Copy and paste the below script into your own website or blog to embed this book.
"These stories will last," said Raymond Carver of Shiloh and Other Stories when it was first published, and almost two decades later this stunning fiction debut and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award has become a modern American classic. In Shiloh, Bobbie Ann Mason introduces us to her western Kentucky people and the lives they forge for themselves amid the ups and downs of contemporary American life, and she poignantly captures the growing pains of the New South in the lives of her characters as they come to terms with feminism, R-rated movies, and video games.
"Bobbie Ann Mason is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader," said Robert Towers in The New York Review of Books.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Shiloh and Other Stories
Leroy Moffitt’s wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals. She lifts three-pound dumbbells to warm up, then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell. Standing with her legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman.
“I’d give anything if I could just get these muscles to where they’re real hard,” says Norma Jean. “Feel this arm. It’s not as hard as the other one.”
“That’s ’cause you’re right-handed,” says Leroy, dodging as she swings the barbell in an arc.
“Do you think so?”
Leroy is a truckdriver. He injured his leg in a highway accident four months ago, and his physical therapy, which involves weights and a pulley, prompted Norma Jean to try building herself up. Now she is attending a body-building class. Leroy has been collecting temporary disability since his tractor-trailer jackknifed in Missouri, badly twisting his left leg in its socket. He has a steel pin in his hip. He will probably not be able to drive his rig again. It sits in the backyard, like a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost. Leroy has been home in Kentucky for three months, and his leg is almost healed, but the accident frightened him and he does not want to drive any more long hauls. He is not sure what to do next. In the meantime, he makes things from craft kits. He started by building a miniature log cabin from notched Popsicle sticks. He varnished it and placed it on the TV set, where it remains. It reminds him of a rustic Nativity scene. Then he tried string art (sailing ships on black velvet), a macramé owl kit, a snap-together B-17 Flying Fortress, and a lamp made out of a model truck, with a light fixture screwed in the top of the cab. At first the kits were diversions, something to kill time, but now he is thinking about building a full-scale log house from a kit. It would be considerably cheaper than building a regular house, and besides, Leroy has grown to appreciate how things are put together. He has begun to realize that in all the years he was on the road he never took time to examine anything. He was always flying past scenery.
“They won’t let you build a log cabin in any of the new subdivisions,” Norma Jean tells him.
“They will if I tell them it’s for you,” he says, teasing her. Ever since they were married, he has promised Norma Jean he would build her a new home one day. They have always rented, and the house they live in is small and nondescript. It does not even feel like a home, Leroy realizes now.
Norma Jean works at the Rexall drugstore, and she has acquired an amazing amount of information about cosmetics. When she explains to Leroy the three stages of complexion care, involving creams, toners, and moisturizers, he thinks happily of other petroleum products—axle grease, diesel fuel. This is a connection between him and Norma Jean. Since he has been home, he has felt unusually tender about his wife and guilty over his long absences. But he can’t tell what she feels about him. Norma Jean has never complained about his traveling; she has never made hurt remarks, like calling his truck a “widow-maker.” He is reasonably certain she has been faithful to him, but he wishes she would celebrate his permanent homecoming more happily. Norma Jean is often startled to find Leroy at home, and he thinks she seems a little disappointed about it. Perhaps he reminds her too much of the early days of their marriage, before he went on the road. They had a child who died as an infant, years ago. They never speak about their memories of Randy, which have almost faded, but now that Leroy is home all the time, they sometimes feel awkward around each other, and Leroy wonders if one of them should mention the child. He has the feeling that they are waking up out of a dream together—that they must create a new marriage, start afresh. They are lucky they are still married. Leroy has read that for most people losing a child destroys the marriage—or else he heard this on Donahue. He can’t always remember where he learns things anymore.
At Christmas, Leroy bought an electric organ for Norma Jean. She used to play the piano when she was in high school. “It don’t leave you,” she told him once. “It’s like riding a bicycle.”
The new instrument had so many keys and buttons that she was bewildered by it at first. She touched the keys tentatively, pushed some buttons, then pecked out “Chopsticks.” It came out in an amplified fox-trot rhythm, with marimba sounds.
“It’s an orchestra!” she cried.
The organ had a pecan-look finish and eighteen preset chords, with optional flute, violin, trumpet, clarinet, and banjo accompaniments. Norma Jean mastered the organ almost immediately. At first she played Christmas songs. Then she bought The Sixties Songbook and learned every tune in it, adding variations to each with the rows of brightly colored buttons.
“I didn’t like these old songs back then,” she said. “But I have this crazy feeling I missed something.”
“You didn’t miss a thing,” said Leroy.
Leroy likes to lie on the couch and smoke a joint and listen to Norma Jean play “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “I’ll Be Back.” He is back again. After fifteen years on the road, he is finally settling down with the woman he loves. She is still pretty. Her skin is flawless. Her frosted curls resemble pencil trimmings.
Now that Leroy has come home to stay, he notices how much the town has changed. Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick. The sign at the edge of town says “Pop: 11,500”—only seven hundred more than it said twenty years before. Leroy can’t figure out who is living in all the new houses. The farmers who used to gather around the courthouse square on Saturday afternoons to play checkers and spit tobacco juice have gone. It has been years since Leroy has thought about the farmers, and they have disappeared without his noticing.
Leroy meets a kid named Stevie Hamilton in the parking lot at the new shopping center. While they pretend to be strangers meeting over a stalled car, Stevie tosses an ounce of marijuana under the front seat of Leroy’s car. Stevie is wearing orange jogging shoes and a T-shirt that says chattahoochee super-rat. His father is a prominent doctor who lives in one of the expensive subdivisions in a new white-columned brick house that looks like a funeral parlor. In the phone book under his name there is a separate number, with the listing “Teenagers.”
“Where do you get this stuff?” asks Leroy. “From your pappy?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” Stevie says. He is slit-eyed and skinny.
“What else you got?”
“What you interested in?”
“Nothing special. Just wondered.”
Leroy used to take speed on the road. Now he has to go slowly. He needs to be mellow. He leans back against the car and says, “I’m aiming to build me a log house, soon as I get time. My wife, though, I don’t think she likes the idea.”
“Well, let me know when you want me again,” Stevie says. He has a cigarette in his cupped palm, as though sheltering it from the wind. He takes a long drag, then stomps it on the asphalt and slouches away.
Stevie’s father was two years ahead of Leroy in high school. Leroy is thirty-four. He married Norma Jean when they were both eighteen, and their child Randy was born a few months later, but he died at the age of four months and three days. He would be about Stevie’s age now. Norma Jean and Leroy were at the drive-in, watching a double feature (Dr. Strangelove and Lover Come Back), and the baby was sleeping in the back seat. When the first movie ended, the baby was dead. It was the sudden infant death syndrome. Leroy remembers handing Randy to a nurse at the emergency room, as though he were offering her a large doll as a present. A dead baby feels like a sack of flour. “It just happens sometimes,” said the doctor, in what Leroy always recalls as a nonchalant tone. Leroy can hardly remember the child anymore, but he still sees vividly a scene from Dr. Strangelove in which the President of the United States was talking in a folksy voice on the hot line to the Soviet premier about the bomber accidentally headed toward Russia. He was in the War Room, and the world map was lit up. Leroy remembers Norma Jean standing catatonically beside him in the hospital and himself thinking: Who is this strange girl? He had forgotten who she was. Now scientists are saying that crib death is caused by a virus. Nobody knows anything, Leroy thinks. The answers are always changing.
When Leroy gets home from the shopping center, Norma Jean’s mother, Mabel Beasley, is there. Until this year, Leroy has not realized how much time she spends with Norma Jean. When she visits, she inspects the closets and then the plants, informing Norma Jean when a plant is droopy or yellow. Mabel calls the plants “flowers,” although there are never any blooms. She always notices if Norma Jean’s laundry is piling up. Mabel is a short, overweight woman whose tight, brown-dyed curls look more like a wig than the actual wig she sometimes wears. Today she has brought Norma Jean an off-white dust ruffle she made for the bed; Mabel works in a custom-upholstery shop.
“This is the tenth one I made this year,” Mabel says. “I got started and couldn’t stop.”
“It’s real pretty,” says Norma Jean.
“Now we can hide things under the bed,” says Leroy, who gets along with his mother-in-law primarily by joking with her. Mabel has never really forgiven him for disgracing her by getting Norma Jean pregnant. When the baby died, she said that fate was mocking her.
“What’s that thing?” Mabel says to Leroy in a loud voice, pointing to a tangle of yarn on a piece of canvas.
Leroy holds it up for Mabel to see. “It’s my needlepoint,” he explains. “This is a Star Trek pillow cover.”
“That’s what a woman would do,” says Mabel. “Great day in the morning!”
“All the big football players on TV do it,” he says.
“Why, Leroy, you’re always trying to fool me. I don’t believe you for one minute. You don’t know what to do with yourself—that’s the whole trouble. Sewing!”
“I’m aiming to build us a log house,” says Leroy. “Soon as my plans come.”
“Like heck you are,” says Norma Jean. She takes Leroy’s needlepoint and shoves it into a drawer. “You have to find a job first. Nobody can afford to build now anyway.”
Mabel straightens her girdle and says, “I still think before you get tied down y’all ought to take a little run to Shiloh.”
“One of these days, Mama,” Norma Jean says impatiently.
Mabel is talking about Shiloh, Tennessee. For the past few years, she has been urging Leroy and Norma Jean to visit the Civil War battleground there. Mabel went there on her honeymoon—the only real trip she ever took. Her husband died of a perforated ulcer when Norma Jean was ten, but Mabel, who was accepted into the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1975, is still preoccupied with going back to Shiloh.
“I’ve been to kingdom come and back in that truck out yonder,” Leroy says to Mabel, “but we never yet set foot in that battleground. Ain’t that something? How did I miss it?”
“It’s not even that far,” Mabel says.
After Mabel leaves, Norma Jean reads to Leroy from a list she has made. “Things you could do,” she announces. “You could get a job as a guard at Union Carbide, where they’d let you set on a stool. You could get on at the lumberyard. You could do a little carpenter work, if you want to build so bad. You could—”
“I can’t do something where I’d have to stand up all day.”
“You ought to try standing up all day behind a cosmetics counter. It’s amazing that I have strong feet, coming from two parents that never had strong feet at all.” At the moment Norma Jean is holding on to the kitchen counter, raising her knees one at a time as she talks. She is wearing two-pound ankle weights.
“Don’t worry,” says Leroy. “I’ll do something.”
“You could truck calves to slaughter for somebody. You wouldn’t have to drive any big old truck for that.”
“I’m going to build you this house,” says Leroy. “I want to make you a real home.”
“I don’t want to live in any log cabin.”
“It’s not a cabin. It’s a house.”
“I don’t care. It looks like a cabin.”
“You and me together could lift those logs. It’s just like lifting weights.”
Norma Jean doesn’t answer. Under her breath, she is counting. Now she is marching through the kitchen. She is doing goose steps.
Before his accident, when Leroy came home he used to stay in the house with Norma Jean, watching TV in bed and playing cards. She would cook fried chicken, picnic ham, chocolate pie—all his favorites. Now he is home alone much of the time. In the mornings, Norma Jean disappears, leaving a cooling place in the bed. She eats a cereal called Body Buddies, and she leaves the bowl on the table, with the soggy tan balls floating in a milk puddle. He sees things about Norma Jean that he never realized before. When she chops onions, she stares off into a corner, as if she can’t bear to look. She puts on her house slippers almost precisely at nine o’clock every evening and nudges her jogging shoes under the couch. She saves bread heels for the birds. Leroy watches the birds at the feeder. He notices the peculiar way goldfinches fly past the window. They close their wings, then fall, then spread their wings to catch and lift themselves. He wonders if they close their eyes when they fall. Norma Jean closes her eyes when they are in bed. She wants the lights turned out. Even then, he is sure she closes her eyes.
He goes for long drives around town. He tends to drive a car rather carelessly. Power steering and an automatic shift make a car feel so small and inconsequential that his body is hardly involved in the driving process. His injured leg stretches out comfortably. Once or twice he has almost hit something, but even the prospect of an accident seems minor in a car. He cruises the new subdivisions, feeling like a criminal rehearsing for a robbery. Norma Jean is probably right about a log house being inappropriate here in the new subdivisions. All the houses look grand and complicated. They depress him.
One day when Leroy comes home from a drive he finds Norma Jean in tears. She is in the kitchen making a potato and mushroom-soup casserole, with grated-cheese topping. She is crying because her mother caught her smoking.
“I didn’t hear her coming. I was standing here puffing away pretty as you please,” Norma Jean says, wiping her eyes.
“I knew it would happen sooner or later,” says Leroy, putting his arm around her.
“She don’t know the meaning of the word ‘knock,’ ” says Norma Jean. “It’s a wonder she hadn’t caught me years ago.”
“Think of it this way,” Leroy says. “What if she caught me with a joint?”
“You better not let her!” Norma Jean shrieks. “I’m warning you, Leroy Moffitt!”
“I’m just kidding. Here, play me a tune. That’ll help you relax.”
Norma Jean puts the casserole in the oven and sets the timer. Then she plays a ragtime tune, with horns and banjo, as Leroy lights up a joint and lies on the couch, laughing to himself about Mabel’s catching him at it. He thinks of Stevie Hamilton—a doctor’s son pushing grass. Everything is funny. The whole town seems crazy and small. He is reminded of Virgil Mathis, a boastful policeman Leroy used to shoot pool with. Virgil recently led a drug bust in a back room at a bowling alley, where he seized ten thousand dollars’ worth of marijuana. The newspaper had a picture of him holding up the bags of grass and grinning widely. Right now, Leroy can imagine Virgil breaking down the door and arresting him with a lungful of smoke. Virgil would probably have been alerted to the scene because of all the racket Norma Jean is making. Now she sounds like a hard-rock band. Norma Jean is terrific. When she switches to a Latin-rhythm version of “Sunshine Superman,” Leroy hums along. Norma Jean’s foot goes up and down, up and down.
“Well, what do you think?” Leroy says, when Norma Jean pauses to search through her music.
“What do I think about what?”
His mind has gone blank. Then he says, “I’ll sell my rig and build us a house.” That wasn’t what he wanted to say. He wanted to know what she thought—what she really thought—about them.
“Don’t start in on that again,” says Norma Jean. She begins playing “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?”
Leroy used to tell hitchhikers his whole life story—about his travels, his hometown, the baby. He would end with a question: “Well, what do you think?” It was just a rhetorical question. In time, he had the feeling that he’d been telling the same story over and over to the same hitchhikers. He quit talking to hitchhikers when he realized how his voice sounded—whining and self-pitying, like some teenage-tragedy song. Now Leroy has the sudden impulse to tell Norma Jean about himself, as if he had just met her. They have known each other so long they have forgotten a lot about each other. They could become reacquainted. But when the oven timer goes off and she runs to the kitchen, he forgets why he wants to do this.
The next day, Mabel drops by. It is Saturday and Norma Jean is cleaning. Leroy is studying the plans of his log house, which have finally come in the mail. He has them spread out on the table—big sheets of stiff blue paper, with diagrams and numbers printed in white. While Norma Jean runs the vacuum, Mabel drinks coffee. She sets her coffee cup on a blueprint.
“I’m just waiting for time to pass,” she says to Leroy, drumming her fingers on the table.
As soon as Norma Jean switches off the vacuum, Mabel says in a loud voice, “Did you hear about the datsun dog that killed the baby?”
Norma Jean says, “The word is ‘dachshund.’ ”
“They put the dog on trial. It chewed the baby’s legs off. The mother was in the next room all the time.” She raises her voice. “They thought it was neglect.”
Norma Jean is holding her ears. Leroy manages to open the refrigerator and get some Diet Pepsi to offer Mabel. Mabel still has some coffee and she waves away the Pepsi.
“Datsuns are like that,” Mabel says. “They’re jealous dogs. They’ll tear a place to pieces if you don’t keep an eye on them.”
“You better watch out what you’re saying, Mabel,” says Leroy.
“Well, facts is facts.”
Leroy looks out the window at his rig. It is like a huge piece of furniture gathering dust in the backyard. Pretty soon it will be an antique. He hears the vacuum cleaner. Norma Jean seems to be cleaning the living room rug again.
Later, she says to Leroy, “She just said that about the baby because she caught me smoking. She’s trying to pay me back.”
“What are you talking about?” Leroy says, nervously shuffling blueprints.
“You know good and well,” Norma Jean says. She is sitting in a kitchen chair with her feet up and her arms wrapped around her knees. She looks small and helpless. She says, “The very idea, her bringing up a subject like that! Saying it was ne- glect.”
“She didn’t mean that,” Leroy says.
“She might not have thought she meant it. She always says things like that. You don’t know how she goes on.”
“But she didn’t really mean it. She was just talking.”
Leroy opens a king-sized bottle of beer and pours it into two glasses, dividing it carefully. He hands a glass to Norma Jean and she takes it from him mechanically. For a long time, they sit by the kitchen window watching the birds at the feeder.
Something is happening. Norma Jean is going to night school. She has graduated from her six-week body-building course and now she is taking an adult-education course in composition at Paducah Community College. She spends her evenings outlining paragraphs.
“First you have a topic sentence,” she explains to Leroy. “Then you divide it up. Your secondary topic has to be connected to your primary topic.”
To Leroy, this sounds intimidating. “I never was any good in English,” he says.
“It makes a lot of sense.”
“What are you doing this for, anyhow?”
She shrugs. “It’s something to do.” She stands up and lifts her dumbbells a few times.
“Driving a rig, nobody cared about my English.”
“I’m not criticizing your English.”
Norma Jean used to say, “If I lose ten minutes’ sleep, I just drag all day.” Now she stays up late, writing compositions. She got a B on her first paper—a how-to theme on soup-based casseroles. Recently Norma Jean has been cooking unusual foods—tacos, lasagna, Bombay chicken. She doesn’t play the organ anymore, though her second paper was called “Why Music Is Important to Me.” She sits at the kitchen table, concentrating on her outlines, while Leroy plays with his log house plans, practicing with a set of Lincoln Logs. The thought of getting a truckload of notched, numbered logs scares him, and he wants to be prepared. As he and Norma Jean work together at the kitchen table, Leroy has the hopeful thought that they are sharing something, but he knows he is a fool to think this. Norma Jean is miles away. He knows he is going to lose her. Like Mabel, he is just waiting for time to pass.
One day, Mabel is there before Norma Jean gets home from work, and Leroy finds himself confiding in her. Mabel, he realizes, must know Norma Jean better than he does.
“I don’t know what’s got into that girl,” Mabel says. “She used to go to bed with the chickens. Now you say she’s up all hours. Plus her a-smoking. I like to died.”
“I want to make her this beautiful home,” Leroy says, indicating the Lincoln Logs. “I don’t think she even wants it. Maybe she was happier with me gone.”
“She don’t know what to make of you, coming home like this.”
“Is that it?”
Mabel takes the roof off his Lincoln Log cabin. “You couldn’t get me in a log cabin,” she says. “I was raised in one. It’s no picnic, let me tell you.”
“They’re different now,” says Leroy.
“I tell you what,” Mabel says, smiling oddly at Leroy.
“Take her on down to Shiloh. Y’all need to get out together, stir a little. Her brain’s all balled up over them books.”
Leroy can see traces of Norma Jean’s features in her mother’s face. Mabel’s worn face has the texture of crinkled cotton, but suddenly she looks pretty. It occurs to Leroy that Mabel has been hinting all along that she wants them to take her with them to Shiloh.
“Let’s all go to Shiloh,” he says. “You and me and her. Come Sunday.”
Mabel throws up her hands in protest. “Oh, no, not me. Young folks want to be by theirselves.”
When Norma Jean comes in with groceries, Leroy says excitedly, “Your mama here’s been dying to go to Shiloh for thirty-five years. It’s about time we went, don’t you think?”
“I’m not going to butt in on anybody’s second honeymoon,” Mabel says.
“Who’s going on a honeymoon, for Christ’s sake?” Norma Jean says loudly.
“I never raised no daughter of mine to talk that-a-way,” Mabel says.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Norma Jean. She starts putting away boxes and cans, slamming cabinet doors.
“There’s a log cabin at Shiloh,” Mabel says. “It was there during the battle. There’s bullet holes in it.”
“When are you going to shut up about Shiloh, Mama?” asks Norma Jean.
“I always thought Shiloh was the prettiest place, so full of history,” Mabel goes on. “I just hoped y’all could see it once before I die, so you could tell me about it.” Later, she whispers to Leroy, “You do what I said. A little change is what she needs.”
“Your name means ‘the king,’ ” Norma Jean says to Leroy that evening. He is trying to get her to go to Shiloh, and she is reading a book about another century.
“Well, I reckon I ought to be right proud.”
“I guess so.”
“Am I still king around here?”
Norma Jean flexes her biceps and feels them for hardness. “I’m not fooling around with anybody, if that’s what you mean,” she says.
“Would you tell me if you were?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does your name mean?”
“It was Marilyn Monroe’s real name.”
“Norma comes from the Normans. They were invaders,” she says. She closes her book and looks hard at Leroy. “I’ll go to Shiloh with you if you’ll stop staring at me.”
On Sunday, Norma Jean packs a picnic and they go to Shiloh. To Leroy’s relief, Mabel says she does not want to come with them. Norma Jean drives, and Leroy, sitting beside her, feels like some boring hitchhiker she has picked up. He tries some conversation, but she answers him in monosyllables. At Shiloh, she drives aimlessly through the park, past bluffs and trails and steep ravines. Shiloh is an immense place, and Leroy cannot see it as a battleground. It is not what he expected. He thought it would look like a golf course. Monuments are everywhere, showing through the thick clusters of trees. Norma Jean passes the log cabin Mabel mentioned. It is surrounded by tourists looking for bullet holes.
“That’s not the kind of log house I’ve got in mind,” says Leroy apologetically.
“I know that.”
“This is a pretty place. Your mama was right.”
“It’s O.K.,” says Norma Jean. “Well, we’ve seen it. I hope she’s satisfied.”
They burst out laughing together.
At the park museum, a movie on Shiloh is shown every half hour, but they decide that they don’t want to see it. They buy a souvenir Confederate flag for Mabel, and then they find a picnic spot near the cemetery. Norma Jean has brought a picnic cooler, with pimiento sandwiches, soft drinks, and Yodels. Leroy eats a sandwich and then smokes a joint, hiding it behind the picnic cooler. Norma Jean has quit smoking altogether. She is picking cake crumbs from the cellophane wrapper, like a fussy bird.
Leroy says, “So the boys in gray ended up in Corinth. The Union soldiers zapped ’em finally. April 7, 1862.”
They both know that he doesn’t know any history. He is just talking about some of the historical plaques they have read. He feels awkward, like a boy on a date with an older girl. They are still just making conversation.
“Corinth is where Mama eloped to,” says Norma Jean.
They sit in silence and stare at the cemetery for the Union dead and, beyond, at a tall cluster of trees. Campers are parked nearby, bumper to bumper, and small children in bright clothing are cavorting and squealing. Norma Jean wads up the cake wrapper and squeezes it tightly in her hand. Without looking at Leroy, she says, “I want to leave you.”
Leroy takes a bottle of Coke out of the cooler and flips off the cap. He holds the bottle poised near his mouth but cannot remember to take a drink. Finally he says, “No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I won’t let you.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“Don’t do me that way.”
Leroy knows Norma Jean will have her own way. “Didn’t I promise to be home from now on?” he says.
“In some ways, a woman prefers a man who wanders,” says Norma Jean. “That sounds crazy, I know.”
“You’re not crazy.”
Leroy remembers to drink from his Coke. Then he says, “Yes, you are crazy. You and me could start all over again. Right back at the beginning.”
“We have started all over again,” says Norma Jean. “And this is how it turned out.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Is this one of those women’s lib things?” Leroy asks.
“Don’t be funny.”
The cemetery, a green slope dotted with white markers, looks like a subdivision site. Leroy is trying to comprehend that his marriage is breaking up, but for some reason he is wondering about white slabs in a graveyard.
“Everything was fine till Mama caught me smoking,” says Norma Jean, standing up. “That set something off.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She won’t leave me alone—you won’t leave me alone.” Norma Jean seems to be crying, but she is looking away from him. “I feel eighteen again. I can’t face that all over again.” She starts walking away. “No, it wasn’t fine. I don’t know what I’m saying. Forget it.”
Leroy takes a lungful of smoke and closes his eyes as Norma Jean’s words sink in. He tries to focus on the fact that thirty-five hundred soldiers died on the grounds around him. He can only think of that war as a board game with plastic soldiers. Leroy almost smiles, as he compares the Confederates’ daring attack on the Union camps and Virgil Mathis’s raid on the bowling alley. General Grant, drunk and furious, shoved the Southerners back to Corinth, where Mabel and Jet Beasley were married years later, when Mabel was still thin and good-looking. The next day, Mabel and Jet visited the battleground, and then Norma Jean was born, and then she married Leroy and they had a baby, which they lost, and now Leroy and Norma Jean are here at the same battleground. Leroy knows he is leaving out a lot. He is leaving out the insides of history. History was always just names and dates to him. It occurs to him that building a house out of logs is similarly empty—too simple. And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him. Now he sees that building a log house is the dumbest idea he could have had. It was clumsy of him to think Norma Jean would want a log house. It was a crazy idea. He’ll have to think of something else, quickly. He will wad the blueprints into tight balls and fling them into the lake. Then he’ll get moving again. He opens his eyes. Norma Jean has moved away and is walking through the cemetery, following a serpentine brick path.
Leroy gets up to follow his wife, but his good leg is asleep and his bad leg still hurts him. Norma Jean is far away, walking rapidly toward the bluff by the river, and he tries to hobble toward her. Some children run past him, screaming noisily. Norma Jean has reached the bluff, and she is looking out over the Tennessee River. Now she turns toward Leroy and waves her arms. Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles. The sky is unusually pale—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed.
Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of The Girl in the Blue Beret, In Country, Shiloh and Other Stories, An Atomic Romance, Nancy Culpepper, and a memoir, Clear Springs. She is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, two Southern Book Awards, and numerous other prizes, including the O. Henry and the Pushcart. She was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. She is former writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky.