Down The Twisting Alleyways
by Kelly Jennings
For a long time, Izzy kept the dimes in the pickle jar on the bookshelf, along with all her other loose change. But one night when it was too hot to sleep and her bones ached from a double shift gutting dead chickens for Tyson, when even with overtime she still didn’t have enough money to run the AC, instead of pouring yet another rum and coke, she dumped her change out on the bed and sorted out the silver dimes.
She drove all night along the narrow twisty roads of the Boston Mountains, 7 to 27 to Briar Creek Road, reaching the Iron Hills Trail just at sunrise. The Trail took her up the mountain valleys, climbing steadily through the switchbacks and past crumbling limestone overhangs and tiny carved-out six and ten acre farms, their ancient fieldstone houses huddled far from the road, all the way into Iron Hills itself, a place she had not been since she was twelve years old.
The laundry was there even yet, just as Sawyer had promised. Izzy parked at the end of a row of battered Kias and Nissans and rusting Ford pickups. The blacktop parking lot was patched with puddles and potholes; the air felt brisk, ten degrees cooler here than it had been down the mountain. She managed to get the door of her Dart closed—always a tricky proposition—and headed inside.
The humid laundry, scented with soap and fabric softener, was crowded with exhausted men, bearded and scruffy, doing laundry from trash bags, and older women with infant grandchildren in tow. Izzy threaded through them to find the washing machine exactly where Sawyer had said it would be, in the far-most corner of the laundry, hidden behind folding tables and the manager’s alcove. Pale orange, like sherbet mixed with cream, it was smaller than the machines around it, shorter, with a tiny front window of thick glass.
Izzy glanced around, then tucked her sister’s shirt into the washing machine. Its coin slot was different as well, requiring five dimes, not ten quarters. Izzy hesitated, and then took the seven dimes from her pocket, sorted out five, and slotted them in.
The coin tray went into the washing machine with a rasping jar. As it did, the air around her grated and shivered.
She looked up, and the world had changed. The laundry—filled with smaller and many fewer machines—was nearly empty of people. Only a few watched machines or folded clothes, all of them women. The glass doors and windows had changed as well. Rather than being scratched dull, they shone like ice in the sunlight. The layers of posters covering them, advertising garage bands and political rallies and Housecleaning Done Cheap, were gone. The laundry’s name, painted in round yellow letters, stood entirely unobstructed: SONNYS SUDS.
Past the parking lot, rather than a white concrete four-lane, the road was a slim blacktop. Across it, boys played football in a field where a battered apartment complex had stood. Beyond them, instead of tract housing, an endless forest stretched toward the Ouachita Mountains.
Beside her, the washing machine chugged steadily. But its faded orange paint shone new. Izzy reached to touch it, and instead turned and walked straight out through the laundry doors.
The air was different. Thicker, more acrid. Across the street, the boys shouted. The low sky hung dull grey. She looked both ways: rowhouses and duplexes in one direction, crowding around Brewster Bricks. The other way, hilly pinewoods.
The parking lot, gravel and mud now, stood empty except for a giant farm truck and a pea-green Dodge Charger. Both were classics—1950s, or even 1940s. Izzy’s heart thumped. She started to move toward these vehicles, and a woman came through the door and past her: tall, young, wearing Capri trousers under a loose blue-and-white plaid blouse. Under one slim arm she carted a battered packing box heaped with clothing.
Izzy’s heart beat so hard she felt light-headed. Her great-grandmother. Rosa.
This was not at all what she expected.
Rosa was almost to the pickup when Izzy bolted into action. “Hey. Hey!”
Her great-grandmother turned, frowning. “Yes?”
Izzy swallowed. Though she had seen Rosa in faded Kodachromes, the woman in those photos had been older, her hair shorter, permed—not like this, caught in a loose ponytail.
“I could sure use a lift,” Izzy said.
Rosa studied her. Izzy knew how she must look—worn cargo shorts, faded red BIKE LOCAL teeshirt, dark hair boiling in wild curls. Who knew what Rosa thought, but what she said was, “I’m heading into town. Is that your way?”
“Ma’am!” Rosa laughed, and Izzy flushed. This great-grandmother was years younger than she was. Rosa turned to heave the crate of clean laundry into the pickup. “Get in.”
The interior of the truck was immense and barren. A huge jutting steering wheel, and nothing on the dashboard but a four or five small round gauges. The windshield was two separate panes, with a metal divider running up between them. The keys had been left in the ignition, Izzy noticed, hunting vainly for the seatbelt as Rosa started the engine with a rackety roar. Manual shift, Izzy realized, watching Rosa work several pedals and a giant stick rising from the floor, scooting the pickup backwards without a glance in the mirror.
Not only the brick factory but also the steel mill and Grigsby’s sawmill were all running. Pickups and sedans crowded their lots; workers on lunch sat smoking on the loading docks; out in the field beyond the mill, a football game echoed their sons’ game a few miles south.
Just beyond the mills, the railroad track cut through town; as Rosa drew toward it, a train whistle shrieked. Both Izzy and Rosa looked west—the direction the noon train always came from. Sure enough, there it came. Rosa drew her truck to a stop. “Late today,” she commented as the freight train began cluttering past.
Izzy started to answer and did not. She wasn’t from Iron Hills—not this Iron Hills.
“You visiting kin?” Rosa asked.
Opening her mouth to tell the story she had prepared for the world she had expected to land in—1990, not 1950, or whatever year this was exactly—Izzy found herself saying, instead, “Well, I might be. That is, I’m looking for family I heard lived here.” She shifted in the seat to face Rosa more directly. “Do you know Wyatt Portersfield?”
Rosa gave her a quick sharp look.
Izzy made her face as innocent as she could. “He’s a good-looking light-eyed man?”
“How do you know Wyatt?”
The words put themselves in her mouth. “Well, he’s my step-daddy, I guess maybe.”
Rosa’s frown deepened. “Wyatt Portersfield? Out of St. Louis?”
Izzy had no idea where Wyatt had come from. “That’s him. My baby brother just turned two,” she added. “We’re doing all right on what Wyatt’s been sending us, but lately it’s stopped. Mama sent me to see why.”
Rosa stared at her. The train rattled past. “You’re –” Rosa shut her lips.
Izzy knew what she had started to say: You’re lying. She gazed blandly back.
“What’s your mother’s name?” Rosa demanded.
“Katie Keys,” Izzy said, which was only the truth.
Rosa kept staring at her.
The caboose rattled past. The silence that rose after was so complete Izzy could hear the shouts of the men playing football, tiny as birdsong in the distance. Keeping her tone innocent, she said, “Do you know him? Wyatt?”
Rosa slammed the truck into gear.
* * *
Seven silver dimes, Sawyer had told her. Make sure they’s silver.
And Izzy had done it, though she didn’t believe Sawyer’s story one flat minute. She had gone to Nana Ettie’s farmhouse up the mountain, and there on the floor of the big walk-in pantry, she had opened the old coffee cans full of change and sorted dimes from pennies and nickels, holding each coin to the light. The dimes from the sixties and earlier were silver.
When the daylight went dark, she froze.
Wearing her usual jeans and sun-faded shirt with its sleeves rolled back, Nana Ettie stood in the pantry doorway, her eyes narrowed. Then she reached down a jar of blackstrap molasses. “You know what you’re doing?”
Izzy closed her fist over the dimes she had found so far. “Sawyer says…”
“Sawyer.” Nana Ettie banged the lid of the jar against the door jamb to loosen it. “Sawyer’s always sure the world’s better over the next hill.”
“It can’t be worse,” Izzy said fiercely.
Nana Ettie banged the jar again. “Your Aunt Licia thought that too.”
She went back out into kitchen, bare feet silent on the bleach-faded linoleum. Slowly, Izzy sorted out another dime. Then, coins in her fist, she stood. “Who’s Aunt Licia?”
The kitchen was filled with winter light, coming sharp as white wine through the wide windows overlooking the old apple orchard. Nana Ettie stirred molasses into the big pot of beans, silent so long Izzy half-decided she wouldn’t answer. Finally, she sighed and spoke:
“Way back then. It was hard times, worse’n now even. Licia had her babies working with her, picking pecans over there by Mayflower. Her least girl won’t work. Said she felt sick. Said she’s tired, said her bones hurt. Licia told her get to work or get the switch. That night, the child’s just burning up with fever.” Nana Ettie shook her head. “Meningitis. Dead by morning. Licia ain’t get over it. Took to lying all day in the dark. Those other babies ran wild. Her big boy ended up doing six years in Dermott. Licia’s like you, she thinks, how’s it be worse? Took her dimes up to that laundry in Iron Hills.”
“I don’t have any Aunt Licia.”
“She made change. Comes back to find no babies at all. Nothing but a job working for a dentist in Fayetteville. She takes more dimes. Makes more change. Now she’s living in a trailer out back that truck stop on 71. Not just waitress work, neither. She’s a high-catting, hard-drinking, no-teeth woman now. More dimes, more change, until one day she’s just gone.” Nana Ettie put the lid on the beans. “You think twice before you change your luck.”
Izzy expected to be taken—well, she couldn’t have said where she expected to be taken. To Wyatt, maybe? Dumped at the bus station? But Rosa took her to the IGA, brand-new here at this end of history, its big windows gleaming, its parking lot filled with farm trucks. Cords of firewood were stacked outside its doors. Rosa parked and got out, heading straight for the store.
The store itself was crowded with farmers and young mothers. Pre-school kids in green and blue corduroys climbed on the firewood. Inside, others stood discussing the gumball machines. Izzy scanned the aisles, spotting Rosa striding toward the rear of the store.
In the back, a butcher’s counter. Behind it, chopping up a chicken with a knife like a small sword, a square-hipped woman so much like Nana Ettie that Izzy stopped dead.
“Mama,” Rosa demanded. She paused, glancing around. Over by a stack of Palmolive soap, a short woman in a flowered housedress watched them avidly. Rosa pulled the knife from the butcher’s hand and tugged her through a set of wooden swinging doors. Izzy hesitated, and then plunged after them.
In a cavernous stockroom, near a stack of pallets, Rosa leaned close to the woman, who had to be Great-Great—how many greats?—Granny Josie. Josafina Widener, brought here from West Texas as an infant. Josafina, whose silver and amethyst combs Nana Ettie still kept in the cigar box on her dresser. Izzy bit her lip.
“—Wyatt.” Rosa flashed a glower at Izzy. “She says. Says he’s keeping another woman. Her mama.” She spat the last word.
Granny Josie, who Izzy hadn’t seen even in photographs, had dark eyes, as clear as Nana Ettie’s. “What’s your name, child?”
Nana’s voice exactly.
Izzy stepped toward her, thinking to repeat the lie she’d given Rosa. But she never could lie to Nana Ettie. “Isabelle Woodard Keys, ma’am.”
Granny Josie took off early, scrubbed up at a sink, and walked out through the loading dock doors, marching down the gravel alley behind the store to the back gate of a white clapboard house. It had a covered back porch; all its windows stood open. In the kitchen, at the white enamel table, Josie poured tea into mason jars.
“Your grandmother,” Josie said, sitting at the table. “My grandchild.” She glanced sidelong at Rosa.
Izzy rubbed her head, which ached, and picked up her glass. The tea was perfect, just sweet enough and beautifully cold.
“Is magic. This is what you want me to believe.”
“Well,” Izzy frowned. “Nana Ettie says there’s no such thing as magic. She just says some people are better at seeing the universe. At understanding cause and effect. Maybe you understand these well enough to make thing work, she says, which can look like magic. But it’s not magic, it’s just thinking ahead.”
“Not magic,” Josie said. “And you are from what year did you say it was?”
Izzy laughed, unable to keep from it.
“And you are here to…” Josie closed her mouth. Then she pushed her glass away and folded her hands on the table. “Well, child. Why don’t you go on and tell us that part.”
Izzy didn’t. Chil. Why’ant you gone.
“Let me help,” Josie said, iron entering her voice. “You named Wyatt Portersfield. Since what you told about him being your step-daddy ain’t true, what is?”
“This wasn’t where I meant to be,” Izzy said. Outside the kitchen window, she could see Josie’s garden, corn stalks rippling in the breeze. She rubbed the ache in her forehead. Clear as anything, she heard Sawyer’s voice: Auntie Alice said, she told me to remember. She said, it will put you where you need to be.
Josie watched her. Rosa, too. Their dark steady eyes.
“I was the oldest,” Izzy said. “My sister was three years younger. Our father worked the oil rigs, over to Texas.”
Josie nodded. Lots of Arkansas men did that, took jobs in Texas, even back here when mills and factories were still hiring.
“He came home when he could. Brought his pay home, too.”
“But,” Josie prompted.
“But he got killed. Not even on the job, just driving to this apartment he shared with a heap of other guys, after working one twelve hour shift too many. And Mama brought us home. Here. To her mother in the Iron Hills.”
“This is your grandma,” Josie said, as if keeping it straight. “The magic-doing one.”
“No.” Izzy stared out at the corn blowing green and gold in the sunshine. “Nana Ettie is the magic one, your oldest grandchild. Sawyer called her Nana, so I did too. My grandma was Jenny. Your youngest girl,” she told Rosa.
Rosa stared at her.
“They lived a few streets over from here,” Izzy said, nodding down the alley, “off Oak Creek Road. We moved in there. He lived there too. Papa Wyatt, my mama called him.”
“My Wyatt,” Rosa said.
“Our great-great-grandfather. But mama said to call him Uncle Wyatt.” Izzy clenched her fists around her glass. “She called him Papa Wyatt. He didn’t—I think he didn’t like to be reminded how old he was.” Wyatt had always dressed like a kid, jeans and teeshirts on his spider-thin body, Converse All-Stars; every Saturday morning he’d eaten giant bowls of Captain Crunch in front of the TV, watching hours of cartoons, his peppery grey hair tucked behind his age-spotted ears. Emma cuddled up next to him, happily devouring slice after slice of well-buttered white toast. Uncle Wyatt never told her no.
Izzy shook her head. “He never bothered me. I didn’t like him any. And he would whip fire out of me if I woke him when he was sleeping, or—but he didn’t…do to me what he did to my sister. To Emma.” She laced her hands around her jar of tea. “I expected…when I used the dimes, I thought to land back when my mother decided to move home. Or maybe on the day Emma died. I thought….”
When she looked up, Josie and Rosa were studying each other. Rosa looked sick; Josie grim. She watched them a moment before she said, “What?”
Rosa said, “How sure are you that Wyatt was your great-grandfather?”
Later, much later, after they had argued all night, and drawn out family trees on butcher’s paper, and Izzy had been, mostly, convinced, Josie drove her down to SONNYS SUDS.
“How do you get back?”
Izzy, still brooding over Rosa, who at twenty years old, after delivering her fourth baby, had talked her GP into tying her tubes—Rosa, on the cusp of marrying Wyatt Portersfield; Rosie, twenty-six now, with three living babies from two different men (little Nettie, aged ten, Joseph almost seven, and Eddie, just turned five; and no baby named Jenny at all).
Izzy took the last two silver dimes from her pocket and showed them to her great-great-grandmother. They shone dull pewter in the light of dawn.
Josie grunted. Then she asked the real question: “What happens when you get back? What will you find?”
Izzy shook her head. She didn’t know that she would get back. She remembered the Aunt Licia she didn’t have anymore. One day she’s just gone.
“Some chance you took,” Josie said, “seems to me.”
Izzy didn’t argue. She felt queasy, though whether this was from so much coffee, lack of sleep, thinking about what must have happened to Nettie, or from some other cause (like teetering on the cusp of being erased from space and time) who knew.
But she thought of her mother, working bad jobs fifty hours a week for thirty years to keep them fed, while also keeping Emma alive and out of jail; spending the insurance money she’d gotten when their father died on rehab and hospitals, and when that was gone going into debt; and then one day the call from the police, her baby girl dead just the same; how she had cried, cried for weeks and never slept and died that winter of pneumonia.
Run-down, the doctor said. Her poor heart just quit, he said.
The laundry shone yellow against the thin light. No one was inside except an old man in coveralls, going from machine to machine with a dust cloth.
Josie shut off the truck, blowing out her breath. “If it’s true, what you’re saying.”
“You think I’d make this up?” Izzy demanded.
“I don’t. Your granny’s magic comes from somewhere, Baby Girl.”
Izzy shot her a glance.
“I know when people are storytelling and when they ain’t,” Josie added, her dark eyes lidded. She shook her head. “I never liked Wyatt. I couldn’t put a name to why, but I knew. It wouldn’t be just my little Nettie he’d do it to, child. Or your sister, either.”
Izzy felt her heart thump. She thought of her mama, with all her rules about no shoes in the house and beds made just so. Her crying jags and the secret bottles of Xanax stashed everywhere around the house.
“Whatever happens next,” Josie said, “I think you came to where you needed to be.”
Izzy stared out at the sunrise, her heart pounding. The man in the laundry was squinting out at them.
“Though still and all,” Josie added, “if I’d had something like this in my pocket,” she nodded at the laundry, “I don’t know if I’d do what you have.”
Izzy climbed from the truck. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
Josie, staring at the laundry, nodded once. “Take care, Baby Girl.”
Izzy thumped the roof of the truck and went inside.
The laundry was warm after the chill of morning and smelled of bleach and clean water. The owner gave her a suspicious nod. Sliding her hand into her pocket, Izzy closed her fist around the dimes and thought, briefly, of staying here, in nineteen-whatever-year-it-was. Finding a job in the mill. Or lighting out for California. She could go to community college. Work at a burger joint. Invest in Apple and get rich. Watch the 20th Century happen.
Instead, she found the orange machine, which only required two dimes now, just as Sawyer had said. Emma’s Mountain Goats teeshirt was still in it. Ignoring the laundry owner, Izzy pulled off her own BIKE LOCAL shirt and put Emma’s shirt on in its place. The dark damp cotton clung chill to her skin.
She dropped her shirt in the machine, locked its door, and slipped her silver dimes into the coin slot. For a moment, she hesitated.
It will take you where you need to be, she thought, and rammed the metal home.