Red Clay Castles by Jennifer Watkins

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close up of LTD letters on bumper/taillight of old car

Six o’clock on a Friday, and blue skies give way to orange. On hot bricks, Mama sits smoking, flicking red-tipped butts into bushes. I’m 11 years old, fidgeting beside her, bottom numb with heat. A rusty Pontiac sits dead in the driveway. On Highway 49, Uncle Jude and Dixie speed in our direction. They leave two dogs on their trailer’s back stoop—a white labrador retriever and a rottweiler black as sin. Mama needs to borrow Jude’s 1979 Ford LTD, just til she’s back on her feet again. And, just so I know, under no circumstances will I be sleeping over with my cousin Dixie. My uncle is picking us up so Mama can retrieve the LTD. That’s all. I’d better not nag Mama to spend-a-night.

A black S10 crunches across gravel. Jude’s in the driver’s seat, swarthy and stoic, and Dixie’s beside him, freckled and fair. Dixie’s hair is the same as my mother’s—coarse, thick, the color of muddy water. She always smells feral—hair, hands, clothes. Like she’s just been licked by some foamy-mouthed dog, dusted in dirt and pollen. The truck stops, and Dixie climbs over the passenger seat to make room for Mama. I get in beside my cousin. Now we’re on a plastic bench seat with no cushion and no seatbelts, and Mama and Jude are up front. The S10 thrusts into reverse and then straight again, and we’re speeding down blacktop toward Milledgeville.

We drive in the direction of a rusty singlewide, where the rottweiler eats slop from an ant-infested dish, biding his time til Jude returns. The white lab couldn’t care less, just bleeds and licks herself because she’s In Heat. Blurs of gray asphalt whiz by, and Mama and Jude can’t believe that my ex-stepfather is such a low-down-good-for-nothing. In raspy whispers, Dixie and I plot how we can spend-a-night. I can wear Dixie’s pajamas, even though we know good and well she doesn’t have actual sleepwear, just ratty old shorts and T-shirts. Dixie says I can use her toothbrush, too. My cousin has bad breath no matter how hard she brushes, but still, I’ll take one for the team and use her stinky Oral-B. MAMA. DADDY. Can we please spend-a-night?

By the time we pull into Jude’s driveway, the sky is equal parts azure and navy. Mama and I exit the truck and circle the Ford LTD. It’s white with navy interior and big as the Titanic. For Mama, it’s salvation. For me, it’s social suicide. I wheedle and whine about the car, eyes lifted to the heavens, practically rend my tank top in agony. Shut up about the car. Mama doesn’t wanna hear another word about it. Fine, I can spend the night with Dixie. Mama could use a break too. She’ll pick me up tomorrow afternoon, and we’d better be glad we have such nice folks. In the carport, the white lab paces a makeshift pen, nails clicking on concrete. Jude leans against his black truck, surveying the property, pondering tomorrow’s projects.

Mama pulls away in the boat, and Dixie and I run into the trailer. Under the guise of saving time, we shower together. Hot water streams, and we take stock of each other’s bodies. Her tits are in full bloom, like the pink azaleas outside. She stares at the patch of black between my thighs. I piss on the toilet, and Dixie tells me I’d better only use one square of toilet paper. Two at the most. Her daddy can’t understand how anyone would need more than two squares after pissing. You have to save the toilet paper for when you really need it—for when you take a shit. Which Jude says should be two or three times a day.

In the bathroom down the hall, Jude takes his third shit of the day, then sits drinking beers on the couch. By now, Mama’s at Whiskey River, two-stepping with cowboys named Bubba and Junior. Dixie and I turn out the lights and kiss pillows that double as boyfriends. When we’re tired of humping fluff, we whisper about Dixie’s mama, who just can’t stop drinking beer. You’d better believe that the minute Dixie turns fourteen, she’s moving in with her daddy for good. A dog barks in the distance. By midnight, everyone’s asleep.

The next morning, Dixie and I sit staring at the television. In the kitchen, Uncle Jude fries slabs of cholesterol in a dented skillet. If he dies young, at least he’ll die happy. The rottweiler twitches on the back stoop; the lab moans plaintively from her pen. On the living room television, Dixie and I watch Coppertone twins mold sand into castles. There they are, some place far, far away, crafting towers and turrets from pails.

Inspired, Dixie and I head outside, armed with eager hands and a pair of red Solo cups. The sun is so bright it hurts. By now Jude’s spraying the cinder walkway with a hose, filling the air with chlorine and dog shit. We clomp down the driveway, flip-flops slapping our heels, nylon shorts scrubbing our inner thighs. The path is worn raw by my uncle’s S10, two strips of red clay with a sparsely grassed median.

Along the fence hugging the property, we stop to pluck honeysuckle buds, sucking nectar droplets that aren’t quite enough to quench our thirst. Between our forefingers and thumbs, we crunch empty locust shells. We get down on our hands and knees and search for four leaf clovers. When we don’t find them, we each pluck one anyway. Jagged fingernails split one leaf down the rib to make four.

At the base of the property is a clump of pines with scaly trunks. Half the needles are rusty and have already fallen to the ground. We clear them away til there’s a smooth plane of red Georgia clay. We claw at the dirt with our fingernails, scrape the ground with our Solo cups, trying to build some damn castles. The dirt won’t pile right; it just dissolves into itself. When we add a cupful of water from Jude’s hose, it’s even worse, all sticky and wild like biscuit dough. Dixie says that maybe you can’t build red clay castles. I tell her that maybe she’s right.

Across town, Mama cracks open one eyelid and feels like Death Warmed Over. She brews coffee and throws on the Culottes I hate. Outside the window, some truck crunches up Jude’s driveway with another white lab, a male. Dixie and I eat off-brand bologna sandwiches and watch The Price Is Right. When only crusts are left on my plate, I twirl Dixie’s hair into a bun. Did she know she has a tick on her neck? She squirms and squeals as I tweeze out the bug, plump with my cousin’s blood.

Bob Barker tells us to spay and neuter our pets, and Mama docks the ship in front of the trailer. Jude can’t believe how much toilet paper Dixie and I used. How can eleven-year-olds use so much paper? The two white labs circle each other. Mama comes inside. It’s time to tell Dixie goodbye.

Mama and I sail down Highway 49, and Dixie wishes she hadn’t let me leave in her clothes. The two white labs make babies. Later, Mama and I will adopt one and name it Casper. She’ll try to house train the dog, but even when she shoves Casper’s nose into a pile of his own shit, Casper still won’t get it. He’ll be relegated to the back yard, where he’ll piss on the Pontiac tires.

As we turn onto Millerfield Road, a line of neighborhood kids yell “HOOPTIE!” Dixie shoves clothes in a rumpled duffle bag, and Jude says he’s just a phone call away. Forgotten clovers wilt on Dixie’s dresser. A mound of abandoned red clay bakes under pines. In the Ford LTD, I crouch down in the seat, breathing secondhand smoke and blue vinyl.

Jennifer Watkins is a writer and essayist with work appearing in The Chattahoochee Review, SFWP Quarterly, and Tampa Review, among others. Her essay “Re-entry,” a story about one family’s attempt to heal after long-term incarceration, won the 2017 AWP Intro Journal’s award for creative nonfiction.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/

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