Will and Mary
… in which twins watch Alabama turn white
The twins pressed almost identical faces to the icy windowpanes of Mrs. Mock’s imprisoning house.
Snow would be general all over Alabama tonight. But to Will and Mary the only snow that existed in all the world fell just there, almost within reach – on the distant side of a cold window glass.
The storm hit hard and fast, a shock to Alabama towns and people that only witnessed the white miracle every five years or so.
Who knew what to do?
Yellow buses rumbled into parking lots early, public schools shutting down. Kids ran crazy on playgrounds while red-faced bus drivers blew horns and teachers flailed arms and coaches blew whistles.
Shelves in Mr. Stevenson’s Piggly Wiggly and Mr. Woodham’s Grocery took on wave after wave of panicked shoppers. In just a few hours, bread, batteries, bottled water, candles, milk, and beer were gone. Muddy puddles stood in the picked-clean aisles, the black water there dripped from overcoats and tracked in on the soles of shoes.
Confused old people pulled their cars completely off the roads, fearful of a thing called black ice, a phenomenon alarmingly mentioned by friends who had traveled up north. These elderly motorists slowly crept along rutted shoulders toward their homes, watching with apprehension as the roadsides turned white as their hair. When these seniors finally got out of their cars, they skated their feet, trying not to fall. No death in Alabama could ever be stranger than a person breaking a hip and freezing to death in a driveway.
A few people distractedly left their doors open wide, as if their cars were yelling.
By the time Will and Mary heard the loud grandfather clock toll 5 p.m. in Mrs. Mock’s home, snowy white quilts draped the azaleas flanking her driveway. In a window box, the monkey faces on purple-and-yellow pansies gasped in surprise – Oh my! – their bedding suddenly pale, cold, wet.
A long boxwood hedge by the street delighted Mary and Will – they watched it transform into a white caterpillar, a fanciful, meandering creature crawled straight out of the pages of one of their elementary school picture books.
The twins wanted only one thing in the whole universe – to run out the door and romp like Santa’s reindeer through the snowfall.
“When is daddy coming?” sniffled Mary.
She had a cold. In winter, Mary always had a cold, maybe as much from air parched dry by space heaters in drafty southern rooms as from any real rhinovirus. Her blue-willow eyes glowed moistly, a sure fever. No one had washed her hair this day. The normally pretty red strands hung like spaghetti.
“When na dada coming?”
Will loudly said this, mocking his sister in a fake baby voice.
“When can baby get hers pacifier? Goo goo waa waa!”
Will scowled. Will never got a cold. Born impatient, the first one out of his mom’s womb, he too was long past ready for his daddy to drive up and spring him from the after-care of stuffy Mrs. Mock.
Will took out his annoyance on Mary, like pretty much always. He reckoned he would already be playing merrily out of doors if his snotty-nosed sister didn’t have the sniffles.
Even better, if daddy had picked them up on time today, Will might already be back at the Rogers’ rental house out in the country, throwing snowballs at the bewildered feral cats that came creeping out of the woods, shaking snow off their paws. Or he might be making weird-looking snowmen, or sledding a cardboard refrigerator box down that steep hill by Mercy Creek.
How fun would Thrill Hill be all covered with snow?
Last summer, he and Mary and Timmy Wragg, the kid next door, flew bikes down Thrill Hill, racing one behind the other (Will first! Will always first!). They flew along a twisted skinny path through mountains of kudzu. At the bottom of the hill, they pedaled off into a labyrinth of other beaten trails that snaked through country woods buzzing with locusts and wild honey bees.
Will wanted to ride that trail in the snow. He itched for a chance to escape. He only needed six inches of cracked doorway to be out, gone, vamoosed. Mary could stay behind and blow her nose till it came off in her hand for all he cared.
Will and Mary! Except for their faces – redheads, freckled as cowbird eggs, blue-eyed or green-eyed depending on the light – no twins ever looked less identical.
Mary resembled a thin sharp shadow of her brother. She normally acted more like a shadow too, waiting for brave Will to take the initiative, following only after he led the way.
He always did.
Will came into the world a solid chunk, thick through his chest the day of his birth, now at age seven a humiliating ‘husky’ size, this the annual testimonial of a bifocaled witch at JCPenney with a yellow tape measure and straight pins in her mouth who measured him every September for back-to-school clothes. Will had front teeth missing, shed before Mary’s. He was a good little second baseman for his age. He could put two fingers in his mouth and blow, and dogs lifted their ears a half mile away. To Elmore’s surprise, he found that his son’s inborn attitudes sometime seemed as set and solid as his little body. Will behaved like a miniature grown-up from the moment he could stand and point a stubborn finger in whatever direction he wanted to go.
“Daddy’s gonna get here any minute.”
Will breathed, nicer to his sister now, face so close to Mrs. Mock’s window that his breath fogged the glass.
“He’s gonna drive up any minute, Mary! Then we’ll have a snowball fight!”
“I want to make a snowball fight!” she answered.
It was already dark.
Maybe already too late – too late to really enjoy snow, too late to be outside. And it almost surely wouldn’t snow one flake tomorrow. This was Alabama. The cold white stuff fell once in a blue moon. Snow had only fallen only one other day in Will’s whole life before this one.
One day that he could remember, anyhow.
He recalled one thing from that other snowfall – a line of animal tracks through the perfect white front yard in front of their house in the woods. Blotchy blue scars left by … something.
It thrilled him to think some kind of monster made them. A monster had walked through the snow close to their house!
But that was then.
Now, today … when would daddy’s old lumbering panel truck roll up, big as a woolly mammoth, its wipers beating – left, right, left, right? When would they see daddy’s cheerful hand stuck out the truck window with snow falling like a magic trick from his palm and fingertips?
“William Rainer Rogers!”
Mrs. Mock’s voice cracked the air like a whip. Both children jumped nearly out of their skins.
Mary answered, though she hadn’t been addressed.
“Did I invite you two children to stay in the parlor?”
“Yes’m. But it’s snowing, Mrs. Mock. We can’t watch it snow in the parlor …”
The tone of Mrs. Mock’s voice telegraphed her next stern command.
“I would truly hate to have to tell your father that either of you two children disobeyed me.”
Mary blinked, her eyes luminous. She drew a brave breath.
“Daddy would be happy we got to watch it snow! He would be happy if we played in the snow!”
Will wheeled on his sister, furious.
“Shut up, you igmo! It’s your fault we can’t go out and play. You had to get …” Will sneered these last two words, “… a bad cold. You’re a baby!”
Mary barked helplessly. The sharp cough even hurt Will’s chest a little. But he didn’t relent.
“I bet Mrs. Mock thinks just watchin’ the snow out a window will give you double whooping cough. And you know what? I wish it WOULD!”
Will jumped from his window seat and stormed past his slender sister, ripping away his strange shadow, so different, so much the same. He stomped forward into the carefully appointed parlor in Mrs. Mock’s hot, airless house.
Without a look back, Will flopped heavily onto a red velvet loveseat. The china rattled in her glass-and-cherry cabinets. He jerked his feet up and hugged his knees.
“Young man, do I see your shoes on my silk settee?”
The voice cracked again. Mrs. Mock entered the parlor, marching Mary ahead of her, prisoner-style.
Down came Will’s feet, fast and hard. The china cabinets chattered again.
Do I see those shoes on my silk settee, young man?
Will’s mouth silently mocked the admonition. Tears of frustration all at once gleamed in his eyes.
The oversized aluminum Christmas tree that Mrs. Mock kept in the parlor blurred and went out of focus. A revolving color wheel changed the tree's tinsel to watery red, then watery yellow, then blue.
Mary ghosted onto the sofa beside her brother.
She was an extraordinarily beautiful child, fair and delicate.
She stared plaintively at Will, her oversized eyes and ridiculously long lashes exaggerated even more by fever. She seemed thinner, wispier, in winter, if it were possible, just as Will seemed more chunky and square. A sea-spray of freckles speckled Mary’s cheeks. Otherwise her skin shone like moonlight.
Mary’s beauty was utterly lost on her brother. But the look Mary saw on Will’s face as she drifted behind him, quiet as a snowflake, always following, climbing this moment up to sit beside him on the loveseat – well, Will’s face reminded her of a wild kitten’s. She had tried to coax one from the crawl space under their house last year with a raw weenie.
It snarled and spit, savagely unhappy.
“You children tell one another stories,” Mrs. Mock said. “Stories stimulate the imagination.”
Will used his imagination. He vividly pictured what he would do if Mrs. Mock were a cottonmouth water moccasin and he had a pocket full of heavy gravel rocks picked up off the railroad tracks.
Mrs. Mock kept the Rogers children one afternoon every week – Friday, because the after-care at Lafayette Elementary School shut down early … and because Elmore usually worked late, till five or six to get every possible hour’s wages. In truth, Mrs. Mock was Will and Mary’s grandmother – well, step-grandmother. Elmore’s father slept in a V.A. Hospital in Mobile and wouldn’t wake up. He’d grown really good at sleeping, and really old.
The children had heard many times from Mrs. Mock how their “real grandmother” died of a massive stroke one afternoon just a week before Elmore’s thirteenth birthday.
“Weak blood,” she insisted to the children, with a meaningful purse of the lips at poor Mary. “They say it was weak blood. And it runs in families, you know. Although there’s never been any weak blood in the Mock family.”
After Iraq and after his divorce, Elmore knew of no one in Lafayette but Mrs. Mock who would keep Will and Mary for free even a single afternoon. The after-care came with a risk – Mrs. Mock had a reputation for her holiday parties, eggnog included, in a few circles. She was proud of her looks too. But Elmore didn’t see what those things had to do with a few hours of critical childcare on Friday.
The snow storm had brought the twins early from school this Friday, of course. The moment the school bus pulled up, it ruined Mrs. Mock’s plans for mid-afternoon canasta with friends from the garden club.
The moment she saw the bus, Mrs. Mock glanced at her hallway mirror, a big fancy thing framed in maple and ormolu that she bought in New Orleans on her second honeymoon, this one with Elmore’s now-vegetable father.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, she muttered out loud. I’d look better with some alcohol …
She usually had a glass of sherry – sometimes two – to brace herself before the youngsters arrived. She wished she had sherry right now. It had been a long time since she mothered her way through that frustrating first marriage. Will and Mary only reminded Mrs. Mock uncomfortably of how much she disliked children. Even her own.
The spoiled canasta party didn’t hold a candle to the other plan she had in place for the night. Her body tingled to think of it. If Elmore didn’t show up at a reasonable hour, that plan might have to be scuttled too.
Mrs. Mock didn’t like that thought, not one bit.
Will and Mary heard the grandfather clock in the hallway make a sproinging noise, then chime six times.
Their daddy never picked them up this late. How could he be late, the one day it snowed?
Mrs. Mock stared at the clock angrily. Forget canasta. The plan for later mattered a lot more anyway.
Her delight would come.
But time did not fly.
She missed her sherry. Her magic potion.
For a short time after the divorce, Will and Mary lived with Kelly, their mother. The courts preferred it that way for children under three years old.
Then something happened, and one blazing hot summer day Elmore went in a police car to a place downtown, and that same day lawmen took the children away from their mother, and then they lived with Elmore.
Will once overheard his daddy tell somebody on the phone about his mother and a hot car, and how he was getting them away from that post partner … or some words like those.
Now Will and Mary stayed with Elmore. They never saw their mother at all. Sometimes Mary couldn’t even remember how she looked.
The Mock house held down a corner lot in a grand old neighborhood, the finest in Lafayette … well, the finest until the day Mr. Wood finished his castle. Cloverdale Heights proudly showed off to the world its collection of two-story structures of uniform whiteness, wooden, porched, balustraded, landscaped to death. Many hours of work went into keeping up the looks of “The Lafayette Garden District,” as well-to-do residents sniffingly referred to their few special blocks.
Who could blame them? Lafayette wasn’t much to speak of. This part of Alabama either, truth to tell. Pride always fought for a way out.
Will, calmer now, considered that snow might look better on the roofs and lawns here than on the mobile homes and cheap asbestos-shingled houses that made up a lot of Lafayette. He wondered how snow looked on homes and barns and chicken houses and cemeteries out in the country where he and Mary and his daddy lived.
His sister whooped again. The noise in her chest sounded like ripping muslin. Mrs. Mock clucked from her nearby rocker. She rearranged her magazine. She read magazines about movie stars and the British royals. She kept scissors by the rocker for cutting out pages with clothes she liked.
The heat in the parlor stifled. So did the silence. Worse, the floor furnace terrified. Mary avoided even looking at the oversized metal grille in the hallway, the exact size of an open grave.
Deep down in the dark under the flimsy-looking black grille, a little blue light flared. It looked to Mary like a single blue eye. It scared her, the way a devil waiting under a house would scare a person. It never blinked – you could always see it, it could always see you. Sinister. What evil lived in the foundation of the house? The grille felt scorching hot even through a pair of shoes.
“Can we watch TV, Mrs. Mock?”
“MAY we watch TV?” the older woman corrected Will, flipping a glossy page.
“Yes’m. May we watch TV?”
“No, you may not. Television is extremely bad for the eyes at your age. And your father will be here at any time. And your sister has a cold. You two need to be ready to leave the minute he drives up. I do have my own plans later on.”
Mrs. Mock then, out of nowhere, raised a chocolate-chip cookie to her mouth and took a bite. She did it slowly and deliberately so both children could see. A pair of gold-rimmed bifocals with what could have been real diamonds magnified her defiant stare. She chewed the cookie slowly, making it seem like the best one ever baked.
“A TV will ruin your eyes,” she mumbled, through falling crumbs. “And ruin your imaginations.”
When Elmore Rogers rattled up five hours later, both children lay fast asleep on the sofa, uncovered. The grandfather clock tunelessly rang eleven times at the very moment he pulled into the driveway.
Mrs. Mock fumed.
She actually had been forced to scrounge up a can of tomato soup at suppertime for the ungrateful children. As she served it, somewhere down deep she wondered how her life might have turned out if she’d paid more than passing attention to that handsome friend of Elmore’s dad, the one who always looked at her that way, with that hungry wolf look, even on the afternoon he politely sat on the groom’s side of the aisle on their wedding day and forever held his peace.
He could have disturbed the peace. He knew her secrets. She shared them with him just two nights before the wedding. They did the deed in the back seat of his town car.
That gentleman retired in Pensacola. He belonged to the yacht club. She heard that he won sailing races and spent a lot of time at the greyhound track.
What a careless father, that Elmore Rogers! Mrs. Mock vowed that she would absolutely make sure this never happened again.
She heard Elmore ring the doorbell. She had her tongue already sharpened, her blessing-out speech rehearsed a dozen times.
Mrs. Mock noisily yanked wide the frozen door.
She stepped back without a word.
She barely recognized her stepson under the porch light. One side of Elmore’s face had changed color, to purple, under a huge bruise. A gruesome black caterpillar crawled over his swollen mouth. The stitches marred Elmore’s top lip and his bottom lip.
“Hey, Mitheth Mock,” Elmore managed to mumble, almost sheepishly.
She caught a glimpse of black stitches in Elmore’s tongue too, as he pronounced his words oh-so-carefully. A foolishly oversized bandage, like something made for a Halloween costume, covered his thumb.
Mrs. Mock couldn’t see, under Elmore’s clothes, a mummy swath of bandages tightly wrapping one broken rib. He also concealed a badly sprained wrist and shoulder, and two dislocated toes on one foot. He reeked of isopropyl … or some kind of alcohol. She couldn’t know how every step and every breath hurt him.
Snowflakes turned to water all over Elmore’s baseball cap and shoulders as he stood on the porch. Awkwardly, even on a night like this, Mrs. Mock would not let Elmore enter her house without formality.
I have a wicked stepmother, Elmore through to himself, like a witch in a fairy tale.
The very effort of that thought made him wobble slightly.
“Mitheth Mock,” Elmore managed. “It lookth nithe and wom in there. May I thome in the houthe …”
She stared ridiculously. It occurred to Elmore that perhaps she hadn’t understood a single garbled word.
“And geth wom a minnith?”
After a beat, he tried again.
“Thorry I’m tho late ... I hath a litthle troubba ath work …”
And that moment, Will and Mary burst past the grim-lipped gatekeeper. They charged barefoot onto the snowy stoop to embrace their daddy.
Their tight little hugs nearly killed him.
With happiness. And shocking pain.
Without a parting word, the trio limped and hopped and staggered down the snowy walk to the big idling panel truck. Will threw a couple of wild snowballs, then they got in the cab, Elmore very slowly.
They drove away into the white Alabama night.
Mrs. Mock closed the door decisively.
She strode to the kitchen, glancing at the big mirror on the way, tugging her bra strap through her red holiday blouse. She lifted the telephone, briskly spinning the old-fashioned rotary dial that reminded her of younger, girlish times.
She let the phone ring once, quickly hung up.
Their signal. All clear. Time for gratification too long delayed.
She waited only seconds. Mrs. Mock’s phone rang under her palm. It felt like something warm and alive.
She glanced self-consciously at another mirror, a small one on her kitchen wall, before answering.
She slipped a loose strand of silvery-gold hair back in place behind one ear. Not bad, she thought.
Thank goodness for my special soaps from France.
She lifted the receiver in the middle of the second ring.
Why…” she breathed coquettishly. “Mr. Wood! What a nice surprise on this cold, snowy evening …”