I argued for days before Mama and Papa agreed to my taking the clerking job at Burton’s five-and-dime. I didn’t win them over until we got our month’s ration books and splurged on lamb chops for supper, putting everyone in an especially good mood. After we all had a chance to savor the taste of meat, I started. “I told the Burtons I’d let them know about the job by Friday. That’s tomorrow.”
“We can read the calendar, Cecilia,” Mama said.
“Well I guess I know that.” The words popped out before I could stop them. I looked down at my plate, hoping to dodge her starting on my smart mouth. She’d said I was too testy to serve people, was liable to drive away so many customers, Claude Burton would be forced to close his store and join the military, at his age, to support his family. “The job’s only part-time, twenty-five or thirty hours a week,” I said, as meekly as possible.
“So which is it? Twenty-five or thirty?”
“I’d work nine to two or one to six, depending on when the Burtons needed me, Monday through Friday. Once a month, I’d work Saturday mornings.” I patiently repeated details I’d recited a hundred times.
“I’m not sure I like the idea of you being at the Burtons’ beck and call.” Unlike Papa, happily engrossed in his meal, her opposition didn’t seem softened one iota by those lamb chops.
“Only five hours a day,” I pleaded.
“Vivien and Belle were counting on you to help out this summer.”
“I’d still watch the cousins. Five hours is hardly anything out of a summer’s day.”
“Let’s see if you’re singing the same tune after you start working,” Papa said between bites.
This being the first indication I might be allowed the job, I jumped at the encouragement, slight though it was. “I’d take care of those children before work and after too. Tante Belle and Tante Vivien won’t have a thing to worry about.”
“My sisters will be relieved to know they’ve reached that blissful state at last,” she said.
No doubt which side of the family to blame for my mouth, though Mama accused me of trying to throw my faults on someone else whenever I made the suggestion.
Papa cleared his throat, a prelude to most of his pronouncements. “The extra money could be handy.”
We both looked at him, waiting for more, but that was all he had to say and now was back to his food.
She stared down at her chop as if reading tarot cards. Turned out to be my lucky day because that lamb chop told her part-time work at the five-and-dime wasn’t interfering with any of her plans for me.
I hardly slept the night before my first day, juggling how to spend the paycheck I’d get in two weeks. Jewelry was first on my list. I needed a string of pearls. Most girls I knew owned one and Kathleen, lucky Kathleen, had three. I’d hoped for pearls for graduation, but was disappointed, instead getting a gold cross and chain and two rings, one birthstone and the other monogrammed. All of that better than the grandmother clock Tante Glenda decided to give. Who knew why? Nice gifts, even the clock, but not the pearls I wanted.
I finally decided to save half of each check for my pearls. That left money for movies, a few tubes of lipstick, and material for peasant skirts. Mama didn’t sew nearly as well as Esther Hernandez, best seamstress in all of Louisiana, creator of magnificent wedding gowns and every lesser kind of garment too, but she was up to a peasant skirt.
The next morning, I tried on three outfits before settling on a scoop-necked yellow blouse and brown pleated plaid skirt. The neckline softened my pointy chin which Kathleen said wasn’t all that pointy. Plus, she said, I had a heart-shaped face and should be happy not to be stuck with her round balloon face. Then it was my turn to say a round face was better than a pointy chin and her straight, light brown hair lent itself to styling more than my curlier, darker hair, which did what it wanted most days. We spent long afternoons dissecting our flaws and arguing over who had the greater assets, the less appalling defects.
Another nice thing about that blouse. The yellow looked cheerful and might encourage customers to buy more. Mr. Burton would see what a great asset I was, maybe up me to twelve dollars a week.
By the time I stepped into the kitchen, Mama was halfway done making dinner for Papa who always arrived at one. He was never early, never late, always on time. Dinner was at one, supper at 6:30. She said that was one of the things in his favor. You could count on him being where he said he was going to be. I’m sure there were other things in his favor, but that was the one she always mentioned.
“You eating breakfast or dinner?” she asked, her back to me as she pounded potatoes.
“Breakfast. I’m not that hungry.”
“Sort of.” I didn’t want to admit how thrilled I was over having a job, though I was sure she knew as she seemed to know most things about my life, whether I told her or not.
“Kathleen called while you were in the bathroom.”
I picked up the receiver and was surprised to hear the operator instead of Lonnie Babineaux who thought “party line” meant she could have a gossiping phone party any time she wanted. Mama said Mrs. Babineaux was lonely. Well I got as lonely, needed the phone as much, though I didn’t say that, knowing Mama’d accuse me of being a selfish child, words I heard often enough without volunteering obvious provocation.
The second surprise was having the operator connect me immediately. Kathleen’s phone, installed two months earlier, had a party line consisting entirely of Lonnie Babineauxs. When I said some of that was bound to let up once people realized the phone wasn’t special, just one more convenience like a stove or icebox, Kathleen reminded me the realization had yet to hit Mrs. Babineaux, hogging my phone line for over a year.
“Call me right when you get home,” Kathleen said now. “I want to know everything.” She took a breath. “Ready for my news?”
She wanted to attend the School of Beauty in New Iberia, afterwards buying a car and working at one of the Lafayette salons. Her mama was more opposed to those ideas than mine had been to Burton’s, but this was a strange time, the middle of a war when anything might happen. Many of the old rules, including girls living at home until they married, had disappeared and no one knew whether they’d return.
“You’re going to New Iberia,” I said.
“I’m going to New Iberia.”
We squealed over her fabulous luck. Turned out Tootsie Martin, top candidate to be the Mrs. Babineaux of Kathleen’s party line, convinced Kathleen’s mother that nowadays, most girls got jobs before marriage. With so many boys gone to Europe or fighting in the Pacific, some girls wouldn’t find husbands until they were 25, 26, maybe closer to 30. Tootsie certainly wasn’t saying Kathleen was one of those girls, but knowing a trade never hurt.
In the morning, Kathleen and her mother were driving to New Iberia, registering her, then finding a boarding house where she’d stay Sunday through Thursday nights. She’d be on her own for five days and nights. The thought of so much freedom falling into someone else’s lap was almost more than I could stand.
“You can come up weekends,” she said. “I’ll fix it so we can stay over.”
“How would I get there?”
“Who knows? We’ll work something out. It’ll be awfully fun.” She was off, telling about a New Iberia dance held the first Saturday of every month and wouldn’t we have a grand time. By the time I got off the phone, clerking at Burton’s had lost some of its shine.
Not that I wanted to exchange places. I had no desire to run my fingers over hundreds of dirty scalps. Still, I would’ve given nearly anything to be living on my own in a boarding house in New Iberia, a place where no one knew me and I could be anything I pleased. In a small town, everyone knows your business. Your choices are limited no matter the direction you turn.
Scrambled eggs, cream of wheat, jellied toast and milk waited when I got back to the kitchen. I hadn’t thought I was hungry, but wolfed down every bite.
“Want me to pack a snack?” Mashed potatoes had joined carrots and chicken fricassee on the stove to keep warm until Papa arrived. She sat next to me while I ate.
“I won’t get that hungry.”
“Can’t tell. You’ve never worked a five-hour day.”
She tucked a wayward curl behind my ear.
“Who knows how it’ll affect you?”
She was teasing, but I ticked off my labors.
“Cleaning house, babysitting those wild dog cousins, digging up dirt when you wanted a bigger victory garden. A lot harder work than what I’ll be doing this afternoon.”
“Don’t call your cousins dogs.”
I rolled my eyes.
“And don’t do that at work or you’ll get yourself fired on the first day. Disgrace your entire family on the very first day.”
“I’m not getting fired,” I said, “because I know how to act at work.”
Mama didn’t say more and, later, I decided that was because she knew she’d trained me better than to lose a job on the first day.
I arrived at exactly one, not early so the Burtons would think I was desperate, not late so they’d think I was coming into the job with a lackadaisical mind.
“Cecilia Castille,” Odette Burton said when I walked into the dime store, “aren’t you a godsend.”
I was relieving her so she could spend more time at home with housework and children. This being my first day, she started me with a tour of the four aisles, five if you counted the back shelves. I was supposed to know where every single thing was kept to direct customers needing assistance. Although I’d shopped at Burton’s more times than I could remember, I’d never memorized shelving.
“I never noticed fishing lures,” I said, trying to make polite conversation as we crawled up the second aisle.
“Lots of stuff here.” She nudged me closer to a shelf. “Thread. Ribbons. Pins. Patterns.” She pointed at tables against the back wall. “Bolts of cloth. Yarn.” We inched forward, our progress marked by her recitation of items she could’ve located with her eyes closed.
By the time we finished, it was nearly two.
“We don’t expect you to know everything right off,” she said.
Good, since I didn’t know much more now than when I walked in. So far, work was a disappointment. While Mrs. Burton rattled off how often merchandise was ordered, how much longer deliveries took these days, how customers unfairly blamed the store instead of Hitler when some items couldn’t be gotten at all, I wondered what Kathleen was doing. Not much, I guessed. Probably reading one of her movie magazines or polishing her toenails. Even in winter, when no one saw them, she kept her toes freshly polished. If she was ever in an accident, shoes and socks removed in the emergency room, those nails would be beyond reproach, no matter the condition of the rest of her. Not that Kathleen was likely to find herself in a hospital; the girl was too lucky for that. Already, just weeks after our graduation, she’d found a life of independence I envied. No matter that she’d been my best friend since sixth grade or that envy was against one of God’s commandments, number nine I think. Being away from Ville d’Angelle was what I wanted more than anything, even more than I wanted a string of pearls. But I was here and, unlike Kathleen, not likely to be anywhere else soon.
Mrs. Burton felt obligated to repeat each step three times but was finally convinced I understood how to work the register. “I’ll be gone an hour,” she said. “Maybe less. If you have any problems, sweetie, any questions at all, you ask Claude.” She turned in a half circle from the front counter where we stood. “Claude, where are you?”
A bony arm snaked out from aisle three.
“I’m running home for awhile. Cecilia’s at the register and sorting hair ribbons.”
The bony arm waved which we took to mean he understood the plan and had no objections.
“Send Cecilia for me, if things get busy.”
Considering we’d only had five customers all afternoon, that didn’t seem likely. The arm agreed, giving a spiritless curl of the fingers in response.
While she was gone, we had three customers, an unexpected rush. “Thank you for shopping at Burton’s,” I said after counting change to the first one. Those were my instructions for completing a transaction, but after the second customer let out a horse laugh and asked where else she was going for a spool of black thread, I decided thanks weren’t necessary and substituted “come again” for my third customer. I watched for a protest from the arm, but it remained hidden, still contained by the demands of aisle three.
Mrs. Burton returned for my last half hour to make sure I had things under control. I don’t know why she worried. There wasn’t much to keeping control at a dime store. Then again, most people are like that, convinced their own lives are more complicated than anybody else could handle.
Although the store closed at 5:30, I was expected to pull the curtains across the front windows, straighten shelves, and run an oil mop over the wooden floors. By six, one aisle still needed mopping, but Mrs. Burton refused to let me stay a minute past my agreed time. “You go on home now,” she said. “I don’t want you saying we didn’t treat you right on the first day.”
“I don’t mind,” I said, thinking it would sound impressive when I told Kathleen I was asked to work overtime my first day.
“That’s nice, sweetie, but get on home. Your mama might be needing you.”
As far as I know, those last words were the only time Odette Burton ever forecast anybody’s future.
I meandered down the street, in no hurry to admit working might be less exciting than I’d expected. I passed Coussan’s Drug Store, considered browsing through the latest Look or Life, but decided against it. Every front yard was abloom, the Landrieu yard the best, as always. Miss Maureen felt entitled to the best azaleas, best roses, best lilies, best everything. After I married and had a home of my own, I was challenging her for Flower Queen, planting azaleas, different colors, all around my yard.
I reached home close to 6:15. Mama was in the kitchen where she belonged minutes before Papa, expecting supper, stepped through the back door. But instead of rolling biscuits or tossing a salad, she slumped at the table, her head resting on folded arms.
“I’m home.” I raised my voice.
She didn’t move, didn’t ask how my day had been, how many items I’d sold, whether I was as pleased by work now as I’d been that morning.
“Got one of your headaches, Mama? Is that it?” Was she dozing at the kitchen table? My mama? Never. Not with the worst of headaches. Maybe she was only gathering energy for her next task. I put a hand on her shoulder and she jerked as if I’d scalded her. “Want one of your pills?”
Where was Papa? Wasn’t it time for him to be home? “How about a cold rag, Mama? You want a cold rag for your head?” I placed a hand on her again, this time on the back of her neck, clammy to my touch. She jerked again. “What do you want, Mama? Tell me.” I stroked her cheek, its color too ashen for me to pretend the problem was just another headache. This time she didn’t respond at all.
I ran to the parlor. Why wasn’t Papa early for once? The operator dialed his work number and I listened to the rings, louder and slower than I ever remembered. Everyone already on their way home. I asked for Tante Belle next. “Line’s busy,” the operator said. I tried Tante Vivien. Another busy line. Why did Tante Rainey have to live way off in New Orleans? Why wasn’t anyone around when you needed them? I asked for the next number, knowing Mama wouldn’t approve, but just as Glenda, my last aunt, picked up, Papa walked through the front door. I abandoned the receiver, dangling from its cord, and rushed to him. “Papa.” I grabbed a shirt sleeve to yank him towards the kitchen.
“What’s wrong with you?” He tried to free his sleeve, but I wasn’t letting go.
“Mama. Mama in the kitchen.”
“Who’s this?” Glenda’s voice followed us. “Answer me, you hear. Answer me now.” We left the voice behind until it was nothing but an angry background buzz.
In the kitchen, Papa knelt next to Mama. “Nellie, it’s Thomas,” he said in a low voice that wasn’t quite a whisper. “Nellie, you all right?”
Stupid, stupid question. She wasn’t all right. She was all wrong. Anyone could see that.
“Call Dr. Alleman.”
“Dr. Alleman?” No one called for a doctor unless the world had gone dreadfully amiss. “Really, Papa?” Surely, he’d change his mind, if I gave him a chance.
“Now,” he snapped.
I ran to the parlor for the second time. Glenda had given up and this time, luck was with me. I got hold of Dr. Alleman on the fifth ring.
When I got back to the kitchen, Papa was pulling Mama’s chair away from the table. “We’re going to the bedroom now, Nellie. Hear? The bedroom.” Ever so tenderly, he circled her back with one arm, her legs and knees with the other, then lifted, careful to support her head against his chest. “There, Nellie. There. That’s got you. That’s my girl.” I might as well not have been there.
I’d never heard him calling her “my girl” before. Nor had I ever known a man to be as tender as I saw my father being that evening. My mama was truly loved. If I hadn’t understood before, I did now.
I followed him to the bedroom where he settled her under a sheet and light blanket, her head on two pillows, her own and his. Curtains rippled with the slight breeze drifting in from the open window. She believed in fresh air, cracking her window even in winter despite Papa’s claims that she was trying to kill him. Now he sat on the bed holding her hand between his.
“You comfortable now, Nellie? You’ll be okay. Sure you will.” He patted her hand, trying to confirm his conviction in what he predicted. But he wasn’t Odette Burton, not even for this one day.
“Dr. Alleman’s on his way.” My voice was a strange croak. I stood in the doorway, waiting for an invitation to enter the room I’d tromped through my whole life.
“Hear that, Nellie? Dr. Alleman’s coming. He’ll fix you right up. Hear me? Hear what I’m saying?”
She didn’t even twitch.
Say something, I wanted to tell her. Don’t let him babble on. But in my heart, I knew she would’ve spoken had she been able, would’ve gladly declared her love for this man she’d lived with nearly half her life, this man who was always on time, that being one of the things you could say in his favor.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he said when Dr. Alleman arrived.
We waited in the parlor while the doctor examined her. Papa paced in front of the sofa where I sat, ankles crossed as Mama had taught, even as I plucked at a loose cuticle, stopping only when drops of blood forced the finger to my mouth. She wouldn’t be pleased to see me wrecking the manicure she’d given a few days earlier, readying me for work.
“He’s a good doctor.” Papa stopped pacing to frown at me as if I’d challenged Dr. Alleman’s credentials. “He graduated from LSU. A smart man that doctor.” He resumed pacing. “Very smart,” he said.
Dr. Alleman was smart, so very smart. Capable of medical miracles. That’s what Papa and I were telling ourselves in the parlor that night, but even a miracle worker is limited in the kind and number of miracles he can grant. Our doctor must’ve reached his quota earlier in the day because that night, in our house, there was to be no miracle.
Follow-Me Water explores how a family’s past haunts its present. The book opens with Cecilia’s graduation from high school during the turmoil of World War II. The possibility of destruction looms and the measured pacing of normal life has been disrupted, perhaps never to return. After her mother’s sudden death, Cecilia moves from her small Cajun community, with its codes of behavior and expectation, to New Orleans, falls in love with Francisco, a Puerto Rican sailor, and travels with him to the island where they marry. Rejected by his family, Cecilia, convinced her marriage is a sham, returns to Louisiana.
Her mother dead, her father grief-stricken, her supposed husband at sea, Cecilia turns to a traiteuse for guidance. Madame Lejeune treated her for childhood illnesses and now conjures the name of a New Orleans voodoo queen. Cecilila’s life, once dictated by conventional mores, conforms to the machinations of these women, powerful only to the extent that others believe in them.
Cecilia’s story is interspersed with her adult daughters’ stories as both Fern and Nina struggle with the aftermath of not knowing their true family history. Fern yearns for acceptance after the rejection she experiences from her father and his mother. Nina, single parent of three boys, rages against her husband’s abandonment, a loss mirroring the loss of her father. Their imploding lives compel Cecilia to reveal her life’s true arc.
Eventually, Cecilia returns to Puerto Rico with Fern and Nina. This helps liberate both Cecilia and her daughters from her secrets and opens the possibility that the past will nourish, not suffocate, the present.