Black and white collage image of white woman in white dress with framed face, accompanied by dog, against a dark background

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 4, "Generations: Women in the South." Find more from that issue here.

This is a short story and it is not about me either. It’s about my first cousin Mary Lou Stoles. I’m the one writing it since she can’t lift a muscle; she is lying over there next door just as paralyzed as she can be and still be breathing. It’s the most pitiful thing. 

From where I am sitting on my back porch I can look out through my clematis vine and see my backyard with my clean clothes all hanging out neat and straight on my clothesline, and I can see the Levisa River (Levisa means Pretty Pictures in Indian) right out beyond that, and the railroad track where the coal trains go, and then the mountains starting straight up just as green as you please behind the railroad. Dew is on everything because the sun won’t come up here until about ten o’clock. I mean it will come up, but it can’t get over the mountains and hit the yard before ten, the mountains are so high. Looking up I can see the sky, bright blue, and tell it’s going to be another sunny day. Another scorcher. 

I’ve lived here in Grundy, Virginia, for nearly forty years, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else if you paid me. I like it. There is some that don’t, but I do. I know all the sewers run into the Levisa, which looks so pretty, and I know that mountain I’m looking at has got strip mines all over the top of it and all over the other side of it too like a honeycomb. But that’s progress. You can’t tell me anything about it I don’t know. I was born right here in this house in the front bedroom, the one with the window looking out on Route 460. Right now, my mother and my uncle Louis are sleeping upstairs, Uncle Louis breathing real heavy due to his black lung, and over there next door, not but about thirty feet away from my back steps, my cousin Mary Lou Stoles is stretched out in her bedroom that she has always had. She hasn’t been out of that room since she paralyzed herself nearly two years ago. 

That was the setting and now I will go on into the plot: as much plot as there is to it, I mean. The big trouble is that this is real life and so the plot is hard to pin down. Things just happened, the way they will, and when you look back you think, “Oh, if I hadn’t closed the door just then,” or “What if I had gone over to Knoxville for the summer when Aunt Louise asked me that time, what then? But you didn’t do it, you didn’t go, and so you never know, and looking back it’s hard to say when the important things happened or even what they were because all the days went along so smooth back then, like water under the bridge. But there’s no point in throwing the baby out with the bath water, I always say: you’ve got to salvage what you can and keep ahold of what you’ve got and not be looking off in the clouds somewhere. If my daddy hadn’t gotten so bad off, I never would have taken over the hardware store, for instance. I didn’t know a two-by-four from a hole in the wall that day I started. I didn’t know I was starting it either; I thought I was just going in to see how everybody was getting along with Daddy sick. 

But my cousin Mary Lou Stoles was the prettiest girl you ever saw, and I’ll be the first to say it. When we were girls, she was so pretty that people — women too — would just stop still in the street to get a good look at her. She had real long black hair, real curly, and these dark, dark brown eyes and dead white skin with the pinkest cheeks, all natural. It used to make me sick, somebody born looking like that right next door, related and all. But there wasn’t any way to get around it. That’s the way she looked all the time, and after a while you had to get used to it. Mary Lou herself never did get used to it, she thought there had to be something else all the time when the way she looked would have been aplenty for anybody else. 

I remember the night she won the Miss Grundy High Contest: she wore a strapless white ballerina-length evening gown covered all over in seed pearls with rows of net ruffles going all the way down its skirt, bright red patent leather high heel shoes, and a red velvet ribbon around her waist and another around her neck. Mary Lou had a flair all right. Nobody else would have thought to have put a ribbon around their neck. She stood up there all by herself on the stage holding some red roses while the Grundy Golden Wave rhythm band played “America” and the yellow tile walls of the senior high auditorium shook and shook with the noise. Buford Garber, who was a disc jockey in the daytime and was the emcee that night, went out and put this little bitty tiara on her head and it flashed in the spotlights like real diamonds, and he put a sequin banner across her that said “Miss Grundy High.” She stood up there by the ornamental potted palms and smiled, and flashbulbs were going off everywhere like fireworks. 

“How do you feel?” Buford Garber asked in his big disc jockey voice. “What are you thinking right now?” 

“This is the happiest moment of my life!” Mary Lou blurted and burst into tears. It was the best thing she could have done. The crowd went crazy, clapping and whistling and yelling and carrying on. They loved it for her to cry. It was all right to be that pretty if you cried about it, and so everybody was running out onto the stage and kissing her and hugging her. 

I went too. I had been in the Beauty Contest myself, as a matter of fact, mainly because Mary Lou’s mother had told Mama it would give me some poise, but I went off in the second round. I knew I would, and I was glad Mary Lou won it. So I hugged her too and it was like hugging a doll or something, like she didn’t even know me. Offstage by the Coke machine, my Aunt Helen, Mary Lou’s mother, was just about to have a fit she was so excited. She had two boys too, but it was Mary Lou that she really set store by. She had dressed Mary Lou up like a doll all her life, and now it looked like it was about to pay off. Aunt Helen had big plans for Mary Lou: the Miss Buchanan County Contest, the Miss Claytor Lake Contest, the Miss Virginia Contest. Who knew what might happen after that? 

Mary Lou got all the way to runner-up in the Miss Virginia Contest, and she won everything in between. Now that she is paralyzed, Aunt Helen has put all her trophies and ribbons right up where she can see them, on top of her bureau dresser and on the wall. Aunt Helen is the kind that ignores everything she doesn’t like. She just plays like it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t as far as she is concerned, and she acts like nothing ever happened to Mary Lou between winning the beauty contests and now. 

After the contest I remember I went on home with Mama and Daddy. Loretta Belcher was having a party and I wasn’t invited, but I didn’t care anyway. I had to get up early for Sunday School the next day. Anyway I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a Coke, still wearing my formal, when the telephone rang and it was Mary Lou. 

“Will you come back over here and get me?” she said. She sounded like she was crying. I had my driver’s license, but Mary Lou was still too young to get hers. 

So I got up and got the car keys and put on a sweater and told Mama where I was going. The auditorium was a mess, paper cups and stuff everywhere. Some people were cleaning it up. The doors were open but the curtain inside was closed. She was sitting back there on the stage all by herself in the middle of her 7-piece set of white Samsonite luggage that she had won for being Miss Grundy High. 

“I thought you were going to the party,” I said. 

“Jerry wouldn’t take me,” she said. Jerry was this boy that Mary Lou was dating then; his family was just trash and I never could see it, her dating him, with all the boys she had her pick of. You should have seen them driving by her house on Sunday afternoons. But Aunt Helen never would let Mary Lou go out with the same boy two nights in a row. Aunt Helen wanted her to be real popular. 

“Why wouldn’t Jerry take you?” I said. 

“He said I’d be too popular now, he said I’d be stuck up. I’m not stuck up, am I?” 

“Well, whether you are or whether you’re not is not any of my business,” I said, “ but I wouldn’t go out with that Jerry any more if I was you.” 

She said something. 

“What?” I said. “He plays the guitar,” she said. “He wrote a song about me last week, now he won’t even take me home.” 

“Well, come on,” I said, and I had to load all seven pieces of that Samsonite luggage into the car myself, because Mary Lou had to carry her roses and her trophy and her makeup case. All the way home she was sitting real still on the seat and her hoop stuck out over the gears. 

“Don’t you tell Mama I didn’t go to that party,” Mary Lou said when we got there, and she got out of the car and ran across the yard to her house as quick as she could, leaving all that luggage in the car, and I watched her go until the white of her dress was gone. “Thank you,” she called back. Then, she closed her door. Thank you, my foot, I thought, but I know when to keep my mouth shut and I never did tell Aunt Helen a thing. 

The boys Mary Lou liked were always weird: Mary Lou had a weird streak in her that she got from her father. Harold Stoles was a failure, everybody said so, I don’t even know what he ever did for a living besides that. They lived on Aunt Helen’s money which was considerable, her being an only child and her father had a patent on some special kind of rivet that people use everywhere in coal mining, even in South America. 

When I think of Uncle Harold, I think of him in their living room of a summer with the drapes pulled, just sitting in there in the dark. He never would answer the door. Mary Lou was in there with him most times when I came over to ask her to play. She was the only one in that family that ever paid any attention to Harold Stoles at all, and God knows what they talked about. Mary Lou’s brothers had already gotten out of that house as quick as they could though, I’ll tell you that, and they never did come back. One of them is in Alaska on a pipeline and the other in Ohio, right today, and they don’t send anything but Christmas cards to their mother. 

Mary Lou and her daddy used to stay in that room all the time. Sometimes they would have me come in there with them, and then Harold Stoles would read us “The Little Tin Soldier Is Covered With Dust” and “The Spider and the Fly.” Mary Lou used to always get real wrought up and start crying, but he went right on anyway. She liked to get upset and cry and he knew that; it took me longer to figure it out. 

I think that’s what she liked about religion: all the carrying on. In spite of all Aunt Helen’s efforts, Mary Lou never darkened the church door until her daddy died. Then she went to the funeral, of course, which was real simple and real short. There wasn’t much you could read out of the Bible that would apply to Harold Stoles. Mary Lou took on so at the cemetery that two men had to help get her back in the car. Nobody else carried on like that, of course. It was bound to be a relief for Aunt Helen. Now she could open the drapes and air out that room where he’d been for so long. 

Mary Lou started going to church after that, which tickled Aunt Helen to death until Mary Lou started going too much, when Fred Lee Sampson, Evangelist, and the Singing Triplets came to town. Fred Lee Sampson set up a big tent and then he set up a little tent behind that one, but you couldn’t go in the little tent unless you were saved at the revival. I don’t know what all they had in the little tent besides a plastic pool for baptizing, and Mary Lou never would say. I wasn’t about to find out for myself. I don’t hold much with electric guitars and singing triplets and microphones and that sort of thing. I’ve been saved since I was ten years old. 

The second week of the revival, Fred Lee Sampson had somebody build him a big plyboard cross to put in the big tent and he drilled all these holes in it and screwed little colored Christmas lights in every hole and put up everybody’s name under one of the holes. If you got saved or rededicated your life, you got to screw in your little light every time you went to the revival after that. Naturally Mary Lou loved it. She loved to go up and screw in her little light. Mary Lou was real religious from then on until she went to college, especially in the summers. Aunt Helen said Mary Lou was making a spectacle of herself. She used to make Mary Lou promise not to rededicate her life any more or she wouldn’t let her go to the revival, but Mary Lou did it anyway. 

Well, it came time for college, I went over to Radford and majored in home ec. To tell the truth, I didn’t much mind when Daddy developed emphysema in the fall of my sophomore year and I had to come on home to take care of him. Somebody had to look after Granddaddy and Uncle Louis too, and it was just too much for Mama. I had learned enough by then anyway. But Mary Lou kept on going to college. Radford wasn’t good enough for her either. Oh no. Not even East Tennessee State University was good enough for her! Aunt Helen took that rivet money and sent Mary Lou off to some fancy school on it. 

In college Mary Lou majored in English and started looking like some kind of beatnik. She never came home if she could help it. Aunt Helen didn’t like the way things were going, but there wasn’t much she could do about it after she had sent Mary Lou there. Whenever anybody asked Aunt Helen if Mary Lou was in a sorority where she was, Aunt Helen’s eyes would just glaze over, and she’d say something about the weather. By that time Mary Lou wouldn’t have touched a sorority or a beauty contest with a ten-foot pole. She always had to be one way or the other, Mary Lou. She never could be in between. When she did come home, she dated Hubert Blair who was out of law school by then and was starting to go into the coal business on the side, but she wouldn’t go out with him much even though Aunt Helen was really pushing it and he was just crazy about her. 

Hubert used to talk to me about it. “I just can’t understand that girl,” he would say, shaking his head. “She’s the craziest thing I ever saw,” but he was smiling about it. Hubert was the best catch in town, if you were interested in that sort of thing, until Mary Lou ruined him. He wouldn’t look at anybody else, and she treated him so mean. I used to bake him some gingerbread and take it by every now and then to try and pep him up. Because Mary Lou was morally loose, that was the plain truth about it, and everybody knew it. It just killed Hubert. That’s how she wrapped him around her little finger, and that’s why she got those long distance telephone calls all the time when she was home. To talk to her though, you wouldn’t have known it; she tried to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes by acting so sweet. 

I asked her straight out one time if she was ever going to marry Hubert or just keep stringing him along, and she laughed and said she was going back to school to get a masters degree so she couldn’t very well marry anybody right now, could she? She had let her hair grow out then and it was hanging all the way down her back. Of course she didn’t need any more education. She just wanted to hang around with those weird people you find in places like that, and sure enough she got tangled up with one of them and started living with him in New York City without the benefit of clergy. 

Hubert was the one who told me that. He went up there to try to talk some sense into Mary Lou and there they were in one room, he said, w ith a bare light bulb hanging down from the ceiling, eating off of two little portable burners. Hubert said it was a bad neighborhood with trash piled up all over the street. But Mary Lou sent him back, and Hubert just about died. Then he married this girl that always had liked him, Marge Ketchum, and they had little baby twin girls right away. 

Aunt Helen never mentioned Mary Lou one time in five years, that’s how bad it was. One time, Mary Lou actually brought that so-called New York artist of hers to see me. I couldn’t believe it! The doorbell rang and I thought it was the Jewel Tea man or the boy coming to work in the yard, so I opened the door and there stood Mary Lou looking just awful, not even clean, with that hippie boyfriend of hers. 

“Well, aren’t you going to ask us in?” she said, just like she hadn’t done any of it. She had a little bit of Aunt Helen in her too. 

I said, “Come on in.” I guess she could tell how I felt. “This is Jerold Kukafka,” Mary Lou said, but I never could bring myself to look right at him. He had wild bushy black hair like a Negro and was wearing some old faded work pants. I would have said something to him, only I couldn’t think of what to say. He didn’t look like any kind of brainy writer to me, but that’s what Mary Lou had told Aunt Helen he was, only of course he hadn’t published anything. Mary Lou sat on the sofa and wrinkled up my antimacassars. She kept pulling at them with her fingers, and her fingernails were all bitten off. 

This Jerold Kukafka went walking around and around the room like some kind of skinny jungle cat in a cage at the zoo. I have one whole wall full of shelves where I keep my teacup collection and he kept picking up a teacup and looking at it, then he’d walk away and then he’d come back and look at another one. It made me so nervous. 

“You’re still collecting your teacups, I see,” said Mary Lou. 

“Yes I am,” I said. 

“You haven’t changed a bit,” she said. “You still look just the same.” 

Mary Lou looked around. “This room is the same, too,” she said. “You haven’t changed anything. Do you remember sitting over there at the table and making paper dolls out of magazines? Do you remember how we used to play gin rummy for hours and hours?” 

“Mama and Uncle Louis will be back any time,” I said. “They went over to Junior’s to get some salad peas for supper.” 

“Oh,” Mary Lou said. 

Jerold Kukafka was looking at my cup from Limoges, France. 

“How is my mama?” Mary Lou asked. 

“She’s all right,” I said. “I’d go over there if I was you.” 

“We went over there,” Mary Lou said, “but she wouldn’t answer the door.” 

“She might not be home,” I said. 

“There’s a car in the driveway.” 

“What kind is it?” 

“A blue car,” Mary Lou said. 

“That’s hers all right,” I told her. “Buick Skylark.” Imagine not knowing what kind of car your own mother drives! 

“Well, how is she?” Mary Lou asked again. Mary Lou still had her hair long but pulled straight back in a pony tail, and she was real thin. Her cheekbones stuck out and her eyes looked way too big and they shifted, shifted everywhere. 

“Your mother is about as well as you can expect,” I said, “considering. Maybe she was taking a nap.” 

Jerold Kukafka was looking at my cup from the Brussels World Fair. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. It was the first thing he had said and I jumped. Mary Lou stood right up and went over to him like she was pulled by a magnet and she held his hand.

“Tell Mama I asked about her,” Mary Lou said, “and tell her I said I’m real happy.” She was happy, too: I believe it. Some people thrive on sin. Mary Lou left with Jerold Kukafka in the pouring rain not ten minutes before Uncle Louis and Mama came back with the salad peas, and I never said a word. I guess Mary Lou wasn’t so happy a year after that, because Jerold Kukafka hung himself dead from an exposed pipe in the bathroom in that place where they lived in New York, and Mary Lou found him herself with his tongue hanging out and all black in the face. Then Mary Lou was in a hospital. Aunt Helen just casually let that drop one day when we were all out on the porch drinking ice tea. Aunt Helen clammed up right away and she wouldn’t say why, but I’m sure it was mental, myself, or she would have said. 



We buried Granddaddy in September and a couple of days after that, here came Mary Lou back home. She was thirty. It was exactly like those years with Jerold Kukafka never had happened at all: here came Mary Lou, looking like she ought to have looked all along. She was wearing dresses and playing tennis at the new country club all of a sudden, she had cut her hair real short, and butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. 

One day she walked in the office to see old Earl Graves, the Superintendent of Schools, and the next week she was teaching senior English at Grundy High. She made a blueberry cheesecake and brought it over to Mama and me. She sold little felt birds at the Women’s Club Christmas Bazaar. But I watched her close and noticed things, nothing I could ever put my finger on — she smoked a lot, and her eyes looked funny sometimes. She was back here for almost three years before any rumors started, and I never heard them then. People wouldn’t have said a word to me, seeing as how I’m a relative. People are that polite. 

The first I heard of it was in the Rexall, where I was having my lunch, when Brenda Looney came bursting in the door. Brenda Looney is a teller at the Levisa Bank and Trust, so she sees everybody and knows what’s going on all over town. She wears these harlequin glasses. I never have cared for her myself and I never stand in her line when I go to make my deposits at the bank. But here she came, just slamming into the Rexall on her break, couldn’t wait to tell it. 

“Did you hear about Hubert? Hubert Blair?” she asked real loud, talking to Mrs. Ritten who works at the cosmetics counter and is a big friend of hers, but of course you could hear her all over the store. “Well!” she went on, and although two counters were in between me and Brenda Looney I could imagine how she looked, how she would draw up her mouth. “Hubert Blair and Mary Lou Stoles have run off! Eloped. They say he left a note for his wife.” 

“Oh, and those poor little twin girls!” cried Mrs. Ritten. “That’s just awful. I can’t imagine Hubert doing a thing like that.” 

“Well, that’s what they did all right,” Brenda Looney said. “I didn’t know if you heard it or not.” 

“That beats everything,” Mrs. Ritten said. 

“What does?” asked old Mrs. Tyler Rockbridge, coming up, and they told her, and they told everybody that came their way. They said that Marge Ketchum Blair was under heavy sedation and her mother was coming in on the train. 

But you can be sure that everybody shut up pretty quick when I got out of my booth and went over to the cash register. They didn’t know I was in there. I took my time, too. “I want two packs of Dentyne,” I said, “and put it on my bill, please, Sue.” I didn’t have to tell Sue what I had for lunch. I always have the same thing, a bean salad and a coke and a small bag of barbecue potato chips. I took my time going out and you could have heard a pin drop. Somebody in this family has got to have some dignity. On my way out of the Rexall I remember that I saw that Coppertone ad up over the lotions, that little girl with her hair in pigtails and a real good tan. I could have cried about Hubert’s poor little twins. 

Of course, it wouldn’t have done any good. Hubert has a lot of money since he’s in the coal business now, and he gave Marge the most alimony you ever heard of. Marge built herself a new ranch-style house and then married John Wheeler a year after the divorce went through. John Wheeler is a gynecologist. Hubert and Mary Lou moved fifty miles over to Bluefield, where Hubert has some mines, and they just laid low for a while. Nobody ever said a word about them, at least not to me. It was like they had both fallen into one of Hubert’s mines. 

They were married, of course — Hubert wouldn’t have lived with somebody without marrying her — and about a year after that they had a little boy, and then all of a sudden here came Mary Lou out of retirement. The first thing we knew, she was all over the Southwest Virginia Mountaineer, smiling out of the society page every Sunday like she deserved to. Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Blair return from Jamaica! Mrs. Hubert Blair has an intimate luncheon! Mrs. Hubert Blair is the head of the Heart Fund! That one really cracked me up. I showed it to Mama, who said, “Well, I guess she’s turned over a new leaf.” Another day Mama said, “Well, they always were in love, ” right in the middle of nothing, but I knew who she was talking about. Mama thought it was romantic. 

Mary Lou came back for a visit and brought her little boy, Justin, and that’s all I heard from Aunt Helen and Mama for the next two weeks. How cute Justin was, how smart Justin was, how Justin could count to ten on one breath. I was down taking inventory at the hardware store and missed the big visit, myself. Then Hubert announced that he was running for Congress and Mrs. Hubert Blair had her picture on the front page, just like she was Jackie Kennedy. 

In the middle of the campaign, Mary Lou came home. This time she came home to stay. Hubert called and called, but Mary Lou wouldn’t go back to him. Hubert told Aunt Helen that Mary Lou had left all her diamond rings on the kitchen sink. Hubert came over here in his Lincoln Continental three or four times but Mary Lou wouldn’t talk to him. There was a lot of publicity about it in the papers. Finally it got so bad that Aunt Helen was having nervous palpitations of the heart, so I walked over there myself to see what I could do. 

Mary Lou was lying on the couch in the front room wearing some old robe that must have been Aunt Helen’s. She was smoking a cigarette and looking at the ceiling, that’s all. She had all the Venetian blinds shut tight. 

“Hello,” I said. I sat down in the rocker. 

“Hello, Agnes,” she said. She didn’t seem surprised to see me. I rocked for a while. 

“Don’t you think you’d better go home now and help Hubert run for Congress?” I asked. “Who’s taking care of your little boy?” “

He’s better off,’’she said. “Hubert’s better off too.” Her voice was flat as a pancake. 

“What made you come home?” I asked. Sure I was curious, but I thought I might get at the trouble that way. 

“I was heading a campaign to raise money to improve the facilities at Barton,” she said in her strange flat voice. Barton is the mental institution for the southwest part of the state. “I had to go over there and take a tour.” Her voice stopped, like it was too much effort to go on. I waited. 

“They unlocked the door and I was walking through the wards with the director. Each one we went in was worse than the one before it. Finally we came to the D ward, which was worse than all the others put together. It was the one where they keep the people who are just like vegetables. They keep them in cribs, Agnes. These big cribs.” 

I rocked. 

“And I was going along looking at everything with the director, and we stopped by one of the cribs to talk, and this horrible, this, thing that was in the crib suddenly sat up and grabbed my hand and looked at me.” 

“Well,” I said. “Poor thing. I guess it was glad to see somebody different.” 

Mary Lou rolled her head back and forth on the pillow. “No, no,” she said. “No. You don’t understand. It knew me. It looked right at me and it knew me.” 

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. 

“No,” said Mary Lou. “It knew me.” 

She wouldn’t talk any more after that so I went home. I still can’t figure out why that upset her so much, I bet she made it all up in her head. Because they bring those people to Barton from all over this part of the state, and the way I look at it, it’s about 1000 to one that any of them would have ever seen her before. 

The next day Mary Lou paralyzed herself. They took her in an ambulance to Charlottesville, and then they brought her back. The doctors couldn’t find any medical reason for it, they said. They said it was all in her mind. We put her in her old room and Aunt Helen hired two practical nurses, Mrs. Dee and Mrs. Dixon, and they’re still there. It’s been a year and a half now. Mrs. Dee does the day shift and Mrs. Dixon does the night shift, so she can have some time in the day to work in her garden. I opened a laundromat next to my hardware store. 

And Hubert? Everybody felt so sorry for Hubert that he won the election in a landslide victory and now he’s sponsoring a strip-mine bill. When ecology came in, Hubert was right on top of it. It’s no telling how far he’ll go in politics now. He is divorcing Mary Lou quietly — you can’t blame him — and he is taking complete care of Justin. He won’t even let Aunt Helen look at Justin, much less have a hand in raising him. He told Aunt Helen that he didn’t want Justin ever to come in that house and see his mother like she is. 

Aunt Helen was real upset, because after all, Justin was the only one she had left. Now Aunt Helen won’t have a thing to do with Hubert except sign the checks he sends her, which she says she can barely bring herself to do. 

Mary Lou just lies up there in that room every day, like she is lying up there now, with her bed caddy corner so she could look out of the window and see Aunt Helen’s climbing rambler rose in full bloom on the trellis if she would turn her head. But she won’t. She won’t lift a finger. She just lies there. Everybody in town has taken a fancy to it. The preacher, Mr. Sprayberry, comes and sits with her some. He reads her the Bible even though you can’t tell if she can hear it or not. Mama goes and sits with her, and Aunt Helen, and all the ladies in town. People are always bringing congealed salads to Aunt Helen because once Aunt Helen told somebody in the beauty shop that Mary Lou liked them. Mary Lou can eat fine, but you have to feed her. The only one she won’t eat for is Mrs. Dee. Some people have said why don’t we put her in a nursing home but of course we won’t hear of it. Not a one of us has ever died in a nursing home. We can take care of our own. 

I go over there and sit and sometimes I think about how we used to play gin rummy and how we used to sneak off and go swimming in the creek, and it’s so sad. It’s so pitiful the way she lies there. It’s a funny thing but she looks almost prettier now than she ever did. Her hair is growing out now and I fix it real pretty. I think about how she looked the night she won Miss Grundy High. I helped Aunt Helen put all her trophies and ribbons up where she can see them. I often think that if she had married Hubert the first time he asked her, if she hadn’t gotten all that education, she could be having intimate luncheons for people in Washington right now. But I’m glad she came home. 

I talk to her a lot and I think she understands everything I say even if she won’t make a sign. Every day when I come home from the store I go over there and sit with her for a long time. It rests me, sitting in that room, it’s so peaceful there. It’s always real clean and cool, and we’ve got it fixed up so nice. I try to keep her interested: I told her all about the Burger-O franchise I just bought, and I read the newspaper to her and the Reader’s Digest. I never do read her anything about Hubert, though. One day I read her “I Am Joe’s Nervous System” out of the Reader’s Digest but her eyes didn’t even flicker. A lot of times I just sit and hold her hand, and sometimes I give her a back rub. 

And who knows what will happen? It is not given to us, as Mr. Sprayberry says. And who knows if she might not just jump up from that bed one day and go off and get her PhD or do something else crazy? She’s not 36 now. Or she might stay right there and atrophy to death. What I think, though, is that she’s happy. I think she likes to have me hold her hand. Outside her window the seasons come and go, and now Aunt Helen has put a picture of The Last Supper up for her to look at, too. It’s so pitiful how she lies there; it would just make you cry.