Higgonsville & the Garden of Victory

 by  Lisa Annelouise Rentz




Cherry works at the petrol station. She likes it there. She likes the fact that people come from far away and go to distant places. But they always stop off between here and there, and when they stop, they stop at the Bluston petrol station because it’s the only one for miles and miles and miles. And as Mr. Jacobs says, people will always need petrol.

“Until the oil runs out,” she said once, and Mr. Jacobs looked annoyed. She’s not supposed to say things like that. She’s not even supposed to think them. They upset her. But since Mum died last year and Pete doesn’t come down so much any more, she thinks about all sorts of things, more often than she used to. Too often.

Cherry works the night shift, which gives her plenty of time to think. She starts at eight in the evening and finishes at eight in the morning. Mr. Jacobs drives her to and from work. He lives in the next village. Mr. Jacobs will always need petrol, but Cherry can’t drive. It’s very difficult in the country, not to drive. You have to rely on other people to get you around, to take you home. You have to trust people not to drink and drive. That’s one of the things Cherry isn’t meant to think about.

Instead of thinking, she likes to arrange the shelves and count the stock. By four a.m., everything is always in perfect order, the tubes of Pringles all facing the front, the Mars Bars stacked neatly near the till, the crisps alphabetised by flavour. When her head is bad, she does it at home, too. It makes her feel better. Mr. Jacobs understands her system now. He lets her do all the stocktaking and some of the accounting now that she’s shown him how good she is. She always knows how many boxes of Kleenex and bottles of washer fluid are left without looking.

After midnight she serves people through a grille, cigarettes and snacks mostly. She knows all the kids from the towns round about by name and by sight, and by age as well. When they ask for cigarettes she tells them when their birthday is, day, month and year. They can’t fool her. That’s another reason, Mr. Jacobs says, why he’s lucky to have her. She has an amazing head for figures. She likes things to be right.

When she’s not serving or tidying, she reads magazines. She tried the celebrity gossip ones but they bored her: she doesn’t know who these people are. She wonders why they don’t do magazines about local people who everyone knows. There’s the Bluston and Widdesford Advertiser, of course, but it’s not really the same. It would be much better if it had glossy pages and colour pictures. Mrs. Allerton from the Pit and Prop in a daring jade-green plunge-neck gown by Roberto Cavalli, with matching shoes. John McCann from Garrow Farm in a dinner jacket, sharing a joke with George Clooney, whoever he is.

But there aren’t any magazines like that, more’s the pity, so instead Cherry reads travel magazines. Conde Nast Traveller is too full of adverts for perfume and pictures of people she doesn’t know, but Wanderlust and Adventure are good, and the Sunday Times Travel Magazine always has beautiful pictures. Her favourite, though, is National Geographic. They don’t sell many, so Mr. Jacobs lets her keep the old issues. She tears out the best photographs and Pritt-Sticks them to the wallpaper in her room, beside and above her bed, over the ceiling even, so that when she goes to sleep at nine in the morning she is cocooned in Paraguay and Paris, Macchu Pichu, the jungles of Thailand, the Australian outback and the monochrome, snow-laden forests of Sweden. Mum would never have let her do that when she was alive. She didn’t even like drawing-pins in the walls, let alone Pritt-Stick. Another thing Cherry shouldn’t think about.

Cherry’s days off, her “weekend”, as Mr. Jacobs calls it, are Tuesday and Wednesday, when it’s not so busy. That’s when Pete visits, if he can make it. He has to work in the week though, and the drive up from Bristol takes three hours each way, so he doesn’t come very often, and he always seems uncomfortable, since Mum died. Cherry has kept the bungalow exactly as it was, apart from the pictures on her bedroom walls, so she’s not sure why Pete doesn’t like it any more. She keeps his favourite food in a special cupboard, just like Mum did, and always cooks it nicely for him, but he never finishes it. He looks tired and sad, these days, even more than he used to. He keeps apologising for everything.

Today is Tuesday, the first day of her weekend. The date is marked in red on the National Geographic calendar because Pete’s coming tonight. He’ll be here by eight. Cherry has a bath and puts on her blue dress. It’s very old and a bit worn but it’s her favourite. Cherry doesn’t throw anything away. She likes familiar things. The blue dress is criss-crossed with her own neat, tiny stitches. She’s a good seamstress. When Pete comes she always offers to do his washing and ironing, like Mum used to. He always says no.

It’s nine o’clock when she hears his car in the drive. She goes out front and stands there, smiling, waiting. He trudges up the gravel path and kisses her on the cheek. He smells of smoke. He said he’d given up. Of course, Pete is allowed to buy cigarettes, but he shouldn’t. Mum never liked him smoking and always made him stand in the garden.

They sit opposite one another at the dining table, which Cherry has made nice with a cloth and the good cutlery and the company glasses. There is a spray of silk lilies in the crystal vase in the middle of the table, dusted and rinsed and brought in from the living room for the occasion. They drink Appletise because he’s driving and because it looks a bit like champagne. He asks her about work and she tells him about the boys who tried to rob the station for cigarettes and vodka.

Pete pales and asks her what she did. She says that she recognised them by their voices, and so she told them their birthdays and that she wasn’t allowed to sell alcohol to minors, or after 11pm, and they went away. Mr. Jacobs was very proud of her cool head, she tells him, but he doesn’t look pleased. She asks him about Annie and the children, her niece and nephew. He looks down.

“Let’s not talk about me,” he says. “Let’s talk about you. Are you all right?”

“I’m always all right,” she says, puzzled.

“I mean … is there anything you need? Can I bring you anything next time? It’s your birthday soon, isn’t it?”

“In three weeks and six days,” she says. It’s marked on the calendar. She will be forty-seven, the same age as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has two active volcanoes and a large area of rainforest, and plentiful wildlife including the white rhino, the okapi and the mountain gorillas that grin down at her from her bedroom wall.

“I don’t need anything,” she says. But Pete persists.

“Is there anything you want, though? Something nice?”

She thinks. Is there?

“I’d like to go away,” she says.

“Come to visit, you mean? Down to Bristol? It’s a bit difficult at the-”

“No,” she says, “away.”


“To the Democratic Republic of Congo,” she says. He looks startled. “Or Sweden. Or Florida. Or Antwerp. Antwerp looks nice. You could drive me.”

He starts looking upset now, like he does when he’s about to apologise. Sometimes he cries when he apologises. It embarrasses her.

“I’m sorry, Cherry, I can’t –”

“Or London,” she says. “We could go for the weekend. For a holiday. See Big Ben. The Houses of Parliament. Piccadilly Circus. Annabel’s. Chinawhite. We could go to a glamorous premiere.”

“It’s a long way away,” Pete says, staring down at his cold sausages. “I don’t think you’d like it.”

“I would. It’s the most fabulous, exciting city in Europe. Conde Nast Traveller said so in their May issue.”

“You can’t, Cherry.”

“Why not?”

Pete shakes his head. His eyes are red.

“We’ve talked about this. You’ve got to stay at home. Where you’re safe.”

Cherry remembers the last time she went to London. She’d been to stay at a friend’s from her gap year. They’d met in Goa and gone round Asia together, then come back up by train through Europe. There was a party, a big travellers’ reunion. Pete came to pick her up and drive her home. He only had one glass of wine, but it was a big one. The police said after that it put him over the limit. That was a long time ago. He’d been much happier then. She doesn’t remember much about that time, but she remembers that.

“I suppose you’re right,” she says, and starts clearing the table.

When he kisses her goodbye, he hugs her so hard her ribs squeak.

“Drive safe,” she says, like Mum used to. He stops jingling his keys abruptly. He starts walking towards the car, and then stops and turns, appealing.

“What about your birthday present, Cherry? Anything at all? Just say.”

She thinks, trying to please him. She can’t say anything from the travel magazines, he’ll only be annoyed. Her head is starting to hurt. She touches the long scar at the back of her skull, lightly, nervously. Something nice. Anything at all.

“Can you get me a daring jade-green plunge-neck gown by Roberto Cavalli, with matching shoes?” They probably have one in Bristol.

His eyes fade. “I’m sorry,” he says again.

“That’s OK,” she says quickly, before he gets upset. “Maybe some travel magazines? National Geographic?”

“Yes,” he says avidly, “yes, I promise. That’s what I’ll get you. Or a travel book? With plenty of pictures?”

“That would be nice,” she says.

When he drives away, the smell of petrol lingers on the air. She stands on the front lawn watching his red brake lights get smaller and smaller, smiling and waving, until they’re gone.



Martha Simpson leafs through the stack of new mail pulled from the rusted mailbox on her front porch. There is the usual junk mail—flyers from Wal-Mart and Big Lots, a Have You Seen This Child? postcard with photos of a three-year-old girl next to a computer rendition of what she might look like now, eight years later, at eleven. The colorful corner of a slick postcard catches Martha’s eye and she tosses the remaining envelopes on the hall table. A tranquil scene of a Japanese garden, complete with statuary, covers the surface. Martha flips the card over to read the short message scrawled in Frankie’s boyish hand:

Dear Mom, I’m fine. Hope you are, too. I miss you more than you know. Japan is great. Lotsa rice. But no gravy! Love, Frank.

Other than the lopsided frown he has drawn next to the word “gravy,” her address and the military postmark are the only other markings on the backside of the card. How she misses that boy! She still finds it difficult to walk into his room, papered with posters of country stars and littered with the usual teenage clutter. She has refused to touch anything, waiting for him to return to his life—her life— just as he had left. Martha Simpson sighs and rearranges the dozen postcards attached to the refrigerator door with cellophane tape. Like the torn off pages of a calendar, they have arrived each month over the past year —each from a different port of call, all from Frankie.

In another part of the world, in a small, dim room with a heavy metal door, Seaman Frank Lee Simpson opens his own mail. The large manila envelope slipped through the plate-sized opening by some surly guard contains only two items: an empty white envelope, folded in thirds and addressed to his Navy pal, Mitchell, at an FPO onboard the USS Stargazer, and a postcard with a garish night scene and the words Hong Kong written out in what appear to be chopsticks, the backside totally blank. Gawd. Mitch could have done better than this. Frankie holds the card up to what little dingy light filters in through the high, grated window.

He peers at the card as if transporting himself, mind and body, into that photo of a place he’s never been. The ship he should be on, were it not for that packet of primo hash he pocketed in Singapore and took on board ten months ago, has continued on its way without him. See the world, my ass! Frankie lies back on the musty bunk and covers his eyes with his forearm. It is not his mother or his home he conjures, but the streets of Hong Kong, sprung from four-color gloss into these sixty-four square feet of dankness. He rolls over on his stomach and pulls a pen from under the edge of the mattress. “Dear Mom,” he writes. He pauses. Continues. “I’m fine.”

Higgonsville & the Garden of Victory


In the beginning I once told my brother the story of the Garden of Eden, where four rivers emerged and boundaries were clear. I told it like a story, not religion because I knew it would be wasted as a story if I gave it to him as an explanation— why people wear clothes or how knowledge was procured through taste buds. As I told it in simple phrases with made up details about the color of snakeskin and the puppylove of Adam and Eve, I saw that the Eden story teaches that people don't make their own neighborhoods, that people don't deserve good neighborhoods, and that when a good one is disrupted, there's no going back.

We lived in the neighborhood of Higgonsville. I had grown up there a decade before my little brother did— I call him Little Bomb, after Thomas Merton— and Higgonsville was still a garden of victory, good for running through and tangling with vines and lolling in lush greenness. The neighborhood was, as always, a minefield of air conditioning units in bedroom windows, and it was forever on the flight path of squadrons going to and from the air station where my father served; it was, most finally in the form of the brick-walled National Cemetery, a ceremonial burial ground. Our kick-ball streets were the crossroads of the living, the killers, and the gravediggers. Living residents seemed unconcerned with anything but the daily chores of habitation. The killers killed so far away they had to fly there in jets, but the gravediggers knew where to report to work.

This place is where my parents had been able to buy a house, and it's where in our tiny bedrooms I told Little Bomb more bedtime stories: The Slipskin Hag, Gullah Man and the Mermaid, stories with rabbits and fruit, the saga of Math Class Sitting Behind the Broad Back of Lyalls Nemille. None were restful stories, but my little brother didn't need much to fall asleep. The stories weren't restful for me either, because I told them to him in sign language, the language of bending arms and tackle poses. He paid attention so contentedly that I felt like— but only like— I had answered many of the questions that must have occurred to him that day. Why did Tracy Frederick move away? he had asked for a few weeks. I was filling in for the soundwaves he was missing, even though his other senses were supposed to be compensating in some biologically miraculous way. I was sure he needed more information than what he asked for; there were a lot of people he could get nowhere with. Because of this he was a deeper listener, I am sure, sensing the bustling flocks of birds and other common sounds of our street.

His real-world questions (why is the crossing guard so mean?) started when he went to school, and saw the rest of the town beyond our neighborhood. So I explained it all to him with sugar and neighbors and flight zones.

"This neighborhood grew in the light, up with the vines" said Mrs. Smalls, who was part of a long line of local begats and carried herself as if she was the progenitor. She was old like any good source is, and she had yelled this origination over to me because no one was allowed to cross her property line. Mrs. Smalls sat inside her property lines every day with her tied-up dogs where there used to be a house. Parts of the house were still on her lot. Her mailbox still had a street number. She had sorted the bricks and the wood and other parts of her house into piles. Low branches helped form a railing-size fence of mismatched boards that was just as step-stopping as a brick wall.

"This property came out of the sea" Mrs. Smalls explained as she piled weeds by the side of the road for pick up. "That's why things grow good here, and the rain drains down through the sand." From the street, I could see that she had different things going on within her lot, different spaces for sitting down and for tied-up dogs, and for rubbish and her collections of plumbing and cloth-coated wiring, and a few unidentifiable tall things that had become the color of tree trunks but weren't.

Each week when my mother baked a poundcake it was considered special, being an expense, and richness and comfort. She tinged it with rose water which sometimes I could taste and sometimes I couldn't. One day she didn’t have enough sugar and our car wasn't running so she asked me to go get some sugar from Mrs. Phillips way on the other side of our neighborhood. I was trying to find another job (through the backfire-acious process of explaining my experiences: babysitting, a good grade in Anatomy & Physiology II class, a lesson learned from a rerun of Tool Time) and I realized that a weekly cake wasn’t a special event or even the comfort that we needed. I realized I could have skipped a week, and that no one else was willing to. I was able to say no.

“Go get back my pink sugar bowl," my mother replied. She always had five considerations to my one. "I lent Mrs. Phillips some sugar last month,” she told me, “Get going." I had been sitting in our front window, watching a woodpecker work on a limbless tree trunk that stood between two other trees. The woodpecker’s sawdust was so fine it drifted through the air. The tree was so rotten it probably wasn’t wood anymore, just the particles that make up wood compelled by no reason to stay stuck together, with no different molecules than a snake.

Sugary Mrs. Phillips was way on the other side of my neighborhood. Four rivers, the Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto and Broad, converged on this iodine-laced garden twenty minutes from the beach like drawstrings being tugged to tie up pants. From the river banks, the marsh spread out, the pluff mud was revealed twice a day, ships slid by, a few with fog horns, and then trees stood on the other side, looking nothing like the sounds that came across the Broad River from there. The woods over there were full and unbroken by houses, and lined the perimeter of the Marine Corps Air Station.

When their jets flew over, I could see my neighborhood better, because their height made sense of 4th grade topographical maps, and reminded me that power sees creatures like me— as I lay in the front yard, as my neighbors washed their cars— in degrees of navigability and conquerability. Their decree was on a big sign down the road out of town that explained, That Noise You Hear is the Sound of Freedom. The flow of our earthly boundaries was easy for pilots to trace from way up in the clouds. The whole landmass, the whole infrastructure, the whole population. The air base was so close-by that the jets were always at taking off- and landing-angles. My father, with no follow-up quizes, made their technology identifiable: C110 Transports, FA18s, A10s. Their fumes were not measured, but were sometimes questioned in letters to the editor. When full-bellied passenger planes puttered in, I speculated on who might be arriving, and why he wasn’t piloting his own plane.

"We're all under the same sky" hollered out Mrs. Smalls. I walked more slowly when I passed her property, a full square block in our neighborhood, so we could talk. These conversations must have been about what she was thinking at that moment because she was always ready. But not for any answers back from me.

Egrets flew around too, they liked our neighborhood since it was so dead end and marshy. Their long necks looked good working through the sky below the jet paths. Our houses were near their nest-homes. They gathered in a big waterfront yard that was set back from the road and crowded with trees. The most buffered and sunken area was their rookery. That neighbor with this big yard was lucky, the way the egrets flew to his house every night, drifting lower to their nests.

"There's no keeping track of the days" Mrs. Smalls announced. The jets made torrid scraping thunder as they flew their exercises. My father, Tech Sergeant Atkins, had explained jet turbine engines and the hours that pilots are required to practice. In our sky the jets were like growling cubs, practicing what they'll do in other skies. Pilots are trained so much they don't have to reason. If a preacher described a pilot flying, he'd say "the wings are made of steel, but our men fly with the grace and blessings of the Lord." The officers' wives would express how far and how close their husbands get, getting a twinge of motion sickness. A person on the wrong ground, a person who didn't live with safe flight paths dependably overhead, would not be able to think and would not be able to control at least one orifice.

To get to my mother’s sugar and pink sugar bowl, I walked through the nicest streets where chromed cars rolled along so sedately that they seemed like beasts more civilized than people as they went up their long driveways into dolled up double garages. I think that’s why my little brother always stopped and stared at the smooth cars, his open mouth and tshirt dirtier than their windshields.

The day before my mother’s sugar shortage, Little Bomb had kicked off his shoes, one arcing into the teapot on the mantle. It had been a tall long-spouted pot, blue ink sealed into the fire-whitened ceramic. The pot was old, recognizably but meaninglessly antique, and it wasn’t a big loss to our kitchen doings. I didn’t even get mad and shove him or clean it up or force him clean to up. He was flustered that it had broken so easily. He had probably eaten all the cake sugar by trying to make Coca Cola from scratch or some other made up experiment.

I walked through the beast-patrolled and jet-misted streets. I looked at only the best views of the far bank through the sideyards of the houses, keeping an eye on the tree line. I hardly ever saw the people who lived on these streets and who filled up those cars and paid the insurance bills. Little Bomb didn’t hear the smash of shoe and pot, or the frequent cloud scrapings, but he still cleaned up the shards and pointed at the jets.

Over the ball field a flock of turkey buzzards circled way up there, so I walked inland two blocks to pass by Mrs. Smalls’s lot, to check to see if she was giving the buzzards a reason to be there. Her dogs barked at me, and I saw that she was raking her paths between the piles and the stick railing, so she wasn't it.

"Animals come along and are allowed in here" Mrs. Smalls said. "Woodpeckers and hummingbirds, the raccoons bring oysters. Not men."

Mrs. Phillips’ sugar-storing home was two houses up from the boat landing, on the bluff away from the road behind trees. She had a wide view of the river, and a tabby wall between her and the road. I was looking forward to that pink bowl of sugar and maybe whatever she had cool to drink. I was planning to ask her for a plastic grocery bag to carry the bowl back in. I was barely hearing the pings of my own thoughts when there was a new sound, a veining crackling big enough to echo off the pavement and the clouds, followed by a soft gust as I turned the corner, close enough to see Mrs. Phillips’ house through the trees. I didn’t go any further than her garden wall. The driveway was empty, and the biggest tree in the neighborhood had smashed into her house, smearing it so that it looked like a brick bean bag.

Other than a flash of woodpeckers and bombers in my mind, I didn’t think about what had knocked over the tree, the clues didn’t matter, I turned around and ran, back down through some of the same streets. No sugar bowl for me to break. No hope for a glass of cold ginger ale. I made my way out of there like the downfall was chasing me, I created my own vapor trails in the humidity, blurring the colors of the houses, and heard the voices of my alarmed neighbors as they reacted, to me or catastrophe I don’t know. Their adrenaline noises made a piercing sense to me— then I finally knew the origins they had settled on for themselves:

The lady in her housecoat: This is finally my house. I was born in Sumter and this is my fourth husband. All the groomsmen in my first wedding were shot down. They were helicopter pilots, and now I live here. I used to have an apple tree, right over there.

Mrs. Smalls: I was born in this house. My father built the addition when I was four, and when I was working at the hospital, my parents died. Now that the house is in these piles, I keep everything straight and I sleep at my niece’s. I used to have an apple tree but it burned too.

Mrs. Reynolds, an old neighbor who dresses nicely: My husband and I moved into this house forty years ago and I am sure I get more walking done-- I walk everywhere-- than any other woman in town. I used to have an apple tree but my son got a new chainsaw one Christmas.

A new neighbor living in her old family home that needed some paint: My brother died when I was fifteen and I am looking for more work. I live like this because I have no money. I used to have an apple tree, but it stopped growing when it was this high.

The neighbor closest to the egrets: They were here in those trees when I moved in. And the geese found us too. This property should stay this way. I used to have an apple tree but the big oaks took all the light.

The man by the ball park: I planted all this here, these plum trees too. The house needed some shade around it. I work a hard job, but I keep up this yard. I used to have an apple tree, but I didn't like them.

In my house, turned away from these people so that my view is distant and beyond: apples and clothes and vines are all I have.

Instead of sticking to the slave path-roads, I ran away from the water, up the other side of the ball field, and cut into the alleyway behind the brickwall of the cemetery. One time, when I was walking in the heat there, I had walked past a Marine in full dress carrying a bugle, then a girl pushing her legless grandmother in a wheelchair. The beaten dirt road was empty now, the brick wall was long, and the expansion section was sun-baked. At the old back entrance, a fancy gate they locked every night, I stopped to catch my breath. The rows of palm trees and live oaks and cold soul headstones were as orderly and stretching as ever. Little Bomb was standing next to the closest obelisk. He was pointing his stick gun and firing away with no sounds effects. The gravediggers in their green workclothes were walking towards him, and then Little Bomb turned around and ran towards me. I didn't know if this was his game or theirs. I grabbed his arm once he was outside the gate, and ran him so fast back to our house that he couldn't breath. We fell on the ground of our own yard, were enclosed by the jumbo elephant ear plants, kicked off our shoes and laughed at our neighbors, the people of flowering, fading gardens.

"I don't rest" Mrs. Smalls said. "And I don't give out explanations. Who needs an explanation has no sense. Who doesn't take a bite doesn't know."

As her voice came down over the property line, her wormy dogs sent out their hoarse barks too. Her intact front lawn was mostly tidy, with saplings and musket palms placed almost like a landscaper would. Around the foundation of her house, lantana thrust its candy flowers into the sunlight streaming down through a high-up opening in the tangled canopy of leaves, vines, and limbs.