We hunted her ghost despite Mama’s eye rolls. Dee and me wanted to know what remained of the long-haired dead lady who burned up in my backyard shed. Nights we called for her under the glow of a bandanna-covered flashlight. Tell us who did this. Who can we avenge? We watched for her from Dee’s next-door apartment hoping to see her come forward as a burst of flames or a puff of sorrow. What burned you? When the wind rattled, we’d scream. How bad did it hurt?
Come back from the dead, Shed Lady, I promised, and I will watch you. I stuck my head out the window and yelled into the hot Texas night: “Hey! I want to write a story about you!” I would write it for Dee before she turned forty and I would write it for Shed Lady and I would write it for myself. When I was done, it would be a front-page newspaper article that Mama would clip and show off to her professors at school.
Mr. Markham, my sixth-grade teacher, said reporting starts with facts. Getting the scoop can be awkward, embarrassing, even painful, but a crackerjack reporter must keep showing up. So I watched. Instead of finding Shed Lady or her trailing soot, we saw Mama and her boyfriend Phil, two dark spots across the street, moving in the upstairs window. I caught them in person once when I came home—saw too well Mama’s fleshy, flexible body sprawled over Phil’s fleshy, inflexible body. That night I stayed in my room, not gracing them with so much as a hello, but they knew I knew, and Phil made amends by getting interested in me. Not interested like that, just interested like, “Hey Ruthie, how goes your shed lady?” He had an annoying Texas accent that I swear made him seem ten years stupider than he probably was. “How goes my shed lady?” I said. “How goes she?” I stared through him for a long silent minute before answering: “She’s dead, Phil. Steel day-ed.”
Dee lived for cheap in her apartment because she cleaned the Laundromat—that’s how I met her after we moved to Texas for Mama’s scholarship. We were sorting laundry and saw Dee pushing wire carts under tables. Something wasn’t right in her head, that was clear, but you knew she was kind because she hummed while she worked. She wore a long skirt that showed only the toes of her slippers beneath, so even with her heavy body she moved like a dancer. She watched me put wet jeans in the dryer but said nothing. When I looked up from folding, she was smiling at me like I was an old friend from seven lives before.
That same night she knocked at our front door holding a box of mismatched socks in front of her. I peeked through the window and told Mama, “It’s the Laundromat woman. She brought us a box.” Mama studied for school at the kitchen table, rubbing her finger up and down her freckled nose, rocking in her chair as she read. It had been four sitcoms since she’d spoken.
“What are you waiting for?” Mama said as I stood watching through the crack in the miniblinds. Dee stared through the peephole from outside, like her olive-green eyeball could see in reverse. If I’d stood there all night, she may have kept knocking steady.
“She’s only special,” Mama said. “Not dangerous. Open the door and see what she wants.”
I did and Dee grinned. She said, “Little friend, hello.” She pushed her box toward me with a smile. “You are missing socks?”
My glasses steamed with heat when I opened the door. Dee wore a sleeveless T-shirt and no bra. She smelled like dryer sheets and body odor. “I haven’t lost any socks,” I said.
Dee pushed the box toward me. “Look again.”
I put my hand into the box and swished a bunch of socks around. “Not mine.”
Dee held the box like it was quite holy, like it held a magnificent gift and how did I like it? It reminded me of the time I made brownies on my own, cracking the eggs, stirring by hand, slipping the pan into the oven, then cutting them carefully after they cooled. When I brought them to the living room and offered them to Mama, she said, without looking up, “Next time ask before you turn on the oven.”
I chose a red sock with a thin gold thread woven through it, then stretched it over my hand and admired it in front of Dee.
She patted me on the arm. “Quite a sock, that one.” Mama and I laughed as Dee sat on the floor and showed us one after another orphaned sock, laying each one out on the table and listing its merits as if she were the only person in the world who knew its true worth.
“Suicide,” Dee said after school one day. We stared out her window into my backyard and listed possible causes of the fire in the back of my binder:
Who: Shed Lady.
What: Unfairly dead. Murdered. Suicide?
Where: My own shed.
When: A couple of months ago? Before we moved in?
“We need the How, Dee.”
“She lit the lighter, lit her light.” Dee sat on a pull-out bed that was never made or folded into a couch. She was most excited by her own theories, which I guess everyone is. “Did a match,” Dee said, “and grew the flame in her hair.”
“OK, good. Why do you think she did it?”
“Just she was sad or mad. Lost and lonely witchy woman, burned.”
“I think we’ll get on TV if we bring her back, Dee.”
How: Flame, singed her ownself?
Where: MY shed!!!
Why: Crazy? Lonely?
From the window I saw Phil step out of his car in the driveway and Mama come right up and wrap her arms around his scrawny waist. Dee came up from behind and did the same to me. I laughed like Phil—snuffing air in and out my nostrils—and Dee and I pretended we were a dorky old couple in love.
At dinner that night, Phil presented me with a pair of wax lips as Mama put tacos on the table. But before he would hand them over, he pretended to wear them his own self. He fluttered his eyelashes at me, then held my lips in his mouth. He leaned forward and kissed the air. Mama laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. “What kind of pervert wears a kid’s wax lips?” I asked, dropping my fork. That made everyone more hysterical. Dee, who I brought to dinner without asking permission, looked at Phil and the fat set of lips hugging his mustache, and she covered her own mouth and laughed. I took my notebook and wrote in it, shielding the page so no one could see:
Who: Mama, Phil (who I don’t like and Mama probably won’t like much longer anyway), Dee (who is, actually, truly a little retarded).
What: Laughing at something stupid that’s not even funny.
Why: Because they are morons with a bad sense of humor. Phil likes to make Mama laugh. (She does have a pretty laugh. It sounds like the color yellow.)
Where: Kitchen table, crappy rental house, Canyon, Texas, a.k.a., Armpit of the world.
Next day I showed my notes to Mr. Markham. He smiled at me and rocked back in his chair. “What are you, Ruth, a rookie? Where’s the story? Why is that mustachioed yo-yo making a fool of himself? Why does the girl get so upset?” Then he told how his neighbor Agnes once piled all her husband’s shoes and suits and socks and sweaters onto the middle of their lawn, then put up a sign: Cheap Wares. Help yourself—he did.
“Is that a good story?” he wanted to know.
“Sure it is,” he said. “Neighbors talked around dinner tables that night after folks pulled their curtains tight. But that pile could only hold people’s interest for so long. The sign tells the story. For a story to work, people need the facts, not a jumbled-together heap of debris. Delineate the particulars or you haven’t got a story.”
When Mama tucked me in, I pulled meeting notes out from under my pillow and began reviewing.
She scanned the page, then looked at me. “That shed is just a shed, Ruth,” she said in a strained voice as she sat on the edge of my bed. “Dee has a good imagination, but she’s not grounded in reality. It is a tiny building that housed a mower and a gas can. No one lived there.”
“Then why is there a bed?” I asked. “And a picture on the wall?”
“Maybe she was searching for something when the fire started?”
“Ruth.” She turned her whole body and looked at me. “There was no fire.”
“Then why are the windows covered with soot?” I asked, raising my head from the pillow in excitement. “And why does it stink like a campfire?”
“God, you’re dramatic. It’s not soot, it’s dirt. Dirty windows on a useless shed.”
“You couldn’t walk in there without stepping on ash,” I said.
She sighed. Phil was waiting downstairs with her books and a bottle of wine.
Phil turned the music up. He was probably chewing the corner off my lips for his dessert. Mama looked like she was about to stand. “Dee told me the shed smells like burned hair.”
“How would Dee know? It’s locked.”
I started to dig more papers from under my mattress. Mama stared up at the corner in my room and shook her head. “All right, know what? You win. There was an accident. An old blind lady who wanted oatmeal for breakfast. Oatmeal she made only in her shed. The sleeve of her nightgown caught the flame and she passed out unconscious before she even felt the fire.” She stood up. “Is that what you want to hear?” She took my hand and patted my open mouth, like I would’ve patted it if I were actually tired. She walked out of the room, not waiting for my answer.
“Mama!” I called after her. “Mama, will you lay with me for a little bit?”
She kept walking. “Mama!”
“Don’t let Phil chew my lips, OK?”
I heard her laugh. For a second, her feet stopped moving and I thought she might come back and lay with me. We used to make nonsense poems where I picked a word and she rhymed it. We had a fine time with rhyme, she used to say at the end of the game. I heard her feet go down the stairs and she didn’t lay with me.
I yelled louder. “Mama!”
The music got swanky below my room so I yelled again. “Mama!” It grew quiet and I lay there, swallowed by the air in my room. When I was little, I remember somebody used to wrap me in a towel after my bath, pulling it so tight my arms and legs fused to my body. Snug as a bug. Swaddled. I’m not sure who that somebody was. I was about to get up and ask Mama if she thought swaddled was the opposite of swallowed or the same thing. I stepped out of bed, and Phil hollered from downstairs, “Get your sleep, Ruthy Peep!”