Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

Dark But Full of Diamonds

Dark But Full of Diamonds

© Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1981; Bantam, 1982

Excerpt:

Dad looks up from supper, and says mildly, “Scott, if you rest your elbows on the table at sixteen, you’ll be halfway across it by the time you’re twenty.“

It’s funny, but I don’t laugh. He goes on eating, and reading his stupid paper, muttering words I can’t hear. I take my elbows off, but slowly; I get a few points that way. He gets his by pretending not to notice. Augusta makes the rounds, passing the corn pudding a second time. Then she asks if we want any more pork chops or rice.

“Both,” I say. “And hurry up before I faint of starvation.” I ball my fist up into a microphone and stick it up in front of her. “Now, Miss Augusta, tell us, if you will, how you let that poor handsome youth starve to death.” I glance at Dad’s bonecolored hair, trying to get him to laugh. He hasn’t heard me. He looks tired.

“Isn’t likely,” she says. “You might bust, but you aren’t going to die of starvation.” Augusta smells of furniture polish, toast, yeast. Her pillowy bosom, the only fat part of her, heaves right at my forehead. I wink at her, but she purses up her thin lips and frowns, because it’s against her principles to look amused. And that’s how she gets her points.

Tragedy is what Augusta loves, and diseases with exotic names, like Sick-as-Hell Anemia, and Smiling Mighty Jesus, those things she thinks Dad missed in med school. I have always had the feeling that she doesn’t think Dad is a very good doctor, because he claims he has never heard of anyone’s larnix and pharnix getting tangled up, and that he has never seen a case of the Creeping Arena, which she says is a skin disease. We finally realized that Smiling Mighty Jesus is spinal meningitis. Some of her diseases we still haven’t figured out.

Dad ignores us, shakes his head no to seconds. He eats the last bite of his meat. I can hear Augusta’s rackety radio in the kitchen as she pushes through the swinging door.

Drinking his coffee, Dad starts in reading aloud from the paper. He reads it at supper because I bring it home at the end of my route, and by then he’s gone for the day. That reading aloud drove Mama crazy, but she never let on, just gave me a wink to let me know that we were in this together, that we just had to put up with his personal newscasting. He’s not much on plain conversation. It’s probably because he doesn’t do anything but be a doctor, and he doesn’t talk about his patients. One time Sudie Ives told me Dad just didn’t seem like a doctor. “What does he seem like?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said. Every now and then Sudie is brilliant, but it’s usually not when she tries to be.

Tonight the stock market’s up, (if it stays up, maybe we can afford a vacation); the president just flew to Egypt (he ought to mind the country and quit flying to hell and gone); and they caught that crazy bastard who was running for sheriff and took him back to the state hospital (all politicians are nuts anyway, so they ought to let the guy run). Meat prices are going up. Fifty-five seniors graduated from the high school this week, second biggest class in history.

Then he finds something that interests him more than usual. “Look here,” he says. “Hilah Brown’s getting a master’s degree this week. In drama.“

At her name, my heart speeds up. I suck in my breath and wait. When I don’t say anything, he asks, “Wasn’t she your swimming teacher a few years ago?”

I say mmmmm. He knows damn well she was.

He puts down the paper and raises his eyebrows. “Drama! What a waste! It doesn’t seem possible. Has she been out of college for a year? two years?”

“Two, I guess.” Hilah is still the best memory I’ve got, but he sure doesn’t know about that. I look to see if maybe there’s a picture of her in the paper, but there’s not. The only one I have is the one in my mirror that I got off Sudie in return for one of my school pictures. Six more years until I graduate from college. Might as well be six thousand.

“Why would a smart girl like that throw her education away?”

“She wanted to be an actress, like Mama,” I say. “I’d like to be an actor too.” So there. I stare into my coffee. I remember how Sudie and I used to put on plays for the families about four million years ago, and how cute Dad thought it was back then.

“An actress?” he says. “Damn few make it, even in some place like New York. The people you have to work with are undesirable anyway.”

“You mean like Mama—”

“Oh, hell, no. She didn’t have an MA, and she had me to support her.”

“She was an actress,” I say.

He glances at me and picks up the paper again. “Wonder what she’ll do if that doesn’t work out. Which it won’t. She’s really not pretty enough—”

Now that makes me mad. “Get married, probably, and live happily ever after. Just like Mama.”

I feel awful. But he started it. I know he’s scared of my interest in acting. He thinks it might mean I’m queer. It was okay for Mama, but she was a woman. I start to leave, but then I remember we haven’t had dessert.

“Heat wave coming,” he says. “They sure didn’t need to tell us that.”

I sit back, relieved he’s changed the subject. He fans himself with his hand. A light breeze comes from the window where Mama’s green pitcher sits on the sill. Outside, the air is blue. This is when Mama and I used to eat fried cheese sandwiches by candlelight on Dad’s poker nights. He always hated candlelight. Said he couldn’t see what he was eating.

On those nights, Mama would tell me about her childhood in DeLane County. When a boy first shot at a deer and missed, the older men would cut off his shirttail and hang it from the rafters of the hunting lodge along with all theirs, and give him his first taste of whiskey. She told every story so you could see it—like the one about Pops and Gran and the time Uncle John Scott killed a big wild turkey out of season and got caught by the game warden, and how Gran just as smooth as cream invited that warden to dinner. He came, too, because he was a fool for wild turkey, and he never did fine John Scott the first penny.

Uncle John got killed in a car wreck before I was born. Mama was always going to take me back to DeLane County, but we never went.

DeLane County has always been connected in my mind with Mama’s Depression pitcher, clear green glass with a barbershop-pole ripple in it. The descending spiral crosses itself to make a lattice design that distorts the world. It makes any day seen through the pitcher look like summer. In fact, looking through it, you can imagine anything: a dead buck, his legs pinioned to a locust pole, head flung back, the dirt stained with his blood; the big house where they lived; Mama and Uncle John into some trouble or other all the time.

I don’t know where the pitcher came from, but Mama always kept it in the window. Like me, she thought it was pretty.

Augusta brings us strawberry shortcake.

“Meat’s going up,” Dad tells Augusta. “We’ll have to cut back. It’ll be better for us anyhow.”

Augusta only grumbles. It’s a good thing Dad forgets his threats, because Augusta would be paralyzed without bacon and pork and cream and butter and fatback.

“Says in the paper we’re going to have a heat wave,” he tells her, helping himself to shortcake, piling on whipped cream.

“People die in heat waves,” she says. “A woman I heard of once was sitting on the toilet and had a coronation, just fell over as dead as a dog. Right off the toilet. It was in a heat wave.”

“Good God,” Dad says flatly.

“They do too die,” she says, huffy. Then to me: “You want what for breakfast?”

“Spoonbread and sausage,” I say real fast. I’ll get it, too. I haven’t contradicted or disbelieved her.

“Anything you want, honey.” She clears the plates away noisily, dropping a fork, darting looks-to-kill at Dad. I pick up the fork and hand it to her, but all I get back is the glare of one angry blue eyeball.

We eat the shortcake in silence. Summer stretches out like a long shadow. Finally Dad excuses himself, sighs, then pauses in the door. “I certainly hope that child won’t go off and try to be an actress.”

“What child?” I ask.

“Hilah Brown.”

“Why not?” I ask. “Mother was an actress.”

“Oh, not really. She wrote some plays,” he says.

“Listen, she acted too. I went to them. I remember one where she had a really terrific mad scene.”

Only I thought she was mad at me, and I cried.

“Those were just amateur productions, local things. Got a house call. See you later.”

He doesn’t do much of that. Just a few old crippled people. But it’s a good excuse to end an argument. The Great Doctor Dabney. He, of all people, should have been able to save Mama. Everyone looks up to doctors. But what kind of doctor is he anyway? He’s a failure. He can’t even stand to clean fish. I know I’m not being logical, I know he couldn’t do anything, but it seems he let Mama die, and now he’s trying to change my memory of her.

I’m scared Hilah might get married. One time, the day of the snapshot in my mirror, she told me she’d wait.

Flea comes in from the kitchen, pushing his nose through the swinging door. His toenails click on the floor. He lays his head against my leg, and his ears are just about the softest things I ever felt. I feed him the last of my shortcake, and listen to Dad start up the car out front. Even I know not to race the motor like some little old lady.

I go upstairs, followed by Flea, and sit at the desk in Mama’s office, thinking of Mama and Hilah and that summer a million years ago: swimming, Mama sick, Hilah laughing and her skin smelling like daffodils, then Dad deciding I had to go to camp some place with the dumb name of Camp Otter. The day I left, I gave Hilah Brown an arrowhead I’d found, as a going-away present. Maybe I should have given it to Mama. But I didn't realize-- and I really wanted to let Hilah know that she was special to me.

Dad got a trunk out of the attic, and Mama, resting on the daybed, wrote SCOTT DABNEY with a waterproof pen on all my clothes. Sudie brought me a shoebox of cookies, and we played a game of chess. Then I went and sat with Mama, who was back on her bed.

“I don’t want to go,” I said. “Dad’s gone all day, and you need me. I’ll even quit swimming—”

“Oh, honey,” she said, “you’ll be the King of the Campfire!” She smiled, but there was perspiration on her face, and I wasn’t convinced. When I was little she’d made me up a poem called “The Prince of Peanut Butter,” and ever since, I’d been King of this, or Lord of that. Her nicknames always made me feel good, and sometimes, even handsome.

“What’s the matter, Mama?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said, “I don’t know. Malingering. Southem women just have to retire sometimes and put on their green makeup. You know.”

I didn’t know at all. She’d never been sick a day I could remember. Only those headaches that had started in the spring, and a tiredness that went back half a year.

“Could we go to DeLane County?” I asked. “After camp?”

She frowned. “Why? Why do you want to do that?”

“Just because,” I said. It was what I saw in the green pitcher. If we could go there, everything would be okay.

“Honey,” she said, “it’s not like it used to be. You'd be disappointed.“

“No, I wouldn’t,” I said.

“Well, it’s scary how things change . . . Hey, Scott!” she said suddenly. “What’s hot as a roasted marshmallow? brighter than the moon? more welcome than Christmas? Why, it’s the King of the Campfire, ladies and gentlemen—Scott Dabney! Give him a hand!” And she clapped, the lace of her sleeves jiggling, her jasmine perfume stirring the air.

I stood there and swallowed. I was already homesick.

One more time she tried. “Scott,” she said sternly, “now you otter have fun at camp, you really otter.”

I tried to laugh at the pun, saying over and over to myself, twelve-year-olds don’t cry.

Then my head was against her chest, and her arms were tight around me, and she was crying too, and smelling of jasmine. “Oh, honey, don’t. You’ll have a lovely time. Oh, my God, don’t.”

I hung on to her for dear life.

“My lovely prince,” she said. “I love you more than anything. You’ll be the King of the Campfire. You’ll be the King of the World!”

“Mama!” I cried, “please let’s go to DeLane County!”

She nodded and smiled without answering, and turned toward the door. It was Dad. “Scott, old buddy,” he said, “it’s time to go.”

And that was all. She died while I was at camp, and nothing was the same after that. It seemed to me that she must be in DeLane County, green and sunny, in the frame farmhouse with a high porch at the end of a clay road, with blackberries growing at the edge of the yard. She was laughing, always the same, in a past, perfect time that was changeless and dependable. It was something I could hold on to when everything around me crumbled.

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