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  • Writer's pictureAnne Hodges White

LuLu's Southern Beach House School for Wily Deceivers - 5

A week later, the goat-man moved downstairs to LuLu’s bedroom closet, its uplifted arms poking out from under uneven hems like it wanted air, relieved like everybody else to be out of the One Night Room. I played in the closet, making up my stories. A maid waited imprisoned, a prince climbed her long braid up into her tower, and he stole her away. I stroked the maid’s long brassy hair, hair I wondered if I’d ever have. I sneaked looks at the goat-man’s wicked face.

Then, LuLu shoved the machine out into the middle of the bedroom and tossed over it a slip, which caught on one of the goat-man’s horns. Just before supper, we could hear Hodgie moving around the bedroom on creaking floorboards. Mama’s eyes came up off her list-making, her mouth an O, her shoulders up to her ears. LuLu dusted the shells that hung on a fish net over the sofa.

Often that week, I got my nose out of my books and checked the street. The police would come and take LuLu away. And Hodgie, finally understanding her deception, would wave good-bye to her as Alfred C. Cooper, family friend and mayor of Atlantic Beach, pushed her into the back seat of the police car and drove her away from the beach house. She would look at us—laughing at the error of her ways—and disappear over the shimmering hump of the street and down into The Circle. She would be held in the little police station where car tires sank into hot tar, near the Idle Hour where bowling pins knocked about and pinball machines clanged, that place of high-pitched laughter and night-and-day drinking, that place it was said Mayor Cooper himself owned, that place young Marines from Camp Lejeune picked up girls, that place I was not allowed even to think about but did anyway. I imagined Five-Points-Woman and all the others who’d been trapped in the One Night Room crowding the jail, shouting for a lynching in The Circle. People would walk over from the Ferris wheel and the carousel, up from the boardwalk and the Ocean King Hotel, just to watch the wages of sin play out on LuLu, the wily, the Unsaved.

By the middle of July, the goat-man had made his way to the back porch of the beach house, where he sat in full view, dull with tarnish, among the rods and reels, tackle boxes, and pails smelling of bait. Hodgie came and went, stacking newspapers around the goat-man and fiddling with his ocean lures on twenty-pound test line. LuLu served up soft-shelled crabs and moved from room to room with her Tidewater grace. Guests arrived as scheduled, as did the phone and liquor bills. Hodgie mumbled. LuLu, smoking her Camels, bided her time. Mama took me to the beach to make sand castles.

Next thing I knew, the goat-man was enjoying a view of the kitchen from the countertop, down by the curtain to the pantry. LuLu tossed an apron over him that first week and removed it the next. Within five feet of where the goat-man sat grinning up at him, Hodgie stuck his nose into cooking pots, tested the rice and gravy, and poked at the buttermilk biscuits. Each day, LuLu shoved the goat-man farther down the countertop where Hodgie poured himself three fingers of Kentucky Gentleman.

One night, LuLu pulled a Mason jar full of nickels from the pantry. She rattled it at the goat-man. Soon, she teased.

Mama had moved down to the other end of the counter where she washed her hands in the sink and rubbed Jergens into her palms and around each finger. Where are you going to hide that thing?

LuLu called her a scaredy-cat. And I could see that myself.

You reckon Hodgie can get y’all out of jail? I asked Mama.

She looked at me funny, one side of her mouth screwed up, as if she was working out something herself.

When I could that week, I stuck close to LuLu. I built reading tents on the front porch with beach blankets and turned-over rockers. I listened to LuLu and Mama talking and laughing. I kept an eye on the street and sucked on a hank of hair. I waited, not sure exactly what I could count on.

I could tell when the day arrived. Under her breath, LuLu hummed zippity-doo-dah, Mama milled around, jumpy and looking useless, and I sat down on the porch steps and fiddled with my toe bandage. Hodgie, who was supposed to drive over to Morehead to talk to the captain of his boat, the LuLu, looked around, and I guess he decided his business would keep because he took his tobacco and the newspaper to his rocker where he read the same page for a long time.

LuLu moved the contraption from plain sight in the kitchen to the front porch, Mama reluctantly holding up her end. They dropped the machine near the steps with a thud. I checked the street again for a police car with Mayor Cooper riding shotgun. Then, like she’d asked me to fetch a fly swatter, LuLu told me to go get the brass polish and rags from the back porch. I ran all the way there and back, slamming the front door both ways.

LuLu hummed and polished my prince’s small handsome face, then the party people.

The goat-man flew up toward Hodgie and grinned right into his face. Hodgie chewed on his tobacco. He rocked forward and spit over the rail. The brown juice splashed on the gaillardia below. I chewed on my hair. Mama chewed on a thumbnail and wound her wedding ring round and round.

The can, John.

Where’d that come from? he asked with a squint.

He wasn’t asking what it was. He knew what it was! I was the six-year old lost ball in high weeds.

In a voice as flat as the ocean in a land breeze, LuLu told him, The kitchen, of course, John, to which he replied he’d never seen it before, and was it something she just bought from Old Man Sanderson.

OhmylordJohn, it’s been in this house for ages.

I sat stone still. So that was how it was done: sure and without heat.

Then LuLu reviewed for Hodgie the ancient history of the goat-man under his roof. The machine was on the back porch for eons, and before that, in the garage for I don’t know how long, and she was shocked he hadn’t seen it, and now between houseguests, she thought she’d have it out and take a look.

She began cleaning the smudgy windows with a finger and spit, like she cleaned grime off my nose. She stood, using elbow grease. I looked at Mama who was smiling into her hand, but her eyes were opened big.

Hodgie rocked. Where you thinking to put it?

LuLu pushed into the cracks and crevasses. Peasants leapt to life.

I hadn’t thought. Got any ideas?

Hodgie rocked some more. Seagulls cawed over the beach house on the way to the pier for lunch. How ‘bout in the pantry. Behind the curtain. He rattled the newspaper closed and, for once, leaned over and spit into his Maxwell House coffee can. Then he added, You know, Beulah, depending on how you set the screw at the back, we can make back some likker and phone money.

What? I don’t think I said this out loud.

LuLu worked the rag over the goat-man’s horns and told him what a fine idea that was. I wish I’d thought of that. Should have. Didn’t, said my velvet-voiced grandmother. She dropped down around the goat-man’s hind parts.

Hodgie grunted and flapped his newspaper upright for more reading. Mama began to breathe, and whatever airless bowl we’d been under lifted. When the goat-man gleamed warm in Atlantic light, Mama and LuLu took the contraption into the house. I heard them in the kitchen, Mama mumbling, LuLu laughing softly and coughing and moving jars in the pantry to make room for her new toy. Then a new sound, klicky-klick-klicky-klick, then a whirring like bicycle tires with cards clothes-pinned to a spoke, then ding-ding-ding. It brought to mind the night sounds from the forbidden Idle Hour.

LuLu whooped. Three cherries! Your turn, Margaret.

I heard Mama pull on a handle and mutter over and over, Dang!

Hodgie and I sat in the quiet hiss of breakers and crickets.

He stopped rocking. You know how much Old Man Sanderson took her for?

If you’ll tell me what it is.

He took from his back pocket a neat fold of bills and spread out some samples for me to inspect.

I pointed. Five of those.

Our secret?

I told him okay. He leaned to his other side, dug into his change pocket, and picked out a handful of new nickels. An early birthday present, he said. Now go ask Beulah to show you how it’s done. And when you get some nickels of your own, don’t get them mixed up with hers. She tends to hoard.

I looked at the bright coins in my palm. I imagined a princess in a tower and a prince coming for me; imagined the mysterious nightlife inside the dark Idle Hour; wondered exactly how tough Mayor Cooper would be on a little kid; wondered if growing up careful like Mama would get my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life; wondered if having my own way like LuLu would lift me, restless and inquisitive, out beyond the breakers. I took a deep beach-breath and closed my fingers around my nickels.

Published in 2013 by "Prick of the Spindle."


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