“Goddammit, Grace, when are you gonna stop being such a fucking little primadonna?”
His words smolder in her ears, scald her face with an anger that blisters. Grace is hot. Hot to the touch. Flowers would wilt if she got too near; children would catch fever.
Daddy never gets the words right. Especially when he’s mad at her. Like when he told her she had distemper after popping Tommy Barbour at school, even though everybody knows that distemper is a dog disease and Tommy Barbour deserved every pop he ever got.
Grace makes her way now through a bedroom where thick curtains and drawn shades make seeing tricky. The air is thick, dark, beer-scented with a hint of White Shoulders.
She tries to wake Mama to ask her opinion on this fresh and unfamiliar insult. Primadonna. But Mama won’t answer. Won’t even look at her. Her top lip is the wrong color. Grace sees the purple even in the dark—a fat grape, swollen, rancid.
“Go play in the back yard, honey.” Mama looked past her earlier this clean blue morning. Through her. Grace’s Daddy had been up for only a few minutes, but he was already good and mad. “Look what you made me do,” he’d said, his voice cutting through the sound of her mother’s sobs.
Grace crumples the word up in her head, sets fire to it.
She finds it in the dictionary she keeps in her room, “the principal woman singer in an opera.” Well she does like to sing, but her father wouldn’t know. He fell asleep at her Christmas recital and snored all the way through the Hallelujah chorus. She keeps reading: “a temperamental, vain, or arrogant person.” She thinks her father’s insults usually say more about himself than about whoever it is he’s yelling at any given moment—which is most of them.
Primadonna. This morning he was showing off her school uniform for whichever one of her parents would look at her. Of course, Mama’s eyes were still closed and it didn’t look like Daddy’s had achieved single vision. She was imagining she was some big city model that probably every girl in the whole world wants to look like. Bulbs flashed, the people whispered (“they say she is smart, too—lucky girl”) until the reality of her unglamorous self tested her father’s patience.
Grace is starved. She thinks about eating a bowl of cereal, but all this morning’s meanness has made her stomach angry and ravenous. She wants eggs, bacon, and the kind of biscuits only Mama can make. Grace tried to make them once, but she burned her fingers putting them in the oven and Daddy had smacked her for being so stupid. She tromps back to her mother’s bedroom, throws the door open with all the fierceness of a hungry warrior princess. “I want breakfast.”
Mama squints her eyes at the light Grace has let into the room, winces, and pulls the covers over her head. “Let Mama sleep, honey.”
Grace walks up to the bed and pulls the covers back, exposing her mother’s face. The ugliness of her mouth makes Grace even angrier. “I said I’m hungry.” Mama won’t open her eyes. “Get up!” Grace can’t stand it. “You’re being lazy!”
Mama rolls over and pulls the covers back over her head. “You’re acting just like your daddy, Grace. Go get you some cereal”
Grace Honeycutt is probably the only girl in both Carolinas with no middle name to punctuate her first. Instead she has acquired a whole string of first names—there’s Goddammit Grace, Jesus Christ Grace, Why Can’t You Play Nice Grace, and this, her personal favorite: You’re Just Like Your Father Grace.
Well she’s not. Her eyes are Gulf Stream bluegreen—not clear cloudless Honeycutt blue. She hasn’t half the mean streak of her daddy’s people and she prefers Kool Aid to Jim Beam any day. And most importantly, she loves words and she knows how to use them. Sometimes she just says “tabernacle” out loud for the sheer joy of it. Wonderful word! Fills up her mouth like taffy, chewy and sweet. There’s not one Honeycutt down east with any use whatsoever for a thesaurus.
Her stomach rolls around inside her. Maybe she will eat cereal.
At school she’s studying to be an actress. Well not really—she is studying Math and Language Arts and Social Studies and Science and the Scriptures but all the while she’s fooling every last one of them. She’s like Ava Gardner who came from this very town and was very pretty and a really good actress but she’s dead now. Grace, too can pretend to be happy and smart but not clever ‘cause clever gets you detention or worse and a Christian but not a Catholic because they don’t hold with that business about the saints and the Pope and the rosary here at the Lighthouse Bible School (Non-Denominational.)
Today during Language Arts Grace can’t even finish the poem she’s supposed to write. She can’t think of a single word that rhymes with prima donna and that’s just not like her because she knows lots of words and always excels at creative writing. Her eyes start to sting again and the room is too fluorescent and even though all the other kids are busy scratching out silly couplets that will almost surely contain such unimaginative pairings as world and pearl, love and above, Grace is pretty sure that at least Misty Johnson and Brandi Barnes know that Grace is a prima donna. They won’t know what the word means but they’ll know that it’s mean and they know everything about being mean. Grace hears a snicker from the back of the class. She thinks she needs to go. To the hall, the bathroom, anywhere ‘cause she can’t cry in front of the other kids. She swallows hard and looks straight at the ceiling lights which probably looks weird but she knows from experience that staring a bright light will keep the tears from coming.
She takes the hall pass and gets ready to run just as soon as she clears the doorway.
“Gracie?” Miss Lenoir, her teacher, has followed her to the hallway. “Is everything okay?” Grace tells her she is fine, really, but Miss Lenoir looks at her with those eyes just as kind as can be. She stoops, lowers herself down so she can look Grace right in the face. What is the matter? She just doesn’t feel good, Grace starts to tell her, but her stupid self chokes up and get all teary and shaky again.
Miss Lenoir knows about Grace’s family, had seen her Mama look down at the floor while her Daddy did all the talking at Parent’s Night, had seen Grace’s eye the day she came to school banged up from a sport she never played.
Miss Lenoir says that Jesus wouldn’t want Grace to be so angry. Angry. What would Jesus know about angry? As far as Grace knows, Joseph never called Mary a fat pig, never gave her something to cry about. Especially not in front of Jesus.
The one time the social worker came out she said in her report that Grace’s family was just “colorful.” Grace had intercepted that letter before her Daddy could see which she could do because getting the mail is one of her chores and not showing Daddy anything that might make him mad is really just another one.
Colorful, like that painting she saw the one time her mama took her up to the art museum in Raleigh--the one with too many colors that was splatter-painted by some famous artist without a bit more artistic talent than Grace herself. At least Grace could draw. In fact, they put her pencil drawing of Buoy Thirteen in an art show at school.
Grace thinks that her people are more like the orchestra at Lighthouse Bible School—everybody playing loudly all at the same time with no discernable melody and Tommy Barbour banging the hell out of the base drum while Mrs. Morgan yawns at the chaos. In Grace’s house it’s her dad banging the hell out of everything—the front door, the china cabinet, or Mama’s head while Mama waits for it all just to be over with so she can go back to bed.
It’s like Mama has been sitting in the back of the theater for a long time now. Grace wants her to get up, put on her costume, and sing, but all Mama does is watch, listen.
“Why don’t you just go home, since you don’t feel so good,” Miss Lenoir says to Grace, catching a tear with her thumb, and for a moment mercy is the most beautiful word in the whole English language. “Do you want me to call your Mama?”
“No. I can get myself home.” It’s against all the rules for her to leave school without a parent but Miss Lenoir won’t tell anybody ‘cause she knows that Mama won’t drive her.
Grace unlocks her bike from the fence at the school yard. She has to lock it now on account of one of the trailer kids stole her last one. The school they called the police for her and the officer knew right where to look for it. They went down to Tyler Dupree’s place at the Shangri-La Trailer Park, which looked not one bit like what Grace thought it should, being named after such a pretty place and all.
Tyler’s momma won’t even open the door for Officer Mike and even though Grace could see her bike through the screen door—in pieces with the wheels off it—Tyler didn’t get in one bit of trouble far as she could tell.
Grace got some belt stripes and later, a new bike. Seeing as she was careless with the first one the new one is cheaper and wants for a banana seat and handle streamers.
Grace puts the chain in the basket and sets off, pedaling away just as fast as she can. But she’s not going home. Maybe not ever. She cuts through the church grounds, right between the parish hall and the sanctuary. Anybody might see her—people go to church at every hour of the day, it seems like—but she doubts her father would pick this of all mornings to come talk to Jesus. She coasts down St. Anne’s street, Vidalia, and finally Sweet Olive, making precise hand signals before each turn for the benefit of all the cars that aren’t on the road.
Primadonna. The word hits her again like a shotgun blast—as if the shock of the sound and the sharp scent of the explosion were not enough, the gun kicks back and further insults your senses by walloping you right in the chest. Grace Honeycutt grows tired of the walloping. Sometimes she does understand her mother. A couple of years ago Mama got tired of crying. Or maybe she got tired from crying, ‘cause now all she ever wants to do is sleep. Grace signs Mama’s name on all her permission slips and progress reports now, and last year she packed Mama’s things when Daddy took her to that hospital in Raleigh where they shocked her brain.
It must already be a hundred and two, she figures. The people lounging on their big front porches look at her all sideways and funny, wondering, probably what she was doing by herself on a school day. Even though Grace waves at every last person she sees, nobody waves back. She figures by now the people of Smithfield have just about perfected the art of looking the other way.
Finally she reaches the riverbank. She climbs off the bicycle that’s still a little too big for her on account that she’ll grow into it and walks it past the bridge, down to the river so as not to disturb the birds and turtles and whatever else might be swimming around today.
Grace loves this river. She imagines she is not her parents’ child—that she was pulled out of the Neuse like the baby Moses by a green-eyed mother who sometimes still smiled. Nothing makes her Mama smile anymore, not since they put the rubber between her teeth and tried to shock her back into the world. Or out of it. Grace wonders why murderers and sad housewives get the same punishment.
She sits on the branch of a low-boughed live oak tree and pulls her pencils, a drawing pad, and an apple from the backpack she drops to the marshy grass below her. She intends to draw, or maybe write a poem.
The number two pencils she brought with her will not do at all. She needs at least a hundred different shades of green to even start to draw or write this river.
Sometimes Grace is just amazed at all the shades of green God put in this world. She looks around her and absorbs the green sounds of washing water and the songs of frogs, tastes boggy moss in the humid air she has to work to breathe, and smells the algae that lazies around the surface of the green pool beneath her. She stretches, dabbling just one toe into the murk. She imagines she is a mermaid who drinks thick thunderclouds and swims in green water. She figures she’s more fish than mammal, anyway—sprung up from eggs lain by a mother who swam away when the birthing was done with.
Grace munches on her apple and feels just like Eve sitting on the Tree of Knowledge, except she’s got all her clothes on. And the only snakes around are water moccasins, and no self-respecting devil would ever shed his serpent skin for such dull, soaked slitheriness. She thinks again of her father.
Jesus wouldn’t want her to be so angry.
She decides, for the hundred thousandth time, that if she ever speaks to her father again, she will tell him to go to hell.