Short Fiction by Shana Thornton
Author’s Note: Recently, I found a copy of my first published short story, ”The Slant of a Place.” While none of these characters has yet to appear in the Family Medicine Wheel series (Poke Sallet series), this story is set in Granville and these characters are part of the town. This Granville is a fictional place in Tennessee, though it probably bears resemblances to many small towns across the state. I wrote it in tribute to my great grandmother, but it is fiction. I want to share it here on my blog because I do see the formations of the novels I would eventually write. I also appreciate my growth as a writer, and since those back issues when it was originally published are no longer available, I want to reprint it here. (And who knows…maybe in the future one of these characters will find her way into the novels in the series.)
First published in The Smoking Poet, 2008. First reading at the Clarksville Customs House Museum and Cultural Center, 2008.
The Slant of a Place
So, the state finally took Hattie’s house back today and all the birds are gone.
Hattie Wheeler was born here in Granville and raised on the north side of the river known as Craggy Hope Ridge. We call the south side of our town The Knobs. Neither side seems different from the other one except for the trailer park located on the backside of The Knobs. Otherwise, both sides of Granville always shared hollows, steep bluffs, winding roads, and cow pastures.
Hattie lived on a crooked road known as Shake-rag to folks on the Ridge. The biggest curvy patch on Shake-rag is called Devil’s elbow, and that’s where Hattie’s property meets the road. Her house sat back on a hill above the road like all the homes on Shake-rag, which cut into the land and lined up the mailboxes for Adler Flatt. He was the postman on the Ridge for forty-two years and said that in all those days of delivering mail, Hattie always walked down her gravel driveway to meet him at the mailbox.
“I’ve never even looked inside Hattie’s mailbox,” Adler said while a group played dominoes in front of the drugstore. “I don’t know if it opens.”
Bob Loftis slapped down a domino and looked up. “That mailbox works just fine,” he told us. “Me and Bobby Jr. leave the squirrels we shoot in there for Ms. Wheeler. We wrap them up so they don’t mess up her mailbox. She trades us for the preserves and soup she makes. We take the jars she leaves in the mailbox, replace them with squirrels, and put the flag up.”
Bob wasn’t the only one in town trading for Hattie’s food. She had an old canning cellar and stocked it full every year. That’s the way she survived and made a living for her and Albert, her son. She traded and sold her jars of food to people on the Ridge. Eventually, the news of Hattie’s canning spread to neighboring counties. Most people didn’t spend time canning anymore; that was for the old-timers, but everybody ate Hattie’s food and wanted more. Her canning cellar brightened when the door to the outside swung open. Light bounced off colorful jars stacked on the dusty, plank shelves around the room. The jars looked like antique science fiction with swollen, bulbous vegetables, some floating with fibrous tentacles, others smeared against the glass sides, some sloshing when the door banged against the shelf. The jars were filled with slimy pickled okra, snapping turtle cucumbers with a hot pepper catch, punished beets beneath swollen tomatoes, celery tangy vegetable soup, sticky apple butter beside seedy blackberries, and the smart dull blueberry jam.
Junior Wheeler, Hattie’s husband, died of tuberculosis when Albert was young. Hattie inherited what was once his family’s land. When Junior died, the family lived in a narrow house on the hill above Devil’s Elbow. The house was red with a tilted porch stretching across the front. Its shiny, reflective roof was sheltered by an oak and a maple on either side. While the Wheeler family had electricity, they didn’t have running water. Instead, they used a well and an outhouse.
As a young boy, Albert roamed the town, learning to play banjos and pianos from anyone willing to teach him. In exchange, he repaired doors, plastered walls, and painted barns. Most folks think Albert retreated to music after Junior died. In actuality, we know his inspiration came from the birds.
The most enchanting thing about Hattie’s place has been the birds. In a field behind the house, Hattie used the old Wheeler tobacco barn to raise chickens and guineas. The peacocks pranced across the grass among smaller wooden coops. Wild turkeys usually crossed her land twice a day. Hawks, cardinals, grackle, and chickadees claimed the woodlands that bordered her property. Even further back, ducks ruled an old pond. She learned to raise fowl from her mother, who had a talent for taming even the wild feathers. Hattie’s mother imitated mating calls, chirps, and songs. They say she was such a birdbrain, her daughter turned out to look like one. Hattie was a skinny, white chicken with piercing blue-black eyes and snowy shoulder-length hair. She kept the sides of her thin hair pulled up in little plastic barrettes. When she smiled, her two front teeth were slightly bucked. Her pointed nose and lips led her body forward when she walked.
Hattie kept their place looking nice. She whizzed the grass shorter by swinging a metal blade into the sun. Her flowers, fluffed in yellows, pinks, and reds, bordered the small house so it wore ruffled petticoats of daffodils, hollyhocks, marigolds, and zinnias throughout the spring and summer months. When we went to her house to buy preserves and vegetables, Hattie always met us in the yard and asked us to follow her into the house. Even though it was little more than a shack, she insisted on inviting her customers inside to share a coke cola. Of course, Hattie didn’t call anybody a customer. We were guests in a house with numerous floors on what should have been one. Albert patched holes with odd planks and boards through the decades. Hattie didn’t act like she cared or noticed. But to us, everything was tilted. The small television leaned into the corner. One foot of the couch dangled above the floorboard, while the other was grounded solidly. We became dominoes if too many crowded onto the couch. The floor creaked beneath our weight. Only the corner with the radio and record player was level. Hattie kept the radio tuned in to Acuff’s WSM radio show and the needle spinning Bill Monroe all day and well into the evening.
After the coke cola, we followed her out back through the screen door to the canning cellar. There, we filled our arms and bags. Before leaving, everyone stood with their arms full of Hattie’s jars. She held the baby on her hip if you had one. We gazed out over the field at the peacocks, hoping to glimpse their fans. The mating call of those peacocks sent chills tingling up our spines and across our skulls—a big laughter escaped from a deep and unknown place, as if the birds were giving an omen. The guineas, who Hattie said are cousins to penguins, waddled speedily around the peacocks. Hens paced in the opening of the barn loft. Some pecked at the dusty ground with the chicks. It was hard to make out a nesting order.
Hattie walked to church every Sunday morning with the intent of a guinea. Her white hair fluffed into a feathery point from the wind. We saw her winding the road from our car windows. It didn’t matter if anybody offered her a ride; she only took it if there was a storm approaching. With Albert by the hand, Hattie crossed the land of their neighbors on the way to Philadelphia. That was the church on the Ridge. The folks in The Knobs went to FreeWill.
Now, there are twenty or more churches in Granville. Seems like when we got fast food a little over ten years ago, our town got all kinds of religion, too. The town square is eighteen miles from the interstate on the outskirts of the county line. That interstate has become its own town and brought all sorts of businesses, including churches, our way. But back then, everybody went to either Philadelphia or FreeWill.
“How-dy,” Hattie said when she walked into the church. She gazed around the pews, smiling at everyone. The young folks thought she was trying to copy Minnie Pearl until Brother Turner, our preacher, set them straight.
“Hattie’s been saying that her whole life,” he said. “When she was just a little thing, her momma brought her into town for the fair. Her momma always won the talent shows because she could imitate any bird. And, Hattie introduced her with that famous, ‘Howdy.’ We all think that Ms. Pearl must have visited Granville for one of our fairs.”
Hattie sat with her three oldest friends on the back pew. Philadelphia was a small church, only ten pews deep on both sides of the aisle. The congregation filled a little, red brick building with white wooden trim that made a point above the doors. The church sat on a hill that met Shake-rag and was covered in pink phlox.
Hattie sat next to the aisle. She kept her pocket book and her dish for dinner under the pew in front of her. At Philadelphia, we had a dinner on the ground nearly every Sunday. After Hattie settled in and addressed her friends, she would bite off a plug of tobacco. Hattie’s father stripped tobacco all over the Ridge, so she had a liking for that plant her whole life. Even during the Sunday service, Hattie chewed twists of King B. She carried two handkerchiefs. One covered a small, metal can; after she spit the plant’s brown juice into it, she wiped her mouth with the other one. While everybody else sang during the service, Hattie tapped a beat with her foot and chewed tobacco.
It seemed like out of nowhere the state had made a visit to the Wheeler property and condemned the house as unfit to live in. They bulldozed the little tilted shack with a crackling shove and set a doublewide on top of a decent foundation. Of course, they made an overall reform of her property and filled in the old cellar. The only thing they left on the Wheeler land that belonged there was the tobacco barn and the birds. Hattie would have never changed things if someone hadn’t called the state. No one could understand why someone had complained. It was a shame since Hattie was over eighty by then, and no one ever cared before.
Some suspected Albert had called the state on his own mother. They said that he must be worried about her getting so old and using that wood stove through the winter. Plus, he was fighting the first of his cancer at the time. Somebody had heard Albert say his cancer was preventing him from patching the floors and toting water over to the house in the winter. But, that seemed like a rumor and most of us knew Albert wouldn’t turn on Hattie. Everybody on the Ridge knew he had offered to build her a new house or buy her a trailer. She never went for those deals. She made it plain to him and everybody else that she liked her place, running water or not, just the way Junior left it.
Hattie lived five years in the new doublewide with an indoor bathroom before she slipped on the kitchen linoleum a few months back and broke her hip. Albert passed two years ago. After the cancer spread to his liver, he couldn’t fight through another round of chemotherapy treatments. When Hattie broke her hip, it was up to us to tell her she had to go from the hospital to the nursing home. We knew that modular home had been too level for Hattie. Every time she showed up at Philadelphia, she had another bruise somewhere. But, she always laughed about it, saying she would get used to walking the straight and narrow.