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Saltbox

Saltbox

The children play shadow tag in the parking lot. Regina watches them from her sitting porch, one gnarled hand clamped over her knee like a claw, the other concealed in the drape of her housedress. The clutching of the visible hand frightens the children, though Regina’s face is placid. She is still, but her eyes move back and forth, watching them play, chasing their shadows.

When one of them darts out in front of a car, Regina’s clenched hand lifts away from her knee. She swings it like a club into the still air above her head and what comes raining down on her then is memory, her son James, his small and beautiful body. A horn blares and the child races for the curb, spared. The game moves on to another block. But Regina is not spared the memory. She sits with it a while longer, as dusk gathers. The sweetness that was James rises up from the humid earth as gardenia and camellia and pine straw, a sweet and sharp smell, an unwashed child in the middle of a summer’s day, a three-year-old boy. A sentence unspoken drifts out of his open lips. The old woman catches it. Her son.

It is one thing to live a long life with bones that carry you through from one room to the next. It is another thing to outlive all the people you have loved and who have loved you. Sometimes all Regina lives for is the smell of fried fish on a buttered bun, the way it drifts across the street to her from the Saltbox like a prayer, like Sunday dinner, like Uncle JJ saying grace without ever saying grace at all. Other times, Regina knows that going on living is her cross to bear. The sun rises and falls and she opens her eyes to it like a child obeying its father but she doesn’t have to be happy about it, exactly, this surviving, this thing people fuss over with their rushing around and their fast cars and their shiny plans, this life. She waits for the children to come back and play in the lot, she nods to them with her whole body, rocking forward in her chair and then back again, hello. They raise their hands in greeting, they keep her in the corners of their eyes, they whisper her name and think she doesn’t hear. Let that be their prayer, she tells herself, I’m old as god anyhow. And this makes her laugh, makes her shed the skin of another day with the rasp of her voice, makes the children run.

Getting from the rocker to the front door, down the hall to the bed, now that’s an affair. Sometimes the neighbor shows up to help, sometimes she doesn’t. Regina raises herself like the dead to keep from dying, because grown women sleep lying down not sitting up, and when she lowers herself into the bed, she hears all the voices, James’ the most. They’re puttin’ up a building where my treehouse used to be mama, he whispers, like he’s confessing about forgetting to brush his teeth, like it’s his own fault. Oh that building ain't your fault baby, she wants to tell him, but she can’t quite get the words out, she’s tired and the dusk is falling across her room like a veil of flowers.

The Durham Hotel

The Durham Hotel