By mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day, Gloria’s hangover had subsided enough that she was able to complete this text message—Happy New Year! Had fun last night!—without vomiting. She added a smile emoji, then deleted it and added a champagne bottle, then deleted that and sent the message emoji-less to Tabitha, hostess of the New Year’s Eve party where Gloria had consumed far too much of everything. Wine, champagne, honey vodka (where had that come from?) and more champagne.
Tabitha was usually very quick to reply. She would write, Had fun, too! Do you want Ed to come by? Tabitha’s seventeen-year-old son Ed had driven Gloria home at just past one o’clock and told her that he’d be happy to pick her up today and drive her back to get her car. He was gallant, that Ed. Curly-haired and bespectacled. He’d spent the evening entwined on the sofa with a pretty, rabbit-faced girl.
But the minutes passed with no response. Well, it was less than a mile walk, no use interrupting whatever people did on New Year’s Day: the football, the sex, the black-eyed peas. Gloria and her ex-husband, Jeremy, had enjoyed all three of those things last year, before he packed up his rucksack and said he was off to float down the Amazon without her.
The Mississippi sky was a gray sheet behind gnarled trees. All the colors of the world were brown and gray and brownish green, like an early Van Gogh, a Dutch winter scene. Gloria taught art history at the community college, and she liked to show the students slides of something besides those damn sunflowers. The neighborhood was hushed; smashed rolls of newspapers lay in driveways. The next door neighbors’ inflatable Frosty slouched forward in the dead grass, as if searching for a contact lens.
She should walk more often, Gloria decided ten minutes later, rounding the corner by the manmade lake and seeing Tabitha’s house already in the near-distance. Nothing was as far as it seemed. Except, perhaps, for the Amazon, which seemed very far, despite the occasional postcard that arrived two weeks after it was postmarked.
There was Gloria’s Toyota, still parked at the curb. From inside the house, she could hear the sound of dogs barking, voices, a football game.
“Yoo hoo,” she called, pressing her face close to the back door window. “Happy New Year!”
After a moment, Tabitha appeared. Her silver-gray hair was swept up in a high bun. She didn’t look hung over at all.
“Hi ya,” Gloria said when Tabitha opened the door. “Just came by to get my car, so Ed doesn’t have to bother. It was a nice walk!”
“Goodie for you,” Tabitha said, and slammed the door in Gloria’s face.
Gloria sat in her car for a moment, wondering if it was a joke, some kind of New Year’s prank. But who pulled New Year’s pranks? She wondered if she should knock again and say, “Uh. What was that?”
Instead, she drove home and called her friend Beth, who had also been at the party, and told her about Tabitha’s odd behavior. “So,” Gloria concluded, “what was that about?”
There was a long, terrible pause. “Listen,” Beth said at last. “Don’t drag me into it. I have to go.”
“Wait,” said Gloria. “Are you mad at me, too?”
“It was a shame,” said Beth. “What happened was a shame.”
“But what happened?”
“Don’t drag me into that,” Beth said, and hung up.
Shunned. That was a word she remembered from sociology class, something that happened to members of a society who rebelled against the mores of a culture. Clearly, she had rebelled against the mores of the New Year’s Eve party, whatever those were. But she wasn’t a rebel; she never ran away from home or did drugs; she’d never been arrested. She parked where she was supposed to. Jeremy had tried more than once to get her to call in sick and drive five hours down to New Orleans, but she never did. It was true that she sometimes drank too much at parties, but she never drove home. So what could she have possibly done?
She sat at the kitchen table, staring out at the empty bird feeder. The events of the previous evening ranged in her mind from very clear (arriving at Tabitha’s house with a cheese platter) to not clear at all (why did one shoe end up under her bed and another in the closet?). Somewhere, in the interval between arriving at the party and taking off her shoes at her own house, she had done something unforgiveable.
Perhaps she’d made a pass at Tabitha’s husband? She didn’t even think he was attractive. Or oh God: made a pass at Ed? Of course not, but maybe he thought she did, and reported it to his mother: Miss Gloria tried to kiss me! But no. He’d driven off with a friendly wave, which he wouldn’t have done if he thought she was making a pass at him. Perhaps she’d offended someone at the party. She was peri-menopausal, getting forgetful, sometimes losing her train of thought in the middle of teaching class. Were there other effects of middle aged brain that no one talked about, like a Tourettes-like ranting? Surely she would have heard of such a thing.
Or maybe she broke something.
Stepped on one of the dogs.
Stole something by accident. Could you steal by accident?
She emptied the contents of her purse for clues. Nothing. Nothing on her phone, no new photos. She’d danced a little, but everyone had danced a little. Would some video pop up on YouTube of her taking off her clothes? Or worse? It was driving her nuts. She hardly knew most of the people at the party, and the ones she did know weren’t answering their phones. Even her mother in Georgia wasn’t answering the phone. Her sister in Iowa said she was busy. “But I may have made an awful mistake,” Gloria said, and her sister said, “So what? We’ve all got problems.”
Was there anyone in the world who would actually talk to her?
“Nanny!” she said, when her grandmother answered the phone. “Happy New Year!”
“Happy New Year,” said her 84-year-old grandmother, who lived thirty miles away and whom Gloria hadn’t seen in over a year. A year! Not even for Christmas, which Gloria spent alone, watching Netflix and eating an entire Walmart shrimp platter by herself. Nanny didn’t like to drive, and Gloria had been too caught up in her divorce to visit. Selfish. She was a terrible human being, and there was no telling what despicable thing she had done.
And then, to her own surprise, Gloria was sobbing. “Can I come visit you right now, Nanny?” she managed finally, and her grandmother said, “Of course you can.”
Her grandmother lived on a long gravel road that turned into a dirt road weaving between tall pine trees. The late afternoon winter light lay heavy across the kudzu. Half of a pumpkin pie was in a basket in Gloria’s front seat, with a bottle of Australian red wine. So at least she would not arrive empty-handed. Where the gravel turned to dirt she passed a grizzled, bearded man in a low baseball cap, hoisting a rifle. He paused, lifted a hand in greeting. Probably on his way to shoot things and eat them. Gloria had grown up in Mississippi but never got the hang of shooting things.
She waved at him as he disappeared in her rearview. She vaguely remembered him. Bob? Bill? Billy Bob? He had a son, a boy her age. There’d been some trouble at some point involving Bob/Bill; her grandfather had gotten involved. What had happened? Either she never knew, or she’d forgotten. It occurred to her that she’d reached the stage of life where her memories had turned into ice bergs; just a sliver of them floated on the surface.
She parked on the hard dirt in front of her grandmother’s house, next to the smoldering fire pit and the shed where her grandfather had kept his tools. “A shotgun shack!” Jeremy had said with delight the one time they’d visited Nanny together. Jeremy was from New Jersey. “An actual Mississippi shotgun shack!” He’d aimed an imaginary gun at the front door.
“Yoo hoo,” said Gloria. The door was unlocked. Did it even have a lock? Inside, Nanny sat on an afghan-draped sofa holding a telephone receiver to her ear and frowning. Ah, a landline. Gloria’s heart swelled. Oh, those curly cords of yesteryear. A fat cat snoozed on a rocking chair, underneath a mounted deer head.
“I have to go,” Nanny said into the phone. “Don’t call me back, you hear me?” She hung up.
“Who was that?” Gloria asked.
“Nobody,” said Nanny.
“I think I’ve done something awful,” Gloria said. “But I don’t know what it was.”
“Oh, sweetie,” said Nanny. She was wrapped up tight in a blue blanket, just the tips of her slippers poking out. Her hair was a puff of pale fuzz. “You want some tea? Sit down.”
“I brought you a pumpkin pie,” said Gloria, not sitting. “And wine.” Her head was clear enough now that the idea of wine wasn’t entirely out of the question.
The phone rang. Rang and rang and rang and rang and rang. Gloria took the basket into the kitchen and set it on the table and the phone kept ringing and ringing.
“Ignore that,” said Nanny. She patted the sofa next to her. “Sit.”
Gloria sat. “I think I did something awful at a party last night. But I don’t know what, and nobody’ll tell me.”
The phone rang again. Nanny picked it up. “Hello? No, thank you.” She hung up and then lifted the receiver off the hook and let it sit on the end table. “Wrong number,” she said to Gloria.
“It could have been so many different things,” Gloria said.
The phone started beeping. Beeping and beeping and beeping.
“It’ll stop in a minute,” said Nanny. “Go pour us some wine.”
There were no wine glasses, just chipped ceramic coffee mugs. Warm red wine in a coffee mug: yes, that would help.
“Cheers,” said Nanny. They clinked mugs. The cat jumped off the rocking chair and Gloria sank into it. There was a black and white TV in the center of the room, and Gloria had the odd thought that it only played shows from the past. She pointed the remote, turned it on, and a woman was saying something about the Mueller Report. No Gomer Pyle, no Andy Griffith. She clicked it off.
“I’m sure you didn’t do anything that bad,” Nanny said.
Through the lace curtains, night was falling. Sometimes possums slunk up to the house; there’d once been a family of eight raccoons snuffling about. Deer. Snakes. Her mother had refused to let Gloria and her sister visit one summer because of the snakes.
There came the sound of crunching gravel.
“Is that a car?” Gloria said. “Expecting someone?”
“No,” said Nanny. “You want some pie?”
Gloria did want pie. She hadn’t eaten after she’d puked all her stomach bile and now she really really wanted pie. The sound of tires grew closer; lights shone through the lace curtains, catching the deer head in its glare. “Deer in the headlights,” said Gloria. She felt pleased with this joke, the most pleased she’d been all day. The lights swooped on, the tires rolled away.
“You probably did something no one even remembers,” said Nanny.
“But my friend Tabitha literally slammed the door in my face and no one will return my calls.” Gloria didn’t mention the possibility that she may have made a pass at Tabitha’s teenage son. Or husband. Or Tabitha herself? She’d made out with a girl in college once. There was no telling what she was capable of. Maybe she’d forgotten to flush? That would be bad. Maybe she’d kissed Tabitha on the mouth and then taken a great big dump in the foyer. In which case, her friends—if they were real friends—should have called the ambulance because obviously she was having a mental breakdown. Or a stroke. That’s what she would do if Tabitha came to her house and did those things: call an ambulance. She wouldn’t be a bitch about it.
And just as she was contemplating the possibility that she’d had a stroke and nobody even cared, a rock came crashing through the front window.
The summer she was fourteen, Bob/Bill’s son Wayne asked her to go out into the woods with him and drink beer at midnight. She’d never had beer. She left Nanny and her parents and her sister snoring in Nanny’s house and stepped into the hot July night at exactly midnight. Wayne was waiting with his hands in his pockets. He was tall and skinny and smelled like tobacco and boy-sweat. “I stashed it out in a hiding place,” he said. He’d told her he was fifteen, but he looked older. The night buzzed with heat and the smells of pine and damp earth. Gloria was barefoot and wearing a bra and underpants beneath her pink nightgown. Wayne held her hand and let her through the darkness; a fingernail moon glinted. “I should have worn shoes for this,” Gloria said, and he said, “Don’t worry.” She didn’t know him at all; the first time he’d talked to her was earlier that day, when he’d come up to her in the yard.
“I don’t think there really is any beer,” she said, after they’d been crunching along for a while, and that’s when he pressed his mouth against hers as a distant owl shrieked. It was wonderful. She’d read enough V.C. Andrews to have a general idea of what was going on, or what could go on, but when she tried to tug at his jeans he said, “Hey wait a minute.” Then he stepped away from her and said, “We better head on back,” and she followed him, mortified, back to her grandmother’s house.
Now, an older, grayer version of this boy stared grimly into the house through the broken panes of glass. He was the same bearded, baseball capped man she’d waved to earlier—not the father, Bob/Bill after all, she realized with a start, but the son. Wayne. Gloria had leapt to her feet just in time; Nanny had flown across the room and was now somehow holding a rifle. My, she was faster than she looked. Where had that gun come from? The window glass glinted on the floor and the damp night air smelled of pine and wood fires. A round gray rock had rolled under the TV set.
“Lizzie,” Wayne said. He peered in, saw Gloria and nodded. “Sorry to disturb you. I was passing by and saw someone vandalizing.”
“Like hell you did,” Nanny said. “Move along, Wayne.” She was holding the gun but not quite aiming it.
“Now, Nanny,” said Gloria. One of the coffee mugs lay broken on the carpet.
“Lizzie. You’re no fool. Where is he?”
Nanny cleared her throat. “Your father is no doubt at the Filly getting himself in deeper trouble with his wife. Now kindly get the hell off my property.”
Wayne stood there a moment longer, then turned and disappeared into the darkness. After a moment they heard the sound of a truck starting and speeding off down the dirt road.
“How do you even know about the Filly?” Gloria asked. The Filly was a strip club over the county line.
Her grandmother didn’t answer, just set her rifle back in its rack and pulled her sweater closer around her shoulders. “Let’s get this window fixed up.”
The tools were still in the shed where her grandfather had kept them. He’d died when Gloria was ten, but she could recall the sound of hammering as he built chicken coops and dog houses. “Help me pull this tarp out from under this plank,” Nanny said now, her feet spread wide apart on the dirt floor of the shed. Gloria was training the flashlight on her grandmother, who was now wearing work boots, her nightgown hiked up into her cotton underpants. Her knees were pale and marbled but her arms were hard with sinew.
“What were you burning?” Gloria asked. “In the fire pit?”
“Oh, there’s always something to burn,” Nanny said.
“My, Nanny,” said Gloria, as she helped yank out the tarp. “What big muscles you have.”
“Get the hammer and the nails from the toolbox,” Nanny said.
Nanny held the tarp in place while Gloria nailed it to the window frame. When was the last time she’d felt so sturdy herself? So functional? She couldn’t recall. “I’ve never repaired anything before,” she said. “Last year, when the dishwasher broke, Jeremy just got in there with a screwdriver and fixed it, and it seemed like a miracle.”
“I been taking care of myself for a long time,” Nanny said. She’d pulled her nightgown back down and now resembled a strange Christmas angel as she stood on the step ladder. “You’ll see. You’re better off. He deserved everything he had coming to him.”
“He’s in the Amazon,” Gloria said.
“Uh huh,” said Nanny. “All men go there eventually.” She stepped down from the ladder, clapped her hands together once. “There,” she said. “I’ll call the glass man tomorrow.”
Back inside, the house felt damp and chill. They swept up the glass. Nanny settled back on the sofa, Gloria poured herself more wine and the cat jumped on her lap. “I was thinking I’d drive home tonight, but maybe I’d better just stay. You still got that cot in the sewing room?”
“No,” said Nanny sharply. “That room is a mess. Don’t go in there. You can stay out here.”
“Oh,” said Gloria.
“I mean it,” said Nanny. “Don’t go in there.” She took a sip of wine. “Maybe you told a joke that didn’t go over well. At the party.”
“No,” said Gloria. “I think it was more along the lines of pure rudeness. I think I did something very, very rude.”
The phone was still off the hook. Idly, Gloria set the receiver back in its cradle and it started ringing, startling the cat off her lap.
“Don’t,” said her grandmother at the same time Gloria picked it up and said, “Hello?”
“Where is he,” said a rough female voice. “Where is he, you goddamn bitch from hell.”
Gloria hung up. Lifted the phone off the hook again. Then came the beeping, like an alarm: a demand or a warning or both.
“Maybe you double-dipped,” her grandmother said. “Your mama never taught you manners.”
Gloria considered this. “There were chips and dip,” she said. “I may have even licked my fingers. I was a little drunk.”
“Oh, not you.” Nanny sounded disappointed.
“There was some kind of vodka, which I’m not used to drinking.” This was not quite true; since her husband had moved out, she had become very used to drinking vodka.
“Maybe you called someone the wrong name by mistake. Once I called my friend Louise by her sister’s name and she didn’t speak to me for a week.”
“Maybe,” said Gloria. Surely whatever she’d done could not have been terribly terrible, so why did she feel so terrible? It was all a misunderstanding. But maybe there was a video of her doing something she shouldn’t have, saying something mean or thoughtless, touching someone’s husband’s hand with her own.
There came the sound of tires on gravel. Headlights glowed through the tarp. A car door slammed. “Get out here, Lizzie,” a woman shouted. “And bring my husband with you.”
A gunshot echoed through the trees. A man shouted, “That’s a warning.”
“Nanny,” said Gloria. “Had we maybe better call the police?”
“Nah,” said her grandmother. “They’ll move along soon enough.”
But they didn’t seem to be moving along.
“Who is it they think is here? Is it Bill or Bob or whatever his name is?”
“They’re just trying to scare me,” said her grandmother. “But I don’t scare. Maybe you broke a dish. Maybe it was one of their good dishes that you broke.”
“I don’t remember breaking a dish,” Gloria said. “But maybe. Maybe that was it.”
“Or you laughed at something that wasn’t funny,” Nanny said, as she rose to her feet and retrieved the gun from its rack.
The sound of feet crunching over gravel. The woman’s voice again: “I know he’s here. Bobby! If you can hear me, get on home!”
Nanny shouted, “I’ve got a gun, too, Louise, so let’s just call this even for now.”
“Louise?” said Gloria. “That’s your friend whose name you forgot?”
There was the sound of hushed voices outside. She wondered if Wayne was out there, too. She wondered if he remembered the time they went into the woods and didn’t drink beer. Last she’d heard of him, he had a bunch of kids and was living near Ackerman.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t call the police?” Gloria asked. Her grandmother said nothing, just stood with the rifle pointed toward the place where the window used to be. “Is that Grandpa’s gun?” Grandpa had shot himself to death by accident. He was buried in the cemetery by a Baptist church off of Highway 25, next to Gloria’s own father, who died from a heart attack a decade ago. All men go to the Amazon, she thought.
Finally, they heard car doors slamming; the lights flashed and then vanished.
“Maybe I should call and apologize,” Gloria said. “For whatever I did. Are you sure I can’t sleep in the sewing room? It’s kind of cold out here.”
“I’ll get you a pile of blankets,” her Nanny said. “You’ll be snug as a bug in rug.” She leaned down and stared at Gloria, her blue eyes both sharp and watery. “Don’t you go in that sewing room. Something might topple on you.”
“I won’t,” said Gloria.
Gloria tossed and shivered under quilts that smelled of long-ago campfires and tobacco. Her neck ached. The tarp over the broken window crackled in the breeze. The cat padded back and forth across her bladder. In the middle of the night she rose to use the tiny bathroom and search for another blanket, a softer pillow. She used the flashlight on her phone to illuminate her way down the hall to the sewing room. She turned the knob, pushed the door open. The light shined upon the cot. Draped across it: a pair of men’s dungarees. A pair of men’s boots, still muddy. A man’s shirt on top of the sewing machine.
Evidence, Gloria thought. What was she supposed to do with this kind of evidence?
She thought of the fresh ashes in the fire pit.
I been taking care of myself for a long time, her grandmother had said. Gloria wasn’t going to judge. No one knew what they were capable of. Maybe everyone was capable of anything.
Gloria settled back on the sofa, under the blankets. An owl hooted. She would move Nanny out of this place. Come live with me, she’d say in the morning. We’ll be a couple of single broads. We’ll fix our own dishwasher.
When the sky began to lighten, she rose from the sofa, brushed her teeth in the little bathroom. Her head felt clear. Her body felt young and strong. She drank cold water from a coffee mug, gave the cat some food. She paused outside her grandmother’s bedroom, then pushed the door open and there in the pale light she saw a scraggly gray head on the pillow where her grandmother should have been. Gloria moved closer, her heart thick in her throat.
And then she saw Nanny nestled down in the covers, her dandelion fuzz head tucked under a man’s gray beard. Their snores mingled. The man was an older version of Wayne: Oh, Bobby. So that’s where you’ve been hiding: in Nanny’s bed. One of Nanny’s hard-muscled arms was flung over his stomach. Gloria leaned down and kissed her snoring grandmother on the forehead.
She would call later, thank Nanny for a nice night, offer to pay for the window. She stood next to her car and pulled her phone from her purse. Tabitha had texted her: Will you at least apologize????
No, thought Gloria. No, I won’t, for whatever it was that I did or didn’t do, or might do, or should have done, or may do at some point in the future.
She breathed in the cold, bright air, the smell of pine trees, chimney smoke. What were all those wonderful sounds? Foxes, wolves, deer, squirrels? She didn’t know nearly enough about wild life, except to understand that far, far above her, birds were calling to other birds, and the other birds were answering.