Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”
“You fall! You fall!” The children, reverential even as they commanded, lifted their eyes and their arms, plumped with sweaters against the chill spring twilight, to the woman who stood over them.
Although she was tiny—not even five feet tall and slight as a finch—she was twenty-one years old, and she might have dipped like a lady and sat on her heels to save her skirt or merely laughed and clapped her hands (that’s what the children’s stout mother generally did). Miss Bonnie, however, had a penchant for the dramatic. Throwing her head back and her hands in the air, she crumpled to the ground and lay as if dead.
“Agin! Agin!” One of the little boys drummed his feet.
Indulgent, she pushed herself up and gathered two grubby hands in her slender fingers.
But the back door opened, and the children’s mother stood in it, unknotting her apron strings. “It’s time.” Her east Texas accent stretched and softened the terse statement, but she was a confident, orderly person, and her tone, while not unkind, was firm.
All four tousled figures obeyed, although the young woman was obviously reluctant, hanging her blond head and not hurrying, as she resettled her loose dress, a slinky thing some of her friends had brought her, and the plaid jacket that drooped over it. The mother had lent that out of her own closet.
“Go on and find yer daddy. He’ll give y’all some milk.” The mother bent to give the last of her children a playful tap on the bottom as he disappeared into the house. She folded her apron over her arm. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Thornton,” she said, “but it’s time.”
“All right, Mrs. Adams.”
The young woman scuffed her shoes—broken, brown things, shapeless as cow pies, donated by the Ladies Benevolent Society—as they walked over the lawn.
Dragging her feet like a child, Mrs. Adams thought, but she couldn’t blame Mrs. Thornton for savoring the out-of-doors. They crossed the yard to the building immediately next door, a stern brick square, its tall windows barred.
“Does every town in this goddamned state have a jail?” Mrs. Thornton had snarled the morning they’d brought her in. They’d taken her cigarettes, and she was twitchy and querulous. Not to mention filthy from the hours she’d spent in that dirt-floored calaboose in Kemp. And barefoot.
“Pret’ near.” Mrs. Adams had been the one to answer. She was the sheriff’s wife, as well as a mother. “There’s a good portion of Texans don’t keep to the right side of the law. Always plenty of work for a sheriff.”
“Is it fixin’ to storm tonight?” Mrs. Thornton said now, anxiously studying the sky.
Mrs. Adams glanced up. “Could be. Wouldn’t surprise me if the Lord saw fit to send us a flood, times being evil as they are.”
The heavy door, painted black, swung easily to admit them, and Mrs. Thornton waited, downcast, while Mrs. Adams lifted the iron ring of keys from behind the desk where her husband did his paperwork. The space was high ceilinged and made of stone, so the sounds that issued from the cells, in the back, echoed throughout the building.
“Who there? Jesus? Is that you, Jesus? Have you come for me, Jesus?” The Negro woman in the cell beside Mrs. Thornton’s beat her cup and sometimes her head against the wall.
“Here I come.” The voice belonged to a man Mrs. Thornton had never seen, but she believed that the sharpest of the foul smells that permeated the place must come from him. “I’m Jesus coming to fuck you, bitch. You better watch out. I’m comin’. I’m comin’.”
The voice of the oldest of Mrs. Adams’s little boys, begging his daddy for a glass of water, carried through the damp air into one of the jail’s open windows. Mrs. Thornton concentrated on that piping sound and closed her ears to the other, as she obediently followed her jailer into the dimness, the racket, and the stench.
“You really think it’s fixin’ to storm?” she asked again.
“What difference does it make, honey? You ain’t going to get wet in here.”
Mrs. Adams had told her husband to give Mrs. Thornton the first cell, so she wouldn’t have to walk past the others. Mrs. Adams wasn’t generally easy on prisoners; she was a lawman’s wife, after all. But she believed she was a good judge of character. She knew that letting the young woman out in the evenings to play with her children was the right thing to do; it brought out her sweetness. And she was happy to supply some empty pages from an old account book and a pencil, when Mrs. Thornton said she wanted to write poetry. Some, Mrs. Adams knew, were born vicious, but most slipped into trouble by degrees. It wasn’t too late for this one to scramble out.
That’s what she’d told Mrs. Thornton’s mother.
“Now y’all don’t pay her bail,” she’d admonished the thin woman whose hair and skin and even eyes were faded like old cotton and who’d had to take a bus down to Kaufman from Dallas. She’d seemed bewildered to find her daughter in such a place.
“To tell you the truth,” Mrs. Parker had said, lighting a Chesterfield unsteadily, “I don’t know how I could git the money just now.”
“Best not to,” Mrs. Adams had assured her. She’d offered sugar and cream for the coffee she’d poured, mutely lifting the bowl and pitcher in turn. “They won’t convict her—there’s not enough evidence. Let her stew awhile. That’ll learn her.”
“They won’t send her to the pen?” Mrs. Parker’s voice had quavered. She’d fit the cigarette to her lips and treated herself to a deep pull, reinforcing the grooves that radiated around her mouth, while she’d cast her eyes haphazardly around the room, as if searching for something to grasp on to. She’d released the smoke with slow reluctance. “It’s not like her to lie to me. In fact, I don’t believe she ever has before. Not a real, outright lie, anyway.”
“I got me a job in Houston,” Bonnie had said the very moment Mrs. Parker had come into the house the previous Tuesday evening. The small green cardboard case was already packed and waiting just inside the door. Mrs. Parker, who’d trudged home from work, her mind on the jar of liniment she kept on her dresser top, had been struck by how fresh her daughter looked in her best skirt and jacket, her fluffy blond hair clean and curling around her jawline.
“In Houston? How would you know about a job in Houston?” The pinch in her back had made her voice sharper than she’d intended.
“Ida Jeffers’s cousin knows a lady says they’re looking for girls to sell cosmetics.”
“You don’t know how to do that.”
“Your skin absorbs all the trials of your day.” Bonnie had placed her fingertips on her mother’s face. “But I’ve found that Princess Cream gets deep into the pores and smooths away those tired lines. It brings out your natural radiance. I’ve been using it for a month now, and I can’t tell you how many people have said how well I look.” She touched her own fresh cheek.
“But Houston is so far away.”
“I don’t want to leave you, Mama. But there are no jobs here. You know that.” All of these statements were true.
However, it seemed there’d never been a job in Houston or anyplace else. Mrs. Parker hadn’t been able to get over it. She’d kept thinking that somehow there’d been an accident along the way, maybe a case of mistaken identity. She couldn’t see how her lively, loving daughter—her bonny Bonnie!—could have been involved in anything that would cause her to be locked in a jail cell.
“She made the honor roll, you know,” she’d said to the sheriff’s wife. Revisiting in her memory the evening Bonnie had gone off, wondering what she could have done to keep the girl safely at home, Mrs. Parker had forgotten her cigarette. She’d tapped the long worm of ash into her saucer and then sucked another calming draft into her lungs. “She got all As,” she’d breathed with the smoke.
This had been quite a few years ago—in fact, at fifteen Bonnie had given up on school and married her sweetheart because she’d been in love and why wait, she’d argued, when a person was in love? That was Bonnie all over: big dreams, no patience. Her mother had given in, worn out from arguing, but also, secretly proud as ever of her daughter’s energy and persistence, the pure willfulness that had always made her more vibrant and winning than other girls and that, in the end, always got her what she wanted.
But Mrs. Parker had been right about the marriage. That love hadn’t lasted, although Bonnie’d kept her husband’s name and still wore his ring. It seemed a dirty trick, she’d said, to divorce a man when he was in the pen. That was Bonnie all over, too; she was almost as eager to be moved by other people’s feelings as by her own.
Mrs. Parker had shaken her head to clear it of this frustrating and futile line of thought and had returned to the bolstering recollection of Bonnie’s school record. Even if that was far in the past, it still said something about the kind of girl Bonnie was: conscientious, bright. A girl who could make something of herself, maybe get a job in an office with a lunch hour that allowed her to sit down in a café and order a tuna fish sandwich and a cup of coffee.
Bonnie had scorned that notion of success: “Who from Cement City works in an office?”
But to be different from the kind of person who came from Cement City was the point, Mrs. Parker had retorted, and Bonnie had agreed with that. Bonnie was going to be a singer or a movie star or a poet.
“Can I see her?” Mrs. Parker had asked.
The sheriff had thought to let Bonnie out when her mother came, so they could talk more comfortably, but his wife had cautioned against it. “Let the both of ’em feel what she’s got herself into.”
She’d let the tired woman into the jail, making a show of jangling the heavy iron key ring. At the sight of her mother, Bonnie had slumped onto her cot. She’d looked pathetic, her shoulders hunched, her hair hanging in greasy strings around her little heart-shaped face, her eyes puffed nearly shut from crying.
“My poor baby.” Her mother had pressed her thin cheek to the bars and reached one arm through. She’d squeezed the hand her daughter gave her and had done her best to ignore the incessant keening from the next cell. “You’re not going to see him again.” She’d tried to say it firmly, but all three women were aware how close her statement came to a question.
Bonnie had pinched her sore eyes shut, the emotion that stabbed at her from inside more punishing than the jail. “I won’t,” she’d promised, childishly shaking her head with such vigor that the ends of her dirty hair flew out around her ears like a bell. “I hate him, Mama.”
“Plenty of boys go to the pen, and then they make good when they come out and don’t never have cause to go back again,” her mother had pressed on. “But he doesn’t seem to care about going right…”
“Stop it, Mama! I told you I don’t want nothing more to do with him,” Bonnie had interrupted, her face folding into outright weeping.
The sheriff’s wife had nodded to herself as she’d led the way out, but Mrs. Parker had been less sure. She believed Bonnie’s feelings were sincere, but that didn’t mean that her daughter had learned her lesson.