Every now and then, I get a glimpse of Granny’s wild spirit, the very one she’s kept hidden from the rest of us girls no matter how many times we’ve sat around the table in her kitchen. Sometimes, just sometimes, she lets that spirit out. And if there’s anything that’ll bring out her wild spirit, it’s cabin fever, sisters. Cabin fever and those bottled spirits in the china cabinet. And memories of them bitches, of course.
Granny turns on the radio and tunes it to her favorite station, WRIC-AM 540 radio in Richlands, Virginia, and she continues a’ singing the song in her head, some tune about Tom Dooley and his imminent demise, even while the announcer reads the local obituaries, forlorn organ a’ playing and all. Granny don’t know any of those dead people on the radio. And even if she does, she doesn’t let on. Lord, no. Those folks done got their promise, and that’s what Granny thinks. She doesn’t feel sorry for a solitary soul. Not a single one.
Granny has cabin fever, like the rest of us do. Winter has stayed too long in these hills. His welcome has worn off with the remains of silver tinsel that blows in the wind when it comes. And it comes often. Those dead folks ain’t got to put up with the rest of Winter’s cold sheets and last summer’s garden goods in their supper. Cousin Snoot and I and Aunt Margene and Mama cut a regular shine watching Granny cackle and click her heels to the voice of Ralph Stanley as he pours out a song about Pretty Polly on that ol’ WRIC radio. They’re playing that ol’ back home Kentucky bluegrass this evening, and Granny is cutting the kitchen rugs.
Oh, I reckon we all got cabin fever. It’s about that time of year when folks tend to go crazy, you know. Wild spirits like us are tired of being stuck in the house for too long. Tired of the same ol’ cold sheets on the bed. Tired of the same ol’ soup in the same ol’ pot made with last summer’s garden goods. Just plain and ol’ damn tired, I reckon. But Granny don’t look tired at all. No, ma’am. She squeals with delight when Loretta comes on and sings a story about birth control pills and has the gall to suggest that us ol’ girls might know a thing or two about this world. Granny’s mama and Loretta’s mama were childhood friends, or so I’ve been told, back in the olden Kentucky days when gals knew a thing or two about cold sheets and ol’ soup and cabin fever. Every time Loretta sings on the WRIC radio, Granny hollers, “I knew that gal when she was a baby!”
Aunt Margene goes to the china cabinet and pulls a lovely bottle of wild spirits out of its innards, a spirit so clear and pure that it almost jumps right out on its own accord, and Granny gasps at the sight of it, but a smile comes across her weathered face just the same.
“I used to beautiful,” she says. “Once upon a time, I used to climb trees and throw rocks at boys.”
Now we’d heard this same story a dozen or more times, but we asked for details again and again, hoping to hear something we didn’t’ hear the last time. And we’d always assure Granny that she was still beautiful, despite the passage of time and ol’ trees and ol’ boys.
Granny would tell us of her youthful beauty, her porcelain white and flawless face and her coal-black hair and how her cousins hated the very thoughts of her. She said she had to climb the trees to escape the rocks those jealous cousins threw, and she’d caught and collected them to throw at the boys that came by to rescue her.
“Them bitches,” she’d say. Me and Snoot would snicker and Mama and Aunt Margene would chime in as they took a swig from their cup. Them bitches, indeed, they’d agree. But it didn’t matter. They were all dead now, them bitches Granny spoke of, just like those poor folks on the WRIC radio.
Snoot and I weren’t allowed to have cups from the china cabinet like Granny and Mama and Aunt Margene. We’d settle for a bottle of pop and we’d sit at the table and listen to all those stories and suffer through the cabin fever with Granny and hang on every word.
Aunt Margene pours another swaller in her cup and commences telling us all about the time she got caught skinny dipping by the Jeter boys the night she graduated from beauty school, and how those boys had courted her right up until she married Uncle Jimmy. And she swore that oldest Jeter boy had called her on the telephone not a full two weeks after her Jimmy, rest his decent soul, had passed away after his heart attack. They’d turned WRIC radio off for a week after. I recollect it plainly. Granny said she couldn’t bear to hear sweet Jimmy’s name announced while that awful organ music played. She didn’t want it said in her house, she’d told us.
“Some things just ought not be said out loud,” she’d warn us. “I reckon you have what you say, just like the Good Book says.”
Aunt Margene says that was the craziest thing she ever heard. “I can say I’ve got a million dollars in the bank, but my check is still gonna bounce.” Aunt Margene might wear too much Avon lipstick and talk too loudly, but she’s right. You get what you ask for. Oh, yes, that’s the truth of it.
You asked for it. That’s what we’re told, you and me both. Mama would say you asked for it while she tore a switch off the maple tree out in the yard or when she took the batteries out of my Walkman. You asked for it.
Whether we say it out loud or not, we ask for everything. But unlike Granny and Aunt Margene, I ain’t spilling my beans. No, ma’am. I’m not asking for a thing. Not today. But I think about them bitches that Granny spoke of, and I’ve got my own, too. I figure we all do. I grew up in the 80s, the decade of excess, when, even in a small coal mining town, you weren’t anybody if your folks didn’t have some money. Good Lord. Not only did we not have any money, we didn’t have a good name. And I didn’t ask for this name. No, ma’am.
While Snoot sips her pop, I get to thinking on all the other things I didn’t ask for. I was born in the winter just two days after Christmas, but I am summertime’s baby. I loathe this cold and ol’ soup and cabin fever just as Granny does. I’d give my eyeteeth for a sunburn and some of Daddy’s hamburgers off the charcoal grill. I want my bare feet on green grass and the smell of wildflowers and the sound of birds and the echo of that WRIC radio out of Granny’s open kitchen window.
“I want a hamburger on the grill like we have in the summertime,” I say. “I want a hamburger and some tater salad and a big dill pickle. That’s what I’m asking for,” I say. But they ain’t listening to me. That’s how it always felt, you know.
And I didn’t ask for the color of my hair. I don’t look a thing like Granny or Snoot. They’ve got olive complexions, daddy had told me. But I’m fair and towheaded with sea-green eyes to boot, unlike my cousin and granny. I never asked for the blonde jokes or the assumptions that I was stupid or easy or small town. No, sir. No matter what them bitches said. I never asked for any of that.
Alabama comes on the WRIC radio and Randy Owen croons about a lady down on love. Mama pulls Aunt Margene up by her sleeve and they dance a Texas two-step right there in Granny’s kitchen. Ain’t a one of them been to Texas, and we all know that.
“Them bitches,” Granny cackles to me and Snoot as she pours herself another swig of that bottled wild spirit from the china cabinet. Snoot goes to laughing so hard that pop spews from her nose. Them bitches, indeed. Ain’t that how it is? We can talk about you behind your back, but somebody else better not.
Granny turns up the WRIC radio and commences a flatfoot right there in the middle of the kitchen when Randy Owen sings about Mountain Music and Jeff Cook’s fiddle commences. Out there on the back porch, amidst the spitting snow and the loom of Winter’s last days, Aunt Margene is flipping hamburgers on the charcoal grill while she remembers Loretta’s song about those birth control pills and thinks about those godawful Jeter boys and her skinny-dipping days. Mama is peeling taters and cutting up an onion and asking Granny if she’s got any pickles.
Yes, ma’am. I reckon you get what you ask for, so you may as well ask for something good.
I ask for blue skies and sunshine and sunburns. I ask for Aunt Margene to get a good hickory sear on those hamburgers and for Mama’s tater salad to be both tangy and sweet, just like all things should be. I ask for Aunt Margene to get caught by one of them Jeter boys; Uncle Jimmy wouldn’t have wanted her to waste all that Avon lipstick on just ol’ soup and those same ol’ cold and lonely sheets. I ask Granny to see how beautiful she still is, and how she used the rocks them bitches threw at her to build the stepping stones to an Appalachian empire, one that still and will stand, even when summer comes home again. And again.
It’s about that time of year when folks tend to go crazy, you know. Wild spirits like us are tired of being stuck in the house for too long. Tired of the same ol’ cold sheets on the bed. Tired of the same ol’ soup in the same ol’ pot made with last summer’s garden goods. Just plain and ol’ damn tired, I reckon. But even now, beyond the hickory smoke and Granny’s cackle and the WRIC radio, I can hear the birds a’ singing and the snow melting. And I don’t feel sorry for Winter. He’s done got his promise. I hand Snoot what is left of my pop and commence to dance right there on the back porch while Aunt Margene flips those burgers. The sun comes out for a shine. I become a spirit so clear and pure that it almost jumps right out on its own accord.
“You’re still beautiful, Granny,” I assure her. She nods and takes another swig.
Oh, yes, sisters. We get what we ask for. Whether we see it now or later. No matter what happened before or how many Jeter boys come a’ calling or how many of them bitches talked their talk. No matter the sheets or the soup or the song or the season.
What are you asking for?