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The Dry Grass of August

In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and
Stell got to use the driver's license she'd had such a fit about.
It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts,
that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair. But her having
a license made that trip different from any others, because if she
hadn't had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally's Motel Park
in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a
wreck instead. And Mary would still be with us.

Stell and I carried the last of the suitcases to the driveway.
The sky was a wide far blue above the willow oaks that line Queens
Road West, with no promise of rain to break the heat. I put Mary's
flowered cloth bag in the trunk and Daddy took it out. "Always
start with the biggest piece." He picked up Mama's Pullman and
grunted. "She packed like she's never coming back." He hefted it
into the trunk. "Okay, girls, what's next?"

Stell tapped her suitcase with the toe of her size six penny

"That's the ticket." Daddy put Stell's bag in the trunk beside
Mama's. He looked at the luggage still sitting by the car and ran
his hand through his hair, which was oily with Brylcreem and sweat.
"Ninety-five, and not even ten o'clock." He wiped his face with his
pocket handkerchief and pushed his wire-rimmed glasses back in
place. His hands were tan from playing golf, thick and square, with
blunt fingers. On his right pinkie he wore a ring that had been his
father's --- gold, with a flat red stone.

The cowbell rang as Mary shut the kitchen door behind her. She
came down the back walk, Davie on her hip. Puddin stumbled along
beside them, struggling with the small suitcase she'd gotten for

Daddy said to Mama, "Don't let Mary ride up front."

"I'd never do such a fool thing," Mama said. "Everybody use the
bathroom one last time."

Stell stepped into the shade of the garage. "I don't need

I ran to the breezeway, touching Mary's arm when I passed her,
letting the screen door slap shut behind me. Daddy's bathroom
smelled like cigarettes and poop. I cranked open the window and sat
on his toilet to pee. In the full-length mirror on the back of the
door, I could see the awful welts on my thighs. I stood and yanked
up my pedal pushers.

Daddy was rearranging the luggage, making one more square inch
of room in the trunk. Stell Ann stood by the car, shiny in her
readiness, from her silky hair to her clear lip gloss to her
pale-pink nails. Polished like I could never be.

A horn honked. Aunt Rita's green Coupe deVille skidded into our
driveway, stopping beside the Packard. She rolled down her window.
"I found the picnic basket."

Mama said, "Great!" She asked Daddy, "Can we make room for

He groaned, looking into the crammed trunk.

Aunt Rita passed the basket out the window to Mama. "It's packed
with dishes, glasses, utensils. The ones in the paper bag are for
Mary." She lowered her voice. "There's talk of the Klan in

Mama handed the basket to Daddy. "We'll be fine."

"I hope so." Aunt Rita waved as she pulled out of the

Mama jingled her car keys. "Say good-bye to your father."

Daddy hugged Puddin with one arm and reached for Stell with the
other, but she held herself stiffly away from him. He brushed my
forehead with a kiss."Be good,Junebug.You know you're Daddy's girl,

His head blocked the morning sun and I couldn't see his

Mary stood in the driveway, holding Davie. Daddy poked Davie's
tummy. "Say bye-bye."

Davie waved.

"Take care of my boy for me," Daddy said to Mary.

"Yes, sir." Mary didn't look at Daddy when she spoke.

We all got in the car, Mama and Stell Ann in front, Davie
between them in his canvas baby seat. Puddin and I were in the back
with Mary, who sat behind the driver's seat, tall and straight, her
dark face already damp with sweat. She patted my leg to let me know
she liked sitting next to me.

Mama's hair was curled and hanging loose, flashing red and gold.
She handed me her sun hat, scarf, and gloves to put on the ledge in
the back window. "Fold my gloves and put them under my hat, then
cover my hat with the scarf." She watched me in the rearview
mirror, making sure I did what she said.

She started the car. "Is everyone ready?"

"Ready, Freddy," I said. Stell sniffed. Slang was beneath her
now that she was sixteen, was in Young Life, and had been

Daddy leaned in Mama's window to kiss her on the cheek.

"I'll see you at Pawleys, okay?" Mama bent to move her purse and
he kissed her shoulder instead. "Keep it in the road," he said.

She put the car in reverse. Had she felt his kiss on her

Daddy waved from the garage, looking alone already, and I
remembered what he'd said to Uncle Stamos, his older brother.
"While they're gone, I'm going to play golf every afternoon and get
stinking drunk whenever I want." I wondered how he'd feel, coming
home to a quiet house, nobody on the phone, no supper in the oven.
No one to yell at when he got mad.

Mama turned onto Queens Road West, into the shady green tree
tunnels formed by the towering oaks. "I hope there's not much
traffic between here and the highway."

On the way out of Charlotte we passed Municipal Pool, and I saw
Richard Daniels poised on the new high dive while another kid did a
cannonball from the low board. Nobody was a better diver than
Richard. Next time I talked to him, I'd ask him to give me

When Daddy and Uncle Stamos won the contract to build those
diving boards, they had hunkered for weeks over blueprints spread
on the dining room table. Huge papers that smelled like ether and
had WATTS CONCRETE FABRICATIONS, INC. in a box on every page, with
a caption: CHARLOTTE MUNICIPAL SWIMMING POOL, and subheadings:

Daddy showed me how to read the drawings. "Always check the
scale. An inch can equal a foot or ten feet." He held the papers
flat to keep them from curling. "If you don't know the scale, you
won't understand the drawings." I learned about blueprints as I
breathed in his smell of tobacco and Old Spice.

He liked teaching me things. When I was in first grade he gave
me a miniature toolbox with painted wooden tools, which

Mama thought was ridiculous. "That kind of thing is for boys,"
she'd said.

"I don't have any," Daddy had told her. "Yet." He patted her
bottom. "And girls need to know the business end of a hammer."

If Daddy wanted help, I grabbed my toolbox and ran to him, but
he hadn't asked for my help in a long time. Thirteen was too old
for make-believe tools.

Puddin wriggled on the seat next to me. "I want to be in front
when we get to Florida so I can see the ocean first."

"That won't be till tomorrow afternoon," I told her.

She put her head against my shoulder. "I can wait." Then she sat
up again. "Do my braids so I look Dutch." I knotted her skimpy
braids on top of her head, knowing they wouldn't stay, as fine as
her hair was.

"Do I look Dutch?"

"You look like Puddin-tane with her braids tied up." Silky
blonde wisps fell behind her ears.

Davie started to fuss and Mama asked Stell to check his diaper.
He was almost two but wasn't taking to potty training, so Mama had
him in diapers for the trip. Stell lifted him free of the car seat
and asked, "Are you ever going to let me drive?"


"His diaper's okay. Take him for a while, Mary." She helped
Davie climb over the seat. Mary reached for him and he beamed at
her, spreading his arms.

Stell asked Mama, "When?"

"At Taylor's, but not on the highway. Not yet."

"I'm qualified." Stell was pushing her luck. Mama didn't

We were going first to Pensacola, Florida, to see Mama's brother
Taylor Bentley, who was divorced. His graduation photo from
Annapolis was in our living room in a brass frame, taken when he
was twenty-one, handsome in his white uniform, his hat held under
his arm. When he kicked Aunt Lily out, a judge said their daughter
would stay with Uncle Taylor. I heard Mama on the phone. "Lily
Bentley is a slut." My dictionary cleared up the mystery enough for
me to suppose that Aunt Lily must have been caught in an affair, a
word that made me long for details I was hopeless to know.

In the early afternoon, we ate pimento cheese sandwiches in the
car and stopped at an Esso station west of Columbia. I dug through
the ice in the drink box until my hand was red before I came up
with a Coke, and stood in the sun gulping it despite Mama saying I
could only have one and to make it last.

I looked around for Mary and saw her closing the door of an
outhouse behind the filling station. She took Kleenex from her
pocket and wiped her hands. I went to her. "You going to get
something to drink?"

She shook her head. "Don't know when I'll find another

Stell walked up, tapping her Coke. "Want to play traveling?"

"Okay. Two bits." I guzzled my drink and belched.

"Suave. Do that for the next cute boy you see."

"I'm ready. One, two, three!"

We turned our bottles over. "Charlotte! I win!" I loved beating
Stell at games.

"Atlanta," she said. "You lose."

I called to Mama, who was by the drink box, a Royal Crown in her
hand, "Which is farther away, Charlotte or Atlanta?"

"Atlanta. Why?"

I slapped a quarter on Stell's outstretched palm. She

An old man popped the cap off a Seven-Up and raised it as if he
were playing traveling, too. He squinted at the bottom of the
bottle, where a bubble of air was trapped in the thick glass, green
and sparkling in the sun. "Ever who blowed this'un had the
hee-cawps," he said in a cracked squeal. When we got in the car, I
told everybody what he'd said and the funny way he talked. Only
Mary laughed.

We took off again, Puddin snuggling under the feather pillows
we'd brought along, curling herself up until just her sandals
showed. She hated air-conditioning. I thought it was because she
was skinny, with not enough meat on her bones to keep her warm.

I always looked out for Puddin, because before you knew it,
she'd disappear. Once, on a trip to the mountains, we left her at a
filling station and went twenty miles before we missed her. I'm the
only one who noticed how often she hid herself away. Mama wasn't
alarmed. "She's only five. She's only six. She's only seven."

Wiggles of heat rose from the highway, and the trip was long and
boring, even with Mama pointing out things such as the Georgia
state line and peach trees heavy with fruit. We played alphabet
until I was almost to Z. Mary pointed to a calf and whispered,
"Young cow," for me to use for my Y. Stell said that wasn't fair,
and Mama wouldn't rule, so we quit.

In a town called Toccoa, I saw signs in people's front yards:

"Mama, what do those signs mean?"

"It's got to do with that mess in Washington." She glanced at
Mary in the rearview mirror. "Never mind; it won't happen in

"What won't happen?"

"Hush. I don't want to talk."

Excerpted from THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST © Copyright 2011 by
Anna Jean Mayhew. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All
rights reserved.

The Dry Grass of August
by by Anna Jean Mayhew

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Kensington
  • ISBN-10: 0758254091
  • ISBN-13: 9780758254092