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Della Mae grunted as she dug around the flower bed next to her grandfather’s woodshed. It was hot out, and droplets of sweat beaded on her forehead and rolled down her round brown cheeks and dropped into the crackling dirt beneath her. Every once in a while she wriggled to stand up, wobbled around the corner of the woodshed to see if her grandfather was coming from the neighbor’s, then toddled back to her minefield of holes. She did not dig very methodically. Some holes only spanned three inches wide and as many inches deep. Others were gaping holes dug as deep as her little arm could reach down. She used her hands and a small trowel she took from the woodshed. She did not know what she was digging for, but she did not stop.
Her grandfather Eddie had planted the flower bed for his late wife Marylove the previous October. It had been warm then, too. It was 1976. Della Mae had helped her papa in the planting as much as a four-year-old field hand could, and it entertained him well enough to watch her flinging the fresh-turned dirt and patting the hand spade on the moist earth. He smiled at her, though he could only think of his wife then, and how he had let her go.
Marylove and Della Mae’s mother Harmony had gone to visit Marylove’s sister Jo in San Antonio for the Fourth of July. Everyone in Stockdale had planned their weekend around the big Bicentennial Fair. It was all anyone could talk about. Marylove and Harmony had their town-famous apple pies entered into the fair’s baking contest and aimed to win the prize money and the blue ribbon. Della Mae was too sick to travel and she stayed behind with Papa Eddie. In the middle of the night, a fire broke out at Jo’s. It was the biggest blaze anyone could remember. Some say it was the oven caught on fire. Marylove and Harmony never made it to the fair. Della Mae had been in her grandfather’s care since.
When she was young, when she and Eddie had first met, Marylove blushed over how she absolutely adored the look of wildflowers. So when Eddie decided on the garden as a memorial, he stuffed it plush with esperanza, scabiosa, Mexican marigold, and Blackfoot daisies. The garden had overgrown so rapidly within months—wild, tall, and thick. From the back porch of the house, past Eddie Cline’s modest expanse of field, the wildflower bed became a respite for he and Della Mae though there wasn’t any shade. Eddie reckoned if the cotton and the watermelon and the little yellow and purple and white flowers could stand it, so could he and Della Mae.
In her hole-digging, Della Mae took care not to disturb the flowers too much. She knew they were important to Papa. She knew the flowers belonged to Mama Mary. She knew Papa would be upset if he saw her digging up them holes. But she did not stop.
Whenever she and Papa would water the flowers he’d say, “Ain’t Mama Mary’s flowers jess so, Della Mae?”
“Yes Papa. So pretty, jess like my mama and Mama Mary.” Della Mae would begin playing with the water, dancing under the mist as if it were a tiny rainstorm spraying from the pistol-mouthed nozzle.
It had been nearly a year since Marylove and Harmony had passed, and Eddie still felt a stinging pang in his chest whenever he heard Della Mae call the name of his beloved. For the most part, Eddie was a stoic man and mostly kept to himself. Eddie found himself in routine: coffee and the morning paper, breakfast with Della Mae, making the best he could with her hair, watering Mary’s flowers. He made a decent living on the cotton, and the annual Watermelon Jubilee kept him busy tending to his crops. He began adjusting to life as a world inhabited by just he and his grandbaby.
Della Mae stood up again to get the blood flowing in her little limbs and to make it stop feeling as if she had a million ants crawling around nibbling on her. As she walked around, her feet patted down the small mounds of dirt meant to fill the holes in again when she felt finished with her digging. The seat of her cotton overalls were truly soiled. There was nothing to be done about that, she figured, except maybe tell Papa that the neighbor boy Jimmy Jay had thrown her down and mushed her bottom in the dirt. She didn’t like telling Papa stories that didn’t have a lick of truth to them, so she decided to leave the holes as they were and ran over to Jimmy Jay’s house where Papa was working in the garage.
“Jimmy Jay! Jimmy Jay!” Della Mae shouted in short, bouncing strides towards the Lee house.
There was never a fence put up between the Lees and the Clines in all the years either family lived there. Eddie often helped Jimmy Jay’s father James repairing small farm equipment, car and truck engines, and the like. James returned the favor by helping Eddie haul melons across town from market to market. The Lee matriarch, Anna Beth, frequently babysat Della Mae for Eddie, which gave her great pleasure as she had always longed for a daughter.
Jimmy Jay sat on his front porch playing with his Cowboys and Indians set. Their small white house was built at the back edge of their lawn and flanked by two small oaks on either side. Jimmy Jay watched Della Mae bounding towards his house and got up to meet her halfway. He stood with his hands on his hips and head cocked to the side.
“Now jess what do you want, Della Mae?” Jimmy Jay stood taller than Della Mae. His usually pale skin was freckled and golden under the summer sun. He wore corduroy pants even though it was over 90 degrees outside. Anna Beth didn’t approve, but Jimmy Jay dressed himself and corduroys were what he wanted.
“Hey Jimmy Jay,” she said, nearly out of breath. “I jess wanted to see if you wanted to come over ‘n play,” she paused. She looked around for any sign of Papa before continuing. “I’m lookin’ for treasure,” she whispered. Della Mae stood with her dirty hands crossed behind her back, and her pooch of a belly stuck out under her tank top. Her grandfather would gently tease her about it, telling her she needed to stop swallowing them watermelon seeds or else they wouldn’t stop growing in her belly.
Jimmy Jay turned up his face at her into a mocking scowl. “Treasure? You ain’t got no treasure. Jess a bunch a junk. You ain’t got nothin’, Della Mae. G’on home now and let me be.” He turned around and began walking back to his front porch.
She ran back to him and grabbed his arm. “But Jimmy Jay, you gotta help me. I can’t reach in them holes by myself. Come on!” She wanted to shout but she did not want to catch her grandfather’s attention. She pulled his arm until he gave in, which didn’t take much coercing anyway since she knew he liked adventuring and treasure as much as she did.
“Well,” he said, “let me go in and tell my mama.” His face spread wide with a slow grin. He bolted back to the house and whipped through the screen door. “Mama! I’m goin’ over to Della Mae’s!” He stood yelling inside the family room to wherever his mother was in the house. Surely she could not miss the sound of his voice carrying through.
Anna Beth came forth from the kitchen. “Well, all right but don’t be late for supper now.” She stood holding a small glass bowl against her hip full of string beans she had been snapping for dinner. The smell of a roast cooking in the oven lingered slightly, as if she had only just put it in half an hour before.
Jimmy Jay looked at the bowl. “You can call me up for supper if ya want, but I can eat with her and Mr. Eddie.” He shrugged and started toward his mama to give her a kiss goodbye, but quickly decided against it. He lit out back to the door and said, “See ya!”
“Hey, now, get back here,” she said. “Now, don’t go makin’ no messes over there. And don’t start in teasin’ on Della Mae, neither. She’s a good girl. You be good to her.” Anna Beth held her baby boy’s face in her one free hand momentarily and planted a kiss on his forehead. “All right now, go ahead. But you are coming home for supper.”
“Yes, Ma,” he sighed. He pretended to be disappointed, but the smell of the meat cooking in the kitchen hit him, and his stomach growled with anticipation until he almost forgot about the treasure hunting altogether. He gave his mama a hug, and as his face turned toward the living room window he spotted Della Mae waiting for him under the oaks. “Oof—gotta go Mama bye,” he exclaimed in one quick breath and tore off again out to meet Della Mae.
“Geez Jimmy Jay, I thought you was never comin’ back out to play,” she said. “I got plenty shovels, so let’s git.”
The pair scuttled back to the area surrounding the flower bed where Della Mae’s holes lay in wait. “Good grief,” said Jimmy Jay, looking around at the mess she had made. “What in the hell did you do? This ain’t how you dig for treasure. Man, girls don’t know nothin’.” Jimmy Jay began kicking her piles of dirt.
“Well, I don’t know exactly what the treasure is, so I’m jess diggin’,” she said. “Please don’t go kickin’ the dirt, Jimmy Jay. We gotta put it back so my papa don’t get all fussed up.”
He stopped kicking the dirt and started stomping on the hand rake. “How in the hell do you start diggin’ ‘n you don’t even know what you diggin’ for?” He began to laugh at Della Mae, pointing to the small holes and the big holes, making bigger and smaller noises like a disturbed barnyard animal.
“Hesh up, Jimmy Jay. We just gotta dig! I know there’s somethin’ out here. I jess know it.” She sat back on her bottom with her little legs slightly apart, and began to dig with her fingers holes the size of tennis balls on either side of her body. The peach soles of her feet and the tops of her brown hands were grayed by the chalky dirt. Her fingernails and toenails were stuffed, caked with dirt so tight she felt as if the nails might pop off. They didn’t, though, and she continued to dig.
“Oh all right you big baby,” he said. He stopped stomping on the hand rake, kneeled beside Della Mae, and plopped onto his bottom, too. “Where do you want me to dig, then?”
“Anywhere is fine, I s’pose. If ya find something might and shiny, then that’s what our treasure is!” Della Mae began to crawl to her old holes, filling in the small ones best as she could after Jimmy Jay had kicked her dirt all around. “This is good Jimmy Jay. This is real good. You can dig new ones and I can cover up my old ones. And Papa will never know.”
“Hey, why don’t you want Mr. Eddie to see you playin’ anyway? It’s jess dirt. It ain’t like you out here shootin’ or nothin’.”
Della Mae didn’t hear him, or else pretended she didn’t hear him. She continued filling in the holes around the flower bed. The sun beat down on their bodies. Della Mae looked at Jimmy Jay’s face starting to turn pink from gold. “You want me to get you a hat Jimmy Jay? You turnin’ just as pink in the face as a little ol’ piglet.” She laughed as she made snorting noises crawling around him.
“You cut that out! Jess cause you dark don’t mean nothin’. You ain’t nothin', Della Mae.” He flung a fist of dirt towards her feet, but continued digging. He grew convinced that she might actually have something, or else she wouldn’t be out in this heat making all this mess, putting herself in trouble’s way to be caught.
“Jimmy Jay’s a little piggie!” Della Mae crouched on her knees and pushed up her nose with her forefinger to resemble a pig, and began making deep oinking noises through her throat.
He groaned and threw down his shovel. “All right, now cut it out, else I’ll jess go home and leave you here with all this mess!” He stood up and kicked the shovel across the flower bed. He started to walk away, but felt her pulling at the bottom of his pant leg as she crawled across the ground on her belly.
“Jimmy Jay, you ain’t nothin’ but a mama’s boy!” Della Mae began screaming as she struggled to keep him with her. Her eyes widened as she realized her papa might hear her clear across the yard.
“Oh yeah?” Jimmy Jay stopped, and leaned in close to her face. “Well at least I got a mama. You a dumb cow.”
Della Mae fell off her heels into the dirt. She felt as if someone had kicked her in the stomach. Her eyes welled up, and she struggled to breathe.
Jimmy Jay stood paralyzed, realizing what he had said. “I—I’m sorry Della Mae. Really. I didn’t mean it.” He stammered over a repeated apology, echoing but unheard. He bent over to help her up, but she stayed seated in a daze.
He watched her hand slide in the dirt and reach forward for the hand rake and prop it as a crutch, to lift her body to her feet. He heard padded footsteps running behind him and Della Mae, soft in the grass. He heard Mr. Eddie calling out to Della Mae. He heard his mama and daddy calling out for him, too. The air was hot and dry and still. He felt the crack of the rake pierce the side of his face. The metal scraped open his cheek. He watched Della Mae relentless, gripping the handle. He watched the sky turn black.
Eddie grabbed Della Mae around her belly and squeezed the rake from her hand. She bucked in his arms, and he held her tightly trying to calm her down. Mr. Lee had run into the Cline house to call for help, and Anna Beth howled into the sun as she held her dress to compress Jimmy Jay’s wounds.
Della May moaned and sobbed, drool and tears soaking into Eddie’s shirtsleeves. “Mama Mary. Mama Mary. Flowers. For Mama Mary. But what about my mama, Papa? What about my mama?” Della Mae grunted herself into stillness. Eddie looked around at all the mess—the holes, the tools, the blood. He wrapped Della Mae’s shuddering body into his own and they both collapsed to the ground.
#Unreal #Family #SouthernLit #PlantingFlowers #GrowingTension #WhatAboutMyMama?
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