She was in the claw-foot tub. She was in there with her flesh and her bones and some suds, reading a book of stories. Ivy Coldwater was her name. She had a short glass of beer on the yellowing tile floor beside one of the claw feet. She took a sip of beer and set the book, spine up, on the side of the tub. She sank low into those suds. Ivy figured if the world ended right then, and wouldn’t that just be the way, she’d at least be clean and only slightly tipsy. She wondered how the world would end. She thought maybe a flood. It would just rain and rain some more, carpet tacks and carpenters’ nails, the great sky unsheathed. And then Ivy Coldwater, of general delivery, Prophet, Mississippi, would float away in her clawfoot tub, on the current’s whims, to heaven or hell or the swamps of Louisiana. Ivy loved claw-foot tubs. Once, as a little girl, she saw one walk across the bathroom floor. This was in the big house on Peabody Avenue, up in Memphis, before her daddy became a white-collar criminal and was sent to country-club prison and her mama took up with God and lost her sense of joy and wonder. The tub took three steps on its claw feet and then seemed about to break into a run. But it did not. Tub water sloshed and then settled as the claw-foot tub hunkered anew. No more did it move. The tub seemed enormously proud of itself, still and all. 40_Stories_Final.indd 263 6/18/12 5:38 PM 264 David Williams When Ivy drew a picture of what she’d seen, the tub was up on its hind legs, dancing something like the Dog. Bathwater was up to the tub’s ankles—Ivy had given ankles to those claw feet and short lengths of shapely legs, too, and a body that bowed and swayed. Ivy had seen her mama dance the Dog with a perfect stranger. The picture of the dancing tub was crayon on paper plate. Ivy was a girl of eight, already an artist. “Why, Ivy,” her mama said when she saw it. “That’s a lovely picture.” “It really happened, Mama,” Ivy said. “Swear to Jesus.” Swearing was much the fashion in the big house on Peabody Avenue those days, most all of it sweet in nature. Ivy’s mama swore to God and Jesus and the ghosts of soldiers, to the local law, Rock City and the House of Bourbon. She’d swear to whichever singer was singing on those records she always played. She’d stub her toe or spill a swish of drink and swear to Fats Waller. She loved sly talkers, blues shouters. She loved the old stuff. “Well, that is something,” Ivy’s mama said with joy and wonder and a voice like song itself. She had black hair bobbed like a flapper girl’s and she carried a martini glass she used as an ashtray. “Why, girl, I’d never seen that tired ol’ tub take more’n three steps and stop.” This was all before Ivy’s mama went sane and stopped dancing the Dog with perfect strangers and grew her hair out straight and let it go natural; now her hair was the color of the mouse that lived under Ivy’s kitchen sink. This was all before Ivy’s mama took to wearing loose dresses and low heels and before she quit gin and cigarettes and banished Fats and every one of his sly-talking cronies to the crawl space of her mind. “Ivy!” The window over the tub was open and so she could hear her mama’s voice from the sidewalk below. Ivy could hear her mama’s voice from underwater. Ivy reckoned she could float clear to the swamps of Louisiana, to the great ocean beyond, the vastness there, and hear her mama’s voice over the awful racket of the world ending. She slipped down into the water again. She imagined what her mama was out there shouting. She well could guess. Her mama was saying, Now, you get out of that tub and put on a loose dress and some low heels and come to church with me, girl. Ivy was not a girl. She was a full-grown woman of thirty-three and a third, like those old records her mama used to play. She was the age her mama was when her mama went sane. “Hey down there, Mama,” Ivy finally shouted back, after she’d come up from under the suds. She wondered if she was going to go sane, too. She did not think she could cope with the world if that were to happen. The world was in the pisser, pretty much, was Ivy’s view of the world. The varnish was off the old place. It was shabby and worn and starting to smell, bit of rankness about. Maybe it really was about to end. Maybe it already had but the government was keeping it hush-hush and the newspapers had not caught wind. Ivy sighed and waited for what her mama would say next. “Hurry now, girl,” she said. “We going to be late for church.” Ivy’s mama’s way of talking had taken a turn for the country after she found religion. It was as if God was just a bit of a hick himself, and so was naturally suspicious of that uptown city grammar. “Come on up, Mama,” Ivy said. “Door’s unlocked. I’m not going to church but you’re welcome to come in and hound me some.” Ivy didn’t know why there needed to be church on Wednesday. She didn’t know what the Lord needed with a second day. The Lord’s ways and means were much on her mind. She sighed some more. She took a sip of beer and set the glass by the claw foot. She stood and looked out the window. Suds dripped from her skin and her bones and onto that book of stories. She had been reading one about a man who takes his son to the mountains. They weren’t going up there to fish. Ivy shook her head at her mama’s loose dress and low heels and her straight hair the color of a poor kitchen mouse. And she remembered her mama in that flapper girl hair and that martini glass that had cigarette ashes in it even when she was using it to drink martinis. Ivy remembered her mama dancing the Dog with that perfect stranger and wondered whatever did become of him. Maybe he’d gone to country-club prison, too, on account of the scam he’d tried to pull—selling the Coldwaters’ own house to Ivy’s mama, and getting as far as her signing certain legal documents before they commenced to dancing and then to other things. Maybe he was cell mates with Ivy’s daddy. Maybe they passed the days talking about a woman they’d both known, black-haired and tipsy-wild, loved to hear Fats David Williams Waller sing “All That Meat and No Potatoes.” Maybe they wondered how she was getting on, what she was doing, wherever she was. Ivy wondered, too. Ivy missed her daddy some, but she missed her mama more.
“Hey there, Mama.” “Mother,” her mama said, as if even country folk with their hick grammar ought to carry forth with some small bit of dignity in the eyes of God and small-town Mississippi. Ivy’s mama walked into the house as she always did, with suspicion, as if she might be set upon by beggars or addicts or God forbid some artists. “And hurry,” she said. “We be late.” “Late’s when you’re dead, Mama,” Ivy said. “You’ll be there when you get there and they can wait or go ahead on. Besides, you know every word Preacher Mull’s going to say before he says it.” “His name ain’t Preacher Mull, Ivy.” The preacher’s name was Mill, but Ivy called him Mull because he couldn’t wish you a blessed day without worrying over it first. Ivy didn’t blame him, for he was young and did not know his own mind, much less have the audacity, the gall, to stand before a congregation and tell its members what to think and how to think it, though they had come for that very purpose. “Mother,” her mama said yet again. “I prefer”—her voice turned country-formal—“to be called Mother. And hurry it, girl.” “You can be the Queen of Soul, if you like. But I don’t go to church on Sunday, so I damned sure am not going on a Wednesday. Mama, Mama, Mama.” Ivy stood in the kitchen doorway in an old bathrobe that was yellowing like those bathroom tiles. She had left her beer beside the claw foot. She wished that tub would up and bring it to her. Maybe she could train it, like with a dog. Teach it tricks and dance steps and basic household chores, like dusting and straightening and bringing her beer to her. If it could only go a few steps, all well and fine. She’d meet it halfway. She was a reasonable woman. Ivy sighed. Her hair was sopping. It was short and black but she could not get it to look like her mama’s used to. Her hair was not to be tamed. It draped wild down in her dark eyes, and, doing so, drove men of the region to bold acts.
They wanted to steal cars for her, bilk corporations, break banks, turn those Tunica County, Mississippi, casinos back to cotton fields with their slick card playing and call it White Christmas. And in that way, Ivy’s was much like her mama’s used to be. But Ivy had pretty well had it with men. One had left her for the war and another for professional baseball and one was a rock ’n’ roll star who sang songs of her on the radio. (Worth noting: A man had never left Ivy for another woman.) But Ivy didn’t think the world was ending just on account of she couldn’t hold a man. Men were the least of it. There were the women and children, too—all of humankind, really, and their general petty nature, their bickering and instigating, their trifling ways and shiftless means, their bonemeanness, and the way they drove like their cars were the only rocket ships in the sky, and how they’d shoot one another over a chicken wing or a rib bone, how they liked to draw blood, just generally. It was everything, really. It took an Act of God to get them to act half-civil to one another. And then they’d fall all over themselves, ass over casseroles, to help a neighbor. A hurricane would do it. A flood would. “I sure did hate to hear about the levees,” Ivy said, feigning neighborly human concern. “Here’s you a covered dish.” “What, Ivy?” “Nothing, Mama,” she said, and thought about that phrase, Act of God. She went to the refrigerator for another beer. Ivy drank Schlitz, like Patsy Cline and Elvis’s mama, Gladys was her name, and James Earl Ray and lots of people, some good and some evil, nobody ever heard of. Ivy liked the taste of it, but mostly Ivy just believed in drinking cheap. Ivy believed in a good many things: drink cheap, think twice, sleep late, and never trust a man who carries his guitar by the neck like it’s a chicken he’s just killed, were some of Ivy’s wisdoms. That left a lot Ivy did not know, though, a lot for her to wonder over and ponder on. She had a wondering mind, Ivy Coldwater. She wondered, like for instance, if the eternal question wasn’t so much “Why?” or “What’s next?” but “Huh?” Damned if Ivy Coldwater, David Williams in her study of man, God, and the macrocosm, could divine a reason for it all. “It’s a hell of a god,” Ivy said now, “who’d act like that.” “What’s that, Ivy?” her mama said.
“What’s that about God?” “Why don’t they call them Acts of the Devil? You know, hurricanes and floods and the like, that earthquake they say we’re going to have. Every time there’s a flood or something and somebody calls it an Act of God, I bet God’s got to pay the devil royalties.” But Ivy did not believe in the devil. She thought he was made up and his story told to everyone so they’d be kind to one another and not grow up to rob the First National Bank of Clarksdale or shoot their spouses over a chicken wing or a rib bone, though some of that bad stuff happened, anyway, and some worse—but how much worse would it be, Ivy wondered, if people weren’t afraid of bein’ sent way down south to the land of shackles? Ivy sang a little of the old Skip James blues, “Devil Got My Woman.” She sang, “I’d rather be the devil, than to be some woman’s man.” Ivy could sing a little blues, all down low and scratchy, but she couldn’t go up high and moan like only Skip James and some ghosts could do. Ivy was pretty sure she believed in ghosts, though in a straight-up practical sense it didn’t matter whether she did or not: Ghosts believed in her. One night, late, she caught one taking a bath in the claw-foot tub, reading that book of stories. He was reading her Bible and singing, “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader” and “Be Ready When He Comes.” Ivy detected a sly mocking tone. She stood in the bathroom doorway in nothing but a Piggly Wiggly T-shirt and said, “Are you real?” But the ghost didn’t say, just kept on reading and singing. He didn’t seem to notice the near-naked woman standing in the doorway, though he did go from “I Got to Cross the River of Jordan” into a little snatch of the dirty blues number, “She’s Got Jordan River in Her Hips,” and back again. Then, without even looking up, the ghost slapped his thigh and laughed real big. You would have called it a guffaw. The next morning, Ivy thought she’d dreamed it all, but there were six empty Schlitz cans on the floor beside the one claw foot and there was a ring about the tub. The Bible was open to Revelation, the bit about Jezebel on a bed of suffering. There had been a time Ivy could have told her mama all about it, asked her what it meant, and they’d have settled in the parlor and pondered it together, over drinks and smokes. They’d have had a good laugh themselves, the odd guffaw, and Ivy’s mama would have said something like, “Why, I hadn’t seen that ol’ ghost drink more than three beers and start looking for something to hump.” Ivy called her little sister Jess up in Memphis instead. Jess said, “Maybe you weren’t his type.” Jess was a scientist. She was trying to cure cancer at the cost of untold hundreds of mice. She didn’t believe in God or ghosts and only half-listened to what Ivy said and then made as unpromising a reply as possible; she really had work to do, cancer to cure, mice to poison. Ivy said, “You run across many men up in Memphis, Sis, that near-naked aren’t their type?” Jess, who preferred to be called Jessica or better yet, Dr. Coldwater, did not say, one way or another. “I really have to go, Ivy,” she finally said. “You know, Jess,” Ivy said, “sometimes I wonder if you’d rather be poisoning people to save the mice. Because mice don’t heap their petty bullshit on you. They don’t burden you that way. They don’t pull family rank on you.” “Are you finished, Ivy?” “I’m just getting revved, I think, Jess. But I won’t bother you anymore. I’m sorry, about what I said just then. I am. It’s just—I don’t know.
I’m no better than anybody else. I’m marginally worse than
most. I’m a pain in the ass, I believe’s the technical term. But at least
I can see that, can see it all—life itself, I mean—for what it is.”
Silence on the other end of the line.
“Let’s get together real soon, have some beers and talk. What say,
Sis? I’ll meet you halfway.”
“You mean, like, Rosedale?”
Ivy laughed and Jess seemed very nearly to join her. It was a
moment, however small.
“Yeah,” Ivy said. “What the hell, Rosedale.”
But Jess had gone cold again. The flash of old times, of the girl the woman used to be, passed, as flashes do. She said, “I don’t know, Ive.
I, you know. I can’t get away just now.”
“Good-bye, Dr. Jessica Coldwater,” Ivy finally said. “Tell Jess I
love her, still and all. Tell her I miss her, and Mama, too.”
“You always push things that little bit too far, Ivy,” her sister said.
“You always did.”
“The devil is real,” Ivy’s mama said now, as if she might have been
reading her girl’s thoughts, as if doubts and wonderings were visible
things, dust mites in the air or flies a-buzzing.
“I know, Mama. And Jesus, he’s a mighty good leader.” Ivy thought
of a couple of words—battle royale—but did not say them. She loved
her mama, still and all.
“Don’t mock,” her mama said. “You need to get right, girl. You
need to get you some of that old-time religion.” She about broke into
song, the way she said it.
Religion, Ivy thought. That’s the worst of it. Why couldn’t they
just stop at faith? You could keep faith in your pocket, like a lucky
stone or that quarter she had from her little-girlhood, smashed by the
Pontotoc Rocket train as it made for Memphis. Nobody even had to
know it was in there. Ivy Coldwater didn’t have much faith, but it was
hers and she kept it close.
“Oh me of little faith,” she said.
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