now, why don't that surprise me?" Her voice was different now. Pearl squirmed a little and wished she had kept quiet. She pushed her empty plate away from her and tossed a piece of bacon into the cat bowl. In her head, she heard Ruby's voice: "Well, for heaven's sake, Pearl, where are your manners? Can you say, 'Thank you'?" But Pearl didn't say anything. She smiled, feeling like she had put one over on Ruby.
She went back to the bedroom and looked at the side of the bed where Ruby had slept. The pillow was still mashed down where her head had been. Pearl leaned down and sniffed. Shalimar cologne. Pearl jammed her fist into the pillow.
She looked around the room. No shopping bags stuffed with clothes and shoes. No red vinyl purse jammed with makeup. Pearl looked on the dresser. No curling iron. No cigarettes. Pearl pulled back the curtain in the corner of the room to reveal a tiny cubicle where a few pieces of clothing hung. Overalls. A raincoat. Pearl squinted into the darkness, examining the floor. A box of Christmas ornaments. A dusty stack of National Geographies.
Pearl sat on the bed. Okay. So here's the situation, she said to herself. No sign of Mama. Not one blessedsign in this dern little room but a mashed-in, smelly ole pillow.
Pearl took a shoebox out of her duffel bag and dumped postcards onto the bed. One hundred and thirty-one of them. She had counted twice. The man at the flea market had let her have all of them for two dollars, including the box and a paper bag full of ballpoint pens.
Pearl lined up the postcards on the bed. All the mountain scenes together. All the beach scenes together. The animals in one corner. People in the other. Then she chose one. The Blue Ridge Parkway.
She took out a ballpoint pen and wrote:
Dear Mama, I hate you.Love, Pearl