LuLu's Southern Beach House School for Wily Deceivers - 2
I was six the summer she struck. There was shifting around in the spare room, that tiny upstairs bedroom with one window facing north toward Morehead City, which meant dark, and overlooking the roof of the garage, which meant hot. Too dead a space for anything but cast-off furniture. Too dead a space for me when I went looking for a quiet place to get lost in fairy tales.
I heard whispering in the upstairs hall. Help me drag this in here, LuLu was saying to Mama. And Unscrew those. And Here, use this knife. My mother, who at the time was twenty-five if she was a day, and a pleaser, did what she was told in her easygoing way. The rattling and squeaking took until mid-afternoon when LuLu shut the door so the room would build up some serious heat.
When I agreed against my will to be seen and not heard, I joined the grown-ups on the front porch. The day after the upstairs furniture-shuffling, LuLu settled into her rocker, her arms on the side rests, her hands doing nothing but hanging down, looking like waterfalls, white and graceful. She could make a wooden rocker look like a chaise lounge just by sitting down. She wore beach dresses, slack and shapeless, as if she’d inherited a refined eye but had decided to give it up. She coughed into her hand.
Next to her rocked my granddaddy John—Hodgie to me—to whom she had assigned the corner chair so he could spit tobacco juice two ways. He won’t use the can, she’d say. The Maxwell House coffee can she filled with sand from the dunes sat next to him; he used it when he felt like it. Clickety-rik-clickety-rik went their rockers; his slow, hers slower, the two of them never together. She gazed out into the street and beyond it to the dunes and sea as if she owned that end of the beach. Rocking and nodding, she smiled that lopsided, smoky thing she did with her mouth, those eyes dead set on devilment.
That morning, Mama sat on the porch steps with me. She and LuLu smoked Lucky Strikes and snapped green beans into a ripped-open grocery bag. I picked salt off little blonde arm hairs and studied my fairy tale book. The cover was long gone. On one page, a girl opened her mouth and toads and newts fell out—this page Mama had turned down for me for future reference—and on the next page, Rapunzel, my favorite, threw her braid out a tower window, hopeful of rescue.
What were y’all doing upstairs, LuLu? I asked.
From where I sat she looked to be all ankles, bosom, jaw, and dark hair blowing back like she lived comfortably underwater.
Just straightening up, she told me.
Mama pursed her lips and took a sudden interest in the ceiling. I guess LuLu could tell by the look on my face that I didn’t believe her for one minute.
I’m solving a little problem, she said, and if you watch closely, you can learn how to solve problems and get your own way at the same time.
I would have given a lot to know her thinking on this, but Mama, who would’ve said I didn’t need any further instruction on getting my own way, put her bowl of beans down with a clink. According to her semaphore eyebrows, she seemed momentarily confused—as if she should laugh, say something pert to LuLu, or jerk me away to the beach for a swim in shallower water safe from the undertow on the porch. In my other grandparents’ beach house up the dune, Bibles sat around, opened and bookmarked. I was told that their names were written on the Lamb’s Book of Life, Jesus’s list of the Saved. I reckoned Mama was on the list with all her side of the family. I wasn’t sure about LuLu. Anyway, Mama must have decided that good manners and her own curiosity trumped sass or escape because she sat back, twisting her wedding band round and round, and kept a blue-eyed bead on me. LuLu’s laugh smoked like wet dirt, hardy and warm. Hodgie stared into middle space, his face as blank as a board.
Nobody told you anything at that age. But I had eyes. A hole in the screen that would let in mosquitos from the water oaks, one forty-watt bulb with a short string, missing knobs on the old bureau, and bent hangers in a chifforobe that opened halfway and banged into the rusty bed, a lumpy hammock of a thing that smelled of salt and mold. The hole in the screen was enough to set me about finding someplace else to read.
It was into this room that LuLu steered Five-Points-Woman and her husband two weeks later. when they showed up at the beach house, right on schedule. Mama had to look away. I didn’t know what to watch, so I hung around and watched everything.
Five-Points-Woman and other uninvited guests began to flee early on Saturday mornings, yawning and scratching. They didn’t come back, which was okay by LuLu. She took some time explaining to Mama that she hadn’t all but wiped out Southern hospitality. I reckon LuLu moved boundaries of acceptable behavior with such humor that Mama didn’t notice how far out she’d floated.
And I got an education. LuLu was my teacher.
Published in 2013 by "Prick of the Spindle," this true story is a family favorite, often told and enjoyed.