My Summer of Southern Discomfort
March 11, 2000
“I don’t know why she swallowed the lye,” the boy sings, emphasis on “don’t.” He slips the yellow package of bubble gum into his pocket too fast, then tilts his head up and smiles at me, teeth bright against his dark skin. Cute little thief.
“Dominic,” his mother whispers. “What all are you doing?” She brushes raindrops from her tight, glossy curls.
“Practicing my magic trick.” He returns the gum to its candy tray slot.
Good story, I think. Here in Georgia it is classified misdemeanor theft by shoplifting. I consider sentencing. A five-dollar fine? Community service?
His mother tells me, “He wants to be a magician this week.” Anxious to assure me her son is no career criminal.
Unperturbed, he loads a bottle of juice onto the conveyor belt while singing, “I don’t know why she swallowed the lye. I guess she’ll die.”
The supermarket smells of damp overcoats and soil. “This wet will help,” the cashier says. “Before today it was so dry the trees were bribing the dogs.” I tilt my head to the side and consider her comment. Oh. Ha. Will I ever understand this honeyed speech in real time?
Dominic tries to lift a heavy bag of potatoes from the depths of the cart. “I don’t know why she swallowed the lye.” He lets dramatic tension build before singing, “I guess she’ll diiiieeeeeeee!”
His mother shooshes him while keeping her eyes focused on the automated scanner.
As he swings into the third verse his mother absentmindedly remarks in that mysterious way that reveals how maternal brains are focused on their children at all times, “Baby, it’s fly, not lye. Fly.”
No, no. I want to tell him. “Fly” doesn’t make any sense. Who dies from swallowing a fly? No one. If swallowing flies was fatal, think how many motorcyclists would litter our highways! But lye makes sense. Lye is a poisonous substance. Swallowing it might kill the old lady. Although then the song would have only one verse.
I unload my small basket, careful not to touch the white plastic divider that separates my single-size servings from Dominic’s family’s bulk containers of rice, beans, potatoes, orange juice, bananas, and deli meats. I forget I no longer live in the Northeast where such trespasses incur stricter punishments.
I place a container of low-fat peach yogurt on the conveyor belt and consider that maybe it is not lye after all but lie. What if the old lady swallowed a lie? Now there exists the basis for a multiple-versed song. Perhaps she swallowed a lie about someone’s guilt and the police came to interview her and she had to go to court. I sing the song inside my head as I set my basket on the linoleum floor, on top of a discarded weekly with articles devoted to the upcoming Southern Belle Ball.
Dominic and his mother walk behind their bag-laden cart. It squeaks toward the automatic doors that will whoosh open and consume them and their song. I glance out the tall, fingerprint-smudged windows, checking to see if the rain has lessened.
“I don’t know why she swallowed the lie.”
A dark car drives past and I can feel my forehead tighten as I squint, trying to see if its license plate is blue and white. The falling rain obscures it. I contort my neck; adjust my stance, lean forward. Blue and white? White and blue? Which is it?
The car is gone before I can decide. Not that it matters. It’s not him. I should know better.
The grocery clerk clears her throat again to get my attention. I mutter “sorry” and give her the money displayed on the register total. The grocery bag has a grinning pig face on it. “Kepp dry now,” the clerk calls after me.
The puddle-spotted parking lot is almost empty. I curl my toes inside my damp sneakers and try to think of a different song to sing. No use dwelling on the lies I swallowed that led me here, to the Piggly Wiggly parking lot in Macon, Georgia. No use wondering if swallowed lies ever dissolve or if they remain forever hard, like rocks. After a moment, I move toward my car and begin whistling “Oh, Susannah” because it is the first song I think of, it sounds cheerful, and it means nothing to me at all.