A trail of fencing rode up and down the hills, cutting through the farmland. Small hand-lettered signs surrounded by black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace advertised tomatoes, squash, honey, apple cider, and peach wine. Al wasn’t slowing down, so Lum realized she’d have to ask. “Al, you mind stopping at Smiley’s a bit?”
“Sure thing. It’ll have to be quick. I could spend hours looking at his stuff.” Al pulled off the highway and Smiley strode toward the truck. Large freckles sprinkled his broad nose, spilling across caramel-colored cheeks.
“Howdy, folks.” He opened the door for Lum.
“Hello, Smiley.” Lum had known Smiley for most of her life. Five years younger than Lum, he’d accompanied his mother, the washer-woman, to their farm. “How’s your aunt and uncle?”
“They be doing fine,” Smiley said, and then whispered, “Miz Lum, I got something to show you. Something you’ll like.” A gold tooth shone beneath his short upper lip. He motioned for her to accompany him to a shotgun house with random remnants of paint on buckled pine siding.
Lum followed Smiley through the house crowded with furniture, paintings, vases, and stacks of boxes, weaving her way through each room, taking care that she didn’t knock anything over. In a pantry off the kitchen, Smiley reached through canned tomatoes to retrieve a small package wrapped in paper. “Been saving this just for you, ma’am, uh-huh, sure have.” Smiley nodded, looking pleased with himself. “Look here.” He flipped the package onto her palm. Lum unwrapped the slick paper and fanned out a short stack of postcards. Smiley shifted from one foot to the other. “Look at that one, I know you’ll like it.” He pointed with a tobacco stained finger. “Those twins. Daisy and—who’s the other one?”
“Violet,” she whispered, her tongue lingering on the sound. Siamese twins, their hair in ringlets, stood in front of an obese woman whose ample flesh folded over itself. Her arm was slung over the shoulder of a bearded lady. Lum’s heart quickened. With trembling hands, she wrapped the cards and said, “I’ll take them all.”
“Since you’re such a good customer, I’ll only charge you five cents.”
Lum dropped the package in a large square pocket sewn on her apron, and pulled a balled up handkerchief from between her breasts.
Smiley reached into the pantry, pulling out a glass jar. “How about some chow-chow?”
Lum’s eyes widened. “Ummm. Sure, I’ll get a jar. How much?”
“Nickel.” He winked. “Can’t go out of here empty-handed.”
Lum fished a dime out of the handkerchief.
“Thank you, ma’am, it’s always a pleasure. I’m keeping my eyes open for any of them pictures.”
She and Smiley made their way back along the circuitous trail to the front door.
Al was busy at the tables created by ancient warped doors spanning sawhorses. He held a wooden-handled drill and was digging through a box of tools, fishing lures, and all sorts of rusting objects. “Got any bits to go with this, Smiley?”
“Sure do. Can’t directly say where, but there’s three of ’em.” Smiley craned his neck to survey the tabletops and reached across Al to grab a cigar box. He scooped out three rusty drill bits. “Now you sand those down, they be good as new, yes, sir. Anything else you can’t do without?”
“I seen that sign for peach wine. You got anything a little stronger?” Smiley grinned, nodding slowly.
“Yep. You want a snort?”
“You bet!” Al answered.
The men disappeared around the house. Lum looked at the jars of honey and preserves. She wished she’d noticed whether Margaret needed any honey. She sat in the pickup flipping through the postcards. She looked for a long time at the Alligator Boy, a thin man with webbed feet and rough hands sticking out of a puckered brown suit two sizes too small. She tried to read his face, his thoughts. Pondering a handsome young man on a sturdy chair, his left leg crossing his right, wearing fine lace-up boots, she shuddered. Protruding from his side was a shorter misshapen leg with a matching trouser leg and a mismatched shoe.
When Al appeared clutching two paper bags, Lum folded the oilpaper over the cards and hid them in her pocket.
“Had to get something for Kenny, too,” Al explained, climbing in the truck. “Oh, you got some chow-chow. Margie hates it, so I never get any. My mama used to make the best chow-chow.”
“She sure did.” Lum leaned back, patting her pocket with the new cards.
Lum plodded through the mud to the porch, where Al’s twelve-year-old son, Caleb, sat in the swing, his spindly legs dangling. He stood when Lum ascended the steps.
“Come give your Aunt Lum a big hug, boy.”
“Hey, Aunt Lum.” He offered his cheek.
“Well, aren’t you the big boy? Not too big to gimme a hug, are you?”
Caleb’s arms hung limply while Lum hugged him. She remembered how he used to run into her outstretched arms and she would lift him up and cover him with kisses.
Al yelled out the truck window, “Go open the gate for me, son.”
“Yes, sir.” Caleb trotted ahead of his father’s truck, Al driving two feet behind him.
Lum walked around the porch to the small room. She dragged the valise from the corner and lifted it onto the narrow bed. Sitting beside it, she unclasped the lock and flipped through the yellowed, brittle pages of clipped newspaper stories telling tales of “Four-Year-Old Boy Mauled by Tiger at Zoo,” “Two-Headed Pig Born in Newton County,” “Woman Burns Outhouse with Husband in It.” She pulled some post- cards from under the newspaper clippings and slipped the new ones out of her pocket. Quickly, she turned to the Siamese Twins. This was her fourth card with Daisy and Violet, but the first with a bearded lady too; this was surely the prize of her collection. She had pictures of other whiskered women, but this card was different. She imagined a family of carnival people, loving each other as their real families couldn’t. Roughly rubbing her chin, she wondered what it would be like. Lum looked for her card with the twins at the Georgia fair, another with them holding musical instruments, and one with the girls in striped bathing suits on a paddle boat. She placed those on the quilt next to the new one. Next, she fanned out the cards until she found one with a bearded lady on stage, a cigar protruding from her ruby lips. She spread the other cards with bearded ladies in the adjoining tattered fabric rings. Flipping through the new cards, she caught her breath when she saw the shapely figure of the Dog-Faced Girl in a high-necked velvet Edwardian dress with a furry animal head. She didn’t quite look like any dog Lum had ever seen, maybe more like a monkey. But so attractive, somehow. This card felt thicker than the others. Lum ran a fingernail along the side and realized that another card was stuck to it. Separating the cards, Lum suddenly dropped the Dog-Faced Girl. “All man, all woman, all nude,” proclaimed a banner stretched across a tent. Alone on stage, arms slightly outstretched, was a slender person with small breasts and a tiny pink penis, barely covered by cloven lips.
A bitter taste came up her throat as a memory came back.
Lum kicked, blinded by the dress they’d pulled up over her head. Part of the skirt was stuffed in her mouth. Tommy Lee tightened his grip on her ankles, holding them wide apart.
“I want a look,” Two Pint wailed.
“You’re too young,” Jimmy snapped. “Keep her mouth covered.”
Walter and Guthrie held her wrists. “She got a wiener, small like a baby,” Jimmy reported to his brothers.
“I told you she’s like a boy,” Walter taunted.
Lum screamed into balled-up cotton. Her body bucked furiously, flailing her arms and legs in the hay. The boys, unable to restrain her, ran out of the barn laughing.
She scooped up the postcards from the bed and reluctantly put them in the valise, knowing the family would be ready for supper soon. “There will always be a place for you, Lum.” Her grandmother’s words echoed through her thoughts. But where? Like a broom in the corner—used, then put back? Members of her family considered her useful until she overheard too many arguments or the mother became jealous of Lum’s closeness to the children.
She loosened the top three buttons of her dress, spread the collar wide, poured shaving powder into a teacup and added water from the pitcher. After lathering her neck, she scraped a straight razor through the coarse hair. Wisteria, snaking through the rotted window frame, cast a long shadow across the ceiling. Abandoning the careful shaving of her chin, she abruptly yanked the wiry invader, pulling more wisteria through the opening, followed by cat briar and kudzu, coiled in a cable. Lum cut the prickly briar at its entry point and hacked at the tangled vines with the razor. She drew more into her nook, slicing snarled strands until heart-shaped, oval, jagged, and yellowing leaves were strewn across the gray pine planks. Her index fingers were raw from the briars, and the razor’s edge was green. The whole hand, razor and all, went into the water pitcher. She dropped the razor, swished both hands in the cool water, and splashed the green liquid across her flushed face, the taste of dinner coming up her throat, red-eye gravy and tomato.
LIBBY WARE is the owner of Toadlily Books, an antiquarian book business, and is also a book collector. Libby is President of Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers Association, and is a member of the Atlanta Writers Club, Georgia Writers Association, and the Appalachian Writers Association. Her short story, “The Circuit,” was a finalist in the Poets & Writers Award for Georgia Writers, judged by Jennifer Egan. “The Circuit,” which is now Chapters 1—3 of Lum, in slightly different form, was published in Feminist Studies. She belongs to a writing group that has met for nearly twenty years. She is a fellow of The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. She lives in Atlanta with her two dogs, Tilly and Robin, and is engaged to Charlene Ball.
Author photo by Charlene Ball
Adapted from Lum, by Libby Ware, Copyright © 2015 by Libby Ware. With the permission of the publisher, She Writes Press.