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Sweetgrass Dolls

Poetry & Prose | March 12, 2019

Her father had a new car every time she saw him. “New” was a loose term: nothing in her dad’s possession was ever actually new, just used. Still, she remembered when the constant rotation used to be exciting: her tacky, little-kid fingers pulling crusted sweets from between car cushions, or peeling left-behind, goofy stickers off the overhead mirror to affix to her own ratty shirt. In those days kids sat up front, or wherever they pleased, for that matter.

In those days a lot of things were different.

Now, as she pulled into her dad’s dusty driveway to see yet another unfamiliar car, all she could feel was a deep sense of tiredness. Everything was so much the same that if it weren’t for the make of the car, she could’ve been seven years old again, pulling on Libby’s pigtails and running amok in the lowcountry marshes. She waited five minutes before stepping out into the sweltering South Carolina heat. If she waited any longer, she would’ve turned around and left.

He was the same too, in all the ways that mattered. So much the same it curled into her teeth and made them grate against each other. For a moment, the ground beneath her feet felt uneven.

In the evening, they settled in folding lawn chairs out on his “new” deck, outside his mobile home.

“How ya been, Hey?” His voice was gummed up with chewing tobacco, even when he wasn’t chewing it.

“It’s Lyn now, Dad.”

“Since when?”

“Since Sue and I got together, 20 years ago. You know that.”

He grumbled and looked off over the sprawling marsh, his knuckles going white on his beer can. The katydids screamed from the branches of the few old oaks that managed to survive the heat, the mud, and the years, their gnarled fingers dripping with spanish moss. Lyn’s shoulders tensed, but all he said was:

“Well, you know your mama picked that name out, not me. And ‘sides, I always liked

Libby’s version better.”

She sighed. “Libby was three, dad, and ‘sides, “Hey Baby” ain’t no real name, no matter what you shorten it to.” She heard the accent seep into her voice and it was like listening to a someone else’s words come from her body. She saw a flash of his yellowed teeth, a hint of a smile.

“It’s good to see ya, Hey. Been a long time.”

Lyn looked down at her hands wrapped around the beer can, at the small silver ring glinting in the low light. She began twisting it between her fingers.  

“Yeah, it sure has been.”

“You should’a come down for Thanksgiving this year. Libby was wantin’ help with all her little whippersnappers running off to kingdom come. I told her to just let ‘em go off, like y’all used to. If they fall in the pluff mud they’ll learn right quick, I told her, but she was in a right state about it. And I mean a right state.”

Memories flooded in like the tide: her dad chasing them around, yelling “y’all little whippersnappers best get back here!”, her single pair of muddy overalls that didn’t get washed for two whole months, and the looks they got when they would go into town. That one time that store clerk said “Y’all must be Bob Hill’s rugrats. Say, where’s your mama?” and she didn’t have an answer, her face feeling hotter than the South Carolina summer. The crabbing cages all stacked up and crusted over with barnacles, where Libby used to hide to scare her, and the smell of the pluff mud like all things old and dying, oozing and pulling at her feet like pitch. Dad and the sweetgrass dolls.

She shook her head to clear it. Her eyes felt hot and she looked up at the stars.

“‘Course she was worried, bet she takes real good care of ‘em,” she said, her words hanging in the humidity like the fireflies winking over the marsh.  

The next morning she made him an egg and cheese with a glass of milk, but he waved her away.

“Ever heard of V8? That stuff’s a miracle, I swear. And healthy, besides. Those antioxidant-things are supposed help your brain. All I ever do for breakfast anymore.”

She watched as he reached for a bottle of pills, shaking one into his weathered palm before knocking it back with his glass of V8. He stood up to replace the bottle on the windowsill and ticked off a box on the daily calendar next to his meds.

Lyn shifted her eyes down to the glass of V8. It looked like cold tomato soup and she thought she’d sooner die than drink a whole glass. But, glancing back up at the little orange bottle, she said, “Looks great, Dad.”

After lunch he started trying to make small talk with her. But of course, because it was her dad, he started with: “You catch the Indy 500 last week?”

“No, Dad, I don’t watch NASCAR. You know that, I told you twice last time we talked.”

“Aw, well, you ought to. It’s in your blood, y’know.”

“Hmmm.”

“Course, your grandaddy wasn’t a NASCAR driver, but he was a big-time driver back in the day. I ever tell you ‘bout him?”

“Yep, sure did.”

“Well. Did I tell ‘ya I woulda been a driver if it weren’t for Korea? I said that to Bill the other day and he didn’t believe me. But if I hadn’t’ve jumped too early during paratrooper training and busted my eardrum, I sure would’ve. Sure would.”

“I know it Dad.” She started twisting her ring between her fingers again, glancing out the window. The little calendar caught her eye.  

“How was your sandwich?” she asked him.

“It was fine, just fine. Not as good as the turkey Mark did up for us. I tell ya, that was something special. Say, Hey, you should’a come down for Thanksgiving. Libby could’a used some help with all her kiddos, running all over. I told her she ought to turn ‘em loose, so they could run like y’all used to–”

“Yeah Dad, you told me yesterday,” Her voice was harsher than she meant it to be.

“Oh,” was all her dad said, his eyes looking distant. He looked so old, just now, his skin like a wrinkled and sun-bleached paper bag. His eyes, though, were the most disconcerting: fixed on some time more than 20 years ago, when he still called her Hey and when they watched NASCAR together.

“And for the record, I didn’t come to Thanksgiving because Sue wasn’t invited.” He showed no sign of hearing her, his eyes still locked on some past she couldn’t see.

From out of nowhere she felt anger start to build up under her skin.

“I’m going for a walk,” Lyn said, leaving the trailer. She fled to the marshland of her childhood.

The sun hung low in the sky, but still it scorched the long sweetgrass, pulling the moisture from the pluff mud up into the air. It smelled like decay, and she remembered the summer she’d pushed Libby in before their mom had even left. Dad had just grumbled about kids learning the way things are. She still remembered the shade of red her mom’s face had gone, and the subsequent knock-down-drag-out fight. Sometimes she wondered how they’d even been able to stand each other enough to have not one, but two kids before splitting.

“You can’t let her run wild Bob, it’s not ladylike!”

“‘Ladylike?’ ain’t nothing wrong with a lady who can get dirty. She’s from Briarcliff for crying out loud!”

“She’s from Greenville. That’s where she lives in the school year, and where she might live year-round if you keep this up!”

“Mary Lou, you wouldn’t. They’re just as much mine as yours.”

She’d tried all that next month to be on her best behaviour. That ended as soon as Dad had offered to take them fishing, where she’d cut up the worms just to watch them wriggle.

Now, looking at the reeds bending in the wind, the sunlight dappling the creeks which wound through the tall grass, she chuckled to herself. How funny the reversal; in those early summers, Dad’s was the only place she could fully be herself. For years, it had become the only place she feared doing so.

Now, in this new reality of pills and V8, it seemed she could be whoever she wanted again, but all she could feel was angry.

She took him to his next doctor’s appointment. He had said his newest Chevy “handles like a dream,” but had cast his eyes away and asked if she could drive. “I want to see how your car runs, if you’re keeping good care of it,” he’d said, eye still fixed on the twisted oaks in the distance. She’d nodded, saying only, “‘Course, Dad.”

As they took him back for tests, the doctor pulled her aside.

“It’s nice to see Bob has some family around to count on. Family can make the process so much easier.”

“The process? Like, the treatment process?” She felt dumb, like a minnow pulled from the creekbed, mouth gaping.

“Well, as you know, with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s we can’t do much more than manage symptoms. But it can really help to slow the progress if he has someone to help him remember to take his meds, and someone to challenge him to talk and stay as sharp as he can.”

She knew this; in fact, it was the reason she’d come down at all. Yet somehow the hospital and the doctor in his white coat settled in her stomach like a weight.

“Right, of course,” She said.

That night, she dreamt of sweetgrass dolls. They danced around her, faceless and stiff, mocking. Her dad appeared behind them, no his eyes no longer quite so distant, nor quite so forgiving.

“I’m sorry I can’t be the daughter you wanted.” She said.

The dolls kept swirling, twirling their feminine skirts. Her dad didn’t say a word.

“When I was little, you were so good to me,” she tried again.

“I know why you started to treat me differently. I know why you started buying me all those dolls. I know why you said I couldn’t come to your house for the summers anymore.”

He looked at her, impassive. She kept trying to say what she’d been trying to say for so long.

“But I don’t know how. How you could do all of that to me, and how I’m supposed to forgive you.”

The dolls just kept dancing, facing her with their faceless heads. Their grass legs creaked and twisted. He looked at her. Her mouth moved, but no sound emerged.

She woke to the dawn shining through the little window next to her pull-out sofa bed. It shone through the orange plastic pill bottle, lighting it like a flare.

She got up and went out onto the deck, where the birds had just begun waking, filling the warm morning air with their calls. The sun rose over the marsh, casting long, golden-orange beams through the sprawling oaks around her. The trees were old and weathered, the years having twisted them into mere shadows of themselves. The spanish moss clung to them, dripping and parasitic.

They were old and frail, but she knew she couldn’t help but love them anyway.